Posts by: Michael Disotell

Joint Responsibility: Companies Should Keep an Eye on the Shifting Legal Landscape of Joint Employment

As Congress considers a bill to change the definition of joint employment under two federal statutes, the Supreme Court is poised to decide whether to take up the issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. Department of Labor has withdrawn administrative guidance issued by the prior administration, and several states have enacted or considered joint employment legislation.  In this rapidly evolving legal landscape, companies may want to keep a close eye on a doctrine that can lead to unexpected legal exposure.

Under the concept of joint employment, multiple companies can be considered the employers of a single worker, and thus potentially jointly and severally liable for compliance with employment laws, such as wage-and-hour requirements.  Joint employment can occur in two main contexts: “horizontal” joint employment, when a single employee works for two different but related entities, and “vertical” joint employment, which can arise when workers are obtained by an intermediary to work on behalf of some other entity (for example, when a company uses a subcontractor or a staffing agency).  Surprisingly, there is no single test or source of law for determining whether companies are joint employers; rather, different tests exist under common law and various federal and state statutes.  Even when applying the same statute, courts in different jurisdictions may use diverging standards, making joint employment a tricky and complex issue for companies to navigate.

For example, the federal courts have disagreed about the appropriate formulation of the test for determining joint employment under the FLSA, with different multi-factor tests in use by one or more circuits.  In a case decided earlier this year, DirecTV v. Hall, the Fourth Circuit rejected the approach followed by a number of other circuits and applied a new test, holding that courts must focus on the relationship between putative joint employers, not just the relationship between each entity and a worker.  Under the Fourth Circuit’s new test, joint employment may be found where two or more companies are “not completely disassociated” with respect to the worker’s work—a standard that could lead to widespread findings of joint employment.  This approach could deter companies from using subcontractors or staffing companies or engaging in similar relationships, given the risk that that even indirect influence over a worker’s terms and conditions of work could lead to a finding of joint employment and ensuing liability.  DirectTV has filed a cert petition in the case, and a number of business groups have filed amicus briefs urging the high court to grant the petition.

A brief for a group of organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Retail Federation highlights the divergence between the Fourth Circuit’s new approach and the tests followed in other circuits, urging the Supreme Court to resolve the circuit split.  The brief argues that geographic consistency in the interpretation of the FLSA is particularly important for companies that do business in multiple regions, and contends that the Fourth Circuit erred by misreading a federal regulation in a manner that even the U.S. Department of Labor has disagreed with.  Possibly signaling interest in taking up the matter, on September 20, 2017, the Supreme Court asked the respondents to file a response, which is due next month.

In the meantime, developments continue elsewhere.  A year and a half after the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued an Administrator’s Interpretation under the Obama Administration that took an expansive view of joint employment under the FLSA and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, new U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta recently announced the withdrawal of that interpretation.

A month later, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Save Local Business Act (H.R. 3441), which would amend the FLSA and the National Labor Relations Act to provide that a company can be a joint employer only if it “directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a limited and routine manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment.”  On September 13, 2017, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on the bill, which remains pending.

The controversial 2015 Browning-Ferris decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which upended decades-old precedent on the test for joint employment under the NLRA, remains on appeal at the D.C. Circuit.  Following that decision, a number of states have enacted or considered legislation to provide that a franchisor is generally not the employer of its franchisees or the employees of those franchisees.

Given the rapid pace of these developments, companies should pay close attention to the changing legal landscape and may wish to consult employment counsel for advice on avoiding liability as joint employers.

Looking the Other Way: European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber Determines Employer Monitoring of Electronic Communications May Violate Employees’ Privacy

In a case highlighting the European Continent’s approach to worker privacy, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that employers may violate employees’ rights when monitoring their electronic correspondence in the workplace.  In Barbulescu v. Romania, the Grand Chamber reversed a prior decision from a smaller panel of the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) which had determined companies have far-reaching authority to monitor employees’ electronic communications—a similar standard to that which exists in the United States. READ MORE

President Trump’s DOJ Takes Website Accessibility Regulations off the Table

As those interested in website accessibility regulations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) know, the Department of Justice announced in May 2016 that it would issue a rule governing website accessibility standards for places of public accommodation to take effect in 2018. It now appears that we can expect an even longer indefinite delay. Last month, the Trump Administration launched its Unified Regulatory Agenda, which “provides an updated report on the actions administrative agencies plan to issue in the near and long term.” The Agenda is meant to effectuate Executive Orders 13771 and 13777, which require agencies to reduce unnecessary regulatory burden. According to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the Agenda “represents the beginning of fundamental regulatory reform and a reorientation toward reducing unnecessary regulatory burden on the American people. By amending and eliminating regulations that are ineffective, duplicative, and obsolete, the Administration can promote economic growth and innovation and protect individual liberty.” READ MORE

Show Me The Money: SEC Awards $2.5 Million To Government Agency Whistlleblower

Silver school PE sports whistle on white background Will the Whistle be Silenced? Dismantling Dodd-Frank

The SEC has awarded $2.5 million to a government agency employee who reported misconduct by a company to the SEC and caused the SEC to open an investigation. While the SEC order granting the award acknowledged that government employees may be prohibited from receiving whistleblower awards in some circumstances, such as when the employee works for a “law enforcement organization,” the SEC nevertheless determined that although “certain components of Claimant’s governmental employer have law enforcement responsibilities, [ ] those responsibilities are housed in a separate, different component of the agency at which Claimant works.” The SEC further explained that “the record is clear that this is not a situation where a claimant sought to circumvent the potential responsibilities that his or her government agency might have to investigate or otherwise take action for the misconduct.  We express no view on how an award determination might differ under that alternative circumstance.”  Ultimately, because the individual provided the Commission with “credible information . . . significant ongoing assistance, and relevant testimony that accelerated the pace of the investigation,” the SEC found the $2.5 million bounty justified.

In a press release announcing the award, the SEC noted it has now awarded approximately $156 million to 45 whistleblowers since the program’s inception.

Landing a New Gig: Lessons for the “On Demand” Economy

In the past few years, the American workforce has shifted dramatically. By some estimates, as many as 53 million Americans are now self-employed. Many of them work in the “gig” or “on demand” economy, which has emerged as the new norm for doing business. In general, the gig economy offers traditional services, such as transportation, food delivery, and housing, in a more efficient way by connecting consumers directly to service providers. But, as with many innovations, gig economy companies face challenges from multiple fronts due to mounting legal pressures. Employment laws written in the 1930s haven’t kept up with the pace of innovation, and trying to apply them to the way services are delivered today is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. READ MORE

SEC, CFTC and OSHA Officials Offer Candid Insights into Whistleblower Programs’ Results, Priorities, and Future Directions

On June 28, 2017, three prominent whistleblower law regulators spoke at PLI’s Corporate Whistleblowing in 2017, which was co-chaired by Orrick partners Mike Delikat and Renee Phillips. With the standard disclaimer that their comments and opinions were their own and not the official comments of their respective agencies, each spoke candidly about their agencies’ whistleblower program’s progress, challenges, and priorities.

SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower

The Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (“OWB”), Jane Norberg, kicked off the panel with her views on the current status and priorities of the OWB in the new administration: “From my point of view, the SEC’s whistleblower program is open for business and we are moving forward as we have in the past.”  She elaborated on the program’s results to date, noting that the Commission has received over 18,000 tips and awarded over $154 million to 44 tipsters, reflecting over $1 billion recovered through the SEC’s enforcement actions and related actions arising from whistleblower tips.  Norberg explained, “the real value of the program comes from individuals who help prevent ongoing fraud at a company while also giving victims a chance to recover some of what they lost.” READ MORE

Will the Whistle Be Silenced? Dismantling Dodd-Frank

Silver school PE sports whistle on white background Will the Whistle be Silenced? Dismantling Dodd-Frank

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in November, he vowed to “dismantle” the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”). In its place, Trump promised to replace the law “with new policies to encourage economic growth and job creation.”  Now a bill known as the Financial CHOICE Act may initiate the process to do just that. But at least with respect to Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower provisions, the Financial CHOICE Act would leave largely intact the current bounty programs that have already awarded tipsters over $150 million in the U.S. and abroad.

READ MORE

Access Denied: Trial on Website Accessibility Claims Results in Decision for Disabled Individual

Web accessibility online internet website computer for people with disabilities symbol blue keyboard Access Denied: Trial on Website Accessibility Claims Results in Decision for Disabled Individual

On Tuesday, a federal district court in Florida issued an order in the first known trial involving accessibility to a public accommodation’s website.  Ultimately, the court found that grocery giant Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) because its website was inaccessible to a visually impaired customer.  As we have written about previously here and here, currently there are no binding regulations that specify the accessibility standards for websites under Title III of the ADA.

READ MORE

Withdrawn: DOL Nixes Guidance on Independent Contractors and Joint Employment

Effective June 7, 2017, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) has withdrawn informal guidance on independent contractors and joint employment. The guidance on independent contractors came from an Administrator’s Interpretation released in 2015 and was the result of the DOL’s renewed focus on worker misclassification. In it, the DOL seized upon a broad definition of “employ” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”)—“to suffer or permit to work”—to conclude that “most workers are employees under the FLSA.”  The DOL’s guidance on joint employment was released in 2016 and also came from an Administrator’s Interpretation.  The guidance provided a broad interpretation of joint employment in the wake of the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris decision. It also distinguished between “horizontal” joint employment, which occurs when the employee has an employment relationship with two or more sufficiently related employers, and “vertical” joint employment, which occurs when the employee has an employment relationship with one employer (such a staffing agency or subcontractor), but economic realities show that he or she is economically dependent upon another entity.

In a press release announcing the withdrawn guidance, the DOL noted, “Removal of the administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law. The department will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.”

Rules of the Road: New CFTC Regulations Expand Whistleblower Bounty Program

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), published updated regulations Monday to bring its whistleblower bounty efforts more in line with the SEC’s.  The rules were proposed last August and generally provide more robust protections to would-be whistleblowers.  According to an agency press release, “In addition to strengthening anti-retaliation protections, the new amendments will add efficiency and transparency to the process of deciding whistleblower award claims and will, in many respects, harmonize the CFTC’s rules with those of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s whistleblower program.”  READ MORE