Recently in New Developments in the Law Category

November 26, 2014

Adding Weight As Employment Discrimination Class

Vanderbilt University Law School recently conducted a study examining the relationship between weight class and jobs. Minnesota Public Radio reported on the study, which showed that heavier women are more likely to work lower-compensated jobs as they gain weight. The reason for this phenomenon is not actually clear, but it is evident that perceived beauty or attractiveness is related to better pay for both sexes.

keep-the-weight-away-291512-m.jpgThe study's author has suggested that a sixth category should be added to the prohibited discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She believes that the research study is highly indicative of discrimination against obese people.

Current Kentucky Protections Against Discrimination

The Kentucky Civil Rights Act prohibits public employers from discriminating against employees or prospective employees based on age over 40, disability, smoking status, sex, national origin, religion, color, or race. Kentucky also has two other statutes that protect individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of their HIV or AIDS status or black lung disease.

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July 9, 2014

United States Supreme Court Rules Against Union Agency Fees in Harris v. Quinn

In a ruling that could endanger long-standing union practices, the United States Supreme Court determined that public employees cannot be required to join unions or pay dues in Harris v. Quinn.

u-s--supreme-court-roof-and-columns-658253-m.jpgThe case involved home health care workers who provided services to Medicaid patients under the Illinois Home Services Program. The home health care workers were represented as a whole by the SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, which entered collective bargaining agreements with the State that contained an agency fee provision. The agency fee provision required that all bargaining unit members that did not wish to join the union pay the union a fee for the cost of certain activities, such as collective bargaining and related activities. A group of home health care workers brought a lawsuit against the SEIU, claiming that the agency fee provision violated their First Amendment rights. While the district court dismissed their case, the Seventh Circuit ended up affirming parts of it, leading to a petition of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment prohibited the payment of agency fees by non-union members. The majority consisted of Justice Alito (who wrote the decision), Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Kennedy. They found that long-standing union concerns about "free riders" were not sufficient to overcome First Amendment issues. In particular, Justice Alito argued that except under rare circumstances, no person should be allowed to subsidize another person's speech if he or she does not wish to do so. Although the majority did not overturn the 1977 Supreme Court decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permitted public employees to pay the costs of collective bargaining, the justices left the case on shaky ground.

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July 2, 2014

United States Supreme Court Supports Religious Freedom for Corporations in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

The United States Supreme Court recently determined that certain types of corporations could exercise religious beliefs at the expense of their employees in the long-awaited decision for Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

u-s--supreme-court-1-1038827-m.jpgHobby Lobby concerned whether a corporation run by a family could avoid following the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the basis of the family's religious beliefs. The birth control mandate requires all but religious entities to provide health insurance that covers the cost of all forms of birth control for their employees. The Green family, which founded the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain, claimed that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1990. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in order to ensure that any law that burdened an individual's religious liberty was given strict scrutiny. If the law did not meet the strict scrutiny requirement, it was nullified. The issue in Hobby Lobby was whether such a law also applied to a "closed corporation," or a corporation in the hands of a few individuals, as opposed to ones whose shares could be publicly owned. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court found that it did.

The majority consisted of Justice Alito (who wrote the decision), Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Kennedy (concurring). The majority based its decision on the fact that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and did not address whether it violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. The majority claimed that their decision affected closely held corporations only, stating that they fall within the definition of "people" designated by Congress. Also, in a questionable addition, the majority claimed that the Hobby Lobby decision applied to the contraceptives mandate only - not to vaccines or blood transfusions. The decision should also not be considered a "shield" for illegal discrimination.

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June 25, 2014

Kentucky Supreme Court Landmark Ruling Provides Victory For Employees in Creech Inc. v. Brown

In contract law, every agreement between parties requires "consideration," or something of value, in order to be valid. In a recent landmark ruling, the Kentucky Supreme Court has held that employment alone is no longer sufficient consideration to justify enforcement of a non-compete agreement. This ruling could not only provide employees with more freedom of movement from employer to employer, but also potentially provide employees with more bargaining power at the outset of employment.

gavel-5-1409595-m.jpgNon-compete agreements are provisions within contracts that state an employee will not work for a competitor for a certain period of time after leaving employment with the current employer. In the case of Creech, Inc. v. Brown, it involved a non-compete agreement lasting three years. Donald Brown was hired by Creech in 1990 to provide hay and straw to horse farms in Kentucky and other states. In 2016, Creech requested that Brown sign a document entitled "Conflict of Interest," which would prevent Brown from working for another company that directly or indirectly competed with Creech for three years if Brown left without Creech's consent. Although Brown signed the Conflict of Interest, no one from Creech signed on the other end. Shortly after, Brown was transferred to a new position with the same salary but decreased responsibilities. In 2008, he resigned from Creech and took a position with Standlee Hay Company, Inc., a company that also provided hay and straw for farms. Creech did not oppose the move and in fact signed a partial waiver of Brown's non-compete clause. However, after hearing rumors that Brown had contacted Creech employees, suppliers, and customers, Creech filed a lawsuit against Brown, claiming breach of contract and seeking injunctive relief. Brown, in turn, argued that he had received no consideration for the Conflict of Interest provision he signed.

The state trial court ruled that Brown's continued employment alone was sufficient consideration and sided with Creech against Brown. Brown appealed to the Court of Appeals, and the trial court's decision was reversed. The Court of Appeals suggested that a six-part test be applied in determining whether the non-compete clause was enforceable. However, the Court also took the view that Brown's continued employment with Creech was sufficient consideration for the Conflict of Interest. Both parties sought a discretionary review from the Kentucky Supreme Court.

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June 18, 2014

United States Supreme Court Invalidates President's NLRB Recess Appointments in NLRB v. Noel Canning

In an unsurprising, yet disheartening, ruling, the United States Supreme Court held in NLRB v. Noel Canning that President Obama's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were invalid because the United States Senate was still "in session." In the broad sense, this will severely limit President Obama's or any future president's ability to evade a Senate filibuster and appoint individuals to fill government agency positions. In the more narrow sense, it not only invalidates President Obama's NLRB recess appointments but also potentially the decisions those members made that affect workers across the country.

u-s--supreme-court-roof-and-columns-658253-m.jpgThe situation began back in 2012, when President Obama used the recess appointment power to appoint members to the understaffed NLRB. These members had already been nominated, but Senate Republicans refused to permit a Senate-wide vote, instead opting to filibuster the nominees. At the time, a filibuster of presidential appointments required a 60-vote threshold to overcome, a tough challenge in the sharply divided Senate. Since that time, the rule has been changed so that only a simple majority is required for approval of recess appointments. During the winter break, Senate Republicans held pro forma sessions every three days to prevent the body from truly going into recess in order to prevent President Obama recess appointments.

The Supreme Court justices were unanimous in their view that the recess appointments were not valid in this case, but they differed in terms of how they would have applied the recess appointment power correctly. The majority, consisting of Justice Breyer, Justice Kennedy, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan, stated that the President had the right to make recess appointments, but not when the Senate considered itself to be "in session." The Senate had the right to determine when it was still in session. The remaining justices, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito, agreed with the opinion, but stated that they would have gone further, banning all recess appointments except for when vacancies arose during the recess.

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June 11, 2014

Three Supreme Court Decisions This Month Could Have a Major Effect on Employment Law Across the Country

The United States Supreme Court is expected to issue rulings this month on three cases that could have a significant impact on employment across the country, including Kentucky and Indiana.

u-s--supreme-court-1-1038827-m.jpgOne case that has been discussed on this blog, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, involves whether a closed corporation can refuse to comply with the Affordable Care Act mandate that requires employers to provide health plans to their employees that include birth control coverage. The owners of Hobby Lobby, an Arkansas-based craft store chain, believe that all forms of birth control are "abortofacients" and that the birth control mandate imposes too great a burden on their free exercise of religion. Until this point, the only institutions exempt from the birth control mandate have been religious institutions, not private companies.

Hobby Lobby asks the question of whether corporations can have "religious beliefs," even closed corporations. Furthermore, what does it say if the Supreme Court allows private employers to always exercise their religious beliefs at the expense of their employees' beliefs? Is it fair for an employer's freedom of religion to outweigh the employee's?

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March 19, 2014

New Medical Marijuana Laws Threaten to Clash With Employer Zero Tolerance Drug Policies

A recent problem in Illinois with employment and medical marijuana could foreshadow problems for Kentucky, which has its own medical marijuana legislation pending.

dutch-weed-2-jpg-1206038-m.jpgIllinois's new medical marijuana law, which took effect this past January, protects patients from being arrested or prosecuted for using marijuana for medical purposes. However, it does not prohibit employers with zero tolerance policies from terminating employees found to use medical marijuana.

It is unknown how many employees could be affected, but one concern is that in states with medical marijuana laws that are less restrictive -- such as California, Oregon, and Washington -- the courts have sided with employers when employees have sued over the law. While Illinois's new law protects employees from being disciplined by employers solely for acknowledging that they have a medical marijuana card, it offers no protection against other strict measures. Companies with government contracts are even more likely to have zero tolerance policies than other companies because the federal government requires such policies.

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February 28, 2014

President Obama Issues Executive Order Raising the Minimum Wage of Certain Federal Contract Employees

This month, President Obama issued an executive order that would increase the minimum wage for federal contract employees from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour beginning next year. While the number of employees affected is small, the gesture could have wider implications across the United States, including in Kentucky and Indiana.

million-buck-cheque-1-531970-m.jpgPresident Obama first announced the executive order during his State of the Union address in January. When he signed the order, he did so surrounded by employees who could possibly benefit. Even so, both the President and supporters of the executive order acknowledged that the number of employees it would help was just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of employees who were not earning sufficient income despite working full time. The executive order would apply only to a small percentage of the two million federal contractors across the country.

However, both President Obama and supporters of the executive order hope that it creates momentum both in the states and in Congress to raise the minimum wage. President Obama pressed Congress to pass legislation that would raise the minimum wage for all workers, calling it "the right thing to do." That said, Congress has shown little willingness to pass minimum wage legislation, though the President and allies are working on strategies to convince both houses.

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December 11, 2013

United States Supreme Court to Consider Whether Private Corporations Have Religious Beliefs

The United States Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case concerning whether corporate employers are required to provide free birth control, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), even if their "consciences" do not support it. While religious institutions and non-profits are exempt from this provision, this case will test whether private corporations are "people" enough to have religious convictions that trump the needs of their employees. Oral arguments are expected to take place in March 2014.

cross-with-shadow-1-1356536-m.jpgThe Supreme Court agreed to hear the argument after the Circuit Courts of Appeal offered split decisions on the issue -- including the Seventh Circuit in early November. In Korte v. Sebelius, a two-judge majority found that small, closely held corporations were "people" within the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and were entitled to assert that the mandate substantially interfered with their rights.

The case involved two Catholic families with closely held corporations, one a construction company in Illinois and the other a manufacturing company in Indiana that produces automobile safety systems. Although the companies are both secular and devoted to earning profit, the Seventh Circuit still noted that they operated according to their owners' Catholic beliefs. Therefore, the owners should not have to condone "abortion, sterilization, and the use of abortifacient drugs and artificial means of conception."

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November 29, 2012

New Whistleblower Legislation Instituted by Federal Government Good for Kentucky Employees

A whistleblower, in very simple terms, is someone who realizes something may be not quite right and decides to tell someone else about it. While kids who perform this same type of service are often called tattle-tales, adults should not be chastised or punished for doing the same. If an employer appears to be operating in a way that breaks a federal law, an employee should feel comfortable telling the appropriate people about it so the situation can be investigated, and remedied if necessary.

Most workers employed by the government and in the private sector are protected by whistleblower laws. Employees are covered by a provision of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989(WPA). Under these acts, an employee who believes something they witnessed was in violation of a federal law, was fraudulent, was wasteful of money or resources, or might cause harm to the general public has the right to report it to the person or group of their choice without fear of retaliation. If an employee has reported some type of federal misconduct and has been retaliated against, he can take legal action under WPA and seek restitution such as repayment of lost wages if he was wrongfully terminated and other compensatory damages. This law also states that federal officials who have retaliated against a whistleblower may be subject to suspension or dismissal.

Most privately employed workers are also protected if they report a situation that they think breaks a federal law. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) handles whistleblower claims brought by workers in the private sector. If the whistleblowers do not think the DOL has administered their case in a timely manner, the law allows them to then file a lawsuit and have a trial by jury.

On November 27, 2012, President Obama signed new legislation providing additional protection for federal employees. Called the Whistleblower Enhancement Act, it is meant to further encourage those already covered by WPA to continue reporting governmental abuse of power and funds and it also offers protection to some groups who were exempt under the previous acts. This new act changes the burden of proof, making it easier for a whistleblower to prove their case. The Office of Special Counsel, which handles whistleblower cases, will no longer be responsible for paying defendants' attorneys' fees if they lose the case. All airport baggage screeners are now covered by whistleblower laws as are those who work in intelligence for the government. Scientists working for the government who report alleged censorship of their work are also now protected.

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May 30, 2012

Would the Paycheck Fairness Act be good for Female Kentucky Workers?

Equal pay for women has been an issue for many years. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was enacted to ensure that men and women who did the same job at the same place of business and had the same experience would receive the same amount of pay. If a discrepancy in pay was found, the lower paying employee, presumably the woman, would receive an increase in pay, rather than the man's pay being reduced. The act allowed a woman to receive up to three years in back pay, or double that amount if it was discovered that she had been willfully discriminated against in her pay. The slogan for the act was "equal pay for equal work."

People disagree on whether or not the Equal Pay Act has been affective in ensuring women receive equal pay. Those who feel it has not been affective are promoting a new bill called the Paycheck Fairness Act. This new act adds on to the Equal Pay Act in the following ways:

Clarifies what reasons are acceptable for pay differences between men and women;

allows wages to be compared within certain geographical areas to determine fairness;

makes retaliating against an employee for investigating wage differences prohibited;

increases amount and type of damages that can be requested to both compensate the employee and penalize the employer;

includes small businesses in the law rather than requiring an employer to have a larger number of employees for the law to apply;

provides funds for training EEOC staff regarding pay disputes and for educating women on how to negotiate a salary;

requires federal contractors to provide employment data regarding hiring and salaries to help the Labor Department enforce the Equal Pay Act.

Proponents of the bill say all of these factors would add up to women receiving equal pay in the workplace because it would facilitate investigating the wage gap, protect those who raise the question of unequal pay, impose stiffer penalties for pay discrimination by employers and provide training to those who need it.

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March 26, 2012

Can a Potential Employer Ask a Kentucky Job Applicant for Social Media Passwords?

1362248_businessman_with_the_notebook_3.jpgFacebook has become an international phenomenon with millions of users logged in around the globe. Some people have reconnected after years of no communication, and others have forged new relationships through shared friends and interests. As a result of all of this sharing of information, numerous privacy issues have arisen.

One of the latest issues is whether or not employers should have access to employees' Facebook accounts. While a potential employer may see it as an opportunity to get to know an applicant on a more personal level, it could also lead to a potentially illegal situation.

When applying for a job, there are numerous subjects that should not be addressed by an employer. Applicants should not be asked about their age, marital status, number of children, religious background, or ethnicity. Denying someone a position based on any of these factors would most likely constitute employment discrimination, which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Therefore, these topics should not even be brought up by a potential employer.

When an individual uses Facebook, it is under the assumption that the information posted will be viewed by friends and family members, not employers. So the subjects listed above that should not be discussed at a job interview will most likely appear on a Facebook page. Even if this information is not explicitly listed on the person's profile page, it can normally be gleaned from reading posts and viewing photos.

Some prospective employers try to get around the sticky subject of asking for an applicant's user name and password. After the ACLU questioned the Maryland Department of Public Safety's practice of requiring user names and passwords from applicants, the agency changed its policy to requiring the applicant to log into social media sites during the interview. While this gets away from requesting passwords that people should not be asked to share, it still gives the agency access to information that may be covered under Title VII. Other companies have asked applicants to "friend" human resource managers, which also gives them access to the same information that could lead to discriminatory decision-making in the hiring process.

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December 8, 2011

How Passage of a "Right-to-Work" Bill Would Affect Indiana Employees

As the Indiana legislature enters its final session for 2011, Republicans vowed to make their "right-to-work" bill the main focus of the session. This topic is very controversial and caused Democrats to leave the state for five weeks earlier this year to avoid voting on the issue. Both parties have differing views on whether or not it would be beneficial to Indiana employees to have their state become the twenty-third "right-to-work" state.

"Right-to-work" laws are passed on a state-per-state basis and allow individuals to be employed by a company that has union workers without joining the union. Members can opt out of paying membership dues but still reap the benefits of being part of a union. This option was given to each state in the U.S. by a portion the Taft-Hartley Act that essentially gives the states the power to decide whether employers can require employees to financially support the union. Non "right-to-work" states, such as Kentucky and Indiana can have so-called "union shops," or companies that require their employees to be union members and pay dues. Recently hired employees that are not union members have a set period of time to become members; otherwise they may forfeit their employment.

Supporters of the legislation believe potential Indiana jobs are being lost because employers prefer basing their businesses in "right-to-work" states that give employees the choice of joining unions. Gov. Mitch Daniels stated "We miss about a third of the opportunities because businesses want a state where this protection is provided to workers. In this tough economy, the state needs every edge it can get." Some employees object to paying dues to a union that may support political agendas that conflict with their own personal political beliefs. Others may not wish to join a union for personal reasons. In non "right-to-work" states, potential employees are denied this choice if they consider jobs at companies that require union membership and union financial support.

Opponents of "right-to-work" laws often call them "right-to-work-for-less" laws because they feel a union is weakened when all employees are not required to participate or contribute. Employees that do not pay dues are still allowed to use union services, including legal representation, which many feel takes away money that should be used to represent dues-paying union members seeking higher wages and improved workplace safety.

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December 1, 2011

Proposed Changes to Age Discrimination Law Approved by EEOC

On November 16, 2011 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) approved proposed changes to the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which protects employees over the age of 40. The proposed changes will now be sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. If the OMB approves the changes, they will be returned to the EEOC for final approval. The proposed changes are in response to recent Supreme Court cases regarding disparate impact claims and "reasonable factors other than age" (RFOA) defenses.

Disparate impact occurs when an employer's actions affect a protected class inadvertently. These claims frequently arise from staff-reduction cuts or the implementation of new compensation programs. While the discrimination is not intentional, a protected group is negatively affected by the decision. In response to disparate impact claims related to age, employers often use the "reasonable factors other than age" defense, stating the changes made were not based on age, but were made for other reasons. In this proposed amendment, the EEOC gives guidelines regarding whether or not a factor is reasonable and if the factor was based on something other than age.

To test reasonableness, the EEOC lists the following factors:

  • whether the employment practice and the manner of its implementation are common business practices;
  • the extent to which the factor is related to the employer's stated business goal;
  • the extent to which the employer took steps to define the factor accurately and to apply the factor fairly and accurately (e.g., training, guidance, instruction of managers);
  • the extent to which the employer took steps to assess the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers;
  • the severity of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the degree of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took preventive or corrective steps to minimize the severity of the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps; and
  • whether other options were available and the reasons the employer selected the option it did.

Whether or not a decision was based on something other than age can be checked by the following:

  • the extent to which the employer gave supervisors unchecked discretion to assess employees subjectively;
  • the extent to which supervisors were asked to evaluate employees based on factors known to be subject to age-based stereotypes; and
  • the extent to which supervisors were given guidance or training about how to apply the factors and avoid discrimination.

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October 14, 2011

Are Friends and Relatives Protected by Anti-Discrimination Laws in the Workplace?

They may be, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In September, 2002, Miriam Regalado filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against North American Stainless that alleged sex discrimination by her superiors. At the time the complaint was filed, Ms. Regalado's fiancé, Eric Thompson, was also employed by North American Stainless. About three weeks after North American Stainless received notice of Ms. Regalado's complaint from the EEOC, Mr. Thompson was fired.

Subsequently Mr. Thompson filed his own complaint with the EEOC alleging the company was retaliating against him for Ms. Regalado's claim, which he asserted is illegal under Title VII of the Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Title VII states that an employer cannot retaliate against an employee who has filed a discrimination claim by terminating his employment. Mr. Thompson's complaint was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on the grounds that he was not protected by Title VII since he did not file the initial discrimination claim. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the lower courts' decision. The court used a "zone of interest" test to determine if Mr. Thompson had a right to file a claim under Title VII. Per the syllabus of the opinion of the Supreme Court:
"Applying that test here, Thompson falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. He was an employee of NAS, and Title VII's purpose is to protect employees from their employers' unlawful actions. Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which NAS punished Regalado. Thus, Thompson is a person aggrieved with standing to sue under Title VII."

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