Sunday, January 27, 2013

Court of Appeal: Discharge of Executive Uncooperative in Investigation

is perfectly legal.

Applied Signal fired John McGrory.  One of his reports, Dana Thomas, complained to human resources that McGrory harassed / discriminated against her because of her sex / sexual orientation.  Applied hired an outside investigator.   McGrory did not like the investigator, but she exonerated him of mistreating Thomas.  She did find, though, that McGrory was untruthful and uncooperative during the investigation.  She also found that McGrory violated the company's anti-harassment policy because he made off-color jokes related to sex and national origin.

Applied fired McGrory, not for discrimination or harassment against Thomas, but for his lack of cooperation and deception during the investigation.  He sued Applied Signal, claiming not only wrongful termination, bur also sex discrimination and defamation.  He believed he was disfavored because of his male sex, that even at-will employees are entitled to notice of an investigation, and more.

McGrory argued Allied could not fire him for participating in the investigation, “'The public policy of California is to shield anyone participating in an investigation of discrimination from the possibility of retaliation,' presumably even if the participant is uncooperative and untruthful."

Wrong.  I have come across people who refused to participate in investigations without their lawyer, or simply were uncooperative.  I have heard some people question whether it is OK to fire someone for refusing to cooperate in an investigation.  (They don't read the blog, but maybe they should. Just sayin').

Anyway, the court of appeal has laid that issue to rest:

refusing to participate in or cooperate with an investigation into a discrimination claim is not participation or assistance and is not a protected activity. (Alack v. Beau Rivage Resorts, Inc. (S.D. Miss. 2003) 286 F.Supp.2d 771, 775; Bray v. Tenax Corp. (E.D. N.C. 1995) 905 F.Supp. 324, 328.)

Here's another news flash to those employees who lie during an investigation. They have no protection, either:

The participation immunity does not prohibit an employer from imposing discipline for an employee‟s misbehavior during an internal investigation, such as attempting to deceive the investigator. (Cf. Vasconcelos v. Meese, supra, 907 F.2d 111, 113.) “Lying in an internal investigation is disruptive of workplace discipline.” (Hatmaker, supra, 619 F.3d 741, 746.) “[W]hether to fire an employee for lying to the employer in the course of the business‟s conduct of an important internal investigation is basically a business decision; this decision, as with most business decisions, is not for the courts to second-guess as a kind of super-personnel department.” (Total System Services, supra, 221 F.3d 1171, 1176.)

McGrory also argued that the employer could not lawfully rely on fear of litigation with the accuser as a basis for firing him.  Really?  The Court of Appeal held that fear of liability also is a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing an accused harasser:

Employee also argues that his “relatively innocent behavior” could not justify “a sexual harassment claim.” Employee provides no authority requiring an Employer to retain an at-will employee until his conduct creates civil liability. 

The court also held that the VP of HR's explanation to another employee that McGrory was fired for being uncooperative was privileged and made without malice. No slander for you.

This is a significant case about the meaning of employment at will and the employer's freedom to discipline and discharge those who violate policies.

The opinion is McGrory v. Applied Signal Tech. and the opinion is here.

Ninth Circuit Holds Retail Store Manager Unable to Work Is Not Qualified Individual

The Ninth Circuit held that a retail store manager who was unable to perform her essential job functions  was not a qualified individual, despite her request for a part time schedule and a five month leave.

Montblanc properly asserts that Lawler cannot competently perform her job duties as manager. Here, the essential duties of a boutique manager are undisputed. Lawler testified that a manager is responsible for hiring, training, and supervising sales staff; overseeing and developing customer relations; administrating stocking and inventory; cleaning; creating store displays; and preparing
sales reports. She further stated that the duties of a manager can only be performed in the store.

But but but... she was "on disability" and leave is a type of accommodation.  What happened?
The key is that Lawler did not establish that she ever would be able to perform her essential job duties again.

Lawler, however, offers no factual support showing she can perform any job duty of a boutique manager, regardless of the accommodation. Rather, she admitted that her disability makes it impossible for her to fulfill the duties of her position and that she has been unemployed since October 2009, has not applied for any positions, has made no effort to secure employment, and has exhausted her disability benefits.
Lawler contends that Montblanc “cannot argue that it met its burden of showing that Plaintiff was not able to do the job with or without reasonable accommodation” because it denied her requests for reduced hours and a five-month leave of absence. This argument ignores the holding in Green that “the plaintiff employee bears the burden of proving he or she was able to do the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.”
The court also rejected a harassment claim and a retaliation claim.  But the headline is the rejection of the disability discrimination case.

The opinion in Lawler v. Montblanc is here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Court of Appeal Upholds SLAPP Against Accused Harasser's Counterclaim

Aber sued Comstock for sexual harassment among other things.  This did not sit well with Comstock, who sued Aber back, claiming defamation among other things.

Aber then filed a motion to strike Comstock's cross-claim. She claimed his lawsuit was a "SLAPP" or a retaliatory action against Aber.  The trial court agreed and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

If someone sues you and you return the favor, your lawsuit may be subject to a motion to strike as a "SLAPP" (strategic lawsuit against public participation).  To overcome the anti-SLAPP motion, you have to prove that you have a good chance of winning your case.   Comstock apparently did not do that, which is why his suit was dismissed.  If you file a lawsuit that is dismissed as a SLAPP, you owe the other side attorney's fees.   So, be careful before filing cross claims. It's probably wise to win your case first and then sue for malicious prosecution.

Anyway, what makes this case even more interesting is that  the Court of Appeal held that the harassment victim's pre-litigation statements made to company HR investigators were covered by the anti-SLAPP statute as protected conduct.  That means, for example, that if an employee participates in a sexual harassment investigation and reports misconduct against another employee, any defamation lawsuit will be examined as a potential SLAPP.  Even witnesses who report to HR likely will be protected from retaliatory defamation lawsuits brought by the accused harasser.  While that is good news for witnesses and victims of discrimination or harassment, it is bad news for those who are wrongly accused of harassment, who will have a tougher time protecting themselves from career-ending accusations.

This case is Aber v. Comstock and the opinion is here.

Federal Appeals Court Put Brakes on NLRB

The National Labor Relations Board was busy in 2012. The Board overturned a number of precedents and began to forge new law applicable to non-union employers.

But three of the five board members were appointed by President Obama on January 4, 2012, when the Senate was supposed to be in "recess."  (The federal Constitution empowers the president to make recess appointments.)

The only thing is, the Senate was not in recess, according to the D.C. Circuit.  A "recess," the court reasoned, requires a lengthy period, not just a day or two, which was the case in early 2012.

If this decision stands, the NLRB's decisions issued in 2012 likely are invalid.  All of 'em.

If you want to read the opinion in Noel Canning v. NLRB, it is here.  Otherwise, just take my word for it, k?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

California Court Upholds Arbitration Agreement...(Pinch Me)

Let's start the new year off with a rare bird - a California court upholding an arbitration agreement in an employment case. 

Maribel Baltazar sued her former employer, Forever 21 and three employees, for sexual harassment, wage hour violations, and a variety of other claims.  The defendants moved to compel arbitration.

The court first decided that the California Arbitration Act, rather than the Federal Arbitration Act, applied. The defendants apparently took for granted that Forever 21 was "in interstate commerce" to secure FAA coverage.  The court of appeal ruled that proof is required.   The court also noted that the agreement was silent regarding the FAA's applicability.   So, if you want the pro-arbitration Federal Arbitration Act to apply, it is better to say so in the Agreement.  And counsel must affirmatively establish interstate commerce in the motion to compel.

Anyway, the court of appeal moved to the enforceability of the agreement. The plaintiff argued that the agreement was "unconscionable" under California law.  But the court of appeal disagreed.

The plaintiff first claimed the agreement was not "mutual," meaning that the employer did not have to arbitrate, but the plaintiff did.  The key issue was whether the agreement's permitting either party to go to court to obtain "provisional" relief (such as temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions) rendered the agreement one-sided.  The court noted that the California Arbitration Act itself permits parties to an arbitration agreement to seek provisional relief in court.  So, it is permissible for an arbitration agreement to authorized either party to seek provisional remedies (such as injunctions) in court.

The court also held that a provision protecting the employer's confidential information contained in the arbitration agreement did not render the agreement unconscionable. 

Finally, the court held that it was lawful for the agreement to provide for the AAA employment dispute rules, but also to provide that the California Arbitration Act would apply if the rules were held invalid.  The Court did not mention whether the AAA rules were attached to the arbitration agreement.  (Other opinions have held that failure to attach a copy of the rules render the agreement unconscionable.  Silly, IMO). Why silly? As the court of appeal pointed out in this case, many courts have already held that the AAA rules are fair. How can it be "unconscionable" to not attach a copy.

The case is Baltazar v. Forever 21, Inc. et al. and the opinion is here.   Oh - what does an enforceable arbitration agreement look like?   Behold!



This Agreement to Arbitrate (hereinafter "Agreement‘) is entered into by and between Forever 21, Inc., and its subsidiary and affiliated companies, and each of their officers, directors, agents, benefit plans, insurers, successors, and assigns (hereinafter collectively "the Company‘) and [handwritten name of plaintiff], hereinafter "Employee" located at Warehouse . . . .

It is the desire of the parties to this Agreement that, whenever possible, "Disputes‘ relating to employment matters will be resolved in an expeditious manner. Each of the parties hereto is voluntarily entering into the Agreement in order to gain the benefits of a speedy, impartial dispute-resolution procedure. 

The Company and Employee mutually agree that any dispute or controversy arising out of or in any way related to any "Dispute,‘ as defined herein, shall be resolved exclusively by final and binding arbitration. Such arbitration shall be held in Los Angeles, California pursuant to the Model Rules for Arbitration of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. 

For purposes of this Agreement, the term "Disputes‘ means and includes any claim or action arising out of or in any way related to the hire, employment, remuneration, separation or termination of Employee. The potential Disputes which the parties agree to arbitrate, pursuant to this Agreement,
include but are not limited to: claims for wages or other compensation due; claims for breach of any employment contract or covenant (express or implied); claims for unlawful discrimination, retaliation or harassment (including, but not limited to, claims based on employment benefits (except where an Employee‘s benefit or pension plan contains a claims procedure which expressly provides for a final and binding arbitration procedure different from this one)), and Disputes arising out of or relating to the termination of the employment relationship between the parties, whether based on common law or statute, regulation, or ordinance.

Each of the parties voluntarily and irrevocably waives any and all rights to have any Dispute heard or resolved in any forum other than through arbitration as provided herein. This waiver specifically includes, but is not limited to, any right to trial by jury. 

This Agreement does not cover claims that Employee my have for worker‘s compensation benefits or unemployment compensation benefits. . . .

Pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure 1281.8 either party hereto may apply to a California court for any provisional remedy, including a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction. 

Both parties agree that the Company has valuable trade secrets and proprietary and confidential information. Both parties agree that in the course of any arbitration proceeding all necessary steps will be taken to protect from public disclosure such trade secrets and proprietary and confidential information. [¶] . . . [¶]

The provisions of this Agreement are severable, and if any one or more are determined to be void or otherwise unenforceable, the remaining provisions shall continue to be in full force and effect. If, in any action to enforce this Agreement, a Court of competent jurisdiction rules that the parties agreement to arbitrate under the Model Rules for Arbitration of Employment Disputes of the American Arbitration Association is not enforceable, then the parties agree that such Dispute shall be resolved by final and binding arbitration under the California Arbitration Act, California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1280, et seq.

The promises of the parties herein to arbitrate differences, rather than litigate them before courts or other bodies, provide consideration for each other.‖ (Capital letters, underscoring, and boldface in original.)