NO EVIDENCE OF AGE BIAS WHEN JOB WAS ELIMINATED AS PART OF REDUCTION IN FORCE

The Fifth Circuit, in Lay v. Singing River Health System, No. 16-60431, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10758 (5th Cir. June 19, 2017), recently upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer in an age-discrimination case because it agreed with the lower court that the plaintiff had failed to raise a material issue of fact that her termination, which was part of a reduction in force, was pretextual. This case is particularly instructive to companies facing a reduction in force when employees being considered for reduction are members of a protected class.

Virginia Lay began working as director of managed care at Singing River in 1999, a position in which she reported directly to the chief financial officer. In 2013, the managed care department was moved to the clinical-integration department and Lay began reporting to Chris Morgan, then age 50, the vice-president of clinical integration. In early 2014, the company discovered through an audit that it faced an $88 million shortfall caused by overstatements of its accounts receivables. This caused the company to renegotiate all its managed care contracts and reevaluate and restructure all its operations. Part of that restructuring included combining Morgan’s and Lay’s jobs into one position. Morgan decided to leave the company and Lay stated that she did not apply for the new position because it required a master’s degree, which she did not have. However, Lay was encouraged to retire but was permitted to stay on through June 2014 to maximize her retirement benefits. While there appears to have been some dispute about how the retirement option was presented to her and when she was told her position was going to be eliminated, it was undisputed that she retired from Singing River and eventually took a full-time job paying $3,000 per month, significantly less than the $160,000 salary she was making at Singing River.

Meanwhile, back at Singing River, a new CFO initially oversaw some of Lay’s former duties along with his own job responsibilities but in early 2015, Singing River hired Jason Rickley, then 32, to take over the newly-developed, combined position that replaced Morgan’s and Law’s positions. He was initially paid $110,000 and was enrolled in a master’s degree program in health administration at the time he was hired.

In April 2015, Lay filed an age discrimination suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 632(a)(1), in the Southern District of Mississippi and the court eventually granted Singing River’s motion for summary judgment because it determined that Lay had not raised any genuine issues of material fact to rebut Singing River’s proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for eliminating Lay’s position. Lay then appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

The appeals court began its analysis by stating that under the ADEA, Lay was required to demonstrate that but for the discriminatory act, she would not have been terminated and noted that its review required it to employ the “more than well-known burden-shifting analysis,” wherein the plaintiff must first state a prima facie case of discrimination, which then shifts the burden to the defendant to proffer a reasonable-non-discriminatory reason for the termination. Under the test, if such a reason is proffered, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff who must then meet her ultimate burden of persuasion on the issue of intentional discrimination. As to Lay’s specific case, the court also noted that if a plaintiff is terminated during a reduction-in-force, as here, the elements of the prima facie case are “(1) that [s]he is within the protected age group; (2) that [s]he has been adversely affected by the employer’s decision; (3) that [s]he was qualified to assume another position at the time of the discharge; and (4) evidence, circumstantial or direct, from which a factfinder might reasonably conclude that the employer intended to discriminate in reaching the decision at issue.”

Both the district court and the appeals court presumed that Lay had met her initial burden. As such, the appeals court began its analysis by examining Singing River’s proffered reason for eliminating Lay’s position. The court noted that the record evidenced the multi-million dollar shortfall and then stated that it was not the court’s place to question how an entity handled a financial crisis and that the law does not require that a company’s decisions be proper, only that they are non-discriminatory. It then stated that because Lay’s job was not the only one eliminated and because the elimination was part of a restructuring in response to the financial hardship, Singing River had presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the negative employment action.

In response to Singing River’s proffer, Lay offered nothing more than conclusory statements and hearsay. She first claimed that she was replaced by someone “half her age” and that the new position “entailed 99.9% of her former job duties under a different title” but later admitted that she estimated that total from reading the job profile online and that she did not know the full responsibilities required for the new position. Further, the court noted that the person that filled the newly-created position was not, in fact, half her age. The court stated that because a reasonable fact-finder would not be “persuaded by pure conjecture,” she had not raised a genuine, material fact.

She also claimed that she was “forced” to retire based on her age and pension status but the appeals court quickly disposed of this argument by stating that the record evidenced that the discussion regarding her retirement took place after she had been told that her position was going to be eliminated and that at most, the discussion was made in “a helpful spirit.” As such, the court determined that she had not demonstrated that she had been “forced” to retire and therefore had not raised a genuine fact for trial on that claim.

Finally, the court determined that other claims made by Lay regarding alleged age-derogatory statements allegedly made by members of Singing River’s management were inadmissible hearsay that could not create a genuine issue of material fact. Based on its analysis then, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Singing River.

FOURTH CIRCUIT HOLDS NO TITLE VII RETALIATION CLAIM WHEN EMPLOYER FIRES AN EMPLOYEE ON MISTAKEN BELIEF THE EMPLOYEE LIED ABOUT POTENTIAL TITLE VII CLAIM

Employers investigating Title VII discrimination claims should take some comfort, based on a recent Fourth Circuit case, that if they terminate an employee for making a false claim after a good-faith investigation, they will likely not be held liable for a Title VII retaliation claim if the claim later proves to be valid. In Villa v. Cavamezze Grill, LLC, No. 15-2543, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10112 (4th Cir. June 7, 2017), the Fourth Circuit determined that the plaintiff had no Title VII retaliation claim because her employer reasonably believed she had made a false harassment report when it terminated her, even though that report later proved to be somewhat true. In doing so, the court was required to examine the differences in Title VII’s “participation” and “opposition” clauses and determined under the applicable opposition clause that false reports are not protected so her termination could not, as a matter of law, have been caused by her “opposing” prohibited conduct.

Patricia Villa began working for CavaMezze Grill Mosiac, LLC (“Mosaic”) a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cavamezze Grill, LLC (“CMG”), in the spring of 2012 and by October 2013, she was a low-level manager reporting directly to Mosaic’s general manager, Marcelo Butron. In October 2013, she related to Rob Gresham, CMG’s director of operations, that she had been told by one employee, Judy Bonilla, that Bonilla had been offered a raise by Butron in exchange for sex and that she suspected that another, now former employee, Jessica Arias, had left because Butron had made her a similar offer. As part of an investigation into the allegations, Gresham spoke with both the alleged harassment victims, who each denied that any such offers were made. Gresham determined, based on his investigation, that Villa had fabricated the stories and made a false report regarding Butron. Based on the fabricated report, Gresham fired Villa.

Villa later filed a retaliation complaint with the Virginia Office of Human Rights, cross-filed with the EEOC, but the Office of Human Rights never reached the merits of the case and issued Villa a right-to-sue letter. She filed suit in the federal district court of Virginia against several of the CavaMezze related entities (collectively, “Cava”), alleging retaliation under Title VII. Bonilla’s deposition was taken in that case and in it, Bonilla changed her story and stated that she had, in fact, told Villa that Butron had offered her a raise in exchange for sex, even though she also testified that he had not actually ever made such an offer. At the end of discovery, Cava moved for summary judgment, contending that even if it had incorrectly determined that Villa made up her story, her termination did not constitute Title VII retaliation because the true reason for her firing was that Cava believed that she had made a false report.

Villa did not dispute that that was the true reason for her firing but argued that because she acted in good faith when she reported the story to Gresham, her termination constituted illegal retaliation, regardless of what Cava honestly believed. The district court rejected that argument, along with her alternative argument that Cava’s investigation was not thorough enough, because it determined that there was no factual dispute concerning whether Cava’s desire to retaliate against her was the but-for cause of her termination and granted Cava’s summary judgment motion, a ruling which Villa appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The appeals court began its analysis by noting that Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee either because the employee “opposes any practice made an unlawful practice by” Title VII (the “Opposition Clause”) or “because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under” Title VII (the “Participation Clause”). It then noted: “[u]nder either clause, since the statute only prohibits an employer from discriminating ‘because’ the employee has engaged in a certain type of conduct, ‘Title VII retaliation claims require proof that the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action’” (emphasis in original) and went on to state “[i]f an employer, due to a genuine factual error, never realized that its employee engaged in protected conduct, it stands to reason that the employer did not act out of a desire to retaliate for conduct of which the employer was not aware.” It also noted that when an employer has acted for a reason not prohibited by the statute, the court will not judge the “correctness, fairness, or wisdom of the employer’s decision.”

In applying the facts of this case to the applicable Title VII rule, the court first stated that while the participation clause – not applicable here since Villa did not “participate” as defined in the statute – protects a person who testifies, even falsely, from being fired, the opposition clause does not protect the making of a knowingly false statement because an employee complaining of conduct she knows did not occur is not “opposing” an unlawful employment practice and that firing someone for making such a false statement does not run afoul of the opposition clause. In fact, in opposition clause cases, the court must employ a balancing test, weighing the purpose of the act to protect people engaging in reasonable acts opposing discrimination against Congress’s desire not to tie an employer’s hands “in the objective selection and control of personnel.” In other words, “[e]ngaging in knowing fabrications certainly does not amount to ‘engaging reasonably in activities opposing . . . discrimination’; and precluding employers from taking any action against employees who have engaged in such deceit obviously would create enormous problems for employers who would be forced to retain dishonest or disloyal employees.”

To prove her case, the court said, Villa had to show that she was fired because of Cava’s desire to retaliate against her for engaging in conduct protected by the opposition clause. It determined that when Cava terminated Villa, it did not know that she had engaged in protected conduct because it was under the good-faith belief, based on its investigation, that she had made up the story. As such, its reason for terminating her was not retaliatory. It noted that if Villa was fired for misconduct that did not actually occur, it was unfortunate “but a good-faith factual mistake is not the stuff of which Title VII violations are made.”

As such, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in Cava’s favor.

EMPLOYEE BENEFIT PLANS FOR PRINCIPAL-PURPOSE ORGANIZATIONS NEED NOT BE ESTABLISHED BY A CHURCH TO BE EXEMPT FROM ERISA

In a ruling that could have cost nonprofit religious-affiliated employers millions of dollars in compliance and other costs had it gone the other way, on June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kagan in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, Nos. 16-74, 16-86, 16-258, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 3554, (June 5, 2017), that employee benefit plans established or maintained by church-affiliated entities are exempt from regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), even when they are not originally established by a church and in so doing, reversed the judgments of the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits.

The cases arose out of three class action lawsuits filed by employees of church-affiliated nonprofits that run hospitals and other healthcare facilities and the dispute hinged on the combined meaning of two separate ERISA provisions under 29 U.S.C. § 1002(33), which Justice Kagan boiled down to:

“Under paragraph (A), a “‘church plan’ means a plan established and maintained . . . by a church” and [u]nder subparagraph (C)(i), “[a] plan established and maintained . . . by a church . . . includes a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.'”

The employees claimed that their employers’ pension plans did not fall within ERISA’s church-plan exemption because, although subparagraph (C)(i), a 1980 amendment to ERISA, allowed so-called “principal-purpose organizations,” such as the defendant nonprofits, to “maintain” exempt benefit plans, ERISA still required that such plans must have been originally “established” by a church. In contrast, the hospitals claimed that subparagraph (C)(i) was added “to bring within the church-plan definition all pension plans maintained by a principal-purpose organization, regardless of who first established them,” a position long taken by the IRS, the Labor Department and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits all agreed with the employees and determined that the plain language of the statute required that to be exempted, the plan must have originally been “established” by a church.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari based on its determination that the issues in the cases raised important matters and began its analysis by examining the statutory language. In determining that Congress was really creating a new exemption when it added subparagraph (C)(i), the Court phrased the issue as a simple logic problem with paragraphs (A) and (C)(i) as its first two steps, stating:

“Premise 1: A plan established and maintained by a church is an exempt church plan and Premise 2: A plan established and maintained by a church includes a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization. Deduction: A plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization is an exempt church plan.”

As such, it stated that since Congress deemed that the category of plans “established and maintained” by a church “to include” plans maintained by principal-purpose organizations, then all those plans are exempted from ERISA. The Court further noted that had Congress wanted to accomplish what the employees claimed it intended by adding (C)(i), it could have simply omitted the words “established and” and allowed principal-purpose organizations to maintain previously established plans while still requiring that they be established by a church. The Court also restated its long-standing practice “to give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute” and noted that following the employees’ claims would require it to treat “established and” as “stray marks on a page – notations that Congress regrettably made but did not really intend.”

By ruling this way, the Court essentially maintained the status quo, as the three previously mentioned federal agencies had been consistently interpreting the statute this way for more than 30 years. However, it will probably end, or at least severely curtail, the recent trend of class action lawsuits stemming from so-called “church-plan conversions” filed by employees of principal-purpose organizations.

FIFTH CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT SPD WAS AN ENFORCEABLE PLAN DOCUMENT THROUGH WHICH THE ADMINISTRATOR COULD PROPERLY SEEK REIMBURSEMENT

In another victory for plan administrators seeking reimbursement under the terms of ERISA plans, in Rhea v. Alan Ritchey, Inc. Welfare Benefit Plan, No. 16-41032, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9482 (5th Cir. May 30, 2017), the Fifth Circuit held that what the plaintiff termed a “disclaimer” in an ERISA plan document did not invalidate the summary plan description or the requirement set out in that SPD that the plaintiff was required to reimburse the plan for medical expenses it had paid on her behalf when she settled a malpractice case related to those expenses.

Donna Rhea was the beneficiary of an employee benefit plan organized under ERISA, who suffered injuries caused by her physician’s medical malpractice. The plan used a single document as both its summary plan description and its written instrument and that document contained a reimbursement provision, which stated “if a third party causes a Sickness or Injury for which you receive a settlement, judgment, or other recovery, you must use those proceeds to fully return to the Plan 100% of any Benefits you received for that Sickness or Injury.” It further stated, “[i]f the Plan incurs attorneys’ fees and costs in order to collect third party settlement funds held by you or your representative, the Plan has the right to recover those fees and costs from you.” The ERISA plan covered $71,644.77 of her medical expenses and after she settled the malpractice claim, the plan sought reimbursement, which she refused to pay, claiming that the plan did not have an enforceable written instrument.

The basis of her claim was that the SPD alluded to a separate “official Plan Document” and stated that if there was any discrepancy between the SPD and the official plan document, the plan document governed. Despite this “disclaimer,” at the time the plan sought reimbursement, there was no other plan document and the plan produced an affidavit to her lawyer stating that the SPD was “the Plan document that has been accepted, ratified, and maintained by the Plan Sponsor, that contains all of the ERISA-required plan provisions, and operates as the Plan’s official plan document.” In response, Rhea claimed, among other things, that the plan did not have an ERISA-compliant written instrument in place at the time it paid her medical expenses and therefore, had no right to reimbursement. Rhea filed a declaratory judgment action in the Eastern District of Texas seeking a declaration that she was not required to reimburse the plan. The plan filed a counterclaim in which it requested both equitable relief and damages under ERISA and the trial court, based on the recommendation of the magistrate judge, granted summary judgment to the plan and awarded over $31,000 in attorney fees and costs to the plan, a decision from which Rhea appealed.

The appeals court began its analysis by noting that while ERISA required plan administrators to provide SPDs to beneficiaries and that plans are required to be established and maintained pursuant to “written instruments,” there is nothing peculiar about an SPD functioning as both the SPD and the written instrument. In doing so, it specifically rejected Rhea’s argument that CIGNA Corp. v. Amara, 563 U.S. 421 (2011) required two separate documents, stating that because the Amara court was grappling with a conflict between the SPD and written instrument, it was factually distinguishable from this case, in which the court was simply determining whether the SPD could function as a written instrument in the absence of a separate written instrument.

It then rejected Rhea’s claim that the SPD did not comply with ERISA’s requirements “because it does not go into enough depth about how the Plan is funded or how it can be amended” because it determined that even though the SPD did not “lay out complex amendment or funding procedures,” something the court said was not required, it had sufficiently complied with ERISA’s information requirements. It further rejected her arguments that 1) the plan had never adopted the SPD as the plan’s written instrument because there was no evidence the plan adopted any other written instrument and 2) the plan had “lied” to her when the SPD appeared to refer to a non-existent separate written instrument because it held that an SPD, in the absence of a separate written instrument, still qualifies as the plan document.

Based on this analysis, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision that the plan contained a valid reimbursement provision that created an equitable lien by agreement in the plan’s favor when she settled the malpractice claim. It also upheld the lower court’s decision to award attorney fees, because it determined that the trial court had weighed all the factors required when awarding such fees, “including, most significantly, that Rhea was at least arguably acting in bad faith when she moved to deny the Plan a recovery to which it is contractually entitled.”

EMPLOYMENT PLAINTIFF IS EQUITABLY ESTOPPED FROM PREVENTING A NON-SIGNATORY FROM ENFORCING AN EMPLOYMENT ARBITRATION AGREEMENT

Businesses often use workers who are actually employees of staffing companies or other, similar entities, and many times those workers have agreed with the employer to address any employment claims in arbitration. This can cause potential complications if those workers file lawsuits against both entities. In a case favoring arbitrating those claims, even if they involve a non-party to the arbitration agreement, California’s Fourth Appellate District court recently reiterated the rights of such non-signatories to enforce those agreements under both equitable estoppel and agency grounds when the right facts are present.

In Garcia v. Pexco, LLC, No. G052872, 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 443 (May 16, 2017), Narciso Garcia was hired as an hourly employee by Real Time Staffing Services, LLC in 2011 and he was then assigned to work at Pexco, LLC. The employment application Garcia filled out when he was hired by Real Time contained a broadly-worded arbitration agreement in which he agreed to arbitrate virtually every employment claim he could conceivably have against Real Time, including those arising under federal and state employment laws and regulations. Pexco was not a signatory to the agreement.

In 2014, Garcia filed a lawsuit against several defendants, including Real Time and Pexco, for violations of the California Labor Code and unfair business practices regarding the payment of wages. All the complaint’s pertinent allegations and causes of action were made against “All Defendants,” with no distinction between Real Time and Pexco. Those defendants both moved to compel arbitration, which the trial court granted and Garcia appealed.

The appeals court began its analysis by stating that even though there is a strong federal policy favoring arbitration agreements, the general rule remains that one must be a party to such an agreement to be bound by it or to enforce it. However, it noted that courts recognize certain exceptions to the general rule, including equitable estoppel. Under that principle, a non-signatory can invoke an arbitration clause to compel a signatory to arbitrate when the causes of action against the non-signatory are “intimately intertwined with” the underlying contract obligations.  Garcia argued that because his claims were statutory, they did not sound in contract and therefore could not be deemed part of the arbitration agreement. The court disagreed, noting that a claim can “arise out of” a contract without itself being a contractual claim. It stated that all Garcia’s claims were “rooted in his employment relationship with Real Time;” that the arbitration agreement expressly included statutory wage and hour claims; and that the complaint did not distinguish between Real Time and Pexco in any way. It then stated, “Garcia cannot attempt to link Pexco to Real Time to hold it liable for alleged wage and hour claims, while at the same time arguing the arbitration provision applies to Real Time and not to Pexco.” As such, it determined that Garcia was equitably estopped from refusing to arbitrate his claims against Pexco and affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

The court further noted that Pexco could also enforce the arbitration agreement under the agency exception. Under that exception, a non-signatory can enforce an arbitration agreement when a plaintiff alleges that a defendant acted as an agent to a party to the agreement. The court determined that because Garcia had alleged in the complaint that Real Time and Pexco were “joint employers” and alleged identical conduct by both parties without distinction, they were agents of one another in their dealings with Garcia and Pexco could therefore enforce the agreement under the agency exception.

Companies that use workers who are actually employed by another entity, should, in the event of a lawsuit based on employment claims, determine whether those claims are subject to an arbitration agreement and, if so, seek to enforce it as a non-signatory under an exception to the general rule.

SIXTH CIRCUIT ENFORCES NON-COMPETE’S AGREED UPON CHOICE OF LAW FAVORING MICHIGAN’S LESS RESTRICTIVE ENFORCEMENT OF SUCH AGREEMENTS

As attacks on the use of non-competition provisions roll on nationwide, choice-of-law provisions in those agreements will likely come under even closer scrutiny. A recent Sixth Circuit decision however, determined that such a choice-of-law provision was valid, even though the law chosen by the parties was far more favorable to enforcement of such provisions than was the state’s that had the closest relationship with issues in the lawsuit. In Stone Surgical, LLC v. Stryker Corporation, Nos. 16-1434/1654, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9031 (6th Cir. May 24, 2017), the Sixth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the Western District of Michigan upholding the validity of both a non-compete agreement and a choice-of-law provision contained in that agreement, even though the chosen Michigan law favored the enforcement of non-competes while the state with the most significant relationships to the transaction and the parties, Louisiana, has far more restrictive non-compete law.

Christopher Ridgeway was employed as a sales representative for Stryker, a Michigan based corporation, from 2001 to 2013, where he sold medical device products in his Louisiana-based territory. Stryker’s original employment offer was contained in a 16-page letter that included, among other things, an offer letter, a form non-compete agreement used for all employees, which contained a one-year non-compete clause, a non-disclosure clause and a non-solicitation clause. It also had a Michigan choice-of-law clause and a Michigan forum-selection clause. His employment was contingent on his signing and returning the documents, which he did. As will be seen, the choice-of-law provision was more pivotal than it appears at first glance because Michigan law liberally favors enforcing non-competes and Louisiana law severely restricts such enforcement.

In 2013, Ridgeway began considering going to work for Biomet, a Stryker competitor. He claimed that he asked Stryker’s HR director whether a non-compete agreement was in his file and was told several times one was not. He claimed that based on that representation, he began talking to Biomet about employment opportunities. Not surprisingly, Stryker’s version of the story was quite different. It claimed that it never told Ridgway that no non-compete existed and asserted that the conversations with Stryker regarded his inquiry about whether he had signed a new non-compete to receive stock options associated with a 2012 promotion to district sales manager, not his original non-compete. Stryker argued that its HR director told Ridgeway that she saw no new non-compete in his file and then followed up that conversation with an email titled “Stock.” Moreover, Stryker argued that all its employees were required to sign non-competes or they would not be hired so that it was impossible that he would not have signed one.

When Stryker discovered that Ridgeway was considering a move to Biomet, it fired him and in the termination letter reminded him of his obligations outlined in the various agreements, which apparently had no effect on his choosing to go to work with Biomet. Soon thereafter, Stryker sued Ridgeway in the Western District of Michigan claiming breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties and misappropriation of trade secrets. Ridgeway counterclaimed, alleging fraud under Louisiana law and also moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, which the trial court denied based on the forum-selection cause in the non-compete agreement. While that suit was pending, his company, Stone Surgical, filed suit in the Eastern District of Louisiana against Stryker and that action was transferred to the Western District of Michigan and consolidated with the original case. After consolidation, Stryker moved for a preliminary injunction. While that motion was denied, the actions effectively ended the relationship with Biomet and Ridgeway due to Biomet’s fear of liability.

The case was eventually tried to a jury, which returned a verdict in Stryker’s favor on all its claims, awarded it $745,195.00 in damages and denied any relief on Ridgeway’s counterclaims. Ridgeway and Stone Surgical appealed, challenging the forum-selection clause, the court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over him and the choice-of-law provision.

The appeals court quickly disposed of the challenge to the forum-selection clause and personal jurisdiction issues because it determined that the forum-selection clause was valid under Michigan law and that by signing the agreement containing that clause, Ridgeway consented to personal jurisdiction in a Michigan court.

As to the choice-of-law provision, the court began its analysis by stating that Michigan law looks to the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Law, specifically section 187, when resolving choice of law issues. That section states, in pertinent part, that the law chosen by the parties will be applied “unless the application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to a fundamental policy of a state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which, under the rule of § 188, would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.” (emphasis added). As such, the court determined that its analysis had to start by determining whether, absent the choice-of-law provision in the Stryker agreement, another state’s law would apply, by taking into consideration the place of contracting, the place where the contract was negotiated, the place of performance, the location of the subject matter of the contract and the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.

Analyzing the specific facts of the case, the court could not determine the place of contracting or the place of negotiation. It stated that the place of performance and location of the subject matter favored Louisiana and that the final prong did not favor either state. As such, it determined that the state with the most significant relationship to the transactions and the parties was Louisiana but it went on to state that the inquiry also required it to determine whether Louisiana had a “materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue.” (emphasis in original). It noted that Stryker was a Michigan corporation with its headquarters and management centered there, that Michigan had a strong interest in protecting its businesses from unfair competition and that Ridgeway’s breach of the non-compete agreement would cause Stryker economic loss, which Michigan had an interest in preventing. Taking these issues into consideration, the court determined that Louisiana’s interest in protecting its citizen from unfair non-compete clauses was not materially greater than Michigan’s interest in protecting its businesses from unfair competition. As such, it determined that the choice-of-law provision was valid and properly applied by the trial court and let the jury verdict stand.

In light of this ruling, and the continued questioning of the use of non-competition agreements, those employers that have not chosen to include a choice-of-law provision should probably re-examine that decision.

DOCTOR’S GENDER DISCRIMINATION SUIT FAILS BECAUSE SHE COULD NOT PROVE SHE WAS “SIMILARLY SITUATED” TO MALES WHO WERE NOT FIRED

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a Vanderbilt University medical professor had not proven that she was treated less fairly because of her gender and upheld the district court’s summary judgment in Vanderbilt’s favor based on its determination that she had failed to identify suitable male comparators and because she failed to make out a prima facie case of gender discrimination.

In Simpson v. Vanderbilt University, No. 16-5381 (6th Cir. May 22, 2017), plaintiff Jean Simpson was a professor in the Vanderbilt Medical School and was employed by the medical school and the Vanderbilt Medical Group. While she was employed, she started, ran and solicited clients for her own private medical practice, actions which Vanderbilt believed were in violation of its conflicts of interest policy, among other policies. After trying unsuccessfully to resolve the matter, Vanderbilt terminated her employment and she filed suit alleging violations of both Title VII of the Civil Right Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act because of her gender. As noted, the district court granted summary judgment to Vanderbilt and Simpson appealed.

Dr. Simpson began her employment at Vanderbilt in 1997 and at the time of her termination, she was a full-time faculty member in the Division of Anatomic Pathology, which formerly included a dedicated breast pathology consult service. That dedicated service was eliminated in 2012 and general surgical pathology took over the practice. While the reorganization was still pending, Simpson began her own company, Breast Pathology Consultants, Inc. (“BPC”), which provided services that were virtually identical to the dedicated breast pathology consult service, and without Vanderbilt’s knowledge, began actively soliciting pathologists for whom she had previously provided services offering them services through her company. During this time, she continued to be a Vanderbilt employee but from February 2012 through October 2013, she collected nearly $250,000 in fees through her company in addition to her Vanderbilt salary.

In the summer of 2012, Vanderbilt discovered Simpson’s arrangement with BPC, and over the next year repeatedly informed her that she was violating the medical group’s conflict of interest policy, among other things, and demanded that she cease her work through BPC or face possible disciplinary action, including termination. She eventually filed an updated conflict disclosure form in which she disclosed her work with BPC but she otherwise denied that her activities conflicted with Vanderbilt and claimed that several male colleagues had engaged in similar activity and were allowed to maintain their outside practices.

Vanderbilt appointed a faculty committee that investigated the claims and determined that Simpson’s conduct violated the conflict of interest policy and also constituted neglect of duty. It recommended that Simpson be fired for cause and be forced to return the payments she received through her outside business. She was offered the option of resigning in lieu of termination if she paid Vanderbilt the funds she earned from her business, which she refused to do. After she was terminated for cause, she filed her lawsuit alleging violations of both Title VII and the Tennessee Human Rights Act based on gender discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Vanderbilt because it determined that she failed to make out a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework and that even if she had, she failed to demonstrate that the stated reason for her termination was a pretext.

In reviewing the district court’s ruling, the Sixth Circuit first noted that to make out a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: 1) she is a member of a protected class; 2) she was subjected to an adverse job action; 3) she was qualified for the position; and 4) similarly situated male employees were treated more fairly. Because the parties agreed that she met the first three criteria, the appeals court confined its analysis of the district court’s ruling to addressing the “similarly situated” prong. It stated that in order for a person to be considered a similarly situated comparator, Simpson needed to prove that all the relevant aspects of her employment situation were “nearly identical” to those of the cited male employees. As an example, it stated that “similarly situated” in an employment context means that comparators must have dealt with the same supervisor, been subjected to the same standards and have engaged in similar conduct without differentiating or mitigating circumstances.

Dr. Peter Donofrio, the comparator that Simpson attempted to use, worked briefly for the “Best Doctors” website while he was a Vanderbilt employee and disclosed that work on his 2011 conflict of interest form. After he disclosed this work, Vanderbilt instructed him to cease his engagement with the website. While he initially complied, he resumed his work with Best Doctors in 2012, which Vanderbilt learned about during discovery in this matter. Vanderbilt conducted a disciplinary review as a result and while he was not terminated, he was required to pay $122,000 in fees to Vanderbilt and was put on two-years’ probation. As such, the court determined that his case was clearly different from Simpson’s since at a minimum, Dr. Donofrio ceased working when confronted and paid back the tainted earnings. The court further found that the additional male doctors she referenced were also not similarly situated because they had primarily been granted permission by Vanderbilt, after disclosure, to earn outside income as they transitioned either to retirement or private practice.

Based on the above, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment decision as it agreed that Simpson had failed to meet the fourth McDonnell Douglas factor.

NEW YORK FEDERAL COURT ALLOWS SEXUAL ORIENTATION DISCRIMINATION CASE TO PROCEED

In Philpott v. State of New York, No. 16 CIV 6778 (AKH) (S.D.N.Y. May 3, 2017) (order granting in part and denying in part defendant’s motion to dismiss), an ongoing case in the Southern District of New York that bears following as it progresses, a federal judge ruled that the plaintiff’s claim for sexual orientation discrimination was cognizable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), and therefore, could proceed.

Philpott is a former Vice President of Student Affairs at SUNY’s College of Optometry who filed this case against the state of New York, the University of the State of New York and State University of New York claiming that he was discriminated against and harassed on the basis of his sexual orientation under both Title VII and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq. (“Title IX”) and chemical dependence under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that he was terminated shortly after he made those complaints. The gist of Philpott’s discrimination claim was that over a period of several years, the president of SUNY Optometry, and one of plaintiff’s co-workers 1) made a range of discriminatory comments directed at him; 2) excluded him from meetings and projects because of his sexual orientation; and 3) when he finally complained about this discrimination, his employment was terminated shortly thereafter. Defendants filed motions to dismiss and prior to the court’s decision, plaintiff dismissed all the defendants except SUNY and also dismissed his ADA claim. As such, the court needed to determine whether he had cognizable claims under Title VII and/or Title IX against SUNY and, if he did, whether he had stated a plausible claim.

As to any possible claim under Title VII, Judge Hellerstein first noted that while the Second Circuit has held that that title does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, in a March 27, 2017 decision in Christiansen v. Omnicom Grp., Inc., 852 F.3d 195 (2d Cir. 2017), the Second Circuit held that though a sexual orientation discrimination claim was not cognizable under Title VII, “a claim based on the gender stereotyping theory of sex discrimination” was. Judge Hellerstein went on to point out that in Christiansen, two of the three judges joined in a concurring opinion that he said, “persuasively outlines why sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and should therefore be cognizable under Title VII.” Essentially, the Christiansen concurrence stated that sexual orientation is sex discrimination because “it treats otherwise similarly-situated people differently solely because of their sex” because “sexual orientation cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex.” The concurrence went on to say that “such discrimination is inherently based on gender stereotypes.”

Judge Hellerstein then noted that on April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit, in an en banc decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmty. Coll. of Indiana, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017) (en banc), became the first federal circuit court of appeals “to unequivocally hold that ‘discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination’ and therefore cognizable under Title VII.” The Hively court stated that it was compelled to make that determination by “the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex.” Based on the Christiansen concurrence and the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hively, the court determined that Philpott’s allegations in the complaint had stated a claim for gender stereotyping discrimination, even though he had framed his complaint in terms of sexual orientation discrimination.

The court did, however, dismiss Philpott’s claims under Title IX because it held that the remedies available under Title IX are limited to student plaintiffs and do not extend to employment discrimination claims.

Obviously, this case bears following as it progresses, especially considering the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hively.

REJECTED JOB APPLICANT’S CLAIM FOR RETALIATION UNDER FAIR HOUSING ACT CAN PROCEED

In a recent case that should give pause to employers,  the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Linkletter v. Western & Southern Financial Group, Inc., No. 16-3265, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 5130 (6th Cir. Mar. 23, 2017), reversed the trial court’s dismissal and allowed a plaintiff’s suit to proceed whose job offer was rescinded when the potential employer discovered that two years prior to the job offer, she had signed a petition in support of a women’s shelter, with the which the company had had a lengthy property dispute. The ruling was based on the appeals court’s determination that the company may have retaliated against the plaintiff for her support of the shelter’s residents in violation of both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Ohio Civil Rights Act.

In 2012, Gayle Linkletter signed a petition in support of the Anna Louise Inn, a women’s shelter located near Western & Southern’s offices in the Lytle Park area of Cincinnati. At that time, the company was involved in an ongoing real estate dispute with the shelter over the shelter’s location in the neighborhood and the company’s alleged attempts to force the shelter to move. The shelter eventually sued the company under the federal Fair Housing Act and the dispute ended when Western & Southern agreed to purchase the property and removed the shelter from the neighborhood.

Linkletter had worked at Western & Southern from 1997 to 2006 when the employment relationship ended amicably. In May 2014, she applied for a job at the company and, after a series of interviews, was hired. In September 2014, just prior to her beginning work, a senior vice president in the company’s legal department contacted Linkletter and told her that the company was rescinding the employment offer because it discovered she had signed the petition, which Western & Southern stated was contrary to its position. After the job offer was rescinded, Linkletter sued the company, and the employee that had rescinded the job offer, for retaliation under the Fair Housing Act, particularly 42 U.S.C. § 3617, and the Ohio Civil Rights Act.

She claimed that the rescission of her contract was in retaliation to her supporting the housing rights of the shelter’s female residents in violation of § 3617 of the Fair Housing Act. That section states, in part: “it shall be unlawful to . . . interfere with any person . . . on account of his having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by section 3603, 3604, 3605, or 3606 of this title.” (emphasis added). Specifically, she claimed that her petition-signing “encouraged” the residents of the women’s shelter in their rights granted by § 3604, involving discrimination in the rental or sale of housing. The district court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim because it determined, among other things, that she did not “aid or encourage” the shelter’s residents as contemplated by the statute and that the housing rights under § 3604 were not at issue. It also dismissed the claims under the Ohio Civil Rights Act for essentially the same reasons because the language of the Ohio act is virtually the same as the federal one. Linkletter appealed both rulings.

The Sixth Circuit began its analysis by stating that because the statute is a remedial one, its terms should be interpreted broadly. It noted that prior rulings had held that the rescission of an employment “contract” can qualify as “interference” under the statute because it “hampers” an employment process. Even though there does not appear to be any allegation that Linkletter and Western & Southern had entered into an employment contract, the court nonetheless extended the concept to a job offer.

The court then turned its attention to the “aided or encouraged” prong of the Act. It stated that while Linkletter’s signing of the petition in itself may have seemed innocuous, taking into account the timing and the language of the petition, it was clear that it existed to encourage the women to remain in the shelter in opposition to Western & Southern’s alleged discrimination. As such, it determined that the “aided or encouraged” prong was satisfied.

Finally, the court had to analyze whether the required nexus between her actions and the rights protected by § 3604 was present. Western & Southern argued that even if it fired Linkletter for signing the petition, its motivation in the underlying lawsuit was economic, not discriminatory. While the court acknowledged that past Sixth Circuit cases required a showing of discriminatory animus for § 3617 claims, that requirement only forces the plaintiff to show “some evidence” of discriminatory effect or intent on the defendant’s part to survive summary judgment and that a plaintiff can show either direct proof of discriminatory animus or proof of disparate impact or effect. It noted that Western & Southern’s alleged actions only affected one class of people – women, and that the existence of other non-discriminatory motivations “does not protect the defendants from housing discrimination claims when their actions had a clear discriminatory effect.” Therefore, taking the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to Linkletter, it determined that a trial court could conclude that the company’s efforts interfered with housing rights under § 3604 and that Linkletter encouraged those same rights under § 3617 by signing the petition. As such, it reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the § 3617 claim. Because the court determined that the Ohio Civil Rights Act mirrored the language of the Fair Housing Act, it similarly reversed the lower court’s dismissal of that claim as well.

Broker not Liable in Fraudulent Policy Scheme because it hadn’t Placed the Policies

In M.G. Skinner & Associates Insurance Agency, Inc. v. Norman-Spencer Agency, Inc., No. 15-2290, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 63 (7th Cir. Jan. 4, 2017), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Norman-Spencer Agency Inc., an insurance broker, could not be held liable for negligence or breach of fiduciary duty for its role, or lack thereof, in placing what eventually turned out to be fraudulent commercial property policies because it did not owe a duty of care to either of the plaintiffs under both an Illinois statute and common law.

Western Consolidated Premium Properties, Inc. (“WCPP”) was a risk purchasing group through which commercial property owners could buy insurance, and M.G. Skinner & Associates Inc. (“Skinner”) acted as that program’s administrator. The program involved hundreds of commercial properties, including office buildings, shopping centers and multi-unit residential properties. In 2011, WCPP sought, through its various brokers, to renew the insurance for its properties and during the renewal process, one of the brokers suggested using Norman-Spencer as a sub-broker. Ultimately however, although Norman-Spencer expressed interest in becoming involved in the process, it played no role in the actual transactions. WCPP eventually procured insurance for the majority of its properties through a Michael A. Ward and his company, JRSO LLC, and a number of WCPP properties overseen by Myan Management Group separately procured insurance with Ward and JRSO. Norman-Spencer served as program administrator of the Myan program.

In the end, the “policies” that were issued to both WCPP and Myan were a sham and were not backed by a legitimate insurer. Ward was eventually convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also required to pay $9 million in restitution to various victims of the fraud, including WCPP.

Once the scam was uncovered, Myan’s coverage was reincorporated into WCPP’s, and the new insurance it was forced to buy cost over $2 million more than the sham policies.

In May 2012, WCPP and Skinner sued Ward, JRSO, Norman-Spencer and several other insurance brokers and all the claims except those against Norman-Spencer were resolved either through settlement or default judgment. As to Norman-Spencer, WCPP sought to hold it liable for negligence under the Illinois Insurance Placement Liability Act (“IIPLA”) and a common-law breach of fiduciary duty claim, because it alleged that Norman-Spencer had failed to notify WCPP of certain “obvious signs that the ultimate provider of the insurance was dishonest.” These “facts” that Norman-Spencer became aware of included orders of both conservation and confiscation issued by a Cook County, Illinois court against Ward and/or JRSO and a “suspicious” alleged reinsurance agreement that Ward had provided to Norman-Spencer after several delays. Skinner made similar claims regarding the placement of the Myan policies.

Norman-Spencer moved for summary judgment on both WCPP’s and Skinner’s claims. The district court granted Norman-Spencer’s motion for summary judgment regarding WCPP’s claims concluding that Norman-Spencer did not owe a duty to WCPP under the IIPLA because neither WCPP nor any broker in the procurement chain ever requested Norman-Spencer’s assistance with that placement. The court also granted Norman-Spencer summary judgment on WCPP’s breach of fiduciary duty claim, concluding that Norman-Spencer could not be liable under that theory because it did not participate in the placement or receive any WCPP funds from that placement.

It also granted the motion as to Skinner’s claims concluding in part that Skinner was not an “insured” on the Myan policy for purposes of the IIPLA and that because Skinner was not the “insured” on the Myan Management policy and did not make any payment toward that policy, Norman-Spencer could not have breach a fiduciary duty.

Both WCPP and Skinner appealed. On appeal, WCPP argued that three different items, an unexecuted memorandum of understanding, an undocumented conversation and an email between Norman-Spencer and another broker, evidenced that Norman-Spencer had participated as a sub-broker and could therefore be liable under the IIPLA. The appeals court rejected that argument because, among other things, there was evidence that Ward had specifically prohibited Norman-Spencer from participating in the placement. As such, Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that Norman-Spencer owed no duty of care to WCPP because it was never involved in placing insurance on that company’s behalf and that liability under the IIPLA can only arise once an insured has made a request for specific coverage from a broker. As to the Skinner claims, while the court acknowledged that Norman-Spencer had actively procured insurance for the Myan properties, it agreed with the lower court that Skinner could not maintain its negligence claim because Skinner was not listed as an insured on the policy issued to Myan, and therefore, essentially had no standing to bring a claim under the IIPLA.