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Employee Rights Short Takes: Hostile Work Environment, GINA, FMLA And More

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Here are a few Short Takes worth sharing:

Sex Bias Case Ends With Huge Punitive Damages Award

The drug maker Novartis was hit with $250 million in punitive damages last week because of discrimination against thousands of female sales representatives. Issues involved discrimination in pay, promotion and pregnancy. The punitive damages award represented 2.6 of the company’s 2009 $9.5 billion revenue. Earlier in the week, the jury awarded $3.3 million dollars in compensatory damages to 12 of the women who testified. The case is reported to be the largest discrimination verdict ever.

Genetics Discrimination

Complaints were filed against MX Energy, a Connecticut natural gas retailer, under Title II of  Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which prohibits genetic information discrimination in employment. The new federal law took effect on November 21, 2009.

GINA prohibits discrimination against employees or applicants because of genetic information. GINA also restricts acquisition of genetic information by employers and other entities covered by Title II, and strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information.

The charging party Pamela Fink, claims that her employer fired her, despite years of glowing evaluations, after learning she tested positive for the breast cancer gene. Fink filed complaints against her employer with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. About 90 GINA-related complaints have been filed nationwide since the law went into effect. This should be an interesting case to follow. For more about genetic discrimination, read here.

Rights Of Undocumented Workers

With all the talk about illegal immigration, one might wonder what the rights are of the over eight million undocumented workers in this country. Carolina Nunez, a law professor at Brigham Young University’s Reuben Clark Law School, wrote an interesting article about the topic which you can read here. The piece appeared in the Spring 2010 issue  of the Clark Memorandum, a publication of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Should undocumented workers enjoy the same workplace protections that authorized workers enjoy? When and how much should immigration status matter? Does being here count for anything? It is no surprise that the answers are less than clear.

Recent Cases Of Interest From The Circuits

Plaintiff Wins FMLA Appeal: In Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Dorothy Goelzer was fired from her administrative job with the county government after 20 years. Her supervisor told her about the termination decision two weeks before she was scheduled to begin two months of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Goelzer had taken a significant amount of authorized FMLA during the four preceding years to deal with her own health issues as well as those of her husband and mother. The defendants claimed she was fired because they wanted to hire someone with a “greater skill set.” The district court granted judgment against Goelzer.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this month stating that comments suggesting frustration with her use of leave, Goelzer’s favorable performance reviews, and the timing of her termination could lead a jury to conclude that Goelzer was fired because she exercised her right to take FMLA. This is a very good case for those who are claiming an interference or retaliation claim under the FMLA.

Employers Liable For Third Party Harassment: In Beckford v. Department of Corrections, Melanie Beckford, and thirteen other female employees, claimed that the Florida Department of Corrections failed to remedy the sexually offensive conduct of inmates  — including the frequent use of gender-specific abusive language and pervasive gunning, the notorious practice of inmates openly masturbating toward female staff. The jury found in favor the plaintiffs and awarded each $45,000 in damages.

The Department appealed and contended that it could not be liable under Title VII unless its staff actively encouraged or participated in the harassment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the verdict and concluded that the jury was entitled to find the Department liable because it unreasonably failed to remedy the sexual harassment by its inmates. The Court said:

It is well established that employers may be liable for failing to remedy the harassment of employees by third parties who create a hostile environment. …It makes no difference whether the person whose acts are complained of is an employee, an independent contractor, or for that matter a customer.

Employees are often harassed at work by individuals who are not employees. This case, which holds that employers are liable for harassment by third parties, is an important affirmation of this particular aspect of employer liability under Title VII.

images: www.hivplusmag.com charityrisk.squarespace.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.


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FMLA Retaliation Victim Wins Appeal In Sixth Circuit

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Kmart Employee Fired For Taking Medical Leave Wins Family and Medical Leave Act Appeal

You would think most employers know that you’re not supposed to fire someone because they take a medical leave of absence – but it looks like K-Mart may have missed the boat.

A sales clerk at one of its Michigan stores who lost her job for taking time off after surgery will get her jury trial on a Family and Medical Leave Act retaliation claim according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion last week in Cutcher v Kmart Corporation.

Here’s what happened in the case.

The Facts

Susan Cutcher worked as a full-time hourly sales clerk at Kmart for many years. (Kmart calls these employees “associates”)  Her performance evaluations were good to excellent.

In 2002, she received an overall rating of “exceptional,” the second highest rating available that year.  In 2003, she again received a rating of “exceptional,” the highest possible rating in that year’s appraisal.

In 2004, her rating dropped from “exceptional” to “exceeds expectations,” the second highest rating possible. In 2005, she again received an overall rating of “exceeds expectations.”

The 2005 review  noted: “Susan usually is able to provide good, friendly, customer service, her work is usually very well done—and accurate.”

In early November 2005, Cutcher learned that she needed surgery. Her doctor indicated that she required six weeks off work after surgery and signed the necessary forms which Cutcher then submitted.

In December of 2005, while Cutcher was on leave, Kmart announced a nationwide reduction in force (“RIF”).  The Port Huron Michigan store, like others, was required to cut a number of associate positions.

Each store received guidelines as to how it would go about making the cuts. The guidelines included an “Associate Performance Recap Form” which included :

• the same four performance categories as the annual evaluations: customer service, teamwork, demonstrated work habits, and effectiveness in position
• consideration of  the employee’s most recent annual appraisal rating in calculating an employee’s score
• a requirement that the stores provide an explanation in the comments section — along with documentation — of a significant change in the employee’s score when compared to their annual appraisals
• a statement  that those on a LOA (leave of absence) should be included in the selection process but that the fact of a LOA should not be considered as a rating factor

When Cutcher was evaluated for the RIF, she received lower ratings than she received in the last performance appraisal for the same categories. In addition, the following comment appeared next to her name: “Poor customer and associate relations. LOA.”

The last evaluation was just twenty days earlier, and no performance issue occurred in the interim, nor was there any documentation to substantiate a lower rating. The only employment event regarding Cutcher was her leave of absence.

The negative evaluation and low scores caused Cutcher to be selected for termination. Had she been evaluated consistently with her last evaluation of November 15, 2005 –just twenty days earlier — her ranking would have been high enough to avoid the RIF.

When Cutcher returned from medical leave to active status on January 23, 2006, she was greeted with a pink slip. Her position was not eliminated. It was given to another employee.
Cutcher filed a lawsuit in federal court against Kmart claiming that Kmart violated the FMLA by interfering with her FMLA leave and retaliating against her for taking FMLA leave.

The District Court Finds For Kmart

Under the FMLA, an eligible employee:

• may take twelve week s of unpaid leave in certain situations, including a serious medical condition
• is entitled to return to his or her position or to an equivalent position held by the employee when the leave commenced
An employer may not:
•  interfere with, retrain or deny the exercise of or attempt to exercise any FMLA right  29 U.S.C.  S.2615(a)(1)
•  retaliate against an employee for invoking his or her right to take FMLA 29 U.S.C. S.2615 (a)(2)

Kmart argued that it would have fired Cutcher even if she had not been on FMLA leave. The district court agreed and threw out the case on summary judgment. Cutcher appealed.

The Sixth Circuit Court Of Appeals Reverses

The FMLA Interference Claim

Cutcher argued both in the district and the Court of Appeals  that a jury question was created as to whether she would have been fired had she not take FMLA leave because of:

• Kmart’s post-hoc rationalization of their lower RIF appraisal score, in light of the fact that there had been no prior documented complaints against her, and
• the  “LOA” notation written n the comment section of the Asssociate Performance Recap Form

The Sixth Circuit agreed:

Given Cutcher’s prior annual appraisal score, the minimal amount of time that passed between her most recent annual appraisal and the RIF appraisal, Kmart’s admission that Cutcher’s performance did not change during that short period of time, the inclusion of the ‘LOA” notation on the Associate performance Recap Form, and the lack of any documented evidence demonstrating a prior concern with her job performance, a jury could infer that her leave status impacted her RIF appraisal ratings, thus leading to her termination.

The FMLA Retaliation Claim
A FMLA retaliation claim requires a plaintiff to establish that:

• she was engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA
• she suffered an adverse employment action
• there was a causal connection between her protected FMLA activity and the adverse employment action

If this showing is made, the burden shifts to the employer to establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer does this, the burden  shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the employer’s reason is pretextual – in other words, not true or not worthy of belief.

Cutcher argued, and the Sixth Circuit agreed, that the same evidence which supported the connection between her FMLA leave and the termination demonstrated that Kmart’s proffered legitimate reason for firing her was pretextual.

It stated:

Specifically, the following facts show pretext: the temporal proximity between her leave and the termination; the lack of documentation to corroborate her lower RIF appraisal scores; the lack of temporal proximity between the events that Kmart alleges justified her lower RIF appraisal scores and her termination; her documented favorable work history; the discrepancy between her prior annual appraisal an her RIF appraisal, and the “LOA” notation next to Cutcher’s name in the Impacted Associates Form.

The district court rejected these proffered reasons, but Cutcher has produced sufficient evidence – listed above – from which a jury could conclude that Kmart used the RIF as a means of terminating her. ……

Although she has not presented direct evidence to support that argument, the circumstantial evidence creates a question of material fact for the jury.

For the reasons stated above, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court ….

Conclusion

There are two things that strike me about this case.

For one, it is hard for me to imagine that someone at Kmart who had some understanding of employment law didn’t realize that firing someone on medical leave — who consistently had very good employment evaluation — might create a legal problem (or perhaps they just didn’t care for one reason or another).

Two, although I have seen this so many times I couldn’t begin to count, it still angers me when a district court embraces the employers version of the evidence,  completely discounts the employees evidence including any inferences which may be drawn from it, and grants judgment in favor of the company.

Even though the Supreme Court sent a crystal clear message in the Reeves v Sanderson Plumbing case (10 years ago ) that weighing of evidence by the district court is wrong  and juries are supposed to decide these cases — not the federal judges or their law clerks — this pernicious anti-employee summary judgment practice stubbornly persists.

image: 4.bp.blogspot.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on February 8, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome


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