Since the early 1980s, the NLRB has vacillated back and forth on whether non-union employees are entitled to have a co-worker present during an investigatory interview that could result in discipline — a right that has long been afforded union employees pursuant to the United States Supreme Court’s holding in NLRB v. Weingarten, 420 U.S. 251 (1975). In the 42 years since the Supreme Court first extended this right to union employees in Weingarten, the NLRB has changed its position four times as to whether “Weingarten rights” extend to non-union employees.  In what can only be viewed as a victory for retail employers with non-unionized workers, the NLRB, on May 3, 2017, rejected a request that it again reverse course and extend Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  With this Order, the NLRB confirms that retail employers need not acquiesce to a request by a non-union employee to have a co-worker sit in while that non-union employee is questioned in an investigatory interview.

In Weingarten, the Supreme Court concluded that an employer violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by denying a unionized employee’s request to have a union representative present at an investigatory interview which the employee reasonably believed might result in disciplinary action. The Court held that the presence of a union representative “safeguard[s] not only the particular employee’s interest, but also the interests of the entire bargaining unit. . . .” Weingarten, 420 U.S. at 260.  Several years later, the NLRB extended Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  See Materials Research Corp., 262 NLRB 1010 (1982).  However, non-union workers did not savor this right for too long.  In two successive decisions, Sears, Roebuck, & Co., 274 NLRB 230 (1985) and in E.I. DuPont & Co., 289 NLRB 627 (1988), the NLRB reversed course and ruled that Weingarten rights do not extend to non-union employees.  But by 2000, union employees regained this right when, in Epilepsy Foundation of Northeast Ohio, 331 NLRB 676 (2000), the NLRB ruled that Weingarten rights do extend to non-union employees.  In Epilepsy Foundation, the NLRB reasoned that: “Section 7 [of the NLRA] rights are enjoyed by all employees and are in no way dependent on union representation for their supplementation.” Id. at 678.  Just four years later, in IBM Corp., 341 NLRB 1288 (2004), the NLRB changed direction again, ruling that non-union employees do not have the right to have a co-worker present during an investigatory interview that might lead to discipline. In this opinion, the NLRB noted that changes in employment laws and recent security concerns require that investigations into matters like substance abuse, improper internet use, dishonesty, threats, harassment and discrimination be conducted “in a thorough, sensitive, and confidential manner” and that failure to conduct investigations in this manner could expose an employer to claims that it did not conduct a fair investigation or that unfair discipline was imposed based on incomplete information. The NLRB reasoned that the presence of a co-worker increases the possibility that information will not be kept confidential, reduces the chance that the employer will get the whole truth, and increases the likelihood that employees with information about sensitive subjects will not come forward. Accordingly, the NLRB concluded that the right of a non-union employee to a coworker’s presence is “outweighed by an employer’s right to conduct prompt, efficient, thorough, and confidential workplace investigations.” Id.

By application dated November 15, 2016, petitioner Charles Strickler asked the NLRB to reconsider its position and, again, extend Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  By Order dated May 3, 2017, the NLRB rejected this application with virtually no explanation.  Retail employers remain within their rights to deny a non-union employee’s request to have a co-worker present when that employee is being interviewed by the employer, even if the interview may result in discipline.

As a follow-up to our blog post from April 24, 2017, the New York Court of Appeals has issued its decision in Griffin v. Sirva, addressing the questions certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit regarding the scope of liability for employment discrimination based on an individual’s criminal history under the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”). In its May 4, 2017 opinion, the Court of Appeals held that only a worker’s employer may be liable for direct discrimination under NYSHRL § 296(15), while other entities who do not qualify as employers may be liable for aiding and abetting an employer’s discriminatory acts under NYSHRL § 296(6).

In Griffin v. Sirva, defendant Allied Van Lines (“Allied”) and its corporate parent Sirva, Inc., had contracted with Astro Moving and Storage Co. (“Astro”) to have Astro’s employees provide packing and moving services on an independent contractor basis at the homes of Allied’s customers. Plaintiffs argued that defendants should be held liable for violating the NYSHRL even though they were not plaintiffs’ direct employer, because Allied had required plaintiffs to pass a background check before being assigned to its jobs. When plaintiffs’ background checks revealed prior convictions for sexual offenses against young children, Astro terminated their employment because those convictions disqualified plaintiffs from performing work for Allied, which constituted 70 to 80 percent of Astro’s business.

The Second Circuit had certified three questions regarding the scope of liability for discrimination based on a worker’s criminal history under the NYSHRL: (1) does NYSHRL § 296(15), prohibiting discrimination based on criminal convictions, limit liability to an aggrieved party’s “employer”; (2) if so, does the term “employer” include entities that are not an aggrieved party’s “direct employer,” but who exercise a significant level of control over the direct employer’s discrimination policies and practices; and (3) does NYSHRL § 296(6), providing for “aiding and abetting” liability, apply to an out-of-state entity that requires its New York State agent to discriminate based on a worker’s criminal history. In addressing these questions, the Court of Appeals reformulated the second and third queries as discussed below, to make them more broadly applicable beyond the parameters of this particular case. Five judges supported the majority opinion, while one judge dissented.

Question 1: Only an Employer May Be Liable for Direct Discrimination

The NYSHRL states that it “shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, agency, bureau, corporation or association” to deny employment based on an individual’s prior criminal conviction “when such denial is in violation of the provisions of article twenty-three-A of the correction law.” While this statutory language would appear to extend liability to “any” person or entity, not just an individual’s employer, the court found it significant that “liability under section 296(15) arises only upon a violation of [New York Correction Law Article 23-A (“Article 23-A”)].” Article 23-A prohibits a “public or private employer” from denying employment based on a criminal conviction unless, after analyzing eight specified factors, the employer can demonstrate that there is either a direct relationship between the criminal offense and the position sought or that granting employment would pose an unreasonable risk to the property or safety of others. Given this language, the court held that, “[b]ecause it incorporates Article 23-A by reference, section 296(15) of the Human Rights Law likewise limits liability to a public or private employer.”

Question 2: Common Law Principles, Especially Control, Determine Employer Status

The Court of Appeals questioned the assumption inherent in the Second Circuit’s second certified question, that “a significant level of control” over an employer’s “discrimination policies and practices” might be sufficient to confer employment status on a third party. Because “other factors are relevant to that determination,” the court reformulated the second question to read: “[i]f [liability under] Section 296(15) is limited [to an employer], how should courts determine whether an entity is the aggrieved party’s ‘employer’ for the purposes of a claim under Section 296(15)?”

Noting that neither the NYSHRL nor Article 23-A contains a substantive definition of “employer,” the court referred to both federal and New York case law holding that, in the absence of statutory guidance, common law principles should be used to determine employer status. Under applicable New York precedent, employer status is based on four relevant factors: (1) the selection and engagement of the worker; (2) the payment of salary or wages; (3) the power of dismissal; and (4) the power of control over the worker’s conduct. The Court of Appeals accordingly held that these four factors should be used to “determine who may be liable as an employer” under the NYSHRL, “with greatest emphasis placed on the alleged employer’s power ‘to order and control’ the employee in his or her performance of work.”

Question 3: Out-of-state Non-Employers May Be Liable for Aiding and Abetting Discrimination

The Court of Appeals indicated that the third certified question, regarding whether “an out-of-state principal corporation that requires its New York State agent to discriminate in employment on the basis of a criminal conviction may be held liable for the employer’s violation of § 296(15),” was too focused on “whether there was discrimination in this particular case.” Because the court interpreted the Second Circuit’s question as seeking “clarification as to who may be liable” under the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision, it reformulated the third question to ask “whether section 296(6) extends liability to an out-of-state nonemployer who aids or abets employment discrimination against individuals with a prior criminal conviction.”

In granting summary judgment for defendants, the district court had held that a third party who was not the plaintiff’s direct employer could only be liable for “aiding and abetting” discrimination if the third party and the direct employer were “joint employers.” The Court of Appeals rejected that decision, holding that the “aiding and abetting” provision “applies to any ‘person,’” and “nothing in the statutory language or legislative history limits the reach of this provision to employers” or joint employers. Instead, the broad language of the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision applies to any person or entity, including out-of-state defendants who are not employers of an aggrieved party, as long as “the alleged discriminatory conduct had an impact in New York.”

Impact of Court of Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals did not address how its answers to the Second Circuit’s certified questions should apply to the underlying facts of Griffin v. Sirva. In her dissent, however, Judge Jenny Rivera indicated that, under the majority’s decision, “it is unlikely that either [Allied or Sirva] could be found to be an employer,” because “[n]either contributed to the selection and engagement of Astro employees, paid salary or wages, possessed the power of dismissal, or controlled Astro’s employees’ conduct.” Judge Rivera appeared to take the position that requiring a criminal background check, standing alone, should not be sufficient to establish “employer” status under the NYSHRL.

As we previously discussed, however, that does not end the inquiry. Under the Court of Appeals’ decision, an entity that is not a “direct employer” may face liability under the NYSHRL in one of two ways. First, depending on the facts of a particular case, a third party engaging another company’s workers on an independent contractor basis may be liable as an “employer” under New York’s four-part common law test, especially if any indicia of the third party’s control over the contract workers are present. Second, even in the absence of an employment relationship, a third party that requires an independent contractor’s employees to pass a criminal background check may be found liable under the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision. Because the Court of Appeals held that this provision should be “construed broadly,” and applied to both non-employers and out-of-state defendants, the court’s interpretation of the “aiding and abetting” provision may sweep more third parties within the NYSHRL’s ambit going forward.

The Court of Appeals raised, but left unanswered, the question of whether a third party may be found liable for “aiding and abetting” discrimination in the absence of any finding of direct discrimination by a worker’s employer. The court previously held that “a newspaper company that had no employment relationship with the plaintiff” was liable for “aiding and abetting” discrimination by publishing its employment ads in separate categories by gender. The Griffin court found it “[n]otabl[e]” that this previous opinion imposed “aiding and abetting” liability without “consider[ing] the issue of whether, separate from the newspaper company, any employer or prospective employer was liable for primary discrimination under the Human Rights Law.” This discussion may have significance for the Griffin appeal, because Allied and Sirva now face potential “aiding and abetting” liability, even though a jury previously found that plaintiffs’ direct employer did not discriminate against them in violation of the NYSHRL. Whether a court will impose liability against a third party for “aiding and abetting” discrimination, after a fact-finder has expressly determined that the primary employer did not discriminate against plaintiffs, however, remains to be seen.

In summary, the Court of Appeals’ decision provides some good news for companies that engage independent contractors, by holding that only “employers” are subject to direct liability for employment discrimination under the NYSHRL. The court’s decision also poses some challenges, however, as it may extend liability to a third party either by finding employer status under New York’s four-part common law test, or by determining that imposition of a background check requirement constitutes “aiding and abetting” discrimination. Accordingly, companies who conduct background checks on their independent contractors should remain cognizant of both the four factors that determine employer status under New York common law, and the various statutes, including the NYSHRL, the New York City Human Rights Law, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, that may impose liability for “aiding and abetting” acts of employment discrimination under such circumstances.

On April 27, 2017, the Ninth Circuit[1] issued an opinion in Aileen Rizo v. Jim Yovino that provides employers with guidance on how to lawfully implement facially-neutral business policies using prior salary information to set a new employee’s salary, without running afoul of the federal Equal Pay Act (“EPA”). While there has been some backlash regarding this recent decision, the Court’s ruling was consistent with its prior holding in Kouba v. Allstate Insurance Co.[2] when it vacated the lower court’s decision that denied Defendant Jim Yovino’s (“County”[3]) motion for summary judgment, and directed that the lower court consider the County’s hiring procedures in light of certain factors set forth in the Kouba case (as detailed below).

In 2009, Plaintiff Aileen Rizo (“Plaintiff”) began working for the Fresno County School District. Her starting salary was determined using the school district’s standard salary schedule, “Standard Operating Procedure 1440[4],” which was routinely and uniformly applied to all management-level employees, including Plaintiff. Based on the County’s application of this facially neutral policy, which is based on an employee’s prior salary, Plaintiff’s pay was lower than those of her colleagues with higher past salaries, including her male coworkers.

The pay disparity between Plaintiff and her male coworkers was undisputed by the County in this case. But, the County argued that its use of prior salary falls squarely under one of the affirmative defenses to the EPA – i.e., that prior salary amounts to an “other factor other than sex.”[5]

Plaintiff responded by arguing that if an employer’s pay structure is based “exclusively on prior wages,” then any resulting pay differential between men and women cannot be interpreted to be based on “any other factor other than sex.” Her position was consistent with Tenth and Eleventh Circuit decisions and the EEOC’s stance on this topic. Plaintiff further claimed that the use of prior salary alone can’t be considered a “factor other than sex” because it perpetuates existing pay disparities and further undermines the purpose of the Equal Pay Act. The lower court agreed with Plaintiff and found that women’s earlier salaries are likely to be lower than men’s because of historical gender bias; but, the District Court also acknowledged that its decision potentially conflicted with the 1982 decision in Kouba.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit vacated the District Courts decision and held that its earlier decision in Kouba was controlling in the present case.  In its opinion, the Ninth Circuit held that the Kouba decision “allow[s] an employer to base a pay differential on prior salary so long as it showed that its use of prior salary effectuated some business policy and that the employer used the factor reasonably in light of its stated purpose and its other practices.”  Here, the County offered four business reasons for it policy: (1) the policy is objective, in the sense that no subjective opinions as to the new employee’s value enters into the starting-salary calculus; (2) the policy encourages candidates to leave their current jobs for jobs at the County, because they will always receive a 5% pay increase over their current salary; (3) the policy prevents favoritism and ensures consistency in application; and (4) the policy is a judicious use of taxpayer dollars.

The matter was remanded to the District Court for (1) an evaluation of the four business justifications offered by the County regarding its gender-neutral preset pay scale, and (2) a determination of whether the County’s use of employees’ prior salary is “reasonable in light of [its] stated purpose” under the standard set forth in Kouba.

Many states, including California, recently revised their state law equal pay protections to address the use of prior pay in hiring decisions, and whether it perpetuates prior pay discrimination. In particular, California’s equal pay law now includes a provision that expressly prohibits the use of prior salary “by itself [to] justify any disparity in compensation.” Interestingly, California’s amendment, which was passed prior to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, was not addressed at all in the decision. But, arguably here, all allegedly discriminatory decisions were made prior to the amendment’s passage.

In light of these new state and local laws’ prohibitions and/or restrictions on the use of prior pay as a determinant in setting an applicant’s salary, even if the Ninth Circuit finds that the federal Equal Pay Act permits the use of pay history for this purpose (under certain circumstances), in many jurisdictions, state and local laws will prohibit it. Employers should be aware both of the split in the circuits on this issue, and also of any applicable amendments to state and local equal pay laws that may impact their ability to rely on prior pay in setting an applicant’s rate of pay.

[1] The panel included Circuit Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Andrew D. Hurwitz and the Honorable Lynn S. Adelman, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, sitting by designation.

[2]Kouba v. Allstate Insurance Co. ( 9th Cir. 1982) 691 F.2d 873.

[3] As Defendant Jim Yovino was sued in his official capacity as the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, the Ninth Circuit utilized the word “County” when referring to the Defendant. For simplicity, we utilize the same term.

[4] To determine a candidate’s salary using “Standard Operating Procedure 1440,” the County applies a 5% increase to an individual’s most recent prior salary, then places the candidate on a “step” of the County’s salary schedule based on that calculated amount. This schedule consists of twelve “levels,” each of which contains ten “steps.”

[5] Under the EPA, a wage disparity is permissible if an employer can plead and prove an affirmative defense based on one of the following exceptions: (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.

Our colleague Steven M. Swirsky, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Management Memo blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “OSHA Withdraws ‘Fairfax Memo’ – Union Representatives May No Longer Participate in Work Place Safety Walkarounds at Non-Union Facilities.”

Following is an excerpt:

On April 25, 2017, Dorothy Dougherty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and Thomas Galassi, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, issued a Memorandum to the agency’s Regional Administrators notifying them of the withdrawal of its previous guidance, commonly referred to as the Fairfax Memorandum, permitting “workers at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement” to designate “a person affiliated with a union or community organization to act on their behalf as a walkaround representative” during an OSHA workplace investigation. …

Read the full post here.

On May 15, 2017, New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act (“FIFA”) will take effect. FIFA requires parties that retain “freelance workers” to provide any service where the contract between them has a value of $800 or more to reduce their agreement to a written contract.

FIFA defines a freelance worker as “any natural person or any organization composed of no more than one natural person, whether or not incorporated or employing a trade name, that is hired or retained as an independent contractor by a hiring party to provide services in exchange for compensation.” Importantly, the law does not cover organizations or more than one natural person.

The $800 threshold is reached either by itself or when aggregated with all contracts for services during the preceding 120 days.  The contract must include, at a minimum, the following information:

  • the name and address of both the hiring party and the freelance worker,
  • an itemized list of the services that will be provided and the value of those services,
  • the rate and method of compensation, and
  • the date on which payment is due or the mechanism by which such date will be determined.

If no payment due date is indicated in the contract, the hiring party must pay the freelance worker within 30 days of the completion of services.

A hiring party is also prohibited from threatening, intimidating, disciplining, harassing, denying a work opportunity, or discriminating against a freelance worker who exercises his or her rights under FIFA.

The law establishes penalties for violations of these rights, including statutory damages, double damages, injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees.

In anticipation of May 15, 2017, employers should ensure that contracts entered into with freelance workers (or existing contracts that are renewed) with a value of $800 or more comply with FIFA.

Amid challenges regarding Philadelphia’s upcoming law prohibiting employers from requesting an applicant’s salary history, the City has agreed not to enforce the upcoming law until after the court has finally resolved the injunction request.

The law, which was set to become effective May 23, 2017, has been challenged by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia (the “Chamber”). The Chamber’s lawsuit alleges that the pending law violates the First Amendment by restricting an employer’s speech because, among other reasons, “it is highly speculative whether the [law] will actually ameliorate wage disparities caused by gender discrimination.” It is also alleged that the law violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and Pennsylvania’s Constitution as well as its “First Class City Home Rule Act” by allegedly attempting to restrict the rights of employers outside of Philadelphia.

On April 19, a judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania stayed the effective date of the law, pending the resolution of the Chamber’s motion for a preliminary injunction. Prior to resolving the injunction, the parties will first brief the court on the Chamber’s standing to bring the lawsuit. This issue, regarding whether the Chamber is an appropriate party to bring this lawsuit, will be fully briefed by May 12, 2017, before the law is set to become effective. However, there are several other issues to be resolved as part of the lawsuit. The City’s decision to stay enforcement of the pending law until all issues are resolved is intended to help employers and employees avoid confusion during the pendency of the lawsuit.

Although the City of Philadelphia will not enforce this law in the interim, employers with any operations in Philadelphia should review their interviewing and hiring practices in case the lawsuit is decided in favor of the City. Further, employers in Massachusetts and New York City will also be subject to similar restrictions on inquiring about an applicant’s salary history when those laws go into effect. Massachusetts’ law is scheduled to become effective in July 2018, and New York City’s law will become effective 180 days after Mayor de Blasio signs the law, which may occur as soon as this week.

Ever since the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued its August 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., holding two entities may be joint employers if one exercises either direct or indirect control over the terms and conditions of the other’s employees or reserves the right to do so, the concept of joint employment has generated increased interest from plaintiffs’ attorneys, and increased concern from employers. Questions raised by the New York Court of Appeals in a recent oral argument, however, indicate that employers who engage another company’s workers on an independent contractor basis would be wise to guard against another potential form of liability, for aiding and abetting acts that violate various anti-discrimination statutes, including both the New York State (“NYSHRL”) and New York City Human Rights Laws (“NYCHRL”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).

On March 28, 2017, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Griffin v. Sirva, Inc., to answer three questions that had been certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit: (1) does the NYSHRL’s prohibition of employment discrimination based on workers’ criminal records limit liability to an aggrieved party’s “employer”; (2) if so, is the scope of the term “employer” limited to a worker’s direct employer, or does it include other entities who exercise a significant level of control over the direct employer’s discrimination policies and practices; and (3) does the portion of the NYSHRL that prohibits aiding and abetting the discriminatory acts of another apply to a non-New York entity that requires its New York agent to discriminate in employment based on a worker’s criminal history.

Griffin illustrates a concern faced by employers in a variety of industries, who subcontract certain types of work to employees of a separate business entity on an independent contractor basis. Among other tasks, companies may engage contractors to provide cleaning services, security, delivery of goods, installation of purchases or, as in Griffin, packing and moving services.  Such subcontracted services may be performed in a variety of settings, ranging from the company’s premises to its customers’ homes.  With increasing concerns regarding workplace violence, companies often choose to conduct their own criminal background checks on these contract workers, either personally or through an outside vendor, in an attempt to protect the company’s employees, customers, and property. This concern is particularly heightened when, as in Griffin, the contract workers in question will be performing services in the homes of a company’s customers.

In these types of scenarios, a question often arises regarding whether the company that engaged the contractors can be liable for violating state or city laws prohibiting discrimination based on criminal convictions, by virtue of requiring the background check, even though that company was not the workers’ direct employer. In resolving this question, courts typically rely on the concept of joint employment, analyzing the extent to which the company is involved in the hiring or firing of the contractors, or in exerting control over their working conditions. Presumably anticipating this sort of analysis, the parties in Griffin (including the State of New York, which filed an amicus curiae brief and was permitted to participate in oral argument) focused their briefing and arguments on whether a company that performs background checks on its contract workers should be deemed an employer under the NYSHRL.  Through its questions at oral argument, however, the court appeared to indicate that there may be a simpler resolution in this type of case, which does not require addressing the complex question of whether the company requiring the background checks is the workers’ employer or joint employer.

In addition to directly prohibiting discrimination based on criminal history, the NYSHRL states that it is “an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person to aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce the doing of any of the acts forbidden under [the NYSHRL], or to attempt to do so.” “Person” is defined as including “one or more individuals, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers.” Based on this expansive language, several judges seemed to indicate that the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision was sufficiently broad to encompass third parties who conduct background checks on contractors, regardless of whether such entities would otherwise be considered the contract workers’ employer or joint employer.  Assuming the “aiding and abetting” provision covers such conduct, multiple judges noted that imposing liability under that provision would be simpler than wrestling with the joint employment issue.  Further, the judges expressed concern that expanding liability under the main section of the NYSHRL to non-employers would render the “aiding and abetting” provision superfluous.

While it is premature to predict how the Court of Appeals may ultimately rule in Griffin, particularly given the recent unexpected death of one of the court’s seven members, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, companies who engage workers on an independent contractor basis should be aware that potential joint employment issues may not be their only concern with regard to such workers. Regardless of whether a company exerts sufficient control over its contract workers to be deemed a joint employer, if the company operates in a jurisdiction whose anti-discrimination laws allow for “aiding and abetting” liability, that provision may serve as an alternative basis of potential liability for a company that conducts criminal background checks on contract workers engaged through a separate business entity.  Specifically, because the NYSHRL, NYCHRL, and NJLAD each include broad provisions that prohibit any person or entity from aiding, abetting, inciting, compelling, or coercing any acts that violate those laws, businesses that operate in New York State, New York City, or New Jersey should ensure that any background check requirement imposed on another entity’s workers complies with all applicable “ban-the-box” and anti-discrimination laws (e.g., NY State Correction Law Article 23-A, the NYC Fair Chance Act, and the NJ Opportunity to Compete Act), in order to avoid potential liability under the applicable “aiding and abetting” provisions in those jurisdictions.

California’s Fair Employment & Housing Council has finalized and adopted new regulations to establish criteria for the use and consideration of criminal history information in employment decisions where such use may constitute a violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The new regulations take effect July 1, 2017, and are available here and on the Council’s website.  The regulations are intended to clarify, outline and maintain consistency between the laws governing the consideration of criminal history information in employment decisions.

The regulations reiterate existing prohibitions on the use of criminal history information and also require employers to demonstrate a business necessity, in addition to job-relatedness, for requesting a criminal history if the policy or practice of considering criminal history information creates an adverse impact on applicants or employees based on certain protected classes. Applicants and employees bear the initial burden of demonstrating that the policy or practice has an adverse impact on a protected class.  If this showing is made, the burden shifts to the employer to establish that the policy is justifiable because it is job-related and consistent with business necessity. To do so, the employer must demonstrate that the policy or practice is appropriately tailored, taking into account several factors including: (i) the nature and gravity  of the offense or conduct; (ii) the passage of time; and (iii) the nature of the position held or sought.  Even if an employer can demonstrate job-relatedness and consistency with business necessity, an applicant or employee may still bring a claim if he or she can show that there is a less discriminatory alternative available to advance the employer’s legitimate concerns.

Retail employers in California should review their policies and practices to ensure that their use of criminal history information complies with the new regulations. Employers are also reminded of their obligation to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., and the California Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 1786 et seq.

Paid Leave_shutterstock_371740363The state of Maryland appears poised to join seven other states and various local jurisdictions (including Montgomery County, Maryland) already requiring employers to provide paid sick and save leave. On April 5, 2017, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill previously passed by the Maryland Senate that would require most employers with at least 15 employees to provide up to five paid sick and safe leave days per year to their employees, and smaller employers to provide up to five unpaid sick and safe leave days. Although the bill contains an effective date of January 1, 2018, the actual effective date will depend on action by Governor Larry Hogan.

The following employees are not covered by the bill:

  • Employees who regularly work less than 12 hours a week;
  • Employees who are employed in the construction industry;
  • Employees who are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement that expressly waives the requirements of the law;
  • Certain “as-needed” employees in the health or human services industry.

Under the bill, an employer may not be required to allow an employee to:

(1) earn more than 40 hours of earned sick and safe leave in a year;
(2) use more than 64 hours of earned sick and safe leave in a year;
(3) accrue a total of more than 64 hours at any time;
(4) use earned sick and safe leave during the first 106 calendar days the employee works for the employer.

The bill also preempts local jurisdictions from enacting new sick and safe leave laws except for amending existing laws enacted before January 1, 2017, i.e. the existing law in Montgomery County.

The bill passed with enough support in both chambers to survive a promised veto by Governor Hogan, who favored an alternative that would require the benefit only for companies with at least 50 workers and make tax incentives available for smaller companies that offered the leave. However, if he still vetoes the bill, lawmakers will not have an opportunity to override the veto until next year’s legislative session beginning on January 10, 2018, which means the bill would not take effect until after January 1, 2018, and could possibly be subject to amendment in the next session.

*Marc-Joseph Gansah, a Law Clerk – Admission Pending in the firm’s New York office, contributed to the preparation of this blog post.

In In re: Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., Case No. 17-1028 (10th Cir. March 27, 2017), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated its holding in Theissen v. GE Capital Corp., 267 F.3d 1055 (10th Cir. 2001), that a district court may utilize a variety of approaches to identify similarly situated workers for purposes of authorizing facilitated notice in FLSA collective actions.

The Tenth Circuit reaffirmed its position when denying Chipotle’s petition for a writ of mandamus. There, the district court issued an order in Turner v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., 123 F. Supp. 3d 1300 (D. Colo. 2015), authorizing notice in a collective action resulting in 10,000 opt-in plaintiffs.  As part of its petition, Chipotle sought a writ of mandamus to dismiss the district court’s joinder of 10,000 opt-in plaintiffs, or, in the alternative, to remand to permit discovery to ascertain if the opt-ins are similarly situated and to provide an opportunity to file a motion to decertify the collective action.  The Tenth Circuit rejected Chipotle’s application because the district court’s order was “not such a gross abuse of discretion” to warrant mandamus relief.

That the Tenth Circuit denied mandamus relief is unremarkable based on factors presented. Of significance, however, is the court’s discussion and acknowledgment that Theissen’s three approaches (the ad hoc approach; Rule 23 approach; and spurious approach under pre-1966 Rule 23 amendments) remain available to district courts to use to determine who is similarly situated under FLSA Section 216(b) for purposes of facilitated notice.

In Turner, plaintiffs allege that Chipotle’s company-wide automated computer timekeeping system “arbitrarily cuts off the time clock at half past midnight,” allegedly resulting in some shift-closing hourly employees working off-the-clock without being compensated.

The district court analyzed “the proper procedural mechanism for pursuing a representative action ‘on behalf’ of employees similarly situated.” 123 F.Supp. 3d at 1305.  The court rejected so much of plaintiffs’ motion insofar it was characterized as one for conditional certification under a lenient standard of “substantial allegations” that the plaintiff and those similarly situated were victims of “a single decision, policy or plan.”  It also rejected Chipotle’s request for a stricter standard of review of plaintiffs’ motion for facilitated notice, as plaintiffs had discovery, and that certification should be limited to stores where there is “substantial evidence” of a common decision, policy or plan. Id.

The district court proceeded to identify the proper standard to authorize notice of collective action. It specifically rejected the two-step ad hoc conditional certification rubric as well as the Rule 23 approach to facilitate notice of the collective action because such approaches conflate the Rule 23 class certification standard with Section 216(b)’s permissive joinder standard.  Rather, it found that Section 216(b) collective action may be analogized under the spurious class action approach (old Rule 23(a)(3)), as both were “‘aggregated damages claims for only those who opted in and both were joinder liberalizations.’” Id. at 1306 (citation omitted).  It concluded that the proper approach in deciding a motion to facilitate notice “is to presumptively allow workers bringing the same statutory claim against the same employer to join as a collective, with the understanding that individuals may be challenged and severed from the collective if the basis for their joinder proves erroneous” (emphasis supplied).  The court placed the burden on Chipotle to “winnow” the collective at some later point in the proceeding through F.R.Civ.P. Rules 21 (misjoinder) and Rule 42 (severance) procedures.

The Tenth Circuit found that the district court’s “presumptive” approach to facilitate notice, which it likened to the “spurious” approach, complies with Section 216(b). It noted that “under the spurious approach, courts incorporate into § 216(b) the pre-1966 requirements of Rule 23 based on Advisory Committee notes which are: (1) “the character of the right sought to be enforced … must be several,” (2) “there must be a common question of law or fact affecting the several rights,” and (3) “a common relief must be sought.”

The district court’s departure from the ad hoc/two-step approach is notable.  Under the ad hoc approach, the first step requires a named plaintiff to make a modest factual showing that the named plaintiff and potential opt-in plaintiffs are victims of a common decision, policy, or plan.  If shown, court-approved notice to potential collective action members will issue.  The second step, occurring after the completion of discovery, requires the district court, applying a more stringent standard of proof, to make factual findings whether the opt-in plaintiffs are in fact similarly situated to the named plaintiff.  The ad hoc approach is used by many district courts and has been acknowledged by a number of circuit courts, in addition to the Tenth Circuit, as an acceptable approach. See e.g. Zavala v. Wal Mart Stores Inc., 691 F.3d 527 (3d Cir. 2012); Myers v. Hertz Corp., 624 F.3d 537 (2d Cir. 2010).

The Tenth Circuit in In Re Chipotle repeated its position in Theissen, “that the two-step process is arguably the best of the three approaches we have experienced,” but, at the same time, noted that the differences between the approaches were minimal, as “[a]ll approaches allow for consideration of the same or similar factors.”  It deferred to the district court’s discretion whether to deny collective action treatment “for trial management reasons.” The Tenth Circuit rejected Chipotle’s argument that the ad hoc approach is mandated by Theissen.

Also, the Tenth Circuit rejected Chipotle’s argument that the spurious approach violates its due process rights because there is no threshold determination if the matter is suitable for collective action treatment and it places the burden on Chipotle to “winnow” the collective action thereafter. Acknowledging that the winnowing process may be burdensome, the circuit court observed that, at this stage of the litigation, Chipotle had not identified a basis relieving it from this task.

The Tenth Circuit concluded by opining that it made “no definitive determination of the merits of using the spurious approach as opposed to either of the others”, and noted that the district court’s approach “may be debatable”. Nevertheless, the Turner case proceeds as a collective action with 10,000 opt-in plaintiffs.

Takeaways

  1. Trial courts are given wide latitude in deciding how to identify and provide notice to similarly situated litigants of FLSA collective actions. In the Tenth Circuit, no one method is mandated under § 216(b).  Nevertheless, the Turner district court decision, if followed, may signal even larger collective actions.  The ad hoc or two step approach has enjoyed wide acceptance at the district court and, more important, acquiescence at the circuit level.  The standard of proof at the initial certification stage is low to meet its purpose “to determine whether ‘similarly situated’ plaintiffs do in fact exist.” Myers, 645 F.3d at 555 (emphasis in original).  Although the plaintiff’s initial burden is modest, “it is not non-existent.” Khan v. Airport Mgmt. Servs., LLC, No. 10-CV-7735, 2011 WL 5597371 at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 16, 2011).  The “modest factual showing” to support conditional certification at the first stage inquiry starts the winnowing process by determining “whether, ‘similarly situated’ plaintiffs do in fact exist.” Myers, 624 F.3d at 555 (citations omitted; emphasis in original).  Under the Turner district court decision, the winnowing process will start later through misjoinder and severance motion practice, possibly on an individualized basis.
  2. The Turner case highlights the risk associated with utilizing automated time and attendance tracking systems. The administrative efficiencies that such systems bring to the workplace can be offset by lawsuits alleging inaccurate recording of working time.  An automated timekeeping system may reduce administrative overhead and control payroll, but it may lead to incidents of off the clock work, when, for example, meals are not taken, but recorded as having occurred.  Or, as alleged in Turner, an employee working a closing shift cannot record time, because the automated timekeeping system is not operational after a certain hour.  Some employers have learned this lesson the hard way in auto-deduction class and collective actions, involving meal breaks, particularly where a monitoring system is not in place to verify that all hours worked are recorded.