Articles Posted in Employment Law

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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.

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A former teacher in Illinois has prevailed over his erstwhile employer in court. Bruce Vukadinovich sued the Hanover Community School Corp. for age discrimination, retaliation and violation of due process. Although the court rejected the discrimination and retaliation claims, Vukadinovich was awarded more than $200,000 for the due process claim.

you-are-firedThe story began years ago in a different school district. Back then, Vukadinovich was working for Hammond Schools when he filed a lawsuit against his employer for age discrimination. That lawsuit was settled, and the plaintiff went on to Hanover Central High School. He worked there for eight years until his contract was terminated in a workforce reduction. Vukadinovich sought answers from the district about why he was fired, but couldn’t get a straight answer. That’s when he filed the lawsuit against the Hanover Community School Corp.

The wrinkle is that a school district official who worked for Hammond Schools when Vukadinovich sued that district had recently transferred over to the Hanover Community School Corp. Vukadinovich believed that his firing was an act of retaliation over his earlier successful suit against Hammond Schools.

Several years of litigation followed, with Vukadinovich representing himself against his former employer. A jury and a judge ultimately agreed with the plaintiff that he was denied due process. In his decision, Judge Philip Simon wrote: “To put it bluntly, after several years of presiding over this litigation, including a five day jury trial, I cannot tell you why Vukadinovich was terminated.” The judge went on to say that the jury sympathized with Vukadinovich’s desire to receive a “straight-forward explanation” for his firing.

The judge also took issue with the school district’s claim that they didn’t tell Vukadinovich why he was terminated because he didn’t ask. Arguing that the situation was “not a game of ‘Guess the Reason You’re Being Fired,'” Simon pointed out that the reason should have been disclosed up front so that Vukadinovich could have defended himself.

This case demonstrates the importance of keeping documentation citing all of the reasons for an adverse employment action. Doing so may prevent a lawsuit from being filed.

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In general, most employers are happy to grant reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This does not mean that there aren’t limits to which an employer is willing to go. What’s more, employers are by no means obligated to grant every request for ADA accommodation that they receive.

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As an example, consider the case of a librarian employed at Florida Atlantic University. The librarian had suffered from epileptic seizures since childhood, and she had long known that stress aggravated her condition. In an EEOC claim and a lawsuit that she eventually filed against her employer, she asserted that the university had failed to acquiesce in her requests for reasonable workplace accommodations. It seemed that the librarian thoroughly disliked her supervisor’s management style, and that the stress she suffered on the job caused her to have more frequent seizures.

Although her employer accommodated some of her requests, such as ensuring that there were no sharp corners in her cubicle, they declined to grant other requests. They denied requests related to the “rough or harsh” treatment that she alleged came from her supervisor. She demanded that he be ordered to cease the “series of hostile confrontations,” which she said that he repeatedly used with her and that the university find a way to “sensitize” him to the needs of women with epilepsy.

The university did not feel compelled to grant the requests that they believed were vague and difficult to define, and the courts agreed with them. In testimony, the plaintiff could not cite specific instances of confrontational behavior. Moreover, the court argued that it was not the responsibility of the employer to provide a work environment that was free of stress, and that it was not possible for the plaintiff to “immunize herself from stress and criticism.”

This outcome demonstrates that employers are well within their rights to refuse requests for accommodations under ADA when they are not specific and reasonable. Nonetheless, it is crucial that all such requests be thoroughly investigated, preferably under the guidance of legal counsel, to ensure that a legitimate request is not ignored.

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One of the questions I hear frequently is about whether we are accepting new clients.

While the short answer is “Yes”, here is some additional information which many people find interesting.

Great%20Fit%20Gears%2039896521-001.jpgOur law firm, Sylvester Oppenheim & Linde is committed to client service and quality legal representation for each and every client. That means that we only accept clients who we feel are a good match for our expertise, experience and areas of practice.

I learned a long time ago that we can’t be all things to all clients, but we can be all things to some clients: and those are the ones we welcome and serve in an exemplary manner.

The purpose of this blog is to provide helpful information to anyone who reads it. On our website, you will find another example of our “Be of Service” attitude by reading our Home Page Article “Eleven Questions to ask BEFORE Hiring a Business Attorney“. You will also find a list of our practice areas on that page.

Our clients tell us that they appreciate our honesty, accessibility and guidance. And we appreciate our clients.

Back to the question. The answer is: “Yes, we are always looking for one or two new good clients.” If you have a legal issue, I invite you to call and let’s find out whether we are a great fit for each other. I can be reached at 818-461-8500 or via the Contact form on this page.

Richard Oppenheim

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A Workers’ Compensation claim made by a woman who lost part of her leg at work has been upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The decision comes after her employer, Starr Aviation, disagreed with the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, which ruled that the worker was entitled to compensation.

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Modesty Colquitt was driving a luggage transporter at the Pittsburgh Airport in September 2014 when the accident occurred. The transporter overturned, pinning Colquitt’s left leg beneath it. She was taken to the hospital, where her left leg was amputated below the knee.

The case seems cut-and-dried. However, there are additional facts that are worthy of consideration. Starr Aviation argued that Colquitt was not performing her job duties when the she was driving the transport. Colquitt had forgotten her wallet and feminine hygiene products on that day. Knowing that she would need lunch and the feminine hygiene products during her shift, she called her mother to bring them to her. Colquitt obtained permission from her supervisor to take the transport to meet her mother, which is when the accident occurred.

Both the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the court relied on the “personal comfort doctrine,” a rule of law which stipulates that a worker is still “on-the-job” if they temporarily leave to take medication, use the restroom or complete other small tasks that make it possible for them to perform their job. In essence, the judges felt that Colquitt would have been adversely affected by not having her wallet and the required feminine hygiene products. She simply would not have been able to perform as effectively if she did not have lunch or access to appropriate feminine hygiene products.

This decision comes despite the testimony of co-workers who offered her crackers and pointed out that feminine products were available in the restroom. However, the judge found that this testimony related to “collateral issues” rather than whether or not compensation could be claimed.

Work Injury claims are almost always complicated. This is why it is imperative for California employers to work with experienced attorneys who can offer valuable guidance and advice.  If you have any questions about business litigation or work injuries feel free to contact me, Rich Oppenheim at 818-461-8500 or use the “Contact” option in the right column.

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A December 2016 decision reached by an Administrative Law Judge in New Jersey may have implications for employers in other states where medical marijuana is legal. With the current trend toward legalization of marijuana, it’s only logical for entrepreneurs to consult with attorneys about how these laws might affect them.

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The current case involved Andrew Watson, a lumber company employee who injured his hand on-the-job. Initially, Watson’s doctors prescribed Percocet to manage his chronic pain. His doctor then recommended that he try medical marijuana. Watson legally purchased medical marijuana, and submitted a claim to his employer’s worker’s compensation insurance. An ounce of medical marijuana costs an average of $489 in New Jersey, which is one of the most expensive prices in the U.S. The insurer refused compensation.

Nonetheless, Watson found that the marijuana helped manage his chronic pain effectively and with fewer side effects than the opiates. He took his case to court so that he could continue with the treatment and have the expenses reimbursed by his employer’s worker’s compensation coverage.

After considering the situation, Judge Ingrid French ruled that Watson’s use of medical marijuana is appropriate and that the insurer should pay for the associated expenses. She notes in her decision that “the effects of the marijuana … is not as debilitating as the effects of the Percocet.” Additionally, French found that Watson had “achieved a greater level of functionality,” because of the medical marijuana use and that “his approach to his pain management needs (is) cautious, mature …”

She went on to say that whether or not medicinal marijuana is used is a matter that should be reserved for doctors and patients in states where its use is legal. While some employers expressed concern over the outcome, others say that it likely will not affect them. That’s because the requirements for qualifying for medical marijuana are so stringent in New Jersey. This, coupled with the relatively limited chances of a worker also qualifying for a worker’s compensation claim, keeps them optimistic.

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U.S. District Judge Susan Illston has ruled that Walmart truck drivers are not entitled to an additional $80 million in a class action lawsuit settlement. The complaint was filed in 2008 with hundreds of California truck drivers claiming that they did not receive at least minimum wage for performing certain tasks. Although the judge denied the plaintiffs’ claim to the $80 million, Walmart will still have to abide by the initial $54 million settlement that was awarded in an earlier jury decision.

walmart-truckclose-up-side-view_129821854433586541-001Walmart asserts that its truck drivers are among the best paid in the industry, with many of them earning between $80,000 and $100,000 per year. Moreover, their attrition rate is low, and the judge commended them for taking rapid action to comply with evolving compensation laws. The drivers argued in their lawsuit that their employer compensated them only based upon miles driven and specific activities rather than hours worked, which constituted a violation of state law. Accordingly, the drivers claimed that they did not receive adequate compensation for tasks like washing and inspecting trucks. They further argued that they were not appropriately paid for mandatory 10-minute breaks and 10-hour layovers.

In November 2016, a jury of seven agreed with the drivers, awarding them approximately $54 million in back pay. This latest decision came in response to the plaintiffs’ request for an additional $5.8 million for restitution, $54.6 million in liquidated damages and $25.6 million in penalties. The judge went along with the request for $5.8 million in restitution, but denied the other claims, saying that there is not sufficient evidence that Walmart acted in bad faith or with “dishonest and wrongful motive.”

It’s possible that Walmart may still appeal the decisions by the judge and the jury. However, they scrapped their former driver-compensation package in 2015 in favor of a new one that is in compliance with California law. Because compensation laws change periodically, it is only sensible for all business owners to have their compensation practices reviewed by an employment attorney on a regular basis. This may prevent a company from finding itself involved in a similar class action lawsuit.

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A heated lawsuit between 21st Century Fox and Netflix reveals a great deal about the inner workings of Hollywood while also providing useful insights for employers in California and across the country. This high-profile case is a helpful reminder about the necessity of consulting with employment attorneys to cement formal contractual agreements with workers.

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The lawsuit was filed by Fox in September 2016. In their complaint, they cite a “brazen campaign” by Netflix “to unlawfully target, recruit, and poach valuable Fox executives.” Mainly at issue are two former Fox employees who now work for Netflix. One of these employees is Marcos Waltenberg, a 10-year veteran at Fox who was a vice president of promotions. The other was Tara Flynn, a vice president of creative affairs who was hired by Fox in 2012.

Waltenberg is a legal alien who needed employer sponsorship to maintain his green card status. In 2012, he asked his supervisor at Fox for a raise. The human resources department responded by saying that they were not required to sponsor Waltenberg’s green card renewal. When Waltenberg dropped his request for a raise, Fox helped him get his green card.

Flynn says she was pressured to take a three-year contract at $75,000 per year even though the compensation was well below the $250,000 annual salary that was typical for her position. She knew that her salary was well below that of two male executives who formerly held the job. When Netflix approached her with a better offer, she let her supervisors know that she was leaving, and that’s when things got ugly.

Waltenberg and Flynn were under contract with Fox when they gave notice. In a response to the complaint, defendants argue that the contracts that are forced on rank-and-file employees at Fox are too reminiscent of the studio era when the lives of actors were micromanaged by executives. The response further contends that these contracts unlawfully constrain employee mobility.

This lawsuit serves as a reminder to all California employers. Companies and HR departments need to regularly review their employment contract practices to ensure that they are keeping up with changing laws.