Posts Tagged: law blog

Independent Contractor v. Employee: Law of Economic Realities

In cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a question sometimes arises as to whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. The answer can be important, as an employee may have rights to minimum wage and overtime compensation that an independent contractor performing the same basic job tasks does not.  

To determine whether a worker is an employee under the FLSA, courts in the Fourth Circuit look to the “economic realities” of the relationship between the worker and the putative employer.

McFeeley v. Jackson St. Entm’t, LLC, 825 F.3d 235, 241 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Schultz v. Capital Int’l Sec., Inc., 466 F.3d 298, 304 (4th Cir. 2006)). The touchstone of the “economic realities” test is whether the worker is “economically dependent on the business to which he renders service or is, as a matter of economic [reality], in business for himself.” Id. If the practical economic reality is that the worker is “economically dependent” on the putative employer and not “in business for himself[,]” the worker will generally be considered an employee qualified for FLSA rights. Id

Economic Realities Test

In making this determination, courts applying the economic realities test consider six factors:

(1) [T]he degree of control that the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed;

(2) the worker’s opportunities for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill;

(3) the worker’s investment in equipment or material, or his employment of other workers; 

(4) the degree of skill required for the work; 

(5) the permanence of the working relationship; and 

(6) the degree to which the services rendered are an integral part of the putative employer’s business. 

McFeeley, 825 F.3d at 241. These factors are often called the “Silk factors” in reference to United States v. Silk, 331 U.S. 704 (1947), the Supreme Court case from which they derive. See Schultz at 305.

Generally speaking, the greater the degree of control the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed, the greater the permanence of the working relationship, and the greater the degree to which the worker’s services are an integral part of the putative employer’s business, the more likely the worker is an “employee” under the economic realities test. Similarly, the fewer opportunities the worker has for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill, the less the worker invests in equipment, material, or employment of other workers, and the lower degree of skill required for the work, the more likely the worker is an “employee” under the economic realities test. 

Application

For example, in Schultz, the plaintiff security workers worked jointly for a Saudi prince and a security firm. The Fourth Circuit found the prince and security firm exercised nearly complete control over how the workers did their jobs. Further, the workers had no opportunity for profit or loss dependent on their managerial skills, as they were paid a set rate per shift. Additionally, the firm and prince supplied the workers with all the necessary equipment, including cell phones, cars, firearms, and cameras. With respect to the fourth factor, although some security duties required special skills, others did not. As to the permanence of the relationship, the prince employed some workers for several years and preferred to hire workers who would stay with him over the long term. And the services rendered by the workers were integral to the security firm’s business, as the firm’s only function was to provide security for the prince, and workers were hired specifically to perform that task. Considering these facts under the economic realities test, the Fourth Circuit concluded the security workers “were not in business for themselves” and “thus were thus employees, not independent contractors.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 309.

Similarly, in McFeeley, the plaintiff exotic dancers worked for dance clubs. The Fourth Circuit found that the clubs exercised significant control over how the dancers performed their work. That control included dictating dancers’ schedules, imposing written guidelines that all dancers had to obey during working hours, setting fees the dancers were supposed to charge patrons for private dances, and dictating how tips and fees were handled. Further, the dancers’ opportunities for profit or loss depended far more on the clubs’ management and decision-making than their own; the club owners’ investment in the clubs’ operation far exceeded the dancers’ investment; the job duty of dancing at the clubs required a relatively minimum degree of skill; and the dance clubs could not function without exotic dancers. Therefore, the dancers were employees of dance clubs under the FLSA, rather than independent contractors. McFeeley, 825 F.3d 235, 242-244.

And in Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d 125 (4th Cir. 2017), the plaintiff drywall installers worked for a subcontractor of a larger company that offered general contracting and interior finishing services, including drywall installation, carpentry, framing, and hardware installation. The workers were economically dependent on the subcontractor alone, making them necessarily economically dependent on the contractor and subcontractor jointly. Due to the contractor’s daily supervision of these workers, it exercised greater control over their work than the subcontractor exercised alone. Further, the contractor provided all of the materials, supplies, tools, and equipment that workers used for their work. On these facts, the Fourth Circuit determined the drywall installers were employees covered by FLSA, rather than independent contractors, based on their entire employment for both the framing and drywall installation subcontractor and general contractor. Id. at 150-151.

Summary

In summary, Fourth Circuit courts determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor by looking to the “economic realities” of the relationship between the worker and the putative employer. The outcome is important because an employee may have rights to minimum wage and overtime compensation under the FLSA that an independent contractor performing the same basic job tasks does not. The “economic realities” test turns on whether the worker is economically dependent on the business to which he renders service or is, as a matter of economic reality, in business for himself. If the practical economic reality is that the worker is economically dependent on the putative employer and not in business for himself, the worker will generally be considered an employee qualified for FLSA rights. 

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

This blog was also published to TimCoffieldAttorney.net.

ADA Job Restructuring Law

Can federal employment laws require an employer to change an employee’s job duties, as an accommodation for a disability? The answer is sometimes, depending on the circumstances. The analysis often turns on whether the duties at issue are “essential functions” of the employee’s job, and whether co-workers are available to take on the duties (in exchange for the disabled employee taking on some of their duties). 

Both Title I of Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504(a) of Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (for employers receiving federal funds) require employers to “mak[e] reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A); Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 268 (4th Cir. 2001) (holding that discrimination under Rehabilitation Act includes failure to accommodate and applying same standard as that used for ADA failure-to-accommodate claims).

Reasonable Accommodation Defined 

A reasonable accommodation is one that “enables [a qualified] individual with a disability … to perform the essential functions of [a] position.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1)(ii). The ADA expressly contemplates that a reasonable accommodation may require “job restructuring.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9)(B). The Fourth Circuit holds that job restructuring to shift a marginal, nonessential task to other employees can be a reasonable accommodation, especially where replacement tasks are shifted back to the disabled employee to avoid increasing the overall workload of other employees. Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 580-81 (4th Cir. 2015) (“Jacobs’s proposed accommodation was to work fewer days at the counter and more days microfilming or performing other deputy clerk tasks. This proposed accommodation did not require the AOC to increase the workload of Jacobs’s coworkers; Jacobs merely asked that her employer change which deputy clerk was assigned to which task … A reasonable jury could therefore conclude that Jacobs’s requested accommodation was reasonable.”)

To prevail on a failure to accommodate claim, an employee must show: “(1) that [he] was an individual who had a disability within the meaning of the statute; (2) that the employer had notice of [his] disability; (3) that with reasonable accommodation [he] could perform the essential functions of the position; and (4) that the employer refused to make such accommodations.” Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 579 (quoting Wilson v. Dollar Gen. Corp., 717 F.3d 337, 345 (4th Cir. 2013).)

The Essential Functions Questions

Job-restructuring implicates the third element, which asks whether the proposed restructuring accommodation would allow the employee to perform the “essential functions” of the position. Employers sometimes believe that if a duty is included in an employee’s job description, it is an “essential” function of the job, and therefore the ADA cannot require the employer to shift that duty to other employees. This is not necessarily true. While job descriptions may be relevant evidence in determining the essential functions of a job, they are not dispositive. As the Fourth Circuit holds:

Not all job requirements or functions are essential. A job function is essential when “the reason the position exists is to perform that function,” when there aren’t enough employees available to perform the function, or when the function is so specialized that someone is hired specifically because of his or her expertise in performing that function.

Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 579 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(2)). “[I]f an employer has prepared a written description before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job, this description shall be considered evidence of the essential functions of the job.” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8) (emphasis added)). “Other relevant evidence can include ‘the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential,’ ‘the amount of time spent on the job performing the function,’ ‘the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function,’ and the work experience of people who hold the same or similar job.” Id. (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3)).

Jacobs involved a court clerk with social anxiety who sought to have her job restructured so she did not have to work at the counter in the clerk’s office, and would perform additional clerk’s duties instead. Jacobs at 580. The Fourth Circuit held that even though the clerk’s job description named “customer service” as a function, working at the counter was not necessarily an “essential function” of the clerk position because, inter alia, “many employees were available to perform that function.” Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 580.

Job-Restructuring Accommodations

If applying these factors indicate the job duty at issue is not an essential function, the employer may have an obligation to shift that duty to other employees as a disability accommodation, with the disabled employee taking on some replacement duties so her co-workers do not have to do more work overall. Federal appellate courts applying the ADA consistently hold that job restructuring to shift non-essential functions can be a reasonable accommodation. In addition to Jacobs, see Rorrer v. City of Stow, 743 F.3d 1025, 1044 (6th Cir. 2014) (“Shifting marginal duties to other employees who can easily perform them is a reasonable accommodation.”); Henschel v. Clare County Road Com’n, 737 F.3d 1017, 1023–24 (6th Cir. 2013) (The “ADA requires job restructuring of non-essential duties as a reasonable accommodation in appropriate circumstances”; hauling the excavator not necessarily an essential function of the excavator operator position, as there were a number of other employees who could perform this task); Benson v. Northwest Airlines, 62 F.3d 1108, 1112 (8th Cir. 1995) (stating that reasonable accommodation may “involv[e] reallocating the marginal functions of a job”); U.S. EEOC v. AIC Sec. Investigations, Ltd., 55 F.3d 1276, 1284 (7th Cir. 1995) (“The ADA defines ‘reasonable accommodation’ to include restructuring a job, such as by removing non-essential functions from the job.”) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9)(B) and 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)); Davidson v. Am. Online, Inc., 337 F.3d 1179, 1192 (10th Cir. 2003) (“a restructuring of the non-essential requirements” of a job could be a reasonable accommodation); Hill v. Assocs. for Renewal in Educ., Inc., 897 F.3d 232, 240 (D.C. Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 139 S.Ct. 1201 (2019) (“an employer may be required to accommodate an employee’s disability by ‘reallocating or redistributing nonessential, marginal job functions,’ or by providing an aide to enable the employee to perform an essential function without replacing the employee in performing that function.” (quoting 29 C.F.R. Pt. 1630, App.) (emphasis in original)).

To recap, under the ADA or Rehab Act, a reasonable disability accommodation could therefore entail shifting certain “non-essential” tasks to other employees and shifting from those employees to the disabled employee additional work that she can perform independently. See Jacobs at 580-81. Because this kind of accommodation would shift additional tasks back to the disabled employee and therefore not increase the overall workload of other employees, cases like Crabill v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 423 Fed.Appx. 314, 323 (4th Cir. 2011) (noting that “an accommodation that would require other employees to work harder is unreasonable”) would not apply.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call (434) 218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

This blog was also featured on TimCoffieldAttorney.net.

IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez: Law of Compensation for Waiting

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay minimum wages and overtime wages based on time worked by covered employees. Oftentimes, an employee has to spend time waiting to put equipment, walking to a worksite, or doing other preshift tasks necessary to perform her job. Is the employee entitled to compensation under the FLSA for that time? Trial courts routinely address various iterations of this question. In IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. 21 (2005), the Supreme Court answered one of them. It held that the FLSA requires employers to pay employees for time spent walking to and from stations that distributed employer-mandated safety equipment.

Facts

Alvarez involved two separate but similar cases. Employees of IBP filed suit under the FLSA  seeking compensation for time they spent putting on and taking off (“donning and doffing”) required protective gear and walking between the locker rooms and the production floor of IBP’s meat processing facility. The trial court decided these activities were compensable. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. IBP appealed.

In the companion case, employees of Barber Foods sought compensation under the FLSA for time they spent donning and doffing required protective gear at Barber’s poultry processing plant, as well as time they spent walking and waiting associated with picking up and returning the gear. The trial court found in favor of Barber on the walking and waiting claims, finding those activities were not compensable. The First Circuit affirmed, finding that the walking and waiting times were preliminary and postliminary activities excluded from FLSA coverage by §§4(a)(1) and (2) of the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947. The employees appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court consolidated the cases to address the question of whether the FLSA requires employers to pay employees for time spent walking to and from stations that distributed required safety equipment.

Legal Background

In Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680, 691–692 (1946), the Supreme Court held that a “workweek” under the FLSA included the time employees spent walking from time clocks near a factory entrance to their workstations. In response to that decision, Congress passed the Portal-to-Portal Act. The Portal-to-Portal Act excepted from FLSA coverage walking on the employer’s premises to and from the location of the employee’s “principal activity or activities,” §4(a)(1), and activities that are “preliminary or postliminary” to “said principal activity or activities,” §4(a)(2).

The Department of Labor subsequently issued regulations which interpreted the Portal-to-Portal Act as not affecting the computation of hours within a “workday,” 29 CFR §790.6(a), which includes “the period between the commencement and completion” of the “principal activity or activities,” §790.6(b).

In a subsequent Supreme Court decision, Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 256 (1956), the Court explained that the “term ‘principal activity or activities’ … embraces all activities which are ‘an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities,’ ” including the donning and doffing of specialized protective gear “before or after the regular work shift, on or off the production line.”

The Court’s Decision

In the 2005 Alvarez decision, the Court held that an employee putting on employer-required safety equipment qualified as a “principal activity” under the FLSA. The continuous “workday” for purposes of calculating compensable time began when employees started that activity. Therefore, compensable time included the subsequent time employees spent walking to and from the worksite after donning their protective gear, and time spent waiting to doff the gear. The Court further held that the previous time spent waiting to put on the safety equipment, however, was not included in the workday, and not compensable time, because it was a “preliminary” activity under the Portal-to-Portal Act. 546 U.S. at 28-38.

Time spent walking to and from the worksite after donning and before doffing protective gear is compensable time

First, the Alvarez held that the time the IBP employees spent walking after changing into protective gear from the locker room to the production floor was compensable under the FLSA.  546 U.S. at 33-37.

The Court explained that Section 4(a)(1) of the Portal-to-Portal Act text does not exclude this time from the FLSA. IBP had argued that, because donning is not the “principal activity” that starts the workday, walking occurring immediately after donning and immediately before doffing is not compensable. That argument, the Court pointed out, was foreclosed by its decision in Steiner, which clarified that §4 does not remove activities that are “integral and indispensable” to “principal activities” from FLSA coverage because those activities are themselves “principal activities.” 350 U. S. at 253. The Court went on to explain that that these identical terms cannot mean different things within the same law (§4(a)(2) and in §4(a)(1)). According to the normal rules of statutory interpretation, identical words used in different parts of the same statute are generally presumed to have the same meaning. Further, with respect to §4(a)(2)’s reference to “said principal activity or activities,” “said” is an explicit reference to the use of the identical term in §4(a)(1). Alvarez, 546 U.S. at 33-35.

The Court also rejected IBP’s argument that Congress’s repudiation of the Anderson decision (by passing the Portal-to-Portal Act) reflected a legislative purpose to exclude the walking time at issue from the FLSA. The Court found this argument unpersuasive because it observed the time at issue in Alvarez, which occurred after the workday begins (by donning) and before it ends (by doffing), was more comparable to time spent walking between two different positions on an assembly line than to the walking in Anderson, which occurred before the workday began. Id. at 34-35.

The Court also pointed out the DOL regulations supported the compensable nature of the IBP employees’ walking time. For example, 29 CFR §790.6 did not strictly define the workday’s limits as the period from “whistle to whistle.” And 29 CFR §790.7(g), n. 49, which provides that postdonning walking time is not “necessarily” excluded from  §4(a)(1) of the Portal-to-Portal Act, does not mean that such time is always excluded. Therefore, the Court determined those regulations could not overcome clear statements elsewhere in the regulations that supported the compensable nature of postdonning walking time. 546 U.S. at 35-37.

Time spent waiting to doff is compensable time

With respect to the Barber Foods employees, the Court similarly held that because donning and doffing gear that is “integral and indispensable” to employees’ work is a “principal activity” under the FLSA, the continuous workday rule required that the time the Barber Foods employees spent walking to and from the production floor after donning and before doffing, as well as the time spent waiting to doff at the end of the day, are not affected by the Portal-to-Portal Act. Therefore, this time was compensable under the FLSA. 546 U.S. at 37-39.

Time spent waiting to don is not compensable time

Finally, however, the Court held that time spent waiting to don protective gear before work is not compensable time. The Court’s reasoned that §4(a)(2) of the Portal-to-Portal Act excluded from the FLSA the time employees spend waiting to don the first piece of gear that marks the beginning of the continuous workday. The Court determined that this qualifies as a “preliminary” activity because it was “two steps removed” from the productive activity on the assembly line. While certain preshift activities were necessary for employees to engage in their principal activities, the Court found that this does not mean that those preshift activities are “integral and indispensable” to a “principal activity” under Steiner. The Court expressed a concern that it could not conclude that Barber employees predonning waiting time was a compensable “principle activity” without also reaching the necessary (but untenable) conclusion that the walking time in Anderson would also be a “principal activity” unaffected by the Portal-to-Portal Act. The Court observed that 29 CFR §790.7(h) (differentiating between being “engaged to wait,” which is compensable, and “wait[ing] to be engaged, which is not compensable) did not support a finding that time spent waiting to don protective gear was compensable. 546 U.S. at 39-42.

Analysis

In short, Alvarez held that an employee putting on employer-required safety equipment qualified as a “principal activity” under the FLSA. The continuous “workday” for purposes of calculating compensable time began when employees started that activity.

This determination, that the workday begins with donning, has two important implications. First, FLSA compensable time included the subsequent time employees spent walking to and from the worksite after donning their protective gear, and time waiting to doff their gear. Second, however, the previous time employees spent waiting to don the protective equipment was not included in the workday, and not compensable time, because it was a “preliminary” activity under the Portal-to-Portal Act.

This blog was also published at TimCoffieldAttorney.com.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call (434) 218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

Law of Joint Employment

Law of Joint Employment

A worker’s joint employers are jointly and severally liable for any violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d 125, 134 (4th Cir. 2017). This means that for purposes of the FLSA’s requirements that an employer pay minimum wages and overtime wages to non-exempt employees, a worker may have more “employers” than just the company who issues her paychecks. In short, if more than one entity has the ability to help determine the conditions of a workers’ employment, more than one entity may be liable if the worker is not paid the minimum wages or overtime compensation required by federal law.

DOL Joint Employment Regulations

The Department of Labor regulation implementing the FLSA distinguishes “separate and distinct employment” from “joint employment.” 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a). “Separate employment” exists when “all the relevant facts establish that two or more employers are acting entirely independently of each other and are completely disassociated with respect to the” individual’s employment. Id. By contrast, “joint employment” exists when “employment by one employer is not completely disassociated from employment by the other employer(s).” Id. When two or more entities are found to jointly employ a particular worker, “all of the employee’s work for all of the joint employers during the workweek is considered as one employment for purposes of the [FLSA].” Id. (emphasis added). Thus, for example, all hours worked by the employee on behalf of each joint employer are counted together to determine whether the employee is entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA. Id; Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757, 766 (4th Cir. 2017).

Fourth Circuit Factors

In Salinas, the Fourth Circuit observed that the joint employment regulations speak to “one fundamental question: whether two or more persons or entities are ‘not completely disassociated’ with respect to a worker such that the persons or entities share, agree to allocate responsibility for, or otherwise codetermine — formally or informally, directly or indirectly — the essential terms and conditions of the worker’s employment.” 848 F.3d at 141 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a) and citing In re Enter. Rent-A-Car Wage & Hour Employment Practices Litig., 683 F.3d 462, 468 (3d Cir. 2012) (“[W]here two or more employers … share or co-determine those matters governing essential terms and conditions of employment — they constitute ‘joint employers’ under the FLSA.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

With these principles in mind, courts in the Fourth Circuit consider six factors in determining whether entities constitute joint employers:

(1) whether, formally or as a matter of practice, the putative joint employers jointly determine, share, or allocate the power to direct, control, or supervise the worker, whether by direct or indirect means;

(2) whether, formally or as a matter of practice, the putative joint employers jointly determine, share, or allocate the power to, directly or indirectly, hire or fire the worker or modify the terms or conditions of the worker’s employment;

(3) the degree of permanency and duration of the relationship between the putative joint employers;

(4) whether, through shared management or a direct or indirect ownership interest, one putative joint employer controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with the other putative joint employer;

(5) whether the work is performed on a premises owned or controlled by one or more of the putative joint employers, independently or in connection with one another; and

(6) whether, formally or as a matter of practice, the putative joint employers jointly determine, share, or allocate responsibility over functions ordinarily carried out by an employer, such as handling payroll, providing workers’ compensation insurance, paying payroll taxes, or providing the facilities, equipment, tools, or materials necessary to complete the work. Id. at 141.

Salinas at 141.

The Fourth Circuit in Salinas observed that these six factors may not constitute an exhaustive list of all potentially relevant considerations. Id. at 142. “To the extent that facts not captured by these factors speak to the fundamental threshold question that must be resolved in every joint employment case — whether a purported joint employer shares or codetermines the essential terms and conditions of a worker’s employment — courts must consider those facts as well.” Id.

As these factors illustrate, the Fourth Circuit’s joint employer test turns on whether the entities in question codetermine the essential conditions of a worker’s employment. Salinas at 143. Thus, the existence of a general contractor-subcontractor relationship “has no bearing on whether entities … constitute joint employers for purposes of the FLSA.” Id. 143–44.

Application of Salinas Factors

For example, in Salinas, the Fourth Circuit held that a drywall installation subcontractor and general contractor were joint employers under the FLSA because, inter alia, the subcontractor provided staffing for the contractor based on the contractor’s needs; the employees performed the work for the contractor’s benefit; the contractor supervised the employees’ progress daily and provided feedback; and the employees wore uniforms bearing the contractor’s logo. 848 F.3d at 146.

For another Fourth Circuit case on the joint employer issue, see Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757, 762 (4th Cir. 2017). In that case, the plaintiff technicians sufficiently alleged DIRECTV as a joint employer, even though the technicians were nominally employed by a subcontractor. The court held that DIRECTV could be liable as a joint employer along with the subcontractor because, inter alia, the technicians were required to “obtain their work schedules and job assignments through DIRECTV’s centralized system,” to check in with DIRECTV after completing assigned jobs, and to “wear DIRECTV uniforms…when performing work for the company.” Similarly, in Young v. Act Fast Delivery of W. Virginia, Inc., 2018 WL 279996, *8 (S.D. W.Va. Jan. 3, 2018), the court held that under Salinas, a pharmaceutical delivery company was a joint employer of the plaintiff couriers, even though the couriers were nominally employed by a third party subcontractor.

As the Fourth Circuit emphasized in Salinas, “Separate employment exists when … ‘two or more employers are acting entirely independently of each other and are completely disassociated with respect to’ the individual’s employment.” 848 F.3d at 133-34 (emphasis in original) (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a)). “By contrast, joint employment exists when ‘the facts establish … that employment by one employer is not completely disassociated from employment by the other employer.’” Salinas at 134 (emphasis in original).

Summary

Therefore, under the Fourth Circuit’s framework, the “fundamental question” guiding the joint employment analysis is “whether two or more persons or entities are ‘not completely disassociated’ with respect to a worker such that the persons or entities share, agree to allocate responsibility for, or otherwise codetermine — formally or informally, directly or indirectly — the essential terms and conditions of the worker’s employment.” Id. at 140. If the facts show that two related companies were not “completely disassociated” or “acting entirely independently” with respect to a worker’s employment, they may be joint employers. If the entities shared control over the conditions of employment, they may both be potentially jointly and severally liable for FLSA violations as joint employers.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

McKennon v. Nashville Banner: Law of After-Acquired Evidence

McKennon v. Nashville Banner: Law of After-Acquired Evidence

What happens when an employer, having wrongfully terminated an employee (in violation of federal employment law), discovers in litigation that the employee did something that would have legitimately and lawfully lead to termination, had the employer known about it before wrongfully firing the employee? Does the employer still have to pay lost wages for the wrongful termination, or does this “after-acquired evidence” excuse the violation?

The Supreme Court addressed these questions in McKennon v. Nashville Banner Pub. Co., 513 U.S. 352 (1995). The Court rejected the argument that a legitimate reason for termination, discovered after an unlawful discharge, excuses the unlawful action or bars the employee from recovery. However, the Court also indicated that such after-acquired evidence may limit the employee’s ability to obtain reinstatement or recover all lost wages associated with the termination.

Facts

McKennon worked thirty years for Nashville Banner Publishing Company until she was terminated at age sixty-two. McKennon filed suit, alleging that her discharge violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). McKennon’s suit sought a variety of legal and equitable remedies available under the ADEA, including backpay. In her deposition, McKennon admitted that during her final year of employment she had copied and taken home several of the Banner’s confidential financial documents. 513 U.S. 354-56.

For the purposes of summary judgment, the Banner conceded that it had discriminated against McKennon because of her age. Id. The District Court, however, granted summary judgment for the company, holding that McKennon’s misconduct in taking the confidential documents was grounds for termination and that neither back pay nor any other remedy was available to her under the ADEA. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the same reasoning. McKennon appealed. Id. at 355-56.

The Court’s Decision

The Court reversed. It held that an employee who is fired in violation of federal employment law is not barred from all relief when, after her discharge, her employer discovers evidence of wrongdoing that would have led to her termination on lawful and legitimate grounds had the employer known of it. 513 U.S. 356-360.

After-Acquired Evidence Not a Complete Bar

First, the Court held that this kind of “after-acquired evidence” is not a complete bar to recovery. The Court reasoned that even if the employee engaged in misconduct that would have prompted a termination, the employer’s discrimination that actually prompted the discharge cannot be disregarded. The Court assessed the purposes of the ADEA’s remedial provisions, 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), which (like the remedial provisions of other employment laws) were designed both to compensate employees for injuries caused by unlawful discrimination and to deter employers from discriminating in the first place. The Court concluded that allowing after-acquired evidence to bar all relief would frustrate both of these important objectives. Therefore, the Court held that after-acquired evidence did not bar all relief for unlawful discrimination. Id. at 358-360.

Relevance to Crafting an Appropriate Remedy

Second, however, the Court observed that trial courts should take into account after-acquired evidence of an employee’s wrongdoing in determining the specific remedy for the employer’s discrimination. To hold otherwise, and bar any consideration of employee misbehavior in the relief analysis, would be to ignore the employer’s legitimate concerns about employee misconduct. The ADEA, like other employment laws, just prohibits discrimination. It does not limit employers from having legitimate rules and exercising appropriate lawful discretion in hiring, promoting, and firing employees. Therefore, the Court noted, employee wrongdoing is relevant in taking due account of such lawful prerogatives and the employer’s corresponding equities arising from the wrongdoing. Id. at 360-61.

General Rule: No Reinstatement or Front Pay

Third, the Court discussed how trial courts might balance these competing concerns — on one hand, the prohibition against unlawful discrimination, and on the other, the employer’s right to address legitimate employee misconduct in an appropriate manner. The Court decided that remedial relief in such cases should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. However, the Court stated that as a general rule, if the employer proves the employee engaged in misconduct that would have prompted a lawful termination had the employer known about it, neither reinstatement nor front pay is an appropriate remedy. Id. at 362. This is because “it would be both inequitable and pointless to order the reinstatement of someone the employer would have terminated, and will terminate, in any event and upon lawful grounds.” Id.

Possible Limitations on Back Pay

The Court indicated that the more difficult issue, in after-acquired evidence cases, is the proper measure of back pay. This is because even a guilty employer cannot be required to ignore information it learns about employee wrongdoing that would lead to a legitimate discharge, even if it is acquired during the course of a discrimination lawsuit and might have gone undiscovered in the absence of the discrimination that led to the lawsuit. Id. at 362. The Court stated that the “beginning point in formulating a remedy should therefore be calculation of backpay from the date of the unlawful discharge to the date the new information was discovered.” Id. In determining the appropriate relief, the court can consider extraordinary equitable circumstances that affect the legitimate interests of either party. But an “absolute rule barring any recovery of backpay, however, would undermine the [federal employment law’s] objective of forcing employers to consider and examine their motivations, and of penalizing them for employment decisions that spring from … discrimination.” Id. Thus, as a general rule, after-acquired evidence does not bar back pay, but it might limit the amount of back pay an employee can recover.

No Bar to General Compensatory, Punitive, or Liquidated Damages

It is also worth noting that McKennon did not state or suggest that compensatory damages for past or future emotional harm should be time-limited. The decision only addressed possible limitations on lost wages and reinstatement. Allowing full emotional distress damages even if the defendant prevails on an after-acquired evidence defense makes good sense in light of McKennon’s reasoning. This is because no legitimate business prerogative would be served by allowing a proven discriminator to avoid paying the full cost of the emotional damage caused by the discrimination. The same reasoning supports the conclusion that after-acquired evidence does not bar punitive damages or liquidated damages, in cases where the usual standards for awarding punitive or liquidated damages are met. Here is a link to EEOC’s guidance on this issue.

Employer’s Burden of Proof

Finally, the Court discussed the employer’s burden in attempting to prove an “after-acquired evidence” defense. When an employer seeks to use this defense, it must first establish that the wrongdoing was of “such severity that the employee in fact would have been terminated on those grounds alone had the employer known of it at the time of the discharge.” Id. at 362-63. The Court also expressed concern that, due to the possibility of uncovering after-acquired evidence, employers might routinely undertake extensive discovery into an employee’s background or job performance to resist employment discrimination claims. Id. at 363. However, the Court concluded the trial courts’ authority to award attorney’s fees under §§ 216(b) and 626(b) and to invoke the appropriate provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would likely deter most abuses of the discovery rules. Id.

Analysis

The Court in McKennon rejected the notion that a legitimate reason for termination, discovered after an unlawful discharge, excuses the unlawful action or bars the employee from recovery. However, such after-acquired evidence may limit the employee’s ability to obtain reinstatement or recover all lost wages associated with the termination. To use this defense, an employer must prove that the employee engaged in misconduct of such severity that the employee would have been terminated on those grounds alone had the employer learned of it during her employment. As a general rule, if the employer meets this burden, reinstatement is not an appropriate remedy and back pay may be limited.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

Corning Glass Works v. Brennan: EPA Law Requires Equal Pay for Equal Work

In Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188 (1974), the Supreme Court addressed the allocation of proof in pay discrimination claims under the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This was the first Supreme Court decision applying the Equal Pay Act. The Court held that to prevail on an EPA claim, the plaintiff must prove that the employer pays an employee of the one sex more than it pays an employee of the other sex for substantially equal work. The opinion addressed what it meant for two employees to perform “substantially equal work” for the purposes of the Equal Pay Act, including what it means for work to be performed under “similar working conditions.” 

Facts

Corning was a glassworks company. It employed night shift inspectors and day shift inspectors at its plants. For many years, Corning allowed only men to work the night shift, and it paid night shift inspectors more than it paid the day shift inspectors, who were women. In June 1966, three years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, Corning began opening the night shift jobs to women, allowing female employees to apply for the higher-paid night inspection jobs on an equal seniority basis with men.  

In January 1969, Corning implemented a new “job evaluation” system for setting wage rates. Under that pay system, all subsequently-hired inspectors were to receive the same base wage (which was higher than the previous night shift rate) regardless of sex or shift. With respect to employees hired before the new pay system went into effect, however, the pay plan provided that those employees who worked the night shift would continue to receive a higher (“red circle”) rate. Because of this “red circle” rate, the new pay system perpetuated the previous difference in base pay between day and night inspectors, thereby also perpetuating the previous disparity in pay between female (day) inspectors and male (night) inspectors. 

The Equal Pay Act prohibits an employer from paying different wages to employees of opposite sexes “for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions,” except where the difference in payment is made pursuant to a seniority or merit system or one measuring earnings by quantity or quality of production, or where the differential is “based on any other factor other than sex.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)

The Secretary of Labor brought suit, asserting that Corning’s pay practices violated the EPA by paying male and female inspectors differently for equal work. 

The Court’s Decision

The Court addressed the question of whether Corning’s pay practices violated the EPA by paying different wages to employees of opposite sexes for “equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions[.]” The Court found that they did. 

First, the Court held that Corning’s pay practices from the passage of the EPA in 1963 to June 1966 violated the EPA, because during that period the night shift inspectors (all male) were paid more than the day shift inspectors (female) and the night shift and day shift inspectors performed equal work “under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). Corning argued the difference between working at night and working at day meant the different positions did not entail similar working conditions. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the EPA’s legislative history established that the statutory term “working conditions,” as used in the EPA, encompasses only physical surroundings and hazards, and not the time of day worked. 417 U.S. 197-204.

Corning also argued that the pre-1966 pay disparity was lawful because the higher pay to (male) night inspectors was intended as additional compensation for the inconvenience of night work, and thus the pay disparity was based on a “factor other than sex[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). The Court rejected this argument, holding the evidence showed the pay disparity in fact arose because men would not work for the low rates paid to women inspectors. The pay disparity therefore “reflected a job market in which Corning could pay women less than men for the same work.” 417 U.S. 204-05.

Second, the Court held that Corning did not remedy its violation of the EPA in June 1966 simply by permitting women to work as night shift inspectors, because the violation could only be cured by increasing the base wages of female day inspectors to meet the higher rates paid to night inspectors. Corning’s action in allowing women to work the night shift did not accomplish this, as “Corning’s action still left the inspectors on the day shift — virtually all women — earning a lower base wage than the night shift inspectors because of a differential initially based on sex and still not justified by any other consideration[.]” 417 U.S. 207-08. In effect, “Corning was still taking advantage of the availability of female labor to fill its day shift at a differentially low wage rate not justified by any factor other than sex.” Id. Thus, Corning’s allowing women to work the night shift, without increasing base pay to the female day shift workers, did not remedy the EPA violation. 

Finally, the Court held the Corning did not remedy its violation of the EPA in January 1969 with its pay plan equalizing day and night inspector rates, because the plan’s higher “red circle” rate paid to employees who previously worked the night shift only perpetuated the previous unlawful pay disparity. This was because the previously-hired male night shift workers would receive the higher red circle rate based on their pre-1969 pay — before day and night wage rates were equalized. Thus, the pay plan had the unlawful effect of continuing the pay disparity between men and women for equal work. As the Court observed, “the company’s continued discrimination in base wages between night and day workers, though phrased in terms of a neutral factor other than sex, nevertheless operated to perpetuate the effects of the company’s prior illegal practice of paying women less than men for equal work.” 417 U.S. 209-10.

Analysis

This case was important because it marked the first time the Supreme Court addressed the requirements of the Equal Pay Act. The Court held that to prevail on an EPA claim, the plaintiff must prove that the employer pays an employee of one sex more than it pays an employee of the other sex for substantially equal work. The opinion addressed what it meant for two employees to perform “substantially equal work” for the purposes of the EPA, and held that the requirement for work to be performed under “similar working conditions” referred to physical surroundings and hazards, and not the time of day worked. If a male employee and a female employee perform equal work at different times of the day, they should therefore be given equal pay — unless the pay disparity is based on a seniority or merit system or one measuring earnings by quantity or quality of production, or where the differential is “based on any other factor other than sex.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). If an employer’s pay practices violate the EPA, the only way to cure the violation is to equalize wages between men and women — simply offering women the same job titles is not sufficient. And pay systems that have the effect of perpetuating prior discrimination may still violate the EPA — even if the pay system is neutrally-worded and made without intent to discriminate. 

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

Civil Rights Act of 1866: Racial Discrimination Unlawful

Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in the aftermath of the Civil War, when many southern states were passing laws restricting the legal rights of newly-freed slaves. The 1866 Act, among other things, conferred upon “all citizens” and “all persons” the same rights to own property and to make and enforce contracts, respectively. 

Since 1866, the Act has been re-enacted several times with some modifications. Of particular importance in the employment context, one portion of this law is now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In relevant part, Section 1981 provides that “All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right … to make and enforce contracts … as is enjoyed by white citizens[.]” Because the employer-employee relationship is a type of contractual relationship, Section 1981 prohibits racial discrimination in the employment context. 

In practice, Section 1981 functions similarly to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in that it prohibits employers from intentionally discriminating against employees on the basis of race. For example, the tests for proving a racially hostile work environment asserted under Section 1981 and Title VII are the same. Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., 786 F.3d 264, 277 (4th Cir. 2015). Under both laws, an employer is liable for a racially hostile workplace when the plaintiff can show “(1) unwelcome conduct; (2) that is based on the plaintiff’s … race; (3) which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the plaintiff’s conditions of employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) which is imputable to the employer.” Id. at 277 (citing Okoli v. City of Balt., 648 F.3d 216, 220 (4th Cir. 2011)). 

Title VII and Section 1981 differ, however, in several important aspects.

Section 1981 Requires Intentional Discrimination

Title VII contains a provision that makes it unlawful for employers to implement practices that impact individuals of one race more than individuals of other races, even if this employer did not intend for the practice to be discriminatory. This “disparate impact” provision of Title VII prohibits an employer from “us[ing] a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of race [or other protected characteristics]” so long as the employer “fails to demonstrate that the challenged practice is job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k)(1)(A). Thus, an employer can violate Title VII’s prohibition on racial discrimination without intending to do so. 

Section 1981 does not have an analogous provision. Section 1981 claims, therefore, require evidence of intentional discrimination. The Supreme Court has rejected the argument “that a violation of § 1981 could be made out by proof of disparate impact….” Gen. Bldg. Contractors Ass’n, Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 458 U.S. 375, 383 n.8 (1982). In discussing the history of the statute and comparing it to Title VII, the Court explained Section 1981 was enacted to prevent purposeful discrimination and “did not include practices that were neutral on their face … but that had the incidental effect of disadvantaging blacks to a greater degree than whites.” Id. at 388. (quotation omitted).

Section 1981 Does Not Require an EEOC Charge

To bring a race discrimination claim under Title VII in court, a plaintiff must first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Before she can file a Title VII race discrimination claim in court, the plaintiff must then wait for the EEOC to complete its investigation and issue a Notice of Suit Rights. By contrast, a plaintiff may bring a lawsuit under Section 1981 for racial discrimination without first going through the EEOC process. 

Section 1981 Has a Longer Statute of Limitations than Title VII

Title VII claims have a relatively short statute of limitations — depending on the state, Title VII race discrimination claims generally must be reported to the EEOC within 180 or 300 days of the employer’s discriminatory actions, and a Title VII lawsuit must be filed in court within 90 days of the employee’s receipt of suit rights from the EEOC. By contrast, the text of Section 1981 does not specify a particular time limit within which claims must be filed. Section 1981 violations are therefore subject to the general four-year statute of limitations for civil actions arising under federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 1658. Section 1981 claims may therefore be brought in court within four years of the discriminatory action at issue. 

Title VII Covers More Types of Discrimination than Section 1981

Section 1981 only applies to discrimination based on race. Title VII, by contrast, outlaws race discrimination as well as discrimination based on “religion, sex, and national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).

Section 1981 Applies to All Employers, Regardless of Size

Title VII only prohibits racial discrimination by employers with fifteen or more employees. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b). Section 1981, by contrast, contains no such limitation. Because the terms of Section 1981 apply to all forms of contracting, it applies to all employers regardless of size — including employers with fewer than fifteen employees.

Both Laws Allow Recovery of Compensatory and Punitive Damages, but Section 1981 Does Not Cap Damages

Title VII is subject to caps limiting the amount of compensatory and punitive damages an employer may be required to pay for violating the law. The applicable caps range from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on how many employees the employer has. 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3). The relevant statute authorizes compensatory damages for “future pecuniary losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3). The same statute further allows punitive damages against private-sector employers for Title VII violations if the plaintiff shows the employer “engaged in a discriminatory practice or discriminatory practices with malice or with reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1).

Section 1981, by contrast, does not include a cap on damages. While the text of Section 1981 does not specifically discuss damages, courts have affirmed compensatory damages awards under Section 1981, Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160 (1976), and held that a prevailing Section 1981 plaintiff is entitled under the common law to punitive damages “under certain circumstances,” Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 460 (1975). Specifically, punitive damages may be awarded “for conduct [by the defendant] exhibiting malice, an evil motive, or recklessness or callous indifference to a federally protected right,” Stephens v. South Atlantic Canners, Inc., 848 F.2d 484, 489 (4th Cir. 1988); Lowery v. Circuit City Stores, Inc., 206 F.3d 431, 441 (4th Cir. 2000). This standard comes from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983), in which the Court held that punitive damages are available under the common law in an action under the civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983 “when the defendant’s conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.” Smith, 461 U.S. at 56. 

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act: Protections for Employee Retirement and Health Plans

The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) sets requirements for most voluntarily created retirement and health plans in the private sector. ERISA’s rules are intended to protect the employees in these plans.

Among other things, ERISA (1) requires plans to provide participating employees with information about plan features and funding, and other plan information; (2) imposes fiduciary responsibilities on those who manage and control plan assets; (3) requires plans to establish a grievance and appeals process for participating employees to get benefits from their plans; and (4) gives participants the right to file lawsuits for unpaid benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) is responsible for administering various provisions of ERISA. The DOL website, cited throughout this post, provides helpful information about ERISA rights and responsibilities. Here is a link to the text of the law.

ERISA Requires Plans to Provide Employees with Important Plan Information.

Under ERISA, plan administrators must provide participating employees with certain important facts about their health benefits and retirement plans. Plan administrators are the people who implement ERISA-covered plans and manage the assets that fund them. The information they must disclose to participating employees includes plan rules, financial information, and documentation about plan operation and management. ERISA requires plan administrators to automatically provide some categories of information to the plan holder. Other information, the administrator should provide upon written request.

Among the documents an ERISA plan administrator must provide is the plan’s Summary Plan Description. The SPD informs participating employees about the benefits their health or retirement plan provides and how the plan operates. The SPD also generally explains when an employee can start participating in the plan and how the employee should go about filing a claim for benefits under the plan. Participating employees must also be informed about changes to the plan, either through a revised SPD, or in a separate document, called a Summary of Material Modifications.

Required ERISA plan information also includes a Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC).  The SBC is a template document that should clearly summarize key features of the plan, including covered benefits, cost-sharing provisions, and coverage limitations. Plans and issuers must provide the SBC to participants and beneficiaries at certain times (including with written application materials, at renewal, at special enrollment, and on request). If a participating employee has trouble obtaining the annual report of a plan from the plan administrator, she or he can submit a written request to EBSA.

ERISA Imposes Fiduciary Responsibilities on Plan Managers.

ERISA also imposes fiduciary responsibilities on people or entities with discretionary control over plan assets or management, responsibility for the administration of a plan, or entities who provide investment advice for compensation or have the authority or responsibility to do so. For example, a plan fiduciary would generally include plan trustees, administrators, and investment committee members.

A plan fiduciary is primarily responsible for running the plan in the best interests of the plan participants and beneficiaries for the purpose of providing benefits and paying plan expenses. This entails, among other things, acting prudently and diversifying the plan’s assets to minimize the risk of large losses, while following the plan terms to the extent those terms comply with ERISA’s requirements.  

Plan fiduciaries must also take care to avoid conflicts of interest. This means they may not engage in transactions on behalf of the plan that benefit parties related to the plan, such as other fiduciaries, services providers, or the plan sponsor. If a plan fiduciary does not adhere to these principles of conduct, courts may take appropriate action to address the situation, such as removing the fiduciary and holding the fiduciary personally liable to restore losses to the plan, or to restore any profits obtained by improperly using plan assets.

ERISA Can Preempt State Law Breach of Contract Claims.

ERISA plans often look a lot like contracts — an agreement between an employer and an employee regarding pensions or other employment benefits. When a party to a contract fails to comply with its terms, the other party typically can file a lawsuit under state law for breach of contract. But when a plan administrator violates the terms of an ERISA plan, ERISA generally preempts a claim for breach of contract. See 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a) (“the provisions of [ERISA] shall supersede any and all State laws insofar as they now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan.” This generally means that an employee whose ERISA rights are violated must seek a remedy using ERISA’s private cause of action provisions (typically in federal court), rather than bringing a state law claim for breach of contract.

Considering ERISA’s objectives set forth in 29 U.S.C. § 1001(b), the U.S. Supreme Court has further explained Congress intended ERISA to preempt at least three categories of state law: (1) laws that “mandate[ ] employee benefit structures or their administration”; (2) laws that bind employers or plan administrators to particular choices or preclude uniform administrative practice; and (3) “laws providing alternate enforcement mechanisms” for employees to obtain ERISA plan benefits. New York State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Ins. Co., 514 U.S. 645 (1995).

In Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200 (2004), the Supreme Court described the test for preemption in the context of claims to recover employee plan benefits. “[I]f an individual, at some point in time, could have brought his claim under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), and where there is no other independent legal duty that is implicated by a defendant’s actions, then the individual’s cause of action is completely preempted by ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B).” Davila, 542 U.S. at 210.

In other words, under Davila, ERISA preemption applies when two circumstances coincide. First, the employee’s claim must fall within the scope of ERISA, meaning that the claim has to be related to an employee benefit plan. Section 502(a) of ERISA authorizes an employee to bring a civil suit to recover these kinds of benefits. That section of ERISA authorizes a participating employee to file suit “to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan.” 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Second, there must be no other independent legal duty (aside from breach of the plan) implicated by the employer’s failure to provide the benefits at issue. If both criteria are met, ERISA preempts state law claims for recovery of the benefits.

The power of ERISA to convert claims under the laws of various states into a single kind of federal claim makes it easier for employers to have one uniform benefit plan, regardless of how many different states the employer operates in. In this sense, ERISA was designed to help larger employers and unions that operate in multiple states. ERISA’s preemption provision provides these organizations with uniformity, by allowing employers to focus on complying with the terms of ERISA throughout the country, at least to the extent that those terms preempt the various laws of 50 different states.

ERISA Does Not Preempt Federal Claims.

While ERISA preempts state laws, it does not preempt other federal laws. For example, ERISA preemption does not apply a claim under a federal law like the Americans with Disabilities Act. See 29 U.S.C. § 1144(d) (“Nothing in [ERISA] shall be construed to alter, amend, modify, invalidate, impair, or supersede any law of the United States (except as provided in sections 1031 and 1137(b) of this title) or any rule or regulation issued under any such law.”)

COBRA, HIPAA, and Other ERISA Amendments

Congress has amended ERISA many times. One of these amendments, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), provides some employees and their families with the right to continue their group health coverage (at their expense) for a limited time after certain events, such as voluntary or involuntary job loss, a transition between jobs, reduction in hours worked, divorce, death, and other major life events.

Another ERISA amendment, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) contains provisions aimed at protecting employees and their families from potential discrimination in health coverage based on factors that relate to an individual’s health. Among other things, HIPAA includes protections for coverage under group health plans that prohibit discrimination against employees and dependents based on their health status.

Other ERISA amendments include the Newborns’ and Mothers’ Health Protection Act, the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act (DOL fact sheet here), the Affordable Care Act, and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

The National Labor Relations Act: Protections for Employee Concerted Activity

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right, among others, to unionize, to join together to advance their interests as employees, and to refrain from such activity. 29 U.S.C. § 151–169. The NLRA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights under the law, including their right to engage in concerted activity to advance their interests as workers. For example, employers may not respond to a union organizing drive by threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees, or by promising employees benefits for not participating in the union. But even when no union is involved, employers may not punish employees for banding together and speaking up in an effort to improve their working conditions.

Background

Congress enacted the NLRA in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy. Among other things, Congress expressed an intent for the NLRA to address the “inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate … form[].” Congress found that this inequality of bargaining power between employees and their employers “substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.” 29 U.S.C § 151. Congress further determined that enacting legal protections for employees to “organize and bargain collectively” would have the effects of “encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions, and…restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” Id.

Section 7: The Right to Self-Organize and Engage in Concerted Activity

Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” as well as the right “to refrain from any or all such activities.” 29 U.S.C. § 157.

In general, the NLRA, therefore, gives employees the right to engage in both union and certain non-union activities aimed at improving working conditions. With respect to employee union rights, these include the right to attempt to form a union where none currently exists, or to decertify a union that the employees no longer support. Examples of employee rights relating to unions include: being fairly represented by a union; forming, or attempting to form, a union in the workplace; joining a union, regardless of whether the union is recognized by the employer; assisting a union in organizing fellow employees; and refusing to do any of these things.

Regardless of whether a union is involved, employees still have rights to band together and speak up about their working conditions. Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees this right to “engage in other concerted activities for the … mutual aid or protection” of fellow workers. 29 U.S.C. § 157. This right does not require a union. The NLRA therefore protects the rights of employees to engage in “concerted activity,” and this happens when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding the terms and conditions of their employment. It is also possible for a single employee to engage in protected “concerted activity” if she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action. Id. Examples of protected concerted activities include: two or more employees addressing their employer about improving their pay; two or more employees discussing work-related issues beyond pay, such as safety concerns, with each other; or one employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions. Id.

For more information about non-union concerted activities, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) publishes a protected concerted activity page, which includes descriptions of real-life concerted activity cases.

Section 8: Protections Against Interference with Concerted Activity

Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, among other things, prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. In short, this section makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the NLRA, including the right of employees to engage in concerted activities for their mutual aid or protection. 29 U.S.C. § 158. An employer therefore cannot terminate an employee for engaging in concerted activity protected by Section 7.

Concerted Activity and Social Media

The range of activity that constitutes concerted activity protected from employer interference can include employee interactions on social media. For example, in Three D, LLC d/b/a Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille v. N.L.R.B., 629 F. App’x 33 (2d Cir. 2015), an employee posted a Facebook status update protesting an employer’s purported failure to properly calculate tax withholding: “Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money . . . WTF!!!!” Another employee commented: “I owe too. Such an asshole.” Another employee “liked” the post. Based on these comments, the employer, Triple Play, terminated two of the employees. Id. at 36-37.

The NLRB determined that the employees’ comments were protected concerted activity, and therefore the terminations violated the NLRA. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. The appeals court agreed with the NLRB that the employees’ Facebook comments were “protected concerted activity” because: (1) the comments were “concerted activity” because they were exchanged among current Triple Play employees; and (2) the comments were “protected” because they “concerned workplace complaints about tax liabilities, [Triple Play’s] tax withholding calculations, and [and emloyee’s]  assertion that she was owed back wages.” Id. at 36

Significantly, as explained in detail in this ABA article, the court’s finding of “protected concerted activity” alone did not mean the employer violated the NLRA by terminating the employees. Rather, the Court held, an employee’s right to engage in concerted activity “must be balanced against an employer’s interest in preventing disparagement of his or her products or services and protecting the reputation of his or her business.” Three D, LLC v. N.L.R.B., 629 F. App’x at 35. Therefore, an employee’s otherwise protected public comments may lose their Section 7 protection if they are “sufficiently disloyal or defamatory.” Id. (cites omitted). “These communications may be sufficiently disloyal to lose the protection of the [NLRA] if they amount to criticisms disconnected from any ongoing labor dispute.” Id. (cites omitted).

The court found the Triple Play employees’ comments were not “disloyal or defamatory” because they did not mention Triple Play’s products or services. Further, their Facebook comments were not “disconnected” from an ongoing labor dispute: they were directly connected to the employees’ dispute with Triple Play about the employer’s tax withholding calculations. The fact that the post at issue contained profanity did not alter this analysis, even though customers conceivably could have seen the profanity, as the court decided that disqualifying concerted activity from protection based on social media profanity would have an “undesirable result of chilling virtually all employee speech online.” Id. at 37.

The NLRB has published detailed guidance regarding the implications of social media activity on employee rights (and employer obligations) under the NLRA.

Process for Reporting Possible Violations of the NLRA

The National Labor Relations Board investigates possible violations of the NLRA, including the concerted activity provisions. For information about how to report a possible violation to the NLRB, and the NLRB investigation process, try this link.

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.

Family and Medical Leave Act: Job-Protected Leave for Family and Medical Reasons

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that gives “eligible” employees of covered employers the right to take a limited amount of unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. The FMLA entitles an employee on qualified leave to continued group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if she had not taken leave. Read the law at 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq.

Employee Eligibility Requirements

Subject to a pair of relatively uncommon exclusions, 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(B), and the employer coverage requirements, 29 U.S.C. § 2611(4), an employee is generally “eligible” for FMLA rights if the employee has (i) been employed by her employer for at least 12 months and (ii) worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A). The employee also has to be employed at a worksite where 50 or more employees are employed by the employer within 75 miles of that worksite. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(B).

Covered Employer Requirements

The FMLA applies to covered “employers” — that is, the law only requires employers who meet certain specified criteria to comply with its job-protected leave provisions. Under the FMLA, a covered “employer” is generally any person or entity engaged in any activity affecting commerce who employs 50 or more employees for each working day during each of 20 or more calendar workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(4)(A). This includes any “public agency”, as that term is defined in section 203(x) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(4)(A)(iii), (iv). See also the covered employer regulations at 29 C.F.R. § 825.104.

FMLA Rights of Eligible Employees

The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to:

  • Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for any of the following, or any combination of the following:

 

A) the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;

 

B) the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;

 

C) to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;

 

D) a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job;

 

E) any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty” under 29 U.S.C. § 2611(14); or

  • Twenty-six workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a “covered servicemember,” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(15), with a serious injury or illness if the eligible employee is the servicemember’s spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin. This form of leave is commonly known as military caregiver leave.

29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1); §§ 2612(a)(3) & 2613 (military caregiver leave).

The law generally entitles an employee, upon returning from bona fide FMLA leave, to return to (A) the position she held when the leave commenced, or (B) an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment. 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1).

Maintenance of Employee Benefits During Leave

During any FMLA leave, an employer must generally maintain the employee’s coverage under any group health plan (as defined in the IRS Code at 26 U.S.C. § 5000(b)(1)) on the same conditions as coverage would have been provided if the employee had been continuously employed during the entire leave period. 29 C.F.R. § 825.209(a); 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(2).

Serious Health Condition Defined

In order to qualify for FMLA leave for a “serious health condition” under section 2612(a)(1)(D), the employee must have an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves either (A) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a health care provider. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(11).

The FMLA’s implementing regulations, located at 29 C.F.R. § 825, discuss the law’s “serious health condition,” “inpatient” care,” “continuing treatment,” “health care provider,” and other requirements in detail.  

Employer Notice Requirements

The FMLA requires employers to inform eligible employees about their rights and responsibilities under the law. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.300. For example, employers must post conspicuous notices explaining the FMLA’s provisions and providing information concerning the procedures for employees to filing complaints of violations of this law with the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. The notice must be posted prominently where it can be readily seen by employees and applicants for employment. 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(a).

In addition to providing the general notice, employers must also notify employees about their eligibility status, rights, and responsibilities under the FMLA. Employers must also inform employees whether their specific leave is designated as FMLA leave and explain the amount of time that will count against their FMLA leave entitlement. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.300.

The FMLA also generally requires employees to timely notify employers in advance when they need to take FMLA leave. The law’s implementing regulations at 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.302, 303, and 304 discuss the employee notice requirements in detail. Here is a fact sheet from WHD with some general guidance about employee notice responsibilities.

Interference Prohibited

The FMLA prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ FMLA rights. This means an employer cannot interfere with, restrain, or deny an employee from exercising or attempting to exercise the rights provided by this law. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1).

Retaliation Prohibited

The FMLA also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees because they exercise or try to exercise FMLA rights. In other words, an employer cannot discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any individual for opposing any practice made unlawful by the FMLA, or for participating in any proceedings or inquiries under this law. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2) & (b).

For example, the law’s anti-interference and anti-retaliation provisions generally prohibit employers from refusing to authorize FMLA leave for an eligible employee; discouraging an employee from using FMLA leave; manipulating an employee’s work hours to avoid responsibilities under the FMLA; using an employee’s request for or use of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions, such as hiring, promotions, or disciplinary actions; or counting FMLA leave under “no fault” attendance policies.

Enforcement

Unlike many employment laws, the FMLA is not enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employees may, therefore, seek to vindicate their FMLA rights in court without first filing administrative charges with EEOC. However, in some cases employees whose FMLA rights have been violated may also have viable claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC enforces the ADA, and therefore employees must submit their ADA claims to the EEOC and receive suit rights before taking those claims to court.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division administers and enforces the FMLA for all private, state and local government employees, and some federal employees. The Wage and Hour Division investigates complaints, and also publishes resources, general guidance, and helpful fact sheets about various aspects of this law. In general, an FMLA action must be brought within two years from the date of the alleged violation. See 29 U.S.C. §2617(c).

Remedies

An employer who violates an employee’s FMLA rights may be required to compensate the employee for lost wages, benefits, or other compensation, or other actual monetary losses, caused by the violation, plus interest on that amount. 29 U.S.C § 2617(a)(1)(A). The employer may also have to pay the employee additional “liquidated damages” in an amount equal to the sum of the economic losses and interest recovered. Id. In other words, the employer could have to pay the employee twice what the employee lost. The FMLA also authorizes courts to order equitable relief, such as employment, reinstatement, or promotion, to remedy violations. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(B). The law also provides that an employee who obtains a judgment may recover from the employer her litigation costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, and reasonable expert witness fees. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(3).

This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call 1-434-218-3133 or send an email to info@coffieldlaw.com.