Readers of the blog will no doubt know that it’s been far too long since I had Nina Pirrotti on the blog for a conversation about employment law topics.

Excuses abound, but Nina — who mainly represents individuals in employment-related disputes — recently penned a piece for the Connecticut Law Tribune that is too good

The Dialogue – an occasional discussion between myself and a prominent employee-side attorney, Nina Pirrotti returns today after a late summer hiatus. Today’s chat focuses on employee separations and severance agreements.  Share your own tips or observations in the comments below. As always, my thanks to Nina for sharing her insights here.

Dan: Hi Nina!

The Dialogue — one of the more popular recurring posts — returns for the third time. Does that mean the third time’s the charm? Or is it three strikes and we’re out? In any event, Nina Pirrotti of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald and Pirrotti, P.C. returns for this installment where an employee-side and employer-side attorney discuss the issues of the day. Today’s topic discusses the lay of the land when an employee files a complaint against his or her current employer. Well, that and Unicorn Frappuccinos….

unicornsNina Pirrotti: It is that time, once again for the two of us to lock horns, I mean engage in a spirited discussion about, how we both help our clients to navigate thorny issues which arise in the workplace.    One such issue is how to advise our clients when an employee has alleged discrimination while she is still employed with the very employer she is accusing of wrongdoing.  Wow.  I feel a knot forming in my stomach just contemplating it!   

There are many complexities inherent in this scenario at each stage, from how the complaint is initially expressed, to the manner in which it is investigated, to whether the employee who complains should stay or go (or something in the middle like a leave of absence) to various resolution options.  In fact, I feel so strongly that employees and employers often botch one or more facets of this fraught situation  that I proposed it as a subject for a panel at NELA’s annual employment conference this June and I will be speaking on that panel!

I think I will start the ball rolling by saying that my biggest fear is that clients who remain working in a hostile work environment often feel so powerless and outraged by their situation that they are vulnerable to doing everything wrong from making more frequent mistakes to lashing out at supervisors or peers or far worse.   I used to save my admonishments about refraining from such behavior for my less sophisticated clients until it became clear that my C-Suite executive clients were just as likely to partake.   Now, no matter who my clients are, a big part of my counseling session revolves around how they should conduct themselves in the workplace.  If anything, I want them to strive even harder to be consummate professionals, above reproach.   My most common refrain is:  Do not arm your employer with a legitimate justification for terminating you!

There is so much to territory to explore here, Dan, but, could you highlight for me one or more of your biggest concerns when a client comes to you and says one of its employees has alleged discrimination or harassment in the workplace?

Dan Schwartz: Locking horns, eh? Perhaps you’ve had one too many Unicorn Frappuccinos (R.I.P.)  from Starbucks.  Alas, I do tend to agree with you that this is one area where rainbows and happy endings are rare.

When I hear about current employees who bring suit against their employers, I tend to think an apt comparison may be the spouse that files for divorce but the couple still has to live in the same house.  It’s awkward.  Everyone is walking on eggshells.

The fact is that one big concern I have for employers in this situation is to avoid a retaliation claim.  You say you encourage employees to be “above reproach” and I wish that were always the case, but sometimes employers will get these types of claims and they’re in the midst of either terminating or disciplining an employee — what then? If they do so after the claim, they’re opening themselves up to a retaliation claim. And we know how nasty those can be.  (Documentation is critical.)

But if it’s a harassment complaint that the employer gets, it typically becomes a real fire drill — drop everything and begin an investigation. That investigation may or may not need your client’s help, Nina. So what do you do in that situation where an investigation pops up?

Nina: Ok – you got me.  I couldn’t resist looking up the Unicorn Frappuccino on Google after my husband assured me you weren’t making it up.  This is how Starbucks describes it:  “Magical flavors start off sweet and fruity transforming to pleasantly sour. Swirl it to reveal a color-changing spectacle of purple and pink.”    It sounds like a liquid nightmare.  Hmmm could the Unicorn Frappucinno’s “magical flavors” be a metaphor for the very type of employer-employee relationships of which we are speaking?!
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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!
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