As featured in #WorkforceWednesday: With such a tumultuous year of labor and employment updates behind us, it begs the question, “What lies ahead in 2024?”
In this special New Year's episode, Epstein Becker Green attorneys share insights and predictions for the 2024 labor and employment space, addressing important topics such as maintaining compliance, promoting mental health, navigating protected concerted activity policies, and staying abreast of the latest developments in artificial intelligence and non-compete guidance.
On November 13, 2023, in USA ex rel, Morgan-Lee, et al. v. The Whittier Health Network, LLC, et al., a Massachusetts federal district judge concluded that although the plaintiff engaged in protected activity when she raised suspicions about billing fraud under the False Claims Act, her termination was not retaliatory where she engaged in erratic, confrontational, and insubordinate communication exchanges with superiors and colleagues. Morgan-Lee is a positive development for employers because it reinforces that engaging in protected activity does not shield an employee ...
On November 7, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts’ dismissal of a teacher’s suit against her former employer, Austin Preparatory School (“Austin Prep”), in which she claimed the school fired her for requesting extended leave as an accommodation following multiple surgeries. In Der Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory School, the First Circuit held that Nancy Der Sarkisian’s request for extended leave, with no end date, was unreasonable considering the circumstances ...
On November 14, 2023, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced its enforcement results for fiscal year 2023, boasting increases in enforcement and financial remedies across all of its programs. The SEC filed a staggering 784 enforcement actions, obtained orders for nearly $5 billion in financial remedies, and distributed nearly $1 billion to harmed investors.
The SEC’s most notable results, however, came from its Whistleblower Program: In fiscal year 2023, the SEC issued whistleblower awards totaling nearly $600 million, the most ever awarded in one ...
As featured in #WorkforceWednesday: This week, we’re focusing on three recent Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges against employers for violating whistleblower protection laws and how all employers should take extra steps to ensure compliance in their separation agreements:
Recent charges issued by the SEC represent a dramatic change in the enforcement of whistleblower protections. Epstein Becker Green attorney Greg Keating explains how this can impact all employers, both public and private, and should encourage them to take a closer look at their ...
On September 25, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit clarified what a whistleblower plaintiff must allege to demonstrate they had a “reasonable belief” that their employer violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”). In Ronnie v. Office Depot, LLC, the Eleventh Circuit adopted an employer-friendly “totality of the circumstances” standard for evaluating whether a plaintiff’s belief was “reasonable.” Ronnie is a win for employers in the Eleventh Circuit because it makes clear that, to establish that they engaged in protected ...
Less than two weeks after it last penalized a private employer for alleged violations of whistleblower protection rules in its employee separation agreements, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) once again takes aim at the language of a separation agreement it alleges violates Rule 21F-17(a) of the Exchange Act (“Rule 21F”). Just yesterday, the SEC issued an Order settling charges with a commercial real estate services and investment firm for such violations through a fine of $375,000, among other terms. The SEC’s aggressive and continued ...
The Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) continues to aggressively enforce its whistleblower program under the Biden Administration. As we have reported (here and here), the SEC has cracked down on employers’ agreements and procedures that it contends interfere with employee access to the SEC. Most recently, on September 8, 2023, the SEC issued an Order imposing a $225,000 penalty to a private energy and technology company, Monolith Resources LLC (“Monolith”), for allegedly violating whistleblower protection rules in its employee separation ...
On April 19, 2023, in Gulden v. Exxon Mobil Corp., a federal district judge in New Jersey concluded that federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to enforce preliminary orders to reinstate former employees under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”). In so doing, the district judge declined to enforce OSHA’s preliminary orders requiring ExxonMobil to reinstate two former employees to their jobs for the remainder of the agency’s investigation into the pair’s whistleblower complaint, reasoning that the statutory text only confers federal district courts authority to enforce final orders. Gulden is a win for employers because it joins the growing chorus of federal district courts that have concluded that the Department of Labor may not force a company to preliminarily reinstate an alleged whistleblower before the Secretary of Labor’s final order.
Under the Biden Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission has aggressively enforced its Whistleblower Program. As we previously reported here and here, the SEC has increased its focus on employers’ agreements or procedures that it contends interfere with employee access to the SEC. More recently, the SEC has for the first time turned its attention toward employer compliance programs with draconian results for employers whose internal compliance efforts do not pass muster. Specifically, on February 3, 2023, the SEC announced a dizzying $35 million fine against Activision Blizzard, Inc. (“Activision”), a video game developer, largely for failing to implement an effective compliance system to process and track workplace misconduct complaints. Activision’s fine also included a violation for including a “Notice Clause” in the separation agreement template that it used between 2016 and 2021. We discuss each violation below and what this means for SEC-regulated employers going forward.
As featured in #WorkforceWednesday: This week, we’re detailing how self-remediation can help health care employers avoid whistleblower retaliation lawsuits following company downsizing.
We’re also bringing you a breaking news story on the $35 million settlement Activision Blizzard agreed to pay the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
On December 29, 2022, President Biden signed the Anti-Money Laundering Whistleblower Improvement Act (“the Act”) into law, overhauling the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”). When initially passed, the AMLA met with extensive criticism by plaintiff-side whistleblower attorneys for failing to set a defined guaranteed rate for whistleblower awards, with the potential awards ranging from zero percent to thirty percent for identifying wrongful conduct in the anti-money laundering area. In response to this criticism and to correct other “shortcomings,” Congress amended the law in 2022 through its omnibus budget to expand enforcement measures within the United States and beyond its borders by clarifying who can be a whistleblower and the rewards for successfully raising compliance complaints. Below, we delve into these changes and their significance for employers. Essentially, these changes will increase employers’ potential liability for retaliation claims by emboldening newly eligible whistleblowers and their lawyers to raise non-compliance complaints.
It’s that time of year again—the Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave (DFML) has rolled out new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) workplace posters, workplace notification forms, and rate sheets for all employers in the Commonwealth. These updated resources provide the DFML’s yearly updates to eligibility requirements, maximum wage replacement benefit amounts, and contribution amounts. Employers take note that the following changes take effect on January 1, 2023:
- Minimum earnings eligibility: PFML will cover most employees who have earned at least ...
On December 21, 2022, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (“WPA”) protects employees who report that their employer has violated “suspected” laws in a case called Janetsky v. County of Saginaw. In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the divided Court in Janetsky concluded that an assistant county prosecutor could bring WPA claims against her supervisor who she believed illegally offered a below-minimum plea deal.
Laws protecting whistleblowers generally afford anti-retaliation protections when employees “step out of their role” to report discrimination and dangerous or illegal activity, but not to employees when they are performing their issue spotting job duties. Employers who understand this distinction are well positioned to manage underperforming employees in sensitive issue-spotting roles such as information technology, compliance, internal audit and even in-house counsel without running afoul of anti-retaliation laws. The Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s recent decision affirming the Southern District of New York’s dismissal of whistleblower retaliation claims in Johnson v. Board of Education Retirement System of City of New York illustrates this distinction.
On November 1, 2022, in Dusel v. Factory Mutual Ins. Co., the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that “close temporal proximity” alone does not establish pretext as this evidence “must be considered alongside the . . . record.” Nor does mere close temporal proximity establish pretext where the employer has a legitimate business reason for taking adverse action against the employee, and more particularly, where the employer subsequently discovers the employee’s misconduct in a separate, unrelated matter. Dusel is a win for employers because it signals that engaging in protected activity will not immunize an employee from the consequences of misconduct that violates company policy if the employer enforces its policy consistently and documents the reasons underlying the employee’s discipline.
On July 13, 2022, the Massachusetts Appeals Court signaled a victory for Massachusetts employers who rely upon independent contractors. In Tiger Home Inspection, Inc. v. Dir. of the Dep’t of Unemployment, the Appeals Court reversed decisions from the Department of Unemployment (“DUA”) and trial court, concluding that the inspectors were independent contractors under Massachusetts’s Unemployment Insurance statute (“Unemployment Law”) and, thus, ineligible for unemployment benefits. Focusing on Prongs A and C of the Unemployment Law’s “ABC” test for classifying independent contractors, the Appeals Court provided employers with excellent precedent and concrete guidance for navigating those elements of the test. Notably, the Unemployment Law’s ABC language largely tracks the Massachusetts Wage Act’s “ABC” test, with Prongs A and C using identical language. As a result, Tiger Home Inspection arguably provides employers with much-needed clarity for navigating both statutes.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, state legislatures across the country have accelerated their discussion of new laws either restricting or further protecting access to abortions. A state senate bill in South Carolina, S. 1373 currently pending in the Senate Committee on Medical Affairs, would not only ban almost all abortions in that state, but would also afford novel whistleblower protections. Specifically, S. 1373 imposes criminal penalties, punishable by imprisonment for ten years, for persons who “take any action to impede a whistleblower from communicating about a violation of this article with the Attorney General, a solicitor, or any other person authorized to bring an action in violation of this article.”
Exchange Act Rule 21F-17, adopted in 2011 under the auspices of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, prohibits any person from taking any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the SEC, including by “enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement . . . .” The SEC has prioritized enforcing this rule expansively, by requiring employers to provide SEC-specific carveouts to policies and agreements governing confidentiality. According to an Order issued last week against The Brink’s Company ( “Brink’s” or “Brinks”), the SEC seems to suggest that employers must provide a specific carveout in restrictive covenant agreements permitting employees and former employees to report information to the SEC in addition to the statutory disclosure provided for in the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA).
Employees who resign from work, sue their employer, and assert “constructive discharge” shoulder a heavy burden to demonstrate that they had no choice but to resign. A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, Armato v. Town of Stoneham, shows just how heavy that burden is.
Employers take note: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled this week for an employee seeking treble damages for untimely paid wages under the Massachusetts Wage Act (“Wage Act”), even though the employer had corrected its mistake and paid the wages before the employee filed suit. Writing for the majority in Reuter v. City of Methuen, Justice Scott L. Kafker interpreted the “strict time-defined payment policies” and liquidated damages provisions under the Wage Act to find that the employer was responsible for treble the amount of late wages, and not treble the amount of interest, even though the wages were ultimately paid before the complaint was filed. This underscores the importance of paying all wages, including vacation or PTO in a timely fashion.
On January 27, 2022, the California Supreme Court, in Lawson v. PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc. (Cal., Jan. 27, 2022) __ P.3d __, 2022 WL 244731, clarified the evidentiary standard for presenting and evaluating retaliation claims under California Labor Code Section 1102.5 (“section 1102.5 whistleblower retaliation claim”). Lawson involved a workplace retaliation claim brought by a sales representative selling paint products to home improvement stores in Southern California. The plaintiff claimed his employer terminated him because he complained about being instructed to alter the tint of certain paint colors to avoid having to repurchase less popular paints from the retailer later.
In 2003, California lawmakers enacted Labor Code Section 1102.6, setting forth a framework for whistleblower retaliation claims that varied from the burden-shifting test established by the United States Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973) 411 U.S. 792 (“McDonnell Douglas”). Despite section 1102.6’s enactment, some California courts continued to apply the McDonnell Douglas test to section 1102.5 whistleblower retaliation claims.
Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) unanimously ruled that the state Personnel Records Law, M.G.L. c. 149, § 52C, provides for a public policy exception to employment at will. Writing on behalf of the full panel in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., SJC-13117 (Dec. 17, 2021), Justice Kafker held that an employer cannot terminate an at-will employee for exercising his statutory right to file a rebuttal for inclusion in his personnel file, as doing so would constitute wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. This decision ...
November 17, 2021, the Department of Labor (“DOL”), National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) conducted a webinar on Ending Retaliation and Promoting Workers Rights. The webinar is the first component of a “Joint Initiative” devoted to “vigorous enforcement” of laws against retaliation, through closer inter-agency cooperation. The webinar was moderated by EEOC Regional Director Robert Canino and involved over 90 minutes of detailed remarks from Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows and Acting DOL Wage and Hour Division Director Jessica Looman.
Supreme Judicial Court Clarifies Breadth of COVID-19 Tolling Order
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) entered an order tolling the statutes of limitations applicable to civil claims. Although some practitioners interpreted the order as tolling only those statutes of limitations set to expire while the order was in effect, in Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc. v. Melendez, SJC-13054 (Sept. 3, 2021), the SJC rejected such a narrow interpretation and held that its order tolled all statutes of limitations, regardless ...
Many employers are aware that they could waive the ability to enforce an arbitration agreement if they delay moving to compel arbitration until after they have engaged in significant litigation activities in court, such as filing a motion to dismiss or serving discovery requests. However, in Hernandez v. Universal Protection Services, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge found that an employer waived its right to compel arbitration based on its actions before an employee filed suit in court. As Hernandez is novel and significant, employers may want to consider adopting practices ...
Last week, a divided Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in Osborne-Trussell v. Children’s Hospital Corp. ruled in favor of a broad interpretation of the 2014 Domestic Violence and Abuse Leave Act (“DVLA”), a law that provides certain employment protections for victims of domestic violence, including a prohibition against retaliation for seeking or using protected leave. Specifically, the DVLA prohibits an employer from taking adverse action against, or otherwise discriminating against, an employee who exercises rights under the DVLA, such as taking ...
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Whistleblower Program under the Biden administration has picked up where it left off under President Obama, aggressively enforcing Rule 21F-17(a) against employers whose policies may impede employees from communicating with the SEC. On June 23, 2021, the SEC fined Guggenheim Securities, LLC (“Guggenheim”) for maintaining a policy that it contended impeded potential whistleblowers from communicating with the SEC by requiring employees to obtain permission before reporting securities violations. Even though the SEC was unaware of any instances in which a Guggenheim employee was prevented from reporting a potential securities law violation or in which Guggenheim acted to enforce the policy, the SEC nevertheless found that the company had violated Rule 21F-17(a).
Preparing the terms of employee compensation can be a resource-intensive task requiring input from stakeholders across numerous departments, including human resources, finance, and legal. However, as the Massachusetts Appeals Court’s recent decision in Alfieri v. Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, Inc. demonstrates, investing those resources to complete the task will pay dividends when an employer is faced with a potentially costly claim for unpaid wages.
In May 2014, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, Inc. sent Michael Alfieri a letter offering him the position of ...
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are intended to promote the “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of lawsuits. For companies defending baseless employment claims, those words may feel like an empty promise. The First Circuit’s recent decision in Alston v. Spiegel sanctioning an attorney for filing frivolous discrimination and retaliation claims, however, reminds employers that there are strategies for deterring such claims
In late 2015, attorney Brooks Ames filed a complaint on behalf of Gerald Alston, a former firefighter for the Town of Brookline ...
Can an employer be held liable under the False Claims Act (“FCA”) for retaliation if it takes some adverse action against a former employee? Until recently, only one federal appellate court had addressed the issue, holding that the FCA does not cover post-employment retaliation. However, on April 1, 2021, the Sixth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in United States ex rel. Felten v. William Beaumont Hospital, creating a circuit split and different rules for employers in different jurisdictions.
In 2010, David Felten filed an action on behalf of the United ...
As featured in #WorkforceWednesday: This week kicks off Employers and the New Administration, a special podcast series on how the Biden administration’s first 100 days will impact employers. In this episode, attorney David Garland interviews attorney Gregory Keating on what the nomination of Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary means for employers.
The series will air every other week in #WorkforceWednesday and on your preferred podcast platform.
See below for the video and the extended podcast edition. Visit our site for more news.
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