Check Your Employment At-Will Disclaimers: New Jersey Appellate Court Scrutinizes Company’s Code of Conduct

A recent decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division is a glaring reminder for employers in New Jersey and elsewhere to review their employee handbooks, manuals and other codes of conduct periodically to ensure that their employment at-will disclaimer language is clear and prominent in compliance with the seminal decision on this issue, Woolley v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc. 99 N.J. 302, modified, 101 N.J. 10 (1985), and its progeny.

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Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation – 2014 Edition

Drinker Biddle proudly announces the release of the 2014 edition of Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation. Written and updated for 2014 by Labor & Employment Group partners Gerald S. Hartman and Gregory W. Homer, Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation is a must have reference for employment lawyers, in-house employment counsel, general counsels, and human resources professionals.  The one-volume annually updated manual provides insight on preventing, preparing for, and managing employment litigation in discussing all types of discrimination, harassment, wage, leave and wrongful discharge claims.

The 2014 edition of Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation retails for $385.  Drinker Biddle has arranged a special discount rate of 20% off the retail price for friends of the firm. To purchase your copy of Defending and Preventing Employment Litigation click here.

Passing AB 1897 Means Greater Liability for Employers Who Use Labor Contractors

Editor’s Note: The following post by Saba Shatara, Associate in the Los Angeles office, appears in the latest issue of the California HR Newsletter. To sign-up to receive the California HR Newsletter click here.

Passing AB 1897 Means Greater Liability for Employers Who Use Labor Contractors

The Issue:  Today, many employers rely on labor contractors or temporary employment agencies to sustain their operations.  Occasionally, however, labor contractors fail to comply with labor laws and regulations by failing to (1) pay wages; (2) report and/or pay all required contributions and personal income tax withholdings; and (3) secure workers compensation for subcontractors.  In such cases, are employers liable to subcontractors for these types of violations of their labor contractors?

The Solution:  Historically, for the most part, no.  However, California Assembly Bill (“AB”) 1897, a proposed law currently before the Assembly, would impose joint liability on employers for the violations of their labor contractors.

Analysis:  On April 24, 2014, AB 1897 was passed by the state Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee and will soon be considered by the Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.  The bill would greatly expand an employer’s duties by requiring employers to share with their labor contractors all responsibility and liability for the following: the payment of wages, the failure to report and pay all required employer contributions, worker contributions, and personal income tax withholdings, and the failure to obtain valid workers’ compensation coverage.  This could have a significant impact on employers who depend on labor contractors for any number of functions, e.g., to fill seasonal or short-term work schedules, cover for employee absences, avoid layoffs, and pre-screen employees.

While the law currently prohibits employers from entering into a contract for labor or services with a construction, farm labor, garment, janitorial, security guard, or warehouse contractor, if the employer knows or should know that the agreement does not include sufficient funds for the contractor to comply with laws or regulations governing the labor or services to be provided, AB 1897 would expand liability for the above mentioned violations to all industries and all individuals who contract for labor or services.  This bill would impose seemingly strict liability on any individual or entity that obtains or uses subcontractors from a labor contractor to perform work “within the usual course of business of the individual or entity.”  As such, if AB 1897 were to pass, it would particularly burden small businesses, those without dedicated human resource or legal departments, due to their heavy reliance on contract and temporary employees.

The silver lining is that AB 1897 would not prohibit employers from agreeing to any otherwise lawful remedies against labor contractors for indemnification from liability created by acts of the labor contractor. Employers cannot, however, shift to labor contractors any of their responsibilities under the California Occupational Safety and Health Act.  Labor contractors will also have the same opportunity to contract with employers for indemnification. Furthermore, the bill will provide that any waiver of its provisions is contrary to public policy and unenforceable.  If AB 1897 becomes law, employers should be especially cautious in selecting a labor contractor and determine what level of contractor evaluation may limit their risk for non-compliant contractors.  Unwary employers face the danger of liability for a labor contractor’s failure to meet these requirements.

Unpaid Internships – Opportunity or Liability?

By: Mark E. Terman

Unpaid internships have long been viewed by students, recent graduates and industry newcomers as a chance to gain experience that might help them select or launch a career, and to some, a chance to eventually land a paying job.  Employers can capitalize on this to teach their trade or profession and find new talent; but, they should not use interns just to cut labor costs.

The United States Department of Labor and many states use six criteria to determine whether internships in for-profit company operations can lawfully be unpaid: 1) the internship must be similar to training given in an educational institution; 2) regular paid workers are not displaced; 3) the intern works under close observation; 4) the employer derives no immediate advantage from intern activities; 5) there is no guaranty of employment upon internship completion; and 6) it is clear up front that there is no expectation of payment.  The overarching theme is that unpaid internships must be educational and predominantly for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.

Some employers have no idea the criteria exist and unwittingly expose themselves to expensive single-plaintiff, class action and regulator’s claims to reclassify interns as employees and to recover unpaid minimum wages, overtime pay, interest, multiple penalties and attorneys fees.  [For more on this see our post on Unpaid Interns Deemed Employees Under the FLSA].  Add to that, there are potential employer and decision maker risks for failure to withhold income and employment taxes.

“Warning bell” examples of internship programs that may be subject to reclassification include, use of unpaid internships to simply minimize labor costs or merely as an extended job interview to see if interns can make the cut later for a paid job; no real, supervised education and training, beyond what the intern might happen to observe; and a predominance of work assigned to interns that paid employees would normally do to generate or support the business.  Likewise, interns whose work is primarily running errands, answering phones, filing, organizing documents, data entry, scanning or coping images, or cleaning – even though they arguably have good exposure to work going on around them – tend to look like they are merely doing what paid support staff employees ought to be doing.

By contrast, if the intern is closely supervised and taught learning objectives that can be applied to multiple different employers, with occasional support staff type work incidental to the learning, with no guaranty of employment, and a writing that specifies a limited duration of an internship without pay, odds are better that intern can lawfully be unpaid.  As a practical matter, if a school or college will give the intern course credit, the odds of legal compliance increase.

A safe path to avoid classification risks is to pay interns at least minimum wage and for any overtime worked, afford meal and rest breaks, and manage their work assignments to reduce overtime needed.   Depending on employer policies and applicable laws, an intern who is part-time or a short-term temporary employee may not be eligible for certain employee benefits.

Yahoo’s Ban on Working from Home: Does it Raise Red Flags For Other Companies?

By: Lynne Anderson

Yahoo’s widely reported decision to require its remote workforce to physically report to one of Yahoo’s office locations – or face termination of employment – has caused a social media stir. Here are some of the common questions, and our thoughts about whether Yahoo’s decision signals a trend applicable to other companies.

Q: Can Yahoo fire its remote workforce if they refuse to return to the office?

A: For the most part – yes.  If employees are employed “at-will,” then they can be fired with or without cause, and without notice. In other words, Yahoo’s statement that they feel the business is best served by the regular, spontaneous interactions resulting from having employees in the office is a legitimate non-discriminatory reason to require employees to return to the offices.  Therefore, any employee who refuses to physically report to a Yahoo office location can be lawfully fired for his/her refusal. Exceptions are generally limited to a circumstance where Yahoo had agreed, in writing, that the employee was guaranteed the ability to work from home.  Another limited exception is if the employee is allowed to work from home for a specified period of time, as a reasonable accommodation for a verified disability.

Q: Does Yahoo’s decision signal that the other industries should re-evaluate the use of remote workers?

A: While it is always productive to re-evaluate the effectiveness of workforce models, a wholesale rejection of the remote worker model does not necessarily serve an industry’s business needs, or risk management objectives.

First, Yahoo’s action is perceived as providing an opportunity to pare down a “bloated” workforce in an effort to limit the need for extensive reductions in force.  Yahoo is betting on there being less morale and legal risk associated with an employee’s resignation vs. an involuntary termination.  While companies may face the business need to ramp down certain departments depending on where they are in the approval process, targeted restructurings are generally a more appropriate response.

Second, many companies, such as Life Sciences companies that are paring down costs as they await FDA approval, use remote workers as a cost-savings method, to reduce office overhead costs. In contrast, it has been reported that Yahoo has “excess” office space that presumably would not be cost-effective to offload or sublease.  Also, the majority of Life Sciences companies are clustered in the areas of metro NY/NJ, Boston, the Bay Area and LA. Clearly, traffic is a significant issue in these areas and working remotely can offset the loss of productivity caused by lengthy daily commutes.

Remote work is also a necessity for many Life Sciences companies.  For example, clinical trials are conducted at investigator sites in the U.S. and around the world.  Employees in clinical operations must not only travel on a regular basis, but the ability to work remotely for much of the time when they are not traveling is valued.  Also, using a remote workforce is a common response to growth and expansion, especially when there is a need to locate your sales force in states outside of company headquarters and manufacturing facilities.

Fourth, most industry jobs do require a Bachelor’s degree, and workforce studies indicate that approximately one-fifth of Life Sciences jobs require an advanced degree.  Clearly, the ability to attract and retain a highly skilled and well-trained workforce has been recognized as a necessity to remain competitive – and that applies to small start-ups and large multi-national pharmaceutical companies.  The ability to work remotely, at least part of the time, can be an effective recruiting and retention tool.

Q: What are the emerging HR issues with regards to the use of remote workers?

A: While mobile technology is a tremendous asset in terms of collaboration, the law does not always keep pace with the cross-over intersection of business and personal use of mobile technology.  As a result, it is a “new frontier” and employers are faced with having to anticipate the potential legal liability. For example, to the extent that your company is monitoring employees’ e-mail/text and other use of mobile technology to ensure productively, it is critical to warn employees that they are being monitored, and they should have no expectation of privacy.  We are also seeing an increasing rise in litigation and employer-adverse agency decisions resulting from employers’ use of information about employees’ non-work activities gleaned from review of their personal Facebook accounts as a basis to discipline or terminate employees.  Also, many states have enacted or proposed legislation that makes it unlawful for an employer to directly or indirectly obtain access to an employee’s Facebook account.  As a result, we recommend that concerns about employee abuse of telecommuting are best addressed by routine and regular performance management, rather than social media spying.

We also recommend proactive management of concerns relating to data confidentiality and network security.  This includes review of existing restrictive covenant agreements to insure that enforceable non-disclosure, non-solicit and, if warranted, non-compete agreements are in place, tailored to protect those assets most critical to your business.  Choice of law provisions also need to be considered when the employee is in a different state or country than the HQ location.  In addition, we recommend providing the equipment used by the remote employee (phone/laptop, etc.), so that equipment – and all the programs and data contained on those devices – can be legally recovered at the end of the employment relationship.  Protocols should also be in place to restrict access to proprietary and other confidential information, to demonstrate that your company has a legitimate need to protect certain information.

Finally, we urge caution when allowing non-exempt employees to work remotely.  Wage and hour laws require that the hours non-exempt employees work are accurately tracked, and that they receive overtime for extra hours recorded, including for hours that the Company was on notice that the employee was working, even if those extra hours were not recorded.  Employers are being deemed as “on notice” when they are aware that the employee is e-mailing or texting supervisors about work during “off-hours” based on the access provided by mobile technology that might not be otherwise available to a non-exempt employee who is not working remotely.

(Editor’s note – This post was distributed as a Drinker Biddle Client Alert on February 27, 2013.  To read other Drinker Biddle alerts and publications click: http://www.drinkerbiddle.com/resources)

New York High Court: No At-Will Exception For Complaining Hedge Fund Executive

By: William R. Horwitz

The New York State Court of Appeals declined this week to recognize an exception to the at-will employment doctrine for a hedge fund’s Chief Compliance Officer who alleged that he was fired for objecting to his employer’s unlawful trading practices.  In Sullivan v. Harnisch, Plaintiff Joseph Sullivan was an employee and minority owner of Defendants Peconic Partners LLC and Peconic Asset Managers LLC (collectively, “Peconic”), holding various titles including Chief Compliance Officer.  Defendant William Harnisch was the majority owner, President and Chief Executive Officer.  Sullivan filed a lawsuit for wrongful discharge, alleging that Peconic fired him for objecting, in his capacity as Chief Compliance Officer, to Harnisch’s “manipulative and deceptive trading practices.”  The trial court denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss the claim.  The Appellate Division, First Department, reversed and Sullivan appealed.

According to the Court of Appeals, the “gist of Sullivan’s claim is that the legal and ethical duties of a securities firm and its compliance officer justify recognizing a cause of action for damages when the compliance officer is fired for objecting to misconduct.”  The Court reiterated the at-will employment doctrine, explaining that, “absent violation of a constitutional requirement, statute or contract,” an employer has the right to terminate employment at will.  The Court indicated that it has “recognized an exception” to this doctrine “only once.”

That exception arose in Wieder v. Skala, in which a law firm had allegedly fired a lawyer for insisting that it comply with the profession’s ethical obligations.  According to the Court, that decision “stressed both the ethical obligations of members of the bar and the importance of those obligations to the employment relationship between a lawyer and a law firm.”  Moreover, the decision focused on the legal profession’s “unique function of self-regulation.”

In Sullivan, the Court emphasized the narrow scope of the Wieder decision.  Although the Court left open the possibility that “there are some employment relationships, other than those between a lawyer and a law firm, that might fit within the Wieder exception,” the Court concluded that “the relationship in this case is not one of them.”  Distinguishing Wieder, the Court explained that Sullivan’s regulatory and ethical obligations were not inextricably tied to his duties as an employee.  Indeed, the Court observed, Sullivan “was not even a full-time compliance officer.”  The Court also stated that regulatory compliance was not at the “very core” and the “only purpose” of Sullivan’s employment.

The Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision.  In a strongly-worded dissent, Chief Judge Lippman charged that the “majority’s conclusion that an investment adviser like defendant Peconic has every right to fire its compliance officer, simply for doing his job, flies in the face of what we have learned from the Madoff debacle, runs counter to the letter and spirit of this Court’s precedent, and facilitates the perpetration of frauds on the public.”

Notwithstanding the dissent’s alarm that New York employers are now free to fire employees who allege wrongdoing, prudent employers – particularly in highly regulated fields like the securities industry – take such allegations seriously and investigate them, and are careful to avoid allegations of retaliation.