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A court ruling reported today reminded me of a call I received many years ago from a potential client.
She, sadly, had a health condition that was interfering with her ability to work. She felt the company should accommodate her condition, and the accommodation she wanted was to be able to wake each day, assess her physical state, and then call the office and let them know if she would be able to work that day. She estimated that she would be able to work one and sometimes two days per week, but she anticipated there might be several weeks in a row that she would not be able to work at all.
I explained that I did not believe any court would require that level of accommodation. Indeed, I could not imagine how that would work. She worked in a position that required her presence. So as not to give away too many details, let’s just say her position was akin to the dispatcher at a shipping company. If she wasn’t there, the trucks didn’t move. So on the three or four days per week she would not be there, the company would have to bring in someone to fill her position. It would have to hire another full time dispatcher, and tell that person to stay home on those few days the caller was able to work.
I said to her, “basically, given the few days you are able to work, you’re asking for an accommodation whereby you stay home and the company mails you checks.” To which she responded, “No, I would want direct deposit.”
I hear extreme accommodation requests like this on a regular basis.
In another case, a worker had persuaded her company to allow her to work from home. She had no health issues of any sort, but just wanted to be home with her family more. The company allowed the arrangement for two years, but then decided it would prefer the worker to work out of the office.
She wanted to sue, claiming a failure to accommodate. Had she developed some health issue in the interim, you ask? No, her position was that in the two years she had been able to work from home, she had developed a lifestyle that permitted her to pick her kids up from school and avoid the commutes to work, and she felt that working out of the office was an unreasonable hardship.
In today’s case, the plaintiff apparently felt that having to work was annoyingly interfering with not having to work. The case was Debra Checa v. Drexel University, out of Pennsylvania. The plaintiff, Debra Checa, began her employment with defendant Drexel University College of Medicine in 2010. Four years later, Checa went out on an FMLA leave to have carpal tunnel surgery. Her leave was scheduled to end in September of that year, but Checa’s mother passed away while Checa was on leave, and the University very kindly extended her leave.
While Checa was out all these months, a coworker named Christina Zervoudakes took over her job duties, and was likely none too happy. Checa returned on Sept. 16, 2015, and met with Zervoudakes and one other employee, to discuss work assignments and the work that Checa had not completed before she left on the FMLA leave.
Checa had apparently promised to complete certain tasks before going out on leave, and she was presented with a list of what she had failed to do. Zervoudakes and the other employee did not offer any condolences for Checka’s loss. Apparently Checa perceived this all as rude, and screamed that she quit, according to the opinion. She then called her supervisor and quit, and followed that up with a resignation email.
Checa had apparently really enjoyed being off, but the next morning brought the reality of the difficulty of paying bills without a job, so Checa called and tried to retract her resignation. The company basically said, “No, you were pretty clear with your resignation, so no take-backs,” and refused to let her return.
Checa responded with a lawsuit alleging FMLA retaliation and constructive discharge, claiming that it was all a big set up. She felt that her co-workers should have been more welcoming with her return, but by dumping on her they had forced her to resign. The Univeristy responded with a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Checa could not show any retaliation based on her FMLA leave.
The District Court characterized the dispute as follows:
“Today we address whether an employer retaliates by either: a discourteous welcome back to work including holding a meeting to address tasks not completed by an employee before leave resulting in the employee’s impetuous resignation; or, declining to accept the employee’s next day effort to rescind her impetuous resignation.”
After analyzing the facts, the court concluded:
“Checa failed to establish a prima facie FMLA retaliation claim because she cannot show an adverse employment action or prove causation between an adverse employment action and her FMLA leave. Even if we found a prima facie retaliation claim, Drexel and Lally prevail because Checa cannot defeat Drexel’s several legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the alleged adverse actions.”
“Drexel offered legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the alleged adverse employment actions. Drexel contends it conducted the “first day back” meeting to correct Checa’s work-related issues occurring before her FMLA leave and to transition work back to her after her return from leave. Drexel did not allow Checa to rescind because of her inability to accept constructive criticism during the meeting and her unprofessional resignation. All of these reasons, if taken as true, “would permit the conclusion that there was a nondiscriminatory reason for the unfavorable employment decision,” satisfying Drexel’s burden under the McDonnell Douglas framework. Drexel cites Checa’s inability to specifically remember any of the alleged unfinished work items discussed at the meeting. Checa does not assert an employee fabricated comments or said them to her for a retaliatory reason.”
The takeaway here, as I have stated many times, is don’t shoot yourself in the foot. The company, and certainly your co-workers, may not be happy that you took off three months or more, no matter how righteous your reasons. The company can’t discriminate against you for exercising your legal rights, but don’t expect flowers and champagne upon your return.
The Catholic Church in Sacramento has agreed to pay $4 million to settle a former high school football coach’s wrongful termination lawsuit.
This was a tragic case involving a high school football coach who was fired for doing the right thing.
The coach was a retired police officer, who decided to coach the football for the local Catholic High School. When he arrived, he soon heard tales of some very inappropriate hazing rituals involving the players. When he reported the conduct, the school blamed him for letting it happen and fired him on that basis.
Here is where things get interesting. He sued for wrongful termination, and a Sacramento jury awarded him $900,000 in compensatory damages, even though he had found a better job that paid more.
But then came the punitive damages phase of the trial. Before the case was put to the jury to decide on punitive damages, the Catholic church agreed to settle for the original $900,000 plus $4 million in punitive damages. No doubt the Catholic church wanted to cut its losses and avoid the possibility of a much larger punitive damages award. However, based on the comments of the jurors, it appears any punitive damages would have been far less.
What a difference being a government employee makes. Most workers are at-will employees and can be terminated without cause on the whim of the employer, but teachers can only be terminated for cause. In the case of Lyndsey Wilcox v. Newark Valley Central School District, that distinction led to a huge verdict.
A jury on Wednesday awarded close to $3.5 million in damages to Wilcox, who alleged she was fired without cause. Wilcox was dating another teacher when it was discovered that he was acting inappropriately toward female students. He was ultimately convicted of sex offenses and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Wilcox successfully argued that she was only terminated for the sins of her boyfriend.
The jury deliberated for about three hours before returning with a verdict awarding Wilcox $351,990 for lost wages and $2.1 million for future lost earnings and $1 million for emotional distress.
I don’t often set forth an entire opinion, but the following case out of the Third Circuit provides a very good summary of what constitutes a “hostile work environment”, while at the same time demonstrating how the facts of a case are dissected and examined. If you are contemplating a wrongful termination action in general or a hostile work environment action in particular, this case is well worth reading.
The takeaways are: (1) a mean boss does not (necessarily) a hostile work environment make, and (2) if individual acts are not “hostile”, then even 14 of those acts will not create a hostile work environment.
In a very rare move, the Iowa Supreme Court had already issued a ruling in this case but withdrew its own ruling to give it more consideration. On Friday it reissued the ruling, standing by it decision that a dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he found her too attractive.
The dentist fired the employee because he felt she was a threat to his marriage, and the court ruled that is permitted, even if the employee has not done anything to lead the boss to believe he would ever have a shot at a relationship. The court held that a firing under these circumstance does not amount to illegal sex discrimination because it is the result of feelings, not gender.
The court upheld the ruling of the trial judge, who dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed against dentist James Knight, who fired his assistant Melissa Nelson, even though he admitted he always agreed that she had been a great employee for ten years she worked for him. The trial judge and the appeal court did not see the termination as having anything to do with gender, because Nelson was replaced by another woman, and Knight’s entire staff consists of women.
I reported a little over a year ago about a discrimination case out of Texas. A fired employee sued for wrongful termination based on pregnancy discrimination, claiming that she was fired due to her request to use the bathroom to breast-pump.
The judge on the case was Lynn Hughes. Judge Hughes was apparently willing to begrudgingly admit that taking adverse job action against a woman because of her pregnancy could amount to illegal discrimination, but that was as far as he was willing to go. In an infamous decision, Judge Lynn Hughes held: “Lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” adding that after plaintiff gave birth, “she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended.” Based on that tortured logic, Judge Hughes held that the woman had no viable claim under Title VII’s prohibition (found in the “Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” or PDA) against discrimination based upon pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.
To that, I responded: “The ruling is, of course, utter nonsense. Lactation occurs because of childbirth, and if a mother cannot pump or nurse, she is at risk of mastitis.” I predicted the case would be overturned on appeal, and I was right. Continue reading
An interesting case involving the Safeway grocery chain could have some far reaching ramifications for California employers.
First a little law. In California, a manager can be exempt from overtime pay, so long as the manager is “primarily engaged” in managerial duties. As was the case many years ago when I worked at a grocery store, managers typically do far more than manage. This case shows little has changed, and the plaintiff, Linda Heyen, when promoted to assistant manager, continued to do all the things she had done before she was promoted, but with added supervisory duties. So, when Heyen was fired, she sued, claiming that she should not have been treated as an exempt employee and was entitled to overtime pay.
Safeway argued that Heyen was properly categorized as exempt, because she was primarily engaged in managerial duties, regardless of what she was doing. When she was stocking shelves, she was still supervising the other employees. When she was running the register, she was still supervising other employees. Here is the claim by Safeway:
Safeway urges that store managers such as Heyen necessarily “multi-task” by engaging in “exempt” and “nonexempt” activities at the same time. In other words, while Heyen and other managers “might be checking and bagging (or doing stock work) they were also always still managing the store operations, including engaging in activities such as observing store operations and employee activities, and instructing employees in their assignments and any corrective measures that needed to be taken.” By instructing the jury that it must determine whether an activity was “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the primary purpose for which Heyen undertook it, the court “effectively [read] the concept of concurrent duties almost out of existence.” Instead, Safeway suggests, the trial court should have instructed the jury that any time Heyen spent simultaneously performing “exempt” and “nonexempt” duties “should be considered to fall on the `exempt’ side of the ledger.”
Here is how the Court of Appeal responded to that argument:
Although there is some intuitive appeal to Safeway’s contention, it is unsupported by California law. As we have said, the federal regulations cited in Wage Order 7 expressly recognize that managers sometimes engage in tasks that do not involve the “actual management of the department [or] the supervision of the employees therein.” (§ 541.108(a).) In those circumstances, the regulations do not say, as Safeway would have us hold, that those tasks should be considered “exempt” so long as the manager continues to supervise while performing them. Instead, the regulations look to the supervisor’s reason or purpose for undertaking the task. If a task is performed because it is “helpful in supervising the employees or contribute[s] to the smooth functioning of the department for which [the supervisors] are responsible” (§ 541.108(a), (c)), the work is exempt; if not, it is nonexempt.
Thus, the federal regulations incorporated into Wage Order 7 do not support the “multi-tasking” standard proposed by Safeway. Instead, they suggest, as the trial court correctly instructed the jury, that the trier of fact must categorize tasks as either “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the purpose for which Heyen undertook them.
The lesson here for employers is that you don’t get to create exempt employees with a change in title, unless that employee really does become a manager performing primarily managerial duties. From the employee’s perspective, if you get a promotion to manager, but find yourself still performing the same duties, then you are probably entitled to overtime pay.
Here is a interesting wrongful termination action, in that it illustrates a couple of basic points of wrongful termination and should prove to be very informative on the law as it proceeds.
Wayne Goodrich is a former employee of Apple. As an at-will employee, he could of course be terminated without cause. In December 2011 he was terminated by Apple for “business reasons”, and told that the termination had nothing to do with his job performance. Goodrich claims that was a wrongful termination in violation of contract because he was not an at-will employee. He asserts that Steve Jobs gave him a job for life. Goodrich claims that in 2005, during a one-on-one meeting with Steve Jobs, Jobs told him that he would always have a job.
Steve Jobs is dead, and there were no witnesses to the conversation, so we must rely entirely on what Goodrich alleges was said during the conversation. Aside from that problem with proof, Goodrich’s claim will fail for the following reasons.
Goodrich began his job at Apple in 1998. He doesn’t claim that he had a job for life at the time he was hired, but rather that the contract was created by the 2005 statement by Jobs. Under basic contract principles, a contract requires mutual consideration. Goodrich was already working at Apple at the time of the statement, so what did Apple receive in return for this promise of life time employment? Thus, under basic contract principles, the claim fails.
There is a concept called promissory estoppel, which provides the contract consideration if the plaintiff can show that the defendant knew he was relying to his detriment. In other words, if Goodrich had gone to Jobs and informed him that he was leaving to take a job at HP for a much higher salary, and Jobs had said, “don’t take the job at HP, stay here where you will always have a job”, then that detrimental reliance in turning down the HP job could provide the consideration. However, as far as I know, Goodrich is making no such claim.
The other fatal flaw in Goodrich’s case is the wording of the alleged statement. If an employee is going to claim that they were given a job for life, then the terms of that “lifetime job contract” have to be sufficiently certain to be enforceable.
Assume that Jobs said to Goodrich, “Wayne, you’re my guy. I can’t imagine running this company without you. You will always have a job at Apple.”
What does that mean? If Goodrich stopped coming to work and sat at home watching Jerry Springer, would he still have a job for life at Apple? No, I’m sure even Goodrich would stipulate that there were circumstances for which he could be fired. He would probably assert that he could only be fired for cause. But what if the cause is that his job is eliminated, or the company is restructured? Or what if Jobs meant that you’ll always have a job while I’m here? And what about the reverse? Was Goodrich required to stay there for life? Did Jobs really mean that Apple was committed to Goodrich for life, but Goodrich was free to shop around his services to see if he could make more money? That seems unfair and unlikely.
The point is, that simple statement by Jobs is just too uncertain to be enforced. There are circumstances where an employer can transmute an at-will employee into an employee who can only be terminated for cause. We have prevailed on a number of cases on that basis. But based on what I know of this case, claiming a job for life just will not fly. It should also be noted that Steve Jobs himself was fired by Apple, although he was eventually brought back.
We’ll watch this case develop and see if I am prescient. Here is a more detailed article about the action against apple.
I feel the need to vent.
I’ve received three calls today from long-term employees who were fired out of the blue and have no idea what they are going to do with themselves. Again I say it. Never stop making yourself more employable, and keep your eyes open for the writing on the wall that you may be about to lose your job.
I’ve written before about how you must continually be improving your employability, so this time I will focus on how to recognize the warning signs that you may be getting the boot.
First understand that the signs may not have anything to do with you, but rather the overall economic health of the company. If you see the company is struggling, then you should assume that a reduction of the staff will soon follow.
In the traditional office environment, things like overtime, company lunches, free soft drinks and other perks will disappear. In the retail setting, just look at the shelves. A struggling store will cut back on inventory. There will be a hiring freeze, and the company could be encouraging a staff reduction with severance packages.
Alternatively, the signs could have nothing to do with the economic health of the company, but rather how you are suddenly being treated.
The vast majority of terminations are not wrongful under the law due to the at-will employment presumption. Nonetheless, that does not stop employees from suing for wrongful termination anyway, and those actions are costly to the company. Therefore, the company will want to build a package on you so that if you do sue, there is a paper trial showing that you were incompetent in your job. To that end, the following acts are red flags that you are being papered. Continue reading