Is proposed legislation likely to slow the implementation of the new overtime regulations? Probably not.

Formal clocking in

On May 18, 2016, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced the publication of a final rule, updating its existing overtime regulations. The updated regulations are scheduled to become effective on December 1 of this year and are predicted to extend overtime pay protections to over 4 million workers within the first year of implementation. The updates include a provision under which employees are eligible for overtime compensation if they work over 40 hours in a week and earn less than $47,476 per year – an over 100% increase from the current salary threshold of $23,660.

To soften the impact of those new regulations, State Representative Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) introduced a bill – the “Overtime Reform and Enhancement Act (“OREA”) – that would add to the regulations a “phase-in” provision which would increase the salary threshold in steps over the next three-years, and would remove a current provision that increases the threshold salary automatically every 3 years without going through the normal rulemaking process specified under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

If Representative Schrader’s proposed bill succeeds, the threshold salary number would be increased only to $35,984 on December 1, 2016. The threshold would increase incrementally each year until reaching the $47,476 amount on December 1, 2019, which then would be the ceiling until a formal rulemaking process was engaged in to revise it further.

This proposed bill has the support of, among other groups, the National Retail Federation, the American Bankers Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, the U.S Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and numerous non-profit organizations that have stated that the new regs will force them to serve a reduce number of recipients by causing labor costs to rise so dramatically and precipitously.

To become law, the OREA would have to be approved by both houses of Congress, and would then have to survive a presidential veto (or garner enough support to override such a probable veto). None of that is likely to proceed quickly. Congress now is on recess until after Labor Day, so any action on this issue cannot take place for at least 6 weeks.

Even if OREA were to be signed into law after that, it would not automatically overturn the rule scheduled to take effect in December. Instead, it would require the Secretary of Labor to further rewrite the existing regulation, which could take a substantial period of time (the last rewrite took nearly a year), which would not be finalized before the final rule’s current effective date of December 1, 2016.

Therefore, employers should continue planning for the existing rule change. They should be aware of the change in threshold salary (to $47,476), and should plan to pay overtime wages to employees who fall under that threshold. They should work closely with human resources departments and legal counsel to effectively reclassify workers where necessary or revise wage levels to maintain current classifications.

 

Photo taken from the AHS (Antiquarian Horological Society) website.

 

Wellness Programs’ Notice Form Provided by the EEOC.

Joe crack-climbing 2010

New rules were published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on May 17, 2016, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for employers that have instituted “wellness programs.” Under the rules, employers must make sure participation in those programs is voluntary, and that the programs are reasonably designed to promote employee health.

The rule requires employers to provide to covered employees a notice describing what information will be collected as part of a wellness program, who will receive it, and how it will be used. Importantly, the rules require that employee medical information solicited for such programs is kept confidential.

The required notice must be provided on the first day of a covered health plan year that begins on or after Jan. 1, 2017. Once the notice requirement becomes effective, the EEOC’s rule does not require that employees get the notice at a particular time, but mandates that employees must receive the notice before providing any health information, and with enough time to decide whether to participate in the program. Waiting until after an employee has completed a wellness program’s health risk assessment (HRA) or medical examination to provide the notice is illegal.

On June 16, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) posted a sample employee notice to assist employers with wellness programs to comply with those rules, by offering a specific notice form for use by such employers, and which includes all of the required provisions, along with non-retaliation language.

The Notice is written in a fill-in-the-blank format so any employer can use it by simply adding the specific information into the form provided, and providing it to employees. Employers should note that employees with disabilities may need to have the notice provided in an alternative format (large print version, electronically formatted for screen readers, etc).

The EEOC also has posted a question-and-answer document that describes the ADA rule’s notice requirement and how employers should use the sample notice.

For more information, including EEOC guidance regarding which plan to use in calculating wellness program incentives, refer to EEOC’s questions and answers on the ADA rule and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) rule.

 

 

Photo of Joe G getting healthy in the Adirondacks.

 

EEOC report suggests “rebooting” workplace harassment prevention efforts.

sexual-harasment-art

On June 20, 2016, the EEOC published the Report of its “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.” (Check out an executive summary of the Report here.) That Task Force, formed in January 2015, also impaneled a group of outside experts to examine the causes, effects, and prevention of workplace harassment.

While the group could have focused on additional ways for the EEOC to identify, investigate, and penalize incidents of harassment, it instead resulted in a report – written by its co-chairs, Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic – that provides much more than that. The report, which is nearly 90 pages long with attachments, includes the usual section headings like: “Workplace Harassment Remains a Persistent Problem” and “”Leadership and Accountability are Critical.” But it goes beyond those standard phrases and ideas, and includes doses of social science, behavioral psychology, and common sense.

Besides pages of statistics (including these: 1/3 of the charges filed with the EEOC in 2015 alleged “harassment” rather than discrimination; 45% of those alleged sex harassment; 35% of LGB-identified employees report having been harassed in the workplace), the report includes one striking fact: that the least common response of either men or women to harassment is to take formal action.

The report lists the actions employees typically take rather than make a formal complaint of harassment (such as denying/downplaying the gravity of the situation; attempting to “avoid” the harasser; reporting to families or trusted others), and points out that according to workplace studies, only about 30% of employees who experience harassment or sexually coercive behavior speak with a supervisor, manager, or union representative about it. If that fact is accurate, the potential adverse effect on productivity and morale should be enough to grab every employer’s attention and concern.

What should employers do to create a more efficient, productive, and healthy workplace? The Task Force’s list of things-to-do includes many points about which employers already are aware, instructing that employers should:

  • Adopt and maintain a comprehensive anti-harassment policy;
  • Ensure that the policy is communicated frequently to employees;
  • Offer reporting procedures that include multiple points of contact, and multiple methods for reporting harassment;
  • Be alert for signs of retaliation; and
  • Impose prompt and proportionate discipline where harassment is found to have occurred.

However, it also includes a few suggestions not typically in the mix, by suggesting that:

  • An employer should periodically “test” its reporting system to determine how well that system works;
  • Training should increase trainees’ knowledge about what specific conduct the employer considers unacceptable in the workplace;
  • Employers should dedicate sufficient resources to train middle management and first-line supervisors on how to respond effectively to harassment they observe, that is reported to them, or of which they otherwise have information; and
  • “Bystander intervention training” should be included as a harassment prevention strategy.

The report should not – as has been recently reported – be viewed as a statement that harassment training is ineffective in all forms, or that employers should abandon efforts to train its managers or employees. Instead, the report can be used as both a roadmap and a report card for assessing employers’ training efforts and the effects of existing anti-harassment training.

If a 90-page report seems intimidating, simply look at the 5-page “Summary of Recommendations,” which includes not only suggestions for employers, but commitments from the EEOC on its plan to make information and statistics available to assist employers in developing credible training programs. Or just read through the 4 pages of Checklists, which provide a free and advance look at how the EEOC will assess harassment prevention programs, written policies, and investigation techniques going forward.

Governmental agencies produce a lot of written materials and guidance, and opinions differ on the effectiveness of much of it. However, the Task Force’s report, which urges a more holistic approach to harassment prevention, just might move the ball closer to the goal of making real change toward a safer, more civil, and genuinely productive workplace.

What (and why) should US employers know about Brexit?

Don't panic

On June 23, 2016, citizens of the United Kingdom (UK) voted to exit (or “Brexit”) the European Union (EU). While far-reaching, that decision wasn’t made in a vacuum, so it makes sense to understand some background of how the EU came about:

  • The precursor of the EU was established after World War II when, in the 1950’s, the European Coal and Steel Community (which became known as the “Common Market”), consisting of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, began to work cooperatively with the goal of avoiding the chaos created by two consecutive world wars;
  • Through the 1970’s and ‘80’s, 6 additional members joined – including the UK – and the Single European Act was signed, creating a Single Market across member borders;
  • In the 1990’s, Austria, Finland and Sweden join the group (which by 1993 was being referred to as the European Union), and citizens of member countries gradually become able to travel without having their passports checked at the borders;
  • During the 2000’s, 12 additional countries joined, and EU countries came together to fight crime and work cooperatively on economic issues;
  • In 2012, the then 28-member European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize;
  • The rise in religious extremism in the Middle East, and the ensuing refugee crisis, affected British public opinion related to the efficacy of the EU and, in February 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron set a referendum for June 23, 2016, allowing UK citizens to vote on whether to stay in the EU, or to leave (“Brexit”);
  • On June 23, nearly 17.5 Brits voted to sever ties with the EU, while just over 16 million voted to stay in that group; the decision resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Cameron.

While the votes have been counted, the decision leaves many questions unanswered. Here are a few:

  • Why did so many UK citizens vote to “Brexit” the EU? Voters cited fear of being “overrun” by immigrants, and also pointed to the EU as a hindrance to market globalization.
  • What is the impact of the decision on other countries and on US companies? Scotland and Northern Ireland – each of which heavily supported remaining in the EU – could attempt to exit the United Kingdom. In addition, the vote may complicate transatlantic data transfer for US companies with locations in the UK, coming so soon after the demise of the Safe Harbor Framework. Third, the effect of immigration law for citizens of EU countries working in the UK remains to be seen.
  • Is Brexit a “done deal”? While the referendum is not legally binding, the voters have spoken, the Prime Minister has resigned, and a transition team has been established. However, the actual separation requires the UK to invoke Article 50, a provision of the EU’s governing treaty that would formalize the results of the vote. That action will be spearheaded by Cameron’s successor.

In the meantime, there have been several efforts toward reconsidering the referendum, including one proposal to topple the results if the voter turnout was less than 75%, and another suggesting that London secede from the rest of the UK.

If Britain delays invoking Article 50, the current global economic uncertainty could continue. Employers with employees in the UK should remain in touch with developments, and should be in communication with their European legal advisors to stay ahead of the expected transition.

 

 

Photo of European Space Agency astronaut, Tim Peake, on Towel Day (May 25, 2016) at the International Space Station.

Watch for increased penalties (for failure to post required notices).

hockey penalty

Every “employer, employment agency, labor organization, and joint labor management committee controlling an apprenticeship or other training program” covered by Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) must post notices describing the pertinent provisions of Title VII, ADA, or GINA. Such notices must be posted in “prominent and accessible places” where notices to employees, applicants, and members are customarily maintained.

With little fanfare, no preliminary notice, and no request for public comment, the EEOC issued a Final Rule on June 2, 2016 which raised the maximum penalty for violating that posting requirement from $210 to $525 per violation.

The Final Rule, which takes effect in 30 days, adjusts the penalty for inflation, pursuant to the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 (the 2015 Act).

Under the 2015 Act, the EEOC, along with other federal agencies, is required to issue annual notices that adjust the maximum civil penalties that can be imposed for violations of certain regulations and laws. The 2015 Act specifies that if the initial inflation-adjusted penalty amount is larger than a 150 percent increase over the previous maximum penalty, then the increase will be limited to 150 percent.

According to the EEOC, the maximum penalty for a posting violation, adjusted for inflation since the initial penalty amount was set in 1997, should be $765. But because that amount exceeds a 150 percent increase, the penalty is capped at the 150 percent increase, or $525 per violation. That amount will be readjusted next year (and in each subsequent year) to account for further inflation.

According to the EEOC, because most employers covered by the regulations comply with the posting requirement, the economic impact of this Final Rule should be minimal, affecting only those who fail to post required notices in violation of the regulation and statue.

However, companies with multiple locations and multiple notices required should be aware of this $315 increase in penalty for each separate offense, and should check to assure that all posting requirements are met at every facility and in a way consistent with the regulation, to avoid unintended consequences.

 

Photo of the Pittsburgh Penguins is from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Listen – do you want to know a (trade) secret . . . ?

Do_You_Want_to_Know_a_Secret_sheet_music

Signed into law on May 11, 2016 by President Obama, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) has been called the “most significant expansion” of federal intellectual property law in 70 years, and has set off a firestorm of articles on the topic. The DTSA ostensibly was created to establish a uniform national law regarding the protection of trade secrets, and to homogenize the complexities created by the wide variety of existing state trade secret laws.

However, despite this intended purpose, the DTSA leaves all state trade secret laws in place and simply layers the newly-created federal law on top of them. Therefore, rather that pulling together the various state laws under a federal umbrella statute, the DTSA simply adds more legal requirements, potential litigation, and growing cost to the existing confusion already caused by the inconsistencies in state laws.

Here are the primary points in the DTSA:

  • Allows civil lawsuits in federal court – with a 3 year statute of limitations – for the misappropriation of trade secrets intended for use in interstate or foreign commerce (this could include a lawsuit by a former-employer/company against a subsequent-employer/company, based on an ex-employee’s disclosure of trade secret information);
  • Provides that a court may order the “seizure of property necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret that is the subject of the action” without notice to or answer by the property holder;
  • Grants power to courts to issue an injunction to prevent “any actual or threatened misappropriation” of the trade secret, or require affirmative actions to protect the trade secret;
  • Creates an exception to such injunction, if it would “prevent a person from entering into an employment relationship, and that conditions placed on such employment shall be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows”;
  • Establishes “whistleblower” immunity for any individual who discloses a trade secret “in confidence to a Federal, State, or local government official, either directly or indirectly, or to an attorney” to report or investigate a suspected violation of law;
  • Includes an anti-retaliation provision for any employee who discloses a trade secret to his or her attorney while reporting a “suspected violation of law,” as long as the information is not further disclosed except under court order.

What should employers do now:

Under the provision of the DTSA, employers must provide notice of the immunity set forth in the Act in any contract or agreement with an employee – specifically including contractors and consultants – that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information. Without such notice, an employer cannot obtain exemplary damages or attorney fees otherwise available in a legal action under the DTSA. The Act allows such notice to be made by reference to an existing policy document. The notice requirement applies to agreements entered into after the effective date of the Act.

While the DTSA may provide some consistency among federal district courts on these actions, the “layering” of the Act with state laws is bound to create confusion. For example, a plaintiff initially might bring both state and federal claims, adding to litigation cost and disruption, rather than choosing one or the other.

Employer should follow developments of cases under the DTSA – there is bound to be an increase in those numbers in the coming year – and should take affirmative steps to comply with the law’s notice provisions to stay ahead of those developments.

Should we really be this panicked about the DOL overtime regs? Probably not.

Wild Rumpus.

By now, everyone is aware that on May 18, 2016, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued its final rule updating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime regulations. (Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions or Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees.) Since then, there have been dozens of helpful articles, analyses, explanations, and in-person and electronic trainings to explain the rule. Panic is rampant, as employers attempt to understand the change to the regulations. But stay calm – it’s not that complicated.

Although the final rule, to be published in the federal register on May 23, is over 160 pages long, the changes made to the existing regulations are not numerous. Much of the method used to determine who is entitled to overtime under the FLSA will stay the same – although the numbers used in those calculations have changed substantially.

What stays the same?

  • Under the FLSA, hourly employees generally are entitled to overtime pay in the amount of time-and-one-half for hours worked over 40 in a week. That basic concept has not changed.
  • There currently exist certain exemptions from minimum wage and overtime pay for executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, and computer employees. These are referred to as the ‘‘white collar’’ exemptions, as set forth in 29 CFR part 541 (“Part 541”), and have not changed
  • To be considered exempt under Part 541, employees still must meet certain minimum requirements related to their primary job duties and, generally must be paid on a salary basis at not less than minimum amounts specified in the regulations. (This typically is referred to as the “salary basis” test.) That mechanism remains the same.
  • The definitions of and parameters for those Part 541 exemptions have not changed – even though there was some reference to possible changes when the revisions first were announced months ago.
  • Part 541 also includes a “highly compensated” exemption which states that an employee automatically is considered to be exempt if that individual earns a certain amount of annual compensation, and customarily and regularly performs any one or more of the exempt duties or responsibilities of an executive, administrative, or professional employee. That test remains unchanged.
  • Employers still are responsible for tracking the hours of non-exempt employees.

What has changed?

  • The Final Rule updated the salary level upon which the basic Part 541 exemptions are based, increasing it from the previous level of $455 per week (the equivalent of $23,660 per year) to a new level of $913 per week (the equivalent of $47,476 per year). That means that an individual employee earning an annual salary less than $47,476 automatically is entitled to overtime for hours worked over 40 per week.
  • The DOL has decided to permit nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) to satisfy up to 10 percent of the standard weekly salary level threshold, provided these forms of compensation are paid at least quarterly.
  • The “highly compensated” annual salary – over which the individual is considered to be exempt, so long as he or she performs one or more duties of an exempt employee – was set at $100,000 in 2004, and now has been raised to $134,004.
  • The Final rule establishes a mechanism for automatically updating the salary and compensation levels every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”
  • Because many more individuals may be classified as non-exempt, an employer’s responsibility for tracking the work hours of their employees is likely to expand – so when in doubt, keep track.
  • The DOL has set an effective date of December 1, 2016 for employers to implement the Final Rule, explaining that this will provide sufficient time – over 180 days – to make any changes that are necessary to comply with the final regulations.

With this information as a starting point, employers can begin the real work of determining how to classify – or re-classify – their employees to assure that each individual entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA’s two-step salary-level-and-duties test is properly designated and paid.

And now, “Let the wild rumpus start. . . .”

 

Illustration and quote from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, beloved children’s book first published in 1963 by Harper & Row.  Mr. Sendak did his own illustrations.

 

 

Political Discussions in the Workplace: Banter or Battle?

Nacho Libre

In a year where political rhetoric has included name calling, jeers, and physical threats – and all of these coming directly from the candidates themselves – what can employers do to manage workplace discussions about political issues before those discussions become disruptive?

A nationwide survey conducted by CareerBuilder and Harris Poll ahead of the 2012 election showed that nearly a quarter of the 7700 workers surveyed reported that they had been involved in a “heated discussion or fight” with a co-worker, boss, or someone else “higher up in the organization.” According to that same poll, 10% of the workers surveyed said that their opinions of a co-worker changed for the negative after discovering that person’s political preferences.

Employers are caught in the Catch-22 of attempting to reinforce civil behavior – and possibly risking an NLRB charge in the process (see William Beaumont Hospital)and allowing individuals to express their own thoughts and beliefs without implementing restrictions on the discourse, even if argument ensues.

Knowledgeable employers can find a middle ground by doing three things:

  • Understanding the line between argumentative workplace discussions and the “concerted protected activity” protected under the National Labor Relations Act;
  • Training managers to recognize potentially problematic discussions and teaching them how to de-escalate those discussions; and
  • Consistently enforcing company policies related to violence.

The NLRA allows employees to discuss the terms and conditions of employment without interference by the company, even if that discussion includes some negative comments and criticisms. But the rules governing workplace violence and unsafe behavior continue to apply to employee interactions to keep even protected discussion from escalating into physical confrontation and violence.

Harassment and anti-violence policies must be posted, disseminated, and consistently enforced. Assure that managers are aware of and conversant in those policies, are able to recognize the difference between basic conversation and a more heated, argumentative exchange, and can take effective and prompt action to de-escalate those second types of situation.

Additionally, discussions of the “terms and conditions of employment” protected under the NLRA are unlikely to include individual political beliefs, so some parameters can be instituted around such discussions. Boundaries can be set to preclude posting political signs or holding political rallies during work hours. Employers can support the civic involvement of employees without allowing the workplace to be disrupted by non-work-related events and discussion.

The key in the coming months will be to pay attention and to enforce workplace policies with a focus on work performance, and not individual political beliefs.

 

Photos from Nacho Libre, 2006, Paramount Pictures, starring Jack Black and Hector Jimenez.

How much “interactive process” is enough to preclude ADA liability?

no ladders

To support a failure-to-accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a plaintiff must establish both a prima facie case of discrimination and an employer’s failure to accommodate it. But how far must an employer go to fulfill the “interactive process” requirement of the ADA in deciding upon and implementing a reasonable accommodation? A recent decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may provide some useful guidance. Kelleher v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 8th Cir., No. 15-2105, March 31, 2016.

Kathy Kelleher began working for Wal-Mart as a truck unloader in 1995. In 1997, she switched positions to “stocker,” working the third/overnight shift. In that same year, Kelleher was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and her doctor imposed a work restriction of “no ladder use.”

Using the ladder was an integral part of the stocker job. However, between 1997 and 2011, Wal-Mart accommodated Kelleher’s restriction, along with several other verbal requests for accommodations, including extra time during her shift to take medication and an extra 15-minute break in addition to her normal breaks. In fact, in 2009, a local human resources manager recommended that the request for extra break be denied for lack of medical support, but store management honored the request, allowing Kelleher to continue in her position, and implementing her requested accommodation.

In January 2011, Kelleher requested and was granted FMLA leave for an appendectomy. Upon her return, Kelleher’s permanent restrictions included no ladder climbing and no working in extreme temperatures, both of which were accommodated. In June of that year, Kelleher submitted a request for a second extra 15-minute break.

Months earlier, Wal-Mart’s procedure for determining accommodations had been centralized, so Kelleher’s her request was reviewed by corporate headquarters under the new procedure. Corporate headquarters suggested that Kelleher be taken out of her position and placed on leave until a “suitable reassignment meeting her work restrictions” could be found. Kelleher’s store manager began to look for such a position, stating to the store’s personnel manager that he wanted to “find something that would work for” Kelleher.

Kelleher then was placed in an overnight cashier position, which included a $.20/hour raise from the stocker position. The duties of the new position were very similar to the stocker duties, but with some additional responsibilities, including occasionally staffing a customer check-out lane.

Kelleher expressed that she was “nervous” that customers might make comments about her impairments. However, she provided no medical evidence that she was unable to perform the duties of the new position.

Although she began to work in the new position – with her “no ladder” restriction in place – she ultimately filed a lawsuit claiming that Wal-Mart had failed to accommodate her disability, and that she had been harassed and retaliated against, as well. Kelleher specifically claimed that Wal-Mart managers discriminated and retaliated against her by lowering her performance evaluation from “exceeds expectations” from “solid performer” and by “forcing her to work alone, giving her assignments that were difficult, rolling their eyes at her and acting exasperated when she walked by.”

The lower court granted summary judgment in Wal-Mart’s favor on all claims, and that decision was upheld on appeal to the Eighth Circuit. While the appellate court premised its decision on its finding that Kelleher did not suffer the requisite “adverse action” to support her claims, the specific facts that form the basis of the holding indicate that in this case, the company took actions that positively influenced the court’s decision, including the following:

  • There was no documentation or evidence that Kelleher actually was subjected to harassment or comments by customers in her job as a cashier, or complained of such;
  • There was no particular job responsibility that Kelleher was medically unable to perform in the position into which the company chose to move her;
  • The company allowed the “no ladder” restriction to remain in place;
  • The hourly wage in the new position was $.20/hour higher than in the old position; and
  • The company fully documented the business-related reason for the decrease in Kelleher’s performance evaluation.

In this case, the time and effort spent by the employer to take seriously the medical restrictions, continue to attempt to allow the plaintiff to work productively, consider alternative jobs when changing her position became appropriate, and making a general effort to treat plaintiff fairly, all culminated in a dismissal of Kelleher’s claims that the company discriminated against her by failing to accommodate her disability.

Non-employee’s racial bias may lead to liability for employer.

lungs

Most – if not all – employers are aware that both federal and state laws preclude employment discrimination based upon the race or national origin of an employee, and know that illegal activity can include both discriminatory actions and biased statements. Most employers, however, are unaware that certain of those laws also preclude discrimination by a customer, client, or patient of an employer against an employee.

Recently, a federal district court in Michigan denied a hospital/employer’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the lack of a written policy instructing hospital employees to reject the racial preference of patients regarding treatment, and the absence of training on the issue, raised a question that must be decided by a jury. McCrary v. Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., E.D. Mich., No. 4-14-cv-14053, March 16, 2016. 

Caprice McCrary, an African-American female, is a respiratory therapist at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn, Michigan. McCrary, who began working at the Hospital in 2013, typically works a 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift three days a week, and is rated as a “very good” and “hardworking” therapist who is qualified to do her job. She reports directly to Elisa Benscoter, the manager of the Respiratory Care Department; when Benscoter is not at the hospital, McCrary reports to a senior respiratory therapist or charge therapist.  

On October 8, 2014, a patient was admitted to the Hospital through the Emergency Room. After he had been stabilized, the patient told a nurse-in-training that he wanted no “black people” tending to him during his hospital stay. The nurse left the patient’s room and reported the situation to a supervisor, who told her to note the statement in the patient’s record and to notify the charge nurse. The nurse noted the patient’s statement in the record, as directed. 

At some point that same day, the patient was transferred into a hospital room on a floor on which McCrary was assigned to provide respiratory care. When McCrory entered the patient’s room to provide care, the patient asked her to leave, referencing the statement in his chart. When McCrory asked the treating nurse why the patient had acted as he had, the nurse told McCrory about the patient’s preference, as noted in the chart.  

Later that night, McCrory again attempted to provide a respiratory treatment to the patient, and was again rebuffed. McCrory reported the situation to the senior respiratory therapist and to her own supervisor (Benscoter). She also called the Hospital’s human resources person, who apologized to McCrory and said that the request should not have been included in the patient’s chart. 

Subsequently, the patient was told by the Hospital he could not preclude medical personnel from treating him, regardless of race, and McCrory was informed of the same.  However, when McCrory returned to work the next day, the patient had been moved to a floor on which McCrory did not provide respiratory treatment to patients. 

McCrory filed a lawsuit claiming race discrimination under Section 1981, contending that the Hospital violated that law by allowing the assignment of its employees to care for the patient based upon race. The Hospital moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had acted promptly to correct the situation, and that after they acted, the patient was treated by several African-American caregivers during his stay. 

The district court denied the Hospital’s motion, pointing out that there was no written policy instructing Hospital employees to reject a patient’s request for care based on race, and no training or other advice to its employees on how to handle race-based requests. Based on the absence of the written policy and employee training, the court held that a “reasonable jury could find that by recording patients’ race-preference requests in the patients’ record and not training its employees to reject those requests, [the Hospital] purposely allows for the assignment of its employees’ duties based on their race.” 

This decision underscores the importance of anti-discrimination policies, including those related to anti-discrimination by customers, clients, and patients. Those policies should be written, broadly disseminated, effectively implemented, and consistently enforced. In addition, training should be developed and conducted to assure the understanding and enforcement of the policies.  Anything less than this muti-factor approach creates a clear risk of legal liability.

 

LexBlog