From time to time, I take a look back at a prior post that may have particular relevance now. With Halloween knocking on our doorstep and sexual harassment claims on the rise, this post from 2010 has just as much meaning today.

For most people, Halloween is a fun and silly holiday.

Yet the holiday has a distinct place in employment law history.  Indeed, for some employers, the holiday has brought more tricks than treats.

  • In Marrero v. Goya of Puerto Rico, 304 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2002), a supervisor was alleged to have gone out to buy Halloween presents. Allegedly, he gave the employee “a direct penetrating look with lust,” and said: “I have a little present for you that you’re never going to forget and if you don’t do the things I tell you and order you to do I am going to fire you.”
  • In Grubka v. Department of Treasury, 858 F.2d 1570 (Fed. Cir. 1988), a supervisor appealed his demotion for engaging in alleged acts of misconduct in kissing and embracing two female employees at a Halloween party organized and staged by the employees at a hotel after hours away from their workplace and for their entertainment.  While he prevailed, i’m not quite sure its the type of activity one would put on a resume.
  • In Lester v. Natsios, 290 F. Supp. 2d 11 (D. D.C. 2003), an employee claimed racial harassment after a costume incident that is probably best left to the court’s analysis: “The …incident is best described as silly, although perhaps also somewhat offensive. It involved a supervisor who dressed up for a Halloween party in a costume as a plant, and then snipped scissors at plaintiff in a conference room.” Um, ok.
  • In Richardson v. New York State Dept. of Corr. Ser., 180 F. 3d 426(2d Cir. 1999), an employee claimed that at Halloween, a co-worker said to the plaintiff something to the effect that “all you spooks have a nice Halloween.” According to the court, the Plaintiff “perceived that the word “spooks” was used as a derogatory term for Black people, and recalled that her co-workers all turned to look at her when the remark was made.” The Court ultimately allowed some hostile work environment claims to proceed, though other references to “lynchings” probably had something to do with it too.
  • Then of course, there’s the supervisor who was alleged to have had a frank discussion of what he was going to wear for Halloween. In Caouette v. OfficeMax, Inc., 352 F. Supp. 2d 134 (D. N.H. 2005), a female cashier, alleged that the supervisor “responded to a question about his stated intention to dress as a woman for Halloween by saying that he was a hermaphrodite who menstruated and used to wear a bra.”  The court upheld his termination.

So, as your employees dress up and act silly, keep on the lookout for employees who cross the line.

As these cases show, Halloween is no excuse for harassment.

As part of my continuing series of posts about the CHRO, and following up from the 75th Anniversary panel discussion earlier this week, I wanted to provide an early look of the statistics that are soon to be released by the agency.

I was provided a preliminary draft in preparation for the panel presentation; it should be out in the next week or two and I was asked not to divulge the specific numbers.  Stay tuned for my deep dive into the numbers when they are officially released. (As a refresher, you can see last year’s numbers here.)

But there are few trends that are readily apparent from the draft.

First, as we have all suspected, sexual harassment claims filed with the CHRO are up substantially over the prior year.  This is not too surprising given the publicity regarding the #metoo movement.  Still, we haven’t seen these types of numbers in nearly 15 years.  When the final numbers are released, expect a big increase in sexual harassment claims from FY ’17 to FY ’18.

Second, we continue to see an increase in the numbers of employment discrimination claims being filed at the state agency.   While it is tempting to draw conclusions from this, the numbers seem to correlate closely to the increase in sexual harassment claims.  Normally, in an improving economy, we see decreases in the numbers of claims filed. We haven’t and that should raise some concerns for employers.

Third, the numbers of cases withdrawn “with settlement” are down substantially.  It’s hard to know what to make of this. With more cases getting dismissed by the agency, it could just be that some of the “nuisance” value cases are getting handled that way, but the drop seems to be much more than that. When the final report is released, it’ll be worth taking a deeper dive into the numbers.

Despite all of the numbers, the numbers of cases certified to public hearing and the number of reasonable cause drafts issues has remained constant from year to year.  This may be the result of the consistent approach that the CHRO has been seeking to implement over the last few years.

The biggest takeaway for employers? Discrimination and harassment complaints are likely at the second highest total they’ve been at in the last decade.

The age of increased discrimination and harassment claims isn’t over; it’s happening right now.

Yesterday I had the opportunity (along with my fellow Shipman & Goodwin partner Peter Murphy) to speak as part of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities’ (CHRO) 75th Anniversary celebration.

The panel — The Barriers to Employment Legal Update and Panel Discussion  — was chock full of the types of insights, data and analyses that is so often overlooked in this Twitter generation.

We spent a good 90 minutes talking about the changes that have been going on at the CHRO and talked about what types of changes could be made in the future.

Frankly, it’s far too much for one blog post.

So I’m going to tackle them in a few posts.  Today’s post: The re-emergence of the Case Assessment Review.

Indeed, if you haven’t been before the CHRO in the last year, you may be unaware that this is perhaps one of the biggest changes to the agency procedure over the last year.

Hyperbole? Actually no. At least not when you look at the statistics regarding CAR. (I did a deep dive into CAR last December which I’d strongly recommend if you want to learn more.)

Since the Legal Division has taken over this task — which is, in essence, a gatekeeping function — the dismissal rate has increased to 23% (up from just 5%).  Or, put another way, just 77% of cases are getting retained for mediation and investigation, down from 95% just a year ago.

This has big implications on how employers should view the CHRO process.  No longer is it the case that nearly all cases will get retained for investigation; as a result, position statements should play a greater role in telling the story.

The panel discussed other strategic implications of the numbers as well. Suffice to say, employers who are still viewing the CHRO in terms of 2015 (where I humbly suggested the CHRO Complaint process needed a reboot) are missing out on the changes happening right now.  Attorneys and their clients need to definitely stay up to speed with the latest developments.

What else is new? More on that in an upcoming post….

Back in 2011, I wondered aloud: Might the impact of new arbitration decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court bring about the end to big wage & hour class actions?

At the time, I said it would be premature.

Seven years later – what’s changed?

Well, as it turns out, wage & hour class actions are not dead. Indeed, based on some statistics, they’re as costly as ever.

Earlier this year, the Workplace Class Action Litigation report noted that just the top ten class action settlements totalled over $2.72 billion in 2017. I’d say the class action is still very much alive and well.

Yet there are still signs on the horizon that employers may be able to fight back a bit on these claims.

Late last month, the Ninth Circuit shot down a potential class action against Uber, on the grounds that the arbitration provision barred class actions.  

It’s a significant victory for the company and highlights a way for companies to push back against the threat of class actions.

But the company may still have another obstacle. According to The Verge, counsel for the Uber drivers, are encouraging the drivers to seek arbitration on an individual basis. Indeed, it is seeking thousands of them.  Consider it the “death by a thousand paper cuts” approach.  Will it work?

Stay tuned.  In the meantime, companies ought to still consider arbitration provisions with class action waivers as I noted earlier this year.

In the last few months, I’ve had some inquiries from employers asking about resources for layoffs.

Yawn.

Everyone remembers the layoffs of the recession, right?

Actually no, as it turns out.

In the ten years since the last great round of layoffs, there is a big group of new managers, directors, human resource personnel, lawyers etc that have joined the workforce.  And, as it turns out, they really DON’T remember the layoffs.  Unemployment is low. “Why would I need to worry about a Reduction in Force?

The stock market’s drop yesterday should remind all of us that good times aren’t always going to last.

What’s ironic about this is that back in 2008 — when the unemployment rate was skyrocketing — programs about reductions in force were just taking off and I noted the same concerns about whether employers were sufficiently aware of the issues.

History may repeat itself. Back then, I highlighted a few items that employers had to think about:

  • The WARN Act – If you’re doing a mass layoff, you need to notice affected workers in advance and provide notices to local and state officials.
  • Separation Agreements – If you want employees to sign a separation agreement (and you probably should), you need to give employees who are terminated in a layoff 45 days to consider an agreement and provide additional background information about the layoff itself.
  • Disparate Impact Analysis – With computers, checking your layoff data to ensure that it doesn’t have a disproportionate impact on protected groups (or, if it does, a legitimate business reason why it might) remains important.

Much of this remains valuable advice today.  And for employers who don’t remember this, now would be a good time to start your refresher courses.

Layoffs may not be right around the corner. But employers that are looking ahead in their business plans for 2019, would be wise to ensure that their staff are aware of the obligations that attach if the economy turns cold.

Lawyers love their cocktail chatter. And at a recent bar event, an interesting hypothetical came up among lawyers:

Suppose an employee is trying to get pregnant and is thinking about infertility treatments.  She’s considering time off for rest, and perhaps even for some in vitro fertilization (IVF) appointments. Perhaps even the doctor has said that the employee needs “light duty” work during certain days.   Maybe things are a little more hazy; suppose the employee just says that they are undergoing infertility treatment and needs some time off.

Is the employer obligated to provide such an accommodation?

The answers aren’t entirely clear.

Let’s go through some of the laws that may be implicated:

Employment decisions related to infertility treatments implicate Title VII under limited circumstances. Because surgical impregnation is intrinsically tied to a woman’s childbearing capacity, an inference of unlawful sex discrimination may be raised if, for example, an employee is penalized for taking time off from work to undergo such a procedure.

In doing so, the EEOC has cited to a Seventh Circuit case from 2008 which also found that the employer was liable for discrimination when it terminated employee for taking time off to undergo IVF.

  • ADA – Infertility may be an impairment that may “substantially limit” the major life activity of reproduction. Why is this important? Because it may then qualify the employee under the ADA as having a “disability”.   So, in such an instance, employers should review the “reasonable accommodation” portion of the statute. And the employer may decide that a day off for IVF treatment in “reasonable” under the circumstances.
  • State Laws – Connecticut has comparable laws on the subject as well.  Thus, employers should do the same analysis for CTFMLA and comparable state anti-discrimination laws as well.

But despite this, there are some courts — including the Second Circuit — that have found that a woman suffering from infertility does not have a medical condition related to pregnancy under Title VII and the Pregnancy discrimination Act because infertility is a condition that also affects many men as well.

Employers that have employees undergoing treatment for infertility should tread carefully in this uncertain area of law.  Each set of facts should be looked at on a case-by-case basis and consider enlisting trusted legal counsel for advice.

One of the benefits of writing a blog as long as I have is that you get to track the progress of a law or legal development over a number of years.

It was back in 2012, for example, that I first provided a comprehensive summary of a new medical marijuana bill that was making it’s way through the legislature.

And I was quick to note that the law had enough questions attached to it that employers would be wise to spent a late night or two studying all of the quirks.

Now, years later, we have the first case to look deeply at the statute. And for employers, the answers are becoming clearer.

My colleague, Chris Engler, recently recapped the case in a post on my firm’s sister blog.

The plaintiff in the case had applied for a job with a health and rehabilitation facility. The plaintiff ultimately received a job offer, subject to completing a background check and a drug screen. Prior to the drug screen, the plaintiff informed the company that she was a qualifying patient who used medical marijuana to treat her PTSD. Nevertheless, when her drug screen came back positive, the company revoked the job offer on the day before she was to begin work. Based on these facts, the court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff….

In rejecting the employer’s defenses in the new decision, the court addressed various important issues regarding [the law’s] non-discrimination provision. First, the court clarified that [the law] protects both an individual’s status as a qualifying patient of medical marijuana and that individual’s actual use of medical marijuana. However, the court pointed out that employers can still discipline employees who are under the influence at work.

The case can be downloaded here.  

As more people apply for cards to use medical marijuana, employers would be wise to understand the rules of the road before rejecting job applicants who test positive for marijuana on a drug screen.

Do you remember when the Target store data breach made news? This was not that long ago, and yet, five years later we’ve arguably become immune to the news.

Take Facebook’s latest snafu — 50 million accounts compromised.  And yet, it hardly made headlines for a 24 hour period.

Heck, even the U.S. State Department has had personal information about its employees breached in the last month — though “only” one percent may have been affected – so…yawn.

Have we become that immune to such breaches at this point?  Perhaps.

But that doesn’t mean that employers can let their guard down. Indeed, I would argue that new laws and regulations (including one in California) are making the job of employers even more challenging.

I’ll be talking about all of this at my firm’s upcoming Labor & Employment Seminar later this month with my colleague Ashley Marshall.  It’s scheduled for October 25th at the Hartford Marriott.

Here’s the formal program:

If You Collect It, You Must Protect It: Dealing with Employee Data Privacy Issues
Presenters: Daniel A. Schwartz and Ashley L. Marshall

Cyberattacks are on the rise and employers must take the necessary steps to protect employee data.  This session will address data protection worries of human resources and review state and federal laws and regulations pertaining to workplace privacy, including the Personnel Files Act, GDPR, California statutes, and HIPAA complaint releases. 

We’ve got several other topics being tackled too.  We are probably only a few days away from selling out so be sure to sign up for this complimentary seminar today.

Last year I talked about how the new era of sexual harassment claims was coming.  The open question was: Would the number of claims actually increase?

The answer to that is now known: Yes.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released its preliminary data regarding workplace harassment today. And it’s findings shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve been paying attention.

Among the notable pieces of data:

  • Charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12 percent from FY 2017.
  • The EEOC recovered nearly $70M for victims of sexual harassment through administrative enforcement and litigation, up from $47.5M in FY2017.
  • Reasonable cause findings in harassment claims increased to nearly 1200, up from 900 in FY 2017.
  • And public interest is skyrocketing: The EEOC’s website traffic to its sexual harassment page more than doubled in the last year.

In Connecticut, the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities hasn’t yet released their statistics on their website.  In years past, it’s been released in the fall — so stay tuned for that. But I anticipate hearing much more from the CHRO this month.

The CHRO is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a whole host of programs including one on Overcoming Barriers in Employment (I’ll be speaking at that one — details soon) and a #MeToo and LGBT Panel Discussion as well.

Interest in sexual harassment cases and actual cases show no sign of slowing down.  If anything, I would argue that public consciousness and awareness of these issues are nearing all-time highs.

Employers should continue to review their policies and procedures in this area and take another look at the training they are providing.

If you’ve been playing close attention, this blog has been a bit quiet of late.  Indeed, it’s probably the longest stretch between posts in the 11 years I’ve been doing this.

It’s not for lack of ideas.

Rather, after many years of spouting off (which, after all, is the underlying purpose of the blog), I found myself desiring to do a lot more listening.  Listening to employers. Listening to my colleagues. Listening to other lawyers.   And the only way to do that was to really stop writing for a while.

I don’t profess to have been original in this aspect.

I’ve admired a blog from afar that preaches this exact point — Listen Like a Lawyer by Jennifer Romig.  Just a few weeks ago, she highlighted the International Day of Listening — and the theme for this year of “Listening — even when you disagree.”

Imagine that.

But it’s really so true.  In employment law, listening can help employers and employees find common ground. Or, at least a better understanding of their respective positions and avoid lawsuits.

Yes, there’s the obvious examples of the claims of sexual harassment, but there also a whole host of other issues that arise in the workplace because one party isn’t doing the listening.

Take, for example, an employee’s performance. Sometimes, an employer will ask us for advice on a termination; the employee hasn’t been performing well and we want to terminate her performance. One of my first questions to the employers is: What have you communicated to the employee and what does she understand?

A few times I’ve heard — Well, I think the employee should know we’re not happy.

That’s where some employment lawsuits get formed.  They can be forged out of misunderstandings. Or they can be forged with the employer hasn’t communicated well with the employee and hasn’t listened to what the employee has to say.

And it goes both ways too.  No one likes hearing criticisms of their work; has the employee been listening to what you have been telling her?

It’s easy for all of us — in the mad scramble that we deal with on a day-to-day basis — to just try to plow forward. To think we know what’s best. Or to shut ourselves off from learning.

But listening provides one way for all of us to break through the background noise that seems ever present with smartphones, social media, and e-mail.

What strategies for listening have worked well in the workplace? And do they help you as an employer address employee-related issues?