Category Archives: Employment Law

Should Young Lawyers Specialize?

"One word . . . plastics." -The Graduate

“One word . . . plastics.”
-The Graduate

I never for a moment thought about pursuing a career as a transactional attorney. I entered law school for the wrong reasons. I knew I could think, write and argue reasonably well. I was a liberal arts major (Philosophy and Literature-Writing) and did not really appreciate how such skills could translate into success in the business world. And I did not think I would enjoy a career as an educator.

So, I did exactly what I would urge no one do today: I took the LSAT, got into law school, and went to law school, without having any particular passion about the law.

If anyone had asked back then–and I don’t think anyone did–what I planned to do with that law degree, what area I’d practice in, what I wanted to do everyday, if and how I would make a difference, I wouldn’t have had a clue. When I was interviewing and starting my career, there were vastly more jobs in litigation, so I became a litigator. I started out doing insurance defense, but not the interesting kind, and immediately grew bored with fender-benders (“Was the light red or green?”) and slip-and-fall lawsuits (“Was the banana you slipped on yellow or green?”). Fortunately, I got hired right away at a boutique firm that did more interesting work (at least from my perspective). I quickly became a “specialist” in automotive product liability litigation, specifically suits relating to the performance of automobile air bags, which was an emerging technology at that time.

I remained a “specialist” in this area, with a smattering of other kinds of cases, for about the first 10 years of my career. However, I eventually figured out that, deep down, I’m not really a gear-head, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the lawyers who really excel in automotive product liability litigation, and who most enjoy what they do, are those who are interested in cars. Well, duh!?!

I eventually migrated to employment law for a number of reasons. First, and most practically, it was the only area that I was able to get any early traction in terms of developing my own clients. Equally important, however, being the opposite of a gear-head, I found I enjoyed disputes that arose out of (often flawed) interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Also, I had long felt that employment law was fertile ground for building a book of business, since every, EVERY employer, particularly in California, needs an employment lawyer. If they haven’t needed one yet–they will!

I had not intended this post to be a memoir. I recognize that my career path probably makes dry reading. But I wanted to tackle a topic that I think is important for law students, recent graduates and those still in the early years of their career: should you attempt to specialize? Like most people, I’m narcissistic and can only approach a personal question by starting from my own experience.

In any event, I posed this question to someone who has a fair amount of expertise in helping lawyers make the most of their legal careers. Gideon Grunfeld, the President of Rainmaking For Lawyers, was gracious enough to provide this valuable insight:

“Too many lawyers get shortsighted advice about whether they should specialize and what that means. There are substantive areas, such as tax, ERISA, and patents, where specialization is almost a necessity. But there are many areas, such as business litigation, where specialization can be counterproductive. Rather than focusing on the substantive nature of the law and, for example, specializing in trade-secret litigation, it’s better to encourage young lawyers to identify the clients they most want to serve. Thus, for example, if someone has a passion for high-tech start-ups, they can focus on cultivating relationships in that world and position themselves to solve the full panoply of legal issues that arise for that market or audience. For most young lawyers this is a more robust not to say more fun way to practice law and build a client base.”

I tend to agree with Gideon’s advice. I like the notion of letting one’s specialty develop organically. In my case, it developed because someone close to me gave my business development efforts a big jumpstart by referring employment cases my way. I found I liked it and wanted to pursue it further. This is pretty much the opposite approach from deciding I wanted to practice entertainment law because I like to go to the movies (which I do).

What I would really caution against is remaining in a practice that never brings you any thrills. Even though I’m not a gear-head, there were parts of my products liability practice that I found compelling. I recognize that this is not the market for young lawyers to quit a job on a whim. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with developing a mid or long-term career plan to move away from an area that brings you no joy, with the hope of finding something more fulfilling. If I was still fighting cases about people who tripped on a public sidewalk, I’d have to open a vein. But that’s just me.


California Employers: Some Important New Laws Effective Jan. 1, 2014

27304u_0California employers should be aware of significant new state laws which take effect on January 1, 2014. These include:

Protected Categories Expanded to Include Military and Veteran Status. – Assembly Bill 556 adds “military and veteran status” to the list of categories protected from employment discrimination.

Prohibition of “Unfair Immigration-Related Practices” – Assembly Bill 263 prohibits employers from engaging in “unfair immigration-related practices,” which could include contacting or threatening to contact immigration authorities, because an employee asserts protected rights under the California Labor Code. Other immigrant protection legislation effective Jan. 1, 2014 includes SB 666 (business license revocation for threatening to report immigration status), and AB 524 (authorizes criminal extortion for threatening to report immigration status).

Domestic Worker Bill of Rights – Assembly Bill 241 creates a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. This provides specific overtime pay for a “domestic work employee who is a personal attendant.” The bill has many specific definitions and exclusions.

Heat Illness Recovery Periods – Senate Bill 435 expands meal and rest break prohibitions to include “recovery” periods necessary to prevent heat illness. Penalty mirrors premium for failing to provide meal or rest breaks (i.e., one additional hour of pay for each workday that meal, rest, heat illness recovery period not provided). Unlike the meal and rest period rules which provide a clear guidance on timing, however, the need for a heat illness recovery period is subjective and determined by the employee. Employers with outdoor workers need to ensure their Heat Illness Prevention programs comply with Cal-OSHA regulations.

Leaves Required for Victims of Certain Crimes – Two important new laws. Senate Bill 288 provides protections for victims of certain crimes (including solicitation for murder and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated) who take time off from work to appear in court proceedings. SB 400 extends protections for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault or victims of stalking, including time off to appear at legal proceedings and to seek medical/psychological treatment. This law adds a reasonable accommodation requirement—which can include implementation of safety measures—for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Expanded Scope of Whistleblower Protections – California Labor Code Section 1102.5 already provides protections for employees who report violations of federal or state statutes. Senate Bill 496 expands this protection to include suspected violations of a local rule or regulation, and will include reporting violations to “a person with authority over the employee or another employee who has authority to investigate, discover or correct the violation.”


California Employers: Know The Implications of The Minimum Wage Hike

ggyyAs the ink from California Governor Jerry Brown’s pen dries on Assembly Bill No. 10, which will raise the hourly minimum wage in our state to $9.00 effective July 1, 2014 (and again to $10.00 on January 1, 2016), employers need to consider the ramifications of this change beyond the obvious increase in take-home pay of hourly workers.

Here are key areas that will be impacted by the increase:

Salary Basis Test For “White Collar” Exemption – In addition to meeting other criteria to qualify as an exempt employee under one of the “white collar” exemptions (i.e., executive, administrative or professional), exempt employees must earn a salary that is at least twice the minimum wage for full-time employment. This minimum increases in July, 2014 to $37,440, and to $41,600 beginning in January, 2016.

Commissioned Sales Employee Exemption – To qualify for this exemption, employees must earn in excess of 1.5 times the minimum wage for all hours worked. This rate will increase to $13.50/hr on July 1, 2014, and $15.00/hr on January 1, 2016.

Employees Who Furnish Own Tools or Equipment – When employees are required to furnish their own tools or equipment necessary to their performance of the job, they must be paid twice the state minimum wage. This rate will increase to $18.00/hr on July 1, 2014, and $20.00 on January 1, 2016.

Calculation of Overtime, Vacation, Sick Leave, Paid Time Off and Meal and Rest Period Premiums – Employers must adjust how these are calculated to reflect the minimum wage increase.

Employer-Required Split-Shift Premiums – If an employer requires an employee to work a split-shift, the employer must pay the employee a premium, of one hour’s pay at minimum wage, in addition to the employee’s regular earnings paid for that shift. (If hourly wage exceeds state minimum wage, difference may be credited toward split-shift premium.)

Voluntary Crediting Agreements – Employers with written agreements with their employees for crediting meals or lodging expenses against the minimum wage will need to adjust this crediting to reflect the increase.

Posting The New Wage – Employers will be required to conspicuously post the new wage in an area frequented by employees where it may be easily read during the workday.

Cities With Higher Minimum Wage – Certain California cities, including San Francisco and San Jose, may impose a higher minimum wage and/or adjust their minimum wage more frequently. Employers should ensure they comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws.


California Case Clarifies Independent Contractor Classification Criteria

7766Now that I’ve used every word that begins with “C” in the title, here’s the post:

On July 11, 2013, a California appellate court, in Beaumont-Jacques v. Farmers Group Ins., affirmed summary judgment in favor of an insurance company on the question whether a District Manager was properly classified as an independent contractor and not an employee. In so holding, the court provided clarification on the proper analysis for determining this important issue.

Why is this important?

California employers that misclassify workers as independent contractors face potential liability, which can include compensatory damages, stiff penalties and attorney’s fees.

What happened in the Beaumont-Jacques case?

A former District Manager, Erin Beaumont-Jacques, sued Farmers Insurance on various theories all of which hinged on a determination that she was a Farmers Insurance employee. In support of her position, Ms. Beaumont-Jacques pointed out that: (1) she was bound by a contract to only represent Farmers in recruiting and training sales agents; (2) she could train such agents only to sell Farmers’ insurance products; (3) the applicable contract required her to “conform” to Farmers’ “normal business practices” and “goals and objectives”; and (4) Farmers enjoyed the option to terminate her contract without cause.

In affirming the trial court’s granting of a motion for summary judgment brought by Farmers, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District clarified that, even where other factors may suggest an employment relationship, it was sufficient for independent contractor classification that Ms. Beaumont-Jacques “exercised meaningful discretion with reference to her efforts” undertaken on behalf of Farmers. Specifically, the Court said: “While [Farmers] . . . had input over the quality and direction of [her] . . . efforts, they did not have sufficient ‘control over the details’ with respect to those efforts” to render the relationship one of employment rather an independent contractor.

What is the takeaway?

The paramount consideration in determining whether a worker can be properly classified as an independent contractor under California law is whether the worker maintains the right to control the means by which she accomplishes her duties.


Six Steps To A Safer Layoff

KKLLOOI recognize I’m about 3 years too late with this post. The truth, however, is that employers can be forced (or strategically choose) to reduce their workforce even outside a recession.† So, without further apology, here are my 6 steps to effecting a layoff in a way that eliminates, or at least reduces, your exposure to employment-related discrimination or retaliation claims and suits:

1. Be forewarned about the WARN Acts.  The biggest challenge for employers contemplating a “mass layoff,” plant closure, etc. can be WARN Act compliance. California employers are required to comply with the Federal WARN Act (29 U.S.C. 2101, et seq.) and the more rigorous California version (Cal. Labor Code Secs. 1400, et seq.). The specific ins and outs of what triggers Act compliance, exceptions and consequences are unbloggably‡ complicated. You should consult a knowledgeable employment lawyer* on this–no exceptions!

2. Offer severance in exchange for a release. I feel like a flight attendant describing how to use a seat belt, but I’m amazed that there are employers that do not premise a severance payment on execution of a release/waiver of claims. In order to “buy your peace,” the severance must give the employee something to which he/she is not already entitled. In other words, don’t propose the release after you’ve already agreed to pay severance. This kind of release/waiver agreement needs to comply with certain requirements, including timing and lack of ambiguity. You cannot demand the employee sign the waiver on the spot. Depending on the circumstances, you’ll need to allow the employee some time to consider the terms. Again, involve experienced employment counsel.*

3. Develop, and preserve evidence of, objective, nondiscriminatory criteria justifying both the need for the workforce reduction and why the affected employees were selected. Maintain this evidence for up to 4 years. I’m thinking here of meeting minutes, Power Point decks, etc.

4.  Review the list of affected employees. “Issue spot” each employee to evaluate the risks associated with the layoff. These include, not only risks of a claim that an individual employee was the victim of discrimination, but also that the architecture of the reduction disparately impacts a protected class. Look at age (40+), race, gender, disability and religion, FMLA leave, etc. Here, again, use knowledgeable employment counsel* to assist in this analysis.

5. Have upper level management, one or more layers removed from immediate managers and supervisors, decide who will be affected by the layoff. This helps reduce the likelihood of claims that an individual manager had a nonobjective discriminatory or retaliatory reason to select a given employee. It also strengthens the theme that the layoff was objective and necessary, as opposed to a mere “pretext” for an unlawful termination.

6. On the day of the layoff, meet separately, in-person, with each affected employee. Ideally, have an additional manager or HR representative in the room. Resist the urge to say more than necessary about the layoff. Remember that anything said to the employee, if later believed by a judge or jury, can be used against the company if a claim or litigation results. Having the second “witness” in the room reduces the likelihood or believability of a fabrication.

Good luck. Oh, and did I mention the importance of involving experienced employment counsel?*

†Yes, I’m aware there are people far smarter than I who believe we haven’t yet escaped the recession.

‡As far as I know I coined this term.

*Shameless use of link for self-promotion is acknowledged. The question becomes whether, by pointing out and acknowledging the self-promotional use of repeated links to my LinkedIn profile which, by implication, advertises me, variously, as “experienced” and “knowledgeable” employment counsel, I am somehow absolved of the sin of shameless self-promotion, or whether, the fact that, in addition to the link, I also used this footnote to attempt to absolve myself of said shameless self-promotion, is itself equally, or even more, shameless. To quote Bill Murray, “We’re getting into a weird area here.”


Recent Mixed-Motive Case Is A Mixed Bag For California Employers

1184335059_0505In February, the California Supreme Court issued an important decision applying the mixed-motive defense to employment discrimination cases brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). First, a brief bit of background: according to the mixed-motive defense, available in federal employment discrimination claims brought under Title VII, if an employer had both discriminatory and nondiscriminatory reasons for firing an employee, the employer should not be liable if the nondiscriminatory reason alone was sufficient to warrant termination of the employee.

In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, a bus driver was terminated for performance-related reasons shortly after she notified her supervisor that she was pregnant. She sued the City alleging the termination was an instance of pregnancy discrimination. At trial, the City asked the court to instruct the jury that, if the City proves it would have reached the same decision to terminate the driver even without a discriminatory motive, then it could not be held liable. The court refused this instruction and instead instructed the jury that if the bus driver proved her pregnancy was “a motivating factor/reason for the discharge” then the City was liable. The jury found the plaintiff’s pregnancy was a motivating factor and awarded her $177,905 in damages and $401,187 in attorney’s fees.

The City appealed and the Court of Appeal determined that the proposed mixed-motive instruction should have been given. It reversed and remanded. Harris sought, and the California Supreme Court granted, review of the Court of Appeal decision.

The Supreme Court held that the instruction should have required the plaintiff to establish, not just that discrimination was a motivating factor or reason, but that it was “a substantial motivating factor/reason” for the termination.* If the plaintiff makes this showing, the employer then has the opportunity to limit its exposure by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision for nondiscriminatory reasons, such as job performance. If the jury finds in favor of the employer on this issue, the plaintiff may not recover compensatory damages, back pay or reinstatement, though she may still seek and recover injunctive and declaratory relief. Additionally, she may stll be entitled to recover her attorney’s fees in prosecuting the lawsuit under FEHA.

At first blush, Harris would seem to be a positive development for California employers–and it is. The problem is that employment discrimination suits tend to be attorney-fee driven, with the result that lawyers will file and aggressively pursue marginal liability cases with the hope of striking it big with an attorney fee award. Consider the trial result in Harris, in which the attorney fees sought were over twice the damages award. The practical impact is that the employer is punished (though an attorney fee award) even when it otherwise succeeds in its mixed-motive defense.

*Emphasis added.


Will Plaintiffs Choose Federal Over California’s Broken State Courts?

kjuhLaw360 reported Wednesday that budget cuts are crippling the California state court system. Not that this is really news. Between court closures, job cuts, “no-host” court reporters, furloughs, getting regular, reasonable and reliable access to justice has become very difficult in California state court. And, it’s only anticipated to get worse. The article suggests that, in June, the Los Angeles Superior Court will experience a reduction to 25% fewer courtrooms. Apparently “all of the 16,000 personal injury cases are going to be divided among three judges.”

Really? How can any judge manage a docket of over 5,000 cases?

“Experts,” the article says, believe that plaintiffs will increasingly resort (gasp!) to filing their cases in federal district court. I know this is possible with employment actions where there are both state and federal remedies. But will this become a more appealing alternative to filing in state court and waiting as the case winds through that crumbling court system? I’m not so sure.

I’ve encountered a lot of practitioners on the plaintiff side who will do almost anything to stay out of federal court. I’m not suggesting that this is because these lawyers can’t, by putting in the effort, get up to speed and comply with the stringent federal procedural requirements. It’s more circular. Lawyers who have historically shied away from a federal practice seem less comfortable with the Federal Rules of Evidence or Civil Procedure, which leads them to choose state court, which perpetuates their discomfort with the federal rules and procedures, and on and on, ad infinitum. Could the clogged California state system get so bad that these lawyers overcome this bias against federal court?

There are at least two other reasons I don’t expect plaintiffs to rush into the federal courthouse. First, unanimous agreement among the jurors is required for a verdict in federal court. (FRCP 48) In California state court, only 9 of 12, or three-quarters of the jury, must agree to reach a verdict for the plaintiff. (CCP §613) This means a lot of wiggle room in the state system and absolutely no wiggle room in the federal system.

As I’ve noted, there’s also the question of where jurors are drawn from. In the Los Angeles Superior Court, the jurors will come from Los Angeles county, and typically a smaller judicial district closer to the courthouse. Thus, a case in the Santa Monica courthouse will get jurors with different socioeconomic, ethnic and educational backgrounds from a case pending in the downtown LA courthouse. The federal district courts, however, draw from the entire Northern, Southern, Eastern or Central districts, each of which is a broader conglomeration of separate communities. On the defense side, we often believe this tends to dull the anti-corporate bias which might be prevalent in any one community.

Finally, I cannot attest to the accuracy of this premise–but it has been my experience with federal district court judges that they at least seem more conservative and less pro-plaintiff. At the very least, they pay closer attention to the procedural rules and have less tolerance for blatantly sloppy lawyering. While I can’t control much once a case or issue is in the hands of a judge or jury, I can ABSOLUTELY control whether the lawyering is sloppy. Not everyone is so eager to please.

So, while I’m confident the crisis in the California state court system will have repercussions and practice-changing consequences (such as reserving a date for summary judgment when you answer the complaint!), I’m not inclined to think there will be any kind of stampede to the federal courthouse. Just a hunch.


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