If it seems like you’re reading about one employment law court case after another, it’s because you are. For one thing, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed 199 workplace discrimination lawsuits in 2018, nearly a 10% increase over 2017. For another, the Supreme Court has accepted more workplace law cases than previously, casting uncertainty over once-unshakable HR policies.
All this activity will undoubtedly influence future employment law rulings, while reshaping HR policies. Let’s survey four recent court cases that should be on your radar—because these legal issues aren’t going anywhere soon.
Class-Action Waivers: Epic Systems v. Lewis
Last May, the Supreme Court upheld the arbitration clauses in employment contracts that keep workers from filing class-action lawsuits, requiring employees to engage in individual arbitration instead. (Originally, Epic Systems v. Lewis involved a wage dispute.)
The Court’s sharply-divided decision overturned the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) position that these waivers violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), while upholding the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).
It’s expected that the employer-friendly decision will deter some class-action lawsuits, while increasing individual arbitration activities (which typically favor employers). The ruling is also indicative of the current Supreme Court’s pro-business bent.
On the other hand, the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2018— which would prohibit pre-dispute arbitration agreements from being enforceable in employment disputes—is still under consideration by Congress. This isn’t the last we’ve heard on the subject.
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#MeToo: Minarsky v. Susquehanna County
For years, employers have successfully defended themselves against sexual harassment claims by 1) maintaining a written anti-harassment policy and 2) pointing to an employee’s “unreasonable” failure to report harassment on a timely basis.
However, in the case of Minarksy v. Susquehanna County, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that secretary Sheri Minarky’s four-year delay in reporting her supervisor’s abusive behavior was “reasonable” given her circumstances—including the fact that other employees knew of his behavior but did nothing to stop it.
The ruling may set a precedent for future cases that involve delayed harassment reporting. It’s an excellent reminder to take every harassment report seriously and ensure the behavior is stopped. Otherwise, future employees can argue that they didn’t report an incident because, despite HR policies to the contrary, their employer had been unresponsive in the past.
Medical Marijuana: The Jury’s Still Out
Now that medical marijuana is legal in a majority of states, a number of workplace lawsuits are making their way through the courts. Must employers waive their drug policies to accommodate medical marijuana card-holding employees? Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus right now.
Some employers that have terminated or declined to hire card-holding employees have been sued for discrimination under applicable state laws. Often, employers argue that federal law prohibits all marijuana use, superseding state law. While some courts have ruled in favor of this argument (Coats v. Dish Network), others have ruled on the side of employees (Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co. LLC).
What’s an employer to do? Stay abreast of emerging workplace laws and rulings in the states where you operate. Seek legal advice when an employee requests a medical marijuana accommodation. This is one area where HR policies may be in flux for some time.
Age Discrimination: Paine v. IKEA Holding US, Inc.
Recently, retail giant IKEA was hit with an age-discrimination lawsuit—it’s fifth within one year.
In Paine v. IKEA Holdings, a 48-year-old employee alleges that the company has denied him promotional and training opportunities in favor of younger workers, despite his positive performance reviews.
While the case has not been settled, it represents a growing trend. According to the EEOC, nearly 17,000 charges were filed under the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) in 2018. Many companies—Citibank, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Marriott—have been accused of age discrimination. Employers need to examine their practices—intentional and otherwise—regarding age bias.
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