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.

Observations on LB400

LB400 was introduced in the Nebraska Unicameral, in January of this year to raise the minimum wage of tip earners.  The current minimum wage in Nebraska for tip earners is $2.13 an hour with restaurants ensuring tipped staff obtain at least $9.00 per hour combined standard wage and tips.  The bill was to raise the minimum wage to $4.50 an hour, without indexing the wage to the regular minimum wage.

The bill includes raises the following questions to assure compliance with wage laws:

  1. Are the restaurants actually ensuring that the employees receive the $9.00 an hour combined standard wage plus tips or are they “gaming” the system to ensure more profits for the company?
  2. Can the employees genuinely rely on the tips of the patrons?
  3. Can “standard tips” accurately be reflected in the $9.00 per hour combined minimum standard wage plus tip?

As business owners, employers should consider reviewing current pay policies, including the often-used practice of tip pooling and/or tip splitting, in order to remain in compliance. Another compliance approach to consider would be the modification and reclassification of employees to non-tipped personnel.

 

https://trackbill.com/bill/nebraska-legislative-bill-400-change-the-minimum-wage-for-persons-compensated-by-way-of-gratuities/1636386/

 

The legislation is not finalized so there will be updates on the status of this bill.

Hair Based Discrimination

Expansion of protected classes to include hair in New York City; given the examples cited in the article, it seems that this sort of discrimination is already largely covered by existing law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race. Employers in Nebraska and elsewhere should be aware of those issues, and establish clear policies regarding dress code and grooming standards, with uniform and consistent enforcement.

https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6503319813669167104

Preventing Third Party Harassment

By Matthew G. Dunning

While most employers are aware of their legal obligation to protect employees from harassment by co-workers, supervisors, and managers, a recent case from Mississippi highlights the need to prevent harassment by third parties, including patients and customers. Previous cases have involved harassment by customers at restaurants and casinos, with differing results based on the specific facts.

The plaintiff from the case in Mississippi worked as a CNA for an assisted living center, and was assigned to care for a patient with dementia who had a history of violent and sexual behavior toward patients and employees. The plaintiff alleged that the patient repeatedly made sexual comments and requests, and that he would physically grab her. Management was aware of the behavior based on employee complaints, documentation in the patient’s chart, and firsthand observation. The plaintiff was ultimately terminated for allegedly taking a swing at the patient in a particularly abusive incident during which she was groped and punched repeatedly. Following another incident with a fellow resident, the patient was moved to a nearby all-male facility. Based on affidavits, deposition testimony, and other documentation, the lower court granted summary judgment to the assisted living center, and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that Title VII does not prohibit all harassment; a plaintiff must subjectively believe there is severe and pervasive harassment, and the plaintiff’s belief must be objectively reasonable. Previous cases involving repeated verbal sexual harassment by home health and nursing home patients were determined not to be sufficiently severe and pervasive when the conduct was not “physically threatening or humiliating, and did not pervade the work experience of a reasonable nursing home employee.”  That is, potential liability must be considered in light of the specific environment, and the “unique circumstances involved in caring for mentally diseased elderly patients.”  The appeals court held that, contrary to the lower court’s opinion, the allegations of persistent and often physical harassment in this case were sufficient to send the case to a jury.  “The ultimate focus of Title VII liability is on the employer’s conduct; in the case of alleged harassment by a third party, “a plaintiff needs to show that the employer knew or should have known about the hostile work environment, yet allowed it to persist.”

Regardless of potential legal liability, employers should take care to protect employees from this type of behavior. Mandatory training regarding sexual and other harassment should be provided to all employees, and a clear and effective policy and complaint mechanism should be in place so an employee has the opportunity to make allegations, and have them addressed. Supervisory and management personnel should receive separate training on how to recognize harassment and other discrimination, and human resources personnel should be trained on conducting investigations and recommending action by management that will prevent the harassment from continuing.

© 2018 Vandenack Weaver LLC

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#METOO: An Employer’s Response to Sexual Harassment Allegations

Charles Swindoll once said, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” Employers must prepare and react appropriately to sexual harassment in the workplace, and the failure of which may result in public litigation. There are several simple steps that should be taken to assist in stamping out sexual harassment in the workplace, and in doing so, the added benefit is that it may also reduce a business’s liability exposure.

Through the employee policy or handbook (cumulatively “Policy”) and employee training, the entity should make its stance clear: zero tolerance for sexual harassment. An entity Policy should include specific examples of what sexual harassment looks like. Clarifying sexual harassment will empower employees to report their experiences, as well as provide the entity a framework to identify such wrongful behavior. Additionally, the company’s posture should be shared with the workforce through regular proactive training and reminders. Make the training mandatory. Revisit the training periodically throughout the year to impress upon the workforce the seriousness of sexual harassment. Continually update the Policy to reflect recent legal developments and/or any new procedure that may have been developed through actual situations that occurred within the entity. Through the Policy and training, liability will be reduced as entity workforce culture aligns with the entity: zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

Employers must provide clear procedure for dealing with sexual harassment, such as reporting and investigating. The entity must establish open channels of communication that provide the employee with specific individuals to whom they may confidentially report any incident of sexual harassment. Establishing a specific hierarchy for reporting can encourage employees to disclose sexual harassment early on. Remember, 10% is what happens to you and 90% is how you react. Take seriously claims of sexual harassment regardless of severity—upon disclosure, react! Immediately preserve any records of disclosure and any other correspondence related to the claim, as contemporaneous notes establish a timeline and the diligence of the employer to respond as quickly as possible. Also, carefully determine who and how the matter is best investigated.  Investigation can be done internally, by in-house legal, human resources, or other persons as designated or it may be done by outsourcing the investigation to a neutral third party. Employers may find that the most prudent investigations occur when neutral third parties are retained given the inherent conflict that could arise should any internal party discover that the allegations of harassment are founded. Upon concluding the investigation, a decision must be made on whether further legal action should be sought. Regardless, the entity must properly document any decision or evidence gathered through the investigation to establish the basis for its reaction and response to the allegations.

Ninety percent of any situation can be governed by how you react; and, reacting to sexual harassment allegations is a cumulative, ongoing process. In the advent of sexual harassment, an entity must provide an employee the ability to securely reveal sexual harassment, whereby upon the disclosure of such, the entity acts. Simple prudence not only prevents sexual harassment, it also precludes further harassment upon discovery. Ultimately, it limits the employer’s liability by clearly establishing its position: zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

© 2018 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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SSA Updates Social Security Taxable Wage Base for 2018

By Joshua A. Diveley

In October, the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced an adjustment to the Social Security taxable wage base to take effect in January based on an increase in average wages. Based on the wage data Social Security had as of October 13, 2017, the Social Security taxable wage base was set to increase to $128,700 in 2018, from $127,200 in 2017. Based on newly released data obtained by SSA, the new Social Security taxable wage base for 2018 is $128,400.

This lower taxable amount is due to corrected W2s provided to Social Security in late October 2017 by a national payroll service provider. Approximately 500,000 corrections for W2s from 2016 were received by SSA and resulted in the downward adjustment for 2018.

For more information about the updated 2018 taxable maximum amount, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/oact/COLA/cbb.html

 

© 2017 Vandenack Weaver LLC
For more information, Contact Us