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Employment & Labor Law Blog Legal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Supreme Court Declines to Provide Clarity on Responding to Sexual Harassment in Trucking Industry

April 27, 2022 | Nicholas Ruble and Joseph Swift

Driving on I-70 heading west from East St. Louis, Illinois, one crosses the Mississippi River into Missouri, and about 250 miles later, crosses the Kansas River into Kansas City, Kansas. Over the course of about four hours, a driver employed by a trucking company will be working in not only three different states, but three different federal court of appeals circuits. Following a recent Supreme Court decision not to review a ruling from the Eighth Circuit, that driver’s employer potentially remains subject to three different standards for responding to sexual harassment.

The case is Sellars v. CRST Expedited, Inc., which presented the issue of how employers must respond to reports of sexual harassment between co-workers to avoid liability under Title VII. The plaintiffs originally filed suit in 2015, asserting several claims against CRST based on alleged co-worker sexual harassment. According to the Eighth Circuit opinion, the case “team drivers” (a system where long-haul truck drivers worked in two-person crews) so that one driver can sleep while the other continues driving.  This is done in the confined space of a tractor. CRST did not assign the driving pairs, but would approve teams who had mutually agreed to drive together. A team would not be approved where one of the drivers was tagged by HR as being “male only,” meaning that driver was not approved to pair with a female driver. The “male only” tag was applied to drivers who had previously been the subject of sexual harassment complaints.

The Eighth Circuit opinion recounted numerous alleged instances of inappropriate sexual comments, sexual harassment, assaults, and threats of violence against female employees. The plaintiffs claimed the harassment created a hostile work environment, and the employer was negligent in responding to and failing to prevent harassment. The plaintiffs also asserted that the employer’s policy (since rescinded) of removing the victim from the truck and forcing her to wait, unpaid, at a terminal until she could be placed on another truck, was per se retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.

Two questions were presented to the Supreme Court. First: “Where an employee complains to her employer about sexual harassment, does the employer fully satisfy its legal obligation under Title VII if it stops the harassment of that employee by the particular harasser complained of (the rule in the Eighth Circuit), or must the employer also take action to deter future harassment by other potential harassers (the standard in the Ninth and Tenth Circuits)?” The second was whether CRST’s policies, which would tend to result in a reduction in pay and, would tend to cause a reasonable employee to “expect that complaining of sexual harassment would directly lead to a net decrease in pay” was a per se violation of Title VII (which is the rule in the Seventh Circuit).

Rather than take up these questions and provide clarity for employers regarding their obligations to respond to complaints of sexual harassment, the Court denied review with no explanation (as is the usual practice). However, the brief submitted by the petitioners has highlighted the circuit-split for savvy plaintiff’s attorneys. Employers should likewise take notice, because in a lawsuit, they may not have much control over which standard will apply.

That is because Title VII plaintiffs have multiple options in deciding where to file their complaints. A plaintiff may file in a judicial district in which 1) an unlawful employment practice was alleged to be committed; 2) the judicial district in which the employment records relevant to the claim are maintained and administered; 3) in the judicial district in which the plaintiff worked; or 4) if the employer cannot be “found” in one of the first three districts, then in the district of the employer’s principal place of business. Under the first option, the unlawful employment practice may be the harassment itself (which may span several states), the location of a manager or HR representative who takes an adverse employment action (in retaliation cases) or fails or refuses to conduct an investigation. For example, a plaintiff living in Des Moines, Iowa, working for a company headquartered in Chicago, who is harassed on a trip from Indianapolis to Denver, may file suit in as many as six different states. However, if an unlawful act occurs in Colorado, she may file suit there to fall within the more demanding Tenth Circuit standard for preventing harassment, and take advantage of a venue that is perceived as more plaintiff-friendly.

Because over-the-road trucking necessarily spans multiple states, and multiple federal circuits, an employer is well-served by trying to comply with the most restrictive circuit in which it operates.

Impact of the Great Resignation

For the fifth year in a row, the “driver shortage” topped the list of industry concerns. Additionally, the trucking industry and those companies in the supply chain are among those hardest hit by “the Great Resignation,” although it may be more accurately labeled “the Great Reshuffle.” Studies show that truck drivers are not leaving the trucking industry, but pursuing more attractive employment opportunities elsewhere within the industry. This rapid movement of employees poses great challenges and risks to employers.

There is obvious tension between the pressure to attract and retain experienced employees and strictly dealing with those accused of harassment. Employers may be reluctant to terminate harassers when it is so difficult to find qualified replacements. It may also be difficult to reject a qualified applicant with a history of harassment accusations. Conversely, it may be difficult to expand the talent pool to attract women, young people, and others in an industry that relies so much on word-of-mouth in hiring.

The deciding factor for employers may then be legal liability, which is why the Supreme Court’s decision to deny review is problematic. But, Title VII is not the only possible source of exposure for employers. Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois all recognize a cause of action for negligence in hiring or retaining an accused harasser. Although there are variations in how each state’s courts have interpreted the claims, the basic elements are: 1) the employer hired or retained an employee when the employer knew or should have known of the employee’s dangerous propensities; and 2) the employee injured a co-employee in manner consistent with those dangerous propensities. Employers may also be liable for other common law torts such as battery, assault, and infliction of emotional distress. For these claims, merely shuffling employees around may not effectively shield employers from liability.

Key Takeaways and Best Practices

  • Consider how actions to curb sexual harassment may have unintended negative consequences for female employees. In the Sellars case, female employees received a net decrease in pay due to being separated from their harassers. And there are other instances where female employees may be denied important benefits and opportunities, such as training, mentorship, and advancement opportunities. Similarly, if an employee has to be kept separated from a co-worker because of behavior, that person should probably not be a part of the organization.
  • Although the Sellars case involved male-on-female harassment, keep in mind that sexual harassment may occur between members of the same sex, and LGBT+ employees are among the most at risk for sexual harassment.
  • Forces in the labor market have made hiring new employees more difficult than ever. The push to hire new workers should not cause employers to let their defenses down. Retaining bad actors may be a short-term solution with long-term negative consequences.
  • Although an employer may avoid liability under Title VII for co-worker harassment, keeping harassers around keeps the door open for common law tort claims, which unlike Title VII, may or may not be subject to damages caps.

In MHRA Disability Discrimination Claims, "Reasonable Accommodation" Remains a Fact-Intensive Inquiry

March 29, 2022 | Nicholas Ruble

The Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri recently held that the reasonableness of a disability accommodation under the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) remains a fact-intensive, case-by-case inquiry, even when it comes to reassigning job duties to other employees. Importantly, the Court cautioned that employers and practitioners should exercise great caution when attempting to apply federal ADA reasonable accommodation precedents to MHRA claims.

Loerch v. City of Union Missouri involved a custodian who worked as the sole custodian at City Hall until 2015. The written job description stated that the job involved indoor and outdoor duties, but was mostly in an office setting. Specific outdoor tasks included washing windows, mowing grass, sweeping steps and sidewalks, and shoveling snow and ice. Loerch testified that approximately 10% of his time was spent on outdoor duties, while his manager testified that 25% of his time was spent outside.

In 2013, Loerch was diagnosed with coronary artery disease (“CAD”). His doctor cleared him to return to full duty, but stated that he should not be exposed to extreme heat or cold. Loerch testified that he could perform “virtually all” of his outdoor duties without exposure to extreme heat or cold by, for example, mowing early in the day. However, shoveling snow and ice would potentially expose him to extreme cold, so he asked that another employee be assigned that task. Loerch testified that in the past, others had shoveled snow when he was absent. The City denied the requested accommodations, and Loerch claimed that he was told he must retire or be terminated. He retired and subsequently filed suit claiming he was terminated for his disability.

The trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Loerch was not disabled within the meaning of the MHRA. The trial court found that Loerch’s CAD did not substantially limit him from the major life activity of working, and no reasonable accommodation would allow him to work in extreme temperatures, an essential function of his job. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, finding, in part, that disputed facts about the reasonableness of the requested accommodation precluded summary judgment.

A threshold element of a claim for disability discrimination is that the plaintiff has a “disability” within the meaning of the MHRA. A disability is a physical impairment that substantially impairs a major life activity. Unlike the ADA, which defines “major life activity” expansively, to include almost all of life’s activities, a major life activity under the MHRA is defined by Missouri Department of Labor regulation. Under the MHRA, however, a major life activity is a life activity which affects employability, such as “communication, self-care, socialization, education, vocational training, employment and transportation.” Finally, the plaintiff must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

The Court of Appeals found that CAD was a physical impairment, but the City argued that it did not substantially limit a major life activity. The Court of Appeals rejected the City’s argument that Loerch was not substantially limited because he could other work, where he would not be exposed to extreme conditions. This fact alone was not enough to prove that Loerch was not substantially limited.

The Court of Appeals then evaluated whether the plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job. The Court found that factual questions abound regarding the nature of the job functions performed in extreme heat or cold, precluding summary judgment. Those questions included the amount of time spent on functions such as mowing or shoveling snow and ice, all of which were material and disputed. Finally, the Court of Appeals turned to the issue of reasonable accommodation.

The City’s only argument on summary judgment was that assigning other employees to perform the plaintiff’s job functions was unreasonable, which the Court of Appeals rejected. The most noteworthy statement in the Opinion deals with federal court cases interpreting the ADA. According to the Court, to the extent any federal court case holds that assigning others to perform certain tasks for an employee “can never be reasonable as a matter of law” is “inconsistent with the individualized, fact-dependent, case-by-case approach taken by Missouri courts” in MHRA cases. In other words, if a federal ADA case tries to short-circuit the fact-intensive inquiry and instead rely upon a “bright line” rule, the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District does not want to hear about it.

The Court of Appeals also distinguished prior MHRA cases regarding shifting duties to other employees. According to the Court, none of those cases establishes a per se rule in Missouri that shifting job duties to others is unreasonable as a matter of law. Whether the requested accommodation includes reassigning job duties to other employees, hiring additional employees, or restructuring an employee’s job, the reasonableness of an accommodation request must be evaluated on its own facts. However, the law remains that a reasonable accommodation does not require an employer to reassign duties or restructure a job in a way that “would usurp the legitimate rights of other employees.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals held that there were disputed material facts – such as how often the task was performed, the burden on other employees, the City’s resources – that precluded summary judgment. The decision of the trial court was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Key Takeaways

  • The Court of Appeals emphasized the difference between the ADA’s expansive definition of major life activities and the MHRA’s definition, which is limited to those that affect a person’s employability.
  • Employers and practitioners who are used to dealing with the ADA should take care not to apply to any per se rules from federal ADA accommodation cases to MHRA claims.
  • Written job descriptions are often relevant in accommodations cases. Employers should take care that the job descriptions accurately reflect the duties required to be performed and update them as appropriate.

2021: A Whirlwind Year for Labor & Employment Law

January 19, 2022 | Thomas Rice, David Eisenberg, Nicholas Ruble, Madeline Nagel and Elizabeth Miller

As in 2020, a major theme of the past year has been the Covid-19 pandemic, and the response of employers and governments, as the economy began to re-open and vaccines became widely available. But Covid-19 litigation was not the only activity in the labor and employment law arena in 2021.

FEDERAL VACCINE MANDATE LITIGATION

The saga of the OSHA “vaccine-or-testing” Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) has been extensively documented on this Blog. However, as the new year dawns, the story is merely entering a new chapter.               

In the first week of 2022, the Supreme Court held oral argument on the two Covid-19 vaccine mandates and issued two unsurprising opinions on January 13th. First, the Court overturned the decision of the Sixth Circuit and reinstated the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the OSHA ETS, regarding vaccine mandates for private employers with 100 or more employees. Although the Court did not strike down the ETS, as a practical matter, the ETS in its current form is dead. OSHA has stated that it will not enforce the ETS as currently written (although OSHA has indicated that it will still hold employers to the OSH Act’s “general duty” clause in ensuring workplace safety). In its opinion, the Court stated forcefully that if it reviewed the ETS in the merits, the ETS would be struck down. Importantly, the concurring opinion written by Justice Gorsuch (and joined by Justices Thomas and Alito) relied upon the “major questions” doctrine. Justice Gorsuch described the doctrine as “closely related to the nondelegation doctrine.” The Biden administration is certainly not eager to see a robust application of the doctrine over the next three years.

Although the Court held that the petitioners were likely to succeed in overturning the ETS on the merits, a more tailored ETS, focusing on particular industries could pass muster. For example, work environments where many people are compressed in a small area may pose the necessary “grave danger” justifying OSHA intervention. You may read the full opinion here: National Federation of Independent Business v. OSHA

In the companion case concerning vaccine mandates for healthcare workers, the Court held that in certain environments, vaccine mandates are authorized. In Biden v. Missouri , Missouri, Kansas, and several other states challenged a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rule requiring all facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to require vaccination of all employees. The Court wrote, in its per curiam opinion, that the Secretary of Health and Human Services was enabled by statute to place detailed conditions with which facilities must comply to receive Medicare or Medicaid funds. Those conditions have also included a requirement that healthcare providers maintain and enforce an “infection prevention and control program designed … to help prevent the development and transmission of communicable diseases and infections.”

Finding that the Secretary could enact the final interim rule, the Court vacated the injunction issued by the Eastern District of Missouri. For healthcare providers, the window for compliance with the CMS rule is narrow, and immediate action is required. Here are the major features of the CMS rule:

  • For the 25 petitioner states (except Texas), which include Missouri and Kansas, healthcare workers must receive their first vaccine dose by February 14, 2022, and be fully vaccinated by March 15.
  • For all other states, covered healthcare workers must receive their first vaccine dose by January 27, 2022, and be fully vaccinated by February 22.
  • Healthcare facilities are required to keep records of employees’ vaccination status.
  • Employers must develop policies to include medical and religious exemptions or accommodations.
  • The CMS rule does not apply to healthcare workers who provide exclusively telehealth services.
  • Employers face serious consequences for noncompliance, including hefty fines and revocation of eligibility to receive Medicare or Medicaid funds.

While litigation surrounding CMS’s authority to issue the vaccine mandate appears to be resolved for all practical purposes, there will be no shortage of litigation over its implementation. Baker Sterchi attorneys anticipate that the litigation areas to watch over the coming year include: denial of religious or medical accommodations (including requests which employers deem to be “insincere”) and federalism concerns in states enacting laws purporting to contravene the CMS Rule.

MISSOURI AND OTHER STATES SUE TO STOP FEDERAL CONTRACTOR VACCINE MANDATE

Missouri, et al. v. Biden, 4:21-cv-01300 (E.D. Mo. 2021)

On October 29, 2021, Missouri and nine other states filed suit against President Biden, the United States, and 13 other defendants seeking to stop Executive Order 14042, 86 Fed. Reg. 50,985 (Sept. 14, 2021) which required that all employees of federal contractors be vaccinated. The contractor mandate includes all full-time and part-time employees of any employer who has a contract with the federal government, including those employees who are not themselves working on or in connection with a federal contract. Unlike the OSHA ETS, EO 14042 applies to all employers with federal contracts, regardless of size. Employers must ensure that their employees are fully vaccinated by no later than December 8, 2021.

The States assert that they and their state agencies have contracts with the federal government and therefore would be required to ensure that their employees are vaccinated. Their lawsuit alleges that the mandate violates the federal Procurement Act, Procurement Policy Act, Administrative Procedures Act, and violates the States’ police powers, as well as the Tenth Amendment’s anti-commandeering doctrine, separation of powers, and various other constitutional provisions.         

On December 13, 2021, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the States’ motion to stay enforcement of the Executive Order pending appeal. Like the litigation surrounding the OSHA ETS, this case seems destined to be decided by the Supreme Court.

NOTEWORTHY EIGHTH CIRCUIT DECISIONS

The Supreme Court Will Hear Eighth Circuit Case Involving Employment Arbitration

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in an Eighth Circuit case involving employment arbitration. In Morgan v. Sundance, Inc., (read the Opinion here) the District Court held that the employer had waived the right to compel arbitration where the case had been in litigation for more than eight months. A divided Eighth Circuit panel reversed the decision of the District Court, holding that the defendant had not waived its right to compel arbitration. According to the Eighth Circuit, the defendant had not slept on its rights, because much of the eight months in court had been devoted to trying to stay the case on procedural grounds, rather than litigating the merits. Therefore, the plaintiff was not prejudiced by the motion to compel arbitration. One circuit judge dissented, questioning why the defendant would wait eight months to even mention arbitration.

According to the Morgan majority, the nine federal circuit courts that have adopted the “prejudice” standard for finding waiver of arbitration rights, contradict the 2011 Supreme Court decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion which requires lower courts to evaluate arbitration agreements “on an equal footing with other contracts.” Adding the “prejudice” requirement to waiver of arbitration rights is an additional step that is not used in other contract cases. Therefore, the Supreme Court should weigh in on the appropriate standard in order to ensure consistency across all federal circuits.

The Supreme Court is likely to decide the case in fall 2022.

Eighth Circuit Clarifies that Attendance is Generally an Essential Job Function for ADA Purposes

Throughout its history interpreting the ADA, the EEOC has generally been reluctant to state unequivocally that regular attendance is an essential job function. Rather, in recent years, the EEOC has suggested that an extended leave of absence can constitute a reasonable accommodation in many instances.

Bucking that trend, the Eighth Circuit held in May that regular attendance is generally an essential job function for many jobs. In Evans v. Cooperative Response Center, Inc., No. 19-2483 (8th Cir. May 4, 2021), the plaintiff sued for violations of the ADA and FMLA, and retaliation. Evans suffered from reactive arthritis. Due to complications from her medical condition, Evans exhausted her FMLA leave, and when she could not report to work, she was assessed points under a “no fault” attendance policy and terminated. The Court evaluated the requirements of Evans’ position as well as the employer’s testimony, job descriptions, and policies regarding attendance. Because she was the only office assistant for the company, and the employer was not required to reassign existing workers to fill her job duties, attendance was essential. Under these circumstances, the Court found that intermittent FMLA leave and the ADA did not excuse her from the essential job requirement of regular and reliable attendance.

As always, ADA accommodation claims must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. With the increasing practicability of remote work, not all jobs require in-person attendance, and for many, remote work may be a reasonable accommodation.             

Post #MeToo, a Hostile Work Environment Must Still Be “Severe and Pervasive”

In Lopez v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 19-2357 (8th Cir. Mar. 4, 2021), the Eighth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment to an employer on claims of hostile work environment and retaliation. The district court found that the alleged conduct of a co-worker which included touching the employee on her back, invading her personal space, and blowing on her finger while calling her “baby” was not severe or pervasive enough to rise to a hostile work environment. The court also affirmed summary judgment on the retaliation claim, finding although the employee complained about feeling unqualified for an assigned task, she did not tie that complaint to sex discrimination or harassment.

Plaintiff Lopez worked at a Whirlpool manufacturing plant in Amana, Iowa, where she made refrigerators. Lopez claimed her co-worker Brian Penning, made multiple unwanted advances, touched her, and stared at her for long periods of time. To raise a triable fact on whether the complained of harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment, the claim triggering conduct must be severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment. The court found that although her co-worker should be embarrassed and ashamed of his behavior towards Lopez, it did not meet the exacting standard that must be applied when determining an employer’s liability for a hostile work environment. The court further concluded that Lopez failed to provide evidence that Whirlpool knew or should have known about Penning’s conduct. Lopez admitted to not informing superiors of the unwanted touching, and she resigned four days after filing a formal complaint, which did not give Whirlpool reasonable time to address the complaint.

MISSOURI FEDERAL DISTRICT COURT CASES

Eastern District Finds McDonald’s and Franchisee were Joint Employers

In Johnson v. McDonald Corp., No. 4:20-cv-1867-RWS (E.D. Mo. June 3, 2021), the plaintiff worked at a McDonalds franchise located in St. Louis. Plaintiff claimed she was exposed to sexual harassment and assault during the few weeks she worked at the McDonalds. Plaintiff brought a Title VII suit against not only the franchisee, Tenaj, LLC, but also McDonald’s Corp. and McDonald’s USA, LLC, which both moved to dismiss arguing Plaintiff was not their “employee” under Title VII.

Applying the pleading standard required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8, the Court determined that Plaintiff satisfied the standard when pleading that the Defendants were her employers under either a joint employer or agency theory. The Court reasoned that since the employee had only worked for the McDonald’s franchise for a short period of time, she may not have been aware of the entities that provided oversight of the franchise, or the individual role each entity played within the corporate structure. The court readily distinguished these facts from cases cited by Defendants, finding Plaintiff’s allegations of Defendants’ involvement in the day-to-day operations of the franchise was sufficient to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will lead to relevant evidence of the claim.

The parties disagreed on which joint employer standard the Court should apply. The Defendants urged the Court to adopt the Baker test (Baker v. Stuart Broadcasting Co., 560 F.2d 389, 392 (8th Cir. 1977), which requires courts to consider: (1) interrelation of operations (2) common management (3) centralized control of labor relationship and (4) common ownership or financial control. Again, the Court determined that Plaintiff had pleaded sufficient facts to plausibly allege that McDonald’s USA and/or McDonald’s Corp. was a joint employer with the franchisee. Under the Twombley standard, the Plaintiff raises a reasonable expectation that one or more of these factors would become apparent during the course of discovery.

Although this decision is not binding outside of the Eastern District of Missouri, it is a sobering result that may attract potential plaintiffs to the district and require national franchisors to defend local employment disputes beyond the motion to dismiss stage.

NOTEWORTHY MISSOURI COURT OF APPEALS DECISIONS

Arbitration Clauses with “Unfettered” Modification Rights Are Unenforceable

In July, the Western District Court of Appeals affirmed that a delegation provision in an arbitration agreement must be supported by consideration. An “unfettered” right vested in management to modify its terms is an illusory promise, which is not adequate consideration to support a contract.

In Johnson v. Menard, Inc., WD 84138 (Mo. Ct. App. W.D. July 27, 2021), the court of appeals held that reference to AAA rules is “clear and unmistakable” evidence that the parties intended threshold questions of arbitrability to be determined by the arbitrator. However, whether an arbitration agreement is formed remains within the province of the courts. The question then was whether the delegation provision was supported by consideration. The Agreement stated “I UNDERSTAND THAT THIS AGREEMENT CANNOT BE MODIFIED EXCEPT BY THE PRESIDENT OF MENARD, INC.” The court held that vesting unilateral authority to modify the agreement without limit or notice meant it was “unfettered,” and made Menard’s promise illusory.

Because the delegation provision was not enforceable, the Court had authority to determine enforceability of the entire arbitration agreement. The Court held that unfettered modification provision meant entire agreement lacked consideration, and motion to compel arbitration was denied.

A Leave of Absence May be a Reasonable Accommodation under the MHRA

In Sherry v. City of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, WD 83635 (Mo. Ct. App. W.D. Mar. 9, 2021), following a trial for disability discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, the City of Lee’s Summit moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The City argued that Sherry did not prove he was disabled because the MHRA defines “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person's major life activities, being regarded as having such an impairment, or a record of having such an impairment, which with or without reasonable accommodation does not interfere with performing the job.” According to the City, since Sherry could not report to work for an extended period of time, his disability interfered with performing the essential functions of his job.

The City relied on Medley v. Valentine Radford Communications, Inc., 173 S.W.3d 315 (Mo. App. W.D. 2005) for the proposition that “an employee who cannot regularly come to work is not able to satisfy any functions of the job, let alone the essential ones.” However, the Court of Appeals held that Medley does not hold that a leave of absence is an unreasonable accommodation as a matter of law. In a footnote, the Court holds open the possibility that in some cases, “a factfinder may determine that a requested leave started out as a reasonable accommodation but becomes unreasonable as time wears on or as circumstances change.” But ultimately whether an employee meets the definition of disabled under the MHRA is a question of fact for the jury.

This case illustrates some of the difficulties employers may face in accommodating disabilities, particularly where an extended leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation. Like the EEOC, the Western District is reluctant to state that regular attendance is always an essential job function. Disability accommodations must therefore be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

NOTEWORTHY DISTRICT OF KANSAS CASES

District of Kansas Compels Arbitration where Employer’s Right to Modify is not “Unfettered”

A recent District of Kansas decision is worth revisiting, given how few arbitration cases are published in the District. In Braden v. Optum RX, Inc., the Court held that an arbitration provision which limited the employer’s right to modify terms was not one that granted “unfettered” discretion, and so it did not lack consideration. The provision at issue required the employer to provide at least 30 days’ notice to its employees of impending modifications, and only went into effect on January 1 of the following year. The employer’s promise to arbitrate was not “illusory.” More on this case can be found in a recent post on Baker Sterchi’s Kansas Employment Law Blog.

NEW LAWS, ORDINANCES, AND RULES

St. Louis “Ban the Box” Went into Effect on January 1, 2021

In 2020, the City of St. Louis enacted Ordinance No. 71074, a ban-the-box ordinance applicable to private employers with ten or more employees. The Ordinance went into effect on January 1, 2021. Under the ordinance, employers cannot inquire about an applicant’s criminal history until after the employer has interviewed the applicant and determined that the applicant is otherwise qualified for the position. Employers cannot base a hiring decision on the applicant’s criminal history unless the decision was based on all the information available, including the frequency, recency, and severity of the crime and the crime was reasonably related to or bears upon the duties and responsibilities of the position. However, the Ordinance is inapplicable where local, state, or federal law or regulation excludes applicants with certain criminal convictions. A similar ordinance was enacted in Kansas City in February 2018.

U.S. Department of Labor Issues Regulations to Benefit Tipped Employees

A new DOL regulation will likely mean that tipped employees will see larger paychecks in 2022. The Fair Labor Standards Act contains an exception to the standard minimum wage for tipped employees. Employers may take a “tip credit” and pay tipped employees as little as $2.13 per hour, as long as they earn at least the standard minimum wage of $7.25 (with tips included). In a final rule published by the DOL on October 29, 2021, the DOL revived the so-called “80/20 Rule” for tipped employees. The Trump administration had rescinded the rule in favor of a “reasonable time” standard.

Under the 80/20 Rule, tipped employees’ duties are divided into three categories: 1) tip-generating duties (e.g., taking orders, talking to customers, serving drinks, delivering food to tables); 2) directly-supporting duties (e.g., rolling silverware, clearing tables); and 3) non-tipped duties (e.g., cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes, taking out trash). Employers may only claim a tip credit for a tipped employee’s work where at least 80 percent of the employee’s time that week is spent on tip-generating duties and no more than 20 percent is spent on directly-supporting duties. If an employee’s time spent on directly-supporting duties exceeds 20 percent of the work week, all time above 20 percent must be paid at the minimum wage rate. Additionally, if directly-supporting work is performed for a continuous period of 30 minutes or more, the employer cannot claim the tip credit. Under the new rule, any time spent on non-tipped duties must be paid at the minimum wage rate.  

For example, assume a bartender works 40 hours in a week. If no more than 8 hours is spent on directly-supporting work, then the employer may take a tip credit for all hours worked. However, if she spends 12 hours on directly supporting work, then the minimum wage must be paid for the 4 hours in excess of 20%.

The Rule also prohibits employers from keeping any portion workers’ tips, regardless of whether the employer takes a tip credit. Employers face a fine of up to $1,100 for each instance the DOL finds that the employer retained employee tips. The Rule goes into effect on December 31, 2021, and litigation of the Rule appears likely.

NEW ILLINOIS EMPLOYMENT LAWS

As in 2020, the Illinois legislature was once again busy in the Employment Law arena. The Illinois Freedom to Work Act, (820 ILCS § 90). which limits employers’ use of noncompete and non-solicitation restrictive covenants for employees who are not highly compensated, takes effect on January 1, 2022. Specifically, the law:

  • Prohibits employers from entering into noncompete agreements with employees earning $75,000 or less, and from entering into non-solicitation agreements with employees earning $45,000.
  • Contains an escalator clause which provides that for noncompete agreements, the salary threshold amount will increase every five years by $5,000 until January 1, 2037, when the amount will equal $90,000. For non-solicitation agreements, the threshold amount will increase every five years by $2,500 until January 1, 2037, when the amount will equal $52,500.
  • Prohibits employers from entering into noncompete or non-solicitation agreements with employees who were terminated, furloughed, or laid off due to the Covid-19 pandemic, unless compensation is provided, in an amount equaling the employee’s base salary at the time of termination for the period of enforcement minus compensation earned from outside employment during that same period.

Illinois employers who utilize restrictive covenants in employment agreements should review those agreements, to ensure compliance with the new law.

Earlier in the year, the legislature amended the Illinois Human Rights Act to place new restrictions on employers’ ability to consider criminal conviction records when making employment decisions. The amendments allow employers to consider applicant and employee criminal conviction records in only two circumstances: (1) where a “substantial relationship exists between the conviction and the employment action being taken, and (2) where granting or continuing an individual’s employment would pose an unreasonable risk to safety or property of specific individuals, or to the public. Employers must consider the following factors in determining whether a conviction is disqualifying:

i.     The length of time since the conviction;

ii.    The number of convictions represented in the conviction record;

iii.   The severity of the conviction and its relationship to the safety of others;

iv.   The circumstances surrounding the conviction;

v.    The age of the employee at the time of conviction; and

vi.   Any evidence of rehabilitation.

Further, before an employer takes any adverse action based on a criminal conviction, it must engage in an interactive process with the applicant or employee, giving that individual notice of the potentially disqualifying conviction, providing a copy of any relevant criminal history report, and explaining the individual’s right to respond (within five days), including any challenge to the accuracy of the conviction record or evidence of mitigation. A final decision by the employer must be accompanied by a notice of the disqualifying conviction and reason for the decision, and notification of the person’s right to file a charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights.

Note that these amendments do not alter and are in addition to the state’s Ban-the-Box law, which dictates when and how during the hiring process an employer my obtain criminal conviction information about an applicant.

A WILD 2021 CONCLUDES, WITH MORE IN STORE FOR 2022

2021 was a lively year for labor and employment law, taking center stage not only in the courts but also in the court of public opinion. In 2022, we can expect much of the same. Baker Sterchi attorneys will be following these developments with great attention and providing updates and analysis on this rapidly developing legal landscape.

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Baker Sterchi's Employment & Labor Law Blog examines topics and developments of interest to employers, Human Resources professionals, and others with an interest in recent legal developments concerning the workplace. This blog is focused on Missouri, Illinois and Kansas law, and on major developments under federal law, and at the EEOC and NLRB.  Learn more about the editor, David M. Eisenberg, and our Employment & Labor  practice.

DISCLAIMER

The Employment & Labor Law Blog is made available by Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC for educational purposes only as well as to give you general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. Your use of this blog site alone creates no attorney client relationship between you and the firm.

CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION

Do not include confidential information in comments or other feedback or messages related to the Employment & Labor Law Blog, as these are neither confidential nor secure methods of communicating with attorneys. The Employment & Labor Law Blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

 
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