Harassment and discrimination

Earlier this week I attended Restaurant Day at the State Capitol with the California Restaurant Association.  It is great to work with restaurant owners and operators in communicating the issues and realities of running a business in California.  If you have never participated in meeting with your local, state, or federal legislator, I highly recommend doing so.  It is a great learning experience, and even though the legislator may not agree with your position, it is a great process to engage your representative and to support your positions.  Given the recent experience, this Friday’s Five focuses on five proposed bills on employment that California businesses must be aware of (and a link at the bottom on how to contact your state representative):

1. AB 2841 (Gonzalez Fletcher) proposes to increase paid sick leave from 24 hours/3 days to 40 hours/5days of paid time off.

California currently requires employers to provide at least 24 hours/three days of paid sick leave to employees (click here for a prior article about California’s paid sick leave requirements).  This proposed bill would increase the amount of paid sick leave days to 5 days/40 hours of paid sick leave. Also, don’t forget about local county and city requirements that may differ from the state requirement.

2. AB 2613 (Burk) proposes to make employers and officers personally liable for additional penalties for wage violations.

The bill proposes to make employers and their officers personally liable for an additional penalty of $200 per employee, per pay period for wages that are not paid on time.  The bill makes it clear that these proposed penalties “are in addition to, and entirely independent and apart from, any other damages or penalties provided for under this code.”

3. AB 2069 (Bonta) proposes to make medical marijuana card holders a protected class under the Fair Employment and Housing Act

This proposed bill would make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person if the discrimination is based upon the person’s status as a qualified patient or person with an identification card entitled to the protections of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 or the use of cannabis for medical purposes.

The bill makes the medical use of marijuana a protected disability under state law: “When used to treat a known physical or mental disability or known medical condition, the medical use of cannabis by a qualified patient or person with an identification card, as those terms are defined in Section 11362.7 of the Health and Safety Code, shall be subject to reasonable accommodation, including the use of the interactive process.”

Many employers are concerned that providing protections to employees who use marijuana will lead to safety issues at work whereby employees under the influence hurt other employees, customers, or by standards.  Currently, the use of marijuana is not a protected category, as it is still illegal to use under federal law.

4. AB 3080 (Gonzalez Fletcher) proposes to ban employers from restricting employees from disclosing any sexual harassment settlements and bars the use of arbitration agreements in the employment context.

AB 3080 would prohibit employers from entering into contracts that do not allow the employee from disclosing “an instance of sexual harassment that the employee “suffers, witnesses, or discovers in the workplace.”

The bill also prohibits the use of mandatory arbitration agreements in the workplace.  Many employers are utilizing arbitration agreements as a quicker and less costly method of resolving workplace disputes.  The bill, in its current form, would still allow the use of voluntary arbitration agreements.  However, opponents to the bill argue that banning the use of arbitration agreements would run afoul of the Federal Arbitration Act, would be preempted by this federal law.

5. SB 1284 (Jackson) proposes to require companies to disclose pay data reports to the state.

SB 1284 would require employers with 100 or more employees to submit a pay data report to the Department of Industrial Relations.  The report would need to include information such as the number of employees by race, ethnicity, and sex listed by their job categories, and the number of employees “whose annual earnings fall within each of the pay bands used by the United State Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Occupation Employment Statistics survey.”

There are other employment law bills being debated, but I thought these were the top five that employers should be aware of as of April 2018.  Please check back for updates.

Click here for information about how to locate and contact your state representative.

Clients come to my firm often frustrated by California employment laws and their complexity, the raising costs of doing business in California (such as the higher minimum wage), and the legal system in general.  I have to agree that California poses one of the most difficult business environments businesses have to operate within, but I come back to thinking that many of the issues the clients voice frustration with can be managed if they are given the tools to do so.  This Friday’s Five lists five things every employment attorney should tell their California clients:

1. Litigation is expensive (and no, I’m not just talking about legal fees).

Two lessons here:  1) Don’t approach litigation with the attitude that you are fighting for principle (unless you have unlimited resources), and 2) focusing on human resources/policy development/legal compliance before litigation (see #5 below) can help prevent litigation and save resources.  For most businesses, litigation should be avoided, but to the extent it cannot be avoided, companies should usually view the transaction not as a personal vendetta, but as a business transaction.  Executives should weigh the costs of litigation versus the benefits just as they do in any other business decisions to determine whether to litigate the case or make an attempt at settlement.  But don’t approach this decision based on any attorney’s advice that litigation can be completed fast and inexpensively.  As there are defense costs, but as just or possibly costlier is the time and effort that the company and its managers and employees will have to spend defending the litigation instead of running the business.  This is often a hidden cost that must be taken into consideration.

2. Treating people with respect will likely result in less litigation.

I understand, it seems like California employment law is always adding new requirements on employers that are difficult to comply with.  However, with a small amount of time and attention, most of the issues that present the largest amounts of potential liability for employers can easily be managed.  But for the few occasions when it is legally unclear about what action the company should take, or if legal counsel cannot be reached in time for a decision where the law is not clear, employers that treat the employee with respect will usually avoid litigation.  I believe that, for the most part, employees understand that employers/managers/supervisors must make difficult decisions.  When the employee is treated with respect during a difficult employment decision, even though they might not like the decision, they will probably understand why it was made, and most likely will not hold a grudge against the company.

3. When in doubt, document.

As a litigator, the worse feeling I have is when the employer provides me with an employee personnel file for a problem employee, but the personnel file contains less than a few pages.  Employers’ primary defenses to many employment lawsuits will be won or lost on the documentation created and maintained by the employer.  The employee that believes they were wrongfully terminated will face a much tougher case if there were a dozen documented performance write-ups in their file setting for the date and examples of what the employee did or failed to do.  For additional information, see my prior post, Five best document storage and retention practices for California employers.

4. Train front line managers and supervisors.

A company’s managers and supervisors are the eyes and ears of the company.  They must be well trained about what issues can create legal liability for the company, as well as be trained in new developments in the law (for example, so they are not asking about criminal histories during the interview process since the beginning of 2018) and are trained about how to be managers (and treat people with respect).  This training for managers/supervisors is the difference between a good and a great company.

5. A small investment in human resources will provide a return.

As I wrote about last week, human resource departments need to have a more critical role in organizations and should be viewed on the same level as marketing and finance departments.  Giving HR managers budgets to proactively update policies, handbooks, and training sessions for managers will provide a positive return to the company.  Now it may not be an immediate net gain on the financials, but if one lawsuit is avoided because of the proactive measures put into place, this will be money well spent (see item #1).

If an employee is injured and is unable to work overtime (i.e., over 8 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week), can an employer terminate the employee?  Potentially.  Employers may terminate employees who are unable to work overtime if this is an essential duty of the position.  This Friday’s Five reviews when being able to work overtime can be an essential duty of a position:

1. Disability discrimination under California and Federal law

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) makes it an “unlawful employment practice” “[f]or an employer, because of … physical disability … of any person … to discharge the person from … employment.” (Gov. Code § 12940, subd. (a)).

Similarly, the Federal ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against any “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112.  In evaluating discrimination claims under both the ADA and FEHA, courts apply the McDonnell Douglas three-part burden-shifting framework. Raytheon Co. v. Hernandez, 540 U.S. 44, 49 (2003) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)); Guz v. Bechtel Nat’l, Inc., 8 P.3d 1089, 1113 (Cal.2000). Under the McDonnell Douglas test, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination.  If established, then the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for the challenged action.  Finally, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the employer’s asserted reason is pretextual.

2. Unable to perform “essential duties” with a reasonable accommodation

There are certain exceptions to an employer’s liability for disability discrimination. For example, an employer may discharge an employee with a physical disability or medical condition where the employee, because of that physical disability or medical condition, “is unable to perform his or her essential duties even with reasonable accommodations, or cannot perform those duties in a manner that would not endanger his or her health or safety or the health or safety of others even with reasonable accommodations.” (Gov. Code § 12940, subds. (a)(1), (a)(2).)

So the question often turns then on what is an essential duty?  The identification of essential job functions is a “ ‘highly fact-specific inquiry.’ ” (Lui v. City and County of San Francisco (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 962, 971.)

Evidence of whether a particular job duty is essential includes the following:

  1. The employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential;
  2. Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job;
  3. The amount of time spent on the job performing the function;
  4. The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function;
  5. The terms of a collective bargaining agreement;
  6. The work experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or
  7. The current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.

29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3); see also Cal. Gov’t Code 12926(f)(2).  In making this determination, a jury will likely look at the job advertisement and the job description for the position at issue.  The jury would also likely review past job performance to see if the employee or others in similar job position routinely were required to work overtime.  In addition, if the employee works in the position and as an accommodation initially the employer attempts to accommodate the work restriction of no overtime, did the employee perform well?  Were there any complaints from customers?  Was all work completed?

3. Overtime can be an essential function of a job

Many courts have held that an employer’s requirement that the employee must be able to work overtime can be an essential function of a job.  Therefore, if the employee is unable to work overtime, the employee cannot assert a disability discrimination claim.  For example, in Rincon v. Am. Fed’n of State, Cnty, & Mun. Employees (N.D. Cal. Aug. 13, 2013) 2013 WL 4389460 the court granted summary judgment where the plaintiff was unable to work extended hours, which was an essential function of her union organizer job.  Also, in Davis v. Florida Power & Light Co. (11th Cir. 2000) 205 F.3d 1301, 1305–1306 the court found that where mandatory overtime work was an essential function of plaintiff employee’s position, summary judgment was properly granted for the employer, an electrical company, on the employee’s disability discrimination claim (“overtime is the tool that gets that work done”).   In Tjernagel v. Gates Corp. (8th Cir. 2008) 533 F.3d 666, 673, summary judgment was properly granted in favor of the employer where plaintiff was unable to perform essential function of overtime, which was an explicit requirement according to job description.

4. Employers must engage in the interactive process

In determining whether an employee’s disability can or cannot be accommodated, the employer is required to engage the employee in the good faith interactive process.  The Department of Fair Employment and Housing sets forth that this includes the following:

  • Employers must evaluate job applicants regardless of their actual or perceived disabilities. They can’t ask about the nature or severity of disabilities nor can they require an applicant to take medical or psychological exams that aren’t routinely given to other prospective hires.
  • Employers may ask an applicant about his/her ability to perform job-related functions and respond to a request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Employers may (but do not have to) ask for medical certification of an employee’s or applicant’s need for reasonable accommodation.
  • If there is a question of what accommodation is possible or whether it will allow an employee or applicant to do the job, employers are required to engage in a timely, good faith interactive process with the person who needs support to do a job or his or her representative. This process can clarify what job functions are essential, what accommodations are possible, and whether accommodating an employee with disability will be an “undue hardship” to the business operation.

5. Job descriptions are essential

The analysis above should make it clear to employers that written and accurate job descriptions are essential.  Job descriptions should be carefully drafted and updated on a regular basis so that they can be utilized in establishing the essential duties of a job in disability litigation.

California employment law is a mind field that carries huge exposure for employers not proactively monitoring legal developments and potential legal issues.  There are some statements employers in California should never make, and this Friday’s Five reviews misaligned statements that can create significant liability for an employer.

1. My company has employment practices liability insurance, so there cannot be much exposure from employment lawsuits.

In California, it is very common for insurance companies to exclude wage and hour claims from the employment practices liability (EPLI) coverage.  This applies to single plaintiff and class action claims and representative claims under California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA).  This is a significant area of potential exposure for employers, and therefore, the costs and benefit analysis of an EPLI policy must take these considerations into account.

Moreover, under California law an insured cannot buy insurance to cover willful acts.  See Insurance Code section 533.  Therefore, if the employment lawsuit alleges willful acts, it is also likely not going to be covered by insurance.

Employers should seek coverage counsel to assist in reviewing the exclusions and limitations of any EPLI policies prior to purchasing in order to completely understand the coverage that is being purchased for the cost of the policy.

2. I’m busy right now, can you tell me about your workplace complaint tomorrow?

California employers have a legal obligation to conduct workplace investigations.  California Government Code section 12940(j) provides that it is “unlawful if the entity, or its agents or supervisors, knows or should have known of this conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”  The law also provides that employers are liable if they “fail to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.”  Gov. Code section 12940(k).  If the employer fails to take the preventative measures, they can be held liable for the harassment between co-workers.  If the harassment occurs by a manager, the company is strictly liable for the harassment.  If the harassment occurred by a non-management employee, the employer is only liable if it does not take immediate and appropriate corrective action to stop the harassment once it learns about the harassment.  Investigations must follow certain parameters in order to be deemed adequate under the law.  Click here for more information about conducting adequate investigations.

3. There is no need for our company to record meal breaks, all of the employees know that they can take breaks whenever they want.

Meal breaks taken by the employees must be recorded by the employer. However, there is no requirement for employers to record 10-mintute rest breaks.  For more information about meal and rest break obligations, see my previous article.

4. Our company’s handbook is current, it was updated four years ago.

Any California employer can attest, the employment legal landscape changes on a yearly (if not more often basis).  Employers should have someone well versed on employment law reviewing the employee handbook on at least a yearly basis.

5. I’m sure my payroll company is issuing compliant pay stubs.

Employers are cautioned not to rely on their payroll companies for compliant itemized wage statements, as these companies often times do not understand the legal requirements of the Labor Code. Ensuring the required information is properly listed on the itemized wage statements is an item that employers should review at least twice a year for compliance.

Labor Code Section 226(a) requires the following information to be listed on employees’ pay stubs:

  1. Gross wages earned
  2. Total hours worked (not required for salaried exempt employees)
  3. The number of piece-rate units earned and any applicable piece rate if the employee is paid on a piece rate basis
  4. All deductions (all deductions made on written orders of the employee may be aggregated and shown as one item)
  5. Net wages earned
  6. The inclusive dates of the period for which the employee is paid
  7. The name of the employee and the last four digits of his or her social security number or an employee identification number other than a social security number
  8. The name and address of the legal entity that is the employer
  9. All applicable hourly rates in effect during the pay period, and the corresponding number of hours worked at each hourly rate by the employee

Here is an example of an itemized wage statement published by the DLSE.

Also, do not forget that under California’s paid sick leave law that went into effect on July 1, 2015 employers have additional reporting information regarding employees’ accrued paid sick leave and usage. Employers must show how many days of sick leave an employee has available on the employee’s pay stub or a document issued the same day as a paycheck.

Companies are ultimately liable for these violations, so it is best to double check your payroll company’s work to ensure compliance.

Plaintiff Ketryn Cornell began working part-time for the Berkeley Tennis Club as a lifeguard and pool manager in 1997, while attending college at UC Berkeley. She was employed as a night manager and continued to work at the Club after graduating from college in 2001.  In 2011, she took on additional duties and began working as a night manager, day manager, and tennis court washer. She received positive reviews, merit bonuses, and raises throughout this period.

The Club employed a new general manager in 2012.  The new manager implemented a uniform policy.  While mandating the staff to wear uniform shirts, the largest sized ordered by the club did not fit Cornell.  Cornell was obese, at five feet, five inches tall, she weighed over 350 pounds.  Cornell explained to the general manager that she needed a bigger size, and he reported that he would work on providing an appropriate uniform.  However, it is unclear if he attempted to find shirt Cornell could fit.  Taking upon herself, Cornell ordered shirts from a specialty shop at her own expense and had them embroidered with the Club logo.

Cornell filed a lawsuit in May 2014, asserting causes of action for various Labor Code violations and the eight causes of action that were at issue on the appeal, which included disability discrimination/failure to accommodate under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), wrongful discharge in violation of public policy based on the disability discrimination, disability harassment under the FEHA, and retaliation under the FEHA.  This Friday’s Five reviews five takeaways for California employers arising from this disability discrimination decision:

1. Obesity can qualify as a physical disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Under FEHA, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of “physical disability.” (Gov. Code, § 12940, subd. (a).)  In addition to making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability, the FEHA makes it unlawful “to fail to make reasonable accommodation for the known physical . . . disability of an . . . employee.” (§ 12940, subd. (m)(1).)  Finally, the FEHA prohibits an employer from harassing an employee “because of . . . physical disability.” (§ 12940, subd. (j)(1).)

The Club moved for summary adjudication of the discrimination/failure to accommodate claim and the harassment claim on the basis that Cornell’s obesity is not a physical disability under FEHA. The Club also argued that even if Cornell has a condition protected by the FEHA, she did not require an accommodation and was not terminated for a discriminatory reason, and the Club’s actions were not severe or pervasive enough to constitute harassment.

Cornell argued that her obesity qualified as an actual physical disability because it is a “physiological disease, disorder, condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss that does both of the following: [¶] (A) Affects one or more of the following body systems: neurological, immunological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, including speech organs, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine. [¶] (B) Limits a major life activity.” (Government Code § 12926, subd. (m)(1).)

In Cassista v. Community Foods, Inc. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 1050 (Cassista), the California Supreme Court held “that weight may qualify as a protected `handicap’ or `disability’ within the meaning of the FEHA if medical evidence demonstrates that it results from a physiological condition affecting one or more of the basic bodily systems and limits a major life activity.” (Id. at p. 1052.) Interpreting the same statutory language as currently found in section 12926, subdivision (m)(1)(A), and relying on federal antidiscrimination law for guidance, the Court concluded that “an individual who asserts a violation of the FEHA on the basis of his or her weight must adduce evidence of a physiological, systemic basis for the condition.” (Cassista, at pp. 1063-1065.)

The court set forth the definition of “physiological”:

Rather, the pertinent question is whether a genetic cause qualifies as a “physiological cause.” “Physiological” means “relating to the functioning of living organisms.” (Oxford English Dict. Online (3d ed. Mar. 2006) [as of Dec. 21, 2017 [physiological].) This term encompasses genetics, and the Club does not argue otherwise. We therefore reject the implication that Cornell cannot establish her claim by proving that her obesity has a genetic cause.

The Court found that Cornell’s testimony that other doctors hand determined that her obesity was caused by genetics, and the fact that those doctors were not deposed, was enough evidence for Cornell to overcome the employer’s motion for summary judgment and proceed to trial on this claim.

2. Even if others were involved in decision to terminate, plaintiff can still maintain a discrimination cause of action if person alleged to have discriminated against plaintiff was involved in the termination decision.

The employer in this case argued that the general manager who was alleged to have discriminated against Cornell was not the only person involved in the decision to terminate her, but that other supervisors were involved, and therefore the decision could not have been discriminatory.  The court rejected this argument in holding:

“[S]howing that a significant participant in an employment decision exhibited discriminatory animus is enough to raise an inference that the employment decision itself was discriminatory, even absent evidence that others in the process harbored such animus.” (DeJung v. Superior Court (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 533, 551.) There is evidence that [General Manager] Headley made several comments suggesting he held a discriminatory animus toward Cornell. Although the extent to which he participated with Gurganus and Miller in the decision to fire Cornell is unclear, there is plenty of evidence that he participated in some way….

3. While sporadic comments are not enough to create a hostile work environment, courts may look to the context of all of the actions taken against the employee in determining if a hostile work environment existed.

The Club argued that even if Cornell is otherwise entitled to protection under the FEHA, summary adjudication of her disability harassment claim was proper because she was not subject to sufficiently severe or pervasive harassment. The appellate court disagreed:

Here, Cornell was able to present enough evidence to at least continue to trial with her harassment cause of action because of the statements made by the General Manager in regards to obtaining a uniform shirt that fit Cornell, the General Manager’s comments about Cornell having weight-loss surgery, and his comments to kitchen staff not to give Cornell extra food because “she doesn’t need it.”  The Court recognized that these types of comments on four occasions do not create a hostile work environment, “Four comments over several months does not establish a pattern of routine harassment creating a hostile work environment, particularly given that the comments were not extreme.”  (“Actionable harassment consists of more than “annoying or `merely offensive’ comments in the workplace,” and it cannot be “occasional, isolated, sporadic, or trivial; rather, the employee must show a concerted pattern of harassment of a repeated, routine, or a generalized nature.” (Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions (2006) 38 Cal.4th 264, 283.)”)

However, the Court found that the employer’s conduct must be viewed in context of the General Manager’s other actions, “including his ordering of shirts that were significantly too small for her and reporting to the Personnel Committee that she was resisting the uniform policy by not wearing appropriate shirts, as well paying her less than another employee and denying her extra hours and internal job openings.”  This evidence was enough to prevent the employer from dismissing Cornell’s harassment claims prior to trial.

4. Requests for reasonable accommodations are protected activities under the law.

In 2015 the Legislature amended section 12940 to add subdivision (m)(2), which now makes it unlawful for an employer to “retaliate or otherwise discriminate against a person for requesting accommodation under this subdivision, regardless of whether the request was granted.” (Stats. 2015, ch. 122, § 2.)

5. Primary takeaway for employers: treat all employees with respect.

While certain conduct that is rude, unfair, and unethical may not raise to the level of being unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation under the law, this type of conduct will inevitably lead to higher litigation costs and employee turnover.  I’ve written about how most companies cannot afford to have managers like Steve Jobs, and this case is another example.  While the employer had arguments that the manager’s actions in this case were not illegal under the law, even if the employer prevails at trial in this case, the costs associated with the litigation are substantial.  Unprofessional comments by co-workers, managers and supervisors in the workplace should be stopped by employers, as while sometimes they may not be illegal, it drives litigation from employees who felt that they were not treated fairly.

The appellate court’s decision, Cornell v. Berkeley Tennis Club, can be found here.

Happy New Year.  I started the Friday’s Five articles in the summer of 2014, and the interest in the articles has been more than I expected.  I appreciate everyone who has read them and provided comments and feedback. If you have any topics you would like me to address, please let me know. With that said, here is a list of five resolutions for California employers in 2018:

1. Relax – Still need to make sure your employees are taking their meal and rest breaks.

2. Train – All supervisors must be trained to comply with California’s required sexual harassment prevention training for employers with 50 or more employees.

Since 2015 the training must discuss bullying in the workplace to be legally compliant, and as of January 1, 2018, the training also needs to cover harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

3. Read – Update employment handbook policies on a yearly basis.

2018 has a few new laws that should be addressed the employee handbook and new hire packets.

4. Run – Sorry, no play on words with this one, you just need to get outside and run a bit.

5. Organize – and keep employment files, time records and wage information for at least the length of any applicable statute of limitations.

Employers should review their systems to ensure there is a process in place on how to organize and maintain employment information for the required time periods, it is required under the law and can help defend the company should litigation ensue.

A final more bonus resolution:
Learn – more by attending my webinars on California employment laws to stay up to date.

In the next month, I will be hosting a seminar on the new laws facing employers in 2018 and what steps should be taken to comply. The date is still to be determined, but drop me an email if you are interested and I make sure you are notified once we set the date and location.

Wishing you the best in 2018!

Matt Lauer’s abrupt departure from NBC illustrate important lessons employers should take away from this week’s events in how to investigate and respond to harassment claims.  It is important it note that NBC is not like most employers in that this one of the most newsworthy and public harassment allegation cases in the nation and it must manage public relations at the same time of mitigating its legal liability.  However, there are still lessons employers should pay attention to arising out of this case, leading to this Friday’s Five:

1. Be up-front and as accurate as possible in any initial reports or disclosures to the public

Employers need to be very careful in issuing any public statements about harassment allegations and investigations.  As set forth below, in addition to likely being evidence in litigation, it could create additional defamation liability for all of the parties involved.

If a company does issue a statement, it needs to be well vetted and with knowledge of all of the facts.  For example, NBC’s responses to the Lauer issues raised questions.  First NBC issued a statement from Chairman Andrew Lack read on the Today Show Wednesday morning stating that the woman’s complaint was “the first complaint about his behavior in the over twenty years he’s been at NBC News.”  Later in the same day, NBC released a second statement stating, “We can say unequivocally that, prior to Monday night, current NBC News management was never made aware of any complaints about Mat Lauer’s conduct.”  The fact that NBC issued a qualifying explanation that “current NBC News management” was never informed later in the day, when initially the company said that there was no complaint ever made about Lauer, had raised many questions: did former NBC News management know of complaints?  If so, what, if any, actions did the company take in response to those complaints?

2. Don’t rush to make any disclosures to the public

Even though the company’s intentions may be good in making disclosures as quickly as possible, it can create some issues, such as:

  • Making statements that may not be accurate because all of the facts have not been discovered and all of the witnesses have not been spoken to. Even though it may not be intended, providing changing facts makes it look that the company is attempting to cover up issues.
  • Creating additional legal liability: statements issued publicly will be evidence in any resulting litigation, and could be used against a party in the litigation.

As discussed below, given the liability that could be created, employers should think twice about issuing any statements to third-parties that do not have a need-to-know.

3. Be careful in discussing any aspect of the complaint and investigation to third-parties who do not have a need to know

Employers must also be careful about issuing any statements to other employees in the company or to the public that could result in a defamation charge by the alleged victim or the alleged harasser.  Employers can be liable for defamation for statements made about the employee’s termination, statements made during investigations, or statements about the employee after they left employment.  Generally, to prove defamation, a plaintiff needs to prove “(a) a publication that is (b) false, (c) defamatory, and (d) unprivileged, and that (e) has a natural tendency to injure or that causes special damage.”  Taus v. Loftus (2007).  A plaintiff must show that the statements caused damages such as damage to their reputation, that the statements made it harder to find another job, or emotional distress.  Again, it is critical that employers do not rush to make any statements before all of the facts are known.  A good rule of thumb is to only discuss the allegations, investigation, and ultimate findings about the investigations with the parties involved and individuals who have a need to know.

4. Must conduct “immediate and appropriate corrective action” in the workplace

Employer must act quickly in addressing the potential harassment in the workplace.  How soon the investigation must start depends on the circumstances.  In Van Zant v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, 80 F.3d 708, 715 (2d Cir. 1996) the employer’s response was held to be prompt where it began investigation on the day that complaint was made, conducted interviews within two days, and fired the harasser within ten days.  In Steiner v. Showboat Operating Co., 25 F.3d 1459, 1464 (9th Cir. 1994), the court held that an employer’s response to complaints were not immediate when it did not seriously investigate or reprimand the supervisor until after plaintiff filed charge with state FEP agency, even though the harasser was eventually discharged.  In Saxton v. AT&T, 10 F.3d 526, 535 (7th Cir 1993) the court found that the investigation was prompt when it started one day after complaint and a detailed report was completed two weeks later.  In Nash v. Electrospace Systems, Inc. 9 F.3d 401, 404 (5th Cir. 1993) the court held that the investigation was prompt when completed within one week.  The court in Juarez v. Ameritech Mobile Communications, Inc., 957 F.2d 317, 319 (7th Cir. 1992) found the investigation was adequate when completed in four days.

However, employers have no duty to report findings to the public or other third-parties that do not have an interest in the harassment allegations and the subsequent investigation.  High profile harassment claims do carry an additional public relations aspect that must be considered, but employers have not legal duty to report findings to the public.  In fact, doing so may create additional liability as discussed above.

5. Employers may have to take actions internally before conducting the investigation

Based on the allegations and the facts of the case, as a precautionary measure, the employer should analyze if any immediate steps needs to be taken.  The EEOC set forth examples of precautionary steps that may be necessary include: “scheduling changes so as to avoid contact between the parties; transferring the alleged harasser; or placing the alleged harasser on non-disciplinary leave with pay pending the conclusion of the investigation.”  However, the employer needs to ensure that the complainant “should not be involuntarily transferred or otherwise burdened, since such measures could constitute unlawful retaliation.”

The type of precautionary actions that the employer should take depends on the facts they are presented with, as each case will vary.

Another Friday – another Friday’s Five.  November 2017, a great time to have a refresher course on five obligations employers have under California law to prevent and correct any potential harassment and discrimination in the workplace:

1. Duty to prevent harassment

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) requires employers to take “all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.”  Gov. Code section 12940(k).  As part of this requirement, employers should have policies setting out a definition of sexual harassment, who employees should complain to regarding harassment, explain the types of discipline that may be used in harassment cases, that the complaint will be kept confidential to the extent possible, prohibit retaliation from employees who complain, and be distributed to employees with receipt acknowledged by the employee.

2. Duty to distribute California’s harassment pamphlet

California employers should develop a new hire packet.  One required document in this new hire packet is the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s information sheet.  It is required to be provided to employees “in a manner that ensure distribution to each employee.”  This requirement applies to all California employers, regardless of their size.

The DFEH provides the pamphlet (DFEH-185) online for employers to download here.

3. Duty to have written an anti- harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policy

Regulations issued by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Council took effect on April 1, 2016 set forth a requirement that employers adopt a written discrimination, harassment, and retaliation prevention policy that meet certain conditions.

The regulations provide that employers “have an affirmative duty to create a workplace environment that is free from employment practices prohibited by the Act.”  The regulations set forth that in addition to providing employees the Department’s DFEH-185 brochure on sexual harassment, or an alternative writing that complies with Government Code section 12950, employers are required to develop a harassment, discrimination, and retaliation policy that meets certain requirements, including the employer’s complaint procedure, instruct supervisors to report any complaints, and confirm that the employer will conduct a fair and timely investigation, among other items.  Most notably, the new regulations require employers to obtain employees’ acknowledgment of receipt of the written policy.

4. Duty to train supervisors

California employers with 50 or more employees are required to provide at least two hours of classroom or other effective interactive training and education regarding sexual harassment to all supervisory employees who are employed as of July 1, 2005, and to all new supervisory employees within six months of assuming a supervisory position.  All covered employers must provide sexual harassment training and education to each supervisory employee once every two years.  In 2015, California requires that a portion of the training also address “abusive conduct.”  More information about what topics must be covered in the training, who qualifies to provide the training, as well as other requirements about the training can be found here.

5. Duty to investigate complaints

California Government Code section 12940(j) provides that it is “unlawful if the entity, or its agents or supervisors, knows or should have known of this conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”  The law also provides that employers are liable if they “fail to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.”  Gov. Code section 12940(k).  If the employer fails to take the preventative measures, they can be held liable for the harassment between co-workers.  If the harassment occurs by a manager, the company is strictly liable for the harassment.  If the harassment occurred by a non-management employee, the employer is only liable if it does not take immediate and appropriate corrective action to stop the harassment once it learns about the harassment.  Investigations must follow certain parameters in order to be deemed adequate under the law.  Click here for more information about conducting adequate investigations.

California’s state legislature is nearing the end of its term, and employers are beginning to glimpse some of the laws that could apply in 2018.  There are multiple proposed bills that prohibits employers’ ability to rely upon or seek information about applicant’s previous wages to set the employee’s pay.  This Friday’s Five reviews the current law – California’s Fair Pay Act, the proposed bills on disclosure of wages, and San Francisco’s local ordinance that recently passed.

1. Current law – California’s Fair Pay Act (Labor Code section 1197.5)

Existing law generally prohibits an employer from paying an employee at wage rates less than the rates paid to employees of the opposite sex in the same establishment for equal work for work performance that requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility that are performed under similar working conditions.  Effective as of January 1, 2017, AB 1676 amended California’s Fair Pay Act, found in Labor Code section 1197.5, prohibiting employers from relying on an employee’s prior salary, by itself, to justify any disparity in compensation.  It is important to note the bill was modified to take out language that would have prohibited employers from obtaining an applicant’s prior salary.

2. Proposed State Bill – AB 1209 – Gender Pay Gap Transparency Act

This bill has been sent to the Governor’s desk during the week of September 11, 2017 to be signed into law or vetoed.  The bill, if signed by the Governor, would require employers with at least 500 employees to calculate the difference between the wages of male and female exempt employees in California by each job classification or title.  The employer would also have to do the same for all board members who are located in California.  The employer would need to report the difference in pay, which would be published on the Internet by the Secretary of State.  Governor Brown has until October 15, 2017 to sign or veto the bill.

3. Proposed State Bill – AB 168 – Salary Information

This bill prohibits employers from replying upon or seeking salary history from applicants.  In addition, employers would be required to provide the pay scale for a position to an applicant.

4. San Francisco local ordinance: Parity in Pay Ordinance

San Francisco passed a local law that prohibits employers from asking job applicants to disclose their salary history.  It also prohibits employers from considering an applicant’s pay history as a factor in determining the level of pay to offer.  The law is effective July 1, 2018, so San Francisco employers have some time to review hiring practices to comply.

5. Proposed State Bill – AB 46 – Wage Discrimination

This bill amends the California Fair Pay Act to make clear that the law applies to both public and private employers.

In speaking to a few groups of California employers this week, a common question kept coming up about what are the essential Booksemployment policies California employers must have?  While there are more than five, this week’s Friday’s Five starts with what I consider to be critical policies that every California must have in place.

1. At-will policy

Under California law, it is presumed that all employment is terminable at-will. California Labor Code section 2922 provides: “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.” The at-will doctrine means that the employment relationship can be terminated by either party at any time, with or without cause, and with or without advanced notice. There are some major exceptions to this rule, but generally California law recognizes that employers and employees may, at any time, and for any legal reason, terminate the employment relationship.

2. Anti-harassment, discrimination and retaliation policy

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Council published new regulations pertaining to anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements effective April 1, 2016.  Employers need to review and potentially update their policies in order to meet the new requirements.  The full text of the regulations can be obtained here.

3. Timekeeping policy

California law requires employers to track start and stop times for hourly, non-exempt employees. The law also requires employer to track the start and stop times for the employee’s thirty minute meal periods. The time system needs to be accurate, and the employer needs to be involved in the installation and setup of the system. Do not simply use the default settings for the hardware and software. Understand what the system is tracking and how it is recording the data. Since the statute of limitations for California wage and hour violations can extent back four years, it is recommended that employers take steps to keep these records at least four years.  Employers should also have a complaint procedure in place and regularly communicate the policy to employees in order to establish an effective way to remedy any issues.

4. Meal and rest break policy

As I’ve written about many times previously, employers must have a compliant meal and rest break policy.  Indeed, given the California Supreme Court’s ruling in Augustus v. ABM Security Services in December 2016, employers should review their rest beak policy to ensure it complies with this ruling.

5. Paid sick leave policy

Many local governments in Southern California have passed laws increasing the minimum wage and amount of paid sick leave that must be provided to employees.  Employers must ensure they are complying with the law that provides the most benefits to employees.  Here is a brief summary of some of the local laws in Southern California:

State/City Minimum Wage Paid Sick Leave
1) California $10/hr January 1, 2016; $10.50 January 1, 2017; $11/hr January 1, 2018; $12/hr January 1, 2019; $13/hr January 1, 2020; $14/hr January 1, 2021; $15/hr January 2022* Current: 3 days or 24 hours
2) Los Angeles – City (click here for more information about Los Angeles City’s minimum wage and paid sick leave laws) July 1, 2016: $10.50/hr; July 1, 2017 $12; July 1, 2018 $13.25; July 1, 2019 $14.25; July 1, 2020 $15.00 * (click here for more information about Los Angeles’s minimum wage ordinance) July 1, 2016: 48 hours*
3) Los Angeles – County (applies to unincorporated cities in LA County) Same as LA City (see above) No specific requirement – state law applies
4) San Diego City July 2016: $10.50 (date not set yet – likely effective in first half of July 2016); January 1, 2017 $11.50; January 1, 2019 $11.82; January 1, 2020 $12.15; January 1, 2021 $12.49; January 1, 2022 $12.84 5 paid sick days
5) Santa Monica (click here for Santa Monica’s website for details of the law) $10.50 July 1, 2016; July 1, 2017 $12.00; July 1, 2018 $13.25; July 1, 2019 $14.25; July 1, 2020 $15.00* January 1, 2017: 32 hours for small businesses, 40 hours for large businesses; January 1, 2018: 40 hours for small business, 72 hours for large businesses*
*Employers with 25 or fewer employees the implementation is delayed one year.

Happy Memorial day weekend!