Administrative Remedies in Discrimination Claims

By Matthew Dunning

Earlier this week the United States Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, holding that a plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies does not necessarily prevent the person from pursuing employment discrimination claims in court. In a charge filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the plaintiff in the case alleged that she was subjected to sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about that harassment. She was subsequently fired for missing work to attend church services, and claimed that the termination was based on religious discrimination. However, she did not formally amend her EEOC charge to allege religious discrimination, opening the possibility that she had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.

The plaintiff then filed a lawsuit in federal court, and claimed that she was subject to wrongful discharge based on unlawful harassment, retaliation and religious discrimination. The defendant initially defended the case without raising the failure to exhaust defense, and it was not until years later that the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.  The Court affirmed the finding of the lower appeals court that the motion to dismiss was untimely and should have been raised earlier in the case. This case has now been in litigation for 7 years, and is being sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

In Nebraska, there is a statute that allows an aggrieved employee to go directly to court without filing a charge of discrimination with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission (“NEOC”). Plaintiffs lawyers do not typically utilize this statute because remedies available under state law do not include punitive damages, which are available under federal law.  In addition, the lawyers appreciate the NEOC/EEOC process because it can lead to the discovery of information regarding an employer’s defenses, which the attorney can then utilize to develop the case in court.

When facing claims of discrimination, whether the employee is currently employed, or has already been terminated, employers should carefully consider the status and details of the allegations at each stage of the process, and identify the procedural requirements that may apply. For instance, if the person complaining is still an employee, the employer must consistently apply the applicable policies, typically included in an employee handbook. Failure to properly investigate and, if necessary, remediate a complaint of discrimination may, in and of itself, be considered evidence of unlawful discrimination.

Once an employee files a formal charge with the NEOC or EOC, or files litigation, the employer should carefully review all the applicable facts, particularly the timing of the allegations, and work with legal counsel to determine if there are any procedural or other irregularities to raise as defenses.

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New Department of Labor proposed rule addressing calculation of employee’s regular rate of pay

For the first time in 50 years, the Department of Labor is proposing a rule to address the calculation of an employee’s regular rate of pay; an employee’s regular rate is used to determine the applicable overtime rate, and the calculation of the regular rate can be an issue in DOL audits, and litigation.

The DOL’s proposed rule includes clarification that the following forms of compensation are not required to be included in the regular rate:

the cost of providing wellness programs

payments for unused paid leave

reimbursed expenses that are not “solely” for the employer’s benefit
certain reimbursed travel expenses

Employers will want to take this opportunity to review existing pay practices, and determine if changes can be made.

Citing Third Party Disclosure, Court Rules Attorney-Client Privilege does not Protect Certain Emails

Communications between attorneys and their clients are generally thought to be confidential under the protection of attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine.  On May 6, 2019, however, the United States District Court Southern District of New York ruled that attorney-client communications, in the form of emails, shared with a public relations firm were neither privileged nor protected by attorney work-product doctrine. In the trademark case of Universal Standard Inc. v. Target Corp., S.D.N.Y., No. 18 Civ. 6042, 5/6/19, Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein demonstrated the narrowness of circumstances in which a company can assert privilege after sharing information with third parties. The court held that since the PR firm hired by Universal Standard was not necessary to the emails between Universal Standard and its attorneys, was not an agent of the company, and was not hired to aid in legal tasks, privilege and work product did not apply to the communications.

 

Universal Standard creates women’s apparel with “size-inclusive” clothing brands and in 2018 brought suit against Target alleging that Target’s “Universal Thread” line of women’s clothing willfully infringed upon its trademark.  During a deposition for the case, Target’s attorney questioned one of Universal Standard’s witnesses about the email chains between Universal Standard, their PR firm, BrandLink, and their attorneys.  Universal Standard objected that the emails were privileged.

 

The court ruled the emails aren’t protected by attorney-client privilege as disclosure to a third party generally eliminates that privilege.  While Universal Standard argued three separate exceptions applied, the court disagreed with their conclusions:

 

  1. BrandLink was not necessary to the understanding of facts between attorney and client: The court said the emails in question involved the public relations strategy relating to the lawsuit; which could have been relayed directly to the attorneys alone to invoke privilege.
  2. BrandLink was not a “functional equivalent” of an employee or agent of Universal Standard: The court cited that BrandLink did not represent the company to third parties, maintain an office at the company, nor seek legal advice from Universal Standard’s counsel, failing the “functional equivalent” standard.
  3. BrandLink was not hired to complete legal tasks: The court noted a distinction regarding privilege in that there is a difference between when a client hires a third party versus when an attorney hires a third party to implement a legal strategy.  As BrandLink was hired for business purposes, the court held this exception did not apply.

 

The Court also rejected Universal Standard’s for work product doctrine protection as “conclusory” when they stated all the emails were created in anticipation of litigation and reflected the opinions of their counsel, as these statements were confined to a single sentence, and, as the court stated, a mere recital of the law.

 

Thus, when communicating with an attorney and the utilizing the convenience of email, it is important to be diligent on who you are including in your communications and what necessity they bring to the privileged conversation.

Virginia Expands the Virtual Meeting Space, Allowing Nonstock Corporations to Hold Annual Meetings in Cyberspace

Trying to find a location for your annual shareholder meeting, but concerned about cost and picking a place that is convenient for and will be attended by most of your members?  Virginia lawmakers recently enacted legislation with the aim to address these problems for nonstock corporations grappling with the difficulty of getting member participation at their annual meetings.  The Virginia General Assembly, effective July 1, 2018, passed House Bill 1205, which amended the Virginia Nonstock Corporation Act, allowing nonstock corporations to conduct annual and special meetings of members via electronic means, provided their Articles of Incorporation and bylaws do not require the meetings to be held at a specific location.  This allows nonstock corporations to move their meetings from a physical boardroom to a virtual boardroom.

Allowing virtual meetings for corporations is not a new phenomenon.  Delaware amended its General Corporation Law in 2000 allowing stock corporations to conduct virtual shareholder meetings.  In the age of the convenience of the Internet, many corporations have begun utilizing virtual meetings to reduce costs for both the corporation and individual shareholders, while increasing shareholder participation and board of director control over the structure of the meeting, as board of directors can limit any or all member communication.  Since 2000, additional jurisdictions have also begun allowing corporations to use online real estate and conduct their meetings without any in-person attendance.  Virginia, however, is one of the first jurisdictions to expand the use of virtual meetings from stock corporations to nonstock corporations as well.

Nonstock corporations are corporations that generally do not have owners or members that share in the corporation’s profit and are formed with no intention of generating a return of income.  Examples of these types of corporations are organizations that have Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c) tax-exempt status, such as charitable, fraternal, political, religious, trade, or civil organizations.  Nonstock corporations are typically managed by a board of directors and members have voting rights, just not a right to corporate profits.  Similar to the concerns of stock corporations preferring virtual meetings over physical meetings, nonstock corporations are also concerned with cost, convenience and member participation.  For example, without a bylaw specifying what constitutes a quorum, Section 13.1‑849 of the Virginia Nonstock Corporation Act only requires 10% of members to meet a quorum.

Virginia’s latest expansion allowing nonstock corporations a virtual means to hold annual shareholder meetings versus the confines of a physical venue is likely an attempt to remediate these problems and increase member participation.  It should be noted, Virginia House Bill 1205 does not alter notice requirements for the annual meetings.  The amendment also requires the nonstock corporation to implement reasonable measures to (1) verify that each person remotely participating is a member or proxy, and (2) provide the members a reasonable opportunity to participate in the meeting, vote on matters, and to read or hear the proceedings of the meeting.

While there is still little guidance on how nonstock corporations should organize virtual meetings with their members, it is yet to be seen how many nonstock corporations begin conducting virtual meetings or how many other jurisdictions follow suit and expand the ability of nonstock corporations to conduct virtual meetings.  As the Internet and technology, however, continue to connect the way people communicate, so too could formal corporate mechanisms enter the cyber world to conduct business meetings with their members.

© 2018 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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U.S. Supreme Court Expands Rights of States to Collect Tax on Internet Transactions

by James S. Pieper

Since the dawn of the Internet, online sellers have benefited from a line of United States Supreme Court precedent that prevented states from requiring out-of-state businesses to collect and remit sales tax on sales in states where the seller has no “physical presence.”

On June 21, 2018, the Court discarded its longstanding “physical presence” test, thus opening the door for state governments to impose a broader range of duties on remote sellers, including the duty to collect and remit sales tax.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., South Dakota sought to defend its statute that imposed a duty on all retailers with more than $100,000 of sales or 200 transactions within the state to collect sales tax on transactions and remit the tax to the state.  For retailers with no physical presence in the state, the statute was clearly in violation of the historic interpretation of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which limits the ability of states to regulate “interstate commerce” unless there is a “substantial nexus” between the state’s interests and the commercial activity.

Prior court decisions concluded that a state could have no “substantial nexus” with a seller that had no “physical presence” in said state.  As a result, online sellers with no “brick-and-mortar” presence or employees working in a state were free from the obligation to collect tax on their sales.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair, the Court rejected its prior interpretations of the Commerce Clause and held that a “substantial nexus” could be created by online sales alone despite the lack of “physical presence.”  The decision was decided with a bare 5-4 majority.

As a practical matter, the majority of online sales already entail the collection of sales tax due to either requirements that were valid under prior law or voluntary compliance by larger online retailers (including amazon.com).  Some retailers with no physical stores, however, will lose the advantage of being able to undertake transactions without collecting tax (including the respondents in the case, wayfair.com, overstock.com and newegg.com).

It will be up to each state to set the parameters of which remote sellers might be exempt from collecting tax due to a lack of significant sales, and the Court did not set a constitutional standard for what level of sales would constitute a sufficient “substantial nexus” to allow a state to impose duties (only that South Dakota’s standards were more than sufficient).

Perhaps more importantly, by jettisoning the “physical presence” standard as inappropriate in an era of “substantial virtual connections,” the Court has raised the prospect of greater opportunity for individual states to tax and regulate the actions of businesses whose only connection to said state is via online presence.

All businesses that connect with customers in other states via online connections will need to have heightened awareness that state tax and regulatory requirements in those other states may now apply to those interactions due to the Court’s new reading of the scope of a state’s authority under the Commerce Clause.

© 2018 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Business Entities as Parties to Real Estate Transactions: Who Has Authority?

Business entities buy and sell real estate on a regular basis. A successful transaction hinges, in part, on the proper parties executing the requisite documents. Because failing to correctly identify the parties and obtain proper signatures can be fatal to any real estate transaction, understanding who has authority to sign, on behalf of the entity, is imperative.

Four types of business entities are commonly involved in real estate transactions: (1) general partnerships; (2) limited partnerships; (3) limited liability companies; and (4) corporations.

A general partnership is an association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit. Formation of a partnership does not require a filing with the State, nor does it require a partnership agreement. As such, any conveyancing documents must clearly identify whether partnership property, versus non-partnership property, is being sold. In general, all partners should sign the conveyancing document to sell partnership property. However, a Statement of Authority may be voluntarily filed with the Secretary of State, granting specific partner(s) express authority to solely dispose of partnership property. Unlike the general partnership, a limited partnership (“LP”) is registered with the Secretary of State and is comprised of one or more general partners and one or more limited partners. Like the general partnership, a limited partnership may be governed by a partnership agreement. To convey real property, a deed must be executed by all general partners, unless a duly executed and authorized partnership agreement or Statement of Authority provides otherwise.

A limited liability company (“LLC”) is either member-managed or manager-managed and is created by filing a Certificate of Organization with the Secretary of State. The entity is governed by an operating agreement, which is not filed. Unless the operating agreement dictates otherwise, consent is typically required by all managers (if manager-managed) or members (if member-managed) to transfer real property outside the ordinary course of business. A duly executed and authorized Statement of Authority can be filed with the Secretary of State to supersede the signing authority as designated in the operating agreement. As such, be sure to confirm that the Statement of Authority is executed by all members or managers, depending on the LLC management structure.

A corporation is a legal entity that is owned by shareholders and operated by the Board of Directors. Articles of Incorporation must be filed with the Secretary of State to create a corporation. The corporation’s affairs are governed by its bylaws. If the corporate president does not have authority to transfer real estate, corporate disposition of property is generally a two-step process. The Board of Directors, as dictated by the bylaws, must consent to the transaction, and upon consent, the Board must pass a resolution that authorizes the transaction and designates the authorized signatory.

Early review of the relevant entity documents is key, if not crucial, to ensuring the proper parties are named and have executing authority in any real estate transaction. This simple, but fundamental, step can certainly facilitate not only a timely and efficient real estate closing, but also a successful transaction.

© 2018 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Prohibits Certain Arbitration Clauses

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) released a final rule that prohibits certain financial service companies from blocking class action lawsuits with pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action waiver clauses in consumer financial services contracts. The final rule requires arbitration clauses to contain a provision that explains that the arbitration clause cannot be invoked in a class action proceeding and requires parties to submit certain arbitration records to the CFPB whenever an arbitration claim is filed in relation to a consumer that entered a pre-dispute arbitration agreement after the rule’s compliance date.

 

The rule is a consequence of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, in which Congress authorized the CFPB to issues regulations that limit or prohibit the use of arbitration agreements in the financial industry.  However, it is unclear whether the broad scope may adversely impact smaller entities that cannot afford to defend themselves against a class action lawsuit.

 

The rule is set to become effective on September 17, 2017 and applies to consumer financial services contracts that are entered into 180 days after September 17, 2017.  Thus, the rule does not affect existing contracts, except when a new financial services entity becomes a party to an older contract. Institutions should prepare to review and update their contract provisions to comply with the final rule.

 

© 2017 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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