JPI & United Airlines Lawsuits Highlight Rising Discrimination Risks To US Businesses

March 22, 2009

A federal Fair Housing Act lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department against a large Dallas-based construction and development company Tuesday, March 10, 2009 and the settlement of a United Airlines employment disability discrimination lawsuit announced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on March 16, 2009 provide a warning to all U.S. businesses to strengthen their employment and other nondiscrimination policies and practices.   The actions highlight the growing exposures that businesses face to employment and other discrimination claims under Federal law. 

 

JPS Fair Housing Act & ADA Suit

The Justice Department’s suit against JPS coincides with a surge in filings of employment discrimination claims and on the heels of Congresses enactment of pro-plaintiff amendments to employment and other federal discrimination laws like those enacted under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 signed into law last September. As the Obama Administration and the Democratic Majority in Congress continue to push for further liberalization of these laws, the JPI lawsuit provides tangible confirmation of the Obama Administration’s emphasis on enforcement of federal nondiscrimination laws. The Justice Department’s proclamation in its announcement of its filing of the suit against JPI that “Fighting illegal housing discrimination is a top priority” affirms this commitment under the Fair Housing Act. See “Justice Department Sues Large Multi-Family Housing Developer Alleging Disability-Based Housing Discrimination, U.S. Justice Department (March 10, 2009) at http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2009/March/09-crt-187.html. 

The Justice Department lawsuit charges JPI Construction L.P. (JPI) and six JPI-affiliated companies (JPI) with violating the Fair Housing Act and the public accommodations provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by the failing to provide allegedly required accessible features at multi-family housing developments in Texas and other states.  The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability.

According to the complaint, the JPI defendants failed to design and construct accessible dwelling units and public and common use areas at Jefferson Center Apartments in Austin, Texas; Jefferson at Mission Gate Apartments in Plano, Texas; and additional multi-family housing complexes in other states. The complaint alleges certain complexes designed and constructed by the JPI defendants have inaccessible steps and curbs leading to units, steeply sloped routes leading to units, and no accessible routes to site amenities, including inaccessible trash facilities, barbeque grills and cookout tables. In addition, certain housing units have narrow doors and hallways; kitchens that lack accessible clear floor space at the sinks, ranges and refrigerators; bathrooms that lack accessible clear floor space at the toilets and tubs; and thermostats that are mounted too high to be accessible to a person using a wheelchair. The Justice Department complaint asks the court to order monetary damages to victims of the alleged discrimination, to issue a court order requiring the defendants to modify the complexes to bring them into compliance with federal law, to prohibit future discrimination by the JPI defendants, and to assess civil penalties.

 

United Airlines & Other Evidence of Rising Employment Discrimination Exposures 

The JPI lawsuit is one of many signs of the rising discrimination exposures businesses face under federal discrimination laws.  Employment discrimination risks also are soaring and the tightening economy promises to add further fuel to the fire.  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) statistics show workplace discrimination charge filings nationwide soared to an unprecedented level of 95,402 during Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, up 15 percent over the previous fiscal year.   All major categories of charge filings in the private sector including suits against private employers, as well as state and local governments increased. Charges based on age and retaliation saw the largest annual increases, while allegations based on race, sex and retaliation continued as the most frequently filed charges. The surge in charge filings may be due to multiple factors, including economic conditions, increased diversity and demographic shifts in the labor force, employees’ greater awareness of the law, EEOC’s focus on systemic litigation, and changes to EEOC’s intake practices.

The EEOC also continues to vigorously pursue disability and other discrimination charges.  On March 16, 2009, for example, the EEOC announced United Airlines has agreed to pay $850,000 and to change its light duty policies to settle a federal lawsuit brought by the EEOC that alleged that the company’s policy of denying overtime work to anyone on light duty violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  The EEOC charged that the policy had greater repercussions for employees with disabilities, since these workers were more likely to be assigned to light United will pay the $850,000 to a class of employees with disabilities denied the opportunity to work overtime while placed on light or limited duty.  duty when medically cleared to work overtime.   The settlement also requires United to notify all current and former employees at the San Francisco Airport who were subject to the rescinded policy and invite them to submit claims to share in the $850,000.

 

Businesses Must Act To Manage Risks

In this increasingly risky climate, businesses should review and update their existing policies and practices prohibiting unlawful discrimination in employment and the provision of services based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, veteran status or other grounds prohibited by law and take other steps to prepare to demonstrate their compliance with federal nondiscrimination laws in operation as well as form. While adopting and communicating appropriate policies prohibiting unlawful discrimination in the provisions of goods, services, and employment is an important element of these compliance efforts, businesses also must take appropriate steps to ensure their operations match the words of their policies.  Businesses should not assume that the usual recital of their equal employment and services policies alone will suffice.  Businesses also need to have and administer well-documented practices and procedures governing the report, investigation and disposition of complaints.  These procedures should include clearly written and well communicated procedures to be used to report suspected violations.  Businesses also must establish and communicate clear procedures requiring employees both to comply with these rules and to report known or suspected violations. Businesses also should train workforce members on these policies and procedures and consequences for their violation. Businesses also should consider establishing compliance hotlines and using other compliance audit processes to monitor and address possible violations.  They should be prepared to demonstrate they take seriously and take appropriate action to investigate suspected violations, to rectify confirmed violations, and to appropriately discipline employees or others that participate in prohibited violations. 

Businesses needing advice or assistance to review or defend existing disability and other non-discrimination policies and practices should contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail to cstamer@solutionslawyer.net.  To register for future updates or to review other recent updates, helpful links and information about employment and other internal controls matters, or the author, see CynthiaStamer. com. 


United To Pay $850,000, Stop Disallowing Overtime To Employees On Light Duty To Settle Disability Discrimination Suit

March 22, 2009

Businesses applying policies that limit or restrict the availability of overtime for employees on light duty should review their practices in light of a settlement with United Airlines announced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week. 

On March 16, 2009, the EEOC announced United Airlines has agreed to pay $850,000 and make policy changes to settle a federal lawsuit brought by the EEOC that challenged that the company’s policy of denying overtime work to anyone on light duty violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  United will pay the $850,000 to a class of employees with disabilities denied the opportunity to work overtime while placed on light or limited duty.  The EEOC charged that the policy had an impermissable disparate impact for employees with disabilities, since these workers were more likely to be assigned to light duty when medically cleared to work overtime.   The settlement also requires United to notify all current and former employees at the San Francisco Airport who were subject to the rescinded policy and invite them to submit claims to share in the $850,000.  Businesses with similar light duty policies or other workplace rules that disproportionately impact persons with disabilities or in other protected status hould review and update their policies in response to these and other potential challenges.  

 

If your  business that has questions about this development or needs assistance managing discrimination or other employment risks, contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at 469.767.8872 or cstamer@solutionslawyer.net.  To register for future updates or for other helpful information, see CynthiaStamer.com.


Supreme Court’s Broad Definition Of Retailiation Requires Employers To Exercise Care

March 20, 2009

Businesses that fire or discipline employees increasingly face retaliation claims by disgruntled workers.  A host of federal and state employment and other laws prohibit businesses from retaliating against employees for reporting possible prohibited conduct or seeking to exercise certain rights legally protected rights.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson County, No. 06-1595, highlights the need for employers to exercise constant viligence to potential retaliation claims and the need to act to avoid retaliating, or appearing to retaliate against employees when conducting internal investigations, terminations, promotions or other workforce management activities.

 

In its February 2, 2009 unanimous Crawford decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII protect employees against retaliation for giving a “disapproving account” of unlawful behavior when responding to questions asked during the employer’s investigation of a sexual harassment discrimination, even if the employee took no further overt action to complain about, seek to remedy or stop the misconduct..

 

Vicky Crawford sued the employer under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits an employer from terminating a worker because she “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice” under Title VII.   The Crawford case arose from statements Ms. Crawford made in response questions addressed to her as part of her employer’s investigation of sexual harassment rumors.  Asked if she’d witnessed any inappropriate behavior by a supervisor, Ms. Crawford answered told the employer about a series of harassing acts by the supervisor toward herself.  Besides reporting her experience in reply to employer questions during the investigation, however, Ms. Crawford did not file a sexual harassment complaint or otherwise report her alleged sexual harassment experience to the employer.  Following the interview, the employer did not discipline the supervisor.  However, the employer subsequently fired Ms. Crawford and two other employees who also reported being harassed by the supervisor.  As part of its defense, the employer argued that Ms. Crawford’s report during the course of the investigation did not qualify as “opposition” prohibited under Title VII.   

 

The question before the Supreme Court was whether simply disclosing an act of harassment in answer to a question constitutes “oppos[ing]” an unlawful practice, or whether – as the court of appeals had held – opposition within the meaning of the provisions requires something more assertive.

 

Applying the ordinary meaning of “oppose,” the Supreme Court unanimously found that “When an employee communicates to her employer a belief that the employer has engaged in . . . employment discrimination, that communication virtually always constitutes the employee’s opposition to the activity.”  Accordingly, the Supreme Court ruled that protected opposition under Title VII includes giving a “disapproving account” of unlawful behavior, even if the employee takes no further action on her own to seek to stop or remedy the conduct.

 

In explaining its conclusions the Supreme Court stated that a contrary rule that would require a worker to engage in “active, consistent” behavior in order to engage in protected opposition would be inconsistent with common usage.  For example, the Court explained, one can “oppose capital punishment” without doing anything active to end it.  The Supreme Court rejected as “freakish” an interpretation of “opposition” that would protect an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when her boss asks a question.”

 

While concurring in the unanimous opinion, Justices Alito and Thomas cautioned against reading that opinion too broadly. Their opinion clarifies that in their view, covered opposition must be “active and purposive” to qualify as protected.  Consequently, they warned that the Court’s opinion should not be read to suggest that Title VII protects merely opposing a practice in principle (like opposing capital punishment) without taking any action at all to express that opposition.

 

Although the report by Ms. Crawford involved her notification to the employer that she too may have been sexually harassed, the implications of the Crawford decision reach more broadly.  The decision illustrates the need for businesses not to overlook the potential significance of the statements and conduct by employees involved in any internal investigation, performance, or other activity that might later form the basis of a retaliation complaint.  Businesses should listen carefully when conducting investigations, employee counseling and discipline meetings, and exit interviews with an eye out for the need to investigate potential legal violations, defend against retaliation charges, or both.    Although businesses should continue to require employees to report known or suspected discrimination or other prohibited conduct in accordance with a specified formal procedure,  the Crawford decision reminds businesses not to overestimate the protection afforded by the establishment of formal reporting procedures.  It also illustrates the need for businesses to be careful to investigate and properly respond to new charges of discrimination or other potential legal or policy violations that may be uncovered in the course of an investigation, disciplinary meeting or exist interview.    At the same time, businesses also must evaluate the potential implications of their dealings with employees who previously have made charges, participated in investigations, or claimed other protected rights such as taking a protected leave or the like.   


DOL Releases Stimulus Bill Model COBRA Notices, Other Guidance

March 19, 2009

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) this morning (March 19, 2009) posted Model Notices and other additional guidance about temporary requirements added to the group health plan medical coverage continuation requirements of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, as amended (“COBRA”) by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“Stimulus Bill”). Employers, health plan administrators, and health insurers involved in the sponsorship or administration of COBRA-covered group health plans should consult with counsel about the suitability of using the Model Notices to provide required notifications of the new Stimulus Bill COBRA rules and other steps necessary to comply with the new requirements.  Compliance with the Stimulus Bill COBRA rules is mandatory for all COBRA-covered group health plans and certain other arrangements including group health plans sponsored by businesses in bankruptcy where the entity or a commonly controlled or affiliated entity continues to maintain a group health plan.

 

The new guidance posed today includes:

 

  • Various  Model Notices
  •  New FAQs for Employers on the COBRA Premium Reduction
  •  Expanded FAQs for Employees on the COBRA Premium Reduction
  •  Updated FAQs for Employees on General COBRA Provisions

 

While the Model Notices and other guidance provides helpful insights about the new requirements, many group health plan sponsors, administrators and fiduciaries are likely to find it necessary or desirable to specifically tailor the notifications and other procedures they provide to more clearly communicate the workings of the new requirements as they relate to their specific plans so as to minimize administrative burdens of compliance and fiduciary risks.

 

The Stimulus Bill provisions that took effect on February 17, 2009 require special COBRA treatment for “assistance eligible individuals.” See “Stimulus Bill COBRA Amendments Require Immediate Group Health Plan Action” for more information. The Stimulus Bill COBRA amendments are intended to help certain involuntarily terminated former employees and their dependents maintain COBRA coverage.  Employers must amend their plans to comply with these mandates and, if they wish to seek reimbursement for COBRA Subsidies, must comply with IRS requirements. Meanwhile, group health plan administrators and insurers must take immediate action to provide required notifications and implement other administrative changes necessary to comply with the new rules.

 

The Stimulus Bill definition of “assistance eligible individual” generally includes any COBRA “qualified beneficiary” who meets all of the following requirements:

  • Is eligible for COBRA continuation coverage at any time during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009;
  • Elects COBRA coverage (when first offered or during the additional election period): and
  • Has a qualifying event for COBRA coverage that is the employee’s involuntary termination during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009.

 

This definition includes both involuntarily terminated employees and their dependents who lost coverage under a group health plan due to the involuntary termination. 

 

As part of their COBRA amendments, the Stimulus Bill limits the COBRA premium that a COBRA-covered group health plan can charge an “assistance eligible individual” to 35% of the otherwise applicable COBRA premium for a period of up to 9 months (the “Subsidy Period”) beginning March 1, 2009.  Employers sponsoring these group health plans must pay the remaining 65% of the COBRA premium (the “COBRA Subsidy”) for the assistance eligible individual during the Subsidy Period.  However, the Stimulus Bill allows an employer to seek reimbursement by claiming a payroll tax credit for these COBRA Subsidy payments by complying with applicable IRS procedures. 

 

The Stimulus Bill also requires certain assistance eligible individuals whose employment terminated between September 1, 2008 and February 16, 2009 and did not elect COBRA coverage when previously offered or who allowed COBRA coverage to lapse after electing that coverage be offered a second COBRA enrollment period in which to elect prospectively to enroll in COBRA coverage.  It also requires that group health plans that offer employees different plan options allow assistance eligible individuals the option to change their coverage choice.  Also Group health plan administrators must provide certain notifications to assistance eligible individuals concerning these changes.

 

The guidance posted today supplements preliminary guidance previously posted by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor over the past month. You can review the current Deparment of Labor Guidance at http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/COBRA.html and the current IRS Guidance at http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=204505,00.html/COBRA.html .

 

The Stimulus Bill COBRA rules were among the updates discussed by Cynthia Marcotte Stamer during a March 11, 2009 Health Plan Update Teleconference.  If you are an employer or other group health plan sponsor, administrator, insurer or fiduciary and need assistance in preparing required notifications or with other matters relating to the Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules or any other health or other employee benefits matter, contact Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at CStamer@SolutionsLawyer.net or via telephone at 972.419.7188.

 

For information about how to purchase a recording of this teleconference or to review other breaking news updates about these Stimulus Bill COBRA Rules, register at Cynthia Stamer.com.

 

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.


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