The DOL’s Made Some Changes to the FMLA; Is Your Policy in Compliance?

By: Amy Lauricella

Effective March 8, 2013, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) began enforcing a new Final Rule for interpreting the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”).  The DOL’s new Final Rule (published February 6, 2013) makes effective expanded military caregiver and qualifying exigency leave rights created by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010.   The Final Rule also incorporates an hours of service eligibility requirement created by the Airline Flight Crew Technical Corrections Act of 2009, a federal law which modified FMLA eligibility requirements for airline flight attendants and flight crew members, who largely had been excluded from protected leave due to their unconventional work schedules,

The bulk of the DOL’s Final Rule clarifies military qualifying exigency and service member caregiver leave.  Significant changes to the FMLA regulations resulting from the Final Rule include the following:

Extension of Military Caregiver Rights to Veterans:  The Final Rule implements statutory amendments to the FMLA that extend military caregiver rights to family members of veterans with serious injuries or illnesses.  Specifically, the regulations define a covered veteran as a member of the Armed Forces who has been discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable within five years prior to the date the employee’s leave.  The Final Rule adopts a flexible definition of a serious “injury or illness” for purposes of veteran military caregiver leave coverage.  Additionally, the Final Rule expands the definition of serious injury or illness for current service members to include preexisting conditions aggravated by service in the line of active duty.

Expansion of Qualifying Exigency Leave:  The DOL’s Final Rule extends qualifying exigency leave to eligible employees who are family members of military personnel of the Regular Armed Forces that are deployed to a foreign country.   The DOL Final Rule also expands qualifying exigency leave to add a “parental care” category.  Under this new category, an eligible employee may take qualifying exigency leave to care for a service member’s parent, who is incapable of self-care, in order for the eligible employee to:

  1. arrange for alternative care;
  2. provide care on an urgent, immediate need basis (but not on a routine, regular or everyday basis);
  3. admit or transfer the parent to a care facility; or
  4. attend meetings with staff at a care facility (but not for routine or regular meetings).

The need to provide parental care must arise directly out of the military member’s active duty status.  Additionally, under the DOL’s new regulations, eligible employees now may take up to fifteen (15) days, instead of five (5), for qualifying exigency leave related to their rest and recuperation.

Clarification of Leave Certification Process:  Prior FMLA regulations allowed certification of a service member’s serious injury or illness to be obtained only from representatives of the Departments of Defense or Veterans Affairs.  Other health care providers were excluded from certifying a service member’s serious injury or illness.  Under new FMLA regulations, any health care provider, even those unaffiliated with the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs or TRICARE, may provide required certification for an eligible employee to take military caregiver leave.

New FMLA Poster and Certification Forms:  The Final Rule approves a revised FMLA Employer Rights and Responsibilities poster and new certification forms for FMLA leave, including a new form for military caregiver leave to care for veterans.  The FMLA poster and certification forms, which are available on the DOL’s website, have been revised and updated to incorporate the new language of the FMLA regulations.

In light of these significant changes to FMLA regulations, employers need to revise their current FMLA policies and replace outdated posters and certification forms to bring them into compliance.  Employers can also expect an uptick in the number of employees requesting military–related FMLA leave, as the DOL’s new regulations have expanded existing leave rights to cover a greater number of eligible employees.

California Court of Appeal Finds Employment Arbitration Agreement Barring Class Claims Unconscionable

By: Fey Epling

In Compton v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. B236669 (2d Dist. Mar. 19, 2013), a divided panel of the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the Los Angeles Superior Court’s order compelling arbitration of her wage-and-hour class action complaint.

The Compton majority found the arbitration provision was substantively unconscionable because it was “unfairly one-sided” for four reasons.  First, the agreement exempted the employer from arbitration for injunctive relief on claims related to confidential information and trade secrets.  The majority did not find the carve-out of plaintiff’s claims for workers compensation, unemployment and disability claims sufficient to create parity.  Second, the majority found the imposition of a one-year time limit to arbitrate employee claims impermissibly shortened the applicable statutes of limitations; for a separate, but related reason, the court found this limitation was unfairly one-sided when compared with the three- and four-year statutes of limitation applicable to the unfair competition and trade secret claims preserved by the employer.  Finally, the majority found that the attorneys’ fees language undermined the employee-favorable statutory fee provisions.  Of some concern, the court declined to sever the offensive terms, finding the agreement to be “permeated by unconscionability.”

In an apparent effort to distance its opinion from AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 131 S.Ct. 1740 and its progeny, the Compton majority emphasized that the Concepcion opinion arose out of a consumer arbitration agreement.  The court specifically found that Concepcion “did not abrogate the Armendariz one-sidedness rule,” i.e., “the doctrine of unconscionability limits the extent to which a stronger party may, through a contract of adhesion, impose the arbitration forum on the weaker party without accepting that forum for itself.”  Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Servs. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, 118.

The Compton court found that the agreement was also procedurally unconscionable because, regardless of “how conspicuous the arbitration agreement’s terms and advisements,” the employer’s reported conduct (hurried presentation and signature requested) “rendered them nearly meaningless” and demonstrated oppression.  The court also found that the information provided was one-sided because it did not sufficiently set forth the rights that were being waived, and because the rules of the applicable arbitration bodies were not provided to the employees in toto.

As a procedural side note, the panel was divided even on the basis for consideration of the appeal.  The dissent found that the appeal was appropriate pursuant to the “death knell” doctrine, and the majority side-stepped the issue by addressing the issue as a petition for writ of mandate.

The dissent raises a host of issues and highlights the unsettled conflicts between the Concepcion line of cases and California’s unconscionability principles, which have arisen primarily in the context of employee and consumer lawsuits.

Given the strong language in Compton and the court’s refusal to strike out the offensive terms, California employers may wish to engage in a review of their arbitration agreements in light of the Compton majority’s opinion.

Editor’s Update:

On June 12, 2013, the Supreme Court granted defendant’s petition for review, but deferred all briefing and further action in the matter pending its disposition of Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co., S199119, the leading case on the related issue of whether the Federal Arbitration Act, as interpreted in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011) 563 U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1740, preempt state laws invalidating mandatory arbitration provisions in a consumer contract on grounds of procedural and substantive unconscionability.

NLRB Acting General Counsel Gets One Right

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

The NLRB’s Acting General Counsel has finally recognized that employees do not read every employer policy through a Section 7 lens.  In a Memorandum from the General Counsel’s Division of Advice dated February 28, 2013, the Acting GC found that Boeing Company did not interfere with or restrain Section 7 activity by maintaining an ethics policy Code of Conduct which prohibits employees from questioning the company’s honesty, morality or reputation.  Instead, the Memorandum concludes that reasonable employees would understand that the company’s Ethical Guidelines are aimed at matters of business ethics, not protected concerted activity.

While recent Board decisions give lip service to the requirements that phrases not be read in isolation, and that policies are unlawful only if employees “would reasonably construe” them as prohibiting Section 7 activity, all too often the opinions read as if the analysis was simply an academic exercise for labor lawyers to decide if the language could be construed as interfering with protected rights irrespective of the context in which they are found.  Refreshingly, that is not the case in the Boeing Company Memorandum.

Boeing’s Ethical Guidelines is a forty-three page statement of the company’s business ethics, and sets forth the policies and standards by which the company and its employees are expected to conduct themselves as a government contractor.  In the one-page Code of Conduct preamble, the company sets forth its own expectation for conducting business with highest standard of ethics and integrity, and mandates that employees meet that standard: “Employees will not engage in conduct or activity that may raise questions as to the company’s honesty, impartiality, reputation or otherwise cause embarrassment to the company.”  The preamble Code of Conduct does not contain any limiting disclaimers or clarifying examples to explain that it is not intended to interfere with or restrict Section 7 rights.  Nevertheless, the Acting GC determined that employees would understand that the Code does not interfere with their rights because the “broader framework” of the forty-three page Guidelines contains examples of the type of conduct – such as bribery or insider trading – that would undermine the company’s reputation for integrity.  In other words, context matters even where the context requires reading the policy as a whole, and even where there are no clarifying examples or disclaimers connected with the prohibitions at issue.  We can only hope the Acting General Counsel continues to apply the rule that policy statements should not be read in isolation, and continues to recognize that employees “would reasonably” understand the context in which prohibitions are contained.

Former Executive’s Race to California Hits a Roadblock in New York

By: David J. Woolf

Like many things in life, there is a perceived formula for success in non-compete cases:  If you are the former employee or his or her new or would-be new employer, conventional wisdom dictates that you identify the restrictions early and consider filing a preemptive declaratory judgment action in a state that is hostile to such agreements (provided the facts permit).  California is the most well-known example, but there are others.  The plan works best if the former employee lives in California (or similarly hostile state) or has other significant connections by virtue of his past or intended future employment.  But now, a New York appellate court has thrown conventional wisdom a curve.

Michael Cusack and Peter Arkley were former Aon executives.  They left Aon on June 13, 2011 to pursue lucrative opportunities with a competitor, Alliant Insurance Services.  The same day, 38 other Aon employees also left, and 22 more followed shortly thereafter.  Aon’s clients came too, with over $20 million in client revenue allegedly flowing from Aon to Alliant.

Arkley and Cusak, along with Alliant, following the familiar formula, filed for a declaratory judgment to invalidate their restrictive covenant agreements in California federal court on the same day they resigned.  Arkley’s chances of success in California seemed particularly good because, although his employment agreement was governed by Illinois law, he both lived and worked in California, and he planned to continue to do so with Alliant.

Aon responded by filing suits in Illinois and New York state courts, and found success in New York in particular.  The New York trial judge, undeterred by the action in California and Arkley’s California connections, enjoined him soliciting business from, and entering into any business relationship with, any of Aon’s clients whom he either procured or whose accounts he worked on in the 24 months prior to his departure.  She also enjoined him from soliciting any Aon employees to work for Alliant.

In January, a New York appellate court affirmed.  The court rejected Arkley’s calls to defer to the first-filed California action, calling it “a preemptive measure undertaken to gain a tactical advantage so as to negate the force and effect of the restrictive covenants, which the parties had freely agreed upon.”  The New York court seized upon the fact that the parties’ agreement had selected Illinois law to govern and held that Illinois law provided for enforcement.

Although the outcome was arguably an unusual one insofar as a New York court entered an injunction against someone who lived and worked in California and intended to do so in his new employment, so too were the facts involved, on many levels.  First, the conduct at issue was particularly egregious in that it involved, among other things, former employees allegedly taking the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of printed pages of documents, including highly-sensitive documents; a coordinated departure strategy that included filing a declaratory judgment action in California within an hour of the key executives’ resignations; a mass exodus of both employees and clients; and alleged violations of an earlier-issued temporary restraining order.  Second, the executives involved were high-level employees, who received seven-figure compensation from Aon, at least in part in consideration of the very restrictions they sought to avoid.  Third, the restrictive covenants at issue were not blanket non-competes, but rather restricted the executives from disclosing confidential information, from calling on the customers that they serviced for Aon, and from soliciting other Aon employees for employment.  In different circumstances, involving lower-level employees, who are alleged to have engaged in less egregious conduct and/or who are subject to broader restrictive covenants, the former employer may not fare as well.

Still, the takeaways are unmistakable.  First, choice of law is critical, and an employer loses a tactical advantage when it fails to select a state law that, if not favorable to it, at least gives it a fair shot.  Second, living and working in California is not the end all be all, and racing into a California court does not guarantee the former employee and his new employer freedom from the employee’s post-separation obligations.  Solid facts and a solid agreement, presented in a jurisdiction that follows a more traditional approach to restrictive covenants, can still result in success for the former employer.

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)

Second Circuit Rejects Application of McDonnell Douglas to New York City Human Rights Law – But Grants Summary Judgment Under More Lenient Analysis

By: William R. Horwitz

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently affirmed a district court’s summary judgment dismissal of a lawsuit that an attorney filed against her former employer alleging race discrimination under federal, state and New York City law.  In Simmons v. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 1571 (2d Cir. 2013), the Court explained that the trial court had erroneously applied the McDonnell Douglas analysis to a New York City Human Rights Law claim, rather than only to the federal and state claims.  Nonetheless, the Second Circuit concluded that the trial court properly dismissed all of the claims.

Plaintiff Tameka Simmons worked as an associate for defendant law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP (“Akin Gump”), from 2007 to late 2009.  In 2009, the firm was “experiencing significant economic difficulties.”  For economic reasons, Akin Gump laid off forty-seven attorneys in March 2009.  In April 2009, the firm announced deferred start dates for incoming associates.  In June 2009, the firm converted a full-time associate to an hourly employee.  At the end of 2009, the firm discharged Simmons.

Simmons filed a lawsuit against Akin Gump in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Her claims included race discrimination in violation of:  (1) Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981; (2) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; (3) the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law § 296; and (4) the New York City Human Rights Law, NYC Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq.  After discovery, Akin Gump filed a motion for summary judgment.  The district court granted the motion, dismissing the lawsuit in its entirety.  Simmons appealed.

The Second Circuit analyzed the federal and state claims under the “burden-sifting framework” of the McDonnell Douglas case.  In so doing, the Court considered whether Simmons could establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing:  (1) that she was a member of a protected class; (2) that her job performance was satisfactory; (3) that she experienced an adverse employment action; and (4) “circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination” based on her membership in the protected class.

The Court concluded that Simmons could not establish the fourth prong of the analysis, because no evidence gave “rise to a reasonable inference of discrimination due to her race.”  According to the Court, the evidence demonstrated that Akin Gump terminated her employment solely for economic reasons.

In any event, the Court explained, even if Simmons had been able to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, she could not have satisfied the next step in the McDonnell Douglas analysis, which was demonstrating that the firm’s proffered reason for her termination was pretextual.  To satisfy this burden, Simmons would have had to present “sufficient evidence to support a rational finding that the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons proffered by [the firm] were false, and that more likely than not discrimination was the real reason for the employment action.”  The Court acknowledged that Simmons provided “some evidence” – such as the “low percentage of African-American associates” in her department of the firm – but it was insufficient.  According to the Court, “[n]o reasonable jury could have found, on this record, that Simmons was selected for the reduction-in-force at least in part because of her race.”

The Second Circuit then turned to Simmons’ claims under the New York City Human Rights Law.  The Court explained that the New York City law “was intended to provide a remedy reaching beyond those provided by the counterpart federal civil rights laws.”  Accordingly, under the City law, Akin Gump could only obtain summary judgment by “showing that, based on the evidence before the court and drawing all reasonable inferences in [favor of Simmons], no jury could find that [Akin Gump] treated Simmons ‘less well’ than other employees at least in part because of her race.”

The Second Circuit observed that the district court had erred in failing to apply this more lenient analysis.  Nonetheless, even under this analysis, the Second Circuit concluded that Simmons could not maintain her claim.  The Court concluded that “Simmons failed to raise a triable issue as to whether she was treated less well than other employees based in whole or in part on discrimination, and not because of the non-discriminatory reasons proffered by [Akin Gump].”

As the Simmons v. Akin Gump case makes clear, the analysis that courts apply to discrimination claims under the New York City Human Rights Law is more lenient than the analysis under federal and state anti-discrimination laws.  Employers with New York City employees should be aware of the more liberal analysis, but understand that – even under this analysis – courts will dismiss claims as long as employers can provide adequate support for their decisions.  The keys to this effort include maintaining clear policies and documenting reasons for employment decisions.