Employers Should Review Benefits Plans And Other Policies Affecting Employees In Same-Sex Marriages As New IRS Guidance Implementing U.S. Supreme Court's Windsor Decision Becomes Effective Today, September 16, 2013

Here's something that should be at the top of your to do list on this Monday morning:  make sure your benefits and other employee policies are in compliance with new guidance from the IRS that becomes effective today relating to federal tax treatment of same-sex marriages under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Windsor.  In Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which had prohibited recognition of same-sex marriages under federal law. That decision has several implications for employers, including application of employee leave laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), which we blogged about recently.

Since the Windsor ruling, federal agencies have been busy carrying out President Obama’s directive to update regulations and guidance accordingly.  On August 29, the IRS issued Revenue Ruling 2013-17 and two sets of FAQs (here and here), advising how the IRS will treat same-sex marriages for federal tax purposes. (Windsor was, after all, a tax case, in which the issue was whether the IRS was allowed to disregard a same-sex marriage for federal estate tax purposes).  The guidance becomes effective today, September 16, 2013.

Under that new guidance, the IRS will apply the marriage laws of the state or country in which the marriage was celebrated (‘state of celebration”) to determine if the couple is validly married for federal tax purposes, including tax and other issues relating to employee benefits.  Under the new IRS guidance, any same-sex marriage validly entered into in any state or foreign country that allows same-sex marriage will be recognized by the IRS for income, estate, and other tax purposes, even if the couple does not live or work in a state that recognizes the marriage.  For example, if a same-sex couple is married in Washington (or Canada), which recognizes same-sex marriage, and then moves to Oregon, which currently does not, the couple will still be considered married for federal tax purposes.

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Maryland Federal District Court's Dismissal of EEOC v. Freeman Provides Guidance for Employers on Background Check Rules

As we’ve blogged about before, the EEOC has become more aggressive over the past few years in scrutinizing employer use of criminal background and credit checks.  While federal anti-discrimination laws do not expressly prohibit employers from performing background checks or similar screening methods on employees or applicants, their use can be unlawful where the practice has a “disparate impact” on protected classes of employees under Title VII.  Recently, the EEOC has issued Guidance documents focusing on disparate impact cases involving criminal history and credit checks, all as part of its interest in “systemic” forms of discrimination.  In addition to issuing guidance limiting when and how employers can use criminal and credit history background checks in employment, the EEOC has been actively investigating specific employers, as some readers of this blog are undoubtedly all too aware.  In some cases, the EEOC has even initiated lawsuits challenging employers’ use of background checks.  For example, the EEOC has filed suit just a few weeks ago against Dollar General (EEOC v. Dollar General, No. 1:13-cv-04307, Illinois) and BMW (EEOC v. BMW Manufacturing Co., LLC, No. 7:13-cv-01583-HMH-JDA, South Carolina).

Many employers and employment attorneys who have argued that appropriate use of background checks can be important and necessary believe the EEOC is going too far.  Those employers have complained that the EEOC’s aggressive position presumes the use of criminal or credit background checks is per se unlawful and amounts to a de facto ban on their use under any circumstances, regardless of whether or not they result in an unlawful disparate impact.  If you are one of those raising such concerns, federal judges may be listening.  A few weeks ago, a federal  judge in the U.S. District Court in Maryland issued an opinion granting summary judgment dismissal in another of the EEOC’s enforcement lawsuits, EEOC v. Freeman (No. 1:10-cv-2882, Maryland).  The scathing opinion by U. S. District Court Judge Roger Titus held that the EEOC’s evidence was unreliable and failed to raise a question of fact or show Freeman’s background check policies created a disparate impact in violation of Title VII.

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Does Appointment of Plaintiffs' Class Action Attorney Jenny Yang to EEOC Signal Continued Focus On "Systemic" Cases?

Last Friday, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Obama's nomination of Plaintiffs' class action attorney Jenny Yang to serve as one of the Democratic Commissioners on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC").  On the one hand, Ms Yang's confirmation likely does not herald a big change in the EEOC's philosophy or priorities; Ms Yang's appointment was of the relatively routine type that the President must make to fill many top positions at federal agencies.  Further, Ms Yang replaces another Democratic Commissioner, Stuart Ishimaru, who resigned last year, so the five-person Commission will continue to consist of three Democrats (who tend to be more employee friendly) and two Republicans (who tend to be more employer friendly).

On another hand, though, Ms Yang's background may signal a renewed focus by the Obama Administration on aggressive EEOC enforcement, including through EEOC-initiated litigation.  Ms. Yang is currently a partner at the plaintiff class action litigation law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, which has represented plaintiffs in some of the biggest employment discrimination class action cases of recent years.  For example, Ms. Yang represented plaintiffs in a large sex discrimination class action case against Boeing in Washington state, which reportedly settled for $72 million in 2005. Her firm also represented members of the putative class of 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees in the blockbuster case Dukes v. Wal-Mart.  While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the Dukes plaintiffs were too numerous and different to be certified as a single, nation-wide class, the litigation has since continued as numerous "smaller" class action lawsuits in courts around the country.

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NLRB Puts Kibosh On Some Employer Social Media Policies

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) continues to closely scrutinize employers’ social media policies and practices. As employers struggle to craft policies that promote productivity while at the same time protect employees’ rights, both unionized and non-unionized employers need to be aware of recent NLRB decisions and their impact on employer policies:

Social-Media Based Termination Can Be Acceptable, But Rule Requiring “Courtesy” Is Not

On September 28, 2012, a three-member panel of the NLRB affirmed the termination of a car salesman who posted photographs on Facebook ridiculing his employer, but it rejected the employer’s rule requiring courteous behavior. (Karl Knauz Motors Inc., 358 N.L.R.B. No. 164, Sept. 28, 2012 [released Oct. 1, 2012]). Knauz marked the first time a panel of the NLRB decided a case involving social media; previously, all NLRB guidance in this area came from ALJ decisions or the Board’s General Counsel Memoranda. In Knauz, a sales employee had complained on his Facebook page about his employer, a BMW car dealership, posting photos and criticizing bad food the dealer offered at a sales event; he had also discussed those concerns with other coworkers. He also posted critical comments and photos about an accident during a test drive at the dealership. The employer terminated the employee for his Facebook postings and for violating the employer’s courtesy policy. That policy stated that “[e]veryone is expected to be courteous, polite and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees,” and that “[n]o one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.”

The NLRB ultimately declined to decide whether the employee’s complaints about the food were protected activity under the NLRA. The ALJ below had held the food complaints were protected because the employee and his coworkers conceivably were concerned that the low-quality food offered at the sales event would deter customers from coming, thus leading to lower sales commissions for the employees. Instead, the NLRB upheld the employee’s termination, agreeing with the ALJ that the employee’s Facebook postings relating to the on-site accident were not related to any employees’ terms or conditions of employment. 

 

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EEOC's Multifaceted Effort To Aggressively Target Employer Policies Potentially Having "Disparate Impact"

As many of you know, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been on an aggressive tear of late on a broad range of issues.  In addition to upping its investigations of charges of individual “disparate treatment” discrimination, it is undertaking a number of new initiatives that show a renewed focus on facially neutral employer policies that may have a (frequently unintentional) “disparate impact” on protected classes of employees.  Because of the EEOC’s renewed interest in disparate impact, it is prudent for employers to be thoroughly reviewing and auditing their policies and practices to ensure they are not having an unintentional disparate impact on protected categories of employees.  

Below is a quick run-down of the EEOC’s recent efforts on this front.  These and other topics were covered recently in a Stoel Rives Labor & Employment Breakfast Briefing: "Back to School with ‘Hot Topics’ In Employment Law,” by Stoel Rives attorneys Brenda Baumgart and Ryan Gibson, on Sept. 11, 2012 in Portland, OR.

EEOC 2012-16 Strategic Enforcement Plan Targets “Systemic” And Other Forms of Disparate Impact Discrimination
On September 4, 2012, the EEOC issued an updated version of its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for 2012-2016, in which it highlighted its enforcement priorities now and in the coming years.  In addition to highlighting education and outreach efforts, the SEP shows a strong focus on disparate impact concerns, including:

  1. Preventing “Systemic” Discrimination. The EEOC is targeting general practices, handbooks, online applications and similar policies that may have disparate impacts on protected classes of employees such as racial minorities, older workers, or disabled employees.  Examples identified by the EEOC include “exclusionary policies and practices, the channeling/steering of individuals into specific jobs due to their status in a particular group, restrictive application processes, and the use of screening tools (e.g., pre-employment tests, background screens, date of birth screens in online applications) that adversely impact groups protected under the law.”
  2. Protecting “vulnerable workers.”  The EEOC’s efforts here are focused on immigrant, migrant, or seasonal employees who, due to language or other barriers may be unaware of rights or are reluctant to pursue them.  Again, the EEOC is focusing largely on systemic, disparate impact concerns, such as job segregation, pay disparities, and the unintended impact of English fluency requirements for particular jobs where language skills may not really be necessary.
  3. “Emerging issues.”  A decade ago, the EEOC identified discrimination against Muslim and Arabic employees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as an “emerging issue” in employment law.  Now, EEOC has identified a number of new “emerging issues” where it has shifted its efforts.  Those include enforcement of the 2009 amendments to the ADA (ADAAA) and related regulations, and  the EEOC's recently recognized protections for gay or transgendered employees under Title VII.  They also include another “disparate impact” concern:  accommodation issues specific to pregnant employees who may be forced to take unpaid leave in lieu of (paid) accommodations—such as temporary job restructuring, reduced schedule, temporary job transfers, or light duty assignments—offered to non-pregnant employees with similar short-term health restrictions.
  4. Preserving Access to the Legal System.  The EEOC is prioritizing investigation of retaliation charges,  because they account for over 37% of all charges filed (the most common type), and because the EEOC believes retaliation amounts to a denial of justice by discouraging employees from exercising their rights.  The EEOC also will focus on what it views as other “systemic” barriers to justice, including “overly broad waivers” and settlement agreements with releases that may unfairly discourage employees from exercising rights or pursuing claims.

EEOC Pilot Project To Directly Audit Employer Pay Practices Under Equal Pay Act
In mid-2012, the EEOC began a pilot program in three district offices (Phoenix, Chicago, and New York) pursuant to its authority to enforce the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), a 1963 statute that prohibits paying female employees differently for the same work done by male employees.  While gender-based pay discrepancies are also prohibited under Title VII, the EPA specifically empowers the EEOC to conduct “Directed Investigations,” or audits, of employer pay practices to search for gender-based pay disparities, without having to wait for a charge to be filed as is often required for it to investigate alleged Title VII violations.  This has been characterized as a fairly “radical” departure for how the EEOC conducts enforcement, and it is.  While the EEOC has provided few details about how the program will work, at the very least it may simply call or show up at an employer’s doorstep and request policies and information related to pay practices.  If it finds that your pay practices may show a gender-based disparate impact, it may decide to take further enforcement action.

Yikes!  These audits could essentially subject employers to a form of wage and hour class action against the EEOC.  And who knows what else the EEOC may find as a result of its audit, including potential evidence of other “systemic” problems it may wish to investigate further. 

Employers, especially in the regions where the pilot project has begun, are well advised to conduct internal audits of their pay practices to identify and remedy any unexplainable gender-based pay disparities that could be unlawful under the EPA.  Practical pointer:  it’s often a good idea to involve your in-house or outside counsel in these internal audits to maximize the chance that any (potentially bad) findings are resolved and the process for doing so is protected by the attorney client privilege. 

EEOC Guidance Limits Employer Use of Criminal Background Checks
A few months ago, the EEOC issued its long-awaited “Enforcement Guidance” document on when using criminal background checks can be unlawful under Title VII.  The guidance will likely require many employers to revise their hiring policies and requirements that rely heavily on criminal background checks to screen applicants. 

The EEOC’s focus here is, again, the “disparate impact” that facially neutral policies may have on particular protected classes.  With criminal background checks, the implicated protected class is usually race, particularly black and Hispanic men, who studies have shown are statistically and disproportionately more likely to have a criminal record than members of other races.  While the EEOC recognizes that using criminal background screens are appropriate for some jobs, excessive use can have a disproportionate impact on members of certain race groups.

Under the new guidance, blanket policies barring employment because of any criminal conviction will be heavily disfavored.  Instead, the EEOC directs employers to adopt “targeted screens” for particular types of jobs, and also conduct an “individualized assessment” for each applicant affected by a screen.  In developing a targeted screen, the employer is to consider the actual requirements of each job and justify why convictions for specific types of offenses should bar employment in that job.  Although the guidance offers few specifics, as an example it is probably appropriate to screen applicants for jobs working with children for child abuse or molestation convictions, for recent drunk or reckless driving convictions in jobs requiring operating vehicles, or for theft or embezzlement convictions in accounting positions or jobs requiring handling large amounts of cash.

In performing the individualized assessment, the employer is to look at the type, severity, date, and number of prior convictions, and any extenuating circumstances such as rehabilitation efforts or post-conviction work history, to determine whether an employee with a conviction could nevertheless be hired.  Under this approach, an employer may have a difficult time justifying not hiring an applicant for a computer programming job who has worked successfully for a decade simply because he was convicted for being drunk and disorderly at a college frat party in the 1990s.  Conversely, an employer may be more justified in denying employment to someone more recently convicted of violently assaulting a coworker, who violated parole, and had been fired from his last job after a short time for insubordination.

The EEOC’s new guidance is technically not a fundamental departure—the EEOC first articulated its position on criminal background checks in the 1980s, and courts have long held that the use of criminal history screens (or any facially neutral policy, for that matter) can be discriminatory under a disparate impact standard.  But, consistent with its renewed focus on “systemic” discrimination, the EEOC now appears to take a stronger stand that employer policies that broadly rely on using criminal history to screen out applicants will be presumed to be discriminatory, and that employers have the burden to show the screen is justified. 

Employers that use criminal history to screen applicants should review such policies, with a particular eye toward identifying any “blanket” screens (e.g., we don’t hire anyone with any criminal conviction ever).  It may be prudent to then develop detailed written policies implementing the targeted screen and individualized assessment approach promulgated by the EEOC.  Employers should also begin training managers and recruiters on the new standards.

In conclusion, it is important for employers to be aware of these areas of concern to the EEOC, and review policies or practices for potential "systemic" or "disparate impact" effects.  And we will also be closely following any other new initiatives the EEOC may consider in the future. 

Legal Update: Transgender Employees Protected Under Title VII

On Friday, April 20, 2012, the EEOC issued a landmark ruling that intentional discrimination against a transgender individual is discrimination “based on … sex” and thus violates Title VII. Prior to this ruling, the EEOC generally declined to pursue discrimination claims that arose from transgender status or gender identity issues.

What does this mean for employers? In California, Oregon and Washington, state laws have protected transgender employees by prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. For employers in those states, this ruling raises the stakes: transgender employees with discrimination claims can now bring both state and federal claims, instead of being limited to a state court action. For employers in all states, the EEOC ruling provides new protections and is an important reminder of the evolving law of sex-based discrimination.

Read the entire alert here.

UPDATE: NLRB Postpones Posting Rule Indefinitely

In response to two federal court cases we previously blogged about here and here, the NLRB has indefinitely postponed implementation of its notice posting rule pending appeals in both of those cases.  The bottom line is that no employer needs to post the notice for the time being.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear the NLRB’s appeal of an emergency injunction that court issued against the rule, but the hearing will not occur before September 2012.  In the trial court ruling in that case, the judge found the NLRB's posting rule valid, but its enforcement provisions invalid.  The NLRB is also appealing the South Carolina federal trial court decision we previously blogged about, in which a judge deemed the NLRB's entire posting rule invalid.  No schedule has yet been set for the South Carolina appeal.

See the NLRB’s statement about this issue here.

UPDATE: DC Court of Appeals Delays Implementation of NLRB Posting Requirement

The NLRB’s new posting rule, which would apply to virtually all private sector employers, was scheduled to go in effect on April 30, 2012.  Yesterday, we blogged about a South Carolina federal trial court decision striking down the posting rule.  More good news for employers arrived today, as the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued an emergency injunction preserving the “status quo” and delaying implementation of the NLRB’s posting rule until that Court of Appeals determines its validity.  The D.C. trial court had previously determined the posting rule was valid (contrary to the South Carolina case) but that its remedies were invalid.  Oral argument in the D.C. appellate case is currently estimated to occur in September 2012.  A copy of the D.C. Court of Appeals injunction decision is here.

 

We now have two courts that have stymied the NLRB posting rule.  It is still unknown whether the NLRB will appeal the South Carolina and D.C. Court of Appeals decisions.  But for now, absent an emergency appeal, it appears that the NLRB’s posting rule will, at a minimum, be delayed for several months.  We will keep you “posted” as developments occur.

South Carolina Federal Court Holds NLRB's Notice Posting is Unlawful

As previously blogged here, a federal court located in the District of Columbia upheld the National Labor Relations Board's (“NLRB”) rule requiring nearly all private sector employers, whether unionized or not, to post a notice to their employees about certain employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act.  While upholding the rule, that federal court did at least strike down the rule’s main enforcement provisions.  A copy of that federal court decision is here.  As we blogged then, another legal challenge to the NLRB’s rule was also pending in a South Carolina federal court.  That decision is now here, and it is a good one for employers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce challenged the NLRB’s rule.  On April 13, 2012 (perhaps Friday the 13th from the NLRB’s perspective), the federal judge in that South Carolina case ruled that the NLRB’s entire posting rule is invalid, finding the NLRB exceeded its authority when it required employers to post notices explaining workers’ rights to form a union. In his ruling, the South Carolina federal judge said the NLRB lacked the legal authority to issue the notice and thus the rule was not lawful.  “Based on the statutory scheme, legislative history, history of evolving congressional regulation in the area, and a consideration of other federal labor statutes, the court finds that Congress did not intend to impose a notice-posting obligation on employers, nor did it explicitly or implicitly delegate authority to the Board to regulate employers in this manner,” the court ruled.

Many labor law professionals feel that the NLRB has become overly aggressive in supporting and expanding union rights during the Obama administration.  This sentiment is especially strong in a conservative state like South Carolina, which also was at the center of a now-settled dispute between the NLRB and Boeing over Boeing’s decision to move production of its 787 Dreamliner airplane from Washington State to South Carolina.  The South Carolina federal judge appears to agree that the NLRB is becoming overly aggressive, stating, “The Board also went seventy-five years without promulgating a notice-posting rule, but it has now decided to flex its newly-discovered rulemaking muscles.”  A copy of the South Carolina decision is here. Its authority is technically legally limited to that particular court, but because of its import we expect it to have an effect nationally as the NLRB seeks to regroup and rethink what it will do.  If the NLRB does not appeal the South Carolina court’s decision, the ruling will stand and, from a practical perspective the posting requirement will be invalidated nationally.  But most pundits anticipate that the NLRB will file an appeal over the South Carolina decision.

The bottom line is that we now have two conflicting federal court rulings on the issue, and await the NLRB’s decision on whether it will appeal the South Carolina ruling, and/or delay implementation of its previously stated April 30, 2012 posting deadline.  Stay tuned.

EEOC Issues Final Regulations for RFOA Defense Under ADEA

 

Last week, we reported that several senators had introduced new amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") to make it easier for plaintiffs in age discrimination cases to prove their claims.  U.S. Senators aren't the only ones busy refining federal age discrimination laws - on March 30, 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published its final rule on the “reasonable factors other than age” (RFOA) defense under the ADEA.  Acting in response to two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Smith v. City of Jackson in 2005 and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories in 2008, the rule bring the EEOC regulations in line with Supreme Court precedent and clarifies the scope of the RFOA defense

In Smith, the Supreme Court held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the ADEA.  The Court further held that a practice having a disparate impact on older workers need only be justified by “reasonable” factors other than age; an employer need not satisfy the more rigorous “business necessity” defense applicable to Title VII claims.  In Meacham, the Court held that the employer bears the burden of production and persuasion on the RFOA defense.   

The regulation points out that the EEOC believes that “reasonable” factors other than age reflects a higher standard than a simple “rational basis” standard.  According to the EEOC, equating the RFOA defense with a rational-basis standard would improperly conflate ADEA disparate-treatment and disparate-impact standards of proof: “If an employer attempting to establish the RFOA defense were only required to show that it had acted rationally, then the employer would merely be required to show that it had not engaged in intentional age discrimination.”

The rule provides a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered in determining whether an employment practice is based on RFOA:

  • The extent to which the factor is related to the employer’s stated business purpose;
  • The extent to which the employer defined the factor accurately and applied the factor fairly and accurately, including the extent to which managers and supervisors were given guidance or training bout how to apply the factor and avoid discrimination;
  • The extent to which the employer limited supervisors’ discretion to assess employees subjectively, particularly where the criteria that the supervisors were asked to evaluate are known to be subject to negative age-based stereotypes;
  • The extent to which the employer assessed the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers; and
  • The degree of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the extent of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took steps to reduce the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps.

The final rule makes clear that the EEOC will take a very dim view of an employer’s RFOA defense where supervisors are given broad discretion to make subjective decisions.  Accordingly, prudent employers will take steps to ensure that decisions are made consistent with business purpose, that supervisors are properly trained, and that supervisors exercise their discretion in a way that does not violate the ADEA.

For more information, visit EEOC’s Questions and Answers page.  The rule will take effect on April 30, 2012.

 

NLRB Posting Requirements - Update

Update: A federal trial court in the District of Columbia has upheld the notice posting requirement in the National Labor Relations Board's (“NLRB”) recently issued final rule requiring nearly all private sector employers, whether unionized or not, to post a notice to their employees about certain employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act. To view the Court's decision, click here.  The court also held, however, that the rule’s main enforcement provisions, including making an employer’s failure to post a per se unfair labor practice, are invalid. Unless this decision is overturned or another court finds the rule to be invalid, the notice posting requirement will still take effect April 30, 2012. An appeal is likely in the District of Columbia case, and at least one other court challenge is pending in South Carolina.


For additional information regarding the NLRB's rule and posting requirement, including links to the rule and the poster employers must post, see our prior discussion on this topic by following this
link.

Are Remedies Available to Working Moms Who Experience "Lactation Discrimination"?

For many new moms returning to work after the birth of a child, pumping breast-milk is considered to be a necessary evil.  Necessary because pumping ensures that these mothers’ babies can continue to experience the many benefits of breast-milk, and helps the mothers to maintain their milk supplies, relieves painful engorgement, and prevents potentially serious medical conditions like mastitis.  Evil because, well, it is not exactly fun to do, especially if the workplace is not supportive.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that full-time work for new mothers is “significantly associated with lower rates of breastfeeding initiation and shorter duration,” due primarily to workplace barriers such as “a lack of flexibility for milk expression in the work schedule, lack of accommodations to pump or store breast-milk, concerns about support from employers and colleagues, and real or perceived low milk supply.”  Click here to view CDC's report.

One mother recently faced with this predicament is Donnicia Venters, who alleged in a federal lawsuit that her employer fired her while she was on maternity leave when she inquired about using a back room in the office to pump milk upon her return from leave.  The EEOC brought suit on Ms. Venters’ behalf in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, asserting sex discrimination claims against the employer under Title VII.  See EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., Case No. 4:11-cv-02442 (S.D. Tex.).  Title VII makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).  The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to state that “‘because of sex’ … include[s] … because of … pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions ….” 42 U.S.C. §2000e(k).

United States District Judge Lynn N. Hughes (who is a male, for the record) recently granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, ruling that “[f]iring someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”  In a rather conclusory fashion, the court reasoned that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition” and that any “pregnancy-related conditions” experienced by Ms. Venters ended on the day she gave birth to her daughter.  To see the full opinion click here.

In the few short days since it has been issued, this ruling has garnered much critical attention.  As many commentators have pointed out—and this seems quite obvious—only women can lactate, and lactation does not usually happen in the absence of childbirth.  The ruling therefore strikes many as illogical—how can firing someone for lactation or breast-pumping not be because of sex or a childbirth-related medical condition?  The EEOC has stated that it is considering whether to appeal the ruling.  The issue therefore remains far from settled. It remains to be seen whether the appellate court, or other judges who might be faced with this issue, will come to a different conclusion than Judge Hughes did.

Pumping mothers also have a new legal protection that Ms. Venters did not have when she gave birth to her baby in 2008.  Effective March 23, 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as the Healthcare Reform Act) amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require employers to provide a nursing mother break time to pump.  Specifically, covered employers must provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast-milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth, each time the employee has need to express milk.  See 29 U.S.C. § 207(r).  Employers must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast-milk.  Id.

There are, of course, several limitations to this protection.  The FLSA amendment does not require employers to pay employees for such break time.  Id.  The requirements also do not apply to employers with less than 50 employees, if such requirements would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business.  Id.

Under this amendment, nursing mothers who experience “lactation discrimination” in the workplace might now have a remedy—albeit a limited one—under the FLSA.  The FLSA makes it illegal for an employer to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the FLSA].”  29 U.S.C. § 215.  In most jurisdictions, this provision applies to any employee who complains about an FLSA violation, either formally to an administrative agency, or informally to the employer.  A nursing mother who complains about her employer’s failure to provide reasonable break time for her to pump would therefore be protected by this anti-retaliation provision in the FLSA.  As the language of this anti-retaliation provision makes clear, however, the employee must actually complain to the employer in order to be protected.  Thus, if Judge Hughes’ opinion turns out to be the prevailing view and lactation is not protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act or Title VII, there is still a gap in protection, even with the FLSA amendment.  Nursing mothers who are simply fired for pumping at work before ever complaining about an employer’s FLSA violation would have no remedy.  In this scenario, a legislative amendment to Title VII, or legislation at the state level, might be the only potential source of protection.

In fact, many states have attempted to fill the gaps in protection for nursing mothers by passing their own legislation. A complete list of state laws enacted to protect breastfeeding can be found hereOf the states where Stoel Rives has offices, California, Oregon, and Minnesota each have laws that require employers to provide breaks for women to breastfeed or pump. To the extent these state laws are more robust than the FLSA amendment, they are not preempted.  see 29 U.S.C. § 207(r)(4).

Update - New Rule Requires Employers to Post Notice of Employee NLRA Rights

In order to allow more time for legal challenges to its notice-posting rule to be resolved, the National Labor Relations Board has again postponed the rule's effective date, this time to April 30, 2012.  Stay tuned.

For additional information regarding the NLRB's new rule and posting requirement, including links to the new rule and the poster employers must post, see our prior post on this topic by following this link.

The EEOC Reiterates the Importance of the Interactive Process

A recent decision from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reminds employers of their affirmative duty to engage in an interactive process once an employee raises a medical condition and requests some change to their work environment to accommodate it. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act at issue in Harden v. Social Security Administration, protect an employee from discrimination based on a disability, where the employee can otherwise perform his or her job with a reasonable accommodation. Tips for the interactive process are provided below, and next week we will go through a “hypothetical.”

In Harden, a claims assistant who was frequently late notified the SSA about her depression and general anxiety which were causing her problems sleeping and functioning early in the morning. She requested approval to arrive between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., rather than between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. like other employees, or else to use leave rather than leave without pay or discipline. The claims assistant supplied the SSA some medical documentation, but the SSA found that the documentation did not show that her medical condition kept her from getting to work before 9:00 a.m. The SSA denied the employee’s request for a modified schedule, and disciplined her when she was again tardy.

Based on information about the employee’s medical condition that came out during the EEOC complaint process, the EEOC found that the SSA engaged in discrimination. The claims assistant had a disability that could have been reasonably accommodated with a modified schedule. The EEOC disagreed with the SSA’s argument that medical documentation provided during the complaint process was irrelevant to the SSA’s decision to deny the modified schedule and discipline the employee.

What does Harden teach us? Disability discrimination laws place affirmative duties on employers to engage in a meaningful process after an employee raises a medical condition. Do not cut short the interactive process because the facts will come out eventually. This 4-step process provides a helpful framework for an ADA request.

 

1.        Get the facts: What is the medical condition? Get documentation from the employee’s doctor if necessary (with an appropriate release), including any limitations and potential accommodations. Allow the employee or doctor to provide additional information if you are not satisfied. What is this employee’s job? Identify the essential functions of her position. Is the employee performing the job, except for reasons related to her disability?

 

2.         Decide whether the employee is eligible for an accommodation: Based on the facts, is the employee qualified for the job? Can he or she perform the essential functions of the job, with or without an accommodation? Determine whether the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Is the employee regarded as having such impairment?

 

3.         Have an interactive dialogue with the employee about an accommodation: Ask the employee what he or she wants. Quite frequently, this simple communication can result in a practical, cost-effective solution that works for everyone involved. Can the employee do the essential functions of the job with the employee’s proposed accommodation? Identify other accommodations that may work, and consider the effectiveness of each proposed accommodation. Discuss the cost and burden of each effective accommodation and assess whether it would be an “undue hardship.”

 

4.        Put the accommodation into action: Document the dialogue with employee. Choose and implement an accommodation. Document the expectations on all sides. Inform others of the accommodation, only to the limited extent they must know (such as a supervisor). Ensure confidentiality at all times, and maintain a separate confidential file for the employee’s medical documentation. Reassess the effectiveness of the accommodation after a time.

Why Employers Should Exercise Restraint and Objectivity

Retaliation claims are increasing at an alarming pace. Not only have these claims tripled in number within the last two decades, they now exceed race discrimination as the leading claim filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Click here to see EEOC statistics.

Why the startling trend? First, Congress has gone to great lengths to protect employees’ rights to speak out against unlawful employment practices. Protections are regularly included in new laws, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.

Second, courts have adopted a broad definition of what constitutes retaliation and who should be protected. An employee must prove she engaged in a protected activity (like reporting harassment) and suffered an adverse employment action as a result (like being passed over for a promotion). An employer may ultimately defeat the harassment claim, but still face liability for retaliation. Third parties also may be protected from retaliation. For instance, in a recent United States Supreme Court decision the court found that the fiance of an employee who files a discrimination complaint is protected from retaliation under Title VII.

Third, jurors understand retaliation claims because they involve natural reactions to being accused of something awful, like sexual harassment. Jurors know how natural it is for the accused to have negative feelings after such an accusation, and at the same time jurors will sympathize with an employee who allegedly suffers for rocking the boat by making a complaint.

So what’s an employer to do?

  • Start with a clear anti-retaliation policy and train employees on it. Include an outlet for employees to raise retaliation concerns.
  • Counsel supervisors to be vigilant in their efforts to be objective, to exercise restraint, and to avoid knee-jerk reactions, and educate supervisors on how to spot situations where retaliation among co-workers is a risk.
  • Limit retaliatory behavior between employees by limiting the number of people who know about employee complaints.
  • Establish consistent processes that will catch subtle or unintended retaliation, so that employment decisions are based on legitimate business-related factors.
  • Timely investigate and address any appearance or allegation of retaliation.

EEOC's Final Regulations on the ADAAA: News You Will Certainly Use

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:

 

GINA Compliance?

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.  

 

President Obama Uses Recess Appointments to Fill NLRB, EEOC Seats

This week President Obama announced that he would make recess appointments to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The move allows the White House to bypass the Senate confirmation process, which promised to be extremely contentious. 

The appointments will add two Democratic members to the NLRB:  Craig Becker and Mark Pearce.  Both appointees were strongly opposed by Republicans because of their anticipated pro-labor viewpoints.  Becker, a labor law professor, has been associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1990 and has also served as an AFL-CIO staff counsel since 2004.  Pearce is a partner with the firm of Creighton, Pearce, Johnsen & Giroux in Buffalo, New York, where he represents unions and employees.  President Obama's recess appointments do not include Republican nominee Brian E. Hayes, the Republicans' labor policy director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but Hayes' Senate confirmation is not expected to encounter any significant roadblocks. 

The EEOC appointments will bring the agency up to a full compliment of five directors.  The new appointments include: Jacqueline Berrien as EEOC chair, Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic.  Berrien has served as associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF) in New York since 2004 where she has worked on voting rights and political participation issues.  Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor, played a leading role in drafting the original Americans with Disabilities Act and more recently worked on the ADA Amendments Act.  She has also worked on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban employment bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Lipnic is a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Washington, D.C. and served in President George W. Bush's administration as assistant secretary of labor for employment standards from 2002 until 2009.   In addition, EEOC supervisory attorney P. David Lopez will appointed to the post of EEOC general counsel.

What will these appointments mean for employers?  First, expect to see more rule changes.  Both the EEOC and the NLRB have for some time operated without quorums, meaning that the agencies have not been able to take on any controversial cases or make significant rule changes.  Now that they have enough members, expect a flurry of activity from both bodies.  For the NLRB in particular, this may mean reversals of many pro-employer decisions made during the Bush years.  Second, expect both agencies to get a lot more employee-friendly.  President Obama's appointments will appease labor unions and employee advocates who adamantly supported his campaign but until now have not received much in return.  Those groups expect to get a return on their investment, and these appointments will go along way towards making that happen. 

EEOC Proposes New Age Discrimination Regulations

Today the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) releases new regulations that will define employers' "reasonable factors other than age" or "RFOA" defense under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).  The new regulations would reflect two Supreme Court cases interpreting the RFOA defense: Smith v. City of Jackson (2005) and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories (2008).  Click here to read the EEOC's Proposed ADEA Regulations.

The Supreme Court held in Smith that employment practices having a disparate adverse impact on workers age 40 and older may violate the ADEA.  The Court in Meacham then ruled that when a plaintiff proves such an adverse impact, employers have the burden of proving that the practice that caused the adverse impact was based on reasonable factors other than age.”  Since Smith and Meacham, however, there have not been any interpretive regulations under the ADEA to guide employers on the RFOA defense. 

The proposed rule defines a "reasonable factor other than age" as "one that is objectively reasonable when viewed from the position of a reasonable employer (i.e., a prudent employer mindful of its responsibilities under the ADEA) under like circumstances.  To establish the RFOA defense under the new rules, an employer must show that the employment practice was both (1) reasonably designed to further or achieve a legitimate business purpose and (2) administered in a way that reasonably achieves that purpose in light of the particular facts and circumstances that were known, or should have been known, to the employer.  The rule also provides a non-exhaustive list of six factors relevant to determining whether an employment practice is "reasonable":

  1. Whether the employment practice and the manner of its implementation are common business practices;
  2. The extent to which the factor is related to the employer’s stated business goal;
  3. The extent to which the employer took steps to define the factor accurately and to apply the factor fairly and accurately (e.g., training, guidance, instruction of managers);
  4. The extent to which the employer took steps to assess the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers;
  5. The severity of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the degree of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took preventive or corrective steps to minimize the severity of the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps; and
  6. Whether other options were available and the reasons the employer selected the option it did.

The EEOC's proposal also explains that the RFOA defense turns on the facts and circumstances of each particular situation and whether the employer acted prudently in light of those facts.

An employer who is considering a change in employment practices -- such as a layoff, change in employment qualifications, etc. -- should examine the impact of the change to determine whether it may create an adverse impact based on age.  If it appears that it may, the employer should then apply the EEOC's six factors to see if it can adequately defend the change as based on reasonable factors other than age.  If the change does not appear to pass each of the EEOC's six factors, the employer may want to consider altering the change to reduce the impact or abandoning it altogether. 

Supreme Court Lets Stand Ruling Allowing EEOC to Issue Subpoenas After Right-To-Sue

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allows the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to continue investigating allegations of employment discrimination, and even to issue subpoenas to employers, after issuing a right-to-sue letter to the employee who filed the initial complaint.  Click here to read the Ninth Circuit decision in Federal Express Corp. v. EEOC

In order to file a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee must first file a complaint of discrimination with either the EEOC or an analogous state agency, a process known as "exhausting administrative remedies."  Only after the EEOC issues a "right-to-sue letter" may the employee then file a lawsuit.  It is not uncommon for an employee to file a complaint with the EEOC and withdraw it almost immediately, obtain the right-to-use letter and file a lawsuit, all before the EEOC has had a chance to investigate.  In Federal Express, the employee did just that in order to join a pending class action lawsuit.  The employer expected the EEOC to drop its investigation, but instead EEOC continued to investigate and issued a subpoena to the employer. 

The Ninth Circuit enforced the subpoena, writing:  "By continuing to investigate a charge of systemic discrimination even after the charging party has filed suit, the EEOC is pursuing its obligation to serve the public interest."  The Ninth Circuit's decision is in line with a decision from the Third Circuit, but contrary to decisions from the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits.  The Supreme Court will often take a case like Federal Express to resolve such splits between the circuit courts, but declined to do so in this case.  As a result, the EEOC's investigatory powers will continue to vary depending on where a complaint is made. 

Given the Supreme Court's ruling in Federal Express, employers can no longer safely assume that the EEOC will drop its investigation once it issues a right-to-sue letter.  The EEOC may choose to continue investigating charges of discrimination, especially in cases involving allegations of systemic or widespread violations of anti-discrimination law.  Employers (at least those in the Ninth and Third Circuits) should be prepared to comply with EEOC investigations even after the right-to-sue letter has issued. 

New TSA Regulations Potential "Gotcha" For Employers Interviewing Out-of-Town Candidates

As the economy rebounds (we hope) and hiring begins again, employers flying out-of-town job candidates in for interviews will need to be wary of new Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") regulations that require anyone booking air travel to provide the passenger’s date of birth and gender.  Employers who are not careful about how they implement this rule may increase their exposure to possible discrimination claims from rejected and disgruntled candidates.

49 C.F.R. § 1540.107(b), part of TSA's Secure Flight program, requires an individual to provide name (as it appears on the ID to be used at the airport), date of birth (DOB), and gender when “the individual, or a person on the individual’s behalf, makes a reservation for a covered flight.”  The purpose of the rule is to reduce the number of 4-year old girls and other "false matches" who accidentally end up on TSA “no fly” lists.  While the regulation was enacted in December 2008, airlines have been slow to implement the necessary upgrades to their reservation systems.  Some airlines may not be asking for the name, DOB and gender information now, but TSA expects all airlines to be in compliance by early 2010.

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GINA Requires Employers to Post Notice, Review Policies and Procedures

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) takes effect November 21, 2009.  Is your workplace ready?  Employers will soon be required to post a notice stating that they do not discriminate on the basis of genetic information, under proposed regulations interpreting GINA.

If you don't already have one, click here to download the full "EEO is the Law" poster, which describes all of the Federal laws prohibiting job discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, equal pay, disability and genetic information.  If you already have a copy of "EEO is the Law," then you can download and print the "EEO is the Law Supplement," which contains GINA information.  (If you don't want to print it yourself, or if you need the poster in Arabic, Chinese or Spanish, click here to order a copy from the EEOC.)

What else should employers do to prepare for GINA?  Here's a short, non-exhaustive list of things you can do to get ready:

  • Add appropriate language to your EEO and anti-discrimination policies stating that you do not discriminate on the basis of genetic information;
  • Review your employment applications and employee questionnaires to make sure you are not intentionally or inadvertently requesting information about an applicant’s/employee’s family medical history;
  • If you need to get information about a family member’s illness for purposes of determining whether a request for leave qualifies for Family and Medical Leave Act or state law leave coverage, make sure it is limited to only what you need to know to make the determination;
  • Determine whether incoming medical information you receive on an employee contains genetic information (defined as: genetic tests of an individual or his/her family members; the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of an individual, genetic services and participation in genetic research by an individual or his/her family member) and if so, maintain and treat the information as you would a confidential medical record for ADA purposes – i.e., maintained in a separate confidential medical file with proper limitations on disclosure.
  • Make sure appropriate policies and procedures are in place to prevent inadvertent disclosure of genetic information when responding to a litigation discovery request, like a subpoena. If you require a court order compelling disclosure before releasing the information, this should protect you.
  • If you are a self-insured entity, make sure that you do not request or require or use purchased genetic testing or information for purposes of underwriting or to determine an individual’s contribution/premium amounts. Note that you can use genetic test results for purposes of making a determination regarding payment, though.
  • Also note that genetic information is included as “protected health information” for HIPAA purposes and should be treated accordingly.

Supreme Court to Decide Title VII Statute of Limitations Question

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear a challenge to a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case with similar factual overtones to the Ricci case decided earlier this year. Like Ricci, this case involves a firefighter qualification test that had a disparate impact on black applicants; unlike Ricci, at issue here is the statute of limitations on a Title VII claim.

In this case, Lewis v. City of Chicago, the plaintiffs are a group of approximately 6,000 black firefighter applicants who filed charges of race discrimination with the EEOC more than 300 days after the initial announcement of their test results, but within 300 days of the hiring of the new firefighter class from which they allege they were denied consideration. The trial court held that the hiring of each new firefighter was a new violation of Title VII, so the EEOC charges were timely filed. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the “discrimination was complete when the tests were scored...and the applicants learned the results.” At issue for the Supreme Court is whether the limitations period for a Title VII claim begins to run when an employer announces the results of a test that could violate Title VII’s disparate impact provision, or if the right to sue begins only once the employer has acted on that policy.

At face value, it seems that the trial court probably got this one right and the Supreme Court should reverse the Seventh Circuit. How can an employee know what the actual disparate impact will be until the employer’s hiring decisions are actually made? If, for example, the employer’s business needs ultimately dictate that it need hire nobody, there has been no harm done regardless of the results of the test. An actual harm needs to occur before the right to sue accrues. Notwithstanding that analysis, and given the current makeup of the court, however, it is unclear which way the Court will go on this one. The Stoel Rives World of Employment will let you know when a decision is reached and how that decision may impact your workplace.

EEOC Proposes Rules Implementing ADAAA; Seeks Public Comments

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will in today's Federal Register publish proposed regulations implementing the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA).  The public will have 60 days - or until November 23, 2009 - to submit comments.  Click here to read the full text of the proposed regulations

Congress intended that ADAAA, which took effect January 1, 2009, would broaden the coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by expanding the definition of "disability."   The ADAAA also directed the EEOC to enact new regulations consistent with the purpose and goals of the ADAAA.  Key changes now being proposed by the EEOC include: 

  • Redefining the term “substantially limits” to provide that a limitation does not have to “significantly” or “severely” restrict a major life activity to qualify an individual as "disabled."  Under the new definition, an impairment constitutes a disability “if it ‘substantially limits' the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.”
  • Expanding the definition of “major life activities” and providing non-exhaustive lists of such activities and bodily functions.
  • Removing the requirement that an individual seeking ADA coverage prove a " limitation in the ability to perform activities of central importance to daily life” to have a qualifying disability.
  • Redefine “regarded as” disabled so that it is no longer necessary for an employee to prove the employer perceived him or her as substantially limited in a major life activity; rather, under the new rules, it is sufficient for the employee to prove that the employer took an employment action against him or her because of an actual or perceived impairment.

Unhappy with the new regulations?  Have a suggestion to make them better?  Want to express your wrath?  You can do so by clicking on Regulations.gov, the U.S. Government's portal for regulations and comments.  Want to know more about the ADAAA?  You can click here for complete ADAAA coverage on the Stoel Rives World of Employment

Another Circuit Court Agrees: ADA Amendments Act is Not Retroactive

Congress did not intend for the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) to be retroactive, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled yesterday, and applied pre-ADAAA law to dismiss an employment discrimination claim.  Click here to read the court's decision in Lytes v. DC Water and Sewer Authority

Congress passed the ADAAA in 2008 and the new law became effective January 1, 2009.  The ADAAA significantly expanded the definition of "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The Lytes court reviewed the legislative history of the ADAAA, and could not find in that history any indication that Congress intended the law to apply retroactively.  The court also noted that Congress signaled its intend that the law not apply retroactively when it gave the ADAAA a specific effective date. 

The DC Circuit joins the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled in EEOC v. Agro Distribution, LLC that the ADAAA is not retroactive.  Notably, the Department of Labor has also taken the position that the law should not apply retroactively.  And, at least for now, it appears that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees

Lytes and Agro Distribution are important cases for employers defending ADA claims; they make clear that for claims arising before January 1, 2009, pre-ADAAA standards of what constitutes a "disability" are likely to apply.  For more information on the ADAAA, click here for the Stoel Rives World of Employment's ADAAA coverage

EEOC Issues Guidance on Severance Agreements and Waivers

Recognizing that severance agreements are becoming more and more prevailant in the down economy, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) yesterday issued a new technical assistance document titled Understanding Waivers of Discrimination Claims in Employee Severance Agreements (click on the title to access the document).  The new document is intended to help both employers and employees navigate the complexities of waivers in severance agreements.

Of particular interest is the EEOC's guidance regarding the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, which places certain requirements on waivers of age discrimination claims by employees age 40 and older, including a 21 day period to consider the agreement and a seven day period to revoke acceptance.  Also of note is the EEOC's admonition that signing a severance agreement and accepting payment to waive discrimination claims does not prevent an employee from then filing a charge of discrimination with the Commission or a similar state agency. 

Employers should review their existing severance agreements in light of the EEOC's new guidance, as this document provides insight into how both the Commission and courts will review such agreements and how employees might find ways to avoid their waiver obligations.