As those of you who have followed my thoughts on the state of the website accessibility legal landscape over the years are well aware, businesses in all industries continue to face an onslaught of demand letters and state and federal court lawsuits (often on multiple occasions, at times in the same jurisdiction) based on the concept that a business’ website is inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.  One of the primary reasons for this unfortunate situation is the lack of regulations or other guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which withdrew long-pending private sector website accessibility regulations late last year.  Finally, after multiple requests this summer from bi-partisan factions of Members Congress, DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs recently issued a statement clarifying DOJ’s current position on website accessibility.  Unfortunately, for those hoping that DOJ’s word would radically alter the playing field and stem the endless tide of litigations, the substance of DOJ’s response makes that highly unlikely.

DOJ’s long-awaited commentary makes two key points:

  1. DOJ continues to take the position that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites, explaining that this interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s overarching civil rights obligations; and
  2. Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in determining how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.

This line of reasoning is similar to that adopted in judicial decisions holding that while the ADA’s overarching civil rights obligations apply to websites, it would be inappropriate to specifically require compliance with WCAG 2.0/2.1, without the WCAG having been officially adopted by the government as a required standard.  Of course, as those cases note, DOJ’s position begs the question, if a business has to make the goods and services offered on its website accessible to individuals with disabilities how else can it provide for “full and equal enjoyment” and/or “effective communication” if the business does not otherwise offer a website in substantial conformance with WCAG 2.0/2.1.  Indeed, DOJ’s views on this issue stops far from providing businesses with an ironclad defense.  While DOJ explains that public accommodations have “flexibility” in determining how to comply with the ADA’s requirements it also cautions that, “…noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.” (emphasis added)  By way of example, a select number of cases have contemplated the validity of offering telephone service as an alternative to an accessible website (something DOJ had also previously considered during the since abandoned rulemaking process), with several courts expressing doubt that the availability, speed, and thoroughness of such a telephone service could ever fully equal that of the independently usable accessible website.  With that in mind, any employer looking to establish that it provides a viable alternative to an accessible website would have to be prepared to engage in a significant amount of litigation to prove the viability/accessibility of its alternative offering.

In concluding its response, DOJ seemingly passes the onus for resolving these issues back onto Congress, noting, “Given Congress’ ability to provide greater clarity through the legislative process, we look forward to working with you to continue these efforts [to address the risk of litigation on covered entities].”  Of course, given the number of higher profile matter currently confronting both DOJ and Congress, it would not be surprising if promulgating new website accessibility legislation/regulation will not be high on their lists.

On January 1, 2019, the length of paid leave and amount of weekly benefits under the New York Paid Family Leave Act (“NY PFL”) are scheduled to increase, the first of three yearly increases. The NY PFL, which took effect earlier this year, allows employees to collect up to a maximum of eight weeks of benefits within a 52-consecutive week period. In 2018, employees are eligible to earn 50% of their average weekly salary, up to a cap set at 50% of the state average weekly wage. Currently, the NY PFL benefits has been calculated based on the 2016 New York State average weekly wage, which is $1,305.92 per week. Thus, the maximum benefit amount in 2018 is $652.96 per week.

Beginning on or after January 1, 2019, leaves of absence taken under the NY PFL will increase to a maximum of 10 weeks of benefits within a 52-consecutive week period. The benefit amount will also increase to 55% of an employee’s average weekly salary, up to a cap set at 55% of the state average weekly wage. In 2019, the NY PFL benefits will be calculated based on the 2017 New York State average weekly wage, which is $1,357.11. The new maximum weekly benefit in 2019 will be $746.41 per week.

An employee’s payroll contribution toward NY PFL is also scheduled to increase beginning on January 1, 2019. The deduction amount will increase to 0.153% of an employee’s weekly salary, at an annual contribution amount less than the cap of $107.97. This is an increase from the 2018 deduction amounts, which were 0.126% of an employee’s weekly salary, with an annual contribution cap of $85.56.

As a reminder, beginning on January 1, 2020, the maximum length of leave will stay at 10 weeks, but the benefits will be calculated based on 60% of an employee’s average weekly wage, up to a cap set at 60% of the state average weekly wage. On January 1, 2021, the last of the annual increases will be set. Then, the maximum length of leave will increase to 12 weeks in a 52-consecutive week period and benefits will be payable based on 67% of an employee’s average weekly wage, up to a cap set at 67% of the state average weekly wage.

Yesterday, the New York Attorney General (“NYAG”) announced a settlement with national retailer Aldo Group Inc. (“Aldo”) for violation of New York City’s ban the box law, which, among other things, prohibits employers from inquiring into a prospective employee’s criminal history on an initial employment application. The NYAG’s investigation revealed that (i) Aldo’s employment applications impermissibly inquired into the applicant’s criminal history and (ii) Aldo lacked consistent policies and procedures for evaluating the criminal records of applicants and employees, leading store-level managerial employees to believe they had wide latitude in how they could consider the criminal records of applicants and that they could bar applicants with a felony conviction from employment.

Under the settlement terms, Aldo will pay a $120,000 fine to New York State, modify their employment applications to bring them into compliance with New York’s ban the box law, create new policies and training to ensure that its stores individually assess applicants’ criminal histories at the appropriate point in the application process, and report the company’s remediation to the NYAG.

This is the first ban the box settlement reached by the NYAG in 2018, but the fifth such settlement overall. In 2017, the NYAG settled with Marshalls and Big Lots, as reported here.

This settlement should serve as another wake-up call to businesses operating in New York to bring their pre-hiring practices into compliance with New York’s ban the box law. The NYAG’s enforcement efforts are likely to continue and the costs of noncompliance are steep.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: NJ Senate Advances Ban on Sex Harassment Confidentiality Agreements.

The New Jersey Senate wants no more secrecy around harassment claims. On a 34-to-1 vote, the chamber approved legislation banning confidentiality agreements involving sexual harassment claims. The bill is still pending in the House, where a vote is expected in the next few weeks. The legislation would also allow victims to keep their identities confidential and would establish jurisdiction in Superior Court, arguably bypassing arbitration agreements.

Watch the segment below.

Our colleague  at Epstein Becker Green has a post on the Hospitality Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to our readers in the retail industry: “Massachusetts Attorney General Enforces State Ban the Box Law for First Time, Fining Three Businesses and Issuing Warnings to 17 Others.”

Massachusetts is one of many states which have adopted legislation, commonly known as a “ban the box” law, prohibiting public and private employers from requesting criminal record information in a prospective employee’s “initial written employment application” and limiting the type and scope of questions an employer may ask a candidate following receipt of an “initial written employment application.” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced that her office has settled with four businesses and issued warning letters to 17 others for violations of Massachusetts’s ban the box law, marking the first enforcement efforts by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. …

Read the full post here.

On May 30, 2018, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed bill H.707, titled “An Act Relating to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment” (the “Act”). Effect on July 1, 2018, the Act provides expansive protections for employees and prospective employees, as well as some groundbreaking employer obligations and potential penalties for violations of the law.

Among its key provisions, the Act:

  • Applies to all persons “hired to perform work or services,” thereby covering independent contractors and unpaid interns;
  • Prohibits employers from requiring any employee or prospective employee, as a condition of employment, to sign an agreement that waives “a substantive or procedural right or remedy available to the employee with respect to a claim of sexual harassment.” In effect, this provision bans employment agreements requiring that sexual harassment claims be resolved through arbitration;[1]
  • Prohibits employment agreements that prevent or restrict an employee or prospective employee from “opposing, disclosing, reporting, or participating in an investigation of sexual harassment;”
  • Requires that all sexual harassment settlement agreements contain specific statements (discussed below) describing when a claimant-party has the right to disclose information about his or her allegations and the settlement;
  • Mandates that a sexual harassment settlement agreement may not prohibit the claimant-party from working for the employer “or any parent company, subsidiary, division, or affiliate of the employer;”
  • Directs the development of a public education and outreach program, including the establishment of a hotline and web portal for the reporting of sexual harassment complaints to the Vermont Human Rights Commission or the Attorney General’s Office;
  • Requires the Attorney General’s Office to develop a streamlined reporting system;
  • Provides the Attorney General broad powers to investigate and enforce the law, including, among other things, the authority to conduct an inspection of an employer’s records, and in certain circumstances (described below), require the employer to conduct employee training; and,
  • Directs the Office of Legislative Affairs to develop “mechanisms” for essentially voiding non-disclosure agreements in prior settlements where, in a separate, later claim, the alleged harasser is “adjudicated by a court or tribunal of competent jurisdiction to have engaged in sexual harassment or retaliation in relation to a claim of sexual harassment.”

Further, consistent with existing law, which mandates that employers must adopt an anti-harassment policy, the new Act reiterates that employers:

  • Must provide all new hires with a copy of their written policies on sexual harassment, and again distribute copies to all employees if the policies are revised; and
  • Are encouraged, but not required, to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees as well as supervisors and managers.

Inclusion of Required Statement in Sexual Harassment Settlements

As noted above, the Act imposes limits on the extent to which a sexual harassment settlement agreement can require confidentiality. Under the new law, employers must expressly state in such settlement agreements that the agreement does not prohibit or restrict the claimant from:

  • Testifying, assisting, or participating in an investigation of a sexual harassment claim conducted by any state or federal agency:
  • Complying with a discovery request or testifying in a proceeding concerning a claim of sexual harassment; and
  • Exercising “any right” the claimant has under State or federal labor relations laws “to engage in concerted activities with other employees for the purposes of collective bargaining or mutual aid and protection.”

The statement also must make clear that the claimant “does not waive any rights or claims that may arise after the date the settlement agreement is executed.”

The State’s Powers to Audit Employers and Enforce the Law

As stated above, the Act grants the Attorney General broad authority to conduct inspections and collect data. Specifically, the Act authorizes the Attorney General’s Office, on 48 hours’ notice to the employer, to “enter and inspect any place of business, question any person who is authorized by the employer to receive or investigate complaints of sexual harassment, and examine an employer’s records, policies, procedures, and training materials related to the prevention of sexual harassment.” This authority includes the right to examine all documents related to sexual harassment claims, including the number and details of such complaints and their resolution.

If, after inspection, the Attorney General’s Office or the Human Rights Commission determines that action is “necessary to ensure the employer’s workplace is free from sexual harassment,” either office can, among other remedies, order the employer to provide annual sexual harassment education and training for up to three years.

Finally, the previously described directive to the Office of Legislative Affairs to explore “mechanisms” which would allow the Attorney General to void non-disclosure agreements in prior settlements after a subsequent finding of sexual harassment in a separate case would be a significant development in this area of the law should it actually be developed and implemented.

______________

[1] Arguably, mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims already was banned in Vermont under another law, which bars arbitration agreements that prevent a person from “seeking or obtaining the assistance of the courts in enforcing his or her constitutional or civil rights.” It should be noted that this arbitration ban, along with others, such as the one recently enacted in New York, may be preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act. With the increase in these kinds of laws, it is likely that, at some point, there will be a court challenge to at least one of them on preemption grounds.

This post was written with assistance from Alison Gabay, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Our colleague at Epstein Becker Green has a post on the Wage and Hour Defense blog that will be of interest to our readers in the retail industry: “Federal Court Concludes That 7-Eleven Franchisees Are Not Employees of 7-Eleven.

Following is an excerpt:

In November 2017, four convenience store franchisees brought suit in federal court against 7-Eleven, Inc., alleging that they and all other franchisees were employees of 7-Eleven. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, entitled Haitayan, et al. v. 7-Eleven, Inc., case no. CV 17-7454-JFW (JPRx).

In alleging that they were 7-Eleven’s employees, the franchisees brought claims for violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the California Labor Code, alleging overtime and expense reimbursement violations. The trial court granted judgment in 7-Eleven’s favor, concluding that 7-Eleven was not the four franchisees’ employer under California law or federal law. …

Read the full post here.

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  The Ninth Circuit held that certain auto service advisors were not exempt because their position is not specifically listed in the FLSA auto dealership exemption.

The 9th relied on the principle that such exemptions should be interpreted narrowly. In a 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court found no “textual indication” in the FLSA for narrow construction. Applying a “fair interpretation” standard instead, the Court ruled that the exemption applies to service advisors because of the nature of the work.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

In any given week, dozens of lawsuits are filed in federal courts across the United States alleging that businesses violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which governs the accessibility of places of public accommodation. While many of these lawsuits now focus on website accessibility, a significant number of them continue to focus on the alleged inaccessibility of brick-and-mortar business establishments, particularly restaurants and hotels. These “drive by” ADA lawsuits often focus on the inaccessibility of architectural elements that can be easily assessed by “testers” without even frequenting the establishment in question—e.g., parking spaces, sidewalks, entrances, public restrooms, host/check-in stations, and pools—sometimes even relying on online images. Moreover, the allegations asserted are often highly technical in nature—living and dying by a matter of centimeters—known only to those who specialize in accessibility. Notably, the vast majority of these claims are brought by a relatively small community of serial plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ counsel for whom achieving compliance is secondary to quickly obtaining a settlement payment and attorneys’ fees.

On February 15, 2018, in an effort to curb such drive-by ADA lawsuits, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation—the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620) (“ADAERA”)—that would require that would-be plaintiffs first provide written notice of alleged architectural barriers and a period to cure before being able to commence a Title III litigation in federal court. Under ADAERA, before plaintiffs could file a Title III claim alleging architectural barriers in federal court, they would first have to provide written notice of the existence of barriers to accessibility (containing sufficient specificity, and citations to the relevant sections of the ADA, to allow the barriers to be identified by the business). The business would then have 60 days from receipt of the notice to provide a plan for the remediation of the existing barriers and an additional 120 days to eliminate the barriers or make substantial progress in doing so. If the business does not respond to the initial letter within 60 days or does not make substantial progress in eliminating the barriers within the following 120 days, then the plaintiff can commence a federal Title III litigation. ADAERA also seeks to create a model program for the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in the resolution of federal Title III claims (e.g., a mediation program that stays discovery while the mediation proceeds). Of course, before it can become law, ADAERA still needs to be passed by the Senate (given the Senate’s current composition, there is no guarantee that it will pass) and then signed by President Trump.

It should come as no surprise that ADAERA has been met with a wide range of reactions. Proponents of the bill argue that ADAERA would preserve the intended purpose of Title III—removing barriers to accessibility—but eliminate the existing incentives for plaintiffs’ counsel to flood the courts with lawsuits premised on minute technical architectural violations with the primary goal of churning up and quickly collecting fees via a settlement. Opponents argue that, as the ADA has been law for more than 25 years, businesses that are not currently in compliance with Title III should not get the benefit of notice and additional time to comply with the long-established law. They fear that ADAERA would encourage businesses to ignore their Title III obligations until receiving a notice of deficiency.

Even if ADAERA, as currently constituted, ultimately becomes law, it could very well have unintended consequences that could create even less desirable circumstances for businesses. First, ADAERA would not prevent plaintiffs from bringing similar cases in state court under state and local accessibility laws, which often are even broader and more liberally interpreted than their federal counterpart. Indeed, plaintiffs often already include such claims as part of their federal actions because, unlike under the ADA, many state and local accessibility statutes allow plaintiffs to seek the recovery of damages and/or civil penalties. Second, as ADAERA does not impose notice requirements for claims under Title III relating to businesses’ obligations to (i) make reasonable modifications to their policies, practices, and procedures, or (ii) provide auxiliary aids and services to enable effective communication, plaintiffs might simply turn their focus to a different type of federal Title III claim. In both of these instances, the result could very well be more protracted litigations under less favorable conditions (e.g., a less efficient forum or less clarity regarding requirements for compliance).

While ADAERA still has a way to go before becoming law, this is the furthest a legislative effort to reform Title III to prevent the rampant proliferation of drive-by filings has progressed, and it is worth tracking.

UPDATE: On March 28, 2018, forty-three Democratic senators united to protest the proposed H.R. 620. The filibuster-proof bloc sent a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warning that the proposal “will never receive a vote in the United States Senate during the 115th Congress.” The letter also points out the H.R. 620, as contemplated, would do nothing to curb plaintiffs from pursuing damages claims under state/local laws. The senators instead favor investing in greater education about Title III’s requirements and the development of a mediation program.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter An Assortment of Legal Issues Hospitality Employers Should Be Considering This Year.”

On March 7, 2018, the New York City Council formally introduced “The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act,” a package of 11 bills, aimed at strengthening protections against, and remedies for, sexual harassment in the workplace. As discussed below, four of these bills, if enacted, would significantly expand the obligations of many employers to prevent sexual harassment and would increase all private NYC employers’ vulnerability to sexual harassment claims.

Mandatory Sexual Harassment Training

Int. 632 would require all private NYC employers with 15 or more employees to conduct annual, “interactive” training on sexual harassment for all full-time and part-time employees who work more than 80 hours in a calendar year in NYC. The training could be in person or through an online program.

Specifically, the annual, interactive training for employees must include the following:

  • An explanation of sexual harassment as a form of unlawful discrimination under local, state and federal law;
  • A description of what sexual harassment is and is not, using practical examples;
  • A description of the employer’s internal complaint processes, if any, available to employees to address sexual harassment claims;
  • A description of the complaint process available through the Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”), the New York State Division of Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including contact information;
  • An explanation, with examples, of what constitutes “retaliation” under the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”); and
  • A discussion of the importance of bystander intervention.

In addition to this general training requirement, NYC employers would also be required to train their supervisors and managers annually on subjects such as their role in the prevention of harassment and retaliation, and how to address sexual harassment complaints.

The bill defines “interactive training” as “participatory teaching whereby the trainee is engaged in a trainer-trainee interaction, use of audio-visuals, or other participatory forms of training as determined by the commission.” The bill further directs the Commission to develop online training modules for small, medium and large workplaces that would satisfy the training requirement, and to allow for the electronic provision of certification each time an employee completes a training module.

Additionally, covered employers would be required to maintain records, for three years, of all training, including a signed employee acknowledgement that must include (i) the date, time, title, duration and location of the training; (ii) whether the training was conducted live or online; and (iii) the name of the person(s) who conducted the training.

If passed, Int. 632 will take effect on September 1, 2018. Penalties for violations of the law would range from $100-$500 for the first violation and from $500-$2,000 for each succeeding violation. However, an employer would be able to avoid a penalty for a first-time violation if the employer could prove within 60 days of the issuance of the notice of violation that it has complied with the law. 

New Sexual Harassment Poster

Int. 630 would require all employers in New York City to post a sexual harassment rights and responsibilities poster in English and Spanish, and to provide new hires with an information sheet on sexual harassment, which would both be created by the Commission and made available to employers.  If passed, Int. 630 would take effect 120 days after enactment and would carry civil penalties for non-compliance.

More Time to File a Complaint

Int. 663 would lengthen the statute of limitations for harassment claims arising under the NYCHRL. Instead of the current one-year statute of limitations, aggrieved employees would be permitted to file complaints up to three years from the date of the alleged harassment. This longer statute of limitations would apply to claims “based on unwelcome conduct that intimidates, interferes with, oppresses, threatens, humiliates or degrades a person based in whole or in part on such person’s gender.”  This bill would take effect immediately upon enactment.

Expanded Employer Coverage under the NYCHRL

Currently, the NYCHRL applies to employers with four or more employees. Int. 657 would eliminate that employee threshold with respect to gender-based harassment claims, thereby subjecting all NYC employers to potential liability for sex harassment under the NYCHRL.[1]

Conclusion

We will continue to monitor these bills as the legislation proceeds and provide updates on any significant developments.

[1] New York State expanded sexual harassment and discrimination protections to all employees in 2015.