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Friday, October 20, 2017

Four Reasonable Accommodations to Watch in 2018

No. 1. FMLA/ADA coordination. Recently a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that an extended medical leave of absence is not a “reasonable” accommodation within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the Court, a reasonable accommodation has to allow the employee to work. Because an employee can’t work while on an extended medical leave, leaves are governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act (as well as employer policies) rather than the ADA. The court did not rule out the possibility of short or intermittent time off as an ADA accommodation. An employee signed job description is critical to winning this battle.

No. 2. Medical marijuana accommodation. Not too long ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that employers may be required under the state disability rights statute to make reasonable accommodations for the use of medical marijuana by a cardholder. The court specifically said that “reasonable accommodation” could include treating a positive medical marijuana test result as a “negative” and allowing the applicant or employee to work. Employers who have employees that report to work in jurisdictions that have: (1) legalized medical marijuana; (2) state has an anti-discrimination medical marijuana cardholder statute; and (3) state has a disability rights law, should review their Drug Testing policies and practices carefully. But if your employees are covered by a federal law that prohibits all marijuana use, such as U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, then you can continue to comply with federal law even if you’re in a medical marijuana/disability rights state. But watch out, because federal law generally does not require you to fire an employee who tests positive — it usually requires only that you remove the employee from the position that is covered. Again, your job description and DOT Policy will govern your options.

No. 3. Pregnancy accommodation. Since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Young v. UPS, employers must make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions. Employers with employees who need pregnancy accommodations should use what they’ve learned from making reasonable accommodations under the ADA: specifically, be open to making accommodations, engage in the interactive process with the employee, feel free to choose the least expensive/least disruptive accommodation that is still effective (allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the job), and generally treat the pregnant employee who needs accommodation the same way you would treat an employee with a disability or work-related injury. As the courts have interpreted Title VII’s pregnancy protections, “pregnancy” encompasses much more than the nine months of gestation. It includes pre-pregnancy (trying to get pregnant, trying not to get pregnant, contraceptive use, fertility treatments), gestation (including miscarriages and elective abortions), and postpartum and lactation.

No. 4. Wellness programs. This summer, a federal judge in the District of Columbia struck down the EEOC’s wellness regulations as they pertained to the ADA and to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). In a nutshell, the regulations allowed employers to use financial and other incentives (within limits) to get employees to participate in employer wellness programs. Rather than vacate the regulations, the judge remanded them to the EEOC to fix. The EEOC now says that it will issue revised regulations sometime in 2018. Expect those to be more employer friendly to making healthcare more affordable for employers.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Parts of this Column were part of a Constangy Blog Post Robin Shea. Blog at www.alabamaatwork

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Trump Decides to Lower Small Business Health Care Premiums without Congress

The Trump and Republican promise to “Repeal and Replace” the ACA has run into more than one bump in the road. On Thursday President Trump let the nation know that he is aware of the other arrows in his health care quiver. His solution could be accomplished by allowing small business employers to band together thousands of employee lives forming “association health plans” via their trade associations or chambers of commerce, and crossing state lines.

Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) there already are provisions in the law which could allow small businesses to band together to provide healthcare benefits, and even cross state lines. In East Alabama there are currently thousands of employees covered under their employer’s self-insured ERISA plans, administered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Alabama, with various forms of stop-loss reinsurance.  Further legislation is not necessary, but regulatory change would speed adoption and expansion of this alternative for East Alabama Small Employers.

The mechanism to accomplish this is the self-insured Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangement (MEWA). MEWAs can be fully insured as well. MEWAs were created under the amendments to the ERISA in 1983 which currently allows employers to form self-insured health plans through their employer business associations, which are re-insured by insurance companies using a stop-loss plan, thereby providing adequate reserves to satisfy state regulators.

There are currently more than 175 self-insured MEWAs across the United States with tens of thousands of small businesses participating. In 2016 there were 9 MEWAs in Alabama listed on the Department of Labor (DOL) site. The problem is that the current law provides for dual regulation of MEWAs, by both the federal DOL and each individual state Department of Insurance, such as Alabama.

The DOL has consistent standards for MEWAs, but each state can have its own unique requirements. Alabama currently has no specific MEWA regulations, but looks at the underlying stop-loss insurance carrier as the state regulated entity. This limits the ability of MEWAs to cross state lines, as they would have to navigate each state’s insurance department requirements.

The 1983 amendments to ERISA provided a mechanism to resolve the problem by giving the Secretary of Labor the ability to adopt a regulation whereby the dual regulatory system can be circumvented. In other words, the DOL can adopt a regulation permitting MEWAs to cross state lines to offer more health insurance options for small businesses. The section of ERISA that provides for this is 29 U.S.C 1144 (b)(6)(B). Thus, legislation will not be required and Secretary of Labor Acosta, who was first to talk Thursday at the White House, already has the authority to do this.

In states, such as Alabama, where there are currently only one or two insurance options, there could be dozens of MEWAs available for small businesses to join, where local providers and employers joined together to solve their own local health care challenges. This could result in numerous lower-cost options for healthcare for small and large employers in East Alabama.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork

Standing Firm: Marijuana Workplace Solutions in Light of CT decision

Currently, 28 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and 8 states (Nevada, Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington) and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use. However, since marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, recent decisions will require employers to take a fresh look at their marijuana prohibition language and in those states with medical marijuana card holder protection laws, to engage in an interactive process before taking adverse employment action. Of course, an ounce of prevention (see 7 steps below) is much less costly than the pound of cure which a plaintiff’s attorney will seek to heap on an employer’s head later.

Courts have begun to address whether an employee’s use of medical marijuana can be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act in states which have specific discrimination protection laws for medical marijuana cardholders. Most will recall that in  2015, the Colorado Supreme Court held that an employer did not commit disability discrimination when it terminated an employee for violating its drug policy (testing positive for marijuana) despite the employee’s doctor’s prescription for medical marijuana. The Court in Coats v Dish Network reasoned that because marijuana was still illegal under federal law, the employer did not discriminate based on disability by enforcing its drug policy. Similarly, the Washington Supreme Court in Roe v. Teletech held that an employer’s revocation of a job offer based on the applicant’s positive result for marijuana on a drug test was not wrongful despite the Washington State Medical Use of Marijuana Act. The Supreme Court of California in Ross v. Ragwire has likewise held that the California Fair Employment and Housing Act does not require an employer to accommodate employees who used medical marijuana by ignoring positive drug test results for the drug that violate employer drug policies. None of these states had medical marijuana card holder protection laws

However, in July 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that an employer may have to ignore an employee’s drug test failure due to the use of marijuana to treat a qualified disability because it may be a reasonable accommodation under the state’s disability discrimination law and medical marijuana card holder protection law. In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing LLC, the employee had Crohn’s disease and a physician provided her with written certification that allowed her to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. The employee did not use marijuana before or at work, but nonetheless tested positive for marijuana on the employer’s mandatory drug test. The Court held that employers in the state had a duty to engage in an interactive process to determine whether there are equally effective medical alternatives that would not violate a drug policy. If no alternative exists, the employer must demonstrate that allowing the employee’s use of medical marijuana (or the positive drug screen for the drug) would cause it an undue hardship, such as transportation employees subject to the DOT, federal contractors and recipients of federal grants, or other employers where allowing positive drug tests for marijuana would be a violation of the employer’s contractual or statutory obligations which would jeopardize the company’s ability to perform its business.

On the heels of that decision, Katelin Noffsinger was offered for a position as Director of Recreational Therapy at Bride Brook, a nursing facility in Niantic, Connecticut where she was required to take a routine pre-employment drug test. She gave notice that she was a Conn. Medical Marijuana Card Holder diagnosed with PTS and took Marinol prescription marijuana. Bride Brook rescinded her job offer because she tested positive for marijuana. In August, 2017, a Connecticut Federal District Judge, on Motion to Dismiss her lawsuit, ruled against the employer and held: 1) federal law does not preempt the Connecticut medical marijuana statute, even if they test positive on an employment related drug test; and 2) the CT MM Act provides a private right of action for individuals claiming to be discriminated against as a result of their qualifying patient status; and 3) employers regulated by federal laws are not exempt from the state statute’s discrimination prohibitions. This Federal Court decision has potentially sweeping implications for employers who conduct workplace drug testing in states with medical marijuana card holder protection laws.

So how does an employer Standing Firm with regards to marijuana use? Following these 7 steps is your ounce of litigation prevention:
1.      Know the safety sensitive and other work-related risk associated with marijuana use;
2.      Become knowledgeable with the marijuana laws and applicable cases in the states where employees report for duty;
3.      Upgrade your job descriptions to include critical essential function safety language directly applicable to marijuana use;
4.      Make it all about safety in supervisory training and employee awareness;
5.      Update your drug free workplace policy language when dealing with marijuana; 
6.      Understand the interactive process and workplace drug testing employer obligations in those states with medical marijuana card holder protection laws; and
7.      Put all the puzzle pieces into place to form your compliant legal strategy to effectively stand firm when dealing with marijuana in your workplace.

Tommy Eden is a Partner with the Management Labor Law Firm of Constagny, Brooks, Smith and Prophete, LLP and leads the Constangy Workplace Drug & Alcohol Testing Group where he drafts customized DFWP Compliant Policies, and signoff forms in all 50 states and all DOT Modes with forms toolkits. Tommy has a blog site at and can be contacted at 334.246.2901 or

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Beware of the Light Duty ADA Trap

In June 2001, Paul Boyle was working as a Heavy Equipment Operator for the City of Pell City, Alabama, when he suffered an on-the-job injury that caused him to develop spinal stenosis, chronic nerve pain, and other related conditions.  After the injury, he could no longer perform the duties of a Heavy Equipment Operator. The Street Department Superintendent, initially accommodated Boyle by letting him do office work.

In 2005, his supervisor began allowing Boyle to perform the duties of the Street Department Foreman, and this was memorialized as a lateral move in a written agreement to not exceed 2 years. Boyle performed the duties of a Foreman from 2005 until June 2012. In 2012 rumors were that the new superintendent wanted to fire Boyle. 

Believing the rumors to be true, Boyle filed his first application for disability retirement with the Retirement Systems of Alabama (“RSA”) and attached to his application a “Report of Disability,” in which a physician confirmed that, in his professional opinion, Boyle was “totally incapacitated for further performance of his . . . duty.” The RSA denied Boyle’s application.

The new Superintendent did in fact remove Boyle from the Foreman position and moved him to work inventory. Boyle told the Superintendent that the physical activities involved in conducting inventory made the job hard for him to do, but told him to continue working. He also assigned Boyle to operate heavy equipment despite his back complaints. Boyle asked to be returned to the Foreman position, which was refused.

Boyle filed a second application for disability retirement with the RSA in August 2012, which the RSA approved and he retired on October 1, 2012. He also applied for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration and was ultimately approved.

 On August 18, 2014, Boyle filed a Federal Court complaint against the City, which he amended three times to assert violations of the Rehabilitation Act and FLSA, as well as state-law claims for quantum merit, unjust enrichment, and breach of contract. The District Court Judge dismissed all claims and held that Boyle could not establish that the City failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation, given that he did not identify any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to perform the essential functions of the Heavy Equipment Operator position.

Recently the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal and held the fact that the City accommodated Boyle for years by allowing him to perform Foreman duties does not indicate that it violated the ADA/Rehabilitation Act by removing this accommodation. “While we can all applaud and appreciate the kindness toward Boyle, the law simply does not require an employer to demote or discharge an employee to accommodate another employee who is disabled.”

Common Sense Counsel: Always remember that the purpose of light duty is to move back to full duty, and not to create a new reduced duty position that may be viewed as an ADA accommodation. Make sure you have a memo signed by the employee with that acknowledgment, and put it on your calendar, so you do not have to explain your actions to a plaintiff attorney with an attitude.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at

Friday, September 29, 2017

Dreadlocks Entangle Publix With EEOC

 Guy Usher, a twenty-eight-year-old African-American male and a resident of Nashville, Tennessee practices Rastafarianism as his sincerely held religious belief. Those religious practices as a Rastafarian include prayer, non- consumption of alcohol or pork, and maintaining his hair in dreadlocks. One of the "distinguishing marks of the movement" is the formation of hair into dreadlocks (as detailed in the Wikipedia article on Rastafari. Reggae musician Bob Marley did much to raise international awareness of the Rastafari movement).

On January 8, 2017, while shopping at his local Publix Store #1211, Usher was approached by a recruiter and encouraged to apply for a job at the Store, which he did. On the same day, Publix’s Assistant Store Manager interviewed Usher in the Store considering him for two open positions, one as a Part-time Cashier and one as a Part-time Produce Clerk. She also had Usher speak to the Store’s Customer Service Manager. At the end of those interviews, she told Usher he would have to cut his hair to work at Publix based on Publix Appearance Standards which prevent men from wearing their hair longer than the collar of their shirt.

Usher informed the manager that he could not cut his hair because it was against his religion and asked if he could wear his hair inside a hat to which the manager said she would have to check and get back to him. On January 10, the manager called Usher and offered him employment as either a Cashier or Produce Clerk, but she told Usher that Publix could not accommodate his religious beliefs by allowing an exception to its Appearance Standards. On this call, Usher refused Publix’s offer of employment.

That same day, believing that he had been discriminated against, Usher called back and accepted the part-time Produce Clerk position, and scheduled a drug screen for January 11. On this phone call, Usher again referenced his religion and equal-employment-opportunity laws and asked if Publix will still require him to cut his hair; to which the manager replied “Yes.”

Several days after January 11, Usher called the Store and told the manager that he felt uncomfortable cutting his hair for religious reasons.  She asked Usher if he wanted Publix to withdraw its offer of employment, and Usher replied in the affirmative. After processing his Title VII Religious Discrimination Charge, the EEOC filed suit in Tennessee Federal Court on September 26, 2017 alleging that that “the effect of the practices complained of by Usher has been to deprive him of equal employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee because of his religion.”

Common Sense Counsel: A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his/her religion and still work. An employer might accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices by allowing flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, wearing religious clothing or even hair styles. All an employee needs is a strongly held religious belief to make such a request. If you can find a reference to the applicant or employee’s claimed religion on Wikipedia, tread lightly and seek to be accommodating. And for Heaven’s sake have a legally defensible religious accommodation policy in your employee handbook. 
Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at with link to Complaint

Friday, September 22, 2017

Revised Form I-9 Must be Used for New Hires

As part of President Trump’s very first Executive Order (E.O.) 13767, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a revised version of Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. Instructions for how to download Form I-9 are available on the USCIS Form I-9 page. On Sept. 18, employers must use the revised form with a revision date of 07/17/17 N. Employers must continue following existing storage and retention rules for any previously completed Form I-9.

Revisions to the Form I-9 instructions:
USCIS made the following substantial changes:
1) the name of the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices to its new name, Immigrant and Employee Rights Section.
2) removed “the end of” from the phrase “the first day of employment.”
3) Revisions related to the List of Acceptable Documents on Form I-9: USCIS added the Consular Report of Birth Abroad (Form FS-240) to List C. Employers completing Form I-9 on a computer will be able to select Form FS-240 from the drop-down menus available in List C of Sections 2 and 3. E-Verify users will also be able to select Form FS-240 when creating a case for an employee who has presented this document for Form I-9.
4) USCIS combined all the certifications of report of birth issued by the Department of State (Form FS-545, Form DS-1350, and Form FS-240) into selection C #2 in List C; and renumbered all List C documents except the Social Security card. For example, the employment authorization document issued by the Department of Homeland Security on List C changed from List C #8 to List C #7.
5) USCIS included these changes in the revised Handbook for Employers: Guidance for Completing Form I-9 (M-274), which is also easier for users to navigate.

Stiff Fines for not being in Immigration compliance as of 02/03/2017:
Unlawful employment of aliens (if you cannot produce a Form I-9 for the person this fine applies), first order (per unauthorized alien) $548 to $4,384
Unlawful employment of aliens, second order (per such alien) $4,384 to $10,957
Unlawful employment of aliens, subsequent order (per such alien) $6575 to $21,916
Paperwork violation (per relevant individual) $220 to $2,191
Violation relating to employer's failure to notify of final non-confirmation of employee's employment eligibility (per relevant individual you continue to employee) $763 to $1,527
Unfair immigration-related employment practices, document abuse (per individual discriminated against – simple as accepting additional not required ID) $181 to $1,811

Common Sense Counsel:
1) Schedule I-9 Supervisor Training today on the new Form I-9;
2) Put an E-Verify/I-9 policy in your employee handbook;
3) Adopt a Form 1-9 retention policy that meets the new regulations:
4) Make sure all your hiring managers are using the latest version of Form 1-9;
5) Have a Form I-9 Audit ASAP by someone who will provide you corrective action guidance, letters, retention policy and training on what you did wrong; and
6) Count the above costs of not complying – typical error rate for paperwork errors alone is 50% times the number for Form I-9 you have on file = big penalty.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at with links to resources.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Sweet Revenge for Breastfeeding Tuscaloosa Police Officer

Tuscaloosa Police Officer Stephanie Hick was hired in 2009 by the Tuscaloosa Police Department as a patrol officer on the West Alabama Narcotics Squad and worked temporarily as an undercover agent. Hicks learned that she was pregnant on January 6, 2012, and informed her Captain and asked what the policies were for pregnant employees. She was informed that no policies were in place for pregnant employees and the Chief stated that it was at the discretion of her supervisor, as reported in a Federal Judge’s Order.

On August 8, 2012, before going off on leave, Hicks received her annual evaluation and her overall performance was evaluated as "exceeds expectations." Hicks then took 12 weeks of FMLA beginning mid-August 2012, for the birth of her child and on November 26, 2012 returned to duty.

Within an hour of beginning her first day back at work, Hicks was called into the Captain’s office to speak with him and a Sergeant, where she was told that she was being written up in the form of an "informal counseling" for allowing her vehicle to go 1200 miles over the limit for recommended oil changes without changing the oil and for continuing to obtain multiple warrants for individual defendants.

Hicks also discussed with the Captain and Sergeant in this same meeting that she was breastfeeding her new child. The Captain informed Hicks that the police station did not have a pumping area similar to the lactation rooms at City Hall. Hicks asked if she could use the records room to express breast milk, but the Captain indicated that Hicks should use the locker room.

After the meeting, Hicks overheard the Captain and Sergeant discussing wanting to "get rid of that little bitch" and that they would find "any way" they could to do so, along with other more colorful references to Hicks.

Reluctantly, Hicks expressed breast milk in the police locker room at work roughly twice a day, and every time Hicks expressed breast milk at work, someone entered the locker room.

Hicks was reassigned and demoted to a less desirable unit in December 2012, after only six days back on the job. She was also required to be on patrol and to wear a bullet-proof vest. On her doctor's orders, Hicks requested a desk assignment because wearing the vest would “impede milk production or cause infection.” Her request was denied and she was given the choice of wearing a larger vest or working without one, the Judge wrote.

Hicks resigned in January 2013, and filed suit against the City under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and state law. A Federal Magistrate Judge in the Northern District of Alabama ruled her allegations sufficiently stated a triable claim to submit to a jury on pregnancy bias, leave interference, and constructive discharge claims. The “fact that the plaintiff could ‘work-around' the fact that she was not provided a private place to pump [breast milk] at her place of work does not absolve the defendant of its failure to provide her with such a location, as required”, the Judge noted.

A federal court jury, on February 19, 2016, found in favor of Hicks and awarded her $374,000 in damages, finding that the City violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by making working conditions intolerable and engaged in FMLA Retaliation, which compelled her to resign. There is now a room designated for women who need to use a breast pump at TPD headquarters and two at City Hall. The Federal Judge reduced the award to $161,319.92 plus costs and attorneys’ fees, and the 11th Court of Appeals affirmed the award on Thursday.

Common Sense Counsel: It's unlawful to take adverse employment actions against an employee because she insists on her right to take a break and lactate or for expressing breast milk at work. The Judge’s 45 page opinion is a trail of facts on how to botch a female’s return from pregnancy leave. And with most adverse employment decisions, bad timing is the mother’s milk upon which substantial verdicts rest.

Here is a link to the case: 

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at