Last November, we explained the decision in the case of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  There, the court concluded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.  Our previous post on this case can be found here.

To recap, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) filed the lawsuit on behalf of a gay, male former employee of Scott Medical, alleging that his supervisor subjected him to anti-gay epithets and a hostile work environment based on his sexual orientation.  The court refused to dismiss the case because, in the words of U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subset of sexual stereotyping and thus covered by Title VII’s prohibitions on discrimination ‘because of sex’.”

On September 25, 2017, the court entered a default judgment against Scott Medical on the issue of liability.  The court found that the company had committed an intentional violation of Title VII.  This finding was based on the fact that Scott Medical’s Chief Executive Officer was aware of the supervisor’s harassing actions and refused to take any action to stop the conduct or correct the hostile work environment.

On November 16, 2017, after a trial on issue of damages, Judge Bissoon ordered Scott Medical to pay the employee $5,500.43 in back pay and prejudgment interest.  More importantly, she also ordered Scott Medical to pay the statutory maximum amount of $50,000 as compensatory and punitive damages.  If not for the statutory cap on such damages, Judge Bissoon opined that “punitive damages in the amount of $75,000 would be warranted by the evidence” in this case.

Notably, the supporting evidence cited by the court included the fact that Scott Medical failed to train the harassing supervisor on its anti-harassment policy.  In fact, Scott Medical could not identify anyone who would have provided such training to any of its supervisors.  Similarly, the former employee testified that he never received a copy of the Company’s anti-harassment policy and was never trained about harassment in the workplace.

There are several clear takeaways from this case.  First, as we explained here, regular and effective anti-harassment training is an essential part of preventing harassment in any organization.  This case provides 55,000 reasons to ensure that such training is provided to supervisors and managers, as well as all other employees.

The second takeaway is to revisit your organization’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Anti-Harassment policies, and consider adding sexual orientation as a protected trait.  As you update your policies, keep in mind the importance of responding promptly and appropriately when complaints are raised about harassment – including harassment based on sexual orientation.  It also may be a good time to update your anti-harassment training to specifically address issues of discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.

There also may be more to come with the Scott Medical case.  Now that a final judgment has been entered, an appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals may be forthcoming.  If the case is appealed, the Third Circuit likely will be forced to reconsider several prior decisions in which it found that sexual orientation was not protected under Title VII.  We will continue to provide updates as developments in this area occur.

The Pennsylvania Personnel Files Act (also known as the Inspection of Employment Records Law), grants employees in Pennsylvania, or their designated agents, the right to inspect certain portions of their personnel records. The Act requires employers, upon an employee’s request, to permit the employee to inspect the portions of his or her personnel file used to determine qualifications for employment, promotion, additional compensation, termination or disciplinary action.  Employers must make the records available during regular business hours and may require employees to submit a written request form.

Until recently, the right to inspect records even extended to former employees within 30 days following their date of discharge pursuant to a rule adopted by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.  However, in Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, Inc. v. Pa. Department of Labor & Industry, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that former employees do not have the right to inspect their personnel records.

Allowing discharged employees and their attorneys to access personnel files prior to litigation afforded them great insight into potential legal claims. This type of access to information was often used in developing a strategy for negotiations, future litigation or deciding which claims to assert.  The discharged employees and their attorneys could weigh how the employer’s articulated reason for termination lined up with (or in some cases did not line up with) what the employer documented in the personnel file.

Now, because of the Supreme Court’s decision, employers can safely refuse to grant discharged employees access to their personnel files.  The background behind the Supreme Court’s decision in Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals is explained below.

At the outset, a former employee filed a request, through her attorney, to view her personnel file just one week after she was discharged. The employer denied this request on the basis that the former employee was no longer employed.  The former employee filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industry claiming that the employer wrongfully denied her request for access to her personnel file. Ultimately, the Department granted the former employee’s request to inspect her personnel file.  The employer appealed to the Commonwealth Court.  On January 6, 2016, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued its decision in Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, Inc. v. Pa. Department of Labor & Industry, finding a recently discharged employee, was still an “employee” under the Personnel Files Act.

While the definition of employee under the Act (any person currently employed, laid off with reemployment rights or on a leave of absence) appears straightforward, the Commonwealth Court found that the definition did not prohibit a recently terminated individual from obtaining his or her personnel file.  The Court did note that the request must be made contemporaneously with termination or within a reasonable time immediately following termination.  This rationale was based on the 1996 Commonwealth Court decision in Beitman v. Department of Labor & Industry.  In that case, an employee requested access to her personnel file 2 years after her employment was terminated.  The majority of the Commonwealth Court found that the former employee was not permitted to access her file under the Personnel Files Act 2 years after her termination from employment.  However, the Court left open the possibility that discharged employees could access their personnel file when they requested access within a reasonable time following their termination from employment.

Following the Beitman case, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry adopted a policy that provided former employees access to their personnel files so long as they made the request within a reasonable time after termination from employment, which they determined to be approximately 30 days.  Because of this policy, employers were often required to provide former employees with access to their personnel files even after their termination from employment.

This was the background leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision.   The Supreme Court’s full opinion can be found here.

In contrast to the Commonwealth Court, the Supreme Court took a plain language approach in interpreting the definition of “employee.”  In doing so, the Supreme Court concluded that former employees who were not laid off with re-employment rights and who were not on a leave of absence, have no right to access their personnel file under the Act, regardless of how soon after termination the employee made the request.  The Supreme Court also specifically overruled the Beitman decision stating that the Commonwealth Court’s holding was dicta and not controlling.

While the Supreme Court’s decision is favorable to employers, this a good time to remember the importance of including proper documentation in personnel files. A well-documented personnel file that persuasively demonstrates that an employee was discharged for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons will go a long way in supporting an employer’s defenses to a former employee’s legal claims.  After all, while a former employee may not be able to review his or her record pursuant to the Act, he or she may be able to obtain a copy pursuant to a subpoena or discovery request in litigation.

In the Third Circuit, an employer’s honest belief that an employee committed misconduct can now serve as a defense to a retaliation claim under the FMLA.  With the recent decision in Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC (found here) the Third Circuit joins the Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Circuits in providing such a defense.

In the Capps case, Mondelez (the employer) fired Fredrick Capps (a longtime employee) for what Mondelez believed to be dishonest use of intermittent FMLA leave.  During the time of his employment, Capps suffered from a medical condition that required him to undergo bilateral hip replacement in 2003.  Thereafter, he experienced flare-ups that caused him severe pain, which sometimes lasted for days or weeks at a time. As a result of his condition, Capps requested intermittent FMLA leave to cover his periodic time off work.  Because of his ongoing condition, Capps was recertified for intermittent FMLA leave every six months from 2003 to the end of his employment.

On February 14, 2013, Capps reported that he would not be in to work because he was experiencing pain caused by a flare-up of his condition.  Later that same day, Capps drove to a local pub, where he got something to eat and also had a few beers and shots of alcohol with his friends.  About three hours later, Capps attempted to drive home, but was arrested for Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol (“DUI”) and spent the night in jail.  After being released from jail the next morning, Capps again called off work using intermittent FMLA leave because he said he was experiencing leg pain from his condition.

When Capps returned to work, he did not report his DUI arrest.  However, over the next several months he called off work numerous times and requested intermittent FMLA leave for his condition.  Interestingly enough, during this same time period, Capps was required to attend court hearings and other appointments related to his DUI charge.

On August 7, 2013, Capps pled guilty to the DUI charge and immediately served 72 hours in jail.  When the employer became aware of Capps’ conviction early in 2014, an investigation commenced looking into Capps’ attendance from the time of his DUI arrest to his guilty plea.  This investigation uncovered that Capps’ arrest date and several subsequent court dates corresponded with days that Capps had also used intermittent FMLA leave.  After further investigation, including discussions with Capps himself, it became clear that the documentation Capps submitted did not support his need for FMLA leave on the days that he also appeared in court.

Subsequently, Capps was discharged based on his violation of the company’s Dishonest Acts Policy and misuse of FMLA leave. The termination letter sent to Capps stated: “You claimed to be out due to [ ] FMLA related issues on multiple dates. The documentation you produced does not support your claim of [ ] FMLA related absences.”  After his termination, Capps filed suit claiming, among other things, that the employer retaliated against him for exercising his rights under the FMLA.

After having his FMLA retaliation claim dismissed on summary judgment, Capps’ argued on appeal that the District Court improperly dismissed his claim because the employer was mistaken in its belief that Capps misused his FMLA leave or was otherwise dishonest. However, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Capp’s FMLA retaliation claim emphasizing that an FMLA retaliation claim requires proof of an employer’s retaliatory intent.  In other words, Capps could not show that the employer’s reasonable belief that he was dishonest and misused his FMLA leave was a pretext for retaliation.

While employers should always proceed with caution before terminating an employee around the time he or she requests, takes, or returns from FMLA leave; the Third Circuit’s adoption of the honest belief defense provides a significant means for employers to defend against FMLA retaliation claims. More specifically, employers that discharge an employee based upon an honest belief that the employee is abusing FMLA leave may now be more likely to prevail on a motion for summary judgement.

To be clear, this case is not a get out of jail free card for employers.  Before the decision is made to terminate, employers must be sure that there is supporting evidence of the employer’s honest belief. In the Capps case, this took the form of a thorough investigation of the employee’s absences along with an opportunity for the employee to explain and support his actions.  Yet, when an employer has supporting evidence and reasonably believes that an employee abused FMLA leave or was otherwise dishonest about the need for such leave, this honest belief will serve as the employer’s defense to a FMLA retaliation claim.

The Philadelphia City Council recently passed Bill No. 160840, a wage equity ordinance (the “Ordinance”), that will amend Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance to prohibit employers or employment agencies from inquiring about the wage history of potential employees.  Among other things, the Ordinance also includes an anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits any form of retaliation against a prospective employee for failing to comply with a wage history inquiry.

More specifically, the Ordinance provides that it is an unlawful employment practice for a covered employer to:

  1. inquire about a prospective employee’s wage history;
  2. require disclosure of wage history;
  3. condition employment or consideration for an interview on disclosure of wage history; or
  4. retaliate against a prospective employee for failing to comply with any wage history inquiry.

Furthermore, the ordinance also makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to “rely on the wage history of a prospective employee from any current or former employer when determining the wages for such individual at any stage in the employment process,” which includes the negotiation or drafting of any employment agreement.  However, the Ordinance does provide an exception that permits an employer to rely on any wage information that is knowingly and willingly disclosed by an applicant.

It is important to note that this Philadelphia Ordinance will take effect 120 days after it is signed into law by Mayor Jim Kenney, who has expressed his support.  Accordingly, if the Ordinance is signed this month, employers in Philadelphia can expect to see the Ordinance take effect in May of this year.

In anticipation of the enactment of this Ordinance, Philadelphia employers can prepare by:

  1. removing any questions on employment applications that may in any way seek information about salary or wage history;
  2. train hiring managers and interviewers to avoid asking questions about an applicant’s wage history;
  3. refrain from relying on an individual’s wage history (if known) when deciding the appropriate wages/salary to pay a prospective employee; and
  4. review existing policies and practices to ensure compliance with the Ordinance.

This Philadelphia Ordinance is recent example of a growing trend to prohibit employers from requesting and relying on an applicant’s wage history.  This trend has emerged in an effort to address what many call the “gender pay gap.”  In light of these recent actions by state and local governments, employers across Pennsylvania and beyond should stay informed about further developments in this area, as similar laws may soon be proposed and enacted in other locations.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (‘EEOC”) has been aggressively advancing its position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation even though sexual orientation is not expressly identified as a protected class. More information on the EEOC’s position is available here. Recently, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with the EEOC’s position. In, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon concluded that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by Title VII.

In its complaint, the EEOC alleged that a former gay male employee who worked for Scott Medical in a telemarketing position, was subject to harassment, anti-gay epithets and a hostile work environment based on his sexual orientation.

In support of its arguments to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint, Scott Medical relied heavily on a prior Third Circuit case, Bibby v. Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which held that Title VII protections could not be extended to claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite this clear precedent, the court in Scott Medical stated that, “[i]ncremental changes have over time broadened the scope of Title VII’s protections of sex discrimination in the workplace” and “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is, at its very core, sex stereotyping plain and simple.” The court went on to say that “[t]here is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping than making a determination that a person should conform to heterosexuality.”

Judge Bissoon relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, wherein the Supreme Court concluded that an employer who treats a woman differently on the basis of a belief that women should not be or cannot be aggressive, has engaged in sexual stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of gender. Judge Bissoon used this reasoning from Price Waterhouse to conclude that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subset of sexual stereotyping and thus covered by Title VII’s prohibitions on discrimination ‘because of sex’.”

So, what happens now based on the court’s decision in Scott Medical Health Center? Well, initially the case will proceed toward trial and an appeal to the Third Circuit may be forthcoming in the future. If appealed, the Third Circuit will likely be faced with reconsidering its prior decision in Bibby and other similar cases. Likewise, other courts throughout the country will be considering this same issue in the near future as the EEOC continues to champion the theory that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In the meantime, employers should take a hard look at their Equal Employment Opportunity and Anti-Harassment policies, and consider adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. In addition, employers will need to response appropriately in the event of a complaint alleging harassment based on sexual orientation. It may also be a good idea to update your management training on this topic.

On September 9, 2016, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld an award of $4.5 million in punitive damages against several former employees, who violated non-compete/non-solicitation agreements with their former employers.  In B.G. Balmer & Co. Inc. v. Frank Crystal & Co., Inc., et al., the court determined that among other things, the former employees’ used confidential information and trade secrets they obtained during their employment to solicit more than twenty-five of their former employer’s more profitable clients.  The actions of the former employees were also in violation of the non-solicitation provisions contained in their employment agreements. The Superior Court’s full opinion can be found here.

In affirming the $4.5M punitive damages award, the Superior Court found that there was extensive evidence showing the blatant efforts of the former employees to lure away other Bamler employees as well as clients. More specifically, the Court noted that the former Executive Vice President and President of Strategic Planning formulated a plan with the new employer, a competing insurance brokerage agency, to entice other employees to leave and work for the new company.   As part of this plan, the former employees were encouraged to bring clients and customers with them after they departed their employment.

During the process of finalizing the planned departure, the new company was made aware that each of the employees were subject to the non-solicitation restrictions within their employment agreements.  Despite knowing this, the new company extended offers to all Balmer sales and marketing employees, which represented all Balmer’s employees other than the owner himself.  Prior to resigning from employment, several of the employees took confidential information and trade secrets including client lists and insurance policy details.  Shortly after receiving employment offers, all of the employees resigned from Balmer and utilized the confidential information and trade secrets to attempt to solicit and/or transfer clients’ to the new company.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that such conduct was sufficiently outrageous to award punitive damages. This decision is a reminder for employers about the potential value post-employment restrictive covenants, like non-solicitation provisions, have in protecting their workforce and customer/client base.  While punitive damages may not always be warranted as they were in the Balmer case, employers who utilize enforceable restrictive covenants like non-solicitation provisions, may be entitled to injunctive relieve as well as some form of compensatory and other damages when former employees breach restrictive covenants.

From a different perspective, this case is also a warning of the potential risks associated with hiring employees who may be subject to post-employment restrictions such as non-solicitation provisions.  When hiring new employees who are subject to restrictive covenants, employers would be well advised to understand the limitations imposed by such covenants and provide the new employee with specific directives to avoid any form of conduct that may be in violation of the restrictive covenants.  A failure to abide by the limitations of an enforceable restrictive covenant, may lead to exposure.