Well, it was bound to happen.  After nine years of writing the blog on a near daily schedule, some work and personal commitments interfered with my blog writing schedule. But never fear, more new posts from me are now right around the corner.

In the meantime, one of our summer associates, James Joyce, joins the blog today to give an update on a a law passed last year regarding pay secrecy. My thanks to James for his work on this.  James is finishing up his law degree at University of Connecticut.  

joyceLoyal readers may recall that about a year ago, Connecticut’s “Act Concerning Pay Equity and Fairness” Public Act 15-196, became law.   Dan has already blogged about the nuts and bolts of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” and its potential impact on employers.

And, as Dan highlighted, employers need to be mindful of this legislation because it created a private cause of action in court for any violation.  That is where today’s post comes into the picture.

One of the first lawsuits alleging violations of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” was recently filed in Superior Court in Stamford (the case has since been removed to Federal District Court).   The lawsuit raises other issues as well, but for today’s post, we’ll focus on the “Pay Secrecy” claim.

So what’s in this lawsuit? Well, the plaintiff alleges that her former employer maintained a “Pay Secrecy Policy” forbidding employees from discussing their salaries despite the enactment of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” in July 2015.

Specifically, the allegations include a run-in with the human resources (HR) department due to comments the Plaintiff made about salaries and her former employer’s view that this was inappropriate and none of the plaintiff’s business.  The plaintiff received an “Employee Warning Notice” from HR and HR went on to tell the plaintiff she could not discuss her wages or her co-workers’ wages.

Additionally, in February 2016, it is alleged that a former co-worker of the plaintiff was reprimanded for a conversation she had with another employee about the company’s paid time off/holiday policy.  The former co-worker was allegedly told directly by the CEO and by HR that this conversation or any similar conversations violated the company’s policy prohibiting employees from discussing compensation with other employees

Obviously, whether or not these facts are true — or rise to a level of violating the law — will play out in court.  But these types of incidents are just the sort of things that employers need to be aware of to avoid “Pay Secrecy” violations.  The law prohibits employers from implementing policies that prevent employees from, or disciplining employees for, engaging in conversations about salary-related information.

Because this case was recently filed there is no way to predict how the court will rule.  Nevertheless, that does not mean this case should be ignored until it is decided.  Employers should remind their human resources staff and managers of this new Connecticut law.

The downside will be cases like this where the employer may have to spend time and money investigating and defending themselves against the alleged “Pay Secrecy” violations.  Employers also risk being found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper related to the alleged violations.

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act — a broad federal law designed to give companies added protection.  It does not circumvent state law — indeed, where a state law is more protective of the trade secret, it still applies. Nevertheless, it provides a base level of uniformity nationwide.

My colleagues, Pat Fahey and Lee Duval, prepared this summary a few days ago, which I republish here.  But candidly, there are plenty of such summaries out there by nearly every lawfirm.  You can find a whole host of them on LXBN.  If the subject is of interest to you, it’s worth following up with your attorney to get more information about how this statute is likely to impact your particular company.

congressWith the long-awaited passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”), which amends the Economic Espionage Act, federal law will now provide a civil cause of action for misappropriation of trade secrets.

Prior to the DTSA, the protection of trade secrets was largely a matter of state law and based primarily on the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”).

Most states have adopted a version of UTSA, but variations between states on essential requirements, such as what qualifies as a trade secret, led to the call for a federal body of law that would be more predictable and uniform.

The DTSA does not preempt state laws governing trade secrets, but will allow civil litigants to pursue an additional claim and to bring those claims in federal court.

Litigants will still be able to pursue state law claims for misappropriation of trade secrets, but by filing in federal court, they will now have access to the broad, nationwide discovery permitted by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the unique remedies afforded by the new law.

Two provisions of DTSA are particularly noteworthy: the allowance of ex parte seizure orders and certain employee protections.

Ex parte seizure orders – essentially an order from the court permitting the seizure of property to prevent the use or dissemination of the stolen trade secret without notice to the accused wrongdoer – would be permitted in “extraordinary circumstances.”

In the event that a wrongful seizure occurs, the victims will be entitled to damages, including punitive damages upon a showing of bad faith, and attorneys’ fees.

It remains to be seen how courts will interpret the ex parte seizure provisions, including what constitutes a wrongful seizure, and whether or not such requests will be made often by the trade secret owner.

The DTSA also provides certain protections for employees, which includes contractors and consultants.

Specifically, the legislation provides protection for certain “whistleblower” employees, and employers are obligated to inform their employees of these new protections.

For example, if an employee discloses a company’s trade secret in confidence “solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law,” that employee is immune from liability under DTSA.

Moreover, going forward, employers who fail to provide their employees with notice of the new immunities could lose the ability to recover punitive damages or attorneys’ fees in an action against an employee.

The notice requirement may be satisfied by an employer “provid[ing] a cross-reference to a policy document provided to the employee that sets forth the employer’s reporting policy for a suspected violation of law.”

In addition, the law prohibits a court from “prevent[ing] a person from entering into an employment relationship” and requires that any conditions placed on the new employment “be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows”, which is intended to foster employee mobility and to avoid conflict with state law.

Thus, in states that have authorized the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine as being a sufficient basis to justify a misappropriation of trade secrets claim, it will be imperative that the employer bring state law claims in addition to a DTSA claim.

We strongly recommend that employers take notice of the changes the DTSA makes to existing law.  All employers should review any employee agreement that “governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information” and provide the requisite notice of the new immunities.

Employers also are encouraged to perform a trade secret audit to identify or inventory and document their claimed trade secrets, the steps that have been implemented to protect those trade secrets from disclosure and the economic value associated with the trade secret.

By taking these steps now, an employer will be in a better position if it finds itself in a dispute regarding the misappropriation of the company’s trade secrets.

secretsEarlier this month, The New York Times ran another column in its Workalogist series that asked the following question:

Are conversations with a human resources department confidential? I’m contemplating retirement in about three years and would like to gather benefit information from human resources now — but I do not want my supervisor to know. Once I decide, I would like to give three weeks’ notice.

In responding, the Workalogist quotes one SHRM professional as saying that, “An H.R. professional should maintain the employee’s confidentiality to the extent possible.”  But note the caveat: HR is at the “razor’s edge of balancing confidentiality with the overall needs of the business.”  He notes that many workers assume some confidentiality even where it doesn’t exist:

Workers often assume there’s some sort of H.R. parallel to the confidentiality they’d expect from a doctor or a lawyer. That’s not the case, says Debi F. Debiak, a lawyer and labor and employment consultant in Montclair, N.J. Barring circumstances involving, for instance, a medical condition, “there is no legal obligation to maintain confidentiality” about a retirement discussion, she says.

Suzanne Lucas, the Evil HR Lady (her name, not mine), has often touched on this subject in her blog and columns.  She was asked whether it was “illegal” or immoral for the HR representative to forward to the company’s COO an employee’s angry e-mail:

Well, it’s not illegal (she says in her non-lawyer, non legal advice way). HR people are not required to keep a confidence as a doctor, priest or lawyer is. In fact, part of our job is to blab. Which means that I’m also going to suggest that it wasn’t necessarily immoral either.

Indeed, there may be times when such a referral is necessary to protect the company. Complaints of sexual harassment often need to be investigated, or reviewed.  In those instances, employers may not be able to honor a request to keep things “confidential”.

In short, those in human resources should realize that they shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep.  Protecting the company and investigating harassment complaints are two common areas when HR should be speaking up — instead of keeping silent.

generalassemblyThe dust has finally settled from the close of the Connecticut General Assembly on Wednesday.  And it’s time to take a look at the last few days to see what employment law bills passed.

(I’ll tackle the changes that have been made to the CHRO in a post later today.)

As I’ve noted in prior posts (here, here and here), several employment law-related bills had already passed including: a bill regarding online privacy rights of employees (signed by Governor); a bill allowing double damages in wage/hour cases awaiting Governor’s signature); a bill protecting interns from discrimination and harassment (same); and a bill introducing labor history into school curriculum (same).

In the last days, however, a closely-watched bill that prohibits employers from enacting rules that prevent employees from sharing information about their wages, passed. It also awaits the Governor’s signature.

The bill has been amended since it was first introduced but still places additional restrictions on employers. As a result, employers should consider updating their policies and revisiting their approach to salary discussions.

As recapped by the General Assembly, the bill accomplishes the following:

This bill prohibits employers, including the state and municipalities, from taking certain steps to limit their employees’ ability to share information about their wages. Under the bill, such sharing consists of employees under the same employer (1) disclosing or discussing the amount of their own wages or other employees’ voluntarily disclosed wages or (2) asking about other employees’ wages. Specifically, the bill bans employers from (1) prohibiting their employees from such sharing; (2) requiring employees to sign a waiver or document that denies their right to such sharing; and (3) discharging, disciplining, discriminating or retaliating against, or otherwise penalizing employees for such sharing.

The bill allows employees to bring a lawsuit to redress a violation of its provisions in any court of competent jurisdiction. The suit must be brought within two years after an alleged violation. Employers can be found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper.

The amendment to the bill that was passed limits an employee’s sharing of another employee’s wage information to information that (1) is about another of the employer’s employees and (2) was voluntarily disclosed by the other employee.

I’ve noted before that I think many of the provisions are duplicative of federal law and a concern that there isn’t a big public policy need to create a new cause of action here.

But it’s a bit too late for that. The Governor proposed this bill so he is very likely to sign it.  The provisions go into effect on July 1, 2015.  (Contrast that with other bills that go into effect on October 1, 2015.)

Another bill that passed in the closing days was House Bill 6707 which allows employers to fire employees for failing some off-duty drug tests without impacting their unemployment rating.  It awaits the Governor’s signature.  As recapped by the General Assembly:

This bill expands the circumstances under which a private-sector employer can discharge or suspend an employee without affecting the employer’s unemployment taxes. It creates a “non-charge” against an employer’s experience rate for employees discharged or suspended because they failed a drug or alcohol test while off duty and subsequently lost a driver’s license needed to perform the work for which they had been hired. (The law disqualifies a person from operating a commercial motor vehicle for one year if he or she is convicted of driving under the influence (DUI.)) In effect, this allows the discharged or suspended employee to collect unemployment benefits without increasing the employer’s unemployment taxes.

Several other bills failed in the final days including a low wage penalty, paid family & medical leave, a minimum work week for janitors, limits on criminal background checks and on credit reports,

Overall, it was a busy year for the legislature. For employers, the next few months should keep you busy with a review of your existing policies and procedures to ensure compliance with these new laws.

If it seems that there are more social media apps out there than ever before, you’re not going crazy.  No longer do employers just have to worry about Facebook. Rather, a whole host of sites has popped up leading to new headaches and challenges for employers.

I’ve talked about this before, but Law360 published a pretty thorough article last night in which I’m quoted regarding “What Employers Need To Know About the Latest Social Media”.

In it, I talk about the practical consequences that Facebook’s purchase of WhatApp (for $19 billion) will have on communications in and around the workplace.

With Facebook’s recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a cross-platform instant messaging subscription service for smartphones, it’s safe to say that messaging platforms are on the rise. These messaging services provide their users with quick and convenient ways to share information, which means employees may be eschewing more established means of corporate communication like email in favor of messaging sites, especially when they are using mobile phones.

“For employers, this means that information is traveling quickly outside of typical corporate controls,” Daniel Schwartz of Shipman & Goodwin LLP said.

“It’s important to understand when your information is not going through normal channels if you have a document retention policy or regulatory concerns like in the financial or health care industries, to make sure that your secure information is not being leaked through the faucet that is instant messaging apps,” he said.

There’s lots more good stuff in the piece including a tip from Delaware Employment Law Blog’s Molly DiBianca about apps like Secret too.  Never heard of them? You should because confidential information and rumors are being spread.

Check out the rest of the article for additional tips, including this quote from Adam Forman, a great labor lawyer out at Miller Canfield as well.

“Employers need to understand that the days of simply putting up a firewall at work and having that protect you are over,” said Adam S. Forman of Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone PLC. “You need to survey what’s out there and figure out where you’re vulnerable. You need to understand the scope of today’s issues — college kids are not on Facebook anymore, and these are your employees.”