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.

You might think the title of this post is a bit self-serving or even self-promotional. Is this post just going to be a backhanded way to hire me, an employment law attorney?

I want to dissuade you of the notion because that’s actually not my purpose.  (Really.)

But over the years, I’ve had friends and colleagues struggle with finding the right lawyers for their business.  In some cases, my firm (Shipman & Goodwin LLP) might be a good fit for them. In other situations, whether because of conflicts or costs, we might not be.

What I tell people is to take a step back and ask yourself a series of questions to start with.  I thought I’d share just a few of them to start the conversation:

  1. What are my needs? This is perhaps the hardest, but most important question to ask yourself before you start.  If you don’t know what your needs are, it’s really tough to find a good match.  If a lawsuit is filed against you, then obviously you need an attorney who has experience in the area that can represent you.  But is this a one-off matter that will be handled in a few hours, or is this likely to be much larger and need the resources of a firm that can handle this?
  2. Do I have insurance that might cover the lawfirm’s expenses (or, perhaps dictate what lawyer I must hire)? Some employers have purchased insurance to handle defense of employment-related claims and you might not even know about it. Figure that out first because there’s nothing worse than hiring one lawfirm only to find out that you’re going to have to choose another attorney by the insurance company.
  3. Do I have a budget? And if so, what lawfirms can work within that budget so that I can maximize my value? Most lawfirms charge by the hour, but will work with companies to try to fit a budget.   But will that mean you are working with an inexperienced associate? Or a more senior one or a partner on your issue?
  4. Do I have related issues beyond just employment law that a general practice firm can best handle? Over the last 15 years or so, employment law boutiques have popped up and for some companies, they may be a good fit (particularly if covered by insurance). But for others, they may have needs that go beyond that? Will you need to find 2 or 3 lawfirms to handle your issues, or should you go with one firm that can service all of them.
  5. Should I pick a lawfirm or pick an attorney AT the lawfirm? Much like hiring a doctor, there are some tasks that can be handled by a variety of lawyers. But for other issues, you might need to seek out a lawyer with a particular expertise.
  6. Do I know anyone that is currently using a lawyer that can recommend one to me?  You might have found this post via Google, which is both amazing and scary at the same time.  If you have, don’t choose a lawyer just because Google ranked them. Rather, if at all possible, do your due diligence on the lawyer. Word of mouth and recommendations from friends and colleagues remains a great way.  Keep asking around until you find someone you’re happy with. Don’t just settle on the first name that pops up.
  7. Can I find out more about how the lawyer thinks through his or her online presence? And if so, does it match my style?  Have you always envisioned your lawyer being a “pitbull” who will support your view no matter what? Or do you want someone who can methodically look at your issue and perhaps give you advice you may not want to hear? Or something else? There are plenty of different lawyers with differing styles. Find the one that fits your company.

There’s something I left off the list — ratings.  Whether it’s “Best Lawyers”, or “Super Lawyers” or “Chambers” or “Avvo” or something else, be wary of hiring a lawyer exclusively based on such a rating.  While it certainly doesn’t HURT to have a lawyer on such a list, there’s far more important qualities to look for in a lawyer.

What else should you look for? Add your view in the comments below.

It happened again, last week.  An employer was sued.

Wait, what’s that? A new lawsuit gets filed EVERY day against employers?  (Actually, in federal court, at least 11885 employment lawsuits were filed in 2017. Far more than one a day.)

But last week, there were a bunch of headlines – a new sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a major Connecticut employer.

(I’m not going to mention it here for reasons that will become apparent in a second).

News organizations ate the new lawsuit up picking up scurrilous allegations that were even denied by some of the people involved.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that this happened — that is, news organizations publishing the fact that a lawsuit was filed.

Why? Is it really news?

Reporters would say yes, the public has a right to know.  And in fairness to them, a new lawsuit may have some newsworthiness.

But I’d argue that many reports about lawsuits get published for far simpler reasons — they’re easy to write about.  The facts are laid out in a complaint; all that’s really needed is a few quotes and a response from the employers and the story writes itself.

Typically, the news stories aren’t even written on the fly; a lawyer may “tip off” the reporter that the lawsuit is coming and offer “exclusive” interview to the reporter that coincides with the lawsuit.

At that point, the employer is left to say that it doesn’t comment on pending legal matters or that it’s still “investigating” the claims.

And even when the employer files its motion to dismiss, or answer, or actual responsive pleading, the press has long since moved on.

Employers must recognize this and be prepared to either respond to the press quickly, or figure out your plan ahead of time.

Communications expert Andrea Obston goes one step further and notes that with social media, your company’s story is being told — so you might as well get involved in the conversation.

In today’s on-line world, it’s easy for anyone to tell your story.  Don’t let them.  Tell it yourself.  Tell it authentically and tell it often.  If you don’t, expect someone else to do it for you – whether you like it or not.

Employment lawsuits are easy news. You should understand that by now.   Knowing what to do next may at least position your company as something different than just today’s punching bag.

Employment lawsuits can be more than just legal matters nowadays; the pressure of the online world can be huge. Understanding the stakes now in play are important for employers to understand as they defend against such lawsuits.

By now, you may have read about yesterday’s decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that Title VII bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Connecticut is in that federal circuit (along with New York and Vermont).  You can download the decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., here. (You’ve been warned though — there are 163 pages to the various opinions!)

The decision talks a lot of “associational discrimination” and other academic theories of proving a case under Title VII; that’s beyond the practical aspects of this blog for employers but practitioners in the area should review the decision as a whole.

So what IS the practical impact on Connecticut employers? 

Not as much as you might first think.

Connecticut state law already bars employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Indeed, last year, I wrote that the debate over whether federal law includes a bar against discrimination on sexual orientation was largely moot because of state law.

Yes, there are some slight differences; for example, Connecticut has an exception for “religious corporations” that I talked about in a prior post in 2014. How would that play out when compared with Title VII’s “ministerial exemption”.

The one change that can occur now is that employees can bring claims of sexual orientation discrimination to federal court instead of just state court.

But whether we will see that is an entirely different question. Historically, employees (and their attorneys) have preferred the looser rules of state court to bring claims of employment discrimination. It’s widely perceived that it is harder for employers to get motions for summary judgment granted in state court when compared with federal court.

This is also not the last we’ve heard about this issue; no doubt an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will be coming sooner or later. Until then, employers in Connecticut should be aware now that the prohibitions against sexual orientation are now rooted in both federal and state law.

In college, I wanted to write for some of the major newspapers and be on their front page.

Little did I know that my big break would now come years later, as a result of being on the cover of the Hartford Business Journal.  

Wow.

But enough about me.  This blog is about employment law so let’s talk about the article inside the HBJ because it’s definitely worth a read.  

You see, the photo, has little to do with the content.  And the content is what employers should really be paying attention to.

The article is all about the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, which continues to make headlines each day.

As I noted in the article, we just haven’t seen an increase in lawsuits….yet.

[F]or non-celebrity victims and their employers, the implications are just as dangerous and costly, so prevention is becoming a greater focus for many companies, lawyers say.

“It’s been the topic of conversation,” said Dan Schwartz, an employment lawyer at Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin, who has his own blog where he’s been tackling the issue. “It is at a level we haven’t seen in at least 10 to 15 years. There’s always been a steady stream [of inquiries] but we’re getting more calls from clients. It doesn’t mean we’re seeing more legal cases being filed. Lawsuits are a trailing indicator here.”

The article also summarizes things that employers can be doing now, even if there isn’t a sexual harassment complaint made. Update policies. Train managers and supervisors. Continually create an environment where harassment isn’t tolerated.

Each week seemingly brings new issues to the table; employers that can keep their focus on the issue while also maintaining perspective will do well in the long-term to reduce the likelihood of a claim at the workplace.

  • Suppose there’s an old employment agreement between the employer and employee. Then the employer fires the employee.
  • But there’s been a few intervening events and it’s not exactly clear that the employment agreement still applies.
  • Indeed, there’s another contract (let’s call it an supplier agreement) that seems to provide an independent basis for ending the relationship.
  • Nevertheless, the employment agreement contains an arbitration provision.  Are the parties still required to go to arbitration even when one party (namely the employer) argues the contract is void?

Yes, says a new Connecticut Appellate Court decision called Stack v. Hartford Distributors, Inc..

(For background, the employment lawyers out there should look first at a 2007 Supreme Court case that established the strong preference to enforcement of arbitration provisions, which you can find here.  The rest of us can carry on.)

For the court, it noted that the employer appears to “concede that the arbitrator should decide its contention that the employment contract is void and unenforceable” but because the issues of the termination don’t have anything to the employment agreement itself, there was “nothing to arbitrate”.

The court disagreed and said the employee was entitled to have an arbitrator decide whether he was terminated properly under the employment agreement.

Here, the court said, the employment agreement, “which was entered into by the parties on November 2, 2010, the parties agreed, specifically in paragraph 14, to arbitrate any disputes ‘regarding the interpretation or enforcement of this Agreement or any provision hereof’ that could not be settled by mediation administered by the American Arbitration Association.  Additionally, paragraph 16 of the agreement provided in relevant part that ‘[t]his Agreement shall constitute the entire Agreement between [the employer and [the employee] with respect to the subject matter hereof.'”

And, the court went on to add, there was no dispute the employer terminated the employee or that there was an arbitration clause.  While the employer may claim that the employment agreement was void and unenforceable, that issue is still properly before an arbitrator.

In doing so, it relied on that prior Connecticut Supreme Court decision that ‘‘an arbitration provision is severable from the remainder of the contract . . . [and], unless the challenge is to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of the contract’s validity is considered by the arbitrator in the first instance.’’

The takeaway for employers: If you add an arbitration provision to your employment agreements, it’s likely to be read broadly in Connecticut.

In other words, be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.

There is news in the employment law world beyond sexual harassment.  Arbitration clauses to be exact.

Yesterday, the Second Circuit issued a small, but important decision for employers that will continue to limit FLSA wage & hour claims.

The court ruled that an employee’s FLSA claims in court were barred by the arbitration clause contained in his employment agreement.  While it isn’t the first time, it’s clear logic will be tough to ignore.

(The case, Rodriguez-Depena v. Parts Authority, Inc. et al can be downloaded here.)

For the court, it was not even a close call. The court ruled that the Supreme Court’s pronouncement years ago that age discrimination claims were barred by an arbitration clause controlled.

The court also looked at whether its decision in the Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, Inc. – which required oversight of settlements of FLSA claims — precluded arbitration. The court said it did not.

The rationale of Cheeks, however, is assurance of the fairness of a settlement of a claim filed in court, not a guarantee of a judicial forum.

For employers in Connecticut it remains to be seen if the Connecticut Supreme Court will be all in on such a logic for state wage & hour law claims, but the federal endorsement of arbitration provisions provide a strong basis for doing so.

The case is yet another sign that employers have a few options when it comes to FLSA claims.  It has previously held that class action waivers for FLSA claims are also valid.  

Nevertheless, employers should once again consider whether mandatory arbitration provisions are right for their workforce, particularly when combined with class action waivers.  Having such provisions in place could make a big difference in the future.

My colleague, Gary Starr, returns this morning with a post on a recent case that has implications for employers nationwide.

You wouldn’t think that fingerprinting would be brought into the world of religious accommodations.

After all, the importance of background checks cannot be denied, particularly when the prospective employee is going to work with children or the elderly.

Vulnerable populations need assurance that those with whom they will be dealing have their best interests at heart.

Background checks, however, can raise strange issues for employers when the person asked to authorize a background check indicates that he/she has a religious objection to fingerprinting.

In a recent federal case (download here), a bus driver, who was required to submit to a background check to retain her position, refused to undergo a fingerprint background check.

She explained that it was her sincere religious belief that fingerprinting is the “mark of the devil” and that fingerprinting would bar her entry into heaven.

She asked for an accommodation.

The employer checked with state and federal authorities responsible for doing the background checks, including the FBI, the State Department of Education, and the School District for whom she drove.

They were unable to provide guidance on what alternatives there were under the state law.  As a result, the bus company, faced with a criminal charge and fine if the driver were not tested, terminated the driver.

The fired employee then sued.

The bus company sought to have the case dismissed without having to go through discovery or a trial, but the court rejected this effort.

The court found that the bus driver sufficiently described her sincere religious belief about being barred from Heaven if she were fingerprinted and that an accommodation should have been made, as there was an insufficient basis to establish that the employer would suffer an undue hardship, at least at the initial phase of the litigation.

Further, the court said the employer’s assertion that it lacked the power to grant an exception to the fingerprinting requirements required greater exploration during discovery.

The bus company now must go through discovery before it has another opportunity to have the case thrown out short of a trial.

Connecticut employers face the same potential problem, because Connecticut law does not provide an alternative to fingerprinting.

Recognizing that potential issue, it will be important to look for ways to accommodate applicants and employees who raise religious objections.

Certainly, there are persons who cannot be fingerprinted or whose fingerprints cannot be read.  Employers should seek out accommodations and carefully document the steps they take to explore alternative testing techniques.

They must be able to show that the steps to find an accommodation were reasonable and if an accommodation were not possible, why the situation would create an undue burden.

It would be far better to take the time before firing or rejecting an applicant to explore what is possible than to defend a lawsuit.

For more on Kaite v. Altoona Student Transportation, Inc., click here.

 

An applicant for a job posting in education lists his most recent relevant experience as occurring in 1973.  You don’t bring him in for an interview.

Is it gender discrimination?

Beyond that, if he says that he is the most qualified candidate — do you have to hire him?

And if you don’t hire the most qualified person, is that evidence of gender discrimination?

No to all three, says one recent federal court decision.

The decision by the court was quietly released late last month and might otherwise go unnoticed, but it underscores an important point for employers.

In the matter, the Plaintiff argued that the employer discriminated against him because of his gender by denying him the opportunity for a job interview.   The employer chose four female and two male candidates for interviews.

The Plaintiff argued that he was more qualified than the female candidates who were interviewed and ultimately hired by the employer.

The court said, however, that the mere fact that the employer hired people of a different gender does not suggest that it failed to hire the Plaintiff “on account of his gender”.

Indeed, the employer had various reasons as to why the Plaintiff was not interviewed:

  • he hadn’t filled out the entire job application and didn’t answer whether he had any criminal offenses in the last ten years.
  • his resume was “perceived to be outdated, as the most recent job listing in education was from 1973.”

So, you might not think much of the case.

But the court’s decision is notable because it contains language that will be helpful in other cases for employers.  Says the court: “[T]here is no legal requirement that the most qualified candidate be hired.”

In doing so, the quote revisits a quote from an 1980 decision.

Title VII does not require that the candidate whom a court considers most qualified for a particular position be awarded that position; it requires only that the decision among candidates not be discriminatory. When a decision to hire, promote, or grant tenure to one person rather than another is reasonably attributable to an honest even though partially subjective evaluation of their qualifications, no inference of discrimination can be drawn. Indeed, to infer discrimination from a comparison among candidates is to risk a serious infringement of first amendment values. A university’s prerogative to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach is an important part of our long tradition of academic freedom.

All that being said, employers should have SOME rational basis for their decisions. Even if the candidate is “more qualified”, the employer may determine that there are other reasons why the employee should not be hired; maybe the employee’s qualifications cannot overcome a bad job interview, etc.

Keeping bias out of your decision-making process is central to employers.  But it’s nice to know that employers don’t have to be perfect in its determinations of qualifications either.

So, a couple of months back, I talked about how separation agreements for small employers might not be covered by the federal law that covers such agreements.

After all, since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act only applied to employers that have 20 or more employees, the requirements for a “knowing and voluntary waiver” of claims under separation agreements only applied to those larger employers.

Because this is a federal law, it applies in Connecticut though states are free to craft additional laws if they wish.

Recently, though, I’ve heard of an employee spouting off about “advice” he received that  Connecticut state law had the same requirements as federal law did.

And since Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws apply to employers of 3 or more employees, the employee argued that he should be provided with 21 days to consider the agreement.

When I heard this, I scratched my, well, proverbial head about this one.  Did I miss something?

The short answer is no, I didn’t miss something.  Connecticut law doesn’t say this.  You can see for yourself in Conn. Gen. Stat. 46a-60.

But how did the employee get such advice?

The first answer may be the simplest one: The attorney he spoke with doesn’t routinely practice in the area.  Sometimes, well-meaning lawyers just overstep their knowledge basis.

Another obvious answer is that the employee’s so-called advice was from “Attorney” Google.  Google is really good at finding things that might apply to your situation — not as good yet at telling you whether it actually applies to your situation.

And if you Google a topic like this, you might actually find a state court decision that looks — at first blush — like it might be on point.

State courts often use the following language in their decisions:

Although this case is based solely on Connecticut law, we review federal precedent concerning employment discrimination for guidance in enforcing our own antidiscrimination statutes.

What does THAT mean?

Typically for the same types of disparate treatment claims for, say, gender discrimination claims, courts in Connecticut don’t have as much as experience as federal law. So where the law is the SAME, it makes sense to look to federal laws that are similar.

The problem in the age discrimination statute context is that Connecticut law is DIFFERENT than federal law at times. There is no state equivalent. So looking to federal law makes no sense whatsoever.  And sure enough a quick search of Google Scholar reveals NO state law case applying that federal law to a review of separation agreements.

So how ARE separation agreements to be reviewed in Connecticut? In essence, you would most likely look at the agreement under state laws dealing with contracts.  Typically, this is also done through the “common law’ – that is precedent from the courts.  And Connecticut courts haven’t said much about separation agreements.

Employers are sometimes caught in the middle of receiving advice from their counsel (hopefully correct) and what the employee believes is true whether through an attorney or otherwise.  Employers should understand the misinformation that exists out there and, when confronted with these issues, try to explain them to employees.

Otherwise, a seemingly innocuous situation could turn much more stressful when the employee thinks (and worse, is being told) that the employer is violating a non-existent state law.