Employment Training, Practices and Procedures

On November 6, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit handed down a decision that impacts employers across all industries, including the financial services industry. In a “win” for employers, the Tenth Circuit ruled that “…the False Claims Act’s anti-retaliation provision unambiguously excludes relief for retaliatory acts which occur after the employee has left employment.” Potts v. Center for Excellence in Higher Education, Inc., No. 17-1143 (10th Cir. Nov. 6, 2018).

The False Claims Act (“Act”) imposes liability on any person who knowingly defrauds the federal government. See 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a). The Act also contains an anti-retaliation provision protecting whistleblower employees from certain retaliatory acts by their employers. In Potts, the Tenth Circuit determined that the Act’s term “employee” includes only persons who were current employees at the time of the alleged retaliation.

The case involved Debbi Potts who resigned from her position as the campus director of an educational organization in July 2012. In connection with her resignation, Potts entered into a separation agreement with her employer in which she, among other things, agreed to not disparage the organization or “contact any governmental or regulatory agency with the purpose of filing any complaint or grievance.” Notwithstanding the agreement, and well after her resignation, Potts sent a disparaging email and filed a complaint to the organization’s accreditor alleging deceptions in maintaining accreditations. The organization brought a breach of contract claim against Potts for violating the agreement. Potts countersued alleging retaliation because the organization’s claim violated the False Claims Act since her complaint was protected activity.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Potts’s retaliation claim by finding that “the False Claims Act, by its list of retaliatory acts, temporally limits relief to employees who are subjected to retaliatory acts while they are current employees.” The Tenth Circuit relied on established statutory interpretation canons in reaching its conclusion. Accordingly, in the Tenth Circuit, a former employee cannot engage in protected activity after termination of employment and as a result cannot maintain a cognizable claim under the Act for purported retaliation for such protected activity. This approach is consistent with the interpretations of other courts which have considered this same issue.

While the decision may provide some relief to employers, they should still proceed with caution in taking action against employees for raising violations of the False Claims Act or other laws. Moreover, there are regulatory opinions and actions which employers should carefully consider with their employment counsel in drafting separation agreements as certain regulators prohibit employers from having separation agreements that contain overbroad restrictions (i.e., restrictions that may impinge on employees’ rights to report unlawful practices or occurrences to the SEC or other governmental agencies).

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis that employers may lawfully require employees to sign arbitration agreements that include a waiver of the right to participate in an employee class action lawsuit or arbitration. Below, we discuss the significance of this decision and highlight issues that employers may wish to consider in the wake of it.

Epic Systems—a Pivotal Win for Employers

The NLRB planted the seed for Epic Systems in 2012, when it first took the position that Section 7 of the National Labor relations Act (“NLRA”)—which affords employees the right to self-organize, bargain collectively, and “engage in other concerted activities”—precludes enforcement of employee class action waivers. The federal Circuit Courts of Appeal split on the NLRB’s position in the ensuing years. Deepening the divide, the DOJ under the current administration broke with the NLRB.

In Epic Systems the Supreme Court rejected the notion that class actions are “concerted activities” inviolable under Section 7 of the NLRA, opining that the term is not a broad catchall. The Court observed that, while the NLRA includes many specific procedural rules, rules relating to class or collective actions are not among them. Absent clear Congressional intent, the Court reasoned that the NLRA could not “displace” the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and its edict promoting the enforceability of arbitration agreements.

Further, even if the employees could show that “the NLRA actually renders class and collective action waivers illegal[,]” the Court stated that the employees still could not properly invoke the FAA’s “saving” clause, which permits annulment of arbitration agreements “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” The Court characterized this as an “‘equal-treatment’ rule for arbitration contracts”—i.e., an arbitration contract (including a class action waiver) will be nullified only if it suffers from an elemental flaw in its formation, such as fraud.

In sum, Epic Systems represents a continuation of the Supreme Court’s recent trend of favoring arbitration agreements.

What Employers Should Consider Next

Though Epic Systems marks a resonant victory for employers, issues around the scope and effectiveness of class action waivers remain. Financial services employers may wish to consider:

Can our firm implement a class action waiver?

In implementing waivers, the financial services sector must be mindful of FINRA’s regulatory authority. Though any doubt about the lawfulness of consumer class action waivers was erased in 2011, FINRA has since said that a member firm’s use of waivers in customer contracts violates FINRA’s rules “intended to preserve investor access to . . . judicial class actions[.]”

FINRA has not, however, announced a parallel prohibition on waivers in employment agreements. Indeed, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 held that FINRA’s arbitral rules—though they preclude arbitration of claims subject to class actions and certain types of collective actions—do not bar employers from enforcing employee waivers.

Should our firm implement a class action waiver?

Although Epic Systems confirms that employers may require employees to waive the right to participate in a class actions, employers still must consider the practical implications. The environment around arbitration agreements and class action waivers is politically-charged, and firms implementing a class action waiver may receive backlash from employees and advocacy groups. Accordingly, any program rollout should be given due consideration.

What is the appropriate vehicle for the waiver?

A class action waiver may be included in an employment policy made available to—and acknowledged indirectly by—employees, or it could be included in a specific agreement that itself requires an employee’s signature.   The former may be an easier rollout, but the latter could be less susceptible to a claim that the employee(s) never agreed to the waiver.

Employers also should note that, although Epic Systems addressed class action waivers in the context of arbitration agreements, a class action waiver could also appear in an agreement that permits the parties to choose litigation instead of arbitration, if that is the preference.

To whom will the waiver apply?

Employers should consider whether a waiver will apply to all or some employees. Conditioning a new hire’s employment on a waiver could be fairly straightforward, but rolling out a new requirement to current employees might be more difficult from a practical and legal perspective. As noted in Epic Systems, arbitration agreements (and concomitant waivers) may be nullified under the FAA on fundamental grounds—including, potentially, a lack of “consideration” given in exchange for the waiver. Hence, employers might consider presenting existing employees with waivers in connection with a raise, bonus, promotion, etc.

What form should the waiver take?

Class action waivers should be as simple and concise as possible. Ambiguity may open the door to an adverse interpretation by a court or arbitral panel skeptical of waivers as a general matter. Epic Systems does not offer much guidance in this regard, but various trial and appellate court opinions do.

Might any class or collection actions be outside the scope of even a well-drafted a waiver?

Lastly, even a well-crafted class action waiver may not fully insulate employers. In this vein, the financial services sector—with its nucleus in New York—should keep an eye on a bill introduced in the New York State legislature, the “Empowering People in Rights Enforcement (EMPIRE) Worker Protection Act” (“EWPA”). It would amend New York’s Labor Law such that complainant employee(s) could step into NYSDOL’s shoes and pursue civil penalties “on behalf of . . . other current or former employees” and “allege multiple violations that have affected different employees.” If passed, employees could attempt to use the EWPA as an end-run around class action waivers. Employees may contend that, as NYSDOL itself is not bound by a contractual waiver, employee(s) cloaked with NYSDOL’s authority likewise would be unhindered by that waiver. Employees have made essentially that argument, with success thus far, in relation to California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), after which the EWPA is modeled.

Join Epstein Becker Green attorneys, Brian G. Cesaratto and Brian E. Spang, for a discussion of how employers can best protect their critical technologies and trade secrets from employee and other insider threats. Topics to be discussed include:

  • Determining your biggest threat by using available data
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • Foreseeing the escalation in risk, from insider and cyber threats to critical technologies
  • New protections and remedies under the Trade Secret Protection Act of 2014
  • Where are your trade secrets located, and what existing protections are in place?
  • What types of administrative and technical controls should your firm consider implementing for the key material on your network to protect against an insider threat?
  • What legal requirements may apply under applicable data protection laws?
  • How do you best protect trade secrets and other critical technologies as information increasingly moves into the cloud?
  • Using workforce management and personnel techniques to gain protection
  • The importance of an incident response plan
  • Developing and implementing an effective litigation response strategy to employee theft

Wednesday, October 3, 2018.
12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. ET
Register for this complimentary webinar today!

Our colleagues  at Epstein Becker Green has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to our readers in the financial services industry: “NYC Commission on Human Rights Issues Guidance on Employers’ Obligations Under the City’s Disability Discrimination Laws.”

Following is an excerpt:

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) recently issued a 146-page guide titled “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Disability” (“Guidance”) to educate employers and other covered entities on their responsibilities to job applicants and employees with respect to both preventing disability discrimination and accommodating disabilities. The New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) defines “disability discrimination” more broadly than does state or federal disability law, and the Guidance is useful in understanding how the Commission will be interpreting and enforcing the law. …

Read the full post here.

We published an article with Thomson Reuters Practical Law summarizing key employment issues for financial services employers, highlighting those rules applicable to registered representatives regulated by Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). With Thomson Reuters Practical Law’s permission, we have attached it here.

On March 13, 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed bill HB 1298, the Washington Fair Chance Act (“Act”), which prohibits employers from asking job applicants about arrests or convictions until after the employer has determined that the applicant is “otherwise qualified” for the job. The Act goes into effect on June 7, 2018.

The new law rounds out “ban-the-box” legislation on the West Coast and makes Washington the eleventh state nationwide to enact a “ban-the-box” law that covers both public and private sector employers. Under the Act, “employer” is defined broadly to include “public agencies, private individuals, businesses and corporations, contractors, temporary staffing agencies, training and apprenticeship programs, and job placement, referral, and employment agencies.”

Specifically, the Act makes it unlawful for employers to seek information from individuals about their criminal record, orally or in writing, prior to determining that the applicant is otherwise qualified for the position. An individual is “otherwise qualified” if he or she meets the “basic criteria for the position as set out in the advertisement or job description without consideration of a criminal record.” Once an employer determines that the applicant is otherwise qualified for the position, it may inquire into or obtain information about the candidate’s criminal record.

Additionally, the Act prohibits employers from doing any of the following prior to determining an individual’s qualifications:

  • Including questions on employment applications inquiring into an applicant’s criminal record (arrests or convictions).
  • Obtaining information through a criminal history background check.
  • Advertising employment openings in a manner that excludes people with criminal records from applying (e.g., ads stating “no felons” or “no criminal records”).
  • Implementing policies that automatically or categorically exclude individuals with a criminal record from consideration for employment.

The Act contains exemptions for employers:

  • Hiring individuals who would have unsupervised access to children under the age of 18 or vulnerable persons.
  • That are expressly permitted or required to consider an applicant’s criminal record under federal or state law.
  • Hiring nonemployee volunteers.
  • That are required to comply with the rules or regulations of a self-regulatory organization, as defined in section 3(a)(26) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

Notably, the Act does not require employers to “provide accommodations or job modifications in order to facilitate the employment or continued employment of an applicant or employee with a criminal record or who is facing pending criminal charges.”

Further, the Act permits cities and other localities to enact “ban-the-box” laws that provide “additional protections to applicants or employees with criminal records.” Thus, for example, Seattle’s more restrictive “ban-the-box” law will remain in effect. Unlike the Act, Seattle’s law requires an employer to give an applicant the opportunity to explain his or her criminal record before taking any adverse action against the applicant based on that record. Accordingly, employers are advised to review and, if necessary, conform their current policies to both the Act and any applicable local law.

Alyssa Muñoz, a Law Clerk – Admission Pending (not admitted to the practice of law) in the firm’s New York office, contributed significantly to the preparation of this post.

Featured as our top story on Employment Law This Week: Me too At Work – Sexual misconduct in the C-Suite leads to shareholder lawsuits.

Last month on Employment Law This Week, you heard that sexual misconduct allegations would start impacting shareholder value and reputation. Well, now we’ve got a case study in Wynn Resorts. After the Wall Street Journal uncovered multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Casino mogul Steve Wynn, the company’s stock fell nearly 20%. Wynn resigned a week later, but the company’s troubles were far from over. The company’s  stock has lost $3 billion in value. The first shareholder lawsuit was filed the day Wynn resigned, and to date three suits by shareholders claim that Wynn and the Board breached their fiduciary duties to the company and its shareholders. Bill Milani, from Epstein Becker Green, has more.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

The United States Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”) recently sent 1,000 Corporate Scheduling Announcement Letters (“CSALs”) to 515 federal government contractors. The CSALs provide advance notice that contractor establishments may be audited by the OFCCP during the scheduling cycle, which ends September 30, 2018, to ensure compliance with the contractors’ non-discrimination/affirmative action obligations.

The CSALs were sent on February 1, 2018, to the attention of the Director of Human Resources of the contractor establishments appearing on the FY2018 Scheduling List. Scheduling Letters will be sent to contractor establishments, beginning March 19, 2018, to commence the compliance review process.

According to the OFCCP, the purpose of the CSAL is fourfold:

  • To provide personnel at each establishment with at least 45 days’ advance notice to obtain management support for compliance and self-audit efforts;
  • To encourage contractors to take advantage of compliance assistance offerings;
  • To encourage contractors to focus on self-audit efforts that, if problems are identified and addressed, will save the OFCCP time and resources when doing its review; and
  • To help contractors manage/budget the amount of time required for the review. Contractors receiving CSALs should take advantage of the advance notice to ensure their affirmative action programs are in compliance and that any potential issues have been addressed in advance of the audit.

Contractors subject to a compliance review need to be vigilant in responding to the audit. It appears that the OFCCP continues to take a “deep dive” approach, which includes in-depth, time-consuming reviews of contractors’ hiring, compensation, and other employment data for statistical indicators of possible discrimination.  In recent years, the number of audits conducted by the OFCCP has dropped, while the enforcement approach has expanded.

According to a report by Bloomberg Law, through the third quarter of FY2017, the number of audits closed by the OFCCP was 915, down from 1,700 the prior year; yet the OFCCP collected $23.1 million in settlements in FY2017 – more than double the prior year when it collected $10.5 million. This should certainly get the attention of all federal government contractors.  While the number of audits by the OFCCP has decreased, the costs associated with defending an audit, and the settlement payouts, for contractors have increased.

What Employers Should Do Now

Contractors need to apprise appropriate personnel at each of their facilities to monitor incoming mail for receipt of the CSAL and Scheduling Letter, with forwarding instructions if received.

Contractors that receive a CSAL should take advantage of the advance notice by conducting a self-audit to ensure that their affirmative action programs are in compliance and that any potential issues have been addressed in advance of the audit. Once a Scheduling Letter has been issued, contractors will only have 30 days within which to respond, and the OFCCP has made clear that extensions of time of no more than 15 days will not be given lightly.

Contractors subject to a compliance review need to pay particular attention to their hiring practices and compensation systems. An impact ratio analysis should be performed, examining applicants and hires to determine if there are statistical results pointing to adverse impact and, if so, what the explanation is for the hiring decisions.  A compensation analysis should also be conducted, with explanations provided if significant pay disparities exist.

The list of establishments that receive CSALs is generated by the OFCCP’s neutral-based Federal Contractor Selection System. If contractors have concerns about whether or not they received a CSAL at any of their facilities, they may make inquiry about whether an establishment was mailed a CSAL by e-mailing a written request on company letterhead to the Division of Program Operations at OFCCP-DPO-Scheduling@dol.gov.

Our colleague  at Epstein Becker Green has a post on the Health Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to our readers in the financial services industry: “New York City Council Passes Bills Establishing Procedures on Flexible Work Schedules and Reasonable Accommodation Requests.”

Following is an excerpt:

The New York City Council recently passed two bills affecting New York City employers and their employees. The first bill, Int. No. 1399, passed by the Council on December 6, 2017, amends Chapter 12 of title 20 of the City’s administrative code (colloquially known as the “Fair Workweek Law”) to include a new subchapter 6 to protect employees who seek temporary changes to work schedules for personal events.  Int. No. 1399 entitles New York City employees to request temporary schedule changes twice per calendar year, without retaliation, in certain situations, e.g., caregiver emergency, attendance at a legal proceeding involving subsistence benefits, or safe or sick time under the New York City administrative code.  The bill establishes procedures for employees to request temporary work schedule changes and employer responses.  Exempt from the bill are employees: (i) who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement; (ii) who have been employed for fewer than 120 days; (iii) who work less than 80 hours in the city in a calendar year; and (iv) who work in the theater, film, or television industries. …

Read the full post here.

Our colleagues at Epstein Becker Green have released a Take 5 newsletter focused on the financial services industry.  Following are the introduction and links to the stories:

For this edition of the Take 5 for financial services, we focus on a number of very well-publicized issues. The tidal wave of sexual harassment allegations that followed the Harvey Weinstein revelations has drawn the attention of companies, their human resources departments, and employment lawyers. The rule on chief executive officer (“CEO”) pay ratio disclosure, which goes into effect in 2018, is a required focal point that garners significant interest in an industry that is all about money. The hyper-charged political climate has brought social activism and heated political discussions into the workplace with increasing frequency—and with potential employment law implications. A heightened legislative focus on eliminating at least one recognized source of the gender pay gap has resulted in new rules that prohibit very common inquiries about past compensation during the interview process. Finally, data leaks are a mounting threat and cybersecurity is a growing concern throughout an industry that is saturated with the highly sensitive, and sometimes personal, financial information of its clients.

We address these important issues and what financial services employers should know about them:

  1. The Weinstein Effect: #MeToo Allegations in the Financial Services Industry
  2. CEO Pay Ratio: It’s Not Too Late to Calculate!
  3. Managing Employees’ Political and Social Activism in the Workplace
  4. Equal Pay Update: The New York City and California Salary History Inquiry Bans
  5. Insider Threats to Critical Financial Services Technologies and Trade Secrets Are Best Addressed Through a Formalized Vulnerability and Risk Assessment Process

Read the full Take 5 newsletter here and download the PDF.