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.

Our colleagues Brian W. Steinbach and Judah L. Rosenblatt, at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Heath Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Mayor Signs District of Columbia Ban on Most Employment Credit Inquiries.”

Following is an excerpt:

On February 15, 2017, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the “Fair Credit in Employment Amendment Act of 2016” (“Act”) (D.C. Act A21-0673) previously passed by the D.C. Council. The Act amends the Human Rights Act of 1977 to add “credit information” as a trait protected from discrimination and makes it a discriminatory practice for most employers to directly or indirectly require, request, suggest, or cause an employee (prospective or current) to submit credit information, or use, accept, refer to, or inquire into an employee’s credit information. …

Read the full post here.

Our colleagues Jeremy M. Brown, Steven M. Swirsky and Laura C. Monaco, at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Management Memo blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “F17 and the General Strike Movement – Best Practices for Addressing Political Activity in the Workplace.”

Following is an excerpt:

This week, an activist group calling itself “Strike4Democracy” has called for a day of “coordinated national actions” – purportedly including more than 100 “strike actions” across the country – on February 17, 2017. The group envisions the February 17th strike as the first in “a series of mass strikes,” including planned mass strikes on March 8 (organized by International Women’s Day and The Women’s March) and May Day, and a general “heightening resistance throughout the summer.” The organizers are encouraging people not to work or shop that day. …

Read the full post here.

The New York City’s Human Rights law (“NYCHRL”) prohibits employment discrimination against specified protected classes of employees and applicants including:

Employers Should Care About This: New York City’s Amendment on Caregiver Discrimination race, color, creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, partnership status, any lawful source of income, status as a victim of domestic violence or status as a victim of sex offenses or stalking, whether children are, may be or would be residing with a person or conviction or arrest record.

If this list wasn’t long enough, on May 4, 2016, NYCHRL will add “caregivers” to the protected classes including, anyone who provides ongoing medical  or “daily living” care for a minor, any disabled relative or disabled non-relative who lives in the caregiver’s household.

The law defines “caregiver” as a person who provides direct and ongoing care for a minor child or a person with a disability who: (1) is a covered relative, or a person who resides in the caregiver’s household; and (2) relies on the caregiver for medical care or to meet the needs of daily living.

“Covered relatives” include children (adopted, biological or foster), spouses, domestic partners, parents, siblings, grandchildren, grandparents, children or parents of the caregiver’s spouse or domestic partner, or any individuals in a “familial relationship” with the caregiver.

The NYCHRL prohibits employers from discriminating against caregivers with respect to hiring, compensation, or the terms and conditions of employment. Thus, employers should not ask applicants about their status as a caregiver when making hiring decisions.

Importantly, employers may still (and should!) hold caregiver employees to the same attendance and performance standards as other employees.  Caregivers must still be able to perform the essential functions of their job, notwithstanding their role as a caregiver.

The law does not contain an affirmative requirement to accommodate caregivers, but employers should carefully consider any employee’s requests for time off due to caregiving responsibilities to ensure responses to such requests are being applied consistently and in accordance with any other potentially applicable laws. For example, caregiver employees may be eligible to take sick time under the New York City Earned Sick Time Act to fulfill caregiver duties for medical needs. In addition caregivers caring for medical needs may be entitled to Family and Medical Leave Act benefits.  Employers must also think about how their policies and practices affect caregivers and train managers on the new protections.

The New York Human Rights Commission has not yet issued formal guidance regarding this amendment. Until the Commission does so, the potential reach of the law remains unknown.  But employers should brace themselves for broad interpretations of this law and stay tuned to this blog for updates.

On March 28, 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed three pieces of legislation passed earlier this month by The New York City Council to amend the City’s Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).

The new laws:

  1. require that the NYCHRL be interpreted expansively to maximize civil rights protections, regardless of how courts have interpreted similar provisions under federal and state anti-discrimination laws;
  2. permit the City’s Commission on Human Rights the authority to award attorney’s fees and costs to complainants in cases brought before the Commission; and
  3. repeal language addressing how to construe the NYCRHL’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The repealed language provided that the NYCHRL should not be construed to, among other things, restrict an employer’s right to insist that an employee meet bona fide job-related qualifications of employment, or authorize affirmative action on the basis of sexual orientation.

The laws became effective immediately upon the Mayor’s signature. Employers should be aware of the enhanced protections for their New York City employees.