The Legal Line


Don’t Delay with the FMLA: DOL Says Time Off must be Designated as FMLA Leave Even if Other Paid Time Off Benefits are Used

posted Apr 10, 2019, 4:12 PM by Allison Ayer

The Department of Labor recently issued an opinion letter concerning leave under the Family and Medical Act (“FMLA”).  DOL now opines that an employer must designate employee as FMLA leave if such time off has been requested for an FMLA qualifying event, even if the employee uses other paid time off benefits during this time.  The DOL also opined that employers cannot designate more than 12 weeks as FMLA leave.  This means, among other things, that an employer cannot delay its FMLA designation during the period when the  employee maybe applying his or her accrued paid time off.  Here is the DOL opinion in greater detail:

The opinion letter describes a practice where employers permit employees to use some or all available paid sick or other earned paid time off (see 29 C.F.R. §825.700), but do NOT designate such paid time off as FMLA leave even though it has been taken for an FMLA qualifying reason, i.e. it has been used for one’s own serious health condition, a pregnancy or adoption or the care of one’s family member suffering from a serious health condition.  In essence, the opinion letter describes a practice where employers delay designating time off as FMLA leave while employees use their accrued paid time off while they are out of work for an FMLA qualifying reason.  The DOL said that this practice was not permissible. 

Some background may help put this opinion into perspective.  As noted by the DOL, the FMLA and its Regulations provide that eligible employees are entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for specified family and medical reasons.  Employers must, via written notice,  designate such time off as FMLA leave if it is for a qualifying reason.  See 29 C.F.R.   §825.300(d)(1).  Such notice confirms for both the employer and the employee that the employee’s job must be protected during this statutory leave.  Once an eligible employee communicates sufficient information for an employer to understand that the reason for the leave is FMLA-qualifying, “the qualifying leave is FMLA-protected and counts toward the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement” the employer must designate the leave as FMLA leave within five (5) business days.  See 29 C.F.R. §825.300(d)(1). In that way, it is clear to both the employer and the employee that the employee is statutorily entitled to his or her job back when the employee returns from such designated leave.  The DOL has now expressed its view that the employer cannot delay such notice designation even if both the employer and the employee would prefer to delay designation until after the employee uses other paid time off benefits during leave first. 

At first, the opinion may seem to propound a rule that bans employment policies more generous than the statute, but that is not the point.  Rather, the DOL simply has opined that an employer’s policies cannot alter (i.e., expand) an employee’s statutory rights.  Indeed, such an opinion is really a mere truism, and no different from asserting that private citizens cannot change an Act of Congress.  Private citizens can make contracts and other enforceable promises to each other but they cannot expand or decrease the statutory rights of its employees or business associates merely by making such contracts or promises.

Thus, while employers are free to adopt leave policies that are more generous than those required by the FMLA, employers cannot designate more than 12 weeks of protected leave under the FMLA.  According to the DOL, while an employer must follow its own policies and benefits programs for paid leave time to employees above and beyond the rights provided by the FMLA, such additional benefits “cannot expand the employee’s 12-week…entitlement under the FMLA.”  As such, if an employee applies paid time off during the period of otherwise unpaid FMLA leave, that paid time off must count towards the 12 weeks of FMLA entitlement and protection.  If an employer grants its employees more than 12 weeks of leave pursuant to a paid sick leave or other time off policy more generous than the FMLA, that extended time off beyond 12-weeks would not be FMLA protected, although it may nevertheless be required as a matter of contract or other applicable law.     

What the DOL’s opinion truly calls for is consistency and clarity.  When an employer learns that an employee’s leave is being taken for an FMLA purpose, the employer must designate it as protected leave under the FMLA in a timely fashion.  This ensures that an employee will know he or she will be protected whenever he or she takes leave for an FMLA purpose and it clarifies the obligation of the employer to issue such notice without exception or delay.  This ensures no administrative errors that could otherwise cause delay in the employee’s return which could lead to forfeiture of an employee’s right to return to his or her job.  In short, employers will have no excuse to issue not to issue clear notice to employees about their FMLA rights, and there should be no reason for employers and employees not to know where exactly they stand under the statute.

In light of the DOL’s opinion letter, here is a summary of steps for employers to follow with respect to designating time off as protected FMLA leave:

·        Eligibility NoticeWhen an FMLA eligible employee requests time off, employers should provide an Eligibility Notice AND a Rights and Responsibilities Notice.  The DOL has published a Compliant Form, WH-381.  The response will allow the employer to determine whether the time off can be counted against the 12-week FMLA leave entitlement.

·        Medical Certification.  If the employer is going to require a medical certification, a SEPARATE MEDICAL CERTIFICATION FORM must be provided to the employee at the same time the Eligibility and Rights and Responsibilities Notice is provided.  The DOL has published a compliant medical certification Compliant Form (WH-380-E) to provide with the Eligibility and Rights and Responsibilities Notice. 

·        Designation Notice.  Within five (5) business days of the employer having sufficient information to determine that the employee’s requested leave qualifies as FMLA leave, the employer must provide a Designation Notice, DOL compliant Form WH-382.  In essence, the Designation Notice explains in writing that the employer is going to count time off as FMLA leave against the employee’s 12-week entitlement.  According to the DOL’s latest opinion letter this Designation must be provided within five (5) business days of the employee asking for FMLA-qualifying leave, even if he or she uses other paid time off in conjunction with the FMLA leave.  Further to that point, the Designation Notice must identify the amount of leave that will count against the employee’s FMLA entitlement and state whether the employee is required to substitute paid leave for unpaid FMLA leave.  See 29 C.F.R. 300(d) and 825.301.

·        Fitness for Duty Certification. If the employer is going to require the employee to provide a fitness-for duty certification to return to work, it must tell the employee of this requirement at the same time that it provides the Designation Notice.  If the employer will require the fitness-for-duty certification to specifically address whether the employee can perform the essential functions of the job (which clearly it should to avoid running afoul of the ADA), it must provide a list of the job functions with the designation notice.  Providing a job description with the Designation Notice would satisfy this requirement, so long as the description lists the essential functions.  See 29 C.F.R. 300(d), 825.301, 825.312 and 825.313.  There is a place on the DOL compliant Designation Notice, Form WH-382, for the employer to check off if the fitness-for-duty certification will be required.  Compliant Form WH-382 also has a space to check whether the list of essential functions is included with the designation.    

The above is provided for educational purposes only and is not legal advice.  As always consult with legal counsel, as appropriate, to ensure that all steps are taken to designate time off as FMLA leave and count the time against the 12-week entitlement.  

Employer Incentives for Wellness Programs in Limbo as EEOC Vacates 30% Rule

posted Jan 16, 2019, 9:27 AM by Allison Ayer

As of January 1, 2019, the EEOC removed from federal regulations a rule permitting an employer to incentivize employees to voluntarily disclose information protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Acct (“GINA”) in connection with an employee-sponsored wellness program.  This means that employers who offer wellness programs that incentivize employees to disclose medical information are now in legal limbo until the EEOC offers guidance on how employers may obtain relevant information to administer wellness incentive programs without running afoul of the law.  Here is what happened: 

The ADA and GINA are two federal laws which provide a variety of protections for employee health information.  These laws protect against the disclosure of employee health and medical information, and they limit the types of questions an employer can ask about an employee’s medical status and history.  Generally, employers may not compel employees to make disclosures of personal health information.

The law does, however, allow employers to encourage voluntary disclosures of such information to the extent employers do so in the context of administering a wellness incentive plan.  In 2016, the EEOC issued a rule under the ADA and GINA which allowed employers to incentivize employees to disclose medical and health information without running afoul of the ADA and GINA so long as such disclosures were made in connection with an employer-sponsored wellness program and the incentive offered by the employee met EEOC standards.  So long as the incentive offered by employers employees involves a reward of up to a 30% discount of the cost of self-only health insurance coverage, then the incentive would be considered a “voluntary” program rather than an unlawful “involuntary” requirement which would be prohibited by the ADA and GINA.  If the incentive offered by the employer met the 30% limit (and the disclosure was made in connection with a wellness program) under the 2016 EEOC rule, the employee’s disclosure of health information would be considered “voluntary” and compliant with the ADA and GINA. 

After the 2016 EEOC rule went into effect, the American Association of Retired Persons (“AARP”) filed suit against the EEOC in District of Columbia Federal Circuit Court.  The AARP argued that the 30% incentive made the disclosure not merely “voluntary” to the extent there were employees who could not afford to pay the cost of coverage without the incentive.  The AARP argued that employees who could not afford coverage without the 30% incentive discount would have no choice but to disclose ADA and GINA protected health information to the get the discount, effectively rendering the disclosure “involuntary” for the lower compensated workers.  In 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court vacated the 2016 EEOC incentive rule, finding that it was arbitrary and capricious and not supported by adequate evidence, including how the EEOC chose 30% as the limit for an incentive to be voluntary.  Rather than issue a revised rule or explain its prior incentive limits, the EEOC has decided to remove the incentive portion of the ADA regulations.

For 2019 and going forward, this means that employers who offer wellness programs that incentivize employees to disclose medical information are left in a legal limbo until the EEOC offers new guidance as to how large of an incentive employers may use without converting the requested disclosures from voluntary and lawful to involuntary and unlawful.  Among their choices, employers could:

1) follow incentive rules for wellness programs set forth in other laws, for example the Affordable Care Act;

2) eliminate incentives for participation in wellness programs altogether; or

3) define through company policy and practice what is a voluntary disclosure by using self-created incentive limits. 

Each of these options presents risks, the last being perhaps the most prone to legal challenge given the lack of outside guidance.  Given these risks, employers would be well advised to reassess their wellness program incentives for 2019, even if they have not done so in the past.  Employers should strongly consider consulting with legal counsel and/or group health insurance providers and agents as part of that process.   Employers should also keep in mind that they must continue to comply with the other EEOC regulations concerning disclosure and use of employee medical and health information, as the sections of the federal regulations concerning wellness programs remain in effect.  See 29 C.F.R. §1630.14.  

The Fight Over the 20% Rule Continues as a Federal Court Rejects DOL Opinion Letter

posted Jan 16, 2019, 9:01 AM by Allison Ayer   [ updated Jan 16, 2019, 9:29 AM ]

    It is a new year.  But the same fight continues in the courts over when restaurants can pay service employees the tip credit wage.  As result, there is continuing confusion for the restaurant industry about when and how to pay tipped employees sub-minimum wage.

Just a few months ago, we wrote about a United States Department Of Labor Opinion Letter which purported to change prior DOL Guidance by eliminating the longstanding 20% Rule for how much time during the week a tipped employee may perform side work while getting  paid the tip credit  wage.  The new Opinion Letter also purported to redefine what duties may constitute appropriate side work by, among other things, setting out a more expansive scope of duties for acceptable side work than what the courts and the DOL had previously allowed.   

 Before the DOL Opinion Letter, the 20% Rule had been part of DOL Guidance for decades and had long been given deference by the Courts.  See DOL Guidance, Field Operations Handbook at §30d00(f)(2016).  Briefly, the DOL Guidance provided that tipped employees could be paid the tip credit wage while perform non-tipped duties so long as those duties were “incidental” to service, “generally assigned” to tipped employees, and not so time consuming to take any more than 20% of a tipped employee’s work time during the week.  Just in September 2018, just two months before the DOL issued its new Opinion Letter, the Ninth Circuit in Alec Marsh v. J. Alexander’s ruled that the DOL’s Guidance was a reasonable interpretation of federal law by the DOL that was entitled to deference by the courts.  In other words, the court ruled that the 20% Rule had the force of law and would be enforced by the courts in part due to the over 30-year history of the DOL applying such rule consistently without challenge.  Over that period of time, restaurants across the country had established policies and practices to comply with the 20% Rule and employees also had come to rely on the 20% standard to evaluate whether they were being paid fairly.  Yet, oddly, shortly after the DOL scored such a victory for its own Guidance and its own 20% Rule, it sought to abrogate that standard and issued a new one by fiat through its new Opinion Letter published in November.  For these reasons, we predicted in our prior article that the Opinion Letter and the DOL’s new interpretation of the regulations would be tested in Court.

The new Opinion Letter failed its first test, and the restaurant who sought enforcement of the new DOL standard lost its case in court.  On January 2, 2019, a federal court in the District of Wisconsin rejected the DOL’s new standard for applying the tip credit.  In essence, the Court found the DOL Opinion Letter was issued hurriedly and without the necessary process required for changing longstanding legal precedent relied on by potential parties.  The court ruled that the Opinion Letter was accordingly not entitled to deference and would not be enforced by the Court.  

In Cope et al. v. Let’s Eat Out, Inc. (document attached), the plaintiffs claimed that Buffalo Wild Wings had willfully violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by, among other reasons, paying servers and bartenders sub-minimum, tip-credit rates while performing improper types and excessive amounts of non-tipped work.  In July 2016, the Court conditionally certified an FLSA collective action. This permitted the suit to proceed against the restaurant on behalf of not just the individual plaintiffs but also all current and tipped employees of Defendants’ Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants who were paid subminimum wages during the prior three years.

After the DOL Opinion Letter was issued, Defendants moved to decertify the collective action.  They argued that with regard with regard to the claim that the restaurant had unlawfully paid servers and bartenders the tip credit wage for non-tipped duties and in excess of 20% of their time, the DOL Opinion Letter should be given deference and applied retroactively.  The court denied the restaurant’s motion.

In a strongly worded decision, the federal court held that the DOL Opinion Letter was “unpersuasive” and “unworthy” of judicial deference.  The court noted that the DOL had for over 30 years consistently interpreted its own Regulations as requiring employers not to assign tipped employees to perform non-tip-producing tasks for more than 20% of the hours such employees worked in tipped occupations in a workweek. The court noted that the DOL had even republished Guidance reaffirming the 20% Rule as recently as 2016.  Furthermore, the court found that the Opinion Letter which reversed this long-held Guidance was issued “abruptly” without offering any “reasoning or evidence of any thorough consideration for reversing course” on prior the Guidance that had established the 20% Rule. Finally, the court reasoned that giving judicial deference to an Opinion Letter “pronouncing the sudden forthright withdrawal of such longstanding guidance would result in “’unfair surprise’” to the plaintiffs and the class who brought the lawsuit when the “time-honored” 20% rule interpretation was understood to be the law. 

Where does this Leave Restaurant Employers?  Unfortunately for restaurants, the rule to be applied to determine what rate to pay tipped employees remains uncertain.  There is now a federal court decision that has rejected the Opinion Letter and enforced the prior DOL Guidance that established the 20% Rule.  But this is just one court’s view.  It remains unclear how other federal courts will decide.  With that said, future plaintiffs are likely to rely on Cope to try convince other jurisdictions to reject the Opinion Letter and apply the 20% Rule.     

Given these circumstances, the safer course for employers appears to be to continue to abide by the 20% Rule and restrict time worked before or after serving guests to less than 20% of the workweek until the DOL or the courts further clarify this point. For more than 30 years, the 20% Rule had been the standard and considered reasonable by the DOL and/or the courts.  The issuance of an Opinion Letter does not immediately change what courts will consider to be reasonable.  Thus, even if shorter or longer times performing tasks before serving customers may be considered “reasonable,” abiding by the 20% Rule will likely give employers an additional defense to such claims.

It is possible that the new Opinion Letter may be applied on a going forward basis by another court but not retroactively as requested in Cope, but that is not certain.  It is also possible that the new Opinion Letter may at least provide some defense against claims of “willful violations” of federal law, as at the very least it has caused legitimate confusion as to what the law actually says.

Given the above, restaurants must keep in mind that federal law is both uncertain and rapidly changing.  Moreover, restaurants should be aware that they must also comply with the state’s minimum wage statutes and regulations, including the rules concerning the tip credit.  Please keep in mind that is article is provided for information purposes only and is not advice, and businesses should always raise their questions or concerns about paying employee wages in compliance with federal law with their legal counsel. 

 

Trump Administration Rejects Side Work and 20% Rules for Paying Tip Credit Wage to Tipped Employees

posted Nov 27, 2018, 7:01 AM by Adam Chandler

The 20% Rule is dead. Or is it?  Only last month, we wrote about the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alec Marsh v. J. Alexander’s, in which the Court of Appeals joined with other circuits and gave deference to and enforced the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidance concerning the amount of side work that tipped employees may perform before they must be paid at the full minimum wage.  On November 8, 2018, the Trump Administration’s DOL revived an opinion letter from the waning days of the Bush Administration, which was subsequently withdrawn by the Obama Administration.  By doing so, the Trump administration has called into question the continued validity of the 20% Rule and put in place a new standard that will likely raise new questions.  What should you do?

For more than 30 years, the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook (“FOH”) provided guidance on the issue of when tipped employees could be paid the tip credit rate versus when they had to be paid the full minimum wage.  Generally, under this guidance, tipped employees could be paid at the tip credit rate even for non-tipped duties so long as those duties were “incidental” to service and did not amount to more than 20% of the employee’s tip credit hours in a workweek.  Over the years, the DOL and the courts have refined what it meant for duties to be considered “incidental” to service.

The November 8, 2018 Opinion Letter turns the 20% Rule on its head, while at the same time redefining what duties tipped employees may perform.  The Opinion Letter further states that it supersedes the prior inconsistent statements in the FOH and that a revised FOH statement will be forthcoming.  Until that revised FOH is published, the Opinion Letter sets out the following standards:

Time Standards under the Opinion Letter 

In the Opinion Letter, the DOL states that it does not intend to place a limitation on the amount of duties a tipped employee may perform contemporaneous with direct customer-service duties.  In addition to performing duties contemporaneous with customer service, tipped employees may also perform such duties for a “reasonable time immediately before or after performing such direct-service duties.”

One important caveat from the DOL is that, while there is no limit on the amount of time tipped employees can perform various duties while serving customers, employers must still comply with the requirements of Act.  For example, tips plus wages must still equal or exceed the full minimum wage.

Allowable Duties under the Opinion Letter

Rather than the FOH’s non-exhaustive lists of types duties that are or are not “incidental” to service, the Opinion Letter points to two sources of duties that are allowable for tipped occupations.  If the duties performed are found on these lists, they can be paid at the tip credit rate.  If they duties are outside these lists, they must be paid at the full minimum wage, unless the time spent in the task is de minimis.

One of the sources cited by the Opinion Letter is a preexisting DOL regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 56(e), which provides that servers may clean and set tables, toast bread, make coffee and occasionally wash dishes or glasses.

The other source cited by the Opinion Letter is the duties listed in the appropriate tip-producing occupation found on the Occupational Information Network (“O*NET”) at http://online.onetcenter.org.  O*NET lists the following tasks under the category “Waiters and Waitresses”:
  • Take orders from patrons for food or beverages.  
  • Check with customers to ensure that they are enjoying their meals and take action to correct any problems.  
  • Check patrons' identification to ensure that they meet minimum age requirements for consumption of alcoholic beverages.  
  • Collect payments from customers.  
  • Write patrons' food orders on order slips, memorize orders, or enter orders into computers for transmittal to kitchen staff.  
  • Prepare checks that itemize and total meal costs and sales taxes.  
  • Present menus to patrons and answer questions about menu items, making recommendations upon request.  
  • Remove dishes and glasses from tables or counters and take them to kitchen for cleaning.  
  • Serve food or beverages to patrons, and prepare or serve specialty dishes at tables as required.  
  • Clean tables or counters after patrons have finished dining.  
  • Prepare tables for meals, including setting up items such as linens, silverware, and glassware.  
  • Explain how various menu items are prepared, describing ingredients and cooking methods.  
  • Assist host or hostess by answering phones to take reservations or to-go orders, and by greeting, seating, and thanking guests.  
  • Escort customers to their tables.  
  • Perform cleaning duties, such as sweeping and mopping floors, vacuuming carpet, tidying up server station, taking out trash, or checking and cleaning bathroom.  
  • Inform customers of daily specials.  
  • Prepare hot, cold, and mixed drinks for patrons, and chill bottles of wine.  
  • Roll silverware, set up food stations, or set up dining areas to prepare for the next shift or for large parties.  
  • Stock service areas with supplies such as coffee, food, tableware, and linens.  
  • Bring wine selections to tables with appropriate glasses, and pour the wines for customers.  
  • Fill salt, pepper, sugar, cream, condiment, and napkin containers.  
  • Describe and recommend wines to customers.  
  • Perform food preparation duties such as preparing salads, appetizers, and cold dishes, portioning desserts, and brewing coffee.  
  • Provide guests with information about local areas, including giving directions.  
  • Garnish and decorate dishes in preparation for serving.
It should be noted that this list is generally more expansive than what courts interpreting the regulations and the FOH have determined fall within the umbrella of tasks directly related to service or incidental to service.

Where does this Leave Restaurant Employers

At present, the law is in a transition mode.  The DOL has indicated that the old guidance is superseded, has provided a preliminary view of what the new guidance will be, and has assured employers that more detailed guidance will be forthcoming.  Moreover, given that the FOH and the Opinion Letter have not gone through the formal legislative or rulemaking process, neither are afforded the weight of law without judicial approval.  Numerous courts, most the recently the J. Alexander’s Court, have endorsed the previous version of the FOH as being a reasonable interpretation of federal regulations that still exist today.  On that basis, these courts has deferred to the DOL’s interpretation contained in the old FOH.  This Opinion Letter and the DOL’s new interpretation of the regulations that will be set forth in an updated FOH will undoubtedly be challenged in Court

One issue that is ripe for dispute is: what is a reasonable amount of time to have servers perform tasks immediately before and after direct-service tasks?  We would advise employers that, until the DOL or the courts further clarify this point, they continue to abide by the 20% Rule and restrict time worked before or after serving guests to less than 20% of the workweek.  For more than 30 years, the 20% Rule was the standard and considered reasonable by the DOL and/or the courts.  The issuance of an Opinion Letter does not immediately change what courts will consider to be reasonable.  Thus, even if shorter or longer times performing tasks before serving customers may be considered “reasonable,” abiding by the 20% Rule will likely give employers an additional defense to such claims.

The above provides just a brief summary of only federal law on this point, which will undoubtedly continue to evolve.  New Hampshire restaurants must keep in mind that they must also comply with the state’s minimum wage statutes and regulations, including the rules concerning the tip credit.   While the industry is hoping to work with the New Hampshire DOL to establish specific guidelines, following Federal statutes, regulations and guidance concerning the application of the tip credit would to be good practice from a risk management perspective.

Massachusetts Non-Compete Law Clarifies Scope of Restrictions but Leaves Some Answers to the Courts

posted Sep 9, 2018, 7:44 AM by Adam Chandler

After numerous legislative false starts over the past decade, Massachusetts has finally enacted legislation defining the boundaries of enforceable noncompetition agreements in the employment context.  The new law takes effect on October 1, 2018 and is codified at M.G.L. c. 149, § 24L.  While it sets several clear and understandable limitations on such agreements, it also raises significant questions that will eventually need to be answered by the courts.  Chief among these questions are, what consideration is necessary to support a restriction on competition and what is termination “for cause: sufficient to enforce such restrictions.

Minimum Requirements for Enforceability

The bulk of the new statute is dedicated to setting forth “minimum standards” that noncompetition agreements must satisfy to be “valid and enforceable.”  Many of these minimum standards can be viewed as either a codification of existing caselaw or reasonable industry practices.  These include: (1) the requirement that the agreement be supported by a legitimate business interest of the employer (including trade secrets, confidential information, or goodwill); (2) limiting the restricted period to a maximum of 12 months in most situations; (3) limiting the geographic scope and stating that being limited to areas in which the employee provided services or had a material presence in the last two years of employment is presumptively reasonable; (4) limiting the scope of proscribed activities and stating that a prohibition limited to those types of services provided by the employee over the past two years is presumptively reasonable; and (5) requiring that the agreement be consistent with public policy.

While the above do not substantially change the law in Massachusetts, they do provide some certainty when employers and employees weigh the enforceability of noncompetition agreements.

The following provisions, however, add some new wrinkles to the state of the law in Massachusetts, and employers should be wary of the application of these standards to their agreements.  These include:
  • The agreement must be supported by a “garden leave clause” or some other mutually agreed-upon consideration stated in the agreement.  A “garden leave clause” under this section means that the employee must be paid during the restricted period at least 50% of his or her highest base salary over the last two years.  The inclusion of the phrase “or some other mutually agreed-upon consideration” is fertile ground for litigation, as it is unclear what courts will consider sufficient consideration to support such a restriction.
  • If the employee has unlawfully taken property belonging to the employer, the duration of the restricted period may be extended to up to two years.  Because misappropriation of trade secrets claims often accompany noncompetition claims, employers would be wise to include such an extension in their noncompetition agreements.
  • The agreement must be signed by both the employer and the employee and expressly advise the employee that he or she has the right to consult with counsel prior to signing.
  • If the agreement is entered into at the commencement of employment, it must be provided to the employee by the earlier of the formal offer or 10 business days before the commencement of employment. 
  • If the agreement is entered into during employment, it must be supported by fair and reasonable consideration independent from the continuation of employment and it must be presented at least 10 business days prior to its effective date.
What is a Noncompetition Agreement?

While the statute defines a noncompetition agreement in an unsurprising way, what is more interesting is what is excluded from the definition, and thereby not subject to the restrictions set forth in the statute.  These include:
  • Non-solicitation of employee clauses;
  • Non-solicitation of customers, clients or vendors clauses;
  • Noncompetition agreements ancillary to the sale of a business;
  • Noncompetition agreements outside of the employment relationship;
  • Forfeiture agreements that impose adverse financial consequences on former employees but are not based on competitive activities;
  • Nondisclosure or confidentiality agreements;
  • Invention assignment agreements;
  • Garden leave clauses;
  • Noncompetition agreements as part of a severance agreement, as long as the employee is given seven days to rescind acceptance;
  • Agreements by which an employee agrees to not reapply for employment with the employer.
Who is Covered?

The new law has a broad reach, applying to both employees and independent contractors. On the flip side, the statute also excludes specific types of employees against whom noncompetition agreement will be unenforceable.  These include: (1) nonexempt (hourly) employees under the FLSA; (2) undergraduate and graduate students who are interns or short-term employees; (3) employees under the age of 18; and (4) employees who have been terminated without cause or laid off.

The big takeaway from these limitations on the types of employees who are covered is that, in most cases, employers will only be able to enforce noncompetition agreements against exempt (salaried) employees who either quit or are terminated for cause.  In many cases, this will add another disputed issue that the court will need to decide before enforcing a noncompetition agreement.

Enforceability

Despite setting forth detailed “minimum standards” for enforceability, the statute expressly allows courts to “blue pencil” contracts that do not comply with these minimum standards.  That means that a court will be able to reform contractual provisions that offend the statute so that they are valid and enforceable if the court finds a basis upon which to do so.  The statute, however, bars the enforcement of choice of law provisions that would avoid the requirements of the statute by applying another state’s law, if the employee has lived and/or worked in Massachusetts for at least 30 days prior to the termination of employment.

Supreme Court Punts on Deciding between Religious and Gay Rights

posted Jul 2, 2018, 3:54 PM by Allison Ayer   [ updated Jul 2, 2018, 3:55 PM ]

In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. et al., v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled 7-2 in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because he claimed it would violate his religious beliefs against gay marriage.  Importantly, the Court’s ruling did NOT decide whether the baker acted within the bounds of the law when he refused to bake the cake on the basis of his religion.  Instead, the Court made a narrow ruling in the baker’s favor because the Civil Rights Commission which originally heard the case failed to decide it with neutrality.  As a result, the specific question of whether public accommodations can refuse to provide a service to a same-sex couple on the basis of religious views remains an open one. 

The Facts

Jack Phillips is a baker who owned and operated Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., a bakery located in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.  Phillips is a devout Christian who believes that God intended marriage to be only between one man and one woman. 

In 2012, two men in a same-sex relationship entered Phillips’ bakery and told Phillips that they were interested in ordering a cake for their wedding.  Phillips purportedly informed the couple that while he would make a birthday cake or sell cookies to them, he could not bake a cake for their wedding because it was against his religious beliefs.  To Phillips, baking a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage involved creating something for an event that goes directly against his reviews about the teachings of the Bible, and therefore would be equivalent to a personal endorsement of and participation in the celebration of a same-sex relationship which is contrary to his deeply held religious beliefs. 

The same-sex couple filed a discrimination claim against Phillips in the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging that Phillips violated the state’s law that prohibits places of public accommodation, like restaurants, hotels, and bakeries, from discriminating against an individual or group because of sexual orientation.  The complaint alleged that the couple had been denied “full and equal service” at the bakery because of their sexual orientation.  The Commission’s investigation revealed that Phillips had refused to sell custom wedding cakes to about 6 other same-sex couples.  The Commission found in the couple’s favor, rejecting Phillips argument that his refusal was not sexual orientation discrimination, but rather a constitutionally protected form of expression of his opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of his sincerely held religious views. 

The Supreme Court Decision

               In a decision issued by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 to overturn the Commission’s finding. 

As a preliminary matter, the Court acknowledged the competing rights at issue in these types of cases.   The Court pointed out that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or inferior in dignity and worth, and that the Constitution clearly protects their civil rights, but the Court also stated that religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage can constitute Constitutionally protected forms of expression.  The Court also asserted that there were limits to the application of these religious beliefs in the public accommodation context.  The Court clearly stated that “while those religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations laws.”  The Court explained that while a member of the religious clergy could not be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage, if public accommodations who provide goods and services for weddings or marriages were permitted to refuse service to a same-sex couple, it could result in “a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamic of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services and public accommodations.” 

After laying out these general legal principles invoked in these cases of conflicting civil rights, the Court found in favor of the baker on the narrow basis that the state Commission failed to decide the case with the required neutrality towards Phillips’s religious views.  In fact, worse than simply failing to demonstrate neutrality toward Phillips’s religious views, the Supreme Court found that the Colorado Commission demonstrated actual hostility toward Phillips’s religious beliefs and ruled in favor of the baker on this basis.

For example, the Court found troubling that a Commissioner declared during a hearing that people had misused freedom of religion to justify such atrocities as the holocaust and slavery.  To the Supreme Court, this comment cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission and evidenced a hostility against the baker’s religious views. 

The Court also found it troubling that the Commission made inconsistent rulings in other related cases.  On at least three other occasion, when the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered cases where bakers refused to create cakes expressing disapproval of same-sex marriage on religious ground, the Commission found in favor of the bakers (i.e. it found that the bakers could refuse to bake a cake critical of same sex marriage). 

For these reasons, the Court concluded that the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ case was not tolerant or respectful of his religious beliefs as required by the Constitution, and it therefore reversed the Commission’s decision.    

The Takeaway

               The Court’s decision leaves open how the Supreme Court would decide a similar case that was handled at the Commission level with the required neutrality toward religion.  With that said, the reasoning of the court in Masterpiece provides some insight about where the Court might draw the line on these types of cases. 

The Court seemed to distinguish between a general refusal to make or serve the baked products available for sale to the public to gay or lesbian individuals or same-sex couples and a refusal to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage.  The former would present a “strong case” of a denial of goods and services that goes beyond the protected rights of a baker to decline service for religious reasons, according to the Court, while the latter offered a closer question of permissible, constitutionally protected religious expression.  These statements may indicate that the Supreme Court would not uphold a public accommodation generally denying access to its goods and services to a gay or lesbian individual or same sex couple, but that it would allow a public accommodation to refuse to provide a specific service for a same-sex marriage to the extent based on sincerely held religious beliefs. 

 

Of course, with the retirement of Justice Kennedy, who often decided with the more liberal members of the court on social matters like gay rights (he wrote the decision on gay marriage), the Supreme Court is probably much more likely to allow public accommodations to deny service to members on the public if such denial is based on religious views.  With that said, in the absence of a specific ruling by the Supreme Court in that regard, restaurants and other public accommodations must be very careful in denying service to anyone based on personal characteristics like sexual orientation.     

Gorsuch-Led Court Upholds Class Action Waivers

posted May 31, 2018, 3:44 PM by Allison Ayer

After several months of deliberation, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Gorsuch that employment agreements can lawfully include provisions that require employees to arbitrate claims on an individual basis rather than through a class or collective actions.  This is a significant victory for employers who may be the targets of costly wage and hour litigation that could otherwise be expanded to include hundreds, if not thousands, of their employees.

In, Epic Systems v. Lewis, a group of employees sued their employers alleging that they had failed to pay proper wages in violation of the FLSA.  The FLSA expressly permits wage claims to be filed as collective actions, and so these employees chose to file their wage claims on behalf of large groups of employees aggrieved by the employers’ alleged wage practices, rather than individually.  The employers, on the other hand, sought to force the employees to arbitrate the FLSA claims on an individual basis pursuant to the terms of the class action waivers in the arbitration provisions of their employment contracts.  The employees challenged the employers, arguing that the class action waiver violated the Federal Arbitration Act  and/or the National Labor Relations Act.  The Supreme Court rejected the employees’ arguments and ruled that arbitration agreements that require an employee to arbitrate claims on an individual basis rather than as a collective or class are lawful and enforceable. 

Employers who already have arbitration agreements including class action waivers in place should be confident in their ability to enforce those agreements, barring any contractual defenses such as lack of consideration, fraud, or duress.  Now that the Supreme Court has definitively answered the question of whether such provisions are enforceable, employers should strongly consider putting such agreements in place if they have not already done so.

The Court’s decision may not necessarily end the debate over class action waivers.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg prepared a scathing dissent claiming that the decision hurt “vulnerable workers” requiring them to “go it alone” in seeking “redress for common experienced wage loss.”  To the extent Democrats retake Congress, there is always the possibility that they could amend the laws to include language prohibiting class action waivers.  So, keep watching!   

Massachusetts Act Protecting Pregnancy Takes Effect April 1, 2018

posted Mar 28, 2018, 2:21 PM by Adam Chandler   [ updated Mar 28, 2018, 2:27 PM ]

The Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (the “Act”) goes into effect on April 1, 2018.  The Act amends M.G.L. ch. 151B, §4 Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute to expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.    

According to the Act, employers are generally prohibited from treating employers or job applicants less favorably than others on the basis of a pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition, such as for example lactation or breastfeeding. 

With this general prohibition in mind, the Act provides more specifically as follows: 

Employers cannot discriminate or retaliate.
  • Employers cannot deny an employment opportunity or take an adverse employment action against an employee because of a pregnancy or because the employee requests or uses a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition.
  • Employers cannot refuse to hire a person because of a pregnancy or a condition related to the person’s pregnancy, including for example lactation, if the applicant is capable of performing the essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Employer must provide reasonable accommodations.
  • Employers must engage in a timely and good faith interactive process (i.e. they must communicate with the employee in good faith to determine an effective, reasonable accommodation to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions.
  • Employers must grant requests for reasonable accommodations for an employee’s pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition, including but not limited to lactation, morning sickness, or the need to express breast milk.
  • Reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to:
    • Frequent or longer paid or unpaid breaks
    • Time off to attend to pregnancy complications or recover from childbirth
    • Acquire or modifying equipment or seating
    • Temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position;
    • Job restructuring
    • Light duty
    • Private space for expressing breast milk
    • Assistance with manual labor
    • Modified work schedule
  • Employers may require documentation about the need for an accommodation from an appropriate health care provider except the employer SHALL NOT ask for documentation for accommodations for 1) more frequent restroom, food or water breaks, 2) seating, 3) limits on lifting more than 20 pounds, or 4) private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk. 
Employers must provide on-site space to express milk.
  • Employers must provide an employee a private, non-bathroom space to express breast milk or to breastfeed.  
  • Such space may include but is not limited to a private room or office.  
  • In addition, the space must be free from instruction by other employees, visitors and the public (i.e. it must have a lock) and the space must allow employees to comfortably express breast milk or breastfeed, by for example, having sufficient electrical outlets for breast pumps, tables or other surfaces to hold breast pumps or other needed items, and provide adequate seating.  
  • The space must also be convenient enough for the employees that traveling to and from the space does not materially impact an employee’s break time.    
Employers cannot force a person to accept leave or an accommodation.
  • Under the Act, Employers cannot require an employee affected by pregnancy or a condition thereof, to accept a particular accommodation if the accommodation is not necessary to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions.
  • Employers also cannot require an employee to take leave if another reasonable accommodation may be provided for the pregnancy or relate condition.
Employers do need not grant an accommodation if it causes undue hardship.
  • Under the Act, an employer need not grant a request for accommodate only when it would impose an undue hardship on the employer.   
  • An undue hardship is defined as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” The employer has the burden to prove an undue hardship prevented the accommodation based on all of the facts and circumstances including 1) the nature and cost of the accommodation, 2) the overall financial resources of the employer, 3) the overall size in terms of number of employees, and number, the and location of facilities, of the employer, 4) the effect on expenses and resources or the accommodation on the employer’s enterprise or business.
Employers must provide Notice of Employees’ Rights Under the Act.
  • The Act also requires that employers provide written notice to employees by April 1, 2018 of the right to be free from discrimination due to pregnancy or a condition related to pregnancy, including the right to reasonable accommodations associated with pregnancy or a related condition.  Such notice can be made in a handbook pamphlet, or other means.  
  • Employers must also provide written notice of employees’ rights under the Act any new employee(s) prior to or at the start of their employment.
  • Employers must provide written notice of their rights under the Act to any employee who notifies the employer of a pregnancy or pregnancy-related condition within 10 days after such notification.
Given the fast-approaching April 1 effective date of the Act, employers are well-advised to develop and provide notice under the Act as more fully discussed above, and to review their written policies, handbooks, and practices to ensure that they are complying with the Act.  For more information, employers can refer to the guidance and Q&A’s discussing the requirements of the Act issued by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, or contact legal counsel.

Another Federal Court Expands Title VII Protection to Transgender Individuals

posted Mar 28, 2018, 2:01 PM by Adam Chandler

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, the Sixth Circuit recently held that a transgender individual has a cognizable claim of gender identity discrimination under Title VII, and furthermore that the employer’s religious objections to transgender individuals working at his business did not override the employee’s rights to be free from discrimination, therefore preventing the employer from terminating the transgender employee. 

The Facts

Aimee Stephens was born biologically male.  Stephens worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. (“the Funeral Home”) for some period of time while she was lived and presented as a man. 

The Funeral Home was a closely held for-profit corporation in Michigan.  The Funeral Home, is not affiliated with any specific church; it does not claim to have a religious purpose in its articles of incorporation; it is open every day, including Christian holidays; and it serves clients of all faiths.  However, Thomas Rost was the principal owner and operator of the Funeral Home.  Rost identifies as Christian and practiced Christianity for over sixty-five (65) years.  He testified in the case that he was called by God to serve the grieving, and the Funeral Home’s website contains a mission statement quoting scripture and stating that the Funeral Home’s “highest priority is to honor God in all that we do as a company.”  Rost hires employees belonging to any faith or no faith at all and testified that he “does not endorse or consider himself to endorse his employees’ beliefs or non-employment-related activities.”

Stephens told Rost about her plans to her plans to transition from a man to a woman and represent herself and dress as a woman while at work.  Stephens told Rost about her struggles with gender identity, and she stated her intention to sex reassignment surgery.  Stephens explained further that as a precursor for surgery, she had to live full-time as a woman for one year, including while at work at the Funeral Home.  After Rost received this letter, Rost terminated Stephens’s employment. 

Rost testified that he fired Stephens because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man. He wanted to dress as a woman.” He claimed that he “sincerely believe[s] that the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” and that he would be “violating God’s commands if [he] were to permit one of [the Funeral Home’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the] organization” or if he were to “permit one of [the Funeral Home’s] male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.”

The Sixth Circuit Appeals Court Rules Title VII Protects Against Gender Identity Discrimination and the Owner’s Religious Beliefs Did Not Protect him from Liability

               The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) took on the case for Stephens and sued the Funeral Home in Federal District Court in Michigan. The District Court initially found in favor of the Funeral Home, ruling that transgender status is not a protected trait under Title VII.  The Court alsoconcluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act precluded the EEOC from enforcing Title VII against the Funeral Home, because doing so would substantially burden Rost and the Funeral Home’s religious exercise. EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 201 F. Supp. 3d 837, 840 (E.D. Mich. 2016). 

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed and ruled in favor of the EEOC and the transgender employee.  The Sixth Circuit found that Stephens was fired because of her failure to conform to sex stereotypes, in violation of Title VII, and that she could pursue a claim under that theory.  The Court went even further, however, finding that Stephens also could pursue a sperate and distinct theory of liability against her employer that she was discriminated against on the basis of her transgender and transitioning status.  In so ruling, the Sixth Circuit concluded that discrimination on the basis of gender identity was prohibited by Title VII. 

The court stated “Discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex” protected by Title VII.  The Court reasoned that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex” which is expressly covered and prohibited by Title VII.  Furthermore, “discrimination against transgender persons necessarily implicates Title VII’s proscriptions against sex stereotyping.”  

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit also rejected that Rost’s religious objections to employing a transgender individual who intended to present at work as a different sex than she was biologically born trumped the employee’s rights against discrimination.  The Court reasoned that the “ministerial exception” to Title VII, which “preclude[s] application of [employment discrimination laws such as Title VII] to a religious institution and its ministers” did not apply because the Funeral Home was not a religious institution and the employee was not a ministerial employee.”

The Court also rejected Rost’s argument under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The Religious Freedom Restoration Act only applies to the government enforcement of a religiously neutral law against an individual if that law substantially burdens the individual’s religious exercise.  This defense was available in this particular case because the EEOC, and not Stephens individually, filed the claim against the employer. 

The Funeral Home said employing Stephens substantially burdened it in two ways: 1) a transgender funeral director could create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones and thereby hinder their healing process and the Funeral Home’s ministry, and 2) forcing Rost to violate his faith and allow Stephens to dress as a woman at work would pressure Rost to leave the funeral industry and end his ministry to grieving people.  The Sixth Circuit found that neither burden was substantial.  The alleged distraction caused to customers was premised on their presumed biases.  As for the claim that the employer would be forced to act in contradiction of his faith to employ Stephens, the Court said that the employer did have to take some action like purchase Stephens female-specific clothing; all Rost had to do was permit Stephens to wear attire that reflects a conception of gender at odds with Rost’s religious beliefs.  This is not a substantial burden, according to the Court. 

Finally, the Sixth Circuit found that even if Rost had established a substantial burden, he would have to employ Stephens nonetheless because the EEOC had a compelling interesting in enforcing elimination of workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, and there was no less restrictive means of achieving this interest other than to find liability in this employer for discrimination.   For all of these reasons, Sixth Circuit granted judgment to the EEOC.

The Lessons

This case emphasizes once again that if they wish to avoid liability for discrimination, employers should seriously consider taking steps to avoid discriminating against a person based on any personal characteristic, including sexual orientation or gender identity. 

This latest decision by the Sixth Circuit is consistent with decisions of other Federal Circuit courts, including the Second Circuit in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. and the Seventh Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, who each have recently ruled that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination does in fact cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Employers operating in states within these circuits should avoid discriminating on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. 

Even in states outside these circuits, employers should be extremely careful about taking adverse employment actions against transgender and gay employees.  First, the clear trend of federal courts is to recognize that Title VII does in fact prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Second, such discrimination may also be prohibited by state law in the employer’s jurisdiction.  Several states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have laws expressly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.   Massachusetts state law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  Employers in these states and any other with laws expressly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status must avoid discriminating because of an employee’s sexual preference or gender identity, and should change their policies to say so.

Finally, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home also reflects that the alleged beliefs of an employer may well be insufficient to provide a basis to avoid employing a diverse workforce in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Only when the employer is legitimately a religious institution will an employer’s religious views potentially override the employee’s rights to be free from discrimination.  

Even Obscure Religious Beliefs Must be Accommodated if Sincerely Held

posted Mar 1, 2018, 3:51 PM by Allison Ayer

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declined to review several employment cases petitioned to the Court.  One of those cases, EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2017), sought review of a religious accommodation case where the employer refused to accommodate an employee who objected to using a biometric time tracking system because he believed it marked him as a supporter of the Antichrist.  This case provides an interesting insight into the state of the law protecting religious practice in the workplace, and is worth a read. 

The Case:        

The facts of the case make for good reading.  The employee was a devout evangelical Christian who had worked for the employer for nearly forty years.  He had no record whatsoever of poor performance or any other workplace incident.  But that changed when he refused to use the employer’s required tracking system. 

Relying on specific excerpts of scripture and a letter from his pastor, the employee told his employer that he could not use the company’s time tracking system because he believed that if he placed his hand on the biometric scanner to punch in and out, he might receive the “Mark of the Beast”, branding him a follower of the Antichrist and condemning him to everlasting punishment.  As an alternative, the employee offered to check in with his supervisor upon arrival or departure, or punch in and out on a time clock as he had done in the past.  The employer refused to allow this, instead insisting that the employee use the biometric scanner.  The employee decided to retire given what he believed was a risk of eternal damnation.  The EEOC sued on the employee’s behalf, and prevailed at trial.  The employee was awarded over $500,000 in back pay, front pay, lost benefits and compensatory damages.   

The Appeal: 

On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the employer argued that the employee could show no conflict between his religious belief and the use of the hand scanner in essence because the employee was wrong about the religious teaching.  According to the employer, scripture provides that the “Mark of the Beast” can be made only on the right hand and involves an actual physical mark, and the scanner did not make any physical mark and could be used with the left or right hand, according to the manufacturer.  The employer therefore reasoned that the employee could use the biometric system without being at risk of branding himself a follower of the Antichrist.  The employer also noted that the employee’s own pastor did not share the employee’s religious beliefs objecting to use of the scanner.  

Employers Must Accommodate Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs, not “Correct” religious beliefs, unless such might pose an undue burden:

The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, reasoning that it reflected only the employer’s view that its employee’s religious beliefs were mistaken, which view is completely irrelevant in deciding whether to make a religious accommodation.  The Court said it is not for the employer or the court to question the correctness or even the plausibility of the employee’s beliefs.  “[The employee’s] religious beliefs are protected . . . whether or not [the employee’s] pastor – or [the employer], or the manufacturer of [employer’s] scanning system – thinks that [the employee], in seeking to protect his religious conscience, has drawn the line in the right place.”  So long as there is sufficient evidence that the employee’s beliefs are sincerely held (which there was in this case), and that those beliefs conflict with an employment requirement, the employer must try to accommodate the employee unless it can demonstrate an undue hardship.

Constructive Discharge Does Not Require Evil Intent:

The Fourth Circuit Court also rejected the employer’s argument that the employee failed to make the required showing that the employer purposely refused the religious accommodation with the premediated goal of forcing his retirement.  The Court noted that in a 2016 decision, Green v. Brennan, 136 S. Ct. 1769 (2016), SCOTUS decided that there is no such “deliberateness” element to a constructive discharge claim.  SCOTUS stated:  

The whole point of allowing an employee to claim ‘constructive’ discharge is that in circumstances of discrimination so intolerable that a reasonable person would resign, we treat the employee’s resignation as though the employer actually fired him. We do not also require an employee to come forward with proof—proof that would often be difficult to allege plausibly—that not only was the discrimination so bad that he had to quit, but also that his quitting was his employer’s plan all along.

Applying this standard, the Court also found that the employer’s refusal to offer a religious accommodation rendered the working environment so intolerable as to force the employee to retire.  The Court stated:

[An employer] refus[ing] to accommodate [a] religious objection, requiring him to use a scanner system that [employee] sincerely believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist, “tormented with fire and brimstone”…. goes well beyond the kind of run-of-the-mill “dissatisfaction with work assignments, [] feeling of being unfairly criticized, or difficult or unpleasant working conditions” that we have viewed as falling short of objective intolerability.    

Inconsistent Accommodation for Others Was Key:

Importantly, there also was evidence presented at trial that the employer was willing to accommodate other employees for non-religious reasons.  The employer allowed employees with hand injuries to punch in and out using a key pad alternative to the scanner, but it did not offer this option for the employee who objected on religious grounds.  The employer also sent an email internally simultaneously authorizing the keypad accommodation for the employees with physical injuries and denying that accommodation to employee.  The email stated “[L]et’s make our religious objector use his left hand.” There was also evidence that this alternative system provided no additional cost or burden to the employer.  While the appeals court did not delve into these facts in any detail, it is difficult to imagine that they did not affect its decision to uphold the trial.  These facts reflect a difference in treatment that can be explained most clearly on religion.   

The Take Aways: 

SCOTUS’s refusal to review this case indicates that the law concerning religious accommodations is well-settled in certain areas, and the case should guide an employer’s conduct in the workplace when faced with these requests in the following respects:

Be Receptive!  Do NOT substitute your judgment for the judgment of the employee when it comes to religious accommodations.  If the employee expresses a sincerely held belief that religion prevents him/her from following a policy or practice, the employer must respect that view, whether or not it holds the same beliefs or finds that the employee misunderstands religious doctrine.

Be Proactive! Engage in an interactive process with your employee to try to find a way to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, even if you think they are unreasonable, mistaken, or unfounded.  Given the intensity with which religious beliefs are held, if the employer quits because you refused a religious accommodation, it will likely be enough for the employee to establish that the workplace was so intolerable that he/she was forced to quit.  You will not be required to provide accommodations that would impose an undue burden upon you, but you typically will not know whether such a burden exists until you have fully engaged in a genuine interactive process.  

Be Consistent! Always treat employees the same, regardless of religion.  If an employer can accommodate an employee for a non-religious reason, this is strong evidence that it can provide the same accommodation when an employee objects on religious grounds.   

Be Careful! Watch what you state in an email, especially with regards to sensitive matters like requests for religious accommodations.  It can and will be used as evidence in any future discrimination case.  


               

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