Reprinted with permission from Lower Bucks Chamber of Commerce Outlook Magazine, July/August 2021 Edition
The pandemic changed the workplace dramatically, and perhaps permanently. COVID called upon employers to adapt to remote work with very little notice and preparation. Employers then adapted their offices and workspaces to allow employees to work safely in their facilities with masks and social distancing. And then, just as quickly, CDC modified its masking guidance. Employers are challenged to comply with changing guidelines and existing laws and a very competitive job market. Employers must consider new masking guidelines, vaccination mandates and remote work options, as well as the laws that apply to those considerations.
When the pandemic started, CDC guidelines presented a simple rule: In-person workplaces should require employees to wear masks, unless there was a health reason that prevented an employee from doing so. If an employee had a health reason not to mask, the employer could comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, by accommodating the employee who provided medical documentation of the health issue. The CDC recently changed its guidance to state that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, and this is where it gets complicated.
Reprinted with permission from the April 16th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2021 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), among other significant items, imposed new obligations for employers pursuant to the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”). Specifically, ARPA requires employers to provide COBRA premium subsidies to certain employees from April 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021. The requirement comes with complicating definitions, retroactivity provisions, and new forms, creating a temporary compliance issue for employers. On April 7, 2021, the United States Department of Labor issued Model Notices and “FAQ’s” to assist with these compliance issues.
The COBRA subsidy is available from April 1, 2021 to September 30, 2021 to “assistance eligible individuals,” that is, individuals who are eligible for COBRA coverage as a result of an involuntary termination or a reduction in hours. The Act specifically excludes individuals who voluntarily terminate their employment. “Assistance eligible individuals” are not required to pay their COBRA premiums from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021. The employer or plan to whom the individual would normally pay premiums is entitled to a Medicare tax credit for the amount of the premium assistance. There is no guidance from the Department of Labor or the Internal Revenue Service regarding these tax credits.
Reprinted with permission from the February 22nd edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2021 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
In Martinez v. UPMC Susquehanna, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit clarified the specificity required in pleading prima facie cases of discrimination in light of the holdings in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). The Third Circuit held that an age discrimination plaintiff need not plead the exact age or duties of the plaintiff’s alleged replacement in order to survive a motion to dismiss.
The plaintiff in the Martinez case appealed an order issued by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissing the case for failure to state a claim under Iqbal and Twombly. The defendant, UPMC Susquehanna, employed the plaintiff, Dr. Martinez, as an orthopedic surgeon. Dr Martinez alleged in his complaint that UPMC Susquehanna terminated his employment and advised him that it was “moving in a different direction and his services were no longer needed.” UPMC Susquehanna also told Dr. Martinez that his termination had “nothing to do with his performance.” Dr. Martinez pleaded that he was seventy (70) years old, and that UPMC Susquehanna hired two doctors after his termination. The Complaint alleged that one of the hired physicians took over some of Dr. Martinez’s job duties, and that the second doctor was hired in response to a job posting for an orthopedic surgeon. Relevant to the Court’s analysis, Dr. Martinez alleged that both doctors were “significantly younger”, “less qualified,” and “less experienced” than Dr. Martinez.
Reprinted with permission from the June 19th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2020 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
The Supreme Court of the United States held in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. ___ (US 2020) that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex also bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Court’s opinion relies on the text of the statute, rejecting arguments from employers regarding the failure to specifically include gender identity or sexual orientation in the statue. The Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock is historic – it expands the protections of Title VII to sexual orientation and gender identity, protections previously denied. The Court’s ruling requires employers to update and modernize their policies and procedures, hiring practices, training and workplace culture.
Most employers these days are aware of the many workplace claims an employee might bring, including allegations of discrimination on account of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, pay, age, or disability. Among other claims are those brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (minimum wage, overtime) and the Family Medical Leave Act.
Employers paradoxically seem less aware of a retaliation claim an employee may bring. Paradoxically, because as reported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”-the federal agency responsible for enforcing laws prohibiting employment discrimination), retaliation claims constituted the highest percentage of all charges filed in its fiscal year 2019.
Moreover, as discussed below, retaliation claims, by which an employee can obtain the same remedies as discrimination claims, are often easier for an employee to prove.
A recent opinion by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (covering Pennsylvania) illustrates what an employee must do to state a case for retaliation and how an employer might defend the action.
On September 24, 2019, the United States Department of Labor announced a new final rule regarding eligibility for overtime pay. The rule requires employers to revisit their classifications of employees as exempt in order to ensure compliance.
As I discussed in previous articles (Texas Federal Judge Blocks New Overtime Rules and Speaking of Overtime Rules and One Final Overtime Update) the DOL announced rules in 2016 to dramatically increase the salary threshold in order for certain categories of employees to meet the standards for exemption from federal overtime requirements. The rules were met with litigation and a stay of their enforcement.
The new final rule raises the salary threshold from $455 a week to $684 a week, or $35,568 a year. Employers may now use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions to satisfy up to 10% of the salary level. Employees will still have to meet requirements related to their duties in order to meet the standards of exemption for the overtime requirements.
This final rule will become effective on January 1, 2020. As we advised in 2016, employers should take steps to ensure compliance by the end of the year. The first step is to identify any employees who are classified as exempt but are making less than $422 a week, and develop a plan to reclassify those employees, or revise their compensation. This is a good time to revisit the job duties of those employees to ensure that they meet the applicable standards for exemption in terms of their duties as well as their salary. This is also a good time to review overtime policies to ensure appropriate recordkeeping, efficient use of overtime and compliance with applicable law.
AMM can help employers navigate these new rules and review their employee classifications to ensure compliance and minimize risk.
Many companies use restrictive covenant agreements with key employees to guard against economic harm to the company by an employee who takes a job with the company’s competitor and/or tries to persuade the company’s customers to stop doing business with the company. These are particularly common with sales staff. In Pennsylvania, these covenants will generally be upheld if they are narrowly drawn to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests and if the employee has been given meaningful consideration in exchange for agreeing to be bound by the covenants. To learn more about Noncompetes, visit our Navigating Noncompetes blog series in the AMM Employment Law Blog.
Companies recognize that merely doing business with other firms can also be risky when it comes to protecting their interests in employees and customers. Consequently, it has become customary to include “no hire” provisions in contracts to prohibit a party from hiring away the other party’s staff. These clauses are particularly common in agreements in the technology field and in non-disclosure agreements that parties often enter into when evaluating whether or not to begin a business relationship. The viability of these provisions is in doubt in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Superior Court struck down a no-hire clause in a service agreement earlier this year. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
In Pittsburgh Logistics Systems, Inc. v. BeeMac Trucking, LLC, the trial court held that the no-hire clause was unenforceable because it prevented individuals from seeking employment with certain companies even though those individuals had not agreed to or been compensated for the restriction. It is important to note that in a separate action, Pittsburgh Logistics Systems (“PLS”), the company attempting to enforce the restrictions against BeeMac, was unsuccessful in its efforts to enforce the restrictive covenants contained in four employees’ employment agreements, each of whom left to work at BeeMac. The trial court concluded that the covenant not to compete was oppressive and overly broad since it had an unlimited geographic scope. The court viewed PLS as having “unclean hands” and refused to enforce the restriction at all.
The Superior Court agreed with the trial court and held that the no-hire clause was unenforceable as a matter of law. The Superior Court was influenced by the lower court’s holding that the non-compete covenants in the employment agreements were not enforceable, noting that it would be unfair for PLS to achieve the same result by using a contractual no-hire provision in its contracts with other companies.
Two Superior Court judges dissented, drawing a distinction between a no-hire provision in a contract between two companies and a non-compete clause binding employees. They reasoned that the no-hire clause did not restrict the employees’ actions; rather, the clause was a bargained-for restriction in recognition of the fact that BeeMac would have access to PLS employees and know-how. The dissenting opinion suggests that the correct analysis is whether the no-hire clause was a reasonable restraint on trade. Using that test, the dissenting judges would have enforced the clause and granted the injunctive relief requested by PLS to prevent BeeMac from “enjoy[ing] the benefit of its purported breach” and “leverag[ing] the specialized knowledge that PLS’s former employees acquired while under its employment.”
It will be interesting to see how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court views these issues when it hears this case. Stay tuned for further developments.
Reprinted with permission from the June 21st edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2019 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
In Fort Bend County v. Davis, 587 U.S. ___ (2019), the Court held that the requirement that a plaintiff in an employment discrimination case brought under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq, file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) prior to filing a complaint in court is a procedural and not a jurisdiction requirement. Therefore, an employer’s failure to assert the absence of an appropriate charge of discrimination in a motion to dismiss results in a waiver of the defense. The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a split in the circuits regarding whether the requirement is jurisdictional, and highlighted the importance of the charge of discrimination and the motion to dismiss in employment discrimination cases.
Reprinted with permission from the April 19th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2019 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
On April 12, 2019, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, a jury returned a verdict that serves as a reminder to employment law practitioners of the importance of treating mental health issues with sensitivity and consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and taking a practical approach to reasonable accommodations. The jury in Schirnhofer v. Premier Comp Solutions LLC, Western District of Pennsylvania docket number 2:16-CV-00462, found that the employer, Premier Comp Solutions LLC (“Premier”), had discriminated against the Plaintiff, Ms. Schirnhofer, on the basis of her mental health disability, and in violation of the ADA. The jury awarded Ms. Schirnhofer $285,000 in damages: $35,000 in backpay, and $250,000 in non-economic damages.
This summary of the facts of the case is drawn from the Court’s opinion on Premier’s summary judgment motion, issued on March 28, 2018. Ms. Schirnhofer began her employment at Premier in 2009, and was terminated on February 5, 2014. She was employed as a billing assistant in the billing department. During the course of her employment, she had good performance reviews. Ms. Schirnhofer was diagnosed with anxiety and other mental health issues prior to her employment with Premier. Her condition was exacerbated in 2012 when her newborn grandchild died, and a co-worker with whom she was close left Premier. What followed was a series of interpersonal problems, and conflicts with and complaints about co-workers. Premier’s president and Ms. Schirnhofer’s co-workers had referred to her as “Sybil” (referencing a character in the movie Sybil who suffered from mental health issues). The human resources representative noted that she should seek “medical attention.” Ms. Schirnhofer eventually asked for a reasonable accommodation in the form of two additional ten-minute breaks. She provided a letter from her physician regarding the need for such breaks to accommodate her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and her Generalized Anxiety Disorder. On January 28, 2019 Premier denied the request, despite the advice of its human resources professional to provide the accommodation. Instead, Premier offered to move her work area. On a particularly bad day in February, 2014, Ms. Schirnhofer took to Facebook to vent her anxiety. She was terminated on February 5, 2014 for her Facebook posts in violation of Premier’s Social Media policy. Ms. Schirnhofer sued, alleging that Premier had terminated her in retaliation for her request for an accommodation, that Premier had discriminated against her in violation of the ADA, and that Premier had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. The jury returned a verdict in her favor on the issue of discrimination, but found that Premier had not retaliated against Ms. Schirnhofer.
The lessons for employment law practitioners in this verdict are many, among them: mental health issues and accommodations are subtle, and require sensitivity; requests for reasonable accommodations provide an excellent opportunity for risk management; and, it is quite expensive to be wrong.
The increased attention to sexual harassment in the work place is reflected in the increasing number of sexual harassment suits filed by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-a federal agency whose responsibilities include enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws.
This trend magnifies the need for employers to be aware of an opinion by a judge of the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, holding that an employer may be liable for the sexual harassment of one of its employees by a nonemployee.
In this case, Hewett v. BS Transportation of Illinois, LLC, et al., the Court considered various claims by an employee, Hewitt, including a claim of sexual harassment, against his employer, BS Transportation.
Specifically, Hewitt alleged that he was a freight driver for BS Transportation whose job responsibilities included weekly loading of oil at a Sunoco refinery.
According to the allegations in Hewitt’s complaint:
During the course of Hewitt’s employment, a Sunoco employee sexually harassed Hewitt, first with sexual
comments and hand gestures and then after Hewitt asked the employee to stop, with more aggressive behavior including
physical contact. Hewitt made complaints to the Sunoco employee’s supervisor, as well as Hewitt’s supervisor at BS
Transportation who was also the owner of BS Transportation. Although Hewitt’s supervisor indicated he would
“handle the matter” with the Sunoco employee, the supervisor did not investigate the complaint nor did the Sunoco
employee’s supervisor. After a pause in his harassment of Hewitt, Sunoco’s employee again engaged in sexual
harassment of Hewitt, who again complained to Hewitt’s supervisor. Hewitt’s supervisor did not notify Sunoco of
these latest actions by the Sunoco employee. Shortly after the resumption of the harassment, Hewitt’s employment
with BS Transportation ended.
As a result of the alleged harassment described above, Hewitt filed suit in federal court alleging, among other claims, sexual discrimination by BS Transportation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The Court dismissed claims against Sunoco and its employee). While dismissing certain claims against BS Transportation and its supervisor, the Court did permit the sex discrimination claim to proceed-deeming it a claim of hostile work environment. (The Court in allowing the case to proceed did not make any factual findings regarding Hewitt’s allegation. Rather the Court needed to decide at this stage whether Hewitt stated a plausible claim against his employer).
The Court noted that the claim in this case was not like most claims of employment discrimination, where the offending conduct is alleged to have been committed by an employee of the employer. This case instead involved a nonemployee. The Court, however, allowed the case to proceed based on the allegations that a management -level employee (Hewitt’s supervisor)of BS Transportation was aware of the harassment complaints and failed to investigate or take appropriate action and that BS Transportation failed to notify Sunoco when Sunoco’s employee allegedly resumed harassment of Hewitt.
Pointing to decisions of other courts, the Court in this case held that an employer may be liable for employment discrimination “where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate action”(quoting Johnson-Harris v. AmQuip Cranes Rental ,LLC). The Court ruled that Hewitt had alleged sufficient facts to let the matter go forward. The Court also found that Hewitt stated a claim (yet to be proven) that BS Transportation’s supervisory employee had aided or abetted an unlawful discriminatory practice under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
The obvious takeaway from this decision is that an employer must have procedures in place to immediately and thoroughly investigate claims of workplace discrimination of any type. These procedures, of course, go along with anti-discrimination policies and procedures that may be used by an employee to file a complaint with the employer.
The less obvious lesson from this case is that an employer could be found liable for the unlawful conduct of a nonemployee if it fails to take appropriate action, including a thorough investigation. The reasoning of this case can easily be applied to other nonemployees who come into contact with an employer’s employees- vendors, outside maintenance personnel, salespeople, customers and so on. An employer must be alert as to any such claim that could give rise to a lawsuit.