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.

While by most accounts the current term of the Supreme Court is generally uninteresting, lacking anything that the popular media deem to be a blockbuster (the media’s choice being same-sex marriage or Affordable Care Act cases), the docket is heavily weighted towards labor and employment cases and a few that potentially affect retail employers in particular. They are as follows.

The Court already has heard argument in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, No. 13-433, which concerns whether the Portal-to-Portal Act, which amends the Fair Labor Standards Act, requires employers to pay warehouse employees for the time they spend, which in this case runs up to 25 minutes, going through post-shift anti-theft screening. Integrity is a contractor to Amazon.com, and the 9th Circuit had ruled in against it, holding that the activity was part of the shift and not non-compensable postliminary activity. Interestingly, DOL is on the side of the employer, fearing a flood of FLSA cases generated from any activity in which employees are on the employers’ premises.  This case will affect many of our clients and should be monitored carefully.

On December 3rd, the Court will hear argument in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., No. 12-1226, which poses whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires an employer to accommodate a pregnant woman with work restrictions related to pregnancy in the same manner as it accommodates a non-pregnant employee with the same restrictions, but not related to pregnancy. The 4th Circuit had ruled in favor of the company, which offered a “light duty program” held to be pregnancy blind to persons who have a disability cognizable under the ADA, who are injured on the job or are temporarily ineligible for DOT certification. Ms. Young objects to being considered in the same category as workers who are injured off the job. This case, too, will create a precedent of interest to at least some of our clients. Of  note, this week United Parcel Service sent a memo to employees announcing a change in policy for pregnant workers advising that starting January 1, the company will offer temporary light duty positions not just to workers injured on the job, which is current policy, but to pregnant workers who need it as well. In its brief UPS states “While UPS’s denial of [Young’s] accommodation request was lawful at the time it was made (and thus cannot give rise to a claim for damages), pregnant UPS employees will prospectively be eligible for light-duty assignments.”  The change in policy, UPS states, is the result of new pregnancy accommodation guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and a growing number of states passing laws mandating reasonable accommodation of pregnant workers.

On October 2nd, the Supreme Court granted cert. in a Title VII religious accommodation case, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14-86. The case concerns whether an employer is entitled to specific notice, in this case  of a religious practice – the wearing of a head scarf —  from a prospective employee before having the obligation to accommodate her.  In this case, the employer did not hire a Muslim applicant. The Tenth Circuit ruled that the employer was entitled to rely upon its “look” policy and would not presume religious bias where the employee did not raise the underlying issue. Retail clients and others will be affected by the outcome.

More will follow as developments warrant.

By Stuart M. Gerson

As expected, the last day of the Supreme Court’s term proved to be an incendiary one with the recent spirit of Court unanimity broken by two 5-4 decisions in highly-controversial cases. The media and various interest groups already are reporting the results and, as often is the case in cause-oriented litigation, they are not entirely accurate in their analyses of either opinion.

In Harris v. Quinn, the conservative majority of the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Alito, held that an Illinois regulatory program that required quasi-public health care workers to pay fees to a labor union to cover the costs of wage bargaining violated the First Amendment. The union entered into collective-bargaining agreements with the State that contained an agency-fee provision, which requires all bargaining unit members who do not wish to join the union to pay the union a fee for the cost of certain activities, including those tied to the collective-bargaining process. 

The Court below had agreed with the State that agency fees were justified under the Court’s earlier precedents, particularly Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 431 U. S. 209 (1977).  However, the Supreme Court’s majority, besides noting what it finds to be the weakness of Abood,  focused particularly on the fact that the employees in question were not really public employees.  Other than the fees paid to them, all of the indicia of employer status inured to the covered patients who had complete control over the selection of the workers and their conditions.

Justice Kagan, writing for the four liberal dissenters, sees the matter as allowing the straightforward application of Abood to the “fair share” provision at issue here that she argues covers all public employees. This, of course, was not the majority view. However, before proclaiming public employee unionization as seriously imperiled, as some commentators already have, please note that the majority criticized, but did not overrule, Abood. And, I’d suggest that that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon because I believe that the Chief Justice, who has attempted to be a moderating force on the Court, going back at least to the Affordable Care Act decision, and Justice Kennedy, as well, are just not going to go there. They are strong supporters of stare decisis, and they will stay that way.

An even more controversial decision is the long-awaited holding in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Headlines already are blasting out the breaking news that “Justices Say For-Profits Can Avoid ACA Contraception Mandate.” Well, not exactly.

Over a lengthy and impassioned dissent by Justice Ginsburg, writing for the four liberals (herself and Justices Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor), the majority, again led by the opinion of Justice Alito, held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion prevented the application to closely-held (non-public) corporations of the Affordable Care Act provision requiring that employers offer birth control coverage to their employees. The Court held that closely held for-profit corporations are entitled to religious freedom protections and, in contravention of RFRA, the government did not demonstrate that the mandate was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

Both sides of the discussion are hailing Hobby Lobby as a landmark in the long standing public debate over abortion rights. It is not EBG’s role to enter that debate or here to render legal advice, but we respectfully suggest that the decision’s reach is already being overstated by both sides.  In the first place, the decision does not allow very many employers to opt out of birth control coverage – only closely-held for-profit companies that have a good-faith ideological core, as clearly was the case for Hobby Lobby. That renders such companies functionally the same as non-profits that are exempted from the mandate by the government. Publicly-held companies are not affected by the decision (though some are likely to argue that Citizens United might require such an extension. Nor are privately-held companies that can’t demonstrate an ingrained belief system.

Moreover the decision implies a number of significant qualifications.  For example, RFRA doesn’t shield  employers who might cloak illegal discrimination (e.g., against gay people or racial minorities) as a religious practice.  Moreover, the decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and doesn’t necessarily mean that all mandates must fail if they conflict with an employer’s an employer’s religious beliefs. Importantly, Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion suggests that the government could pay for the coverage itself, so that women receive it. It is not unlikely that the Obama administration will seek to do just that.  In any event, per the majority, the government’s shortcoming was that it hadn’t shown that the mandate was the least restrictive means to accomplish its end. 

Not only did Justice Kennedy concur in a manner overtly respectful of the dissent, but the fact that Chief Justice Roberts didn’t assign the opinion to himself strongly suggests that he is not prepared to stand in a position of strong conflict with the Court’s liberals but instead to be a mediating figure.

The number of unanimous opinions of the Court this term has been the highest in recent years. Notwithstanding the inherently divisive nature of the two controversial opinions decided today, one thinks that it is not unlikely that greater concord will be the hallmark of the Roberts Court as it was for the Warren Court in earlier times.

By: Adam C. Abrahms, Kara M. Maciel, Steven M. Swirsky, and Mark M. Trapp

The U.S. Supreme Court today held that the US Senate was not in recess on January 4, 2012, when President Obama made three “recess” appointments to the National Labor Relations Board under the Constitution’s Recess Appointment Clause. In simple terms that means that the recess appointments were not proper and decisions in which the recess appointees participated were not valid.

What this now means is that hundreds of cases decided by the NLRB following the January 4, 2012 recess appointments to the Board from January 4, 2012 until the Senate confirmed the current Board members who joined the NLRB as of August 12, 2013, were unconstitutionally decided because the Board lacked a quorum and could not decide cases or issue orders. Additionally, while Noel Canning concerned the January 2012 recess appointments, there is also doubt as to earlier decisions in which previous recess appointees participated going back to August 2011.

The Court’s decision upheld the January 2013 decision of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit which found that the panel of the NLRB that had previously decided an unfair labor practice case against Noel Canning, a Pepsi bottler, was unconstitutionally constituted and therefore the decision was invalid. There the DC Circuit held that because the Senate, whose advice and consent is required for appointments to the NLRB had not been in recess when the President made his appointments, the company’s “understanding of the constitutional provision is correct, and the Board’s is wrong. The Board had no quorum, and its order is void.” The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had also reached a similar conclusion concerning the lack of a quorum due to the Senate not having been in recess when the January 2012 appointments were made.

This decision now casts into doubt and makes suspect more than 1,300 NLRB decisions, including both published and unpublished, issued by the NLRB. An excellent summary of the cases that are implicated by the Court’s decision, and the issues involved in each has been prepared by the US Chamber of Commerce Litigation Center.

The Court’s holding, which found that the Senate was not in recess while it was conducting pro forma sessions during December 2012, arose in the context of a challenge to a Board Order in which recess appointees participated; the implications however are far greater and may implicate a wide range of other Board actions such as the appointment of Regional Directors, the consolidation of Regional offices and other administrative and personnel actions requiring Board approval or authorization. Notably, in a case decided by a District Court in the Eastern District of Washington last August an employer successfully challenged not only the Board’s authority to authorize a Regional Director to pursue an injunction under Section 10 (j) of the National Labor Relations Act, but the appointment of then Acting NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon, who was then a recess appointee. That case turned on other provisions of the Pay Act, a federal law authorizing the payment of salary to properly appointed recess appointees.

In a relatively understated press release following the Court’s decision, Board Chair Mark Gaston Pearce emphasized the fact that “the National Labor Relations Board has a full contingent of five Senate-confirmed members who are prepared to fulfill our responsibility to enforce the National Labor Relations Act.”

What this means to Employers, Unions and Others With Cases Before the NLRB

If the Board’s actions following the Supreme Court’s decision concerning an earlier attempt by the NLRB to delegate its decision making authority to a two member panel in the face of earlier disputes between the President and the Senate is any precedent, it is likely that at least three members of the current five member Senate confirmed Board will try to essentially adopt and approve as many as possible of the Board Orders and actions that would be invalid under Noel Canning. As shown in the Chamber’s chart, there are a large number of cases that are essentially on hold in Courts of Appeal across the country that have been waiting for the Court’s ruling today. It is likely that the courts will dismiss these matters or that the NLRB will seek to withdraw those in which it is seeking enforcement of Board Orders.

However, as we and others have pointed out since the issue of the 2012 and earlier recess appointments were placed in doubt, employers and others with matters before the Board, the most prudent course of action would have been to make sure that in addition to any other defenses or grounds for appeal, that parties specifically raise the issue that the Board lacked a quorum and the authority to act when it made decisions, issued orders and took other action. However even in those cases that were decided by the Board during the period that it lacked a proper quorum, parties may be able to raise the lack of quorum argument in light of today’s decision. Each matter will require an analysis based on its own individual facts and issues.

Additionally, today’s ruling has broad impact even in cases which are currently being investigated at the Regional level or are currently pending before the Board. Not only can we expect even further delay in Board action (including at the Regional level) as the agency attempts to deal with the backlog created by having to address hundreds cases directly impacted by the Decision. Specifically, there are thousands of cases which are currently being prosecuted or advanced at various stages which explicitly or tangentially rely on theories or precedents relying on a now invalid Board decision. Specifically, cases involving at-will employment agreements, arbitration agreements, employee investigations, employee access, dues deductions post-contract expiration, and bargaining over employee discipline have all now been stripped of much of the precedence on which a Region, a union or an employee may be relying. Again each matter will require an analysis based on its own individual facts and issues.

Management Missives

  • If the “invalid” Board issued a decision impacting an employer it should promptly analyze its options;
  • If an employer has a case in abeyance or pending based on Noel Canning it should obviously expect action in the coming weeks;
  • Employers should look for settlement opportunities with Regions, unions and individuals which may be present as these adverse parties may be more amendable to now that the theory of the case now lacks valid authority or based on their increased workloads;
  • Employers should explore filing supplemental position statements or other filings in any case where a Region, union or employee is relying on an “invalid” decision;
  • Employers should still remain cautious as while many decisions have been put into question, the current composition of the Board provides absolutely no reason for employers to rejoice or be less vigilant, as the current, lawfully confirmed, Board is unlikely to view most issues any differently.

Our colleague Amy B. Messigian at Epstein Becker Green recently posted “Supreme Court Decision Sets High Bar for Establishing Retaliation Claims Under Title VII” on the Health Employment and Labor blog, and we think retail employers will be interested.

Following is an excerpt:

In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, one of two employment-related opinions issued on Monday by the Supreme Court, a narrow majority held that a retaliation claim brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must be proved according to a strict but for causation standard. Under such a standard, a plaintiff must present proof that “the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer.”

The underlying facts of the Nassar case are somewhat complicated. The plaintiff, a medical doctor employed as a faculty member of the defendant medical center and staff physician for its affiliated hospital entity, resigned from the faculty claiming that the chief of infectious disease medicine at the medical center was biased against individuals of Middle Eastern heritage such as plaintiff. The hospital entity offered the plaintiff a full time position as staff physician, but later rescinded the offer after plaintiff’s former supervisor protested the job offer. The plaintiff sued, alleging that the medical center retaliated against him for his discrimination complaints by encouraging the hospital to rescind its job offer. A jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor and awarded more than $3 million in damages.

Read the full post here.

By Julie Saker Schlegel

In a 5-4 decision the dissent termed “decidedly employer-friendly,” the Supreme Court held on June 24, 2013 that only employees who have been empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against a harassment victim constitute “supervisors” for the purpose of vicarious liability under Title VII.  Per the holding in Vance v. Ball State University, employees who merely direct the work activities of others, but who lack the authority to take tangible employment actions, will no longer be considered supervisors under Title VII. 

Under long-standing precedent (Faragher and Ellerth), whether an employer can be found vicariously liable for harassment perpetrated by its employees is dependent on whether the harasser is a supervisor or merely a co-worker of the victim:

  • For co-worker harassment, the employer will only be found liable if it was negligent—that is, if it knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take corrective action;
  • For supervisor harassment where the supervisor takes a tangible employment action against the victim (such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits), the employer will be considered strictly liable; and
  • For supervisor harassment where the supervisor does not take a tangible employment action against the victim, the employer may establish an affirmative defense to liability if it can prove that: (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior; and (2) the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities offered by the employer.

Despite this framework that is highly dependent on the status of the harasser, however, the Court had never definitively ruled on who constitutes a supervisor, until now.

As a consequence of the Court’s truncated conception of supervisory authority, the Faragher and Ellerth framework has shifted in a decidedly employer-friendly direction.”
—Justice Ginsburg, dissenting

In reaching this decision, the Court emphatically rejected the EEOC’s definition of supervisor, which had included both those who have the authority to take or recommend tangible employment actions and those who direct the daily work activities of others.  The Court noted that a significant advantage of its new definition is that supervisory status can now be readily determined early in the case, and will generally be capable of resolution on summary judgment.  Alternatively, if the issue should reach trial, the new definition will be easier for juries to apply.

While the new definition of supervisor should benefit employers, by leading to more cases being decided under the more lenient “negligence” standard, the Court’s opinion contained a few caveats.  While employees who merely direct the daily work activities of others will no longer be considered supervisors, the Court noted that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor to be considered in determining whether the employer was negligent in controlling workplace harassment.  Further, an employer who attempts to evade liability by concentrating all decision-making authority in a few individuals, who in turn rely upon the recommendations of others who actually work directly with the affected employees, may be found to have effectively delegated the power to take tangible employment actions to those employees on whose recommendations it relies.  Accordingly, while the new definition of supervisor has been distinctly narrowed, the Court has allowed some room for it to be expanded in particular cases, should the situation warrant.

In accordance with this decision, employers should ensure that their job descriptions clearly define which employees have the authority to take tangible employment actions against others, keeping in mind that employees who make recommendations regarding such employment actions may also be deemed supervisors in certain situations.

By: John F. Fullerton III and Douglas Weiner

The current prevalence of lawsuits for unpaid overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by employees who claim they were misclassified by their current or former employer as “exempt” from overtime has been well-documented.  These lawsuits continue to present challenges to employers, not just in terms of the burdens and costs of defending the cases, but in the uncertainty of the potential financial exposure. As our colleagues have previously reported (here and here), there are two methods in which the employees can be compensated for the allegedly unpaid overtime wages in such a case.  Under the FLSA, overtime compensation for non-exempt employees is computed at “a time and half” rate for hours worked in excess of forty in a week.  In appropriate situations, however, when the employees have received a fixed salary for all hours worked (which is frequently what has occurred in a misclassification case because the employer has treated the employees as exempt from overtime), the overtime compensation owed to non-exempt salaried employees can and should be calculated based on the “half-time” or “fluctuating workweek” method.  This method of calculation can dramatically decrease the potential damages in a misclassification case.  Instead of dividing the weekly salary by forty to determine the regular rate of pay and paying 1 ½  times that rate for every hour worked in excess of forty, the weekly salary is instead divided by the actual number of hours the employee worked each week (in other words, the more overtime the employee worked, the lower the regular rate), and then paying an additional ½ of that rate for every hour worked in excess of forty in a week rather than 1 ½ times that rate.  Conceptually, the salary pays straight time for all weekly hours, and only additional half-time is due for weekly hours over 40 to pay the time-and-one-half required by law.

Guidance on the requirements for establishing prospectively a lawful fluctuating workweek overtime compensation system for salaried non-exempt employees is provided by U.S. Department of Labor regulations, 29 C.F.R. § 778.114.  Employers have frequently argued that this regulatory provision should also apply retroactively if it later turns out that a non-exempt employee was misclassified as exempt.  A split in authority has arisen, as some district courts have held that because that regulation requires contemporaneous payment of overtime, and a “clear mutual understanding” of the parties, the fluctuating workweek method cannot be applied retroactively to calculate damages in a misclassification case.  Many other courts have rejected that interpretation and have applied the fluctuating workweek method retroactively.  Even the Department of Labor has in the past endorsed the fluctuating workweek method in satisfying unpaid overtime claims in a misclassification case.

The dispute over the correct interpretation of the regulations has become increasingly irrelevant as a growing line of cases eschew the regulations in favor of reliance on the Supreme Court itself.  In Overnight Motor Transp. Co. v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572 (1942), the Court held that when an employee and employer have an agreement in which the employee is paid a fixed weekly wage for hours that fluctuate from week to week, the half-time method is the correct way to calculate damages in an unpaid overtime case.  Subsequent lower court decisions and the Department of Labor have made clear that the agreement need not be in writing, but rather, can be demonstrated through the course of conduct between the employer and employee.  In other words, if the employee was treated as exempt, without deduction from the weekly salary for absences from the office, then the requisite mutual understanding has been established.

A few months ago, the Supreme Court denied certiorari (PDF) in a Seventh Circuit case that would likely have presented the opportunity for a definitive ruling on (or reconfirmation of) the use of the half-time method in a misclassification case.  But significantly, five federal circuit courts have now approved the use of the half-time method—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits (All PDFs) —while not a single circuit has rejected this method.  And the more recent decisions (Fourth and Seventh Circuits) have broken away from reliance on the regulations and have, more appropriately, grounded their decisions on the Supreme Court’s decision in Overnight Motor Transportation Co.  Thus, the weight of authority is increasingly coming down on the side of the employers on this issue.

EpsteinBeckerGreen will be continuing to monitor developments on this topic and providing updates as appropriate.  In the mean time, employers who are sued or threatened with legal action for unpaid overtime under the FLSA should continue to push for the half-time method of calculating damages, in litigation or during settlement discussions, in any case in which the employees were clearly paid a fixed salary regardless of the number of hours actually worked each week, as the case law shows strong signs of developing positively in this direction.