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Expensive Disability Accommodation Lesson

Caltrans in Nevada County learned the hard way that you cannot ignore an employee disability accommodation requests. More importantly, you can’t retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. An article in the Sacramento Bee provides many of the details. I’ve written several articles regarding the importance of proper accommodation policies and procedures in the workplace.

Employee Awarded $3million in Disability Accommodation Lawsuit

John Barrie claimed his supervisors harassed him and ignored his requests for accommodations related to his allergies. Mr. Barrie has severe reactions to certain smells, such as chemical cleaners and perfumes. Although Nevada County Caltrans accommodated Mr. Barrie for years, Barrie alleged supervisors started harassing him and denying the disability accommodations in 2010. Barrie allegedly sought help internally through various channels, but the harassment continued. The jury believed Mr. Barrie, and awarded him $3million for the retaliation and harassment related to his allergies.

Allergies Can Constitute a Disability

State and federal laws broadly define “disability.” In short, a disability is any medical condition–psychological or physiological–that impairs one or more major life functions. Severe allergies can impair major life functions such as breathing. Some people experience severe skin rashes, headaches, nausea and vertigo from allergic reactions.

Disability discrimination laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. Failing to provide reasonable accommodations, and in some instances failing to engage in the interactive process of determining what disability accommodations are appropriate, is a violation of the law.

From the pleadings, it appears Caltrans HR department tried to accommodate Mr. Barrie. A regional administrator affirmed his allergies in 2011, and wrote an order compelling workplace accommodations. Barrie alleged his supervisors ignored the order, and retaliated against Barrie by giving him job duties outside his normal scope and moving him to less convenient job sites.

Every Disability Accommodation Request is Serious

Supervisors oftentimes fail to recognize they must treat every disability accommodation request seriously. While HR may know the requirements, ensuring supervisors comply with the law can be difficult. In Barrie’s case, an HR note revealed that Barrie’s supervisors wanted to discipline Barrie for going to HR because he went outside the “chain of command.” I suspect this factored heavily in the juries $3million award. Employers cannot retaliate against employees for requesting accommodations or raising complaints in the workplace.

If you require a workplace accommodation, or if your employee requests an accommodation, talk with an attorney familiar with disability accommodation and discrimination issues.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law. We cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice over the Internet. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Using this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. Using the Internet or this blog to communicate with the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Do not post confidential or time-sensitive information in this blog. The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

IMDb Halts Age Discrimination Law

New Age Discrimination Law in the Entertainment Industry

In 2016, the California legislatures passed AB 1687, “to ensure that information obtained on an Internet Web site regarding an individual’s age will not be used in furtherance of employment or age discrimination.”  The statute prevents IMDb from publishing factual information (information about the ages of people in the entertainment industry) on its website for public consumption. Although Governor Brown signed the new age discrimination law, IMDb sued the government, arguing the statute violated its first amendment rights.

Injunction Prohibiting Enforcement of Age Discrimination Law

On February 22, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria issued an injunction prohibiting the government from enforcing the statute. According to Judge Chhabria’s order, “it’s difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment.” Although the government established a valid “goal” of limiting age discrimination, the government failed to show that the restriction is “actually necessary” to serve a compelling government interest. The government “presented nothing to suggest that AB 1687 would actually combat age discrimination (much less that it’s necessary to combat age discrimination).” The court held “there is an exceedingly strong likelihood that IMDb will prevail in this lawsuit.”

So, for the time being, IMDb can continue to publish the ages of actors. I guess Hollywood will have to find another way to combat age discrimination in the entertainment industry. The judge’s order, although not the conclusion of the litigation, is a definite preview of how the court views this new age discrimination law.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law. We cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice over the Internet. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Do not post confidential or time-sensitive information in this blog. The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

 

Marlon Wayans Accused of Discrimination

Discrimination in the Movies

In a recent case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, an actor working as an extra in a Marlon Wayans movie (A Haunted House 2) claims he was the victim of racial discrimination and harassment. According to Pierre Daniel, the alleged victim, during his one day of work on the movie he was compared to a Black cartoon character and called “ ‘[n]igga.’ ” Wayans filed an anti-SLAPP motion claiming Daniel’s claims arose from Wayans’s constitutional right of free speech. Wayans argued the comments were protected. He claimed the “core injury-producing conduct” arose out of the creation of the movie and its promotion over the Internet.  The trial court agreed with Wayans finding Daniel failed to establish the probability of prevailing on any of his claims.  The trial court entered judgment for Wayans, awarding him attorney fees.

On appeal, Daniel argued that the conduct at issue was not part of the “ ‘creative process’ ” inherent in making the movie because it occurred when the cameras were not rolling. Daniel claimed the comments did not involve the right of free speech or an issue of public interest.  Daniel also argued that even if the statements implicated Wayans’s right to free speech, Daniels established a probability of prevailing.  The 9th Circuit rejected Daniels argument and  affirmed judgment for Wayans.

Marlon Wayans (Wayans) co-wrote, produced, and starred in the movie, which came out in 2014.

Discrimination and Harassment in the Entertainment Industry

This is not the first time the entertainment industry avoided discrimination and harassment claims based on the “creative process.” In 2006, the California Supreme Court threw out a sexual harassment lawsuit against the makers of the hit comedy “Friends”, ruling that vulgar and coarse comments by the show’s writers reflected the “creative workplace” for a comedy with sexual themes.

Employers should not see these decisions as free license to allow racists or sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace. Employers have an obligation to provide a workplace free of sexually or racially inappropriate comments. These “entertainment” cases are outliers resulting from the unique circumstances in the studios. If the same comments were made on a factory floor or a typical office environment, I suspect the court would have gone the other way.

I will use this case in the sexual harassment prevention trainings to emphasize the importance of maintaining an appropriate work environment. The alleged comments occurred in 2013. Four years later Wayans and the other defendants were still defending the case. You can expect they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve a favorable result. Although the court ordered Daniels to pay Wayans’s attorneys fees, what are the chances that the movie extra has the ability to pay those fees?

If you have a question about inappropriate workplace conduct, contact the Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. We help employers and employees in a wide range of employment disputes, including race and gender discrimination claims.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law. We cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice over the Internet. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Do not post confidential or time-sensitive information in this blog. The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

Workplace Rules Violate the NLRA: Conduct Toward Other Employees

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at a report by Richard F. Griffin, Jr., General Counsel for the NLRB regarding workplace rules.  First we looked at confidentiality rules that may violate the NLRA, then workplace rules regarding conduct toward management.  This week, we will see which workplace rules violate the NLRA regarding conduct toward other employees.  Employees have a right under the Act to argue and debate with each other about unions, management, and their terms and conditions of employment.  Employer attempts to curb employee fights could violate the NLRA.

According to the NLRB’s General Counsel when an employer bans “negative” or “inappropriate” discussions among its employees, without further clarification, employees reasonably will read those rules to prohibit discussions and interactions that are protected under Section 7. Citing Triple Play Sports Bar & Grille, 361 NLRB No. 31, slip op. at 7 (Aug. 22, 2014) and Hills & Dales General Hospital, 360 NLRB No. 70, slip op. at 1 (Apr. 1, 2014).

Let’s See Which Workplace Rules Violate the NLRA

Unlawful Workplace Rules That Violate the NLRA

  • “[D]on’t pick fights” online.
  • Do not make “insulting, embarrassing, hurtful or abusive comments about other company employees online,” and “avoid the use of offensive, derogatory, or prejudicial comments.”
  • “[S]how proper consideration for others’ privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory, such as politics and religion.”
  • Do not send “unwanted, offensive, or inappropriate” e-mails.
  • “Material that is fraudulent, harassing, embarrassing, sexually explicit, profane, obscene, intimidating, defamatory, or otherwise unlawful or inappropriate may not be sent by e-mail. …”

Lawful Workplace Rules That Do Not Violate the NLRA

  • “Making inappropriate gestures, including visual staring.”
  • Any logos or graphics worn by employees “must not reflect any form of violent, discriminatory, abusive, offensive, demeaning, or otherwise unprofessional message.”
  • “[T]hreatening, intimidating, coercing, or otherwise interfering with the job performance of fellow employees or visitors.”
  • No “harassment of employees, patients or facility visitors.”
  • No “use of racial slurs, derogatory comments, or insults.”

You can read the report to see the General Counsel’s justifications regarding why some rules are unlawful and other very similar rules are not.

It is usually a bad idea to copy and paste another company’s workplace policies.  The policies may not fit your work environment, and the policies may violate the NLRA or other employee rights.  Be careful when drafting workplace conduct policies. Employers should not interfere with employees’ rights to complain about their workplace and share their experiences and opinions regarding management, the company or other workers.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

Disability Discrimination Plaintiff Not Required to Prove Ill Will

Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Wallace brought a disability discrimination case against the County of Stanislaus (County) under FEHA (Government Code section 12940) after the County removed him from his job as bailiff and placed him on an unpaid leave of absence.  Wallace wanted to continue doing his job, but the County believed Wallace could not safely perform the job. At trial, Wallace was able to show he could safely perform the job with accommodations. The County argued that even if it was wrong, the mistake was reasonable and Wallace could not prove animus or ill will.

Court Incorrectly Held Disability Plaintiff Must Prove Animus or Ill Will

The trial court believed the employee had to prove “animus or ill will” in order to prevail.  The trial court modified the jury instruction (CACI No. 2540) to include a requirement that Wallace prove County regarded or treated him “as having a disability in order to discriminate.”

On appeal, the court concluded the jury instruction and special verdict form contained error.  The proper standard regarding employer intent or motivation was decided by the Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203 (Harris).

Animus or Ill Will Not Required.

Disability Plaintiff Protected from erroneous or mistaken believes About Employee’s Ability to Perform the Job.

Under Harris, Wallace could prove the requisite discriminatory intent by showing his actual or perceived disability was a “substantial motivating factor/reason” for County’s decision to place him on a leave of absence. California law does not require an employee with an actual or perceived disability to prove that the employer’s adverse employment action was motivated by animosity or ill will against the employee.  Instead, employees are protected from an employer’s erroneous or mistaken beliefs about the employee’s physical condition.  (§ 12926.1, subd. (d).)

In short, the Legislature decided that the financial consequences of an employer’s mistaken belief that an employee is unable to safely perform a job’s essential functions should be borne by the employer, not the employee. Even if the employer’s mistake was reasonable and made in good faith, the employee is not required to prove the employer’s decision was motivated by animus or ill will.

The court remand Wallace’s disability discrimination claim for a retrial limited to determining the amount of damages resulting from County’s decision to place Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence.  The court believed a limited retrial was appropriate because the jury found that (1) County regarded or treated Wallace as if he were disabled, (2) Wallace was able to perform the essential job functions of a deputy sheriff with or without reasonable accommodation, and (3) County failed to prove Wallace’s disability would increase the danger to himself or others while he performed those job functions.

The court held that as a matter of law, the reason the County placed Wallace on a leave of absence was its mistaken belief that he could not safely perform the essential job functions of a deputy sheriff.  Therefore, the substantial-motivating-reason element was proven.  The court also found, as a matter of law, that the County’s decision to place Wallace on leave was a substantial factor in causing Wallace to suffer economic losses.  Based on those findings, the court determined the retrial could be limited to the amount of Wallace’s damages.

The lesson for employers is to not presume an employee is unable to safely perform the essential functions of the job just because the employee has a disability.  Placing an employee on a leave of absence against the employee’s will when the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with a different accommodation could lead to significant liability.

HR Director Can Sue When Fired for Retaliation

 

The FLSA provides that it is unlawful for an employer to: “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee[.]”  29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).  Employees fired for retaliation in violation of the FLSA can sue their employer.

But what if the employee’s job is to report violations of the company to the employer so the employer can decide whether to fix the problem?  Has the employee “filed a complaint,” or just done the employee’s job?  In Rosenfield v. Globaltranz Enterprises, the Ninth Circuit held an HR Director can state a claim that she was fired for retaliation when she reported violations of the FLSA to the employer.

Alla Rosenfield was the Director of Human Resources for Globaltranz. Throughout her employment, Plaintiff reported to her superiors that the company was not compliant with the FLSA, and she repeatedly sought changes to attain statutory compliance.  After GlobalTranz fired Plaintiff, she filed a lawsuit alleging that she was fired for retaliation in violation of the FLSA.  Plaintiff claimed GlobalTranz fired her for complaining to other managers and to executives that GlobalTranz was failing to comply with the FLSA.  The court had to decide whether an HR Director can state a claim for retaliation under the FLSA when it was her job to bring FLSA violations to the employer’s attention.

HR Directors and Managers Can Sue when Fired for Retaliation

Even though the district court recognized that Plaintiff had “advocated consistently and vigorously on behalf of . . . GlobalTranz’s employees whose FLSA rights Plaintiff thought were being violated,” the district court held that she nevertheless was not entitled to the protections of § 215(a)(3) because she had not “filed any complaint” for purposes of the FLSA.

Unlike some laws, congress did not create a detailed federal supervision system or process requiring government payroll inspections. Rather, it chose to rely on information and complaints received from employees seeking to vindicate rights claimed to have been denied. The FLSA is not supposed to be a “gotcha” statute and “seeks to establish an enforcement system that is fair to employers.” “To do so, the employer must have fair notice that an employee is making a complaint that could subject the employer to a later claim of retaliation.” Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 563 U.S. 1, 131 S. Ct. 1325, 1334 (2011).

 

In Kasten, the Supreme Court established a “fair notice” test for deciding whether an employee has “filed any complaint” under the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3): “[A] complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection.”

 

If an entry-level employee reported that someone is underpaid in violation of the FLSA and requested that the employee be compensated in compliance with the Act, a reasonable employer almost certainly would understand that report as a “complaint.” But if the identical report were made by a manager tasked with ensuring the company’s compliance with the FLSA, a reasonable employer may not understand that report as a “complaint.” Rather, the employer think the manager was just carrying out his or her duties. Therefore, when determining whether an employee has “filed any complaint,” the employee’s role as a manager often is an important contextual element.

According the Ninth Circuit:

The employee’s job title and responsibilities—in particular, whether he or she is a manager—form an important part of that “context.” Generally speaking, managers are in a different position vis-a-vis the employer than are other employees because (as relevant here) their employer expects them to voice work-related concerns and to suggest changes in policy to their superiors. That may be particularly true with respect to upper-level managers who are responsible for ensuring compliance with the FLSA.

The Ninth Circuit held that a complaining employee’s position as a manager is an important part of the “context” that the fact-finder must consider, and a jury reasonably could find that Plaintiff, a managerial employee, filed such a complaint. Because Kasten requires consideration of the content and context of an alleged FLSA complaint, the question of fair notice must be resolved on a case-by-case basis. An employee’s managerial position is only one consideration.

The court declined to formulate or adopt a special bright-line rule to apply when considering whether a manager has “filed any complaint” within the meaning of the FLSA.

Even if an employee is responsible for reporting violations of the law to the employer, such reports can constitute “filing a complaint,” and serve as the basis for a retaliation complaint.  Employers must carefully consider a number of factors before terminating an employee (even and at-will employee).  Employers may need to take particular care when terminating HR employees or other managers whose job requires them to report violations of the law.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

Don’t Retaliate Against Desperate Housewives

OK. I admit it.  For a short-time I watched Desperate Housewives.  I’d like to say I only watched it because my wife made me, but the truth is, I liked the show.  I also learned you don’t retaliate against desperate housewives.  So, when I heard that actress Nicolleta Sheridan—who played my favorite character, Edie Britt—was suing Touchstone Television Productions, it piqued my interest.

Apparently, Sheridan sued Touchstone under Labor Code section 6310, alleging that Touchstone fired her in retaliation for her complaint about a battery allegedly committed on her by the show’s creator, Marc Cherry.  Touchstone claimed Sheridan failed to “exhaust her administrative remedies” by filing a claim with the Labor Commissioner.  Although the trial court agreed with Touchstone, the appellate court made it clear you don’t retaliate against desperate housewives.

Don’t Retaliate Against Desperate Housewives

Sheridan alleged that “during a September 24, 2008 rehearsal, Sheridan attempted to question Cherry about the script, and he struck her in response. Sheridan complained about the alleged battery to Touchstone.”  When Touchstone did not renew Sheridan’s contract for the 6th season—I had stopped watching by then—she sued Touchstone for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  In true Hollywood fashion, the jury deadlocked and the court declared a mistrial.  Sheridan filed a second amended complaint, alleging that Touchstone “retaliated against her in violation of section 6310 for complaining about Cherry’s alleged battery.”

Touchstone argued that Sheridan had to first file a claim with the Labor Commissioner under sections 98.7 and 6312.  Touchstone’s position had some merit, since a depublished case said employees had to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a retaliation claim.  But in 2013, the legislature amended the Labor Code to specifically state “An individual is not required to exhaust administrative remedies or procedures in order to bring a civil action under any provision of this code, unless that section under which the action is brought expressly requires exhaustion of an administrative remedy.”

The appellate court, which was not bound by the previously depublished decision, found that the plain language of sections 6312 and 98.7 before the 2013 amendments allowed filing a Labor Commissioner complaint, but did not require exhaustion. The court went on to find that the 2013 amendment to the Labor Code “merely clarified existing law.”

So, Sheridan will get another day in court and we get to find out if Touchstone should have headed my advice: Don’t retaliate against desperate housewives.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

Feel free to suggest topics for the blog. We are happy to consider topics pertaining to general points of Labor and Employment Law, but we cannot answer questions about specific situations or provide legal advice. If you desire legal advice, you should contact an attorney.

Your use of this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. The use of the Internet or this blog for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be posted in this blog and Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything posted to this blog.

The Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C. represents employees and businesses throughout Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Pleasanton, Oakland, San Ramon, Hayward, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Altos, San Jose, the South Bay Area, Campbell, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Saratoga, and Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Benito, Mendocino, and Calaveras counties.

Workplace Investigations: When, Who, and How

Workplace investigations occur for several reasons. Some workplace investigations result from an employee complaint of discrimination, harassment claims, or wrongful termination. Others are mandated by regulatory procedures. Others, still, are instituted to improve workplace performance.

Regardless of the purpose of the investigation, how the investigation proceeds and what it entails shapes an employer’s response and can help reduce exposure to legal claims.

While the exact procedures differ based on the company, employees, the alleged conduct involved, and the investigator, there are certain overriding principles common in most investigations. If the investigation is faulty, any response to the complaint may suffer the same defects.

WHEN TO CONDUCT AN INVESTIGATION?

Investigations should occur promptly, to ensure the employer adequately responds to a complaint and to provide the best opportunity to obtain relevant information and preserve potential evidence. Employers must take all complaints seriously, and evaluate the appropriate scope of the investigation so it can take prompt action.  At a minimum, the investigator should interview the complainant, the accused, and all witnesses

In some instances, an employer is obligated to conduct an investigation even in the absence of an employee complaint. For example, if the employer “knows or should have known” of conduct that requires investigation, the employer can be held liable for failing to conduct an investigation.

When contemplating an investigation, the employer must also consider whether to take some form of interim relief pending the results of the investigation. This could include separating the complainant and the alleged perpetrator, suspending the alleged perpetrator, temporarily modifying reporting structures or other appropriate action.  The purpose of interim relief is to ensure no further misconduct occurs before the company has an opportunity to investigate and resolve the situation.

WHO SHOULD CONDUCT THE INVESTIGATION

Several years ago, the California legislature passed a law restricting who could conduct a workplace investigation.  The purpose was to ensure the investigators were properly trained in how to conduct an effective investigation, and to protect employees lodging complaints in the workplace.  If the investigation is conducted by a person who is not employed by the company, the investigator must be a private investigator or a licensed attorney.  Internal investigations (i.e., conducted by an employee of the organization) do have to be conducted by private investigators or attorneys, but the person conducting the investigation should have the necessary skills and objectivity necessary to conduct an effective investigation.

When choosing who will conduct the investigation, start with someone who is objective, skilled, experienced, and with sufficient authority to be credible. Line managers are usually not sufficiently skilled to conduct a thorough investigation.  Additionally, if ultimate decision maker is influenced by others who had retaliatory motives, the investigation is not “independent”.  Many human resources personnel are qualified to conduct an investigation, but a human resources title does not guarantee the person has the training, skill and expertise necessary to do the job right.

A common question is whether an attorney should conduct the investigation.  Sometimes it is a good idea. Other times it is not. Attorneys are often trained in interviewing witnesses and testing credibility.  An attorney with litigation experience will have a better idea of the types of evidence that might be examined if a matter went to trial.  However, have the company’s corporate attorney conduct an investigation can also create a conflict of interests. The investigator will oftentimes be a witness if a matter proceeds to litigation, this could result in an unintentional waiver of the attorney-client privilege. As general rule, including lawyers in an internal investigation does not automatically insulate an investigation from disclosure.

HOW TO CONDUCT AN EFFECTIVE INVESTIGATION

Confidentiality and discretion are cornerstones of an effective investigation. Confidentiality is essential to protect the investigation and to help the participants feel comfortable disclosing information. Investigation records should be kept separate from other corporate or personnel records.

Investigation should be limited to a “need to know” basis. Only individuals who need to be involved in the investigation or in deciding the outcome should be kept apprised of the investigation’s progress.

Investigators cannot promise absolute confidentiality when interviewing witnesses or the complaining employee.  A thorough investigation will necessarily require revealing certain information.  Promising complete confidentiality can hurt the investigator’s ability to conduct an effective investigation.  Instead, the investigator should tell the complainant, the alleged perpetrator and any witnesses that the investigator will keep the information confidential to the extent possible, but will have to disclose certain information in order to conduct a thorough investigation.

If possible, the investigator should avoid using names of the accused and the complainant. Open-ended questions such as, “Have you seen anyone at work touch other employees in a way that made the employee feel uncomfortable?” is a good way to start.  As the interview proceeds, the investigator may get more specific.

Investigators must assume that everything that is said or written in an investigation will be discoverable.  Maintaining accurate notes is essential.

Investigators must also be aware that certain laws protect employees from over-intrusive investigations. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act – The Federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act (“EPPA”), 29 U.S.C.A. 2001 et seq., The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2520 and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., are just a few examples.

Investigators must also be cognizant of different tort claims that can arise from an improper investigation.  Claims such as defamation, false imprisonment, invasion of privacy or even intentional infliction of emotional distress must be considered.

FIVE PHASES OF AN EFFECTIVE INVESTIGATION

Investigations typically have 5 phases:

  1. The intake
  2. Creating the investigation pan
  3. Interviews and document review
  4. Evaluating the information
  5. Closing the loop

The intake is usually beginning of any investigation.  It’s where the investigator learns about the complaint or other impetus for the investigation, who the primary participants in the investigation may be, and the scope of the investigation.  It is the foundation of the investigation, and the building blocks for the following stages.

The investigator should then create an investigation plan detailing the likely witnesses to be interviewed and documents to be reviewed. The investigator may have suggestions for interim remedies necessary to preserve the investigation’s integrity or for employee protection.  The investigator must consider who to interview first, where the interviews will take place, and the possible scope of documents to be reviewed.

After an investigation plan is drafted, the investigator will begin interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents. There is no magic formula as to whom should be investigated first and in what order, but most investigators start with the person making the complaint.  The investigator may receive information that reveals other potential witnesses.  Depending on the circumstances, the investigator may want to speak with independent witnesses before interviewing the alleged perpetrator.  In some instances, such as when documents or video evidence reveals the exact nature of the alleged misconduct, additional interviews may be limited. In other circumstances, the number of witnesses may be very high.

After the investigator interviews the witnesses and reviews the relevant documents, the investigator has to evaluate the information.  Investigators should evaluate the credibility of each witness, which may include underlying motivations.  Depending on the scope of the investigation, the investigator may be called asked to render an opinion regarding the conclusions to be drawn from the information obtained. In other circumstances, the investigator presents only the facts and the employer reaches its own conclusions.

Closing the loop is usually the final step an effective investigation.  This is where the investigator, or the employer, reveals the results of the investigation and takes appropriate remedial steps.  The complainant is not necessarily entitled to a full report of each piece of information obtained, but someone should reach out to the complainant and the alleged perpetrator to discuss the end results of the investigation.  This provides finality to investigation process, and enables the parties to determine how to proceed.

Each investigation is unique.  Although there are general underlying principles that apply in most investigations, sometimes an investigation must deviate from the norm.  What is required in any particular instance will be determined by the specific facts and circumstances leading to the investigation.

 

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

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