Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Health Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Sixth Circuit Finds Title VII Covers Discrimination Based on Transgender Status.”

Following is an excerpt:

In a significant decision on Wednesday, March 6, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes that discrimination against a worker on the basis of gender identity or transitioning status constitutes sex discrimination that violates Title VII.

In R.G. & G.R., the funeral home’s owner fired funeral director Aime Stephens after she informed him she intended to begin a gender transition and present herself as a woman at work. In finding gender identity to be covered by Title VII, the Sixth Circuit also upheld the EEOC’s claim that the funeral home’s dress code, which has different dress and grooming instructions for men and women, discriminates on the basis of sex. …

Read the full post here.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: Second Circuit: Title VII Covers Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

“Legal doctrine evolves.” Those words from the Second Circuit spoke volumes as the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, overturning their own long-standing precedent. The court ruled in favor of a skydiving instructor who claimed he was fired for telling a client he was gay.

The majority opinion began by looking at whether sex is a motivating factor in the alleged unlawful practice. And, in this case, looking at sexual orientation discrimination, the court concluded that sex is a factor and inextricably linked to sexual orientation, and therefore sexual orientation acts as a proxy for sex. The Second Circuit now joins the Seventh Circuit in finding that Title VII does protect against sexual orientation discrimination, and deepens a circuit split with the Eleventh Circuit, which went the other way last year.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

In a decision that will be celebrated by employers in the Seventh Circuit struggling with employee requests for post-Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave as an accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Seventh Circuit in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18197 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), recently held that an employer did not violate the ADA by firing an employee instead of extending his leave after he exhausted all leave under the FMLA.  This holding – finding that extended long-term leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA – is not only contrary to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)’s position regarding extended leave as a reasonable accommodation, but also conflicts with several other federal Circuit courts that had previously ruled on the same issue (holding that extended/post-FMLA leave can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA).

In Severson, the plaintiff was diagnosed with back myelopathy, which negatively affected his back, neck, and spinal cord.  While plaintiff generally could perform his duties without incident, he did experience several “flare ups” which made it difficult for him to walk, bend, lift, stand, and work.  As a result of his disability, plaintiff injured his back and went on FMLA leave, with several continuations of leave, totaling 12 weeks, approved by defendant.  After exhausting all FMLA leave, plaintiff informed defendant that he would undergo disc compression surgery and would require at least an additional two months of leave for recovery time.  Instead of extending plaintiff’s leave, defendant informed plaintiff that his employment would terminate on the date that his FMLA leave expired.

In reaching its holding that leave for an extended period of time is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its analysis in an earlier case – Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc. 328 F.3d 379 (7th Cir. 2003) – that a long-term leave of absence could not be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  Although EEOC guidance “Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act” states that employers should consider long-term leaves of absence as reasonable accommodations, the Seventh Circuit disagreed, stating that such an interpretation was untenable and would transform the ADA into “a medical-leave statute – in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”  (A previous article on the guidance can be found here.)  Moreover, the Court in Severson stated that long-term medical leave does not enable an individual to perform the essential functions of the job and, therefore, cannot be considered a reasonable accommodation because at the time it is required the employee is not a qualified individual with a disability.  Finally, the Court noted that the ADA only requires “reasonable accommodations” and not “effective accommodations”, finding the a request for extended leave is only the latter.  Thus, the Seventh Circuit rejected plaintiff’s argument (which had been joined by the EEOC) that defendant should have granted him a reasonable accommodation of additional leave.

This case represents a stark deviation from both the EEOC’s guidance and the rulings of multiple other Circuit courts throughout the country setting forth that employers must evaluate requests for leave (including those extending beyond FMLA leave) under the ADA on a case-by-case basis to analyze whether granting the leave would be an undue hardship, so long as the request is not for indefinite leave. While this may change the way employers in the Seventh Circuit approach their analysis of leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, employers should be careful not to over-extend this ruling:

  • First, the Severson holding itself does not totally preclude any post-FMLA as an accommodation under the ADA. Indeed, the holding leaves open the possibility that leave spanning a few days or even a couple of weeks could be a reasonable accommodation.
  • Second, some state and local laws governing disability discrimination and accommodation may have different language and standards that could result in a contrary decision. (And now, more than ever, state and local laws that are more restrictive than federal law are being passed on a regular basis.)
  • Third, employers outside the Seventh Circuit should remain diligent in individually analyzing requests for extended leave as an ADA accommodation, particularly in jurisdictions that follow the EEOC’s guidance or where Circuits have expressly ruled contrary to Severson.

No matter what jurisdiction an employer operates in, it is always important for employers to communicate with employees regarding expiration of leave and expected return dates while the employee remains out on leave.

On March 23, 2016, the North Carolina Legislature passed House Bill 2, the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act” (“HB2”), that overturned a Charlotte ordinance extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) individuals and allowing transgender persons to use the bathroom of their choice. Instead, HB2 requires individuals to use public bathrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates. A swift public outcry followed, with many celebrities denouncing the law and canceling appearances in North Carolina, companies threatening to boycott, and the American Civil Liberties Union filing a lawsuit challenging HB2 as unconstitutional and for violating federal law. North Carolina officials have refused to disavow HB2 and, on May 9, filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking a ruling that HB2 is not discriminatory. The Justice Department has countersued, alleging that HB2 violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these lawsuits, it is clear that discriminating against LGBT individuals has real consequences, from both a business and legal perspective. What should retailers know and, more importantly, do to survive in this current environment?

At a minimum, retailers should familiarize themselves with their state’s employment nondiscrimination laws (if any) that apply to private employers. Twenty states (including California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York) and the District of Columbia have passed employment non-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination by private employers based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. Two states (New Hampshire and Wisconsin) have such laws covering sexual orientation only. These laws protect LGBT persons from discrimination in hiring and in the workplace.

Retailers also are encouraged to review their municipality’s nondiscrimination laws and regulations, if any. For example, New York City law prohibits gender identity discrimination, and the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently announced guidance (“NYC Guidance”) that makes clear what constitutes gender identity and gender expression discrimination under the NYC Human Rights Law. The NYC Guidance warns employers and business owners that they may violate New York City law if they intentionally fail to use a transgender employee’s preferred name, pronoun, or title, or refuse to allow a transgender employee to use single-sex facilities, such as bathrooms or locker rooms, and participate in single-sex programs consistent with their gender identity.

Retailers also should know that the EEOC has aggressively pursued transgender discrimination claims on theories of sex stereotyping and gender nonconformity under Title VII, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sex.[1] In cases involving government employees, the EEOC has held that: (i) an employer’s restriction on a transgender woman’s use of a common female restroom facility constituted illegal sex discrimination under Title VII,[2] (ii) an employer’s intentional references to a transgender female as “he” may constitute sex-based discrimination and/or harassment,[3] and (iii) a transgender employee stated a valid Title VII sex discrimination claim based on his allegation that his employer took over a year to correct his name in the company’s computer system.[4]

The EEOC has taken further action against private companies. For example, it recently entered into a consent decree with a Minnesota financial services company for allegedly refusing to let a transgender employee use the women’s restroom and subjecting her to a hostile work environment.[5] In another action, a Florida eye clinic paid $150,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit that sought relief for an employee who was allegedly discriminated against when transitioning from male to female.[6]

In light of this climate, retailers are encouraged to accommodate the needs of transgender workers proactively rather than reactively responding to potential claims of discrimination. Retailers, particularly those operating in states with anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and/or gender identity, should implement a policy designed to foster workplace inclusion. Retailers can avoid significant business and legal risk if they follow these two directives:

  • Call transgender employees by their preferred names, pronouns, and titles, and promptly update internal databases (pay accounts, training records, benefits documents, etc.) with this information upon an employee’s request. The NYC Guidance, for example, advises employers to use the employee’s preferred name regardless of whether the employee has legally changed his or her name “except in very limited circumstances where certain federal, state, or local laws require otherwise (e.g., for purposes of employment eligibility verification with the federal government).” This is a sound policy that retailers beyond New York City should consider following. In addition, employers may choose to offer new business cards and email aliases for their employees.
  • Provide transgender employees access to bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. On May 3, the EEOC issued a “Fact Sheet” stating that the denial of equal access to a bathroom corresponding to an employee’s gender identity qualifies as sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII and that contrary state law is no defense. The Fact Sheet encourages employers to refer to the more comprehensive “Guide to Restroom Access for Transgender Workers,” which was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and offers model practices for restroom access for transgender employees. Like the EEOC, OSHA advises that “all employees should be permitted to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity.” Where possible, employers should provide employees with additional options, including single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities and use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls.

While the North Carolina Legislature has rolled back protections for the LGBT community, the media attention surrounding HB2 has been largely negative and has affected the businesses of companies operating in the state. Given the number of other states that have enacted laws expressly prohibiting sexual orientation and/or gender identity discrimination, the federal government’s enforcement position, and changing public opinion on the issue, retailers are on notice that such discrimination may have negative business or legal ramifications.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five New Challenges Facing Retail Employers.”

[1] See “Five EEOC Initiatives to Monitor on the Agency’s Golden Anniversary” (June 22, 2015) (noting EEOC’s increased emphasis on transgender protections), available at http://www.ebglaw.com/news/five-eeoc-initiatives-to-monitor-on-the-agencys-golden-anniversary/.

[2] Lusardi v. Dep’t of the Army, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133395, 2015 WL 1607756 (Mar. 27, 2015).

[3] Jameson v. U.S. Postal Service, EEOC Appeal No. 0120130992, 2013 WL 2368729 (May 21, 2013)

[4] Complainant v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133123, 2014 WL 1653484 (Apr. 16, 2014).

[5] EEOC, Press Release, “Deluxe Financial to Settle Sex Discrimination Suit on Behalf of Transgender Employee” (Jan. 21, 2016), available at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/1-21-16.cfm.

[6] EEOC, Press Release, “Lakeland Eye Clinic will Pay $150,000 to Resolve Transgender / Sex Discrimination Lawsuit” (April 13, 2015), available at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/4-13-15.cfm.

On May 31, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied en banc review of an April decision permitting transgender students to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.  The Fourth Circuit encompasses North Carolina; thus, the case G.G. v. Gloucester County Public School Board (“Gloucester County”), although it arose in Virginia, creates a conflict between federal law and North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (“HB2”), which requires transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates.  Although Gloucester County applies on its face to students and public schools, the decision impacts retailers who provide bathroom facilities to employees and customers and who must navigate conflicting laws regarding transgender protections.  Of additional importance, plaintiffs in sex discrimination lawsuits will likely use the decision as support for the view that a person’s “sex” includes “gender identity.”

In Gloucester County, a sixteen-year-old transgender high school student who was born a biological female filed suit to use the boys’ restroom at school.  G.G. and his mother contended that the school’s policy of providing separate restrooms and locker rooms based upon a student’s biological sex constituted sex discrimination under Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities.  On April 19, G.G. prevailed in a two-to-one decision of a three member panel of the Fourth Circuit, which deferred to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation that the reference to “sex” in Title IX includes “gender identity.”

Following the panel’s ruling, the school board asked the Fourth Circuit to rehear the case with the full panel of 15 active judges.  On May 31, the en banc panel denied the school board’s request.  Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, widely considered the most conservative member of the Fourth Circuit, filed the lone dissent, stating the issue “deserves an open road to the Supreme Court to seek the Court’s controlling construction of Title IX for national application.”

Regardless whether the case proceeds to the Supreme Court, the decision signifies the first time a federal appeals court has found that federal law protects the rights of transgender persons to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.  Although decided under Title IX with regard to student rights, the decision may have ramifications in the area of employment law, inasmuch as Title VII, like Title IX, prohibits discrimination based on “sex.”  Retailers and other employers should be alert to the issue and may expect that future litigants will seek to expand the Gloucester County ruling to Title VII and other sex discrimination claims.

Given the political and legal climate surrounding HB2 and related laws that affect the rights of transgender persons, we recommend that retailers proactively accommodate the needs of transgender workers rather than reactively respond to potential claims of discrimination.  Retailers, particularly those operating in states with anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity, should implement a policy designed to foster workplace inclusion.  In particular, retailers are encouraged to provide transgender employees access to bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity and, where possible, provide employees with additional options, including single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities and use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls.  Furthermore, retailers in the clothing industry with dressing/fitting rooms should accommodate their employees and patrons alike by permitting them to use the dressing/fitting room that corresponds to their gender identity.  These recommendations apply equally to those retailers in North Carolina because, although HB2 remains in effect in that state, the law applies only to places of public accommodation, and, in any event, the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision signals that the controversial law may not withstand judicial scrutiny.  In general, retailers should beware that engaging in discriminatory practices may have negative business as well as legal ramifications.

My colleagues Nathaniel M. Glasser and Kristie-Ann M. Yamane (a Summer Associate) at Epstein Becker Green have published a Financial Services Employment Law blog post concerning recent modifications to pregnancy discrimination that will be of interest to many of our readers: “EEOC Updates Pregnancy Discrimination Guidance.”

Following is an excerpt:

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS, [1]  the EEOC has modified those aspects of its Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues (“Guidance”) that deal with disparate treatment and light duty.

Under the prior guidance, issued in 2014, the EEOC asserted that a pregnant worker could prove a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) simply by showing that she was “treated differently than a non-pregnant worker similar in his/her ability or inability to work.”  The 2014 guidance also took the position that an employer could not refuse to offer a pregnant worker an accommodation by relying on a policy that provides light duty only to workers injured on the job.  The Supreme Court, however, was highly critical of and rejected this interpretation of the PDA, finding that it would require employers who provide a single worker with an accommodation to provide similar accommodations to all pregnant workers, irrespective of other criteria.

 Read the full original post here.

My colleague Nathaniel M. Glasser recently authored Epstein Becker Green’s Take 5 newsletter.   In this edition of Take 5, Nathaniel highlights five areas of enforcement that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continues to tout publicly and aggressively pursue.

  1. Religious Discrimination and Accommodation—EEOC Is Victorious in New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
  2. Transgender Protections Under Title VII—EEOC Relies on Expanded Sex Discrimination Theories
  3. Systemic Investigations and Litigation—EEOC Gives Priority to Enforcement Initiative
  4. Narrowing the “Gender Pay Gap”—EEOC Files Suits Under the Equal Pay Act
  5. Background Checks—EEOC Seeks to Eliminate Barriers to Recruitment and Hiring

Read the Full Take 5 here.

One day before the U.S. Department of Labor’s Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) same-sex spouse final rule took effect on March 27, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ordered a preliminary injunction in Texas v. U.S., staying the application of the Final Rule for the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska.  This ruling directly impacts employers within the retail industry who are located or have employees living in these four states.


In United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) as unconstitutional, finding that Congress did not have the authority to limit a state’s definition of “marriage” to “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”  Significantly, the Windsor decision left intact Section 2 of DOMA (the “Full Faith and Credit Statute”), which provides that no state is required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.  Further to the President’s directive to implement the Windsor decision in all relevant federal statutes, in June 2014, the DOL proposed rulemaking to update the regulatory definition of spouse under the FMLA. The Final Rule is the result of that endeavor.

As we previously reported, the Final Rule adopts the “place of celebration” rule, thus amending prior regulations which followed the “place of residence” rule to define “spouse.”  For purposes of the FMLA, the place of residence rule determines spousal status under the laws where the couple resides, notwithstanding a valid out-of-state marriage license.   The place of celebration rule, on the other hand, determines spousal status by the jurisdiction in which the couple was married, thus expanding the availability of FMLA leave to more employees seeking leave to care for a same-sex spouse.

The Court’s Decision

Plaintiff States Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska sued, arguing the DOL exceeded its authority by promulgating a Final Rule that requires them to violate Section 2 of the DOMA and their respective state laws prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.  The Texas court ordered the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction to stay the Final Rule pending a full determination of the issue on the merits.

The court first found that the Plaintiff States are likely to succeed on at least one of their claims, which assert that the Final Rule improperly conflicts with (1) the FMLA, which defines “spouse” as “a husband or wife, as the case may be” and which the court found was meant “to give marriage its traditional, complementarian meaning”; (2) the Full Faith and Credit Statute; and/or (3) state laws regarding marriage, which may be preempted by the Final Rule only if Congress intended to preempt the states’ definitions of marriage.

The court then held that the Final Rule would cause Plaintiff States to suffer irreparable harm because, for example, the Final Rule requires Texas agencies to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages as valid in violation of the Texas Family Code.

Lastly, although finding the threatened injury to both parties to be serious, the court decided that the public interest weighs in favor of a preliminary injunction against the DOL.  The court found in favor of upholding “the stability and consistency of the law” so as to permit a detailed and in-depth examination of the merits.  Additionally, the court pointed out that the injunction does not prohibit employers from granting leave to those who request leave to care for a loved one, but reasoned that a preliminary injunction is required to prevent the DOL “from mandating enforcement of its Final Rule against the states” and to protect the states’ laws from federal encroachment.

What This Means for Employers

Although the stay of the Final Rule is pending a full determination of the issue on the merits, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges likely will expedite and shape the outcome of the Texas court’s final ruling.  In Obergefell, the Supreme Court will address whether a state is constitutionally compelled under the Fourteenth Amendment to recognize as valid a same-sex marriage lawfully licensed in another jurisdiction and to license same-sex marriages.  Oral arguments in Obergefell are scheduled for Tuesday, April 28, 2015, and a final ruling is expected in late June of this year.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court decides Obergefell, however, employers in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska are advised to develop a compliant strategy for implementing the FMLA—a task that may be easier said than done.  Complicating the matter is a subsequent DOL filing in Texas v. U.S. where the DOL contends that the court’s order was not intended to preclude enforcement of the Final Rule against persons other than the named Plaintiff States, and thus applies only to the state governments of the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska.

While covered employers are free to provide an employee with non-FMLA unpaid or paid job-protected leave to care for their same-sex partner (or for other reasons), such leave will not exhaust the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement and the employee will remain entitled to FMLA leave for covered reasons.  We recommend that covered employers that are not located and do not have employees living in one of the Plaintiff States amend their FMLA-related documents and otherwise implement policies to comport with the Final Rule, as detailed in EBG’s Act Now Advisory, DOL Extends FMLA Leave to More Same-Sex Couples.  Covered employers who are located or have employees living in one of the Plaintiff States, however, should confer with legal counsel to evaluate the impact of Texas v. U.S. and react accordingly, which may depend on the geographical scope of operations.

Scheduling around employees taking frequent or extended leaves of absences can be complicated for retail companies looking to staff the floor during peak shopping periods.  But retail employers considering requests for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act should be aware of a recent decision from the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals finding that an employee can pursue an FMLA interference claim even though she received the leave requested.  In Gordon v. United States Capitol Police, No. 13-5072 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 20, 2015), the D.C. Circuit held that an employer who discourages an employee from taking FMLA leave may be liable for an interference claim, even if that discouragement was “ineffective.”  The lesson: don’t bully, discourage, or make employees jump through unnecessary hoops if they ask for FMLA leave.

Judy Gordon, an officer with the Capitol Police, was granted FMLA leave to address intermittent periods of severe and incapacitating depression.  Before her leave commenced, Gordon’s superiors ordered her to submit to a “fitness for duty examination” because of her FMLA request.  While waiting for the examination, Gordon was reassigned to administrative duties, resulting in a loss of $900 (the equivalent of three days’ pay).  Gordon passed the examination, was reinstated to her prior post, and took the requested FMLA leave and returned without incident.  Nonetheless, Gordon sued, asserting claims of interference and retaliation under the FMLA, and alleging that the presence of the “fitness for duty examination” on her permanent record would be detrimental to her prospects for pay increases, promotions, and transfers.

Addressing an issue of first impression for the D.C. Circuit, the court considered whether Gordon could proceed with her FMLA interference claim even though she was granted and ultimately took the requested leave.  Drawing an analogy between the interference provisions of the FMLA and the NLRA – which courts have interpreted to permit NLRA Section 8 claims based on actions that have a “reasonable tendency” to interfere with employees’ rights, regardless of whether they actual did – the court held that “an employer action with a reasonable tendency” to interfere with an FMLA right may support a valid interference claim “even where the action fails to actually prevent such exercise or attempt.”

Here, the D.C. Circuit reinstated the inference claim because it found that subjecting Gordon to a fitness for duty examination, which resulted in her loss of $900 and potentially impacted her future career prospects, would have a “reasonable tendency” to interfere with an employee’s exercise of FMLA rights.  The court also appeared to be influenced by allegations in the complaint that upper-managers frowned upon FMLA leave generally and were looking for ways to prevent Gordon from taking leave.

In its decision, the court set a low threshold for what constitutes an adverse action sufficient to support an FMLA retaliation claim.  One of the elements of a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation is a showing that the plaintiff was adversely affected by an employment decision.  The court refused to decide whether that element requires a showing of “material adversity” – as articulated for Title VII claims in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68-70 (2006) – or something less, such as any monetary loss, no matter how small – as suggested in Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 535 U.S. 81 (2002).  Rather, the court concluded that the loss of $900, the equivalent of three days’ pay, was more than de minimis and met the higher “material adversity” threshold, allowing the FMLA retaliation claim to proceed.

This decision is a reminder to employers, particularly those with operations in Washington, DC, to tread carefully when processing requests for leave under the FMLA.  Although leaves of absence can be disruptive to the workforce, and employers are within their rights to make certain inquiries into the need for leave, the mere fact that FMLA leave is ultimately granted will not insulate an employer from potential liability for conduct that has the potential to dissuade an employee from requesting leave.  To avoid unnecessary litigation, employers should instruct their leave administrators and supervisors to refrain from openly questioning or criticizing an employee’s request for leave and from requiring additional certifications beyond those contemplated by the law.

In a case emphasizing the importance of acting in good faith in the interactive process and how an employer can do it right, on February 13, 2015, the First Circuit denied the EEOC’s petition for a rehearing en banc of the court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought against Kohl’s Department Stores, Inc. by a diabetic former employee who claimed that her erratic working hours were exacerbating her condition.  EEOC v. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores, Inc., 774 F.3d 127 (1st Cir. 2014), reh’g en banc denied (Feb. 13, 2015).

Pamela Manning, a former sales associate at Kohl’s, had type I diabetes.  For two years, she worked predictable shifts as a full-time sales associate.  Following a restructuring of the staffing system nationwide in January 2010, however, Manning began working a schedule with unpredictable shifts, including some night shifts followed by day shifts (in Kohl’s parlance, “swing shifts”).  Manning alleged that the new schedule aggravated her diabetes.

After informing her supervisor that working erratic shifts was endangering her health, Manning obtained a doctor’s note requesting that she be scheduled to work “a predictable day shift.”  Manning’s store manager contacted human resources to discuss Manning’s request.  Kohl’s determined that it could not provide Manning’s preferred schedule of day-time hours only, but authorized the store manager to offer a schedule with no swing shifts.

On March 31, 2010, during a meeting with her store manager and immediate supervisor, Manning again requested a “steady shift” with mid-day hours, but was told that she could not be given a consistent schedule.  Manning stormed out of the meeting, saying that she had no choice but to quit.  Her supervisor followed her and asked what she could do to help, but she could not convince Manning to reconsider her resignation or to discuss any alternative accommodations.

Two days later, Manning contacted the EEOC to file a charge of discrimination.  On April 9, 2010, the store manager called Manning and asked that she rethink her resignation and consider alternative accommodations for both part-time and full-time work.  Manning ignored this overture and got off the phone as quickly as possible.  A week later, after hearing nothing further Manning, Kohl’s treated her departure as voluntary and terminated her employment.

Based on this record, on December 19, 2014, the First Circuit concluded that Kohl’s made earnest attempts to discuss potential reasonable accommodations.  By contrast, Manning’s conduct constituted a refusal to participate in the interactive process in good faith, warranting summary judgment in favor of Kohl’s.  In addition, the First Circuit ruled against the EEOC on Manning’s constructive discharge claim, finding that a reasonable person would not have felt compelled to resign when her employer offered to discuss other potential work arrangements with her.

In reaching its decision, the First Circuit emphasized that both the employer and the employee have a duty to engage in good faith, and that empty gestures by the employer will not satisfy this duty.  But if an employer does engage in the interactive process in good faith, and the employee refuses or fails to cooperate in the process, the employer cannot be held liable for a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Employers addressing reasonable accommodation requests from their employees can learn from Kohl’s actions in this case.  Kohl’s benefited from its representatives’ diligence in documenting their response to Manning’s request (including the internal discussions) and in following up with Manning to give her an opportunity to propose alternative accommodations for her diabetes.  Thus, even though the store manager never conveyed an offer of “no swing shifts,” the First Circuit was able to find that Kohl’s made real efforts to work with Manning and that Manning unreasonably refused to continue the dialogue with Kohl’s.  And Kohl’s succeeded in winning dismissal of the ADA claim.  Employers who follow this course of conduct ensure their compliance with the ADA and, in the event an employee refuses to reciprocate discussions, may establish a defense to liability in a failure to accommodate lawsuit.