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

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

So, knowing still that titling a piece a “Dialogue” while just offering up a link to her piece is less than ideal, it’s important that we move beyond labels to get at the heart of sexual harassment issues remaining in the workplace.

Nina suggests that there are still far too many employers that have chosen to “bury their heads in the sand rather than confront the harassers who line their pockets.”

You can disagree about the scope of the issue but the underlying premise is sound — sexual harassment remains a scourge of the workplace for too many.

What are some of her tips for employers?

  • Conduct Live Trainings
  • Investigate Responsibly
  • Reject the “He Said/She Said” Cop-Out
  • Incentive the Bystander to Come Forward
  • Support the Survivor

There can and should be those who might suggest other paths for employers to follow.

I might suggest that Boards of Directors require their CEOs to provide quarterly reports on what the company is doing to combat sexual harassment, for example.

But having this discussion makes sure that companies continue to focus on combating sexual harassment in the workplace.  That way, as Nina says, we can turn #metoo into #allofus.

 

As part of my continuing series of posts about the CHRO, and following up from the 75th Anniversary panel discussion earlier this week, I wanted to provide an early look of the statistics that are soon to be released by the agency.

I was provided a preliminary draft in preparation for the panel presentation; it should be out in the next week or two and I was asked not to divulge the specific numbers.  Stay tuned for my deep dive into the numbers when they are officially released. (As a refresher, you can see last year’s numbers here.)

But there are few trends that are readily apparent from the draft.

First, as we have all suspected, sexual harassment claims filed with the CHRO are up substantially over the prior year.  This is not too surprising given the publicity regarding the #metoo movement.  Still, we haven’t seen these types of numbers in nearly 15 years.  When the final numbers are released, expect a big increase in sexual harassment claims from FY ’17 to FY ’18.

Second, we continue to see an increase in the numbers of employment discrimination claims being filed at the state agency.   While it is tempting to draw conclusions from this, the numbers seem to correlate closely to the increase in sexual harassment claims.  Normally, in an improving economy, we see decreases in the numbers of claims filed. We haven’t and that should raise some concerns for employers.

Third, the numbers of cases withdrawn “with settlement” are down substantially.  It’s hard to know what to make of this. With more cases getting dismissed by the agency, it could just be that some of the “nuisance” value cases are getting handled that way, but the drop seems to be much more than that. When the final report is released, it’ll be worth taking a deeper dive into the numbers.

Despite all of the numbers, the numbers of cases certified to public hearing and the number of reasonable cause drafts issues has remained constant from year to year.  This may be the result of the consistent approach that the CHRO has been seeking to implement over the last few years.

The biggest takeaway for employers? Discrimination and harassment complaints are likely at the second highest total they’ve been at in the last decade.

The age of increased discrimination and harassment claims isn’t over; it’s happening right now.

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.

The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities can sometimes be seen as an easy punching bag by legislators, employees, employers and employment law attorneys.

But there’s one area that has been an unequivocal success and where you won’t see almost any headlines.

The CHRO several years ago developed the Kids Court Essay Competition which runs each year.  In it, it gives high school and middle students the opportunity to talk about topics that are important to them and shine a spotlight on others who may not have the same opportunity.  In doing so, the competition focuses on important and contemporary civil justice issues.

This year’s essay topics were:

The CHRO received over 300 (!) entries.  Out of that, five essays were chosen as finalists at both the middle school and high school levels.  Each student then had the opportunity to address the Kids Court — a panel of distinguished lawyers, judges and others assembled for this purpose.

This week was this this year’s Kids Court and I was grateful the CHRO asked me to participate as a judge.

The students displayed a keen awareness of the local community; they each talked about topics that were important to them.  The students that talked about Hate Crimes and Educational Equity had a particular resonance to the current events of today.

As an employment lawyer, I found it notable that none of the finalists’ essays were actually on #metoo.  I don’t think there’s much to conclude from that, other than that the students’ essays on other topics were judged to be better.

In 2018, we’ve seen high school students rise to national prominence in Florida over the issue of school safety and gun violence. Listening to these “kids” and making sure their voices are heard is something that employers should consider. Today’s generation of students are increasingly impatient with the pace of change.

Congratulations to all the finalists and I look forward to hearing their continuing contributions to our civil discourse in the years to come.

 

As I noted earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of the use of class action waivers in arbitration agreements with employees.

My colleague, Gabe Jiran, has a recap of Epic Systems v. Lewis on my firm’s blog, Employment Law Letter, that you can access here.

So, it’s a foregone conclusion that employers of all shapes and sizes will start using arbitration agreements and insert provisions with class action waivers, right?

Not so fast.

As Jon Hyman astutely noted in his Ohio Employer’s Law Blog yesterday, this decision may not be the panacea employers are looking for.

For example, it might end up being more costly for employers because arbitration may be more costly than litigation.

Moreover, these costs only increase if you are arbitrating dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, of individual claims instead of one class or collective action. Don’t think for a second that this decision will end wage and hour litigation. Instead, plaintiffs’ lawyers, who currently have claimants opt-in to FLSA collective actions, will instead merely file a plethora of individual arbitration claims.

It’s a valid point but I’m not sure I buy into this entirely.  Arbitration may be cheaper in many instances.

Moreover, part of the attraction that some lawyers have to wage/hour class actions are the attorneys’ fees that can get added on to the case automatically.  Filing a lot of individual arbitration cases may be good in theory, but in practice? That’s still a lot of work for a plaintiff’s-side attorney to follow.  While some enterprising attorneys will continue, we may see a thinning in the practice area as a result.

That said, I could certainly see unions encouraging this type of action at some workplaces — the death by 1000 paper cuts is something to keep in mind.

Employers may also be wary of entering into arbitration agreements with class action waivers because of the public backlash against forced arbitration, particularly  in sexual harassment matters.

This is not new — indeed, there was a Law Tribune editorial in 2014 before #metoo was well-known that suggested legislative reforms in the area.

Employers that are seen as enforcing “coercive” arbitration provisions may face a social media or publicity campaign. Each employer will have to figure out its risk tolerance and how it wants to be seen by its employees and the public before implementing arbitration agreements.

Moreover, in states like California, there are statutes that allow for an employee to sue over workplace violations individually as well as on behalf of others, allowing for “representative suits”, similar to class actions.  These “Private Attorneys General Act” cases may become the norm in California.

Could Connecticut follow?

These are just a few of the considerations that employers ought to be thinking about in light of the Epic Systems decision.  The decision certainly provides employers with another tool in managing their workforce. The question on the table now is whether that tool is useful or not.

Over the last several months, I’ve been asked to do far more sexual harassment prevention trainings than typical and the issue of profanity in the workplace has popped up.

No doubt that much of this is due to the recent spate of cases of very public sexual harassment and assault cases (Thank You Matt Lauer!). This has led to the #metoo and #timesup movements becoming more than a mere hashtag.

But at a recent training, we got into a discussion about whether profanity could ever be used in the workplace.  Does it create a “hostile work environment” under federal anti-discrimination law?

I’m not the only one to think about this question. In fact, the Hostile Work Environment podcast (how appropriate!) tackled this subject a few weeks back — and also delved into the subject about whether an employee’s use of profanity could be protected speech as well.

But one of the most interesting cases I’ve seen on the subject differentiated between different types of profanity (h/t Ohio Employer’s Law Blog for the original cite to this case) and came out of the 11th Circuit early this decade.

Before we go further, let me use the words of the 11th circuit to issue a warning:

We recite the profane language that allegedly permeated this workplace exactly as it was spoken in order to present and properly examine the social context in which it arose. We do not explicate this vulgar language lightly, but only because its full consideration is essential to measure whether these words and this conduct could be read as having created “an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.”

(I’m still going to keep this post PG-13 but now that you’ve been warned, read on….)

The court’s decision focuses on the difference between profanity of the general type, which it calls “general, indiscriminate vulgarity” (presumably, words like “sh**”), and “gender-specific, derogatory comments made about women on account of their sex.”

The court said that there was ample evidence that, as one of two female workers, the Plaintiff overheard coworkers used such gender-specific language to refer to or to insult individual females with whom they spoke on the phone or who worked in a separate area of the branch. Indeed, the court said that her male co-workers referred to individuals in the workplace as “bitch,” “f**king bitch,” “f**king whore,” “crack whore,” and “c**t.”

And thus begins a discussion of profanity that hasn’t often been seen in the court system.

[T]he context may illuminate whether the use of an extremely vulgar, gender-neutral term such as “f**king” would contribute to a hostile work environment. “F**king” can be used as an intensifying adjective before gender-specific epithets such as “bitch.” In that context, “f**king” is used to strengthen the attack on women, and is therefore relevant to the Title VII analysis. However, the obscene word does not itself afford a gender-specific meaning. Thus, when used in context without reference to gender, “f**k” and “f**king” fall more aptly under the rubric of general vulgarity that Title VII does not regulate….

The court then focuses on the notion that what is important to decide if conduct is “severe or pervasive” to create a work environment is the entirety of the situation.

[W]ords and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff…. It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as “bitches,” “whores” and “c**ts,” to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way. The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically: “and you are a ‘bitch,’ too.”

The court opines that “Evidence that co-workers aimed their insults at a protected group may give rise to the inference of an intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, even when those insults are not directed at the individual employee.”

But what if the workplace just had a lot of profanity?

Then, the court says that might not be enough. “If the environment portrayed by [the Plaintiff at the Company] had just involved a generally vulgar workplace whose indiscriminate insults and sexually-laden conversation did not focus on the gender of the victim, we would face a very different case. However, a substantial portion of the words and conduct alleged in this case may reasonably be read as gender-specific, derogatory, and humiliating.”

For employers, the case is a reminder than a hostile work environment need not have pornography in the workplace to satisfy the standard; words can be enough depending on the context and the pervasiveness of it.  Employers should be mindful that profanity in the workplace — particularly when it is sexually-laden and directed at or around others — can have serious legal ramifications.

One last point: The employer here argued that the environment existed before the employee joined too and that it was not, therefore, directed to the Plaintiff.  The court easily dismissed that argument.   Once [the Plaintiff] entered her workplace, the discriminatory conduct became actionable under the law. Congress has determined that [the Plaintiff] had a right not to suffer conditions in the workplace that were disparately humiliating, abusive, or degrading.”

 

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.

There’s been a lot in the news of late about “outrageous” provisions found in an separation agreement between an employer and an employee, like confidentiality.  Indeed, some proposed legislation would restrict the use of some provisions.  

So I thought it would be helpful to go over what we typically see in a separation agreement.

First a big caveat: My description of a “typical” agreement does not mean that these provisions are in every agreement or even that these provisions ought to be in some agreements. Each separation or settlement has differing facts that may make certain provisions more important than others. And some employers or employees negotiate differently.

In other words, there is not a one-size-fits-all to this and employers should definitely not attempt to do this without legal guidance.

One more caveat, back in 2009, I provided a link to a great checklist that existed at the time about key provisions to have in a separation agreement. Nearly 10 years later, it still holds up pretty well.  You could do a lot worse than rely on that.

So what are typical provisions?

  1.  Last Day of Employment
  2. Benefits Upon Separation of Employment
  3. A Release of all possible claims related to employment (maybe even broader) with lots of legalese
  4. Confidentiality of Agreement
  5. Nondisparagement of one or more of the parties
  6. No Admission of Liability
  7. No Obligation by Employer to Re-Hire
  8. Return of Property
  9. Affirmation of Any Prior Restrictive Covenants (such as Non-Compete periods)
  10. References or Removal of Negative Information from Personnel File
  11. Many more technical provisions regarding what the governing law is, indemnification in case of breach, incorporation provisions making sure this agreement supersedes prior agreements, and, OWBPA-compliant provisions if necessary.

So, before you read headlines or “expert” commentary expressing shock that a separation agreement contains a confidentiality provision, understand that typically these are sought by both an employer and employee.  There may be good reasons that both have for wanting to keep the reasons for the separation and any separation agreement private.

After a break for the holidays, my long-running discussion with Nina Pirrotti, an employee-side attorney , returns. Nina is a partner at the law firm of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald and Pirrotti, where she represents employees in all types of matters.  She’s a past-President of the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association, a current member of the Executive Board of NELA, and a frequent presenter on employment law topics.

In one of our prior discussions last year, we talked about whether we were seeing the beginning of a trend of sexual harassment matters after the Fox News scandals.  Now, after the last few months, we revisit the topic further to see where we are.  Let us know what you think about posts like this in the comments below.    

Nina: A warm hello to my management lawyer friend!  I could not think of a more opportune time to re-kindle our dialogue about sexual harassment.  For me, having Time Magazine name its Person(s) of the Year as the Silence Breakers has been the gratifying culmination to a year of sea change on this vital topic.

I got to tell you Dan (and in so doing will undoubtedly reveal to our readers that I lead an embarrassingly sheltered life), that before Taylor Swift exhibited the courage to subject herself to countersue David Muellerman (the man who sexually assaulted her and brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against her for defamation when she outed him)  I did not even know who she was.   She is my new hero.  She sued him for a symbolic $1 and she did it, she said, because she wanted to empower other women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted to come forward.

Well, I don’t need to tell you that they are coming forward in droves.  It is as if a switch has been flipped.  The paradigm has shifted and women who once felt that they had to suck it up in order to feed their families and save their careers are beginning to have hope that they no longer have to make that Hobson’s choice.  And just as gratifying as this loosening of fear in victims of sexual harassment and assault about coming forward has been the employers’ swift responses in holding the predator (no matter how lofty his perch) accountable.    Hallelujah!

Is this the beginning of the end to sexual harassment as we know it?  I wish.  Did you notice that cropped elbow that is in the photograph of the otherwise well-known faces on the front cover of Time’s Person of the Year issue?  The elbow symbolizes the millions of women who endure sexual harassment and assault and do not come forward for fear that their careers, their reputations, their families, and/or their personal safety are at stake if they do.

While I am gratified by the swift and appropriately severe responses to sexual harassment and assault committed by powerful men in the public eye, most of the sexual harassment and assault victims I represent do not have that leverage that comes with an outed perpetrator who has a public persona.  In such cases, too often, unless the employer fears public exposure, I find it does not have that same sense of urgency to take action.

What about you, Dan?  What does this surge in reporting indicate to you?  Are you finding more clients who are interested in taking preventative measures?  What are their concerns?

Dan: Happy New Year to you Nina! So, it’s been quite an interesting few months.  Everyone seems more busy.  Before I talk about that, it’s worth emphasizing that lost in all this reporting is that the incidents of misconduct that are making headlines are really varied in scope.  You have incidents of outright sexual assault being tossed together with conduct that may (or may not even) be classified as sexual harassment.    

And that is what I’m concerned about now.  A tasteless joke in the workplace is clearly NOT the same as some of the incidents that, say, Harvey Weinstein is accused of. (You can look it up; this is a safe for work blog, after all.)  And so, yes, we’re hearing more incidents reported. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to more credible claims.  I’ve heard from other attorneys representing employees that they’re seeing twice as many cases come in to them but they aren’t taking a lot more cases. 

And as we know, we’re still months away from seeing new lawsuits arising from these claims too.  What happens by then?

It’s too early to predict that the #MeToo movement won’t have the same impact six months from now (I happen to think that it will) but even since the holidays it seems the press is starting to move on a bit (Golden Globes, notwithstanding).  It’s hard to keep up the pressure that the end of 2017 had.

For employers, it’s important to not get caught up in assuming the worst and thinking that everything they’ve been doing has been a failure.  Much HAS changed over the last 20 years.  I do think, though, it’s an opportunity for employers to re-evaluate their training. They can also take a look at their culture: Are there any expense reports revealing something more nefarious (a Gentleman’s Club visit perhaps?)? Is it time to institute a “no-dating” policy for supervisors/subordinates? And where are your weak spots? Continue Reading The Dialogue: The Shifts That #MeToo Are Creating in the Workplace