Colorado County, Texas, et al v. Marc Staff, No. 15-0192 (Tex. 2016)
Police Officer Discipline
Under Chapter 614, Subchapter B of the Texas Government Code, a covered peace officer cannot be disciplined based on a complaint unless certain procedural requirements are met. At issue in this case was whether Subchapter B’s disciplinary procedures apply to at-will employment relationships, whether those procedures apply to any complaint of misconduct or only citizen-generated complaints, and whether a complaint must be signed by the victim of the alleged misconduct and presented to the employee before discipline is imposed. When a deputy sheriff’s (Employee) employment was terminated, Employee appealed to the sheriff, complaining of procedural irregularities in the process leading to his discharge. The sheriff summarily upheld the termination decision. The employee then sued the sheriff and the county (collectively, Employer), alleging that the sheriff’s department violated Government Code sections 614.022 and 614.023 by terminating his employment without giving him a copy of a signed complaint and without allowing him an opportunity to respond to the allegations before he was disciplined. The trial court granted partial summary judgment for Employer. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that Employer violated Chapter 614. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that, assuming that Chapter 614, Subchapter B applied under these circumstances, Employer complied with the statute.
FMLA-In Loco Parentis Relationship
Plaintiff filed suit under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) against his employer, MCU after he was denied leave to take care of his seriously ill grandfather who, in loco parentis, had raised him as a child. The district court granted MCU’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The district court reasoned that, although the FMLA provides that an eligible employee may be entitled to take leave in order to care for a person with whom he had an in loco parentis relationship as a child, plaintiff had informed MCU merely that he needed to take care of his grandfather without informing MCU of the in loco parentis relationship. The court concluded that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to MCU on the basis that plaintiff had failed to provide the necessary information, given MCU’s denial of plaintiff’s request without requesting additional information; vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings; rejected MCU’s contention that the district court’s dismissal of the complaint can be upheld on other grounds; and rejected plaintiff’s request that the court order the grant of partial summary judgment on the issue of liability in his favor.
EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc., No. 15-14551 (11th Cir. 2016)
A disabled nurse, sought a reasonable accommodation in the form of a job reassignment to another unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital because she required the use of a cane, which posed a safety hazard in the psychiatric ward where she worked. After the nurse did not obtain another Hospital position, the Hospital terminated her employment. The EEOC filed suit on her behalf against the Hospital. Based on the framework in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, the court affirmed the district court’s finding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did not require job reassignment without competition as a reasonable accommodation. When an employee seeks reassignment as a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the relevant question when deciding whether she is a qualified individual is not whether the employee is qualified for her current position, but whether she is qualified for the new job. Lucas v. W.W. Grainger, Inc., 257 F.3d 1249 (11th Cir. 2001). The EEOC argued that three other circuits have held that reassignment must be without competition even when in violation of a best-qualified hiring policy of the employer, citing EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc.,693 F.3d 760 (7th Cir. 2012), Smith v. Midland Brake, Inc., 180 F.3d 1154 (10th Cir. 1999), and Aka v. Washington Hosp. Ctr., 156 F.3d 1284 (D.C. Cir. 1998). In this case, the Court decided differently than the three federal circuits as to the issue of reassignment without competition but attempted to distinguish those cases.
Texas Labor Code Chapter 21- Jurisdictional Defects
After Reid filed her suit against SSB Holdings, Inc., d/b/a Protec Laboratory (Protec) alleging unlawful sexual harassment and retaliatory discharge, Protec filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that Reid had not exhausted her administrative remedies under Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code because she did not sign and swear to the complaint as required by the TLC. After a hearing, the trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed Reid’s claims with prejudice. In the appeal, Reid asserted that the trial court erred because (1) exhaustion of administrative remedies is not jurisdictional and (2) she exhausted her administrative remedies by timely filing an employment discrimination complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission (the Commission). The Court of Appeals held that since the language of the statute does not clearly express a legislative intent that the failure to verify a complaint filed with the Commission deprives the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction, the purpose of the statute is not impaired by interpreting the verification requirement as non-jurisdictional, and such interpretation promotes the finality of judgments. Therefore, the Court ruled Reid’s failure to verify her complaint filed with the Commission did not deprive the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction. Therefore, the Court held that the trial court erred in granting Protec’s plea to the jurisdiction. Note: This holding does not remedy the issue of the liability defense of failure to exhaust administrative remedies by not following the statutory requirement of a sworn complaint. Perhaps, this could be remedied by curing this defect with the Commission; however, this issue was not discussed. This case is a warning to complainants that they should ALWAYS sign the intake questionnaire and then swear to the truth of it before a notary before sending it to the Commission. This should convert the intake questionnaire into a complaint under the TLC and satisfy the requirement of a sworn complaint.
Sexual Harassment-Ellerth/Faragher Defense
In an employee’s sexual harassment suit against a school board under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, there was a factual dispute as to whether the board was entitled to immunity under the Ellerth/Faragher defense from liability for alleged harassment by a purchasing department supervisor while the employee worked in that department. Normally an employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s harassment of an individual whom he or she supervises. The Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense is an exception and is available to employers where a plaintiff alleges sexual harassment by a supervisor but does not claim that the harassment resulted in a tangible employment action. The defense has two elements. First, the employer must show that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct sexual harassment. Second, it must establish that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or remedial opportunities provided by the employer. The employer bears the burden of proving both elements by a preponderance of the evidence. The first element focuses on the company’s conduct. An employer can satisfy the first prong of the Ellerth/Faragher defense by implementing suitable institutional policies and educational programs regarding sexual harassment. Both the harasser’s knowledge of the policy and the victim’s awareness of it (and of associated complaint procedures) are relevant to whether the company acted reasonably. A policy regarding sexual harassment is not necessary as a matter of law to prevail on the Ellerth/Faragher defense, but the Supreme Court has indicated that it is, in almost all cases, a relevant and important factor. Thus, a court’s inquiry usually focuses heavily on whether the employer promulgated a reasonably specific sexual-harassment policy and complaint procedure and whether it diligently investigated (and, where appropriate, remedied) alleged sexual harassment. The cases addressing whether a company has satisfied its burden on the first prong of the Ellerth/Faragher defense sort into two basic clusters. Where the plaintiff admits that he or she was on notice of a policy and complaint procedure and the court determines that the policy was reasonable, the first prong has consistently found to be satisfied. However, a defendant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on its Ellerth/Faragher defense when it has only a vague and general anti-discrimination policy without any mention of sexual harassment, the policy does not specify complaint procedures, and employees were not informed of the policy save for inconspicuous postings that the employees did not notice or read. And an employer’s failure to promulgate its policy to a given worksite means that its defense fails as a matter of law when raised against claims arising at that worksite. However, in this case, the employee offered evidence that the board’s sexual harassment policy was insufficiently publicized. A person is a supervisor for purposes of sexual-harassment law when he or she can take tangible employment action against the victim. A tangible employment action is a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. The harasser’s status as a supervisor converts a negligence action into an action in strict liability. In closely analogous contexts—such as products-liability suits and tort actions in strict liability for injuries suffered from others’ abnormally dangerous activities—it is universally the plaintiff’s burden to establish the condition that triggers strict liability. In effect, showing that an individual was the plaintiff’s supervisor is an element of a strict-liability action for sexual harassment. The board could not be held liable for the purchasing department supervisor’s alleged harassment of the employee while she worked in a different department. The purchasing department supervisor could not affect the terms of the employee’s employment during that period and therefore was merely a coworker, and the employee did not preserve an argument that the board should have known about the harassment. The summary judgment for the board as to the period of alleged harassment when Pullen worked in the purchasing department was reversed. The summary judgment as to the period of alleged harassment after Pullen left the HR department was affirmed and the case was remanded.
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)-Overtime Violations-Emotional Injury Damages
A husband, who did maintenance work for an apartment complex, received discounted rent for his family as part of his compensation, and after he sued his employer for unpaid overtime under the FLSA, the employer demanded return of the rent reductions and issued a notice to vacate the apartment for nonpayment of rent. The Court held that the jury should have been instructed as to the husband’s damages for emotional distress because an employee could recover for emotional injury resulting from retaliation under the FLSA, and the husband’s evidence of such emotional injury was sufficient to raise a jury question. The wife’s FLSA retaliation claim failed because, contrary to the zone of interest for plaintiffs under Title VII, the FLSA only prohibited retaliatory discharge or discrimination against an employee.