Archive for the ‘Disability Discrimination’ Category

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently held that a laborer hired by a subcontractor cannot sue the construction project’s general contractor for same-sex harassment. In the lawsuit, Matthew Allen alleged that an unidentified man from another company made sexual advances towards him. After reporting the incident to the general contractor, D.A. Foster Company, Inc., the man who allegedly made the advances was ejected from the worksite. Allen alleged, however, that he was continually harassed by coworkers who had heard about the incident. Allen filed suit against the general contractor, and Barnes Excavating, the subcontractor, alleging, among other counts, discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, and retaliatory termination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The court held that claims against an employer under Title VII may only be brought by an employee, not an independent contractor, against an employer. To determine whether the claimant is an employee or independent contractor, courts weigh several factors of the conventional master-servant relationship. While no one factor is determinative, several factors are considered, including: the workers skill required; who provides the tools required; location of the work; duration of the relationship; the hiring party’s right to assign additional projects to the hired party; the extent of the hired party’s discretion over working time and hours; the method of payment; and whether the work is part of the regular business activities of the hiring party.

In the case at hand, D.A. Foster was the general contractor who subcontracted excavating work to Barnes. Barnes directly hired Allen as a laborer and assigned Allen to work on the project supervised by D.A. Foster. Although D.A. Foster provided some guidance and training for the project, and the company does regularly perform work in this industry, the level of control over Allen did not rise to the extent necessary to establish an employee-employer relationship. The court held that, with respect to D.A. Foster, Allen was an independent contractor. Most tools were provided to Allen by Barnes Excavating, not Foster. Allen worked under the direct supervision of and was paid by Barnes. The court found that Allen could not reasonably believe that he was an employee of D.A. Foster. Thus, the court granted summary judgment in favor of D.A. Foster.

While in the case at hand the general contractor was not subject to liability on the claim, employers still need to be weary of the current trend to try towards expanding the definition of who is the “employer.” Particular attention should continue to be paid to the IRS independent contractor test and, in particular, the most recent movement of the NLRB to redefine joint-employer status. The consequences of misclassifying an employee as an independent contractor can be significant. The case should also serve as a reminder to all contractors that they need to take steps to make sure that their jobsites are free from any kind of harassment.

This article is authored by attorney Lori L. Buntman and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice.  Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.


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Posted in Construction, Disability Discrimination, Sex discrimination | Comments Off on Harassment on the Worksite; Can the General Contractor be Held Liable?

In the disability discrimination case of Buffington v. PEC Mgmt. II LLP, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania had to decide whether reasonable minds could differ over whether a former Burger King manager was fired for violating a company rule or for taking too much time off to care for her teenage son who was battling a cancer relapse.   The former manager alleged that Burger King fired her for tending to her sick son, but that the company used her violation of a company policy as a pretext for the firing, which firing was in violation of the American with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

How did we arrive at this mess?  Well, the former manager had been employed by Burger King for seven years with no written or oral warnings regarding her performance, but then she violated a company policy by sending an employee out to pick up product from another Burger King that the manager’s Burger King had run out of.  At that time, the former manager was the only manager on duty and the employee that she choose to pick up the product drove his own car to the nearby Burger King.  Unfortunately, the employee got into an accident while running the errand.  Yikes!  I guess you can’t always have it your way.

Anyway, the accident resulted in the former manager’s firing.  Burger King’s corporate policy forbid nonmanager employees from driving for restaurant business.  The company claimed that this violation of the corporate policy coupled with the former manager’s allegedly declining, but undocumented performance, was was grounds for termination.  The former manager disagreed and claimed that the company just used her violation of the policy as an excuse to fire her because she had been tending to her sick son.  In fact, the former manager alleged that the rule prohibiting nonmanager employees from driving for restaurant business was never enforced and that it was common practice for managers to send staff on errands to other restaurants.  The former manager also presented evidence that other mananagers outside of her protected class (i.e. employees who were not caring for sick children)had violated the policy, but were not fired.  If true, these allegations create a problem for Burger King.

It gets worse.  The former manager alleges that her supervisor met with her before her firing and that during this meeting the former manager’s supervisor commented that the restaurant needed “someone whose head is there 100 percent,” and said that now the former manager could spend more time with her son.  Ouch.  For the employer’s sake, let’s hope this isn’t true.

Based upon the above facts, following her termination, the former manager sued Burger King.  Burger King claimed that the manager was fired because her performance had been steadily declining and the violation of the company policy was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Nonetheless, in denying Burger King’s motion for summary judgment, the Court found that the former manager sufficiently raised questions of genuine material fact regarding Burger King’s true motivation for firing the manager.  If the true reason for the termination of the manager was the manager spending time with her son, then a jury might find that Burger King relied on unfounded stereotypes or assumptions about the type of care the manager would need to give to her son in the future.

Employers’ Takeaway: 

First, enforce policies uniformly and consistently.  The former manager claimed that other managers outside of her protected class violated the vehicle policy without being fired.  Although this is merely an allegation, it serves as a reminder of the importance of uniform policy enforcement.

Second, keep good records of employee performance. Burger King claims that the manager’s performance had been declining.  If this was the case, Burger King should have kept a better record of her allegedly declining performance in the form of warnings and written evaluations.

Third, ensure that supervisors receive anti-discrimination training.  If the supervisor truly made the comments that the manager alleges she made, such comments were inappropriate.  Supervisor training might have helped to avoid such unwanted comments.

The attorneys at Harmon & Davies are here to advise employers on policy enforcement issues, performance evaluations, and supervisor training.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

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Posted in Disability Discrimination, Labor & Employment | No Comments »