February 3, 2016

“Boys are Boys” No Defense to Workplace Violence Claims

Posted in Application Process, Arrest records, Background Checking, Conviction Records, Criminal History, Negligence, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Negligent Supervision tagged , , , , , at 7:03 pm by Tom Jacobson

workplace violence

Reduce the risk of negligent hiring and negligent retention claims by adopting and following proper screening and workplace violence policies.

Employers can be held liable for injuries suffered by employees who are assaulted by their co-workers, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reiterated in a recent case. The decision highlights the importance of reducing the risk of workplace violence by conducting background checks of potential employees and enforcing anti-violence policies with existing employees.

The case, Hartfiel v. Allison (Jan. 25, 2016), started when an employee of T.J. Potter Trucking, Inc., Raymond Allison, hit co-worker Richard Hartfiel with a three-foot long steel bar while Hartfiel was sitting in his truck. Hartfiel suffered broken bones and other injuries and incurred over $75,000 in medical expenses.

In the resulting lawsuit, Hartfiel claimed that Potter Trucking was liable to him because it negligently hired and retained Allison. In support of his negligent hiring claim, Hartfiel pointed to the fact that Allison had a criminal history that included multiple assault convictions. He alleged that had Potter Trucking done a criminal background check and followed its own standard hiring procedures, they would have known to not hire Allison.

The court acknowledged that Minnesota employers may be held liable for negligent hiring if they fail to use reasonable care in hiring individuals who, through the employment, may pose a threat of injury to members of the public. This means that the scope of pre-employment investigations must be directly related to the severity of risk third parties are subjected to by an incompetent employee (the greater the risk, the more intensive the pre-employment screen should be). However, the court also noted that employers do not, as a matter of law, have a duty to conduct a criminal background check on prospective employees.

The court then rejected Hartfiel’s negligent hiring claim on the basis that Potter Trucking’s pre-employment inquiry was adequate:

Here, the unchallenged evidence shows that, although Allison provided Potter Trucking a release to perform a background check, Potter Trucking checks applicants’ driving records but does not conduct criminal background checks. Typically, Potter Trucking hires people on referral. Potter Trucking followed its standard procedures—it required Allison to submit an application, interviewed him, required him to submit to drug testing, obtained a release for a background check, and relied on a referral from Allison’s previous employer…. The record contains no evidence to suggest that Potter Trucking knew or should have known of Allison’s violent propensities when it hired him.

However, the court allowed Hartfiel’s negligent retention claim to proceed. Quoting a 1993 Minnesota Supreme Court case (Yunker v Honeywell), the court defined negligent retention:

Negligent retention … occurs when, during the course of employment, the employer becomes aware or should have become aware of problems with an employee that indicated his unfitness, and the employer fails to take further action such as investigating, discharge, or reassignment.

Applying that standard to Hartfiel’s claim, the court noted there was evidence that after Allison was hired, he assaulted a subcontractor, but the owner minimized it “because it ‘[was not] work related’ and because ‘boys are boys.'” Other evidence suggested that when Allison thought a foreman had been rude to him, he threatened, “it’s no secret where I live, come on over there and I’ll . . . kick your ass all over the yard.” Because of that evidence, the court allowed the negligent retention claim to proceed to trial:

The previously discussed evidence of Allison’s violent behavior against a Potter Trucking subcontractor in a tavern and threatening behavior toward a Potter Trucking foreman is the type of evidence on which a jury could find that Allison had violent propensities about which Potter Trucking knew or should have known.

The Hartfiel case reminds us that when hiring, employers should conduct pre-employment background checks that are sufficient to determine whether a candidate would pose a threat if hired. The greater the risk, the more intensive the background check should be. The depth of that investigation should be set well before the hiring process begins, and it should be consistently applied.

Moreover, the case reminds us that ignoring acts of workplace violence and threats of harm will subject an employer to liability for negligent retention. Thus, employers should adopt and enforce policies against workplace violence, and they should not brush off misconduct just because they think “boys are boys.”

For more information about workplace violence or guidance on how to develop or enforce policies and procedures to address these issues, 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 2016 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA
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October 6, 2014

Disciplining off-duty conduct: why the NFL model doesn’t work in the real world

Posted in Application Process, Arrest records, Background Checking, Ban the Box, Child Abuse and Neglect, Conviction Records, Credit Checks, Criminal History, Discrimination, Fair Credit Reporting Act, Interviewing, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Negligence, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Negligent Supervision, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:15 pm by Tom Jacobson

Police light122811Imagine that you’re an HR director and a security-cam video supposedly depicting one of your key employees knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator ends up on YouTube for the world to see. Or, imagine that one of your key employees is indicted for abusing his son after photos allegedly depicting the boy’s wounds from his dad’s switch go viral. Imagine further that neither incident occurred on your company’s premises or while the employee was on the job.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately, most of us never have to deal with employees who make headlines like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson (see Ray Rice Terminated by Team, Suspended by NFL after New Violent Video, CNN Sept. 16, 2014; Minnesota Vikings Reverse Course, Suspend Adrian Peterson, ABC News Sept. 17, 2014). However, all employers must occasionally confront the challenge of what to about an employee’s off-duty misconduct.

With the suspensions of Rice and Peterson fresh in our minds, it may seem like an easy solution: suspend or fire any employee who is charged with or convicted of a crime that we find repulsive or contrary to our organization’s values. That may work in the NFL, but for the rest of the working world, it’s not that simple. There are many laws that limit how employers may use such information.

One example is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among other things, this law prohibits racial discrimination in employment. Applying Title VII, the courts have said that the overly restrictive use of criminal background information in the workplace is unlawful because it disproportionately excludes certain racial groups from employment.

So, what is too restrictive? There is no hard and fast rule, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII, has provided some guidance (see Background Checks: What Employers Need to Know). Specifically, the EEOC first stresses that employers who obtain criminal history information about employees or applicants must do so uniformly: doing it for only members of protected classes will violate Title VII.

The EEOC also notes that once such information is obtained, it must be used in a non-discriminatory way:

  • The same standards must be applied to everyone.
  • A policy or practice must not exclude people with criminal records if the policy or practice significantly disadvantages individuals with a protected characteristic and does not accurately predict who will be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee. As stated by the EEOC, the policy or practice is unlawful if it has a “disparate impact” on protected employees and is not “job related and consistent with business necessity.”
  • Be prepared to make exceptions for problems potentially caused by disabilities.

To determine whether a person’s criminal history is “job related and consistent with business necessity” under Title VII, employers need to consider: the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; the time that has passed since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and the nature of the job held or sought (see Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EEOC April 25, 2012).

Another federal law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, also applies when employers hire a third party to conduct background checks. The FCRA includes requirements about what employers must do before obtaining such information and what they must do before and after taking adverse action based on the reports obtained. The FCRA is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has published a summary of employers’ obligations under the law (see Using Consumer Reports: What Employers Need to Know, FTC Jan. 2012).

For Minnesota employers, the state’s “Ban the Box” law (Minn. Stat. Sect. 364.021) presents another challenge. Like Title VII, this law does not prevent an employer from considering a person’s criminal history when making work-related decisions. It does, however, restrict when that information may be obtained or used. Specifically, the law prohibits employers from inquiring into or considering criminal records or history until after applicants have been selected for an interview or, if there is no interview, after a conditional offer of employment is made.

With all of these restrictions, why even bother looking into someone’s off-duty conduct?

Despite these challenges, it’s still good business to hire and keep employees who fit well with the organization. And, there are  risk-management reasons for doing background checks.

For example, if a Minnesota employer does not check an applicant’s background thoroughly enough, it can be held liable for negligently hiring someone who later harms another. That was the situation in the case of Ponticas v. K.M.S. Investments where a landlord was held responsible for its property manager’s sexual assault of a tenant.  The landlord had only done a cursory background check on the manager, and a better pre-hire investigation would have revealed the manager’s history of violent crime.

Similarly, if employees start to exhibit behaviors suggesting that they might harm others, their employers can be held liable for failing to protect those who are eventually harmed.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recognized this concept in the case of Yunker v. Honeywell, where an employee murdered a co-worker after a number of post-hire incidents suggested that the employee had violent propensities.

Now imagine again that video or indictment on your desk. Or imagine that your background check has revealed some other off-duty misconduct that you wished you never knew about. Know that the NFL’s model simply does not apply in the real world. Employers facing these situations should think carefully and not automatically leap to the conclusion that the employee should suffer some work-related consequence in addition to whatever sanction s/he got elsewhere.

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 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

February 1, 2013

Family of shooting victim sues Accent Signage

Posted in Background Checking, Bullying, Firearms / Guns, Negligence, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Negligent Supervision, Physical Contact, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , , at 6:04 pm by Tom Jacobson

Kare 11 and NPR are reporting that the family of Jacob Beneke, who was shot and killed in the Sept. 27, 2012 Accent Signage shooting incident in Minneapolis, has sued the company and the estate of the shooter, Andrew Engeldinger.  The twenty-page complaint, which has been filed in the Hennepin County District Court, alleges six separate claims, including that Accent negligently supervised and/or retained Engeldinger.

Whether the Beneke family will ultimately prevail on any of its claims remains to be seen, as the case will likely take months, if not years, to work its way through the court system. Meanwhile, the case gives us a chance to take a look at what is  “negligent supervision” or “negligent retention” in the employment context.

Generally speaking, these claims arise when an employer knows or should know that an employee is violent or aggressive and might engage in conduct that would injure others. Thus, the focus in such cases is mostly on what the employer knew — or should have known — about the violent propensities of the employee who later hurts someone. If the evidence supports that element, then it can be said that the employer owed a duty to protect others from the employee’s threat of harm. If the employer had that duty, then the focus becomes whether it breached that duty by failing to take precautions to protect others and whether or not that breach caused the harm suffered by others.

The Beneke case is not the first time the Minnesota courts have grappled with a negligent supervision/retention claim in the context of a workplace shooting. In 1993 the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed it in the case of Yunker v Honeywell, Inc., which was also a case where the family of a workplace shooting victim sued the employer (Honeywell) for negligence. There, the Court held that because there was evidence suggesting that the shooter had a history of harassing and threatening co-workers, angry confrontations, challenging co-workers to fight, and scratching “one more day and you’re dead” on a locker door, there was enough evidence to put Honeywell on notice that the employee posed a risk of harm to others. Thus, the Court said, Honeywell owed a legal duty to protect others from this employee.

What you need to know: When an employer knows or should know that an employee poses a risk of harm to others, the employer owes a duty to its other employees to take reasonable precautions to protect them. Whether that duty exists, and what precautions are needed, vary on the facts and circumstances of each situation and workplace. To be proactive, employers need to recognize the signs of potential violence and be prepared to take steps to prevent it from happening.

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

March 19, 2012

Dharun Ravi Guilty in Tyler Clementi Cyber-bullying Case

Posted in Cyber Bullying, Employees' Privacy, Internet Policies, Negligent Retention, Sexual Orientation, Social Media in the Workplace, Social Networking tagged , , , , , at 10:02 am by Tom Jacobson

A jury has found Dharun Ravi guilty of 15 criminal charges stemming from the cyber-bullying of his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi. Ravi was charged with the crimes after he used a webcam to spy on Clementi and another man having sex in their dorm room. Shortly thereafter, Clementi committed suicide.  For more details on the underlying incident, see my October, 2010 post, Tyler Clementi Suicide: Lessons for HR – and for Us All.

Ravi was not charged with any crimes directly related to Clementi’s death, but he was charged with and found guilty of a number of crimes, ranging from invasion of privacy to lying to investigators and witness and evidence tampering.  For more information on the verdict itself, see NY Times article, Jury Finds Spying in Rutgers Dorm Was a Hate Crime.

What you need to know:  Although the case does not directly relate to the workplace, it does have employment law implications.  For example, many states, including Minnesota, recognize invasion of privacy as a legal claim. Therefore, it is entirely conceivable that such claims could be brought against an employer that allows its computers to be used for cyber-bullying.  Many states, including Minnesota, also allow claims to be brought against employers which negligently retain or fail to supervise employees who harm others; if the harm stems from cyber-bullying via a workplace computer, it is not too difficult to envision a negligence claim against the employer who allowed it to happen.  To reduce this risk, employers should adopt workplace technology / social media policies which prohibit the use of the company’s computer resources to commit cyber-bullying.

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

November 9, 2011

Never board the Titanic, but if you’re on it, bail!

Posted in Bullying, Negligence, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention tagged , , , , , , , at 10:26 am by Tom Jacobson

 The odds are pretty good that if the passengers and crew of the Titanic had known what was in store for them, they never would have boarded the ship.  Unfortunately for them, by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late, and 1,517 of them perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic.

Some employees can be like the Titanic. Their performance and/or attitudes are so ripped full of holes that they sink, bringing entire organizations down with them, or at least causing their employers to spend precious time and resources bailing everyone out.  The easy solution is to never board the Titanic. That is, never make a bad hire.  But sometimes employers need to find the life raft and dismiss problem employees.

It’s not only good business to make sure that employees fit well with the organization, but there are also liability reasons for this.  For example, if a Minnesota employer does not check an applicant’s background thoroughly enough, the employer can be held liable for negligently hiring an employee who later harms someone else.   That was the situation in the Minnesota case of Ponticas v. K.M.S. Investments where a landlord was held responsible when its property manager sexually assaulted a tenant.  The landlord had only done a cursory background check on the manager, but a better pre-hire investigation would have revealed the manager’s history of violent crime.

Similarly, if employees start to exhibit behaviors suggesting that they might harm others, their employers can be held liable for failing to protect those who are eventually harmed.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recognized this concept in the case of Yunker v. Honeywell, where an employee murdered a co-worker after a number of post-hire incidents suggested that the employee had violent propensities.

There is no crystal clear definition of what is a thorough enough background check to avoid a negligent hiring claim, nor is there a crystal clear definition of what employee behaviors are bad enough to trigger a negligent retention claim. However, the Minnesota courts have said that the test is whether the employer “knew or should have known” of the likelihood that the applicant or employee would harm someone.

Therefore, the extent of the background checks that are required depends on the sensitivity of the positions being filled. For jobs that put employees in positions where they can harm others, a more thorough background check is needed.

Likewise, the nature and severity of existing employees’ behaviors must be evaluated on a case by case basis. When their conduct is such that their employers “know or should know” of the risk of harm, appropriate discipline, up to and including discharge, should be taken.

Bon voyage!

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 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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