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Archive for the ‘Employment Law Blog – GA’ Category

How Do You Like Them Apples? Eleventh Circuit Slices Up New “Comparator” Standard for Intentional Discrimination Cases

Posted on: March 26th, 2019

By: Tim Boughey

Last week, in Lewis v. City of Union City, Ga. et al., No. 15-11362 (11th Cir. March 21, 2019) (en banc), the Eleventh Circuit issued an important decision addressing the proper comparator analysis applied to circumstantial claims of intentional discrimination (whether under Title VII, Equal Protection, or Section 1981).  At the core of every discrimination case, the employee must produce evidence the employer acted with an impermissible, discriminatory motive or else suffer the dismissal of their case at summary judgment. In most discrimination cases, the employee lacks direct evidence of discrimination – such as clearly sexist, racist, or similarly discriminatory statements or actions by the employer in connection with an employment decision. Without direct evidence, the employee must instead come forth with circumstantial evidence supporting an inference of intentional discrimination. In most cases, the employee proceeds down the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework and attempts to establish that the employer treated a so-called “similarly situated” employee outside of the employee’s protected class more favorably (in lawyer speak a “comparator”).

Over the years, the Eleventh Circuit made efforts to define “similarly situated”, and by its own admission, created something of a “hash” of the concept. In some cases, the Eleventh Circuit defined “similarly situated” to mean “same or similar” and in others as “nearly identical.” In more colloquial terms, the Eleventh Circuit summarized the “similarly situated” concept as one that prevents courts from second-guessing an employer’s reasonable decisions and confusing “apples with oranges.” Faced with the issue of reconciling differing and nebulous definitions, the Eleventh Circuit did some house cleaning Thursday and held “similarly situated” means “similar in all material respects.” In addition, the Eleventh Circuit held courts must apply this standard on the front end of the McDonnell Douglas analysis (commonly referred to as the prima facie stage) before an employer must articulate its legitimate, non-discriminatory reason(s) for making an employment decision.

With the spirit of providing employers “the necessary breathing space to make business judgments,” the Eleventh Circuit provided some guide posts for assessing whether or not an alleged comparator is “similar in all material respects.” Fleshing out the concept, the Eleventh Circuit indicated that a “similarly situated” employee is someone who, when compared to the employee bringing a discrimination claim, (1) engaged in the same basic conduct (or misconduct); (2) is subjected to the same employment policy, guideline, or rule; (3) reports to the same supervisor; and (4) shares the same employment or disciplinary history. The Eleventh Circuit then applied these standards to Lewis’ claims of discrimination and found she flunked the test because the employer applied a different employment policy (implemented two years after her termination) to her two alleged comparators.

This new “similar in all material respects” standard is most important for Human Resources professionals, supervisors, and employment counsel to public and private sector employers on the front lines of cases involving disciplinary action. In this regard, employers should look to past disciplinary decisions under the same work rule and supervisor as well as disciplinary history before making the call to toss a rotten apple from its workforce.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Tim Boughey at [email protected].

EEO-1 Pay and Hours Data Requirement In Limbo

Posted on: March 21st, 2019

By: Brent Bean

Whether and when covered businesses have to comply with revised EEO-1 requirements for pay and hours worked data remains uncertain as the reporting period opens. Companies with 100 or more employees, along with federal contractors who employ 50 or more employees, are required to submit to the EEOC annual Employer Information Reports, so-called EEO-1 reports. These reports disclose information concerning the number of employees a company employs broken down by job category, race, sex, and ethnicity. In 2016 the EEOC requested approval from the Office of Management and Budget to begin collecting pay and hours worked data. The ostensible aim of these additions was to generate data from which the Commission could begin to identify pay disparities and potential discriminatory practices.

In August 2017 OMB announced a stay of these new collection requirements due to the burden imposed on businesses when weighed against the perceived utility of the data. In response, the National Women’s Law Center brought suit in the District Court for Washington, D.C., challenging the OMB’s basis for taking that action. On March 4 of this year, that court issued an opinion reinstating the pay and work hours reporting requirement, finding the OMB had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in eliminating the requirement. See National Women’s Law Center v. Office of Management and Budget, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33828 (D.D.C. Mar. 4, 2019).

EEO-1 reports for 2018 however, are due between March 18 and May 31. Accordingly, this recent ruling and putative change in reporting requirements raise some significant concerns about the practical ability of employers to comply on such short notice. The EEOC’s portal for EEO-1 reports opened on Monday, March 18 without any reference to pay and hours worked data. The Commission stated that it is working diligently on complying with the court’s order and further information regarding pay and hours worked reporting would follow.

While it is expected that the OMB will appeal the District court’s ruling, it is not clear at all whether that appeal will cause a stay of the reporting requirement for pay and hours information for 2018.

So questions remain: will employers have to provide this information in their 2018 reports and if so, when?

At a status conference on March 19, the District Court Judge issued an order that the Commission must explain by April 3 how it will implement the March 4 Order reinstating the collection of pay data. As such, we can expect some additional information from the Commission by then, as well as perhaps a notice of appeal from OMB.

FMG will keep you updated on activity by the Commission and the Courts. But employers should prepare now with a thorough review of their pay structures in order to identify not only any disparities that may raise red flags and draw increased scrutiny, but also to understand what legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons exist for their present pay practices.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brent Bean at [email protected].

DOL Guidance Says Employers Cannot Exhaust Paid Leave Prior to Beginning Employee’s FMLA Leave

Posted on: March 18th, 2019

By: Brent Bean

The U.S. Department of Labor issued an opinion letter on March 14, 2019, re-affirming its view that employers must start the clock on an employee’s FMLA leave when the employer first learns the absence qualifies as a serious health condition under the FMLA.

The Opinion Letter specifically addressed the question of whether an employer can delay the designation of FMLA leave until after an employee first uses any paid leave the employee has accrued. Answering this question, the DOL emphasized that, once an employer has enough information to conclude that the leave is covered by the FMLA, it must designate such leave with 5 days. In issuing its answer, the DOL made clear that, even if an employee desires to delay the designation of FMLA leave so it can first use accrued paid leave, the employer is not permitted to do so.

Rather, as the Labor & Employment Group at FMG has long emphasized to our clients, if an employee has accrued paid leave, it should simply count any paid leave against the FMLA 12-week entitlement (in other words, simultaneous exhaustion of paid leave and FMLA leave). For instance, if an employee has 6 weeks of paid sick leave and wants to take 10 weeks of FMLA leave, the first 6 weeks of the FMLA leave will be paid and the remaining 4 weeks will be unpaid. When the employee returns from the 10 weeks of FMLA leave, the employee, having used his/her 6 weeks during FMLA leave, will have no more paid sick leave until the employee begins to accrue new paid sick leave time.

Not only does the DOL’s Opinion Letter reiterate that FMLA leave will always run from the date the employer learns the leave qualifies, it also clarifies the DOL’s position with respect to a 2014 Ninth Circuit opinion that permitted an employer to decline FMLA leave in favor of paid time off.  See Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, 743 F.3d 1236 (9th Cir., 2014).

In Escriba, the plaintiff requested leave to help her ill father in Guatemala. And when she asked for leave, she specifically requested that she be allowed to use vacation time instead of FMLA leave time for her trip. She then left for Guatemala but didn’t contact the company again until 16 days after she said she would return. When she returned, her employer notified her that it had terminated her as she had violated its three-day no-call, no-show rule. After she was fired, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming FMLA interference, saying that informing her supervisors about her father’s illness should have triggered FMLA protection. The court held that the employee can delay the use of FMLA leave by opting instead to first use paid leave (even if the leave is related to an FMLA-qualifying condition).

The DOL Guidance provides that the rule in Escriba would no longer apply. Employers must designate FMLA leave once they have enough information to conclude the leave is covered and, if the employee desires to use some other form of paid leave, that leave would run concurrently.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brent Bean at [email protected].

Employers Should Consider “Prevailing Party” Language In Arbitration Clauses

Posted on: March 13th, 2019

By: Ken Menendez

Employers seeking to discourage frivolous claims by employees may wish to consider utilizing a “prevailing party” clause as part of their agreement to arbitrate.

Many employers utilize arbitration as a means of avoiding the generally greater cost and uncertainty of litigation in employment cases. Agreements to arbitrate are even more prevalent in employment agreements with highly compensated or professional employees.

One of the advantages of arbitration is the ability of the parties to the agreement to establish the rules governing the arbitration and arbitration award. In addition to procedural and logistical guidelines, the parties to an arbitration agreement may also authorize the arbitrator or arbitrators to award the costs, including attorney’s fees, of the arbitration to the prevailing party in the arbitration.

Such a clause might read as follows:

The arbitrators shall award the costs and expenses of the arbitration, including attorney’s fees, to the prevailing party as determined by the arbitrators in their discretion.

A “prevailing party clause” such as the foregoing may reduce the number of baseless claims against an employer, as potential claimants will have to weigh the risk of paying the employer’s costs in the event that the arbitrators rule that the employer was the prevailing party.

The foregoing arbitration clause requires the award of costs to the prevailing party. The drafters of the clause could, if they wished to do so, also make the award of costs discretionary simply by changing the word “shall” to “may.” It is also important to note that the foregoing clause requires the arbitrators to determine which party is the prevailing party. Because many employment cases contain both claims and counterclaims, placing the responsibility for identifying the prevailing party on the arbitrators eliminates subsequent disputes between the parties regarding which party was the prevailing party.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Ken Menendez at [email protected].

Department of Labor Unveils Its Long-Awaited Proposed Overtime Rule

Posted on: March 11th, 2019

By: Brad Adler

On March 7, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released its long-awaited proposed rule that would revise the white collar overtime exemption regulations.  In its proposed rule, the DOL proposed raising the minimum annual salary for exempt status from $23,360 to $35,308 (an increase in the weekly rate from $455 to $679).  This is a significantly smaller increase than the increase that had been adopted by the DOL in 2016 ($47,476 per year) while President Obama was in office.  Of course, a court blocked that increase from taking effect.

Like the 2016 final rule, the DOL’s new proposal would allow employers to satisfy up to 10% of the $35,308 minimum salary requirement by the payment of nondiscretionary bonuses, incentives and commissions.  Notably, however, while the 2016 rule required that the bonuses be paid at least quarterly, the new proposal contemplates that they can be paid annually (or more frequently if desired).  Specifically, employers would have one catch-up period at the end of a 52-week period to make up any shortfall in the employee’s salary to bring it up to the required minimum.

As a result of this proposed provision, the employer could pay the employee a guaranteed minimum salary of $611.10 per week (90% of the weekly salary) and, if bonus and incentive compensation do not bring the person up to the minimum salary level by the end of the year, the employer would have one chance to make up the difference.

In addition to increasing the minimum salary, the DOL also proposed increasing the minimum annual compensation to qualify for the FLSA’s “highly compensated employee” exemption, from $100,000 to $147,414 (of which, at least $679 per week must be paid on a guaranteed salary or fee basis).

The public will have 60 days to submit comments on the proposed rule, but the rule ultimately is expected to take effect on January 1, 2020.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brad Adler at [email protected].