Articles Posted in Complex Business Litigation

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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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When an individual or a company obtains a trademark registration in the U.S., they are granted certain rights and protections. If they discover that another party is using a mark that is the same as or confusingly similar to their registered trademark, then they have a right to bring legal action against the alleged infringer. This concept is at the heart of a lawsuit against well-known outdoor outfitter company L.L. Bean.

Trademarks-47837347-001A good trademark acts as a source indicator for the products it covers. However, what happens when two companies in the same industry decide to adopt similar marks? Consumers may have difficulty differentiating the offerings of one company from those of its competitor. The result can mean lost sales and a tarnished reputation if the products are not as good as those of the competition.

Utah-based outdoor and mountaineering gear manufacturer Alfwear, which uses the KÜHL trademark as their brand name for outdoor clothing, brought the lawsuit against L.L. Bean based on their registration of “The Outsider” mark. The mark is registered for “rugged outdoor clothing, namely, belts, bottoms, hats, jackets, pants, shirts, shorts, T-shirts, tops,” and has been in use since June 2015.

Recently, L.L. Bean launched a marketing campaign with the tagline “Be an Outsider.” The company even filed a trademark application to register the mark “Be an Outsider” in June 2017. The phrase is being used in various advertisements across the country.

The lawsuit from Alfwear argues that these marks are too confusingly similar. Moreover, Alfwear believes that L.L. Bean deliberately choose their “Be an Outsider” phrase in an attempt to mislead, confuse or deceive consumers.

Among other relief, Alfwear is asking that L.L. Bean be ordered to stop using the phrase “Be an Outsider” altogether. The company is seeking damages for lost profits as a result of consumer confusion.

L.L. Bean has not publicly commented on the lawsuit, but it is natural to assume that they will be fighting against Alfwear’s claims. Intellectual property is one of a company’s most valuable assets, and protecting it with the help of a California business attorney is imperative.

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Most companies have websites today. In fact, there are few business owners who would consider operating without one. That is because consumers are placing increasing reliance as websites to serve as proxies for brick-and-mortar locations. They may expect to shop, procure coupons, order photographic prints or even refill prescriptions from a website that is connected to a retail location.

ADA-138029727-001Everyone appreciates the convenience of being able to take care of a few errands online. However, not every company has fully considered whether or not their website is equally accessible to all users. That problem is at the heart of a recent lawsuit in Florida in which a legally blind man prevailed over well-known grocery chain Winn-Dixie.

Juan Carlos Gill liked shopping at Winn-Dixie because of its affordable pricing and convenient locations. An ad on television alerted him to the fact that Winn-Dixie’s website provided the ability to get digital coupons and refill prescriptions. When he tried to take advantage of these conveniences using the enhanced online software that allows a sight-challenged person to use the Internet with ease, Gil discovered that the Winn-Dixie website was incompatible. Try as he might, he could not avail himself of the useful services on the website that were readily available to consumers who were not sight impaired.

Gil sued Winn-Dixie for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Eventually, a two-day bench trial was held with Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. presiding. Judge Scola ultimately sided with the plaintiff based on what he says is the company’s violation of Title III of the ADA. A witness for Winn-Dixie had testified that the company was in the midst of establishing its website’s ADA policy, and that they had set aside $250,000 for the task. An expert witness for Gil argued that his firm could have made the conversions for as little as $37,000. What’s more, relatively little time would be necessary to make the website accessible to the vision impaired.

Winn-Dixie might appeal this decision, but it is a timely reminder that all company websites should be reviewed for ADA compliance.

One more note of interest: Late last month Gil filed another similar lawsuit. In his lawsuit Gil is asking a federal court to force the owners of Germain Arena in Florida, Gale Force Sports and Entertainment, to make its website accessible to blind internet users.

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How well are anti-bullying policies being implemented in America’s schools? That question is at the heart of a case against Nevada’s Clark County School District. The parents who brought the case say that not only were they not informed about the bullying their sons suffered, but also that school officials did little to investigate or correct the situation.

schoolbullyingMothers Mary Bryan and Aimee Hairr had the assistance of the ACLU when they brought their lawsuit against the district. Their complaint detailed a horrific six months in 2011 during which both of their sons were relentlessly bullied by other students at Greenspun Junior High. According to the plaintiffs, the boys were “physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, harassed, bullied, [and] sexually discriminated against.”

Hairr says that she had no idea what was happening to her son. She knew that he was becoming increasingly withdrawn, wanting to spend time alone in his room rather than with his family. Bryan’s son began being bullied when he stood up for his friend. It was Bryan who eventually overheard the two boys talking about the abuse; neither child told the parents what had been happening to them.

The school also did not disclose the ongoing problem. “We all were in the blind,” said Hairr. Bryan said she would have been satisfied if administrators had been willing to talk to them about the situation before it turned into a lawsuit.

Now, a judge has ruled that the school district must pay $200,000 to each of the families affected by the bullying. Judge Nancy Allf argued in her decision that the school district had failed to protect the boys’ right to due process under the 14th Amendment.

The district may appeal, but it seems as though this case is already changing things. The district’s bullying policy is undergoing changes to make it more effective. However, Bryan and Hairr say that the changes will make little difference unless the district ensures that staff members comply with the policy.

Any anti-bullying policy is only good as far as it is implemented. Proper training and documentation can help districts to avoid lawsuits.

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Most company executives are aware of the FMLA benefits due to expectant mothers who work at their firm. Perhaps they even provide those mothers with extra benefits, like a few weeks of paid leave just before or after the birth. While mothers certainly appreciate these benefits, it pays to be aware that new fathers may want and even be entitled to similar benefits. Failing to provide gender-neutral parental leave benefits may provide employees with the basis for a lawsuit.

EEOC_cooltext396845518This is the situation in which cosmetics company Estée Lauder finds itself. The EEOC recently filed a lawsuit against the company because it does not offer equal parental care leave to male and female employees. A pregnant female worker is eligible for as many as six weeks of paid leave and a flexible back-to-work benefit that may include shortened hours and the ability to work from home. Male employees receive just two weeks of paid leave and have no option to take advantage of the flexible back-to-work benefit.

The EEOC’s complaint says that the policy violates the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Under these laws and others, the federal government requires that companies provide equal benefits and pay for the same work. This additionally means that these federal laws are gender neutral. In other words, both men and women are entitled to equal protection.

This is the second such lawsuit to be filed in recent memory. A J.P. Morgan Chase fraud investigator sued his employer because he was not offered the same parental-leave benefits as a female employee would receive. This earlier suit is still pending.

Employers are not legally required to provide paid parental leave for female or male workers. However, they are required to abide by federal laws like the FMLA that protect workers who want to take time to bond with their newborn child. Offering additional, paid-leave benefits for new parents can be a valuable perk that will attract outstanding talent to your firm. Nonetheless, it is critical to ensure that these benefits are offered on a gender-neutral basis to avoid lawsuits.

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Luxury retailer Burberry has agreed to a $2.54 million settlement with employees. The workers include retail store and warehouse employees in New York. Their class action lawsuit claimed that they were forced to put in extra hours without pay. This expensive lesson serves as a reminder to all employers that they need to be aware of wage and hour laws and related practices.

Timeclock-45269690-001Burberry employees filed the lawsuit in December 2015 after they say that they were routinely forced to work off the clock. Sometimes, the duties were performed before or after shifts, with employees filling out necessary paperwork or cleaning the store. On other occasions, employees were told that they would need to work through their lunch hour. Holiday seasons were particularly bad. Sales associates involved in the lawsuit claim that they frequently worked three to six extra hours a day without being paid for their time.

Like many similar cases, legal experts familiar with this lawsuit note that they do not believe that executive management at Burberry was directing lower level management to violate wage and hour laws. Instead, they believe that the lower level managers were simply trying to cover the needs of the organization without fully understanding the consequences of their actions or that they were violating the law.

Burberry has now agreed to a settlement that should put approximately $2,500 into the pockets of the 643 workers who were involved in the lawsuit. The $2,500 per worker is after attorneys’ fees and costs. For a big-name, luxury brand like Burberry, $2.54 million isn’t necessarily a devastating amount of money to have to redirect for a lawsuit settlement. Lawyers for the company likely made a wise decision when they agreed to a settlement that kept them outside of the courtroom where the outcome may have been a great deal more expensive, especially with court costs and attorney fees. Still, it would have been better if the situation had not occurred in the first place.

It is vital for companies to work closely with employment law attorneys who are looking out for their best interests. This is the most reliable method for avoiding wage and hour lawsuits.

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 When an employer is sued by an employee, it’s natural to want to end the proceedings quickly. However, it is not legal for an employer to take any retaliatory action against a worker, especially one that is suing them. As a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates, it also may be illegal for an attorney acting on behalf of the employer to retaliate.

Retaliation-32004699-001José Arias was an undocumented alien who had been working for Angelo Dairy for a decade in 2006 when he filed a wage lawsuit. Arias alleged that he had not been paid for overtime hours and that he had not received mandatory rest and meal periods. The dairy retained lawyer Anthony Raimondo to represent them in the lawsuit. Raimondo began working on due diligence, looking into Arias’ past as well as examining other pertinent facts.

A few weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, Arias had an appointment for a deposition. What he didn’t know was that Raimondo had gotten in touch with Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE, which led the lawyer to the discovery that Arias had no legal status in the U.S. Further, Raimondo had arranged for Arias to be taken into ICE custody at the deposition. Arias learned of the plan and promptly settled the litigation.

Then, the next phase began. Arias filed suit against Raimondo for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. While the majority of the provisions in this law apply only to direct employers, the retaliation portions apply to employers and those who are empowered to act on their behalf. An initial court decision on the lawsuit sided with Raimondo, but Arias appealed the decision. The appeals court sided with him.

Most reputable employment lawyers are unlikely to recommend that their clients try to have an employee deported or otherwise take an adverse action against them. To do so only opens the employer up to more legal trouble, and the same is true for the lawyer who takes a direct, punitive action toward an employee. It is far better to let the courts decide.

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

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Years of highly contested, and well-publicized, litigation have made employers aware of the dangers of discriminating against workers based on gender, sexual orientation, race and religion. It’s not unusual for company executives to work with an employment attorney when they are developing or revamping their practices. Unfortunately, age discrimination tends to be overlooked.

Age-Discrimination-132214651-e1500063954245This oversight is coming to the forefront with litigation filed in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey. Plaintiffs allege that their former employer, AT&T, systematically shed older workers in an effort to gain a workforce that has more advanced technological skills. The complaint relies largely on the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, a 1967 law that protects applicants and employees who are 40 or older. Essentially, the law makes it illegal for companies to make hiring, firing, promotion and compensation decisions based solely on age.

Plaintiffs argue that AT&T relied on age-based stereotypes to purge older workers. The process involved notifying the older workers that they had been placed on “surplus” status. They had a set amount of time within which they must be accepted into an alternative position within the company. However, the plaintiffs say that the selection process for those alternative positions was biased against the older employees who had been categorized as surplus. When they were unable to find another position, the workers were laid off.

Some of these employees say that they received a severance check, and that they were told by AT&T that they would be unable to sue the company under anti-discrimination laws if they took the money. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that’s not necessarily the case, especially if the notice given to employees did not contain certain stipulated language.

The former employees cite a company blog post that described AT&T’s “Workplace 2020” program, which admitted that age-based stereotypes are being weighed in employment decisions. According to plaintiff descriptions of the blog post, older workers are the employees of yesterday while younger workers are considered more desirable.

This litigation serves as a timely reminder for all employers to be mindful of their employment practices with respect to older workers.

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Telecom giant CenturyLink is now a defendant in a potentially massive class action lawsuit in which total damages could amount to between $600 million and $12 billion if the claim is successful. Legal analysts say that CenturyLink customers should be prepared to review their bills to see if they were charged for accounts that they did not actually request.

Whistleblower-6928551-001In a situation that is eerily similar to the Wells Fargo Bank scandal that broke in 2016, CenturyLink is being accused of setting up dummy accounts, and then charging customers for them. The alleged misconduct came to light after former CenturyLink employee Heidi Heiser, who is branding herself as a whistleblower, sued her former employer over what she termed a high-pressure sales atmosphere. Heiser worked for CenturyLink for approximately one year, and charges that she was fired after using a company Q&A session to tell CEO Glen Post about suspicions that the company was charging its customers for services they did not ask for.

A lawsuit has now been filed in California on behalf of CenturyLink customers who believe they have been defrauded by the company. Among the allegations are unjust enrichment, unfair competition and fraud. Officials from the Better Business Bureau in Denver, which broadcast a warning about CenturyLink early this year, are encouraging customers to closely review their bills.

A CenturyLink spokesman states, “The allegations made by our former employee are completely inconsistent with our company policies, culture and unifying principles, which include honesty and integrity.” This lawsuit comes at a particularly critical moment for CenturyLink as they are negotiating a merger with Level 3 Communications.

The class action lawsuit names plaintiffs Craig McLeod and Steven McCauley. Both are customers of CenturyLink who say that they have been over-charged. McLeod contends that he was quoted a charge of an extra two dollars per month for a faster Internet connection. However, he was charged considerably more than that, and he also received a bill for a repair that never occurred.

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A former Amazon employee is suing his erstwhile employer over not being paid overtime. In the lawsuit, he asserts that Amazon misclassified him as a salaried manager that was not entitled to overtime. However, the worker says that the duties he performed were those of a manual laborer who should have been eligible for overtime. This case is a useful reminder for all employers to review their classification and compensation packages to ensure that they don’t encounter a similar issue.

clock-overtime-110616811-001Michael Ortiz was hired as a shift supervisor at Amazon warehouses in California. His official title was “Level-4 Manager,” a position that was supposed to cover mainly supervisory duties. Amazon’s policy defines this type of job as a salaried position that is not eligible for overtime. Entry-level “associates” whose main responsibility is moving packages, are hourly workers who can be paid overtime, and that is the work that Ortiz contends he was doing.

In the complaint filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court, Ortiz says that he spent his days loading and sorting boxes or clearing up jams on conveyor belts. Similarly, he asserts that he frequently worked days that were longer than eight hours and in excess of 40 hours per week. Only a minimum of his time was spent in supervisory or managerial duties, Ortiz contends.

According to the complaint, there may be thousands of other people who are current or former Amazon employees who may have experienced a similar situation. At the heart of the story is a central question: Did Amazon knowingly misclassify workers in an attempt to avoid paying overtime? If so, then they may find themselves on the hook for multiple thousands, if not millions, of dollars in back wages.

This lawsuit is still in its early stages, and Amazon has said that they will not comment on pending legal matters. It’s fairly safe to assume that both sides of this issue are going to dig in their heels, so a long fight is all but assured. Reviewing company classification and compensation plans with an employment lawyer is advisable for avoiding a similar situation.