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Service and support animals are becoming an increasingly common sight, especially with so many veterans suffering from PTSD. These animals are trained to meet the physical, psychological or emotional needs of disabled people. This makes them an indispensable part of everyday life for thousands.

Lawsuit-64354059-001Many public places that do not normally allow animals make exceptions for service animals. This is also true on airlines. However, American Airlines recently settled a lawsuit in connection with an incident in which a veteran says she was harassed and discriminated against when she tried to board a plane with her service dog, Jake.

Lisa McCombs served in the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As she suffered from PTSD, upon her return to civilian life, McCombs was partnered with Jake, a support dog that was trained to move closer to McCombs when she experienced trauma or stress. These behaviors are intended to provide reassurance and to help ward off panic attacks.

McCombs and Jake are constant companions, but when she tried to board a flight in Kansas in 2015, American Airlines employees blocked her from boarding with her dog. Apparently, employees did not believe the dog was a service animal despite McCombs having appropriate paperwork and the presence of an identifying vest on the dog. Moreover, McCombs had called in advance to inform the airline that she would be flying with a service animal.

McCombs and Jake were denied boarding two days in a row in Kansas. More alleged harassment followed at a Texas airport. She filed a lawsuit under the Air Carrier Access Act. This law essentially states that airlines cannot discriminate against air travelers based on disabilities. In an answer, American Airlines argued that the law does not provide individuals with the right to privately sue.

Nonetheless, the case has now settled with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for the airline says that the settlement was to the parties’ mutual satisfaction, and he also thanked McCombs for her service.

Understanding the rights of Americans with disabilities is crucial to avoiding discrimination lawsuits. Contact attorney Rich Oppenheim to learn more.

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When a corporation hires a coach for an executive, that executive probably expects to hone skills that enable her to take on a more advanced role. However, that was not the experience had by Denise Stilwell, a former executive at Twentieth Century Fox.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001Stilwell began her employment with Fox in 1999. By 2013, she had been promoted to a vice president position in enterprise rights management. The position came with a four-year contract, which included a promise of promotion to a senior vice president position within the first two years.

Her immediate supervisor accepted a voluntary retirement package in 2016, which meant that she began reporting to Fox CFO Dean Hallett. Shortly after the change, Stilwell was summoned to Hallett’s office. She expected to be given a promotion. Instead, Hallett informed her that she “smiled too much,” and that an executive coach was going to begin working with her.

That coach was Jack Zwissig from Zwissig and Associates. Zwissig allegedly told Stilwell that her “smile is fake,” that she laughed too much and that people generally didn’t like her. Most troubling of all is Stilwell’s assertion that Zwissig told her that she should “lift her skirt.”

Stilwell reported Zwissig’s comments to Hallett, calling them sexist and improper. Almost immediately, she was reassigned to another executive vice president, Joanie Wallace, who refused to meet with her for months. Abruptly in January 2017, Stilwell was fired because her department wasn’t moving in the right direction.

Recently, Stilwell filed a lawsuit naming her former employer, Zwissig and Zwissig’s firm as defendants. The complaint levels charges of gender discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment, among others. If she prevails, the plaintiff hopes to collect unspecified damages for loss of future earnings and benefits as well as emotional distress.

This situation acts as a vital reminder that all complaints regarding possible harassment and discrimination must be followed up on swiftly and thoroughly. Failing to do so often exacerbates the situation to a point that is difficult to control. Working closely with a qualified employment attorney is the best way to prevent these circumstances from occurring.

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A former employee of a Chicago-area Target store is suing the retail chain based on numerous claims. Perhaps most explosive among them is the accusation that Target systematically accuses Hispanic employees of using fake Social Security numbers.

Wrongful-TerminationEsmeralda Radek began working at Target in 2012. In 2014, the manager of the store where Radek worked received a letter that claimed that Radek was stealing from the store and selling the items on eBay. Moreover, the letter asserted that Radek had used a fake Social Security number during the hiring process.

Approximately one week after receiving the letter, human resources personnel at the store confronted Radek over the claim that she used a false Social Security number. Radek was requested to verify her Social Security information by providing the state in which the credential was issued. In response, Radek informed supervisors that she had been born in Texas, and that her mother had likely obtained the Social Security card for her.

Within a few days, Target terminated Radek’s employment on the grounds that she had used a fake Social Security number. However, Radek claims that she is not the only Hispanic employee at Target who has been accused of similar crimes. If these employees could later verify the authenticity of their credentials, they could be re-hired.

In April of 2014, Radek filed a complaint alleging that she had been fired based on her national origin. Additionally, the complaint alleged a negligence claim under Illinois state law, hostile work environment claims and asserted that Target had demonstrated a pattern of practice that discriminated against Hispanic employees.

Target filed a request to dismiss the case, and a U.S. District judge partially granted this request. Judge Lee dismissed the claims regarding the hostile work environment and pattern of practice, but said that Radek’s case regarding national origin discrimination may proceed.

When questions arise regarding an employee’s identification and other credentials, it is always advisable to proceed with caution. Consult with a qualified business and employment attorney before this type of situation arises so that your organization is prepared to respond in line with the law.

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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