Category Archives: Discrimination/Equal Rights

GOVERNOR WALKER PROPOSES TO ELIMINATE THE LABOR AND INDUSTRY REVIEW COMMISSION

By:  Jonathan T. Swain

February 13, 2017

In his recently published proposed biennial budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, Governor Walker has proposed to eliminate the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC).  LIRC is an independent three member commission appointed by the Governor that currently handles all appeals of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) decisions for unemployment compensation cases, worker compensation claims, as well as state fair labor standards cases and fair employment cases in the Equal Rights Division and public accommodation cases.  LIRC would be phased out over the next three fiscal years.

Presently, LIRC has the authority to affirm, overturn and remand ALJ decision in these areas.  LIRC decisions are appealable to the State’s circuit courts.

Under Governor Walker’s proposal, Worker Compensation ALJ decisions will be reviewable by the State Department of Administration, while jobless claims and Equal Right Division decisions will be Agency administrators.  In his budget statement, Governor Walker stated that the proposed elimination of LIRC will eliminate “an unnecessary layer of government” and will make this second layer of review decisions occur much more quickly.

Of course, this is a proposed budget and, as such, is subject to negotiation with the legislature and subsequent amendment.  Further, stakeholders in the business, labor and legal community have yet to weigh-in on the Governor’s proposal.  As this issue advances, we will keep you up to date and informed.

THE EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION CHANGES COURSE ON RELEASING EMPLOYER POSITION STATEMENTS TO CHARGING PARTIES

By: Daniel Finerty & Oyvind Wistrom

Employers that have endured the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s charge process concerning allegations of discrimination, harassment or retaliation know that an effective, persuasive position statement responding to a charge is critical to securing a successful outcome. For years, employers could be assured that the EEOC would not share its position statement or attachments with a charging party. In doing so, this procedure complied with Section 709(e) of Title VII, which provides:

It shall be unlawful for any officer or employee of the Commission to make public in any manner whatever any information obtained by the Commission pursuant to its authority under this section prior to the institution of any proceeding under this subchapter involving such information. Any officer or employee of the Commission who shall make public in any manner whatever any information in violation of this subsection shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $1,000, or imprisoned not more than one year.

Notwithstanding this statute, the Commission announced a reversal of course, as of January 1, 2016, and advised that it intends to release employer position statements:

EEOC has implemented nationwide procedures that provide for the release of Respondent position statements and non-confidential attachments to a Charging Party or her representative upon request during the investigation of her charge of discrimination. … These procedures apply to all EEOC requests for position statements made to Respondents on or after January 1, 2016. … The new procedures provide for a consistent approach to be followed in all of EEOC’s offices, which enhances service to the public. The procedures will also provide EEOC with better information from the parties to strengthen our investigations.

In contrast to this new practice, the Commission will not share the charging party’s position statement with the employer. While the Commission has recognized that employer EEO-1 reports are confidential under Section 709(e) (“[a]ll reports and information from individual reports will be kept confidential, as required by Section 709(e) of Title VII. Only data aggregating information by industry or area, in such a way as not to reveal any particular employers statistics, will be made public.”), it has not explained this new interpretation or how Section 709(e) permits its one-sided disclosure of employer position statements.

The protections for information and documents deemed “confidential” by an employer is limited. The Commission’s clear delineation of the information it will consider confidential is limited to sensitive medical information, social security numbers, confidential commercial or financial information, trade secrets information; non-relevant personally identifiable information of witnesses, comparators or third parties (for example, social security numbers, dates of birth in non-age cases, home addresses, personal phone numbers, personal email addresses, etc.), and any reference to charges filed against the employer by other charging parties. “Sensitive medical information” excludes the charging party’s medical information relating to the investigation. It is critical for employers to consult with labor and employment counsel to correctly categorize confidential information and justify such designation(s) to ensure confidentiality can be secured. “[T]he agency will not accept blanket or unsupported assertions of confidentiality.”

Further, upon receipt of information deemed confidential by an employer, the Commission has indicated that it will not withhold; rather, “EEOC staff may redact confidential information as necessary prior to releasing the information to a Charging Party or her representative.”

Employers need to be mindful of the Commission’s new procedure when responding to EEOC discrimination charges. Confidential information should be withheld (when permissible) or should be designated as “confidential.” Additionally, employers should keep in mind, when drafting position statements, that a charging party or his or her attorney may receive a copy of the position statement and any attachments.

If you have questions about this new practice by the EEOC, please contact Daniel Finerty, Oyvind Wistrom, or your Lindner & Marsack contact attorney at 414-273-3910.

Lindner & Marsack Successfully Represents Local School District in Federal Court

As labor and employment attorneys, we often sound like broken records in counselling our clients on the importance of documenting the performance deficiencies of poor performing employees. It cannot be overstated how compelling strong and contemporaneous documentation can be to demonstrate the actual reason an employer disciplines, demotes or terminates an employee who is not performing to the employer’s legitimate expectations. A recent lawsuit filed by a former African American principal at the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District provides another vivid illustration.

The plaintiff was a previous principal at one of the elementary schools within the school district. Following her removal from her position, she filed a lawsuit in U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin claiming that her removal from the district was motivated by her race, as well as in retaliation for her opposing discrimination in the workplace and raising concerns that she claimed were protected by the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment. While the federal district judge dismissed her race discrimination claim prior to trial, her claims of unlawful retaliation under both Title VII and the First Amendment were tried to a jury earlier this week.

At trial, Oyvind Wistrom represented the school district. Using the district’s detailed and contemporaneous documentation of the performance concerns, we were able to successfully show the jury that her complaints of discrimination and protected speech were not the reasons for the principal’s removal. We showed that her removal would have occurred regardless of her complaints and protected speech. After more than two days of testimony, it took the jury less than one hour to determine that the school district was justified in taking the steps it took to remove the principal. The successful defense of this case could not have happened without the testimony of several key district employees and the presence of clear and contemporaneous performance documentation by the school district.

SUPREME COURT CLARIFIES RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION OBLIGATION

On June 1, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores.  The issue in the case was the scope of an employer’s obligation to accommodate the real or perceived religious beliefs and practices of employees and applicants.

Samantha Elauf was a practicing Muslim who wore a headscarf to her interview with Abercrombie.  During the interview there was no discussion of her headscarf or her religious beliefs.  The interviewer assumed Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf for religious reasons.  Abercrombie determined the headscarf would violate its dress code and rejected Ms. Elauf’s application for that reason.

The Supreme Court ruled that Abercrombie’s decision was religious discrimination prohibited by Title VII.  Religious discrimination occurs if the real or perceived need for a religious accommodation is a motivating factor in an employer’s decision.  It does not need to be the sole reason.  It is not necessary for an employer to have actual knowledge of the religious beliefs or practices of the employee or applicant.  An employer’s perception that the relevant behavior is religious will be enough.  The Supreme Court also stated that employers must accommodate the religious beliefs or practices of applicants and employees unless the accommodation would create an undue hardship.

Following this decision, employers may want to treat real or perceived religious practices and beliefs the same way they treat real or perceived disabilities.  For example, employers may want to present applicants with all relevant job requirements and expectations, including such expectations as adhering to a dress code policy or working on Saturdays and Sundays.  Employers can ask applicants if there is any reason he/she cannot perform these job duties.  Employers can also ask whether an applicant believes he/she will need an accommodation.

When an applicant or employee has a religious belief or practice which is inconsistent with his or her job duties, employers must explore possible accommodations.  If no accommodation is possible, employers should consider how they can prove the necessary accommodation would create an undue hardship.

If you have any questions about how this decision may impact your organization’s hiring or accommodation practices, please contact John Murray or any other Lindner & Marsack attorney.

 

Registration is Still Open!

Registration and a continental breakfast will be served beginning at 7:30 a.m.  Click here to register.

April 28, 2015

8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel

375 South Moorland Road, Brookfield, Wisconsin

This FREE half-day event will address current topics in labor, employment, benefits and worker’s compensation law and provide employers across industries with practical and creative solutions for addressing their toughest workplace legal challenges.

SESSION TOPICS INCLUDE:

  • Annual Labor & Employment Update (Plenary)
  • Wellness Plans – Ensure ADA Compliance & Avoid EEOC Litigation
  • Steps To Avoid The Retaliation Claim Trap
  • Worker’s Compensation Update
  • The National Labor Relations Board And Its Impact On Non-Union Employers

With Same-Sex Marriage Permissible In Many States, Plan Sponsors Should Clarify the Rights Of Affected Children

By: Alan M. Levy and John E. Murray

Two years ago, in United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) is unconstitutional in its requirement that “marriage” be defined as restricted to heterosexual couples.  After that, regulations were issued which treated same-sex married couples as entitled to the same federal benefits and rights as opposite-sex couples, such as joint tax returns, classification of dependents for health and retirement benefits governed by federal law, and FMLA rights.  Now, either by legislation or judicial determination, 37 states and the District of Columbia permit the same treatment as the federal rule.

Recently, several ramifications of these rules have become apparent.  For example, if a health plan covers dependents of employees, the child of an employee’s same-sex marriage is a dependent.  Similarly, an employee’s same-sex spouse is entitled to a survivor pension, which includes both payment upon the employee’s death and the requirement of the spouse’s written agreement if the employee declines joint and survivor benefits to maximize the retirement benefit during his/her own lifetime.

Some plans may be able to provide these spousal and dependent benefits under their present language.  Others may require amendments to plan documents and summary plan descriptions.  While some issues about same-sex marriage are scheduled for Supreme Court consideration this term, that case will not affect the federal rules which limit the application of DOMA to ERISA plans.

Plan administrators and fiduciaries are encouraged to review their programs and make all necessary modifications to comply with these rules.  If there are any questions about the rules, existing benefit documents, or practices, please contact Alan Levy or John Murray here at Lindner & Marsack, S.C.  We will be happy to assist you in this activity.

Supreme Court Alters Pregnancy Accommodation Requirements for Employers

By Kristofor L. Hanson

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 25, 2015, issued a decision that alters the landscape for employers under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”).  In the decision, the Court held that employers are now required to assess their ability to accommodate a pregnant employee’s restrictions in a manner consistent with efforts to accommodate other employees under similar restrictions.

The case, Young v. UPS, Inc., No. 12-1226 (March 25, 2015), involved a pregnant UPS employee, Peggy Young, whose pregnancy restricted her lifting to 20 pounds, then again to 10 pounds, as her pregnancy progressed.  Her job required her to lift items as heavy as 70 pounds and to assist in moving packages weighing up to 150 pounds.  UPS had a policy that called for light duty assignments for employees injured on the job, employees with suffering from conditions that qualified as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for those employees who had lost their Department of Transportation license.  Young sought an accommodation similar to those the company had provided for employees with similar restrictions.  UPS said that she was not entitled to an accommodation because pregnancy did not fall within one of the three categories for which it provided accommodations.

The District Court dismissed Young’s case, determining that UPS’s decision complied with the PDA, because Young could not demonstrate that she was “similarly situated” to employees in the three categories for whom UPS provided accommodations: 1) she was not injured on the job; 2) she was not legally restricted from working like those who lost or had suspended their DOT certifications; and 3) she was not disabled under the law.  The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s decision and stated that Young more closely resembled “an employee who injury his back while picking up his infant child or . . . an employee whose lifting limitation arose from her off-the-job work as a volunteer firefighter,” neither of whom would qualify for an accommodation under UPS’s policy.

Young presented facts that showed that UPS was able to accommodate other employees who had lifting restrictions similar to hers.  She also presented evidence that other employees had indicated they were willing to assist her with lifting and moving packages.  In addition, a shop steward testified that UPS had no issues with accommodating employees except when a pregnancy situation arose.

The PDA provides, in relevant part, that employers must treat “women affected by pregnancy . . . the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”  The Supreme Court’s analysis determined that this language is intended to provide pregnant women with accommodations provided to other employees who are similarly limited in their work.  Because Young provided evidence that other employees with similar restrictions were regularly accommodated by UPS, the Supreme Court overturned the lower courts and remanded the case.  The District Court will now analyze whether Young presented sufficient evidence to move her case beyond summary judgment under the new standard articulated by the Supreme Court.

The decision places an onus on employers to treat a pregnant employee as they treat other employees who have restrictions similar to the pregnant employee.  Previously, employers were not required to do that.  Rather, employers could limit accommodations as UPS did.  Employers must now analyze pregnant employees’ restrictions on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they are offering accommodations to other employees with like restrictions.  If they are, employers should do the same for pregnant employees.  As the Supreme Court asked, “[W]hen the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”  According to the Supreme Court, the answer to that question could very well be, “Yes.”

If you have questions about this material, please contact Kristofor Hanson by email at khanson@lindner-marsack.com or by phone at (414) 273-3910, or any other attorney you have been working with here at Lindner & Marsack, S.C.

Registration is now open for our Annual Compliance/Best Practices Seminar!

Registration and a continental breakfast will be served beginning at 7:30 a.m.  Click here to register.

April 28, 2015

8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel

375 South Moorland Road Brookfield, Wisconsin

This FREE half-day event will address current topics in labor, employment, benefits and worker’s compensation law and provide employers across industries with practical and creative solutions for addressing their toughest workplace legal challenges.

SESSION TOPICS INCLUDE:

  • Annual Labor & Employment Update (Plenary)
  • Wellness Plans – Ensure ADA Compliance & Avoid EEOC Litigation
  • Steps To Avoid The Retaliation Claim Trap
  • Worker’s Compensation Update
  • The National Labor Relations Board And Its Impact On Non-Union Employers

EEOC Challenges Employer Wellness Programs

November 13, 2014

By: Alan M. Levy and Samantha J. Wood

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has recently popularized employer wellness programs. The Department of Labor and Health and Human Services are presenting the ACA as promoting such programs by encouraging employers to offer “rewards” for participation. According to the final regulations, such “rewards” can include obtaining a benefit (such as a discount or rebate of a premium or contribution, or any financial or other incentive) and/or avoiding a penalty (such as the absence of a surcharge or other financial or nonfinancial disincentive). But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is now acting to remind employers that their programs’ “rewards” must comply with other laws.

In the past few months, the EEOC has challenged three employer wellness programs alleging that the programs, which offer financial incentives to those who participate, violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The EEOC reasons that the programs’ financial incentives constitute unlawful penalties and inducements.

The ADA prohibits employers from requiring their employees to submit to medical examinations or answer medical inquiries, unless such exam or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity. However, the ADA permits employers to conduct medical exams and activities without having to satisfy the job-related/business necessity components as long as participation is voluntary, the information is kept confidential, and the information is not used to discriminate against employees. The EEOC has taken the position that a wellness program is “voluntary” as long as an employer neither requires participation nor penalizes employees who do not participate. In the recent litigation, the EEOC has maintained that large financial incentives affect the voluntariness of the programs.

GINA prohibits plans and issuers from collecting genetic information (including family medical history) prior to or in connection with enrollment, or at any time for underwriting purposes. A plan cannot offer rewards or inducement in return for genetic information. Accordingly, in the recent litigation, the EEOC has maintained that programs which offer financial incentives in exchange for spousal health information are unlawful inducements for one’s family medical history.

The EEOC brought its first lawsuit in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, challenging Orion Energy Systems, Inc.’s wellness program. Orion’s program required employees to complete a health risk assessment, to self-disclose their medical histories, and to have blood work performed. If the employees participated in the program, Orion would cover the entire amount of the employee’s health care costs. However, if an employee declined participation, s/he would be required to pay the entire premium cost for coverage ($413.43/month for single coverage or $744.16/month for family coverage), as well as a $50 non-participation fee. The EEOC has alleged that such financial incentive/disincentive is so great that it constitutes a penalty in violation of the ADA.

On September 30, 2014, the EEOC challenged Flambeau Inc.’s wellness program in the Western District of Wisconsin. Flambeau’s wellness program required employees to complete biometric testing and a health risk assessment, which required the employees to self-disclose their medical histories and have blood work and measurements performed. Employees who completed the testing were only obligated to pay 25 percent of the premium cost of their health insurance. However, employees who did not complete the testing were subjected to termination of health insurance and were required to pay the entire premium cost for COBRA health insurance coverage. As in the Orion Energy Systems case, the EEOC has alleged that Flambeau’s program is not job-related or consistent with business necessity and is not voluntary due to the financial penalty.

The EEOC’s most recent attack was brought October 27, 2014, against Honeywell International Inc., in the District Court of Minnesota. Honeywell’s wellness program required its employees and their spouses to undergo biometric testing. If the employees and their spouses did not take the biometric test, the employees risked losing the employer’s contributions to their health savings accounts (which could be up to $1500); would be charged a $500 surcharge that would be applied to their 2015 medical plan costs; would be charged a $1000 tobacco surcharge even if the employee chose not to undergo the testing for reasons other than smoking; and would be charged another $1000 tobacco surcharge if his/her spouse did not participate. In total, an employee could suffer a penalty of up to $4000. Again the EEOC has alleged that the wellness program is not job-related or consistent with business necessity and is not voluntary due to the large financial penalties. In addition, the EEOC has alleged that the program violates GINA’s proscription against providing inducements to an employee to obtain that employee’s family medical history.

Honeywell disputes that its financial incentives are in violation of the law, as such incentives/disincentives are allowed under the ACA. Indeed, prior to the ACA, the maximum financial incentive that could be offered for health-contingent wellness programs could not exceed 20 percent of the health plan’s premiums. However, the ACA increased the financial incentive allowance, permitting financial incentives of up to 50 percent of the premium for health-contingent wellness programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use, and 30 percent of the premiums for all other health-contingent wellness programs. Accordingly, if the EEOC’s position is adopted, which states that such financial incentives are penalties under the ADA and unlawful inducements under GINA, it would diminish the DOL and HHS’s final regulations affecting the financial incentive allowance.

Accordingly, employers offering health-contingent wellness program incentives should watch for the resolution of this litigation while keeping in mind their obligations to comply with other laws. Employers should be aware that offering large wellness program incentives could not only violate the ADA and GINA, but could also make their health plans unaffordable or inadequate under the ACA, which requires large employers to offer coverage that provides minimum value and affordability. Coverage is affordable if the employee’s required contribution to the plan does not exceed 9.5 percent of the employee’s household income; and a plan provides minimum value if the plan’s actuarial value is at least 60 percent. If an employer offers a premium discount for participation in a wellness program (that is not connected to tobacco use), employers must remember that the determination as to whether the plan is affordable and offers the minimum value, will be based on the higher deductible that applies to non-participating individuals.

If you have questions about this material, please contact Alan M. Levy or Samantha J. Wood by email at alevy@lindner-marsack.com or swood@lindner-marsack.com, or any other attorney you have been working with here at Lindner & Marsack, S.C.


DOL ISSUES GUIDANCE ON RIGHTS OF SAME-SEX SPOUSES FOR ERISA PLANS

By: Alan M. Levy

On September 18, 2013 the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued Technical Release 2013-04 to address ERISA rights for same-sex spouses after the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), invalidated parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Largely consistent with the equivalent discussion from the Internal Revenue Service, Rev. Rul. 2013-17, DOL has stated that it will require that legally married same-sex spouses be treated under ERISA benefit plans in the same manner it has always applied for those in opposite-sex marriages.

The test for being “legally married” is based on the law in the state where the marriage ceremony took place, so, for example, a same-sex couple married in Iowa, New York, or Minnesota is considered legally married for purposes of federal law even if they subsequently live in a state (like Wisconsin) which does not recognize that marriage. For this reason, Wisconsin employers must be alert to the federal rules if any of their employees seek these benefits.

The two same-sex spouses then have all the ERISA rights of an opposite-sex married couple. In ERISA-governed retirement plans, each can be the “surviving spouse” of the other, and ERISA “joint and survivor” spouse benefits must apply to both. When the retirement plan rules require notice to or consent from a spouse (as when a participant designates a beneficiary or selects a joint and survivor retirement benefit), the same-sex spouse has the same rights to be notified and the same power to consent (or not) as the spouse in an opposite-sex marriage. Similarly, a same-sex couple who obtain a legal divorce can utilize a Qualified Domestic Relation Order (“QDRO”) to require that the participant’s same-sex former spouse receives part of the participant’s benefit.

The rules for ERISA welfare plans – including employer-provided health insurance – are somewhat less certain because a welfare plan may exclude a spouse regardless of gender. However, a health plan which only provides employee benefits to a spouse of the opposite sex and excludes a same-sex spouse is an invitation to litigation.

Employers should review their ERISA plan documents and amend those references which would improperly deny spousal benefits to same-sex spouses. Currently, all such references must be updated by December 31, 2013; although there are indications that IRS will extend this deadline, no announcement of that relief has yet been issued.

Should you have any questions about these new requirements and how they are to be enforced, please contact Alan M. Levy, an attorney with Lindner & Marsack who focuses on employee benefits.