Connecticut Employment Law Blog

Insight on Labor & Employment Developments for Connecticut Businesses

Calling President An Idiot May Be Protected Speech (But Maybe Not)

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations

“President Trump is a Big Fat Idiot” or, for that matter, “Secretary Clinton is a Sore Loser.”

Let’s suppose you see one of your employees tweeting one of these expressions on Twitter during non-work hours from a personal account.

Can you discipline or even fire your employee over that tweet?

That, in essence, is at the heart of an issue that has been circulating in the sports pages (and in the President’s press briefings) over the last week due to the tweets of ESPN Sportscenter Anchor Jemele Hill from her personal account that were critical of the President.

The New York Times, in fact, ran a story on Saturday discussing the legal ramifications; it was nice to be quoted in the article.

While that article does a good job of summarizing the law in part, there’s a bit more to the story that is useful exploring (however briefly) in a blog post.

First off, people do not generally have a First Amendment protection for things that that they say that their employer finds out about.

Say you go to a white supremacist rally in, oh, Charlottesville and your employer finds out about your speech at the rally. You can be fired because of that generally.

But but but.

A state like Connecticut has a law that says that gives employee a right to sue their employer if the employer disciplines or fires the employee because of that employee exercised their free speech rights under both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, AND the Connecticut Constitution.

Importantly, the speech has to be of a matter of “public concern” and courts will look to see if the person is speaking in his or her capacity as a concerned citizen; criticisms of your own personal workplace will often times not satisfy this standard.

Political speech is almost always the type of speech that courts will consider of a “public concern”.

The Connecticut Supreme Court said in 1999 (not 2015 as The New York Times indicated) in Cotto v. United Tech. Corp. that Connecticut’s free speech statute applied to speech made at an employer’s premises.

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BREAKING: Budget Implementer Bill Contains Big Proposed FMLA Changes for Connecticut

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Legislative Developments, Wage & Hour

Update August 16th: Late yesterday, I received further confirmation that the provisions regarding FMLA were withdrawn entirely from the proposed Democrat-led budget bill. Moreover, the General Assembly early this morning voted on a Republican version of the budget implementer, which now goes on to Governor Malloy (who has indicated he will veto the bill). That version did not contain language on the FMLA changes either. So for now, employers can stand down. However, employers should continue to track the changes both this year and next. FMLA changes may make a return at some point.   

Update at 2:06 p.m.: Since publishing this article, I’ve now heard from three people who work at or with the legislature that while they can’t find fault with my analysis of the proposed legislation as described below, the section on FMLA was intended to address a separate issue.   As a result, it appears that the section on CTFMLA changes discussed below may be withdrawn this afternoon.

What the motives were for this language are far beyond the scope of this blog; this blog has always tried to provide an apolitical analysis of the law and legislation.  For employers, just take note that the budget implementer bill language on FMLA is now likely to be withdrawn when the final bill is considered. 

Late this morning, the proposed bill implementing the state’s budget (a so-called “budget implementer”) was finally released. And like years past, the bill contains some nuggets that are seemingly unrelated to a budget.

As the proposal is a monstrous 925 pages (download here), I’m still reviewing it but employers in Connecticut need to be aware immediately about some proposed changes to the state’s FMLA provisions.  First, a caveat: This is still very much a work in progress so employers should keep a close eye and contact their legislators if interested.

  • First, the bill would expand the scope of relationships covered to include siblings and grandparents/grandkids.  Thus, if you needed to take time off to care for a grandparent, that would now be a covered leave.
  • Second, the bill would revise the definition of employer to now include the state, municipalities, public schools and private schools which means the CTFMLA would now apply to all of them.
  • But then things get even a bit more confusing. The bill changes the definition of “eligible employee” presumably to exclude state workers who are subject to collective bargaining. BUT the bill’s language is far more imprecise and would seemingly exclude ALL workers who are subject to collective bargaining (whether private or public).  Specifically, the definition of “eligible employee” would now mean an employee “who is exempt from collective bargaining…” It does not have the qualifier that perhaps the drafters intended, though, given the speed in which this has been prepared, readers take caution.
  • Next. and quite significantly, the bill would seemingly extend the leave parents get upon the birth of a child or for placement of a child for adoption of foster care.  Specifically, it indicates (line 8472!) that:

Leave under subparagraph (A) or (B) of subdivision (2) of subsection (a) of this section may be extended up to sixteen workweeks beyond the expiration of such leave due under subdivision (1) of subsection (a) of this section.

  • Thus, Connecticut employers would seemingly need to provide up to 32 weeks (16 + 16 more) of unpaid leave for new parents.
  • But the bill goes beyond that too — for leaves for birth, adoption placement, care of a family member or self or to serve as a organ or bone marrow donor, the bill expands the leave too.  Specifically, in line 8529:

An eligible employee may extend his or her personal leave provided under subparagraph (A), (B), (C), (D) or (E) of subdivision (2) of subsection (a) for up to twenty-four workweeks after the expiration of any accrued paid vacation leave, personal leave, or medical or sick leave with proper medical certification.

  • In addition, the bill goes on to add in line 8534, that for leaves for serious health conditions of self or family member, or for donor leaves:

The use of sick leave by an eligible employee for leave provided under subparagraph (C), (D) or (E) of subdivision (2) of subsection (a) of this section shall not be deemed an incident or occurrence under an absence control policy.

The changes are coming fast and furious and it is possible that this proposed bill won’t get passed in its current form.  It’s certainly far beyond the paid FMLA program that was originally under discussion by the legislature.  These changes would be effective in two weeks — October 1, 2017 — which doesn’t given employers almost any time to revise their policies or train their employees.

And I must confess that I’m still a bit surprised by the breadth of this and scratch my head as to whether this language was intended to mean what it appears to say.  I’d like to see a the office of legislative research recap this bill too.

In the meantime, I’m still reviewing the remainder of the bill for other changes relevant to private employers.  (It’s 925 pages and 26452 lines long so bear with me.)  Have you spotted anything else? Add it in the comments below.

Is Jury Diversity a Problem? Panel Explores Issue

Posted in Highlight, Litigation

If you’ve ever tried a case in federal or state court, you know that picking a “jury of your peers” is often a challenge for all.  Sometimes, otherwise qualified prospective jurors say that they have conflicts with their schedules, while others are all too happy to feel like they are participating in a Law & Order episode. (Lifted from a real-life experience.)

But there’s a bigger issue in play too — jury diversity.

What does it really mean to have a jury of our peers? And is jury diversity still an issue?

These will be among the issues that will be on the table in an “In Community” program that my law firm is producing on September 27, 2017 along with the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association.  I sit on the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion committee and have been among the people charged with pulling this together.  I’m excited to see this program come together.

You can find more information about the program here.

The panel includes:

  • The Honorable Victor A. Bolden, United States District Judge, District of Connecticut
  • Allison M. Near, Partner and Litigator, Sheehan, Reeve & Near, LLC
  • Edward P. Schwartz, Ph.D., Jury Consultant, DecisionQuest
  • Robert R. Simpson, Partner and Litigator, Shipman & Goodwin LLP
  • James W. Bergenn, Moderator, Partner and Litigator, Shipman & Goodwin LLP

For those that think the issue is one of the past, I need only point you to a September 5th concurring decision at the Appellate Court by Judge Douglas Lavine.

The case is a criminal one, State v. Holmes, but the notion that the process of peremptory challenges in picking juries is working smoothly is one that he takes issue with.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Batson years ago, which held that removing potential jury members is unconstitutional, only is the start of a solution, not the end point:

It is my view, however, that no amount of judicial diligence and oversight can remedy a problem that has become embedded in the Batson procedure itself unless that procedure is revised. I write separately because this case brings into sharp relief a serious flaw in the way Batson has been, and can be, applied. Batson is designed to prevent lawyers from peremptorily challenging prospective  jurors for manifestly improper reasons based on race, national origin, and the like.

It was not designed to permit prosecutors—and other lawyers—to challenge members of suspect classes solely because they hold widely shared beliefs within the prospective juror’s community that are based on life experiences.

This flaw is in plain sight for all to see and must be remedied if the jury selection process is to attain the goal of producing juries representing all of the communities in our state and gaining their confidence and trust. I believe a blatant flaw that significantly disadvantages black defendants—and people belonging to other suspect classes—has become part of the Batson process itself. I conclude that Connecticut should reform its jury selection process to eliminate the perverse way in which Batson has come to be used.

The panel discussion later this month will address these and other issues.

For employers, jury trials are becoming rare; but jury diversity is essential to ensuring that justice is administered fairly.  Ultimately, everyone involved in the system should be supportive of.

Diving In: Your Company Is More Than Your Employee Handbook

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance

Yesterday, I made a spectacular dive.

Unfortunately, it was not in a pool. It was in the middle of the street.

But it’s what happened AFTER that unfortunate fall, that I find most compelling.

Let me first say, however, that I’m FINE. Really, I’m fine. I’ve said that over and over the last 24 hours but really, well, you get the point.

The incident itself was a classic case of just a plain old accident. I was crossing the street on my way to lunch and didn’t happen to notice the pothole, ditch, depression, or whatever you want to call it in the street.

My ankle turned, I lost my balance, thought I regained it, then realized I hadn’t, and came crashing down mostly (and thankfully) on my hand, shoulder and knee.

End result: A scratched up hand, a bruised shoulder, broken glasses, wrecked suit.  But fortunately no broken bones or anything of the sort. No need for ambulances, hospitals, or taxi-rides home.

It happened to be right outside my work so I got up to get out of the road, took quick stock of myself, and walked (limped?) back inside to find the first aid kit.

In a bit of luck, I also ran into one of our office staff who mobilized our internal first aid health/safety team. Turns out, they are always ready for this.

Within minutes, I had an ice pack, bandages, and a chair.  Someone else offered to return a call for me for an upcoming appointment.  And 30 minutes later, there were still others who stopped by to see how I was doing and encouraged me to recuperate at home. (Advice taken.)

Here’s what I didn’t have: Endless questions about whether this was a “work-related” injury or what the “policy” was on these types of injuries.

Was it on a lunch break? Was it work-related? Those questions don’t really matter in the moment.

Indeed, this wasn’t the first time I’ve seen our health and safety team in action; a year ago, a colleague was choking on some food on my floor. The alerts came fast and furious and they sprung into action — without thinking.

And so, out of a spectacular dive comes your employment law tip of the day:

Your policies are important.

But the way you treat your employees and how your employees treat each other are even more important.  Train those employees to do the “right thing” in the moment and you’ll get glowing returns in spades.  Having a health/safety team for these types of matters is a crucial, and overlooked part of your company.

Policies are helpful in dealing with the unknowns.  But building your company’s culture so that your employees act instinctively, is far more important in the long run.

Your company will have someone like me who just trips and falls, or maybe they’ll be choking, or perhaps something even worse; what you do next will be important to who you are as a company.

And so today, I’m back at work, a little sore, a little bandaged up on my hand.

But thankful, I work at a place that puts its people first.

Two Weeks Until New Protections for Pregnant Employees Become Effective

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center

For those unfamiliar with the way a lot of Connecticut laws get implemented, October 1st could seem like just another day.  (Though for my kids, they would be impressed that it was a different October 1st in 1982 that EPCOT opened at Disney World.)

But a lot of bills that are passed by the Connecticut General Assembly go into effect on October 1st each year. This year is no exception.

For employers, the biggest of these bills is the new law concerning “Pregnant Women in the Workplace”.  I’ve previously recapped the law for pregnant employees in a prior post way back in May, but because we’re getting close to implementation, it’s time for a little refresher.

Existing law makes it a discriminatory practice to:

  • To terminate a woman’s employment because of her pregnancy;
  • to refuse to grant to that employee a reasonable leave of absence for disability resulting from her pregnancy;
  • to deny to that employee, who is disabled as a result of pregnancy, any compensation to which she is entitled as a result of the accumulation of disability or leave benefits accrued pursuant to plans maintained by the employer;
  • to fail or refuse to reinstate the employee to her original job or to an equivalent position with equivalent pay and accumulated seniority, retirement, fringe benefits and other service credits upon her signifying her intent to return unless, in the case of a private employer, the employer’s circumstances have so changed as to make it impossible or unreasonable to do so.

Those rules remain unchanged. But the new law revises some other provisions and adds more to the protections. Effective October 1st, it will now also be unlawful to:

  • Limit, segregate or classify the pregnant employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities due to her pregnancy;
  • Discriminate against an employee or job applicant on the basis of her pregnancy in the terms or conditions of her employment;
  • Fail or refuse to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee or job applicant due to her pregnancy, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship;
  • Deny employment opportunities to an employee or job applicant if the denial is due to the request for a reasonable accommodation due to her pregnancy;
  • Force an employee or job applicant affected by pregnancy to accept a reasonable accommodation if she (i) does not have known limitation related to her pregnancy, or (ii) does not require a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential duties related to her employment;
  • Require an employee to take a leave of absence if a reasonable accommodation can be provided in lieu of the leave; and
  • Retaliate against an employee in the terms, conditions or privileges of her employment based upon the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation.

The changes don’t stop there. The new law also explains that the word “pregnancy” will also include “pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition, including but not limited to, lactation”.  It also expands the definition of “reasonable accommodation ” and “undue hardship”.

  • “Reasonable Accommodation” means, but is not limited to, being permitted to sit while working, more frequent or longer breaks, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, light duty assignment, modified work schedules, temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work, time off to recover from childbirth or break time and appropriate facilities for expressing breast milk; and
  • “Undue Hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as (A) the nature and cost of the accommodation; (B) the overall financial resources of the employer; (C) the overall size of the business of the employer with respect to the number of employees, and the number, type and location of its facilities; and (D) the effect on expenses and resources or the impact otherwise of the accommodation upon the operation of the employer.

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Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim for Job Applicants Remain Viable

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Litigation

A lot has been made of the recent district court decision on legal job protections for qualifying medical marijuana patients.

But the decision has another piece that has been overlooked and which may cause employers some heartburn as well.

The “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress” cause of action has been on life support for the last decade or so as courts have limited its applicability for claims arising in the workplace.

Indeed, the Connecticut Supreme Court held back in 2002 that a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress cannot arise from conduct occurring in an ongoing employment relationship, as distinguished from conduct occurring in the termination of employment.

But what should happen to claims by job applicants that allege that rescinded job offers have caused emotional distress?

The recent decision by Judge Meyer allows that claim to continue and denied an employer’s motion to dismiss.

It found that the allegation of the complaint — and specifically, that the employer knew that plaintiff suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and then waited to rescind her job offer until one day before she was scheduled to begin work (and after she had already left her prior job), was sufficient to establish a possible claim. The allegations of the complaint were that such actions caused plaintiff to experience severe emotional distress, including anxiety, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite.

The Court, in its ruling, analyzed the decisions in Connecticut in the last 15 years and found that “Connecticut courts have not squarely decided whether a rescinded job offer could serve as the basis for a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim”:

The practical,workplace-related reasons … for precluding a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress on the basis of events occurring in an ongoing employment relationship do not apply in the context of an employer who rescinds a job offer before the prospective employee can begin work. … Because the withdrawal of a job offer is more akin to termination than to conduct occurring in an ongoing employment relationship, it seems consistent … that a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress could arise from the withdrawal of a job offer.

Although the decision itself shouldn’t necessarily change how employers manage their job offers (or withdrawals of job offers), it is a reminder to treat job applicants with some care.  If an employer does need to withdraw the job offer, it should be done in a way to minimize the harm to the applicant.

The worry, of course, with the court’s decision is that there are going to be cases that allege that the mere withdrawal of the job offer is sufficient to state a claim; the court’s decision doesn’t go that far and it seems that the plaintiff’s allegation of PTSD was a significant factor in allowing the claim to proceed.

But employers who face such claims in the lawsuit should be sure to review the circumstances to see where on the spectrum the particular claim falls.

Not Giving Employees Something (Namely a Discrimination Complaint) To Talk About

Posted in CHRO & EEOC, Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance

There’s an old(?) Bonnie Raitt song that my parents used to listen to when I was in college called “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About”.  It’s about a crush, but the intro could be just as applicable to a new court decision. The lyrics start: “People are talkin’, talkin’ ’bout people, I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it.”

The short lesson? Don’t give your employees something to talk about — namely when a lawsuit is filed, caution is strongly advised in distributing information about that lawsuit.  Interested in more? My colleague, Gary Starr, shares more:

A recent Connecticut district court decision (EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS) is a cautionary tale for in-house lawyers and human resource managers who want to tell employees about an investigation into discrimination claim brought by a former employee, and that investigation may involve those employees.

Following a disability discrimination charge, the EEOC sought contact information about other employees as well as information about their employment.

Rather than simply advise the employees that the EEOC was being provided with their job title, dates of employment, home address, and phone number, the company also described the accommodation that was requested and information that the former employee’s doctor had indicated that without the accommodation, the employee could not perform the essential functions of the job.

The EEOC viewed this as retaliation against the former employee by disclosing the information and interference with the rights of the employees receiving the letter as the agency thought it would discourage others from making claims in the future out of concern that their personal information would be shared widely.

The Company’s efforts to justify the letter were rejected by the court, which decided that a jury will have to decide whether the letter was retaliation and/or interference.

In communicating with potential witnesses in an agency investigation or lawsuit, employers must be clear on why the notice is being sent.  And employers should exercise caution on deciding what information is being shared.  What the decision suggests is that employees do not need to know what the medical condition another employee may have, what accommodation has been requested by that employee, or what recommendation a doctor has made about the employee.

Letting employees know that their contact information has been given to the EEOC and that they may be contacted would likely have have been sufficient and not opened up the employer to criticism.  And the decision does suggest that offering them the choice of having a lawyer present should not interfere with their rights.

In this instance, less information is better than more.

In any case, in the unlikely event you do need to inform employees about a lawsuit, check with your counsel about the details you should (and should not) be sending.

CT Medical Marijuana Law Protects Employees; Not Preempted By Federal Drug Laws

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Litigation

Labor Day has come and gone. Summer is over.  Can we all stop listening to Despacito now. (Please?)

But it’s time to look at a decision that came out during the dog days of summer that might have been overlooked.  A recent federal district court case (Noffsinger v. SSN Niantic Operating Co. LLC, download here) has answered the question of whether Connecticut’s medical marijuana laws were preempted by federal law.

The decision held that Connecticut employees who have received approval from the state agency to use medical marijuana outside of work cannot be fired just because they test positive for marijuana during a drug screening.  In doing so, the court held that employees and job applicants can sue based on a termination or a rescinded job offer.

As my colleague wrote for my firm’s alert:

Unlike the laws of other states permitting residents to be prescribed medical marijuana, Connecticut’s statute expressly makes it unlawful to refuse to hire or to discharge an employee solely because of the individual’s status as a qualifying patient, or for testing positive in a drug screening as a result of using medical marijuana within the protections of the statute. However, Connecticut does not protect such individuals if they are found to be using or are under the influence of medical marijuana during working hours.

The court analyzed federal drug laws and determined that they do not address the issue of employment and do not make it unlawful to employ a medical marijuana user. As a result, even though federal law prohibits possession or use of marijuana, those restrictions do not apply to someone properly using medical marijuana under state law.

The decision follows one from Massachusetts that we previously recapped here.

In prior posts, I’ve talked about the difficulties for employers trying to navigate this still-developing area of law.  Employers should proceed carefully under such circumstances and ensure compliance with the state’s medical marijuana laws that prohibits firing employees solely because of the individual’s status as a qualifying medical marijuana patient.

If an employee is under the influence of marijuana during working hours, that may afford employers the opportunity to take decisive employment action but other circumstances may not be so clear.

Consulting with your legal counsel on this changing area of law is advisable for the foreseeable future while more court decisions define the parameters of acceptable action.

Obama-Era Proposed Overtime Rules Struck Down By Court

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Wage & Hour

U.S. Department of Labor Headquarters

A federal district court in Texas yesterday struck down (once and for all?) the changes to the overtime rules proposed by the Obama Administration.  Previously, those rules (affecting the white collar exemptions) had been stayed, but the Court’s ruling suggests that there is a fatal flaw to the proposed rules and barred its implementation.

In doing so, the Court said that the salary-level test that was proposed was too high to determine which workers were exempt from overtime compensation.

Of course, there was little chance that these rules were going to get the go-ahead anyways because the Trump administration has shown no desire to support them either politically or in court.  Indeed, in July, the Department of Labor sought public feedback on ways to revise the proposed rule.

The ruling applies to employers nationwide.

While you’ll see a round of headlines today about how this is a big decision, it really should come as no surprise for those of us who have been following this for many months.

So all that guidance last year about how to comply with the new rules? Forget about it for now.

Keep calm and carry on.

 

“Hold My Position Open Indefinitely” Is Not a Reasonable Accommodation, Court Rules

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation

The Connecticut Appellate Court today released an important disability discrimination decision that gives employers some support for employees who struggle with employees who ask for “accommodations” for an indefinite leave for a medical condition.

The case ostensibly addresses the request for “indefinite leave” which I’ve previously talked about it in prior posts.

But the case boils down to a familiar set of facts for employers. An employee who one day says, “I need to take 30 days off for a medical condition” and leaves the employer to twist without further response. As explained by the court:

The plaintiff informed the defendant that she would be taking a leave of absence, did not provide the defendant with any time frame for her return, and did not respond to the defendant’s subsequent attempts to contact her regarding her request for leave. The plaintiff effectively asked the defendant ‘‘to hold [her] position open indefinitely while [she] attempt[ed] to recover. . . .’’

Under these circumstances, the court said that the Plaintiff cannot establish even a prima facie case of discrimination because she cannot show that she “requested a reasonable accommodation that enabled her to perform the essential functions of the job”.

In doing so, the state court reviewed federal law and noted that “[R]easonable accommodation does not require [an employer] to wait indefinitely
for [the employee’s] medical conditions to be corrected . . . .’’

In this particular case, the court said, the plaintiff, prior to her departure, informed her supervisor that she would be taking leave for ‘‘over thirty days depending on my lung condition . . . .’’  At a subsequent deposition, the court went on to say, the plaintiff was asked, with respect to her request for leave, that ‘‘you didn’t know how long you were going to be out, correct?’’ The plaintiff responded, ‘‘[c]orrect.’’

The forms submitted by the employee at the time were confusing and the Plaintiff did not respond after requests by certified and regular mail by the employer for more information.  When the employee was told to submit information by a date certain and did not do so, the employer just went ahead and fired her. The court upheld that termination.

For employers, the case offers some helpful reminders:

  • Reasonable accommodation is an interactive process. So long as the employer holds up its end, courts will be more inclined to support the employer in the end.
  • Seeking medical documentation from employees regarding their requested leaves is both necessary and essential to defending a claim where the documentation is vague.  Don’t hesitate to followup and set firm deadlines to the employee to provide the information.
  • As always, seek legal counsel to help navigate through this and work through any issues regarding termination.

Employers may feel like anti-discrimination laws are rigid, but there is built-in flexibility for employers if they know where to look.

The case, Thomson v. Department of Social Services, can be downloaded here.