If you see a headline about a jury verdict in an employment case, it’s likely to be about a case where an employee was fired. Those are the cases where the impact of discrimination can be the most harmful. A wrongful firing can often cause enormous financial and emotional distress to a family, and the jury verdicts in such cases can sometimes be eye-popping.

But people often forget that federal and state employment laws prohibit discrimination at ALL phases of the employment relationship. They apply at the hiring stage as much as at the termination stage. And they also apply at various stages DURING the employment relationship. When employers make decisions about promotions, for instance, they are required to give opportunities without regard to race, sex, age, disability, etc. The same is true for decisions about pay. Employees cannot be denied raises or other benefits based on these characteristics.

Another example is training. And this can be key. If an employee is denied training opportunities, that in turn can lead to being denied opportunities for advancement later on. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and comparable state laws, provide that employers must not discriminate when making decisions about which employees will be given the chance to learn new skills.

Employers are often mindful of anti-discrimination laws when preparing to terminate employees. They tend to be most fearful of lawsuits when making those kinds of momentous decisions. They sometimes are less careful, however, when making other kinds of employment decisions, and that lack of care can come back to haunt them. Their hiring, promotion, and pay practices and processes are very important as well, and can expose them to significant legal liabilities if they are not even-handed in their application.

Employers are well-advised to have good legal counsel review these process and procedures And employees should be mindful that they have the right to be free from illegal discrimination not just at termination, but at all phases of the employment relationship.

In the law, people aren’t always held to the promises they make. “I promise I’ll marry you,” or “I promise I’ll buy you a car,” are examples of promises the law usually will not enforce.

We are taught to live up to our promises, but in the law a promise is not normally enforceable unless the person making the promise receives something in exchange. If there is an exchange of promises the law usually considers that a contract. In the absence of a contract, however, a promise usually can’t be enforced at law.

But there is an exception. This is called “promissory estoppel.” This phrase means that sometimes a person will be stopped (“estopped”) from breaking a promise they made, even if there was not a contract.

This doctrine can have an interesting application in the field of employment law. If an employer promises an employee something, and the employee takes some action to his or her detriment in reliance on that promise, the employer may be held to the promise it made.

For instance, say an employer is trying to hire someone away from another employer. To get her to come on board the employer promises that the employees will be hired for at least two years. If the employee leaves her former employer in reliance on the promise of at least a two-year employment, and if that reliance is reasonable, the employer can be held legally liable if it breaks the promise, even though there was never a contract made.

Another example is when an employer promises an employee a raise and promotion if he transfers to a different city. If the employee uproots his family and moves across country in reliance on that promise, the employer risks a lawsuit for promissory estoppel if it doesn’t live up to what it told the employee about the raise and promotion.

We are often told to “get it in writing” when it comes to promises of future benefits. That’s good advice. But sometimes promises can be enforceable even if they are not made in written form, and even if they do no come in the form of a contract.

On June 25, 2021, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held unanimously for Jonathan Barger, represented by Steve Imm and Matt Okiishi of our Employment Law division, that his protest against his union allegedly overbilling for the work of its members was “protected speech” under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (“LMRDA”). The LMRDA guarantees, among other things, a union member’s freedom to “express any views, arguments, or opinions,” that touch on a matter of union concern. A copy of the decision in the case styled Jonathan Barger, et al v. United Brotherhood, et al is linked here.

In his Complaint, Mr. Barger alleged that he was subjected to union discipline when he reported time theft allegedly directed by the president of his local to his union brothers, as well as to a private employer. The union, within three days, allegedly retaliated by having Mr. Barger brought up on charges for causing “dissention” within the union. The District Court dismissed Barger’s case, stating that he was beyond the protections of the LMRDA because his motives in reporting the alleged theft were not purely disinterested. The District Court was also critical of Mr. Barger’s failure to publicize his allegations to the rest of his union brothers within the three-day gap following his allegations and preceding the union discipline. Finney Law Firm appealed on behalf of Mr. Barger

The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court decision, and found that Mr. Barger’s speech was protected under the LMRDA since it upheld the fundamental purpose of the LMRDA: to correct abuses of power and instances of corruption by union officials. The Court further declined to hold his failure to publicize the allegations against him, noting that doing so would create “perverse incentives” for unscrupulous unions to stamp out whistleblowing quickly before publication is possible. Lastly, the Court held that a union member’s motive does not determine whether his or her speech is “protected” or not.

Unlike many appeals court decisions, this victory was recommended by the Court for full publication, signifying that the Court views the case as one of great importance and significance.

Mr. Barger now looks forward to getting his much-deserved and hard-fought day in court.

As employers begin recalling their workers, the topic of mandatory vaccinations has seemingly taken center stage. Of course, employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment to their employees. However, employers also have a countervailing duty to engage in a good-faith interactive process to accommodate the disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees.

There are certain persons who suffer from disabilities that do not permit them to be vaccinated. While the ADA permits employers to have a “qualification standard” that employees do not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace, if this standard tends to screen out disabled employees, the employer must show that there is a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” In order to make this showing, the employer must first engage in a good-faith interactive process with the employee to accommodate the disability.  Because the use of teleworking became more prevalent during the pandemic, continued telework is likely to be considered a reasonable accommodation for office workers. On the factory floor, the continued use of masks may also serve as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for these disabled workers.

Because Title VII protects workers from religious discrimination in the workplace, employers should also take care to properly address requests for religious accommodation made by employees who wish to decline the vaccine on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief. The accommodation process here is similar to the process followed under the ADA.

To better assess the risk that unvaccinated members of the workforce may pose in the workplace, an employer is permitted to ask its employees whether they have received the vaccine, as such a question is not considered a “disability-related inquiry.” However, employers should be wary of adopting this route, as the information gleaned must be stored in a file separate from the employee’s regular personnel file, and further inquiries into the reason for receiving or not receiving the vaccine may not be permitted.

The topic of employers requiring vaccines as a condition of employment presents numerous pitfalls. And as with most aspects of the law, navigating it will not be subject to a one-size-fits-all approach. Employers and employees should consult experienced legal counsel to be fully advised of their rights and obligations under the law. If you need assistance with these matters, feel free to consult Stephen E. Imm (513.943.5678) or Matthew S. Okiishi (513.943.6659).

 

Those of us old enough to remember the Watergate scandal from the early 1970s will remember that what brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency was not the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, but rather the cover-up that followed the burglary. A similar principle can be seen in employment law. Often, it is not original act of alleged discrimination or harassment that brings down an employer, but rather a subsequent act of retaliation the employer engages in against the employee who accuses it of discrimination or harassment.

Let’s say you are an employer, and one of your employees claims that they are being paid less than their co-workers because of their sex or race. You, as the employer, happen to know that is not true. You have legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for paying this particular worker less. Perhaps he is less productive than his co-workers, or perhaps he has less experience. Nevertheless, you find yourself being falsely accused of race or sex discrimination.

You understandably are angry, right? You have been falsely accused of a really bad act. Essentially, you have been accused of being a racist or sexist. Can’t you fire the employee who has made this false accusation against you?

No, you can’t. At least not legally.

Retaliation is a normal human response. That is why it happens so often. When any of us is attacked, regardless of whether the attack is physical or verbal or otherwise, our immediate impulse is to retaliate. It is almost a reflex. We instinctively act to defend ourselves from the attacker. That is why retaliation claims are so common, and why they get so many employers into trouble. When we retaliate, we are just doing what comes naturally.

Despite retaliation being a normal and natural human response, in this context the law says the employer CANNOT legally do it. As long as the employee has a reasonable belief that his allegation is true – even if he turns out to be completely wrong – the employer is prohibited from retaliating against him in any form for making the accusation. This principle not only applies when the accusation is made as part of a formal legal action, such as filing a charge with a government agency, but also when an accusation is made informally, such as in a conversation with a supervisor or human resources employee.

The prohibition against retaliation is very broad. Prohibited retaliation includes not just obvious actions like firing the employee, but also more subtle actions, such as harassment, excluding the employee from opportunities for overtime, or denying the employee a promotion.

If you have questions about your rights as an employer or an employee when it comes to retaliation, it is wise to seek the advice of an experienced employment attorney before you act. Just remember what happened to Richard Nixon!

Attorney Stephen E. Imm

As a result of the current pandemic, millions more Americans are working from home than there were just a month ago. This significant change in circumstances presents a good opportunity for employers to review their policies when it comes to recording the hours worked by their employees, and the payment of overtime.

Remember that employees who earn at least $684 a week, and who are otherwise “exempt” from the overtime requirements of federal and state law, do not have to be paid additional wages or salary when they work more than 40 hours in a week. Keeping track of the hours these exempt employees work when they are working at home, therefore, is not important from a legal point of view.

Exempt or non-exempt?

This is a good time, however, for employers to make sure that they are correctly classifying their employees as exempt or non-exempt. If an employee is misclassified as “exempt” when he or she is not truly exempt from the overtime laws, the employer can be exposed to significant liabilities for unpaid overtime compensation and additional amounts.

For non-exempt employees, working from home creates some definite challenges when it comes to keeping track of hours worked, and making sure they are paid appropriately. All employers are required to keep accurate records of the hours worked by their non-exempt employees. Note that it is the employer’s responsibility – not the employee’s responsibility – to make sure that these accurate records are kept and maintained. For obvious reasons, it can be harder to keep track of an employee’s hours worked when he or she is working remotely, as opposed to when he or she is working on the employer’s premises.

Time-tracking policies

To make sure that employers comply with their duty to keep accurate time records, they should either have a software solution in place that keeps track of when an employee clocks in and out, or require employees to submit daily timesheets. Employees should also be reminded to clock in and out for lunch, and should be refreshed on the employer’s policies regarding authorization for overtime work.

It is also a good idea to tell employees, when working from home, that they are expected to maintain the same work schedule that they had when working at the employer’s physical location.

Conclusion

Whether you are an employer or an employee, if you have questions or need clarification about this complicated area of the law, please feel free to reach out to one of our employment attorneys. And stay safe!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attorney Stephen E. Imm

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected every aspect of the Nation’s political, social, and economic life. It should not be surprising, then, that it has implications for employers in terms of their legal obligations to their employees.

Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)

One major consideration is the obligations employers have to their employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The ADA limits the inquiries an employer can normally make about an employee’s medical status. So employers must be careful about asking any questions of employees related to the virus. Ordinarily, questions about medical conditions are permitted only when they are job-related, or when the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee poses a direct threat to the health and safety of themselves or others.

In practical terms, this means that you can require your employees to stay home when they are sick, and not to return until they have been symptom-free for a period of time. You may also be permitted to require proof that an employee does not have a fever. Broad, unrestricted questionnaires about medical history or status, however, can violate the ADA.

Employers can require that employees work from home during the pandemic. Note, however, that if an employee has an accommodation at the employer’s facility as a result of a disability, the same accommodation may be required for the employee to work from home.

Layoffs and reduced schedules

Additionally, many employers are being forced to consider layoffs or reduced schedules during this time, due to decreased economic activity. This raises wage and hour issues. In particular, questions arise as to whether certain employees may have to be paid their full rate of pay during periods of reduced activity.

The answers to these types of questions often depend on whether or not an employee is “exempt” or “non-exempt” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs minimum wage and overtime issues. Generally, an exempt employee has to be paid his or her full salary for any week in which he or she performs any work for an employer. By contrast, non-exempt employees only have to be paid when they actually work.

Also, employers are required to keep track of the hours worked by non-exempt employees. If such employees are working from home, however, the normal ways of keeping track of those hours may not work, and alternatives may have to be considered and implemented.

Conclusion

These are very challenging times for everyone, employers included. Companies should reach out to qualified employment law counsel to make sure that they are not inadvertently running afoul of any of the Nation’s employment laws during this most difficult time.

Whether as an employee or an employer, for assistance with your employment law issues, please contact Stephen E. Imm at 513.943.5678.

Attorney Stephen E. Imm

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all individual state laws, say that employment discrimination on the basis of “sex” is unlawful. But what if an employer fires (or refuses to hire) someone because of their sexual orientation? And what about discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender identity? Are these considered forms of “sex discrimination”? Are they covered by the laws that prohibit the making of employment decisions based on gender?

Federal decisions

Different courts and different states have reached different conclusions on these questions. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments last October of 2019 in three different cases that addressed these issues. It is expected that the Supreme Court’s decisions, expected before the end of their term in June of 2020,  will provide clarity regarding the scope of the federal law – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Many observers believe that the Court, as currently constituted, is likely to conclude that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but the Court has surprised people before in its rulings on employment matters.

State decisions and statutes

Whatever the Supreme Court rulings may turn out to be, however, they will only govern lawsuits that are brought under the federal employment discrimination law. Individual states are permitted to have their own statutes concerning employment law, and are permitted to offer protections that the federal law does not provide. Several states have, in fact, passed laws specifically stating that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal in their states.

US Supreme Court weighs in on same-sex harassment

One interesting anomaly about this is that Title VII (the federal employment discrimination law) has already been determined by the US Supreme Court to prohibit same-sex harassment. In a harassment case, unlike a typical discrimination case, the employee is not complaining about being denied or deprived of employment opportunities, but rather about the treatment he or she is receiving while on the job. The Supreme Court has also held that “gender stereotyping” is an illegal form of sex discrimination. This ruling was issued in a case where a woman was denied partnership in a firm because she was not considered “feminine enough” by the (mostly male) partners.

Conclusion

So while the upcoming Supreme Court decisions may provide some clarity regarding the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, many complicated issues will remain. Employers and employees facing these issues simply must have competent legal counsel to guide them.

Whether as an employee or an employer, for assistance with your employment law issues, please contact Stephen E. Imm at 513.943.5678 or Matthew S. Okiishi at 513.943.6659.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is the federal law requiring employers to pay time and a half to most employees who work more than 40 hours in a work week. On September 23, 2019, the Department of Labor issued some new rules that significantly changed the overtime requirements of the FLSA. These new rules took effect on January 1, 2020.

By far the most important of these changes has to do with which employees are considered “exempt“ from the overtime laws. To be considered exempt, an employee must meet two conditions: (1) they must be performing a category of work recognized as exempt, and (2) they must be receiving a regular salary that normally does not vary based on the amount of hours they spend working. Furthermore, in order for the exemption to apply, the salary the employee receives has to be above a certain threshold. That threshold is where the new rules come into play.

Under the old rule, an otherwise exempt employee who was paid a salary of as little as $23,660 a year ($455 a week) was not eligible to be paid overtime when they worked more than 40 hours. On January 1, however, that amount was increased to $35,568 a year, or $684 per week.

As a result of this change, it is estimated that approximately 1.3 million salaried workers who were previously exempt, and were not entitled to overtime pay, will now be eligible to get time and a half their regular rate of pay whenever they work more than 40 hours in a work week.

For employers who employ workers like these, this does not just mean having to pay overtime when they did not have to pay it before. It also means they now have to keep close track of the hours such employees work. There is no obligation to keep track of the hours of “exempt“ employees, but now a great number of previously exempt employees will be considered non-exempt, and their hours will have to be tracked.

If you are an employer or employee who may be impacted by these important new rules, and need guidance on your rights and responsibilities, be sure to seek competent legal counsel as promptly as possible. Mistakes in this area can be very costly.

If you have  questions about the FLSA, consider speaking to one of the labor and employment attorneys at the Finney Law Firm: Stephen E. Imm (513-943-5678) or Matt Okiishi (513-943-6659).

 

Most salespeople are compensated at least in part on commission. Some earn a salary in addition to sales commissions, and some are paid solely by commission. Either way, sales commissions are the “lifeblood” of a salesperson. If someone messes with the commissions of a salesperson, they are going to hear about it. It’s how they earn their living and feed their families.

But what happens if the employment relationship ends? Does a salesperson have any right to commissions after they leave or are terminated?

What does the contract say?

This can be a very complicated question. There are a variety of factors that courts will look at in determining whether or not post-termination commissions may be owed to a salesperson who has resigned or been terminated. First and foremost, courts will look at whether or not the parties had a contract that dictated how post-termination commissions were to be handled. Such a contract can exist in an explicit, written form, but it can also arise from the course of dealings between the parties, or by way of commission plans that are clearly communicated to salespeople during their employment.

What if there is no contract?

In the absence of a contract, courts will sometimes look at what is the custom in the industry in order to determine whether, and if so to what extent, post-termination commissions may be owed to a former salesperson.

Was the commission “earned” prior to separation?

Another important factor is the extent to which the commission was “earned” by the salesperson before termination. If the salesperson, prior to separation from employment, had already done everything required of him/her in order to receive the commission, but the payment of the commission just didn’t happen to come due until sometime after separation, courts are more likely to find that the employee is legally  entitled to the commission. There is a saying that “the law abhors a forfeiture.” This means that the law does not like it when, through no fault of their own, someone is forced to “forfeit” money or property that they possess or have earned.

On the other hand, if a salesperson separated from employment when there was still work to be done for an account – for instance, if certain services were still needed from the salesperson after the sale had been made, and such services were not performed because the salesperson’s employment ended in the meantime – courts are less likely to find that the salesperson is legally entitled to the commission, since the commission arguably had not been fully “earned” at the time of separation.

Different treatment of employees versus independent contractors

It is also important to note that the treatment of sales commission issues are handled differently when the salesperson is an independent contractor, rather than an employee. Ohio, for instance, has a specific statute that addresses sales commissions earned by independent contractors. The statute is very favorable to the salesperson, in that it allows him or her to recover significant additional amounts beyond the unpaid commissions themselves. This statute does not apply, however, to employees.

Conclusion

Obviously, this is a very tricky and complex area of the law. Both companies and salespeople need to have knowledgeable legal counsel in their corner when facing issues involving disputed sales commissions.

Contact Stephen Imm (513-943-5678) or Matt Okiishi (513-943-6659) from the Finney Law Firm employment group for answers to any questions you may have on this topic.