Category Archives: Employment Law

Avoid A Halloween Nightmare- Investigate That Complaint!

Today is Halloween.  Celebrate if you choose, but don’t let today, or another day, turn into a nightmare at work by failing to investigate a complaint of harassment, discrimination, or other alleged misconduct.

Follow these steps when you receive a complaint at work:

  1. Investigate everything.  No matter how minor or major the complaint may seem, investigate it.
  2. Investigate promptly.  Same day is ideal. If that is not possible, begin the investigation as soon thereafter as possible.
  3. Investigate thoroughly. Leave no stone unturned.  Interview all witnesses.  Review all documents (emails and text messages are often where key information will be found), photographs, videos and any other tangible items.
  4. Use the who, what, when , why, how method of questioning to obtain the information you need. Start broadly and then focus on the specific.
  5. Make sure the investigator is unbiased and knowledgeable about the process.  HR or Risk Management/Compliance are typically an excellent choice to handle the investigation.  If that is not an option consider retaining outside counsel to do so.
  6. After the investigation is complete share the conclusions/findings  with the complainant and take appropriate corrective action promptly.

If you follow these steps you can avoid turning a work complaint into a nightmare, on Halloween or any other day.

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U.S. Department of Labor Issues Final Overtime Rule

In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that, if passed, would increase the minimum salary thresholds to qualify for the Executive, Administrative, and Professional Exemptions, often referred to as the “white collar exemptions.”  Following public comments and listening sessions on the proposal, the DOL has issued a Final Overtime Rule.  Although announced on September 24, 2019, the Final Overtime Rule will not take effect until January 1, 2020.

The Final Overtime Rule updates the standard salary thresholds necessary to exempt Executive, Administrative, or Professional employees from the minimum wage and overtime requirements set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by:

  • raising the “standard salary level” from the currently enforced level of $455 per week to $684 per week (which is equivalent to an annual salary of $35,568 for a full-time worker);
  • raising the total annual compensation level for “highly compensated employees (“HCE”)” from the currently-enforced level of $100,000 to $107,432 per year; and
  • allowing employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) that are paid at least annually to satisfy up to ten percent (10%) of the standard salary level, in recognition of evolving pay practices.

The DOL stated that these changes are intended to account for and reflect growth in employee earnings, since the currently enforced standard salary thresholds were set in 2004.

Although the Final Overtime Rule does not take effect until January 1, 2020, employers should begin planning now for the change.  Employers should analyze whether increasing a certain employee’s salary is feasible in order to maintain the applicable exemption, or if their business is better served by reclassifying the employee as non-exempt and paying the employee overtime when required.  If you have any questions about the Final Overtime Rule and how it will affect your business, give us a call.

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On May 10, 2019 Governor Bill Lee signed legislation amending the definition of employee in several Tennessee employment laws.  Now consideration of the IRS 20 Factor Test must be made to determine whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor under certain laws.

The amended laws are as follows:

  • Code Ann. § 50-2-111 (wage regulations – leased operator or owner operator of motor vehicle, or common carrier contract).
  • Code Ann. § 50-3-103 (Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Act).
  • Code Ann. § 50-7-207 and 207(e) (Tennessee Employment Security Law – Unemployment Insurance).
  • Code Ann. § 50-9-103 (Drug-Free Workplace Program).

With this amendment “employee” is now re-defined as an individual who performs services under a covered employer for wages if the services performed by the individual qualify as an employer/employee relationship under the IRS 20 Factor Test, which is set forth in IRS Revenue Ruling 87-41.

The law is effective January 1, 2020.

In light of this change employers should examine their relationships with independent contractors now to determine whether the individual is properly classified as an independent contractor under the amended laws.  Making this analysis and taking any necessary corrective action now could save thousands of dollars in the future, in the event a government agency determines that someone who is classified as an independent contractor is really an employee.

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Stop It Bully! Tennessee Expands Anti-Bullying Law To Private Employers

In 2014 Tennessee passed the Healthy Workplace Act (HWA).  Also known as the Anti-Bullying Law,  when originally passed the HWA applied only to public employers.

The HWA prohibits “Abusive Conduct” which is defined as follows:

“acts or omissions that would cause a reasonable person, based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct, to believe that an employee was subject to an abusive work environment such as: (A) repeated verbal abuse in the workplace, including derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; (B) verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a threatening , intimidating, or humiliating nature in the workplace;or (C) the sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance in the workplace.” TCA 50-1-502

Unlike harassment or discrimination laws,  the HWA prohibits “Abusive Conduct” even though the conduct is not based on a protected class or activity.

On April 23, 2019 Governor Lee signed a bill expanding the HWA to private employers.  The expansion took effect that day.  So what should private employers do in light of this significant development?

First, adopt a policy in accordance with the HWA.  The HWA provides that if an employer adopts the model policy created by TACIR, or adopts a policy that : 1. Assists employers in recognizing and responding to Abusive Conduct in the workplace; and 2. Prevents retaliation against any employee who has reported Abusive Conduct in the workplace the employer is immune from suit for any employee’s conduct that results in negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish.  The immunity does not extend to any employee who engages in Abusive Conduct.

The TACIR model policy can be found on pages 13-17 of this link .

Will an existing anti- harassment policy comply with the HWA? If the policy only prohibits harassment based on a protected class, as most all do, it will not.

Employers should not delay in adopting a policy that complies with the HWA to take advantage of the immunity that the Act offers.  The failure to do so could prove to be costly in the future.






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DOL May Change Its Approach to Joint Employers

This week the United States Department of Labor announced a proposed rule to revise and clarify its  joint employer test.

The Department proposes a clear, four-factor test that would be used to consider whether the potential joint employer actually exercises the power to:

  • hire or fire the employee;
  • supervise and control the employee’s work schedules or conditions of employment;
  • determine the employee’s rate and method of payment; and
  • maintain the employee’s employment records.

The proposal also includes a set of examples for comment that would further help clarify joint employer status.  I have set forth two of the examples below which illustrate when joint employer status will and will not exist under the proposed new rule:

    Example:  An office park company hires a janitorial services company to clean the office park building after hours. According to a contractual agreement with the office park and the janitorial company, the office park agrees to pay the janitorial company a fixed fee for these services and reserves the right to supervise the janitorial employees in their performance of those cleaning services. However, office park personnel do not set the janitorial employees’ pay rates or individual schedules and do not in fact supervise the workers’ performance of their work in any way. Is the office park a joint employer of the janitorial employees?

    Application:  Under these facts, the office park is not a joint employer of the janitorial employees because it does not hire or fire the employees, determine their rate or method of payment, or exercise control over their conditions of employment. The office park’s reserved contractual right to control the employee’s conditions of employment does not demonstrate that it is a joint employer.


    Example:  A country club contracts with a landscaping company to maintain its golf course. The contract does not give the country club authority to hire or fire the landscaping company’s employees or to supervise their work on the country club premises. However, in practice a club official oversees the work of employees of the landscaping company by sporadically assigning them tasks throughout each workweek, providing them with periodic instructions during each workday, and keeping intermittent records of their work. Moreover, at the country club’s direction, the landscaping company agrees to terminate an individual worker for failure to follow the club official’s instructions. Is the country club a joint employer of the landscaping employees?

    Application:  Under these facts, the country club is a joint employer of the landscaping employees because the club exercises sufficient control, both direct and indirect, over the terms and conditions of their employment. The country club directly supervises the landscaping employees’ work and determines their schedules on what amounts to a regular basis. This routine control is further established by the fact that the country club indirectly fired one of landscaping employees for not following its directions.


The proposed rule will be available for public comment for a period of time before it, or any version of it, takes effect.  Here’s hoping the clear test that is set forth above is adopted, and employers get the clarity they need to accurately assess whether they are or are not joint employers due to the amount of control exercised.

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DOL Issues Notice Of Proposed Rule to Increase Overtime Threshold

The U.S. Department of Labor (Department) announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that, if passed,  would make more than a million more American workers eligible for overtime. The NPRM would increase the minimum salary threshold to qualify for the Executive, Administrative and Professional Exemptions, often referred to as the “white collar exemptions”.

Under the current law, employees with a salary below $455 per week ($23,660 annually) must be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week. This salary level was set in 2004.

This new proposal would update the salary threshold using current wage data, projected to January 1, 2020. The result would boost the standard salary level from $455 to $679 per week (equivalent to $35,308 per year).  The NPRM does not call for automatic adjustments to the salary threshold.

Importantly, the NPRM is not yet law.  Once the rule is published in the Federal Register the public will be able to submit comments for 60 days.  But, given that this increase is approximately $12,000 less than the Obama DOL’s proposed increase enjoined by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in November 2016, it likely has a very strong chance of becoming law.

Employers should prepare accordingly by auditing  exempt positions to ensure that the “duties test” is met.  Remember, if the duties test is not met it does not matter what amount of salary is paid.  Employers should also assess whether an increase to the employee’s salary in order to maintain the exemption is feasible, or if the better business approach is to reclassify the employee as nonexempt and pay overtime when it is required.

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Cyber Security 101

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or “FINRA” recently published its Report on Selected Cyber Security Practices.  FINRA is a self-regulatory organization within the financial industry, an industry that is highly motivated by information privacy and cyber security concerns.  When FINRA releases information and recommendations on these topics, we should all take notice. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or “FINRA,” has recently published its Report on

The report highlights several areas of ongoing concern to many employers:

  • Establishing appropriate written information privacy and cyber security policies and procedures;
  • Maintaining security at branch or satellite offices;
  • Training employees to recognize and respond to phishing attacks;
  • Learning to detect and defend against insider threats (such as disgruntled employees);
  • Conducting reasonable security testing; and
  • Reducing the spread of malicious software via employee-owned devices.

Every employer depends on the availability of their computer systems daily and possesses valuable information such as trade secrets, proprietary business information, and personally identifiable information regarding their employees.  However, many employers, especially those that operate outside of the healthcare and financial industries, are often unaware of the information privacy and cyber security risks their organizations are exposed to, until a security breach or attack occurs.

To avoid making costly mistakes, employers in all industries should take a basic inventory of the information they possess and the risks posed by the release, interruption, or deletion of that information.  This inventory can then be used to make wise decisions concerning reasonable security controls, such as adequate user authentication and/or a “Bring Your Own Device Policy” governing employee use of personal electronic devices.

Additionally, policies should be drafted and implemented to avoid creating a result that may cause an insurer to deny a claim for damages in the event of a breach of security.  Policies should not generally be aspirational; rather, they must reflect controls that have been implemented.  For example, a company may intend to start requiring two-factor authentication to access certain company accounts, as required by its written policy, and fail to follow up with the necessary implementation.  If those accounts are compromised, an insurer may deny a claim because the company knew there was a heightened risk to those accounts and failed to adequately protect them.

Written policies should also include sufficient detail to provide appropriate security while allowing for reasonable deviation in implementation.  A company may be tempted to provide minute details regarding actions to be taken in response to a breach.  But, if the company fails to adhere to all of those detailed provisions, the insurer may find cause to deny payment for some portion of the company’s damages.

The cost of implementing most of FINRA’s recommendations will vary depending on a company’s needs and financial commitment to security.  Some companies justifiably strive to turn their network and computer systems into a digital “Fort Knox,” by implementing costly controls recommended by various organizations.  While that may not be possible for everyone, all companies can benefit from implementing controls that are appropriate and cost effective for their size and industry, including the controls discussed above.

Eliza Scott Jones is an associate with Woolf, McClane, Bright, Allen & Carpenter PLLC and a former computer programmer and security professional. She provides counsel for legal matters related to information privacy and cyber security.

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7th Circuit Holds Applicants Can’t Claim Disparate Impact Under the ADEA

On January 23rd the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that applicants cannot make a claim for disparate impact age discrimination under the ADEA.  Disparate impact discrimination occurs when a facially neutral policy has a disparate or disproportionate impact on a protected class of persons.

In March 2014 Dale Kleber, an attorney, applied for an in-house counsel position with CareFusion Corporation.  The job description required applicants to have “3 to 7 years (no more than 7 years) of relevant legal experience”.  Kleber, who was age 58 when he applied,  had more than seven years experience and was thus not selected for the position.  CareFusion hired a 29 year old applicant who met but did not exceed the experience requirement.  Kleber then sued claiming that the experience requirement created a disparate impact in violation of section 4(a)(2) of the ADEA.

In affirming the dismissal of Kleber’s case the Seventh Circuit focused on the plain language of section 4(a)(2) of the ADEA.  Section 4(a)(2) makes it unlawful for an employer:

“to limit, segregate or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s age.”

Since the relevant statutory language only protects employees the Court held that Kleber could not state a disparate impact claim.  In doing so, the Seventh Circuit joined the Eleventh Circuit in holding that a disparate impact claim is not available to applicants under the ADEA.  Other Courts of Appeals have held to the contrary.

While this decision is a win for employers it does not change the fact that:

  1. All employment policies, selection tests, and other selection procedures and criteria must be neutral on their face;
  2. These policies and selection procedures and criteria must not have a disparate or disproportionate impact on a protected class; and
  3. A disparate impact theory is still available to employees under the ADEA .

Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!





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Not Every Job Restriction Pertains To An Essential Function

Earlier this month the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (the circuit that includes Tennessee) affirmed a jury’s verdict that Bemis Company discriminated against a former employee based on his disability when it terminated him based on his doctor’s restrictions.  The Plaintiff, Tony Gunter, was a press operator with the primary job duty of pressing graphics onto Huggies diapers.  Gunter injured his shoulder on the job.  The shoulder injury resulted in Gunter’s doctor imposing lifting restrictions on him.  Bemis terminated Gunter’s employment on the basis that his lifting restriction prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job.

At trial several witnesses testified that even with the lifting restriction Gunter could perform the essential functions of his press operator position.  In fact, Gunter’s co-worker’s testified that they regularly helped one another lift heavy objects, and thus the lifting restrictions would not impact Gunter’s ability to do his job.

Based on this testimony and other evidence the jury found that Bemis discriminated against Gunter based on his disability when it terminated his employment.  The jury awarded Gunter almost $600,000 in damages, but the Court of Appeals held that the front pay portion of that award needed to be recalculated.

Employers must remember that if an employment decision is based on an employee’s job restrictions,  those restrictions must prevent the employee from performing the essential functions of his or her job, even with a reasonable accommodation.  And remember, just because the job description says it is an essential function, that may not be the case.  Review the job description and make sure that the actual job duties are consistent with it before you make the decision.  The failure to do so could prove very costly.

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Is Regular Attendance Always An Essential Job Function?

Most of you just read the headline and probably answered “of course”.  But a recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ( the federal court of appeals that has jurisdiction over Tennessee federal courts), shows that the answer is not always that certain.

In Hostettler v. College of Wooster the plaintiff, a full time HR Generalist, was seeking a part-time work schedule following the birth of her child.  When the plaintiff was unable to return to work on a full-time basis because she was recovering from post-partum depression and separation anxiety, the college fired her.  The plaintiff sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act and Ohio statutory law.  The district court granted summary judgment to the college on all of Plaintiff’s claims.  The district court decided that Hostettler could not make out a prima facie case under the ADA because she could not meet an essential function of the position, full time work, and was thus not qualified for the job.

On appeal the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision because it found that genuine factual disputes existed on material issues in the case.  Several facts were key to the Sixth Circuit’s decision.  One of Hostettler’s colleagues stated in a sworn declaration that she believed that Ms. Hostettler could do much of her work from home and that working from home was a common practice in the department.  The colleague also stated that Ms. Hostettler was replying to work emails in the evenings when she was working a modified schedule prior to her termination.  The colleague further stated that while Ms. Hostettler was on a modified schedule she was not aware of any assignments that Ms. Hostettler failed to complete.

Another key fact was that on Ms. Hostettler’s performance evaluation that was completed shortly before she was fired she received no negative feedback.  To the contrary, the college stated that “Heidi is a great colleague and welcome addition to the HR team!”.  Given these facts, and others, the Sixth Circuit determined that summary judgment was not appropriate.

Importantly, the Sixth Circuit did not hold that regular attendance is not an essential job function.  In fact, in the 2015 decision of EEOC v. Ford Motor Company the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed that regular attendance often is an essential function of the job.  But in Ms. Hostettler’s case there were factual disputes that precluded dismissing the case without a trial.

There are a few significant employer take always from this decision.  The college focused heavily on the fact that the job description stated that regular attendance is an essential job function.  But the facts of the case were inconsistent with that statement.  So make sure your job descriptions are accurate.  Additionally, just because your job description says one thing, if the facts pertaining to that employee are inconsistent with the job description, don’t let the job description drive your decision.

Finally, the plaintiff was fired after receiving a glowing performance evaluation.  Anytime you look to fire an employee for performance based reasons make sure you review their entire personnel file, including the most recent performance evaluation, before going forward with that decision.  If the performance evaluation is favorable, or other recent documents indicate acceptable or good job performance, reconsider whether termination is appropriate.  And as always, when in doubt, call your lawyer.

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