Category Archives: Law

Likely Impact of Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision on Employers


wedding-cake-3346747_640Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Sup. Ct. June 4, 2018), is about discrimination in public accommodations, not employment discrimination. Moreover, the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow grounds—the Court ruled against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission because the Commission had voiced remarks showing a disdain for religion. The Commission did not act as a neutral decision-maker in the dispute between Jack Phillips, the Christian owner of a bakery, and two gay men who asked Mr. Phillips to make them a wedding cake.

Therefore, it might seem that this case would have little to do with employment cases. However, employers frequently find themselves in the same position as the Colorado Civil Rights Commission—arbitrating disputes between two employees each of whom has a protected status, but whose interests clash. These disputes can relate to race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any other protected status.

Let’s just stick with religion—the primary issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. I once dealt with an employment discrimination claim in which a woman was fired after she repeatedly answered the phone of her retail employer “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . .” Needless to say, the non-Christian customers of this store (as well as many of the Christian customers) were offended to be greeted in this fashion.

At the time, the standard for religious accommodation in employment discrimination cases was whether accommodating the employee’s religious practices resulted in more than a “de minimis” burden on the employer. We successfully argued that offending our customers was more than a “de minimis” burden.

I still think that would be the result today. However, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision makes it clear that religious practices are to be taken seriously.

In the case I described, we talked to the woman’s pastor, who told us (and her) that her church did not require her to answer the phone “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” It’s clear under later precedents, however, that it doesn’t matter what the religious institution says, if the individual holds a sincere belief. Thus, this woman’s firmly held belief that she was called to answer the phone this way gave her protected rights, whether it was part of church doctrine or not.

And if we had belittled her in some way because of her belief or because of how she practiced her religion—as the Supreme Court found that Colorado Civil Rights Commission had belittled the cake baker—we might well have been liable for religious discrimination.

Justice Kennedy said in the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop,

“The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided.”

Moreover, the Court focused on how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission treated Mr. Phillips differently than other bakers who refused to make cakes with messages opposing gay marriage—those bakers were allowed to refuse customers with whom they disagreed, while the Commission had required Mr. Phillips to bake a cake supporting an occasion his religious beliefs caused him to oppose.

As Justice Kennedy said,

“these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

This is a tall order, but deference and courtesy on all sides is more likely to lead to a positive outcome than hostility and ridicule.

It is never easy to resolve situations when two protected interests clash. For me, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision reemphasizes the importance of treating all interests with respect. At the end of the day, employers must choose sides, just as the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had to choose a side in this case. But all sides in the dispute should be heard and treated with courtesy and tolerance.

It would have been easy for my client to ridicule the employee who answered a business phone with an overtly religious message. But it would have been wrong. Just as it was wrong for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to ridicule Jack Phillips and his beliefs.

When have you had to resolve a situation in which various employees’ protected rights clashed?

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Dealing with Emotions as a Leader


As I’ve described in this blog, I am trained as an attorney and I am an introvert. I have always been focused on facts rather than emotions. As a result, I am not the most sensitive human being on the planet.

While this might have been a strength during most of the years I practiced law, it became a blind spot when I started managing human resources functions, particularly when I managed employee relations, which included quite a bit of employee and manager counseling.

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Image from Forbes

Early in my career, while I was still working as an attorney, I came to the realization that emotions are facts. While emotions are not tangible, they are nevertheless real. I had to incorporate the emotions of my clients, those of the parties and witnesses to lawsuits, and even the emotions of my co-counsel, opposing counsel, and the judges I encountered. If I did not successfully handle the emotional aspects of the case, I would not achieve the best result for my client.

Thus, I found myself babysitting (my word for it) witnesses in a major case, so that they were not overwrought by the time they had to testify. I listened to my clients vent when they felt they were being asked to pay too large a settlement, even when it was the rational thing to do. I maintained an even personality as much as I could with opposing counsel to diffuse their rants. I patiently explained the law to obtuse judges over and over again until they finally read the cases I had presented.

Managing my own emotions and those of others I encountered were not fun aspects of the job, but they were essential.

When I became responsible for employee relations, I realized my instincts on how employees would react to policy changes were not well-developed. If we were to communicate effectively why we needed to make these changes, I needed to find people with better instincts than I had. Fortunately, I had a man working for me who had long experience in the organization and who had excellent people skills. I learned very quickly to listen to him.

In fact, many times in my career I found it essential to let people with better skills than I had do their work. My role was to get out of their way and keep others out of their way as well.

It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about them. It was about getting the job done the best way we could. And that was another fact, even when it felt emotional.

A couple weeks ago, I read an article on the ever-excellent TLNT.com, “None of Us Are Rational, So Smart Leadership Means Learning to Deal With Emotions,” by Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, dated May 7, 2018. [Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results (2018)]

Mr. Hougaard and Ms. Carter say it far better than I can:

“emotions are neither good nor bad. . . . as leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the role of emotions, so we can connect with our people, not just on strategy and tasks but also on a fundamental human level. It’s only when we create emotional resonance between ourselves and our people that we enable true connectedness. Whether we’re aware of it — and whether we want to accept it or not — true engagement happens when people feel connected on an emotional level.

. . .

“. . . If we can distance ourselves from our emotions, we can observe them more objectively. With training, observing our emotions can be like watching a movie: You’re not the movie, and the movie is not you. In the same way, your emotion is not you, and you’re not the emotion. . . .

“If we face emotions neutrally and without ego, they lose their grip.”

Even as an analytical attorney untrained in human psychology, I understood these points intuitively. Thankfully, I was able to adjust my behavior to manage my emotions and those of people around me. Emotions are facts, and I dealt with them.

When have you had to deal with emotional situations at work that were uncomfortable for you?

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Favorite Firing: When Will a Sympathetic Plaintiff Nevertheless Lose His Case?


club-2492011_640Being a judge is often a difficult role. In one recent case, Sepúlveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC (1st Cir. April 30, 2018), the First Circuit Court of Appeals clearly struggled with how the strict language of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impacted a sympathetic plaintiff. The first paragraph of the Court’s opinion contains the statement:

“No matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or how harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.”

The Facts: Plaintiff Victor A. Sepúlveda-Vargas was an assistant manager for a Burger King franchise owned by defendant Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, in Puerto Rico. Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was attacked at gunpoint one day while making a bank deposit for his employer, and thereafter suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

Plaintiff requested a transfer to a restaurant in an area less subject to crime and also requested a fixed work schedule (rather than the rotating shift required for all assistant managers at Caribbean Restaurants). His managers accommodated plaintiff’s request for a while, but later determined they could not continue to accommodate the requests. Thereafter, Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas resigned. Thus, this is technically a constructive discharge case, rather than a firing.

The District Court concluded that Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was not a qualified individual under the ADA, and therefore did not need to be accommodated. The lower court also concluded that the defendant employer had not retaliated against the plaintiff to create a hostile work environment justifying his resignation. As a result of these findings, the District Court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Specifically, the District Court found that working rotating shifts was an essential function of the assistant manager job with Caribbean, and, since Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas could not work rotating shifts, he could not perform the essential functions of the job and was therefore not a qualified individual under the ADA.

The District Court recognized that even if the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA, the employer was obligated by law not to retaliate against the plaintiff for raising an ADA claim. Then the District Court addressed a long list of alleged retaliatory acts. The District Court stated that these did not rise to the level of actionable behavior by the employer.

A panel of three judges on the First Circuit looked at the alleged retaliatory behavior de novo, but agreed with the lower court’s findings. Thus, Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas did not state a viable claim against Caribbean Restaurants, and the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling against Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas.

The Moral: To be frank, if the District Court or Circuit Court had really wanted to, I think the judges could have ruled in Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas’s favor, at least on the retaliation claim. Among the allegations made were that Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas was scolded for requesting an accommodation, that he was forced to drop his pants to prove to his manager that he had a skin condition, and that he was called a “cry-baby” several times by his supervisors, . . .

While the District and Circuit judges in this case explained their rationale for not finding these allegations to amount to an actionable case for retaliation, other judges have found retaliation on facts no worse than those Mr. Sepúlveda-Vargas alleged.

From an employer’s perspective, it is heartening to see both a trial court and an appellate court follow the statutory language of the ADA in finding that an employee has not stated a cause of action. The judges gave the employer great deference in designing the job requirements for its assistant managers. It is also heartening to see the judges parse through allegations of retaliation and conclude that the alleged behavior was insufficient to support a constructive discharge case.

In this case, the First Circuit stated:

“Not all retaliatory actions, however, suffice to meet the ADA’s anti-retaliation provision. Rather, ‘a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’ [citations omitted] Indeed, we have explained that ‘[f]or retaliatory action to be material, it must produce “a significant, not trivial harm,”’ [citations omitted], and that ‘actions like “petty slights, minor annoyances, and simple lack of good manners will not [normally] create such deterrence.”‘ [citations omitted]

But these cases often boil down to questions of fact. The decision could go either way, depending on the decision-maker. So this case is a strong reminder that employers should (1) engage in a respectful dialogue with an employee who requests an accommodation and (2) avoid retaliatory behavior after the request for an accommodation is made, whether it is accepted or denied.

When have you seen an employer prevail in a retaliation claim?

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Deconstructing Your Grievance Story


Last week I attended the Heartland Mediators Association’s conference featuring Eileen Barker as the speaker. Ms. Barker spoke about forgiveness. In a single post, I can’t do justice to her day-and-a-half seminar about forgiveness. And she only touched on a part of her twelve-step forgiveness process. So I will focus on one step in the process—deconstructing our grievance stories.

As a mediator, an attorney, and a Human Resources professional, I have heard many, many grievance stories over the years. In the legal context, the grievance story takes the form of someone who feels wronged who wants to punish the person or institution that wronged them—whether it be the other person in a car accident, the owner of the premises where they fell, the manager who fired them, or any other situation causing them pain or grief.

ForgivenessWorkbook coverWe all tell stories to find the meaning in what is happening in our lives. According to Ms. Barker, there are three essential elements in a grievance story:

1. The aggrieved individual interprets an event in a personal way, as something intended to impact him or her in a negative way.

2. The aggrieved individual blames someone else for how he or she feels.

3. The aggrieved individual tells a story in which he or she is the victim, powerless to control the situation.

Note that these are my articulations of the three elements. For more, see Ms. Barker’s Forgiveness Workbook: A Step by Step Guide, available here.

Let’s take a workplace example: I’m thinking of a time when I did not get a job I thought I was well- qualified for. The hiring manager told me that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate. I immediately took that statement personally—I interpreted the remark to mean that he believed me unqualified and he would worry about me in the role. I felt mortified to think he thought I was unqualified and shamed that I had even put myself forward for the position. And I blamed him for making me feel that way. Of course, I was the victim—there was nothing I could do to change the situation, because he had the power to decide who to hire.

Deconstructing the story involves changing the three elements of the grievance story:

1. Looking for another way to tell the story so it’s not about the aggrieved individual.

2. Looking for the positive intention in the other person’s action, not blaming them.

3. Turning the story so that the aggrieved individual is the hero, not the victim, to give him or her back the power.

In my example above, I had to re-frame my story to tell myself that the hiring manager was looking for the best person for the job. I had to accept that on paper the other candidate had more experience than I did, even if I believed I was best able to take the job where it needed to go in the future. By retelling the story, I could see the hiring manager’s positive intention—he wanted the best person for the job, even if I disagreed with who that was. And I had to find ways to take back my power. Within a few weeks, I accepted another position that allowed me to grow professionally, even if it wasn’t the position I had first applied for and that I really wanted.

Deconstructing my story took time. I was quickly able to move on from my initial feelings of mortification and shame. But it took a couple of years for me to see the advantages of the situation I’d found myself in and to realize that I grew from the experience and that maybe I was better off than I would have been had I been thrust into the role I’d applied for.

This deconstruction of our stories is part of how we come to forgive. I later reported to this hiring manager and we built a good working relationship. I forgave his unfortunate comment that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate (though obviously, I never forgot it).

When have you told yourself a grievance story about a situation in your life? How did you deconstruct it?

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Managing Sexual Harassment Claims in the #MeToo Era


gear-67138_1280Now that I am only posting twice a month, I have less opportunity to comment on news issues that affect corporate management. But the #MeToo movement accusing many public figures in the entertainment and political world of sexual harassment has had an effect on other workplaces as well that is important to recognize.

I won’t list all the men (and occasional woman) outed for their past behavior. What is more important is how corporate managers and Human Resources professionals should respond going forward.

With the increased visibility of sexual harassment in a variety of workplaces, more employers are likely to see claims raised by their employees. The same was true in the weeks after Anita Hill’s allegations of harassment during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings. Even though Senate confirmed Justice Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, sexual harassment became a topic in many workplace discussions that year.

In some ways, corporations are ahead of politicians in addressing harassment issues. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 106 S. Ct. 2399 (1986), sexual harassment claims have been serious risks in the workplace.

And ever since the companion cases of Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), employers have had a framework for how to minimize their exposure to claims of harassment based on the creation of a hostile work environment. Elements in that framework include:

  • Having a strong anti-harassment policy
  • Making it easy for victims to raise claims to someone other than the alleged harasser without fear of retaliation
  • Training all employees regularly on what the policy is and how to use it
  • Taking every claim seriously and investigating thoroughly, and
  • Taking appropriate action, if harassment is found.

And yet, even with these policies and practices in place, navigating harassment claims remains a minefield.

In the past thirty-some years, I have handled complaints against everyone from high-level executives to frontline employees. The #MeToo movement emphasizes that no one gets a free pass on harassing behavior.

I have dealt with everything from completely false accusations, to mentally ill employees alleging harassment because they are paranoid, to workplace flirtations and dating gone wrong (probably the most common problem), to quid pro quo demands in exchange for advancing a woman’s career, and even cases involving rape of a coworker.

When an allegation of harassment first arises, there is no way to know which situation one is dealing with. Sometimes the facts become clear very quickly, but other times the truth is hidden in murkiness. The standard is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but what is “more likely than not”—is there a credible complaint of harassment and what actions are necessary to stop it from occurring again?

When the allegations of harassment are false, the male (99% of alleged harassers are male) feels wronged and his career can be damaged through no fault of his own. And when the allegations of harassment are true, the woman feels disbelieved and disrespected by the slow pace of a thorough investigation. When the allegations cannot be proven one way or the other, no one feels the process has worked. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, coming to the wrong answer, or not addressing the problem with appropriate action, taints the workplace.

So what are managers to do?

The best way to handle a claim of harassment has not changed in the #MeToo era from the steps outlined in Burlington Industries and Farragher. Take every claim seriously. Treat all parties involved with respect. Do your best to find the truth.

And above all else, make it clear from your own behavior that harassment in the workplace—harassment of any type—will not be tolerated. Stop the jokes, whether they be sexual or racial or homophobic. Treat every employee in the manner you want your loved ones to be treated at work.

In addition, in the age of smartphones and social media, recognize that anything you say or do might someday become public. Would you be proud to have your language or behavior show up on someone’s Facebook feed?

Once you as a manager are modeling the appropriate behavior, expect your employees to do the same.

It all comes down to company culture. Make sure yours does not tolerate harassment of any type.

What changes have you made to how you handle sexual harassment claims because of recent publicity on the issue?

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Favorite Firings: Stray Discriminatory Comments by Management Complicate Litigation


operation-540597_1280In the Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory newsletter for December 4, 2017, there were three cases reported that dealt with comments by management personnel about employees. In each case, when the employee sued, the employer was unable to get past a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment. Thus, in all three cases, the company faced lengthy litigation that might have been avoided, had managers been more careful with what they said.

THE FACTS:

In Creese v. District of Columbia, Case No. 16-2440 (RMC), D.C.D.C., Nov. 11, 2017, a corrections officer alleged that he was fired because he was not “manly” enough. His supervisor had made a few comments such as, “[n]o pretty boys needed in jail, so you need to take your earrings out.” The judge found that plaintiff produced enough evidence of impermissible gender stereotyping to survive a motion to dismiss his Title VII and Section 1983 claims.

In Sestak v. Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, Case No. 16-C-6354, N.D. Ill., Nov. 28, 2017, plaintiff Sestak, a labor and delivery nurse, alleged age discrimination after she was discharged for cause. She claimed that an unidentified individual stated that “older nurses would have difficulty” complying with new guidelines because older nurses “are too slow and spend too much time with patients” and that one of her supervisors stated that “older nurses’ often have difficulty understanding when the mother and baby become separate patients.” The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

In Carter v. A&E Supported Living, Inc., Case No. 16-00574-N, S.D. Ala., Nov. 29, 2017, a nurse was removed from the shift schedule at a group home for intellectually disabled individuals and then sued for pregnancy discrimination. She cited supervisors’ comments to her as evidence that she was removed from her work schedule because of her pregnancy and/or the related “high risk” conditions that the supervisors believed her pregnancy presented. One supervisor stated plaintiff “was at risk to be hurt and [she] didn’t want that for her or her unborn child, for her baby; nor did [she] want to put the people that [the employer] serve at risk…” Plaintiff was required to provide medical documentation that it was safe for her and her unborn child for her to perform the duties of her position. The judge denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

THE MORAL:

The general legal standard is that stray comments in the workplace do not automatically lead to violations of the discrimination laws. However, they can be evidence of a discriminatory intent. And, of course, the more egregious and frequent the remarks, the more likely courts are to find liability. I’ve written other posts (see here and here and here) about how supervisory comments can get their employers into trouble.

In each of these cases, the employer put forth nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions taken against the employee. But the existence of the supervisors’ comments about pregnancy or gender or age complicated the cases enough to let the judges refuse to grant the defendants’ dispositive motions. The employers may end up winning these cases, but they face lengthy and expensive litigation before they do. Settling the cases may prove to be the better option.

Moreover, in the environment we face today, with heightened sensitivity toward sexual harassment and discriminatory remarks, employers would be well advised to re-emphasize the need to avoid even casual comments about employees’ health, appearance, and any other topics that might touch on a protected status.

It’s a shame that we must be so careful in the workplace and avoid many topics of everyday conversation, but it’s the safest course. As demonstrated by these three cases decided by different courts in recent weeks, supervisory comments continue to present litigation challenges to employers. It is best to involve Human Resources and lawyers if there is any question about what topics are permissible to discuss.

What’s your opinion on the current state of conversation in the workplace?

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Employer Health Care Benefits — Preparing for 2018


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I last wrote about health care in late March, shortly after the House of Representatives failed to bring the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to a vote. Since then, after a few amendments, the House did pass the AHCA, but with all the other brouhahas in Washington over the last few weeks, it’s questionable whether the Senate will get to health care anytime soon.

There are some good provisions in the AHCA as passed by the House. Among other things, the AHCA makes the following changes to Obamacare:

  • The individual mandate was repealed, as was the employer mandate;
  • The 2.3% medical device tax was repealed;
  • The net investment tax was repealed, as was the .9% Medicare high earner tax;
  • The Cadillac tax for expensive plans was delayed (and will probably never be permitted to take effect, since neither Republicans nor Democrats like this provision); and
  • Health Savings Accounts were expanded, effective in 2018

All of these provisions provide less government control over the health care marketplace. In the long run, these changes would generally be helpful for employers.

Still, as most people recognize, without an individual mandate, some incentive is necessary to get healthy people to opt into health insurance before they get sick and to maintain that coverage. The AHCA continuous health insurance coverage incentive replaces the individual mandate penalty. This incentive operates much like HIPAA certificates of coverage. As long as they do not let their health insurance lapse for more than 63 days, individuals cannot be charged higher premiums because of preexisting conditions. Moreover, the premium penalty for the first plan year cannot exceed 30%.

There is an exception to this 30% limit, but the exception permits insurers to charge late enrollees with pre-existing condition higher premiums only if the state has waived the community rating rule and the state has established a high-risk pool to help people with preexisting conditions fund their coverage.

The AHCA is far from a perfect bill, and it is likely to face substantial amendments in the Senate before it comes to a vote in that chamber. And Congress has many other priorities this session as well. So what will happen with respect to health care legislation by the end of the year is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, we are at the time of year when many employers are examining their options for health plans for their employees for the year ahead. What should employers do in this time of uncertainty?

Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is still the law, so until Congress acts, employers must comply with the mandates and reporting requirements. With the individual mandate in place, employees will want to know their employer-provided health care options in a timely fashion.

Moreover, although the Cadillac tax has been kicked down the road and its ultimate implementation is uncertain, avoidance of the tax—or preparation for it—will take time to structure.

For 2018 at least, the current employer responsibilities are likely to remain in place. Employers must continue to manage their benefit plans, tweaking them as makes most sense for their workforce. There remain many reasons why employers should support their employees’ health and wellness if they want to be employers of choice.

Employers, what concerns you the most about health benefits in 2018?

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