Back in 2011, I discussed a titillating case of strip club dancers (or, a decision says, “performers”, “entertainers”, “dancers” or even “exotic dancers” — although not “strippers”) who were trying to claim wages for the time they worked at a popular strip club in Connecticut.

The story at the time was that they were compelled to arbitrate their claims. 

So private arbitration should mean end of the public story, right?

Well, as it turns out, no. And the analysis of the case has some very real practical implications for employers.

I’ve been going to back through some older posts to do some followups. And in doing so, I discovered that this case had a public ending — except for the fact no one reported on it.

It seems that the dancers won big in an arbitration proceeding and then asked the court to “confirm” the award — making the whole thing public.  (You can read the arbitrator’s award here.)

And as a result, we get a revealing look at the efforts one club made to try to avoid having strippers be deemed “employees” and how it ultimately failed.

The strip club  — sorry, “adult entertainment establishment” as it called itself — had the strippers sign leases “renting” out the poles and space of the strip club. In doing so, the Club argued that these dancers were no more than tenants, and therefore, not entitled to wages, benefits or any of the normal protections that come with being an employee.

Under the “lease”, according to the decision, the dancers agreed to perform “semi-nude (topless) and/or nude dance entertainment” at the Club.”

In doing this work, dancers agreed to “perform consistent with the industry standards of a professional exotic dancer.”

(Aside: Professional exotic dancers have INDUSTRY standards?)

The Lease also provided that there will be set fees (called “entertainment fees”) for certain performances, “such  as couch and table dances,” and that dancers “may not charge more than the set fees.”

Oh, and they wouldn’t be paid any wages.

And here’s where it gets REALLY interesting.

If they ever DID claim wages, the lease provided that they would forfeit all of the entertainment fees they previously earned. And, to top it all off, should the dancers claim to be employees, they will also be liable for any attorneys’  fees, costs, or other damages incurred by the Club as a result of that claim.

But the arbitrator was having none of it.

He detailed the requirements of the strippers saying that there were four principal ways a dancer can “perform” — all of which indicated that they were tied to the Club (and therefore employees).

  • A “stage set”, in which the only income is the tips the customers choose to give her.
  • A “private dance” or “booth dance”, in which the Club sets the “mandatory entertainment fees”.  (A booth dance here cost $25, of which the dancer keeps $20 and pays $5 to the Club.)  Tips encouraged.
  • A “VIP” area in which the fee for that performance is $100 for 15 minutes, $200 for 30 minutes and $300 for an hour and in which the entire fee goes to the Club.  Tips encouraged as well.
  • A “Champagne Room” performance, in which the customer is charged $110 for one half hour and in which the entire fee goes to the Club.  Customer is free to tip the dancer.

At the end of a shift, the dancer must pay “rent” to the Club of $20 and a tip to the DJ.

The arbitrator said that the dancers were employees and therefore entitled to the protections under state and federal law.  Minimum wage was owed, for example. Moreover, the “lease” violated state law because it called for a refund of wages under Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-73.  

The arbitrator noted that while employers and employees have “wide latitude” to enter into wage agreements, that latitude does not extend to permitting parties to override or ignore the requirements of Connecticut law.

The arbitrator took particular note of the paragraphs that required the dancers to return “all” entertainment fees if they challenged their employment status.  These provisions are “clearly designed to penalize the employee for exercising her right to insist upon proper classification.  The inherent purpose of the Lease is to violate the law.”

The decision goes on to analyze the proper penalties and set-offs in such a case.  Here, the arbitrator again was not sympathetic to the employer — and for good reason.  The employer failed to prove it acted “in good faith” — and therefore the dancers were entitled to liquidated (or double) damages.

How much? Nearly $130,000 in damages for two strippers — plus attorneys’ fees.

The case is a great example of what happens on the fringes of wage and hour law. The vast majority of employers in this state play by the rules and wouldn’t even dream of cooking up a “lease” for its employees to sign.

But the law exists to protect the dancers too and here, there’s little doubt that justice has been well-served by the award here.

One of the interesting strains to come out of the new round of publicity surrounding sexual harassment is a renewed focus on mandatory arbitration provisions.

And it comes from an unexpected source: former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Indeed, Carlson recently gave an interview with former ESPN producer and self-titled “Commander-in-She” Valerie Gordon that may have slipped under radar in which she talks about such provisions.

She notes that mandatory or “forced” arbitration provisions enable sexual harassment to exist under the radar.

I’m doing some advocacy work on Capitol Hill, working on gathering bipartisan support to take the secrecy out of arbitration.  You know the forced arbitration in employment contracts makes these things secret.  We have to stop the silence around it.

In another recent interview, Carlson suggested that these arbitration provisions are often “in the fine print” and not focused on when people start a new job.  She’s talked about it during Senate press conferences this year as well.

I’ll be interested in reading more about Carlson’s perspective in her new book being released today.

Carlson’s message should be well taken by employers; if employers are using these arbitration provisions merely as a means to allow a system of harassment to continue, then shame on them.

But here’s the issue: As with most things employment law related, it’s far more nuanced.

There are times when arbitration makes sense for BOTH the employer and employee. Litigation is expensive — very expensive, some of my clients would say — and is filled with uncertainty and time-consuming drama.  I talked more about this in a 2014 post.

Arbitration can be less expensive and can allow both sides to be heard by a neutral third party much more quickly and effectively than a court system.

And yes, it avoids some publicity but again, that can benefit employees too.

By filing in arbitration, rather than court, an employee’s claims won’t be public and won’t seen by future employers as a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review this once more in a trio of consolidated cases, including whether employers can force employees to sign away rights to pursue a class actions.

And we shall see if the Connecticut General Assembly revisits the issue in the upcoming session in January 2018.  Until then, employers should continue to monitor developments in this area and figure out if mandatory arbitration provisions are right for your business.

 

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! How was your summer? Mine was fine except I can’t stop hearing news about President Trump.

It seems to drown out everything else going on and I think I have a headache from it all. But let’s give it a try, shall we?

I know I’m often confronted with having to fashion separation and settlement agreements for employers.   

What do you find are the items in agreements that you think both sides ought to be paying attention to?

Nina: Drowning in Trump-related noise.  The image is horrifying!  My husband and I were chatting the other day about an old Saturday night live weekend update skit.  As we recall it (it was decades ago), the news media was focused on other events when all of a sudden the character playing Kim Jong Un pops into the screen, holds both arms out and complains:  “What do I have to do to get attention around here?!” 

In the age of Trump that glib remark becomes bone-chilling. 

The art of crafting a fair and balanced settlement agreement isn’t the most riveting of topics in our world but it is among the most important.  

One key strategy I use in evaluating them is to put myself in the position of the employer to ensure I understand company’s (reasonable) priorities. 

Clearly the company seeks to contain the dispute itself, keep the fact that it is settling it confidential, and do everything possible to obtain closure.    If the settlement terms go beyond meeting those priorities, a red flag goes up for me and I scrutinize those terms closely.  

In light of the company’s priorities in containing the dispute and keeping it confidential, I expect to see a confidentiality provision, limiting the disclosure of the settlement agreement to those on a need to know basis (typically immediate family members, financial/tax advisor and lawyer). 

I am also not surprised by a non-disparagement provision which prevents the employee from spreading ill will about the former employer. 

Since I generally advise my client that it rarely reflects well on an employee to speak negatively about his/her former employer (no matter how justified the employee might be in doing so) I usually do not oppose such provisions. 

I will often, of course, make them mutual so that key employees at the company also commit to not disparaging my client. 

In light of the company’s priority in seeking closure, I do not have a one-size fits all response to no re-hire provision.  I understand the company’s concern that should the employee who has settled claims for discrimination apply for a position down the road and the company (for legitimate reasons) declines to hire that employee, it nonetheless remains exposed to a potential retaliation lawsuit by the employee. 

No re-rehire provisions in certain situations can be appropriate but only if they are narrowly tailored to the company itself.  Alarm bells go off for me, therefore, if the employer is large and has numerous affiliates and subsidiaries and the employer insists on including them within the scope of the no-rehire provision. 

In such cases, no-rehire provisions can be tantamount to mini-restrictive covenants and, where they hamper my client’s ability to find comparable work, I will reject them as untenable. 

Speaking of restrictive covenant  provisions, it irks me to no end when an employer tries to slip one into a settlement agreement where the employer was not bound by one during the course of his/her employment!   Such provisions are generally a non-starter for me, absent considerable additional compensation for them. 

Finally, as we discussed in an interview you conducted with me many years ago, I do not abide by liquidated damages provisions. 

If a court determines that my client has breached the agreement, even if that breach is deemed a material one, the employer should still bear the burden of proving that it has been damaged and, to a reasonable degree of certainty, the monetary amount of that damage. 

What are your thoughts, Dan?   Have I articulated the company’s main priorities well?  Are there others I am missing that I should consider the next go-round?   Do tell and I promise to listen with an open mind!

Dan: Well, one day we could talk about Trump-related employment litigation, if you’d like to really talk more about Trump.

You’ve hit on some of the highlights from an employer perspective. When crafting one for an employer, I will let you in on a “secret” – we have a template.

I know — probably not a big surprise to you since our firms have negotiated enough of them.

As a result, I find that agreements at this point are sometimes more of finessing around the edges, rather than major re-writes.

The problem I see is that there are some employers who are using a form separation agreement handed down to them years ago, without understanding what’s in them.

First off, the agreements — regardless of whether you’re trying to comply with federal law or not — should really be written in “plain English”.

Get rid of the “Whereas” clauses.

Use bold language or simply to understand provisions.

And try not to have it be 15 pages.

Second, the agreements should contain: a) a release of all state and federal claims (and local ones if you’re in places like New York City); b) confidentiality (and if it needs to be mutual, so be it); c) non-disparagement (same).  There’s more of course, but start with the basics.

Third, employers should think about provisions that may actually be helpful: a) What are you going to do about references? Is it “name, rank, serial number” or something more? b) Do you want an arbitration provision for any breach of the separation agreement?

Neither is typically a high priority but taking care of some of these details are important.

A few employers are trying to get the “best” deal and negotiate strongly but I find most employers just want to move on; the termination was probably not something that they wanted to do anyways and putting some distance between the employee and the company is probably a good thing for the business ultimately.

Since you’re not finding separation agreements all that exciting, what about how employers handle the termination or termination meeting itself? I’m sure you’ve heard some stories from clients.

Nina: Wow – you hit the jackpot with that question!   

I was once asked at an ABA conference at which I spoke what was one step management lawyers could take to maximize the chances that a departing employee won’t seek out the counsel of someone like yours truly. 

My answer?  Treat them like human beings when you terminate them.   

Don’t do what one Fortune 500 company did to one of my clients which was to call her as she lay in a hospital bed with her infant daughter who had been born earlier that day and inform her that she need not return to work because her job had been eliminated.

Time and again prospective clients had told me that they would have gone quietly into the good night had their employers treated them with a modicum of respect during the termination process. 

I recently settled a case involving a woman in her mid-60s who had worked for the same company for 20 years and proven time and again that she would do ANYTHING for that company and, indeed, had worn a number of hats over the years, shedding one and donning another as the company’s needs shifted.  In her 20th year, a new CEO was hired and you can guess what happened next.  He terminated her and replaced her with a brand new hire, decades younger, who my client had helped train.   

Doesn’t sound kosher right, but that is not the worst part! 

It was the WAY the company terminated her that prompted this lovely, meek, non-confrontational woman to summon up the courage to pick up the phone and call me. 

Her termination consisted of a three minute meeting in which the CEO informed her she was no longer needed and handed her a severance agreement that provided her with two measly weeks’ pay. 

She was literally sobbing as she signed it then and there after which she was immediately escorted out the door.   She contacted me weeks after she signed her agreement.  Too bad, so sad, right?  Wrong. 

The employer neglected to include in her severance agreement language required by the Older Worker Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA), including a 21-day period to consider the agreement and a seven-day revocation period.  She was able to keep her paltry two weeks and I got her many months more on top of that!   

There are so many morals to that story, the least of which is that severance agreements for employees over 40 should comply with the OWBPA.   Employers should be expressing their gratitude to terminated employees who have proven their devotion to the company by providing them with severance that sends the message that they valued that devotion.  

There other ways to go that extra mile to treat such employees with dignity.   Think about how you would want to be treated if you were undergoing one of the worst days of your life and act accordingly.  Thank them for their service, tell them how sorry you are, assure them that you will do everything in your power to facilitate their transition, allow them to say goodbye to their colleagues, hell, even offer to throw them a farewell gathering.  The possibilities are endless.  Sometimes we lawyers get in our own way. 

Dan, I know none of the clients who have had the benefit of your wisdom prior to terminating an employee would succumb to such pitfalls.  But what do you do when you have to clean up after the fact?

Dan: You’ve raised a good question, but I want to address something you said first. 

You said: “Employers should be expressing their gratitude to terminated employees who have proven their devotion to the company by providing them with severance that sends the message that they valued that devotion.”  

It’s that phrase that I think gets to the heart of the issues with severance in 2017. 

When I first started practicing (a few years ago, ahem), there were still many companies that offered severance without ANY release because that just seemed “the right thing to do.”

After all, there was still a bit of an unspoken contract that employers would take care of employees.

Think back to the “Mother Aetna” description of the insurance company.  But as the recessions took their toll and employee mobility took root, that social contract has definitely been frayed over the years.  In part too is the rise of employment litigation. 

Now each employer has to worry: Is THIS going to be the employment termination that leads to a lawsuit?

 I can’t even remember the last time that an employer offered severance without also demanding the employee sign a release. 

In other words, the idea of severance as “gratitude” and “thanks”, has now been replaced with much more of a quid pro quo. 

For employers, the thought ii: If we give you this severance, please don’t sue us. 

And yet for employees, some of them still remember the days when severance was just something companies did without worrying about the lawsuit. And so when the employer demands the release, some employees take offense to it, not realizing that times have changed. 

As a result, I have also seen employers trying to offer less and less; the notion of one week of severance per year of service (with caps) is still strong, but not universal. 

As to being the fixer – yes, sometimes it happens.  The lack of OWBPA provisions is really something that just shouldn’t happen anymore. 

But it’s more that employers go ahead with the termination without thinking about what comes next.  And some employers are moving so fast, that the details such as having two people in the termination meting and having COBRA information available, get lost in the shuffle.

I don’t know of a single employer that has enjoyed firing an employee.  

Even when they catch an employee red-handed, many employers are aware of the consequences that may flow for the employee from a firing. The employee may have a tough time finding a new job, for example. 

But it strikes me that a small subset of terminated employees are LOOKING to bring suit or a payday instead of looking forward to a new time in their life. 

Obviously sometimes past discrimination has to be examined, but what do you think makes employees sue their employers instead of signing severance agreements that are presented to them?

Nina: I think that employer conduct that rises to the level of actionable discrimination and/or retaliation is alive and well, unfortunately. 

The only up side of all of this is that I get to keep my day job, which I love! 

Of course there are those (“small subset” would accurately describe them) who seek to avoid accountability and are looking for a quick pay out of claims. 

Virtually all of those individuals never make it to our front door. 

I say “virtually” because we are human, after all, and one or two may sneak through the cracks in that door. 

But then we have competent lawyers like you for whom we have great respect who (very politely) convince us – – with facts – – that we are being misled. 

That is why I believe that the only situations in which early negotiations are successful are those in which both sides fight their natural inclinations to hold their cards close to their chests and actually share meaningful information from the get go.  

But how to conduct negotiations effectively is a topic worthy of its own separate dialogue, no?

Dan: I think so. Now, I have to save whatever energy I have left to stay up late to watch playoff baseball with the Yankees. Hopefully, it’s a long October filled with lots of late nights and distractions.  Until next time, Nina!  

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.

worker3After nine-plus years of writing about employment law in Connecticut, it’s getting to be pretty rare to find a topic that I haven’t at least touched upon, but here’s one: The Duty of Loyalty.

Indeed, a new Connecticut Supreme Court case is giving me the opportunity to do so.

The case arises from an employee who, while working for one employer, was secretly working as an independent contractor for a competitor.  The employer sued under a breach of the duty of loyalty claim.

The case, Wall Systems Inc. v. Pompa, officially released last week, can be downloaded here.

Lawyers will look at the case because it sets forth what types of damages are recoverable when a breach of a duty of loyalty claim is established.  In doing so, the court makes it clear that a trial court has some discretion in fashioning the appropriate remedy:

We agree with the plaintiff that the remedies of forfeiture of compensation paid by an employer, and disgorgement of amounts received from third parties, are available when an employer proves that its employee has breached his or her duty of loyalty, regardless of whether the employer has proven damages as a result of that breach. Nevertheless, the remedies are not mandatory upon the finding of a breach of the duty of loyalty, intentional or otherwise, but rather, are discretionary ones whose imposition is dependent upon the equities of the case at hand. Moreover, while certain factors, including harm to the employer, should not preclude a finding that the employee has committed a breach of the duty of loyalty, they nevertheless may be considered in the fashioning of a remedy. Here, because the trial court properly exercised its broad discretion when it awarded damages but declined to order forfeiture or disgorgement, we will not disturb its judgment on this basis.

But I think the more interesting point for companies is to understand the scope of the duty of loyalty.

In discussing the scope of this duty, the Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed principles that were last set forth in detail over 50 years ago in Town & Country House & Homes Service, Inc. v. Evans.  In that case, the court found an employee breached the duty of loyalty by soliciting employer’s customers for his own competing business while still working for the employer.

The court noted that an employee’s duty of loyalty includes “the duty not to compete … and the duty not to disclose confidential information”.  The court noted that this duty not to compete is during the employment relationship — not necessarily after — and is not dependent on the use of employer’s property of confidential information.

The court went on to say that the duty of loyalty “also includes the duty to refreain from acquiring material benefits from third parties in connection with transaction undertaken on the employer’s behalf.”  What does this mean? Essentially, it bars the collection of “secret commissions and kickbacks which might cause the employee to act at the expense or detriment of his or her employer”.

An employer may seek the forfeiture of an employee’s compensation for the period of disloyalty, but the court concludes that such a remedy is an equitable one and subject to the facts of the particular case.

But it’s always important to read the footnotes and here, in footnote 9, the Court inserted the notion that the duty of loyalty may not apply all employees.  “The scope of the duty of loyalty that an employee owes to an employer may vary with the nature of their relationship. Employees occupying a position of trust and confidence, for example, owe a higher duty than those performing low-level tasks.”

Still, the case is an excellent one for employers to keep in mind — particularly if the employer does not have restrictive covenants with its employees.  If the employees are engaging in competing work while still employed, the employer can use this case — and the theories behind it — to see the appropriate remedies.

With the appropriate employee, the employer can further strengthen its arguments, but including this in an employment agreement along with restrictive covenants.  In such a case, the court reminds parties that an employer could then terminate that agreement prematurely and seek recovery of damages directly attributable to the employee’s breach.

Employers should consider consulting with their favored outside counsel to see how this decision may apply to them.

 

justiceI’m back with news of a relatively big decision today from the Connecticut Supreme Court.

In the decision, the Court clarified an important question that the Connecticut Department of Labor had been pushing hard.  It will be welcome news for businesses in the state.

The issue was this: If an independent contractor (and his or her business) works ONLY with one company, can that person still be an independent contractor?

The Court said yes, that person CAN be. But it is important to note that it does not mean that the person will ALWAYS be an independent contractor. Instead, the court will continue to apply the ABC test — balancing several factors. (I’ve discussed the test in a prior post here.)

The case, Southwest Appraisal Group v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act can be downloaded here.  Note that it will not be “officially released” until March 21, 2017.

The only issue in the case was whether the putative employee was “customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.”

How to make that determination? By looking at the “totality of the circumstances” which also include another series of tests.

Here, the court at least is helpful in setting up what those factors are.   According to the Court, “factors to consider in evaluating the totality of the circumstances under part
C include:

  1. the existence of state licensure or specialized skills;
  2. whether the putative employee holds himself or herself out as an independent business through the existence of business cards, printed invoices, or advertising;
  3. the existence of a place of business separate from that of the putative employer;
  4. the putative employee’s capital investment in the independent business, such as vehicles and equipment;
  5. whether the putative employee manages risk byandling his or her own liability insurance;
  6. whether services are performed under the individual’s own name as opposed to the putative employer;
  7. whether the putative employee employs or subcontracts others;
  8. whether the putative employee has a saleable business or going concern with the existence of an established clientele;
  9. whether the individual performs services for more than one entity;
  10. and whether the performance of services affects the goodwill of the putative employee rather than the employer.

The court does add some additional guidance here noting that, “We emphasize that particular caution is necessary in considering the relative size or success of the putative employee’s otherwise independent business in connection with the totality of the circumstances analysis under part C.”

This is a big decision for employers who also use independent contractors.  Businesses should again review their relationships with these independent contractors to try to satisfy as many of the factors outlined above.

robertsWith the new year upon us, cyberthieves are once again attempting to prey on unwitting HR professionals, as my colleague William Roberts explained in an article last week for SHRM on phishing.

The scam goes like this. As an HR professional, you get an e-mail from your boss (or your boss’s boss) that seems legitimate…and urgent. Something like this:

I’m in the middle of a negotiation so won’t be available by cell or e-mail but I need you to send W-2s for the management team to our new accountants. You can e-mail them to [____________]. Needs to be done today. Sorry for the rush on this and please take this as an exception to normal protocol. Thanks. – Alan

It’s happened before.  Indeed, as Bill explained in the article:

“Alan was the chief financial officer,” said William J. Roberts, a Hartford, Conn.-based data privacy attorney with the law firm Shipman & Goodwin LLP. But in this case, it wasn’t Alan who was sending the e-mail. Despite the company’s policy prohibiting employees from sending sensitive documents through e-mail, a newly hired junior HR professional fell for the phishing scam and sent the W-2s to the cyberthief’s e-mail address.

That’s more than just an “Oops” moment.

Although the IRS is taking steps to help reduce this, the best defense is for HR professionals to be aware of this scam.  I previously discussed this back in March 2016 with a quick post but it’s worth looking at some of the tips presented in the SHRM article including:

  • Train employees on cybersecurity awareness. Many companies do not.
  • Use common sense and avoid making electronic requests for sensitive data. It’s not just an e-mail threat; phishing by text is also on the rise….
  • If you receive an e-mail from upper management, verify the request….

starrMy colleague Gary Starr returns today with a story worth reading about the need for employers to secure confidential information.  Although it is based on Massachusetts, the concepts it covers may have some carryover to employers elsewhere as well.  

Employers that maintain records of their employees and customers and allow employees have access to confidential information have long needed policies that not only secure the information, but ensure that employees who have been granted access to such information are complying with the corporate policies and are trustworthy.

An insurance agency in Massachusetts thought it had done everything right, but was sued for negligence in its retention of an employee that it thought was trustworthy, but was not.

An employee used her computer to access confidential information that she then gave to her boyfriend about the identity of a witness to a car accident in which the boyfriend had been involved with her car.  The boyfriend used that information to contact and threaten the witness.  The witness reported the threat to the police and ultimately the boyfriend and the employee pleaded guilty to witness intimidation and conspiracy.  After the police visited the employer to obtain information about the threat, which was traced back to the employee, the employer fired the employee.

That, however, did not end the tale.

The witness then sued the employer for failing to safeguard personal information, and for negligent retention and negligent supervision.  While the trial court dismissed the case, the appellate court has determined that the facts alleged are sufficient to go to trial.

Where did the employer go wrong?  The company had adopted a data security plan and policy that prohibited employees from accessing or using personal information for personal purposes.  The computer software even required employees, who wished to access the data base with confidential information, to agree to use the information for one of four limited purposes, all of which were business related.

Those were positive steps.

The problem arose because the unrestricted access did not stop the employee from reviewing information that had an impact on her personally.  The second failure had to do with an inadequate investigation of the employee’s background and simply taking the employees word about a weapons arrest that occurred during her employment in another state.

The employee told her boss that the arrest was a misunderstanding, that she was clearing it up, and subsequently said it was resolved.  The employer simply took her word for it.

What he would have discovered with a very simple inquiry was that there were serious issues with her honesty and fitness for accessing other people’s personal information.  The company could have learned that she was traveling with her boyfriend when they were stopped for speeding and that she was arrested for having two semi-automatic guns concealed in her purse, one had the serial numbers filed off and the other was stolen.  She also had a half-mask and police scanner.  After her arrest, she told the company that there had been a misunderstanding as the weapons belonged to her boyfriend, that she didn’t know anything about them and that she was exonerated.

Her story was not true, but her account itself should have raised questions about her having access to personal information.

The court said that the company had a duty to protect the confidential information and that it was foreseeable that the employee could access information and use it for personal gain.  The company had an obligation to investigate the employee’s continuing fitness after the arrest.  The court said that a jury could decide that the failure to take action under these circumstances was unreasonable as the company knew about the weapons charge and could have learned of her lies and her willingness to commit a crime with her boyfriend.  The company did not take sufficient steps to limit the risk of harm to those whose personal information its employees could access.

There are steps to take to avoid this problem.  After an employee is hired, that does not end the need to be vigilant about their fitness for the job.  When information comes to light that may raise questions about the actions of an employee, an employer cannot simply take his/her word for what occurred.  It must take affirmative steps to explore what the underlying issue is, analyze the employee’s story, and assess the risk the employee poses if access to confidential information is abused or if other employees and the public may be put at risk.

 

Lucan_J_WebMy colleague Jarad Lucan returns today with an update on a post regarding the impact that recent labor law decisions are having on colleges and universities.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I reported on the case before the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) related to the Northwestern University’s scholarship football players seeking the right to unionize.

The Regional Director in that case determined that the players were employees under the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”) and therefore could vote to be represented by a Union in connections with negotiating terms and conditions of employment with the University.

Ultimately, the Board refused to exercise jurisdiction over the players  and therefore left open whether they are employees under the NLRA or not.

At the time we reported on the case,  we discussed some of the impacts of the decision beyond the ability of players to unionize, including that the Board may scrutinize the University’s policies to see if those policies complied with the NLRA.

More specifically, whether the policies were written in a way that would either expressly or implicitly prevent the players from engaging in protected concerted activity.

Apparently, someone did challenge the “Football Handbook” and on September 22, 2016, The Board’s Office for the General Counsel issued an advice memorandum related to that charge advising against the issuance of a complaint.

The memorandum assumed that the football players were employees, and indicated that:

[i]t would not effectuate the policies and purposes of the NLRA to issue complaint in this case because the employer, although still maintaining that athletic scholarship football players are not employees under the NLRA, modified the rules to bring them into compliance with the NLRA and sent the scholarship football players a notice of the corrections, which sets forth the rights of employees under the NLRA.

According to the memorandum, Northwestern modified its handbook pertaining to social media use striking portions of the rules, in most cases replacing with new language.

In particular, Northwestern took out language barring student-athletes from posting things online that “could embarrass you, your family, your team, the Athletics Department or Northwestern University.”

The new text is more specific, telling the athletes not to post things that “contain full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity.”

The memorandum also pointed to changes with the University’s rules on disclosing injury information, which had told players to “[n]ever discuss any aspects of the team, the physical condition of any players, planned strategies, etc. with anyone” saying the “team is a family and what takes place on the field, in meetings or in the locker room stays within this family.”

The new rule says football players should not reveal injuries because of “the need to ensure that teams with whom we compete do not obtain medical information about our student-athletes” but says the rule does not “prohibit student athletes from discussing general medical issues and concerns with third parties provided that such discussions do not identify the physical or medical condition or injury of specific or named student athletes.”

According to the memorandum, “[t]hat modification struck the proper balance of maintaining players’ confidentiality and protecting football team information while at the same time allowing players to speak out on a no-names basis about vital health and safety issues impacting themselves, their teammates, and fellow collegiate football players.”

The memorandum further noted that the school eliminated a dispute resolution policy for student-athletes to bring a “complaint or grievance concerning personal rights and relationships to the athletic program,” which required the players to first bring such issues to the director of football operations.

So if the memorandum advised against an issuance of a complaint, why should you care about it?

Well, as was recently reported, in the Columbia University case, the Board held that student teaching assistants were employees covered by the NLRA.  These employees not only have the right to unionize, but also have the right to engage in protected concerted activity even if they do not unionize.  Any handbook or policies, therefore, governing the terms and conditions of the relationship between the teaching assistants and the college or university will likely come under the NLRB’s scrutiny.

So, employers beware (again): You should review, or have your attorney review, your current policies and handbooks to ensure compliance with the NLRA.

As Connecticut employers of a certain size know, Connecticut implemented Paid Sick Leave recently which affords employees up to five days off a year.   Now, federal contractors (including those in Connecticut) have another layer to deal with. As my colleague Ashley Marshall explains below, paid sick leave will now be a requirement later this year.  Thanks too to my partner Gary Starr who helped pull this together today on short notice.

marshall If we travel back in time to September 2015, President Obama signed Executive Order 13706 (EO) which established a mandate on federal contractors to give their employees up to 56 hours (7 days) of paid sick leave each year.

Today, the Secretary of Labor has issued regulations to implement President Obama’s Executive Order that established a mandate on federal contractors to give their employees up to 56 hours (7 days) of paid sick leave each year.  The regulation goes into effect on November 29, 2016.

Here are some of the highlights:

  1. The Final Rule covers new contracts and replacements for expiring contracts with the fdoctorederal government that result from solicitations on or after January 1, 2017.
  2. Employees will accrue 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked on or in connection with a covered federal contract.
  3. Paid sick leave is capped at 56 hours (7 days) in a year.
  4. Employees may use paid sick leave for their own illnesses or other health care needs, for the care of a loved one who is ill, for preventive health care for themselves or a loved one, for purposes resulting from being the victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, or to assist a loved one who is such a victim.
  5. The Final Rule allows for coordination with existing paid time off policies and labor agreements
  6. Employers may require that employees using paid sick leave provide certification from a health care provider of the employee’s need for leave if they use 3 or more days of leave consecutively.

A few other tidbits:

  • Whether an employee has to work a certain number of hours  for coverage depends on whether they work “on” a covered contract or “in connection” with a covered contract.
  • Employees that work “on” a covered contract are those that are performing the specific services called for by the contract. They are covered, regardless of the number of hours worked in a year and regardless of whether they are full or part time.
  • Employees that work “in connection” with a covered contract are  those that perform work activities that are necessary to the performance of the contract, but are not directly engaged in the specific services called for in the contract.  An employee who spends less than 20% of his or her hours working “in connection” with a covered contract in a particular workweek is not covered.

As with many new benefits, employees may try to take advantage of the new regulation, particularly since no medical excuse needs to be provided until the employee is out of work 3 or more days.  Employers are going to need to be vigilant against abuse.

The Final Rule will be published in the Federal Register September 30, 2016, and will go into effect exactly 60 days after its publication. More information can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website in its Fact Sheet and Overview.