This post was written by Matthew C. Luzadder and Janine Fletcher and originally posted on Kelley Drye’s Labor Days Blog.

Medical marijuana occupies a gray space within the United States. Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law and is included on the Drug Enforcement Administrations’ Schedule I, along with heroin and LSD. The drugs on this schedule are considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In spite of the federal prohibition, thirty states have passed some form of legislation allowing for the medical use of marijuana.

This conflict between state and federal law may cause employers confusion—especially in states with expansive disability protections. For example, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) which provides extensive protections for individuals with disabilities. The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (“NJCUMMA”) supplements the NJLAD by stipulating that employees using marijuana for a medicinal purpose are considered to have a disability and such use is protected. These protections, of course, do not force employers to allow employees to use marijuana at work but do pose a dilemma when it comes to workplace drug testing. Many companies require employees to pass drug tests for federally prohibited narcotics. However, the NJLAD requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled individuals. Since the NJCUMMA classifies medical marijuana users as disabled, is a drug test a violation of their accommodations?

Continue Reading Altered State: Navigating the Haze Around Medical Marijuana in the Workplace

This post was written by Barbara E. Hoey and originally posted on Kelley Drye’s Labor Days Blog.

On Friday, July 27, after a 3 week trial in Manhattan , a jury awarded $1.25 million in damages to Enrichetta Ravina, a former professor at Columbia University Business School, who claimed that she was denied tenure and forced to resign in retaliation for complaining that a senior professor, Geert Bekaert, had sexually harassed her.  Professor Bekaert will owe her $500,000 in punitive damages, and Columbia will owe $750,000 in punitive damages.

Ravina first prevailed Thursday on her retaliation claims against Bekaert and against Columbia based on his conduct.  The jury also held Thursday that Bekaert, but not Columbia, could be held liable for punitive damages.  Jurors rejected Ravina’s gender discrimination claims against both.  The money verdicts then came in on Friday.

Interestingly, the jury found that there was no sexual harassment or gender discrimination.  The verdict was on the retaliation claims.  The jury also did not give the plaintiff the back pay and front pay she had sought.  They awarded only punitive damages, against both defendants.

This was a hard fought case, and both the university and Professor Bekaert continue to vigorously deny plaintiff’s allegations.  Very briefly, plaintiff, who had once worked closely and claimed that she was mentored by Bekaert, alleged that the relationship went sour after she rejected his sexual advances.  She claimed that he unfairly stalled her research, criticized her, and derailed her bid for tenure.  This all began in 2014, and by 2016 her tenure bid was over and she was forced to leave.

She alleged that she reported the harassment to Columbia, but that the university did not do enough to address it.

Columbia and Professor Bekaert denied there was any romantic relationship, and maintained throughout that the plaintiff was using the allegations as an excuse for her poor academic performance and reviews.  Once she saw that she was not getting tenure, according to defense attorneys, this was her ‘backup plan’.  The Defendants’ position has been consistent, that they did nothing unlawful and Columbia noted that its decision to deny Plaintiff tenure was upheld as lawful.

However, one key piece of evidence seemed to be a series of emails which Bekaert had written about the plaintiff, where he made very critical comments about Ravina and her work.

Plaintiff was also able to secure a good position at Northwestern University, where she earned more than when she left Columbia.  That is likely why the jury decided not to award her compensatory damages.

Ravina’s attorney, David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, said in a statement Friday that the award “should send a clear message to Columbia University and the world of higher education that workplace retaliation and abuse of power in academia will not be tolerated.”

On that point – I agree with plaintiff’s counsel.  This verdict should send a message, not just to academia, but to all employers :

What is that message?

  1. All companies and institutions need to be on notice that behavior that could be perceived as ‘harassing’ or ‘bullying’, particularly when directed by a superior against a lower level employee of another race or gender, is a red flag.  What the boss may regard as ‘tough’ or ‘harsh’, a jury could see as discrimination or harassment.
  2. Be careful with email and text messages.  These can be preserved, and abusive words preserved in an email will hold a lot of sway with a judge or jury. Emails remain the most potent piece of evidence in employment litigation today , and everyone needs to be cautious about what they say via email and text.  One “nasty” email can influence a jury, as may have happened here.
  3. Employers need to learn to empower their bystanders.  An employer cannot always prevent a bad actor from behaving badly.  However, an employer can empower those who are aware of or witness that behavior to report it, before it goes too far.
  4. Be sure to investigate and respond to internal complaints promptly, and carefully document those investigations.  No one knows what happened at Columbia except those involved in that situation, but again – juries today will be expecting to see evidence that there was a prompt and thorough response to any claim.  Now, even more than before the “ME Too” era, consider bringing in outside experts to investigate when necessary, in order to avoid the appearance of bias.  And, where there is bad heavier take effective action to stop it.
  5. Individual executives need to remember that New York State and City law (like many other local laws) allows for individual liability if you are found to have engaged in harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.  Like the defendant professor in this case, you could be looking at a sizeable award against you personally, if a jury believes that you broke the law.
  6. Finally, be careful of retaliation claims, as they are serious business and present real liability.  Again, without commenting on what happened here, clearly the jury felt that this plaintiff was treated poorly after she made her complaint – even though they did not credit the complaint itself!  That is very frustrating.  This is not the first (and will not be the last) case where a jury find that there was NO discrimination, but also finds that the plaintiff was unlawfully retaliated against for making the complaint.

In conclusion, the only real solution here is education and training.  Beginning this fall, New York mandates sexual harassment training for all employees. Take this message and if you have not already done so, invest in live training for your executives. It will be well worth the time and effort.

This post was originally written by Barbara E. Hoey and posted on Kelley Drye’s Labor Days Blog.

Earlier, we blogged about James Damore, an engineer at Google who was terminated for his memo, which openly expressed his belief that women were not “biologically suited” for certain types of positions and criticism of the company’s efforts to diversify its work force.

The engineer challenged his termination by filing a charge with the National Labor Relations Board and launched a media offensive arguing that he was fired for his ‘conservative’ views.

I am pleased to report that the NLRB’s general counsel issued an advice memorandum affirming that Google was indeed acting lawfully when it terminated Mr. Damore. Among the conclusions, the NLRB General Counsel Jayme Sophir found that any employer must be given “particular deference” when it is acting to promote and comply with state and federal employment laws, and to promote diversity in their workplaces.  Thus, “employers must be permitted to ‘nip in the bud’ the kinds of employee conduct that could lead to a ‘hostile workplace’, rather than waiting until an actionable hostile workplace has been created before taking action.”

The general counsel also confirmed that the Board has already found that employee conduct, which “significantly disrupts work processes, creates a hostile work environment, or constitutes racial or sexual discrimination” it is not protected.

Using that rationale, the Board concluded that Mr. Damore’s “use of stereotypes bases on purported biological differences between women and men should not be treated differently than the types of conduct the Board found unprotected in these cases,“ as such comments “were likely to cause serious dissension and disruption in the workplace.”  Therefore, while “much of” the memorandum may have been protected, his statements about “biological differences  between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory and disruptive as to be unprotected”.

The Board also noted that Google “carefully tailored” its message to explain Mr. Damore’s termination and to ensure employees were aware of their right to engage in protected speech.

The Takeaway for Employers – This decision confirms that, while it may be fine, there is a line which employees cannot cross when they are “protesting” employer actions with which they disagree. Employees may not engage in speech in the workplace (verbally, in written or electronic form), which is openly discriminatory, or which is likely to cause dissension or disruption in the workplace. This should be empowering to all employers. While employers certainly need to be careful when disciplining or discharging an employee under these circumstances, they do have the right to set some reasonable limits on what type of speech will be tolerated in the workplace

This blog was originally posted on Kelley Drye’s Labor Days Blog and written by Barbara E. Hoey and Alyssa Smilowitz.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. However, there are many states, and a few cities, which have legalized medical and recreational marijuana – creating challenges for employers, as these laws “sprout up” (pun intended) across the country.

Also, prior to now, the caselaw was quite clear – an employer could discipline an employee for lawful use of marijuana. See Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, 350 P.3d 849 (Colo. 2015). But the law appears to be changing, as recent cases indicate that courts are beginning to recognize that employees who are lawful users of marijuana are entitled to some protection. Continue Reading A “Smoky” Legal Issue for 2018 – Medical/Recreational Marijuana In the “Workplace”

This post was written by Barbara E. Hoey and originally posted on Kelley Drye’s Labor Days Blog.

As many of us settle into September, with fond memories of our summer vacations, do not think that the federal agencies were on a hiatus. In fact and despite predictions that the EEOC under the new administration would be less aggressive in enforcing the discrimination laws, the Commission has been very active and did not take much of a summer vacation.

A survey of recent enforcement actions brought and settlement by the EEOC illustrate that the agency is still aggressively prosecuting cases, and continues to be focused on several key areas namely: combatting disability discrimination, proper accommodations and treatment of pregnant employees, and claims of systemic gender discrimination in company policies.

EEOC Sues Accuses Employer of Firing Worker With Breast Cancer
In late August, the EEOC sued the Illinois Action for Children (IAC), alleging that the IAC unlawfully fired an employee who was out on leave for breast cancer treatment, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

This case highlights the danger of standing behind a strict leave policy and denying requests for leave extensions.

The plaintiff, Myrnie Brown, had worked for the IAC for two years, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and requested, and was granted, a leave that would span June through October 1, 2015. She later requested an extension of that leave to November when her doctor ordered follow-up treatments. IAC denied that extension and fired Brown.

Interestingly, Brown was eventually rehired, but had been out of a job for over 6 months. Clearly, the rehiring did not save the day for the IAC, as the EEOC contends that it failed to accommodate Brown by not considering an extension of the leave as a reasonable accommodation.

EEOC Chicago district regional attorney Greg Gochanour said, “Anyone suffering from breast cancer has enough to face and overcome without her employer violating federal law and denying her adequate leave to combat her illness. When such a situation sadly occurs, the EEOC is ready to step in and fight for people who are fighting discrimination as well as cancer.”

– We will have to wait and see where that case goes. Continue Reading No Summer Breaks for the EEOC

This post was written by Barbara E. Hoey and Steven R. Nevolis and originally posted on Kelley Drye’s Labor Days Blog.

The blogs and networks have been buzzing over the past few days with news that a senior software engineer at Google – James Damore – had taken it upon himself to write and post on an internal Google mailing list a ten page memo, explaining his theory on why Google’s efforts to diversify its workforce were not working. In his words, Google’s “politically correct mononculture” had reached the point where efforts to create diversity by hiring and promoting more women (and other under-represented groups) was actually hurting the company.  Implicit in his criticism was what seemed like an undercurrent that men were somehow better suited than women for many tech jobs, and that Google was hiring or promoting women over men, even when the woman might not be the best person for the role.

In the course of this memo, Damore made a number of openly sexist and stereotypical comments about women, which many employees of both sexes took great offense to.  Most disturbing was his core view, that the reason women did not succeed in tech jobs was “biological”.

For instance, he opined:

  • that women were more apt to have a stronger interest in “people rather than things” and that tech was an industry which focused on things
  • that women had a higher level of “agreeableness”, which is why they had a harder time negotiating salary
  • that women had “higher anxiety/lower stress tolerance”

Finally, he theorized that the reason there were not more women in leadership roles at tech companies was because they did not have the same “drive for status” or to succeed as men did.

Damore also was very critical and dismissive of Google’s diversity programs, training, and other company initiatives aimed at helping women and diverse employees advance.

The memo of course went viral, and was soon circulating outside of Google and all over the world.

Putting aside the fact that Damore’s views were perpetuating stereotypes and that any dialogue with a woman who has risen to a leadership role or managed large projects at work, while also managing a home and family will tell him – a woman’s ability to multi-task, handle stress, and desire for success knows no bounds. However, the immediate question that Google’s senior management had to confront was how to react to this memo. Many employees, male and female, were greatly offended by the memo and felt that it did not accurately reflect the opinions and culture of most people at the company. More fundamentally, many felt that this memo was openly hostile to, and advanced stereotypical views of, women at Google. It also perpetuated the myths and challenges that tech companies like Google face, as they work on bringing more women into senior positions. Moreover, as many who follow this area know, the Department of Labor is currently suing Google for salary discrimination, and there have been rumors of class actions looming against companies in this industry. See Anita Hill, Class Actions Could Fight Discrimination in Tech, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Aug. 8, 2017). Given this backdrop, the company needed a strong response.

Continue Reading Is Misogyny Protected Activity?