EEOC Issues Guidance on Age Discrimination Defense

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits discrimination based on age and applies to employees and job applicants who are 40 years of age and older. One of the grounds for liability under the ADEA is called a “disparate impact” claim. This is where an employee demonstrates that a seemingly neutral decision by an employer has a disparate impact on older employees. As a defense to this type of claim, employers are permitted to argue that the differential treatment was due to reasonable factors other than age.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued new regulations which clarify the “reasonable factors other than age” defense under the ADEA. The new regulations, which go into effect today, provide employers with guidance on ensuring that their employment practices are in fact for reasons other than age. For example, the new regulations urge employers to take into consideration the following non-exhaustive list:
• The extent to which the factor is related to an employer’s stated business purpose;
• The extent to which an employer defined the factor accurately and applied the factor fairly and accurately, including the extent to which managers and supervisors were given guidance or training about how to apply the factor and avoid discrimination;
• The extent to which the employer limited a supervisor’s discretion to assess employees subjectively, particularly where the criteria that the supervisors were asked to evaluate are known to be subject to negative age-based stereotypes;
• The extent to which the employer assessed the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers;
• The degree of harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the extent of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took steps to reduce the harm in light of the burden of undertaking such steps.

The above considerations provide guidance on what an employer must demonstrate to successfully utilize the “reasonable factors other than age” defense. The new rule prevents employers from routinely and mechanically utilizing the “reasonable factors other than age” defense in every decision it makes which disparately impact older employees. Instead, the new rule encourages employers to take into consideration whether their decision to implement a particular policy was truly due to factors other than age, and the possible harm the policy may have on older employees. We believe the EEOC’s clarification on the defense is one that keeps in mind the rights of older employees and the susceptibility to discrimination they frequently face at work

Employers Seek Access to Your Facebook Page

Employers are requiring their employees to provide the passwords to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Potential employees are asked to provide this information at their interviews. Is this legal?

For now, yes. However, some state legislatures and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are fighting back to preserve the privacy rights of employees. The ACLU has compared employers looking at employee’s private Facebook page as akin to opening their personal mail or listening to their phone messages. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission comments that the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from obtaining information about a person’s disability or genetic information, and allowing access to Facebook would increase the likelihood of employers violating the ADA.

Certain states have already recognized the negative implications of allowing employers to ask for passwords and are contemplating legislation to prevent employers from requesting passwords from employees or potential employees. California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York are among the states who are contemplating passing legislation which would restrict employers from asking for passwords. Recently, Maryland became the first state to pass a bill banning employers from requesting passwords to social media websites.

New Jersey has yet to officially propose any legislation banning the practice. New Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli says he plans on introducing a bill which would ban the practice and even prevent employers from requesting that employees waive their rights under the law. Given the broad protections already allotted to New Jersey residents, requesting potential employees to give their passwords to social networking sites will almost certainly be highly scrutinized by the state legislature and courts.

NJ Court Expands Definition of Discrimination

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently expanded the scope of employees protected from employment discrimination. The Court ruled that anti-discrimination protection extends to employees who are perceived to be, but aren’t, members of a protected class. For example, if your employer thinks you are Jewish, but you aren’t, you are still protected from anti-Semitism at work.

The case was brought by Myron Cowher, a truck driver for Carson & Roberts Site Construction & Engineering. Mr. Cowher claims that his supervisors subjected him to anti-Semitic remarks on a daily basis. While Mr. Cowher is not Jewish, either by ethnicity or by faith, he felt that these remarks caused a hostile work environment.

The primary issue analyzed by the Appellate Division was whether an individual may bring a suit against an employer for discrimination based on a perceived membership in a protected class. The Court noted that, in the area of disability discrimination, an employee is protected if her employer believes she is disabled, even when she is not. This is the concept of “perceived disability discrimination.” Other states and the federal courts have recognized this concept as well. The Appellate Division reasoned that there is no basis to grant protection to individuals who are perceived to be disabled, but not to employees who are perceived to be members of other protected categories.

The purpose of anti-discrimination law is to eradicate discrimination, wherever it lurks. Whether you are actually a member of a protected group or whether your employer just thinks you are — you still have the right to work in an environment free of discrimination. The Court’s expansion of the definition of discrimination makes perfect sense.

Supervisors May Be Sued Under The FMLA

On January 31, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit outlined factors to be used when determining whether a supervisor at a public agency can be subject to individual liability under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Family Medical Leave Act allows employees to take unpaid and job protected leave for up to 12 weeks per year. This Act allows employees to balance work and family responsibilities by entitling them to take leave for certain medical or family reasons. FMLA applies to all public agencies and companies with 50 or more employees. To be eligible under the FMLA, an employee must have worked for the employer at least 12 months. An employee may use the FMLA for the following reasons:

• Give birth or care for a newborn
• During placement of a child for adoption or foster care
• To care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition
• To take medical leave when the employee is unable to work due to a serious health condition

Debra Haybarger, a former employee of Lawrence County Adult Probation and Parole sued her former supervisor under the FMLA after she was terminated from her position as office manager. Ms. Haybarger, who suffered from type two diabetes, heart disease, and kidney problems, received poor performance reviews from her supervisor which included comments stating that Haybarger needed to improve her overall health and cut down on sick days. Haybarger was eventually fired by the President Judge of the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas after Haybarger’s supervisor advised the Judge that termination was necessary.

Haybarger sued the County of Lawrence, Lawrence County Probation, and her supervisor under the FMLA (along with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and the Rehabilitation Act). The District Court held that Haybarger’s supervisor could not be seen as an “employer” under FMLA since the supervisor did not have “sufficient control over the conditions and terms of employment” and that an employer has sufficient control over an employee if they have authority to fire them.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and ruled that although a supervisor may not have ultimate authority over employment practices, they are not relieved from liability. The Court reasoned that the totality of circumstances must be examined when determining whether an individual supervisor can constitute an “employer.” In Haybarger’s case, while the Court concluded that even if the supervisor did not have final authority to fire Haybarger, the supervisor acted in the interest of the county, carried out his role as a supervisor, exercised control over her work, had authority to discipline her, and recommended to the Judge that she be terminated. These factors were enough for the Court of Appeals to conclude that the supervisor is considered an “employer” and could be held individually liable under the FMLA.

This decision is notable in the employment law context as it expands the circumstances in which supervisors can be held liable for violating employee rights. Supervisors and managers should be aware that just because they may not have direct authority over an employee, they are not shielded from liability when they take actions against employees which are contrary to federal laws such as the FMLA.