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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Companies Accidentally Waiving Attorney-Client Privilege

In the digital age, most companies rely heavily on email to communicate, even with their attorney. Generally, attorney-client privilege will apply to these emails, but when the client forwards the email, questions about privilege can arise. As several cases in 2016 highlight, many employees will forward an attorney’s email without significant thought, but prior to forwarding the email, care should be taken to avoid inadvertently waiving privilege.

 

As highlighted by AU New Haven, LLC v. YKK Corp., No. 1:15­CV­3411­GHW, (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2016), when a company employee forwards an attorney communication to non-attorney employees, several rules will apply. As a default, generally, if the email is forwarded to employees of the company, the privilege will be retained. Similarly, if everyone receiving the email is deemed to have a common interest, even if not a direct employee, privilege is often retained. However, if one person doesn’t share the common interest, privilege is broken.  An example of broken privilege, in Newman v. Highland School District No. 203, 381 P.3d 1188 (Wash. 2016), the court refused to uphold privilege because the employee was no longer employed by the company. Thus, the court determined that privilege did not apply because the employee that received the communication was now a former employee.

 

Overall, these two cases highlight the fact specific nature of whether privilege is retained when an employee of a company forwards an email from the company’s attorney. Moreover, the determination of whether privilege was retained will be specific to the state. Thus, employees of a company receiving privileged communication should take steps to retain privilege, including having internal policies about forwarding emails from the company attorney.

© 2017 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Department of Labor Delays Implementation of the Fiduciary Rule

Last year, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule, expanding the definition of a fiduciary, making many broker-dealers and insurance agents fiduciaries. This rule, issued April 2016, was set to become effective June 2016, but was then delayed until April 10, 2017, with certain provisions delayed until January of 2018. However, President Trump ordered a review of the new rule and the DOL issued another delay, of 60 days, to complete the review. With the delay, the expanded fiduciary definition will become effective June 9, 2017.

Under the rule, a person or firm that is deemed a fiduciary is required to act in the best interests of their clients. This includes an obligation to avoid conflicts of interests, or otherwise receive compensation that creates a conflict between the interests of the fiduciary and the client. The new rule poses several issues for certain professionals that will be deemed a fiduciary under the new rule. For example, sales commissions would be deemed a conflict of interest, creating an especially problematic situation for broker-dealers that engage in principal transactions with clients. However, the DOL recognized the issue and created several principal transaction exemptions, but the exemptions require additional burdensome steps. This issue, among others, are central to the review causing the rule to be delayed.

Despite this delay, and the DOL admitting the review will not be complete by June 9, 2017, the expanded definition of fiduciary will be implemented at the end of the 60-day delay. Therefore, broker-dealers, insurance agents, and others that will now be deemed a fiduciary, should be prepared for the additional requirements on June 9, 2017.

© 2017 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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DOL Revises The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Poster

by Joshua A. Diveley

The Department of Labor (DOL) revised The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) poster which certain employers must display at employment locations. The revisions were released in late April, 2016. The poster was revised to clarify language and include additional information not contained in the prior February 2013 version of the poster.

All covered employers, generally those with at least 50 employees, are required to display the poster and keep it displayed. The poster summarizes the major provisions of FMLA and informs employees how to file a complaint for non-compliance by an employer. The poster must be displayed in a conspicuous place where employees and applicants for employment can see it. A poster must be displayed at all locations even if there are no eligible employees.

A copy of the revised poster is available at: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/posters/fmlaen.pdf.

The February 2013 version of the FMLA poster is still permitted and can be used to fulfill the posting requirement. Although displaying the revised poster is not mandatory, it is still a good idea for an employer to display the most recent version of the poster. Use of the most current poster shows a good faith effort to make employees aware of the latest information relating to employment laws.

An employer who willfully violates the posting requirement may be assessed a civil fine of $110 for each separate offense.

© 2016 Vandenack Williams LLC
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Tempted to Ask for An Employee’s Personal Password? Just Say No

By Eric W. Tiritilli

If you’ve ever had the inclination to ask a job applicant or employee for their log-in information or passwords to their personal accounts, you should run – and not walk – away from such ideas.  Not only is requiring an employee to reveal passwords to their personal accounts unlikely to win any points with the employee, it will become illegal in Nebraska once a bill passed by the Nebraska legislature is signed by the Governor.

Legislative Bill 821 will make it illegal to require an employee or an applicant to disclose their user name or password to a personal internet account, to require them to log into their personal account in front of the employer, to require them to change their personal account settings, to add someone (including the employer) to their personal account or to penalize an employee for failing to take such actions.

LB 821 does not prohibit employers from maintaining polices regarding the use of the employer’s equipment and internet (but don’t forget that the NLRB has had a lot to say on these topics).  Nevertheless, the new law would prohibit an employer from intruding on the “personal” internet accounts of an employee.  So, if you’ve ever been tempted to ask an employee for a peek at their personal internet accounts – just say no!

© 2016 Vandenack Williams LLC
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New Nebraska Law Limits Employer Access to Employee or Applicant’s Social Networking Accounts

On April 13, 2016, the Nebraska legislature passed LB 821, sending the Workplace Privacy Act to the governor for signature. Recently, with over 43% of employers using social networks to research employees and applicants, a significant debate occurred pertaining to the privacy an applicant should have in regards to the information on these sites. In light of the failed attempts to regulate at a federal level, almost half the states have enacted legislation that deals with the same issues as Nebraska’s Workplace Privacy Act.

The new law prohibits an employer from requesting or requiring the employee, or even an applicant, from turning over passwords and usernames for social networking accounts. Similarly, the law also prohibits the employer from requesting access to the account via the employee or applicant logging on for them. Moreover, these protections cannot be waived by the employee, nor should an employer ask for a waiver as a condition of employment.

While the new law provides protection to an employee or applicant from giving unfettered access to social networking accounts, it does not change the employer’s access to information already in the public domain. However, should an employer violate this law, the employee or applicant now has recourse and can file a civil action within one year of the violation.

© 2016 Vandenack Williams LLC
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Pregnancy Discrimination: The EEOC Provides Employers With Updated Guidance

By Eric W. Tiritilli.

An employee announces she is pregnant, but after the congratulations and good wishes are shared, the questions becomes what, if anything, must an employer do to comply with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”)?  Unfortunately, it had been over 30 years since the EEOC last updated its guidance to employers regarding their obligations under the PDA.  Recently, the EEOC issued new enforcement guidance, an employer Q&A and a fact sheet to aid employers.

As the EEOC noted in its press release – the basic law of the PDA hasn’t changed – as an employer may not discriminate against an employee because they are pregnant and a pregnant employee “must be treated the same as other persons similar in their ability or inability to work”; however, the updated guidance for employers provides important information regarding the EEOC’s interpretation of the law including how the PDA interacts with the Americans with Disabilities Act and provides examples of “best practices” to follow to avoid discrimination.

© 2014 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

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