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It is vital for employers to understand any physical limitations that their employees have. Not responding appropriately can lead to serious legal trouble.

ADA-138029727-001It’s a situation that happened recently in Union City, Georgia where a police detective sued her former employer. Jacqueline Lewis is an African-American woman who had been employed by the department for 10 years when her career stumbled. Lewis suffered a heart attack in 2009 and was diagnosed with a chronic heart condition.

This condition didn’t render her unfit, so Lewis continued in her role until the department decided to require all employees to carry a Taser. As a part of the training, each employee was expected to submit to a five-second shock. Participants had to seek the consent of their physician prior to the training, but Lewis’ doctor refused permission because of her heart condition.

Lewis’ superiors placed her on administrative leave, and a series of mishaps appears to have worsened relations between Lewis’ doctor and the police department. By day 21 of her leave, Lewis had been terminated, with her employer arguing that she had exhausted her leave time.

Lewis promptly filed a discrimination lawsuit, citing disability, race and gender as the grounds. The complaint detailed the stories of two white, male officers who had been given considerably more time before they were terminated for not meeting the physical ability requirements.

A district court didn’t agree that Lewis had demonstrated her status as a qualified individual under ADA. Additionally, they said that the male employees she compared herself to were not “similarly situated.” Lewis appealed this decision, and the Eleventh Circuit found that Lewis’ heart problems did not make her disabled. However, the department’s decision to treat her as if she was gave her protection under ADA. The circuit court also argued that there may be evidence of gender and race discrimination. They ruled that the case should be decided by a jury.

This case illustrates how crucial it is for employers to treat their employees with care. That treatment may grant them some protection under the law to which they wouldn’t otherwise be entitled.

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James Damore, a former Google employee who made headlines last year after his written diatribe regarding why women are barred biologically from being successful at engineering, is making headlines again for suing the company.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001In his long and considerably detailed complaint, Damore alleges that the tech giant discriminates in its hiring policies against white, conservative men. He accuses the company of having hiring quotas for workers who are female or belong to an ethnic minority. Citing meetings in which department managers are singled out and chastised for not having reached their quota of female or minority workers, Damore says that it is difficult for a white man who does not hold liberal views to get ahead at Google.

Among the charges, Damore says that Google actively discriminates against white male employees who have “perceived conservative views by Google.” The complaint goes on to state that Google has a practice of disciplinary action against employees who “expressed views deviating from the majority view at Google on political subjects raised in the workplace ….”

Google’s own diversity reporting makes Damore’s claims seem at least partially spurious. The company’s latest reports say that their workforce is 69 percent male and 56 percent white. What is more, their technical employees are 80 percent male and 53 percent of these workers are white. This may make it difficult for Damore to support his claims in court.

At the same time, Google is being sued by four female former employees who say that the company openly discriminates against women, paying them less than male counterparts and making it more difficult for them to advance to more responsible positions. In fact, the government is already investigating Google for suspected discriminatory practices against females and minorities.

Google seems to be embattled on all sides thanks to these lawsuits. Their position is a stark reminder of how important it is to develop hiring, promotional, disciplinary and firing practices that are in strict accordance with the law. Working closely with a business and employment attorney is an excellent way to ensure that your company does not run afoul of the law.

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Sexual harassment and abuse in a wide range of industries has made major headlines in recent months. Heavyweights in Hollywood and the media, along with CEOs of major corporations, are all losing their reputations as allegations come to light. With more people being aware than ever before about the dangers of sexual impropriety in the workplace, now is an excellent time to introduce more stringent policies and to implement comprehensive training at all levels of any organization.

bribery4The recently passed federal tax law adds another layer of complication to the settlement of sexual harassment and abuse claims in the workplace. Previously, employers could deduct the cost of settlement payments made to the victims of sexual harassment. It also was possible to deduct the cost of severance packages that were given to at-fault employees. The new tax legislation appears to put an end to this practice.

This new tax law adds § 162(q) to the Internal Revenue Code as follows:

“(q) PAYMENTS RELATED TO SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND SEXUAL ABUSE.—No deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for—

(1) any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement, or
(2) attorney’s fees related to such a settlement or payment.”

In other words, when the settlement of the sexual harassment claim involves a non-disclosure agreement, the employer will no longer be able to deduct the cost of those proceedings on their federal taxes.

As straightforward as the law’s wording is, its application promises to be complex. What happens if the plaintiff alleges other forms of harassment or discrimination in the same proceedings? Is the cost of settlement for those claims still deductible? If the employer disagrees that the payments should not be deductible, what means do they have to fight it? Going to court would all-but guarantee the publication of information that is subject to the non-disclosure agreement.

The new federal tax law gives employers one more excellent reason to train all employees regarding the dangers of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Preventing these incidents before they happen is the best way to avoid complicated tax questions and litigation.

Feel free to contact me, Richard Oppenheim with your related legal questions. I may be reached at 818-461-8500 or by using the “Contact Us” box in the right column.

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The line that divides free speech from school speech is one that often gets blurred. In an age where multitudes of information is available at the touch of a finger, the situation becomes even more complex. When a student creates an Instagram account that is rife with racist statements and images of classmates, are his efforts protected by the First Amendment?

zero-tolerance-at-schoolOne student at Albany High school in Albany, California created such an Instagram account in November 2016. He invited a handful of friends to access the derogatory pictures that he had taken of other students, most of whom were African-American girls. Along with his friends, he made racist comments. Some of his friends “liked” the images.

The Instagram feed was discovered in March 2017. The students who had been targeted by the account were threatened with violence in many of the posts. When school officials reviewed the account, punishments were swift. The account’s creator was expelled in June. Other students received suspensions. An anti-racism rally was held on the day that the suspended students returned. Concurrently, another faction of students decided it was time for a session of “restorative justice.” The suspended students were essentially forced to walk a gauntlet of screaming, angry students, some of whom became violent. One of the students who was returning to school after being suspended had his nose broken in the incident.

The students who were punished for their involvement filed a lawsuit that named the school district, several officials, employees at the school and board members as defendants. Recently, Judge James Donato issued a ruling on part of that lawsuit. He agreed with the defendants’ assertions that the punishments had been reasonable as they were levied by the district in the case of most of the students. However, he ruled that other students who had not targeted specific students with their posts were too harshly punished.

Other claims must be decided in this complex case. When it comes to questions of free speech, it is always best to stay on the side of caution, especially when schools or the workplace are involved.

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A majority of Americans rely on coffee to get them going. They expect to get a jolt, but should they also expect a cancer diagnosis? That’s the question behind a long-pending California lawsuit.

Coffee-Poison-80413335-150x150In 2010, an advocacy group called Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) sued Starbucks and other coffee producers and retailers for not including a cancer warning label on their product. The Council is empowered to sue under a law from 1986 which was officially called Proposition 65. Also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, the law says that advocacy groups, citizens and lawyers may sue on behalf of the state.

In the case at hand, the Council says that much of the coffee consumed in California includes a carcinogen called acrylamide. The chemical is present in numerous foods, such as french fries, and is introduced naturally to coffee as a byproduct of roasting.

Lawyer Raphael Metzger is leading the charge, just as he did a few years ago when he won a case in which manufacturers of potato chips agreed to remove acrylamide from their products. His goal is for all businesses that make and sell coffee to use a clear and direct warning label so that consumers are informed that they will be ingesting acrylamide.

Some coffee companies already provide such a warning, but there are concerns that the wording is vague or that the label is not placed prominently enough to adequately warn consumers. Businesses in the coffee industry have been fighting the lawsuit for years. Their lawyers have argued that acrylamide is not present in large enough quantities to cause harm.

However, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle did not think that the defense had presented sufficient evidence in support of their case. It is up to the defense to demonstrate that the chemical would not cause even one excess case of cancer per 100,000 people. The judge contended that the defense failed to do this.

This long-pending lawsuit is bound to continue. Speak with a business attorney to ensure that your products bear all appropriate warning labels.

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Where is the dividing line between an efficient money-making model and a pyramid scheme? That’s the question that may be answered in a new lawsuit filed against clothing company LuLaRoe.

Pyramid-Scheme-122597965-300x225LuLaRoe began operations in 2012. They have 80,000 “distributors,” most of whom are millennial moms. With more than $1 billion in sales in 2016, the company is on track to double that number in 2017. Their product consists of brightly colored leggings, shirts and dresses.

Unlike traditional retailers, LuLaRoe does not sell its products in brick-and-mortar stores. Instead, they rely upon distributors or consultants who buy the products and then hope to turn a profit when those products are sold to consumers.

Getting started as a consultant isn’t cheap. A basic package of approximately 70 leggings in adult sizes, 10 leggings in “tween” sizes and 25 dresses costs $2,074. Budding entrepreneurs could opt for a larger package containing more than 500 pieces for $9,058.25.

Three consultants from Sacramento County say they were “doomed from the start.” In their lawsuit, they claim that LuLaRoe bombarded them with demands to “buy more/sell more.” Using aggressive pressure tactics, consultants were encouraged to have at least $20,000 worth of merchandise on hand. Even if existing inventory wasn’t moving, the distributors were continually exhorted to purchase more.

The consultants say in their complaint that the company used unfair and sometimes outrageous ploys to get them to buy more inventory. LuLaRoe representatives allegedly counseled distributors to take out loans and use credit cards to purchase more product. One consultant said that she was told to sell her breast milk to raise money for buying more LuLaRoe product to sell.

In addition to accusing LuLaRoe’s principals of running a pyramid scheme, the lawsuit argues that the company violates the federal RICO act. The consultants also say that bonuses promised by the company for recruiting new distributors and buying more merchandise never materialized.

Working with a qualified business attorney helps entrepreneurs to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation. With legal advice, LuLaRoe may have been able to focus on profits without allegedly running afoul of the law.

Feel free to contact me, Richard Oppenheim with your related legal questions. I may be reached at 818-461-8500 or by using the “Contact Us” box in the right column.

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We celebrate Veterans Day on November 11. Americans honor the brave men and women of the armed forces who risk their lives to protect our freedom. They include past and present members of the US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

A Veterans Day design of a heart and American Flag with a red, white and blue background

Originally called Armistice Day, major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect.

Here are a few quotes to mark this occasion:

“On this Veterans Day, let us remember the service of our veterans, and let us renew our national promise to fulfill our sacred obligations to our veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much so that we can live free.” 
Congressman Dan Lipinski

“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” Elmer Davis

“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”  Billy Graham

“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” Maya Angelou

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” Arthur Ashe

“Duty, Honor, Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.” Douglas MacArthur

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Three women who used to work at Google have filed suit against their former employer. Their complaint states that the company systematically discriminates against female employees by failing to pay them the same rate that is given to men doing the same jobs.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001The plaintiffs include Kelly Ellis, Holly Pease and Kelli Wisuri, and they make the argument that their lawsuit should become a class action on behalf of other female current and former employees. Ellis says that despite having four years of professional experience as a software engineer, Google hired her as a Level 3 employee in 2010. That level was considered entry level, and was designed for recent college graduates. A few weeks later, a male engineer with similar experience was hired at Level 4. This garnered him a larger salary and put him in line for extra bonuses and raises. Ellis further claims that other male employees were brought in at Level 4 even though they had less or comparable experience when compared with hers.

Ellis goes on to claim that Google hired her as a front-end engineer even though her experience was as a back-end engineer. In Google’s hierarchy, it is the back-end engineers who are the most esteemed and higher paid. Ellis says that she and other female engineers were prevented from entering similar positions. The two other plaintiffs share similar accusations.

A spokesperson for Google says that the company disputes “the central allegations” of the case, pointing out that a worker’s level and their promotion track follow a rigorous process that is meant to preclude the danger of gender bias.

However, a study by the Labor Department which recently concluded an audit of the company’s pay practices disputes this. The audit points to “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire work force.” Google has not been charged with wrongdoing relating to these allegations.

This latest case is yet another reminder of how critical it is for companies to review their hiring, promotion and wage practices with a business attorney. Running afoul of employment laws is always bad for the bottom line.

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Sports drink brand Gatorade recently settled a lawsuit that was brought against the company by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. At the heart of the matter was a free, downloadable game that Becerra argued disparaged water and healthy nutritional choices.

Legal-Fees-PaidGatorade made a game called Bolt! that was available to the public for free download in 2012, 2013, and then for a short time in 2017 as well. Players used a likeness of Olympic track athlete Usain Bolt to race across cell phone and tablet screens. When Bolt encountered Gatorade on the track, his speed increased, but when he encountered water, his performance deteriorated. Allegedly, the game inspired players to maintain their “performance level high and avoid water.”

Becerra argued in his complaint that the game made it appear as if water was an unhealthy choice that most athletes avoid. Accordingly, playing the game would encourage people, particularly children, to choose sports drinks instead of water.

In a statement, Becerra said: “Making misleading statements is a violation of California law. But making misleading statements aimed at our children is beyond unlawful, it’s morally wrong and a betrayal of trust.”

The day after the complaint was filed, Gatorade reached a settlement deal with the state. They agreed to a settlement of $300,000, $120,000 of which is earmarked for the promotion of better nutrition and hydration choices for young people.

Still, Gatorade does not admit to any wrongdoing in connection with the settlement. Katie Vidaillet, spokeswoman for Gatorade, notes: “The mobile game, Bolt!, was designed to highlight the unique role and benefits of sports drinks in supporting athletic performance. We recognize the role water plays in overall health and wellness … .” Moreover, the company has agreed to work harder at meeting the responsible advertising standards set by parent company PepsiCo.

Becerra hopes that the lawsuit and settlement will put other companies on notice about false advertising. While creativity is wonderful for capturing the attention of consumers, it is best to guard against making false claims. Work with a California business attorney to ensure that you company doesn’t run afoul of the law.