Criminal Conviction Of Plan Trustee, Outside Legal Counsel Shows Risks of Retaliating Against Whistleblowers For Reporting ERISA Violations

August 1, 2016

The U.S. Department of Labor’s just announced successful whistleblower prosecution in Perez v. Scott Brain, et al of an employee benefit plan trustee, and an individual lawyer and her law firm that served as the employee benefit plan’s outside legal counsel of violating the fiduciary responsibility and whistleblower rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) illustrates why employee benefit plan sponsors, trustees or other fiduciaries, their management, legal counsel, auditors and other service providers must both prudently investigate whistleblower allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing involving their employee benefit plans and resist the temptation to retaliate against employees or others for reporting or cooperating in the investigation of alleged improprieties involving an employee benefit plan.

The Brain decision highlights the care that employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries, advisors and service providers and their management must use when responding to allegations or other evidence of wrongdoing relating to an employee benefit plan or its administration, investigating and addressing alleged misconduct or other performance or disciplinary concerns involving parties whose report or involvement in investigations of ERISA or other misconduct could form the basis of a potential ERISA 510 or other retaliation complaint.

The decision also makes clear that outside legal counsel advising an employee benefit plan or its fiduciaries in relation to the investigation or response to charges of ERISA misconduct involving an employee benefit plan must use care to avoid actions that could render them liable for participation in acts of illegal retaliation, violating their duty of loyalty to the plan by allowing themselves to become involved in a conflict of interest when investigating or defending potential wrongdoing involving an employee benefit plan, or engaging in other discretionary actions that could constitute a breach of fiduciary duty in violation of ERISA.

In Perez v. Scott Brain, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Cement Masons Southern California Trust Fund’s trustee and Cement Masons Local 600 business manager, Scott Brain (Brain) and outside trust fund legal counsel, Melissa Cook, violated sections 510 and 404 of ERISA by causing the firing a trust fund employee Cheryle Robbins (Robbins) and an employee of the plan’s third party administrator, Cory Rice (Rice), in retaliation for their involvement in filing an internal complaint about and cooperating with the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration’s federal criminal investigation of reports of Brain’s wrongful interference as a trustee with collections and contributions from unionized employers.

In 2011, Robbins, director of the trust funds’ audit and collections department, responded to a federal criminal investigation into Brain’s activities with contractors. The same year, she and Rice, who worked for the third-party administrator to the trust fund, American Benefit Plan Administrators, now, Zenith American Solutions (Zenith), participated in an effort to complain about Brain’s interference with efforts to collect delinquent contributions from contractors. Within weeks of this conduct, Robbins was suspended from her employment with the trust fund. Less than six months later, both Robbins and Rice were fired.

The court’s 71-page decision chronicles the coordinated retaliatory campaign orchestrated by Brain and Cook that led to Robbins’ suspension and firing by the employee benefit plan as well as the termination of Cook by his employer, Zenith..

With respect to Robbins’ suspension, the court found that the evidence showed Brain and Cook “were very upset with Robbins due to her contact with the [Department of Labor],” and that Brain and Cook “used their positions and influence to cause the other trustees to vote in favor of” suspending Robbins. To do so, the court explained, Brain and Cook “took the lead at the . . . [b]oard meeting with respect to the discussion of Robbins’ contact with the [Department of Labor]” and “created an environment that was hostile to her,” which “caused the trustees to vote to place her on leave.” The court noted that the two “‘set in motion’ the decision by the Joint Board to put Robbins on leave [.]”

As for Rice’s firing, the court explained how Brain and Cook retaliated against Rice by pressuring his employer, Zenith, into firing Rice and manipulating the Zenith relationship to deter Zenith from rehiring Rice in retaliation for his involvement in efforts to make an internal complaint about Brain.

Based upon evidence introduced during a five-day trial, the District Court ruled that Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm violated ERISA section 510 by suspending and then discharging Robbins, and causing Zenith to refuse to hire Robbins and to discharge Rice in retaliation for their participation in reporting Brian’s misconduct to the General President of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association and because Robbins participated in a federal criminal investigation of Brain.  Specifically, the District Court ruled:

  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Robbins in violation of ERISA 510 for her communications with the DOL by placing her on administrative leave; causing the work performed by the department that Robbins previously managed to be outsourced to Zenith and by causing Zenith not to hire Robbins to participate in its work;
  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Rice in violation of ERISA 510 by causing Zenith to terminate Cook;
  • Brain breached his fiduciary duty under ERISA 404 by retaliating against Robbins and causing her to be placed on administrative leave and that Cook knowingly participated in that breach.

The court held that Brain and Cook’s retaliatory conduct violated section 510 of ERISA, which prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers for complaining of ERISA violations or cooperating with a governmental investigation of such violations. The court also held that the couple’s retaliation against Robbins breached Brain’s fiduciary duties under ERISA section 404 to the trust funds and that Cook participated knowingly in that breach.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected attorney Cook’s argument that she was somehow immunized from her unlawful conduct because she was an attorney to the trust funds.  Among other things, the court noted the “apparent conflict of interest” Cook had in representing the trust funds while being in an undisclosed “romantic relationship” with Brain, which existed as defendants carried out their retaliatory scheme. Reminding lawyers of their ethical duties in California, the court cited California Rule of Professional Conduct 3-310(B), which the court explained “requires that an attorney disclose to a client any personal relationship or interest that he or she knows, or with the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, could substantially affect her his or her professional judgment in advising the client.”

As punishing for these criminal violations of ERISA, the District Court ordered the permanent removal of Brain as a trustee. It also ordered the permanent barring of Brain, Cook and her law firm from serving the Cement Masons Southern California Trust Funds. In addition, the court ordered Cook and her law firm to repay all attorneys’ fees she billed the trust funds for the actions she took in retaliating against whistleblowers Robbins and Rice.  These criminal sanctions were in addition to the $630,000 civil damage award that the Labor Department previously secured in lost wages and damages for Robbins, Rice and another worker victimized by Brain and Cook in August 2015.

In addition to its successful prosecution of Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm on these charges, the DOL also had sought, but failed to convince the District Court based on the evidence presented at trial to find Brain, Cook, Cook’s law firm and Brain’s fellow trust fund trustee Local 600 business agent and Joint Board of Trustees member Jaime Briceno guilty of wrongful retaliation against another alleged whistleblower or Briceno of breaching his fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to prudently investigate Robbins’ allegations against Brain; or by voting to use assets of the Trust Funds to pay the cost of the settlement of the civil action brought by Robbins. The District Court also refused to consider a newly raised charge that Brain breached his fiduciary duty by failing to collect all monies owed to the Trust Funds on the grounds that the Labor Department had failed to timely raise the charge. While the court refused to convict Briceno, Brain, Cook or Cook’s law firm on the additional charges, the Labor Department’s prosecution of these claims illustrates that along with abstaining from retaliating against ERISA whistleblowers, employee benefit plan fiduciaries also should position themselves to defend against potential breach of fiduciary duty claims based on alleged inadequacies in their investigation or response to reports or other evidence of misconduct involving the plan by prudently investigating and acting to redress allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing in the administration of employee benefit plans or their assets.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is AV-Preeminent (the highest) rated attorney repeatedly recognized as a Martindale-Hubble as a “LEGAL LEADER™” and “Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law, Labor and Employment Law, and Business & Commercial Law and among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in ERISA, Labor and Employment and Healthcare Law by D Magazine for her nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge representing and advising employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and vendors and others on these and other planning, business transaction and contracting, administration, compliance, risk management, audits, investigations, government and private litigation and other enforcement and other related matters.

past Chair and current committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative ,

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-year career has focused on helping management manage.  Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving,  she de[;pus jer her extensive legal and operational knowledge and experience to help organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk.

As a key part of this work, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.

Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.

Well known for her extensive work with health care, insurance and other highly regulated entities on corporate compliance, internal controls and risk management, her clients range from highly regulated entities like employers, contractors and their employee benefit plans, their sponsors, management, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and advisors, technology and data service providers, health care, managed care and insurance, financial services, government contractors and government entities, as well as retail, manufacturing, construction, consulting and a host of other domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized health, insurance, labor and employment and other knowledge and experience to help employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors; health, pension and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers, and others design legally compliant, effective compensation, health and other welfare benefit and insurance, severance, pension and deferred compensation, private exchanges, cafeteria plan and other employee benefit, fringe benefit, salary and hourly compensation, bonus and other incentive compensation and related programs, products and arrangements. She is particularly recognized for her leading edge work, thought leadership and knowledgeable advice and representation on the design, documentation, administration, regulation and defense of a diverse range of self-insured and insured health and welfare benefit plans including private exchange and other health benefit choices, health care reimbursement and other “defined contribution” limited benefit, 24-hour and other occupational and non-occupational injury and accident, expat and medical tourism, onsite medical, wellness and other medical plans and insurance benefit programs as well as a diverse range of other qualified and nonqualified retirement and deferred compensation, severance and other employee benefits and compensation, insurance and savings plans, programs, products, services and activities. As a key element of this work, Ms. Stamer works closely with employer and other plan sponsors, insurance and financial services companies, plan fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors and others to design, administer and defend effective legally defensible employee benefits and compensation practices, programs, products and technology. She also continuously helps employers, insurers, administrative and other service providers, their officers, directors and others to manage fiduciary and other risks of sponsorship or involvement with these and other benefit and compensation arrangements and to defend and mitigate liability and other risks from benefit and liability claims including fiduciary, benefit and other claims, audits, and litigation brought by the Labor Department, IRS, HHS, participants and beneficiaries, service providers, and others. She also assists debtors, creditors, bankruptcy trustees and others assess, manage and resolve labor and employment, employee benefits and insurance, payroll and other compensation related concerns arising from reductions in force or other terminations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other business transactions including extensive experience with multiple, high-profile large scale bankruptcies resulting in ERISA, tax, corporate and securities and other litigation or enforcement actions.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law Ms. Stamer also is well-known for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, workforce, tax, education, insurance and other policies critical to the workforce, benefits, and compensation practices and other key aspects of a broad range of businesses and their operations. She both helps her clients respond to and resolve emerging regulations and laws, government investigations and enforcement actions and helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally. Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer for many years acted as the scribe responsible for leading the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights annual agency meeting and regularly participates in the OCR and other JCEB annual agency meetings, and participates in the development and submission of comments and other input to the agencies on regulatory, enforcement and other concerns. She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to many business, professional and civic organizations.

Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer also is a highly sought out speaker and industry thought leader known for empowering audiences and readers. Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications. Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, ALIABA, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer serves on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and as an editorial advisor and contributing author of many other publications. Her leadership involvements with the American Bar Association (ABA) include year’s serving many years as a Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; ABA RPTE Section current Practice Management Vice Chair and Substantive Groups & Committees Committee Member, RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee Past Group Chair and Diversity Award Recipient, current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, and past Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Chair Co-Chair; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; International Section Life Sciences Committee Policy Vice Chair; and a speaker, contributing author, comment chair and contributor to numerous Labor, Tax, RPTE, Health Law, TIPS, International and other Section publications, programs and task forces. Other selected service involvements of note include Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; past EO Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a former Southwest Benefits Association Board of Directors member, Continuing Education Chair and Treasurer; former Texas Association of Business BACPAC Committee Member, Executive Committee member, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Society of Human Resources Region 4 Chair and Consultants Forum Board Member and Dallas HR Public Policy Committee Chair; former National Board Member and Dallas Chapter President of Web Network of Benefit Professionals; former Dallas Business League President and others. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

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Discrimination Rules Create Risks For Employer Reliance On Injunction Of FMLA Rule On Same-Sex Partners’ Marital Status

April 9, 2015

Employers covered by the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) have a temporary reprieve from the obligation to comply with a change to the FMLA regulations’ definition of “spouse” that requires FMLA-covered employers to recognize certain same-sex relationships as marriages for purposes of the FMLA that had been slated to take effect on March 27, 2015 under a preliminary injunction order granted by the District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Texas v. U.S, No. 7:15-cv-00056-O, 2015 BL 84253 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 26, 2015).   However the delay in the implementation of the regulation as a practical matter may present traps for unwary employers in light of federal employment discrimination law rules that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The preliminary injunction issued by Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on March 26 rule enjoins the Labor Department from enforcing a final regulation that would require employers covered by the FMLA to grant workers in legal same-sex marriages to take job-protected leave under the FMLA to care for a seriously ill spouse even if the state where the employee lives or works doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

The preliminary injunction resulted from a lawsuit brought by the attorney generals of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska questioning the validity of change to the definition of “spouse” in DOL Regulation § 825.102 and § 825.122 to expand the definition of the term “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA to include same-sex relationships recognized as marriage under the state law of the location of the marriage celebration.

The Final Regulation redefining the term “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA is one of a host of changes to federal employment, tax, immigration and other regulations and enforcement policies announced by the Obama Administration in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 118 FEP Cases 1417 (2013).

In Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional and struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which sought to preclude same-sex couples from being treated as married for purposes of federal law including the FMLA by restricting the definition of marriage for federal law only to relationships between persons of the opposite sex.

If and when implemented, the FMLA Final Regulation will revise the DOL’s FMLA regulations to provide that “Spouse” means

a husband or wife. For purposes of this definition, husband or wife refers to the other person with whom an individual entered into marriage as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State. This definition includes an individual in a same-sex or common law marriage that either:

  1. Was entered into in a State that recognizes such marriages; or
  2. If entered into outside of any State, is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State.

According the DOL, the adoption of a place of celebration standard for determining marital status in the Final Rule ensures that all legally married employees have consistent FMLA leave rights regardless of where they live. The Department believes that this place of celebration rule will give fullest effect to the purpose of the FMLA to let employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a spouse for an FMLA-qualifying reason.  Thus, whether a same-sex or other couple qualifies as married for purposes of the FMLA turns upon whether the couple is in a relationship legally recognized as a married in the state in which the ceremony was performed.  However, the Final Regulation does not require employers to treat same-sex civil unions, as well as opposite-sex civil unions, as marriages and as such are not guaranteed the right to take FMLA spousal leave nor do have other protections of the Act, including from retaliation. As noted above, an employer may offer an employment benefit program or plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights to employees than the rights established by the FMLA, including voluntarily offering other types of leave for couples in civil unions. In addition, eligible employees in civil unions can take FMLA leave for their own serious health condition, for the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care and for bonding, to care for their child or parent with a serious health condition, and for qualifying military family leave reasons.

In Texas v. U.S., the states jointly argued that the Final Rule unlawfully interferes with state laws that prohibit same-sex marriage and bar recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages.  Explaining his finding that the states had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits on their claim that the Final Regulation violates the Full Faith & Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Judge O’Conner wrote, “Congress has not delegated to the Department the power to force states defining marriages traditionally to afford benefits in accordance with the marriage laws of states defining marriage to include same-sex marriages.”  Accordingly, Justice O’Conner ordered the Labor Department to stay implementation of the Final Regulation pending a decision on the merits of the states’ claims.

Even as Judge O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, the Obama Administration was moving ahead to implement new mandates extending sweeping new protections prohibiting government contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity under an Executive Order issued by President Obama that took effect April 8, 2015.  See Obama Executive Order’s Prohibition Of Government Contractor Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Discrimination Creates Challenges For All US EmployersSince the preliminary injunction issued by Judge O’Connor does not apply to that Executive Order, employers contemplating holding off granting FMLA rights to employees involved in same-sex relationships should consult with legal counsel about the potential that such delay, despite Judge O’Connor’s order, might form the basis of employment discrimination, government contracting regulation violations or both.

 For  Advice, Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need help responding to these new or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, help updating or defending your workforce or employee benefit policies or practices, or other related assistance, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Recognized as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law, Ms. Stamer is a practicing attorney Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, author, pubic speaker,management policy advocate and thought leader with more than 25 years’ experience advising government contractors and other employers, their management, benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, vendors and service providers and others about OFCCP, EEOC, and other employment discrimination, government contracting compliance, and other workforce and operational performance, compliance, risk management, compensation, and benefits matters. As a part of this involvement, Ms. Stamer throughout her career specifically has advised and represented a broad range of employers across the U.S., their employee benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, insurers, health care providers and others about the implications of DOMA and other rules relating to rights and expectations of LBGT community members and others in federally protected classes under Federal and state employment, tax, discrimination, employee benefits, health care and other laws.

In addition to her extensive client work Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, management policy advocate and thought leader, and management policy advocate on these and other workforce and related matters who shares her experience and leadership in a wide range of contexts.  A current or former author and advisory board member of HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, SHRM, BNA and several other the prominent publications, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, former President of the Richardson Development Center Board of Directors, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, An American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, American Bar Association (ABA) and State Bar of Texas Fellow, Martindale Hubble Premier AV Rated (the highest), Ms. Stamer publishes and speaks extensively on these and other staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, health care, privacy, public policy, and other operations and risk management concerns. As a part of these activities, Ms. Stamer is scheduled to speak about Same-Sex Marriages and Domestic Partnerships: Lessons Learned, Unanswered Questions and Best Practices on May 1, 2015 for the ABA RPTE Section 2015 Spring Symposium in Washington D.C.  See also Stamer Talks About “Handling Health Plan Spouse, Dependent & Other “Family” Matters in Post-DOMA World” at SPBA 2014 Spring Meeting  Her publications and insights appear in the ABA and other professional publications, HR.com, SHRM, Insurance Thought Leadership, Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

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Obama Executive Order’s Prohibition Of Government Contractor Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Discrimination Creates Challenges For All US Employers

April 8, 2015

Effective today (April 8, 2015), all U.S. businesses working as government contractors or subcontractors are prohibited from discriminating in employment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) applicants and employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While the new LGBT nondiscrimination rules for government contractors and subcontractors imposed by are the latest in a series of changes imposing new obligations for U.S. government contractors and other U.S. employers in their dealings with LGBT workers, all employers of 15 or more employees, not just government contractors, increasingly face employment discrimination risks and other expanding obligations to LGBT workers as a result of evolving judicial precedent and the pro-LGBT rights regulatory agenda of the Obama Administration. As publicity and the Obama Administration’s outreach about the implementation of the new nondiscrimination rules for government contractors and other announcements about these other new federal LGBT employment protections are likely to fuel new claims and demands by workers asserting these new rights, government contractors and all other employers should act quickly to ensure that their policies and benefit programs, as well as compliance and risk management procedures are properly updated to meet these changing federal rules regarding the employment rights of LGBT workers.

The new federal government contracting prohibition against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by federal government contractors is imposed by President Obama’s Executive Order on LGBT Workplace Discrimination, which takes effect today and applies to all federal government contractors and subcontractors regardless of the type of government contract, number of employees or project revenue. The Executive Order’s requirement that government contractors and subcontractors not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity covers every type of new and modified federal contract and every establishment of those contractors and subcontractors – not just the ones directly involved in performing the contract. As a result of the Executive Order, all federal government contractors and subcontractors are prohibited from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in hiring, firing, pay, promotion and other employment practices based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Executive Order’s prohibition against federal contractors and subcontractors discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity expressly elevates sexual orientation and gender identity to the same protected status as race, color, religion, national origin, disability and veteran status for purposes of the employment discrimination rules applicable to federal government contractors. While at this point, the Obama Administration rules do not also require federal government contractors and subcontractors to undertake any specific new record keeping, data analysis, goal setting or other similar affirmative action, government contractors and subcontractors of all types and sizes will want to take care to update their nondiscrimination policies and practices to reflect their policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as ensure that their hiring, promotion, compensation and other employment practices and associated documentation are administered and documented to defend against potential discrimination charges based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

While the Executive Order expressly applies only to government contractors and subcontractors, in fact all employers of 15 or more employees increasingly need to be concerned about employment discrimination exposures brought by employees who are, or are perceived to be LGBT individuals, as well as keeping their employment and employee benefit practices compliant with a host of recent federal rule changes on the treatment of LGBT individuals.

On the employment discrimination front, most employers, not just government contractors, need to use care to meet their duty to protect LGBT and others from “gender stereotyping” and same-sex sexual harassment or other sex discrimination in their workplaces recognized by the courts as encompassed in Title VII’s sex discrimination protections.

Under the gender stereotyping theory recognized by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), for instance, an employer violates Title VII if “X discriminates against Y because X believes that Y does not dress, walk, talk, etc. as members of Y’s gender typically do.”  In EEOC v. Boh Bros. Const. Co., LLC , 731 F. 3d 444 (5th Cir. 2013) for instance, the Fifth Circuit upheld Title VII gender stereotying based sex discrimination claims of an iron worker  who claimed his supervisor in the all-male work environment  accused him of being gay subjected him to highly offensive, often sexually explicit verbal and physical harassment for months because the supervisor perceived his behavior was effeminate and did not conform to the supervisor’s  idea of how a man should act.

Likewise, the EEOC and courts also have continued to recognize sexual harassment claims based on harassing conduct inflicted by a party of the same sex as the victim plaintiff.   For instance, last year the EEOC announced  that Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. agreed to pay $290,000 to four female bank tellers and take other corrective action to settle an EEOC sexual harassment lawsuit where the EEOC charged that a female manager and another female bank teller at a Wells Fargo branch in Reno, Nevada sexually harassed the women by making graphic sexual comments, gestures and images; inappropriate touching, and making suggestions to wear sexually provocative clothing to attract customers and to advance in the workplace, which the Wells Fargo allegedly failed to act quickly to stop despite complaints about the conduct from the victims.

In addition, government contractors and other U.S. employers also generally need to review and update heir employment, employee benefit plans, leave policies and other practices to ensure that they are up to date and defensible in light of the ongoing series of new rules affording new protections for LGBT workers issued by the Obama Administration in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in Windsor. In the aftermath of Windsor, the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies modified immigration, family and military leave, employee benefits, and a host of other rules to require both public and private employers and their employee benefit plans afford marriage-equivalent treatment workers involved in certain same-sex relationships as well as to extend other LGBT employment and other protections. As a result of these and other expansions in the legal protections of LGBT individuals by the Obama Administration like the Executive Order and these other regulatory and enforcement changes, as well as evolving precedent in the wake of the Windsor decision, all U.S. employers should prepare to meet new legal requirements, as well as rising expectations by members of the LGBT community about their workplace, employee benefits and other rights.

In anticipation of these rising requirements and expectations all employers including government contractors should engage legal counsel for assistance in reviewing and updating their policies and practices to comply with the evolving federal and state rules on workplace and other rights of LGBT individuals and strategies for appropriately managing the legal risks and other concerns associated with these emerging entitlements and expectations. For government contractors and other employers concerns about discrimination exposures, this discussion generally should include consideration about whether in addition updating written policies and procedures, the employer should consider workforce training, communications or other actions to promote workforce compliance with the new policies, minimize the risk that the failure to retrain the workforce might make it easier for potential plaintiffs to use events or policies occurring before the new rules became effective to help bolster post-effective date discrimination claims, and other risk management and compliance procedures.

 For  Advice, Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need help responding to these new or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, help updating or defending your workforce or employee benefit policies or practices, or other related assistance, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Recognized as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law, Ms. Stamer is a practicing attorney Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, author, pubic speaker,management policy advocate and thought leader with more than 25 years’ experience advising government contractors and other employers, their management, benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, vendors and service providers and others about OFCCP, EEOC, and other employment discrimination, government contracting compliance, and other workforce and operational performance, compliance, risk management, compensation, and benefits matters. As a part of this involvement, Ms. Stamer throughout her career specifically has advised and represented a broad range of employers across the U.S., their employee benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, insurers, health care providers and others about the implications of DOMA and other rules relating to rights and expectations of LBGT community members and others in federally protected classes under Federal and state employment, tax, discrimination, employee benefits, health care and other laws.

In addition to her extensive client work Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, management policy advocate and thought leader, and management policy advocate on these and other workforce and related matters who shares her experience and leadership in a wide range of contexts.  A current or former author and advisory board member of HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, SHRM, BNA and several other the prominent publications, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, former President of the Richardson Development Center Board of Directors, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, An American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, American Bar Association (ABA) and State Bar of Texas Fellow, Martindale Hubble Premier AV Rated (the highest), Ms. Stamer publishes and speaks extensively on these and other staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, health care, privacy, public policy, and other operations and risk management concerns. As a part of these activities, Ms. Stamer is scheduled to speak about Same-Sex Marriages and Domestic Partnerships: Lessons Learned, Unanswered Questions and Best Practices on May 1, 2015 for the ABA RPTE Section 2015 Spring Symposium in Washington D.C.  See also Stamer Talks About “Handling Health Plan Spouse, Dependent & Other “Family” Matters in Post-DOMA World” at SPBA 2014 Spring Meeting  Her publications and insights appear in the ABA and other professional publications, HR.com, SHRM, Insurance Thought Leadership, Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Pressâ„¢ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile at here or e-mailing this information here.

©2015 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.


Review & Update HR & Benefit Practices For DOL Proposed Change In FMLA Regs, Other Rules Treating Some Same-Sex Couples As Spouses

July 8, 2014

August 11, 2014 is the deadline for employers and other interested individuals to comment on the  U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (DOL) June 27, 2014 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which would amend the definition of spouse under the current Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) regulations in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which ruled unconstitutional section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  The proposed change is one of a series of regulatory changes that the Obama Administration has proposed or adopted since the Windsor decision.

DOL intends that the NPRM will replace the current definition of “spouse” its current FMLA regulations so that eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages will be able to take FMLA leave to care for their spouse or family member, regardless of where they live.

To accomplish this, the NPRM proposes to revise the current definition of spouse in the current FMLA regulations to define spouse as follows: Spouse, as defined in the statute, means a husband or wife. For purposes of this definition, husband or wife refers to the other person with whom an individual entered into marriage as defined or recognized under State law for purposes of marriage in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State. This definition includes an individual in a same-sex or common law marriage that either (1) was entered into in a State that recognizes such marriages or, (2) if entered into outside of any State, is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State.

Among other things, this change will:

  • Replace the current “state of residence” rule with a rule that determines spousal status based on where the marriage was entered into (sometimes referred to as “place of celebration”) rule for determining marital status;
  • Revise the definition of spouse expressly to reference same-sex marriages in addition to common law marriages, and to encompass same-sex marriages entered into abroad that could have been entered into in at least one State.

The expanded definition of spouse will broaden the range of couples that employers and plans may be required to treat as spouses for purposes of the FMLA.  This expansion also may result in the extension of rights with respect to parents or children of a same-sex partner for certain employment or employee benefit purposes.  While the historical determination of parental relationships under the FMLA regulations based on a functional, rather than legalistic, test means that the proposed change will likely have less significance in this regard, employers and plans still should evaluate the potential implications of the expanded definition of spouse on its responsibilities with respect to the employees, their same-sex partners and the parents and children of the same-sex partners.

Also, many employers and employee benefit plans may be concerned about proposed language in the NPRM and other regulations requiring employers to decide if a marriage not valid in the United States could have been valid if performed within the United States.  Likewise, as the number of states where same-sex partners can qualify as spouses continues to evolve as courts and legislatures act to require recognition of these relationships, many employers and plans may feel legitimate concerns about the operational demands of administering their human resources and employee benefit plans and policies with respect to individuals involved in same-sex relationships where the legal status of the relationship may evolve due to changes of law, creating responsibilities for the employer or plan with respect to relationships that it may not know exist or the status of which may change subsequent to a determination of marital status or other relevant decision.  Employers and employee benefit plans should consider adopting practices to address these challenges to minimize the risk of incurring liability as a result of an oversight resulting from evolving status.

 For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance monitoring these and other regulatory policy, enforcement, litigation or other developments, or to review or respond to these or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 25 years’ experience advising employers, health plan and other employee benefit, insurance, financial services, health and other business clients about these and other matters.   As a part of this involvement, Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising employers, employee benefit plans, insurers, health care providers and others about the implications of DOMA and other rules impacting the identification of spouses and other family status protections under the FMLA and other Federal and state employment, tax, health care and other laws.  She publishes and speaks extensively on these and other staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, health care, privacy, public policy, and other operations and risk management concerns. Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here. For important information concerning this communication click here©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited, non-exclusive right to republished granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.


Employee & Other Whistleblower Complaints Common Source of HIPAA Privacy & Other Complaints

July 7, 2014

Employer and other health plan sponsors, administrators, insurers and their business associates should heed both the lesson about properly protecting health plan documents with protected health information and the more subtle lesson about the role of employees and other whistleblowers in bringing these violations to the attention of regulators contained in the latest Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) resolution agreement as well as act to manage their potential employment related liability to workforce members reporting these violations

HIPAA’s Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules generally prohibit  health plans, health care providers, health plans (Covered Entities) and their business associates from creating, using, accessing or disclosing protected health information except as allowed by HIPAA.  In addition, HIPAA requires covered entities both to meet detailed criteria for protecting electronic protected health information and also to take reasonable steps to protect all protected health information, as well as meet other business associate, breach notification, and individual rights requirements.

Parkview Resolution Agreement

Late last month, the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (HHS) announced that complaints of a retiring physician over the mishandling of her patient records by Parkview Health System, Inc. (Parkview) prompted the investigation that lead Parkview to agree to pay $800,000 to settle charges that it violated HIPAA’s Privacy Rule.

The resolution agreement settles charges lodged by HHS based on an OCR investigation into the retiring physician’s allegations that Parkview violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule by failing to properly safeguard the records when it returned them to the physician following her retirement.

As a covered entity under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, HIPAA requires that Parkview appropriately and reasonably safeguard all protected health information in its possession, from  acquisition to disposition.

In an investigation prompted by the physician’s complaint, OCR found that Parkview breached this responsibility in its handling of certain physician patient records in helping the physician to transition to retirement.

According to OCR, in September 2008, Parkview took custody of medical records of approximately 5,000 to 8,000 patients while assisting the retiring physician to transition her patients to new providers, and while considering the possibility of purchasing some of the physician’s practice.

Subsequently on June 4, 2009, Parkview employees, with notice that the physician was not at home, left 71 cardboard boxes of these medical records unattended and accessible to unauthorized persons on the driveway of the physician’s home, within 20 feet of the public road and a short distance away from a heavily trafficked public shopping venue. OCR concluded this conduct violated the Privacy Rule.

To settle OCR’s charges that these actions violated HIPAA, OCR has agreed to pay the $800,000 resolution amount and to adopt and implement a corrective action plan requiring Parkview to revise their policies and procedures, train staff, and provide an implementation report to OCR.

HIPAA Violations Carry Significant Liability

As demonstrated by the Parkview resolution agreement, violation of HIPAA  can carry significant civil and potentially even criminal liability.  The criminal provisions of HIPAA as well as the express terms of the Privacy Rules require that covered entities and their business associates adopt and administer specific compliance programs and practices to provide to compliance with HIPAA and HIPAA’s breach notification rules and the Privacy Regulations may require self-reporting of violations when and if violations occur.  Since HIPAA includes potential criminal liability, violations of its provisions can trigger organizational liability for covered entities and their business associates.  Consequently, HIPAA compliance also generally should be part of the Federal Sentencing Guideline Compliance Program of every covered entity and business associate.

The HITECH Act tightened certain rules applicable to the use, access or disclosure of protected health information by covered entities and their business associates.  In addition, the HITECH Act added breach notification rules, extended direct responsibility for compliance with HIPAA to business associates, increased penalties for noncompliance with HIPAA and made other refinements to HIPAA’s medical privacy rules and made certain other changes.  Furthermore, enforcement of HIPAA and the resulting penalties have increased since the HITECH Act took effect.

With OCR stepping up both audits and enforcement and penalties for violations higher than ever since the HITECH Act amended HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates should act quickly to review and update their policies, practices and training to implement any adjustments needed to maintain compliance and manage other risks under these ever-evolving HIPAA standards.

When conducting these efforts, Covered Entities and business associates not only carefully watch for and react promptly to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, but also document their commitment and ongoing compliance and risk management activities to help support their ability to show their organization maintains the necessary “culture of compliance” commitment needed to mitigate risks in the event of a breach or other HIPAA violation and take well-documented, reasonable steps to encourage their business associates to do the same.    When carrying out these activities, most covered entities and business associates also will want to take steps to monitor potential responsibilities and exposures under other federal and state laws like the privacy and data security requirements that often apply to personal financial information, trade secrets or other sensitive data under applicable federal and state laws and judicial precedent.

A series of supplemental guidance issued by the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in recent weeks is giving health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses (Covered Entities) and their business associates even more to do in reviewing and updating their policies, practices and training for handing protected health information (PHI) beyond bringing their policies and practices into line with OCR’s restatement and update to the Modifications to the HIPAA Privacy, Security, Enforcement, and Breach Notification Rules Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act; Other Modifications to the HIPAA Rules; Final Rule (Omnibus Final Rule) OCR published January 25, 2013.

Covered Entities generally have been required to comply with most requirements the Omnibus Final Rule’s restated regulations restating OCR’s regulations implementing the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules to reflect HIPAA amendments enacted by the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act since the Omnibus Final Rule took effect on March 26, 2013 and to have updated business associate agreements in place since September 23, 2013.  Meanwhile, the Omnibus Final Rule generally has required business associates have updated business associate agreements in place and otherwise to have come into compliance with all of the applicable requirements of the Omnibus Final Rule since September 23, 2013.  Although these deadlines are long past, many Covered Entities and business associates have yet to complete the policy, process and training updates required to comply with the rule changes implemented in  the Omnibus Final Rule.

Even if a Covered Entity or business associate completed the updates required to comply with the Omnibus Final Rule, however, recent supplemental guidance published by OCR means that most organizations now have even more work to do on HIPAA compliance. This includes the following supplemental guidance on its interpretation and enforcement of HIPAA against Covered Entities and business associates published by OCR since January 1, 2014 alone:

Beyond this 2014 guidance, Covered Entities and their business associates also should look at enforcement actions and data as well as other guidance OCR issued during 2013 after publishing the Omnibus Final Rule such as:

With OCR stepping up both audits and enforcement and penalties for violations higher than ever since the HITECH Act amended HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates should act quickly to review and update their policies, practices and training to implement any adjustments needed to maintain compliance and manage other risks under these ever-evolving HIPAA standards.

When conducting these efforts, Covered Entities and business associates not only carefully watch for and react promptly to new OCR guidance and enforcement actions, but also document their commitment and ongoing compliance and risk management activities to help support their ability to show their organization maintains the necessary “culture of compliance” commitment needed to mitigate risks in the event of a breach or other HIPAA violation and take well-documented, reasonable steps to encourage their business associates to do the same.    When carrying out these activities, most covered entities and business associates also will want to take steps to monitor potential responsibilities and exposures under other federal and state laws like the privacy and data security requirements that often apply to personal financial information, trade secrets or other sensitive data under applicable federal and state laws and judicial precedent.

Watch & Manage Whistleblower Liability From HIPAA Violations & Compliance

Beyond illustrating the potential HIPAA-associated penalties that can result from failing to comply with HIPAA, the Parkview resolution agreement also illustrates the risks that current or former workforce members and others acting as whistleblowers play in helping OCR to identify HIPAA violations.  HIPAA and most other laws prohibited covered entities from forbidding or retaliating against a person for objecting to or reporting the concern and offer whistleblowers potential participation in the reporting and prosecution of violations.  Beyond these specific federal HIPAA protections, state courts often recognize firing or otherwise retaliating against workforce members or others for exercising rights protected by HIPAA or other federal anti-retaliation statutes as a basis for a state whistleblower or other retaliatory discharge claim.  See, e.g. Faulkner v. Department of State Health Servs., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22419 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 19, 2009).  See also Court Recognizes Retaliation For Filing HIPAA Privacy Complaint As Basis For Texas Whistleblower Claim.    With retaliation and other whistleblower complaints becoming increasingly common and judgments from these claims rising, covered entities and their business associates need to include appropriate employment liability risk management processes and procedures in their HIPAA compliance processes and coordinate carefully with their human resources team and qualified employment counsel to manage the employment liability related risks associated with investigations and discipline activities under HIPAA.  Concurrently, Privacy Officers also should ensure that their organization’s human resources team understands the HIPAA rules and spot and properly refers to the privacy officer for investigation statements or other activities that may indicate that a HIPAA compliance or retaliation concern needs investigation or redress to avoid missing potential exposures hidden in the human resources processes that could reflect a practice of tolerance or retaliation unacceptable to OCR.

 For Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need assistance monitoring these and other regulatory policy, enforcement, litigation or other developments, or to review or respond to these or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 25 years’ experience advising health plan and employee benefit, insurance, financial services, employer and health industry clients about these and other matters. Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and assisting health care providers, health plans, their business associates and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical privacy and other compliance and risk management policies, to health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. The scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for the past several years who has worked on medical and other privacy concerns throughout her career, she regularly designs and presents HIPAA and other risk management, compliance and other training for health plans, employers, health care providers, professional associations and others, defends covered entities and business associates against OCR, FTC and other privacy and data security investigations, serves as special counsel in litigation arising from these concerns and is the author of several highly regarded publications on HIPAA and other privacy and security concerns.

Ms. Stamer also regularly works with OCR, FTC, USSS, FBI and state and local law enforcement on privacy, data security, health care, benefits and insurance and other matters, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and data security, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her publications and insights appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications. For instance, Ms. Stamer for the third year will serve as the appointed scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR. Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance often appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications Among others, she has conducted privacy training for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health industry, health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.  You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here. For important information concerning this communication click here©2014 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Limited, non-exclusive right to republished granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.


BNSF OSHA Whistleblower Settlement Gives Employers Insights About Policies OSHA View As Prohibited

January 18, 2013

Review and update your policies and be careful how you handle employee reports of injury or safety concerns.  That’s the message of the settlement recently announced with BNSF Railway Co. of Fort Worth, Texas (BNSF).  BNSF has signed a settlement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to voluntarily revise several personnel policies that OSHA alleged violated the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act. The law protects railroad workers from retaliation for, among other acts, reporting suspected violations of federal laws and regulations related to railroad safety and security, hazardous safety or security conditions, and injuries.

The whistleblower provisions of the 22 statutes enforced by OSHA protect employees who report violations of various commercial motor vehicle, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, railroad, public transportation, maritime, consumer product, health care reform, securities, food safety, and consumer financial reform laws and regulations.OSHA charged that BNSF Policies of assigning points to workers reporting safety violations or injuries and other practices deterred or penalized workers protected by the whistleblower provisions of the law. 

The major terms of the BNSF settlement available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/acts/bnsf_accord.html include:

  • Changing BNSF’s disciplinary policy so that injuries no longer play a role in determining the length of an employee’s probation following a record suspension for a serious rule violation. As of Aug. 31, 2012, BNSF has reduced the probations of 136 employees who were serving longer probations because they had been injured on-the-job.
  • Eliminating a policy that assigned points to employees who sustained on-the-job injuries.
  • Revising a program that required increased safety counseling and prescribed operations testing so that work-related injuries will no longer be the basis for enrolling employees in the program. As part of the negotiations leading up to the accord, BNSF removed from the program approximately 400 workers.
  • Instituting a higher level review by BNSF’s upper management and legal department for cases in which an employee who reports an on-duty personal injury is also assessed discipline related to the incident giving rise to the injury.
  • Implementing a training program for BNSF’s managers and labor relations and human resources professionals to educate them about their responsibilities under the FRSA. The training will be incorporated into BNSF’s annual supervisor certification program.
  • Making settlement offers in 36 cases to employees who filed whistleblower complaints with OSHA alleging they were harmed by one or more of the company’s previous policies.

Between August 2007, when OSHA was assigned responsibility for whistleblower complaints under FRSA, and September 2012, OSHA received 1,206 FRSA whistleblower complaints. The number of FRSA whistleblower complaints that OSHA currently receives surpasses the number of whistleblower complaints that OSHA receives under any of the other 21 whistleblower protection statutes it enforces except for Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. More than 60 percent of the FRSA complaints filed with OSHA involve an allegation that a railroad worker has been retaliated against for reporting an on-the-job injury.

“Protecting America’s railroad workers who report on-the-job injuries from retaliation is an essential element in OSHA’s mission. This accord makes significant progress toward ensuring that BNSF employees who report injuries do not suffer any adverse consequences for doing so,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “It also sets the tone for other railroad employers throughout the U.S. to take steps to ensure that their workers are not harassed, intimidated or terminated, in whole or part, for reporting workplace injuries.”

“Ensuring that employees can report injuries or illnesses without fear of retaliation is crucial to protecting worker safety and health,” said Michaels. “If employees do not feel free to report injuries or illnesses, the employer’s entire workforce is put at risk because employers do not learn of and correct dangerous conditions that have resulted in injuries.”   Read the News Release.

For Help With Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs

If you need help in conducting a risk assessment of or responding to an IRS, DOL, Justice Department, or other federal or state agencies or other private plaintiff or other legal challenges to your organization’s existing workforce classification or other labor and employment, compliance,  employee benefit or compensation practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872 .

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 23 years of work helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer often has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters.   She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For more information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. 

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested in exploring other Solutions Law Press, Inc. ™ tools, products, training and other resources here and reading some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ human resources news here including the following:

  • New OCR HIPAA De-Identification Guidance Among Developments Covered In 12/12 HIPAA Update

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THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  All other rights reserved.


OSHA $1Million Award Against AirTran Airways Highlights Retaliation Risks

January 18, 2012

A million dollar plus backpay award announced by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) reminds U.S. employer of the growing importance of taking steps to manage whistleblower and other retaliation claims when dealing with employees who have reported possible safety, discrimination or other activities protected under Federal or state whistleblower or other anti-retaliation laws.

On January 17, 2012, OSHA issued an order requiring  AirTran Airways AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Dallas, Texas-based Southwest Airlines Co., to reinstate and pay more than $1 million in backpay plis interest and compensatory damages to a former pilot who charged AriTran fired him in retaliation for his reporting numerous mechanical concerns.

According to OSHA, the reinstatement and backpay award follows an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program in which OSHA found reasonable cause to believe that the termination of the pilot, whose name is withheld as part of OSHA’s policy, was an act of retaliation in violation of the whistleblower provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, known as AIR21.

According to OSHA, the pilot’s complaint alleged that the airline removed him from flight status on Aug. 23, 2007, pending an investigative hearing regarding a sudden spike in the pilot’s mechanical malfunction reports, or PIREPS. The airline held an internal investigative hearing on Sept. 6, 2007, that lasted 17 minutes. Seven days later, the airline terminated the pilot’s employment, claiming that he did not satisfactorily answer a question regarding the spike in reports. OSHA found that the pilot did not refuse to answer any questions during the hearing, answers to questions were appropriate, and the action taken by the airline was retaliatory.

Either party to the case can file an appeal with the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, but such an appeal does not stay the preliminary reinstatement order.

AirTran Airways is a subsidiary of AirTran Holdings Inc. with headquarters in Orlando. On May 2, 2011, Southwest Airlines completed the acquisition of AirTran Holdings Inc. and now operates AirTran Airways as a wholly-owned subsidiary.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provision of AIR21, as well as 20 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, workplace health and safety, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, rail, maritime, health care, consumer product and food safety laws.  Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.

These whistleblower and anti-retaliation provisions are just a small fraction of the growing list of federal and state laws that provide whistleblower or other anti-retaliation protections to employees and others for reporting known or suspected violations or engaging in other activities protected by the applicable law.  Other examples include federal employment discrimination, securities, tax, customs, immigration, labor, family or military leave, employee benefits, privacy, antitrust, and a wide range of other laws.  Because the prior reporting of information or other exercise or attempted exercise of protected rights often can create presumptions which employers may be required to rebut to avoid whistleblower or other liability under many of these laws, employees increasingly make claims or point to prior reports or activities as a means of challenging or disputing termination or other undesired employer actions. 

To better position themselves to prevent or defend against these types of claims, employers need to be prepared both to demonstrate the appropriateness of their employment and discipline actions, as well as to rebut claims of retaliation.  As part of these efforts, employers among other things should:

Carefully document and administer employee hiring, promotion, discipline and other practices to document their administration in accordance with applicable law based on valid performance based business justifications;

Clearly communicate and educate management and other employees about the employer’s policies against retaliation and procedures for reporting suspected problems;

Review employee terminations and other actions for patterns or other evidence of correlation to prior protected activities by employees that might evidence potential discrimination or other retaliation;

Establish and communicate clear procedures for reporting potential legal or policy violations that might for the basis of retaliation or whistleblower claims;

Conduct prompt, well-documented investigations of all reports of potential compliance or safety concerns, as well as retaliation claims;

Give clear, well-documented instructions to managers and others involved in investigations or other compliance efforts against retaliation or other misconduct;

Establish and administer monitoring and oversight processes and procedures for possible retaliation or other misconduct against protected parties; and

Provide exit interview and other opportunities for employees to share possible retaliation or other concerns with responsible management trained to properly investigate and redress these concerns. 

For Help or More Information

If you need help with these or other human resources, internal controls or risk management matters, please contact the author of this article, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization,management attorney, author and consultant  Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 24 years of work helping private and governmental organizations and their management; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; schools and other governmental agencies and others design, administer and defend innovative compliance, risk management, workforce, compensation, employee benefit, privacy, procurement and other management policies and practices. Her experience includes extensive work helping employers carry out, audit, manage and defend worker classification,union-management relations, wage and hour, discrimination and other labor and employment laws, procurement, conflict of interest, discrimination management, privacy and data security, internal investigation and discipline and other workforce and internal controls policies, procedures and actions. 
Widely published on workforce risk management and compliance concerns, the immediate past-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Section Employee Benefits Committee,  a Council Representative of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on management, compliance, re-engineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:

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THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.