The supervisor did it.

Yep, you’ve concluded that he sent unwanted texts to his subordinate telling her she looked “beautiful.”  Maybe even stopped by her hotel room unannounced one night at a conference for a “nightcap”.

While the subordinate’s career does not appear to have been harmed in the legal sense (i.e. there’s no “tangible employment action”), you’ve concluded that there was something “inappropriate” that happened.

(And let’s state the obvious: harm can exist even outside the “tangible employment action” context — that’s an issue for another post.)

So, back the the issue of the day — something “inappropriate” happened; maybe even something that meets the legal definition of “sexual harassment”.

What then?

Firing? Perhaps.

But what if you conclude that a lesser type of sanction is warranted?  Can you do that? If so, what’s the standard?

In cases where there has been no tangible employment action taken, the EEOC has actually set forth in its guidance a whole discussion that says that firing is but one possibility.  What’s important is that the remedial measures should be designed to:

  • Stop the harassment;
  • Correct its effect on the employee; and,
  • Ensure that the harassment does not recur.

The EEOC’s guidance notes that these remedial measures “need not be those that the employee requests or prefers, as long as they are effective.”

Moreover, “in determining disciplinary measures, management should keep in mind that the employer could be found liable if the harassment does not stop. At the same time, management may have concerns that overly punitive measures may subject the employer to claims such as wrongful discharge, and may simply be inappropriate.”

The EEOC suggests that the employer balance the competing concerns and that disciplinary measures should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense.

What does that mean?

If the harassment was minor, the EEOC suggests, such as a small number of “off-color” remarks by an individual with no prior history of similar misconduct, then counseling and an oral warning might be all that is necessary.

On the other hand, if the harassment was severe or persistent, then suspension or discharge may be appropriate.

And importantly, remedial measures also should correct the effects of the harassment. In the EEOC’s words, “such measures should be designed to put the employee in the position s/he would have been in had the misconduct not occurred.”

The EEOC provides various examples of measures to stop the harassment and ensure that it does not recur.  These include:

  • oral or written warning or reprimand;
  • transfer or reassignment;
  • demotion;
  • reduction of wages;
  • suspension;
  • discharge;
  • training or counseling of harasser to ensure that s/he understands why his or her conduct violated the employer’s anti-harassment policy; and
  • monitoring of harasser to ensure that harassment stops.

As for examples of measures to correct the effects of the harassment, these include:

  • restoration of leave taken because of the harassment;
  • expungement of negative evaluation(s) in employee’s personnel file that arose from the harassment;
  • reinstatement;
  • apology by the harasser;
  • monitoring treatment of employee to ensure that s/he is not subjected to retaliation by the harasser or others in the work place because of the complaint; and,
  • correction of any other harm caused by the harassment (e.g., compensation for losses).

How does this apply in the real world?

Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, highlighted a case several years back where the employer didn’t terminate the offending supervisor on the first go around, but rather gave them a last chance.

Unfortunately, the employer didn’t follow through when the supervisor STILL engaged in harassment.  The case, Engel v. Rapid City School District, is worth a read to show how an employer’s reasonableness the first go around, can be used against it when it doesn’t follow through.

The EEOC’s guidance is a helpful guide to employers in navigating these issues.  The employer should look to the particular circumstances of any matter and determine what punishment is appropriate in that particular matter.

Perhaps it will conclude that firing is appropriate.

But if it concludes, based on an analysis of the entirety of the situation, that something less than that is appropriate too, the EEOC’s guidance can be a useful guidepost for that determination.

With a new wave of sex harassment complaints making headlines, there is also a bit of reflection that should happen at workplaces and the lawfirms that counsel them.

One area that we can evaluate is whether the training that is provided is effective.

A report yesterday from NPR concluded that training is just not working at many workplaces. 

The primary reason most harassment training fails is that both managers and workers regard it as a pro forma exercise aimed at limiting the employer’s legal liability.

For those of us who have been paying attention, this isn’t new.  I know that for the trainings I give, I try to have them be engaging with discussions of different fact scenarios being discussed.

But I’ve wondered whether we could be doing more.

Indeed, the EEOC issued a report last year highlighting the problems with existing training programs.

In its executive summary, it noted two big issues with the current model of training:

  • Training Must Change. Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability. We believe effective training can reduce workplace harassment, and recognize that ineffective training can be unhelpful or even counterproductive. However, even effective training cannot occur in a vacuum – it must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top. Similarly, one size does not fit all: Training is most effective when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees. Finally, when trained correctly, middle-managers and first-line supervisors in particular can be an employer’s most valuable resource in preventing and stopping harassment.
  • New and Different Approaches to Training Should Be Explored. We heard of several new models of training that may show promise for harassment training. “Bystander intervention training” – increasingly used to combat sexual violence on school campuses – empowers co-workers and gives them the tools to intervene when they witness harassing behavior, and may show promise for harassment prevention. Workplace “civility training” that does not focus on eliminating unwelcome or offensive behavior based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, but rather on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally, likewise may offer solutions.”

Connecticut requires harassment training; I’ve talked about the requirements in some prior posts (check this one out from 2010, for example.)  But employers who have just gone through the motions, aren’t doing enough as we’ve now seen.

As we continue to work to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, having an effective policy is only part of the solution.

Making sure the training we provide to employees is helpful is obviously a part as well — and something that may have been overlooked in the past.

But finding that perfect solution to training still seems elusive.

A while back, I had a good discussion with a colleague on a topic with no real firm answers.

No, it wasn’t on whether the Yankees are better franchise than the Red Sox.  The answer to that is unequivocally yes.  (Sorry, Sox fans.)

Rather: When is a employee-related issue a legal one? Or alternatively, when can human resources handle the issue on it’s own?

What comes to mind at first is the old Justice Potter Stewart quote of, “I know it when I see it” but that seems unsatisfying.

For some smaller employers, the answer may lean more heavily towards “legal” in part because there may not be an in-house human resources professional to call on.

But on the flip side, there are some other employers that might rely heavily (perhaps overly so) on their HR contacts to handle matters, trying to avoid unnecessary legal expenses.

What I’ve concluded is what I’ve started with — there are no real answers to the question.

But I can outline a few (non-exclusive) times when a lawyer should probably get involved.

  1. You get a letter from a lawyer threatening legal action on behalf of an employee or, in the case of a non-compete, from a former employer.  Pretty self-evident; lawyer = legal issue.  I’m going to not even dwell on the obvious: an actual lawsuit being filed means an attorney ought to be contacted.
  2. You get a notice from a state or federal agency investigating wage/hour laws, anti-discrimination laws, workplace safety issues, or labor union-related issued. Anything from the DOL, CHRO, EEOC, OSHA, or NLRB (to name a few) has the potential to be a big deal. Things you say there can be used against you too.  The earlier the better.
    1. But unemployment compensation claims may not always rise to that level.  Some employers handle unemployment claims and appeals internally.  For those situations, it depends on the complexity of the situation.
  3. You have to conduct an investigation into a workplace issue, such as sexual harassment, AND you may want that investigation to be privileged and confidential.  Again, HR may be able to conduct a whole host of minor investigations but there are going to be some that involve sensitive issues, or perhaps raise company-wide concerns. Bring counsel involved and let them help to manage the investigation.
  4. You have a complex issue that doesn’t have a clear legal answer.  It’s pretty well-settled now that employers need to engage in interactive discussions with an employee regarding reasonable accommodations that they may need.  Qualified HR can handle those discussions.  But suppose the employee is injured on job, is out on workers’ compensation, has exhausted FMLA time and needs additional time off — what then?

But I’m interested hearing from other lawyers or human resources personnel. When is an issue a legal one and when is HR perfectly capable of addressing it? Leave your best tips in the comments below.

There’s an old(?) Bonnie Raitt song that my parents used to listen to when I was in college called “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About”.  It’s about a crush, but the intro could be just as applicable to a new court decision. The lyrics start: “People are talkin’, talkin’ ’bout people, I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it.”

The short lesson? Don’t give your employees something to talk about — namely when a lawsuit is filed, caution is strongly advised in distributing information about that lawsuit.  Interested in more? My colleague, Gary Starr, shares more:

A recent Connecticut district court decision (EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS) is a cautionary tale for in-house lawyers and human resource managers who want to tell employees about an investigation into discrimination claim brought by a former employee, and that investigation may involve those employees.

Following a disability discrimination charge, the EEOC sought contact information about other employees as well as information about their employment.

Rather than simply advise the employees that the EEOC was being provided with their job title, dates of employment, home address, and phone number, the company also described the accommodation that was requested and information that the former employee’s doctor had indicated that without the accommodation, the employee could not perform the essential functions of the job.

The EEOC viewed this as retaliation against the former employee by disclosing the information and interference with the rights of the employees receiving the letter as the agency thought it would discourage others from making claims in the future out of concern that their personal information would be shared widely.

The Company’s efforts to justify the letter were rejected by the court, which decided that a jury will have to decide whether the letter was retaliation and/or interference.

In communicating with potential witnesses in an agency investigation or lawsuit, employers must be clear on why the notice is being sent.  And employers should exercise caution on deciding what information is being shared.  What the decision suggests is that employees do not need to know what the medical condition another employee may have, what accommodation has been requested by that employee, or what recommendation a doctor has made about the employee.

Letting employees know that their contact information has been given to the EEOC and that they may be contacted would likely have have been sufficient and not opened up the employer to criticism.  And the decision does suggest that offering them the choice of having a lawyer present should not interfere with their rights.

In this instance, less information is better than more.

In any case, in the unlikely event you do need to inform employees about a lawsuit, check with your counsel about the details you should (and should not) be sending.

trumpphotoThere haven’t been a lot of stories about what Donald Trump would do as President when it comes to employment law issues. In part, that was due to the polls. But it was also due in part to the lack of policy details that his campaign put out on his website.  Back in September, I lamented the fact that we weren’t getting to hear any debate on those issues.

So, the news this morning that Donald Trump has been elected President is coming with a bit of scrambling.  What does it mean for employers in Connecticut? What’s going to happen with employment laws and enforcement?

The truth is that we really don’t know at this point.  The fact that the House, Senate and President will all be led by Republicans is something that is going to throw the whole system for a loop.

So, here are a few things to keep an eye on over the upcoming months when it comes to employment law issues:

  • As I noted last month, the new overtime regulations are set to be implemented on December 1, 2016.  Will a lame-duck Congress try to block those rules from being implemented? And if they are still implemented, will a Trump adminstration seek to roll those back? That would be a challenge.  Suffice to say for employers, this added uncertainty is a real headache. Until you hear otherwise, employers should continue to implement these changes.
  • One thing that seems clearer: The NLRB’s moves over the last few years will come to a screeching halt once the Board’s makeup is changed. The NLRB, for better or worse, always seems to change with each Presidency.  A Trump Presidency will no doubt bring changes back; this may impact everything from graduate assistants being able to unionize, the quickie election rules. Everything is in play.
  • For those wondering, the Board has two seats open now; along with the existing Republican member, that would give the Trump presidency a pretty quick majority.
  • The EEOC’s strategic plans will now be called into question as well. In recent years, it has taken aggressive litigation approaches on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Will those tactics be abandoned? Where will the enforcement priorities lead to? Again, don’t expect big changes overnight but over time, this is definitely something to watch.
  • And do not underestimate the impact that a Trump Presidency will have on the federal court system.  He will now be appointing far different judges that we’ve seen over the last eight years — both at the U.S. Supreme Court and at lower court levels.  This will have a long-term effect on employment discrimination cases which are often heard in the federal courts in Connecticut.  As a result, we may continue to see more cases being brought in Connecticut state courts.
  • Let’s not forget that Trump also suggested a six-week paid maternity leave program.  Will we see Congress pick this issue up? Stay tuned too.  

For Connecticut employers, lost in the headlines of a Trump presidency is the fact that Republicans seem to have gained an unprecedented 18-18 split in the State Senate. This could potentially put the brakes on legislation the next two years on issues like non-competes or expanded paid leave.  It’s too early to tell but this is something we’ll be looking into as well.

But for all the uncertainty out there, remember this: Many of our federal laws are unlikely to change.  ADA, FMLA, Title VII are all fairly hearty laws that share widespread support.  The changes that may come are all things around the edges — things like enforcement approaches, guidances, etc.

For employers, it’s best to keep a close eye on the developments for employment law. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years.

Continuing his posts on wellness programs, my colleague Marc Herman fills us in on what’s the latest.  

hermanI return today with the second part of a two-part post on wellness programs.

Reference to my prior post is not to be braggadocious, but to remind you that both posts ought be read in tandem.  Shameless, I know.

As I mentioned last time, the EEOC has finally published its long-awaited regulation that attempts to clarify the meaning of a voluntary medical examination.

Why long awaited? I hear you ask.

Well, if you recall, over the past couple of years, the EEOC has embarked on a slightly manic litigation spree against wellness programs.

In its typical altruistic self, the EEOC set-out to remind us that involuntary medical examinations are largely prohibited under the ADA.  I call this the No Exam Rule.

nurseNow, let’s get to the regulation itself.

According to the regulation, a voluntary medical examination (i.e., a lawfully incentivized wellness program) means that an employer:

  1. Does not offer an incentive that, in monetary terms, exceeds 30% of the total cost of self-only coverage for an employee;
  2. Does not deny an employee access to a health plan on the basis that the employee declined participation in a wellness program; and
  3. Does not retaliate against those employees that otherwise choose not to participate.

My self-proclaimed cynicism aside – please, I am English (Editor’s note: Too true!) – the above rules set forth a pragmatic, and dare I say workable, framework.  Employers that are considering such programs or that already have such programs, should be mindful of the regulations.

One thing to keep in mind — the regulation applies prospectively.  Thus, it will apply only to wellness programs that begin on or after January 1, 2017. With that said, the shake-up (or shake-down) due to take place in Washington D.C. very soon could relegate this new regulation to the history books.

Watch this space. Because I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last about wellness programs regulations.

 

hermanMy colleague Marc Herman returns today to bring back the story of wellness programs and whether they will continue to pass legal muster. In the first post of a two-parter, Marc updates us on some litigation. Read on.  

Here’s one for you:  Did you hear the one about the employee that turned down the opportunity to have his annual health insurance premiums waived?   Not a joke, unfortunately.  And there’s not much of a punch line either.

Way back in 2014 –– a time when Donald Trump’s entry into politics was confined to an episode of the Simpsons –– the EEOC embarked on a relentless, and unexpected, crusade against wellness programs.

“Why!?” I hear you cry.  Let me remind you.

The EEOC took issue with various employer-sponsored wellness programs because, according to the EEOC, many such programs violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”).  [Enter smoke, stage left].

Among those employers side-swiped by the EEOC was Orion Energy Systems, Inc. – a Wisconsin-based manufacturer that employs around 250 people.

According to the EEOC, Orion’s incentive-based wellness program violated the ADA by unlawfully subjecting employees to involuntary medical examinations.

What are those? Well, in plain English, involuntary medical examinations are a big no-no under the ADA — consider it the No Exam Rule.  Remember this.  It is important.

Orion had told its employees that if they participated in a wellness program, they would have their annual health insurance premiums waived (a saving of over $400).

Hallelujah!

Wait, not so fast.

Participation in the wellness program also obligated employees to undergo something called a “Health Risk Assessment”  – a fancy name for a medical exam.

Ah, now enter from Stage Right — the No Exam Rule.

You might say – “What’s the big deal!?” “The employees had a choice!”  “How is this involuntary!?”

Well, yes, in a technical sense, the employees had a choice.  They could decline participation if they so wished.  But that’s not the way the EEOC viewed it.

The EEOC said:  Whoa!  No sane employee would choose to forego a waiver of their annual health insurance premium.  Put another way, no employee would voluntarily choose to pay the annual health insurance premium (i.e., opt-out of the wellness program).

The EEOC reasoned that employees have no meaningful choice to opt-out of the program.  Participation would be coerced.  The Health Risk Assessment would be involuntary.

So who’s right?

Well, last week, we finally go through round one: a federal court sided with the employer, Orion.

The court explained that while there “may be strong reasons to comply with an employer’s wellness initiative,” the employee still has a choice.

Orion’s wellness program did not subject employees to involuntary medical examinations.  It was lawful.

Now, before we crack open the cigars and champagne, let us pause.  The decision, while helpful, ought be put in context.

In May, 2016, the EEOC published its long-awaited regulation regarding wellness programs.  The regulation defines exactly what a voluntary wellness program is.  However, it only applies to wellness programs commencing on or after January 1, 2017.  This means that the new regulation did not apply to Orion’s.  The decision should, as they say, be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

I shall return with part 2 to further explore the new regulation.  Stay tuned.

Rainbow over Hartford
Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

The last few weeks it seems that I’ve been reading about sexual harassment in the workplace issues a lot more. Here are a few examples:

So what’s going on? Is sex harassment increasing? Or is this just another round of increased focused placed on a problem that still persists?

Well, if you look at the statistics, you can see part of the story — and part of the problem trying to glean trends from the numbers too.

Last year, I reported on some statistics from the state level about harassment claims.  Indeed, sex harassment cases were down significantly, but general “I’ve been harassed” claims were up nearly 200% over the last decade or so.

The EEOC statistics show slightly different numbers. Sex harassment claims went up by a modest 4 percent in fiscal year 2015, though more generalized “harassment” under Title VII claims also increased by 6 percent.

So, which is it? Up or down? Statistics on case filing don’t tell the full story.  Surveys (yes, including the one in Cosmopolitan magazine) show that women still think some workplaces have issues.

But I would argue that chasing statistics is missing the point. Rather, it’s the perception of whether this is a hot issue that will drive the discussion.  And to that, we’re definitely seeing renewed interest. For example, a few weeks ago, the EEOC issued some findings and statements from a select task force calling on stakeholders “to double down and ‘reboot’ workplace harassment prevention efforts“.  This increased focus on the area will once again bring the issues of sexual harassment to the forefront.

What’s an employer to do? Well, start with the obvious.  Review your existing policies. Are they strong enough? Do they need to be updated to reflect current practices?  And then review your existing training.  Is it updated? Or is it still stuck in the 1990s?   And then look at how your workplace is actually functioning.

Beyond that the EEOC has a whole list of suggestions for employers to follow. You can view the entire compilation, but here are a few examples:

  • Employers should foster an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated, and in which respect and civility are promoted. Employers should communicate and model a consistent commitment to that goal.
  • Employers should assess their workplaces for the risk factors associated with harassment and explore ideas for minimizing those risks.
  • Employers should conduct climate surveys to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem in their organization.
  • Employers should devote sufficient resources to harassment prevention efforts, both to ensure that such efforts are effective, and to reinforce the credibility of leadership’s commitment to creating a workplace free of harassment.
  • Employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is prompt and proportionate to the severity of the infraction. In addition, employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is consistent, and does not give (or create the appearance of) undue favor to any particular employee.
  • Employers should hold mid-level managers and front-line supervisors accountable for preventing and/or responding to workplace harassment, including through the use of metrics and performance reviews.
  • If employers have a diversity and inclusion strategy and budget, harassment prevention should be an integral part of that strategy.

HR personnel have a lot on their plate now; be sure harassment prevention remains there as well.

restrm1Last fall, I raised the issue of bathroom access for employees that corresponds with their gender identity.

The issue, however, that seems to get the most press is restroom access.

Indeed, we’re now getting federal guidance on how to deal with the issue of restroom access. That remains one of the bigger issues (a proposition up on a Houston ballot turned into an ugly campaign of “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms”) but it doesn’t seem again to translate to claims filed.

What’s happened since then? Well, we’ve seen it become a topic on the presidential campaign trail and in North Carolina.

But we’ve also seen the EEOC say: Wait a minute. Federal law has something to say on this too.

Yesterday, the EEOC went a step further and issued a new fact sheet reminding employers that even a contrary state law isn’t a defense.

In Macy v. Dep’t of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (Apr. 12, 2012), the EEOC ruled that discrimination based on transgender status is sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, and in Lusardi v. Dep’t of the Army, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133395, 2015 WL 1607756 (Mar. 27, 2015), the EEOC held that:

  • denying an employee equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee’s gender identity is sex discrimination;
  • an employer cannot condition this right on the employee undergoing or providing proof of surgery or any other medical procedure; and,
  • an employer cannot avoid the requirement to provide equal access to a common restroom by restricting a transgender employee to a single-user restroom instead (though the employer can make a single-user restroom available to all employees who might choose to use it).

Contrary state law is not a defense under Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-7.  In G. ex rel. Grimm v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd., — F.3d –, 2016 WL 1567467 (4th Cir. 2016), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reached a similar conclusion by deferring to the Department of Education’s position that the prohibition against sex discrimination under Title IX requires educational institutions to give transgender students restroom and locker access consistent with their gender identity.

Gender-based stereotypes, perceptions, or comfort level must not interfere with the ability of any employee to work free from discrimination, including harassment. As the Commission observed in Lusardi:  “[S]upervisory or co-worker confusion or anxiety cannot justify discriminatory terms and conditions of employment.  Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex whether motivated by hostility, by a desire to protect people of a certain gender, by gender stereotypes, or by the desire to accommodate other people’s prejudices or discomfort.”

Connecticut is one of the few states that already prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Thus, the EEOC’s statement should be seen as one in support of the interpretation in Connecticut.

For employers, keep it simple: Let employees use the bathroom that corresponds to the employee’s gender identity.  But it can also mean turning single-occupant bathrooms into gender-neutral ones too.  You can look at the OSHA guidance on this issue for more best practice tips.  If any employee complains, well, that’s not enough of a reason to deny access.

lettersPicture this scenario:

You come into your office one morning to learn that an employee has filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming that you failed to accommodate his disability reasonably and then terminated his employment because of his disability.

As if that isn’t challenging enough, many months afterwards, you receive a request from the EEOC to provide the names and contact information of his fellow employees who worked for you at the same time as the original complainant, as part of the EEOC’s investigation into the complaint.

This type of scenario isn’t uncommon; the state agency investigating discrimination complaints (CHRO) often requests information on co-workers as part of the investigation and sometimes requests that these co-workers be available for interview.

But here’s where the scenario gets interesting — and this story is based on a ruling on a motion to dismiss in federal court just this week in the EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman case.  The employer’s in-house counsel — seemingly with reference to outside counsel as well — decided to notify the co-workers of the request.

Indeed, the employer sent a letter to approximately 146 individuals, all of whom were members of same union as the Complainant and all of whom had worked, or continued to work, for the employer.  Whether you view the letter as an innocuous helpful note, or a nefarious threat will depend on your perspective.

In the letter (which you can download here at part of the employer’s filings — page 49), the employer identified the complainant by name, and indicated that he had filed a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability. The letter went on to identify the Complainant’s union local, the medical restrictions on his ability to work, and the accommodation he had requested. It further informed the recipients of their right to refuse to speak to EEOC investigator and offered them the option to have the employer’s counsel present if they chose to speak to EEOC.

Is there anything wrong with the letter?

According to the EEOC, yes (download here). The EEOC alleged that this letter constitutes retaliation against the original Complainant for opposing conduct made unlawful by the ADA. The EEOC further alleged that the letter interfered with the Complainant and the recipients of the letter in their the exercise or enjoyment of rights protected by the ADA, including the right to communicate with EEOC, the right to participate in an EEOC investigation, and the right to file a charge of discrimination with EEOC.

The employer, as you might imagine, vehemently disagreed and filed a motion to dismiss the complaint (download here).  It argued that the lawsuit “exemplifies the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)’s enforcement position of ‘do as I say, not as I do.'”  It noted that the EEOC, through the lawsuit itself, publicized the same information it now criticizes the employer for doing, even though the employer was obligated — it argues — to do so by the Rules of Professional Conduct (simply, the ethical code for attorneys).

The employer also argued that the letter explicitly re-affirmed the employer’s policy against retaliation, its commitment to equal employment opportunity, and the “employer’s position that a decision to speak with the EEOC investigator ‘will not have an adverse impact on your current or future employment.'”

The federal court rejected the employer’s motion to dismiss (ruling available here for download); in doing so, it emphasized that under the standards governing review of such motions, it must construe the federal complaint in a light most favorable to the EEOC. After doing so, the court concluded that the allegations were sufficient to state a claim for ADA violations  even though the Complainant had already been terminated from employment at least 17 months prior to the letter being distributed.

As a starting point, the court noted that “Routinely, courts have held that, when an employer disseminates an employee’s administrative charge of discrimination to the employee’s colleagues, a reasonable factfinder could determine that such conduct constitutes an adverse employment action.”  And the court concluded that, again construing the facts most favorably to the EEOC, the letter was sent just three months after the employer learned that the EEOC intended to pursue the complaint seriously:

Here it is plausible that the first opportunity to retaliate against [the Complainant], whom they had already terminated, was when the EEOC provided a list of fellow union members to whom Defendant could disseminate the potentially damaging EEOC charge.

The court also addressed the seldom-litigated issue of an interference claim under the ADA. It noted that neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has outlined a test for such a claim. (Though query whether the court overlooked the Second Circuit case of Gradziano — or at least had written its opinion before that one came out.)

Here, the court concluded that while there was no allegation of any direct evidence of the employer’s intent behind the letter, the issue of the employer’s intent “is a question of fact that cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss.”

Moreover, the fact that the employer disclosed “sensitive personal information” about the Complainant could dissuade the Complainant and the co-workers from communicating further with the EEOC.

Obviously, this lawsuit if far from over.  Both the EEOC and the employer have staked out positions that make a compromise seem unlikely.  And so the case will likely proceed to discovery and then another round of motion practice.

For the rest of us though, this case — and the issues it touches upon — is again worth following.

In the meantime, employers should be very wary of mass notifications of discrimination charges to co-workers (former or current) in response to an EEOC inquiry.   Left unclear from the decision is whether there are any circumstances in which the employer can notify co-workers of the inquiry and at what level of detail.  Would an e-mail indicating that the EEOC may be contacting them but without the details of the Complainant’s complaint pass muster?  How strongly should an employer emphasize its policies prohibiting retaliation?

Employers are going to want to tread very carefully for now and consult their counsel about any communications going out.