Is the Oregon Court of Appeals back in the wrongful-discharge business? It’s a fair question to ask after the court’s decision last week in Lucas v. Lake County, --Or. App.-- (2012). Reversing the trial court's motion to dismiss, the court held that a sheriff’s deputy who served as a correctional officer could sue for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy based on his allegation that he’d been fired for demanding that the sheriff implement a training program regarding sexual relations with inmates, and for concluding that another sheriff’s deputy had traded contraband for sex with an inmate.
What Is An "Important" Public Duty?
Wrongful discharge has had an eventful history in the Oregon courts. Broadly speaking, in a wrongful discharge claim an employee alleges that the employer terminated him for a reason that is inconsistent with an important public policy. The key (and usually thorny) legal issue is identifying the public policy and weighing whether it is sufficiently important to protect an employee from being fired. The Oregon courts have deemed an employee’s need to be absent from work to serve on a jury (Nees v. Hocks, 272 Or. 210 (1975)) and an employee’s internal protest that a fire department covered up evidence of a safety violation (Love v. Polk County Fire Dist., 209 Or. App. 474 (2006)) important enough to qualify. On the other hand, a doctor’s disagreement with his medical group’s treatment recommendations (Eusterman v. Northwest Permanente P.C., 204 Or. App. 224 (2006)) and private security guards’ lawful arrest of drunken concertgoers (Babick v. Oregon Arena Corp., 333 Or. 401 (2002)) didn’t make the cut.
Courts and attorneys attempting to discern the difference among these cases were left scratching their heads about how to figure out whether a public policy was “important.” Three years ago, the Oregon Supreme Court appeared to bring some clarity to the “important public policy” question in Lamson v. Crater Lake Motors, 346 Or. 628 (2009), where the court decided that a car salesman’s complaints about what he deemed to be unethical (although not unlawful) sales tactics did not go to an important policy, even though Oregon’s consumer protection laws clearly indicate a general policy against deceptive trade practices. Going forward, the court said, an employee would have to do more than identify “some general public policy expressed in statute, constitution, or case law that would be ‘thwarted’ by the discharge at issue.” Instead, “the sources of law that express the asserted ‘public policy’ must in some sense speak directly to those acts” that got the employee fired in the first place.
Lucas: Keeping The Peace Is Sufficiently Important Public Duty For Prison Guards
Turning back to Lucas, is there any portion of Oregon law that “in some sense speak[s] directly” to a deputy’s recommendation that a sheriff’s office adopt a particular training policy, or his investigation of a subordinate's misconduct? Not exactly. Oregon law states that county sheriffs must be certified police officers, have the obligation to “arrest and commit to prison all persons who break the peace, or attempt to break it,” and that a deputy’s duties are derivative of the sheriff’s. ORS 206.010. But that's as close as it comes to addressing the conduct that (allegedly) precipitated the deputy's termination.
That was enough for the Court of Appeals, which said that because the deputy "alleged that he was terminated for seeking to enforce the criminal laws by preventing, detecting and investigating crime," he was entitled to go before a jury on his claim that his firing violated an important public duty.
Whither Wrongful Discharge?
In the long term, it's hard to know whether the Lucas decision signals that the Court of Appeals will be more receptive to wrongful-discharge cases that aren't grounded directly in a clear statutory command. Certainly, the lurid facts of Lucas (not to mention the public safety context) made it easy for the Court to conclude that the termination violated public policy. In addition, and whatever the difficulty of explaining just what is or isn’t an “important” public policy, it remains relatively simple for a plaintiff to state a similar type of claim under Oregon’s various whistleblower-protection statutes, primarily ORS 659A.199 (prohibiting employers from taking action against employees who report literally any unlawful activity), but also potentially ORS 659A.203 (for public employees), 659A.230 (protecting employees who complain of criminal conduct), and 659A.233 (employees who report violations of specific laws). An employee who lacks a discrimination claim under Oregon’s anti-discrimination statutes can use the considerable ambiguity of the Lucas opinion (and of the whistleblower statutes) to pursue a wrongful discharge claim against his employer. This area of the law bears watching in the future.
On Halloween, the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) General Counsel’s Division of Advice handed out a rare treat to employers by issuing two Advice Memos (Mimi's Café, Case No. 28-CA-0844365 and Rocha Transportation, Case No. 32-CA-086799), deeming two particular (and common forms of) at-will employment policies contained in employee handbooks lawful under the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act").
Earlier this year, an Administrative Law Judge frightened many employers by ruling a particular company’s “at-will” policy violated the Act because it theoretically could make employees believe that they could not form a union or otherwise advocate to change their at-will employment status. That challenged policy stated, “I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way.” The case, American Red Cross Arizona Blood Services Division, Case No. 28-CA-23443 (February 1, 2012), was settled before the NLRB could review it on appeal.
The Division of Advice’s Halloween memoranda distinguished American Red Cross case from Mimi's Café and Rocha Transportation – noting that the at-will policy in American Red Cross used the personal pronoun “I” (“I further agree that the at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way”), which as written essentially constituted an impermissible waiver of any right of employees to try and change at-will status (i.e., to try to form a union). The Division of Advice also noted that the policy in American Red Cross declared that the at-will employment relationship could never be modified under any circumstances whatsoever, which could be interpreted as chilling employees’ rights under the Act to engage in protected concerted activity such as forming a union. Finally, the Division of Advice, perhaps dismissively, noted that American Red Cross had settled before getting to the Board level.
In contrast, in the two cases and policies analyzed by the Division of Advice’s Halloween memoranda, one employer’s handbook specifically provided for possible changes to an employee’s at-will employment status if made in writing and signed by the company president, and the other employer’s handbook merely said that no one in management had authority to make changes to the at-will policy. Specifically, the two at-will policies validated by the Division of Advice provided:
The relationship between you and Mimi’s Café is referred to as “employment at will.” This means that your employment can be terminated at any time for any reason, with or without cause, with or without notice, by you or the Company. No representative of the Company has authority to enter into any agreement contrary to the foregoing "employment at will" relationship. Nothing contained in this handbook creates an express or implied contract of employment.
Statement of At-Will Employment Status
Employment with Rocha Transportation is employment at-will. Employment at-will may be terminated with or without cause and with or without notice at any time by the employee or the Company. Nothing in this Handbook or in any document or statement shall limit the right to terminate employment at-will. No manager, supervisor, or employee of Rocha Transportation has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will. Only the president of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.
The Rocha Transportation handbook also contained an "Acknowledgment of Receipt" that employees were required to sign, acknowledging that "nothing in the employee handbook creates or is intended to create a promise, contract, or representation of continued employment ...” The Division of Advice noted this was important in showing that the employer was trying to protect against contract claims, as opposed to trying to restrict employees’ rights under the Act.
The Division of Advice’s memoranda provide a welcome respite from an otherwise troubling (for employers) spate of Board decisions affecting both non-union and unionized employers on topics such as social media, off-duty access, and confidentiality policies. Although the Division of Advice’s memoranda are technically not binding, the Board’s Acting General Counsel has instructed all NLRB Regional Offices to consult with the Division of Advice before issuing any complaint challenging an employer’s at-will policy. And employers now have some helpful guidance from these memoranda concerning how to word at-will policies.
From the Presidential debates to lawn signs, and TV ads to the Voters’ Pamphlet in your mailbox, there’s no denying that election season is in full swing. For employers, the home stretch to November 6 means not only around-the-clock coverage, but the potential for spirited debates—and resulting employee discord—in the workplace. Although with limited exception political activity or affiliation is not a protected status, and Oregon employers no longer have to worry about giving employees time off to vote due to mail-in ballots, the impending election still has significant potential to invoke myriad workplace issues ranging from discrimination and harassment to free speech and bullying. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to help guide employers over the next several weeks and keep polarizing political discourse from disrupting your workplace:
* Do set the tone. If you haven’t already, employers should clearly communicate their expectations to employees and foster a culture of mutual respect and understanding. Diversity—even with respect to politics—can be embraced as a positive. Employers lead the way by conveying their acceptance of varying ideologies, and encouraging employees to handle differences of opinion civilly and without letting it affect normal operations. Political conversations between employees often lead to discussion of sensitive (and protected) issues such as race, religion, immigration, and women’s rights. However, election season should not provide a license for employees to harass or bully one another by attacking contrasting political views, bragging about which ballot measures did or did not pass, or gloating over a candidate’s defeat. Employers can minimize risk by reminding employees that their policies prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation apply to all political discussions, and investigating any complaints promptly. Moreover, some employers have in fact included political activity in their EEO or anti-harassment policies, so it may be prudent to dust off and review your handbook, because employees certainly will know what you have promised. Similarly, given that unions are frequently politically active, some union contracts prohibit politics-based discrimination.
* Don’t allow bad behavior in the name of “free speech.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no blanket right of “free speech” in a private workplace. The First Amendment covers only state action, and private sector employers are therefore free to limit political discussions in the workplace. Be careful, however, that any such limitations don’t run afoul of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (see next "do," below) or federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
Read on for more election "dos and don'ts" below!
* Do be mindful of the NLRA. The NLRA offers some protections for employees’ political speech, both on and off the job, and even if you do not have a union-based workforce. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states on its website, employees have the right to work together to “improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren’t in a union.” (See https://www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity). Employers should be particularly cautious to ensure that any restrictions on employee communications, political or otherwise, don’t impede on employees’ ability to act in concert with respect to work-related matters such that they would run afoul of Section 7 protections.
* Don’t forget about social media. Undoubtedly, social media has played a significant role in 2012—and it’s likely becoming an increasing presence in your employees’ day-to-day lives, too. Employers should remind employees of any policies regulating internet usage in the workplace, along with any policies specifically governing social media. Although such policies should encourage employees to be respectful, they should not be so broad-sweeping as to prohibit political discussions over social media, as this again has the risk of crossing over into Section 7 protections referenced above. The NLRB has stated that employers should not “caution employees against online discussions that could become heated or controversial.”
* Do be cautious of Company political endorsements. It’s common for employers to provide general election information to employees, such as informing them when ballots are mailed or simply encouraging them to vote. In recent years, however, many employers have taken it further and perhaps garnered unintended press for making political statements—most often during election season. Although there is no per se law prohibiting a private company from voicing its own political views to employees, employers who do so should also make clear that employees retain the sole right to vote as they choose. Employers should also be mindful of the resulting pitfalls. For example, would a gay or lesbian employee be more likely to bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim against an employer that had voiced its opposition to same-sex marriage? There’s no way to know, but most employers probably wouldn’t want to be the test case.
* Don’t enforce policies on a selective basis. Many employers maintain no-solicitation or no-distribution policies, which generally prohibit employees from requesting support for or distributing materials about non-work events or causes. To be effective, however, these policies must be both strictly and evenly enforced. Don’t let a Democrat post political flyers, but not a Republican. And don’t let the CEO hand out buttons supporting the candidate of his or her choice, but prohibit employees from doing the same thing.
* Do know if local or state law protects provides greater protections. As mentioned above, political activity is not a protected status for most employees working for private employers under federal law, and only a handful of states have promulgated laws making it unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate based on an employee’s political activity or affiliation. Oregon in Washington have not, but California is one of the few states that has. Some protections are derived on a more local level, such as the City of Seattle, which prohibits discrimination based on political ideology, affiliation or similar terms. Public employers need to be ever mindful of the circumstances when political speech crosses the threshold into free speech, thus precluding adverse action on that basis.
* Don’t hesitate to reach out if things get sticky. Election-related employment issues can be complex and difficult to navigate. If you run into problems in the pre- or post-election flurry, contact your employment attorney. Although it may seem that all anyone cares about these days is the election, you’ve still got a business to run—and help is available.
As we blogged about earlier this week, there have been a lot of recent cases before the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") testing the validity under federal labor laws of employer policies seeking to restrict employee use of social media.
The NLRB isn't the only place action is happening recently in this developing clash between employment law and social media. Responding to an emerging controversy about whether employers can require disclosure of social media passwords during the hiring process, the California Legislature has passed Assembly Bill 1844, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in late September. It takes effect on January 1, 2013.
This legislation prohibits an employer from requiring or requesting that an employee or job applicant disclose a user name or password for the purpose of accessing personal social media. AB 1844 also prohibits requiring or requesting that an employee or applicant access personal social media in the presence of the employer, or divulge any personal social media. Finally, it also prohibits retaliation against an employee or applicant for not complying with an employer's request for such information.
The law does contain a few limited exceptions. An employer may request that an employee divulge personal social media that the employer reasonably believes to be relevant to an investigation of allegations of employee misconduct or employee violation of law, provided that the social media is used solely for purposes of that investigation. Additionally, the law does not preclude an employer from requiring or requesting that an employee disclose a user name, password or other method for the purpose of accessing an employer-issued electronic device.
With the passage of this law, California becomes the third state (along with Maryland and Illinois) to legislatively limit employer access to social media accounts. Companies with employees in California should assess their hiring and employment practices to make sure they are in compliance with these new restrictions.
In DR Horton, a decision issued on January 3 and applicable to most private sector employers, whether unionized or not, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held that federal labor law prevents employers from requiring their employees, as a condition of employment, to agree to broad waivers that would deny their right to pursue employment-related class actions both in court and in arbitration, leaving them no forum for pursuing class or collective claims. As a result, an important tool for managing the risk of employment-related litigation has been taken away (for now).
The facts of the case are straightforward. DR Horton, like many employers, required its employees to sign an arbitration agreement as a condition of employment. The agreement required employees to arbitrate all claims arising out of their employment, and precluded arbitrators from issuing class or group relief. As a result, employees were prevented from bringing class or collective actions in any forum. Relying on this agreement, DR Horton refused to arbitrate a class action alleging that it had misclassified certain employees as exempt from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Not so fast, according to the NLRB. Tracing federal labor law back to its origins, the NLRB found that the filing of a class action “to redress workplace wrongs or improve working conditions” is activity at “the core” of what Congress intended to protect when it enacted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. This intent, the NLRB reasoned, is reflected in Section 7 of the Act, which gives employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for the purposes of “mutual aid or protection.” Relying on Section 7, the NLRB found that Employers cannot compel their employees, as a condition of employment, to entirely waive the right to bring class or collective actions.
The NLRB’s ruling in DR Horton clashes with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which held that arbitration clauses that waive the right to bring class claims entirely (in the commercial contract context) may be lawful and enforceable. But unless and until the courts intervene to resolve this tension, requiring your employees to completely waive the right to bring employment-related class or collective actions - a common feature of arbitration agreements - is probably no longer permissible under federal labor law.
If You're Interested In Learning More, Sign Up For Our Webinar
Stoel Rives is hosting a webinar on January 11, 2012, to address employee arbitration agreements generally and the DR Horton decision in particular. Click here if you're interested in learning more or attending.
Based on feedback from you, our readers, LexisNexis has nominated the Stoel Rives World of Employment as a "Top 25" law blog in the Labor and Employment category! Thanks to those of you who nominated us to this elite group. Readers now have until September 12 to vote for their favorite blog. After voting is completed LexisNexis will announce which of the nominated blogs are selected to the final top 25.
Please Cast Your Vote For Us
At this point we'd like to engage in a bit of shameless self-promotion, and urge you to cast your vote for us before September 12. To do that, simply click here to vote, scroll to the very bottom of the page to the Add a Comment section, and add a comment. In the comment field, type something like "I vote for the Stoel Rives World of Employment blog." You can also view information about the competition and see the other nominated blogs on this page too. If you haven't already used the LexisNexis Communities feature, you may need to create an account to be able to vote.
Again, thanks for the nomination and support! (Here ends the shameless self-promotion...now we'll get back to blogging.)
- Your Stoel Rives World of Employment Bloggers
On Thursday, in Herbert v. Altimeter, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that an employee does not need to actually be disabled in order to be protected from retaliation for requesting an accommodation under Oregon’s disability anti-discrimination law. The case serves as a useful reminder that anti-retaliation protections, like those in the Oregon disability law, can be very broadly applied and protect many types of employee requests or complaints. Employers should be careful when disciplining or terminating any employee who has recently made some kind of arguably protected request or complaint.
Sherrie Herbert was terminated from her truck-driving job with Altimeter shortly after she became ill, allegedly from exhaust fumes in the cab of her truck, and she reported those problems to her boss. She sued under various retaliation theories, including that she was terminated in retaliation for her having requested an accommodation for a disability (i.e., requesting to be reassigned to a different truck). The trial court granted a directed verdict for Altimeter at the close of Herbert’s case at trial and dismissed all claims.
The Court of Appeals reversed. Altimeter argued that it couldn’t have retaliated against plaintiff for requesting an accommodation as a matter of law, because she was not disabled and therefore not protected under the Oregon disability law's anti-retaliation provisions. The court rejected that argument, noting that while the law requires Oregon employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to a “person with a disability,” the anti-retaliation provision, ORS 659A.109, protects any “worker” who requests an accommodation. So, the court reasoned, by its plain terms the statute protects a broader class of employees (all of them) who make protected requests for accommodations, even though those employees may not be entitled to an actual accommodation.
The opinion also contained an illustrative reminder about the importance of well-drafted written responses filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (“BOLI”), and similar agencies. Those written position statements are admissible later; if they’re not carefully drafted they could come back to bite the complainant. In Herbert, Altimeter’s BOLI position statement included several damaging admissions, the worst of which essentially stated that she was terminated because she insisted she be reassigned to another truck, i.e., requested an accommodation. Despite a general lack of other evidence of retaliation presented by Herbert at trial, the Court held that Altimeter's admission in the BOLI statement alone was enough to allow that claim to go to a jury.
Oops! While there are no easy, hard-and-fast rules about how to draft effective BOLI or EEOC position statements, generally you want to say as little as possible while still making your case, and above all, you don't want to provide the only evidence a plaintiff will need to take his or her case all the way to a jury!! Those kinds of careless statements early on can make litigating employment discrimination lawsuits very expensive for employers, because they become much harder to get dismissed before trial.
A new Oregon bill will prohibit employers from requiring employees to attend mandatory or "captive audience" meetings on, among other topics, labor unions. Governor Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign the bill, which would them become law effective January 1, 2010. Click here to read SB 519.
SB 519 prohibits an employer from taking action against an employee who refuses to participate in communications concerning the employer’s opinions on religious or political matters. Religious or political matters is defined broadly and includes communications to employees about unionization. An employee who suffers economic loss (through termination or suspension) as a result of the bill can sue his or her employer and recover treble damages. The bill also allows employees to obtain an injunction prohibiting additional "captive audience" meetings.
This law might not be long-lived: the U.S. Supreme Court found a similar California law to be preempted by federal labor law. Click here to read that opinion in Chamber of Commerce v. Brown. Even if a court finds Oregon's statute to be similarly preempted (and we believe a court will), the law could still apply to employers that are not covered by federal labor law - namely, Oregon public and agricultural employers. Also, the word from Salem is that the legislature will still revise the law to provide additional protections for religious employers (such as churches and some hospitals) who hold religious meetings, so keep an eye out for those changes in the next week or so.
As expected, President Bush yesterday signed the ADA Amendments Act ("ADAAA") into law, significantly expanding the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The final version of the law can be downloaded here. The Stoel Rives World of Employment has been actively covering the law as it wound its way through Congress, and you can follow our reporting here.
The ADAAA goes into effect January 1, 2009. To help you get ready, Stoel Rives is offering free seminars on the ADAAA in its Portland, Boise and Seattle offices on December 2, 2008. For more information and to register, click one of these links:
The ADA Amendments Act ("ADAAA") was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier today. For more information, read the House's Press Release. As reported previously by the Stoel Rives World of Employment, the same version of the bill was recently approved by the U.S. Senate.
The next stop for the ADAAA is the White House. President Bush previously indicated he has some misgivings about the ADAAA, but given the broad bipartisan support that carried the bill through Congress, he is expected to sign it into law. (Keep in mind, it was George H.W. Bush that signed the original ADA.)
Assuming it becomes law, the ADAAA will greatly broaden the scope of the ADA. Some highlights of the ADAAA:
- Reverses several Supreme Court decisions that have seemingly narrowed the coverage of the ADA, restoring what the drafters perceive to be the original Congressional intent
- Broadens the definition of disability, including what it means to be “substantially limited in a major life activity
- Clarifies that accommodations are not be required if an individual is merely "regarded as” having a disability
- Prohibits the consideration of mitigating measures such as medication, prosthetics, and assistive technology, in determining whether an individual has a disability
- Provides coverage to people who experience discrimination based on a perception of impairment regardless of whether the individual experiences disability
The Stoel Rives World of Employment will let you know as soon as we receive word on what the White House intends to do. Stay tuned!
The U.S. Senate yesterday approved the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) by unanimous consent, making enactment of the ADAAA likely. As the Stoel Rives World of Employment previously reported, the ADAAA would overturn several U.S. Supreme Court decisions that many critics claim have too narrowly interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act's coverage. To read the Senate version of the ADAAA, click here.
The ADAAA passed the House of Representatives in June by a 402-17 vote. There are minor differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, and the House is expected to adopt the Senate version on September 17. After that, it's on to President Bush to sign the bill, which he is expected to do. Keep watching the Stoel Rives World of Employment for further updates.