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EEOC Settlement With Florida Hotel Is A Reminder To Be Careful In Implementing A Mass Termination Program

Posted on: August 1st, 2018

By: Jeremy Rogers

Recently, the EEOC announced a settlement in a lawsuit brought against SLS Hotel in South Beach.  The lawsuit, filed in 2017, followed an investigation into charges made by multiple Haitian former employees who had been terminated in April 2014. They worked as dishwashers in three separate restaurants located in the SLS Hotel.  They alleged that they had been wrongfully terminated in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act on the basis of race, color, and/or national origin. All told, there were 23 dishwashers fired on the same day in 2014, all but 2 of which were Haitian.  On the date of termination, each terminated employee was called into a meeting with the HR department and fired.  When fired, they allege, they were told that they must sign a separation and final release in order to receive their final paychecks.  Prior to termination, they claim that they had been subjected to considerable forms of harassment including verbal abuse (they assert they were called “slaves”), being reprimanded for speaking Creole among themselves while Latinos were allowed to speak Spanish, and being assigned more difficult tasks than non-Haitian employees.

What makes this case interesting is that SLS had re-staffed these positions using a third-party staffing company. The new staff supplied by the staffing company were primarily light-skinned Latinos.The new staff also included at least one employee who had been terminated by SLS, but that individual was also Latino.  Articles about this case from when it was filed,  show that the EEOC took the position that SLS was attempting to hide their discrimination behind the use of the staffing company. SLS, for their part, asserted that they had made the decision to change to the use of a staffing company 2 years before the mass termination. Despite this, the district director emphasized once again, when the EEOC announced the settlement, that the EEOC will not allow companies to hide behind business relationships to engage in discriminatory practices.  This was, according to the EEOC, just such a case.

So how egregious did the EEOC believe this case to be?  They accepted settlement on behalf of 17 workers for the sum of $2.5 million, which works out to just over $147,000.00 per employee if split equally.

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

How Can The Trump-Cohen Tape Be Public?

Posted on: July 31st, 2018

By: Greg Fayard

A lawyer and client talk. The lawyer records the conversation. The recording is made public. How can this be?

That’s what happened to then candidate Donald Trump and his New York lawyer Michael Cohen. The conversation occurred in September 2016. Trump was not aware Cohen recorded the discussion. The recording is a few minutes long and encompasses several topics, including reference to a possible payment to a Playboy model with whom Trump allegedly had an affair in 2006, although this is never expressly discussed. At one point a cash or check payment is referenced. The two speak in a verbal shorthand.

The FBI, as part of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, confiscated the recording in April 2018 (see earlier blog discussing this here) while investigating attorney Cohen. The recording was made public in July 2018, but it is unclear by whom.

The conversation between Cohen and Trump is ordinarily protected by the attorney-client privilege, although it is clear other people were around Trump and Cohen, calling into question whether Trump waived the privilege by speaking openly to his lawyer in front of others. Nevertheless, a special master, working under United States District Judge Kimba Wood in New York determined the tape to be privileged. Trump, as Cohen’s client, “owns” the privilege.

However, the President’s legal team “waived” the attorney-client privilege, permitting the tape’s disclosure. The question is why? Four possible reasons come to mind:

  1. The tape had already been leaked, leaving the President no other viable option but to waive the privilege;
  2. Waiving the privilege permits the President’s advisors to discuss the tape openly;
  3. Discussing the tape without officially waiving the privilege might open the door to a broader waiver of communications between Cohen and Trump; and/or
  4. If Trump’s team asserted the privilege over the tape, the government could try to overcome the privilege by asserting the “crime/fraud exception.” Simply put, a client’s communication to an attorney cannot be privileged if the communication was made with the intention of committing or covering up a crime or fraud.

At worst, if a payment to the model was actually made (not yet confirmed), such a payment might have to be reported under federal campaign finance law. The failure to do so could be a campaign finance violation. Trump allies, however, would argue any such payment was not campaign-related, but a common occurrence for a celebrity dealing with the tabloids. In any event, failing to report a campaign-related payment is not a ordinarily a crime.

Lastly, why would an attorney record his privileged conversations with a client? Only attorney Cohen can answer that (and he has not). It could be innocuous—instead of taking notes, he recorded conversations. But not advising Trump of the recording is problematic. Nevertheless, under New York law, one party recording another party without his consent is legal. (N.Y. Penal Law §§ 250.00, 250.05.)  If Cohen, however, leaked the tape when it was still considered privileged, and before Trump waived the privilege, he could face discipline from the State Bar of New York for breaching an attorney’s duty of confidentiality. (New York Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6.)  Regardless, the President was certainly not pleased with Cohen’s secret recording:

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

The CCPA: Precursor To American GDPR Or Undue Burden On American Businesses

Posted on: July 30th, 2018

By: Jonathan Romvary

As we recently posted, California recently passed the landmark California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (“CCPA”) that goes into effect on January 1, 2020 and grants California residents new expansive privacy rights. Many observers are comparing its scope to that of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). However, as protective as the new statute may be for California residents, it represents a number of significant burdens and challenges for businesses throughout the country.

Unknown Final Requirements

Despite what appears to be a finalized bill, future amendments and clarifications to the CCPA are necessary and will likely significantly alter the current draft. The CCPA was enacted after a single week of legislative debate. The reasons for the quick turnaround can be debated but the current draft contains a number of errors that will need to be addressed before its effective date on January 1, 2020. The uncertainty surrounding the bill means that businesses attempting to be proactive in terms of compliance may be throwing darts in the dark.

Attorney General Regulations

Additionally, the bill instructs the California Attorney General to develop regulations ahead of the effective data in a number of areas to further the purposes of the CCPA. While its arguable whether this will provide greater protections to consumers, it will undoubtedly come at the burden of those businesses covered by the CCPA. At this time these specific AG regulations are unknown and with an upcoming election, there is no guarantee we will know what these regulations will be until late next year before implementation.

Compliance Burn Out

As we all know, the GDPR went into effect on May 25, 2018. Most companies have spent the last year conducting data flow analysis, mapping, and regulatory compliance in order to come into compliance prior to the effective date. According to an October 2017 survey by Paul Hastings LLP, the cost of GDPR compliance for Fortune 500 firms runs approximately $1 million just for the necessary technology that those companies need to comply.

Unfortunately for all of those companies that spent the last 12 to 18 months traversing GDPR compliance, you will not automatically be complying with the CCPA. The CCPA requirements, while similar, do not entirely overlap with the GDPR and, in many cases, the CCPA goes even further than the GDPR. All those companies will now need to engage in an additional 18 months of legal compliance reviews in anticipation of the January 1, 2020 implementation date.

The scope of the CCPA affects businesses across the country, not just those in California. The CCPA protections generally encompasses all retail and commercial activity that includes the collection of data relating to a resident of California which retained, sold or transferred by the business. While the CCPA contains numerous exemptions of data use and functionality these exceptions require close scrutiny and analysis by covered businesses. To discuss how the CCPA might affect your business and what you can do in anticipation of the numerous issues relating to the act, please contact Jonathan Romvary at [email protected].

Going Out with a “Goat Bang”

Posted on: July 27th, 2018

Employee’s Slang in Comments on Social Media Protected as Concerted Activity

By: Robyn Flegal

A panel of the National Labor Relations Board ordered an Iowa electric company to rehire and pay back wages to a utility pole employee who was terminated for posting on social media that the Company was a “goat bang,” which he later testified was a commentary about the utility company’s safety policies—including (a) inadequate training and (b) splitting teams into groups that were too small to ensure employee safety.  The Company learned of this social media post when employees who were offended by the post showed their supervisors.

The panel held that the Company violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by firing the employee for his post. The panel held that the social media comments (even calling the Company a “goat bang”), while not “inherently concerted” and therefore not subject to heightened protection, were “concerted activity for the purpose of mutual aid or protection.” According to the NLRB, the Company’s explanation for firing the employee was pretextual, as multiple Company witnesses said that the employee was “canned” because of his posts. Notably, the NLRB also determined that the Company’s “attitude” and “conduct” policies, which the Company pointed to in justification of this termination, were illegal under the NLRA because the policies interfered with workers’ rights.

This decision demonstrates the careful consideration employers should give to a decision to terminate an employee for raising concerns about the Company on social media. Employers should also be reminded to evaluate their seemingly neutral policies for compliance with the NLRA. For more information or to consult with one of FMG’s seasoned Labor and Employment attorneys regarding reviewing your company’s policies, contact Robyn Flegal at [email protected] or any of the attorneys in our National Employment Law Practice Group.

Supreme Court to Revisit Liability Under Rule 10b-5 – Will Prospective Justice Kavanaugh Weigh In?

Posted on: July 25th, 2018

By: Ted Peters

Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act, and Rule 10b-5 promulgated under it, makes certain conduct in connection with the purchase or sale of any security unlawful.  Specifically, Rule 10b-5(a) prohibits the use of any “device, scheme, or artifice to defraud.”  10b-5(b) prohibits the use of any “untrue statement of a material fact” or the omission of any “material fact necessary in order to make the statements… not misleading.”  And 10b-5(c) prohibits “any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person.”

In Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), the United States Supreme Court addressed whether a mutual fund investment adviser could be held liable under Rule 10b-5 for false statements included in its client mutual funds’ prospectuses.  The Court concluded that the adviser could not be held liable under the rule because it did not make the statements in the prospectuses.

In Lorenzo v. Securities and Exchange Commission, 872 F.3d 578 (2017), the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal considered whether a registered representative of a broker-dealer, who allegedly emailed false and misleading statements prepared by his boss to investors, could be found liable under Rule 10b-5.  Initially, the case was tried before an Administrative Law Judge who concluded that Lorenzo’s boss had drafted the emails in question; Lorenzo did not read the text of the emails; and Lorenzo had “sent the emails without even thinking about the contents.”  The judge also found that the emails were sent “at the request” of Lorenzo’s boss.  Notwithstanding these findings, the judge nevertheless concluded that Lorenzo had willfully violated securities laws (i.e., that Lorenzo had acted with an intent to deceive, manipulate or defraud).  As a sanction, the judge not only fined Lorenzo, but also imposed a lifetime suspension effectively barring him from the securities industry.

Lorenzo appealed the ruling before the Securities Exchange Commission.  The Commission affirmed, concluding that Lorenzo himself was “responsible” for the contents of the emails his boss asked him to send even though it was undisputed that Lorenzo’s boss had prepared the contents of the emails and that Lorenzo had simply “cut and pasted” the contents into the emails at issue.  Notably, the SEC found that Lorenzo’s conduct triggered liability under each of the subparts of Rule 10b-5, including 10b-5(b) which, under Janus, necessarily required an affirmative finding that Lorenzo had actually “made” the statements in question.

Lorenzo next appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court.  On September 29, 2017, a divided court upheld the SEC’s determination.  The court agreed that there was substantial evidence that the statements in Lorenzo’s emails were false or misleading and that Lorenzo possessed the requisite intent to mislead, deceive or defraud. However, the court disagreed with the SEC’s determination that Lorenzo was the “maker” of the statements as required by Rule 10b-5(b).  “We conclude that Lorenzo did not ‘make’ the false statements at issue for purposes of Rule 10b-5(b) because Lorenzo’s boss, and not Lorenzo himself, retained ‘ultimate authority’ over the statements.” [Citing Janus.]  On this basis, the court set aside the sanctions and remanded the case to enable the SEC to reassess appropriate penalties.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current presidential nominee to fill the vacancy left by Justice Kennedy, penned a strongly worded dissent.  Kavanaugh criticized the conclusion reached by his colleagues that the “scheme liability” provisions of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) may be used to find liability even where the defendant is not the “maker” of the statements (and thus not liable under 10b-5(b)).

On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari.  The question before the Supreme Court is simple: Can a defendant be held liable under the so-called scheme liability provisions of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) in connection with using false or misleading statements, even if that defendant is not the “maker” of the statements?  That the Court accepted certiorari certainly suggests that the Court desires to further define the scope and limitations of Rule 10b-5.

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice, it remains to be seen whether he will recuse himself on the grounds that he heard the case below.  If he does, then the Court could well end up with a 4-4 split, which would effectively affirm the lower court’s ruling.  The Court’s four more liberal justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan) each dissented from Janus.  On the other hand, if Kavanaugh is confirmed and does not recuse himself, the majority of the Court will likely endorse a more restrictive interpretation of scheme liability under Rule 10b-5.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].