Posts tagged with "grievance"

BEWARE THE CASUAL EMPLOYEE COMPLAINT!

The United States Supreme Court has just overturned long-standing law in the Federal Districts of Connecticut and New York with respect to employee claims of retaliation for registering a complaint with an employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“Act”). In this case note, we will tell you how the law has changed, and how employers should adopt changes in policy and procedure to protect themselves from a new and difficult-to-defend source of employment-related liability.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 and subsequently amended by the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The Act sets forth employment rules concerning minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay. The Act contains an anti-retaliation provision prohibiting the discharge of or discrimination against any employee who has “filed any complaint” related to the Act. In 1993, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (whose jurisdiction includes Connecticut and New York) decided
Lambert v. Genesee Hospital, 10 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 1993). There the Court held that “[t]he plain language of this [anti-retaliation] provision [of the Act] limits the cause of action to retaliation for filing formal complaints, instituting a proceeding, or testifying, but does not encompass complaints made to a supervisor.” Id. at 55. Such was the settled law within this Circuit until March 22, 2011, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 2011 U.S. LEXIS 2417 (2011).

In
Kasten, the Supreme Court conducted a thorough exegesis of the phrase “filed any complaint” in the context of whether the statutory language included oral, as well as written 2

complaints, and whether oral complaints thereby constituted protected conduct under the Act’s anti-retaliation provision. The case involved an employee who complained orally to his supervisor about the physical placement of time clocks so as to deprive workers of compensable time. The employee was fired soon after his complaint. The Supreme Court found the text of the statute to be inconclusive as to its meaning and harkened back to the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt and pre-World War II census data to further divine the Act’s legislative intent. The Supreme Court ultimately concluded: “[t]o fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection. This standard can be met, however, by oral complaints, as well as by written ones.”
Kasten at * 23. Left unanswered by the Court, however, is the actual level of clarity and detail required to elevate some employee “letting off steam” (e.g., to a supervisor at a Friday night, after-work happy hour) to the protected activity of “filing of a complaint.” Turning the already murky waters opaque, the Court offered this guidance: “[t]he phrase ‘filed any complaint’ contemplates some degree of formality, certainly to the point where the recipient has been given fair notice that a grievance has been lodged and does, or should, reasonably understand the matter as part of its business concerns.”

Lurking behind the Court’s holding is the spectre of an employee dismissed for cause suddenly recalling his prior oral complaint to his supervisor about violations of the Act, thus playing his anti-retaliation “get out of jail free” card. While the Supreme Court paid lip service to the requirement that an employer be given “fair notice” (albeit orally) of a claimed violation of the Act, it “[left] it to the lower courts to decide whether Kasten [the plaintiff-employee] will
3

be able to satisfy the Act’s notice requirement.”
Id. at * 27. As of this point, there is no such lower court advice to depend upon, but there are steps an employer can now take to reduce its exposure to a fabricated, after-the-fact claim of employer retaliation.

Employee Handbooks or Company Policies and Procedures Manuals should be amended to require that all employee complaints to supervisors or management be written (even if anonymous) on a form prescribed by the employer and delivered to a specific location (e.g., suggestion box) or a designated member of management. A sample form should be appended to the Handbook or Manual as an Exhibit, and a supply of forms should be made readily (but discretely) available to employees. The Company needs to establish a usual, customary, and accepted practice of addressing only written employee complaints, irrespective of their subject, seriousness, or source. The complaint forms should be numerically serialized upon receipt and logged in so that there is no question as to whether or when it was received. In this way, the company can argue that the absenceof such a written complaint form raises a rebuttable presumption that no such complaint was ever made. It will thus deprive a discharged employee of the opportunity after he is fired to conjure up a “stealth” retaliation claim based upon a “phantom” oral complaint.

In the meantime, supervisors and management should be made aware that seemingly innocuous oral complaints from employees about wages and hours are sufficient to trigger the anti-retaliation provision of the Act and should be investigated and acted upon.
4

The Attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. regularly draft or review Employee Handbooks and advise employers on the full spectrum of employment law and employer-employee relations. For additional information, call Robert Keepnews at (203) 221-3100.

Continue Reading

Federal Court Does Not Vacate FINRA Arbitration Award Denying ERISA Claims

Stephen P. Finkelstein v. UBS Global Asset Management (US) Inc. and UBS Securities LLC, 2011 WL 3586437 (S.D.N.Y. Aug 9, 2011)

In a case before the Southern District of New York, Stephen P. Finkelstein (“Finkelstein”) filed a petition to vacate part of a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) Arbitration Award dated October 20, 2010, pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 10. UBS Global Asset Management (US), Inc., and UBS Securities LLC, (collectively “UBS”) filed a cross-motion to confirm the arbitration award pursuant to the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 9. The court denied Finkelstein’s motion to vacate and granted UBS’s motion to confirm the arbitration award in their favor.

The underlying dispute is based on UBS’s denial of Finkelstein’s claim for a special payment under the UBS severance pay plan, which is governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1132. Finkelstein began his employment with UBS in 2002. In April 2006, he was internally transferred to a hedge fund as a portfolio manager responsible for a variety of subprime securities. Within a year of his transfer, the hedge fund suspended his trading authority due to losses of over $300 million in his positions. A few months later, UBS closed the hedge fund based on its overall losses; hedge fund employees were either offered new jobs or terminated. Finkelstein was terminated without cause in August 2007.

The UBS separation program contained a provision offering a special payment to employees who were terminated on or after October 1, but before the date on which bonuses are usually paid. As part of the closure of the hedge fund, UBS adopted a supplemental program that amended the special payment provision to provide eligible employees with a special payment at the discretion of the hedge fund’s management, even though these employees were not terminated on or after October 1. The written eligibility requirements of the supplemental program specified dates of employment and involuntary termination; the hedge fund’s management exercised its discretion to define the formula for calculating the amount of the special payment and to exclude employees who were responsible for substantial losses at the time of the hedge fund’s closure. Therefore, despite having satisfied the written eligibility requirements of supplemental program, Finkelstein was offered a separation package that did not include a special payment.

Pursuant to the separation program’s grievance procedures, Finkelstein submitted a claim for benefits demanding a special payment that was equivalent to 25-percent of his 2006 bonus, which was in accordance with the formula determined by the hedge fund management. Although he acknowledged the losses on his 2007 trading book, Finkelstein attempted to explain that greater than half the losing positions were purchased by his partner without his consent and that the remainder of the losses could be recovered over time. The severance committee denied Finkelstein’s claim, stating that the hedge fund’s management had appropriately exercised its discretion in denying him a special payment. Finkelstein requested a review of the severance committee’s denial of his claim, and was again denied his demand for a special payment.

In December 2008, Finkelstein filed a Statement of Claim with FINRA seeking an award of the special payment. FINRA appointed a panel of three arbitrators to hear the matter and, in October 2010, entered an award in favor of UBS without any explanation or rationale.

Finkelstein filed a petition in federal district court to vacate the arbitration award on the following three grounds: (a) the arbitration panel decision was in “manifest disregard” of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1145; (b) the arbitration award was procured through the fraudulent concealment of material information by UBS; and (c) the arbitrators refused to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy.

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of manifest disregard of the law requires the challenging party to demonstrate that the arbitrators clearly defied the law either by rejecting precedent or pronouncing a decision that strains credulity. See Stolt–Nielsen SA v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 548 F.3d 85, 92–93 (2d Cir.2008), reversed on other grounds, 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010). However, even if the arbitrators do not explain the reasons for their decision, the court will uphold the arbitration award “if a justifiable ground for the decision can be inferred from the record.” Id. at 97. In his petition, Finkelstein contended that the FINRA arbitration panel manifestly disregarded ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1145, on four different grounds. The most significant basis for his contention was that the arbitration panel should have rejected UBS’s unwritten, oral modification of the ERISA severance pay plan to exclude employees responsible for substantial losses from special payment eligibility. Both the ERISA statute, 29 U.S.C § 1102(a)(1), and recent case law within the Second Circuit require that all amendments to employee benefit plans be in writing. However, the written documents of the hedge fund supplemental program expressly conferred the hedge fund management with certain discretionary powers; therefore, the court determined that it was not erroneous for the arbitration panel to conclude that the unwritten rule excluding employees who incurred substantially losses was a permissible exercise of this discretionary authority, rather than an oral modification of the supplemental program. Because the ERISA provision on oral modifications cited by Finkelstein was inapplicable, the arbitration panel had colorable justification to conclude that it was not violated. Consequently, the court determined that Finkelstein failed to demonstrate manifest disregard of ERISA on these grounds. The court also found that each of the remaining challenged panel determinations was supported by a colorable justification. Therefore, the court concluded that the arbitration award could not be vacated for manifest disregard of the ERISA statute.

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of fraud under the FAA, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(1), requires the challenging party to produce clear and convincing evidence that there was fraud that could not have been discovered during the arbitration process and that such fraud is materially related to the award. Chimera Capital, L.P. v. Nisselson (In re MarketXT Holdings, Corp.), 428 B.R. 579, 590 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc. v. McCollough. 967 F.2d 1401, 1404 (9th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). Finkelstein alleged that UBS concealed material information relevant to the dispute. However, the court determined that UBS could not have fraudulently concealed information that they had no obligation to disclose, and also determined that UBS did voluntarily disclose the challenged information in an accurate manner. Therefore, the court concluded that the arbitration award could not be vacated on the basis of fraud under the FAA.

Vacating an arbitration award on the basis of refusing to hear evidence pertinent to the dispute, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3), has been interpreted by courts to mean that an arbitration award will not be opened to evidentiary review except “where fundamental fairness is violated.” Tempo Shain Corp. v. Bertek, Inc., 120 F.3d 16, 20 (2d Cir.1997) (quoting Bell Aerospace Co. Div. of Textron v. Local 516, 500 F.2d 921, 923 (1974)). The arbitration panel denied Finkelstein’s request for production of evidence concerning the value of any parallel investments held by the UBS Investment Bank. He contended this evidence was highly relevant because it would have negated UBS’s assertion that his trading activities sustained substantial losses. It was within the arbitration panel’s broad discretion to determine that the requested materials would have been irrelevant and/or unduly burdensome for UBS to produce. The court determined that the arbitration panel’s refusal to compel UBS to produce this evidence did not deny Finkelstein a “fundamentally fair” hearing because the scope of inquiry afforded him was sufficient to provide him with a reasonable opportunity to be heard and to enable the arbitration panel to make an informed decision. Therefore, the court concluded that the arbitration award could not be vacated on the basis of refusing to hear evidence.

The court denied Finkelstein’s petition to vacate the FINRA arbitration award, and entered judgment to confirm the arbitration award in UBS’s favor.

Should you have any questions relating to FINRA, arbitration or employment issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County, Connecticut at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Continue Reading