Chipotle’s Social Media Policy is Illegal, Unlawfully Asked Employee to Delete Tweet

Chiptole

Things haven’t been good lately for the widely-popular burrito chain Chipotle. From ongoing e-coli outbreaks to a sexual discrimination suit earlier this year, the Mexican grill is now facing violations of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Association (NLRA).

An administrative law judge deemed Chipotle’s social media policy illegal and is requiring the chain rehire a Philadelphia-area employee who was terminated after criticizing the company on Twitter last year.

Illegal Policies

Plaintiff James Kennedy was reprimanded for posting on Twitter against a “free burrito” promotion and was dismissed two weeks later, when he was found collecting signatures petitioning for the mandated breaks owed during employees’ shifts. Kennedy’s tweet, sent in response to a free burrito giveaway, read: “@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members make only $8.50hr. How much is that steak bowl really?”

The company was ordered to cease prohibiting employees from posting on social media regarding employees’ wages or other terms or conditions of employment.

Chipotle’s social media strategist emailed the regional manager for the Haverford, Pennsylvania location, forwarding the tweet. The next day, the restaurant’s general manager approached the Kennedy in the kitchen and said she wanted to talk to him in the dining room. They went out and sat with the regional manager, who asked the employee if he was familiar with the company’s social media policy. Under pressure, Kennedy ultimately agreed to delete the tweet, which he did later that day.

The Chipotle social media policy at issue states, “If you aren’t careful and don’t use your head, your online activity can also damage Chipotle or spread incomplete, confidential, or inaccurate information. You may not make disparaging, false, misleading, harassing or discriminatory statements about or relating to Chipotle, our employees, suppliers, customers, competition, or investors.”

Concerted Activity

Judge Susan Flynn not only struck down Chipotle’s social media policy as violating labor laws, she also ordered the burrito chain to post signs acknowledging that some of its employee policies – especially the social media rules – were illegal. Kennedy’s manager testified at the hearing that she fired Kennedy, a war veteran, because she was concerned he would become violent with her after arguing about his right to collect signatures on the meal break petition.

Employers may not prohibit social media postings of false, misleading, incomplete, disparaging or inaccurate information, according to the ruling in Lafayette Park Hotel. In order to lose the NLRA’s protection, employers must demonstrate that the employee had a malicious motive in posting the material. If employers choose to retain policies regarding “confidential” company information, the word “confidential” must be defined within the employer’s policy. Otherwise, this prohibition will be deemed a violation of Section 7.

The bottom line: Kennedy’s tweet was protected concerted activity because they had the purpose of “educating the public and creating sympathy and support” for hourly workers in general and Chipotle’s workers in specific. The tweet did not pertain to wholly personal issues relevant only to the employee but were truly group complaints and were therefore protected.

Kennedy, whom Chipotle has been ordered to reinstate and pay back wages, said he’d happily accept his back wages in the form of free Chipotle food vouchers. “You cannot deny that their food is delicious, but their labor policies were atrocious,” Kennedy said.

The case is Chipotle Services LLC dba Chipotle Mexican Grill (March 14, 2016).

North Carolina’s “Bathroom Bill” Has Serious Implications for State Employment Law

resist hateThe North Carolina “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” or House Bill 2 (“HB2”) is arguably the most anti-LGBT statute that has ever been passed in the United States of America. But HB2 is about more than just adding limits on what local government entities can do regarding public bathroom usage.

News coverage of HB2, which has largely been referred to as a “bathroom bill,” lacks an important understanding of a detrimental change in employment discrimination law that accompanies the bill’s passage. As Charlotte School of Law Professor Brian Clarke points out, most articles about the passage of HB2 omit “a hugely significant issue, the bill’s complete elimination of the ability of NC employees to sue employers under state law for employment discrimination based on the protected categories of race, sex, national origin, religion, color, or age.”

Prohibits the right to sue for discrimination

Clarke, who has practiced employment law for more than 11 years and published significant research in the field believes, “The single sentence that accomplished this feat overturned decades of well-established North Carolina law, eliminated a critical legal protection for all employees in North Carolina, and – of course – is utterly unrelated to bathroom usage.”

Clarke is referring to Part III of HB2 (143-422.2), or the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act. Section 422.2 decrees that employment discrimination based on the standard protected classes referred to in Title VII is illegal, but the following section – 422.3 – completely prohibits the right to a cause of action for such discrimination. By its own language, 422.3 overrides the protections of 422.2 by removing its teeth: “This Article does not create, and shall not be construed to create or support, a statutory or common law private right of action, and no person may bring any civil action . . .” So, in North Carolina, employers may not discriminate against employees; but, if they do, employees have no right to sue.

The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (“EPA”) was originally passed in 1977 and tort of wrongful discharge was recognized in 1982. Wrongful discharge was premised on the language of 422.2, but the passage of HB2 takes away this private right of action North Carolina employees have relied on for more than 30 years. Race, sex, religion, national origin, color, and age are now no longer subject to a private right of action in the state.

Final avenue of justice is gone

The real problem a lot of employees face with employment discrimination suits is that they simply do not know their rights. When employees do not find out their legal rights until after the 180 days to sue allowed for by Title VII, their only recourse is to sue under the EPA for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Now, that final avenue of justice is gone. Arguments were made on the House floor by Republican Representative and HB2 co-sponsor Dan Bishop that the EPA was never intended to create a private right of action for employees, but evolved through the common law; according to HB2 sponsors like Bishop, this new language removing the private right of action is meant to “correct” that.

Both the legal community and country as a whole remain shocked at the passage of HB2. Andrew Gordon, President of the LGBT Legal Society in Charlotte believes there have been major abuses of power throughout the un-democratic process of HB2’s passage. “The fact that an ‘emergency session’ was called in response to HB2 is a blatant waste of thousands of taxpayer dollars. There are far more pressing needs in this state; not the least of which is the fact that we rank as one of the worst states in the entire country regarding quality of education, teacher pay, and student spending,” Gordon stated.

Gordon’s mission for the LGBT Legal Society is to bring the legal community’s attention to issues of special concern to LGBT students by serving as a bridge between students, law school alumni, and the legal profession at large.

Revokes anti-discrimination laws

The unfair process Gordon mentions is this: HB2 was not revealed to those required to vote on it until the morning it was to be voted on. HB2 passed both the House and Senate and was signed by Governor McCrory within the short span of 12 hours.

“This process, this bill not only harms LGBT communities and establishes that North Carolina does not tolerate LGBT diversity, it revokes the power of any state locality to establish any anti-discrimination laws. HB2’s passage thereby removes the ability of any city to protect citizens it determines should be protected. Now, after HB2, any discrimination complaint can only be brought to the state’s Human Relations Commission and no civil cause of action exists for a perceived violation of the state’s non-discrimination statute.”

Gordon sums up HB2’s passage by saying, “Our state’s politicians preyed on an irrational fear: that protecting the dignity and civil rights of transgender citizens will somehow also allow predators to molest children and women in bathrooms. As if signs on bathroom doors will ever be enough to prevent predators who would misuse such a protection from harming others. One thing has proven true that the LGBT community assumed from the start: the discrimination politicians have long-attempted to couch in religious freedom has never been about religion at all; it was only ever about legalizing discrimination.”

View House Bill 2 here.

$1.7 Million Harassment Verdict Against Dentist who Took Assistant to Peep Show

Dirty DentistA California court found a former dental employer liable for sexual harassment against a female employee. The plaintiff was awarded $1.7 million in damages.

Juddy Olivares was hired as a Back Office Manager and Dental Assistant at Colton Dental Group, owned by Sam Daniel Dason, DDS.

Throughout her employment, Olivares was subjected to sexual based comments and inquiries. Olivares complained to her manager about the sexual topics but no action was taken to resolve the issues.

The case was successfully tried by Eric A. Panitz of  firm DesJardins & Panitz LLP in Cerritos, CA, and Patrick McNicholas of McNicholas & McNicholas in Los Angeles, CA.

Trip to a peep show

Sometime after her employment, defendant Dason invited Olivares to a Las Vegas dental convention. Dason stated there would be others accompanying them including Dason’s wife. Olivares agreed to attend the trip as long as a coworker agreed to join.

After arriving Olivares and the coworker, Karen learned the convention was a sham and found herself at a peep show.

During the trip and after returning to work the harassment continued. The advances by Dason escalated to inappropriate touching of various body parts. At one point while Olivares yawned, Dason stuck his finger in her mouth and touched her tongue saying “Oh, your tongue is so soft.”

Olivares continued working for Dason because she needed the job to support her young daughter. The unwanted sexual advances and touching continued to no avail. Dason would apologize for touching her inappropriately but continued even after she confronted the defendant.

After two years of work, the plaintiff requested a raise. Dason agreed to grant the raise if Olivares would attend another Las Vegas trip alone with Dason. Olivares did not respond to Dason’s advances and a lawsuit followed.

This case is Juddy Olivares v. Sam Dason and Sam Daniel Dason DDS, Case No CIVDS1300810.

Illinois Court Affirms $3 Million Jury Award to Chicago State University Whistleblower

CSU

An Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a $3 million jury verdict to plaintiff James Crowley for a whistleblower retaliation claim brought under the Illinois State Official and Employee Ethics Act.

Determining that punitive damages are available under the Ethics Act, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Chicago State University’s conduct was “thoroughly reprehensible,” and the ratio between the compensatory and punitive damages award was entirely reasonable.

Obeying the Law

Crowley, former Senior Legal Counsel for Chicago State University (CSU), reviewed contracts and processed the university’s FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. Crowley alleged he was retaliated against after he refused to withhold certain documents from FOIA requests inquiring about the university’s President. Crowley reported his concerns about the FOIA requests and Chicago State’s contracting practices to the Illinois State Attorney General’s Office.

According to the Illinois opinion, Crowley’s employment was without incident until 2009, when defendant Dr. Wayne Watson was hired to become president of CSU. Watson had just finished a job as the head of the Chicago City Colleges and planned to draw his state pension. Shortly after the announcement of the CSU job, it was discovered that, in order to begin receiving pension payments from the State University Retirement Systems (SURS), the rules required him to have a three-month gap between state jobs.

Improper Use of Funds

During the gap, amidst significant public controversy about the merits of Watson’s appointment, allegations focused on Watson’s alleged use of state funds to renovate the so-called “presidential residence” while making decisions at CSU when he was not yet officially in office. During this period, in the view of all parties at trial, Watson was not a CSU employee and thus could not authorize any sort of activity at the university.

Numerous FOIA requests were received by CSU from curious citizens (including a rather prolific document requester named Phillip Beverly, a tenured political science professor at CSU) which called for any documents concerning Watson’s hiring and the work at the residence. Crowley went about the task of collecting all documents that he believed would be responsive to these numerous requests.

Adverse Employment Action

According to Crowley, during a meeting in President Watson’s office, which the interim acting president, Dr. Sandra Westbrooks joined, Watson demanded that nothing be produced without his personal review — despite the notable facts that Watson was not yet an university employee and that it was Crowley’s job to fully respond to FOIA requests. Crowley testified at trial that a rather animated Watson grabbed his wrist and told him, “If you read this my way, you’re my friend. If you do it your way, you’re my enemy.”

On February 1, 2010, Crowley was escorted off CSU premises after being summarily suspended by Patrick Cage, CSU’s newly hired (November 2009) general counsel and a longtime colleague of Watson’s. Crowley was brought back to CSU on February 19, 2010, for a very brief meeting with Cage in which he was told that financial irregularities were found in an audit relating to Crowley’s work.

Hours later, Crowley’s employment was officially terminated. There is no indication in the court record that Crowley was given any opportunity to correct these perceived shortcomings, which Crowley claimed was in violation of CSU’s policies and procedures.

$3 Million Award for Retaliation

A Cook County jury found that Crowley was retaliated against in violation of the Ethics Act and awarded him $480,000 in back pay and an additional $2 million in punitive damages.  Pursuant to the statute, the trial court doubled the back pay to $960,000, ordered the University to pay attorneys’ fees of $318,000, and awarded prejudgment interest in the amount of $60,000.

The trial court also ordered the University to reinstate Crowley to his former position or provide “front pay” based on a $120,000 annual salary through the resolution of any appeals.

The appellate court affirmed and held that punitive damages are available under the Ethics Act, rejecting the University’s position that it was immune from liability for punitive damages pursuant to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The court also held that the jury’s award did not violate the University’s due process rights as the University’s conduct was “thoroughly reprehensible” and the ratio between the compensatory and punitive damages award was entirely reasonable.

This ruling clarifies that punitive damages are available under the Ethics Act and affirms the serious risks employers face for taking adverse action against employees engaging in lawful activity under state whistleblower laws.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules for Employees in Donning & Doffing Class Action

Donning

The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed workers who spend time putting on and taking off clothing and other work gear before and after their shift (“donning and doffing” in employment law terms) must be paid for the time these activities take.

The class action case, filed by the United Food & Commercial Workers Union on behalf of 330 current and former Hormel employees, was decided in the Rock County Circuit Court in favor of the union, and affirmed in the circuit court.

Integral Part of the Work Day

The United Food & Commercial Workers Union (Local Section 1473) alleged that Hormel violated Wisconsin wage and hour laws for failing to pay for the additional 5.7 minutes of time per day it takes workers to don (get dressed for work) and doff (remove work clothing). The time spent putting on and taking off the required clothing and equipment has not previously been included in the employees’ compensation, which resulted in employees working more than 40 hours per week without being paid overtime.

As Justice Shirley Abrahamson noted in her lead opinion, the “Work Rules” Hormel employees are required to abide by state that employees wear certain clothing and equipment on daily basis. “If employees do not wear the required clothing and equipment, the employees are subject to discipline, up to discharge,” Abrahamson wrote.

Hormel employees must don Hormel-provided hard hats, hearing protection, eye protection, and hair nets. Employees must also wear clean and sanitary footwear at all times. The clothing, which cannot under any circumstances be worn outside the Hormel plant, is provided by the company and must be changed daily. In certain cases, Hormel clothing must be changed more often than once daily.

Abrahamson cited the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development code in determining that the action of putting on white shirts and pants, hard hats and hearing protection, and hand-washing qualifies as “physical or mental exertion.” The Workforce code provides that an employee must be paid for all time spent “in physical or mental exertion . . . controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer’s business.”

Back in the 1980s, Hormel paid its employees an extra 12 minutes per day for the “donning and doffing” under a then-existing union collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). Eventually, however, that compensation was “bargained away.”

Not a De Minimis Trifle

Abrahamson’s lead opinion did not affirm the lower court’s determination that employees should be paid for donning and doffing even if they leave for lunch breaks. Abrahamson noted the parties agreed on that issue and therefore rendered no opinion on it. Chief Justice Roggensack dissented with this decision, concluding that compensation is not required when employees change clothes for lunch.

“Leaving during the lunch break serves no interest of Hormel, is not ‘an integral part of a principal activity’ of the employer within the meaning of the administrative code, and serves only employees’ interests,” Chief Justice Roggensack wrote.

Hormel argued the doctrine of de minimis non curat lex, which means “the law does not concern itself with trifles,” to bar compensation for only 5.7 minutes of its employees’ time. Justice Abrahamson disagreed, stating, “Viewed in the light of the employees’ hourly rate of $22 per hour, the unpaid period in question may amount to over $500 per year for each employee and substantial sums for Hormel. In the instant case this time is not a ‘trifle.’”

The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the “donning and doffing” question in 2014 in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. The high court disqualified most clothing as fitting under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), ruling that the vast majority of the time employees spent dressing was not compensable under the federal act.

The case is United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1473 v. Hormel Foods Corporation, 2016 WI 13 (March 1, 2016).

EEOC Grants Employees Access to Employer Position Statements

2nd Circuit Not Concerned With Adequacy of Pre-Suit EEOC Investigations

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has implemented a new policy that will give pause to employers defending discrimination claims in the agency’s forum.

  • The procedure requires the release of employer position statements, including all non-confidential documents and exhibits, to the charging employee.
  • Employers are also required to share positions statements with claimant employees’ attorney representatives.

Proving illegal pretext

Employers beware: if a position statement says one thing and an internal company document says another, this constitutes an illegal pretext (or at least enough of an issue of fact to get to a jury trial). With the explosion of communication via email, instant messages and even social media, uncovering various reasons for a decision becomes easier.

Previously, the disclosure of employer position statements was made at the discretion of the particular EEOC field offices’ directors or investigators, and practices were inconsistent nationwide. Before the change, EEOC investigators might summarize an employer’s evidence and arguments for an employee to solicit the latter’s response. Now, the employee will be able to view firsthand all of the employer’s “cards on the table,” and read the defending employer’s argument for him/herself.

The Administrative Process

Submitting employer position statements to the EEOC is part of the standard agency process:

  • Employees utilize this federal agency to file claims, or “charges,” of discrimination.
  • Employers submit responses in the form of position statements that lay out all relevant arguments and defenses.
  • The EEOC makes a determination based on both sides of the story.
  • After utilizing the EEOC agency process, employees can file law suits against employers within a certain statutory number of days.

This new process essentially creates discovery for the employee without jumping through the original hoop of requesting a copy of the position statement through FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act).

The release of position statement copies, together with all non-confidential documents submitted in support of the position statement, is effective January 1, 2016. The EEOC states these new procedures are intended to “create uniformity and greater transparency in the handling of discrimination charges throughout the country.” However, employers will not benefit equally from a fuller exchange of information because the EEOC does not intend to furnish employers with the employees’ responses to the position statement.

Employers now must separate and appropriately label confidential information that is submitted in support of position statements (for example, in a separate attachment labeled “Confidential”). The scary part for employers? Whether the EEOC will, in every instance, accept the Employer’s characterization of material as confidential remains entirely unknown.

The EEOC does promise that the following sensitive material will not be turned over to claimant employees:

  • Sensitive medical information.
  • Confidential commercial or financial information.
  • Trade secrets.
  • Non-relevant personally identifiable information of witnesses, comparators or third parties (such as social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers).
  • References to charges filed against employers by other charging parties.

The New Policy’s Implications

As Workforce.com points out, make no mistake: this policy is really huge “because the EEOC position statement is an employer’s first chance to tell its side of the story, and the semi-automatic provision of these documents to employees and their lawyers places a hyper-premium on accuracy.”

An effective way for an employee to win a discrimination case is by establishing pretext, which means proving the employer’s stated reason for the termination (or other adverse employment action) was a “cover-up” for discrimination. While there are several ways to prove pretext, an employee can establish pretext by demonstrating the employer’s shifting rationales.

Corporate attorneys and employers should consider the implications of this new policy going forward, particularly because plaintiffs’ attorneys now may have access to what is, in essence, early discovery. This is a benefit for plaintiffs’ counsel that may encourage settlement because both parties can recognize weaker claims earlier on in the administrative process.

Employers should also keep in mind that information produced in a position statement may alert opposing counsel to new legal theories, additional damages, and potential new plaintiffs. Thorough, consistent, and accurate investigations will continue to be important avenues of preparing employer position statements.

How Scalia’s Death May Impact Pending Supreme Court Cases

 

Antonin ScaliaThe death of Antonin Scalia — the Reagan-appointed, outspoken and rigidly conservative Supreme Court justice — left the outcome of several major pending SCOTUS cases entirely up in the air.

Gone are Scalia’s scathing dissents and his “originalist” judicial philosophy. Scalia believed jurists should interpret the U.S. Constitution according to the Framers’ original intent, regardless of the current reality.

Major Cases Now Pending

Dow Chemical Co.’s agreement to pay $835 million to settle a price-fixing dispute is just one example that Justice Scalia’s death is a serious blow to businesses that have previously been successful in challenging class action cases at the U.S. Supreme Court level. In the process of merging with Dupont, Dow opted to settle the decade-long case rather than risk a decision by an eight-justice court missing Scalia, who was a reliable vote in support of companies in class action cases.

Dow said in a statement that Scalia’s death and the raging political fight over naming his successor meant an “increased likelihood for unfavorable outcomes for business involved in class action suits.”

Multi-million dollar class actions suits involving Tyson Foods Inc. and Walmart Stores Inc. were also argued last year while Scalia was on the bench. Tyson challenged an almost $5.8 million class action judgment and Walmart seeks to throw out a $187 million class action judgment from Pennsylvania.

Another class action case heard by the Supreme Court this term involved online search company Spokeo Inc. SCOTUS appeared closely divided following the November oral argument, which could result in a 4-4 split. While such a ruling would not set a national precedent, it would be a victory for the affected plaintiffs.

And the Court has already started ruling on several health care cases pending during its current session. According to Josh Blackman, associate professor of law at South Texas College of Law, appellants and appellees banking on Scalia’s vote may receive profoundly different rulings without him on the bench. “If the Court splits 4–4, it gets complicated,” Blackman said. “Usually, a tie vote affirms the lower court, but in some of this term’s cases, lower courts have ruled differently on a single question.”

A split decision effectively upholds the ruling of the lower court (presumably a state supreme court). In the event of such a tie, the court typically issues what’s known as a per curiam decision. The opinion in such a decision is issued under the court’s name, as opposed to consisting of a majority and a minority opinion.

When a 4-4 deadlock does occur, the case is not deemed to have set any sort of precedent.

Scalia even wrote several major opinions in favor of corporations, including Comcast and Walmart. Thus, Scalia’s absence may influence overall what cases the Supreme Court chooses to hear. It’s a firm Supreme Court rule that decisions are not final until they are handed down, so nothing Scalia did or said in pending cases matters to the outcome.

Scalia

Uncertainty in His Absence

The uncertainty surrounding big SCOTUS decisions could last beyond this term depending on whether and for how long the Senate fights Obama’s nomination to replace Scalia. Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog predicts the Republican Senate is unlikely to let President Obama push through his own pick so close to an election.

While it remains possible President Obama could attempt to bypass the Senate and replace Scalia through a recess appointment, that tactic is rarely used and would be certain to draw outrage and an attack from Republicans. One thing is certain regarding the president: the potential for 4-4 decisions creates uncertainty for several upcoming cases this term that will undoubtedly affect President Obama’s legacy.

In the case of a SCOTUS split, whatever the lower court decided is affirmed, and that ruling only applies to the low court’s specific circuit. Naturally, this leaves serious legal conflicts among circuits unresolved. The Court was divided 5-4 along ideological lines only about a quarter of the time; most decisions are actually unanimous. It is, of course, the divided decisions that are often the most culturally and politically controversial.

Scalia already heard – and potentially already cast votes – in several high stakes cases that could decide issues regarding whether universities can continue to use affirmative action to if unions can collect fees from nonmembers to survive. Any Scalia votes already cast in pending cases, however, will be invalidated, sending the Supreme Court back to the drawing board. We can likely expect to see 4-4 splits on key issues, with the remaining four liberals and four conservatives on the bench facing off against each other.

NLRB Says Whole Foods Can’t Prevent Employees’ Workplace Recordings

Whole Foods

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Whole Foods, a nationwide upscale grocery store chain, cannot forbid its employees from recording workplace conversations or taking photos at work without management’s permission. The Whole Foods decision follows another 2015 Board decision [Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino (Aug. 2015)] in which the Board struck down rules prohibiting employees from using any audio visual recording devices at work.

Read the Handbook

At the center of the case were two stipulations in Whole Foods’ “General Information Guide,” an employee manual that provides work rules. The “Guide” prohibited workers from taking photos or recording conversations inside a store “unless prior approval is received” from a manager or executive, or “unless all parties to the conversation give their consent.”

Whole Foods argued it barred recordings of employee conversations in the workplace to promote “open communication, spontaneous and honest dialogue, and an atmosphere of trust.” Whole Foods argued that recording employee “town-hall,” in-store and other meetings would create a lack of employee candor and prevent overall team harmony. Rather than attempting to inhibit employee rights, Whole Foods reasoned, its rules are meant protect Whole Foods employees and promote a cohesive workplace.

“The purpose of this policy is to eliminate a chilling effect on the expression of views that may exist when one person is concerned that his or her conversation with another is being secretly recorded,” the manual states.

Concerted Actitivy

Whole Foods’ “fostering communication” argument did not interest the NLRB in what all boils down to two words: concerted activity. The Board majority found that recordings and broad rules could hinder workers’ ability to gather evidence, “such as photographing picketing, or recording evidence to be presented in administrative or judicial forums in employment-related matters.”

The Board reasoned that the broad language of the grocery giant’s two handbook rules could reasonably prohibit employees’ use of cameras or recording devices in the workplace for various concerted, protected activities.

The National Labor Relations Board protects the rights of employees to engage in “concerted activity,” which is defined as when two or more employees take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms and conditions of employment.

“Our case law supports the proposition that photography and audio and video recording at the workplace are protected under certain circumstances,” the Board said. The fact that employees would, overall, see the prohibitions as a ban on their protected, concerted rights under the NLRA, made the Board’s decision that much easier.

The NLRB’s decision means employers should triple check all work rules restricting audio or visual recordings by employees. If employers continue to maintain these rules, they must clearly state the employer’s legitimate objective. Workplace recordings should be banned only to the extent reasonably necessary to accomplish the employer’s objectives for disallowing workplace recordings.

Identifying specific times or places to which the ban applies instead of promulgating an all-around ban is a best practice. It’s likely the NLRB will look more favorably on rules specifying what cannot be photographed or video or audio recorded.

The case is Whole Foods Market Inc. and United Food and Commercial Workers Local, case number 01-CA-096965, before the National Labor Relations Board.

Who’s Hispanic? New Trial After White Applicant Receives $1.3 Million for Race Discrimination

Barrella

Left to Right: Former Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick and Police Chief Applicant, Lt. Christopher Barrella.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan overturned a $1.3 million jury verdict and ordered a new trial for a white non-Hispanic officer who alleged he was passed over for a job as police chief in 2010 in favor of a Hispanic candidate. The federal appeals court also ruled that the village of Freeport and former mayor Andrew Hardwick should get an entirely new trial in the suit by plaintiff Lt. Christopher Barrella due to a number of legal errors made at the 2014 trial.

Impermissible Witness Speculation

Second Circuit Court Judge Jose Cabranes said impermissible opinions may have swayed Barrella’s discrimination suit because two witnesses were allowed to speculate from the witness stand about Hardwick’s motivations without knowing the facts of the case.

The case originally evolved in 2009 after then-Freeport Mayor Hardwick appointed Miguel Bermudez, a Cuban-American man, as the Village of Freeport’s new police chief. Judge Cabranes, who wrote the Second Circuit opinion, was part of the three-judge panel that agreed federal law – since the 1980s – has clearly barred employers from discriminating against applicants or employees based on Hispanic ethnicity or the lack thereof.

Despite confusion in various state and federal statutes combined with the census and the media about whether terms like Hispanic and Latino refer to race, ethnicity or national origin, the court agreed with the plaintiff that the two federal anti-discrimination laws Barrella sued under do recognize the category as a sound basis for suit.

Freeport’s Blurred Lines Argument

The Second Circuit rejected Freeport’s 50-page dissertation on race and ethnicity, which argued that because Hispanics are also white, a white applicant passed over for a Hispanic employee cannot technically claim race discrimination.

“Two people who both appear to be ‘white’ in the vernacular sense of the term, and who both identify as ‘white’ on Census forms and the like may nonetheless belong to different ‘races,’” wrote Second Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes. Categories of race and ethnicity under federal anti-discrimination laws allow multiple variations. Judge Cabranes noted in his opinion that a person of half-Hispanic and half-Irish ancestry could sue if that person was passed over for an Italian-American, a non-Hispanic Irish-American, or a black Hispanic.

While the Second Circuit seemed to agree with plaintiff Barrella’s reasoning in filing the anti-discrimination suit, it is also clear that Barrella will have to jump through the hoops of a new trial regardless. U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt of Central Islip let several witnesses — including an assistant police chief and Hardwick’s former chief of staff — give impermissible non-expert opinions stating the mayor chose Bermudez due to race.

The two witnesses were even improperly allowed to opine that Hardwick could have personal reasons for hiring Bermudez instead of Barrella, because the two have known each other for a long time.

Attorney Ken Novikoff said Hardwick is confident he will be vindicated at a retrial, and attorney Keith Corbett said he looked forward to “complete vindication of our client’s rights” on behalf of the village. Amanda Fugazy, Barrella’s lawyer, said the appeals ruling “confirms each and every one of our client’s legal claims.”

“With this decision squarely in our favor on all legal issues, we are confident that the new jury will find the same as the last jury and will fairly compensate Lieutenant Barrella for the employment discrimination he suffered,” Fugazy said.

The new trial decision may not be quite the slam dunk Fugazy and Barrella are hoping for. The previous jury deliberated for five days in the case, which indicates that it was “difficult until the end” and should be retried without opinions admitted as evidence.

NLRB Orders Samsung to Stop Use of Employment Agreement Waiving Right to Sue

DontSignArbitrationAgreementThe National Labor Relations Board has ordered Samsung refrain from coercively interrogating employees and to cease the use of an agreement to arbitrate claims.

The mutual agreement required employees to waive their rights to pursue class or collective actions as a condition of employment.

The ruling comes after an employee started speaking with other employees about her plans to file a lawsuit against Samsung for unpaid wages.

Employee Jorgie Franks asked other employees if they would be interested in joining a lawsuit with her because they worked “too many hours compared to what they were being paid.”  Franks determined that based on the hours she was working and her income, she was being paid minimum wage.

Agreement condition of employment

Frank’s attempt to join other employees in a lawsuit against Samsung went against Samsung’s Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims that required employees, as a condition of their employment, to waive their right to pursue any class or collective actions against Samsung, even through arbitration.

The agreement stated that neither Samsung nor the employee could litigate any action against the other except through individual arbitration.

The NLRB panel affirmed an administrative judge’s finding that Samsung’s practice of having new employees sign a Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims as a condition of employment violated the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB ordered Samsung to rescind all mutual agreements and give notice to all employees that it will no longer maintain or enforce the Mutual agreements to Arbitrate claims.

Coercive interrogation

The NLRB also ordered that Samsung stop the practice of coercively interrogating employees about any protected concerted activities after finding that a human resources administrator unlawfully interrogated Franks on two occasion regarding her plans to file a lawsuit against Samsung and her discussion about it with other employees.

The human resource manager called Franks and informed her that other employees “felt very uncomfortable” with her conversation and told her not to talk to other employees about her concerns, and instead contact the human resource manager directly.

After Franks discussed the potential lawsuit with another employee, the human resource manager contacted her again by email asking if anything changed after their prior conversation and asking why she did not follow her request that she not discuss the lawsuit with other employees.

Franks testified that she was “nervous and tried to be vague in her response” and informed the manager that she was uncomfortable further discussing the situation.

Coerced interrogation

The NLRB determined that the human resource manager had interrogated Franks on both occasions, finding that the manager’s interrogation “coerce[d] the employee…so that he or she would feel restrained from exercising rights protected” by the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB panel determined that the manager’s conversation and email to Franks were “calculated to elicit a response from Franks” to gain information about her brining a collective action lawsuit.

The NLRB ordered Samsung to cease and desist from interrogating employees or interfering with or restraining employees from exercising their guaranteed right to act with other employees in protected concerted activities.  The Board further ordered Samsung reimburse plaintiff’s attorneys fees and litigation expenses.

The case is Samsung Electronics America Inc. f/k/a Samsung Telecommunications America LLC and Jorgie Franks, case number 12-CA-145083, before the National Labor Relations