Articles Posted in Employment Law

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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.

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With the passage of Proposition 64 in November, California became one of a handful of states to legalize the use of recreational marijuana. Many residents are thrilled with the outcome, but the new law is leaving employers wondering what their rights are.

Marijuana-legalization-94540729-001The good news is that the authors of Proposition 64 foresaw that marijuana legalization might pose a problem to numerous industries. That’s why there is a provision in the law that explicitly maintains the employer’s right to prohibit the use and possession of marijuana, particularly on any work sites. Accordingly, any company is perfectly within its rights to keep their drug-free workplace policies on track, though it does make sense to ensure that everything is in order.

Now is the perfect time to meet with an employment attorney to make certain that an existing company drug policy is sufficiently broad. If a drug policy is not already in place, then it is definitely time to craft one, a project that takes time and considerable legal expertise. Under the new law, employers are still permitted to require pre-employment drug tests, and they maintain the right to not hire candidates who test positive for marijuana. Even if the drug was obtained and used legally, the employer does not have to accept such use among their prospective employees. However, it is critical that any pre-employment drug screenings are conducted fairly and impartially, without any discriminatory element.

Under California’s new law, employers are also permitted to conduct drug tests among existing employees. Once again, it is crucial that this be done in a non-discriminatory manner. Moreover, companies may want to review their written drug policies with all employees to make it clear that marijuana use is not appropriate or acceptable. Management may also need to sit down with human resources staff to ensure that they are ready to field questions from employees.

California’s revolutionary Proposition 64 may have made recreational marijuana use legal, but it still allows employers to make important safety decisions. If you have any questions about how California’s new recreational marijuana law will affect you and/or your employees, feel free to contact me, attorney Rich Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. You may also use the form on the right side of this page.

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The question of whether or not a franchisor is a joint employer of the workers at a franchisee’s location was at the heart of a class action lawsuit in California. In the federal case, the judge ruled that a franchisor could be held accountable for the misdeeds of its franchisee.

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The complaint was filed in a federal court in San Francisco in 2014. Plaintiffs were a group of current and former employees at McDonald’s restaurants in the Bay Area. All of the restaurants were owned by a franchisee, which is known as The Edward J. Smith and Valerie S. Smith Family Limited Partnership. Workers leveled charges at the franchisee for violating California wage and hour laws. These allegations included consistent errors in payroll calculations, failure to pay overtime, not providing rest breaks and meal periods and neglecting to reimburse workers for the time they spent keeping their uniforms clean and ready to wear.

Along with the wage and hours issues, the lawsuit also questioned whether or not the McDonald’s corporation was a joint employer with the Smith partnership. The corporation ultimately agreed to a $3.75 million settlement, but maintains that it is not a joint employer with its franchisees. Instead, they agreed to the settlement in order to avoid the ongoing costs and disruptions of lengthy litigation.

Workers hail the settlement as a major victory that may allow other parent corporations to be held responsible for the actions of a franchisee. However, business owners take a grim view of the development. They are concerned that a trend toward holding parent corporations responsible for the actions or misdeeds of franchisees may be detrimental to entrepreneurism.

At this time, the National Labor Relations Board is making similar arguments that McDonald’s should be considered a joint employer in a worker retaliation case in New York. If this case receives similar treatment, then it may establish a precedent for holding parent corporations responsible as joint employers.

Whether you are a franchisor or a franchisee, it’s vital that you seek legal counsel so that you are aware of your rights and responsibilities as an employer.

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We at Sylvester Oppenheim & Linde would like to take a moment to wish our clients, family and friends (including our loyal blog readers), a very joyous and happy Thanksgiving.

thanksgivingWhether you are celebrating with a small gathering, or preparing for what is shaping up to be dinner for a small country, we wish you and yours all the very best.

It also seems appropriate to quote John F. Kennedy.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”