Key Issues Targeted by EEOC in Recent Lawsuits Filed Against Employers

Periodically reviewing the most recent cases filed by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) against various companies can help remind your office of the federal employment rights that must be regularly extended to all job applicants and current employees.

Far too often, employers fail to protect workers against hostile work environments and many different forms of harassment and discrimination.  Employees being sexually or racially harassed can never do their best work. This also holds true for people mistreated due to physical disabilities, religious beliefs – or their national origin. These types of illegal activities are constantly monitored by the EEOC so that equal employment rights can be guaranteed to everyone trying to get hired or hold down a job.

What follows is a brief review of some recent cases filed by the EEOC against companies they believe have violated federal employment laws. While some of these actions have been resolved, others are still awaiting a final ruling.

New EEOC cases reveal the broad spectrum of employment rights regularly enforced

  • A Dallas pregnancy discrimination case was decided against the employer. A receptionist working for Smiley Dental Walnut spoke to human resources to inform them that she was pregnant. After being ordered to tell her supervisor this news, the young woman complied. During the conversation with her supervisor – who noted that she did not wish to keep training the young woman since she might leave relatively soon — the pregnant employee was fired.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, ruled against the employer. Attempts to settle prior to litigation failed. Injunctive relief (sought to make sure the company never repeated this same type of illegal behavior in the future) was sought and awarded – along with back pay and other damages. The company was ordered to pay $20,000 to the wronged employee;

  • Walmart was ordered to pay $5.2 million for intentional discrimination against a disabled employee. The mistreated worker had dutifully worked around his developmental disability, deafness, and visual difficulties for 16 years. However, a new store manager came in and demanded that new medical paperwork be submitted to document all the employee’s disabilities. The disabled employee was then suspended temporarily from his job.     

However, once the requested paperwork was produced, Walmart cut off further communications with the disabled man — basically resulting in his termination. The EEOC prevailed in this case in which $5 million of the award was for punitive damages;

  • Two female nurses filed an EEOC complaint about unequal pay. The women had job experience equal to that of a male nurse – yet the women were paid less. All three nurses complained about this issue. The EEOC won the case on behalf of the female nurses, noting the importance of closing the pay gap that often works against women in this country;
  • A case was filed involving discrimination based on national origin and religion. Three Pennsylvania employees from Puerto Rico were working for a caster and wheel company when they were subjected to workplace harassment based on their national origin and their religious (Pentecostal) beliefs. Oddly enough, it was the plant manager who was making the derogatory remarks when the harassed employees decided to report his illegal and upsetting behavior. The three employees were then subjected to retaliation (in the form of lesser work assignments) for complaining about the way they were being treated.

The EEOC stated in its pleadings that company managers should always act respectfully as role models—and never be the ones who harass their own employees;                                          

  • A sexual harassment lawsuit was filed on behalf of two female employees. The EEOC alleged in its lawsuit that the defendant hospitality companies created an abusive and hostile working environment for two of its female employees. The women complained about sexually rude comments and behavior directed toward them by their manager.

When the employees complained to their supervisors and others, nothing was done to improve their situation. In this case, a request was made for both compensatory and punitive damages – along with back pay for the two women. This suit is still pending;

  • A disability discrimination case was filed based on the way a hearing impaired job applicant was treated. When a problem arose during the hiring process related to the applicant’s hearing disability, the employer failed to accommodate her reasonable request to simply be interviewed in person and not over the phone. The company never responded to the job applicant’s email proposing this simple alternative.

Instead, four other applicants (who didn’t require any type of accommodation) were then interviewed and one of them was chosen for the job opening. The EEOC lawsuit requests lost wages, punitive and compensatory damages – and injunctive relief to prevent the employer from repeating this type of discrimination against other job applicants (or employees) who have disabilities in the future;

  • A racial slurs and harassment case. A man hired as a deckhand by a New Orleans transportation company was subjected to offensive racial epithets and conduct. When the man asked for help in stopping this behavior, the situation did not improve. Soon thereafter, a rope tied in the form of a noose was dropped near this harassed man on the deck where he was working.

The EEOC described these wrongful acts as “deeply offensive.” The government is seeking injunctive relief against the transportation company – along with compensatory and punitive damages — and any other relief the court decides is necessary.

Each of these new cases and decisions document how common intentional acts of workplace discrimination still are in this country. All employers should consider requiring annual training for every employee in hopes of seriously discouraging all forms of workplace discrimination and harassment.

Should you need help interpreting any of the federal (state or local) laws that are designed to protect employee rights, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ll be glad to help you analyze any problems that you may have — or help you draft any new workplace contracts or employee handbook sections related to this (or any other employment law) topic.

Why It’s Often Wise to Moniter Employee Computer Usage

While all employees benefit from believing that their companies trust them, they must still accept the modern workplace reality that certain privacy interests must be carefully weighed against protecting valid business interests. Furthermore, employers have a need and a duty to make sure that all employees are putting in their fair share of time while completing assignments. No one should be allowed to waste valuable work time surfing the Internet or responding to personal emails while others are shouldering their proper tasks.

Do many employers regularly monitor computer and Internet usage?

At present, about 80% of large companies carefully monitor how their employees use workplace computers. They also routinely review all company website and social media postings and randomly review email exchanges and software downloads. Internet usage is also closely monitored. These practices can often help businesses avoid future lawsuits and financial losses.

Once your company decides to begin monitoring practices, you really should talk with your Houston business law attorney about all the legal concerns that can develop.

Before addressing other key issues involved with monitoring your employees, it will be helpful to note how many companies provide notice to their workers that their computer usage and Internet activities will soon be regularly reviewed.

When and how do employers bring up computer and Internet monitoring to employees?

  • At the time of hiring. You can make this a condition of accepting employment;
  • When all periodic performance evaluations are conducted. At the end of these sessions, you can produce a carefully worded document, asking for the employee’s written consent for monitoring their computer usage and business communications. It may be helpful to note how this can help protect some of their own interests — and limit the harassment that some employees might otherwise engage in if no such monitoring existed;
  • Include several paragraphs on the topic in your employee handbook. Always be sure that you later ask each new employee if they have any questions about this policy;
  • Place a warning above the company’s computer network sign-in page. This warning might reference the employee handbook – or the written consent form you should have already obtained from each employee;
  • Include a very clear and obvious “Notice” paragraph at the bottom of each outgoing email. This is an attempt to provide notice to third parties (such as non-business contacts who may include workers’ friends and family members who write to them at work – that any or all such emails are subject to monitoring and review).

Your signed consent forms should remind employees (along with the company employee handbook) that certain types of improper communications and usage of the Internet can result in disciplinary actions – and even firing.

As the following information indicates, your careful review of how employees are using their computers can prevent many serious workplace conflicts.

Harmful activities pursued by some using company computers, email and the Internet

  • Harassing behaviors. Making illegal and damaging statements in emails may constitute sexual, racial – or other forms of harassment;
  • Likewise, some types of email (or typed letters) may contain defamatory comments or illegal threats against others. No employee has the right to make serious threats against other employees or outside email recipients. These negative communications may simply imply that a specific person may lose his or her job if certain improper demands aren’t met;
  • Critical company information (like trade secrets and intellectual property) may be stolen and then shared with others;
  • Employees may download and then share copyrighted material or software, allowing others to make additional copies. This can also include the illegal download of porn materials — that are then sent off to others – or stored on your business databases;
  • Workers may accidentally share harmful email and general computer viruses while using their computers in unauthorized ways;
  • Employees may spend lengthy time periods surfing the net — unrelated to legitimate work assignments. Many companies wind up paying significant amounts of money each year for time that employees spent playing online games or enjoying other unauthorized Internet activities;
  • Some workers may maliciously sabotage company files and data for no apparent purpose;
  • Other employees may use their work computers and printers to complete tasks for their separate, private business needs.

Do employers have broad rights to monitor all employee activities at work?

Federal, state and even global laws can limit these rights. Also, most employers do not have the right to invade employee privacy by placing intrusive cameras or audio devices in restrooms or lunchrooms. However, they do have some specific rights to monitor how employees use equipment provided to them. And under certain circumstances, companies can even monitor how employees use their own personal computers while logged on to company networks and databases.

In general, any efforts you make to monitor employee communications must agree with the provisions of the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Fortunately, it does allow certain types of monitoring that fall within an acceptable “business purpose exception.” In other words, your monitoring efforts must have a direct tie to protecting a “legitimate business purpose.”

As already noted above, it’s crucial to discuss all these matters with your attorney to be sure your approach to computer monitoring will not subject your company to any employee or third-party privacy lawsuits.

What global, federal and Texas laws address all these various legal topics?

Keep in mind that companies regularly interacting with international clients or companies must be prepared to observe all the following types of governing laws.

  • The European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – and the laws passed by many of its members’ individual states;
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)
  • The Stored Communications Act
  • Various federal wiretapping laws
  • Texas statutes and case law that your lawyer can review with you

Some general guidance is also available on the Texas Workforce Commission website.

Conclusion

Companies of every size must give all these issues considerable thought before buying any types of computer monitoring software. You’ll also need to decide which DLP (data loss prevention) solutions or strategies are most likely to meet your company’s unique needs. For example, do you want to prioritize software that helps with network traffic monitoring, keystroke logging, natural language processing – or other methods? You’ll also need to consider what types of data encryption practices may be useful to you.

Fortunately, there are many outside consultants who can help you carefully evaluate all the current computer monitoring software that’s available – so you can find the best products that fall within an affordable price range for your company.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can address your current questions about monitoring your employees’ business communications and usage of the Internet. We can also help you draft the types of privacy consent forms and other paperwork that can help you more proactively safeguard your company’s business interests.

Small Businesses Often Make Crucial Legal Mistakes

Even highly competent employees sometimes make serious legal errors while handling human resource, management, accounting and other business tasks. Since federal, state and local laws are constantly being updated, you must regularly speak with numerous employees to be sure they’re making timely and lawful decisions.

Should the feedback you receive concern you, it’s always best to consult with your Houston business law attorney to be sure you know how to promptly correct any possible errors. Lawsuits are often filed over very basic legal mistakes.

What are some of the most common legal errors that businesses keep making?

Most mistakes are made when employers try to be flexible with their rules. While compassion can go a long way toward helping you get along better with your employees, clarity and consistency are crucial. Always exercise caution when addressing the following issues.

  1. Each employee must be properly classified. You need to look at each position separately, based on all pertinent state and federal laws. If you simply decide to treat everyone as an “exempt” employee, you might be sued if you fail to provide proper overtime pay or adequate rest periods.
  2. Lunch breaks must be provided when required by law. Some employees may be entitled to a meal break after completing a specific number of hours during a shift.
  3. Make sure you’re properly labeling workers as either employees or independent contractors. You may hear from the IRS if you make this type of mistake. Take the time to speak with your lawyer about how you should carefully interact and communicate with independent contractors. Once a worker has strong legal grounds for believing that “employee” status has been conferred, you can be sued for specific benefits.
  4. You must be sure all employees understand what constitutes “sexual harassment.” If you’re sued in this field, one of your strongest defenses will be that you promptly trained all new managers and employees to help create a healthy work atmosphere. You must also develop a secure way for employees to submit complaints before problems escalate.
  5. You cannot punish or fire an employee for simply taking a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). To protect yourself, keep accurate records of all employee evaluations being conducted at routine intervals. If you’re particularly concerned about the behavior of someone taking FMLA leave, ask your attorney when you should sit down with that employee to discuss why you’re carefully monitoring their work performance – before letting them go.
  6. Be sure to issue final paychecks on a timely basis to all employees who are leaving. Find out if you’re required to provide this type of check even before an employee has returned all employer-provided equipment, vehicles or other materials.
  7. You must handle making loans to employees in a very careful manner. While this is often a kind gesture, you must set up a formal repayment schedule. Never simply deduct a portion of what’s owed from each future paycheck.
  8. Be sure to properly handle all employer obligations under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). You may need to make appropriate work accommodations and should always treat such workers fairly. Most disabled workers take great pride in being highly dependable and productive workers.
  9. COBRA healthcare coverage must be offered and administered properly. Give serious thought to creating a comprehensive package of this medical insurance paperwork so that it’s immediately ready to be given to qualified employees when they leave. Timing is critical so potential coverage won’t lapse.
  10. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) must be explained and handled appropriately. Employees have a right to privacy regarding their medical data and information – be sure you’re adequately protecting it while processing claims.
  11. Pension concerns must be addressed in a timely and proper manner. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a complicated law that requires extreme attention to detail. Always request legal advice when uncertain how to administer it.
  12. You must carefully handle all responsibilities under the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). You may need expert help calculating all your employees’ paycheck deductions for lawful wage garnishments – including those for child support and student loans. Look for highly respected software that may help your most experienced workers.
  13. Equal Pay Act. This law must be carefully followed since too many businesses keep failing to pay men and women fairly when handling similar work.
  14. Title VII concerns. Your company must avoid discriminatory practices when hiring, laying off and firing employees. Many businesses are learning to use multiple interviewers with highly diverse backgrounds so that fairness can be readily achieved.
  15. OSHA laws. You must make sure to keep adequate records covering all workplace accidents and injuries for an appropriate number of years — if you employ ten or more workers.

Should you have any questions about these topics, please contact your Murray Lobb lawyer to discuss your concerns. We have extensive experience providing legal advice to our clients so they can can readily comply with all federal, state and local laws.