If Your Employee Does This … You Might Be Getting Sued

“If you’ve ever had to remove a toothpick for wedding pictures, you might be a redneck.” 

-Jeff Foxworthy

jeff-foxworthy-2__large

Remember Comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck” jokes?   They were tell-tale signs of human behavior that revealed a person was a classless and/or clueless hick. They were funny because you either knew someone who acted like the character in the joke, or could easily see someone behaving that way.

But, my human resources (“HR”) and management friends, did you know that there are also tell-tale signs of employee behavior that reveal that your company will likely be sued?

So without further ado (and with apologies to Mr. Foxworthy), put your hands together and give a warm HR welcome to this Edition of  “You Might Be a Redneck Getting Sued”:

1. If your employee submits a 4 page, single-spaced typed rebuttal to a verbal warning, you might be getting sued.

(And if your dog and your wallet are both on a chain, you might be a redneck)*

2.  If your employee urgently demands a copy of his personnel file and says he needs to take the afternoon off for “personal business,” you might be getting sued.

(And if you’ve ever financed a tattoo, you might be a redneck)

3.  If your employee attempts to tape record her performance review, you might be getting sued.

(And if you have the local taxidermist’s number on speed dial, you might be a redneck)

4.  If your employee recites the requirements of an employment law statute better than your HR Department can, you might be getting sued.

(And if you’ve been on TV more than 3 times describing the sound of a tornado, you might be a redneck)

5.  If your 70 year old employee (with 35 years of service) that you just terminated has a personnel file thinner than a potato chip, you might be getting sued.

(And if you think the French Riviera is foreign car, you might be a redneck)

6.  If your employee walks around with a bulging notebook documenting every conversation she has had with co-workers and supervisors, you might be getting sued.

(And if you’ve ever mowed your lawn and found a car, you might be a redneck)  

7.  If your employee goes on an epic Facebook rant that his supervisor is treating him “unfairly,”  you might be getting sued.

(And, finally, if your idea of a “7-course meal” is a bucket of KFC and a six-pack, you might be a redneck)

Ba dom bomp!  Thank you! Don’t forget to tip your waiters and waitresses. I will be here all week…

Of course, getting sued by an employee is no laughing matter. Watch for the above warnings signs.  If you observe any of them, make sure that you have a sound business reason (backed up by sufficient documentation) before taking any disciplinary action against the employee.  Otherwise, the joke will be on you.

*All jokes courtesy of Mr. Foxworthy

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
              @wagelaws 

 

 

 

EEOC Expands Reach of Pregnancy Discrimination Act

stork-and-baby

On July 14, 2014 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued its first “enforcement guidance” on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) since 1983.  One of the more significant aspects of the Guidance is the EEOC’s view of an employer’s duty to accommodate pregnant workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The EEOC now takes the position that employers must accommodate a pregnant employee’s work restrictions to the same extent it accommodates non-pregnant employees with similar restrictions.

This means, in the EEOC’s view, that employers who offer light duty work to individuals injured on the job must also offer light duty work to pregnant employees with work restrictions, regardless of the fact that the light duty policy only applies, by its terms, to those employees who have restrictions stemming from a work related injury.

The EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance is quite extensive.  The entire Guidance document can be found here:

http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pregnancy_guidance.cfm .

The EEOC also issued a “Questions & Answers” document, found here:

http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pregnancy_qa.cfm .

As if that wasn’t enough summer reading, the EEOC also issued a “Fact Sheet” that summarizes the PDA’s requirements at:

http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/pregnancy_factsheet.cfm .

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

Four Things To Expect During An EEOC On-Site Visit

“Guests, like fish,  begin to smell after three days old.”

– Benjamin Franklin 

You know the drill.  An employee or ex-employee files a discrimination charge against your company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  You file a position statement denying the allegations and then wait.  You hear nothing and hope that no news is good news.  But, as they say, hope is not a strategy.

Instead, you are introduced to the EEOC’s new, more aggressive investigation strategy.  No longer willing to accept a company’s written response at face value, the EEOC now frequently demands on-site visits to interview witnesses and gather information.

As one can imagine, these on-site fishing expeditions visits offer little “upside” to the company.  To avoid floundering like a fish out of water, one needs to be prepared.  Here are just a few things you can expect to see and hear during an EEOC on-site visit:

1. The Tour.  The EEOC Investigator almost always requests to take a tour of the facility before conducting witness interviews.  Knowing this, the company should make sure there are no potential OSHA violations that could be spotted.  In addition, confirm the location(s) where the company posts the required federal labor and employment law posters, and double-check to make sure all of them are  actually posted; the Investigator will want to verify this.  Finally, have someone who is familiar with the facility and articulate but not verbose lead the tour.

2.  Probing the Company’s Story.  Recall that the EEOC Investigator typically comes on-site after the company has filed its position statement.  The Investigator will question witnesses to see if their recollections match the facts the company presented in its position statement.  Thus, every potential management witness should read the Discrimination Charge and the company’s position statement at least a couple of times before the on-site in order to [re-]familiarize themselves with the facts of the case.

3. Questions about Employment Law Knowledge & Training. EEOC Investigators will interview Human Resources (“HR”) personnel who are involved in the case.  Investigators often ask HR representatives: (1) about their general knowledge of employment laws; (2)  whether they have a college degree in the HR field; (3) whether they have recently attended HR seminars or conferences; and (4) what training they have provided to company employees on topics such as discrimination and harassment.  As “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” it is important that the HR representative comes across as knowledgeable of the anti-discrimination laws and the employer’s obligations thereunder.

4.  Selective Note Taking.  Watching the EEOC Investigator take notes of witness interviews will test one’s patience, as it often seems that the only statements being written down are those not helpful to your case.  All of the good points your witness is making are seemingly ignored.  If you observe this occurring, you or your counsel may need to re-emphasize key points to the Investigator to give him or her the “equal opportunity” to write them down.  You do not want the Investigator leaving with a distorted record of the facts.

Ultimately, your goal is to have your “uninvited guest” finish his/her visit and leave that same day.  Anything longer would really stink.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
 Twitter: @HRGeniusBar@wagelaws

3 AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT MYTHS

adasigning2

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was enacted in 1990,  employers and employees still hold certain misconceptions about the law and its requirements.  Here are three common myths surrounding the ADA:

MYTH #1 – The company can condition an employee’s return to work on the employee providing a “full medical release” without restrictions.

REALITY:  The company can require a medical release before an employee can return from a medical leave.  But, it cannot demand that the release be “restriction free.”  Rather, if the employee presents  restrictions with the release, the company must determine if it is able to provide a reasonable accommodation to the employee to enable the employee to perform the job’s “essential functions.”

MYTH #2 – If an employee’s disability is controlled by medication(s), the employee is not disabled.

REALITY:  The amendments to the ADA make clear that an employer cannot take into account the mitigating effects of medication or equipment on the employee’s medical condition in assessing whether the employee has a disability.  The employee can still be considered disabled even if the medication or device adequately controls the employee’s symptoms.

MYTH #3 – A company can enforce a leave of absence policy that provides an employee will be terminated if unable to return from a medical leave after a specific number of weeks or months.

REALITY:  Although a “leave of absence” can be a reasonable accommodation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) takes the position that an employer cannot “automatically” terminate an employee if the employee is unable to return to work after a specific period of time (e.g. 6 months or a year).  Rather, the EEOC views such “blanket” policies as violating the ADA’s requirement that the employer treat each accommodation situation on an individual basis.  Instead, the employer would have to establish that no other reasonable accommodation exists before terminating the employee.

 

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

 

 

Better Call Saul

“You were smart to call me. Now you just sit back, relax and let a professional take over.”             Saul Goodman – Breaking Bad

Saul Goodman, the street smart, delightfully sleazy criminal defense attorney from the ground breaking television drama, Breaking Bad, had a simple but memorable marketing slogan to attract clients – “Better Call Saul.”  Unfortunately for most of his clients (but good for Saul), they only called after they had gotten into trouble with the law.  It then became all about damage control.

But one client, Walter White, the cancer stricken high school science teacher turned virtuoso meth lab cook, often did call and consult with Saul before he took certain actions that he knew could potentially result in serious legal consequences.  Perhaps it stemmed from his scientific background, but Walter would often discuss options with their potential outcomes and associated legal risks with Saul before ultimately settling on a course of action.

Human resources managers would be well served to follow Mr. White’s lead in one limited respect.  (NO, I repeat, NO, not cook meth nor plan criminal acts).   Companies can reduce the possibility of significant monetary damages and legal expenses from employment law claims by investing a little time and money in consulting with their legal counsel about difficult employment situations before litigation is commenced. Below are just a few of scenarios where the “call to Saul” (or whoever your employment lawyer is) should be made:

  • An Employee (Or His Attorney) Makes A Personnel File Request.  The employee is not asking for her personnel file to check for spelling errors, or to make sure her emergency contact information has been updated.  The employee wants ammo, or better yet, the actual “smoking gun.”  The request is the legal equivalent of a warning shot across the bow.  An employment attorney can advise on how to respond to the request, including what not to provide, as well as establishing parameters to ensure the preservation of files and emails for future litigation.
  • The Employer Wants To Terminate An Employee Who Falls Into One Or More Protected Classifications.  As there are almost 100,000 discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) every year, a company who wishes to terminate an employee who falls into a “protected classification” such as age, race, gender or disability faces potential liability.  As literally every employee falls into some protected classification, the company should make sure that it has all of its legal ducks in a row before termination.  Talk through the facts, evidence and reasons for the termination with employment counsel, paying special attention to how the company has disciplined similarly situated employees not in the same protected classification(s).
  • The Employee Mentions The “L Word”.  Frequently employees claim that they are contacting a “lawyer,” or intend to file a “lawsuit.”  Although many times this is simply bluster, sometimes they actually follow through.  Regardless, the simple mention of these words greatly increases the likelihood of the employee filing a retaliation claim in the event the company takes an adverse employment action against him.  Any discipline or discharge that comes shortly after utterance of an “L word” will likely trigger the filing of a retaliation claim.  Bottom line – when an employee starts talking about his lawyer, you should probably call yours.
  • The Government Comes Knocking.  If you receive a letter, phone call or surprise visit from a government investigator representing OSHA, the Department of Labor, the EEOC, or OFCCP, contact your employment lawyer immediately.  Often, steps can be taken to narrow down the government’s burdensome requests for information, and secure adequate time to gather relevant information in order to prepare a coherent response.

Just like an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure, a billable hour spent on one of the tricky employment situations described above could avoid potentially costly legal consequences.  Take a page out of Walter White’s (cook)book and make the call.

Mitchell W. Quick,
Attorney/Partner – Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300, 100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter@HRGeniusBar @wagelaws

Unemployed – the Newest Protected Classification

Buried in the rush of the holiday season, on December 11, 2013 the City of Madison, Wisconsin amended its Equal Opportunities Ordinance to include “unemployment” as a classification protected from employment discrimination.   (A similar effort failed at the Federal level a couple of years ago).

In rather circular fashion, Madison’s Ordinance defines “unemployment” as “the status of not having a job or employmnt [sic], being available for work and seeking employment.”  Section 39.03(2)(oo).

Thus, companies with operations in Madison may not refuse to hire an individual simply because the person is unemployed.  Nor can they post advertisements (or job descriptions) that list as an eligibility requirement that the applicant be currently employed.  Employers are also prohibited from discriminating against unemployed applicants in terms and conditions of employment, so presumably they could not offer lower starting pay to unemployed applicants.

The Ordinance does throw employers a small bone.  It somewhat clarifies that unemployment “does not mean, nor is it unlawful discrimination to inquire into or to consider or act upon, the facts and circumstances leading to the the [sic] status or condition of unemployment.” (Yes, there are two typos in the Ordinance’s two sentence definition of “unemployment,” supporting the notion that this change was hastily made).

Beyond the typos, however, the problems with the Ordinance are numerous.  First, the Ordinance affords the temporary status of being unemployed the same legal protections as  immutable characteristics such as race, gender, national origin, and disability.

Second, (and perhaps incredibly), the status of “unemployment” is now the 27th “protected classification” under the Ordinance, joining other narrow protected classifications like “victim of domestic abuse.”  (What employer either refuses to hire or fires someone because of that?).  In short, employers in Madison face more legal compliance land mines.

Third, and most importantly, the Ordinance creates more questions than it answers, such as:

(1) Is an applicant who has been unemployed a mere one or two days at the time she applies for a job protected from discrimination?  Or does the applicant have to be unemployed for a period of several months? (It appears there is no minimum time limit).

(2)  Is an employer now, as a practical matter, prohibited from asking on its job application whether the applicant is currently employed, or for the name of the applicant’s current employer?   These routine employment application questions may result in the disclosure of information that the applicant is actually unemployed, thus putting the employer on notice, and giving the applicant a theory in which to file a discrimination claim if not hired.

(3) Does the Ordinance allow or prohibit employers from taking into consideration that an applicant had long periods of unemployment in the past, but is currently employed?  (It would seem to allow this).

(4)  Is an applicant who is currently employed at the time of application, but then becomes unemployed while the application is pending, considered “unemployed” and protected from discrimination under the Ordinance? (It would seem the individual would be  protected).

I have posed these and other questions to the City of Madison’s Department of Civil Rights Equal Opportunities Division, but have not received answers as of yet.  Stay tuned.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter
:  @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

Maybe the 37th Time is the Charm

Much of my legal practice involves defending companies against employment discrimination charges.  In so doing, I sometimes come across the “professional plaintiff” – an individual whose sole “job” appears to be suing potential, current or former employers in the hopes of extracting a monetary settlement.

Recently I discovered that a plaintiff who filed a discrimination charge against one of my clients had previously filed 36 discrimination charges against other companies.   In fact, over the last 10 years this individual has claimed that employers discriminatorily failed to hire him or fired him because of either his: (1) age; (2) race; (3) disability; (4) color; (5) sex; (6) arrest record; and/or (7) retaliation.  It reminds me of that old joke:  “I’m not paranoid – everybody’s just out to get me.”

We will, of course, use plaintiff’s prior litigation history to show his claims are frivolous and an abuse of the legal system.  Unfortunately, however, the company will still be burdened with the time and expense of defending itself.

What can we learn from this litigation nightmare?

(1)  Hiring decisions are critical.  An employer can’t ask an applicant whether he or she has sued other employers for discrimination in the past.  But if an employment application lists numerous short-term employment stints, or in response to the “reason for leaving” question the applicant cites “dispute with supervisor” or “forced to quit,” do not hire the person.

(2)  People sue for anything, and often.  Given how easy it is to file a discrimination charge, often with no “downside” to the applicant or former employee, litigation is not seen as a “last resort” anymore.  Rather, it has become the go to strategy for many individuals facing a workplace issue.  According to the EEOC there were over 99,000 discrimination charges filed against employers in 2012.  If your company hasn’t been sued for discrimination yet, it’s likely only a matter of time.

(3)  Don’t assume the government cares or will help.  People get their day in court.  Agencies like the EEOC will  accept a discrimination charge even if the plaintiff is a “serial filer.” The agency may be more skeptical of the merits of the charge, but the company will still have to expend signficant resources challenging those merits.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter
:  @HRGeniusBar &  @wagelaws