Procedures to follow in investigating sexual harassment claims

Are you ready for the increase in minimum wage? Join us for a mid-year update on employment and corporate issues.

My firm is conducting a webinar on Thursday June 19, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. for a mid-year update on emerging employment law issues and the newly enacted LLC statute effecting most California Limited Liability Companies. 

For more information and to register, please complete the form below:

 

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Interviewed for KTLA news story about employers' use of social media in the workplace

I was interviewed for a news story that aired on KTLA here in Los Angeles about employer’s use of social media in evaluating applicants and employees. I’ve been writing and speaking about this topic for at least five years now, but given the pervasiveness of social media, the topic is only becoming more relevant with the increased use of social media today.

 Employers need to remember to keep a few items in mind regarding social media and the workplace. California passed a law, Labor Code section 980, effective January 1, 2013 that prohibits employers from “requiring or requesting” employees and applicants to provide their passwords to social media accounts. Can California employers monitor employees' internet usage under new Labor Code section 980?

Also, employers need to be aware of employee’s privacy rights. Can employers use employee's posts to social media as basis for employment decisions or would this violate an employee's right to privacy?

Finally, when a company encourages employees to use social media for work, there are some considerations the employer should take into account regarding the ownership of the social media accounts.

Generally speaking, employers may utilize social networking sites to conduct background checks on employees if:

  1. The employer and/or its agents conduct the background check themselves;
  2. The site is readily accessible to the public;
  3. The employer does not need to create a false alias to access the site;
  4. The employer does not have to provide any false information to gain access to the site; and
  5. The employer does not use the information learned from the site in a discriminatory manner or otherwise prohibited by law.
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Can employers use employee's posts to social media as basis for employment decisions or would this violate an employee's right to privacy?

Generally, employees have a privacy expectation in their personnel files, contact information, and work related information. However, this expectation of privacy is not limitless, especially when the employee publically airs his or her work experiences on social media sites for the public to see. Courts have held that employees can waive this right to privacy once they make disclosures in public for everyone else to read via social media networks.

For example, in a case not in the employment context, a California court reviewed the issue of whether an author who posts an article on myspace.com can state a cause of action for invasion of privacy and for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a person who submits that article to a newspaper for republication. The case, Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel, Inc. involved a college student who had moved away from her home town of Coalinga, California. She wrote “An ode to Coalinga” and posted it on her site on MySpace.com. The ode badmouthed her hometown. Six days after publishing it on MySpace, she took the writing off of the site, but the town’s high school principal submitted the writing to the local newspaper for publication. The newspaper republished the ode in the letters to the editor section and listed Moreno’s full name even though she only used her first name on her MySpace page. The ode must have contained some serious dirt on the city, as it resulted in death threats against Moreno’s family, and eventually forced her family to close a 20 year old business and move out of town.

Moreno sued for invasion of her privacy alleging that her post on MySpace was only supposed to be viewed by a few of her friends, and because she removed the post six days after publishing the article. The court rejected Moreno’s theory that the newspaper’s publication violated her right to privacy because her post to MySpace was made virtually to everyone with an Internet connection. The Court reasoned that, “[Moreno’s] affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material. As pointed out by appellants, to be a private fact, the expectation of privacy need not be absolute.” Therefore, the court held that “the fact [Moreno] expected a limited audience does not change the above analysis. By posting the article on myspace.com, [Moreno] opened the article to the public at large. Her potential audience was vast.” The court concluded that Moreno therefore could not asserted a cause of action for invasion of her right to privacy against the newspaper.

Even though this case is not involving employment information, a similar analysis would apply to an employee who posts information on social media about workplace issues. Once the employee places the information about his or her work circumstances on social media, this greatly reduces the employee’s privacy in the subject matter. However, an employer should be cautious, and use common sense in responding to such posts. For example, if an employee posts negative information about the company on social media, it would obviously not give the employer a right to disclose the employee’s health information and documents from the employee’s personnel file. Alternatively, if the employee posts about how bad an employer treated him or her, the employer would have the right to publically set the record straight with facts specific to rebut the allegations made by the employee.

Employers should use common sense in responding publically to an employee’s or former employee’s posts on social media and keep any discussions limited to the facts and issues raised by the employee. Furthermore, employers should approach situations with caution when an employee’s posts on social media are password protected and only friends of the employee can view the post. Hacking or gaining access to social media posts under false pretenses is most likely illegal, and would tilt the analysis back into the employee’s favor that the information was not disclosed to everyone and, therefore, would be considered private. In addition, employers may never retaliate against employees for making complaints via the internet or otherwise, and should be careful in making employment decisions based on employees’ complaints about workplace issues even if made on the Internet.

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Employee's medical marijuana use is not covered by disability laws

An employer is not required to allow employees to use medical marijuana as a reasonable accommodation under California’s Fair Employment Housing Act (FEHA). The California Supreme Court held that it is not a violation of California law for an employer to terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even though the employee was prescribed the marijuana for medical purposes under California’ Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

The case, Ross v. Ragingwire Telecommunications, Inc., addressed the conflict between California's Compassionate Use Act, (which gives a person who uses marijuana for medical purposes on a physician’s recommendation a defense to certain state criminal charges and permission to possess the drug) and Federal law (which prohibits the drug’s possession, even by medical users). Ragingwire terminated plaintiff’s employment based on a positive test for marijuana even through the plaintiff provided a doctor’s note explaining that he was prescribed marijuana to alleviate back pains.

The Supreme Court explained that the employer's decision to terminate plaintiff was not illegal:

Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees. Under California law, an employer may require preemployment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions. (Loder v. City of Glendale (1997) 14 Cal.4th 846, 882-883.)

Plaintiff’s position might have merit if the Compassionate Use Act gave marijuana the same status as any legal prescription drug. But the act’s effect is not so broad. No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law (21 U.S.C. §§ 812, 844(a)), even for medical users (see Gonzales v. Raich, supra, 545 U.S. 1, 26-29; United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, supra, 532 U.S. 483, 491-495). Instead of attempting the impossible, as we shall explain, California’s voters merely exempted medical users and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under two specifically designated state statutes. Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees.

The Court also provided that a reasonable accommodation, as required under California’s FEHA, does not include an employer’s permission to use illegal drugs:

The FEHA does not require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs. The point is perhaps too obvious to have generated appellate litigation, but we recognized it implicitly in Loder v. City of Glendale, supra, 14 Cal.4th 846 (Loder). Among the questions before us in Loder was whether an employer could require prospective employees to undergo testing for illegal drugs and alcohol, and whether the employer could have access to the test results, without violating California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (Civ. Code, § 56 et seq.). We determined that an employer could lawfully do both. In reaching this conclusion, we relied on a regulation adopted under the authority of the FEHA (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7294.0, subd. (d); see Gov. Code, § 12935, subd. (a)) that permits an employer to condition an offer of employment on the results of a medical examination. (Loder, at p. 865; see also id. at pp. 861-862.) We held that such an examination may include drug testing and, in so holding, necessarily recognized that employers may deny employment to persons who test positive for illegal drugs. The employer, we explained, was “seeking information that [was] relevant to its hiring decision and that it legitimately may ascertain.” (Id. at p. 883, fn. 15.) We determined the employer’s interest was legitimate “[i]n light of the well-documented problems that are associated with the abuse of drugs and alcohol by employees — increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, greater health costs, increased safety problems and potential liability to third parties, and more frequent turnover . . . .” (Id. at p. 882, fn. omitted.) We also noted that the plaintiff in that case had “cite[d] no authority indicating that an employer may not reject a job applicant if it lawfully discovers that the applicant currently is using illegal drugs or engaging in excessive consumption of alcohol.” (Id. at p. 883, fn. 15.) The employer’s legitimate concern about the use of illegal drugs also led us in Loder to reject the claim that preemployment drug testing violated job applicants’ state constitutional right to privacy. (Id. at pp. 887-898; see Cal. Const., art. I, § 1.)

(footnote omitted).

The plaintiff also alleged a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Generally, at-will employees can terminate or be terminated from their job at any time, but an employer cannot terminate an employee for reasons that violate a fundamental public policy of the state. The Court rejected plaintiff’s position that there was a fundamental public policy that permitted him to use medical marijuana and be under its influence while at work. The Court stated, “Nothing in the [Compassionate Use Act’s] text or history indicates the voters intended to articulate any policy concerning marijuana in the employment context, let alone a fundamental public policy requiring employers to accommodate marijuana use by employees."

A further clarification that medical marijuana use is not protected under disability laws came in 2012 from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that held individuals seeking to stop cities from closing medical marijuana dispensaries under Title II of the ADA were not protected by under the ADA.  The case is James v. City of Costa Mesa, which held that the ADA does not protect against discrimination on the basis of marijuana use, even though permitted under certain circumstances under California law, marijuana use is not authorized by federal law, and therefore is not protected under the ADA. It is therefore likely that a court would also recognize that a patron does not have a right under Title III of the ADA, which applies to public accommodations, to use medical marijuana in public establishments, like restaurants.

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Reminder To Carefully Draft Executive Agreements - Faigin v. Signature Group Holdings, Inc.

The judgment against the defendant for $1,347,000 in Faigin v. Signature Group Holdings, Inc. should be a good reminder for companies to have well drafted executive agreements. Faigin worked as General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer for Fremont General, a parent corporation. Defendant had various subsidiary companies that Faigin also worked for during his employment. Faigin entered into an employment contract with Fremont General. The agreement set forth that Faigin would be entitled to certain benefits if he was involved in an “involuntary termination.” If he was involuntarily terminated, as defined in the agreement, the company agreed to pay Faigin a lump sum equal to three years of his base salary.

After entering into the agreement with Fremont General, Faigin was appointed to interim President and Chief Executive Officer of FRC, a subsidiary of Fremont General. A short time after assuming these roles, Faigain was replaced at FRC. Faigin argued that his dismissal from his roles at FRC resulted in an involuntary termination under the term of his employment contract, entitling him to three years of his salary which exceeded $400,000 per year.

At trial, FRC argued that the employment agreement entered into with Fremont General did not apply to the situation arising out of Faigin’s employment with FRC because the agreement was only entered into with Fremont General, not FRC. The trial court agreed, and excluded any evidence of the employment agreement between Faigin and Fremont General. However, Faigin presented evidence that FRC created an implied-in-fact employment contract that he would only be terminated for good cause. As the court noted, an implied-in-fact employment contract can be established by showing the following:

The existence and content of such an agreement are determined from the totality of the circumstances, including the employer’s personnel policies and practices, the employee’s length of service, actions and communications by the employer reflecting assurances of continued employment, and practices in the relevant industry. The question whether such an implied-in-fact agreement exists is a factual question for the trier of fact unless the undisputed facts can support only one reasonable conclusion.

An implied-in-fact agreement to terminate only for good cause cannot arise if there is an express writing to the contrary, such as a written acknowledgement that employment is at will or an at-will provision in a written employment agreement. “There cannot be a valid express contract and an implied contract, each embracing the same subject, but requiring different results. [Citations.]”

(Citations omitted). The court stated that because the employment agreement with Fremont General fixed the term of employment at three years and did not provide that Faigin’s employment was at-will, this written agreement is not inconsistent with the jury’s finding of an implied-in-fact agreement existed.

The case shows how careful employers need to be in drafting executive compensation agreements, and especially if the executive is working for different subsidiaries of a parent company.

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Everyone Needs To Calm Down About Social Media And The Law

I would love to be able to tell my clients that the Internet and social media has created a very complex set of legal issues that requires them to hire me in order to help develop all new handbook policies, change the way they conduct background checks on applicants, and monitor their employees. However, unfortunately, this is not the case. Employers and employees need to calm down a bit. I cringe when I hear employment lawyers (and Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer recent comments about employers asking to have employee’s Facebook passwords) advising people to refrain from using the Internet to do background checks on applicants because it may reveal that they are in a protected category, and then this could (possibly) be grounds for a discrimination case. Are these same lawyers advising their clients not to conduct interviews because during a face to face interview the employer will learn the same information? And just because the employer knows that an applicant or employee is in a protect class does not mean that discrimination occurred if it takes an adverse employment action against the applicant or employee. Sure, all employers are subject to frivolous legal actions. But, as I tell my clients, there are only two things my clients and I can control: (1) the advice I give them about how to act according to the law, and (2) whether my clients listen to my advice and act accordingly. The one thing we cannot control, no matter how hard we wish we could, is being able to stop people from filing a baseless lawsuit.

We’ve had the Internet since the 1970’s, and it became mainstream in the 1990’s. I would argue that most people (at least in the U.S.) have had experience on the Internet for at least a decade now. There has not been a lot of case law that has changed the way employment lawyers advise their clients on new human resources policies given the advent of the Internet and social media.

Have the courts simply not caught up with these "new" developments?

As typical lawyers always suggests at this point - courts are slow to deal with emerging technology issues, but I don’t think that is a play here. Courts are slow, but we’ve been actively using the Internet for a decade now. They are not that slow, and I think rather that the rules that were already in place and governed employer’s and employee’s activities were and still are sufficient in addressing the vast majority of the employment issues involving the Internet and social media. Sure, on the fringes there are a few technical items that may be the exception to this, but for the vast majority of employers the Internet and social media does not change much about how HR should conduct itself. The basic analysis regarding monitoring and employee’s off work conduct and right to privacy – the issues usually at play in these types of cases – is the same if the conduct at issue was done off the Internet. I would even argue that privacy cases usually are easier when it involves a posting on the Internet, as no one has any reasonable expectation of privacy in such a public disclosure.

What about social media policies?

That usually leads to the next question, “What about social media policies?” Again, most employers probably don’t need a specific social media policy.  And a basic policy (if you really think a social media policy is necessary) that the employer may terminate or discipline an employee for anything they do on the Internet if the employer could terminate or discipline the employee if the conduct at issue did not occur on the Internet would normally be sufficient.

Employers, lawyers, and employees need to take a step back and realize that even though we have these great new technological advances, the law developed before this technology does a pretty good job at resolving these issues in the employment context.

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Can Employers Require Employees To Take Polygraph Tests In California?

Simple answer: No. Employers cannot require that employees take a polygraph test, but if the employee voluntarily agrees to take the test, and the employer makes certain disclosures to the employee, then the employer may administer a polygraph.

California Labor Code section 432.2 is the governing labor code section. It states:

432.2. (a) No employer shall demand or require any applicant for employment or prospective employment or any employee to submit to or take a polygraph, lie detector or similar test or examination as a condition of employment or continued employment. The prohibition of this section does not apply to the federal government or any agency thereof or the state government or any agency or local subdivision thereof, including, but not limited to, counties, cities and
counties, cities, districts, authorities, and agencies. 

(b) No employer shall request any person to take such a test, or administer such a test, without first advising the person in writing at the time the test is to be administered of the rights guaranteed by this section.

Therefore, employers may administer polygraph tests if the employees voluntarily agree to the test and are informed of their rights under Labor Code section 432.2. Employers need to be careful, however, as federal law may also apply. It also raises a difficult issue for the employer: What if the employee refuses to take the test? Under section 432.2 the employer cannot use this refusal to take the test as grounds to terminate the employee. If there is a termination, the employee would likely argue that it violated his or her rights under this section, and this would leave the employer in a difficult position in explaining why the termination occurred.
 

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Is The Jury Still Out On Social Media Background Checks?

Mat Honan at Gizmodo wrote recently about a new company that helps employers search applicant’s “internet background” to assist in the hiring process. As Mat rightly points out, much of the concern over this “new technology” is overblown, and as he puts it, "[e]mployers would have to be stupid not to Google job candidates."  As I have pointed out before, much of the unduly concern is that lawyers don’t understand the technology, and therefore if they don’t understand it, their client’s use of the technology can only lead to bad things.

I think Guy Kawasaki had a great perspective on this issue when I recently interviewed him. He said he would be worried about a job applicant who did not have a Facebook page: what is wrong with this person? Is he anti-social? Is he not with the times or just simply does not understand simple technology? As Mat points out as well, with some common sense a job applicant can easily manage the results of an online search by being careful about which information he or she provides to the employer. For example, an internet search for the job applicant’s private email address might turn up more personal information than if the applicant has a separate email they only use for work purposes and lists on their c.v.

From the employer’s perspective I don’t think the analysis changes much for searching employees background on the Internet:

Generally, under Federal law, employers may utilize social networking sites to conduct background checks on employees if:

  1. The employer and/or its agents conduct the background check themselves;
  2. The site is readily accessible to the public;
  3. The employer does not need to create a false alias to access the site;
  4. The employer does not have to provide any false information to gain access to the site; and
  5. The employer does not use the information learned from the site in a discriminatory manner or otherwise prohibited by law.
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Reader Question - Workplace Relationships

Q:  Is it "Illegal" to work with a relative as your co-worker or supervisor, or is it left up to the facility/business to make rules regarding how/who they hire as their employees?

There is nothing in California law that prohibits family members from working together. However, many companies institute non-fraternization or anti-nepotism policies as a safety measure to prevent work-place disputes that boil over from non-work relationships as well as to avoid claims of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, it is advisable for companies to have such policies.

One of the most problematic areas that arises is when two employees are dating, but the relationship goes sour. As you can imagine, this creates an awkward working environment that will take away from the employees’ productivity, in addition to exposing the company to a sexual harassment claim if one of the employees continues to pursue the other while at work. Also, if the relationship was between a supervisor and a subordinate, the company faces liability if the supervisor favors the person he/she is having the relationship with over other employees when making decisions about bonuses or promotions.

To avoid this problem, many companies have policies in place the either prohibit relationships at work, or some companies require the employees to disclose the relationship. Then the company can work with the employees to see if moving one or both employees to different divisions and/or locations within the company could prevent any potential problems should the relationship not workout in the future. Employers have to walk a fine-line however, because employees have an expectation of privacy about their personal lives while away from work, so employers cannot have too evasive policies. It is best to have a knowledge CA employment lawyer review the policy in advance.
 

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Medical Marijuana Raising New Employment Law Issues

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday about the difficulties employers are facing when employees are found to have marijuana in their systems while at work.  The article notes employees are asking if they could use their company-provided flex spending accounts to purchase the medical marijuana.  There are many issues that will have to be resolved in this newly developing area of the law.  However, in California, employers were given pretty clear guidance by the California Supreme Court in Ross v. Ragingwire Telecommunications, Inc. about employees' rights in the workplace when using medical marijuana. 

In Ross, the California Supreme Court held that it is not a violation of California law for an employer to terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even though the employee was prescribed the marijuana for medical purposes under California’ Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

The conflict in Ross v. Ragingwire Telecommunications, Inc. was between California's Compassionate Use Act, (which gives a person who uses marijuana for medical purposes on a physician’s recommendation a defense to certain state criminal charges and permission to possess the drug) and Federal law (which prohibits the drug’s possession, even by medical users). The employer in this case terminated plaintiff’s employment based on a positive test for marijuana even through the plaintiff provided a doctor’s note explaining that he was prescribed marijuana to alleviate back pains. 

The Supreme Court explained that the employer's decision to terminate plaintiff was not illegal:

Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees. Under California law, an employer may require preemployment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions. (Loder v. City of Glendale (1997) 14 Cal.4th 846, 882-883.)
Plaintiff’s position might have merit if the Compassionate Use Act gave marijuana the same status as any legal prescription drug. But the act’s effect is not so broad. No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law (21 U.S.C. §§ 812, 844(a)), even for medical users (see Gonzales v. Raich, supra, 545 U.S. 1, 26-29; United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, supra, 532 U.S. 483, 491-495). Instead of attempting the impossible, as we shall explain, California’s voters merely exempted medical users and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under two specifically designated state statutes. Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees.

The Court also provided that a reasonable accommodation, as required under California’s FEHA, does not include an employer’s permission to use illegal drugs:

 

The FEHA does not require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs. The point is perhaps too obvious to have generated appellate litigation, but we recognized it implicitly in Loder v. City of Glendale, supra, 14 Cal.4th 846 (Loder). Among the questions before us in Loder was whether an employer could require prospective employees to undergo testing for illegal drugs and alcohol, and whether the employer could have access to the test results, without violating California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (Civ. Code, § 56 et seq.). We determined that an employer could lawfully do both. In reaching this conclusion, we relied on a regulation adopted under the authority of the FEHA (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7294.0, subd. (d); see Gov. Code, § 12935, subd. (a)) that permits an employer to condition an offer of employment on the results of a medical examination. (Loder, at p. 865; see also id. at pp. 861-862.) We held that such an examination may include drug testing and, in so holding, necessarily recognized that employers may deny employment to persons who test positive for illegal drugs. The employer, we explained, was “seeking information that [was] relevant to its hiring decision and that it legitimately may ascertain.” (Id. at p. 883, fn. 15.) We determined the employer’s interest was legitimate “[i]n light of the well-documented problems that are associated with the abuse of drugs and alcohol by employees — increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, greater health costs, increased safety problems and potential liability to third parties, and more frequent turnover . . . .” (Id. at p. 882, fn. omitted.) We also noted that the plaintiff in that case had “cite[d] no authority indicating that an employer may not reject a job applicant if it lawfully discovers that the applicant currently is using illegal drugs or engaging in excessive consumption of alcohol.” (Id. at p. 883, fn. 15.) The employer’s legitimate concern about the use of illegal drugs also led us in Loder to reject the claim that preemployment drug testing violated job applicants’ state constitutional right to privacy. (Id. at pp. 887-898; see Cal. Const., art. I, § 1.)

(footnote omitted).

The Plaintiff also alleged a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Generally, at-will employees can terminate or be terminated from their job at any time, but an employer cannot terminate an employee for reasons that violate a fundamental public policy of the state. The Court rejected plaintiff’s position that there was a fundamental public policy that permitted him to use medical marijuana and be under its influence while at work explaining: “Nothing in the [Compassionate Use Act’s] text or history indicates the voters intended to articulate any policy concerning marijuana in the employment context, let alone a fundamental public policy requiring employers to accommodate marijuana use by employees."

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Waitress fired for Facebook post

This week the internet is buzzing about a waitress who was fired for making disparaging comments on Facebook about a customer.  It was inevitable, and if employers have not realized it yet, this story should bring the point home that social networking is yet another issue employers need to take a proactive step in managing.  This is also a wake up call for employment lawyers who have neglected to come up to speed on the new issues social networking present in the employment context. 

In California, a court has ruled that postings so social networking sites are not private (click here for post).  So while it would be difficult for an employee to have a claim for violation of privacy, employers should consider what they can and cannot do regarding information they learn about employees on the internet as well as conducting background checks on the internet. Some employers have even gone as far as asking prospective employees for their login information for social networking sites as part of the interview process

The lesson:

Social networking sites are here to stay.  It is time for employers to manage this issue by learning what they can legally do to protect the company's interest on the Internet.  Employees and individuals have to realize that the information posted on the Internet is usually discoverable by everyone - it is not only a conversation between friends. 

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Easier To Catch Liars

We are nearly at the point were everything we do is recorded.  Think no one knows where you are?  Wrong, your phone's GPS can be used to track your location without you knowing about it. 

Parties to lawsuits have not realized this new phenomenon either.  In almost every case I have litigated in over the last two years the parties' emails have played a critical role.  Why is that?  First, almost all communications are done through email.  Email drafted three years ago, and produced in the course of litigation has a lot of credibility because it recorded the facts as they existed at the time the writer sent the email.  It is is very hard to dispute those facts. 

Is This Good Or Bad?

It is good because it is that much easier to catch a lair these days.  It is also bad, because if you do not take the time to accurately draft an email - and your words could have two meanings - it could come back to bite you.  Seth Godin had some good advice today, and provided 8 tips that are well worth a review:

1. Change your settings so that email from you has a name, your name, not a blank or some unusual characters, in the from field. (ask a geek or IT person for help if you don't know how).
2. Change your settings so that the bottom of every email includes a signature (often called a sig) that includes your name and your organization.
3. Change your settings so that when you reply to a note, the note you're replying to is included below what you write (this is called quoting).
4. Don't hit reply all. Just don't. Okay, you can, but read this first.
5. You can't recall an email you didn't mean to send. Some software makes you think you can, but you can't. Not reliably.
6. Email lives forever, is easy to spread and can easily show up in discovery for a lawsuit.
7. Please don't ask me to save a tree by not printing your email. It doesn't work, it just annoys the trees.
8. Send yourself some email at a friend's computer. Read it. Are the fonts too big or too small? Does it look like a standard email? If it doesn't look like a standard, does this deviation help you or hurt you? Sometimes, fitting in makes sense, no?


It is also worth remembering how useful email can be as a tool to record facts as they exist on a certain day and time.  It is very easy to send yourself an email to record a discussion that took place - and this email will have a lot of credibility should that discussion ever be the center of lawsuit.

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Employee's Personal Data On Company Computers And Devices

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how employees are surprised after being given notice that they have been laid-off that they cannot retrieve personal (and business related) information from their computers. The author notes that with advances in technology that often times blur the boundaries between work and personal pursuits, many employees are hit really hard when they cannot retrieve their personal contacts from their work PDA or computer:

As layoffs sweep across industries, employees' personal information is winding up in the dustbin, as well. Most workers know better than to store personal files on their office computer. But employees who spend the majority of their time at the office often treat the company PC as their personal gadget, filling it with music, photos, personal contacts -- even using the computer's calendar to track a child's soccer schedule. That makes it all the more distressing when a newly laid-off worker learns that his digital belongings are company property.

The author correctly notes that what information is the employee’s as opposed to the employers is probably going to be set forth in and governed by the employer’s policies. Often times these policies will be provided to the employee when he or she first starts:

Employees worried about their job security should review the forms they signed when they were hired. They should look at the company's electronic communications policy, employee guidelines and non-compete agreements to make sure they understand everything properly. When employees sign these agreements, they should also make copies to save at home, too, Ms. Yancey says. Those that break these agreements risk being fired or sued by their employer, she adds.

It is important to note that in California, it is extremely difficult for employers to enforce non-competition agreements due to a California Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Arthur Andersen last year. California employers can still protect company information through other means, such as establishing that the information is a trade secret, or is proprietary information.

Steps California Employers Should Take To Avoid Litigation Over Electronic Data

  • California employers need to establish a clear policy that establishes that the employee does not have any privacy expectation in any data stored on company owned computers or devises.
  • The policy should establish that all aspects of an employee’s use of company equipment can be monitored.
  • Employers need to have the employees sign an acknowledgment of electronic data and monitoring policy.
  • The employer should remind employees of the electronic data policy at least every year.
  • If employers do have trade secrets, they need to maintain strict protocols to ensure that only employees with a “need to know” have access to the information and take steps to ensure that the information is protected.
  • If an employee who has been laid off requests personal information from his or her computer such as family pictures, an employer’s accommodation of this request will be somewhat of a step towards minimizing the employee’s ill-will towards the company (and less likely to pursue litigation against the company).
     
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Watch What You Say About Terminated Employees

In addition to wrongful termination claims brought by terminated employees, employers also face an additional cause of action for slander.  In a recent appellate decision, The Nethercutt Collection v. Regalia, the Plaintiff was terminated from his employment at a classic car museum. Regalia asserted causes of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, tortious interference with contract and advantageous business relations and opportunities, and slander. Regalia’s tortuous interference claim was dismissed prior to trial, and the jury rejected his wrongful termination claim. The jury found that Regalia had suffered no noneconomic damages, but still awarded him $750,000 in damages for harm to his reputation for statements made by Defendants about Regalia after he was terminated. Defendants appealed the jury’s finding.

Slander

The trial court focused on two statements made by the employer in this case for Regalia's slander claim. The first statement made by the employer was that Regalia demanded a finder’s fee for assisting the museum in acquiring a classic Talbot-Lago car worth $2.3 million, and that Regalia was not entitled to the fee. Second, the employer stated that other employees would not work for Regalia and would leave if he had remained employed.

Civil Code section 46 provides:

Slander is a false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means which: 1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime; 2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease; 3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits; 4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity; or 5. Which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.

A slander that falls within the first four subdivisions of Civil Code section 46 is slander per se and require no proof of actual damages. A Slander that does not fit into those four subdivisions is slander per quod, and special damages are required for there to be any recovery for that slander.

The appellate court rejected Regalia’s argument that the two statements at issue in the case are slander per se:

A person can make a claim for money that is rejected as not being justified, and still not be viewed as having committed an act that reflects negatively on that person. Thus a statement about such a claim does not necessarily “directly injure him in his profession, trade or business” (Correia v. Santos, supra, 191 Cal.App.2d at p. 852) so as to fit within subdivision (3) of Civil Code section 46. (See Gang v. Hughes (9th Cir. 1954) 218 F.2d 432 [alleged statements that a plaintiff’s attorney refused to settle a case until he was paid and that he was paid because he demanded immediate payment not slander or libel per se].) Likewise, the statement that Regalia was fired because other employees would not work for him and would leave if he remained employed does not, on its face, clearly fall within subdivision (3) of Civil Code section 46. That one or more employees do not want to work for someone, without more, again, does not necessarily reflect adversely on the person. The employee or employees might not want to work for a person because of the person’s work ethic or rectitude, or legitimate business policies. Those statements may by “natural consequence” cause plaintiff actual damages. (Civ. Code, § 46, subd. (5).) But that makes them slander per quod and requires proof of actual damages.

Therefore, the appellate court overturned the trial court because the jury specifically found that Regalia did not suffer actual damages.

Even though the employer succeeded in this case, it presents a good reminder to employers to be careful in communications to others about the reasons why certain employees were terminated. The best approach is to not discuss the reasons for an employee's termination with any employees in the organization unless they have a need to know.

The case can be viewed from the court's website for a short period of time in PDF or Word
 

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Less Discrimination Lawsuits Equals More Wage And Hour Lawsuits?

The WSJ recently reported, there is a trend that discrimination based lawsuits fair a lot worse than most other cases filed in federal court. A study found that discrimination cases lose at a higher rate and are more likely to be dismissed at early stages in the lawsuit. The article reports:

The odds against winning discrimination cases have some employee lawyers reluctant even to try. "We will no longer take individual employment-discrimination cases, because there's such a high likelihood of losing," New York plaintiffs' attorney Joe Whatley Jr. says. Job-discrimination case filings declined by 40% from 199Source: WSJ.com9 to 2007, federal court records show.

The article also points out that discrimination cases are dismissed more often at the summary judgment stage:

Even the federal courts have detected the pattern of more dismissals in discrimination cases, though they surmise different reasons for it than do plaintiffs' lawyers. A report last year by the Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal courts, found that judges nationwide terminated 12.5% of employment-discrimination cases through summary judgments, before the suits reached trial. In 90% of those cases, it was the employers who requested the summary judgment. In contrast, the study found, 3% of contract cases and 1.7% of personal-injury and property-damage suits were dismissed via summary judgments.

There can be a number of reasons for this as the article points out: employers settle bad cases before litigation and employers have implementing better policies and maintain better documentation to defend themselves against discrimination claims.

It is interesting to note that during this same time period that discrimination class are declining, there is a noticeable increased amount of wage and hour litigation. In fact, wage and hour lawsuits more than doubled in federal courts from 2001 to 2006.  No matter what the cause, discrimination cases are harder to bring, and harder to win. What replaced discrimination claims during this same time period? Wage and hour claims for violations of overtime pay, non-payment of wages, and not providing meal and rest breaks. 
 

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US Supreme Court Rules Title VII Anti-Retaliation Provision Applies To Statements Made During Investigations

Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who report workplace race or gender discrimination. The issue examined by the US Supreme Court in Crawford v. Metro Government of Nashville, was whether this protection extends to an employee who speaks out about discrimination not on her own initiative, but in answering questions during an employer’s internal investigation. The basic holding by the Supreme Court on the issue can be summed up the Court's statement:

Nothing in the statute requires a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when asked a question.

The Court explained Title VII’s two anti-retaliation provisions:

The Title VII antiretaliation provision has two clauses, making it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees . . . [1] because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or [2] because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e–3(a). The one is known as the “opposition clause,” the other as the “participation clause,” and Crawford accused Metro of violating both.

The lower court in the Sixth Circuit in this case held that the plaintiff could not satisfy the opposition clause because she had not “instigated or initiated any complaint,” but had “merely answered questions by investigators in an already-pending internal investigation, initiated by someone else.”

The Supreme Court rejected the lower court’s rational. The Court reiterated that under the Farragher/Ellerth defense, when no tangible employment action is taken against an employee, the employer may invoke a defense to the employee’s claim if it took reasonable care to prevent/correct and discrimination, and the employee failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the employer to prevent or to correct the discrimination. The Court explained that the lower court’s rational, if applied here would create a catch-22 for the employee:

The appeals court’s rule would thus create a real dilemma for any knowledgeable employee in a hostile work environment if the boss took steps to assure a defense under our cases. If the employee reported discrimination in response to the inquiries, the employer might well be free to penalize her for speaking up. But if she kept quiet about the discrimination and later filed a Title VII claim, the employer might well escape liability, arguing that it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct [any discrimination] promptly” but “the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of . . .preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

The Take-Away for Employers:

  1. Investigate all employee workplace complaints;
  2. Document the investigation well (such as who was spoken to, who conducted the investigation, and what was said);
  3. Take all reasonable steps to stop improper workplace conduct discovered during the investigation; and
  4. Ensure that no one who participates in the investigation is retaliated against for providing information during the investigation.

The Ohio Employment Law Blog and the Connecticut Employment Law Blog have also posted their great analysis on this case. 

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Lonely, Scared, Bitter & Defending Lawsuits

This graph is courtesy of Seth Godin.  Generous and calm are good business practices to abide by everyday, but I think employers need to especially remind themselves of this practice during these times. 

I would also like add another quality in the upper right hand corner - less litigation.  Angry and selfish employers leave employees no choice but to seek out a lawyer because they think they've been wronged (mistakenly or not). 

UPDATE: I revised the original image to include my comments:

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Trial Court's Discretion To Award Attorney's Fees To Prevailing Defendant

Laura Young was terminated after closing down a 24-hour service station for several hours, in violation of company policy, sued her employer and her supervisor, Angela Lopez (the station manager), alleging claims of harassment on the basis of mental disability, retaliation, and wrongful termination, among others.

The employer and supervisor won summary judgment, ending the case. Lopez, the supervisor personally sued by plaintiff, filed a motion for attorney fees under Government Code section 12965, contending that Exxon, on behalf of Lopez, incurred substantial attorney fees defending Young’s “unreasonable, frivolous, and meritless claims against Lopez individually.” Lopez sought $18,750 in attorney fees (which comprised ¼ of the total attorney’s fees in the case). The court agreed that plaintiff’s claims against the supervisor were frivolous, which entitled the supervisor reimbursement of attorney’s fees.  However, the trial court only awarded nominal attorney fees of $1.00. The supervisor appealed this ruling, seeking additional attorney’s fees.

In only allowing Lopez to recover $1.00 in attorney’s fees, the trial court noted that an award to Lopez “would actually be an award to Exxon, which does not claim [Young’s] claims against it were frivolous.” The trial court concluded this “does not seem right,” and awarded nominal attorney fees of $1.00.

The appellate court here up held the trial court’s nominal attorney fee award of $1.00. The court stated:

In actions under the FEHA, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party. (Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).) California courts have followed federal law, and hold that, in exercising its discretion, a trial court should ordinarily award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff, unless special circumstances would render an award of fees unjust. A prevailing defendant, however, should be awarded fees under the FEHA only “in the rare case in which the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” (Rosenman v. Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 859, 864 (Rosenman).) Rosenman cites the high court’s observation that the strong equitable considerations supporting an attorney fee award to a prevailing plaintiff – including that fees are being awarded against a violator of federal law, and that the federal policy being vindicated by the plaintiff is of the highest priority – are not present in the case of a prevailing defendant. (Id. at p. 865, citing Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978) 434 U.S. 412, 418-419 (Christiansburg).)

The appellate court approved that the trial court has discretion to set the amount of attorney's fees recoverable to a prevailing defendant, providing the following four reasons:

  1. That the Rosenman case sets the standard by which to measure the exercise of the trial court’s discretion in awarding attorney fees to a prevailing defendant in an FEHA case: namely, only in the “rare case” in which the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.
  2. As Exxon argued, there are many cases in which the courts have awarded attorney fees to prevailing parties who, like Lopez, are not actually liable for or have not incurred or paid fees. But in all those cases, the attorney fee award actually benefits the prevailing party or an entity which has provided the services and would otherwise not be compensated for them.
  3. There was no evidence that Exxon incurred fees on Lopez’s behalf that it would not have incurred had Lopez not been named as a defendant.
  4. As the Rosenman case instructs, the trial courts should “make findings as to the plaintiff’s ability to pay attorney fees, and how large the award should be in light of the plaintiff’s financial situation.”

The case, Young v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, can be downloaded from the court’s website here.
 

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What Is The Appropriate Amount For Severance?

While severance is not required under the law, many employers who are terminating or laying employees off voluntarily offer severance to employees. Usually, the severance is tied to a release of claims that the employee may have against the employer.

I am often asked about the amounts appropriate amounts of severance. The Connecticut Employment Law Blog recently quoted a study about the average weeks of severance for every year of employment offered to employees:

Voluntarily Separated:

  • Top Executives - 2.76 weeks
  • Senior Executives - 2.23 weeks
  • Department Heads/Managers - 1.55 weeks
  • Professional/Technical - 1.39 weeks
  • All other employees - 1.23 weeks

Involuntarily Separated:

  • Top Executives - 3.04 weeks
  • Senior Executives - 2.49 weeks
  • Department Heads/Managers - 1.78 weeks
  • Professional/Technical - 1.60 weeks
  • All other employees - 1.44 weeks

Also, employers in California usually ask the employee for a release of any known and unknown claims the employee may have against the employer. Under California Civil Code section 1542, an employee must specifically waive their right under section 1542 in order to be a valid release of unknown claims.  The agreement itself must recite Civil Code section 1542 and that the employee is waiving their right under this section.  It is also important that the document clearly specify the extent of the release.  For example, does it apply to the employment relationship or to specific claims the employee has asserted against the employer?
 

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