Whistleblower and Retaliation Claims Compliance, Risk and Prevention

Whistleblower and Retaliation claims continue to rise and general counsel of companies large and small are increasingly budgeting for the prevention and defense of these claims.  The multitude of regulations governing industries including pharma, life sciences healthcare, insurance and financial services, present employees with numerous opportunities, sometimes even incentives, to threaten and file whistleblower and retaliation claims.  Launch the brief video below to hear how Labor and Employment Group partners Tom Barton and Lynne Anderson are helping employers achieve a culture of compliance to minimize risk, as well as the Labor & Employment group’s proven track record of success in helping employers handle and defend against these claims.

Whistleblower and Retaliation Claims

 

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.

California Employers: What You Need to Know for 2014 – Discrimination and Retaliation

A new year means new legislation and regulations for employers with operations in California.  Prepared by Kate Gold, partner in the Los Angeles office, and Alexis Burgess, associate in the Los Angeles office, this-four part series will take a look at some of the new laws and regulation affecting private employers doing business in California.  Today we look at new laws and regulations in California dealing with discrimination and retaliation.

Discrimination and Retaliation

Retaliation.  AB 263 expands employer liability for violating Labor Code 98.6, which currently protects employees from discharge or discrimination when they have asserted their rights under the Labor Code.  As amended, the law will:

  1. Prohibit any retaliation or adverse action against employees who have asserted any right under the Labor Code or who have updated or attempted to update their “personal information” in a manner unrelated to their skill set, qualifications, or knowledge required for the job;
  2. Expand protected activity to include a written or oral complaint by an employee that they are owed unpaid wages; and
  3. Provide a civil penalty to employers of up to $10,000 per employee per instance of retaliation.

New protected class.  AB 556 adds “military or veteran status” to the list of classes protected from employment discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Sexual harassment.  SB 292 clarifies that sexually harassing conduct is unlawful under FEHA regardless of whether the conduct is motivated by any sexual desire.

Whistleblower protections.  Labor Code 1102.5 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who report violations of a state or federal rule or regulation to a government agency, except for employees with duties related to company compliance.  SB 496 extends whistleblower protections to employees with compliance duties and expands protected activity to include:

  1. Reports alleging a violation of a local rule or regulation; and
  2. Internal complaints to “a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has the authority to investigate, discover, or correct the violation or non-compliance.”

The new law also clarifies that retaliation is prohibited when the employer “believes the employee disclosed or may disclose information.”

Make sure to check out the first post in this series on new Wage and Hour Laws and Penalties.

Supreme Court Applies Tougher “But For” Standard to Title VII Retaliation Claims

By: William R. Horwitz

In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, decided June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court held that a plaintiff can no longer establish a retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), merely by demonstrating that retaliation was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision to fire, demote or otherwise take adverse action.  Instead, plaintiffs must demonstrate that retaliation was the “but for” reason for the employer’s adverse action.  In other words, plaintiffs must show that the adverse employment action would not have happened absent the employer’s unlawful retaliatory motive.  This holding makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail on Title VII retaliation claims.

Defendant University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (the “University”) and Parkland Memorial Hospital (the “Hospital”) entered into an “affiliation agreement” requiring all Hospital staff physicians to be employed by the University.  Plaintiff Naiel Nassar, a medical doctor, worked as a faculty member for the University and a staff physician for the Hospital.  Dr. Beth Levine was a supervisor.  During his employment, Nassar complained to Levine’s supervisor, Dr. Gregory Fitz, that Levine discriminated against Nassar on the basis of his ethnic heritage and religion.

Nassar ultimately resigned from the University and, in a letter to Fitz and others, accused Levine of harassing him because he was Arab and Muslim.  Although the Hospital had offered to continue employing him as a staff physician, it withdrew the offer when Fitz – unhappy about Nassar’s accusations against Levine – objected that employing a physician who was not employed by the University was inconsistent with the affiliation agreement.

Nassar filed a lawsuit in federal court in Texas asserting Title VII claims for race and religious discrimination, and retaliation.  After Nassar received a jury verdict in his favor on both counts, the University appealed.  With regard to the retaliation claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit held that Nassar had established that retaliation was a “motivating factor” in Fitz’s objection to the Hospital hiring Nassar.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the “motivating factor” standard.  According to the Court, “proof that the defendant’s conduct did in fact cause the plaintiff’s injury … is a standard requirement of any tort claim.”  Referring to this concept as a “default” rule, the Court explained that the rule applies “absent an indication to the contrary” in a statute.

Against this backdrop, the Court observed that Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of two different categories:  (1) “personal characteristics,” which are race, color, religion, sex and national origin; and (2) “protected employee conduct,” which is opposing or complaining about workplace discrimination.  Title VII addresses these two different categories in two separate statutory sections, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (personal characteristics) and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) (protected employee conduct).

According to the Court, in the personal characteristics section of Title VII, Congress clearly indicated that the motivating factor standard applies.  Indeed, the statute includes the phrase “motivating factor” and states that discrimination is prohibited “even though other factors also motivated the practice.”  Thus, the Court explained, Congress plainly indicated its intent that the motivating factor analysis applies to claims under this section.

In contrast, in the protected employee conduct section of Title VII, Congress did not use this language.  Instead, the section prohibits an employer from retaliating “because of” protected employee activity – language that the Court, when analyzing other statutes, has interpreted as meaning that the “but for” standard applies.

In reaching its decision, the Court declined to give deference to the guidance manual published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which reflected the agency’s view that the “lessened causation standard” applies to Title VII retaliation claims.  According to the Court, the EEOC’s reasoning “lack[ed] … persuasive force” and was “circular.”

The Court concluded that a plaintiff asserting a claim for retaliation under Title VII must present “proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.”  The Court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

For employers, the Nassar decision is good news.  As the Court noted, “claims of retaliation are being made with ever-increasing frequency” and applying the “motivating factor” standard advocated by Nassar could have “contribute[d] to the filing of frivolous claims.”  However, this decision only applies to retaliation claims under Title VII.  The decision does not alter the standard of proof for retaliation claims under other statutes – particularly state statutes – and employers should continue to exercise caution when taking action against an employer who has engaged in protected activity.

Bill Horwitz Article Published in New York Law Journal

An article by Florham Park counsel Bill Horwitz titled, “Second Circuit Adopts New Standard Involving Harassment by Non-Employees,” was published in the New York Law Journal.

Bill discussed the case of Summa v. Hofstra University, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit addressed the question of whether an employer is liable when non-employees harass its personnel and adopted a standard for answering it.

The case involved claims of sexual harassment and retaliation by a former part-time manager of Hofstra University’s football team, a graduate student named Lauren Summa. Bill says the decision, however, has implications “beyond the world of college sports and applies to harassing conduct by vendors, customers and other third parties.”

The Second Circuit held that Summa could not pursue her sexual harassment claims against the university because it promptly responded to her complaints about football players’ conduct and took appropriate remedial action. The court, however, allowed her retaliation claim to continue because Summa provided sufficient proof that her complaints about the football team influenced the university’s decision to ultimately terminate her employment.

Bill says the decision “serves as a reminder to employers that: (1) ensuring that employees do not engage in inappropriate conduct will not necessarily shield an employer from civil liability for harassment; and (2) preventing retaliation against an employee who complains about harassment may be as important as preventing harassment in the first place.”

Seventh Circuit Joins Ranks of Courts Holding that Internal Grievances about Employer Fiduciary Duty Breaches is Actionable Under ERISA Section 510

By: Mark E. Furlane

In Victor George v. Junior Achievement of Central Indiana Inc., decided September 24, 2012, the Seventh Circuit joined the Fifth and Ninth Circuits in holding that Section 510 of ERISA applies to unsolicited, informal grievances to employers.  The courts of appeals have disagreed about the scope of §510, and the Second, Third and Fourth Circuits have permitted Section 510 retaliation claims only where the person’s activities were made a part of formal proceedings or in response to an inquiry from employers (i.e., §510’s language does not protect employees who make “unsolicited complaints that are not made in the context of an inquiry or a formal proceeding.”).  Concluding that the language of Section 510 of ERISA was “ambiguous” and “a mess of unpunctuated conjunctions and prepositions,” the Seventh Circuit concluded that, “an employee’s grievance is within §510’s scope whether or not the employer solicited information.”  The court did, however, reiterate the high threshold to prevail on a Section 510 claim:  “It does ‘not mean that §510 covers trivial bellyaches—the statute requires the retaliation to be ‘because’ of a protected activity…. What’s more, the grievance must be a plausible one, though not necessarily one on which the employee is correct.”

Section 510 of ERISA prohibits retaliation “against any person because he has given information or has testified or is about to testify in any inquiry or proceeding relating to this [Act].”  Remedies for violation of that section are limited to “injunctive and other ―appropriate equitable relief,” which would not include back pay typically, but could include an injunction and reinstatement.  Attorney’s fees are also possible.  In the case, Victor George was a former vice president of Junior Achievement who sued his former employer alleging he was terminated after complaining that money withheld from his pay was not being deposited into his retirement and health savings accounts.  He complained to management, outside accountants, the board, the Department of Labor (although he did not file a complaint).  The District Court dismissed the case on summary judgment, holding George’s informal complaints to his employer did not constitute an “inquiry” under ERISA.  The appellate court reversed holding that George’s informal proceedings do trigger the statute’s protections.