Now that Thanksgiving is in the past, it’s time to look forward to the future.

Well, not before getting a recap of everything that transpired in employment law in the last year. Or at least everything that we can fit in an hour long seminar.

The webinar that broke attendance records last year is back again on December 4, 2018 at noon ET.

This year, five employment law bloggers are presenting the “Best-Ever Year-End Employment Law Review that Five Employment Law Bloggers Have Ever Presented” webinar.  Registration is just $25 and it’s eligible for CLE/SHRM/HRCI credit.

All that is needed is to sign up here. 

The presenters this year are:

  • Robin Shea, Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete
  • Kate Bischoff, tHRive Law & Consulting
  • Jon Hyman, Meyers Roman
  • Eric Meyer, FisherBroyles
  • Jeff Nowak, Franczek Radelet
  • Daniel Schwartz, Shipman & Goodwin

Among the topics that you can surely expect to hear about: #MeToo, LGBT discrimination, Data Privacy and Security, Wage & Hour issues, and FMLA.

Be sure to sign up; it promises to be the best ever. (At least until next year.)

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.

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.

With Memorial Day coming up this weekend, it’s often a time (or it ought to be a time) to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military.  And at the same time, consider how we, as a society, treat our veterans.

This issue was highlighted for me many years ago.  During a court proceeding in which fraudulent behavior of the witness was being discussed, the witness brought up his past military service, perhaps as a way to seek leniency from the court.

To my surprise, rather than dismiss the comment as outright pandering to the court, the judge took a few minutes to express appreciation to the witness for his service and to note that the judicial system should be sensitive to the needs of veterans.

The court didn’t rule in favor of the witness but I was still struck by the judge’s sensitivity.  It was a learning moment for me that all of us involved in the legal system ought to treat veterans in a similar way — with, at a minimum, recognition for their service and respect.  It didn’t matter at that time whether the veteran was honorably discharged or not; it was their service that mattered.

It is with that background in mind that employers should consider the new guidance from the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) entitled “Guide to the Nondiscrimination in Hiring and Employing Connecticut Veterans”.

In it, the CHRO reminds us that employment discrimination on the basis of “status as a veteran” became illegal effective October 1, 2017.

And what is a “veteran”? Anyone who served? Actually no.

According to the statute, “veteran” means “any person honorably discharged from, or released under honorable conditions from active service in, the armed forces.”

Thus, by its own terms, employers cannot discriminate against veterans who received an “honorable discharge” or a discharge “under honorable conditions”.

But the CHRO guidance addresses whether employers can make hiring decisions regarding veterans who have received discharges under the three other primary designations:  “other-than-honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge, and dishonorable discharge.”

The CHRO calls these designations (along with the discharge under honorable conditions) as “less-than-honorable” or “bad paper” discharges.

The CHRO’s guidance suggests that discrimination against someone who received these “bad paper” discharges might also violate the law because of their “disparate impact on veterans of color, LGBT veterans, and veterans with disabilities”.

Thus, the CHRO opines, “reliance on discharge status” may still violate Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws.

What’s the proposed solution from the CHRO? Several suggestions are offered:

  • “Provide individualized consideration to veterans with less-than-honorable discharges. This means you should consider the nature of the discharge (i.e. why the veteran was discharged—was it for a minor infraction or because of behaviors related to a mental health condition?), the time elapsed since the discharge, the nature of the positions sought and how the discharge is in any way related to the position the veteran is applying for.
  • Second, you should provide the veteran-applicant the opportunity to present her case for why the discharge should not be factored into your hiring decision. You might also consider the presence of mitigating circumstances like PTSD if the veteran discloses them to you.
  • Additionally, for those service members who were discharged due to conduct arising from a disability like PTSD, you have an independent obligation under both state and federal law to provide “reasonable accommodations” such as making the physical work environment accessible or providing a flexible work schedule.
  • Finally, if you contract with a consumer reporting agency such as HireRight or TransUnion to conduct background checks and your background check results in the discovery of information about an individual’s discharge status, you are required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to provide notice to the veteran applicant prior to taking any adverse action….”

Employer Takeaways

The CHRO’s guidance here is reminiscent of guidance issued by the EEOC in the early 2010s regarding the use of criminal background checks and the potential for a racial disparate impact.

At the time, some argued that the agency overstepped its authority because there was nothing that outright prohibited the use of such checks under the law and the reach to “disparate impact” was a step too far.

One could make a similar argument here that the CHRO’s suggestion that discrimination against veterans of all types of discharges might also be covered — after a new law that was passed that prohibited discrimination against only those veterans those who received honorable discharges — might be deemed to be overreach.  The legislature only sought fit to protect veterans with honorable discharges; why can’t employers consider those with “bad paper” discharges as a factor in their hiring decisions?

I’ll leave that for the policy-makers to debate.

For employers, the takeaway should be that the CHRO will be looking at discrimination against veterans who received so-called “bad paper” discharges more closely.  While the law may not outright prohibit it, the CHRO will be looking at whether the employer’s decisions might have a disparate impact on a protected class.

And for employers, making individualized determinations on an applicant based on the applicant’s overall fit and qualifications for the position isn’t a bad practice anyways.

 

 

Last night, I had the honor of being elected as Chair of the James W. Cooper Fellows Program of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, after serving for a year as Vice-Chair and Chairperson of the Fellows Education & Program Committee.

The Fellows are comprised of outstanding Connecticut lawyers, judges, and teachers of law; the Fellows put on a variety of programs during the year including symposia, roundtable discussions and mentoring programs for high school students.

At the annual dinner, I sat next to and talked with the Keynote Speaker for the evening, Teresa Younger, who is currently President & CEO of the Ms. Foundation — the Foundation started by icon Gloria Steinem.

Those of you with memories here in Connecticut may remember that she was Executive Director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and Executive Director of the CT Chapter of the ACLU, before leaving to go to the Ms. Foundation.

I’ve met her several times — each time, I’m left with just awe at her accomplishments and, more importantly, by her wisdom and insights.

During her prepared remarks, Ms. Younger had a lot to say about the #metoo and #timesup movements in ways that I think many employers can take notice of.

Among them was her reminder to all of us that the movement isn’t just about stopping harassment in the workplace.

Rather, it’s designed to listen to voices that haven’t yet had the seat at the table, or who have been too timid to speak up thus far.

She highlighted a ABC News report and conversation recently about the shifting views in the workplace and that even among women, there are differences based on age.

As one of the participants in that ABC News conversation said:

From this conversation, I recognized that not everyone feels comfortable and assured in their position to speak up and voice concerns when they experience inappropriate behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Recognizing this, I encourage people experiencing any form of what they interpret as inappropriate behavior not to feel intimidated and talk with a colleague or a supervisor whom they trust and ensure that there is support if they decide to take next steps.

The workplace continues to shift and evolve.  It’s up to all of us to be cognizant of this and adjust our expectations and actions accordingly.

My thanks to Ms. Younger for providing a valuable insight at last night’s CBF meeting.

It was only a few years ago that the phrases “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias” started making the rounds in the legal community.

I can trace the discussion on this blog to a 2014 guest post from a former law professor of mine, Kim Norwood, who talked about it in the context of her own experiences here.  I also talked about it in the context of a 2014 study that showed that married men with stay-at-home wives had negative attitudes towards working women.  

Implicit bias has gained steam over the last several years. Indeed, Professor Norwood came to our firm in 2015 to give a presentation on The Mischief Biases Play in Law and the Legal Profession.  Suffice to say, it was well received and she was asked back again for a further presentation.

All of this is a precursor to what I think may be the biggest development thus far in the mainstreaming of the “implicit bias” theory and training.

Earlier this week, Starbucks announced that it will close all 8000+ of its stores next month to conduct anti-bias training for its 175,000 employees.  My guess is that it is one of the biggest single-day training events of its kind attempted in the United States.

The open question is: Will such training work? 

According to The New York Times article, the answer remains unknown.  Some studies show their effectiveness. But in some instances, it can have a negative effect as well.

Other academics and experts on bias caution that anti-bias training is a sensitive exercise that can be ineffective or even backfire if handled incorrectly. Any training that involves explicitly telling people to set aside their biases is especially likely to fail, said Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University who has also studied anti-bias training, because it requires so much mental energy it can exhaust people.

Even with training, some said, it is exceedingly easy to revert to the original biases. “In the moment of stress, we tend to forget our training,” said Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Mursion, which provides a simulation platform for training workers in skills like interpersonal interactions.

I’m eager to see how Starbucks continues to develop this. Its response to an earlier incident may be used as a role model to other companies who have had to deal with these types of issues. We should all be hoping its succeeds.

Earlier this week, the Judiciary Committee (by a 25-16 vote) approved of Senate Bill 132, being labelled by it’s proponents as the “Time’s Up” bill but covers both harassment and discrimination cases. I covered an announcement of this a while back.  

As the bill moves closer to consideration now to the state Senate, it’s time for employers to start paying attention to what’s in the bill.  The CBIA has expressed concerns about some aspects of the bill.

Here are a few highlights:

  • To require employers to provide every employee with information concerning the “illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to victimes of sexual harassment”.
  • To require employers of three or more employees (currently set at 50) to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training and with such training being provided not just to supervisory employees, but all employees.
  • To eliminate affirmative defenses that employers otherwise have that: “(i) the claim of sexual harassment was properly investigated, immediate corrective action was taken and no act of sexual harassment subsequently occurred, (ii) the claim of sexual harassment was not reported to a respondent prior to the filing of a complaint with the commission, (iii) an employer has a policy of prohibiting sexual harassment or recently trained its employees on sexual harassment in accordance with subdivision (15) of section 46a-54, as amended by this act, or (iv) the sexual harassment was not severe or pervasive.”  These defenses would only be allowed to be introduced on the question of damages.
  • To prohibit employers from modifying the “conditions of employment” of the employee making the claim of sexual harassment when the employer takes “immediate corrective action”, unless employee agrees in writing to such a modification.
  • To allow the CHRO to order the promotion of an employee in response to a claim of discrimination.
  • To allow claims of discrimination that occur on or after October 1, 2018 to be subject to a new three-year statute of limitation, instead of the current 180 day requirement.
  • To allow punitive damages for discrimination claims to be awarded in some instances.
  • To allow lawsuits to be brought two years after the CHRO releases jurisdiction over a discrimination, instead of the 90 day requirement.

There’s more as well, so employers are best advised to review it and talk with their attorneys about the impact that this bill might have on their workplace.

From a procedural perspective, the change in the statute of limitations would be significant.

Take this example: Suppose an alleged discriminatory act took place on May 15, 2019.  An employee would then have until (approximately) May 15, 2022 to bring a CHRO charge.  The CHRO could investigate the claim for a while — say a year and release jurisdiction on May 15, 2023.  The employee could then have two additional years to bring suit in Court — taking it out to May 15, 2025.  Add another 18-24 months before a trial date, at best.

Ultimately, this could result in a claim being heard nearly eight years (or more!) after the alleged discrimination took place.

Supervisors may have long since left the company and evidence might not be available anymore for employers to defend themselves.  All told, these types of delays were exactly the type of issue that a shorter statute of limitations was designed to prevent.  Companies would be at a significant disadvantage in defending themselves, all the while damages continue to accrue.

This bill would also require the CHRO to renegotiate significantly large portions of the worksharing agreement in place with the EEOC.

There is certainly momentum for some type of action here; stay tuned to see what further modifications are made to this bill.

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.

Last week, I posted about a proposed Governor’s bill that would expand the training requirements for some employers.

However, that appears to be just a small part of a wider political battle that is about to be raised.

Yesterday, a group of Senate Democrats proposed, according to a handout, the “Largest Overhaul in Modern Connecticut History of Sexual Harassment Laws” that would significantly alter the landscape for nearly all Connecticut employers.

They’ve titled their proposal the “Time’s Up Act: Combating Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault”.  

The bill has yet to be drafted, but the outlines are being shared by Senate Democrats and will be pursued first in the Judiciary Committee (not the Labor & Public Employee Committee as you might expect).

According to their handout, the proposed bill will contain the following relating to discrimination or harassment laws:

  • Require that any notice of sexual harassment remedies and policies by e-mailed to each employee at least once a year, in addition to the required posting.
  • Increase the fines that the CHRO can impose for failing to provide notice (currently at $250)
  • Require sexual harassment training to all employers with three or more employees (instead of the current 50 or more threshold)
  • Require training of all employees, not just supervisory employees with broader topics
  • “Give CHRO the resources it needs to go out into the community and conduct on-site trainings”
  • Increase the statute of limitations from 180 days to 2 years for not just harassment complaints, but all discrimination complaints
  • Eliminate the 90 day deadline after receiving a release from the CHRO to file a lawsuit but extend it to two years after a release from the CHRO.
  • Permit the CHRO to ask for injunctive relief for employers of 3 or more employees, not the current threshold of 50.
  • Allow for punitive damages in all discrimination and harassment complaints
  • Increase funding for the CHRO
  • Create a similar model to California in passing a Private Attorney General Act, which would allow litigants to, after giving notice to the CHRO, bring a claim for violations against himself or herself, but also against other employees as well.
  • Prohibit settlement agreements that prohibit a party from disclosing information regarding sexual harassment or sexual assault.

This is still in the early stages but expect to see a lot more about this in the weeks and months to come.  No doubt, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association will have something to say about this as well.

I’ll have more details as they become available.