Oregon Supreme Court Takes Another Big Bite Out of the At-Will Employment Doctrine in Cocchiara v. Lithia Motors
Most people understand that employment in Oregon, as in most states, is at will, meaning that either the employer or the employee can end the relationship at any time for any reason or no reason at all, absent a contractual, statutory, or constitutional requirement to the contrary. Of course, that last clause provides that there are limits on at-will employment. An employer can’t end the relationship because the employee becomes disabled, needs to fulfill duty obligations in the armed forces reserves, files a complaint against the employer, or a myriad of other unlawful reasons. Some plaintiff’s lawyers would argue that the at-will employment doctrine is so riddled with exceptions that it doesn’t really exist. And good employer defense attorneys will advise their clients that, while the doctrine still exists, every termination should be supported by clear, legitimate business reasons – and ideally with good documentation. But it is clear that no employee can have a reasonable expectation of continued employment, since he or she could be fired at any time. But what about an applicant?
Suppose an applicant meets with a hiring manager and, after the interview, the manager shakes the applicant’s hand and says “You’re hired! Come in tomorrow to sign the paperwork.” The applicant has another offer and the hiring manager encourages him to turn it down. The applicant does so and, the next day, shows up at his new employer’s offices. There he is told that they have changed their minds and don’t need him after all. The applicant is devastated because not only does he not have this job, but the other offer he turned down has already been filled. The employer, on the other hand, reasons that it could have fired the applicant anyway on his first day on the job under the at-will doctrine, so where is the harm? The employer argues that if the applicant has a claim, how long does an employer have to employ new hires?Continue Reading...
Generally, employers are permitted to enforce mandatory flu vaccine policies, with some cautionary notes.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") has said that employers should “consider simply encouraging employees” to get the flu vaccine rather than requiring it. (See “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act” guidance at http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html, question 13.) The EEOC’s concern is that any mandatory policy would have to yield to a request for a reasonable accommodation from either (1) an employee whose disability prevents him from getting a flu vaccine (e.g., someone with a severe egg allergy, as most flu vaccines are cultured using eggs), or (2) an employee whose sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances prevent him from taking the vaccine.
Notwithstanding the EEOC’s concerns, so long as the employer allows for reasonable accommodations--which could include having employees wear masks during flu season instead of getting a flu shot-- there should be no problem under federal law with a mandatory policy. However, employers should take care to ensure that there is not a state privacy law that might be implicated by a mandatory flu shot program. And, if the employer’s work force is unionized, the result could be different; some courts have found that a mandatory vaccine policy is something that must be bargained for with the union and cannot be unilaterally imposed.
At long last the EEOC has issued its final regulations for the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act. In so doing, the EEOC has taken Congress’ words contained in the Act and declared (repeatedly) that the definition of “disability” is to be read very broadly and that employers should instead focus on whether discrimination has occurred or an accommodation is needed. As we've noted in our prior ADAAA coverage, we think that many more disability lawsuits will be filed and far fewer of them will be dismissed on summary judgment. As the EEOC sees it, “many more ADA claims will focus on the merits of the case.”
What Hasn’t Changed
Most of the terms used in the original ADA haven’t changed. The Final Regulations do not alter the definitions of “qualified,” “reasonable accommodation,” “direct threat,” and “undue hardship.” And there are still three ways to come within the scope of the statute: “Actual” disability; “record of” disability; and “perceived as” disabled. The “perceived as” category has some substantial changes, as discussed below.
What Has Changed
1. Mitigating measures can no longer be taken into account when determining whether a person is disabled. (Except, individuals with with regular vision correction such as eyeglasses or contact lenses are still considered in their mitigated state for purposes of determining whether they have a disability.) This means that if the employee’s condition is entirely treated (heart disease is kept under control by medication, for example), the employee’s “disability” is evaluated without consideration of the treatment. Of course, if a person’s condition is controlled entirely by medicine or an assistive device or some other measure, it may mean that no accommodation is needed.
2. A “regarded as” claimant need no longer prove that he or she is perceived as a “disabled” person (i.e., a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity). Instead, a “regarded as” claimant need only show that the employer discriminated against him or her based on a belief that the employee (or applicant) had an impairment. However, if the employer can show that that the employee’s (or applicant’s) condition is actually just “transitory [i.e., lasting six months or less] and minor,” then the employee can’t be “regarded as” disabled. The six month time limit does not apply to evaluation of an actual disability or a record of a disability. And, in fact, the “rules of construction” contained in the Final Regulations specify that a disability may last less than six months.
3. The list of examples of “major life activities” is expanded and now includes “major bodily functions.” The rules make it clear that this is not a demanding standard. The major life activity need not be central to daily living, and it doesn’t have to severely or significantly limit the person’s ability. The final rule provides non-exhaustive lists of what constitutes a major life activity. Such activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, working and performing major bodily functions. Bodily functions include the immune system, special sense organs and skin, normal cell growth, digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions.
4. Given the new lists, some conditions will almost always be deemed to substantially limit a major life activity. The ones mentioned in the Final Regulations are: Deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation), partial or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Of these, perhaps the most troubling are autism and PTSD since both are ill-defined in the medical literature and exist on very broad spectrums of impairment.
5. The changed definition of “disability” applies to Title II of the ADA (State and local governments) and Title III (private places of public accommodation).
6. The phrase “qualified individual with a disability” has disappeared and instead the Final Regulations refer to “individual with a disability” and “qualified individual” separately. Again, these changes are intended to focus the inquiry on whether discrimination has occurred, and away from whether the individual meets the definition of “disability.”
More Lawsuits to Follow
In our experience, the vast majority of employers do try to fully comply with the ADA. Unfortunately, the ADAAA and these new Final Regulations assume just the opposite; by removing practically any burden on the employee to show that he or she is disabled, Congress and the EEOC have clearly shifted the burden to employers.
For more ADAAA information, check out:
- Questions and Answers on the Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
- Questions and Answers for Small Businesses: The Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
- Fact Sheet on the EEOC’s Final Regulations Implementing the ADAAA
Unless your life’s ambition is to reprise George Clooney’s role in Up In The Air, Part II, you probably don’t like having to fire people. But someone’s got to do it . . . and it has to be done right. Here are some things to consider before you step into that room to do the dirty deed. (Pronouns are a nuisance, so our terminated employee will be known as Fred .)
- Has the decision been properly vetted by everyone who should participate? You may simply be the “implementer,” not the “decider,” so make sure you have buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders.
- Particularly when the decision is prompted by misconduct, poor performance or something else Fred did, have you gotten his side of the story? Even if you end up finding Fred’s version a little less than credible, wouldn’t you rather know now what he has to say for himself, rather than read it for the first time in a Summons and Complaint?
- Has the basis for the decision been properly documented? Most, if not all, employment lawsuits could be avoided if the employer took the time to properly document the performance faults, the efforts made to remedy performance (i.e., notice to Fred of his poor performance), and the legitimate business reasons for the termination decision.
- Have you reviewed Fred’s file to determine whether he has any post-employment obligations such as a covenant to not compete, or to not solicit your customers or your employees, or a confidentiality agreement? If such agreements exist, be sure to give Fred another copy of the document and remind him of his continuing obligations.
- Will you offer severance? If so, more often than not, you will want to have an appropriate release to give Fred to consider. There are occasions when you will want to offer severance but not require a release of claims, but that rarely happens these days.
- If you are going to have a written separation agreement (and you don’t have to have one), have you considered other provisions that might induce Fred to sign the release, like:
- A letter of recommendation;
- An agreement to not oppose an unemployment benefits application;
- An agreement to reimburse Fred for a certain amount of COBRA expenses, etc?
- Similarly, if you are going to have a written agreement, have you included all the provisions you need, in addition to the release of claims, like:
- A non-disparagement clause;
- An agreement to not reapply (watch out – these clauses can be tricky);
- An acknowledgement of continuing confidentiality duties;
- A promise to return all company property;
- If Fred is over forty, all of the provisions necessary to comply with OWBPA?
- Will you conduct the termination meeting alone or with a witness? The advantage of having a witness there is that he or she can take notes and be the corroborating witness should things go south. The disadvantage is that the presence of the silent witness may irritate Fred. Nine times out of 10, you’ll want the witness.
- Have you advised your trusted IT person to sever Fred’s computer access (including remote access) during the time that you will be meeting with him? Rarely will you want the employee to work at all after the termination meeting. If the meeting is delayed, be sure to tell the IT person.
- Have you considered when to schedule the meeting? Best is near or at the end of the day. Your office or Fred’s office is fine, but it might be easier to meet in Fred’s office or a conference room so that you can leave if Fred wants to argue and you need to end the meeting. It is easier to leave Fred’s office than to try to make him leave your office. Wherever you choose, make sure it is private.
- During the meeting: Don’t beat around the bush. Be direct, but gentle. Give a reason, but don’t go into detail. Resist being drawn into an argument. State that the decision has been made, is final, and won’t be reconsidered. Acknowledge Fred’s pain. Sensitive, caring companies get sued less often than cold, heartless ones.
- If Fred claims he is being or has been discriminated or retaliated against for some unlawful reason, (as opposed to just complaining that the decision isn’t right or isn’t fair) ask him to tell you very specifically why he says that, make careful notes of what he says, tell him that you will investigate the claim and get back to him, but that the decision stands. Call your lawyer.
- Tell Fred that his computer access has been cut off. Explain that you will work with him to get any personal information off his computer.
- Ask for Fred’s keys, card access, phone, laptop, thumb drive, or whatever other company property he has. Ask him if he has any company property or documents at home. Ask him if he ever emailed himself company documents. If he has materials at home, arrange a time to pick those things up. If he sent himself documents at home, get his assurance that he will delete those emails. You may need to take more serious steps than these if you suspect that Fred is not being straight with you.
- Decide in advance how Fred will collect his personal items. Will you walk him back to his desk and watch him pack? Will you agree to meet him at the office on the weekend?
- Regardless of whether you offer benefits in exchange for a release, give Fred a letter that says he has been terminated and reminds him of any post-termination obligations, if any. (Some states require that you state the reason for the termination.)
- Know what final pay is due and when it is due. State rules vary a lot. Do you have to pay out unused vacation upon termination? Depends. Do you have to pay out unused sick leave? Depends. When is the final paycheck due? Depends on whether Fred quits with or without notice or is fired or leaves by mutual agreement. In Oregon, because he was fired, Fred is entitled to receive his final pay no later than the end of the first business day following his termination. During the termination meeting, you should ask Fred whether he will come in to pick up his check or whether he wants you to mail it to him.
- Do your final paperwork or take steps to see that it gets done.
- Go home. Have a drink.
The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion today in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP., 562 U.S. ___ (2011), that confirms the expansive scope of persons protected by Title VII. The Court held that it is unlawful for an employer to intentionally harm one employee in order to retaliate against another employee who engaged in protected activity.
Plaintiff Thompson and his fiancée Regalado were engaged to be married and both worked for North American Stainless (NAS). The EEOC notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge of sex discrimination. Thompson was fired three weeks later. The issue was whether Thompson could state a claim for retaliation, even though he had not engaged in any protected activity. The Court confirmed that “Title VII’s antiretaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct.” It “prohibits any employer action that well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The Court found that it was “obvious” that Regalado would have been dissuaded from making her complaint if she knew that Thompson would lose his job as a result.
The employer argued that to permit a third party retaliation claim in this case would lead to a dangerous slippery slope – would firing an employee’s boyfriend count? How about just a friend? Anytime the employer fired a person who happened to have a connection to someone else who had filed an EEOC charge, the employer would have potential liability. The Court responded: “Although we acknowledge the force of this point, we do not think it justifies a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII. . . . Given the broad statutory test and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII’s antiretaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.” In other words, there is no bright line test for who is protected from retaliation.
After concluding that the antiretaliation provision of Title VII was broad enough to encompass the activity in this case, the Court tackled the question of whether Thompson could sue NAS. Here the Court took a more narrow approach. It declined to follow the Court’s prior view that, to be “an aggrieved person” under Title VII, all that was required was that the person have “minimal Article III standing, which consists of injury in fact caused by the defendant and remediable by the court.” That minimalist approach would lead to “absurd consequences.” For example, if the minimalist approach was applied, a shareholder who could show that his stock value declined because of the company’s unlawful termination of a valuable employee could sue under Title VII. Instead, the test, the Court said, is as follows: “[A] plaintiff may not sue unless he falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.” Thompson, it said, fell within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII because he was a NAS employee and NAS intended to injure him in order to punish Regalado.
What This Case Means for Employers
Employers probably didn’t need another reminder that the potential claims they face are only limited by the imagination of plaintiffs’ attorneys. Before an employer takes any disciplinary action against anyone, it must ensure that it has legitimate business reasons for doing so and that an improper reason – such as a desire to exact revenge on another employee – hasn’t infected the decision.
As Stoel Rives World of Employment has previously reported, Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants based on their genetic information and regulates employers’ acquisition and use of genetic information.
GINA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, labor unions, and some other entities. Laws in 34 states also prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of genetic information and some of them may apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees. On November 9, 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued final regulations to Title II of GINA.
While many employers don’t think they collect genetic information covered by the law, its definition of “genetic information” is quite broad and includes family medical history. “Genetic tests” which come under the law are becoming more common, such as tests which detect the gene thought responsible for a predisposition to breast cancer. (The regulations helpfully specify that some tests, like a cholesterol test or a drug and alcohol test, are not “genetic tests.”) The regulations broadly prohibit an employer’s efforts to obtain an applicant’s or employee’s genetic information, but do provide a safe harbor for “inadvertent acquisition.” This safe harbor will protect an employer, for example, who gains genetic information by innocently inquiring about an employee’s well-being.
But employers commonly make requests for medical information such as when asking an employee to provide a medical certification for a FMLA leave or as part of the ADA interactive process. The regulations specify that employers must tell employees – using specific language – to not disclose protected genetic information when the employer requests medical information. Not surprisingly, the regulations require employers to maintain any genetic information obtained in a separate confidential medical file. Genetic information may be kept in the same file as other medical information.
The EEOC’s helpful FAQs on GINA are here. (Question 17 contains the suggested safe harbor language.)
What should employers do?
- Revise the EEO statement to include a prohibition on discrimination based on genetic information or ensure that the EEO statement includes broad language like “and as provided by law.”
- Check to ensure that application forms or on-boarding forms don’t seek family medical history information.
- Update template communications to employees when requesting medical information to include the approved safe harbor language.
The Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy today launched a new website that may be of use to employers seeking information on how to accommodate a disabled worker. At www.disability.gov an employer can research the applicable law and regulations, get ideas for appropriate reasonable accommodations, and locate additional resources. For example, clicking here will take you to information about accommodating deaf and hearing impaired workers. And here is useful information about tax incentives for complying with the ADA. The new site offers a myriad of social networking capabilities including a Twitter feed, RSS feeds and a blog. The site also includes a handy multi-state guide which employers could find very useful as they work to comply with all applicable federal and state disability laws.
The Washington state class action by Wal-Mart employees for missed meal and rest breaks and for being forced to work off the clock finally ended this week with a payment to the workers of $35,000,000 and $10,000,000 to their attorneys. Wal-Mart (are you surprised?) denies any wrongdoing. For more on the lawsuit and subsequent settlement, click to read the Huffington Post's analysis or this coverage by Forbes. The settlement, which is just one of many for Wal-Mart, is another important reminder that liability for wage and hour violations can really add up. And it adds up really fast when the class size is over 80,000 workers.
Washington employers should check with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for information on meal and rest break rules.
Now, Washington Wal-Mart workers, go spend those "stimulus" dollars! You have until August 19 to fill out your claim form.
Employment litigation dominates court dockets around the country. And the swing to the left in the political arena is not likely to put a damper on the number of filings. Everyone knows that litigation is expensive. So . . . what can the employer do to reduce its expenses if it finds itself on the receiving end of an administrative charge or a lawsuit?
1. Early Case Assessment
Ask your attorney to provide you with an early comprehensive analysis of the case after he or she has interviewed key witnesses, reviewed key documents and researched legal issues. Doing so will give you important information about whether an early settlement is likely to save you money in the long run and give you a good idea of what you are in for if you don’t settle.Continue Reading...
Are you looking for ways to hang on to staff, yet reduce costs? Those goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive if you choose to participate in your state's workshare program. A workshare program allows your employees to collect some unemployment benefits but continue working part time. Here's an article from the Center for Law and Social Policy that gives additional detail.
Seventeen states have such programs: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington. For a sample of a workshare law, see Section 1279.5 of California's unemployment insurance code.
Each state’s program is a little different, but they have common attributes. We’ll use Oregon’s program as an example.Continue Reading...