Misrepresentation on employment application may override state criminal background check law.

help wanted

Most employers understand the importance of compliance with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) as it applies to background checks and applicant records. However, employers also must recognize the interplay of state law restrictions on the use of background checks in the application and employment process.

Recently, a federal district court in Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of an employer who withdrew an offer of employment after that employer found a discrepancy between background check records and information reported directly by the applicant to the company. McCorkle v. Schenker Logistics, Inc., MDPA, 1:13-cv-03077, October 8, 2014. 

Dustin McCorkle made application to a transportation logistics company in Central Pennsylvania. As part of the application process, McCorkle was asked to provide a 10-year criminal background history, and was informed that any information provided would be checked against a background check done by a third-party provider. The company’s policy states that “True misrepresentations of facts [on the application], confirmed through the background check, may disqualify an applicant from future consideration of employment.”

McCorkle provided information regarding a stalking/harassment conviction related to a custody issue, but mentioned no other convictions. He then signed the application, which included this language:

I understand and agree that any false, misleading, or incomplete information given in my application, interview(s), or other pre-employment questionnaires and procedure, regardless of when discovered by the Company will be sufficient basis for my disqualification for employment or, if already employed by the Company, the termination of my employment with the Company.

The application also required McCorkle to read and sign the following statement:

I agree that the Company shall not be liable in any respect if I am not hired or if my employment is terminated as a result of providing such false, misleading or incomplete information.

Following McCorkle’s application, the company obtained a background check that included various other misdemeanor and summary convictions, none of which were reported to them by McCorkle on his application. Based on that fact, the company withdrew the offer of employment. McCorkle filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging violation of Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA). 

The CHRIA sets out the parameters for an employer’s use of criminal background check information, and specifically states that “[f]elony and misdemeanor convictions may be considered by the employer only to the extent to which they relate to the applicant’s suitability for employment in the position for which he has applied.” CHRIA prohibits employers from making hiring decisions based on criminal convictions that are unrelated to an applicant’s suitability for a particular job.

While McCorkle alleged that the company violated the CHRIA by withdrawing its offer of employment, the district court found that it was McCorkle’s misrepresentation and incomplete reporting of his criminal background that caused that withdrawal and that the “disqualification was not based on Plaintiff’s criminal history record information.” Therefore, no violation of CHRIA existed.

This holding was supported by the wording of the company’s policy and application form, both of which spelled out in unambiguous language the fact that the company would not hire or continue to employ an individual who misrepresented information. Without that language, which was quoted heavily in the court’s opinion, it is unclear as to whether the result would have been the same.

 

Is your workforce knowledgeable about Ebola . . . and should it be?

Concerns related to the Ebola outbreak are increasing on the part of both employers and employees in the U.S.. While the outbreak is most active in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, there has been at least one confirmed case in the United States. The key to preventing the spread of Ebola – as with many communicable diseases – is identifying and isolating potential cases as quickly as possible.

Health care employers have begun to implement preparedness protocols; proactive employers in other areas should follow suit, to the extent that such protocols could assist in limiting the exposure of employees to the disease by adding information and other tool to assist in understanding Ebola prevention, detection, and treatment. 

So far, the following steps have been suggested to healthcare employers: 

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response have issued Ebola screening criteria and general guidance for the health care community, to ensure that all health care workers (including hospital workers, physician groups and EMTs) are able to detect and respond to the virus, as well as protect themselves and others from it.
  • The CDC has posted maps to show the most heavily affected areas in the West African countries in which the virus has been detected; this information should be factored into screening procedures being conducted by hospital emergency rooms, outpatient clinics, and other first responders.
  • The CDC has opened an Ebola website  on which it continually posts updated information.
  • CDC officials are available to assist 24/7 by calling the CDC Emergency Operations Center at 770-488-7100; they can be reached by email at eocreport@cdc.gov.
  • On October 1, the American Hospital Association (AHA) updated its own Ebola preparedness webpage with resources that hospitals and health systems, as well as emergency response personnel, can use to prepare for Ebola and will continue to update as resources and information become available, including screening criteria and a preparedness checklist.
  • Specialty health care associations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have issued their own information on the Ebola outbreak.

While these notices and bulletins have been directed specifically to health care entities, non-health care employers should be reviewing the information as it is issued, to assure company compliance with any aspects of the directives that may affect their own workforces. Travel information and advisories should be consulted when planning to ask employees to travel near, to, or through affected areas; screening criteria should be provided to employees who engage in travel to allow them to be vigilant for of symptoms and health-related issues; and general information can be posted to educate employees on the ongoing developments in and containments of the disease.  

Employers also must be aware of the implications of both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) when considering whether or not to share health-related information with and about employees. Relaying the general advisories and informative bulletins published by the above-mentioned agencies is not likely to trigger any statutory violation, but sharing information related to a specific employee’s health or medical condition may lead to unintended liability. Any bulletins, advisories, or notices to general employee populations should be discussed and cleared with human resources personnel and legal counsel before posting or distributing to employee groups.

Policy regarding return-to-work medical release trumps employee’s ADA and FMLA claims.

back pain

One of the questions most frequently asked by employers is whether an employee’s failure to comply with company policies regarding a return-to-work release can support termination of the individual’s employment. While courts differ on that issue depending upon judicial circuit and the specific facts of the case, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently answered that question with a definitive “Yes.” Withers v. Johnson, 8th Cir., No. 13-2646, August 15, 2014.

Calvin Withers was employed as an assistant probation officer for the County Circuit Court of Pulaski, Arkansas. Beginning in January 2011, he came under the supervision of Circuit Judge Leon Johnson. Wither’ duties included monitoring probationers, documenting their compliance with court-imposed instructions, and providing reports to Johnson on occasion.

On March 17, 2011, Withers suffered a work-related back injury. On that same day, Withers sought medical treatment and was cleared to return to work immediately with a 10 pound lifting restriction. Withers promptly provided that release directly to Johnson under a written policy that required that medical releases be provided to supervisors “immediately” upon receipt of such release. Johnson expressed no objection to the accommodation. During the following weeks, Withers received additional treatment and was further restricted. Withers again provided his medical releases directly and promptly to Johnson, who never objected to the restrictions.

On March 29, Withers was placed on “non-duty” status by his doctor, and was granted FMLA leave as of April 1, 2011. On May 10, Withers was cleared by his doctor to return to work. Withers called Johnson’s office that day and left a voice mail stating: “[T]his is Calvin Withers, give me a call back.” After no return call from Johnson, Withers left another message on May 11, asking Johnson to “holler back” at him, but again without further detail. On May 12, Withers left a phone message for Linda Liddell, a member of the County’s human resources department, asking for a return call.

On May 13, a Friday, Withers called a law clerk to say that he was trying to reach Johnson, and telling her “the situation . . . [and] what the doctor said.” The clerk informed him that Johnson was at a judicial conference and that she would send a text message to him. She did, in fact, text Johnson, letting him know that Withers was trying to reach him, but she provided no further detail. On that same day, Withers received a return call from Liddell, who said that if Withers faxed the return-to-work release to her, she would forward it to Johnson’s chambers. Withers faxed the release to Liddell on Monday, May 16.

However, in a letter dated May 16, Johnson terminated Withers’ employment, based on a personnel policy that requires every employee to “immediately” provide a return-to-work release to his or her supervisor upon medical clearance.  An employee who fails to do so is considered to have resigned.

Withers filed suit against Johnson and the County. Ultimately, Withers voluntarily dismissed certain of his claims, and the others were dismissed by the court on summary judgment. Withers appealed only his claims against Johnson under the ADA/Rehabilitation Act and the FMLA. The Eighth Circuit upheld the dismissal of those claims.

Withers’ claimed that Johnson fired him because of his disability, pointing to Johnson’ failure to return his calls and his alleged failure to accommodate Withers’ medical impairment. In response, the Eighth Circuit held that Withers’ two “nondescript telephone messages” did not support an inference of discrimination based on disability, because the calls made no mention of any medical condition or need for accommodation. Further, the Court pointed out that Johnson had accommodated all of Withers’ prior work restrictions without objections, and that Withers offered no evidence of any retaliatory motive on Johnson’s part for the termination. The Court used the same rationale in addressing Withers’ FMLA claim, specifically stating that there was no evidence that Johnson interfered with Withers’ FMLA leave, or that Johnson took any action in violation of that Act.

In this case, Withers’ employment was terminated because he violated a policy that required him to provide a medical release to his supervisor “immediately” upon his release to return to his job duties. Although Withers was okayed by his doctor to return to work on May 10, it was undisputed that he did not fax the release until May 16 – and even then, he faxed it to the human resources representative, who ten relayed it to the supervisor – making this a clear case of policy violation.

Employers cannot rely on this decision to support a blanket denial of an employee’s return from a medical-related leave, because not every return-to-work situation is as uncomplicated as this one: instead of an immediate submission of his release, Withers waited 6 days; all of his prior requests for accommodation had been implemented; and his FMLA leave request had been granted without conditions. Without all of those elements, issues of fact may be present that would convince a court to allow the case to go forward.

Restriction of job responsibilities – even without diminished salary or benefits – may constitute an “adverse action” under Title VII.

photo-of-a-fresh-crime-scene

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to fail to hire or to discharge an individual or otherwise to discriminate against such individual “with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because of a protected characteristic, including race.

To establish a claim of discrimination under Title VII, an individual must first show that he or she was subject to an “adverse employment action” – which has been judicially defined as an action that affects the terms and conditions of employment, and which can include firing, failure to hire, demotion, an unequal compensation. 

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals historically has been one of the most restrictive federal appellate courts in its definition of an “adverse employment action.” However, that court recently held that a city police department’s restriction of a detective’s responsibilities after his return from a disciplinary suspension was sufficient to fall within the definition of an “adverse employment action,” and to overcome the city’s motion to dismiss his lawsuit. Thompson v. City of Waco, 5th Circ., No. 13-50718, September 3, 2014. 

Allen Thompson is an African American detective in the Waco, Texas Police Department. Thompson and two Caucasian detectives were suspended after allegations that the three had falsified time sheets. After reinstating all three detectives, the City imposed restrictions on Thompson that it did not impose on the two non-minority detectives. The restrictions precluded Thompson from: searching for evidence without supervision or logging that evidence in after discovery; acting as the lead investigator on a matter, affiant in a criminal case, or evidence officer at a crime scene; and working in an undercover capacity.  

According to Thompson, his new responsibilities were “significantly different,” less prestigious, less interesting, and less likely to lead to promotion than his prior responsibilities. 

Thompson sued the City, and the City responded by moving to dismiss the suit, arguing that Thompson had failed to set forth the required “adverse employment action” necessary to support a Title VII discrimination claim. 

That decision was reversed by the Fifth Circuit, which found that while the mere “loss of some job responsibilities” does not automatically constitute an adverse employment action, that fact does not mean that a change or loss of some responsibilities can never establish an actionable discrimination claim.  

Thompson alleges that the Police Department rewrote and restricted his job description to the extent that he now functions as an assistant to the other detectives, rather than a true detective in his own right. Thompson claims to have lost essential job functions, and states he no longer uses his education and skills to act as a detective, and that such circumstances are materially adverse. Therefore, according to the court, the circumstances are materially adverse, and Thompson has stated a “plausible claim that he was subject to the equivalent of a demotion.” 

The court is quick to point out that it has “no view on Thompson’s likelihood of success” and that such determination is fact-intensive and is “better suited for summary judgment or trial stage.” However, Thompson’s claims, as stated, overcome the initial hurdle required by Title VII to set forth an “adverse employment action.”  

The lesson for employers is clear: if the terms and conditions of employment are changed to an extent that changes the basic nature of the job itself – even without a diminution in the salary or benefits associated with the job – such action may be sufficiently “adverse” to support a discrimination claim under Title VII.

Inconsistent discipline leads to reinstatement of employee fired for “throat slashing” motion.

Zero tolerance policy

Can an employer fire an employee who allegedly makes a throat slashing motion to a co-worker who interprets the motion as a threat?  According to a recent NLRB decision, maybe not. Nichols Aluminum, LLC and Teamsters Local Union No. 371, Case No. 25-CA-08260, august 18, 2014.

Bruce Bandy has been employed since at least 1978 by Nichols Aluminum, which operates aluminum casting and finishing plants.  Bandy, a longtime Union member, participated in a union-initiated strike on January 20, 2012.

At the time of their return to work, Bandy and the other strikers were asked to sign a written “promise” not to strike again over the “same dispute,” which was not further defined. Bandy agreed to the pledge. In addition, and in a post-strike meeting with employees, management emphasized certain company policies, including its “Violence in the Workplace” policy, which prohibited “Harassing, disruptive, threatening, and/or violent situations or behavior by anyone.”

Two weeks after his return from striking, Bandy was fired for a violation of the company’s “zero tolerance” policy concerning threats and harassment. The incident that led to the firing occurred when Bandy was walking next to a forklift being driven by an employee who had not participated in the strike. That employee honked the forklift horn a few times at Bandy; Bandy then looked at the driver and brought his hand across his neck with his thumb pointing up in what the driver construed as a “cut throat” gesture.

The driver reported Bandy’s gesture to HR, and to the Plant Manager and Bandy’s supervisor. When later questioned about the incident, Bandy denied having made the gesture, and said that he was “merely scratching his throat.” Bandy was suspended and was discharged two days later.

The Union filed an unfair labor practice charge, and a complaint was filed against the Company alleging a violation of Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act, stating that Bandy had been fired because he engaged in union activity when he participated in the strike. The case was heard by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who found that the situation presented “a close call,” but that the evidence did not show that the Company engaged in disparate treatment of Bandy when it fired him for a violation of its zero tolerance policy.

However, upon review by a three-member panel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), that decision was reversed, and the panel found that Bandy’s firing violated the NLRA. That decision was based primarily on the fact that the Company’s response to other violations of the zero tolerance policy; the Company did not consistently discharge employees, even for relatively severe misconduct, and actually rehired an individual after firing him for cleaning and loading a gun in the workplace.

The Company’s inconsistent response to workplace violence issues, coupled with the short two-week period between the end of the strike and Bandy’s firing, allowed the Board to find that because Bandy’s firing did not “conform to an established disciplinary practice,” the actual reason for the firing was Bandy’s participation in a lawful work strike.

The penalty imposed by the NLRB included Bandy’s reinstatement to work with full seniority, removal of the disciplinary action from his personnel file, payment of lost wages and benefits, and the posting of a Notice setting out the decision and employee rights provided by the NLRA, along with an electronic link to the Board’s full decision.

The issue of concern to employers raised by this decision is whether or not employment decisions will be second-guessed by governmental agencies or courts.

Typically, an employer’s decision to hire, fire, or discipline an employee will not be reversed by an agency or court unless that decision is based upon illegal principles. The questions that is facing employers more and more frequently is where that line is being drawn, especially in recent decisions like this one. With respect to activity that is suspect under the NLRA, the line clearly continues to move and is something to which employers must continue to pay attention.

This case also is a clear example of the ramifications of inconsistently applying company policies. Had the Company been more consistent in its application of the zero tolerance policy, the Board would not have been able to point to it as evidence of disparate treatment in Bandy’s situation.

Asking coworkers for assistance in supporting legal claim may constitute concerted activity under the NLRA.

Helping hand black & white

Most employers are aware that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects individuals from harassment and discrimination, and further protects them from filing claims alleging such harassment or discrimination. However, many employers are not aware that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) also protects employees who attempt to garner support for a potential claim related to employment.

To be protected under Section 7 of the NLRA, an employee’s conduct must be both “concerted” and engaged in for the purpose of “mutual aid or protection.”

Recently, a National Labor Relations Board panel found that an employee’s solicitation of her co-workers for assistance with her possible sexual harassment claim fell within the protection of Section 7, in spite of the fact that the employee did not intend to pursue a joint complaint or include others in her complaint. Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, Case No. 28-CA-064411 (August 11, 2014).

Margaret Elias worked as a grocery store cashier. In August 2011, Elias asked her supervisor whether she could participate in certain on-the-job training, known as “TIPS.” Elias was told to write a note on the whiteboard in the breakroom to remind the supervisor of her request. She did so, only to find that on the following day, someone had changed the word “TIPS” to “TITS,” and had added an unpleasant illustration to the note, as well.

Because employees were not permitted to carry cameras, Elias copied the whiteboard picture and message onto a piece of paper, which she then asked three of her fellow employees to sign so that she could file a sexual harassment complaint. All three did so.

Once management became aware of the whiteboard issue, its Employee Relations Manager was directed to investigate the incident. During that investigation, Elias was questioned as to why she obtained signatures from the three co-workers, and was asked not to obtain further statements, so that the incident could be fully investigated by the company.

Upon completion of the investigation, the company concluded that the whiteboard alterations were inappropriate. The individual who made the alterations was disciplined, and Elias was told of the decision and was informed that she would be protected against retaliation.

Subsequently, Elias filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge, alleging: (1) that the company handbook’s confidentiality/non-solicitation policy was overly broad to the extent that it could be viewed as restricting Elias’ ability to ask others to support her potential claim of sexual harassment; and (2) that the company unlawfully tried to restrict Elias’ actions further when it instructed her not to obtain additional statements from other employees while the investigation was pending.

Although an Administrative Law Judge determined that neither of Elias’ claims were supportable, a panel of National Labor Relations Board members reversed the decision as to the first claim, finding that Elias’ actions constituted “concerted” activity taken for “mutual aid or protection” and, therefore, was protected under Section 7 of the NLRB.

In its analysis of Elias’ actions, the Board defined both elements of a Section 7 claim.  It explained that “concertedness” is “not dependent on a shared objective or on the agreement of one’s coworkers with what is proposed.” That is, the solicited employees do not have to join that individual’s cause, or even agree with the soliciting employee, in order for the activity to be concerted under the NLRA. Therefore, under the rationale used by the Board, a request to a coworker to act as a witness or to provide support for a claim related to an individual’s employment may be protected concerted activity, and restriction of that activity – or a policy perceived to restrict that activity – could subject an employer to legal liability.

The Board then went on to discuss the concept of “mutual aid or protection” and determined that even when an employee takes a concerted action that ultimately may benefit her more than others, or does not make explicit the mutual interests shared between her and other employees, her action still may be for mutual protection. In enacting Section 7, Congress “created a framework for employees to ‘band together’ in solidarity to address their terms and conditions of employment with their employer.” By asking for assistance from other employees to raise issues to management, an employee is – according to the Board – “requesting that [her] coworkers exercise vigilance against the employer’s perceived unjust practices,” which results in the mutuality of interest sufficient to trigger Section 7 protection.  

The fact that two of the 5-member panel dissented from this decision indicates that the rationales being used in these recent cases is beginning to cause concern, even among Board members themselves.

Employers should be vigilant in reviewing employee complaints and should look not only at the substantive (harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination) claim, but at the method by which the complaint is being made, to assure that no artificial barriers are being put in the way of concerted activity that can be argued to have been taken for the purpose of mutual aid or protection of employees.

NLRB continues to criticize employer restrictions on employees’ use of confidential information.

confidential files

In another of the increasingly frequent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board critical of employers’ policies and handbook provisions, a Board panel recently determined that the confidentiality rule included in an employer’s “Code of Business Conduct” was overly broad and restricted employees’ right to engage in concerted activities, a restriction in violation of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, Case Nos. 31-CA-077074 and 080734 (July 31, 2014). 

After the United Food and Commercial Workers claimed that certain language in an employer’s confidentiality rule interfered with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities for mutual benefit, an NLRB Regional Director issued a complaint against the company. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that the subject language did not constitute a prohibition on concerted protected activity and therefore did not violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB’s General Counsel filed exceptions to that decision, and a three-member panel was appointed to review the decision.  

The Board panel reviewed a provision entitled “CONFIDENTIALITY AND DATA PROTECTION,” which was one part of a more extensive Code of Business Conduct available to employees on the company’s website. The 20-page Code discusses a range of topics, including ethical considerations, equal employment opportunity, and unacceptable employee behavior.  

The section reviewed by the NLRB opens by stating that the company has “an important duty to our customers and our employees to respect the information we hold about them and ensure it is protected and handled responsibly.”  The section then goes on to list specific Do’s and Don’ts – including the following “Do”: 

  • Keep customer and employee information secure. Information must be used fairly, lawfully and only for the purpose for which it was obtained. 

The Board panel found that the company’s prohibition on sharing employee-related information was “not adequately limited by context” and that employees could reasonably believe that the company viewed information regarding the terms and conditions of employment as confidential and not to be shared. In spite of a strong dissent by one of the three panel members, the Board reversed the ALJ’s dismissal of the complaint and found that the challenged rule was unlawful. 

In the past year, the NLRB has criticized and struck down various handbook provisions including “at-will” disclaimers, social media policies, mandatory arbitration provisions, and requirements to keep internal investigations confidential. In each of those cases – as in this case – the Board required rescission, revision, or redrafting of the policies at issue and in addition, and required the affected employer to post at its facilities – nationwide, in this case – copies of a “Notice to Employees” that begins with the words: 

“The National Labor Relations board has found that we violated Federal labor law and has ordered us to post and obey this Notice.” 

The Notice, which is to remain posted for 60 consecutive days and also is to be distributed to employees electronically, goes on to say (in this format):

 FEDERAL LAW GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO                                                                                             

             Form, join, or assist a union

            Choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf

            Act together with other employees for your benefit and protection

            Choose not to engage in any of these protected activities.

 The Notice provides an Internet link to obtain the Board’s decision, and an address and phone number by which to do the same. As an indication that the Board is taking advantage of every available electronic resource, the Notice also includes a QR code which employees can use to obtain an immediate link to the decision in the matter on their smart phones.

 Most troublesome in this case is the footnote in which the Board states its finding that the company’s repudiation and revision of the questioned policy, which occurred prior to the actual complaint in this matter, was insufficient to overcome the policy’s illegality. In an attempt to resolve the matter prior to the complaint, the company had added a sentence to the rule to state that:

 “This policy does not limit nonsupervisory employees’ rights to engage in protected activities under the National Labor Relations Act, including the right to share information related to terms and conditions of employment.”

 According to the Board, the company’s action was insufficient, because:  “. . . the Respondent did not admit wrongdoing or assure employees that it would not further interfere with their Section 7 rights. In addition, because the Respondent waited over 2 years to revise the rule, and did so only 10 days before issuance of the complaint, its attempted repudiation was not timely.” 

This decision adds to the uncertainty that surrounds the Board’s decisions regarding handbooks and policies. The varying rationales used by the Board in its many recent decisions do not provide a specific methodology for employers that want to and are willing to deal with these issues. Some decisions provide specific language for a “savings clause” that a company may use to defend against NLRA violations, but other recent NLRB decisions are critical of the same or similar language. In this case, the Board did not criticize the language used by the company in its effort to repudiate and revise the policy – which is part of the goal of Board action in these cases – but instead, criticized the timing of the effort.

 Such inconsistency underscores the importance for employers to remain knowledgeable and up-to-date on this rapidly developing issue. As a first step, employers should carefully and objectively review handbooks and related company policies to assure that concerted activity is not precluded, either directly or by implication. Further, the mere presence of a “savings clause” may not be sufficient to protect the company from liability, if the clause is not clear, specific and proximate to the provision that it affects. In addition, and based on this case, efforts to repudiate or revise a policy should be done at the soonest time after learning of its possible violation of the NLRA.

Pregnant employee terminated because of upcoming lifting restrictions may have claim for “anticipatory discharge.”

boss firing pregnant empoyee

One federal court – the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois - recently reviewed a case in which a pregnant employee was terminated after informing her employer that she would be subject to a lifting restriction beginning at the 20th week of her pregnancy. Although the employee was only in her 15th week of pregnancy, she was terminated on the same day that the employer was informed of the upcoming restriction. A federal district court has allowed her claim of “anticipatory discharge” to move ahead for a jury trial. Cadenas v. Butterfield Health Care II, Inc., N.D. Ill., No. 12-c-07750, July 15, 2014.

In September 2011, Araceli Cadenas began working as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at Meadowbrook Manor, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Naperville, Illinois. The CNA position is physically demanding, and requires pushing, lifting, turning, and re-positioning patients. Therefore, the CNAs were required to pull, push, or lift at least 20 pounds in order to qualify for the job.

Although Meadowbrook has a light-duty policy, that policy is limited strictly to employees with work-related injuries – no employee has been assigned to light duty for a non-work-related injury, including pregnancy limitations, since at least 2001.

In early 2012, Cardenas became pregnant. On May 7, 2012, Cadenas provided to Meadowbrook’s Human Resource (HR) Director, Joan Soppi, a note from a physician. According to the note, Cadenas was restricted and could do “no lifting, pushing, pulling over 20 lbs.” After receiving that information, Soppi stated that if Cadenas did not provide a note rescinding the lifting restriction, the first note would be considered a resignation letter because Meadowbrook doesn’t “put people on light duty who are pregnant.” Further, because Cardenas had worked at Meadowbrook for only eight months, she was not eligible for FMLA leave (which requires 12 months of employment).

Cadenas then obtained a second note from her doctor, which stated that the lifting restrictions would not be imposed until roughly five weeks later, beginning on Cardenas’ 20th week of pregnancy. However, when Cardenas attempted to return to work on May 17, her name had been removed from the schedule. Although Cardenas was not restricted from her job duties on that date, a “Personnel Change of Status” form was filed on her behalf, listing “Resign” as the termination type. The form also stated that Cardenas “cannot work full duty CNA position due to pregnancy with doctor note restriction.”

Cadenas then filed a lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination; Meadowbrook filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Cadenas was not terminated because she was pregnant, but rather because she was unable to perform the required duties of her job.

The court stated initially that “Meadowbrook was entitled to fire Cardenas as of the 20th week of her pregnancy when, it is undisputed, she would no longer be able to do her job effectively.” That statement was based on the fact that there was no evidence that Meadowbrook applied its light duty policy inconsistently to pregnant and non-pregnant employees. The court found therefore, that Meadowbrook’s “neutral policy is not evidence of [pregnancy] discrimination.”

However, the court then addressed the question of whether – as a matter of law – Meadowbrook could terminate Cardenas at 15 weeks of pregnancy, before the actual restrictions took place. The court, quoting a 1999 Seventh Circuit decision, held that in that instance, Meadowbrook could not terminate Cardenas “simply because it believes pregnancy might prevent the employee from doing her job.” There was no evidence of any business reason against allowing Cardenas to stay on until her restrictions went into effect – in fact, the court held that there was “no evidence that Cardenas’ restrictions were to take effect during a particularly critical time for Meadowbrook,” or that any business-related reason existed for removing Cardenas from her position prior to her actual restriction.

According to the court, the factual evidence (including the timing of the discharge, the absence of any nondiscriminatory business reason for that discharge, and the HR Director’s statement that Cardenas could not work because of her pregnancy) permits an “inference of discrimination” based on the anticipatory discharge and, therefore, Meadowbrook’s motion asking the court to dismiss the case was denied.

Based largely on the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance on pregnancy discrimination, employers are becoming more aware of their obligations related to pregnant employees, and of the overlap between the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This case is a situation in which that overlap ultimately could result in legal liability for Meadowbrook, which discharged Cardenas in anticipation of restrictions, and without engaging in the interactive process necessary to determine whether Cardenas was, in fact, limited in her ability to do her job at the specific time of her termination.

Employee’s failure to apply for position dooms discriminatory hiring claim.

pirate applicaiton

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful to discriminate against any individual with respect to the terms and conditions of employment because of certain protected characteristics, including gender. In order to support a claim under Title VII, an individual must point to an “adverse employment action” that was taken again him or her because of the protected characteristic.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held recently that the failure to apply for a particular position, in the absence of evidence of “gross and pervasive discrimination” that would deter applicants from applying for the job, and without “every reasonable attempt to convey” interest in that job removes the matter from the protections of Title VII. Lunceford v. Audrian Health Care, Inc., 8th Cir., No. 13-1720 (June 30, 2014).

David Lunceford is a registered nurse with experience in both the Critical Care Unit (CCU) and Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) of Audrian Medical Center in Missouri. During his employment as a part-time PACU nurse, Lunceford was told by the clinical coordinator of the hospital’s PACU and the Operating Room (OR) that she wanted to fill an open OR nurse position with a female nurse “in order to have the right mix of patients to staff based on gender.”

Subsequently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a complaint on Lunceford’s behalf, alleging that by refusing to consider Lunceford for a vacant OR position, Audrian violated the law.  That complaint was dismissed by the lower court, which found that because Lunceford did not apply for the OR position, there was no actual adverse employment action upon which to base a Title VII claim.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reviewed the background facts and found that:

  • Audrian allows nurses to transfer between nursing units in the various departments and posts vacancy notices to allow current employees to apply for transfer.
  • To apply for transfer, an employee must complete a Request to Transfer form, after which the Human Resources (HR) Department reviews the applicant’s file to      ensure that the employee meets the qualifications for the position.
  • If HR approves the transfer, the application is routed to the relevant department director and executive administration for approval.
  • After departmental/administrative approval, the transfer is deemed effective, although it may take up to 30 days for the formal transfer to occur.
  • Once the employee obtains administrative approval for the transfer, he or she is not eligible to transfer to another position except as provided by hospital policy.
  • In March 2010, Lunceford completed a Request for Transfer from his then-current position in PACU to an open position in CCU.
  • On that same day, HR approved the request on March 26, Linda Brooks, clinical coordinator for both CCU and the OR, approved the request, and Lunceford was scheduled to start in CCU beginning on April 22, 2010.
  • On April 26, 2010, Lunceford – who had no prior OR experience – asked Brooks if she would consider him or train him for an open OR position, which required specialized, specific job knowledge.
  • Brooks responded that she wanted to fill the open OR position with a female nurse, in order to have a “right mix of patients to staff based on gender.” (Audrian has a policy that gives patients the right to have a health care provider of the same gender in the room during treatment.)
  • Lunceford never filled out a Request for Transfer form for the OR position, nor did he follow up further regarding the position. Instead, the EEOC brought the legal action on his behalf.
  • The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Audrian, dismissing Lunceford’s case.

After review, the Eighth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision granting summary judgment to Audrian. It found that the EEOC failed to establish direct evidence of discrimination, and that the EEOC also had failed to establish the prima facie case of discrimination necessary to support indirect evidence of discrimination. In both of those situations, the EEOC would have had to show an “adverse employment action,” and could not do so.

The Court concluded that Lunceford did not suffer an adverse employment action because he never formally applied for the OR position and that further, Lunceford was unable to show that there was any overt discrimination to keep him from doing so. In fact, although the OR vacancy was the first of the two open positions to be posted, Lunceford did not express interest in it until nearly a month after he requested (and was approved for) the transfer to PACU. Based on those facts, Lunceford was unable to show that he made “every reasonable attempt” to convey any actual interest in the OR position.

While this case comes to a commonsense conclusion – one cannot complain not to have been hired for a position for which one never actually applied – it also reminds employers that there are exceptions to that premise, and that individuals who are able to make a showing of a discriminatory atmosphere that is severe enough to dissuade hiring, transfer, or promotion, may be able to support a claim of discrimination based upon a position for which there was no formal application.

Congratulations! It’s a . . . pregnancy discrimination guidance.

What-to-Write-in-a-Baby-Shower-Card

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued its first comprehensive update of a 1983 Compliance Manual chapter on the subject of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and related issues. The Guidance, which was not submitted for public comment prior to its issuance, also discusses the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended in 2008, to individuals with pregnancy-related medical impairments, consistent with the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan priority of addressing the overlap between the PDA and the ADA.

The document – which, at over 30 pages of text and 181 footnotes is more than a “quick read” – focuses on four areas: an overview of the PDA’s statutory protections; the ADA’s protections for pregnant workers; other issues affecting pregnant workers (including the Family and Medical Leave Act, caregiver laws, break times for nursing mothers, and applicable state laws); and “best practices” for employers.

The EEOC’s intended take-aways from the initial section are clear:

  • The PDA’s protections extend beyond pregnancy, and include potential/intended pregnancy (i.e., fertility treatment), past pregnancies, caregiving responsibilities, and lactation/breastfeeding;
  • An employer is obligated to treat a pregnant employee the same as it treat others similarly unable to perform their jobs, whether by modifying job tasks, reassigning the employee (including to light duty), or providing leave;
  • Harassment, disparate impact, and disparate treatment all are prohibited under the PDA. 

The second section of the Guidance details the EEOC’s view of pregnancy-related conditions as disabilities. It includes the specific statements that “[u]nder the ADAAA, there is no requirement that an impairment last a particular length of time to be considered substantially limiting,” and that “the ADAAA includes the operation of bodily functions [including the reproductive system] as major life activities.” These statements are followed by series of examples that illustrate the EEOC’s view of what does – and does not – constitute a disability with regards to pregnant women, and a list of “examples of reasonable accommodations that may be necessary for a disability caused by pregnancy-related impairments.”

The third section of the Guidance mentions the FMLA, Executive Order 13152 (prohibiting discrimination in federal employment based on an individual’s status as a parent), mandated break time for nursing mothers, and the interplay of state laws wither federal pregnancy discrimination obligations. In that section, the EEOC quotes a 1987 California case in which the court stated that Congress intended the PDA to be a “floor beneath which pregnancy disability benefits may not drop – not a ceiling above which they may not rise.” The import is clear: employers must comply with all laws, including state and local, regarding pregnant employees, even if those laws are more expansive than the PDA itself.

In its final section, the Guidance addresses five separate topics, and provides guidelines to assist employers “to reduce the chance of pregnancy-related PDA and ADA violations and to remove barriers to employment opportunity.” In other words, the EEOC lists the areas in which it will be looking in the event that a charge of discrimination is filed against an employer. The five areas, along with EEOC suggestions for employer action, are:

  • General Policy Requirements – developing, disseminating and enforcing a strong policy, and training managers on that policy;
  • Hiring, Promotion, and Other Employment Decisions – focusing on job-related qualifications and assuring that job opportunities are communicated to all eligible employees;
  • Leave and Other Fringe Benefits – assuring that there is no disproportionate impact on pregnant workers, and reviewing policies periodically to confirm that;
  • Terms and Conditions of Employment – monitoring compensation, light duty, reassignment, employee training, and access to workplace networks to assure equal opportunity for participation by pregnant employees; and
  • Reasonable Accommodation – having a process in place for “expeditiously considering reasonable accommodation requests . . . and for granting accommodation where appropriate,” and training managers to recognize such requests.

Of the issues addressed in the Guidance, the one that has received the most attention is the EEOC’s assertion that employers are required to treat a pregnant employee (who temporarily is unable to perform the functions of her position) in the same manner that it treats other employees similar in their ability or inability to work. According to the EEOC, such treatment could include modified tasks, alternative assignments (including light duty), or fringe benefits in the form of disability leave or leave without pay.

The reason for the attention is the fact that recently, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case (Young v. UPS, Inc.) during its 2015 term that is centered on the question of whether pregnant women are entitled to light duty simply because of their pregnancy, absent any other physical impairment. Because that case has not yet been decided, and because there is a split among the federal court circuits on the issue, the EEOC’s published guidance is viewed by many (including two of the five EEOC Commissioners, who dissented from the language of the Guidance) as premature.

However, the primary take-away from this Guidance is that the EEOC is training its attention on the issue of pregnancy discrimination, and is providing a roadmap for the path that it plans to take to review and investigate employers against whom PDA and ADA complaint are made.  Employers would be wise to review the Guidance, and its associated Q&A page, and to consider the “best practices” suggested, because although the Guidance does not have the force of law that a statute does, it will be viewed by courts as an expression of the EEOC’s interpretation of the applicable statutes. Small business should review the EEOC’s Fact Sheet for Small Businesses that accompanies the Guidance.

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