Recent Decisions Regarding Wrongful Termination Cases
California Court of Appeal Rejects “Multi-Tasking” Argument for Exempt Employees
An interesting case involving the Safeway grocery chain could have some far reaching ramifications for California employers.
First a little law. In California, a manager can be exempt from overtime pay, so long as the manager is “primarily engaged” in managerial duties. Historically, at a typical grocery store, managers do much more than manage. This case shows little has changed, and the plaintiff, Linda Heyen, when promoted to assistant manager, continued to do all the things she had done before she was promoted, but with added supervisory duties. So, when Heyen was fired, she sued, claiming that she should not have been treated as an exempt employee and was entitled to overtime pay.
Safeway argued that Heyen was properly categorized as exempt, because she was primarily engaged in managerial duties, regardless of what she was doing. When she was stocking shelves, she was still supervising the other employees. When she was running the register, she was still supervising other employees. Here is the claim by Safeway:
Safeway urges that store managers such as Heyen necessarily “multi-task” by engaging in “exempt” and “nonexempt” activities at the same time. In other words, while Heyen and other managers “might be checking and bagging (or doing stock work) they were also always still managing the store operations, including engaging in activities such as observing store operations and employee activities, and instructing employees in their assignments and any corrective measures that needed to be taken.” By instructing the jury that it must determine whether an activity was “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the primary purpose for which Heyen undertook it, the court “effectively [read] the concept of concurrent duties almost out of existence.” Instead, Safeway suggests, the trial court should have instructed the jury that any time Heyen spent simultaneously performing “exempt” and “nonexempt” duties “should be considered to fall on the `exempt’ side of the ledger.”
Here is how the Court of Appeal responded to that argument:
Although there is some intuitive appeal to Safeway’s contention, it is unsupported by California law. As we have said, the federal regulations cited in Wage Order 7 expressly recognize that managers sometimes engage in tasks that do not involve the “actual management of the department [or] the supervision of the employees therein.” (§ 541.108(a).) In those circumstances, the regulations do not say, as Safeway would have us hold, that those tasks should be considered “exempt” so long as the manager continues to supervise while performing them. Instead, the regulations look to the supervisor’s reason or purpose for undertaking the task. If a task is performed because it is “helpful in supervising the employees or contribute[s] to the smooth functioning of the department for which [the supervisors] are responsible” (§ 541.108(a), (c)), the work is exempt; if not, it is nonexempt.
Thus, the federal regulations incorporated into Wage Order 7 do not support the “multi-tasking” standard proposed by Safeway. Instead, they suggest, as the trial court correctly instructed the jury, that the trier of fact must categorize tasks as either “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the purpose for which Heyen undertook them.
The lesson here for employers is that you don’t get to create exempt employees with a change in title, unless that employee really does become a manager performing primarily managerial duties. From the employee’s perspective, if she gets a promotion to manager, but finds herself still performing the same duties, then she is probably entitled to overtime pay.
Is Discrimination Against Redheads Illegal in the Workplace?
When I am explaining the concept of at-will employment, to illustrate the point that an employer can fire an employee for anything so long as it does not violate public policy or statute, I will sometimes say, “He could decide he doesn’t like the color of your hair and fire you for that.” But an interesting case out of New Jersey might prove me wrong.
According to an article in the New York Post, the NYPD sent out an anti-bias message this month to Manhattan sergeants and lieutenants, who were told that redhead harassment would not be tolerated.
“We’re apparently victims now,” said one cop with ginger locks. “We’re protected from discrimination.”
No lawsuit has been filed against the city, but the feds say a claim alleging unfair treatment over red hair would be supported by federal law, which bars workplace bias against applicants and employees based on race, national origin, skin color, religion, sex or disability.
Wait a second. What does hair color have to do with any of those protected classes? That’s were things get interesting. Think about it. If you had to guess the nationality of someone with red hair, what would you pick? You’d probably guess Ireland, because people with red hair are found in higher numbers in Britain and Ireland than elsewhere, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So if someone could prove discrimination against redheads, that would mean that there is a disparate impact against those of Irish dissent, and nationality is a protected class.
These are the sort of mental games that only attorneys play. In the real world, it would be very unlikely that anyone is going to suffer adverse job action or discrimination based on being a redhead. As one retired officer quoted by the New York Post stated, “To put redheads in a protective class — that’s ridiculous!” However, the analysis is still useful to illustrate how a seemingly “innocent” form of bias can create illegal discrimination.
Women Can be Fired for Being Too Attractive, Says Iowa Supreme Court
A seemingly horrible decision out of Iowa provides an extreme example of how discrimination is only actionable if it involves a protected class.
In a very rare move, the Iowa Supreme Court had already issued a ruling in this case but withdrew its own ruling to give it more consideration. On Friday it reissued the ruling, standing by it decision that a dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he found her too attractive.
The dentist fired the employee because he felt she was a threat to his marriage, and the court ruled that is permitted, even if the employee has not done anything to lead the boss to believe he would ever have a shot at a relationship. The court held that a firing under these circumstance does not amount to illegal sex discrimination because it is the result of feelings, not gender.
The court upheld the ruling of the trial judge, who dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed against dentist James Knight, who fired his assistant Melissa Nelson, even though he admitted he always agreed that she had been a great employee for ten years she worked for him. The trial judge and the appeal court did not see the termination as having anything to do with gender, because Nelson was replaced by another woman, and Knight’s entire staff consists of women.