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But what should happen to claims by job applicants that allege that rescinded job offers have caused emotional distress?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decisions in Connecticut in the last 15 years and found that “Connecticut courts have not squarely decided whether a rescinded job offer could serve as the basis for a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim”: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.

I’ll confess. I’m excited about today’s post.  It’s hard to find something new to do after nearly 10 years of blogging, but I think today’s post is pretty innovative. Unless you read The New York Times “The Conversation” which we’ve tried to copy emulate here.  Except this post (and hopefully others) will be called “The Dialogue”.  Somehow different, right? 

Today’s post tackles some of the legal issues regarding hiring but does so in a back-and-forth format between a management-side attorney (myself) and an employee-side attorney (Nina Pirrotti).  I’d insert a reference to the letters of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr discussing the issues of the day, but then I remembered that ended in a duel, and it’s not exactly what I was foreseeing here.  I think Nina and I can exchange some thoughts without trying to kill one another. 

Anyways, Nina and I have tried something new below.  Nina is a partner at the law firm of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald and Pirrotti, where she represents employees in all types of matters.  She’s a past-President of the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association and a frequent presenter on employment law topics.   My thanks to her for being brave enough to try this with me.  Let me know what you think. 

The Dialogue Begins

Dan Schwartz: Welcome to the blog and thanks for engaging in this discussion on employment law. I promise that we here at the blog don’t bite and we pay all of our workers (me) minimum wage. (Ok, that’s a lie. I get nothing for writing the blog, but moving on….)

I know we were planning on talking about some developments in the world of hiring and employment law, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask you something about the new Trump Administration.  From the perspective of an attorney who typically represents employees, what are one or two things you’re keeping an eye out for?

nina_t_pirrotti1-150x150Nina Pirrotti: Thank you, Dan, for your warm welcome.  We plaintiffs’ employment lawyers have been feeling mighty chilly since November 8th and have been bracing ourselves ever since for even more frigid temps ahead.  Ironically, I felt the impact of Trump’s election virtually immediately.  On November 9th, I flew to Chicago and spoke at the ABA’s annual Labor & Employment conference.   

The topic of the panel on which I spoke revolved around laws which prohibit employer retaliation against employees for discussing their wages.  The laws are designed to protect female employees who are trying to figure out whether they are being paid less than their male counterparts.  

I was all set to talk about the Paycheck Fairness Act which would have expanded the protection provided by those laws and was expected to be one of the first pieces of legislation signed by Hillary Clinton.  As you can imagine, my plane ride there was consumed with a furious re-write of my outline! The next day I flew to Dallas to participate in the semi-annual Executive Board meeting for the National Employment Lawyers’ Association where we also had to nimbly adjust our focus to reflect the new (surreal) reality.  

I did not thaw out after learning that Trump nominated Andy Puzder, CEO of chain restaurants, including Hardees (which, sadly, is the maker of my all -time favorite breakfast biscuit) to head the Department of Labor.  Puzder’s employee track record, which includes opposing overtime and minimum wage laws and underpaying his own workers is abysmal.   

I can only hope that the rumors that he might back out of consideration prove to be true.  I did feel  a glimmer of hope after I learned this week that Trump has tapped EEOC Commissioner Victoria A. Lipnic as Acting Chair of EEOC.  Lipnic, who was nominated by President Obama, has served as EEOC Commissioner since 2010.

I was also mildly heartened by Trump’s expression of (granted, lukewarm) support in his campaign for pay equity laws and paid FMLA leave, both championed by Hillary Clinton and I can only hope that the person who might most positively influence him in that regard (Ivanka) is able to carry the day.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration does seem poised to reverse or suspend the changes to Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime rules which went into effect on December 1, 2016.  

Of course, the most important event that we plaintiffs’ employment lawyers are waiting for is the announcement of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee who would replace the very conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.  That person may likely cast the deciding vote on cases that impact the rights of workers in a myriad of ways.  Unfortunately for us, the three oldest justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Kennedy  and Breyer  – are liberal or moderate and Trump may have more than one bite at that proverbial apple during his (hopefully only) four-year stint. 

Since your excellent blog has national appeal and one or more of these justices might actually read it, I hereby urge all three of them to eat well, exercise moderately and avoid all high risk activities! Continue Reading The Dialogue: Hiring Employees the Right Way (From Different Sides)

So did everyone enjoy Thanksgiving? I’m still recovering from my vacation so in the meantime, my colleagues, Brenda Eckert and Ashley Mendoza, return today with a post about updated I-9 forms that all employers MUST start using in January 2017.  If you do any hiring, this post ought to be front and center to fulfill your obligations. 

eckertashleymendoza1On November 14, 2016, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) published a revised version of Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification (“Form I-9”).  This isn’t the first time it has done so but a new set of revisions means more changes for employers.

Established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”), Form I-9 is used to verify the identity and employment authorization of all individuals, including U.S. citizens, hired for employment in the United States. All U.S. employers, regardless of size, must ensure proper completion and retention of Form I-9 for each new employee hired after November 6, 1986.

Beginning on January 22, 2017, employers must only use the revised Form I-9 version dated November 14, 2016. USCIS has allowed a grace period through January 21, 2017 when employers may continue to use the Form I-9 version dated March 8, 2013.  Both the revised Form I-9 and the prior version may be found on USCIS’ website.

Generally, the revisions made to Form I-9 were designed to make it more user-friendly, to reduce errors and to enhance form completion using a computer. Some of the most notable changes include:

  • Informational prompts are included on the form;
  • Employees only need to provide “other last names used” in Section 1, Employee Information and Attestation, rather than all “other names used”;
  • The employee certification in Section 1 is streamlined for certain foreign nationals;
  • There is an addendum page to enter multiple preparers and translators, when applicable; and
  • In Section 2, Employer or Authorized Representative Review and Verification, there is a dedicated area to enter additional information that employers have previously been required to notate in the margins of the form.

Further enhancements were made to the Form I-9 that will appear when completing it electronically on a computer. Users will see:

  • Checks to certain fields to ensure information is entered correctly;
  • Drop-down lists and calendars;
  • Instructions on the screen that users can access to complete each field; and
  • Buttons that will allow users to access the instructions electronically, print the form, and clear the form to start over.

The Form I-9 instructions have been updated to include a field-by-field guide to completion, and to address common issues that arise during completion. The revised instructions have also been separated into a distinct document from the revised Form I-9, in line with USCIS’ general practice.

While USCIS has indicated it will soon issue a revised M-274, Handbook for Employers, Guidance for Completing Form I-9, it has yet to do so. In the meantime, USCIS refers users to the revised Form I-9 instructions, found on its website for the most up-to-date information.

Notably, the list of acceptable documents that the employee may present in order to establish identity and employment authorization remains the same. 

While the Form I-9 may seem relatively straightforward to employers, its completion can be complex and the rules surrounding it constantly evolve, which leads to large fines and other penalties for not completing and retaining the forms correctly.

For this reason, we recommend reaching out to an experienced immigration attorney when questions arise regarding the Form I-9.

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.)

In the course of my litigation cases, I’ve had a good-natured argument at times with a few counsel who represent employees about the mindset of employers.  The argument I’ve heard from them is that employers are too cavalier in firing employees and just go about hiring someone else (someone younger, they argue).

headahbBut what I’ve heard from my clients over the years is something different.

Typically, the decision to fire an employee is tough, made only after a series of internal conversations.  Employees with performance issues weigh on the supervisor’s minds — the struggle between trying to help the employee improve while still making sure that the needs of the business get done.

Mostly they get it right. But firing a poor performer doesn’t typically solve the issues for employers. Rather, they then need to find the RIGHT person to fill that position.

Hiring the right person is hard.   Just the process of searching for that person can sometimes feel like the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Online resumes come in by the dozen and business pressures make it difficult for employers to just find the time to parse through the resumes and interview candidates.

The headaches with hiring have only gotten worse over the last decade as well.

New laws have been put in place that place restrictions on what employers can and cannot ask and when they can ask those questions. And further restrictions on things like non-compete agreements in certain professions make hiring the right person all the more important.

For example, “Ban the Box” is now the law in Connecticut. Have you amended your employment applications to address this issue? Restrictions on the use of credit reports were put in a few years ago. Have you revised your process accordingly? And how can you search social media without running afoul of laws that ban “shoulder surfing”?  Do you give employees an “offer letter” that outlines the terms of their employment as Connecticut law requires?

I’ve talked about some of these things in prior posts, but I’m going to expound upon it further at our firm’s upcoming Labor & Employment Law seminar later this month.  You can register for the program here; space is very limited at this point.

Are there other topics related to hiring that you’d like to hear addressed at the seminar or on the blog? Be sure to post a comment so we can incorporate that in our free presentation.

ashleymendoza1alfredoMy colleagues, Ashley Mendoza and Alfredo Fernandez, return today for a guest post today that shows that employment law issues can sometimes present themselves in different formats.  My thanks to the both of them in presenting a fairly advanced topic in a form that will hopefully be of interest to a few of you out there.

Imagine your company has employed a research scientist to support your technology programs.  The scientist is a citizen of the People’s Republic of China and holds an H-1B visa, but is not authorized to view certain export-controlled technical data.  Unclear of the restrictions in place, other company employees provide the foreign scientist with technical data related to a military program in the course of his job duties.  This real life scenario recently resulted in a $100,000 settlement penalty with the U.S. State Department this summer.

It appears that a company policy to screen out foreign candidates for job openings of this sensitive nature would have prevented this violation and penalty, but a company also faces the challenge of avoiding discrimination in its hiring practices.  Is this a lose-lose scenario?  Not quite, but companies must pay close attention to recent guidance and regulatory revisions to understand their compliance obligations.

The Tricky Intersection of Legal Obligations

On March 31, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices (the “OSC”) released its most recent guidance to employers to aid them in navigating the murky waters where export regulations meet immigration antidiscrimination regulations.

These two regulated areas may contradict each other when it comes to the hiring practices of U.S. companies soliciting candidates for a position where the job duties impose compliance with export control laws. Unfortunately, the limited governmental guidance confounds some employers when it comes to complying with both sets of regulations in certain scenarios.   The OSC’s recent guidance and upcoming definitional changes within the export control laws do provide some general direction for employers; however several ambiguous issues remain unresolved.

IMG_7083What We Know About the Export Regulations in this Context

Exports are commonly associated with the shipment of a tangible item to a foreign country, but the U.S. export regulations have a much broader application.  An export also includes the transfer of controlled technical data or technology to foreign persons, even when the transfer takes place within the geographic territory of the United States.  Such a transfer is “deemed” to be an export to the country of the foreign person and is referred to as a “deemed export.”

Although not the only federal agencies administering export control laws, the U.S. State and Commerce Departments manage the two broadest export control systems.  The U.S. State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls administers the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR”), found at 22 C.F.R. §§ 120-130, which control defense articles and services.  The U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) administers the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”), found at 15 C.F.R. §§ 730-774, which control commercial and dual-use items,  as well as limited low-sensitivity military items.  Generally speaking, all articles controlled under the ITAR and many articles controlled under the EAR require an export license before the export, including a deemed export, occurs.

Each set of regulations accounts for deemed exports but have slightly different definitions of key terms.  In fact, new and revised definitions under both regulations become effective September 1, 2016.  One primary intention of the definitional changes is to better harmonize the analogous definitions in both systems. Under both regulations, the deemed export rule applies only to foreign persons and, by definition, does not apply to U.S. citizens, persons lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States (e.g., green card holders) or to persons who are protected individuals under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”)(e.g., certain refugees and asylees).

The below table showcases a few of the new definitions, including the improved harmonization for key terms such as export and release. Continue Reading How to Avoid Discrimination in Hiring, While Complying with Export Laws

bitsWith Twitter, I’ve been doing less “recap” posts of late. Why? For the simple reason that you can get all of the posts I’ve read of late on Twitter.

We didn’t have that when I started the blog nearly 8 years ago.

(Side note: It was eight years ago this week that I came up with the idea of doing a labor & employment blog after attending an ABA conference with Kevin O’Keefe in Montreal. Time flies.)

But from time to time, I still think its useful to recap some interesting developments in labor & employment law without a dedicated post. So, here are a few items I’ve read lately that you might find of interest.

  • With Bruce Jenner’s recent interview, the issue of transgender employees in the workplace is moving to the forefront again. This Employment Law360 story recaps the state of affairs.
  • Attorneys who represent empl0yees are looking for new ways to help prove emotional distress damages in discrimination cases.  As BeLabor the Point points out: “For example, doctors can now use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure and visibly observe the effects of emotional distress on the brain.” This may represent a new area of the law in the upcoming years.
  • Many bloggers have been writing on code words for age discrimination that pop up from time to time in job advertisements.  Suzanne Lucas, of Inc., talks about one such example — the use of of the phrase “digital native”.
  • In past years, I’ve talked about how the legislature keeps considering a bill that would force Connecticut schools to teach labor history.  That bill is still alive this year.  And may be making more progress than people realize.

interviewOn Friday, I had the opportunity to speak to the Human Resource Association of Greater New Haven. My sincere thanks to them for the invitation.

The group asked me to talk about various legal traps employers face in the hiring process and solutions to avoiding those issues.  Here are some of the points we talked about.

  1. Don’t Ask Bad Interview Questions – This is, in some ways, the easiest area to fix.  There are several types of questions that are (mostly) improper for employers to ask, such as, “Are you disabled?” or “Are you planning on having kids soon?”.  I’ve talked about this before, but the key is to plan your questions ahead of time and know which areas to avoid.
  2. Train Your Managers – Now that you know which questions are proper or improper to ask, be sure to let your hiring supervisors who are doing many of these interviews what the rules are as well. Don’t assume that they will ask good questions. Provide some training to them to give them the do’s and don’ts in the hiring process.
  3. Check the I-9s.  This is an area that can be overlooked, but it is important for employers to review the proper documentation at the time of an employee’s hire. New employees who forget their identification papers in the hopes that you’ll forget about it in a few days are cause for concern. Beyond that, be sure to keep your documentation on this or you’ll be susceptible to a government audit.
  4. Comply with FCRA.   Do you use a third-party to do background checks on new hires? If so, be sure to follow the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which mandates certain documentation be provided to employees and certain procedures to be followed. I’ve talked about it in a prior post as well.
  5. Implement Restrictive Covenants at Hiring.  When you use restrictive covenants (such as non-solicitation provisions) for your key employees, be sure to have that paperwork done at the time of an offer, or, on the employee’s first day at work. While continued employment could be enough consideration in some agreements, making a new job contingent on the restrictive covenants is a near sure-fire way to make sure there is sufficient consideration.  Some states, like Oregon, even mandate it in their laws.

Suzanne Lucas, who writes under the moniker of the “Evil HR Lady” (and who is anything BUT evil), recently released a post about when an individual should hire an employment attorney.

She cites to another good lawyer/blogger — Chris McKinney — who also posted on the subject from an employee’s perspective.

But suppose you own or work at a small to mid-size business. Odds are you don’t have a lawyer in-house that you can discuss this with.  You may have an attorney you call from time to time.

What then?

Well, suppose you injured your leg going skiing. Would you have your primary care physician handle things or would you go to a orthopedic specialist?

That, in some ways, is the inquiry that you should be asking yourself.

Is the problem that you have something that any attorney can handle or is there something more to the issue?

There are a few situations that I’ve seen over time when clients seem to be happy about calling an employment attorney.

1. Getting sued is the most obvious one. But many times, the claims from an employee are filed at the agency level first.  Those proceedings are the best time to get an attorney involved in drafting and defending your company because what you say there will dictate your defenses at court later on.

2. Getting a letter from an attorney representing an employee is another situation when hiring an employment lawyer may be useful.  The desire to “lawyer up” isn’t necessarily a bad one. But an employment lawyer in Connecticut may be familiar with the employee’s attorney and can help defuse an otherwise-heated situation.

3. Getting a phone call from a state or federal agency doing an investigation of your workplace practices is still another situation. This can be a challenge because often times there is little advance notice. But having an employment attorney available for a call, can again save headaches for the employer and level the playing field.

This is, of course, not a complete list.  But thinking about these issues before you actually need an attorney can make it much easier when an “emergency” arises.

Six years ago, posts about layoffs were in vogue.  But it’s been a long while since we focused on posts about hiring.

With the economy generally stable (or shall we dare say improving?), it seems appropriate to talk about job interview questions.

There are lots of posts about the “best” job interview questions you can pose as an employer. (Where do you want to be in five years?)

So are there any questions that are off limits?

Yes, plenty of them. And I’m not talking about ridiculous hard ones like the ones posed by Google. Rather, the questions that have the potential to get you and your company into hot water.  Are they always illegal? Not necessarily. But there are just better ways to frame your question.

But first, a caveat: These types of lists have been done before. It’s hard to be original because the so-called “banned” questions don’t really change over time. So I’m going to pick five that I think are among the trickiest but commend you to posts like this that have much more detail.

1) Do you belong to a club or social organization?  Ok, perhaps this isn’t fair to start with this one. After all, it’s a fairly innocuous question.  However, ask yourself how the information you receive will be relevant to whether the applicant is qualified to do the job.  It has the potential of revealing information that you shouldn’t be considering about a person’s religious affiliation or sexual orientation.

What can you ask instead? Are there any professional or trade association groups you belong to? 

2) Do you have or plan to have children? This falls into the “just trying to make conversation” trap.  Most of the time, it’s not done for nefarious reasons. But it could be viewed that way.  And so long as the applicant does the job, his or her family obligations should not be a consideration.  If overtime is a consideration, ask specifically about that. Or travel.

What can you ask instead? Can you work overtime? Have you worked overtime in the past? And if the job requires travel, are you comfortable with traveling several days a month for business? 

3) Do you smoke? You may want a healthy workplace, but with limited exceptions, Connecticut law actually prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their outside-the-workplace smoking habits.  If the concern is that it will interfere with a job or that employees have been violating company policies, be more specific. Ultimately, these types of questions probably won’t give you the answers you are seeking.

What can you ask instead? Have you ever been disciplined for violating employer policies on smoking in the workplace? 

4) Do you have a disability?  Perhaps the applicant has a visible disability. Don’t get carried away by your curiousity. Focus on the job qualifications.

What can you ask instead? Can you perform the job and, based on what you know about the position, how would you do so?

5) How much longer do you plan to work before you retire? I understand why you would want to know this information: You’re trying to stay away from hiring an older worker who will want to leave in a few years.  But the law says you can’t do so.

What can you ask instead? What are your long-term career goals?

And avoid word association tests.

One final cautionary note: It should be obvious, but don’t ever give Word Association tests. A classic late-night skit demonstrates that point.

(Caution: Even though it’s just from Saturday Night Live the language is now generally considered NSFW in this clip.)