SEC Charges Another Company for Anti-Whistleblower Provision in Severance Agreements

By Mary Hansen and Rachel Share

The SEC announced on Wednesday that BlueLinx Holdings Inc. has agreed to pay a $265,000 penalty for including a provision in its severance agreements that required outgoing employees to waive their rights to monetary recovery if they filed a charge or complaint with the SEC or other federal agencies. Press Rel. No. 2016-157. According to the SEC’s order, approximately 160 BlueLinx employees have signed severance agreements that contained the provision since it was added to all of BlueLinx’s severance agreements in or about June 2013.

The provision violates Rule 21F-17 of the Exchange Act, which became effective on August 12, 2011, and prohibits any action to impede an individual from communicating with the SEC about a possible securities law violation. The purpose of the adoption of Rule 21F-17 was “to encourage whistleblowers to report possible violations of the securities laws by providing financial incentives, prohibiting employment-related retaliation, and providing various confidentiality guarantees.” See In the Matter of BlueLinx Holdings Inc., Release No. 78528. Because the severance agreement required employees leaving the company to waive potential whistleblower awards or risk losing payments and other benefits under the agreement, it ran afoul of Rule 21F-17.

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How to Comply With the EEO-1’s Proposed New Hours Reporting Requirements

By Valerie Dutton Kahn

As you may have heard, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released revised EEO-1 reporting guidelines on July 13, 2016 (for an overview of the new guidance in its entirety, see EEOC Issues Revised EEO-1 Proposal).  These new guidelines apply to employers with 100 or more employees and require them to report, among other things, hours worked by exempt and non-exempt employees, subdivided by gender, race, ethnicity, job classification, and pay band.  For an example of the proposed new reporting form, click here.  Although employers and other members of the public will have until August 15, 2016 to comment on the revised proposal, it is unlikely that any further substantive revisions will be made. Currently, it appears that employers will be required to submit the new EEO-1 form on March 31, 2018, giving them approximately a year and a half to prepare their recordkeeping systems to capture the newly required data.  Therefore, employers are advised to review, and update if necessary, internal recordkeeping systems to be prepared to report hours worked, and pay data, for calendar year 2017 when filing the EEO-1 on March 31, 2018.

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Split Circuit Court Decisions Create Uncertainty on Class Action Waivers and likely Supreme Court Review

By Vik Jaitly

Last week the 7th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp., held that a company’s arbitration agreement, which prohibits employees from participating in “any class, collective or representative proceeding,” violated an employees’ right to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The ruling creates a circuit split on the enforceability of class action waivers because the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Circuits each have held that class action waivers do not violate an employee’s rights under the NLRA.  Because of this circuit split, it is likely that the Supreme Court will visit this issue in the near future.

Background on Enforceability of Class Action Waivers

In recent years, federal courts have largely upheld arbitration pacts with class or collective action waiver language that provides that not only must an employee bring his or her claim exclusively in arbitration, but also that he or she must do so on an individual, and not on a class-wide basis. Specifically, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2011), the Supreme Court ordered the enforcement of arbitration agreements in a dispute involving an arbitration provision in cellphone contracts.  In the process, Concepcion generally held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts state bans on class action arbitration waivers.  The case however, did not directly address the viability of class action waivers in the employment context.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that an employer could not force its employees to sign arbitration agreements with class waiver provisions because such agreements were unlawful under the NLRA. See D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB 184 (2012).  On appeal, the 5th Circuit rejected the NLRB’s holding that class waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements are unlawful, joining the 2nd and 8th Circuits, which had issued similar rejections.

Seventh Circuit Opinion

In Lewis v. Epic-Systems Corp., the plaintiff had entered into an arbitration agreement with his employer in which he had waived his “right to participate in or receive money or any other relief from any class, collective, or representative proceeding.”  Lewis later filed a suit in federal court on behalf of himself and other employees alleging that the company had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by misclassifying the employees and depriving them of overtime.

The employer moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims and compel arbitration on an individual claim basis. The plaintiff argued that the agreement’s class and collective action waiver was unenforceable because it interfered with his right to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA.  The district court agreed with plaintiff and denied employer’s motion to dismiss, relying primarily on a prior decision the district court had issued adhering to the D.R. Horton’s decision.  The district court believed the 5th Circuit’s majority opinion “never persuasively rebutted the board’s conclusion that a collective litigation waiver violates the NLRA and never explained why, if there is tension between the NLRA and the FAA, it is the FAA that should trump the NLRA, rather than the reverse.”  The employer subsequently appealed the district court’s decision to the 7th Circuit.

In its analysis, the 7th Circuit adopted the NLRB’s reasoning (as stated in D.R. Horton) that engaging in class, collective or representative proceedings is “concerted activity” and a protected right under Section 7 of the NLRA.  Therefore, the court concluded, it would be an unfair labor practice under Section 8 of the NLRA for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise” of this right.

Surprisingly, the 7th Circuit rejected the argument that the arbitration agreement must be enforced under the FAA—an argument adopted by all the other circuits that have ruled on this matter. In its ruling, the court focused on the FAA’s savings clause, which provides that arbitration agreements are enforceable except if the agreements themselves are unlawful.  Thus, the court found that Epic’s arbitration agreement is illegal under the NLRA, and because an illegal agreement is not enforceable under the FAA’s savings clause, there is no conflict between the FAA and the NLRA.

General Takeaways for Employers

The Lewis decision leaves employers with several takeaways:  First, employer need to know that class and collective action waivers will not be enforced in federal courts sitting in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, which are the states within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Second, these same agreements will likely continue to be enforced in federal courts sitting in the circuits that have rejected the NLRB’s reasoning in D.R. Horton (for now, 2nd, 5th, and 8th Circuits).

Third, this circuit split will likely involve the input of the Supreme Court in the future but perhaps not between the Presidential election, and the appointment of a ninth Justice, given the desire to avoid a 4-4 split. If the case is brought before the Supreme Court before a new Justice is confirmed by the Senate, and the Supreme Court decision is split 4-4, each of the Circuit’s decisions will remain in effect.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act’s Seizure Provisions and What They Mean for Employers

By Valerie Dutton Kahn

It’s an employer’s worst nightmare: you discover that a former employee has stolen a company trade secret. You know you must act immediately to keep this extremely important and sensitive information from being disseminated or risk losing important intellectual property protection. However, protecting a misappropriated trade secret is very difficult, particularly in situations where the suspected misappropriator is unlikely to follow a court order.  Thankfully, the recently passed Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) includes helpful seizure provisions an employer may use to recover and prevent dissemination of trade secrets from suspected misappropriators.

What Is The Defend Trade Secrets Act?

President Obama signed the DTSA into law on May 11, 2016.  This new law is effective immediately and provides a nation-wide civil cause of action for misappropriation of trade secrets. Although companies may still pursue trade secret litigation under state causes of action, the DTSA permits companies to prosecute their claims in federal court, thus allowing them to avoid the complexity and cost of pursuing trade secret claims in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously.

What Are The DTSA’s Seizure Provisions?

Significantly, the DTSA includes an ex parte seizure provision allowing “the seizure of property necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination” of trade secrets, meaning the employer may seize property through court order  without providing notice to the other party.  See DTSA § 2(b)(2). To receive a court order allowing such seizure, the employer must:

• Allege specific facts showing that the suspected misappropriator would “evade, avoid, or otherwise not comply with” other extraordinary relief, such as a temporary restraining order, and would “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make [the property to be seized] inaccessible to court” if notified of the seizure proceedings;

• Be able to show that the employer would suffer “immediate and irreparable injury” if the requested seizure were not occur, and that such injury would be greater than any to be suffered by the suspected misappropriator or any third parties if the seizure request is granted;

• Be able to show that the suspected misappropriator has actual possession of the trade secret and either misappropriated or conspired to use improper means to misappropriate that trade secret;

• Describe, with reasonable particularity and to the extent reasonable, what is to be seized and where it is located; and

• Not have publicized the requested seizure.

See id. § 2(b)(2)(A)(ii). Orders of seizure are executed by a Federal law enforcement officer.  The employer may not participate in the seizure, although the law enforcement officer may request to be accompanied by an unaffiliated technical expert.  Any materials seized will be held in court custody until a hearing can be held, although a motion to encrypt seized material may be made at any time.  See id. § 2(b)(B), (D), and (H).

What Does This Mean For Employers?

The good news is that now if a trade secret is misappropriated, employers may be able seize it and halt its dissemination before irreparable harm has occurred.  In our modern world where information can be copied and transported across state lines (or international boarders) in mere moments, this is very important. However, there are a number of cautions employers should be aware of:

• Seizure under the DTSA is extraordinary relief only. The DTSA’s drafters contemplated it would be used in instances such as when “a defendant is seeking to flee the country or planning to disclose the trade secret to a third party immediately or not otherwise amendable to…the court’s orders.” Rep. No. 114-220 at 9 (2016).  Accordingly, seizure will be permitted only in the most extreme situations.

• The DTSA requires an employer seeking seizure to provide security “determined adequate by the court for the payment of the damages that any person may be entitled to recover as a result of a wrongful or excessive seizure.” DTSA 2(b)(B)(vi). This security will not act as a cap on damages if it is later determined that property was wrongfully seized.

• The DTSA’s drafters struggled with handling misappropriated trade secrets contained in electronic files. If, for example, an employee downloaded files containing trade secrets from her company computer onto a flash drive, the court could seize that flash drive. The situation becomes more murky, however, when an employee transmits files containing trade secrets to himself via his personal email (thus leaving a copy on the server of the email provider), or uploads company files to a third party cloud service. In order to protect these unintended recipients, the DTSA’s drafters included carve outs prohibiting seizure from innocent third parties (although injunctions prohibiting disclosure are permitted).  Accordingly, until the employer can obtain other relief, the trade secret will remain on the third party’s server, potentially vulnerable to misappropriation from bad actors engaged in cyberespionage.

On balance, the DTSA is a helpful piece of legislation that will greatly assist employers in protecting trade secrets under certain circumstances. However, as with any new piece of legislation, it is unclear how these provisions, particularly those concerning electronic information, will be applied in practice.

If you would like to discuss best practices for keeping trade secrets secure or need help dealing with potentially misappropriated trade secrets, please contact the author or any member of our Labor and Employment Practice Group.

A Notable Week Indeed – From OSHA to Trade Secrets to ADA Accommodations and Transgender Rights!

By Kelly Petrocelli

It’s been a busy and, let’s say notable, week in the area of employment law. Here’s a quick recap, with more to come in future posts, of what you may have missed if you were focused elsewhere this week.

First, OSHA published a new injury Rule this week. While it does not take effect until January 1, 2017, employers should not wait until then to begin thinking about what changes may be necessary to ensure full compliance in the new year. The rule changes create a new cause of action for employees if they suffer retaliation for reporting a workplace injury, and employers are expected to ensure that policies addressing safety do not discourage employees from reporting such injuries. Large employers will also have some additional reporting requirements to OSHA. And, significantly, and in line with the current administration’s agenda of transparency, OSHA will begin making injury data accessible to the public, after removing any personally identifiable information regarding employees. That’s just a summary, with more to come in a future blog post. Stay tuned.

Second, did you hear that President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secret Act of 2016? Yes, that’s right, claims for trade secret misappropriation are not just limited to what the applicable state law provides. The new law creates a federal cause of action for the theft/misappropriation of trade secrets that are “related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.” The law also creates a new mechanism for a court to order the civil seizure of property, ex parte, if an employer can meet certain stringent standards for such an order.

Third, not to be overshadowed by either the President or OSHA, the EEOC published its own resource document this week regarding employer duties to provide leave as a reasonable accommodations in the workplace. While the new resource tracks what the EEOC has been saying for many years (or what we, as employment attorneys, know from tracking EEOC litigation and publications), the new resource delves a little deeper into how employers should be analyzing an employee’s request for leave and may be a helpful resource for employers who may still be under the mistaken impression that simply applying a leave policy (or workplace rule) the same to everyone is acceptable under the ADA (hint: we know that employers must modify policies for individuals with a disability if doing so could be a form of reasonable accommodation). Our mantra of no more “automatic termination” policies can no longer be ignored. This is serious stuff. Lots more to come on this topic.

Fourth, the EEOC was also busy issuing a new fact sheet on bathroom access for transgender employees. The fact sheet is brief, essentially reciting the few decisions issued on the topic, and reiterating for employers that transgender employees must be permitted to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity (not biological sex) and cannot be conditioned on an employee having undergone reassignment surgery. Also, employers beware, providing a separate, single-user bathroom for a transgender employee is a form of discrimination (although you can provide a single-user bathroom for use by all employees). A transgender employee must have equal access to the common bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, regardless of whether it makes other employees uncomfortable.

These are just a few of the many things that happened this week. Stay tuned for further analysis on these topics and more (including the much-anticipated DOL overtime regulations that could be published as early as next week).

Accessibility of Retailer Websites Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

By Thomas J. Barton

Title III of the ADA provides that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disabilities in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or any accommodations of any place of public accommodation….” 42 U.S.C. §12812(a). When the ADA was enacted in 1991, Congress contemplated physical access to places of public accommodation, such as hospitals, schools, housing, restaurants, and retail stores. At that time, Congress did not foresee the rise of the internet or the proliferation of sales of goods and services through retail websites, and therefore did not provide any guidance as to whether or the extent to which retail websites were governed by the ADA’s accessibility requirements.

Originally initiated by the National Federation for the Blind and other advocacy groups, a cottage industry has sprung up challenging accessibility to retail websites by the blind and visually impaired. Every major retailer has been or will soon be subject to these claims. The plaintiffs’ law firms that regularly bring these cases use a handful of blind or visual impaired individuals on a repeating basis.

These lawsuits, which have been filed against retailers such as Sears, Footlocker, Target, and Toys R Us, allege that experts working on behalf of their blind and visually impaired clients have investigated the company websites and have identified limitations and obstacles in the ability of a blind or visually impaired individual to navigate the websites effectively with screen readers or other assistive devices. The failures include the failure of the website to provide alternative explanations of “non-text content,” such as illustrations, and alternatives to non-text prompts or navigational features. The plaintiffs allege that websites are in fact places of public accommodation under the ADA and seek attorneys’ fees and broad remedial relief that requires significant changes to the website’s format, program and content that permit access by the blind and visually impaired.

But the “fix” is easier said than done. First, the courts have not definitely ruled that websites are places of public accommodation covered by Title III, and even presuming they are, there are no current regulations defining the level of accessibility. The plaintiffs’ bar has assumed that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) AA 2.0, published by the World Wide Web Consortium, are the appropriate compliance standard under the ADA because the United States Department of Justice has adopted the WCAG standards for federal agencies and federal contractors. Also, the Department of Justice has indicated that it intends to issue proposed rules for the private sector, but this proposed rulemaking, now scheduled for July 2016, has been postponed several times in recent years, and many believe that it will be delayed again.

Second, the WCAG’s are themselves vague, subject to broad interpretation and, in many cases difficult to implement. This problem is further compounded when one attempts to apply these standards under the ADA’s language that speaks to “reasonable access,” “alternative means of compliance,” and “under burden.” The truth is that the vast majority of websites are not 100 percent compliant, and none will be because the websites are constantly changing and adding additional content. For example, retailers are increasingly using third-party content, which is often not accessible to the visually impaired.

To illustrate this point, the websites of the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) and the law firms that bring these cases are themselves far from 100 percent compliant. Software programs that are used to conduct preliminary evaluations of websites typically give the website a score or grade. NFB’s website scored a “C+” at one time but has since improved. No website of which this author knows has scored an “A.” Given that 100 percent compliance is not practical, what level of compliance is sufficient? The courts have yet to address this question because very few cases have been litigated on the merits.

When litigating these lawsuits, retailers should consider the appropriate level of achievable compliance and the timeframe involved. Engaging with knowledgeable internal IT personnel or with external IT consultants is important to do at the outset. The cases are as much or more about the technical aspects of website compliance and implementation as they are about the law.
In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs typically propose broad remedial relief that includes development of compliance policies, training, on-going monitoring, and appointment of outside consultants. Each of these individual components has to be considered carefully.

These lawsuits are often brought as individual actions, presumably to permit a quick settlement and to avoid the challenges posed by Rule 23 class certification standards and court approval. Nonetheless, as individual actions, there is no legal bar to additional lawsuits by other individuals. However, the settlements can be confidential.

These lawsuits are not just about remedial relief; they are also about legal fees. In some cases, plaintiffs’ counsel proposes an attorneys’ fee award that is based on the number of URLs or websites, rather than on the reasonable amount of attorney time that would be involved in bringing the case to settlement, which is the appropriate legal standard. Their theory is that the plaintiffs’ attorneys have to pay for future monitoring of the website(s) to ensure compliance with the settlement terms.

Given the nuances of such claims, retailers are well-advised to use experienced counsel that is familiar with these lawsuits to handle the defense.

Takeaways

  • Seemingly, the courts will likely eventually find that private retail websites are places of public accommodation under the ADA, even though such a result was never considered by Congress when the ADA was enacted.
  • Although the plaintiffs’ bar has “assumed” that the courts will require compliance with the WCAG 2.0 AA, it is far from clear what will constitute compliance in a particular case.
  • Retailers that have not faced this issue should conduct evaluations of their websites to determine their levels of compliance, the costs, and the realistic time frames for any remediations. Retailers should use the appropriate legal and IT expertise.
  • Latent privacy claims may surround notice and acceptance of the websites’ terms and conditions of use.

Although some retailers are currently being assailed, the claims will no doubt expand to the education, finance, professional services, and healthcare industries, all of which should conduct a similar analysis of their websites.