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

Courts favor the Federal Arbitration Act, but some workers are exempt.

January 18, 2019 | Bryan Mouber

In New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, petitioner New Prime Inc. was an interstate trucking company, and respondent Dominic Oliveira was one of its drivers. Oliveira worked under an operating agreement that called him an independent contractor and contained a mandatory arbitration provision. When Oliveira filed a class action alleging that New Prime denied its drivers lawful wages, New Prime asked the court to invoke its statutory authority under the Federal Arbitration Act to compel arbitration.

Oliveira countered that the court lacked authority, because §1 of the Act excepts from arbitration disputes involving “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers. New Prime insisted that any question regarding §1’s applicability belonged to the arbitrator alone to resolve, or, assuming the court could address the question, that “contracts of employment” referred only to contracts that establish an employer-employee relationship and not to contracts with independent contractors. The District Court and First Circuit agreed with Oliveira, and the Supreme Court affirmed, holding that a court should determine whether a §1 exclusion applies before ordering arbitration.

A court’s authority to compel arbitration under the Act does not extend to all private contracts, no matter how clearly the contract expresses a preference for arbitration. In relevant part, §1 states that “nothing” in the Act “shall apply” to “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

For a court to invoke its statutory authority under the Act to stay litigation and force arbitration, it must first know if the parties’ agreement is excluded from the Act’s coverage by the terms of §1. This sequencing is significant, because it means the court and not the arbitrator decides this issue, unlike other issues, which may be delegable to the arbitrator.

The issue for the Supreme Court thus became whether the Act’s term “contract of employment” referred to any agreement to perform work or applied strictly to contracts of employment. The Court held that Oliveira’s agreement with New Prime falls within §1’s exception.

The unanimous opinion relied on the Act’s original meaning for its decision.  Citing dictionaries, statutes, and rulings from the era, Justice Gorsuch concluded that “contract of employment” was understood to encompass “work agreements involving independent contractors.” At the time of the Act’s adoption in 1925, the phrase “contract of employment” was not a term of art, and dictionaries tended to treat “employment” more or less as a synonym for “work.” Contemporaneous legal authorities provide no evidence that a “contract of employment” necessarily signaled a formal employer-employee relationship. Evidence that Congress used the term “contracts of employment” broadly can be found in its choice of the neighboring term “workers,” a term that easily embraces independent contractors.

New Prime also made a policy argument that the Court should order arbitration to further Congress’ effort to counteract judicial hostility to arbitration and establish a favorable federal policy toward arbitration agreements. Justice Gorsuch stated that courts, however, are not free to pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal. Rather, the Court should respect “the limits up to which Congress was prepared” to go when adopting the Arbitration Act.

Finally, the Court declined to address New Prime’s suggestion that it order arbitration anyway under its inherent authority to stay litigation in favor of an alternative dispute resolution mechanism of the parties’ choosing.

Justice Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, explicitly agreed with the Court’s unanimous opinion that words should be interpreted as taking their ordinary meaning at the time Congress enacted the statute.  However, she also reasoned that Congress may design legislation to govern changing times and circumstances, perhaps foreshadowing future disputes between judicial philosophies.

Eighth Circuit Refuses to Punish Employer for History of Granting Special Treatment to Disabled Employee with Poor Attendance Record

January 8, 2019 | Douglas Hill

While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the mental and physical limitations of otherwise qualified employees with a disability, it does not require employers to set aside their established attendance policy to accommodate disabled employees who simply cannot reliably and regularly make it to work. The recent Eighth Circuit case of Lipp v. Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation demonstrates this principle.

Sheena Lipp worked for 19 years at a Cargill meat processing facility in Ottumwa, Iowa, until she was terminated for absenteeism in November 2014. For most of her employment, she suffered from an incurable lung disease known as eosinophilic granuloma. For the final two years of her employment, this condition limited her ability to work in several ways. She required lifting assistance, limited working hours, and a clean working environment. But most notably also suffered from “flare-ups” that would require her to take off work for a few days at a time, two to four times a year. 

Cargill accommodated all of Ms. Lipp’s needs, despite its written attendance policy allowing only six “unplanned” absences (i.e. sick days, personal business, etc.), if reported via an automated call-in system. After those six unplanned absences, a progressive disciplinary system existed, which culminated with termination after the ninth unplanned absence. In the case of medical absences, Cargill’s policy was that employees “may be required” to provide a doctor’s note or other verification upon their return to work.

Ms. Lipp’s ability to satisfy the attendance requirements of her job was further compromised in early 2014, when she was forced to take a nine-month leave of absence (originally planned to be only a few weeks) to care for her ailing mother. The first twelve weeks of leave were protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Beyond that, Cargill voluntarily accommodated Ms. Lipp’s request for additional leave, during which time she called the automated phone system daily to report her absences.

When she returned to work in October 2014, Ms. Lipp was presented with a series of written disciplinary notifications, indicating that she had accumulated 194 unplanned absences and was being placed on a “Last Chance” attendance policy. “Employee needs to understand,” the notices stated, “that any call-ins, lates, or leave early without authorization will violate this last chance agreement and will terminate her employment.” Ms. Lipp refused to sign any of the notifications but was allowed to return to work anyway.

Two weeks later, Ms. Lipp called the automated phone system and reported that she would be absent for “vacation.” Her testimony was that she must have mistakenly keyed the wrong entry on the phone system, because her absence was actually due to a “flare-up” of her lung condition. When she returned to work, she was terminated, despite explaining that her absence was for medical reasons, not vacation. Although she eventually provided medical documentation of her flare up, she did not do so until about three months after her termination.

She filed suit for disability discrimination under the ADA, but the Northern District of Iowa granted summary judgment in Cargill’s favor. Although the parties agreed that Ms. Lipp qualified as a disabled employee under the ADA, only “qualified individuals” can assert a claim for disability discrimination. A “qualified individual” is one “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions” of his or her job. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). An employer’s written policies—including attendance policies—are relevant guidance as to what constitutes an essential function of employment. Cargill insisted Ms. Lipp not a “qualified individual” under the Act, because she could not “regularly and reliable attend work, an essential function of her employment.” On appeal, the Eighth Circuit agreed.

The appellate court relied on a long line of ADA cases holding that “regular and reliable attendance is a necessary element of most jobs,” and that “the ADA does not require employers to provide an unlimited absentee policy.” Ms. Lipp argued that her 195 unplanned absences in 2014 were not excessive, since they were authorized by the employer. The court was unconvinced, noting that “persistent absences from work can be excessive, even when the absences are with the employer’s permission.” 

Ms. Lipp also argued that Cargill was required to grant her additional time off for “flare-ups” after her return from the extended leave of absence, as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA—pointing out that Cargill had always been willing to do so in the past. The court rejected this argument, holding that even though medical leave of absence “might, in some circumstances, be a reasonable accommodation,” an accommodation is not reasonable if it requires the employer to set aside the essential functions of the job, including regular and reliable attendance (emphasis supplied by the court).

As for the past pattern of granting Ms. Lipp leave for “flare-ups,” the Court was unwilling to punish Cargill for its history of accommodating Ms. Lipp’s condition: “If an employer bends over backwards to accommodate a disabled worker, it must not be punished for its generosity by being deemed to have conceded the reasonableness of so far-reaching an accommodation.” “To hold otherwise,” the opinion concluded, “would punish Cargill for giving Lipp another chance instead of terminating her employment” earlier.

This case offers lessons for employers facing requests for disability accommodations or potential ADA claims. First, there is a limit to what is a reasonable accommodation for absenteeism. There is no bright-line rule for how much leeway a disabled worker must be given, but if an employee’s disability keeps her away from work so often that she cannot meet the basic requirements of her employment, she is not legally “qualified” for the job under the ADA. Second, employers should not live in fear that they will be punished for good behavior. As this case demonstrates, past acquiescence to a disabled employee’s request for special treatment should not be used to set some new standard for what accommodations are “reasonable” under the ADA.

10th Circuit Declares Adverse Employment Action Required For Failure To Accommodate Claims

December 11, 2018

The Tenth Circuit was tasked with evaluating whether or not an adverse employment action is an essential element of a failure to accommodate action under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). In a divided opinion, the court said Yes. 

In Exby-Stolley v. Board of County Commissioners, plaintiff worked as a county health inspector and her job required her to inspect restaurants, bars, other places that handle food, interview employees and observe safety practices. While on the job, plaintiff broke her arm and required two surgeries. Because of her injury, plaintiff had to use makeshift devices to assist her and she could not complete the number of inspections required for her position.

The court noted there were two very different versions of the efforts to accommodate plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that she suggested various accommodations that were rejected by her supervisors. This resulted in her supervisor telling her to resign. The County alleged that plaintiff requested that a new position be created for her piecing together various tasks from her job and other positions. The County considered it unfair to take tasks from fellow employees to create a new job for plaintiff. Plaintiff resigned when she was told the County would not provide job she requested.  

Plaintiff filed suit alleging that the County violated the ADA by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability. The Court of Appeals recited the familiar proposition that “failure to accommodate” claims are actionable under the ADA, but then turned to the question of whether proof of an adverse employment action is an essential element of such claims; and whether the plaintiff in this case had in fact suffered an adverse employment action. The court explained at length that although the language “adverse employment action” does not appear in the ADA, it is well established in judicial opinions. Furthermore, the court will not consider a mere inconvenience to accommodating an individual, there must be a material alteration in a term, condition or privilege of employment.

The Court rejected the dissenting judge’s view that an “adverse employment action” was not essential, as having relied on dicta “of the weakest sort”, which it viewed as contrary to the weight of authority on this subject. The majority further concluded that the record showed Plaintiff had permission to continue to perform her job with some minor inconveniences or alterations in how she performed the work, but that she declined to do so, and insisted on more substantial accommodations. The Court thus held that the “inconveniences and minor alterations” of job responsibilities required of the plaintiff did not rise to the level of an adverse employment action  

This ruling from the Tenth Circuit ups the ante for plaintiffs asserting a failure to accommodate claim. There must be a material and significant impact on the employee. Inconveniences and minor alterations of job responsibilities will not suffice. 

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About Employment & Labor Law Blog

The BSCR 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 will focus on Missouri 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.

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