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Employment Law Blog

Category: California Employment Law

Issues in California employment law.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review of Employee Text Messages Deemed Invasion of Privacy

Workplace privacy rights can be tricky. Consider the following scenario: A company provides two-way alpha-numeric pagers to employees. The pager service plan allows for transmission of 25,000 characters per month, beyond which an overage fee is assessed. Employees are told to use the pagers for business purposes, and that they will have to reimburse the company for overage fees on account of personal use. A company policy warns employees that it may monitor electronic communications.

There are overages, but the employees do pay for them. But the company decides to conduct an audit because (1) it wants to make sure that employees are not asked to pay overage fees for business transmissions; (2) it wants to assess whether 25,000 characters per month is an efficient limit. To conduct the audit, the company prints and reviews transcripts of the text messages. Does the company act within its rights?

No, according to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case titled Quon v. Arch Wireless. The case involved the Ontario Police Department’s review of text messages sent and received by police Sgt. Jeff Quon. The audited text messages included personal communications, including sexually explicit comments. Quon and others he texted sued the Department for violations of constitutional privacy rights. The trial court ruled against the employees, but the Ninth Circuit reinstated the case.

The court reasoned as follows:

(1) Employees may have constitutionally-based reasonable expectations of privacy in the workplace. This includes the expectation that employers will not monitor private communications. 

(2) Employers may dispel the expectation of privacy by warning employees that communications may be monitored. Like many employers, the Department had a “Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy.” The policy limited use of electronic devices to Department business, and advised employees that the Department may monitor employee use of the systems, and that users should have no expectation of privacy.

(3) However, the “operational reality” was different. In practice, the manager responsible for the pagers told employees that he would not audit pager messages as long as employees paid for overage fees. They paid the fees, and therefore it was reasonable for them to expect that the Department would not monitor their communications. So the practice defeated the policy. The court suggested that the policy would have been sufficient to dispel the expectation of privacy, but for the manager’s assurances and practices to the contrary.

(4) Because the employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in connection with the text messages, intrusion by the employer must be reasonable—but here it was not reasonable. Employers are permitted, during the course of workplace misconduct investigations, or for other business purposes, to review or monitor employee communications—but the employer must demonstrate that the intrusion is reasonable. ““Reasonable” means there was a reasonable basis for conducting the search, and that the scope of the search (or the degree of intrusiveness) was reasonable. The court determined that the Department could have used less intrusive means. It could have, for example, looked at the number dialed without reading the text. Or it could have asked the employees to black out personal messages before reviewing the transcript. 

Note that the decision was made in the context of a public employer, but employee rights in private industry may be affected by this decision. The court examined the federal Fourth Amendment as well as California’s constitutional privacy rights. The Fourth Amendment applies to government action—here the police department was the government entity.  But the California constitution applies to public and private employers alike.

Constitutional privacy rights in the private sector have not been well defined by the courts. You can expect further developments in area of workplace privacy rights, particularly given technological advances that make employee monitoring increasingly easy. 

Submitted by:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Company Liability For Errant Employee Errands

Businesses routinely send employees on company errands in their personal vehicles. In many companies, it would be hard to find a day when one employee or another does not jump in the car before or after work, or during lunch, to make a bank deposit, swing by the post office, pick up lunch for the staff, or run some other simple errand. What kind of legal risks does a company face if someone gets hurt in an accident caused by such an employee?

General Rule: Employers Liable for Acts of Employees

It is a general principle of law in California that employers are liable for injury caused by employees who are acting “within the course and scope of their employment.” Attorneys refer to this principle of liability with the Latin phrase “respondeat superior.”

For example, a pizzeria is liable when its delivery driver causes an accident while delivering pizza. A home improvement store will be liable when its stocker topples merchandise off a high shelf onto a customer.

“Going and Coming Rule”

Employers are not ordinarily liable for injury caused by an employee during his or her normal commute to or from work because commuting is not part of the course and scope of employment.

Special Errand Exception

Not all personal driving activities fall outside the course and scope of employment. An employee running a special business errand is deemed to be within the course and scope of employment. The errand can be done either as a part of regular duties or at the specific request or order of the employer. Importantly, the entire trip counts as part of the course and scope of employment, from the start of the errand until the employee returns to the work place or departs from the errand for personal reasons.

Courts have been fairly strict about when the errand becomes personal, requiring a “substantial departure” for personal business before respondeat superior liability ends. In many cases, running a business errand on the way to work or on the way home will cause the entire trip to fall within the course and scope of employment.

For example, an employer may be liable for injuries caused an employee who is asked to make a bank deposit on the way home from work, and who after making the deposit causes an accident on the way home.

Minimizing the Risk

The right kind of insurance coverage is a must. Every business ought to purchase “nonowned” automobile insurance coverage. This insurance covers accidents caused by employees driving their own cars (i.e., cars not owned by the company).

Even with suitable insurance, litigation will be an unwelcome distraction, and quite possibly harm business in broader ways. Consider the possibility of respondeat superior liability any time that an employee is asked to run an errand or drive on company business. Implement company policies regarding the use of personal vehicles for company business. Limit the number of company errands and the employees who run them. Restrict errands to business matters when feasible. A company-wide awareness of the potential for respondeat superior liability, along with appropriate risk management measures, will go a long way keeping the company out of legal tangles.

Submitted by:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC
San Diego Employment Law Attorneys

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tortilla Maker Accused Of Religious Intolerance Against Muslim Workers

As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 28th here, a group of Muslim workers allege they were fired by a Mission Foods tortilla factory for refusing to wear uniforms that they say were immodest by Islamic standards.

“Six Somali women claim they were ordered by a manager to wear pants and shirts to work instead of their traditional Islamic clothing of loose-fitting skirts and scarves.” The women have filed a religious discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A Mission Foods spokesperson stated that the women were not fired, but rather suspended, because they refused to comply with a company uniform policy.

Presumably the claim is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. Employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

The case will likely focus on whether (1) the clothing in question related to a religious practice or belief; (2) whether the employer could have reasonably accommodated traditional Islamic clothing in the factory; or whether (3) accommodating the clothing would have imposed an undue hardship on the employer. Perhaps the company had health, safety, or other reasons for the uniform policy. In the context of industrial machinery, loose clothing may be dangerous. In the context of food processing, it may not be sanitary. The news report did not provide the employer’s justification. 

Noting an increase in discrimination after September 11, 2001, the EEOC has published guidelines for the religious accommodation of Muslims and ethnic groups from Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries here and here.

The guidelines include the following FAQ:

Q: “I am a Sikh man and the turban that I wear is a religiously-mandated article of clothing. My supervisor tells me that my turban makes my coworkers ‘uncomfortable,’ and has asked me to remove it. What should I do?””

“If a turban is religiously-mandated, you should ask your employer for a religious accommodation to wear it at work. Your employer has a legal obligation to grant your request if it does not impose a burden, or an ‘undue hardship,’ under Title VII. Claiming that your coworkers might be ‘upset’ or ‘uncomfortable’ when they see your turban is not an undue hardship.”

The EEOC reports that in Fiscal Year 2007, the agency received 2,880 charges of religious discrimination. EEOC resolved 2,525 religious discrimination charges and recovered $6.4 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation).

Submitted By:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC
San Diego Employment Law Attorneys

Thursday, May 22, 2008

President Signs Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

On May 21st, President Bush signed The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (“GINA”) into law. According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute, “GINA protects Americans from being treated unfairly because of differences in their DNA that may affect their health. The new law prevents discrimination from health insurers and employers.” (Click here for more NIH comments.)

The new law is the culmination of a decade-long debate and a series of legislative efforts to deal with the specter of genetic discrimination. Supporters of the law cited a few instances of genetic discrimination, but not widespread abuse.

GINA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of genetic information.

The term “genetic information” means information about (i) an employee’s genetic tests, (ii) the genetic tests of family members of an employee, and (iii) the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of an employee.

Employers are prohibited from acquiring genetic information, with certain exceptions. Some exceptions include: (1) where an employer inadvertently requests or requires family medical history of the employee or family member of the employee; (2) indirectly, as part of a wellness program; (3) as part of an FMLA medical certification; (4) where the information involved is to be used for genetic monitoring of the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace; and in a few limited other circumstances.

In the event that an employer does acquire genetic information, the new law requires strict confidentiality, in the manner dictated by the ADA.

Employees who violate GINA will be vulnerable to employee lawsuits and government agency enforcement actions.

Employer advocates complain about the litigation provisions. They have also voiced concerns that GINA further complicates the confusing maze of state and federal medical privacy laws, as well as the numerous state genetic nondiscrimination laws.

Employers and legal counsel have ample time to evaluate the impact. The parts of the law relating to health insurers will take effect by May 2009, and those relating to employers will take effect by November 2009.

According to the NIH, “the law was needed to help ease concerns about discrimination that might keep some people from getting genetic tests that could benefit their health. The law also enables people to take part in research studies without fear that their DNA information might be used against them in health insurance or the workplace.”

Although there are no reports of widespread genetic discrimination, employee medical exams are common. As reported by the AP here, “a 2001 study by the American Management Association showed that nearly two-thirds of major U.S. companies require medical examinations of new hires. Fourteen percent conduct tests for susceptibility to workplace hazards, 3 percent for breast and colon cancer, and 1 percent for sickle cell anemia, while 20 percent collect information about family medical history.”

During the next 18 months, undoubtedly employment law attorneys and HR experts will distill the new law and offer compliance advice. To get a head start, read the text of GINA here.

Submitted by:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Litigators Predict Lawsuits Regarding Employee Compensation For After-Hours PDA Emails

Should employees be paid for time spent after hours reviewing business-related emails on their PDAs? The question has probably not occurred to most employers. But wage and hour class actions have been built upon lesser issues.

The general rule is that non-exempt employees must be paid for all hours worked. If an employee is “suffered or permitted” to work, even though the employer has not instructed or requested that he do so, the time is compensable working time. The rule does not depend on whether the work is performed before or after regular work hours.

Plaintiff attorneys might argue that it doesn’t matter whether the employer expected the non-exempt employees to monitor after-hours emails or whether the employees did so on their own initiative. Time was spent on work-related emails and the employees should be compensated, they would argue.

Social norms play a role. Late phone calls and meetings may be seen as an intrusion, but few see sending an after-hours email as a violation of etiquette. Add to that the seemingly irresistible impulse driving some people to constantly check emails on their PDAs. The use of some devices have been jokingly compared to crack cocaine addictions.

Attorneys in various legal forums have been discussing the topic lately. The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog recently addressed the topic here. The topic has been discussed on other internet forms, including here and here.

So far there have been no reports of wage and hour litigation involving PDAs, but it would be prudent for employers to take precautionary measures. Some commentators recommend that employers require employees to obtain permission prior to using the PDAs after hours. Others recommend giving PDAs to exempt employees only. All would agree that employers should not ignore the issue and they ought to devise an employee policy regarding the use of PDAs.

Submitted by:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC

San Diego Employment Law Attorneys

Monday, April 16, 2007

California Supreme Court Holds Meal Period Penalties Actually Are Wages

In Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided that the extra pay California employees receive when meal and rest periods are not properly given is a form of “wages,” rather than a “penalty.” Nevermind that you don’t have to do any work to earn the “wage.”  If your meal period starts 5 minutes later than the law allows, you get the extra hour’s pay.  If your meal period is two minutes too short, you get the extra hour’s pay, even if you are being paid for the 2 minutes of extra work you performed. The Legislature apparently intended this penalty to be a wage because it meted out the penalty’s value in terms of an hour’s pay. If the Legislature had required the penalty to be paid in shrimp, I guess the Court would have called the penalty a bouillabaisse.  Why does anyone care about this?  The statute of limitations for unpaid “wages” (now including meal period pay) is three years.  The statute of limitations for penalty claims is just one year.


Posted by Patrick Della Valle on 04/16 at 05:00 PM
California Employment Law
Friday, March 23, 2007

Immigration Law and California Employment Law

Two recent cases examine the intersection of immigration law and employment litigation and both decisions are in favor of the immigrants.

First, California employment law does not make distinctions between employees working lawfully or illegally.  Labor Code 1171.5 plainly declares:

(a) All protections, rights, and remedies available under state law, except any reinstatement remedy prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals
regardless of immigration status who have applied for employment, or who are or who have been employed, in this state.  (b) For purposes of enforcing state labor and employment laws, a person’s immigration status is irrelevant to the issue of liability, and in proceedings or discovery undertaken to enforce those state laws no inquiry shall be permitted into a person’s immigration status except where the person seeking to make this inquiry has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the inquiry is necessary in order to comply with federal immigration law.

In Reyes v. Van Elk, the California Court of Appeal held that section 1171.5 is not preempted by federal immigration laws.  Reyes and others accused Van Elk of failing to pay the “prevailing wage.”  The Superior Court held that federal immigration law preempted section 1171.5 and that Reyes could not seek unpaid prevailing wages because he was an illegal immigrant. The court of appeal reversed, holding that federal law (IRCA) does not preempt section 1171.5, and that Reyes had standing to sue for unpaid wages.

Second, in a case having broad implications for employers hiring workers under immigration visas such as H1-B’s, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer could be held liable for wrongfully discharging an employee who was not authorized to work in the U.S.  The case is Incalza v. Fendi N. Am. Incalza worked for Fendi under an E-1 visa. When a French company bought Fendi, the E-1 visa no longer was valid.  Fendi, which did apparently not want to retain Incalza anyway, discharged him because he was not lawfully working in the U.S.  Incalza asked for a leave of absence to obtain a visa or to marry his fiance, a U.S. citizen. 

Incalza sued for breach of contract not to terminate without good cause, among other things.  Fendi argued that “good cause” was established because Incalza was not lawfully allowed to work, and Fendi was not obligated to wait until Incalza became authorized to work.  A jury found in favor of Incalza.  Fendi appealed and ran right into Stephen Reinhardt. 

The Court of Appeals said that IRCA does not require employers to terminate workers who may resolve immigration status if they are granted a leave of absence. Does the law require granting a leave of absence? No, but this did not stop the Court of Appeals.  The Court said that an employee on leave is not actually “employed” under IRCA. (This is news to employers who must provide all sorts of leaves with guaranteed reinstatement.)  Because the employee is not really “employed” while on leave, the court reasoned, the employer can comply with IRCA and not discharge the worker. 

Distinguishing Supreme Court authority and the IRCA statute itself, the Court announced this rule:  “as a general rule, individuals who are indisputably not authorized to work must be discharged immediately. An individual who has the opportunity to switch from an E-1 to an H1-B . . . is, however, another matter.”

Incidentally, the court also held that IRCA does not conflict with Lab. Code section 1171.5, just as the state court in Van Elk did.  So, that issue is settled unless the Supremes take up Fendi.

In light of this case, employers seeking to discharge employees must carefully examine whether to use the expiration of a visa as the sole justification for termination.  The courts may well say that it was not “necessary” to discharge the worker merely because he or she no longer was authorized to work in the U.S. 

Stay tuned.

Posted by Patrick Della Valle on 03/23 at 01:45 AM
California Employment LawImmigration
Saturday, February 10, 2007

AB 1825 Harassment Training Regulations Disapproved

The California Fair Employment and Housing Commission’s regulations implementing AB 1825 (mandatory sexual harassment training) failed to gain approval from California’s Office of Administrative Law. The FEHC made the announcement here.

The OAL’s chief concern was that the regulations were not sufficiently “clear” in certain respects, particularly regarding who is qualified to prepare and conduct anti-harassment training under the statute. There were also some more technical flaws.

The FEHC plans to modify the regulations and publish them for a brief public comment period before re-submitting them to the OAL. The FEHC’s modifications may have a significant effect on existing programs, depending on whether the new standards “raise the bar” on who is qualified to prepare or conduct AB 1825 training.

Once the regulations are re-issued, employers should reevaluate whether their trainers and training programs meet the new standards.

Posted by Patrick Della Valle on 02/10 at 03:41 PM
California Employment LawSexual Harassment
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