February 27, 2013

Questions — and answers — about “legitimate business reasons”

Posted in At-will Employment, Discrimination, Legitimate business reason, Legitimate Business Reason for Termination or other Adverse Action, Wrongful Termination tagged , , , , , at 1:46 pm by Tom Jacobson

Questions, I’ve got some questions
I want to know you
But what if  I could ask you only one thing
Only this one time, what would you tell me?

— Jack Johnson, Questions (2006)

In the song Questions, Jack Johnson ponders the myriad of questions swirling around in his head about a new relationship. What are your intentions, suggestions and impressions? Will you try?

When we’re thinking about something new and exciting, our main curiosity is this: where will this lead? Our hope is that it will lead to a good place.

When bad things happen, we also have questions.  Most often the question is, “Why?”

So it is when an employer must discipline or discharge an employee. When that happens, the question swirling around in the employee’s head is often, “Why?” If the employer cannot offer legitimate business reasons for its actions, not only is the employee left scratching his or her head and wondering why, but the employer may struggle to defend the ensuing lawsuit when the employee claims the answer to “Why?” is discrimination or some other legal wrong.

The importance of having legitimate business reasons for an employment decision was recently reiterated in the case of Wood v. SatCom Marketing, LLC. In this case, Jenna Wood sued her former employer, SatCom, alleging violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, Minnesota Human Rights Act, common law of wrongful termination, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The case made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit where the court rejected Woods’ claims after noting that while there was some evidence to support Wood’s claim, SatCom presented evidence of its legitimate business reasons for suspending and then dismissing Wood.

Specifically, the Court credited SatCom’s evidence that Wood severely neglected a data entry assignment, was late for work and failed to submit a required schedule. This, the Court said, supported the company’s decision to suspend Wood. The Court also noted that following her suspension, Wood disregarded a company directive by failing to return to work with a signed copy of an action plan and then twice violated the plan itself. Therefore, the Court held, SatCom had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its decision to discharge Wood. Further, the Court ruled that Wood did not present any evidence that SatCom’s stated reasons were a pretext for any unlawful discrimination. Thus, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case.

What you need to know: When employees challenge the adverse actions taken against them, employers have a much easier time defending the claims when they can present evidence of the legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons for their actions. Moreover, when those reasons are made clear to an employee before the adverse action, the employee may be less likely to challenge the employer’s decision because he or she will already have the answer to the question: s/he will already know why. 

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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January 22, 2013

Updating employee handbooks: now is the time

Posted in Acknowledgment, Arrest records, At-will Employment, Background Checking, Computer Use, Confidential Information, Conviction Records, Criminal History, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Hiring and Recruiting, Internet Policies, Interviewing, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, National Labor Relations Act, Protected Concerted Activity, Social Media, Social Media in the Workplace, Social Networking tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:47 am by Tom Jacobson

employee handbook1I recently had the privilege of speaking at and moderating a day-long seminar covering recent developments in employment law. Although the topics ranged broadly from background checks to the basics of employee leave, one common theme emerged: employers who have not kept their employee handbooks and other policies up to date are running the increased risk of liability for legal claims brought by their employees.

For example:

  • Some commonly used “at-will” employment acknowledgments, confidentiality clauses, investigation practices, and social medial policies have been deemed to violate the National Labor Relations Act.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published guidance on how arrest and conviction records may be used when performing background checks on applicants or employees. Among other things, these guidelines address when an individualized assessment of an applicant’s or employee’s arrest or conviction record should be done.
  • One recent litigation trend is employers and employees (or former employees)  fighting over the ownership of social media accounts and followers.
  • Recent court decisions have broadly interpreted employees’ rights to parenting leave under Minnesota law.
  • At least four states (California, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan) have adopted laws regulating employers’ access to employees’ social media sites, and similar legislation has been proposed in Minnesota.

What you need to know: If your employee handbooks and policies have not been reviewed by legal counsel and updated recently, now is the time. For more information about this process, please contact me at 320-763-3141 or taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

November 9, 2012

January 16, 2013 Employment Law Update Announced

Posted in Acknowledgment, Age, Arrest records, At-will Employment, Background Checking, Color, Conviction Records, Criminal History, Disability, Disclaimers, Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Facebook, Fair Labor Standards Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Hiring and Recruiting, Interactive Process, Leaves of Absence, National Labor Relations Act, National Origin, Posting Requirements, Posting Requrements, Protected Concerted Activity, Race, Reasonable Accommodation, Religion, Retaliation, Sexual Harassment, Sick Leave, Social Media, Social Media in the Workplace, Workplace Posters tagged , , , , at 10:28 am by Tom Jacobson

Need continuing education credits?  Want to keep up to date on the latest developments in employment law?  If so, here’s an opportunity for you.

I’ll be moderating Lorman’s Employment Law Update in Fargo, North Dakota on January 16, 2013. The day-long event has been approved for 6.5 hours of HRCI and CLE credit, 1.0 hour of HRPD credit, and 8.0 hours of CPE credit.

In interested, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com, or click here for more information or to register.

I hope to see you in Fargo on January 13!

P.S. Don’t forget to ask me about a discount on the registration fee!

November 2, 2012

NLRB’s Halloween at-will advice is not so scary

Posted in Acknowledgment, At-will Employment, Contracts, Disclaimers, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks tagged , , , , , , at 10:28 am by Tom Jacobson

Wednesday was Halloween, and my neighborhood was crawling with trick-or-treaters. The scary part was not the kids or their costumes. Rather, it was the insomnia-inducing sugar rush I got after working quality control on the night shift.

Also on Wednesday, one scary trend in the world of employment law seems to have been averted. The trend was that in a couple of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cases, common at-will employment clauses were interpreted as violating the National Labor Relations Act. However, on Wednesday the NLRB’s Acting General Counsel, Lafe Solomon, issued an Advice Memo which analyzed two such clauses and reached the not-so-scary conclusion that they did not violate the Act.

In one case, a handbook which had been issued by Rocha Transportation of Modesto, CA included the following at-will clause:

No manager, supervisor, or employee of Rocha Transportation has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will …. Only the president of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.

In the other case, the handbook used by Mimi’s Café in Casa Grande, AZ said:

No representative of the Company has authority to enter into any agreement contrary to the foregoing “employment at will” relationship.

The scary part was that in other recent NLRB cases, similar clauses were interpreted as being unlawful waivers of employees’ rights to engage in collective bargaining under the NLRA. If that trend were to continue, the at-will clauses in countless employee handbooks across the country would be subject to challenge.

However, the NLRB’s Halloween Advice Memo allays those fears somewhat by concluding in the Rocha case that because the at-will clause explicitly states that the relationship can be changed, employees would not reasonably assume that their NLRA rights are prohibited. Similarly, regarding Mimi’s Cafe, the Advice Memo notes that the at-will clause was not unlawfully broad because it does not require employees to agree that the employment relationship cannot be changed, but merely stresses that the employer’s representatives are not authorized to alter it.

What you need to know:  At-will employment generally gives employees and employers alike the flexibility to end their relationship at any time, with or without notice, and for any lawful reason. Handbook clauses like the ones noted above are intended to help preserve that status. However, if they are not properly drafted, or if they are inconsistent with an employer’s other documentation, the clauses may be unlawful or may not actually preserve the at-will employment relationship. Therefore, to ensure compliance, employers should have their at-will employment documentation reviewed by legal counsel.  

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

August 5, 2012

With Legitimate Business Reasons for Dismissal, Plaintiffs Can’t Always Get What They Want

Posted in At-will Employment, Color, Disability, Discrimination, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Gender / Sex, Legitimate business reason, Marital Status, National Origin, Pretext, Prima Facie Case, Race, Reduction in Force (RIF), Religion, Reprisal, Retaliation, Sexual Orientation, Termination for Cause, Wrongful Termination tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:20 pm by Tom Jacobson

I’ve often advocated that regardless of whether an employment relationship is contractual (where the reasons and/or process for dismissal may be spelled out in an agreement) or at-will (where the employment can be ended with or without notice and with or without legal cause), the best practice is to have a legitimate business reason for discharging an employee. Three recent court decisions validate my point.

Let me set the stage by noting that in discrimination cases, the employee wants to prove that the employer’s actions were based on some unlawful discriminatory reason, such as age, race or gender.  The employer, of course, wants to prove that its decisions were based on entirely legitimate reasons. To balance these competing interests, the courts recognize a process that begins with the employee being required to present a legally-specified bare minimum of evidence suggesting that discrimination occurred. This is called the employee’s prima facie case. If the employee can do that, the burden shifts to the employer to present evidence that its actions were based on legitimate (non-discriminatory) business reasons. Once that’s done, the burden shifts back to the employee to present evidence that the employer’s stated reason is a pretext, which is basically a cover up for the true discriminatory motive. In legalese, this is referred to as the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework (named after the  United States Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in the case of McDonnell-Douglas v. Green).

The effectiveness of being able to establish a legitimate business reason played out recently in three separate cases. First, in Prody v. City of Anoka a former employee established a prima facie case of age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The employer then presented evidence that he was dismissed as a part of a reduction in force (RIF). Because the plaintiff could not establish pretext, the case was dismissed.

Next, in Bone v. G4 Youth Services, LLC the employee alleged age, race and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) discrimination. As in the Prody case, the plaintiff was unable to show that the employer’s stated reasons for the discharge (failing to follow a directive, poor communication, losing the trust of employees, and refusing in general to accommodate employees’ requests) were a pretext for discrimination.

Finally, in Hilt v. St. Jude Medical S.C., Inc. the plaintiff claimed the employer fired her in violation of Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act. The employer presented evidence that the termination resulted from a RIF, and because the plaintiff could not establish that the RIF was a pretext, the court dismissed the case.

So, as these three cases illustrate, if you are an employee who feels you’ve been discriminated against, but your employer can demonstrate a legitimate business reason for its actions, You Can’t Always Get What You Want (thank you, Rolling Stones!).

What you need to know:  Regardless of the type of employment relationship, it is always an employer’s best practice to be able to rely on evidence to show that employment decisions are based on legitimate non-discriminatory reasons.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

July 18, 2012

Is your at-will employment policy at risk?

Posted in Acknowledgment, At-will Employment, Collective Bargaining, Contracts, Disclaimers, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, National Labor Relations Act, Protected Concerted Activity tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:39 am by Tom Jacobson

At-will employment is perceived as a sacred cow for most employers, but in a pair of recent cases the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has successfully challenged the at-will employment policies of two U.S. employers.

Generally speaking, at-will employment is the concept that employees are employed for no particular duration. This means that either the at-will employee or his/her employer may end their employment relationship at any time, with or without notice, and with or without cause. The vast majority of Minnesota employees are at-will employees. The polar opposite of at-will employment is employment subject to contractual terms, such as a union contract.

When improperly written, employee handbooks and similar written policies can be interpreted as contracts which, contrary to the at-will concept, give employees the right to continued employment, pre-termination disciplinary actions and/or other protections. Thus, to preserve the at-will relationship, astute employers include in their employee handbooks and other policy documentation language disclaiming any contractual relationship and confirming the at-will status.

These types of disclaimers were recently challenged by the NLRB in the cases of Hyatt Hotels Corporation and American Red Cross Arizona Blood Services Region. The Hyatt case involved an acknowledgment form which indicated that the employees’ at-will status could not be altered except by a written statement signed by the employee and specified company executives. Similarly, the American Red Cross case involved a disclaimer which stated that the employees’ at-will status could not be amended, modified or altered in any way.

The NLRB argued that these limitations on how the employees’ at-will status could be changed were unlawful interference with the employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity, such as collective bargaining. The Hyatt case was settled when Hyatt agreed, among other things, to discontinue using the challenged language in its acknowledgment form. The American Red Cross case resulted in the NLRB issuing an order compelling the employer to cease and desist from using the disputed language in its forms.

What you need to know: To preserve the at-will employment relationship, employee handbooks and related policy documentation must include appropriate disclaimers.  However, to reduce the risk of a legal challenge, those disclaimers must be carefully written so as to not interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Existing disclaimers should be reviewed by legal counsel for compliance in light of these recent NLRB cases. 

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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