Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Well, at least compensatory and punitive damages are capped in discrimination cases, right? Not so fast, Pennsylvania employers!

What's the worst case scenario in a discrimination claim? In terms of liability, federal discrimination claims under the ADA and Title VII have a statutory cap for compensatory damages (like emotional distress) and punitive damages combined. See, 42 USC s1981a.

It depends on the size of the employer:
  • <101 employees: $50,000
  • 101 - 200 employees: $100,000
  • 201-500 employees: $200,000
  • >500 employees: $300,000
In Pennsylvania (and I suspect other jurisdictions as well), plaintiffs can get around that cap by allocating damages to a state discrimination statute.
Not official use.

The PHRA does not allow for punitive damages. Hoy v. Angelone, 720 A.2d 745, 749 (Pa. 1998) But, it allows for unlimited emotional distress damages. Let's say a jury verdict in a sex discrimination case includes:
  • $2 million in emotional distress; and 
  • $300,000 in punitive damages.
The employer has more than 500 employees. Now, the employer hopes that the $2.3 million gets knocked down to $300,000 (the statutory cap), right! What a relief that would be!

Not so fast! The Court could allocate the emotional
distress to the PHRA claim, and the punitive damages to the Title VII claim. The result would be $2 million for emotional distress under the PHRA, and $300,000 (the statutory cap) in punitive damages under Title VII. Instead of a $300,000 total, the employer is still getting hit with the full $2.3 million total! 

This plaintiff-friendly allocation method received the express approval of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Gagliardo v. Connaught Labs., 311 F.3d 565 (3d Cir. 2002). Suddenly, that cap is not quite as useful as many employers think it is.  

Monday, June 3, 2019

SCOTUS: Title VII charge process is procedural, not jurisdictional

Before would-be plaintiffs file employment discrimination lawsuits under Title VII (race, color, sex, religion, and national origin), they must first exhaust their administrative remedies. Put another way, they must go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and file a charge first.

Today, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision, with an opinion from Justice Ginsburg ("Notorious RBG" as the cool kids call her) in Fort Bend County v. Davis:
Is Title VII’s charge-filing precondition to suit a “jurisdictional” requirement that can be raised at any stage of a proceeding; or is it a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to forfeiture if tardily asserted? We hold that Title VII’s charge-filing instruction is not jurisdictional . . . Prerequisites to suit like Title VII’s charge-filing instruction are . . . properly ranked among the array of claim-processing rules that must be timely raised to come into play.
Great. What does that mean?

In short, it means that an employer-defendant in a Title VII case can waive the requirement by not raising it fast enough. In this particular case, the plaintiff had not included "religion" on its EEOC charge, but did include other types of claims (retaliation and sexual harassment). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit based on religious discrimination, retaliation, and sexual harassment. After litigating the case for 3-4 years, all of the claims were dismissed . . . except the religion claim, which was remanded from the appellate court back down to the trial court.

The defendant asked the trail court to dismiss the religion claim because it had never gone through the EEOC charge process. Too late!* The plaintiff can proceed with the religious discrimination claim despite not including it in the EEOC charge. That's the bottom line of today's ruling. 

This sets a particularly tricky trap for employers here in the Third Circuit. On the one hand, Title VII plaintiffs are not required to plead administrative exhaustion with particularity. On the other hand, as of today, defendants can be held to have waived a failure to exhaust administrative remedies defense by not raising it soon enough. Do you see why that creates a problem for employers?

This also creates some side issues, that I have not yet looked into (but probably will have to now!):

  • How specific does a defendant need to be to preserve this defense? Does a generic affirmative defense in an Answer ("Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies") sufficient?
  • How late is too late to raise the issue?

 * Actually, the trial court did dismiss the claim, but the 5th Circuit reversed and today SCOTUS sided with the 5th Circuit.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Attorney-Client privilege in internal sexual harassment investigations

Here's an interesting case out of the Southern District of New York, dealing with attorney-client privilege in internal investigations. The case is Barbini v. First Niagara Bank (HT: The Legal Intelligencer, Ruling Highlights Narrow Path in Defending Sexual Harassment Complaints).

The plaintiffs claimed that they complained about sexual harassment, and then their employer merely warned the harasser while firing them. The employer claims it fired them for notary law violations.

Not official use.
Not surprisingly, the employer consulted with its in-house counsel on the harassment issue and the notary issues. Is that protected by attorney-client privilege? The Court says, yes. While recognizing the dual-role that in-house counsel sometimes serves (attorney and business consultant), the Court held:
Communicating legal analysis to the person ultimately deciding whether to fire and employee is precisely the type of legal advice that is protected by the attorney-client privilege. (internal citations and quotations omitted). 
But wait, there's more!

Here, however, the Court also concluded that the employer waived the privilege. How? The employer did not directly raise an "advice of counsel" defense - but it did raise the Faragher/Ellerth defense.* Deposition testimony from an HR rep also established implied reliance of the advice of in-house counsel on the harassment and notary issues.

This goes straight to the heart of the employer's defense - that it looked into the harassment claims and concluded that termination was not necessary for the alleged harasser, and in reliance on advice from counsel concluded that the complainants/plaintiffs had violated New York notary laws. As the Court stated:
Defendants cannot have their cake and eat it too. There is virtually no way for any decisionmaker or adversary to assess the veracity of Defendants’ defense if the documents and conversations related to both investigations are concealed.
Frankly, I'm not sure that every court would reach this same conclusion. This case serves as a cautionary tale though - attorney-client communications (even legal advice) will not always be protected by a court. Particularly, privilege may be waived where the employer attempts to rely on the advice and investigation of its counsel as a defense.

* The Faragher/Ellert defense is an affirmative defense requiring employers to establish "(1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any-harassing behavior and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities that the employer provided."

Monday, May 20, 2019

Uber Drivers: Employees or Independent Contractors? NLRB GC weighs in.

You may recall that the NLRB recently held that employee/independent contractor classification is now resolved using an employer-friendly version of the common law test (SuperShuttle). Now, the NLRB Office of General Counsel has used that new test to recommend dismissal of several charges brought by Uber drivers.

You can read the advice memo here (ht: Bloomberg Law).  The Conclusion really does a nice job of summarizing the NLRB GC's position:
Not official use.
Considering all the common-law factors through “the prism of entrepreneurial opportunity” set forth in SuperShuttle, we conclude that UberX drivers were independent contractors. Drivers’ virtually complete control of their cars, work schedules, and log-in locations, together with their freedom to work for competitors of Uber, provided them with significant entrepreneurial opportunity. On any given day, at any free moment, UberX drivers could decide how best to serve their economic objectives: by fulfilling ride requests through the App, working for a competing rideshare service, or pursuing a different venture altogether. The surge pricing and other financial incentives Uber utilized to meet rider demand not only reflect Uber’s “hands off” approach, they also constituted a further entrepreneurial opportunity for drivers. Although Uber limited drivers’ selection of trips, established fares, and exercised less significant forms of control, overall UberX drivers operated with a level of entrepreneurial freedom consistent with independent-contractor status. In addition, drivers’ lack of supervision, significant capital investments in their work, and their understanding that they were independent contractors also weigh heavily in favor of that status. Although Uber retained portions of drivers’ fares under a commission based system that may usually support employee status, that factor is neutral here because Uber’s business model avoids the control of drivers traditionally associated with such systems and affords drivers significant entrepreneurial opportunity. The other factors supporting employee status—the skill required and our assumption that drivers operated as part of Uber’s regular business, and not in a distinct business or occupation—are also of lesser importance in this factual context. Accordingly, we conclude that UberX drivers were independent contractors.
The memo goes on to reach the same conclusion for UberBLACK drivers.

Of, course, this comes with the usual caveats:

  • Different courts, agencies, and jurisdictions use different classification tests depending on the underlying law at issue; and
  • NLRB precedent is only as binding as the current makeup of the NLRB - and this isn't even an NLRB decision, it's just an advice memo.  

Friday, May 17, 2019

Can plaintiffs recover punitive and liquidated damages under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act?

Can plaintiffs recover punitive and liquidated damages under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA)? That's actually two separate questions. Let's start with the easy one.

Punitive Damages

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has clearly said that punitive damages are not available under the PHRA. Hoy v. Angelone, 720 A.2d 745 (Pa. 1998).

Liquidated Damages

Liquidated damages are a little murkier. Some statutes expressly provide for liquidated damages. For example, an ADEA plaintiff can recover liquidated damages equal to their back pay (i.e. doubling their back pay award).

Under the case law, liquidated damages under the PHRA seem like a long shot. The gist of the PA Supreme Court's holding in Hoy is that the PHRA provides remedial damages and not punitive damages. Given that liquidated damages are punitive in nature (and not merely remedial), then courts could (and have) conclude that liquidated damages are not available:
[B]oth the Supreme Court and Third Circuit have held, albeit in the context of the ADEA, that liquidated damages are intended to be punitive in nature . . . . Given these conclusions, Plaintiffs are not entitled to the submission of a liquidated damages charge to the jury on their PHRA claims.
Potoski v. Wilkes Univ., No. 3:06-CV-2057, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99731, at *8-9 (M.D. Pa. Sep. 22, 2010).

Some courts, however, have adopted more of a we-don't-know so let's wait and see approach:
[A]nother court within the Third Circuit held that the defendant was not entitled to dismissal of the plaintiff's PHRA liquidated damages claim at the early stage of proceedings because no case law established that "liquidated damages are excluded from 'any other legal or equitable relief' expressly authorized in the PHRA." Craig v. Thomas Jefferson University, Civil Action No. 08-4165, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57819, 2009 WL 2038147, at *9 (E.D. Pa. July 7, 2009). Because the issue is not as straight forward as Defendants assert and because Defendants' sparse briefing does not sufficiently address matters this Court considers relevant to deciding the issue, we will follow Craig's path of not striking the demand for liquidated damages at the motion to dismiss stage. 
Bellas v. WVHCS Retention Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128133, *19, 96 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P44,642, 2012 WL 3961227 (M.D. Pa. September 10, 2012). Even that is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Rules of Professional Conduct: Setting an effective screen

A few of my colleagues and I recently presented at the Association of Corporate Counsel, Central Pennsylvania Chapter meeting. The theme for the day was "Defending the Corporate House," and our presentation was Navigating Conflicts of Interest in the In-House and Outside Counsel Context.

My particular part of our presentation dealt with setting an effective screen under the Rules of Professional Conduct. If an attorney has a conflict of interest (perhaps it involves a former client), then that attorney may be disqualified from representing a current client in that matter - even if (s)he is in-house counsel. Worse still, one attorney's conflict of interest may be imputed to the entire firm, or even the entire in-house counsel's office! For example, see Dynamic 3D Geosolutions LLC v. Schlumberger Ltd. (disqualifying entire in-house and outside counsel).

If a law firm (for purposes of the Rules of Professional Conduct, an in-house counsel office is generally a "firm") has an attorney with a conflict, there is still hope. The Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct allow for a "screen" - a way to block the conflicted attorney out of any involvement in the matter, and therefore cutting off the imputation of his or her conflict of interest to the rest of the firm:
Rule 1.10. Imputation of Conflicts of Interest: General Rule  
 (b) [T]he firm may not knowingly represent a person in the same or a substantially related matter . . . unless:  
(1) the disqualified lawyer is screened from any participation in the matter and is apportioned no part of the fee therefrom; and 
(2) written notice is promptly given to the appropriate client to enable it to ascertain compliance with the provisions of this rule.
 When is screening effective? In Pennsylvania, courts look at multiple factors:
(1) the substantiality of the relationship between the attorney and the former client,
(2) the time lapse between the matters in dispute,
(3) the size of the firm and the number of disqualified attorneys,
(4) the nature of the disqualified attorney's involvement and
(5) the timing of the wall. 
Dworkin v. General Motors Corporation, 906 F. Supp. 273 (E. D. Pa. 1995). And then, what makes the screen effective?
(1) the prohibition of discussion of sensitive matters,
(2) restricted circulation of sensitive documents,
(3) restricted access to files,
(4) strong firm policy against breach, including sanctions, physical and/or geographical separation, to determine its effectiveness.
James v. Teleflex, Inc., 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1961 (E. D. Pa. 1999)(citing Dworkin, 906 F. Supp. at 280).

This is definitely a tricky issue, and it requires some thoughtful analysis to pull off an effective screen.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Updated Chart: EEOC Charge Statistics 1997-2018

The EEOC recently released its updated charge statistics for FY2018. You know what that means . . . updated chart!

Charges are down across the board for the second year in a row. Over two years, we've seen some fairly significant drops. For example, race-based charges are down 23.9% since 2016.

What about the #MeToo movement? Has that had an impact on harassment claims? Let's go to the numbers:

Charges Alleging Sex-Based Harassment (Charges filed with EEOC)FY 2010 - FY 2018

2010 7,944
2011 7,809
2012 7,571
2013 7,256
2014 6,862
2015 6,822
2016 6,758
2017 6,696
2018 7,609

We see that the number of charges in 2018 was actually lower than 2010 and 2011. But, we also see a 13.6% jump from last year, and in a year in which all of the types of discrimination in the chart above decreased, that's noteworthy. Also, the percentage of claims filed by men (15.9%) was the lowest on the chart (going back to 2010). I think that's a pretty compelling case that #MeToo has had an impact.