Archive for June, 2013

Court: Trucking Company’s No-Return Policy for Alcoholic Driver Violates ADA

The HR department at Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. is going to have to rewrite its policies on return to work for drivers with admitted alcohol problems, following an adverse ruling by a U.S. district in Arkansas last week.

The court ruled that the trucking company’s no-exception policy violates the ADA, since it denies drivers a reasonable accommodation. The policy does not make an exception even for drivers who have completed substance abuse problems.

The court also said that the policy could not be justified under the ADA’s “direct threat” provision, the court stated, since that requires “an individualized assessment of the individual’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job.

You can read more about the case, EEOC v. Old Dominion Freight Line Inc., on the EEOC’s newsroom page.

Florida Bans Local Mandated Benefit Laws

On to Florida, where the governor has signed a law that, beginning on Monday, will forbid cities and counties from passing laws requiring employers to provide employment benefit not otherwise required by state or federal law.

The law signed by Governor Rick Scott appears squarely aimed at stopping counties and cities from enacting paid sick leave laws competing with state sick leave laws. A group called Organize America worked to get an “Earned Sick Time” initiative on the ballot in Orange County.

Political subdivisions will still be allowed to pass minimum wage laws, and it also leaves employment benefits required by tribal governments alone.

The law creates an Employer-Sponsored Benefits Task Force responsible for “analyzing employment benefits and assessing the impact of uniform statewide regulation.”

Here’s the text of the new law, H.B. 655.

Punitive Damages Not Allowed, Iowa Supreme Court Holds

Now resuming my 50-state tour of the latest developments in employment law. Today we’re in Iowa, where the state’s highest court affirmed once again last week that the Iowa Civil Rights Act does not permit awards of punitive damages.

In this case, three female employees of a merchandise company located in Indianola sued the company alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, and seeking punitive damages.

A state district court granted the company’s motion to strike the punitive damages claim, reasoning that the court could grant only the relief that the state civil rights commission could authorize, and punitive damages is not included in that relief.

Affirming that decision, the high court summed up its reasoning as follows:

It all comes down to statutory intent, the court said. It said it had “clearly and repeatedly stated our conclusion that the IRCA does not implicitly permit an award of punitive damages.” Furthermore, no significant legislative changes have been made since it first made that pronouncement in 1986 that would hint at any legislative changes.

So there. Here’s the full text of the opinion.

Justices Kick DOMA to Curb; California Prop 8 Banning Same-Sex Marriage Also Falls

Same-sex married couples must be afforded the same federal tax breaks and other benefits that are conferred on heterosexual married couples, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

In striking down a section of the Defense of Marriage Act, the justices said that denying these benefits to same-sex couples violated equal protection of the laws.

The case was brought by a New York resident who was hit with a federal estate tax bill when her same-sex spouse died. The couple were married in Canada and the marriage was recognized in New York.

In a separate ruling related to gay marriage, the justices let standard a federal court’s ruling that California’s Proposition 8–which reinstated a ban on same-sex marrage–determining that the groups supporting the ban lacked legal standing to bring their court challenge.

As a result of this ruling, same-sex marriages will resume in California in a matter of a few weeks.

Many companies welcomed today’s rulings because they want to market to gay couples and also for competitive reasons of wanting to keep gay employees in the fold. Several prominent Fortune 500 companies–including Pfizer and Marriott–filed friends of the court brief siding with DOMA’s and Prop. 8’s opponents.

Here are the court’s ruling in the DOMA and Prop 8 case.

Employer Underpaid Female HR Director, EEOC Charges

Probably the last person you’d want to deny equal pay to is the company HR director. The EEOC is bound to learn about that.

Royal Tire, a transportation company with commercial and retail locations throughout the Midwest, now finds itself a defendant in a Title VII and Equal Pay Act lawsuit filed by the commission last Friday.

According to the EEOC, the company paid its new HR director–a woman–less than her predecessor–a man, to the tune of $35,000.

The EEOC contends that this unequal pay violates Title VII and the Equal Pay Act because Christine Fellman-Wolf was performing the same work as her male predecessor under similar working conditions.

Read more.

In Pair of 5-4 Rulings, Justices Side With Employers in Harassment, Retaliation Suits

Employers generally emerged as the winners today in a pair of closely-divided rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One case involved the standard for holding employers liable for sexual harassment by a supervisor. The other concerned the proof requirements for holding employers liable for retaliation against an employee for exercising his or her Title VII rights.

In the first case–Vance v. Ball State University–the court’s conservative majority ruled that an employee is a “supervisor” under Title VII only if he or he was vested by the employer with the power to make tangible employment decisions such as hiring, firing, or promotion.

If a co-worker had some authority over the alleged victim-but not enough to make him or her the alleged victim’s supervisor–the employer can be held liable for harassment if it was negligent in permitting the harassment to occur, the court ruled.

For background on the case, see my prior blog posting.

The second ruling is a little more straightforward. The court held in that case that to prove retaliation under Title VII, the plaintiff must show that a retaliatory motive was the sole reason for the decision. In other words, “but for” the retaliation, the adverse employment decision would not have occurred.

That ruling was in University of Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar.

I also wrote on this case a while back.

Also expected this week: The high court’s ruling in two same-sex marriage cases. Check back here for details.

Court: Store Must Defend Against Employees’ Claims That Customer Harassed Them

It’s not easy for a store to track the behavior of all its customers, but an Oregon retail store now on the receiving end of a hostile environment lawsuit may wish it had intervened earlier.

A federal district court in Oregon ruled this week that EEOC may proceed with its case on behalf of current and and former female employees against Fred Meyer Stores Inc., which they claim allowed a regular customer to repeatedly harass them.

EEOC brought the suit back in 2011 after efforts to settle the matter failed.

No matter the outcome of the lawsuit, this case should prompt employers to take a careful look at their procedures for combatting customer harassment.

Here’s an EEOC fact sheet on the different kinds of prohibited harassment, including by third customers.

And here’s some background on the suit.

Employer Settles EEOC Suit Over Medical Leave Policy

It’s never a good idea to bar the door to an employee who is on medical leave and would like to return to work under certain restrictions. That can get you in trouble under the Americans With Disabilities Act, as one employer learned this week.

An employer will restore $46,000 in backpay to an employee it allegedly refused to allow to return to work following a medical leave of absence, under the terms of a settlement announced yesterday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The action involves Americold Logistics LLC, an Atlanta-based global provider of temperature-controlled warehousing and logistics to the food industry.

The EEOC said that Americold employee had chronic lumbar back pain with radiculopathy in her legs. She attempted to return to work, but the company told her that she had to be “100 percent” before doing so. Nor did it offer her a reasonable accommodation that would have allowed her to work.

In addition to the monetary award, the settlement obligates the company to train its sueprvisors and human resources personnel in its seven-state Southwest Region on the requirements and prohibitions of the ADA. The company will also develop and maintain policies which address how reasonable accommodations will be provided during the course of employment, EEOC said.

You can read more here.

Laid Off Workers Sue Defense Contractor Over Sequestration-Related WARN Notices

Employees of defense contractor L-3 Communication have sued the company for what the workers say was its failure to give them required 60 days notices under of the law that their employment would be terminated as a consequence of the federal budget sequester.

The Workers’ Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act–popularly known as the WARN Act–requires 60 days advance notice when a mass layoff is to occur.

The budget sequester–automatic across the board cuts that took effect in March–has resulted in the cancellation or delay of some federal contracts.

The L-3 workers have sued on their own behalf and that of other similarly situated employees

The plaintiffs worked for L-3 as part of a contract to provide maintenance and support to Hunter Army Airfield which serves Fort Stewart in Georgia.

No surprise that the issue has gotten caught up in politics, with some Republican members of Congress claiming that the Obama Administration played election year politics by telling contractors before the election that the government would pick up any legal costs associated with the WARN Act–as long as the layoffs were the result of sequestration

Bias Against Pregnant Women Rampant, Report Says

When it comes to getting an on-the-job accommodation, it’s better to have a knee or back injury than to be pregnant, according to a new report.

The report by the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance says that pregnant women often are denied bathroom breaks or other opportunities to get off their feet. But not so for employees with back troubled or other ailments.

It seems many employers aren’t heeding the requirements of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires pregnant women be given the same righs as employees with other temporary conditions. According to the report, in fiscal year 2011, the EEOC received nearly 6,000 pregnancy discrimination complaints; employers paid out $17.2 million to settle those claims.

Nor is the Americans With Disabilities Act much help for pregnant women, since pregnancy is not a disability under that law.

So pregnant employees often are falling through the cracks in the law–not a good situation for them or for their employers.

There is hope on the horizon however: A pregnant employee for UPS has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review a federal appeals court denial of her Pregnancy Discrimination Act claim against the company. According to Peggy Young, a former UPS driver in Landover, Maryland, the company refused to honor her doctor’s note recommending that she not lift more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy.

But rather than giving her a light-duty assignment and limited lifting–as it did others with medical conditions–UPS allegedly told her to leave the building and not return until she was no longer pregnant, as she had become “too much of a liability.”

Here’s the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in this case from this January.