Author Archives: smithamundsen

You CAN Ask Your Employees To Be Happy! Federal Appeals Court Reins In National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, August 17­, 2017

Labor LawMuch has been written and discussed about the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) attack on handbook policies over the past several years. The NLRB has found what many consider to be run-of-the-mill, standard policies that have, for many years, raised no issues or controversy, to be violative of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Last year, the NLRB struck down various policies in a handbook issued by T-Mobile, including one that encouraged employees to be professional and maintain a “positive work environment” in T-Mobile USA, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 16-60284 (5th Cir. 2017). In its decision, the Board reasoned: “[w]e find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, including those protected by Section 7 of the [NLRA], out of fear that the [employer] would deem them to be inconsistent with a ‘positive work environment.’” T-Mobile appealed the NLRB’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Specifically, T-Mobile challenged the Board’s determination that the following provisions from its employee handbook violated the NLRA because they discouraged unionizing or other concerted activity protected by the Act. Provision (1) encouraged employees to “maintain a positive work environment”; (2) prohibited “[a]rguing or fighting,” “failing to treat others with respect,” and “failing to demonstrate appropriate teamwork”; (3) prohibited all photography and audio or video recording in the workplace; and (4) prohibited access to electronic information by non-approved individuals.

On July 25, the Fifth Circuit held that the Board erred in finding that a reasonable employee would construe policies (1), (2), and (4) to prohibit protected activity. The Court reasoned:

In this case, where the record does not suggest that the rules have been applied in the context of union or collective activity, the ‘reasonable employee’ is a T-Mobile employee aware of his legal rights but who also interprets work rules as they apply to the everydayness of his job. The reasonable employee does not view every employer policy through the prism of the NLRA. Indeed, ‘[the Board] must not presume improper interference with employee rights.’

The Court did agree with the Board’s finding that a reasonable employee would construe policy (3) to prohibit protected activity. It reasoned that unlike the other policies such as the “workplace conduct” policy and “commitment –to-integrity” policy, the recording policy blanketedly forbids certain forms of clearly protected activity. For instance, it would prohibit an off-duty employee from taking a picture of a wage schedule. Notably, last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a similar NLRB decision on workplace recordings.

Bottom line: This federal appeals court decision in T-Mobile USA Inc. v. NLRB gives employers and their counsel additional basis for defending legitimate personnel policies in the face of numerous NLRB decisions issued over the past several years that have been viewed as an attempt to diminish management’s right to set basic employee standards in the workplace. However, it seems that blanket policies prohibiting workplace recordings continue to require careful wording and business justification.

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?

SmithAmundsen Transportation Alert: FMCSA Withdraws Proposed Sleep Apnea Rulemaking

Contributed by Peter Henry, August 8, 2017

sleep apneaThe Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have withdrawn the proposed rulemaking aimed at identifying and treating obstructive sleep apnea in workers in safety sensitive positions. The withdrawal, officially published on August 8, 2017, states that both agencies believe the programs currently in place are the appropriate avenues to address the safety hazards presented by obstructive sleep apnea.

Although it will not be issuing additional rules regarding sleep apnea, the FMCSA will consider updating the January 2015 “Bulletin to Medical Examiners and Training Organizations Regarding Obstructive Sleep Apnea.” That update would be based on the August 2016 recommendations of the FMCSA Medical Review Board, which proposed detailed, objective guidelines for the identification of drivers at risk for obstructive sleep apnea. Nonetheless, the FMCSA is no longer seeking to issue further regulations regarding drivers with sleep apnea.

Thus, for the time being, there is no change in the regulations relating to sleep apnea, and whether a driver is evaluated for sleep apnea is left in the discretion of the examiner. A driver may have “no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of a respiratory dysfunction likely to interfere with his/her ability to control and drive a commercial motor vehicle safely.” The regulations currently instruct the examiner to refer a driver to a specialist for further evaluation and therapy if he or she detects a respiratory dysfunction likely to interfere with the driver’s ability to safely control and drive a commercial motor vehicle.

OSHA Charges Ahead With Electronic Report Rule

Contributed by Matthew Horn, August 2, 2017

Electronic Reporting File_2On June 27, 2017, OSHA issued a press release announcing that it would be delaying the compliance date for its Rule requiring most employers to electronically submit their injury and illness data to OSHA. The press release proposed pushing the compliance date back four months, from July 1, 2017 to December 1, 2017, so OSHA could review the Rule closely.

Just over two weeks later, OSHA issued another press release announcing that it would be launching its website allowing employers to submit their injury and illness data on August 1, 2017. On August 1, 2017, OSHA made good on that promise and launched its website, which is linked here.

Under the Rule, virtually all employers with twenty or more employees are required to submit their completed Form 300A for 2016 by December 1, 2017. In 2018, employers with twenty or more employees must submit their completed Form 300A for 2017 by July 1, 2018, and those employers with more than 250 employees must submit their Form 300 and 301s by that deadline, as well.

Notably, despite moving forward with the launch of its injury tracking website, OSHA has yet to address the “review” of the Rule it promised in its June 27, 2017 press release. Accordingly, employers would be well-served to wait to submit their 300A data until shortly before the December 1, 2017 deadline to see if OSHA changes course on the Rule before that deadline. Mark your calendars.

Employer May Be Held Liable For Employing Murderer!

Contributed by Noah A. Frank, July 27, 2017

Claims of negligent hiring, training, and retention is alive and well. Employers must be prepared to investigate, and fully remediate supervisors’ misconduct.

code of conduct

Recently, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana) held that an employer may be liable for intentional acts committed by supervisory employees against other employees outside of work if the employer has been negligent. The tragic case, Anicich v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 852 F. 3d 643 (7th Cir. 2017), arose from the death and rape of a pregnant employee at the hands of her supervisor.

Background

Home Depot and its garden centers subcontractors (together, the “Employer”) jointly employed Brian Cooper as a regional manager. The victim’s estate alleged the employer knew Cooper had a history of sexually harassing, verbally abusing, and physically intimidating female subordinates, which included making crude and lewd comments, yelling and swearing at them, rubbing against them, controlling their conduct by pressuring them into spending time with him alone, and even throwing things.

The supervisor’s mistreatment of one subordinate, Alisha Bromfield, began in 2006 when she started working for the employer seasonally as a teenager. Cooper fixated his attention on her, calling her his “girlfriend” at work and repeating the above misconduct with her. Senior management, aware of Bromfield’s repeated complaints, failed to take reasonable steps to protect Bromfield, ensure that Cooper completed mandated anger management training or remove his supervisory duties. This ended in tragedy.

In 2012, when Bromfield was 7 months pregnant, Cooper threatened her. Using his supervisory authority, he demanded that she attend an out-of-town wedding with him, telling her he would fire her or reduce her hours if she refused. Bromfield acquiesced, but denied Cooper’s recurring demand to “be in a relationship.” After the wedding, Cooper murdered Bromfield, and then raped her corpse.

The Court held that employers have a duty to act reasonably in hiring, supervising, and retaining their employees, and that this was part of a broader trend toward recognizing employer liability for supervisors’ intentional torts committed outside the scope of employment – even where the harm caused was wholly disproportionate to more predictable harms (e.g., murder/rape versus continued sexual harassment, emotional/mental trauma). Because Cooper was alleged to have abused the employer’s grant of supervisory authority over Bromfield, the employer could be vicariously liable for Cooper’s torts committed against Bromfield.

Employers’ Duty in Light of the Seventh Circuit Court Ruling

Anicich is instructive. Employers that fail to act to stop an employee’s abuse of supervisory authority could be held liable for even the most extreme and gruesome intentional tortious and criminal conduct.

As such, employers must protect their businesses, including the following minimum steps:

  • Understand the risks associated with subcontracting and joint employer relationships, including supervision and control;
  • Implement and train employees on anti-discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment policies, including a published complaint/reporting procedure, and prohibiting retaliation;
  • Take seriously and investigate all reports and complaints – no matter how minor, and even for repeat complainants;
  • Remediate any issues – including stripping supervisory authority, mandating training, and transferring/terminating employees;
  • Prohibit and protect those involved from, retaliation;
  • Respect and comply with collective bargaining rights – and get the union’s buy-in when necessary; and
  • Seek the advice of and guidance from experienced employment counsel when issues arise to ensure legal compliance and implementation of best practices to mitigate exposure.

Three Needless Deaths: Recognize Confined Space Dangers on Your Job Sites

Contributed by Patrick M. Sanders, July 24, 2017

Construction Site

Supervisor using walkie-talkie at construction site

On July 14, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited a contractor for 10 serious violations after the deaths of three workers who succumbed to toxic gases in a manhole on January 16, 2017.

Preventable safety failures led to the deaths of Elway Gray, a 34-year-old pipe layer, who entered the manhole – a confined space – and quickly became unresponsive; Louis O’Keefe, a 49-year-old laborer, who entered the hole in an attempt to rescue Gray; and Robert Wilson, a 24-year-old equipment operator, who followed to rescue his two fallen coworkers. Two other employees and a firefighter were also exposed to the toxic gases during rescue attempts but survived.

Post-incident atmospheric testing of the confined space revealed lethal levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide. OSHA investigators issued Douglas N. Higgins, Inc. and its related contracting company, serious citations, totaling $119,507, in penalties.

The incident-related serious violations included failure to:

  • Purge or ventilate the confined space before entry;
  • Prevent workers from exposure to an asphyxiation hazard;
  • Provide necessary rescue and emergency equipment for employees that were overcome inside a permit-required confined space;
  • Develop and implement a written hazard communication program for a worksite on which employees were exposed to dangerous chemicals and gases;
  • Use a calibrated direct-reading device to test for toxic gases, creating an asphyxiation hazard;
  • Create and document the confined space entry permit;
  • Provide training to employees in the safe performance of their assigned duties in permit-required confined spaces; and
  • Provide a guardra­­­il around the manhole opening, exposing employees to a fall hazard.

Full citations may be found here.

OSHA Area Director Condell Eastmond’s comments were all too familiar: “Three employees needlessly lost their lives and others were injured due to their employer’s failure to follow safe work practices.”

This case should remind all employers that confined spaces within the workplace often present difficult and involved identification, training, written program management and compliance documentation retention issues.

What responsibility do companies have to ensure that their contractors protect their workers?

Those organizations that have a record of previous “serious” violations must be aware OSHA will rigorously enforce employee training, workplace safety information requirements, toxic workplace condition testing and all related rescue and emergency safety equipment regulations and will issue repeat, willful and, in extreme cases, criminal violations, should subsequent violations be documented by OSHA.

Seventh Circuit Upholds Wisconsin’s Right-to-Work Law

Contributed by Carlos Arévalo, July 21, 2017

On July 12, 2017, a three judge panel in the seventh circuit unanimously affirmed District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller’s ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed by two International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) locals that challenged the validity of Wisconsin’s right-to-work law. Judge Stadtmueller’s dismissal in September 2016 was based on the seventh circuit Sweeney v. Pence 2014 decision that upheld Indiana’s “nearly identical” law.

The Wisconsin law provides that “no person may require, as a condition of obtaining or continuing employment, an individual to…become or remain a member of a labor organization [or] pay any dues, fees, assessments, or other charges or expenses of any kind or amount, or provide anything of value, to a labor organization.”

gavelbw

Black and white gavel

In Sweeney, the seventh circuit determined that the National Labor Relations Act did not preempt Indiana’s right–to-work law, even if it prohibited the mandatory payment of any dues or fees to unions, and it did not result in a taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The court reasoned that unions are “justly compensated by federal law’s grant to [unions] the right to bargain exclusively with…employer[s].”

On this appeal, the IUOE conceded that Sweeney controlled, but argued that it was wrongly decided and should be overturned. The IUOE relied on a strong dissent in Sweeney and the close en banc vote to rehear it. Writing for the panel, however, Judge Joel Flaum rejected these arguments and noted that they were not “compelling reasons” to overturn a recent decision. Judge Flaum also added that the unions failed to direct the court to any intervening development in statutory, Supreme Court, or other intermediate appellate court decision undermining Sweeney’s validity.

The seventh circuit’s decision affirming the Wisconsin’s 2015 law suggests a continuing trend favoring the right-to-work movement at the judicial and legislative levels of government. In February of this year, Missouri enacted its right-to-work law becoming the 28th state with a right-to-work law on the books, closely following Kentucky’s adoption of its own law in January. Opponents in Missouri have sought a referendum seeking to repeal the law, but their efforts suffered a setback when union-led referendum summaries were ruled “unfair and insufficient.” In Kentucky, labor organizations have sued seeking to block the law.

At the federal level, Republican Congressmen Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina re-introduced the National Right to Work Act bill (an effort that went nowhere in 2015) in the hope that a Trump administration would approve such legislation. Within a month, Senator Paul Rand of Kentucky introduced similar legislation in the Senate. These bills would amend the National Labor Relations Act and Railway Labor Act to prohibit the use of union security clauses requiring union membership and payment of dues and fees.

Where all of this leads is unclear, but we can be certain of one thing for the near future – this battle will continue to be fought all across the country.