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).

 

Tipping employees in various service professions (barbering, food service, etc.) is as American as apple pie. Unfortunately, the retention of employee tips by employers is a less common, but nonetheless pervasive, practice. Both employers and employees would do well to note that an employer’s retention of any employee tips (except as part of a valid “tip pool”) is illegal, as the 2018 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) make clear.

It was not always this way. For example, prior to the 2018 amendments, federal appellate courts were split on the issue of whether an employer could keep employee tips if the employer paid the employee above the minimum wage.

But the law has changed, and both employers and employees should know that employees have a right to demand and receive the tips paid by customers. The gains that employers can expect from skimming tips are simply not worth the risk of being caught in a lawsuit. In addition to requiring employers to pay the full amount of improperly withheld tips, the FLSA further entitles employees to additional liquidated damages, which is an amount equal to the improperly withheld tips, plus attorneys’ fees  and expenses. (This means a court award of double the actual damages of the wrongfully withheld tips plus the attorneys fees and expenses of the litigation.)

Because the FLSA is a federal law, it applies to nearly all employers and employees in the United States, including those in the Cincinnati tri-state area (Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana).

If you are an employee who has been shorted on their tips or an employer who needs to update its policies to accommodate the requirements of 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.

The U.S. Department of Labor has changed the salary level for exempted salaried employees. A prior iteration of this rule was famously (at least to employment law attorneys) declared illegal in 2016. However, the Department has been undeterred, and the new rule, which will go in to effect on January 1, 2020, has massive implications for businesses who classify employees as overtime exempt under the “white collar” or “EAP” exemption.

 

The white collar/EAP exemption exempts from the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or processional capacity. In order to satisfy the exemption, an employee must: (1) be paid a predetermined and fixed salary that is not subject to reduction because of the quality or quantity of work performed (the “salary basis” test); (2) the salary must meet a minimum specified amount (the “salary level” test); (3) and the employee’s job duties must primarily involve executive, administrative, or processional duties (the “duties” test).The new rule changes the “salary level” test. Until January 1, 2020, the required salary must exceed $455 weekly ($23,660 annually). However, after January 1, 2020, the salary requirement will be raised to $684 weekly ($35,568 annually). To somewhat ease the burden this imposes on employers, the Department has also permitted employers to count nondiscretionary bonuses, incentives, and commissions toward up to 10 percent of the salary level ($2,556.80 annually).

As a result of these changes, on January 1, 2020, employers who do not raise their salaries to meet the new minimum, but otherwise satisfy the white collar/EAP exemption will find themselves exposed to potential overtime and/or minimum wage liability. If you are concerned that your pay policies may be out of compliance, consider speaking to one of the employment law attorneys at the Finney Law Firm: : Stephen E. Imm (513-943-5678) or Matt Okiishi (513-943-6659).

 

It is common practice for employers who are considering a new hire to conduct reference checks on prospective candidates for the position. Obtaining information from a candidate’s former employer obviously can be a useful tool in making a good hiring decision. So why is it often so hard to get references from previous employers?

Many former employers are very reluctant to provide anything but the most basic and minimal information about their former employees. Most will take the “name, rank, and serial number” approach to reference requests. They will state only (1) whether the personal actually worked there or not, (2) if so, what the person’s job was, and (3) their dates of employment.

Unnecessary exposure to a “chatty” employer

Employers often take this approach because they are concerned about legal liability. They worry that if they give a bad reference about a former employee, they will be sued for defamation of character by that employee. They also worry that if they give a good reference about a former employee, and the employee gets hired into a new position because of it, but turns out to be a terrible worker, they will be blamed by the new employer for causing the hire of a terrible employee.

Does this really makes sense? Are employers right to be concerned about giving references? Should they really be reluctant to provide honest references about their former employees? I’ve heard from many people that they actually think it is illegal for an employer to give any information about a former employee other than “name, rank, and serial number” type of information. Is this correct?

Specific statutory protection for employers

Actually no. At least not in Ohio. In fact, the opposite is true. Ohio law explicitly protects employers from liability for giving out references on former employees – good or bad. The theory behind the law is that the flow of accurate information about employee performance should not be inhibited. That information allows employers to make good hiring decisions, and the dissemination of that information should therefore be encouraged – not discouraged.

There are two exceptions to Ohio’s law that provides for employer immunity in the giving of references. First, an employer is not immune from liability if it gives out information that it knows to be false, or that it gives out with a malicious purpose, in bad faith, or with an intent to mislead. Second, it may not engage in unlawful discrimination – on the basis of race, sex, age, etc. – in the giving of references.

Conclusion

But as long as the employer is not being unlawfully discriminatory, and does not knowingly or maliciously give out false information, it cannot be subject to any legal liability in the giving of references.

If you have any questions – as an employer or an employee – about how reference requests should be made or handled, be sure to contact a competent employment attorney.

While discussing pay may foment worker dissatisfaction and be considered rude in polite circles, an employer may not prohibit the discussions from taking place or punish an employee for discussing pay or benefits with their coworkers. These discussions are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). Among other things, the NLRA protects the right of workers to engage in “concerted activity,” which includes discussing wages, benefits, and other conditions of employment. This right to engage in “concerted activity” exists regardless of whether the workplace is unionized or the employee’s membership in a union. As a result, employers who prohibit, punish, or discharge employees for discussing their pay with coworkers are subject to discipline from the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”).

Because the penalties levied by the NLRB can be onerous, employers should be especially cautious when implementing policies, whether verbal or written in a handbook, which prohibit or dissuade employees from discussing their pay or benefits with coworkers. While most of these policies are ostensibly well meaning and meant to promote or foster synergy, collegiality, and comradery, the intent of the policy is of little value in defending against an unfair labor practice.

If you believe that your employment policies may not be compliant with the labor and employment laws, consider speaking to one of the qualified labor and employment attorneys at the Finney Law Firm: Stephen E. Imm (513-943-5678) or Matt Okiishi (513-943-6659).

 

On May 23rd the Finney Law Firm filed a proposed class action lawsuit in Federal Court in Cincinnati on behalf of nearly 150,000 retired Ohio teachers.

The basis for the lawsuit is the 2017 decision of the Ohio State Teachers Retirement Board to eliminate the 2% cost-of-living increases that the retirees had been receiving under Ohio law. The lawsuit alleges that the Board eliminated these much needed cost-of-living adjustments – adjustments that the retirees had been promised, and were counting on – without proper legal authority, and without justification.

The caption of the suit, which has been assigned to Judge Susan Dlott, is “Dean Dennis and Robert Buerkle v. Ohio State Teachers Retirement Board.” We are asking the Court to certify the case as a class action on behalf of all Ohio teacher retirees.

Our clients worked for decades, for very modest compensation, doing one of the most important jobs in the world – educating Ohio’s children. Over the course of those decade of work, our clients had been repeatedly promised that, in their retirement years, they would receive annual cost of living adjustments that would at least allow them to keep pace with inflation.

We believe the State Teachers Retirement Board broke faith with Ohio’s retired teachers in 2017, when it abruptly and indefinitely eliminated their cost-of-living increases without due consideration, and without a valid legal basis for its action.

The perceived financial issues that the Board cited as the justification for eliminating these important benefits could have been more than adequately addressed in a variety of ways that would not have dealt such a devastating blow to our retired teachers. Instead, the Board chose to put 100% of the burden on the people who were most vulnerable, and who could least afford it. We do not believe this was necessary, just, or legal.

We hope this lawsuit will shine a light on the Board’s actions, and that it will lead to the restoration of the benefits Ohio’s retried teachers worked so hard to earn.

Our firm’s employment law department, Steve Imm and Matt Okiishi, are counsel on the case along with the firms of Goldenberg Schneider LPA, (with whom we successfully have prosecuted other class action cases) and Minnillo & Jenkins, Co., LPA.

For more information, contact Stephen E. Imm at 513-943-5678.

You may read the Complaint online here or below.

We will regularly update progress on this important case on this blog.

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Every legal claim that a person can file in civil court is subject to a “statute of limitations.” This is the period of time that the victim of a civil wrong has, after the claim arises, to bring legal action over the wrongdoing. If the claim is not filed within that specified statute of limitations, normally the claim is forever barred and cannot be raised thereafter.

In the field of employment law, some of these time periods are very short. In particular, the most important federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination and harassment – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – require fast action by the employee to preserve his or her rights. An employee who believes he or she has one of these federal claims must file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within just 300 days of the date on which the discriminatory action occurred. If the employee does not file within this fairly short time frame, then his or her federal claim is extinguished.

For instance, if an employee is fired from a job, and believes that his or her discharge was the result of race, age, or sex discrimination, he or she must file a charge with the EEOC no later than 300 days after the date on which notice of the discharge was received.

Sometimes it can be unclear, however, as to exactly when a discriminatory act “occurred,” and thus when the 300 day period begins to run. And in some cases – like sexual harassment – the discriminatory action or conduct is ongoing, and it doesn’t necessarily occur at a single time and place. These cases can require close examination and detailed analysis to determine whether or not they are time-barred.

Furthermore, many states – like Ohio – have their own laws against employment discrimination and harassment, and these laws carry their own statutes of limitation that can be longer (or shorter) than the 300 day period governing many Federal claims. Thus, in some circumstances, even if a person’s federal claim is time-barred they may still be able to pursue a claim under state law.

Needless to say, the issue of timeliness is critically important in the field of employment law, and it can be a dangerous minefield for the unwary. Both employers and employees should always promptly consult with a qualified employment attorney as soon as they have notice of a potential claim.

These days, just about everyone is walking around with a device that can take pictures, videos, and audio recordings of anything at any time. In the workplace, this means employees can record conversations and events that take place at work. In most states, employees can record conversations they are having – including conversations with supervisors and co-workers – without disclosing that they are doing so. It can be done in secret, without breaking the law.
Many employers aren’t comfortable with the idea of employees making recordings or taking videos and pictures inside their facilities. They may have concerns about privacy or confidentiality. Or they may just not like the idea of this going on at work. Some employers have responded by instituting policies that prohibit such activities, and that provide for disciplinary action to be taken against employees who engage in them.
Are such policies legal? You may be tempted to respond, “Why wouldn’t they be? Doesn’t any property owner have the right to dictate what activities are allowed on his or her property?”
It’s not that simple when it comes to places of employment. This is because of a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act, or “NLRA”. This act guarantees the right of employees to engage in “concerted activity” for their mutual welfare or benefit. The National Labor Relations Board, which enforces the NLRA, has ruled that a blanket policy prohibiting ALL recording of workplace activities is illegal, because at least SOME such recordings might be part of a “concerted activity” that is protected by the NLRA.
For instance, if an employee wanted to take a picture of a message posted by the employer on a bulletin board, to share with her co-workers for the purpose of convincing them they needed to unionize, that could be considered protected activity under the NLRA. A broad policy that prohibited ANY picture taking on the employer’s property could therefore break the law, because it would prevent this kind of “concerted activity” by employees.
Prohibition of SOME kinds of recordings at work is fine. But employers need to be careful not to go too far. Be sure to consult with qualified employment counsel if you have questions about this area.