Photo of Daniel Schwartz

Dan represents employers in various employment law matters such as employment discrimination, restrictive covenants, human resources, retaliation and whistle blowing, and wage and hour issues. He has extensive trial and litigation experience in both federal and state courts in a variety of areas, including commercial litigation and trade secret enforcement. Dan is the author of the independent Connecticut Employment Law Blog. The blog discusses new and noteworthy events in labor and employment law on a daily basis.

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?

Trying to follow both state and federal wage and hour laws isn’t that hard.

But it isn’t that easy either.

Let’s say you’re a restaurant with a waitstaff.  Like most restaurants nowadays, your customers pay by credit card and you, the employer, have to pay the credit card company a percentage on each sale.

You know there are rules regarding deductions of the wages to employees. But what about tips? Can you take out the percentage of fees being charged by the credit card company on the tips?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor: Yes.

In its fact sheet, the USDOL makes it plain that such actions by an employer do not violate federal law, so long as they are limited to the fees on the tips themselves.

Where tips are charged on a credit card and the employer must pay the credit card company a percentage on each sale, the employer may pay the employee the tip, less that percentage. For example, where a credit card company charges an employer 3 percent on all sales charged to its credit service, the employer may pay the tipped employee 97 percent of the tips without violating the FLSA.

The DOL also has 2006 opinion letter bolstering its views here. Even Connecticut, in an unofficial guidance, permits the practice.

While that aspect is clear, the remaining aspects of tip pooling are still very much being debated.  According to a DOL Field Bulletin this spring, in the Conolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, the Act provided that certain other portions of DOL regulations that barred tip pooling when employers pay tipped employees at least the full FLSA minimum wage and do not claim a tip credit no long have further force or effect.

As a result, according to the DOL, “employers who pay the full FLSA minimum wage are no longer prohibited from allowing employees who are not customarily and regularly tipped—such as cooks and dishwashers—to participate in tip pools.”

And if that weren’t confusing enough, employers in Connecticut also need to comply with the Wage Order drafted by the Connecticut Department of Labor that has additional guidance on tip pooling.

Employers must continue to tread cautiously in the area of wages. Minefields continue to be ever present — and the impact of a failure to comply with the law can be costly.

 

On “Survivor”, one of my favorite broadcast TV shows (or, as my YouTube/Netflix watching teens might say — “what’s that?”) the notion of “immunity” plays a central role in the outcome of an episode.

And in a decision released last week by the Connecticut Supreme Court, whether or not to grant immunity again plays a pivotal role for religious employers. In its unanimous decision, the court refused to grant outright immunity to a religious institution from an employment discrimination claim.  The case, Trinity Christian School v. CHRO, can be downloaded here.

For religious institutions, the case serves as reminder that while the employment discrimination laws may be more limited in their impact (more on that in a second), seeking “immunity” from such claims is a step too far for the courts.

In doing so, it’s helpful to note that the U.S. Supreme Court decided earlier this decade that the “ministerial exception” under federal anti-discrimination law only served as an “affirmative defense” against such claims.  That has important implications on the procedural posturing of a case and prevents appeals early on in the case on “jurisdictional grounds”.

Here, the court said that an additional state statute on the subject did not purport to confer on religious institutions immunity from employment discrimination actions.  That statute, § 52-571b (d), was intended to operate as a rule of construction for § 52-571b as a whole rather than a grant of immunity.  The effect of § 52-571b (d) was to retain the determination of the United States Supreme Court that the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, which requires secular institutions to defer to the decisions of religious institutions concerning their employment of religious employees, serves as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable employment discrimination claim.

In doing so, the court notes that its prior decision, Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, has now been explicitly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s pronouncement on the subject. “hat decision, of course, was short-lived in light of the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Hosanna-Tabor that the
exception operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable employment discrimination claim rather than a jurisdictional bar.”

 

Like a lot of people, I’ve got the summer bug and, given the choice between a walk outside and a blog post — well, you can figure out what has been winning.

But I’ve got a few posts lined back up the next few weeks.  In the interim, I want to share with you one of the most meaningful and amazing speeches I’ve ever heard in person.

It’s from last week when I attended the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, where I serve as the State Delegate for Connecticut (and on the ABA Nominating Committee as well).  At that meeting, the ABA presented it’s ABA Medal (it’s highest honor for exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer to the cause of American jurisprudence) to Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. During a 40 minute speech (which you really must listen to), he called on attendees to do four important tasks:

  1. Get close to people who live in the margins of society
  2. Change the narrative
  3. Stay hopeful
  4. Do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable

Sounds straightforward enough. But with Stevenson’s brilliant oratory, he encouraged all of us to find meaning in the work we do through this and allow all of us to strive towards justice.

You may not even agree with him that those convicted of the death penalty deserve mercy. His book on “Just Mercy”  has won numerous awards.  But there is little denying that Stevenson is a voice well worth listening to.

For employers, no doubt Stevenson would encourage employers to considering hiring those who have been convicted of a crime to a second chance after they are released from prison.  It might be doing what Bear’s Smokehouse does — looking at individuals and not judging them solely by their past. As Jamie McDonald, the owner of Bear’s recently said, “Sometimes all they need is somebody to believe in them and give them that chance.”

There may be other times when Stevenson’s advice might apply too; suppose you have an employee who failed to show up for work for three days in a row.  You might just fire them immediately for job abandonment.  But there might be circumstances where you should also try to understand the reasons behind the absence.  Sometimes there will be a good excuse behind it.

If you can find time to listen to Stevenson’s speech, you won’t be disappointed. For those of us who attended the ABA Annual Meeting, it was one that we will never forget.

Typically, in our court system, we operate under the “American Rule” which means that parties have to pay their own attorneys’ fees in cases, regardless of whether they win or lose.  (Contrast that with the English Rule which is a “loser pays” system.)

But there is one big exception to the American Rule — and it can be found in lots of employment law cases.   In several instances, the governing statute allows the prevailing party (or, in some instances, just the Plaintiff — read “employee”) to collect attorneys fees.

This is often seen in wage & hour claims, where an overtime claim may get dwarfed by a claim for attorneys’ fees.  One blog pointed out a few years ago in an FLSA case on “how attorney’s fees can grow to be the tail that wags the dog.”

A recent case out of the District Court of Connecticut also shows the impact in employment discrimination cases too.

The decision flows from a jury trial that awarded damages in an employment discrimination case to an individual suing a major employer.  Afterwards, both parties engaged in extensive post-trial litigation concerning attorneys’ fees, damages and more.  Ultimately, the court issued a ruling and then a final ruling after both parties asked for reconsideration.

The court awarded the Plaintiff in the discrimination claim the following:

  • Compensatory damages: $125,000
  • Punitive damages: $175,000
  • Economic damages (back pay): $ $243,711.89
  • Pre-judgment interest (on back pay): $15,665.37
  • Reinstatement

So, ultimately, the verdict is a little more than $550,000.

But the court also awarded attorneys’ fees.  And these fees far exceeded the verdict itself.

Grand total?  $973,083.50 in attorney’s fees and $30,960.24 in costs.

Such awards make employment cases unique animals in the law.  They provide extraordinary incentives to attorneys to not only take such cases, but pursue them.

For employers, the case is a difficult reminder that even when you value the case as somewhat small based on damages, the award of attorneys’ fees can add a substantial amount to what a case is worth.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning in Janus v. AFSCME (download here) reversed 40 years of labor law precedent and concluded that  requiring public employees to pay “agency fees” for labor unions that they don’t want to belong to violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Previously, prior cases have banned forcing public sector employees from joining a union and paying union dues. But a number of states permitted union contracts that required employees to still pay an “agency fee” to cover the costs of collective bargaining.

In its 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this — leaving public sector unions, particularly in states like Connecticut, to potentially lose significant funds from employees who say that they want no part of their salary to go towards unions.

Given that this blog covers more employment law than labor law, and focuses more on private-sector than public sector, I’m not going to do a deep-dive today into the case. The SCOTUSBlog is one good resource. 

But my labor law colleagues at my firm have spending the morning looking into this.  Here’s the quick recap posted this morning on the Employment Law Letter blog and the impact to Connecticut public-sector employers.:

The immediate effect of the Court’s decision is that agency fee (or “fair share” fee) provisions in collective bargaining agreements are invalid. The Court specifically states that agency fees and similar payments may not be deducted from an employee’s pay unless the employee has expressly consented to the deduction.

This statement suggests that employers should stop deducting agency fees unless and until an employee has affirmatively consented.

Because Connecticut law requires express employee consent for payroll deductions, Connecticut public sector employees have likely already consented to the deduction of agency fees.

However, public sector employers should be prepared for employees approaching them and requesting that the agency fee deductions be stopped, effectively withdrawing their consent.

Justice Alito’s decision is emphatic in this point and the significant dollars at stake:

We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members. But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years. It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

Watch my firm’s blog for more details on this critical decision in the public-sector.

Cars. Lots of really fancy cars.

That about sums up my Sunday in which I went to the Concorso Ferrari & Friends car event in West Hartford Center.  It has one of the biggest collections of ultra-expensive cars in the state — all to benefit the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

What I wouldn’t do to commute in the Pagani supercar! (Anyone have an extra $3 million lying around?)

Now, the odds on you commuting in a supercar and wondering if you’re getting paid by your employer are probably about the same as winning Powerball, but it’s still worth asking the question: Why don’t you get paid for commuting to work?

The answer lies in the law and something called the Portal-to-Portal Act. 

The Act states that employers are not required to pay for the time employees spend on activities occurring before or after (“preliminary or postliminary”) they perform the principal activities for which they are employed.

Thus, compensable working time generally does not include time spent:

  • Traveling to or from work.
  • Engaged in incidental activities before or after work.

A few years ago, an argument was made that state law ought to allow for some compensable travel time to and from work if the employee was travelling with tools.

The Connecticut Supreme Court rejected that interpretation saying such laws were pre-empted by the Portal-to-Portal Act.

And yet, the Connecticut Department of Labor continues to advance a regulation on travel time that, according to same court, “was not promulgated pursuant to any formal rule-making procedures or articulated pursuant to any adjudicatory procedures, has not been time-tested or subject to judicial review in this state.”

In any event, commuting with a supercar might be fun — but it doesn’t change whether you get paid for it under the law.