In an important new decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held that a qualifying patient who has been terminated from employment for testing positive for marijuana as a result of her lawful medical marijuana use may state a claim of disability discrimination under that state’s anti-discrimination statute. As we blogged with respect to a after a similar decision in Rhode Island, this holding has significant implications for employers that drug test for marijuana use because 29 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana use.

Background

The plaintiff received an offer of employment conditioned on her passing a mandatory drug test. Before taking the test, the plaintiff told her would-be supervisor that she would test positive for marijuana because she was a qualifying medical marijuana patient under Massachusetts law and used marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. The supervisor assured her that her medicinal use of marijuana would not be an issue with the company. After submitting a urine sample for the mandatory drug test, the plaintiff completed her first day of work without incident. At the conclusion of that day, however, she was terminated for testing positive for marijuana. She was told that the company did not consider whether the positive test was due to the lawful medicinal use of marijuana because it followed federal, not state, law.

Court’s Holding and Rationale

The Court rejected plaintiff’s claims under the Massachusetts medical marijuana act, finding there to be no private right of action under the statute, which merely decriminalizes medical marijuana use and does not provide express employment protections. Nonetheless, the Court allowed to the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim to proceed. In so holding, the Court rejected the employer’s arguments that the plaintiff could not be a qualified handicapped person under the statute because the only accommodation she sought (possession and use of marijuana) is a federal crime, and that the plaintiff was discharged because she tested positive for an illegal substance, not because of her disability.

Rather, the Court concluded that, at least in some circumstances, an employer may have an obligation to accommodate the off-duty use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Like the Rhode Island trial court in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corporation, the Massachusetts Court determined that the medical marijuana act implicitly recognizes that off-site medical marijuana might be a permissible accommodation of an individual’s disability, and further concluded that the fact that marijuana may be illegal under federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation.

The court rejected arguments that the federal classification of marijuana as a controlled, and thus illegal, substance should preempt the state law classification. First, the court noted that only the plaintiff, and not the employer, risked federal prosecution for using marijuana, and therefore the legality of its use should not impact a determination of its reasonableness as an accommodation. Second, the court concluded that to adopt the federal classification would be to improperly reject the determination of Massachusetts voters to legalize the drug for medical use.

Notably, just because the plaintiff may proceed on her disability discrimination claim does not mean she ultimately will succeed. This decision comes at the motion to dismiss stage, and the employer still has the opportunity to demonstrate on summary judgment or at trial that accommodating the plaintiff’s marijuana use would constitute an undue hardship.

Key Takeaways

This decision is the first in any state in which the applicable medical marijuana act merely decriminalizes to permit a disability discrimination claim to proceed on such facts. The decision calls into question whether, even in these states, employers may maintain zero tolerance marijuana testing policies. Prior to this year, decisions in other jurisdictions have held that employers operating in such jurisdictions may enforce such policies and take adverse action against medical marijuana users simply for testing positive. With claims in Rhode Island and now Massachusetts surviving motions to dismiss, these decisions may indicate a trend by courts to provide greater protections for lawful medical marijuana users.

Wherever employers operate, it is clear that they must take added precautions in administering their drug testing policies. While employers may continue to prohibit the on-duty use of or impairment by marijuana, employers must consider the following when testing for marijuana:

  • Employers should review their drug-testing policies to ensure that they (a) set clear expectations of employees; (b) provide justifications for the need for drug-testing; and (c) expressly allow for adverse action (including termination or refusal to hire) as a consequence of a positive drug test.
  • Employers may consider or be required to adjust or relax certain hiring policies to accommodate lawful medical marijuana users.
  • When an individual tests positive ostensibly because marijuana is used to treat a disability, employers, particularly those in Massachusetts, may be required to engage in the interactive process. First, however, employers should evaluate whether the individual has a qualified disability that warrants an accommodation and whether allowing the individual to use medicinal marijuana would allow rather than hinder the individual’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job.
  • Employers concerned with the application of federal law may, during the interactive process, explore whether another equally effective medical alternatives to marijuana use may enable the individual to perform the essential functions of the job. Note, however, employers in states requiring accommodation of medical marijuana use may be prohibited from exploring these alternatives.
  • Where no such alternative exists or can be agreed upon, employers who cannot accommodate even lawful, off-duty medicinal marijuana use must be prepared to demonstrate that such accommodation would constitute an undue hardship.
  • Any such decision should be well-documented and well-coordinated by the relevant stakeholders.
  • In any case, hiring managers should be trained not to provide assurances as to whether and how marijuana use may be accommodated. If an applicant or employee discloses marijuana use, that disclosure should immediately be referred to Human Resources and addressed by a Human Resources professional in coordination with counsel.

Clearly, employers enforcing zero-tolerance policies should be prepared for future challenges to such policies. In Massachusetts as well as in those states prohibiting discrimination against and/or requiring accommodation of medical marijuana users, such challenges are now more likely to survive a motion to dismiss.

What obligations does an employer have to an employee returning from leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

What must the employer do if it was forced to fill that employee’s position during the employee’s absence?

How long after the employee returns must the employer wait before taking an adverse action against that employee?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently provided guidance to employers who frequently face these questions in the context of FMLA administration. In Waag v. Sotera Defense Solutions, Inc., the employer, Sotera, filled the position of an employee, Gary Waag, while he was out on FMLA leave, and assigned Waag to a different position when he returned.  Less than six weeks later, Sotera laid off Waag in a workforce reduction.  Waag filed suit claiming FMLA interference and retaliation.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case, holding that Sotera was not required to return Waag to his original position and that Sotera reassigned him to a bona fide equivalent position, not a “sham position” meant to mask a discriminatory or retaliatory reason for his termination.  Most importantly, the court held that the “temporal proximity” of six weeks’ time between Waag’s return from medical leave and his termination was insufficient by itself for him to succeed on his FMLA interference claim.

Plaintiff Waag took a two-month medical leave to recuperate from a severe head injury. During Waag’s absence, Sotera filled his position.  Upon his return, Waag was assigned to a new position in a different division, albeit with the same salary, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.  Six weeks after Waag returned to work, a drastic drop in work and revenue caused Sotera to begin a series of reductions in force, and Waag was included in the first round of layoffs.  Waag filed suit, alleging that Sotera violated his FMLA rights by putting him in a “sham position” that Sotera planned to eliminate shortly after his return from leave.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Waag’s claims. Addressing Waag’s claim of FMLA interference for failure to restore him to the same or an equivalent position, the court emphasized that Waag did not have an absolute right to reinstatement to his original position.  Rather, an employee “has the right to be restored either to his original position or to an equivalent position,” and an employer is not required to restore the employee to his original position if that position is no longer vacant.  Sotera fulfilled its obligations under the FMLA by reassigning Waag to a bona fide equivalent position with “substantially similar duties and responsibilities.”

Regarding Waag’s claim of FMLA interference based on his termination, the court held that although the close, six-week temporal proximity between his protected activity (medical leave) and the adverse action (termination) could demonstrate causation for purposes of establishing a prima facie case, it was insufficient standing alone to satisfy Waag’s burden of showing that his reassignment and the budgetary reduction-in-force were pretext for his termination.  Finally, the court rejected Waag’s claim of FMLA retaliation for failing to prove retaliatory intent.

This decision provides important guidance for employers reintegrating employees returning from FMLA leave. It makes clear that employers are not required to restore an employee to the exact same position held before taking leave, particularly where the original position had to be filled during the employee’s leave.  Indeed, employers are not required to hold open the employee’s original position while that person remains on leave.  Employers instead may place the employee in an equivalent position with the same status, pay, benefits, and “substantially similar duties and responsibilities.”  If intervening factors arise causing the employer to terminate the employee, either while on leave or shortly after returning from leave, the temporal proximity between the leave and the termination decision alone will not substantiate an FMLA claim – at least in the Fourth Circuit.  (Employers should be aware that courts in other jurisdictions may more closely scrutinize the temporal proximity and rely upon it in assessing pretext.)  In these instances, however, it is particularly important that an employer can point to documentary evidence of the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons supporting the termination decision.  As a best practice, employers should contemporaneously document and clearly communicate their reasons for taking such adverse actions.

Finally, while the subject was not raised in this case, employers should always be cognizant of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), especially after an employee has exhausted FMLA leave. Depending on the employee’s reason for leave, the ADA may impose additional obligations – beyond those of the FMLA –to extend the employee’s leave, transfer or reassign the employee, or otherwise accommodate the employee.  In matters involving the interplay of the FMLA and ADA, employers are advised to consult with counsel to determine the proper course of action.

On June 5, 2017, in Advocate Health Care Network et al. v. Stapleton et. al, the Supreme Court unanimously held that employee benefit plans maintained by church-affiliated hospitals were exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (the “ERISA”), regardless of whether the plan was actually established by a church. The plaintiffs consisted of current and former employees of three church-affiliated non-profits who ran hospitals and healthcare facilities that offered their employees defined benefit pension plans established by the hospitals and managed by internal hospital employee benefits committees.  The plaintiffs filed class actions in three different federal districts alleging that the hospital defined benefit pension plans were not entitled to an exemption under ERISA because they were not established by a church and therefore should be required, among other things, to meet the minimum-funding obligations of ERISA. The pension plans at issue were severely underfunded and ERISA would have required the hospitals to potentially contribute billions of dollars to satisfy the ERISA minimum-funding standards.

Under ERISA, private employers that offer pension plans must abide by a set of rules created to protect plan participants and ensure plan solvency. Section 4(b)(2) of ERISA, however, specifically exempts the employee benefits plans of churches. Section 3(33) of ERISA originally defined a church plan to mean a plan “established and maintained” for its employees by a church or by a convention or association of churches. In 1980, Congress expanded the church-plan definition to state that an “employee of a church” would include an employee of a church-affiliated organization and to add that a church plan includes a plan “maintained” by a “principal-purpose” organization. A “principal-purpose” organization is an organization controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches the principal purpose or function of which is the administration or funding of a plan or program providing retirement or welfare benefits to employees of such organizations. The Supreme Court found that, under the best reading of the statute, Congress intended that the church plan exemption under ERISA include plans adopted by principal-purpose organizations, even if not established by the church to which the principal-purpose organization is affiliated. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor agreed with the interpretation of ERISA but cautioned that Congress, when enacting the 1980 amendment, probably did not envision that this exemption would apply to large organizations that employ thousands of employees, operate for-profit subsidies, earn billions of dollars in revenue, and compete in the secular market with companies that must bear the cost of compliance under ERISA. Although she agreed with the majority’s conclusion, she wondered whether the current reality may prompt Congress to make changes.

Takeaway

The Supreme Court’s decision provides assurances to church-affiliated organizations that have treated their employee benefit plans as exempt church plans under ERISA. The organizations should be mindful, however, that as the Court specifically noted, the issue of whether  the hospitals qualified as “principal-purpose” organizations was not brought before it.  Therefore, it remains to be seen how the lower courts address the level and quality of a relationship that must be maintained between a church and a health care provider to qualify it as a “principal-purpose” organization.

An employee on an extended medical leave to recuperate from shoulder surgery posts pictures of his active Caribbean vacation. His employer is justified in terminating him, right?  Maybe not.

On April 19, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a trial court ruling and held that a former employee had raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether he was terminated in retaliation for using FMLA despite the former employee posting pictures from various vacations on Facebook during his time off of work to recuperate from surgery. This case, Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6766 (11th Circ. 2017), serves as a cautionary tale of why employers need to be careful and consistent while following proper steps when terminating employees—even in situations where the evidence of employee wrongdoing might appear obvious.

The plaintiff, Rodney Jones, was formerly employed as the activity director for the defendant, Accentia Health. His job included desk work as well as regular physical activity.  During his employment, Accentia Health approved Jones’s request for FMLA leave for shoulder surgery.  When Jones was unable to resume his full-time job duties at the end of the 12-week FMLA period, Jones requested a modified duty assignment, which was rejected by Accentia Health. Jones then requested additional time off from work, and Accentia Health granted another 30 days of “non-FMLA medical leave” in order to complete his physical therapy.

During the additional 30 days of leave, Jones twice visited the Busch Gardens theme park and went on a trip to St. Martin. Jones took pictures while on the vacations—including pictures of himself on the beach, posing by a boat wreck, and in the ocean—and then posted those pictures on Facebook.  An anonymous co-worker provided the pictures to management.  When Jones returned to work at the end of the additional time off, Jones was suspended by his supervisor and was later terminated. Accentia claimed that Jones was fired because he “(1) posted photos from his outings in violation of the company’s social-media policies, and (2) displayed poor judgment as a supervisor in posting these photos, even if this activity did not violate the company’s social-media policies.”

The appellate court found that Jones presented sufficient evidence that a fact-finder could conclude that Accentia Health’s stated reasons for the termination were pretexual. In arriving at this decision, the court focused on inconsistencies and contradictions in the reasons presented to Jones.  These inconsistencies included a formal termination letter that didn’t mention the Facebook photos, and failing to let Jones know at any time that he violated the company’s social media policy.

Employers need to be consistent when taking adverse action against an employee when FMLA is involved. This includes making sure that both written and oral communications to the affected employee are consistent and clear. Employers should take the time necessary to gather the proper facts and have better communication with the potentially affected employee before deciding upon a course of action and before letting the employee know what action might be taken. This will help ensure that any eventual adverse action is communicated clearly and consistently to the affected employee and will help limit the potential for allegations of a pretexual termination.

On April 20, 2017, in Marshall v. The Rawlings Company LLC, No. 16-5614, slip op., (6th Cir. April 20, 2017) the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers federal courts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, for the first time adopted the cat’s paw theory of liability in the context of a retaliation claim brought under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.  The term “cat’s paw” was coined by Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit and introduced in Shager v. Upjohn Co., 913 F.2d 398 (7th Cir. 1990) as a standard by which liability may be imputed to an employer for the discriminatory animus of a biased low-level supervisor.

In Marshall, the company demoted and ultimately terminated the plaintiff-employee after she used FMLA leave to address acute mental health problems.  The employee sued the employer for FMLA retaliation and other employment discrimination claims, alleging two lower-level supervisors exhibited bias against her because she had taken approved medical leave.  The two supervisors allegedly influenced the decision to demote the employee after she returned from leave and the ultimate decision to terminate her employment.  The district court granted summary judgment to the employer and dismissed all claims.

On appeal, a split panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed.  After holding the cat’s paw theory applicable to the employee’s FMLA retaliation claims, the majority determined:

  1. the cat’s paw theory of liability applies even in cases involving multiple layers of supervision between the employee and the ultimate decision-maker;
  2. an employee pursuing a claim of FMLA retaliation under a cat’s paw theory must satisfy the McDonnel Douglas framework and prove that the decision-maker was the cat’s paw of the biased low-level supervisor; and
  3. the honest-belief rule is not applicable in cat’s paw cases because the honesty of the decision-maker’s belief is not relevant to the issue of whether a biased low-level supervisor intentionally manipulated the decision-maker.  Nonetheless, an employer may still protect itself from liability under the cat’s paw theory by showing that the decision-maker conducted an independent investigation and determined that the adverse employment action was justified.

The decision in Marshall emphasizes the importance for employers of conducting reasonable, independent investigations to confirm disciplinary action is justified by objective evidence and clearly documented, particularly where a protected category or activity is implicated.  The ultimate decision-makers should not rely solely upon the recommendation of a subordinate supervisor when making employment related decisions, but rather should probe the subordinate supervisor’s rationale and reach an independent determination of the basis for the adverse action.

In a decision with significant implications for private hospitals, on March 7, 2017, the Third Circuit held in Doe v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center that medical residents may bring private causes of action for sex discrimination under Title IX against private teaching hospitals operating residency programs, and are not limited to claims under Title VII.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §1681, et seq., prohibits sex discrimination in any “education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). A former resident alleged the director of her program repeatedly sexually harassed her and then retaliated against her for resisting his advances and complaining about them, culminating in her termination from the program. In deciding a question of first impression, the Third Circuit held that Mercy could be sued under Title IX because, under the allegations of the complaint, its medical residency program constituted an “education program or activity” provided by a private organization principally engaged in the business of providing health care, 20 U.S.C. §1687(3)(A)(ii), that received Federal financial assistance. In so holding, Court established a test to determine whether a program is educational, asking whether it is structured as an educational program, allows participants to obtain a degree or certification or qualify for an examination, has instruction, tests, or grades, accepts tuition, and is promoted as educational.  The Court had little trouble finding that the allegations demonstrated plaintiff was enrolled in a multi-year regulated program of study and training that led to qualification to take a certification examination, and that this program was run by Mercy in affiliation with Drexel University’s College of Medicine, a university program also plausibly covered by Title IX.

Notably, the Court did not reach the question of whether Mercy’s receipt of Medicare payments constituted “Federal financial assistance” under Title IX because Mercy had not raised this issue in the District Court, although it expressed some skepticism towards Mercy’s argument that such payments merely flowed from “contracts of insurance.” In this regard we note that a number of courts have found Medicare payments can constitute Federal financial assistance for the purpose of coverage under Title VI and the Rehabilitation Act.

Importantly, the Court rejected Mercy’s argument that the plaintiff’s remedy should be limited to an action under Title VII (which would have been time-barred) because she was also an employee, finding that there is concurrent liability under Title IX. In this regard it followed decisions from the First and Fourth Circuits, rejecting conflicting decisions from the Fifth and Seventh Circuits that predated the Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, 544 U.S. 167 (2005), where the Supreme Court found a high school coach who alleged a retaliatory termination could sue under Title IX. Thus, it found that causes of action exist under Title IX for claims of both retaliation and quid pro quo sexual harassment and that, where an individual is covered by both Title IX and Title VII, that plaintiff can file complaints through either means. However, the Court did not reach the question of whether Title VII’s potential applicability barred a Title IX claim for hostile environment because that claim was time-barred under Title IX’s two-year statute of limitations.

This case stands as a warning to hospitals and other health care institutions providing accredited teaching and training programs to ensure that they have in place and follow policies that not only bar sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation, both in general and with respect to medical residency and other educational programs, but also provide an effective complaint procedure for addressing claims that these policies have been violated.  These institutions also should be aware that employees covered under both Title VII and Title IX may pursue their discrimination claims under Title IX in federal court without first exhausting their administrative remedies, as required under Title VII.

Two stories on the new episode of Employment Law This Week will be of particular interest to our readers in the health care industry:

California Health Care Workers Can Waive Breaks

California health care workers can still waive some breaks. In February 2015, a California appeals court invalidated an order from the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) that allowed health care workers to waive certain meal breaks. The court found the order, which allowed the workers to miss one of their two meal periods when working over eight hours, was in direct conflict with the California Labor Code. The state legislature then passed a new law giving the IWC authority to craft exceptions going forward for health care workers. This month, the appeals court concluded that its 2015 decision was based on a misreading of the statute and that even waivers occurring before the new law are valid.

Transgender Guidance Withdrawal Impacts the Courts

A multistate lawsuit against the Obama administration’s transgender guidance is coming to an end. The states, led by Texas, have dropped their suit in light of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw that guidance. The Obama-era guidance allowed students to use the bathrooms of the gender they identify with. The withdrawal has also prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to return a case that it was scheduled to hear on transgender rights in public schools. The appeals court, which based its original decision on the guidance, will now consider the case solely based on the statutory requirements of Title IX.

These stories are featured in the first and third segments of the show – see below:

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued new guidance on workplace retaliation.

The EEOC’s final guidance on retaliation includes concrete examples of retaliation issues that the courts have largely agreed upon, as well as expanded definitions of “adverse action” and “causal connection.” The guidance also describes “promising practices” for reducing the possibility of retaliation, including anti-retaliation training and proactive follow-up with potential targets. Retaliation has become the most frequent form of employment claim across business sectors. The percentage of EEOC charges in this area has almost doubled since the last guidance was issued. Our colleague David Marden is interviewed.

See below for the episode and read our blog post about the guidance.

On August 29, 2016, the EEOC issued its final Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues (Guidance) to replace its 1998 Compliance Manual section on retaliation, including tips on ADA interference. The Guidance reflects the Commission’s consideration of feedback received on the proposal from about 60 organizations and individuals following a 30-day public input period that ended February 24, 2016. The changes in the Guidance are in line with the EEOC’s efforts to broaden the conduct that would be deemed retaliatory as well as the concept of causation.

Along with the Guidance, the EEOC has issued two accompanying documents: a question-and-answer publication that summarizes the Guidance, and a short Small Business Fact Sheet that condenses the major points in the Guidance. The Guidance also provides “boxed” examples of actual and perceived retaliation that will be of great help to employers and employees.

The Guidance addresses retaliation under each of the statutes enforced by EEOC, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

Since 1998, the last time the EEOC issued a formal resource document on retaliation, the Supreme Court and the lower courts have issued numerous significant rulings regarding employment-related retaliation. Further, the percentage of EEOC charges alleging retaliation has essentially doubled (now nearly 45% of all charges). Retaliation is now the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in all sectors, including the federal government workforce.

The guidance also addresses the interference provision under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits coercion, threats, or other acts that interfere with the exercise of ADA rights. The EEOC considers the scope of this separate interference provision broader than the anti-retaliation provision under the ADA.

In preparing the Guidance, the Commission analyzed courts’ interpretation and application of the law to specific facts, noting that, regarding many retaliation issues, the lower courts have been uniform in their interpretations of the relevant statutes. Where the Commission agreed with those interpretations, the Guidance explains the law on such issues with concrete examples. The Commission noted that there are cases where the lower courts have not consistently applied the law, or the EEOC’s interpretation of the law differs. In those instances, the Guidance sets forth the EEOC’s position and explains its analysis.

Elements of a Claim. The Guidance does not change the three well-established elements of a retaliation claim and leaves little doubt that the EEOC takes a broad view when defining each element:

  1. An employee’s participation in a protected activity, generally a complaint of discrimination or harassment.
  2. A materially adverse action taken by the employer/manager against the employee.
  3. A causal connection between the protected activity and adverse action.

The small business fact sheet provides a list of actions taken by applicants and employees that are protected from retaliation:

  • taking part in an internal or external investigation of employment discrimination, including harassment;
  • filing or being a witness in a charge, complaint, or lawsuit alleging discrimination;
  • communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment;
  • answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment;
  • refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination;
  • resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others;
  • reporting an instance of harassment to a supervisor;
  • requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice; or
  • asking managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages.

Protected Activity. In the Commission’s view, playing any role in an internal investigation (even in support of the employer) should be deemed to constitute protected participation. For example, an employee can issue a direct complaint (“participation”) or engage in “protected opposition” by communicating explicitly or implicitly opposition to perceived employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, an employee may make a broad or ambiguous complaint of unfair treatment because they may not know the specific requirements of the anti-discrimination laws and such communication would be considered protected opposition if the complaint would reasonably have been interpreted as opposition to employment discrimination.

While the Guidance states that the manner of opposition must be reasonable, the Guidance points out that the scope of the opposition clause is not limited to complaints made to the employer directly, and may include complaints made to coworkers, an attorney, others outside the company, or even publicly. According to the EEOC, employees’ complaints or opposition activities will be protected as long as their actions are based on reasonable, good faith that their assertions are accurate. Nonetheless, opposition to perceive discrimination “does not serve as a license for the employee to neglect job duties.”

Adverse Action. The Guidance seeks to expand the definition of “adverse action” to include activity that could be reasonably likely to deter protected activity even if it has no tangible effect on a person’s employment. According to the EEOC, adverse actions can be activities that are not work-related, or take place outside of work, and may even be taken against a third party who is closely linked to a complaining employee.

Causal Connection. The Guidance also expands what constitutes a causal connection between a protected activity and adverse action. Under the Commission’s interpretation of the “but-for” causation standard articulated in University of Texas Southwest Medical Center v. Nassar, that there can be multiple “but-for” causes, and retaliation need only be one of those but-for causes in order for the employee to prevail. Moreover, citing a Seventh Circuit decision (Ortiz v. Werner Enters., Inc.), the Guidance notes that causal connection may be established by combining different pieces of circumstantial evidence into a “convincing mosaic” showing retaliatory intent. Citing a decision where a termination that occurred five years after an employee filed a discrimination lawsuit defeated summary judgment, the Commission noted that it may go years back into a person’s employment history to find evidence of either a protected activity or an adverse action.

Guidance for Employers. The Commission includes a section in the Guidance on “promising practices” that it suggests may help reduce the risk of retaliation violations. While adhering to these practices is not a safe harbor, employers should take note of the list provided by the EEOC:

  • Including clear anti-retaliation language in written employment policies that provide practical guidance on what retaliation is and how it is avoided, with examples of conduct that managers, supervisors, and decision makers may not realize are actionable;
  • Taking proactive steps for avoiding actual or perceived retaliation, including practical guidance on interactions by managers and supervisors with employees who have lodged discrimination allegations against them;
  • Instituting a reporting mechanism for employee concerns about retaliation, including access to a mechanism for informal resolution; and
  • Providing a clear explanation to employees that retaliation can be subject to discipline, up to and including termination;
  • Providing all parties and witnesses to an alleged act of discrimination with information about how to avoid engaging in retaliation, and how to report alleged retaliation; and
  • Ensuring that someone with special knowledge of EEO guidance reviews proposed employment actions to ensure they are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons.

In employment litigation, plaintiffs often rely on the “cat’s paw” doctrine to hold their employers liable for discriminatory or retaliatory animus of a supervisory employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.  On August 29, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., greatly extended the reach of the “cat’s paw,” holding that the doctrine could be applied to hold an employer liable for an adverse employment decision that was influenced by the discriminatory or retaliatory animus of a low-level, non-supervisory co-worker.

The plaintiff, an emergency medical technician employed by the defendant, was terminated within hours of complaining to her supervisors that a male co-worker had sent her a text message containing a graphic, sexual photograph.  Plaintiff alleged that when her male co-worker learned that she had complained, he manipulated his iPhone to make it appear that a conversation containing consensual sexual text banter that he had with another person was a conversation between him and plaintiff and, when questioned by the employer about plaintiff’s allegations, provided printed screen shots of portions of this alleged conversation, telling the employer that he and the plaintiff had been involved in a consensual relationship.  In her lawsuit, plaintiff complained that her employer accepted the co-worker’s tale as true, and rejected her offer to turn over her cell phone for inspection or otherwise refute his claim.  Instead, plaintiff asserted that she was told by her employer that it “kn[e]w the truth,” that she had a sexual relationship with the co-worker, and that her employment was being terminated because she had sexually harassed him.   Plaintiff filed suit, asserting that the employer’s decision to terminate her employment was an act of retaliation in violation of Title VII because she had voiced complaints of sexual harassment.  Relying on the “cat’s paw” doctrine, the plaintiff argued that the employer’s decision to terminate her employment was influenced by false information provided by her male co-worker.  The district court dismissed her complaint, concluding that an employer could not be held liable under the “cat’s paw” doctrine for the discriminatory or retaliatory intent of a non-supervisory co-worker.

On appeal, the Second Circuit disagreed and reinstated plaintiff’s Complaint.  Despite the fact that the male co-worker was a low-level employee without any supervisor authority, the Second Circuit held that the employer’s “own negligence provides an independent basis” to treat the male co-worker as its agent and hold it accountable for his illegitimate intent.  Referencing the allegations that the employer “blindly credited” the male co-worker’s assertions and “obstinately refus[ed] to inspect [plaintiff]’s phone or to review any other evidence proffered by [plaintiff] in refutation,”   the Second Circuit concluded that “an employer may be held liable for an employee’s animus under a ‘cat’s paw’ theory, regardless of the employee’s role within the organization, if the employer’s own negligence gives effect to the employee’s animus and causes the victim to suffer an adverse employment action.”

The impact of this decision on health care employers who are often called upon to make employment decisions based on information provided by one employee about another?  Negligence is the key.  Only when the employer effectively adopts the co-worker’s animus by acting negligently with regards to the information provided may the co-worker’s improper motivation be imputed to the employer to support a claim under the cat’s paw doctrine.  Exercise good faith and be thorough in conducting internal investigations.  Do not ignore warning signs.  Consider all evidence offered in making employment decisions.