Posts tagged with "lawyers Connecticut"

Firing to Prevent Pension Vesting, Without More, Does Not Violate ADEA

In this economy, companies are terminating employees in an effort to increase share value or simply improve the bottom line.  Often it is the older, more senior, and more costly employees that are the first to go.  The question sometimes arises: “Can my employer fire me to prevent my pension from vesting (thereby saving itself money) without violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act?”  The short and surprising answer is “yes,” assuming the absence of other critical allegations necessary to sustain an ADEA claim.

A Relevant Case

In a case out of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a Connecticut employee alleged in his Complaint only that “he was fired by defendants because he was nearing the age of retirement.”  The lower court dismissed this claim and the appellate court affirmed because this was the only fact alleged in the Complaint as evidence of age discrimination.  The United States Supreme Court has held that the firing of an employee to prevent his pension benefits from vesting does not, without more, violate the ADEA.

What essential allegations were missing?  In order to prevail, the plaintiff had to allege facts evincing that his employer was using pension status as a proxy for age, in order to discriminate on the basis of age.  How could he do that?  One way would be to plead and prove that his pension vested due to age and not years of service.  While age and years of service are empirically connected, the Supreme Court has said that they are “analytically distinct.”  What the Complaint lacked were additional allegations supporting a claim of age discrimination, for a successful ADEA plaintiff must prove that age actually motivated the employer’s decision.

The take-away from this case is that victims of age discrimination should consult with an experienced employment law litigator to ensure that an actionable claim is properly alleged in a Complaint.  In the case referred to above, it is impossible to say whether the plaintiff would have prevailed with a more artfully crafted Complaint.  What we do know is that his bare-bones Complaint was dismissed as insufficient without ever being heard on its merits.

The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues. Please contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at our Westport office at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a consultation today.

Hurdles Employees Must Jump in Filing a Claim for Unlawful Discrimination

Here in Connecticut and across the nation, employees from all walks of life routinely face unlawful discriminatory practices and treatment in the workplace. Depending on the nature of the claim, he or she may file civil lawsuits under Title VII (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin) or the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA).

However, employees need to keep in mind that before they seek recourse with the courts, they must first exhaust all of their administrative remedies. “The exhaustion requirement exists to afford the administrative agency the opportunity to investigate, mediate, and take remedial action.”[1] Failure to do so will result in dismissal of the case.

CFEPA Title VII

Furthermore, employees must pay attention to statutory time restrictions for filing administrative charges under Title VII and CFEPA:

To sustain a claim for unlawful discrimination under Title VII in a deferral state such as Connecticut, a plaintiff must file administrative charges with the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunities Commission] within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory acts.[2] … CFEPA requires that a complainant file the administrative charge with the CCHRO [Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities] within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.[3]

Courts are particularly cognizant of these requirements and endorse “strict adherence… [as] the best guarantee of the evenhanded administration of the law.”[4] As a result, the time bar will begin running for each individual adverse employment action against the employee on the date it occurred. Failure to timely file a claim may prevent it from being reviewed by the EEOC or CCHRO.

However, employees often endure discriminatory practices over a prolonged period of time, so even if alleged conduct falls outside of the charging period, it may be reviewable. An important exception to strict adherence is the continuing violation exception, which involves incidents occurring both within and outside the time bar. A continuing violation occurs “where there is proof of specific ongoing discriminatory policies or practices, or where specific and related instances of discrimination are permitted by the employer to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice.”[5]

As an employee, it is imperative that you understand Connecticut’s statutory scheme surrounding hiring, evaluation, and termination processes, as well as the requirements for filing a lawsuit under State and federal anti-discrimination law. The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport.

If you have any questions regarding any employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C. in Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County) by telephone at (203) 221-3100 or by email at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

 


[1] Stewart v. United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, 762 F.2d 193, 198 (2d. Cir. 1985).

[2] Flaherty v. Metromail Corp., 235 F.3d 133, 136 n.1 (2d Cir. 2000).

[3] Connecticut General Statutes § 46a-82e.

[4] Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 826 (1980).

[5] Cornwell v. Robinson, 23 F.3d 694, 704 (2d Cir. 1994).

Employee Handbook Alert: Seemingly Neutral Work Rule May Violate NLRA

The National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) gives private-sector employees the unqualified right to engage in “protected concerted activity” which includes discussing among themselves such things as wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.  An employer cannot promulgate a work rule that tends reasonably to chill employees’ exercise of that statutory right.

Karl Knauz Motors, Inc. owned and operated a BMW dealership.  Its employee handbook contained the following (apparently common sense) rule:

(b) Courtesy: Courtesy is the responsibility of every employee.  Everyone is expected to be courteous, polite, and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees.  No one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.

The Board’s Decision

In a September 28, 2012 decision, the National Labor Relations Board for two reasons found the rule unlawful “because employees would reasonably construe its broad prohibition against ‘disrespectful’ conduct and ‘language which injures the image or the reputation of the Dealership’” as including employees’ protected statements objecting to and seeking improvement of terms and conditions of employment.

First, there was nothing in the rule that would reasonably suggest to employees that such protected communications were beyond the rule’s broad reach.  Second, an employee would reasonably assume that the employer would “regard statements of protest or criticism as ‘disrespectful’ or ‘injur[ious] [to] the image or reputation of the Dealership.’”

The Board took particular offense to the second section of the rule as specifically proscribing certain types of conduct and statements.  The Board construed these as workplace “lines” that a Karl Knauz Motors’ employee may not safely cross.  In the Board’s estimation, the second section of the rule prohibits not merely a manner of speaking, but rather the actual content of employee speech—content that would damage the employer’s reputation.

Consequently, a reasonable employee would conclude that protected communications about the employer’s allegedly unlawful terms and conditions of employment would expose the employee to employer sanctions for violation of its handbook rule.  Stated differently, the Board felt that compliance with the first section of the rule offered no assurance against sanctions under the second section of the rule.

Final Takeaway

Historically, NLRB decisions have ebbed and flowed depending upon the current occupant of the White House, who appoints the Board’s members.  Lately, the pendulum has continued to swing in the direction of further limiting employer rights to regulate threatening or offensive employee speech, leading one commentator to question whether at-will employment will be relegated to a historical artifact.

The takeaway from the Board’s decision vector is for employers to examine employee handbooks to compare and contrast their language with that found by the NLRB to be unlawful.  The cost of an amendment pales in comparison with the cost of an NLRB investigation and proceeding.  Remember that the NLRA protects  all private sector employees, irrespective of whether or not they belong to a union.

The employment and labor law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the counseling, negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related issues and assist employers from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in ensuring compliance with the applicable law. Contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced employment law attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a free initial consultation.

To Be Qualified for a Position, an Employee Must Also Be Eligible

Most employees are familiar with the proposition that for them to prevail in a discrimination case they must prove several things, including that they were “qualified” for the position sought (and denied).  Most people equate being “qualified” with “possessing the qualifications to perform the job” and this is correct.  But there is more.  In addition to being technically competent, the employee must also be eligible to apply for the position.

Case Background

In a decision, a Physician’s Assistant (“PA”) voluntarily chose to transfer from a hospital’s Department of Surgery to its Department of Medicine in order to avoid impending “on-call” obligations.  When a Lead PA position was posted in the Department of Surgery it was hospital policy to offer it first to PA’s within the Department (of which there was one) and absent interest, to open the position to other Departments.  When the Lead PA position was offered to and accepted by the lone PA in the Department of Surgery the former Department PA sued on a variety of grounds, including race and gender discrimination.

The Court’s Decision

After a jury initially found for the disappointed PA, a reviewing court found that the jury’s determination that he was qualified for the position found no support in the record.  The court framed the relevant inquiry as “whether he would have been eligible to apply as a non-departmental candidate when there was an internal candidate willing to take the . . . position.”  The court answered this question in the negative and judgment was entered in favor of the defendant hospital.

Parenthetically, the court also found that the plaintiff PA did not suffer any adverse employment action and that the circumstances of the case did not give rise to an inference of gender discrimination.  Noteworthy, too, was the court’s observation that “unfairness is not the equivalent of gender discrimination.”  The court’s sole concern is “whether unlawful discriminatory animus motivates a challenged employment decision.”  Thus, a successful plaintiff must produce evidence from which such motivation can reasonably be inferred.

The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues. Please contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at our Westport office at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a consultation today.

Investigatory Meeting Even With Possible Consequences Not an Adverse Employment Action

Employees sometimes find themselves summoned to an internal investigation and informed that they could be terminated depending upon the results of the investigation.  As long as the employer is merely (and reasonably) enforcing its preexisting disciplinary policies, such circumstances (however unsettling) do not support even a prima facie case of employment discrimination.

In order to establish a prima facie case and put an employer to its proof that there was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its challenged action, an employee must demonstrate that he suffered an “adverse employment action.”  This means “a materially significant disadvantage with respect to the terms of [a plaintiff’s] employment.”  While each situation must be assessed under the totality of the particular circumstances, there must be “a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”

Merely being called into an investigatory meeting and informed of its potential consequences does not constitute an adverse employment action, particularly where no discipline or other negative consequence follows.  In the absence of an adverse employment action, an employee’s case will likely be dismissed via summary judgment without the need for a trial on the merits.

The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues. Please contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a consultation today.

Proxy/Alter Ego Liability for Sexual Harassment

Liability in Workplace Sexual Harassment

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (that includes Connecticut and New York) addressed for the first time whether the so-called Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense is available when an alleged sexual harassment attacker holds a sufficiently high position within an organization so as to be considered the organization’s proxy or alter ego.  The Second Circuit joined the other Circuits that have considered the issue in concluding that under those circumstances, the affirmative defense was unavailable to the employer.

By way of background, Faragher/Ellerth held that a company could escape vicarious liability for sexual harassment by taking certain steps directed toward reporting and eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace.  Left open was the issue of the employer’s direct liability where the actor was deemed to be the proxy/alter ego of the company.  Under that doctrine, an employer is liable in its own right for wrongful harassing conduct, as opposed to being vicariously liable for the actions of company agents.

A Company’s Proxy or Alter Ego

But who is the company’s proxy or alter ego?  Prior cases clearly place the company president and other sufficiently senior corporate officers within that category, and refer to “that class of an organization’s officials who may be treated as the organization’s proxy.”  Understandably, the courts do not want to draw a bright line around who may be considered an employer proxy, so that unusual cases can be determined on their peculiar facts without being constrained by particular titles.

All that is required is for the supervisor to occupy a sufficiently high position in the management hierarchy of the company for his actions to be imputed to the company.  When the official’s unlawful harassment is thus automatically charged to the employer, it cannot raise the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense, even if the harassment did not result in an adverse employment action.

The result is a settling of the law in the Connecticut federal court; the Faragher/Ellerth defense is unavailable when the alleged harasser is the employer’s proxy or alter ego.  Both employers and employees now know better where they stand.

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about Title VII and workplace discrimination or any other employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C. in Westport, Connecticut by telephone at (203) 221-3100 or by email at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Employer Not Liable for Doing “Stupid” or Even “Wicked” Things

Case Background

Employment discrimination laws protect employees from discrimination.  They do not protect against “ordinary workplace experiences” that offend one’s sensibilities or result in hurt feelings.  A Connecticut woman found that out the hard way when a Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment against her.  There was no dispute as to any material fact and the employer was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Thus, there was no need for a trial on the merits.

The employee in question was fired from her “at will” position as Public Relations Coordinator for a large corporation because of her volatile workplace behavior spanning three years.  She claimed that she was fired because of her age, and that she had suffered intentional infliction of emotional distress as a result.

Establishing a “But For” Cause

Under the applicable law, the employee must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination.  If she does, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.  Assuming such a reason, the employee may then prevail if she can show that the employer’s action was in fact the result of discrimination, i.e., that the stated reason is “pretextual.”

The employee must further prove that age was a “but for” cause for the challenged action and not merely a contributing or motivating factor.  In this case, the employee was unable to show that her age was the sole, i.e., “but for” cause of her termination.

Conclusions

In fairness to the employer, the employee’s insubordination was evident from the record.  On one occasion, the employee asked her manger if she had “stopped taking her medication.”  Nor did some favorable evaluations raise a genuine issue of material fact as to pretext.  The court concluded that isolated positive feedback was entirely consistent with the explanation for her termination: sporadic inappropriate behavior over the course of several years.  A reasonable jury would have no reason to doubt the employer’s explanation for the employee’s discharge.

The employee also complained about the “tone” that was used with her and that she was “distraught” about negative comments she received.  This formed the basis for her claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The court had no trouble dismissing this claim, as well.  “These ordinary workplace experiences clearly do not rise to the level of being ‘so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.’”

It was in this context that the court made the observation that employers are not liable for doing stupid or even wicked things in the absence of a sufficient connection between the employee’s age and termination of her employment.

The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues. Please contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at our Westport office at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a consultation today.

Only Connecticut Employees Count Toward CFMLA Threshold

What is the CFMLA?

The Connecticut Family and Medical Leave Act (CFMLA) requires employers who employ 75 or more employees to provide eligible employees with 16 weeks of leave during any 24-month period for a variety of reasons, most concerning a serious health condition of a family member.  The Connecticut Supreme Court has recently held that Connecticut employers are not subject to the CFMLA unless they employ at least 75 employees within the state.  In this day and age of “virtual workplaces,” the decision of the Court offers certainty to employers but may deprive employees working remotely of CFMLA coverage.

Valez v. Commissioner of Labor

In Valez v. Commissioner of Labor, Nos. SC 18683-84 (Sept. 25, 2012), the plaintiff worked as a full-time office manager at a Hartford apartment complex.  Her actual employer had over 1000 employees nationwide, but fewer than 75 within the State of Connecticut.  The plaintiff requested and received 12 weeks of leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act but when she was unable to return to her job due to medical restrictions, she was terminated.

A complaint to the Connecticut Department of Labor alleging violation of the CFMLA was unavailing as the hearing officer determined that the employer had fewer than 75 employees in Connecticut and was therefore exempt from the statute.  An appeal to the Superior Court was successful, as the Judge ruled that the CFMLA applied to employers that employ 75+ employees irrespective of their geographic location.

On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed, holding that the CFMLA applies only to employers with 75+ employees physically within the State.  The Supreme Court felt that the lower court had failed to demonstrate appropriate deference to the Connecticut Labor Commissioner’s interpretation of the statutory term “employer” and his interpretation of who constitutes an “employee” for purposes of the CFMLA.

The Valez decision introduces a degree of certainty for employers with fewer than 75 employees in Connecticut.  Before, some national employers were following CFMLA even though they were exempt from the federal FMLA as a result of having fewer than 50 employees within a 75 mile radius.  Employees, too, can now be sure of their rights as it is settled that only employees within the state of Connecticut will count toward applicability of the CFMLA.

The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues.  If you have any questions regarding CFMLA or other employment matters, please contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Bullying in the Workplace — The Next Litigation Frontier?

Workplace Bullying

The Connecticut General Assembly enacted legislation to address student bullying in the school setting.  Now some states have turned their attention to bullying in the workplace.  The new statutes, if enacted, would create a new cause of action for employment discrimination—bullying.

Since 2003, 21 states have proposed legislation to rein in workplace bullying.  Many states have been working off of a model act (the Healthy Workplace Bill) authored by Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada.  The bill defines workplace bullying as the “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work interference—sabotage—which prevents work from getting done.”

Adopting Legislation 

According to a 2010 study, 35% of U.S. workers claim to have been bullied at work.  Absent a statutory cause of action, victims have claimed that employers have breached the terms of an employee handbook that requires employees to act professionally.  Such arguments are a stretch and a bullied employee would be much better served by a clearly stated statutory claim.

Anticipating adoption of the proposed legislation, many companies are incorporating anti-bullying training into in-house sexual harassment and anti-discrimination training.  There is a huge collateral benefit to ridding the workplace of bullies—they are extremely detrimental to employee morale and productivity.  As with other anti-discrimination statutes, an employer can avoid vicarious liability by instituting and enforcing a reasonable bullying prevention and protection policy.  In addition, a successful claimant must show demonstrable harm as a result of workplace bullying or an adverse employment action for reporting such activity.  Hurt feelings are not enough.

Reportedly, New York and Massachusetts are on the verge of passing anti-bullying statutes.  Connecticut has yet to weigh in on the issue.

The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues.  If you have any questions regarding workplace harassment, please contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at our Westport, CT office at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Employee Files Retaliatory Discrimination Suit Against Yale University

Case Background

A Yale employee filed a retaliatory discrimination suit against Yale University, in which she alleged that after Yale hired her in 1999 as a “security education coordinator” to ensure the university’s compliance with Title IX, which is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, the university ignored her solutions, responded with indifference, and cut her pay.  Ultimately, Susan Burhans alleged that Yale University made it impossible to do her job, which was to “develop campus safety programs and strategies to ensure Yale’s compliance with Title IX and related laws,” according to the complaint.

Burhans stated that throughout the tenure of her employment, she brought to the attention of school administrators concerns about Yale’s “non-compliance with the Title IX and related laws.”  In April 2011, sixteen students filed a complaint alleging that the university had allowed a hostile sexual environment to persist on campus. According to Burhans’ complaint, “Yale responded to Ms. Burhans’ concerns with indifference, hostility and retaliation in many forms including job termination, initially in March 2010, despite ten years of service with excellent performance evaluations.”

Though Burhans was re-hired as a part-time, contract employee, the complaint alleges that she had no authority to oversee compliance with Title IX in this capacity, and was ultimately terminated, effective November 2012.  The action seeks at least $10 million in damages.

Retaliatory Discrimination Under Title IX

According to the United States Supreme Court, “retaliation against individuals because they complain of sex discrimination is ‘intentional conduct that violates the clear terms of [Title IX].’”[1] To properly allege a retaliatory discrimination case under Title IX, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) protected activity by the plaintiff; (2) knowledge by the defendant of the protected activity; (3) adverse school-related action; and (4) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.[2] Once a plaintiff has established those four elements, the burden shifts to the defendant “to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions.”[3]

In an unofficial response, a university spokesman stated in an email that the lawsuit is “baseless.”[4]

If you are faced with discrimination in the workplace, whether it be gender, sex, religious, or ethnicity based, you should consult with an employment attorney.  The attorneys at Maya Murphy have represented employees in the Fairfield County region and are knowledgeable and experienced in the employment field. Contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq., at 203-221-3100, or at JMaya@mayalaw.com to schedule a consultation today.