Christopher P. Maugans

All articles by Christopher P. Maugans

 

Abusive Patient Creates Hostile Work Environment

The customer isn't necessarily always right. Neither is a patient. In Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, LLC, the Fifth Circuit Court analyzed an employer’s alleged failure to respond to a complaint of inappropriate actions of a patient in an assistant living facility. The allegations are unsettling. Plaintiff worked as a Nursing Assistant with the responsibility of caring for patients including one suffering from dementia, who had a long history of violent and sexual behavior toward fellow patients and staff. While being cared for by Plaintiff, the patient repeatedly grabbed her private areas and asked for explicit sexual acts. This was a daily occurrence. Allegedly, Plaintiff's complaints to her employer were effectively ignored.   

Whopper of a Tale: Burger King Employee Denied Accommodation

Employees should feel safe at work. But not everyone is that fortunate, including an assistant manager at a Burger King who was attacked at gunpoint when attempting to make a bank deposit on behalf of his employer. He allegedly suffered from PTSD and depression. Burger King denied his request for an accommodation by changing his work schedule prompting an interesting decision.  

The Equal Pay Act & Salary History

Show of hands: who'd like to receive less pay for performing the same functions as your colleagues? The Equal Pay Act seeks to combat this issue and permits wage disparity only in the most limited of circumstances. In a recent federal decision, the court addressed whether an employer's computation of salary based on a strict formula violated the Act when it resulted in disparate payment of female and male employees.  

Telecommuting as a Reasonable Accommodation

It’s been said that the first step toward success is showing up. But is that always required in the workplace? More to the point, is physical presence an essential function of an employee’s job? Sometimes. In a recent decision, the Sixth Circuit addressed whether physical presence was an essential job function for an in-house legal counsel employee.  

Obesity and The ADA  

Is obesity a disability? No. Well, can obesity lead to an ADA-defined disability? That's where things get tricky. In Ronald Shell v. BNSF Railway Co., a federal court in Illinois addressed these questions and others when a prospective employer denied employment due to its belief that the would-be employee could develop a disability resulting from his obesity.  

Break Time is Over

Today’s employees demand flexibility. In turn, many employers are moving towards a “results orientation” business model and getting away from the standard 9-5 schedule. In other words, the employer cares less about when employees get the work done, and only cares that the work gets done effectively. Employment laws are only beginning to catch up to this shift in work hours. Take for example the recent decision where the Third Circuit confirmed that the FLSA requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less where the employer allowed employees the flexibility to log off their computers at any time they wished.  

Performance Evaluations: A Lesson on Documentation

Cases turn on the evidence. In the case of an employment discrimination or retaliation claim, the key may lie in the employee file maintained by the employer. One common piece of documentation created and maintained by many employers is performance evaluations. In Walker v. Verizon, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled on a case illustrating how important documentation can be in defending these claims.  

Bad Back? You’re Fired.

Employers rely upon employees to get the job done. Usually, the “job” requires the employee’s physical presence at work. But injuries and medical conditions throw a wrench in the works. Most employers are at least generally aware of the implications of various federal and state laws governing treatment of employees with medical conditions and injuries. Yet, there is plenty of gray area where employers may be subject to liability. Take for example the recent decision in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. where the Seventh Circuit decided whether an employer could terminate an employee who requested a multi-month leave of absence from employment.  

Lactation = Medical Condition under Federal Law

There are several federal laws with protections for pregnant employees and those employees experiencing complications from birth. Depending on the circumstances, FMLA, ADA and/or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) may be triggered. In Hicks v. Tuscaloosa, the Eleventh Circuit ruled on a case involving an employee’s post-pregnancy lactation and need to nurse her newborn.  

FMLA Causation Standard Slides Down

Navigating the waters of employee leave is tricky business for employers. At the federal level, FMLA requires "covered" employers to provide employees with job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. The question of the appropriate causation standard that must be proven in an FMLA claim is not unanimous among the Circuit Courts. In Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers, the Second Circuit put its stake in the ground.  

High Times: Accommodating Marijuana Use at Work

Marijuana laws are evolving in the US. Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, and has no accepted medical use under federal law. However, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws that decriminalized medical or recreational marijuana use. Nonetheless, many employers have longstanding zero tolerance drug use policies. The question remains, how should employers reconcile their internal policies with the laws requiring employers to accommodate employees with certain medical conditions? The answer is hazy.  

Loser Pays: Risks of Civil Rights Claims

Federal civil rights actions are somewhat unique in that they allow the prevailing party to be granted “reasonable attorney’s fees.” An employer on the wrong side of a decision or verdict could leave it paying (a) damages; (b) its attorney's fees and (c) its adversary's attorney's fees. But what are “reasonable” attorney fees?  In Sommerfield v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit shed some light on this important question.  

Accommodation for the Mark of the Beast

Most employers know of the requirement to adjust any aspect of the working environment which may conflict with an employee’s religious beliefs. At the federal level, under Title VII, an employer must make reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship.  But what are religious accommodations? What proof may an employer request in order to establish that the employee is being sincere? The 4th Circuit recently examined a religious accommodation scenario that ended in an award of nearly $600,000 in damages and other benefits to the employee.  

The ADA and the Internet

Most employers and business owners are generally aware of the requirements set forth by the ADA to accommodate accessibility to buildings and facilities by individuals with disabilities. These guidelines may impact the type of material used or the design of entrances, doorways and the like. However, how many business owners understand that these regulations also govern the Internet? The advancement of technology continues to make it easier for consumers to purchase goods and services without venturing outside. While websites allow companies to market to more consumers, the use of Internet services also expose employers and business owners to liability of the site isn't compliant with the ADA. The Southern District of Florida addressed this issue in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.  

Workplace Violence: How to Maintain a Safe Work Environment

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many laws that protect employment interests. Reportedly, every year, approximately 2 million Americans fall victim to workplace violence. According to OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, homicide is the fourth highest cause of workplace fatalities in the United States. The scope of what and how workplace violence may occur is broad. It can involve conduct between employees, employees and customers, and employees and non-employees (e.g. a spouse). Given the serious nature and risk associated with workplace violence incidents, it is imperative that employers take steps to prevent such acts from occurring.  

Heavy Scrutiny of Employment Agreements

Agreements within employment contracts and employee handbooks continue to be subject to strict scrutiny by the NLRB. In a recent decision, the Sixth Circuit enforced an NLRB Order finding multiple NLRA violations for prohibiting employees from engaging in “collective bargaining.” The issue should be of interest to all employers given the common misconception that the NLRA only applies to unionized employers.  

Isolated Racial Slur Triggers Hostile Work Environment Claim

One strike, you’re out? The isolated use of a racial slur may be enough to establish a hostile work environment claim. While the Second Circuit did not squarely answer the question in the affirmative, in Daniel v. T & M Prot. Res., LLC, the court allowed the claim to proceed. To establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must show: that the workplace was permeated with discriminatory intimidation that was sufficiently severe to alter the conditions of the work environment and that a specific basis exists for imputing the conduct that created the hostile environment to the employer. So what does severe or pervasive mean in this context? Can an isolated incident rise to the level of pervasive?  

Reasonable Accommodation Tested by Principal

Is it reasonable for an Assistant Principal to return to her job if she has medical restrictions that prohibit her from interacting with potentially unruly students? The 7th Circuit examined this situation in Brown v. Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Directors, which addresses “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA. Of course, the ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” that will allow a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of her job. So what is a reasonable accommodation? It depends on the company, the essential functions of the job, and the medical restrictions of the applicant or employee.  

When There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Allegations of Harassment Can Point to Liability

The recent departures of high-profile executives and the flurry of harassment lawsuits provide plenty of teaching moments for employers. Notably, these very public exits and lawsuits are a prime example of why employers must act decisively when complaints of harassment arise in the workplace. Unfortunately, this situation is all too familiar for some employers. Some employers may be tempted to overlook the conduct of top performers even though it may open the door to liability. However, it is critical that allegations of harassment be taken seriously and that prompt investigations are conducted by employers. Sometimes it's necessary to bring in third-parties to conduct a thorough investigation particularly if higher level executives are involved or if there is a pattern of troubling allegations.  

Is the Unfinished Business Doctrine Finished?

Many professionals do not end their careers where they started. Professionals are on the move. The vast majority of professionals are impacted by the transition of a colleague from one firm to another. In fact, with the increase in online media covering the legal industry in particular, news of partner transitions is readily available. In a recent California case, a trustee of a bankrupt law firm has taken the position that the dissolved firm should retain all ongoing legal fees from cases started at the firm. This could have significant impact on how professionals transition their practice.