Connecticut Employment Law Blog

Insight on Labor & Employment Developments for Connecticut Businesses

Employers May Seek More Than Just a “Doctor’s Note” For FMLA Certification

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

depressOver the years, one of my favorite employment law blogs has been Jeff Nowak’s FMLA Insights.  He really takes a deep dive into the subject and I’ve had the opportunity over the years to exchange ideas with Jeff.

Recently, he alerted me to a new federal court decision in Connecticut that may have a significant impact for employers struggling with FMLA claims.

Rather than duplicate his post, I’m going to suggest reading it now.

The TL;DR note is that the issue he tackles is whether an employer can ask for more information from a medical specialist rather than some vague notes from the primary care physician filling out a FMLA certification form.  In some circumstances, the answer is now “yes”.

The case, Bento v. City of Milford, can be downloaded here.

The court was asked to look at two issues:

First on the initial FMLA certification — was the employer justified in asking for more specific information from a specialist? The court said that because the physician referenced a review from a psychologist, the employer was justified in following up with the specialist to clear up confusion that the physician’s notes brought up.

Second, when the employee wanted to come back to work, the employer was justified in delaying her return to get a more specific fitness for duty certification.  As Jeff notes: A fitness-for-duty certification can seek two things: “1) Confirm that the employee is able to resume work; and 2)Specifically address the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the employee’s job.”  A vague note that the employee could return to work was not enough, the court said.

Rather “the employer has the right to insist that the health care provider review the job description for the position and confirm that the employee can perform those job duties.”

 

The decision is a big win for employers in Connecticut who struggle with FMLA notes that are vague and gives some teeth to the notion that employers can push back.  This is particularly true, I sense, in situations where employees provide a note that they need leave for “job stress”.  Employers — in consulting with employment counsel — should consider seeking more information in response to ambiguity when it comes to FMLA certifications or return to work notes.

I thank Jeff for his tip to this important case.

Employers, Employees and Reasonable Accommodations: A Webinar

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

file9281249337561Tomorrow, I’ll be part of a webinar produced by the American Bar Association on reasonable accommodations under the ADA.  You can still sign up here.

The topic page for the webinar gives a fairly concise summary:

A reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Leave can be a reasonable accommodation if it does not constitute an undue hardship on the employer. Our panel of experts will discuss what obligations employers have to provide leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, in light of recent case law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s May 2016 guidance.

The other speakers on the panel are terrific. Lori Ecker is a Plaintiff’s attorney from Chicago; we’ve worked together in the past on ABA issues and she’ll bring a valuable perspective.  Shannon Rennert is a senior staff attorney with the EEOC who has been on top of these issues for years, even issuing letters on the subject.    Janine Martin moderates.

Among the particulars that we will discuss are such tricky topics such as “maximum leave” policies, and unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation.  I hope you’ll join us.

What a Trump Victory May Mean for Employers and Employment Law

Posted in Highlight, Labor Law & NLRB, Laws and Regulations, Legislative Developments

trumpphotoThere haven’t been a lot of stories about what Donald Trump would do as President when it comes to employment law issues. In part, that was due to the polls. But it was also due in part to the lack of policy details that his campaign put out on his website.  Back in September, I lamented the fact that we weren’t getting to hear any debate on those issues.

So, the news this morning that Donald Trump has been elected President is coming with a bit of scrambling.  What does it mean for employers in Connecticut? What’s going to happen with employment laws and enforcement?

The truth is that we really don’t know at this point.  The fact that the House, Senate and President will all be led by Republicans is something that is going to throw the whole system for a loop.

So, here are a few things to keep an eye on over the upcoming months when it comes to employment law issues:

  • As I noted last month, the new overtime regulations are set to be implemented on December 1, 2016.  Will a lame-duck Congress try to block those rules from being implemented? And if they are still implemented, will a Trump adminstration seek to roll those back? That would be a challenge.  Suffice to say for employers, this added uncertainty is a real headache. Until you hear otherwise, employers should continue to implement these changes.
  • One thing that seems clearer: The NLRB’s moves over the last few years will come to a screeching halt once the Board’s makeup is changed. The NLRB, for better or worse, always seems to change with each Presidency.  A Trump Presidency will no doubt bring changes back; this may impact everything from graduate assistants being able to unionize, the quickie election rules. Everything is in play.
  • For those wondering, the Board has two seats open now; along with the existing Republican member, that would give the Trump presidency a pretty quick majority.
  • The EEOC’s strategic plans will now be called into question as well. In recent years, it has taken aggressive litigation approaches on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Will those tactics be abandoned? Where will the enforcement priorities lead to? Again, don’t expect big changes overnight but over time, this is definitely something to watch.
  • And do not underestimate the impact that a Trump Presidency will have on the federal court system.  He will now be appointing far different judges that we’ve seen over the last eight years — both at the U.S. Supreme Court and at lower court levels.  This will have a long-term effect on employment discrimination cases which are often heard in the federal courts in Connecticut.  As a result, we may continue to see more cases being brought in Connecticut state courts.
  • Let’s not forget that Trump also suggested a six-week paid maternity leave program.  Will we see Congress pick this issue up? Stay tuned too.  

For Connecticut employers, lost in the headlines of a Trump presidency is the fact that Republicans seem to have gained an unprecedented 18-18 split in the State Senate. This could potentially put the brakes on legislation the next two years on issues like non-competes or expanded paid leave.  It’s too early to tell but this is something we’ll be looking into as well.

But for all the uncertainty out there, remember this: Many of our federal laws are unlikely to change.  ADA, FMLA, Title VII are all fairly hearty laws that share widespread support.  The changes that may come are all things around the edges — things like enforcement approaches, guidances, etc.

For employers, it’s best to keep a close eye on the developments for employment law. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years.

What Not to Do: Tips from the Ultimate Office Holiday Party Movie Trailer

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance

I don’t know about you but the news lately has been awfully serious lately.  Thus, on this Friday before Election Day, let me share something a bit lighter.

So last night, I started watching a few popcorn movie trailers to get my mind off things while finishing up some work.  Sure, there was Star Wars: Rogue One (which I’m going to see — probably twice) and Wonder Woman (likely to see).

But then I came across this, a new trailer for an upcoming movie Office Christmas Party (caution, it’s a little NSFW for language):

(Sadly?) My first instinct was to go — this is going to be a train wreck for employment law issues. But like any good train wreck, I watched anyway.  Because when the motto of a movie is “Party Like Your Job Depends on It”, really, I felt needed to sacrifice for my esteemed blog readers.

And let’s just say — this looks like an epic employment law disaster.  You’ve got employees sledding down stairs only to crash — just a worker’s compensation claim or two there.  You’ve got inappropriate dancing — obviously a sex harassment case in there somewhere.  There’s slip and slides on ice…in the office — clearly an OSHA violation.  And an employee who has apparently stolen some reindeer — a violation of the personnel handbook for sure.

Needless to say, it looked entirely inappropriate for an office setting.

Thankfully, it’s just a movie.  But with stores now having made the changeover from Halloween to Christmas (what happened to Thanksgiving?), it seemed an appropriate reminder to review your office holiday party protocols.  I’ve covered it in many posts like this one.

As for whether I’ll actually see “Office Christmas Party” in the theater, truthfully the odds are I’ll probably see Sing with my kids first.

I only counted one employment law issue in that trailer.

Restroom Access and Transgender Issues in the Workplace Go Supreme

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

seminarI still remain amazed at the sold-out crowd we had at last week’s Labor & Employment Law seminar.  Well over 250 people registered for the program and I kind of wanted to whisper to people: “You know this is just a LEGAL seminar, right?”

But no matter. Employment law issues are as popular as ever and we had great feedback from the crowd.

One of the topics we handled was one suggested by several attendees at last year’s seminar: Transgender Issues in the Workplace.  I’ve talked about this before in some prior posts here and here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the areas we covered was restroom access.  This seems to be one area that employers continue to grapple with. Indeed, as I noted last year in a post on the topic, the issue “that seems to get the most press is restroom access.”

Just a day after our seminar, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case on this very topic — meaning we are likely to get some court guidance at last.  Although the case involves student access to bathrooms, many are hoping that the decision provides some clarity to employers on the issue as well.

But as SCOTUSBlog notes, the court is tackling the issue from more of a technical perspective than anything else:

The Supreme Court added five new cases to its docket this afternoon. Among the new grants was Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., the case of a transgender student who identifies as a boy and wants to be allowed to use the boys’ bathroom at his Virginia high school.

Although the controversy over the school board’s policy requiring students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match the gender that they were assigned at birth instantly became the highest-profile case of the court’s term so far, the dispute actually centers on more technical (and, some would say, rather dry) legal issues. In this case, the district court ruled against G.G., relying on a 1975 regulation that allows schools to provide “separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities on the basis of sex,” as long as those facilities are comparable to those provided to the opposite sex. But, in January 2015, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued an opinion letter stating that, if schools separate students in restrooms and locker rooms on the basis of their sex, a “school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.” In light of the 2015 letter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed and ruled for G.G. It relied on the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Auer v. Robbins, which held that courts generally should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation.

Still, to see issues of gender identity being heard at the U.S. Supreme Court shows how far this issue has come in a relatively short period of time.

Any decision from the court, however, is likely to have a muted impact in Connecticut. Connecticut already protects against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression, in contrast to federal law which isn’t as explicit.

At the seminar, one of my law partners, Kevin Roy, suggested that employers who feel flummoxed by the legal rules, should approach the issue from the perspective of trying to treat employees with “dignity and respect”.  That may be the simplest and easiest way to tackle a still-evolving issue.

Silence May Not Be Golden When It Comes to the ADA’s Interactive Process

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

starrMy colleague Gary Starr sits next to my office and sometimes we bounce ideas off each other. One of the things we were talking about recently was a new case that discussed an employer’s obligations to enter into the interactive process.  

This often comes up in ADA cases where the employee may need a reasonable accommodation.  As we discuss in this joint post below, there are no magic words needed — and sometimes no words needed at all.  

Both federal law (ADA) and state law (CFEPA) require employees and management to meet and discuss what might be a reasonable accommodation when an employee with a disability seeks an accommodation.

This interactive process was envisioned as a way to work collaboratively to find a reasonable accommodation.  Certainly when an employee asks for an accommodation, an employer must engage in the process.

But here are a few questions to ponder:

  • What should happen when the employee does not quite use the right words to start the process?
  • Can the employer be liable for failing to engage in the interactive process after terminating an employee who has not been accommodated?
  • While there are no magic words that must be uttered to start the interactive process,  what will trigger the obligation?

A recent federal appeals court case (Kowitz v. Trinity Health) discussed this situation, where the employer apparently ignored the signs requiring it to explore possible accommodations.  As a result, the employee will get her day in court.

The basic facts:

  • A respiratory therapist was diagnosed with a degenerative disease.
  • She requested and was granted time off for surgery under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  After she exhausted her FMLA leave, she returned to work with restrictions.
  • During her leave, management reminded the department’s employees that they needed to submit proof of their certification in CPR, an essential job function.  Employees who needed to get recertified were required to say when they were going to take the course and the written and physical tests.
  • Having discussed the matter with her doctor, the therapist left a voice mail message for her supervisor that she would take the course and the written exam, but needed to complete 4 more months of physical therapy before she could do the physical portion of the test.
  • The next day, the respiratory therapist was terminated because  she was unable to perform CPR.

She sued, claiming that her employer did not engage in the interactive process.  The court found that while the therapist did not expressly ask for an accommodation, she provided sufficient information to start discussions.

The court pointed out that the employer was aware of the disability.  It approved the FMLA leave.  It received the Return to Work form from her doctor with work restrictions.  And there was evidence that the employee had told her supervisor about her problems completing the CPR certification and she told her supervisor about her doctor appointments and her continuing pain.

What’s the Takeaway?

This decision warns employers that if you know about an employee’s medical limitations, that knowledge may be sufficient to trigger the informal interactive process.

While it is not clear whether other courts will adopt this liberal approach, which is better in the long run: Sitting down with the employee or litigating?

It is important to remember that not all requests for an accommodation are reasonable.  The expense of a requested accommodation may not be reasonable; what the employer offers may be reasonable, even if rejected by the employee; and there may not be a solution to the situation.

But engaging in the process makes much more sense than trying to convince a judge or jury that you were too busy to meet for an hour or so and were unwilling to listen to possible ways to have the employee be productive and contribute to the company.

Employer Can Refuse to Pay Commissions After Termination — Under Certain Conditions

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center, Wage & Hour

Thanks to all who came to our Labor & Employment seminar on Thursday. Our biggest crowd yet. In it, we talked about the importance of offer letters.  Marc Herman returns today with a post updating us on a recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision that came out while I was on vacation a while back that makes that point even clearer.  

hermanPicture this: Jill works for you.  You fire her as an at-will employee.  Two weeks later, you receive a letter from Jill claiming that she is owed commission for several sales that she completed prior to her termination.

What should you do?

Let’s look at her offer letter.  That it usually a good starting place.

Blah, blah, blah. . . ah, something about commission.  Let’s see what it says:

Commission is only paid once work has been performed and invoiced to the client.  Upon termination of employment, all commissions cease, except those commissions that have been invoiced to the client.

You look again at Jill’s letter and look-up her recent sales.  You realize that the commission to which she refers relates to sales that had not yet been invoiced to the client when Jill was fired.

You excitedly draft a response to Jill  – “Sorry, Jill – you’re out of luck!” (or words to that effect — your lawyer can probably help with the wording).

Jill sues you.  She argues that you owe her money.  Moreover, she argues that the commission provision is unenforceable as a matter of public policy — “you can’t deprive me of commission that I worked hard for!”

Now what?

Well, in a recent decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that provisions like the one above may be enforceable — and that employers may not have to pay a commission because of the language used in the offer letter.

In Geysen v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. (bearing facts very similar to Jill’s), a former employee argued that such compensation provisions are unenforceable as a matter of public policy and therefore his former employer had violated the law by not paying him commission.

The trial court agreed.

On appeal, the CT Supreme Court issued a thoughtful decision.  It made two main points:

Point One: Parties should have the freedom to make contracts with unfavorable terms.

Point Two:  You cannot draft a contract that simply tries to work-around the law.  They violate public policy — A big no-no.

So what about provisions like the one above?

The easiest answer is that such provisions should pass legal muster.  Sure, it may contain terms that favor the employer, but that’s ok because the parties bargained for it.  Nor is it a work-around the law; the law simply requires that employers pay employees in accordance with any agreement.

After concluding that the provision was enforceable, the Court read it literally: no commission due.  The Plaintiff’s hard work aside, he had previously agreed that no commission would be “due” prior to the client being invoiced.

The Court also agreed with the defendant-employer that the employee’s claim of wrongful discharge (as a matter of public policy) was also without merit.  No violation of public policy and therefore no wrongful discharge.

Note, however: the Court left open the possibility that such practices could amount to a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.  This really concerns the employer’s motive.

For example, an employer’s motive for firing an employee was simply to avoid paying commission, that would be a breach of the implied covenant of good faith.

What’s the lesson here? Agreements with employees are not unenforceable simply because they may seem unfair to the employee.  However, apply caution in drafting agreements that seek to work-around the law.

Freedom of contract is alive and well. . . for now.

Hiring Without Headaches – A Possibility or Fantasy?

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center, Wage & Hour

So this week, I’ll be speaking at our firm’s semi-annual Labor & Employment Law seminar.  Amazingly, we have reached capacity for this event and are now taking names for a waiting list! Many thanks to all who have signed up.  It should be a lot of fun.

Frequent blog contributor (and, well, a colleague) Chris Engler and I will be talking about the nuts and bolts of the hiring process.  Hiring is, after all, the engine that runs companies.  And making good hiring decisions can yield a ton of benefits in the long run.  Moreover, hiring good employees can help avoid lawsuits from arising too.

So what are we going to talk about? Well, we’re going to look at some of the new laws on hiring.  “Ban the Box” is the latest law to arise — limiting the ability of employers to ask about criminal histories on job applications.  Limits on the use of credit reports is another relatively recent law in the last few years.

After I put together the presentation, though, I came across a really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about how some companies are using quirky interviews in their hiring process.    In doing so, the companies are striving for “culture fit”.

At Zappos, an online retailer famed for its offbeat office culture and corporate values, veteran employees size up candidates’ ability to blend in—and have veto power over those who miss the mark. The culture experts ask candidates questions that seemingly have little to do with the job, such as “If you were to write your biography, what would the title be?”

Rick Jordan, who leads talent acquisition for the nearly 1,500-person company, says longtime employees sometimes have a “gut feeling” about who is likely to succeed. About 1 in 8 don’t make the cut, he notes. “People who are true fits to the culture and believe what we believe—they’ll do anything for the business.”

But as the article notes, “culture-fit interviews raise concerns among employment experts, who warn that such screenings may be rife with potential for bias. Though these screenings haven’t been at the center of a major employment lawsuit, legal experts are concerned that they could put companies at risk.”

Indeed, there’s already a backlash against such interviews. Facebook, the article notes, “discourages its managers from using culture fit as a criteria in hiring, and calls the term ‘a bias trap,’ according to a spokeswoman.”

Where to from here? Well, employers should continually look at their hiring processes to ensure that the message of fair, non-discriminatory hiring is getting across to those who are making the decisions.

We’ll discuss this and more at the upcoming seminar. If you’re coming, please feel free to introduce yourself to me (during a break!).  See you then.

(P.S. Many thanks to Jon Hyman who alerted me to the hilarious video of President Obama’s “job interview” with Stephen Colbert. Worth a watch.)

Overtime Rules Still On Track — Are You Ready?

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center, Wage & Hour
USDOL Headquarters in DC

USDOL Headquarters in DC

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of bluster about lawsuits filed that are challenging the new overtime rules that are set to take place in just a few weeks. And there was also news that Congress was considering a law restricting the law as well.

Both seem unlikely to come to pass and employers that have been postponing action in the hopes of a “white knight” on the issue should think twice.

I covered the new rules in several prior posts (here and here, for example). But as a reminder, the rule becomes effective December 1, 2016. Note that December 1 is a Thursday, so employers will have to make sure that the entire pay period is compliant with the new rule.

So, that leaves you with precious few weeks to get into compliance.  There are a number of different approaches to take and its definitely not a one-size-fits-all type of law.

One suggestion though is to have your trusted attorney or HR consultant take a look at any questions you have.  We have done this for several and there are some challenges that may seem unique to your business that other companies have struggled with as well.

If the court suspends implementation of the new rules, you can still decide then, but it may be a game-time decision given how late we are in the process.

And About “Embarrassing” Student Teaching Assistant Handbooks….

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Labor Law & NLRB, Social Media

Lucan_J_WebMy colleague Jarad Lucan returns today with an update on a post regarding the impact that recent labor law decisions are having on colleges and universities.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I reported on the case before the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) related to the Northwestern University’s scholarship football players seeking the right to unionize.

The Regional Director in that case determined that the players were employees under the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”) and therefore could vote to be represented by a Union in connections with negotiating terms and conditions of employment with the University.

Ultimately, the Board refused to exercise jurisdiction over the players  and therefore left open whether they are employees under the NLRA or not.

At the time we reported on the case,  we discussed some of the impacts of the decision beyond the ability of players to unionize, including that the Board may scrutinize the University’s policies to see if those policies complied with the NLRA.

More specifically, whether the policies were written in a way that would either expressly or implicitly prevent the players from engaging in protected concerted activity.

Apparently, someone did challenge the “Football Handbook” and on September 22, 2016, The Board’s Office for the General Counsel issued an advice memorandum related to that charge advising against the issuance of a complaint.

The memorandum assumed that the football players were employees, and indicated that:

[i]t would not effectuate the policies and purposes of the NLRA to issue complaint in this case because the employer, although still maintaining that athletic scholarship football players are not employees under the NLRA, modified the rules to bring them into compliance with the NLRA and sent the scholarship football players a notice of the corrections, which sets forth the rights of employees under the NLRA.

According to the memorandum, Northwestern modified its handbook pertaining to social media use striking portions of the rules, in most cases replacing with new language.

In particular, Northwestern took out language barring student-athletes from posting things online that “could embarrass you, your family, your team, the Athletics Department or Northwestern University.”

The new text is more specific, telling the athletes not to post things that “contain full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity.”

The memorandum also pointed to changes with the University’s rules on disclosing injury information, which had told players to “[n]ever discuss any aspects of the team, the physical condition of any players, planned strategies, etc. with anyone” saying the “team is a family and what takes place on the field, in meetings or in the locker room stays within this family.”

The new rule says football players should not reveal injuries because of “the need to ensure that teams with whom we compete do not obtain medical information about our student-athletes” but says the rule does not “prohibit student athletes from discussing general medical issues and concerns with third parties provided that such discussions do not identify the physical or medical condition or injury of specific or named student athletes.”

According to the memorandum, “[t]hat modification struck the proper balance of maintaining players’ confidentiality and protecting football team information while at the same time allowing players to speak out on a no-names basis about vital health and safety issues impacting themselves, their teammates, and fellow collegiate football players.”

The memorandum further noted that the school eliminated a dispute resolution policy for student-athletes to bring a “complaint or grievance concerning personal rights and relationships to the athletic program,” which required the players to first bring such issues to the director of football operations.

So if the memorandum advised against an issuance of a complaint, why should you care about it?

Well, as was recently reported, in the Columbia University case, the Board held that student teaching assistants were employees covered by the NLRA.  These employees not only have the right to unionize, but also have the right to engage in protected concerted activity even if they do not unionize.  Any handbook or policies, therefore, governing the terms and conditions of the relationship between the teaching assistants and the college or university will likely come under the NLRB’s scrutiny.

So, employers beware (again): You should review, or have your attorney review, your current policies and handbooks to ensure compliance with the NLRA.