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First and Seventh Circuit decisions illustrate the “adverse employment action” requirement in EEO cases

As a general rule, the EEO laws, such as Title VII (race, gender, religion, etc.) and the ADEA (age), do not allow a plaintiff to sue for the everyday “slings and arrows” they might suffer in the workplace (quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Rather, the law requires an “adverse employment action.” The adverse employment action test requires the plaintiff to show material harm to the terms and conditions of their employment. That doesn’t always have to mean being fired or demoted. In retaliation cases, it can be anything a reasonable worker would find sufficient to chill them from reporting misconduct.

Two recent decisions by the First and Seventh Circuit illustrate the kinds of conduct that do not rise to the level of an adverse employment action.

In the First Circuit case, the plaintiff argued that each of the following, separately and together, was sufficient, but the court disagreed:

  • The plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly demonstrated anger and overreacted when the plaintiff went over his head.
  • The supervisor allegedly made a temporary change to the plaintiff’s schedule.
  • The supervisor allegedly told the plaintiff to pull down his pants when the plaintiff said he had a skin condition.
  • The supervisor and two coworkers allegedly called the plaintiff a “cry baby.”
  • When the plaintiff took a medical leave but did not provide the required medical documentation, his leave was converted to paid vacation.

In the Seventh Circuit case, that court held the following was insufficient to prove an adverse employment action:

  • The plaintiff’s request for medical leave was, allegedly, originally misclassified as paid sick leave not FMLA leave.
  • A psychological examination had, allegedly, been requested of him in circumstances where the evidence such a request was “not unusual” (the plaintiff was a police officer and the psychological exam was requested as part of his clearance to return to duty).
  • Approval of his request to work a secondary job had allegedly been delayed for three months.

As the First Circuit noted, the adverse employment action requirement may seem harsh, but it remains the well established threshold that a plaintiff must cross to warrant court litigation.

Today’s opinion is a lesson straight out of the school of hard knocks. 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. See Medina-Rivera v. MVM, Inc., 713 F.3d 132, 138 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Turner v. Atl. Coast Line R.R. Co., 292 F.2d 586, 589 (5th Cir. 1961) (Wisdom, J.) (“[H]ard as our sympathies may pull us, our duty to maintain the integrity of the substantive law pulls harder.”)

Source: Freelain v. Village of Oak Park, case no. 16-4074 (7th Cir. 4/30/18); Sepulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, case no. 16-2451 (1st Cir. 4/30/18).

To be a Dodd-Frank whistleblower, individual must complain to SEC

Dodd-Rank is the nation’s leading securities-related whistleblower law. What if an individual complains, not to the SEC, but to the company at-issue, is a mere internal complaint to the company sufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s protections? In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court, after reviewing the text of Dodd-Frank itself, held the answer was clear: Congress wrote Dodd-Frank to protect only complaints to the SEC. Therefore a complaint to the company at-issue, alone, is insufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s protections.

The case is also notable for the absence of analysis regarding Chevron deference. Chevron deference is the legal term used to refer to the practice of courts deferring to agency interpretations of statutes. Here, while Dodd-Frank itself clearly required a complaint to the SEC, the SEC had interpreted the language more broadly, saying that a complaint to a company alone should also be protected. The concept of Chevron deference has become quite controversial, and commentators anticipated this might be the case by which the Supreme Court revisited the topic. However, the Supreme Court, having decided the language of the statute itself was clear, had no opportunity to do so. The continuing viability of Chevron deference remains an issue for another case to resolve.

Source: Digital Realty v. Somers, case no. 16-01276 (Sup. Ct. 2/21/18).

Google memo litigation continues, on two fronts

As previously reported on this blog, the NLRB recently cleared Google of charges that it had allegedly violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act by discharging the author of a controversial memo that attempted to explain his view that men are biologically more fit to be engineers than women. The NLRB held that, while some aspects of his memo might have been protected under Section 7 — a part of the NLRA that applies to both unionized and non-unionized workplaces — there were parts that stereotyped women and warranted Google’s decision to “nip in the bud” (quoting the NLRB General Counsel) his sexist communication.

The NLRB General Counsel’s decision, though, doesn’t end the litigation. There are now at least two separate lawsuits on-going: One by the memo’s author, James Damore, and another by a critic of Damore’s views, Tim Chevalier.

Both are former employees, terminated by Google for their speech involving Damore’s memo. In his memo, Damore advocated that Google had a culture of discrimination against white men and conservatatives, despite his view that men were in fact biologically better fit to be engineers at the highest level of the tech industry. In contrast Chevalier advocated verbally, through conduct, by email, on social media and on Google’s internal systems, that the Damore memo was “misogynistic,” that it was hostile to protected classes including gender, sex and race, and that it reflected, he alleged, a larger culture of hostility, including bullying, at Google on those same bases.

Damore’s lawsuit includes allegations, under California’s anti-discrimination laws, that Google discriminates against conservatives, Caucasians and men. Damore seeks to represent a class of such individuals against Google.

Chevalier’s lawsuit, also filed under California state law, asserts that he too was terminated for his political speech, including his activities to oppose not only Damore’s memo but also the Trump Administration’s politics and to protect the rights of minorities and women and rights associated with gender preference and sexual orientation. Also, Chevalier, a transgendered man, alleges his termination was linked to his efforts to protect related to sexual orientation and gender preference.

Both complaints are lengthy and warrant additional review by interested readers. Those are just some of their allegations. The merits of Mr. Damore and Mr. Chevalier’s complaints will be litigated, but the filing of their lawsuits illustrates how labor laws like the NLRA interact with employment laws like those at-issue in these lawsuits. An employer can comply with one set of laws and run afoul of another.

Sources: Duvalier complaint; Chevalier complaint.

Interested in my thoughts on the Gothamist shutdown?

Honored to be featured in Doug Chartier’s article about the recent Gothamist shutdown.

Source: Gothamist Shutdown Raises Questions – Law Week Colorado

The advice of legal counsel does not immunize an employer against later employment lawsuit

An Oregon trial court recently held that the advice of legal counsel does not immunize an employer against a later employment lawsuit. The employee lodged complaints involving sexual harassment and workplace safety concerns. The employer consulted with legal counsel, who advised, on the basis of her being an at-will employee, that the employee could be terminated. Further, the employer testified his attorney told him the company not only could but should terminate her. “According to (an owner of the employer), the attorney referred to Plaintiff as ‘a troublemaker’ and advised Morse to terminate her.” That owner testified the company would not have terminated her if the attorney hadn’t given his blessing.

The court recognized Tenth Circuit precedent in favor of an employer in a similar situation, but in that situation, the attorney recommended the plaintiff’s request for a shift assignment be denied because a similar request was already at-issue in a different pending lawsuit. In other words, the attorney recommended the employer treat the employee uniformly with its prior practice. Because, in following the attorney’s advice, the company’s “motive” was to treat its employees uniformly, the Tenth Circuit held its motive did not include a retaliatory/unlawful intent. The Tenth Circuit simply held the company had acted for a lawful reason — one that its attorney had articulated — and not even in part an unlawful reason. In so ruling the Tenth Circuit clarified that the advice of counsel was not itself a defense; it was simply evidence that supported the presence of a lawful motive.

To be sure, an employer cannot immunize itself from Title VII liability by following the advice of its lawyers. Still, given the facts of this case, the City was not required to compromise its defense of Lollis’s claims simply to accommodate McGowan’s subjective desire for a change in shifts. In sum, this record does not support a conclusion that the City’s reason for denying McGowan a shift change was pretextual. The City’s temporary refusal to grant McGowan’s request for a shift change was perhaps reactive, but cannot be said on this record to have been retaliatory.

Here, there was no similar reasoning available to the employer. If the company’s attorney had really advised that at-will employment somehow permitted an otherwise illegal discharge, that would have been incorrect. If the attorney really had somehow come to a legal conclusion the plaintiff was a “troublemaker” who should be fired, that again would only have confirmed a retaliatory motive. The fact that the company (allegedly) consulted with an attorney did not — unlike the Tenth Circuit case — suggest it had anything but an unlawful intent: The intent to retaliate against a troublemaker.

The case is a reminder that employers should consult with experienced legal counsel but not anticipate doing so can somehow immunize an employer against the consequences of unlawful actions. But, as in the Tenth Circuit case, the consultation with a lawyer can be used as evidence, when appropriate, of a lawful motive.

Source: Bloomberg Law – Document – Aichele v. Blue Elephant Holdings, LLC,, No. 3:16-cv-02204-BR, 2017 BL 405999 (D. Or. Nov. 13, 2017), Court Opinion

Employer’s attorney may be held liable for retaliating against client’s former employee

In a decision that is already drawing harsh criticism, the Ninth Circuit held that an attorney may be liable to his client’s former employee for retaliation where the attorney contacted federal immigration authorities at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to advise, “if there is an interest in apprehending” the plaintiff, he would be attending a deposition on a certain date. ICE conducted its own investigation and determined “based on our records he has no legal status.” The plaintiff learned that ICE was aware of him, alleged that realizing the same had caused him severe, and as a result, he said, settled his wage-hour lawsuit against the former employer. After settling with the company, he sued its attorney, again, not his own attorney but opposing counsel. The Ninth Circuit noted that attorney had allegedly communicated with ICE about five other plaintiffs and held that the plaintiff’s claim should be allowed to proceed.

In doing so, the Ninth Circuit reviewed the statutory language of FLSA’s retaliation provisions. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s primary wage-hour law. The Ninth Circuit read its anti-retaliation language as being broader than its substantive provisions regarding overtime, minimum wage, etc. The Ninth Circuit said the broad anti-retaliation language was more like Title VII’s (the nation’s leading anti-discrimination law). The Ninth Circuit held that, given the breadth of FLSA’s anti-retaliation language, such a claim is viable.

The decision has been called “flat-out bonkers” and possibly “the year’s worst employment law decision” and is being cited as an example of a decision by a court that “has officially lost its mind.”

Source: Arias v. Raimondo, Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 2017 – Google Scholar

Tenth Circuit reaffirms disability and accommodation requirements

The Tenth Circuit reaffirmed the requirements an employer faces when a less than clear employee presents with a potential disability. In this case, the plaintiff had a pacemaker but otherwise no restrictions and needed no accommodations at work. He required a battery replacement to the pacemaker, and the procedure left him with an infection. He took FMLA leave then, while on leave, informed his employer he wouldn’t be able to return for an additional week after his FMLA leave expired.

He did not say he had a disability, but the Tenth Circuit held that the company knew enough to know that he did. The Tenth Circuit rejected the argument that, with his pacemaker, the plaintiff had no restrictions. The court noted that established ADA law requires courts to consider the plaintiff’s condition without the benefit of ameliorative treatments, like a pacemaker (medication, eyeglasses, etc.). But for the pacemaker, the court held that the company knew enough to know the plaintiff’s condition would have beenbad enough to constitute a protected disability.

With regard to the fact that he was entitled to no more FMLA leave, and with regard to the fact that he never actually asked for extra leave at the end of his FMLA leave, the Tenth Circuit held he’d effectively put the company on notice that it should have engaged in the ADA-required interactive process while he was on his FMLA leave. Even though he didn’t ask for extra leave, the company should have discussed with him whether his disability required a reasonable accommodation, and if it had done so, one potentially reasonable accommodation would have been an additional unpaid week’s leave.

Indeed, the facts of the case began even earlier with an OSHA investigation that the plaintiff maintained he’d been suspected of starting by anonymously complaining to OSHA. He sued for that as well, and the Tenth Circuit held that the foregoing, and other alleged conduct, could have been part of a claim for OSHA retaliation as well (under a Kansas law that recognizes such claims as public policy violations). Therefore, he was allowed to proceed on both his ADA and wrongful discharge claims.

The case is a good illustration to employers of the need to fully consider, in consultation with legal counsel, known information, even when a plaintiff seems otherwise fine, only suffers what seems to be a temporary setback and is himself less than clear about what he needs from the company.

Source: Yinger v. Postal Presort Inc., — F.3d —, case no. Court of Appeals, case no. No. 16-3239 (10th Cir. 6/8/17)

NLRB overruled by D.C. Circuit

The D.C. Circuit overruled the NLRB in a case involving a broad range of issues, including Weingarten rights, retaliation, surveillance and coercion.

The court’s analysis began with the Weingarten issue. Weingarten is a case that held a union-represented employee may demand a representative be present at any interview where the employee anticipates discipline may follow. Weingarten allows an employer three options in response to such a demand: (1) grant the request and permit the representative to be present then hold the interview, (2) cease the interview or (3) permit the employee to choose between ceasing the interview or proceeding without a representative. The third option allows an employee to choose to continue the interview if he thinks that what he has to say will be helpful to himself, or to waive the interview entirely and thereby allow the employer to make decisions without the benefit of his information. In this case, when the employee requested a Weingarten representative, the employer attempted to find the representative, even asking HR for help finding the rep. When they could not find the representative, they gave the employee the third option, and he chose not to be interviewed. In this case, the D.C. Circuit held the company met its Weingarten obligations.

At that point, the company put the employee on paid leave pending investigation. The NLRB had held that doing so was retaliatory, but the D.C. Circuit — preserving for employers the important tool of being able to suspend pending investigation — reversed the Board, holding that doing so was not retaliation.

Thereafter, the employee dawdled in a work area before leaving. A supervisor observed him there and instructed him to leave. Here too the D.C. Circuit reversed the Board, holding that it was not an act of prohibited surveillance, but was rather a “routine” observation.

As the employee was told to leave, he was told to stop his discussion with a co-worker – a discussion that centered on the employee’s criticism of management. The D.C. Circuit reversed the Board here as well, holding this was not coercion of protected speech or protected conduct. “As noted above, given the circumstances in this case, it was perfectly reasonable for the Company to instruct (the employee) to leave the workplace pending investigation of his alleged wrongdoing.”

The case illustrates the importance of understanding Weingarten in unionized workforces. The Weingarten issue became the foundation for all of the Court’s analysis. The case also illustrates, in all workplaces, unionized or not, the proper use of suspensions pending investigation.

The case was Bellagio v. NLRB, ____ F.3d ___ (4/25/17).