Thursday, March 24, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court on FLSA Retaliation

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fair Labor Standards Act's anti-retaliation provision covers oral and written complaints, whether internal or to the government.  So, here's some invaluable and insightful advice: don't retaliate against employees who complain about alleged wage and hour violations. Try not to decide whether to retaliate based on if a complaint is oral or written, mmmkay?

In a nutshell, Kasten claimed he complained to management and other employees about the location of the time clocks at the St. Gobain factory. Because of the time clock's placement, he did not get paid for "donning and doffing" time.  The company allegedly fired Kasten for not keeping his time card correct. Kasten claimed it was retaliation for his complaints. The district court dismissed the case because Kasten had not "filed" a written complaint with the government and, therefore, was not covered by the anti-retaliation provision in the FLSA.  The Supreme Court took time out of its busy day to resolve a dispute among the lower circuit courts over whether a written complaint was required.

The case is Kasten v. St. Gobain Performance Plastics, Inc., and the opinion is here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ninth Circuit Defines FMLA Interference Claim

Hello, it's been a while. I've missed you.  You never write. You never tweet. Alas. But I press on to write about the FMLA.

Diane Sanders worked for Newport, Oregon. She took an FMLA leave. Her doctor believed the air quality at work was poor and she suffered from certain chemical sensitivities. The Oregon OSHA and the city's own experts found the air to be within legal standards. After receiving an extended FMLA, her doctor released her to return to work provided the City stop using "low grade" paper, which the City apparently agreed to do.

The City refused to reinstate Sanders from her leave. The City took the position that it could not provide her with a safe workplace because it was not clear what caused her medical issues.

A jury found that the City acted lawfully. But the trial court found in Sanders' favor on a state law claim under Oregon's family leave law.  Oregon claims are tried to the court rather than a jury.

The Ninth Circuit explained there are two types of FMLA claims: discrimination/retaliation and interference.  Sanders pursued an interference claim at trial.  The court explained the applicable legal analysis:
The Sixth and Seventh Circuits have ably summarized the elements of an employee’s prima facie case where the employer fails to reinstate the employee:“the employee must establish that: (1) he was eligible for the FMLA’s protections, (2) his employer was covered by the FMLA, (3) he was entitled to leave under the FMLA, (4) he provided sufficient notice of his intent to take leave, and (5) his employer denied him FMLA benefits to which he was entitled.”  [citations] We agree with this approach. In interference claims, the employer’s intent is irrelevant to a determination of liability.. . .
The court then went on to hold that if the employee makes out a prima facie case, the employer bears the burden of establishing that the employee was not entitled to reinstatement. That is, the employer must prove that the employee was denied reinstatement for one of the reasons authorized by the FMLA, such as that the employee would not have remained employed if she had not taken leave.  Because the district court's jury instructions required the plaintiff to prove she was denied reinstatement "without reasonable cause," the court vacated the judgment in the City's favor.

The case is Sanders v. City of Newport and the opinion is here.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Ninth Circuit: Ban on Applicants Who Test Positive for Drugs Not ADA Violation

The Pacific Maritime Association has a "one-strike" rule. If you fail a drug or alcohol test during the applicant screening process, you are barred from consideration for employment. Forever.

Santiago Lopez applied for a longshoreman's job, but he tested positive for marijuana. He claims that when he applied, he was addicted. But once he become a recovering addict, he was entitled to reapply with the protections of the ADA.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, upholding summary judgment. The court said that the one-strike rule applies to anyone who fails a drug/alcohol test, not just addicts or recovering addicts. The employer also had no knowledge that Lopez was a recovering addict, only that he previously had failed the test.

A dissenting judge in this 2-1 opinion would have given Lopez a chance to save his disparate impact claim. Lopez argued that a rule barring all persons from re-applying could have a "disparate impact" on recovering alcoholics/drug abusers. But Lopez did not support that argument with statistical proof and, therefore, the court did not allow the claim to proceed.

The case is Lopez v. Pacific Maritime Association and the opinion is here.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Grabs Cat's Paw

There goes Justice Scalia again, ruling for... employees!  Writing for a 6-2 majority, Justice Scalia says:

When the company official who makes the decision to take an adverse employment action is personally acting out of hostility to the employee’s membership in or obligation to a uniformed service, a motivating factor obviously exists. The problem we confront arises when that official has nodiscriminatory animus but is influenced by previous company action that is the product of a like animus in someone else.
Basically, two lower level supervisors were hostile towards Vincent Staub, an xray tech at a hospital. they were annoyed at his reserve duty, which caused absences that had to be covered.  As a reservist, Staub was entitled to job protection under USERRA.  USERRA protects against discrimination against members of the military, basically under the same standards as Title VII.  Thus, if anti-military bias is a "motivating factor" in a negative employment decision, the plaitniff can win.

Here, a non-biased manager fired Staub, but based on a report by the biased supervisors.  The hospital argued that discrimination was therefore not a motivating reason.   This presented a "cat's paw" theory, where the employer claims that the innocent supervisor's decision is independent from the biased supervisor's motivations.

The Supreme Court held:
that if a supervisor performs an act motivated by anti military animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action,3 and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA

The court did say that the biased supervisor has to have some causation for the negative employment decision or the "motivating reason" standard fails.

Bonus: Those of us unfamiliar with Aesop now know the meaning of the "Cat's Paw" theory.

1The term “cat’s paw” derives from a fable conceived by Aesop, put into verse by La Fontaine in 1679, and injected into United States employment discrimination law by Posner in 1990. See Shager v. Upjohn Co., 913 F. 2d 398, 405 (CA7). In the fable, a monkey induces a cat by flattery to extract roasting chestnuts from the fire. After the cat has done so, burning its paws in the process, the monkey makes offwith the chestnuts and leaves the cat with nothing. A coda to the fable (relevant only marginally, if at all, to employment law) observes that the cat is similar to princes who, flattered by the king, perform serviceson the king’s behalf and receive no reward.

Although this is a USERRA case, given the similiarities with anti-discrimination laws, look for this theory to be applied in Title VII cases as well

The case is Staub v. Proctor Hosp. and the opinion is here.

Court of Appeal Limits' Employers' Discretion to Set the Workweek/Workday

The employees at Metson Marine, Inc. worked 14-day straight "hitches," during which they slept on their ships and had to remain within 30-45 minutes of the ship during downtime. These 14-day hitches started on Tuesdays. But the workweek was set as Monday at 12:01 a.m. through Sunday at 11:59 p.m.  As a result, Metson claimed that employees worked a six-day week, followed by a 7 day workweek, and then a two day workweek. 

The plaintiffs challenged the employer's designation of the workweek because it resulted in a less favorable calculation of overtime and of seventh day pay.  The employer relied on certain rulings by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which basically say that the employer can designate any workweek or workday that it wants to, as long as it's consistent.

Surprise, Metson! The Court of Appeal, reversing summary judgment, held that the DLSE's interpretations are entitled to no respect. Rather, a workweek must coincide with the beginning of the work period actually worked:

Plaintiffs contend that premium pay must be calculated based on the "fixed and regular" schedule actually worked and that Metson should not be allowed to subvert the employee protections of section 510 by designating an artificial workweek that does not correspond with the period actually worked. Asserting that their workweek actually began and ended on Tuesday, plaintiffs argue that Metson was required to pay overtime wages for work performed on the seventh and 14th day of each hitch. We agree.
Relying on a federal district court opinion, the Court of Appeal held that the employer cannot set a workweek that differs from the workweek that employees actually work.

Much like the case before this court, the employer in In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. relied on the DLSE‟s interpretation of section 500 that " „[t]he beginning of an employee‟s workday need not coincide with the beginning of that employee‟s shift, and an employer may establish different workdays for different shifts.‟ " (In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., supra, 505 F.Supp.2d at p. 617.) The court rejected the DLSE interpretation, noting that "the California Supreme Court has held that interpretations contained in the DLSE Manual are non-binding and are entitled to no deference. (Tidewater Marine Western, Inc. v. Bradshaw, supra, 14 Cal.4th at p. 568.) Therefore, to the extent that the DLSE‟s opinion . . . is inconsistent with the Labor Code‟s goal of promoting employee protection, this opinion should be ignored." (In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., at p. 617.)

But it's unclear whether the Court of Appeal intends its holding to apply to worksites where employees work from week to week and have different work different days off every week. If an employer sets the workweek from 12:01 a.m Monday to 12:00 p.m. Sunday for all employees, what happens when some employees have Mondays off? What if employees sometimes have Mondays off, and sometimes Tuesdays? Does the employer have to set a different workweek for each employee each week? Also, what happens when employees report to work at different times? When does the workday start? What if the employee is late to work on the first day? Must the workday begin late just to ensure that the employee receives the maximum potential overtime pay? Hopefully, the court will re-consider the breadth of its holding in a petition for re-hearing, or maybe will be depublished..

The court also dealt with "on call" pay. The employees were on for 12 hours and off for 12 hours during the hitches. They rarely were called back to work for emergencies. However, they had to remain within 30-45 minutes of the ship, and could not drink. They also were required to sleep on the ship. On those facts, the court decided that the requirement of sleep on the shift turned all of the down time (less an 8-hour period for sleeping) into hours worked. The court excluded the 8 hours of sleep time on the basis of an agreement between the employer and employees. Unless your business requires employees to sleep on premises, this case probably won't result in a change in the law on this point. However, if you want to exclude sleep time from hours worked when employees are required to sleep on premises, have an agreement.

 The case is Seymore v. Metson Marine, Inc. and the opinion is here.