Right to Marry But Not to Work? Pennsylvania Catholic School Terminates Gay Married Teacher

By Maria Lewis and Jessica Burt

Last month, Waldron Mercy Academy, a K-8 Catholic school located in Merion, Pennsylvania, fired Margie Winters from her position as Director of Religious Education, a job she had held for 8 years. According to Ms. Winters, her employment contract was not renewed because she is gay and married to her partner. A few days later, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which it held that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. The majority opinion in Obergefell stated that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage, but did not however, address or reverse the precedent established by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which the Supreme Court held, in an unrelated context, that churches have the right to make employment decisions free from government interference, including compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

Indeed, in an e-mail to parents, the principal of Waldron Mercy Academy advised that Ms. Winters was no longer working at the school, and reiterated the school’s dedication to Catholicism, stating: “Many of us accept life choices that contradict current church teachings . . . but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings.”

Based on the 2012 precedent established in Hosanna, it is not clear that Ms. Winter has any valid legal challenge to Waldron Mercy’s termination decision, which would violate the laws of many states, if a non-religious organization were involved. Currently, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 18 states and D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. And, Lower Merion Township, the home of Waldron Mercy Academy, also has a local antidiscrimination ordinance which provides that it is the public policy of Lower Merion Township to foster the employment of all individuals in accordance with their fullest capacities regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The ordinance further provides, however, that it is not unlawful for religious institutions that are “not supported in whole or in part by governmental appropriations” to refuse to hire or employ an individual on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

In Hosanna, still the leading case on the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious organizations, the Court barred the Plaintiff from bringing an employment discrimination suit against the school. The plaintiff had been promoted to a “called” teacher at the “Christ-centered education” school, but had taken leave after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. After her leave, school officials refused to hire her back. Plaintiff argued that she was fired from the school in violation of the ADA and Michigan state law. The Supreme Court found that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” (which exempts religious organization from anti-discrimination laws) applied because the school held the Plaintiff out as a minister, and because her job duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its religious mission.

Thus, even with the passing of numerous state and local ordinances and the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, it appears for the moment that religious institutions will continue to be exempt from statutes prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity and that certain employees of such religious institutions may be barred from bringing suit against the organizations. In Hosanna, the Supreme Court stated that the “ministerial exception” should apply to any employee “who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” The recent termination at Waldron Mercy and the Obergefell decision are a reminder to employers operating religious institutions that significant questions may remain about the scope and proper application of the ministerial exception.



Amendments to California’s New Paid Sick Leave Law

By Pascal Benyamini

As California employers, and those non-California employers with employees in California, know by now, as of July 1, 2015, such employers were required to provide paid sick leave to any employee who works 30 days or more within a year under the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 (the “HWHFA”).

The HWHFA provides, among other things, that eligible employees are entitled to paid sick days for prescribed purposes to be accrued at a rate of no less than one hour for every 30 hours worked, or alternatively, be provided at least 3 days or 24 hours on a lump sum method. The accrual rate method imposed by the HWHFA created several challenges for employers who were already providing paid sick leave, albeit under a different accrual method, such as per pay period, per month, per week etc. To provide some flexibility to employers in complying with the HWHFA and provide further clarifications to the HWHFA, on July 13, 2015, Governor Brown signed into law AB 304 to amend the HWHFA. The amendments are effective immediately and a summary of its key provisions are as follows:

1.   An employer is now able to provide for employee sick leave accrual on a basis other than one hour for each 30 hours worked, provided that the accrual is on a regular basis and the employee will have 24 hours of accrued sick leave available by the 120th calendar day of employment, each calendar year, or each 12-month period. This means that employers no longer have the obligation to track actual hours worked (i.e., one hour for each 30 hours worked), on the condition that the employee accrues 24 hours of leave within the first 4 months of employment.

2.  An employer is able to keep their pre-January 1, 2015 paid sick leave and/or paid time off (PTO) policies as long as:

a.  these policies existed prior to January 1, 2015;

 b.  these policies provide for time off for the same purposes as specified in the HWHFA (including carry-over and use requirements);

c.  these policies continue to provide an employee paid sick leave and/or PTO on an accrual and on a regular basis so that an employee, (including an employee hired into that class after January 1, 2015):

(i)  has no less than one day (or 8 hours) of accrued paid sick leave or PTO within 3 months of each year of employment of each calendar year, or each 12-month period; and

(ii) was eligible to earn at least 3 days (or 24 hours) of paid sick leave or PTO within 9 months of each year of employment.

3.  If an employer modifies the accrual method used in the policy it had in place prior to January 1, 2015, the employer must comply with the one hour for each 30 hours worked accrual method, or alternatively, provide for the lump sum method.

4. The amendments provide for a new method for calculating the rate of pay:

a.   For non-exempt employees with different hourly rates, an employer now has an option on how to pay sick days. Paid sick time for nonexempt employees shall be calculated using either of the following two options:

(i) in the same manner as the regular rate of pay for the workweek in which the employee uses paid sick time, whether or not the employee actually works overtime in that workweek; or

(ii) by dividing the employee’s total wages, not including overtime premium pay, by the employee’s total hours worked in the full pay periods of the prior 90 days of employment.

b.  For exempt employees, paid sick time must be calculated in the same manner as the employer calculates wages for other forms of paid leave time.

5.  An employee must work for the same employer for at least 30 days in California in order to qualify for paid sick leave.

6. Employers who provide unlimited sick leave to their employees can satisfy notice requirements by indicating “unlimited” on the employee’s itemized wage statement.

7.  The provisions of the original text of the HWHFA required an employer to reinstate accrued paid sick days to returning employees within one year of termination, resignation, or separation from employment. This requirement is unchanged by the amendments. However, if an employer paid out accrued PTO to an employee upon termination, resignation, or separation from employment, an employer is not required to reinstate accrued PTO if the employee is rehired within one year.

8.  An employer no longer has the obligation to inquire into or record the purposes for which an employee uses sick leave or paid time off. However, as provided under the original text of the HWHFA, an employer is still required to keep records for three years documenting the hours worked and paid sick days accrued and used by an employee and to make those records available to the Labor Commissioner upon request.

9.  The original text of the HWHFA contained an exemption for employees in the construction industry covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement (which met certain requirements). The HWHFA previously defined “employee in the construction” to mean an employee performing onsite work associated with construction, including work involving alteration, demolition, building, excavation, renovation, remodeling, maintenance, improvement, repair work …”. (Emphasis added). The amendments removed the term “onsite”, which now broadens the exemption for employees in the construction industry because the focus is no longer on where the work is performed but rather on the work that employee is assigned to perform.

10.  For employers governed by Wage Orders 11 (Broadcasting Industry) and 12 (Motion Picture Industry), the amendments delay to January 21, 2016 the requirements that these covered employers provide to their employees written notice setting forth the amount of paid sick leave and/or PTO available on each wage statement or other document on each pay date.

While most of the provisions of the amendments are welcomed news to employers because the amendments provide some flexibility and much needed clarifications, the amendments may perhaps be a little too late especially for those employers who expended significant resources to modify their PTO policies to be compliant as of July 1, 2015.

Non-compliance with the HWHFA and its amendments carry significant liabilities, and as such, employers should consult with legal counsel to ensure their paid sick leave and/or PTO policies are compliant.


Is Social Media Eroding Nonsolicitation Agreements?

By Lawrence J. Del Rossi

Are former employees in violation of non-solicitation agreements by using social media to contact their employer’s customers or co-workers? Florham Park Counsel, Lawrence Del Rossi, recently published an article in Law360 discussing the emerging trends regarding the role that social media plays in restrictive covenant case.  He also provides practical guidance to employment law practitioners.

Read “Is Social Media Eroding Nonsolicitation Agreements?” here.

New Guidance Regarding Employee Handbooks Part Six: Ensuring Conflict of Interest Rules Don’t Inhibit Protected Concerted Activity

By Valerie Dutton Kahn

This post is the sixth in a series providing guidance on federal rules regarding permissible and impermissible employer handbook policies and rules. See Guidance Regarding Confidentiality Rules Here, Employee Conduct Rules, Rules Related to Company Logos, Copyright, and Trademark,  Rules Restricting Photography and Recording and Rules Restricting Employees From Leaving Work.  While the recent guidance was issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), (found here) this guidance is applicable to both unionized and non-unionized employers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) restricts all employers from issuing policies or rules – even if well-intentioned – that inhibit employees from engaging in activities protected by the act, such as discussing wages, criticizing management, publicly communicating about working conditions and discussing unionization.

Conflict of Interest Rules: A Balancing Act

Naturally, all employers would like to prevent their employees from engaging in activities that are in conflict with the employers’ interest. However, there is a great deal of potentially conflicting employee activity that is protected by Section 7 of the NLRA, such as protesting in front of the company, organizing a boycott, or soliciting support for a union during non-work time. Accordingly, if an employer’s conflict-of-interest rules can reasonably be read to prohibit protected concerted activity, the NLRB will view them with great suspicion.

The NLRB provides a couple examples of conflict-of-interest rules that were found to be impermissibly overbroad. These include:

• Policy banning employees from engaging in “any action” that is “not in the best interest of” the employer.

• Policy providing that, “[b]ecause you are now working in one of [employer’s] restaurants, it is important to realize that you have an up close and personal look at our business every day. With this in mind, you should recognize your responsibility to avoid any conflict between your personal interests and those of the Company. A conflict of interest occurs when our personal interests interfere – or appear to interfere – with our ability to make sound business decisions on behalf of [the employer].”

Examples of Permissible Conflict of Interest Rules

The NLRB advises that employers ensure their conflict-of-interest rules do not impinge upon protected Section 7 activity by including specific examples of prohibited behavior. The NLRB explains that when a rule clarifies that it is limited to the employer’s legitimate business interests, employees will understand that it is not banning Section 7 activity.

Some examples of lawful conflict-of-interest rules include:

• A policy that provided two pages of examples of what was considered a conflict of interest, instructing employees to do such things as “avoid outside employment with a[n employer] customer, supplier, or competitor, or having a significant financial interest with one of these entities.”

• Rules prohibiting employees from giving, offering, or promising, “directly or indirectly, anything of value to any representative” of “any person, firm, corporation, or government agency that sells or provides a service to, purchases from, or competes with” the employer.

• Rules in a section of a handbook dealing entirely with business ethics banning employees from “activities, investments or associations that compete with the Company, interferes with one’s judgment concerning the Company’s best interests, or exploits one’s position with the Company for personal gains.”

In sum, employers should take great care to ensure their conflict-of-interest rules provide sufficient clarifying examples and context to indicate that such rules are intended only to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, and not to inhibit activities protected by Section 7.

Bad News for Whistleblowers: New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Theft of Confidential Documents for Self-Help in Employment Lawsuit Can Result in Jail Time

By Lynne Anne Anderson

Does an employee have an unfettered right to take confidential documents from her employer to use in her discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the employer? Not in New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled in State v. Ivonne Saavedra that the theft of a company’s confidential documents for self-help in an employment lawsuit can result in jail time.

Florham Park partner Lynne Anderson recently published an article in Law360 discussing the decision and its ramifications for employers and would-be whistleblowers.

Read “Woe To The NJ Whistleblower Who Whisks Away Documents” here.

An Employer’s Obligation to Follow up after Receiving a Medical Certification: Greater Than You Might Think

By David J. Woolf

If an employee seeks FMLA leave, she typically needs to ask for it. Likewise, it goes without saying that if an employee is asked to provide a medical certification in support of her request (something employers are free to seek) and fails to provide that information – or worse provides a certification indicating that she does not qualify for FMLA leave – the employer has no obligation to provide that leave. Or does it?

In Hansler v. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, the plaintiff, Ms. Hansler, asked for a two-day per week, one-month leave of absence to deal with certain medical issues, a condition that was diagnosed after her separation as diabetes. In support of her request, Ms. Hansler submitted a medical certification that referred to the length of the requested leave, but did not describe the nature or duration of her condition. The hospital network, instead of asking for clarification of the certification, terminated Ms. Hansler’s employment after she took several days off, contending that because Ms. Hansler was requesting only limited time off, her condition did not qualify as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA and entitle her to leave.

Ms. Hansler thereafter brought suit claiming that the hospital network interfered with her FMLA rights by terminating her employment and retaliated against her for requesting the leave, claims that the trial court dismissed on the ground that Ms. Hansler’s medical certification indicated on its face (by virtue the duration of leave requested) that Ms. Hansler did not qualify for FMLA leave. On appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Court, in a 2-1 decision, held that the hospital network, rather than just acting on the information in the certification, should have asked Ms. Hansler for additional information, even though on its face the information indicated that Ms. Hansler did not qualify for FMLA leave.

In one sense the decision is predictable and understandable. After all, the hospital network with its sophisticated HR capabilities could easily have reached out to Ms. Hansler and asked her for additional information via an updated certification and Ms. Hansler, for her part, was later diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that does qualify as a “serious health condition.” Yet, the decision is not without concern. FMLA regulations provide that an employer “shall advise an employee whenever the employer finds a certification incomplete or insufficient, and shall state in writing what additional information is necessary to make the certification complete and sufficient.” But FMLA case law also holds that, where the certification indicates that the employee does not have a serious health condition, the employer need not follow up further with the employee about her need for leave. And, here, there was at least a decent argument that that was the case given the limited leave requested by Ms. Hansler.

So what is an employer to do when faced with an incomplete FMLA certification? If the certification clearly indicates that no leave is needed or that the employee otherwise clearly is not entitled to leave, it seems fair to say that the employer can rely on the certification and deny the leave request. If, however, the certification indicates that a leave of any length is needed, the employer would be wise to follow up with the employee and provide her an opportunity to submit additional information within the seven-day period contemplated in the FMLA regulations.