Articles Posted in Employment Law Cases

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The statute of limitations for a Georgia whistleblower action does not accrue until the employee receives a definitive or final determination about the alleged retaliatory action, the Court of Appeals of Georgia held late last year. This ruling helps public employees who have been wrongfully terminated by their employers prove their cases under the Georgia Whistleblower Statute.

The plaintiff in the case was the police chief for a public institution in the University of Georgia system. The school fired the plaintiff in late 2009 after several contentious issues that began in October 2008. One of these was school staff interfering in a criminal investigation that the plaintiff thought was in violation of Georgia law. In June 2009, school administrators asked the plaintiff to resign from his post once he found a new job or face immediate termination. He initially agreed to resign but later changed his mind. On November 19th 2009, the school delivered a letter of termination to the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed suit under the Georgia Whistleblower Statute for wrongful termination on November 10, 2010.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment contending, in part, that the the statute of limitations barred suit. It was granted by the trial court, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

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A broad set of protections, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on a number of factors, including race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Over the past 50 years, courts and lawmakers have dedicated a lot of time to tweaking the law and figuring out how to apply it to situations that may be completely unique or reflective of society’s ever-evolving norms.

Recent months have proved to be no exception, with a number of continuing legal challenges arising under Title VII further defining the breadth and boundaries of the protection it offers. Around the country and even up to the US Supreme Court, Title VII litigation is making for some interesting decisions and debates. Here are some of the more noteworthy questions and revelations of late:

Volunteers aren’t entitled to Title VII protections from employment discrimination

This might strike some as obvious, since the very notion that one is a volunteer rather than a paid employee should be enough to draw a distinction. Numerous other recent suits brought by interns and independent contractors looking to confer employee status upon themselves, however, have blurred the lines more than before. As in those cases, a big question for the Sixth Circuit in Sister Michael Marie v. American Red Cross was the amount of control exercised over the means and manner of the volunteers’ performance.

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The US Supreme Court reconvened last month with this term’s docket including several employment law cases, some that might even make for major changes from business as usual. Considering that about 10,000 cases seek review by the Supreme Court, which has great discretion over which ones it will hear, and only about 80 actually make it to oral arguments in the October-through-June term, it’s significant when employment law cases account for about 10% of the roster.

Most prominently among the employment law cases is Young v. United Parcel Service, which will look at whether pregnant employees are entitled to accommodations with work restrictions if similar accommodations are being offered to non-pregnant employees. It’s a test of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and whether a pregnant employee seeking accommodations should be given the same consideration as a UPS employee injured on the job or one who’s protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Regular pregnancies aren’t considered disabilities.)

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As a kid, everyone seems to have that one friend whose parents are infinitely more permissive than their own. They get to stay up late, eat junk food, and come and go at their leisure. For the envious rest of us, childhood was just a matter of biding time until we were all grown up and could do what we pleased without anyone telling us what to do. All those years of waiting for the freedom we’d only dreamed about seemed poised to bathe us in unrestricted joy…

Then came our jobs. Actual responsibilities and obligations became our new burdens, at least as long as we wanted the income to support our fabulous visions of freedom. Bosses and clients and our direct reports and customers and partners:  everyone’s demands whittle away at the dream of complete autonomy. Before you realize it, you’d love it if someone would make you go to bed by 10 on a weeknight, but then who’d get to all those backlogged reports?

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A fairly common trick many law school professors like to play on new students is to hand them a pretty lengthy agreement of some sort and ask that they sign and date it. Most everyone complies and hands them back in within a matter of seconds. A handful of stragglers takes their time and hands theirs in after a minute or so. It’s at that point the professor will congratulate the slower group and admonish the early birds for skimming or even ignoring the contents of the agreement. Sometimes the text explicitly says something like “don’t sign this” or “hand it in face down” just to see whether anyone’s paying attention.

The point of the exercise is to make it clear to people on their path to being lawyers that they should never again sign anything without reading and understanding the agreement. Being constantly bombarded with contracts, whether it’s leases or mobile phone agreements or even the terms of service for iTunes, it’s hardly uncommon to skip the slew of boilerplate language and just sign or click to save time and get on with life. But the law professors want the students to realize it’s now their duty to peruse all those clunky words, and there’s no reason the same rule shouldn’t apply to everyone, since making sure you know what you’re getting into ultimately is for your own protection. As a recent case from the Georgia Court of Appeals shows, it’s sometimes to your benefit, too.

In July, the Court of Appeals reminded us that it always pays to cross one’s Ts and dot their Is. The case of MAPEI Corporation vs. Prosser was a battle over which employment contract was binding when the employee was given two separate agreements on different dates with different terms. At first, anyone who’s dealt with employment contracts might guess that they know where this story is going, since the employee usually has little input or influence on the company’s standard terms, making the contract less of an evenly-negotiated agreement than it is an edict of “here’s how it’s going to be if you want to work for us.” This time, however, the contract-happy company didn’t come out the victor.

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Recently, a federal court in Tennessee permitted a case to move forward that raises the question of whether the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) permits compensation for work activities that “bookend” a 30-minute meal break.

In Abadeer v. Tyson Foods, Inc., employees at Tyson Foods were required to remove, wash, and stow their frocks and other equipment during their 30-minute meal break.  This activity lasted from five to eight minutes.  They then needed to be suited and ready to return to work by the end of the 30 minutes.  The employees claimed that Tyson Foods automatically took them off of the clock during this time, even though they were not really at lunch.  The employees initially claimed that Tyson was either liable to them for the entire 30-minute period, since it was not a “bona fide meal period,” or at least for the work they performed during the 30-minute break, since it was part of a continuous workday.  They eventually discarded the first claim and kept the second, which was that work performed during the meal period was compensable.

Tyson Foods tried to argue that the employees’ complaint did not put them on adequate notice of their claims, but the court disagreed.  The company then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the employees could not seek compensation for activities performed during the 30-minute unpaid period.  Tyson Foods claimed that, due to precedent set by the Sixth Circuit, employees were not permitted to “carve out” such activities and divide the meal period into portions that were compensable and noncompensable.  An employer in such a situation should not be held liable unless the employees failed to receive the “predominant benefit” of the entire period.

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A federal court in Tennessee’s ruling on attorney’s fees should be of concern to anyone who wishes to bring a wage and hour lawsuit.  In Stewart v. CUS Nashville, LLC, Judge Trauger of the Middle District of Tennessee found that since the named plaintiff did not succeed in proving all of her claims, her attorneys should receive just 30% of their requested fees.

The case began in 2011, when plaintiff Misty Blu Stewart filed a complaint on behalf of herself and similarly situated employees, both past and current, of the “Coyote Ugly Saloons” nationwide.  She claimed that waitresses and bartenders, as a matter of company policy and in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), were forced to share their tip pool with security guards, and also to work off of the clock without compensation.  The defendants responded by filing a motion to dismiss the tip pool claims, stating that security guards met the standard of being employees who customarily received tips, and could therefore share in the tip pool.

The case eventually went to trial in April 2013 after an extensive period, during which the court certified a national class of plaintiffs for the tip pool claims and a Tennessee-based class of plaintiffs for the off-the-clock claims.  Stewart also filed an amended complaint that added three retaliation claims under the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision to the existing claims. Continue reading →

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A federal judge in Georgia recently dismissed the lawsuit of an employee who claimed that she had been discriminated against due to her gender and retaliated against for taking time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In Wright v. Aramark Corporation, Tracey Wright was employed by Aramark Corporation and worked at the Albany State University campus.  She had originally applied for the position of office manager, but after she was hired, claimed that her position was changed to “office worker” with less pay, despite the fact that she did the work of an office manager until the date of her termination.  During her time of employment, she claimed to have been subject to harassment, discrimination, and inappropriate remarks.  For example, one co-worker allegedly placed dog bones on her chair to imply that she was a dog.  Furthermore, she claimed that her employer failed to promote her, failed to compensate her fairly, knowingly hired and promoted individuals who tended to discriminate against Wright, denied her religious accommodations, and penalized her for complaining against unlawful discrimination.  Her employer also violated her rights under the FMLA, reprimanding her for and interfering with her right to take medical leave.

Wright claimed that in addition to violating the FMLA, her employer was liable under Title VII for discrimination, for wrongful termination, and for a violation of the Equal Pay Act.  Aramark Corporation and Albany State University responded to her complaints by filing a motion to dismiss, claiming that Albany State University was not Wright’s employer and, as a government entity, could not be sued.  Wright responded that Albany State University could be sued under Title VII and was her employer because the stationary used by Aramark stated that Aramark was a component of the university.  She also argued that individual supervisors mentioned in the complaint could be held vicariously liable through Title VII.

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In a setback for one employee, a federal district court in Georgia recently ruled against her on a summary judgment motion.  Kejar Butler had claimed racial discrimination and retaliation for taking time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In Butler v. SunTrust Bank, Kejar Butler was an African American woman who began working for SunTrust in January 2005.  During the fall of 2011, Butler took eight weeks of leave in order to give birth to her child.  At the time, Butler was the assistant branch manager of the Thomasville branch of SunTrust, and during her absence, the position of branch manager became vacant.  Butler applied for the position, and upon return from maternity leave, was interviewed along with two other internal candidates.  Eventually SunTrust hired a different candidate, a white woman.

The area manager who did the hiring had directly supervised and evaluated both Butler and Heather Barnes, the woman who was hired.  During the interview process, he interviewed Barnes in person and Butler by telephone.  Following her interview, Butler learned that she would not be getting the manager position due to her poor client service scores and inadequate coaching logs.  Butler complained to the SunTrust management, then later went on to file a lawsuit on the grounds of Title VII racial discrimination and retaliation against her for exercising her rights under the FMLA.  SunTrust responded by filing a motion for summary judgment.

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