Welcome Pennsylvania and New Jersey employers.

Settle in and read on for easy-to-navigate, clear and concise summaries of the employment-law landscape in PA and NJ. Plus, we highlight the latest legal trends and changes in the law. You can even improve the way you and your employees conduct business with our featured guest commentary and insights from other management-side employment lawyers and human resources professionals.

This isn't your average blog; this is The Employer Handbook. Read it cover to cover.

June 24, 2013

When a hostile work environment isn't a hostile work environment

someecards.com - I got my big boy pants on.

Every so often, I get a call from an employee. The call goes something like this:

"I need an employment lawyer. Are you an employment lawyer?"
"Yes."
"Good. Because I am dealing with a hostile work environment."
"Well, I generally only represent employers. So---"
"--- But, my hostile work environment is bad. My manager is so mean. He yells at me. He gives me lots of work. He's terrible. Do I have a case?"
"How did you get my number?"
"I found it on the internet."
*** curses internet ***

Folks, I'm right there with you. Mean bosses suck. And who likes having to do a lot of work, especially when you're getting yelled at? But this is not what the law recognizes as a hostile work environment.

But don't just take my word on it. Consider the Third Circuit's recent opinion in Fichter v. AMG Resources Corp. In this case, the employee cited 14 examples of what she believed created a hostile work environment, ranging from her male manager asking that she finish her work quickly and being required to tell her male manager if she would be arriving to work late or leaving early.

In denying the plaintiff's claim for hostile work environment (based on gender), the Third Circuit underscored what the manager was asking of Ms. Fichter is what managers generally ask of their employees. So nothing here amounted to a Title VII violation.

Title VII doesn't guarantee a perfect working environment. But, calls like the one above suggest that, while your workplace may not violate discrimination laws, there could be some problems worth address. As evidenced by the Fichter case, some lawyers don't have the same filters that I do.

And, last time I checked, it'll cost you money to defend a discrimination lawsuit -- even if it's meritless.

*** hugs gold bars ***

June 21, 2013

Yo 11: Nevada now has a social media workplace privacy law too

Who would've guessed that, in June 2013, we'd have 11 states with social media privacy laws. I mean what are the odds? That'd be like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian deciding to name their baby daughter 'North West'.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to check why my Twitter is blowing up.

Oh, good God!

Well, at least they didn't name the kid, 'Knorth.' Because that would be plain weird. And well...

But anyway...

Last week, the State of Nevada amended one of its existing employment laws to prohibit an employer from conditioning the employment of an employee or prospective employee on his or her disclosure of the user name, password or any other information that provides access to the employee's or prospective employee's personal social media account. However, there is an exception for employers to request this information if necessary to comply with a state or federal law or regulation.

The new law goes into effect on October 1, 2013, and you can find more information on it here.

P.S. - For those of you still hatin' on 'North West', what direction would you have named your newborn?

June 20, 2013

Paula Deen didn't exactly deny those allegations of race discrimination

Paula Deen - Washington NationalsDISCLAIMER: Since I'm getting the fodder for my post from RadarOnline (via the National Enquirer), consider the sources, and remember that what you are about to read are allegations. Plus, Ms. Deen's team subsequently told Entertainment Tonight that Ms. Deen does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable. So make of this what you will and don't shoot them messenger...

Remember back when I reported here that a former employee of one of celeb chef Paula Deen's restaurants had accused both Deen and her brother of race discrimination and sexual harassment? You'd expect that Ms. Deen would cast aside these "allegations" -- especially the ones about her using the N-word and having black waiters perform as slaves at a wedding party -- as slanderous accusations.

You'd expect that wouldn't you?

Well, RadarOnline reports here that, at her deposition, Ms. Deen didn't so much deny certain allegations as she did admit them.

When asked by [the plaintiff's] Atlanta-based attorney if she'd ever used the N-word, Paula responded, "Yes, of course," and gave examples of times she used the offensive term.
In terms of telling racist jokes, Paula said, "It's just what they are -- they're jokes...most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks...I can't determine what offends another person."
And when asked if she wanted black men to play the role of slaves at a wedding she explained she got the idea from a restaurant her husband and her had dined at saying, "The whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie.
"I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America...after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War...It was not only black men, it was black women...I would say they were slaves."

Here's a free piece of advice for my readers: Please never resort to the ole "I can't determine what offends another person" defense. Trust me, the law doesn't recognize it, because it's ignorant.

UPDATE: Paula Deen Enterprises has released a statement to TMZ in which Ms. Deen does not condone the use of the N-word, but, then again, she was born in the south during the 1960s. So, cut her some slack, ok? (Just so we're clear, that's me being sarcastic.)

SECOND UPDATE:

June 19, 2013

28 ways to avoid breaking the law when hiring summer interns

It's that time of year.

unpaidintern1.jpg

You're hiring summer interns and I'm shaving a spoked B into my playoff beard looking for an excuse to recycle my six keys to keeping unpaid internships from becoming a hot wage & hour mess.

See what I just did there?

Oh, you saw the lede and thought I was actually going to give you 28 ways?

See what I just did there?

Oh, quit your whining. Here are 22 others:

Are we up to 28 yet?

Close enough.

Update: I feel bloated awful about shorting you on the the summer intern links. So, here is the latest edition of the Employment Law Blog Carnival: The Summer Blockbuster Edition. Thank you for hosting, Jon Hyman.

June 18, 2013

The ADA way to require psych counseling for an employee

Stethoscope-2The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) limits when an employer can require an employee to take a medical examination. Specifically, the ADA forbids employers from requiring medical exams (and cannot otherwise inquire into the nature or severity of a disability) unless the exam or inquiry is shown to be "job-related and consistent with business necessity."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) advises (here) that an exam is permissible where the employer "has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence, that: (1) an employee's ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or (2) an employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition."

So, let's assume that you have an employee about whom you receive multiple reports of emotionally-erratic workplace behavior. At what pointy can you require that employee to seek counseling?

For that answer, let's turn to a recent case in Michigan, where the plaintiff, an EMT, asserted ADA claims because her former employer required that she complete psychological counseling to keep her job. The company had received first-hand reports that the plaintiff was having a tumultuous affair with a married co-worker, often crying in (and out of) the workplace, texting while driving an ambulance, and ignored a request to administer oxygen to a patient.

Based on these facts, the court concluded that not only did it appear that the plaintiff's ability to perform her job had been compromised by her erratic behavior, but her actions also created a direct threat to others; namely, the patients for whom she was required to care. Consequently, the court determined that the employer had a reasonable basis to require psychological counseling.

[Based on guidance from the Sixth Circuit, the lower court assumed that a psychological examination is the type of medical exam contemplated under the ADA]

The key in the Michigan case, as it will be in your workplace, is to brush aside the unreliable reports about emotional employee behavior. Rumors aren't much better. However, follow-up on rumors. Squash them if they have no support; but, document reliable firsthand information. 

Ultimately, it's the objective, reliable information upon which you may rely to relying -- rather than rumors and hunches -- to require a psych exam as a condition of continued employment.

June 17, 2013

Grab-ass in the workplace may be sexual harassment, you guys

Biting the staff doesn't help either; even if it doesn't leave a mark.

You see, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

June 14, 2013

Can height be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Barbara Joy McElmurry worked for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. In a Complaint she filed in federal court, she alleged that her supervisor forced her into a field work position in which she would not be able to drive vehicles because she was too short (4'10"). So, McElmurry asserted a claim for discrimination on the basis of disability, namely, her short stature.

So, could height (or lack thereof) be a disability?

Well, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person is disabled if she suffers from "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." An employer could also regard an employee as disabled, even if she isn't; that too would bring the employee within the scope of the ADA.

Thus, the Court addressing Ms. McElmurry's ADA claim on the employer's motion to dismiss, concluded (here) that she may have a valid ADA claim:

McElmurry, however, has alleged that her height is outside the normal range. She stands around 4'10"...It is plausible that "short stature" could, in some contexts, "substantially limit[ ] one or more of the major life activities of an individual."

Consequently, the Court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss the ADA claims.

We've already seen weight can be a disability. So, I suppose it's only fitting that height too may be an issue. Of course, as the Court noted, an employer may prefer taller employees without regarding the short ones as disabled:

An employer is free to decide that physical characteristics or medical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment--such as one's height, build, or singing voice--are preferable to others, just as it is free to decide that some limiting, but not substantially limiting, impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for a job.

While employer preference may not create a regarded-as claim, the expansive nature of the recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act render just about any borderline "disability" an actual disability. Ultimately, employers need to be aware of obvious and the not-so-obvious conditions that may qualify as a "disability" under the Act.

June 13, 2013

The most cockamamie excuse evah for firing a pregnant employee

bernie.jpgWhen it comes to reasons for firing employees, I've heard some good ones in my day -- and by good, I mean legitimate.

Conversely, the excuse I just read in the Seventh Circuit's opinion in Hitchcock v. Angel Corps., Inc., a case involving a pregnancy discrimination claim, may be the worst. The worst one ever.

Angel Corps and its management staff feel that as a result of [the plaintiff's] actions she compromised the health and safety of this client. According to policy and procedure this action will result in an immediate termination.

Angel Corps is a non-medical home care agency that performs personal care services for its clients. And the plaintiff was a client services supervisor who, indeed, had recently visited a client.  

So what makes this excuse so lame? So absurd? Such an all-timer?

Well, you see. Angel Corps. asked the plaintiff to visit a new 100-year old client for intake and assessment. When the plaintiff showed up at the centenarian's house, she assessed that the client was dead. That's right, dead! The client was already dead. For two days.

Naturally, the plaintiff, who had informed Angel Corps that she was pregnant, suspected that something was amiss her; possibly the firing for failing to properly care for a dead person reflected discriminatory animus against the plaintiff. (Well, that and the increased scrutiny and work heaped on her after her baby announcement).

But hold on here, folks. Maybe, just maybe, I'm overselling this. So, let's consider the supervisor affidavit that Angel Corps. filed with the lower court in support of its motion for summary judgment on the pregnancy discrimination claims:

Had [the client] been living at the time Hitchcock did her assessment (such as when Hitchcock was originally scheduled to assess [the client on March 31]) Hitchcock would have compromised the health and safety of [the client] by not conducting a proper assessment and by not attending to or taking steps for Angel Corps [to] attend to obvious problems of [the client], such as the dried liquid on her mouth.

For realz! That's what they filed. And you know what? The lower court granted summary judgment to Angel Corps. It dismissed the pregnancy discrimination claims!

[Cue music]

Fortunately, the Seventh Circuit disagreed, finding that Angel Corps' "legitimate business reason" for terminating Ms. Hitchcock may be pretextual; i.e., phony:

A reasonable juror could also find the explanation ... to be so ludicrous that Angel Corps is not to be believed...Angel Corps's brief attempts to make sense out of [this], but it does so by piling on additional ever-evolving justifications that may cause a reasonable juror to wonder whether Angel Corps can ever get its story straight.

Two takeaways for my readers:

  1. If you have a reason for firing someone, make sure it's a good one that doesn't involve failing to administer proper care to a dead person.
  2. The one exception.
  3. Otherwise, stick with that reason. When you shift reasons, you look shafty. And neither judges nor jurors like shafty.
June 12, 2013

#SHRM13 ROLL CALL!!!

We are less than a week from the start of the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition, which kicks off in Chicago on Sunday, June 16.

shrm13.jpgI will roll into town on Monday. My plan is to hit the House of Blues that night for The Official #SHRM13 TweetUp & Afterparty. Next day, I'll be chugging hair of the dog shuttling between the Blogger's Lounge and The HIVE, where I'll ultimately set up shop and take your social media questions in the "Ask the Expert Session" at 10:30 AM.

Are you going? First time? What's your plan? (Let me know in the comments below).

WeKnowNext has a nice post on Maximizing your SHRM Annual Experience, as well as Eight Things Not To Do at #SHRM13. Plus, Blogging4Jobs.com hooks you up with the Exclusive #SHRM13 Unofficial Party Guide.

And if I may offer one piece of advice:

I'd love to meet some of my readers. If you would like to meet up -- unless your hygiene is poor; keep your distance -- email me, tweet me, connect on LinkedIn. Or just tap me my security on the shoulder at the #SHRM13 TweetUp. They'll summon me from the dumpster in the alley my table behind the velvet rope.

June 11, 2013

Does firing a law firm associate for discussing wages violate federal labor law?

There's not a whole lot that we have in common. I'm more erudite (you know, the blog thing), better looking, and more arrogant confident.

Given our differences, what I'm about to say may come as a surprise: when I was a associate attorney, I discussed salaries with other associates.

(I'll pause as the shock dissipates).

whisperIn my law-firm experience, discussing salaries ranks right up there with death and taxes. Over at EFCAblog.com -- you may want to update that URL, dudes -- Daniel Schudroff writes here about a small-firm associate who claimed that she was fired in violation of the National Labor Relations Act for discussing wages with co-worker.

The Act prohibits covered employers -- union and non-union -- from taking any action that would chill employee discussion of wages and benefits. However, supervisors are not protected. And in The Martin Law Group, 10-CA-078395 (Div. Judges May 6, 2013), an administrative law judge determined that the associate was actually a statutory supervisor. Therefore, she had no protection under the Act, and even if her employer had fired her for discussing wages, she had no recourse under the Act.

Mr. Schudroff summarized the ALJ's rationale:

The administrative law judge found that the associate was a supervisor for a number of reasons. First, the judge noted the firm's managing partner, without further investigation, ratified the associate's recommendation to terminate an employee. The administrative law judge also explained the associate responsibly directed a case manager to assist the associate in handling the associate's cases. The ALJ noted, however, that a small law firm -- where all attorneys were lead counsel on their own cases -- would differ from, for example, "a legal services agency employing a large number of staff attorneys who work under multiple layers of supervision."

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that this case will not spell the end of salary discussions at law firms -- small or large.

June 10, 2013

The ethical tightrope of social media as a litigation tool

Savvy lawyers today use social media to mine and collect important data about litigants. But cross that line from savvy to shady, and you may find yourself in deep do-do.

(Kinda like the blow-out I encountered when I reached inside the back of my youngest's wetsuit at the pool this weekend to check his diaper. But different. And TMI. Anyway...)

James McCarty of the The Plain Dealer reported here last week that an Ohio prosecutor was fired for pretending to be a woman in a Facebook chat with an accused killer's alibi witnesses in an attempt to persuade them to change their testimony.

The former prosecutor told The Plain Dealer, "I think the public is better off for what I did." 

His employer vehemently disagreed.

"This office does not condone and will not tolerate such unethical behavior. He disgraced this office and everyone who works here."

Not being a criminal lawyer, I do not know how the rules of ethics that govern my practice cross over. But rest assured that chicanery like this will likely earn a civil litigator an ethics charge.

Remember last year, when I posted here about two NJ defense lawyers who were charged with violating ethics rules governing communications with represented parties. The charges arose after a paralegal for the two lawyers allegedly friended an attorney-represented plaintiff in a personal injury case to get additional information to undermine the plaintiff's claims. Each lawyer disclaimed any knowledge of Facebook's privacy settings.

My suggestion to you, as it was back then, is to get familiar with social media as a litigation tool. The lesson is also the same: always consider the ethical implications of your actions, whether offline or online. 

And ignorance -- of social media or these rules of professional conduct -- is no excuse.

June 7, 2013

"What do you mean, 'you people'?"

Trouble in the workplace; funny in the jungle.

June 6, 2013

Not for Teacher: Court denies request to miss Tuesdays for Sabbath

cross.jpgBad Van Halen pun aside, let's play some Skynyrd. Even Waldo agrees.

So, there was this woman in Louisiana who took a teaching position at an elementary school. You know the kind; one that operates on weekdays. And, around her start date, she asked the administration for Tuesdays off to pray and observe her Sabbath. And the administration was all like, no.

So, a month later, the teacher filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, claiming religious discrimination for failure to accommodate.

Raise your hand if you think the teacher wins this lawsuit. 

Now, those of you with your hands up, ball that hand into a fist and punch yourself in the face. And, keep punching yourself, as I remind you that an employer does not need to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs if doing so would create undue hardship for the employer. In this context, undue hardship is anything "more than a de minimis cost" to the employer's business. For this reason, an Louisiana federal court in Slocum v. Devezin dismissed the teacher's religious discrimination claims because full-time teacher, last I checked, is a full-time position.

For more on addressing religious accommodation requests, check out this post.

June 5, 2013

Tough HR issues: ADA and extending a leave of absence

Depression-loss of loved oneAlright smarties. One of ABC Company's employees suffers from post-partum depression. She's been out of work for over a month, and the company wants to replace her. But, first, it wants your advice. 

Read all the facts below:

Emily Employee is an HR Coordinator at ABC Company. ABC provides short-term disability benefits for regular full-time employee like Emily. Last year, Emily began a 12-week maternity leave under the FMLA, during which time she received STD benefits. She returned to work with no restrictions.

Earlier this year, in late January, Emily met with her supervisor and requested a 30-day leave for post-partum depression. Emily's doctor faxed a letter to ABC requesting that Emily remain off work until late February. ABC approved her leave. In late February, Emily provided a second doctor's note stating that the post-partum had not resolved and Emily would need to remain out of work until early April. Emily submitted a medical certification form in mid-March.

Emily's supervisor comes to you with concerns that Emily's continued absences are problematic and creating workflow issues within HR. During her leave of absence, other employees in HR have also picked up some of Emily's duties. However, the majority of Emily's work has been performed by a temporary employee, Temporary Tammy.

ABC is considering terminating Emily before she returns in April and replacing her full-time with Tammy in May. However, Tammy will not be able to start until August (she too is pregnant).

So, what do you tell ABC? Let me know in the comments below.

(Later today, I'll post a link to a recent federal court decision discussing this very issue)

UPDATE: Here is the case. An Indiana federal court denied the employer's motion for summary judgment on this issue, suggesting (but not concluding) that an extended leave would have been reasonable. Further, the facts here appear to undercut any argument that attendance was an essential job function. But, the court wouldn't go so far as to say the employer was wrong for terminating "Emily." That will be up to a jury to decide.

June 4, 2013

Firing a woman for lactating at work is against the law

Allow me to be serious for a moment...

Moment's passed, eh? Ok. Let me bring it back...

Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (here) that discharging a female employee because she is lactating or expressing breast milk is sex discrimination and, therefore, violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

In EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., Dominica Venters, who was recovering from a C-Section, alleged that she requested that her supervisor ask the boss if it would be possible for her to use a breast pump at work. The supervisor stated that when he posed this question to the boss, the boss "responded with a strong 'NO. Maybe she needs to stay home longer.'"

Ms. Venters alleged that she was later told that her spot had been filled. Houston Funding alleged that Ms. Venters had abandoned her job. So, Ms. Venters alleged sex discrimination, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up the case on her behalf.

'Expressed breast milk' photo (c) 2007, Hamish Darby - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/In defending, Houston Funding argued Title VII does not cover "breast pump discrimination" and moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, finding that, even if Venters' allegations were true, "[f]iring someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination," because neither is a related medical condition of pregnancy. The EEOC timely appealed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit began its analysis by noting that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which is part of Title VII, provides that "[t]he terms 'because of sex' or 'on the basis of sex' include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions[.]" Therefore, Title VII must "cover a far wider range of employment decisions entailing female physiology," of which lactation is one of them. Consequently, the court easily concluded that the lower court was wrong and Ms. Venters stated a possible claim for Title VII sex discrimination.

Takeaway: Not only must employers consider their obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide nursing moms time and space to express breast milk at work, but taking action against a mom who requests to pump at work may get you discrimination lawsuit. (Although, the PDA does not require employers to affirmatively provide accommodations).

So, educate supervisors and management about these areas to avoid possible legal issues and, more importantly, treat new moms with the respect and dignity they deserve.

[Yes, I realize the irony of that last statement juxtaposed against the soundtrack for this blog post.]