Justice is Blind? Fired Blind Barber Awarded $100,000 for Disability Discrimination

 

barber

“Beware of the young doctor and the old barber” – Ben Franklin

Although common sense may have been on his side at the time, if Ben Franklin voiced his sentiment in the workplace now, he would likely face and lose an age discrimination case.

Case in point – a legally blind barber sued his former barber shop claiming it terminated him because of his disability after he had tripped over a customer’s legs and tripped over a chair in the waiting room (all in the same day).  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination awarded the “blind barber” (as his loyal customers called him) $100,000 in damages.

The case has many lessons for employers:

Don’t assume you will win every lawsuit.   There are no “slam dunk” legal cases.  You need to show up and put on a solid defense.  Here, the employer hurt his cause by not attending several hearings.

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The facts, not just “common sense,” matter.  Sometimes the law doesn’t seem to comport with common sense.  One would think eliminating the risk of having a customer’s ear cut off  (much less a horrible haircut) would be a legitimate reason to terminate.  Would you want this?

 

BUT the barber had passed his state board exam, worked for a year without incident, and had customers who knew he was legally blind and didn’t care.  Those facts mattered more than the “common sense” fear of a blind person wielding sharp objects.

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Don’t play doctor.  An employer dealing with an employee with a disability should not presume or make assumptions about the effects of a person’s disability on their ability to do the job.  Here, the employer’s defense would have been greatly bolstered if it had obtained a fitness for duty exam by a qualified medical professional that determined the employee could not safely perform his duties and there was no accommodation that would enable him to do so.

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Timing  and optics are critical.  The employer purportedly did not know until the “day of great tripping” that the barber  was visually impaired.  It then immediately fired the employee, claiming (after the fact) that the employee “had not been pulling his weight.”  The “optics” simply do not look good (pun intended).

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Get your ducks in a row.  An employer seeking to terminate the employment of an individual in a protected classification should, if at all possible, issue written progressive discipline beforehand.  Apparently there were no prior written warnings in this case.  As the employer had never previously fired another non-disabled barber for simply tripping over a chair or a customer’s legs, the whiff of discrimination in the blow dried (h)air was strong.

 

Four Recent HR & Employment Law Developments

As those working in human resources and my fellow employment lawyers can attest, the last few years have given us constant change.  New employment laws, new labor regulations, federal agencies aggressively enforcing both, and significant cases being issued almost daily make it tough for even the most seasoned “HR Genius” to keep on top of all of the developments.  I try to lighten the load through this Blog, but like you, only have so many hours in the day.

So,  this week I am going to lean on my management-side employment law colleagues at Michael Best & Friedrich.  Below are just a sampling of the recent articles and “client alerts” they have authored recently:

1.  Wisconsin just enacted its “Right-To-Work” Law.  What does this mean for employers in Wisconsin? Click here.

2.  The Department of Labor just issued its Final Rule revising and expanding the definition of “spouse” to include those from same sex marriages.  For more details, click here.

3.  Utah just enacted a new law prohibiting discrimination against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and “gender identity.”  If you have operations there, then you should  click here.

4.  Do you know what constitutes a valid employment claim “release,” and when you can lawfully “require” employees to sign them?  For this information and more, click here.

Hopefully you will find these helpful in your quest to becoming (or remaining) an “HR Genius.”

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

 

 

 

Employees Behaving Badly – The Social Media Edition

twitter fire

“Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun” – Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable   

It seems like every week there is another story gone “viral”  of an employee posting something colossally stupid or offensive on a social media site, getting fired, and the employer left scrambling to repair its damaged reputation.  Here are just a few of the recent gems:

1.  ESPN suspended outspoken anchor Keith Olbermann for engaging in a heated twitter debate with Penn State University (“PSU”) students.  After a PSU alum brought to his attention an annual fundraiser at PSU that raised $13 million for pediatric cancer, Olbermann tweeted “PSU students are pitiful  because they’re  PSU students – period,” and called another student a “moron.”  Olbermann later apologized (via Twitter of course), calling his comments “stupid and childish.”

2.  A school bus driver thought it was a good idea to take a “selfie” holding a full bottle of beer to her lips as she sat behind the driver’s wheel, and then post it on Facebook.  Nothing says “student safety” like a brewski and a 15,000 pound vehicle, right?  The school district promptly fired the driver  after concerned parents rightfully went ballistic.  Fun Fact:  the driver never actually opened the bottle.

3. A Texas teenager fired off an expletive filled tweet complaining about starting her new job at a local pizza joint the next day, complete with a string of “thumbs-down” emoji characters:

fired

The boss saw it and tweeted back: “no… you don’t start the ** job today! I just fired you! Good luck with your no money, no job life.” Not to be outdone in this social media throwdown, the boss added some crying emoji faces. Not surprisingly, his corporate ownership was none too happy with the public airing of the dispute (think angry emoji faces).

So how can employers reduce their legal and reputational risks from their employees’ social media abuses?  For starters:

1. Adopt and enforce a clear social media policy. (Easier said than done given the NLRB’s views on the subject).

2. Train employees to think twice before tweeting, posting or sharing. And then think a third time.

3.  Train employees to ask themselves:  is this tweet/post/share something that I would say or do in front of my boss, my spouse, my parents, or my kids?  If not, don’t tweet/post/share it.

4.  Train employees to further ask themselves: is this tweet/post/share something that I am comfortable explaining and/or defending to the individuals mentioned above, or to a judge,  jury, or the mainstream media? If not, don’t tweet/post/share it.

 5.  Train employees to remember that although “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” what happens on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram will stay on the internet forever.  Or, as they used to say,  “this will go on your permanent record.”

6.   Bottom line –  Everyone (from the CEO to the rank-and-file worker) should recognize “you are what you tweet,” and that all must choose their words, videos, pictures, and yes, emojis, carefully.

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

 

 

Two More HR Mistakes To Avoid

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Having just touched the tip of the HR iceberg in my recent post  “Avoid these 3 Common HR Mistakes,” let’s dive a little deeper. Below are two more common mistakes made by companies and their human resources professionals:

Mistake #4: Failing to preserve key evidence.  Every terminated employee poses the risk of future litigation. Consequently, take steps to preserve crucial evidence. To the extent possible, save all employee voice mails that involve statements of: (1) quitting; (2) insubordination; (3) threats of violence; (4) profanity; and (5) excuses for absences unrelated to any disability (if you terminated the employee for absenteeism). Similarly, print and save screen shots of employees’ texts and social media postings, particularly if the contents reveal employee misconduct. Finally, always keep a signed and dated copy of the termination letter, and save the employee’s personnel file for at least 3 years.

Mistake #5: Failing to keep quiet. When it comes to discussing employment terminations, the less said the better. Never talk with a lawyer representing an employee. Generally, anything you say is evidence that will be used against you. For the same reason, don’t talk to an employee’s family member about their situation – he/she is not the employee. Don’t talk with anyone from a government agency unless your lawyer is present. Don’t tell individuals who do not have a “need to know” why an employee was terminated; if you can’t later prove the reason(s) for the termination you may face a defamation claim. Finally, be careful what you write in emails. Do not: (1) refer to an employee’s protected characteristics (such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc.); (2) refer to an employee’s threat of a lawsuit; or (3) call the employee derogatory names (including “troublemaker”). Emails can and will be discovered in the course of litigation, and can be highly damaging to your case.*

Navigate around these legal icebergs in order to avoid sinking your case.

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

* Portions of this article first appeared in the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs’ October, 2014 magazine, The Bottom Line.

 

 

 

Avoid These 3 Common HR Mistakes

The numbers are simply staggering: In 2013, individuals filed over 93,000 employment discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC collected $372 Million in damages from employers during that time. Similarly, thousands of minimum wage and overtime claims were brought against companies under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Department of Labor collected $250 Million in back pay damages in 2013. Moreover, approximately 20% of the lawsuits filed in Federal Court in 2013 stemmed from an employment dispute. It feels like litigation roulette – you never know when your company’s time is up, but if you keep playing the game (i.e. running your business), eventually you will get sued.

Given this, companies should take steps to reduce the risk of becoming the next defendant, and put themselves in a solid defensive position. One way to do so is to avoid making one of these 3 common human resources (“HR”) mistakes:

Mistake #1: Failing to properly screen applicants. Remember the old principle “garbage in, garbage out”? Hire a loser and all you get is a loser employee you can’t get rid of fast enough. How about avoiding that hassle? Start with a laser-like focus on the employment application. Has the applicant never held a job longer than 3 months? If so, why do you think he would last any longer at your place? Has the applicant conveniently failed to answer the “reason for leaving” question after a former employer’s name? This silence should speak volumes. Worse yet, does it say something disturbing like “dispute with supervisor”? And how did the applicant answer the “conviction record” question? These answers and/or omissions all need to be addressed with the applicant. Trust but verify with reference checks; a recent survey of hiring managers revealed that 60% found false information on applicants’ job applications and/or resumes. Finally, never hire someone based solely on the recommendation of a friend or co-worker.

Mistake #2: Failing to terminate a poorly performing employee. Not all hires turn out well. Some employees are simply poor performers. But why are they still employed by your company? Are you running a business or a charity? Managers should give employees clear performance expectations. If an employee fails to meet them, he should receive progressive discipline. If the employee still does not improve his performance, the company should terminate his employment. Consider the alternative – lowered workforce morale and a less profitable company bottom line. Retaining a poor performing employee can also result in a good deed getting punished: if you terminate someone else for the same poor level of performance, and the terminated employee falls into a different “protected classification,” you will be sued for discrimination. Like bad wine, life is too short to work with bad employees. If you have the opportunity to terminate one, take it.

Mistake #3: Failing to recognize threat levels. You need to be able to recognize potential legal risks and plan accordingly. Does the employee you intend to terminate fall into one or more protected classifications (i.e. race, over 40, disabled, etc.)? Has the employee mentioned an “L word” – lawyer or lawsuit? Has the employee referenced the “EEOC” or “discrimination”? Has the employee cited chapter and verse of the requirements of a particular statute? Has the employee requested a copy of her personnel file? Is the employee trying to tape record conversations? If any of these have occurred, you are approaching litigation threat level “DEFCON 1.” To reduce the threat, make sure that you have all of the facts, have reviewed the employee’s prior disciplinary record, have looked at your disciplinary practice in comparable situations, have adequate documentation, and a legitimate business reason for the employment decision.*

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

* Portions of this article first appeared in the Wisconsin Institute of CPA’s October, 2014 magazine, The Bottom Line.

 

 

 

 

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

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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 

 

 

 

3 AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT MYTHS

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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