When is an employee a qualified individual with a disability under the MHRA?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Maine’s highest court recently weighed in on what it means to be a qualified individual with a disability under the Maine Human Rights Act.  Affirming a summary judgment in favor of the employer in Carnicella v. Mercy Hospital, the Law Court found that an employee who remained absent from work after exhausting her leave failed to demonstrate that she was a qualified individual with a disability where there was no dispute that she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation at the time of her termination.

The employee in the case, Carnicella, was a registered nurse who developed a serious medical condition requiring an absence from work.  In August 2013, Carnicella’s employer, Mercy Hospital, granter her full leave under Maine’s medical leave law and then extended it after Carnicella developed post-surgery complications.  In December 2013, shortly before Carnicella was due to return to work, her surgeon informed Mercy that Carnicella was not able to resume work and that her anticipated return date would be on March 15, 2014.  In January 2014, however, Carnicella’s primary care physician notified Mercy that a March return date was premature and estimated that Carnicella would be able to return to work without restrictions on June 1, 2014.  At a subsequent meeting with Carnicella, Mercy told her that it would extend her leave until March 15 and that if she was unable to work at that time then she could transition to per diem status.  When March 15 came, however, Carnicella left a voicemail with Mercy stating that she was still not able to return to work.  Carnicella did not propose any accommodations that would have allowed her to return to work.  Believing from her voicemail that Carnicella did not want to remain a per diem employee, Mercy terminated Carnicella’s employment.  Although Mercy reversed the termination within weeks and reinstated Carnicella after she made it clear that she wanted to remain a per diem employee, Carnicella sued Mercy claiming that she had been terminated because of her disability.  Mercy moved for summary judgment, which the court granted.

On appeal, Carnicella argued that the court incorrectly found that she was not a qualified individual with a disability.  The Law Court did not agree.  According to the Law Court, two questions are relevant to the determination of an employee’s qualified status: 1) whether the employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job; and 2) if not, whether any reasonable accommodation would enable the employee to perform those functions.  As to the first question, the Law Court found that because Carnicella had never received a medical clearance to return to work, there was no dispute that she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job when she was terminated.  With respect to whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed Carnicella to do so, the Law Court noted that additional leave was the only accommodation Carnicella arguably sought.  However, the Law Court found this accommodation was unreasonable because of a statutory defense under the MHRA, which absolves an employer of liability for discrimination if, at the time of an employee’s termination, the employee is unable to perform their job duties.  Because Carnicella was unable to perform her job duties at the time she was terminated, and because additional leave “would necessarily continue to prevent” her from doing so, the Court reasoned that the statutory defense applied and made additional leave unreasonable as a matter of law.

The Law Court’s decision is noteworthy given other cases exploring the interplay between disability and medical leave laws and the sometimes thorny issue of extended leaves.  One such case is Hwang v. Kansas State University, which the Law Court cited with approval in Carnicella, but which is arguably at odds with the EEOC’s views on what disability laws like the ADA require after an employee has exhausted a medical leave.  Employers should therefore take the Carnicella decision in context, just as they should do when dealing with any disabled employee.

Employer Grabs the Driver’s Seat on Electronic Privacy Claims

Friday, June 2, 2017

Most employment laws are like a one-way street, where the only party with the ability to drive a claim is the employee.  When it comes to electronic privacy, however, some federal statutes allow for two-way traffic.  Although the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) are often used by employees to assert claims (like this and this) against employers over unauthorized access to electronic communications, these laws also provide avenues for employers to pursue claims against employees for similar transgressions.

For example, earlier this year the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment against an employee for violations of the CFAA and SCA in a case called Brown Jordan International v. Carmicle.  The employee in the case, Carmicle, was an executive who became suspicious that a subordinate employee with whom he was having difficulty was communicating directly with the company’s CEO.  Acting on that suspicion, Carmicle took advantage of a generic email password to search the accounts of other employees.  From his search, Carmicle inadvertently learned about a planned buyout of the company by a select group of executives, and he also discovered that the company was scrutinizing his entertainment expenses.  Concerned that his job was in jeopardy after a poor financial year, Carmicle informed the company’s board of directors about the planned buyout and accused the group of executives of fraudulent activity.  This prompted the board to hire an independent investigator.  The resulting investigation failed to substantiate Carmicle’s accusations, but did disclose the extent of his email activities and the fact that he had spent over $100,000 in unauthorized business expenses.  After receiving these findings, the company terminated Carmicle and then sued him for violations of the CFAA and SCA.  The company prevailed at trial.

On appeal, Carmicle argued that the judgment on the CFAA claim was in error because the company had not experienced a “loss” recognized by the statute.  However, the Eleventh Circuit found that the CFAA’s definition of a “loss” encompassed payments that the company had paid to outside consultants to determine the extent of Carmicle’s hacking activity and so affirmed the judgment on that claim.  As for the SCA claim, Carmicle argued, among other things, that his access of employee email accounts was authorized because the company’s policy made clear that emails were subject to monitoring and were not private, and also because, as a member of senior management, he was not required to request access.   However, agreeing with the trial court, the Eleventh Circuit found that it was unreasonable to interpret the policy as authorizing Carmicle to “exploit a generic password” and to access email accounts without going through the proper channels, particularly where he did so without any reason to suspect wrongful or illegal conduct by the employees whose accounts he accessed.

The Brown decision serves as an important reminder of the leverage that statutes like the SCA and CFAA can provide to employers when it comes to protecting their proprietary electronic communications and systems.  Although employers are unlikely to find themselves very often in the position of needing that leverage in pursuit of a claim against an employee, these statutes nonetheless provide employers with a license to go down that road if needed.

Second Circuit Weighs in on Social Media, Profanity, and the NLRA

Monday, May 8, 2017

One of the fundamental protections of the National Labor Relations Act is that employers may not discipline employees for engaging in concerted activities relating to the terms and conditions of their employment.  Whether an employee has engaged in statutorily protected activity, however, is not always clear – especially when the activity involves profane or obscene conduct that would seem to cross the line in any other context.

For example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals just considered whether an employee lost the protection of the NLRA when he took to social media in an expletive-laden rant on the eve of a union election.  The employee in the case, Perez, had worked for thirteen years as a server for a catering company, Pier Sixty, which was undergoing a tense union-organizing campaign.  Two days before the election, Perez received some directions from his supervisor that he felt were delivered in a “harsh tone” and that he viewed as further evidence of the company’s continuing disrespect for employees. So, during a break, Perez commented about the incident on his Facebook page, saying: “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER FUCKER don’t know how to talk to people!!!! Fuck his mother and his entire fucking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!”  After learning of the post, the company terminated Perez.

Perez filed a charge with the NLRB claiming that he was terminated for engaging in protected concerted activities and the NLRB ultimately agreed.   On a petition for review by Pier Sixty, the Second Circuit acknowledged that an employee may act in such an abusive manner that he or she loses the protection of the NLRA.  However, under a “totality of circumstances” test as applied by the NLRB in recent social media cases, the court found that the evidence supported the NLRB’s decision that Perez’s obscenity-laced post was not “so egregious as to exceed the Act’s protection.” Recognizing that social media has become a “key medium” for communication among coworkers, the court found that even though the Facebook post may have been visible to the whole world, the comments were not made in the immediate presence of customers or at a company event and were therefore distinguishable from other cases involving opprobrious “public outbursts.”  And, although Perez’s post was dominated by “vulgar attacks,” the subject matter of the post nonetheless referenced workplace concerns and was made in the context of a tense organizing campaign.  Also tilting the balance in favor of affirming the NLRB’s decision was the fact that the evidence demonstrated that profanity was common in the workplace and that Perez’s termination was the first time the company had disciplined an employee for profanity.

For employers, the lesson from this case is that context matters.  Even the Second Circuit noted that this case sat “at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments.”  Determining where those outer-bounds end, however, requires employers to consider an employee’s activity in light of the circumstances in which it occurs.

Federal Appeals Court Finds That Title VII Prohibits Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Friday, April 21, 2017

In a groundbreaking decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana is significant because it is the first decision by a federal appeals court to hold that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited under Title VII.

Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana

 
The fundamental question at issue in Hively was whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination “because of sex” encompasses discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  As noted in our previous posts on this topic (here and here), federal courts have historically answered “no” to that question and excluded sexual orientation discrimination from the protections of Title VII.   Indeed, last summer, a three-member panel of the Seventh Circuit concluded that its prior precedent precluded Hively’s claim for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII and affirmed a lower court ruling dismissing her case.  In reaching that conclusion, however, the three-member panel questioned the continuing vitality of its previous decisions, particularly given the evolution of the law since Title VII was first passed in 1964, including the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which extended constitutional protections to the right of same-sex couples to marry.  As the three-member panel observed, its prior precedent created a “paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act.” 

Given this landscape, the full panel of the Seventh Circuit voted to rehear argument in Hively and, in its 8-3 decision this month, reversed its position.  The court gave two reasons for its decision.  First, applying a “comparative” method, the court explained that Hively’s primary allegation was that she would not have been terminated if, instead of being a woman, she were a man married to a woman,.  According to the court, this allegation described “paradigmatic sex discrimination” because it alleged differing treatment “because she is a woman.”  The court went on to explain that the line between gender stereotyping claims (which the Supreme Court recognized in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins) and claims based on sexual orientation is not only “gossamer-thin,” it “does not exist at all.”  Second, the court explained that its decision was guided by a line of cases beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which prohibited discrimination against a person because of the protected characteristic of the one with whom he or she associates.  According to the Seventh Circuit, because a change in the sex of one partner would change the alleged outcome in this case, that change revealed that the alleged discrimination rested on impermissible “distinctions drawn according to sex.”


The Seventh Circuit’s decision provides new critical context for actions at the Eleventh and Second Circuits, both of which recently held that their prior decisions barred claims for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII.  Should one or both of those circuits rehear argument and affirm their positions, it will create a circuit split that will certainly find its way to the Supreme Court.

Following Maine's Minimum Wage & Tip Credit: An Update for Employers

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The evolution of Maine wage payment laws continues apace, and a raft of legislative bills are currently undergoing scrutiny in Augusta.   Back in November, Maine voters increased the state minimum wage to $9 per hour and approved phasing-out the “tip credit” by increasing the minimum direct service wage for tipped employees to $5 per hour in 2017 and increasing it by an additional $1 per hour each year until it reaches the state minimum wage.   On Wednesday, April 5th, the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development held public hearings on a list of bills seeking to modify -- or reverse recent changes to -- Maine’s minimum wage law.

Even though voters ultimately cast their ballots and approved changes to the minimum wage by referendum, fierce debate continues in Augusta as to how Maine businesses ought to be impacted and what modifications, if any, should be made.  High attendance at the April 5 hearing served to demonstrate the contentiousness of the topic.   Representatives from Maine People’s Alliance and Maine Small Business Coalition lined the halls in support of upholding the referendum, while the Maine Restaurant Association, Maine Chamber of Commerce and others business groups rallied members in opposition.   State House metal detectors got a workout – the Legislature saw its busiest public hearing of the year, with testimony extending into the morning hours on Thursday.

During the hearing, the committee heard testimony on the following bills:

  • LD 774, "An Act To Create a Training Wage." This bill provides a minimum hourly training wage of $1 above the federal minimum wage for a person who is 20 years of age or under and is a student at a secondary or postsecondary school.
  • LD 775, "An Act To Prohibit the Minimum Wage from Exceeding the New England Average." This bill provides that the minimum wage may not exceed the average minimum wage paid in the New England states, as determined by the Maine commissioner of labor.
  • LD 778, "An Act To Eliminate the Indexing of the Minimum Wage to Inflation." This bill eliminates the indexing of the minimum wage to inflation, which under current law is scheduled to begin on January 1, 2021.
  •  LD 831, "An Act To Base the Minimum Wage on a New England State Average and To Restore the Tip Credit." This bill provides that starting Jan. 1, 2018, the minimum hourly wage is the average minimum hourly wage in the New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island on July 1 of the previous year, as determined annually by the Maine commissioner of labor. It also restores the tip credit.
  • LD 971, "An Act To Exempt Certain Employees from the Minimum Wage Laws." This bill exempts from the minimum wage laws an employee who has not attained 18 years of age, is claimed as a dependent on the income tax return of another person or is employed by a seasonal employer.
  • LD 991, "An Act To Establish a Minimum Wage for Minors." This bill establishes a minimum hourly wage for minors that is 75% of the minimum hourly wage established for persons who are 18 years of age and older.
  • LD 1005, "An Act Regarding Minimum Wage Increases." This bill eliminates the $1 per hour increases in the minimum wage scheduled for each of the next three years and eliminates increases in the minimum wage based on the increase in the cost of living starting in 2021. It also restores the tip credit to the minimum wage laws.

In addition, testimony was heard on the following bills all seeking to restore the "tip credit" used by Maine’s restaurateurs:

  • LD 673, "An Act To Restore the Tip Credit to Maine's Minimum Wage Law." This bill restores the tip credit to the minimum wage laws
  • LD 702, "An Act To Restore the Tip Credit to Maine Employees." This bill also restores the tip credit in the minimum wage laws.
  • A third bill, LD 1117, "Resolve, To establish the commission to study the phase-out of sub-minimum wage," seeks to study the phase-out of the tip credit and have the commission report back to the full Legislature with recommendations in 2019.

Any business operating in the state with at least one employee, including all public and private employers, is automatically covered by Maine labor laws and needs to comply with the updates. The new minimum wage laws went into effect on January 1, 2017, although employers were given a one month grace period to comply with changes in the tip credit or the minimum salary requirement for overtime-exempt workers.

Ultimately, the committee did not vote on the issue on Wednesday, April 5. Still, with further changes inevitably on the horizon, employers should remain attentive to the fate of all bills pending in Augusta. We will offer updates as things progress between now and the end of the legislative session.

Workplace Investigations and Privacy of Electronic Communications

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The situation is common enough: an employee is alleged to have engaged in misconduct and, as part of its investigation, the employer decides to search the employee’s company-issued computer for any relevant documents and communications.   One might expect that because the company owns the computer, anything discovered on the computer would be fair game.  That expectation, however, can sometimes lead employers astray – and straight into a claim under electronic privacy and anti-hacking statutes like the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

Federal Statutes


The SCA and CFAA are federal statutes that protect against the unauthorized access of electronic communications and information. Under those statutes, employers have considerable room to monitor and access communications on their own networks and equipment.  The SCA, for example, generally exempts communications that are transmitted or stored on an employer’s proprietary electronic communications system.  That exemption does not apply, however, to communications that are stored outside of the company’s system, such as emails stored in an employee’s Gmail or Yahoo! account. Consequently, an employer that accesses an employee’s private email account risks violating the law – regardless of whether a company-issued computer allowed the employer to do so (for example, because the password for the employee’s private email account was stored in the computer’s internet browser).

Cases to Discuss


As a case in point, in Lazette v. Kulmatycki (N.D. Ohio 2013), a supervisor used a former employee’s smartphone to access the employee’s personal email account after her employment ended. The employee had been issued a smartphone during her employment and had been told that she could use it for personal matters.  When the employee left, she returned the smartphone and believed that she had deleted her Gmail account from the phone.  In fact, the Gmail account was still accessible on the phone and the supervisor, rather than deleting the account, used it to read the employee’s opened and unopened email—a total of 48,000 emails over an eighteen-month period.  After becoming aware of the supervisor’s actions, the employee changed her Gmail password and then sued claiming violations of the SCA, among other things.  The employer sought to dismiss the complaint, but was unsuccessful. The court found that the mere fact that the supervisor had used a company-owned device to access the employee’s email account did not grant him the authority to do so.  It also found that the employee’s inadvertent failure to delete the account from the phone did not mean she had given implied consent to access the account, particularly where she believed she had deleted the account and was unaware of the possibility that others might be able to access it. On the issue of consent, the court also noted that even if she had been aware that her emails might be monitored, that implied consent would not have been unlimited, given that “random monitoring is one thing; reading everything is another.”

More recently, in Owen v. Cigna (N.D. Ill. 2016), a court held that an employee had a viable claim under the SCA where her employer allegedly used her work computer to access emails from her personal email account. The employee had left her job and had filed a charge of discrimination for sexual harassment.  In responding to the charge, the employer attached emails that it had obtained from the employee’s personal email account, but which the employee claimed had been obtained without her consent. The employer argued that it was authorized to access the emails, but the court dispensed with this argument quickly and found that although the employer had the undeniable authority to access the employee’s work computer after she stopped working, it was not authorized to access the employee’s personal email account.

Both of these cases serve as important reminders for employers to consider the potential privacy of electronic communications when performing workplace investigations. Although there are certainly steps that employers can take to reduce any expectation of privacy that employees may have in their electronic communications at work, employers must also recognize that mere ownership of a computer, tablet, smartphone, or other electronic device does not provide carte blanche access any account an employee accessed on the device.

Maine Law Court charts Different Course for Age Discrimination

Friday, March 24, 2017

It is not often that the Law Court interprets the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA) differently from its federal counterparts.  In a recent decision, though, the Law Court did exactly that – it held that the standard for evaluating claims of disparate impact age discrimination under the MHRA is different from the standard under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Scamman v. Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc.


Unlike disparate treatment claims, which are based on an employer’s alleged intentional discrimination against an individual based on a protected status, disparate impact claims arise where an employee alleges that he or she is a member of a protected class that is disproportionately affected by a practice of the employer.  In  Scamman v. Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc., several employees filed a charge of discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission alleging that they were terminated by Shaw’s as part of a reduction in force that disproportionately affected older employees.  

Shaw’s explained the reduction in force was necessitated by cost-cutting business imperatives.  The investigator analyzed the employees’ claim using a burden-shifting framework that federal courts apply to disparate impact claims under Title VII and which requires an employer to produce evidence that its practice is justified by “business necessity.”  Ultimately, the Commission determined that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Shaw’s discriminated against the employees based on a disparate impact theory, and the Commission voted unanimously to adopt the investigator’s analysis and recommendation. The employees then sued in Superior Court, but Shaw’s removed the case to the U.S. District Court.  

Once there, Shaw’s raised a threshold issue: is the “business necessity” framework the correct standard to apply to disparate impact age discrimination claims under the MHRA, or does the “reasonable factor other than age” (RFOA) standard from the ADEA apply instead?  This was a threshold issue because the parties agreed that if the RFOA standard applied, Shaw’s would be entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Unlike the “business necessity” framework, the RFOA standard does not inquire into whether an employer’s practice constitutes a business necessity; rather, once an employee shows evidence of a policy or practice with a disparate impact, an employer simply must show that the challenged practice is based on a reasonable factor other than age.  The result is that the scope of disparate impact liability is narrower under the ADEA than it is under Title VII. 

Because there was no controlling precedent, the District Court certified to the Law Court the question of which standard applies to disparate impact age discrimination claims under the MHRA.  After reviewing the text of the MHRA and finding it unclear, the Law Court deferred to the Commission’s interpretation of the statute and its conclusion that the “business necessity” standard is the applicable standard.  The Law Court found that this was a reasonable interpretation based on the legislative history of the MHRA and the fact that, despite being amended multiple times, the statute has never contained an RFOA provision like the ADEA.  And, while the Law Court acknowledged that it often looks to federal law to interpret the MHRA, it observed that it has done so only when the “federal and state laws are substantially identical,” which the Law Court found was not the case here given the absence of any RFOA provision in the MHRA.

Take home for Employers


Where policies are challenged under the MHRA on the grounds that they disproportionately affect older workers, it is now clear that employers seeking to justify those policies will not be able to do so simply by showing that the impact is based a reasonable factor other than age.  What remains to be seen is the effect that this decision may have on other potential differences between the MHRA and the ADEA, such as the applicable standard for causation – “mixed-motive” or “but-for” – in cases of intentional age discrimination.  The take-home for employers is that claims for disparate impact age discrimination under the MHRA will now be evaluated using a burden-shifting “business necessity” framework, not the more generous “reasonable factor other than age” standard under the ADEA. Stay tuned.