Employment LawScene Alert:
Multi-Month Need for Leave Disqualifies Employee from ADA Protections

Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in which it stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require employers to give employees more leave after their Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allotment runs out. In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc., the employee had a back condition for which he took twelve weeks of FMLA leave. At the end of his FMLA leave, he requested an additional two or three months of leave to recover from back surgery. The employer denied his request and terminated his employment, telling him that he could reapply once healthy. Instead, the employee filed suit, claiming that the company had violated the ADA by refusing to grant him a leave of absence and by failing to transfer him to a vacant job or a light duty position.

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who are “qualified individuals,” meaning that they can perform the essential functions of their jobs with or without accommodation. The Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer, finding that the employee was not a “qualified individual” with a disability under the ADA because he could not work, as shown by his need for long-term medical leave. Although there is no bright-line rule for what is considered a disqualifying long-term leave, the Court noted that, while a few days or even a few weeks of non-FMLA time would be acceptable, a period of multiple months is too long as leave does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. Although the EEOC argued in an amicus brief that a long-term leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation if it is definite, requested in advance, and would allow the worker to return at the end of the leave, the Court rejected this argument stating that such a policy would make the ADA into a medical leave entitlement instead of an anti-discrimination law that requires reasonable accommodations. The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s other reasonable accommodation arguments, as he presented no evidence that there were any vacant positions at the time of his termination or that the company provided light duty to employees in any situation.

Although employers should carefully consider their obligations to employees under both the ADA and the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act, determine whether a requested accommodation is reasonable on a case-by-case basis, and engage in the interactive process with employees, this decision will be helpful in guiding employers that are evaluating employees’ requests for extended leave.

Employment LawScene Alert:
Court Invalidates Expanded Overtime Rule

On Thursday, a federal court in Texas issued summary judgment invalidating the Obama administration’s updated overtime regulations, which raised the minimum salary level for exempt employees from $455 to $913 per week. The Court determined that the “significant increase” was outside of the scope of Department of Labor’s (DOL) authority, as was the provision that the minimum salary threshold would automatically update every three years.

The Court looked to Congress’s intent under the Fair Labor Standards Act and found that the determining factor for whether an employee should be considered exempt is the duties the employee performs and whether those duties are executive, administrative, or professional in nature. By more than doubling the minimum salary level and excluding an estimated 4.2 million employees who were previously classified as exempt from exempt status, the Court found that the DOL had gone too far and essentially rendered the duties test meaningless. Because the emphasis should be on duties, not salary, the Court invalidated the updated overtime rules.

However, the Court did not go as far as to rule that the DOL has no authority to establish a minimum salary level. The Court found that the current minimum salary level is a permissible “floor” to screen out “obviously nonexempt” employees. Although the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering an appeal of the preliminary injunction the Texas federal court issued last November, the DOL under the Trump administration only continued the appeal for the purpose of establishing that it had the authority to establish a minimum salary level, which has now been done by the Texas court. The DOL is currently seeking public feedback on revisions to the overtime rule and may issue its own revised rule in the future. We will keep you updated on any further changes.

Employment LawScene Alert:
Congress Contemplates "Comp Time" Bill

In May 2017, the House of Representatives passed the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow nonexempt employees in the private sector to choose to receive compensatory time (“comp time”) in lieu of overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week. Under current law, employers in the public sector must pay nonexempt employees a rate of at least one and one-half of their regular wage for each overtime hour worked. However, certain government employees can receive comp time in lieu of overtime pay.

The Working Families Flexibility Act would allow private sector employees who had worked at least 1,000 hours in a 12-month period to accrue up to 160 hours of compensatory time per year, at the rate of one and one-half hours of comp time for each overtime hour worked, which could be used upon reasonable notice by the employee as long as such use does not disrupt the employer’s operations. The decision of whether to receive overtime pay or comp time would be up to the individual employee or a collective bargaining agreement covering a group of employees, and any compensatory time accrued by the employee but unused by the end of the year would need to be paid to the employee. Additionally, any employee could, with 30 days’ notice, choose to cash out their unused comp time and return to traditional payment of overtime. Similarly, employers could, with 30 days’ notice, discontinue offering comp time as an alternative option to overtime pay. The bill states that employers may not intimidate, threaten, or coerce employees to choose to take comp time instead of overtime pay or force them to use accrued comp time. If enacted, this provision is one of the most likely to lead to litigation between employees and employers.

The bill is currently pending before the Senate, which may not have enough support to pass the bill. Proponents of the law believe that the bill would add flexibility for workers, while opponents believe that it would undermine the payment of overtime. Similar bills have been proposed in Congress previously, including as recently as 2013. However, the current bill has the support of the Trump administration. We will keep you updated on any further developments and, if passed, on techniques for implementation.

Employment LawScene Alert:
Don’t Forget about DOL’s New Overtime Rules Just Yet

In November, a federal court in Texas issued a nationwide injunction blocking the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) from implementing its updated overtime regulations, which would have required, among other things, that exempt employees be paid a minimum salary of $913 per week. Because of the injunction, the new overtime regulations did not go into effect on December 1, 2016, as planned. However, they have also not completely gone away, and their fate is still uncertain.

The Obama administration immediately appealed the injunction to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and asked for an expedited proceeding, which was granted. The DOL filed its initial brief on December 15, 2016, and the twenty-one states, which had opposed the implementation of the new overtime regulations and were granted the injunction, filed their brief on January 17, 2017. DOL’s final reply brief was originally due January 31, 2017. However, since President Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, the Trump administration has asked for three extensions to file its reply brief, all of which have been granted. The first two extension were requested so that the new administration could consider its position on the new regulations and whether it would continue to defend them. Most recently, on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, the Fifth Circuit granted the DOL another two months, until June 30, 2017, to file its brief due to the fact that Alexander Acosta, the nominee for Labor Secretary, has not yet been confirmed.

It is not yet clear what stance the Trump administration will take on the overtime regulations, as there has been no official position taken by the President and nominee Acosta did not take a definitive position during his confirmation hearings. However, even if the administration decides not to pursue the appeal, others may. For example, the AFL-CIO’s Texas branch has petitioned to join the litigation as a defendant due to its concerns that the current administration will not adequately defend the prior administration’s regulations, and the national AFL-CIO has threatened to sue the DOL if it tries to scale back the regulations in any way. Additionally, the lower court, which issued the initial temporary injunction, could still issue a permanent injunction or rule on a pending motion for summary judgment, as it declined to halt proceedings while the Fifth Circuit reviewed the injunction. Therefore, these overtime regulations should still be on employers’ radar, and we will keep you updated on further developments.

Employment LawScene Alert:
What President Trump's Supreme Court Nominee Could Mean for Employers

On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2015. Many employers are wondering what impact a potential Justice Gorsuch would have on employment law decisions, and the news is generally positive. Judge Gorsuch, during his time on the Tenth Circuit, has issued decisions that have gone in favor of both employers and employees. However, he favors a straight forward application of facts to the law to reach conclusions and has been critical of administrative agencies overstepping their authority.

Judge Gorsuch, in line with holdings from the Seventh Circuit, has been critical of the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework that is frequently used in employment discrimination cases.  Judge Gorsuch favors focusing on the real question – whether discrimination actually took place – instead of focusing on whether a prima facie case can be established. This straight-forward approach to the facts will likely be welcomed by employers who want to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities.

As we have covered multiple times, in recent years, administrative agencies such as the EEOC, OSHA, and particularly the NLRB have expanded the scope and reach of the employment laws they oversee by broadly interpreting existing laws, often to the confusion and detriment of employers. This expansion could be significantly curbed by  a U.S. Supreme Court conservative majority anchored by Judge Gorsuch. In particular, Judge Gorsuch has issued opinions limiting the judicial deference that should be given to administrative agencies and stating that lawmaking should be left to Congress. For example, in his dissent in Trans Am Trucking Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, U.S. Department of Labor, Judge Gorsuch penned a dissent that stated that nothing in the Surface Transportation Assistance Act stated that an employee could operate a vehicle in a way the employer forbid and that the DOL did not have the authority to expand the law to say so. He also opined in a case involving the NLRB that the agency did not provide a persuasive explanation to reverse its long-standing precedent that interim earnings should be deducted from back pay awards and, therefore, should not be allowed to change its policy.

Finally, Judge Gorsuch has issued opinions favorable to arbitration agreements, which is of particular interest to employers as the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases regarding whether the NLRB is correct in its interpretation that arbitration agreements that bar workers from pursuing class actions are illegal restraints of employees’ Section 7 rights. If confirmed, Judge Gorsuch may be able to weigh-in on this important issue as the U.S. Supreme Court, yesterday, indicated that it will not address this issue during the Court’s current term, but will address it next term. Hopefully, by that time Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. As a result, then Justice Gorsuch could be the deciding vote on this important issue.

Although Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation process is likely to be long and contentious, a Justice Gorsuch anchored U.S. Supreme Court can be something that employers can look forward to in providing common sense to employment laws.

Employment LawScene Alert:
OSHA New Anti-Retaliation Rules Goes Into Effect December 1, 2016

On November 28, 2016, a Texas federal district court denied a motion for an injunction to block the December 1, 2016 implementation of the anti-retaliation provisions found in OSHA’s new injury and reporting rule. Therefore, starting tomorrow, OSHA’s new anti-retaliation provisions will limit post-accident and post-injury discipline and drug testing, as well as how accident and injury-related incentive programs can be administered by employers. These new rules will apply to all employers. Accordingly, all employers should review their safety-related policies and practices to determine if their existing policies or post-accident drug testing policies violate the new anti-retaliation rule.

Additionally, starting January 1, 2017, companies with 250 or more employees must electronically submit their OSHA 300, 300A, and 301 Forms, which cover information about workplace injuries and illnesses. Companies with 20-249 employees in certain “high risk” industries such as construction and manufacturing must electronically submit their OSHA 300A Forms. Our other coverage of these new OSHA rules can be found at our previous blogs here and here .

Employment LawScene Alert:
BREAKING: New DOL Overtime Rule Will Not Go Into Effect December 1

Yesterday, a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide injunction (full decision here) blocking the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) from implementing its updated overtime regulations, which would have required, among other things, that exempt employees be paid a minimum salary of $913 per week. The judge ruled that the twenty-one states and certain business groups that had sued to block the implementation of the regulations were likely to be successful on the merits of their case and that there would be harm to the states and businesses if the rule was implemented on December 1.

The basis for the ruling is that the new salary basis test is a de facto salary test that no longer takes an employee’s job duties into consideration. The Court found that the type of work actually performed by the employee is what Congress intended the exemption to be based on, and that the updated DOL rule supplanted the duties test with a minimum salary threshold. The Court found that this was outside the intent of Congress and, therefore, outside of the DOL’s statutory authority. Additionally, the judge ruled that the DOL did not have statutory authority to implement the automatic increase provision of the rules, which would have automatically readjusted the minimum weekly salary level every three years.

Although this may not be the end of litigation over this matter, the DOL’s new overtime rules will not take effect on December 1, 2016, and therefore, employers do not need to implement any changes. For those employers who have already implemented changes in preparation for the updated overtime rules, they have the option to keep those changes in place or reverse those changes and wait to see how this matter ultimately resolves. However, employers must keep in mind that, although the minimum salary level will remain, for now, at $455 per week, to be considered exempt, employees must still meet the job duties tests.

Employment LawScene Alert:
Federal District Court to Rule November 22, 2016 on Attempt to Block New Overtime Rules

As we have previously reported, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has issued an update to the federal overtime regulations defining the overtime exemption for executive, administrative, and professional employees, known as “white-collar” exemptions. These changes focus primarily on updating the salary level for white-collar employees including increasing the minimum salary threshold from $455 per week to $913 per week, among other changes. The new rule is set to go into effect on December 1, 2016.

The new overtime regulations have been controversial and subject to various challenges. Specifically, twenty-one states and certain business groups have sued the DOL in Texas federal district court in an attempt to block the DOL from implementing the new overtime rules. Yesterday, November 16, 2016, the federal district court held a hearing on a motion to enjoin the DOL from implementing the new overtime rules. During the hearing, the federal district court  judge stated that the Court would make a decision on the motion for a preliminary injunction by November 22, 2016. This is welcome news given that the new overtime rules’ effective date is just two weeks away.

During the motion hearing, the business groups and states made various arguments about why the rule should not be implemented, including that the drastic increase in the salary threshold was a “fundamental, radical social policy change.”  It was also argued that implementation of the new overtime rules should be at least delayed until it could be reviewed by President-elect Trump’s administration. In response to that argument, the Court stated that what a new administration may do with the new overtime rules is not relevant and too speculative to affect as how the Court would rule. On the other hand, the DOL argued that the agency had reached these new salary levels in a reasonable way through the rulemaking process, and as a result, agency should be entitled to deference from the Court.

The Court seemed receptive to some, but not all, of the arguments to block implementation of the new rules. The judge questioned whether the new salary basis was a de facto salary-only test, why the change was so drastic, and how 4.2 million employees could go from being exempt one day to non-exempt the next, despite having the same job duties. However, he did state that his role was not to get involved in policy making and he would not base his decision on whether he thought the rule was good or bad.

It is premature to state for certain as to how the Court may rule; so, the wise course of action for employers, for now, is to continue to move forward with plans on how to implement the new overtime regulations for their workforces on December 1st. We will, of course, provide you with an update regarding the Court’s decision as soon as it is issued.

Employment LawScene Alert:
Voting Leave – What Wisconsin Employers Need to Know

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 is Election Day. While there is no federal law that requires employers to grant employees leave to vote, Wisconsin law does require voting leave. Wis. Stat. § 6.67. What Wisconsin employers need to know:

Two other provisions that Wisconsin employers should be aware of are 1) they may not refuse to let employees serve as election officials under Wis. Stat. § 7.30 or make any threats or inducements to prevent employees from doing so; and 2) they cannot distribute printed materials to employees that contain a threat that if a particular party or candidate is elected that the business will shut down, in whole or in part, or that the salaries or wages of employees will be reduced. Wis. Stat. § 12.07(2)-(3).

Employment LawScene Alert:
OSHA Delays Enforcement of Anti-Retaliation Provisions

On October 12, 2016, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) agreed to further delay the enforcement of the anti-retaliation provisions of the injury and illness tracking rule until December 1, 2016. Enforcement was originally scheduled to begin August 10, 2016 and then delayed until November 10, 2016. OSHA’s agreement to once again delay enforcement of its new anti-retaliations provisions is in response to a request from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, which is currently considering a motion challenging OSHA’s new rules.

Despite its self-imposed delay in enforcement of its anti-retaliation provisions, last week, OSHA released a memo with examples discussing in more detail how the new anti-retaliation amendments will be interpreted and implemented by OSHA. See OSHA Memorandum for Regional Administrators (10/19/2016).

OSHA explained that its purpose in including the new anti-retaliation provisions is to address workplace retaliation in three specific areas: (1) Disciplinary Policies; (2) Post-accident Drug Testing Programs; and (3) Employee Incentive Programs. Although neither employee disciplinary policies, post-accident drug testing programs, or employee incentive programs are expressly prohibited by the new rules, employers will need to be careful about how their policies or programs are drafted and enforced so as to not, in the eyes of OSHA, discourage or deter employees from reporting work-related injuries or illnesses.