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Want to hear my thoughts on recent developments at the Supreme Court?

Great morning today discussing the resignation of Justice Kennedy and other recent developments.

Source: 850 KOA, Colorado’s Morning News.

Religious accommodation need not preserve overtime opportunities

The Tenth Circuit recently decided a case where the plaintiff’s requested religious accommodation gave him the time he needed off for religious reasons but meant losing overtime. The Court held the employer did not have to allow him to work more later in the week to make up for the lost overtime.

The worker had asked for Saturdays off as a religious accommodation. The employer agreed. However, because Saturdays were the day of the week when the worker (and the other workers apparently) worked overtime, it left him with no overtime opportunity. Wanting to keep his Saturdays off, he asked to be allowed to make up the lost hours by working overtime on Sundays. The employer refused.

The Tenth Circuit recognized that granting the worker his requested accommodation of Saturdays off had cost him his overtime opportunities but held that the company was not required to allow him to work make up hours on Sundays. The Court held that an accommodation is reasonable if it allows the plaintiff “to engage in his religious practice despite the employer’s normal rules to the contrary.” Here letting him take Saturdays off allowed him to engage in his religious practices. The Court rejected the argument that Title VII required the company to then allow him to work make-up overtime on Sundays.

Though (the plaintiff) may have requested an opportunity to make up his overtime hours on Sunday, Title VII did not require (the company) to offer (his) preferred accommodation.

The case illustrates Title VII’s basic principle that a worker may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation of his religious practices, and so long as it is effective at allowing him to engage in his religious beliefs, it need not be his preferred accommodation, even where the difference means lost pay opportunities.

Source: Christmon v. B&B Airparts, Inc., case no. 17-3209 (10th Cir. 5/24/18).

“Spiritual coercion,” “volunteers” and children under federal wage laws

Two recent decisions by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals address the applicability of federal labor laws to church volunteers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s leading wage-hour law. FLSA requires a minimum wage, overtime pay and prohibits child labor. FLSA applies only to “employees.” Volunteers are generally not considered to be “employees;” therefore, FLSA generally does not apply to volunteers. These two recent cases addressed these concepts in the context of church volunteers.

One case was decided by the Sixth Circuit, Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc. It involved a restaurant, operated by a church, on the church’s campus, that was open to the public and staffed in part by church volunteers.

The other case was decided by the Tenth Circuit, Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp. It involved a pecan ranch, at which church members, including children, harvested pecans.

In both cases, the Courts held the businesses were commercial enterprises subject to FLSA, and that the church members were doing work. Thus both courts were called to decide if the church members were truly volunteering their time, such that FLSA did not apply to their work. Both courts looked to a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Alamo Foundation, where the Supreme Court held that a volunteer is, among other things, someone who works “without promise or expectation of compensation” and “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” And, there, the Courts split. The Sixth Circuit held that the church members were volunteers, and the Tenth Circuit held they were not.

Why did the Courts split? The Sixth Circuit decided its case after the Tenth Circuit, and it held that the difference was because (a) the Tenth Circuit case involved children and (b) the Tenth Circuit case involved more than “spiritual coercion.”

Under Alamo Foundation, a worker cannot be held a “volunteer” if his work is coerced. A person who is coerced into working is not working purely “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” The Sixth Circuit held that, in the Cathedral Buffet case, the workers, who were adults, were working because they felt it was expected of them to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” The Sixth Circuit held that, even if such religious dogma was considered to be coercive, it is “spiritual coercion,” and as such insufficient to transform a volunteer into an “employee” under FLSA. However, the Court held that in the Tenth Circuit’s case, the workers were children and, further, in its own case, the Tenth Circuit highlighted facts suggesting more than mere spiritual coercion. For example, the Tenth Circuit pointed to evidence, including “one child (who) stated that if she had not worked, she would have lost her family and been kicked out of the community.”

Non-profits that benefit from the work of volunteers, especially church-related non-profits, should carefully review these two new cases.

Source: Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc.case no. 17–3427 (6th Cir. 4/16/18); Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp., case no. 17-4025 (10th Cir. 5/13/18).

Bad faith required for spoliation instruction, holds Tenth Circuit

There is a general requirement that parties not destroy evidence; bolstering that, there is a specific requirement in EEOC regulation 29 CFR 1602.14 that employers preserve personnel records for 1 year and that the parties in an EEOC charge preserve evidence until final disposition of the charge.

In this case, the EEOC and plaintiffs argued that an Excel file contained information that was allowed to be destroyed as the file was routinely updated. Additionally notes of a meeting were at-issue. The employer’s witnesses testified that they did not know how the records had been lost and, further, that, even if they hadn’t been destroyed, they had never contained evidence relevant to the case at-issue. The EEOC argued it should, nonetheless, be entitled to a presumption that the records would have been helpful to its case, and further that the jury should be so instructed. Such an instruction is called a “spoliation” instruction.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed its precedents and held that, first, a litigant must show the destroying party did so in bad faith. Merely allowing records to be destroyed is not sufficient to warrant a spoliation instruction. The EEOC responded that, unlike general litigants, it should, even despite the lack of bad faith, be entitled to a spoliation instruction because, whatever the employer’s intent had been, it had allowed the records to be destroyed in violation of that regulation. The Tenth Circuit rejected the argument that a spoliation instruction should be a remedy for such a violation absent bad faith, noting that was especially true where, as here, the EEOC and plaintiffs failed to produce any evidence countering the employer’s evidence that, if the records had been preserved, there was nothing helpful to the EEOC and plaintiffs in them.

Source: EEOC v. JetStream Ground Services, Inc., case no. 17-1003 (10th Cir. 12/28/17).

Tenth Circuit reaffirms need for irreparable harm to obtain injunction in trade secrets case

Both federal and state law (respectively, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) and Colorado’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA)) authorize a company to obtain a preliminary injunction against a former employee who is using or threatening to use its trade secrets. The Tenth Circuit recently reaffirmed that, among the requirements for such an injunction, is proof of irreparable harm. (The other requirements are (1) substantial likelihood of success once the merits of the case are decided, (2) the threatened injury outweighs the harm of the injunction, and (3) the injunction will not be adverse to the public interest.)

To be “irreparable” the harm that will be suffered but for the preliminary injunction must be the kind that cannot be reversed, repaired or even compensated for in damages.

In this case, the trial court found that the harm the former employer would suffer if no injunction was issued could be compensated for in damages. In other words, quoting the trial court, it could be “reasonably quantified” in terms of dollars, and such an award of damages “would have adequately made (the company) whole.” Typically that is enough to show such harm is not “irreparable” and therefore a preliminary injunction should be denied.

However, the trial court decided that no showing of actual harm was necessary to prove the irreparable harm element; it decided that the element of irreparable harm could instead be presumed. The court so decided “because both the DTSA … and the CUTSA … provide for injunctive relief.”

The Tenth Circuit reversed. The Tenth Circuit held that legislatures can create presumptions of irreparable harm but to do so they need to say so. Both DTSA and CUTSA lack such language. They merely allow for injunctive relief:

DTSA and CUTSA … merely authorize and do not mandate injunctive relief and thus do not allow a presumption of irreparable harm.

Without a presumption of irreparable harm and lacking proof of irreparable harm, the Tenth Circuit reversed.

The case illustrates the need to prove irreparable harm, in order to obtain a preliminary injunction in cases involving trade secrets. The case is also a reminder that irreparable harm cannot exist where monetary damages will make the plaintiff whole.

Source: FIRST WESTERN CAPITAL MANAGEMENT COMPANY v. MALAMED, Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit 2017 – Google Scholar

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

Tenth Circuit reaffirms indefinite leave request is not a reasonable accommodation

The Tenth Circuit recently reaffirmed that a request for indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Although the plaintiff provided some information about her need for leave, she failed to provide any sense of the anticipated duration of her disability. Instead she “informed her supervisor at Kelly on a Monday morning that she planned ‘not to come to work this week at all’ and indicated she would need additional time off for ‘some appointments and tests’ and for ‘five times of radiation.’” The Tenth Circuit held that was insufficient.

The accommodation Plaintiff requested would have required GE either to go without someone working at the receptionist position it had contracted with Kelly to staff (requiring others at GE to take over Plaintiff’s duties at the receptionist desk while still carrying out their own job duties), or to accept a supertemporary employee or employees who would fill in for Plaintiff for the week she wanted off and for whichever other additional times she needed to take off for tests, appointments, “times of radiation,” and other cancer-related reasons, while letting Plaintiff return to take over her temporary job position whenever she was free and felt up to attending work.

The case is a good reminder to employers of the value (and legal requirement under the ADA) of the interactive process. By communicating with the plaintiff and hearing her full request, the employer was able to gauge the legal reasonableness of her request under the ADA and determine it to be insufficient.

Source: Punt v. Kelly Services

Employer may share in tips if it does not claim a tip credit, at least in Tenth Circuit

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the country’s leading wage-hour law. Among other things, FLSA imposes a federal minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is a baseline; states and local governments are free to adopt higher minimum wages. Employers can, even under federal law, pay tipped employees a lower minimum wage if certain conditions are met. One condition is that the employer not share in the tips. To put it (overly) simply), tips can be pooled among other tipped employees, but not with the company or management.

What if the employer decides it wants the tips and doesn’t care about claiming the tip credit? In other words, can a company take some or all of the tips so long as it pays the full applicable minimum wage? The Tenth Circuit read the law and held, yes, in Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., 861 F.3d 1157 (10th cir. 2017) (Employer that does not claim tip credit may take share of tips; FLSA’s prohibition against same is merely a condition for claiming a tip credit). The U.S. Department of Labor and Ninth Circuit say otherwise. See Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Assoc. v. Perez, 816 F.3d 1080 (9th Cir. 2016) (Employer may not whether or not a tip credit is claimed).

While the Tenth Circuit’s opinion is clear, well reasoned and based on the language of FLSA, employers outside the Tenth Circuit should be aware of the distinction in the event they wish to share in tips.

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)

Tenth Circuit holds conflicting arbitration agreements mean no arbitration agreement

The company and a worker entered into six agreements, each of which contained an arbitration provision. While there was no doubt the parties intended to arbitrate any disputes between them covered by the agreements, the arbitration provisions were not identical. They differed in their details.

The agreements contain conflicting arbitration provisions. See Aplt. App. 167–87. Suffice it to say the conflicts involve (1) which rules will govern, (2) how the arbitrator will be selected, (3) the notice required to arbitrate, and (4) who would be entitled to attorneys’ fees and on what showing.

The Tenth Circuit held those differences were “irreconcilable” and as such established that there had been no meeting of the minds. Worse, as is often in contracts, there was no clause saying which agreement would control over the others in the event of a conflict. Accordingly the Court refused to compel arbitration.

The decision reminds parties to review all their agreements and to keep the terms of their arbitration provisions, in particular, consistent.

The case was Ragab v. Howard, case no. 15-1444 (10th Cir. 11/21/16).

Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Work Environment, both, just sexual harassment, by a different name

Federal and state law prohibit sexual harassment. The courts have articulate two common types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo (where someone is asked to provide sex in exchange for a job benefit or punished on the job for not providing sex) and hostile work environment (where someone is subjected to “severe or pervasive” mistreatment because of their sex/gender). Whatever the kind of civil rights violation, a complaint of sexual harassment must first be lodged with the EEOC (or appropriate state agency) before a lawsuit can be filed.

In this case, the employee filed a the required administrative charge of sexual harassment but described only a hostile work environment, then when he later sued, he added quid pro quo allegations. The trial court held it was too late; he should have done so in his administrative charge. The Tenth Circuit disagreed holding that, under Title VII’s charge requirement and under federal pleadings standards, the employee’s allegations of sexual harassment were sufficient to put the employer on notice of any kind of sexual harassment, whether quid pro quo or hostile work environment. The court explained that quid pro quo and hostile work environment are just two different examples of sexual harassment.

The case was Jones v. Needham, case no. 16-6156 (10th Cir. 5/12/17).

Tenth Circuit restates summary judgment test with extensive discussion of multiple ADA and general employment law doctrines

The Tenth Circuit restated the test for granting summary judgment in favor of employers, and in doing so extensively discussed multiple doctrines frequently raised in such motions, including the honest belief doctrine, the adequacy of an employer’s investigation and the reasonableness of requested accommodations. With the regard to the last doctrine, the court noted that, as a matter of law, when workers advise their employers of a disability and request an accommodation after they have engaged in workplace misconduct, it is not a reasonable accommodation to ask that such misconduct be excused due to their disability. The court cited its 2004 precedent, Davila v. Quest Corp., Inc., for the proposition that “excusing workplace misconduct to provide a fresh start/second chance to an employee whose disability could be offered as an after-the-fact excuse is not a required accommodation under the ADA.” The Court concluded that “a denied request for retroactive leniency cannot support an accommodation claim.”

The case was DeWitt v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 845 F.3d 1299 (10th Cir. 2017).

 

Employer’s investigation held reasonable under FCRA by Tenth Circuit

The FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) is the federal law that governs background checks. Employers of DOT-covered drivers must run and participate in a background checking program.

In this case, the company had reported the plaintiff for an “Unsatisfactory Safety Record” because, while driving for the company, a speed monitoring device had reported him as driving at least 4 miles over the speed limit in a 7-day period, for which the company had issued him a “Serious Warning.” With that entry on his record, when the driver later applied to another company, his application was rejected because of that report. Accordingly he requested, pursuant to his FCRA rights, that the company re-investigate the matter and clear his record. The company reviewed its records and refused to clear the entry. The driver sued and demanded a jury trial.

The Tenth Circuit joined the First, Seventh and Ninth Circuits in holding that a jury trial is not automatically required to determine the reasonableness of every re-investigation. The Tenth Circuit then held that an investigation could be reasonable if the company did no more than “rely on its own records.” The company was not required to go back and review the original speed monitoring device’s logs. “(T)he scope of a reasonable investigation turns on the information about the dispute that the furnisher has received.”

(A)n investigation does not have to be exhaustive to be reasonable; (the company) may balance the costs and benefits of engaging in additional procedures.

The case was Maiteki v. Marten Transport Ltd., 828 F. 3d 1272 (10th Cir. 2016).

Tenth Circuit refuses to enforce EEOC subpoena

The Tenth Circuit refused to enforce an EEOC subpoena denied where the EEOC’s subpoena requested information regarding the employer’s treatment of other employees. The request exceeded the scope of the purely individual-oriented charge, no EEOC charge had been filed and the employer had not put its treatment of other employees at-issue in its position statement.

The case was EEOC v. TriCore Reference Laboratories, — F.3d — (10th Cir. 2/27/17).

Beware asking one question too many

When the plaintiff applied for short-term disability benefits, he told the insurance company that he suffered from stress, anxiety and an addiction to prescribed narcotics. He was granted the requested medical leave of absence, took the leave, returned to work, received a write-up and resigned. He sued his employer for a number of alleged violations.

First, he claimed he’d been subjected to a hostile work environment because of his alleged disability. He said the hostile work environment included being “sarcastically belittled” and called “a baby.” The Court dismissed the claim, holding his allegations were not severe enough to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even if true.

Second, he claimed he’d been discriminated against because he’d been “regarded as” disabled when the company had allegedly required him to pass a drug test and to remain in the drug testing program for five years. The Court dismissed that claim as well, noting that he was the one who had asked for leave due to substance abuse and that the evidence established the employer treated others who did the same in the same way.

Finally, he argued that the company had wrongfully required him to disclose all legally prescribed medications he was using. Here, the Court held, if true, the employer had gone too far. The ADA strictly limits companies’ ability to request medical information, and the Court remanded the case for the lower court to determine what had actually happened. The Court noted that the f company could still provide it complied with the ADA’s rules. In short, the employer will have to prove it had a “business necessity” for the request and that the request was job-related given the plaintiff’s individual duties.

Employers are reminded to consult with experienced counsel when confronted with difficult cases involving leaves, disabilities, addiction and safety concerns.

The case was Williams v. FedEx Corporate Services, — F.3d — (10th Cir. 2/24/17).