Articles Posted in Cases of Note

By Michael P. Stafford

Marijuana is back in the news here in Delaware. Our state’s first Compassion Center is set to open later this month and legislation decriminalizing the sacred herb has been signed into law by Governor Jack Markell.  medical marijuana_3

Delaware is by no means unique-it is part of a national trend towards decriminalization and even legalization occurring at the state level across the nation. However, as far as the federal government is concerned, marijuana remains illegal. Essentially, America is becoming a veritable patchwork quilt of differing, and inconsistent approaches-a situation that is creating headaches for employers, particularly those with national or multi-state operations, striving for consistency and uniformity in their drug policies.

By William W. Bowser

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an eligible employee can take up to 12 weeks of protected leave for his or her own “serious health condition.” A “serious health condition” is defined by Department of Labor’s regulations as one “that involves inpatient care … or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” While many FMLA cases have focused on the meaning of “continuing treatment,” the definition of “inpatient care” has seen little review. A recent decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Delaware, recently focused on the issue.

Jeff Bonkowski worked for Oberg Industries as a wirecut operator and machinist. During a meeting with his supervisors on November 14, 2011, Bonkowski began to experience shortness of breath. His supervisors gave him permission to go home and he clocked out at 5:18 p.m. Shortly after 11 p.m., Bonkowski’s wife drove him to the hospital. Although he arrived at the hospital before midnight, he was not admitted into the hospital until shortly after midnight on November 15th. As we will see, these few minutes would be very important.

By Barry M. Willoughby

At our recent Annual Seminar, we discussed, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., an action involving alleged religious discrimination in connection with a refusal to hire that was then pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Attendees at the seminar will recall that the case involved an applicant for employment at Abercrombie who was turned down based on the Company’s “look policy,” because she wore a head scarf.  Although the interview for this position did not involve any discussion of whether the applicant wore the scarf for religious reasons, and/or whether she would require an accommodation to allow her to wear the scarf while at work, the EEOC investigation established that the company’s representatives believed that the applicant was wearing the scarf for religious reasons and refused to hire her on that basis.

On June 1, 2015, as we predicted, the Court issued its Opinion finding that the employer had indeed violated Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination.  Significantly, the Court ruled that actual knowledge of the employee’s need for a religious accommodation is not required.  Instead, the Court found that the test is whether the employer’s decision was, in fact, motivated by illegal discrimination under Title VII.

Does an employee who communicates with his lawyer from a company email account waive the attorney-client privilege with respect to those communications?  The answer is not terribly well settled-not in Delaware and not in most jurisdictions.  But a recent decision by the Delaware Court of Chancery gives Delaware employers and litigants a pretty good idea of the analysis to be applied.

The case, In re Information Management Services, is an unusual type of derivative litigation in that it involves two families, each suing the other for breaches of fiduciary duty.  Two of the company’s senior executives, who were alleged to have mismanaged the company in violation of their fiduciary duties, sent emails to their personal lawyers from their company-issued email accounts.  During discovery, the executives refused to produce the emails, claiming them to be protected by the attorney-client privilege.  The plaintiffs sought to compel production of the emails.

The court adopted the four-factor test first enumerated in In re Asia Global Crossing, Ltd. (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2005), and applied it to determine whether the executives had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the emails that they sought to protect.  The court determined that the executives did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of the emails because the company’s policy expressly warned that employee emails were “open to access” the company’s staff.  The policy permitted personal use of the company’s computers “after hours” but warned that, if an employee wanted to keep files private, the files should be saved offline.  Thus, the policy was key in ensuring the company can now access emails between the executives and their counsel.

Delaware began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on July 1, 2013, less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Delaware will no longer perform civil unions pursuant to the Civil Union Equality Act, which was passed into law in 2010. Couples who entered into a civil union prior to July 1 may convert their civil union into a legally recognized marriage or wait until July 1, 2014, when all remaining civil unions will be automatically converted.

The Court’s DOMA ruling is expected to affect an estimated 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and privileges. For Delaware employers, the impact is potentially significant. Delaware employers must now extend all federal benefits to gay married couples that were previously made available to straight married couples. The impact also is immediate. Unlike with new legislation, there will be no delay between the Court’s ruling and an employer’s obligation to extend benefits.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision will impact who is eligible for benefits, the procedures remain unchanged. For example, the process for requesting and reviewing FMLA leave, COBRA coverage, and other federally mandated benefits of employment will not change.

In United Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Supreme Court ruled that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII requires “but-for” causation. In other words, an unlawful reason has to be the reason for the adverse employment action. The Supreme Court had previously ruled that this type of “but-for” causation also is required in cases alleging age discrimination.

It does not, however, apply to cases of discrimination brought pursuant to Title VII. In those cases, the unlawful reason need only be a reason. There may be other, lawful reasons, but if an unlawful reason plays a part in the decision, then the decision is unlawful.

Here’s how it plays out.  Let’s say that I go to work for a new law firm. My new boss doesn’t think that women lawyers are worth much. He also really hates my nose ring (despite how lovely and not at all offensive it looks in person). Based on those two prejudices, he decides to not put me up for a promotion.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two important employment-law decisions this week and, surprising to many of us, both came out in favor of employers. Both cases will have significant impact on employment lawsuits but one of the two is of of particular interest to me because it has been an issue I’ve faced in prior cases of my own.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court was asked to decide what it means to be an employee’s “supervisor” for purposes of Title VII.  In short, the Court held that an individual can be considered to be a supervisor only if he or she has been empowered by the employer to take “tangible employment action” against the employee who claims to have been harassed. 

And what, exactly, is a “tangible employment action,” you ask?  Basically, it means the power to effectuate significant change in the victim’s employment status.  So the power to hire, fire, demote, etc., is the power to effectuate a tangible employment action.  If the individual does not have the authority to fire, transfer, or demote the victim, then the individual is not considered to be the victim’s supervisor.

In a reminder to Delaware employers that what you say can come back to bite you, the Delaware Supreme Court reinstated a Superior Court jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff, after the trial court had determined that his claim failed as a matter of law. The plaintiff, Donald Harmon, had been the Presiding Judge of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, and was fired as a result of an allegation that he had changed a judging sheet for a race, as a favor to the horse’s owner. Harmon was charged with crimes and was suspended without pay pending the outcome of the criminal case.

He asked another employee to find out from the Racing Commission whether he would be reinstated if he was acquitted on the criminal charges. The employee testified that he put that question to the Commissioners and they “looked at each other and then said [Harmon] would be reinstated.” The Commission later decided not to reinstate Harmon and he sued, obtaining an award of $102,273 after a 5 day jury trial. The trial court overturned the verdict and Harmon appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

In essence, promissory estoppel in the employment context means that the employer has made a representation to an employee that the employee reasonably relied on to his or her detriment. While that theory can apply to private employers, the general rule in the public sector, as asserted by the Racing Commission in this case, is that “the state is not estopped in the exercise of its governmental functions by the acts of its officers.”

Today’s post is about another recent employment-law decision from the Third Circuit.  For those of you who want the shortened version, feel free to skip to the end of the post for the valuable Lesson Learned.

Background

The plaintiff-employee, Mary Burton, founded and ran two companies, which were sold to the defendant-employer, Teleflex. Following the sale, Burton became employed by Teleflex pursuant to a written employment agreement.  Burton was 67 years old.3d businessman quits_3

The Delaware Supreme Court started the New Year with a resolution of sorts for lawyers. In a decision issued on January 2, 2013, the Court instructed that, if counsel agrees to alter a deadline in the trial court’s scheduling order, all remaining deadlines will be rendered inapplicable:

Henceforth, parties who ignore or extend scheduling deadlines without promptly consulting the trial court will do so at their own risk. In other words, any party that grants an informal extension to opposing counsel will be precluded from seeking relief from the court with respect to any deadlines in the scheduling order.

The Court also stressed the priority of avoiding any changes that would affect the trial date:

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