Archive for the 'Lawsuit' CategoryPage 2 of 48

Whole Foods Loses the Fight to Stop Employee’s NLRA Right to Record

As an employee, protecting your rights is incredibly important. However, even with full knowledge of the rights you possess it can be tricky to identify situations where rights are violated and gather the evidence to prove your case when you look to enforce those rights. Communicating with others and recording situations where your rights may have been violated can be critical in making a case or even just determining whether your rights have been violated in the first place. Thankfully, your right to record in the workplace was just given a major boost in a recent ruling against Whole Foods by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB is the federal agency in charge of enforcing labor laws related to unions, collective bargaining, and unfair labor practices-primarily as set forth in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Just a few weeks ago, the Second Circuit upheld a decision of the NLRB deciding that Whole Foods had violated the NLRA through a policy barring recording conversations, phone calls or meetings in the workplace without manager approval.

With this case upheld on appeal, let’s take a look at the rights the NLRA grants you, the case itself, and what the case means for you as an employee or an employer.

Your NLRA Rights

The NLRA itself provides you a fairly broad suite of rights related to your ability to organize and bargain collectively. Under the act you have the right to (or not to) self-organize, form, join, or assist labor organizations, bargain collectively through representatives of your own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. This basically means you have the right to choose whether or not to join with other employees in bargaining for employment terms. You also have the right to take the steps necessary to coordinate that group bargaining.

In order to protect these rights, the NLRA also makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise” of any of the rights discussed above.

The Case Against Whole Foods

Whole Foods had two policies on the books that got them into the legal trouble which led to this case. First, a policy forbidding any audio or visual recording of company meetings-with any recording device-without prior approval of a manager. The second policy applied a similar recording ban on any conversation held during business hours. These policies applied to any topic of conversation and all areas of every Whole Foods store.

The stated goal behind these policies was to encourage “open communication” and “spontaneous and honest dialogue.”  Whole Foods argued that, regardless of the policy, they strove to foster a culture where employees were free to speak up though open door policies and “town hall meetings.” They argued that recording meetings would damage the anonymity behind complaints and weaken employee rights.

However, the NLRB and the Second Circuit weren’t buying it. The test to see if rights have been violated isn’t whether an employer provides sufficient avenues for an employee to speak out, but rather whether the policy could inhibit an employee’s NLRA rights.

Whole FoodsWhen Does a Policy Violate the NLRA?

A policy inhibits rights where it would “reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise or their” NLRA rights. This means that policies which tend to make it harder to exercise your rights are not ok. This can happen where a policy explicitly restricts you from doing something the NLRA guarantees. However, a policy also violates the NLRA when: 1) an employee would reasonably consider in to prohibit them from asserting NLRA rights; 2) the rule was made in response to union activity, or 3) the rule, despite how it is written, has been used to restrict employees’ NLRA rights. Where a rule is ambiguous, but could be interpreted to violate NLRA rights, it still violates the NLRA. This unacceptable overbreadth exists when an employee would reasonably interpret the policy to prevent exercise of NLRA rights. It is this rule against overbroad policies that worked against Whole Foods.

Ruling Against Whole Foods

The policies are a blanket ban on all recording. However, photography and video recording in the workplace have historically been guaranteed when it is done to document a potential violation of rights under the NLRA unless there is a particularly compelling reason for the employer to ban them such as the heightened privacy interests of patients within a hospital. The NLRA has even been interpreted to guarantee an employee’s ability to post these photographs and recordings on social media.

Despite Whole Foods stated purpose of maintaining open communication, the policies as written prevented employees from exercising these rights. Thus, the policies violated the NLRA by inappropriately curtailing protected employee actions.

However, the ruling didn’t hold Whole Foods’ feet to the fire too much. It only really required them to retract the policies, or at least reword them to provide exceptions for NLRA protected recording.

What Does This Mean For Employers and Employees?

One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the only time in recent memory that the Second Circuit has backed the NLRB in expanding the definitions of employee rights under the NLRA. It was just May of this year that they ruled that an employee had the right under the NLRA to post quite unflattering things about his manager in a social media post because the post also discussed an ongoing union election. This could be seen as a trend towards expanding the spheres in which an employee enjoys NLRA protection.

For employees, this ruling means that you enjoy greater NLRA protections on your right to organize and record the behavior of your employer. This is incredibly important because proving a violation of your NLRA rights will often require this sort of recorded evidence.

As an employer, this ruling can act as guidance for crafting policies on recording that avoid the mistakes of Whole Foods. Recording restrictions haven’t been banned altogether, rather recording restrictions without clearly defined exemptions for NLRA rights have. The lesson here is to make sure that your policies include these exemptions in order to avoid trouble with the NLRB.

So is this the beginning of a trend where NLRA rights catch up with tech? It’s simply too early to say. However, the trend is encouraging. Recording devices are more broadly available than ever before. It’s a safe wager that a large portion of those reading have one in their pocket or purse as we speak. With recording rights protected, it’ll be easier than ever before to gather the evidence necessary to protect your rights-and that’s encouraging.

Obstruction of Justice: What Does it Mean for President Trump?

Irony hits even the most powerful among us. After spending months trying to persuade Director Comey to tell the public that he wasn’t personally under investigation, Donald Trump wakes up on his birthday to find that he is being investigated by Special Counsel Mueller for obstruction of justice. Since obstruction is the same crime that undid President Nixon and almost brought down President Clinton, Mr. Trump finds himself in hostile legal waters. What exactly is obstruction of justice? Is there another evidence for the investigation that Special Counsel Mueller is committing? And is there enough evidence for impeachment?

Obstruction of JusticeWhat Is Obstruction of Justice?

Congress has defined obstruction of justice under Title 18 Section 1519 of the U.S. Code as:

“Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsified, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under Title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

To obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the act and that the defendant intended to commit the act. For instance, if a defendant killed someone with a car but didn’t intend to, then the defendant can’t be guilty of murder since one element, intent, is missing. Similarly, a defendant who intended to kill someone with his car, but didn’t actually kill the person, cannot be guilty of murder because the act of murder was not committed (although attempted murder or assault would be easier to prove in that instance).

To be sure, the key here would be intent. Since we are dealing with the Presidency here, many of the actions Trump could take to obstruct the investigation would usually be legal. Normally, a President has the power to decide which types of cases the Justice Department should prosecute or fire an FBI Director. Therefore, any investigation regarding obstruction would need to focus on intent. Checking abuse of power is not about whether the power was used, but whether the power was used for improper goals. If Trump fired Director Comey because he truly believed that was best for the nation, then it would not be obstruction. On the other hand, if Trump fired Directory Comey because he didn’t want to see Flynn imprisoned, then it would be obstruction unless the President could explain why preventing Flynn from being prosecuted was in the best interests of the nation.

Establishing intent is always a challenge for prosecutors, as intent deals with what a defendant is thinking rather than what a defendant is doing. Obviously, if there is a “smoking gun” like the Nixon tapes, then proving intent would be a lot easier. However, the law doesn’t always require a smoking gun. If the facts and circumstances of a case suggest a pattern and practice of corrupt intent, that may be enough to tip the balance. Republicans would be wise to avoid examining specific verbiage such as “I hope you can let this go” and focus on the overall picture forming – whether the President has a pattern of removing people who ask too many questions about the Russian investigation and the Trump campaign.

Is There Enough Evidence For An Investigation?

The standard for a criminal conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, if we’re asking whether there is enough evidence for an investigation to ensure we’re not just perpetuating “a witch hunt,” the standard would likely be probable cause. For example, a police officer only needs probable cause to pull a car over. Only after the officer arrests the driver and the prosecutor charges the driver with a DUI will the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard be applied.

With all the talking points about “fake news,” it’s important to create a base line of facts that reasonable people can agree on. After determining which facts are 100% true, we can determine whether they warrant an investigation. So far, the agreed upon timeline appears to be:

This is a long chain of events, so let’s parse through it. Prosecutors, i.e. Mueller and his team, would be looking to fit these events with the two elements for obstruction, the act of impending the investigation, and the intent to do so. In this list, terminating Comey, the tweet about releasing tapes should Comey “leak to the press,” and threatening to terminate Mueller might be considered acts of obstruction. Removing the leading investigators could derail the investigation, although White House Spokeswoman Sanders claims the investigation would continue even after Comey left.

The White House would argue that these actions, terminating an FBI Director and considering the termination of a Special Counselor, are completely legal actions. However, while the actions might normally be legitimate, case law does state that if otherwise legal actions are done for corrupt reasons, then those otherwise legal actions would themselves become illegal. For example, if a prosecutor brings charges against a political opponent and a court later finds that the prosecutor acted based on politics, not law, then the action would become illegitimate, even though it is normally a prosecutor’s job to bring charges.

This idea can also be found in employment law; an employer can fire an employee for any reason, except for illegal ones, such as racial discrimination. Looking through the justifications that the White House gave for firing James Comey, it is very likely that the President gave a bunch of pretexts to mask the fact that he terminated the FBI Director for not dropping the investigation into Michael Flynn.

Of course, it is also possible that Trump had other motivations for firing Comey. Perhaps all Trump wanted was for Comey to announce that the President was not personally under investigation. Or maybe Trump really wanted Comey to say he was “loyal” and not just “honest.” We don’t really know, but if there is a potential for improper and illegal intentions, then its worthy of investigation. If the investigation cannot eliminate these foolish-but-not-illegal intentions, then the investigation will likely be a bust. But if the investigation has evidence to show that the illegal intention was the actual cause of these terminations, then the case would move to Congress to consider impeachment.

Montana Congressman Gianforte Pleads Guilty to Assault, but Can He Face a Lawsuit?

Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte may have won election on May 25th, but his actions the previous night have already cast a shadow on his victory. Newly elected Congressman Gianforte was at a campaign rally/barbecue addressing a news crew from Fox News. Guardian Reporter Ben Jacobs entered the room and inquired Gianforte about his stance on the healthcare bill in the Senate after the Congressional Budget Office had given its score on the bill.

After Jacobs pressed Gianforte three times for an answer, Gianforte attacked Jacobs. Audio recording reveals shows signs of scuffing, Gianforte yelling “I’m sick and tired of you guys!” followed by Jacobs accusing Gianforte of body-slamming Jacobs and breaking the reporter’s glasses. The Fox News crew in the room testified that Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck, slammed him into the ground, and then proceeded to punch the journalist a few times. Jacobs was taken to the hospital, although his injuries were not severe.

Gianforte’s campaign denied the allegations, instead accusing Jacobs of being a “liberal” who agitated Gianforte with his questions. However, the witnesses clearly stated that “at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.” After winning though, Gianforte apologized to Jacobs in his victory speech.

Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault a few hours after the attack. He has since pled guilty of assault and received 180-day deferred sentence, 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger management, $300 fine, and $85 court fee. The deferred sentence means that Gianforte will not be facing any time in jail. However, the victim himself, Jacobs, could also bring a civil suit against the Congressman to recover for his own injuries.

Can Jacobs Successfully Sue the Congressman?

Normally, a private citizen cannot sue a public official for decisions that the official makes while in office. However, the Constitution’s “speech and debate” clause would not apply to the Jacobs case because Gianforte was not yet a Congressman when he allegedly assaulted Jacob. Even if Gianforte had been elected at that point though, Gianforte would still be potentially liable because hitting reporters is not a function of Congress and not be constitutionally protected.

Proving assault (and battery) would actually be very simple in a case like this. Jacobs would have to prove that Gianforte intended to cause reasonable fear of imminent harm. The audio shows that that attack was very intention on Gianforte’s part, as the Congressman declared “I’m sick and tired of you guys!” while hitting the reporter.

It’s questionable whether Jacobs felt any fear before the attack, as the attack seems to have happened so quickly that Jacobs had little time to react other than comment on his injuries – “Did you body slam me?” and “You broke my glasses.” Nevertheless, these types of remarks would likely be used as a means of showing that Jacobs did fear for his safety. Witness testimony also points that Gianforte grabbed his victim by the neck, which would cause most people to be afraid for their lives. However, it’s important to note that Gianforte doesn’t have to actually touch Jacob’s person to involve fear. Simply grabbing an object close to Jacob, such as his clothing or the recorder in Jacob’s hand, would be enough to satisfy this element.

Many online commenters have attempted to defend Gianforte by claiming that Jacobs entered the room uninvited or that Jacobs “deserved” it because Jacobs is a “liberal journalist.” Neither of those defenses would hold up in a court of law. The former is excessive force that the law doesn’t allow. Gianforte could have simply answered or ignored the question. Gianforte could have threatened to call security or the police. Instead, a Congressman chose to use violence against a man who was simply doing his job.

The latter is commentary about political beliefs, but has zero relevance as to whether or not the reporter was assaulted. The law is the law regardless of whether a person is liberal or conservative. The fact that line of thought – “liberal journalist” was even used to justify the assault is appalling beyond words, as it dehumanizes a man merely for having opinions.

If Jacobs is successful in court, and assuming Gianforte doesn’t want to settle before trial, Jacobs would be owed his compensatory damages, including medical expenses, repair or replacement for his glasses, and compensation for time off or emotional trauma. The judge might also consider adding punitive damages, as this case must serve as an example that physical violence is not acceptable in the public discourse, not even from a sitting Congressman.

“Wonder Woman” Screening for Women Only Opens Theater to Lawsuit

The new Wonder Woman movie seems to be a big hit with crowds, but one theater in Austin is drawing sharp criticism.  Alamo Drafthouse unveiled “women only” screenings of the movie, to celebrate the “only woman superhero, directed by a woman, to hit theaters EVER.” Alamo Drafthouse also promised to staff only women at the event. The screenings were scheduled for June 6th and only women were admitted. The screenings sold out within hours of the announcement.

The announcement drew online criticism, mostly from men. One of those men, Stephen Clark, a law professor at Albany Law School and LGBT Rights Advocate, filed an administrative complaint with Austin’s Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office, alleging discrimination against male customers and male employees. The City has promised to investigate the complaints.

wonder womanWill the Complaints Be Successful?

There are two alleged complaints, discrimination against male customers and discrimination against male employees. The latter probably won’t get very far. In order to have a successful employment suit, there must be some injury or loss that the employee suffers, such as a pay cut, termination, or demotion. Although Alamo Drafthouse is only planning to have women serve the female only screenings, the men who would normally work at the Alamo Drafthouse were not removed. There are other movie screenings that the men can work at and they are still working at the same rate and for the same pay as their female counterparts at the women only Wonder Woman screenings. Without further evidence of injury on the part of the employees, the complaint on behalf of the men working at the theater probably won’t get too far.

The more controversial case would be the male customers who feel discriminated against. Alamo Drafthouse claims that there is no discrimination because there are other screenings going on at the same time in the same theater that do not have restrictions on gender. Men can see the same movie at the same time and it would be the same experience as the women only screening. The only difference is that they are held in separate locations.

The problem is that Alamo Drafthouse’s argument sounds too much like “separate but equal,” which was prohibited by the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board.  Of course, the difference is that the Court found that the segregated institutions of the south had discriminatory intent behind them; the purpose of that segregation was to exclude African Americans. Alamo Drafthouse can try to argue that their purpose is to celebrate and empower women, not to demean men. “This is a celebration of a character that has meant a lot to women since 1940.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

The biggest issue here is probably the marketing. Instead of “women-only” or “no men allowed,” the theater would be on better legal footing if this was sold as an event that celebrated women, but didn’t exclude men. We still live in a world where sex and gender are largely viewed as binary elements. An advantage for one group is often perceived as a disadvantage for the other. This is a big problem when each of the two groups make up half the human race. Like so many other discrimination issues, both sides have divergent understands of “equality and fairness.” One side strives for equality by treating both sides as equal from the present forward. The other believes that equality can be best achieved by acknowledging the past and trying best to correct those prior wrongs.

In this case, many of the men are willing to let women participate in events that once excluded women, but feel that women are not negotiating in good faith when some women demand events that exclude men. The women believe that the past cannot be over until women are not only allowed in to events that they were once excluded from, but also given a space where they feel they will not be discriminated against. Neither side is wrong, but the struggle will continue until both sides feel secure about everyone’s rights.

Bill Cosby’s Sexual Assault Trial Begins

The allegations of rape and sexual assault against famous comedian and actor Bill Cosby have been some of the most well publicized accusations in recent memory. With nearly 60 women coming forward with accusations of rape and sexual assault, usually involving situations where Mr. Cosby drugged them before sexual intercourse, the stories that came out were horrifying to say the least. However, despite all these accusations, the only civil case over the allegations was brought in 2004 and settled in 2006.

A large part of this is that a great deal of the accusations date back to the 70s and 80s, at least one goes all the way back to 1965. Unfortunately, rape and sexual assault often come along with statutes of limitations which limit the time period in which a claim can be brought. In California, where many of the attacks allegedly took place, this limitation was 10 years after the act occurs. Since the allegations against Mr. Cosby came to light, and many say in response to the allegations, California and many other states have removed the statutes of limitations for rape and sexual assault.

However, not all the accusations were based on actions from the 70s. One Ms. Andrea Constand alleges Mr. Cosby sexually assaulted her as recently as January of 2004. She went to the police with her accusations in 2005 but the local prosecutor decided not to press charges on her behalf against Mr. Cosby. However, as accusations outside of the statute of limitations continued to pile up in 2014 and onward, Ms. Constand’s criminal charges were brought in December of 2015-just a month before Pennsylvania’s 12-year statute of limitations was set to expire.

The criminal case has just recently got underway, and just days ago the prosecution finished making their arguments against Mr. Cosby. The case, charging Mr. Cosby with criminal sexual assault as opposed to rape, has been the subject of extreme press scrutiny. In order to understand these charges, let’s take a look at what needs to be proven in a criminal sexual assault charge and the facts alleged against Mr. Cosby and in his defense.

Bill CosbyHow Does Criminal Sexual Assault Work?

Sexual assault, like all sexual crimes, are some of the most heinous our criminal justice system handles. Like almost all criminal law, exactly how sexual assault works varies depending on each state’s statute. It’s worth noting, however, that sexual assault and rape have some of the most substantial variations in how they are handled from state to state. In general, sexual assault is any nonconsensual touching of a sexual nature-in some cases statutes require that touching to be done by force, threat of force, or violence. Sexual touching is generally understood as the knowing and purposeful touching of an intimate or private part of another. Depending on the statute, this touching may include touching with objects, touching through the clothes, and may or may not require penetration. Often the touching need only be un-consented and offend a reasonable person. A lack of consent can generally exist where a person is unable to communicate consent due to physical helplessness including helplessness induced by alcohol or drugs.

In Pennsylvania, where the criminal charges are being brought, sexual assault is a class two felony defined as “sexual intercourse of deviate sexual intercourse with a compliant without the complainant’s consent.” Deviate sexual intercourse includes penetration, no matter how slight of the genitals or anus of another person with a foreign object for non-medical and non-law enforcement related procedures. Basically, this means that the charges require evidence of: 1) sexual intercourse or actual penetration of genitals or anus with a foreign object; 2) without consent. This is more strict than many other statutes in the nation, especially the requirement of actual penetration.

The charges carry an even higher penalty where they are committed either 1) when a victim is unconscious or the person charged knows the victim is unaware sexual intercourse is happening; or 2) where the person charged substantially impairs the victim, with drugs or otherwise, without their knowledge and for the purpose of preventing resistance.

The Charges Against Mr. Cosby

First and foremost, nobody is guilty until proven so by a jury of their peers. However, if true, the events told by Ms. Constand are gut-wrenching to say the least. One of the requirements of our legal system is that an accuser in a criminal case must testify. This is based on the premise that the accused has the right to confront their accuser. Often, victims of rape and sexual assault are hesitant to do this as confronting their rapist is, for obvious reasons, too mentally distressing. What’s more, while there are limitations on the type of questions that may be directed at a victim of rape or sexual assault known as rape-shield laws, consent is always at issue and the attorney for the defense will almost always bring up the sexual history of the victim to some extent in establishing whether the accuser consented. The defense’s attorney may, and usually will, make lines of questioning related to prior consensual sex between the defendant and the accuser, other potential sources of bodily fluids, evidence attacking the series of events the accuser describes, and situations that may show the rape was not committed by a defendant. These situations make sense, sexual assault and rape are very serious accusations. However, to say that testifying as a victim of a sex crime can be extremely difficult is a huge understatement. This was what Ms. Constand faced as she testified as part of the prosecution’s case this last week.

Ms. Constand’s testimony, nearly seven hours in length, described Mr. Cosby building a mentorship relationship with her while she worked as director of operations for the women’s basketball team at Mr. Cosby’s alma matter Temple University. She stated that Mr. Cosby never expressed clear interest in her, although she did rebuff his advances twice while she knew him. She describes considering him a mentor and not thinking twice about accepting his invitation to his house to discuss her future career. She also says that this trusting relationship led her to not question accepting and taking three pills he offered her for stress. This leads to the part Cosby has already admitted in a past deposition, that he gave Ms. Constand pills and had sexual contact with her while she was under their influence.

Mr. Cosby’s version of the story is a bit difference, and discusses the situation as a consensual sexual encounter. In his previous 2005 deposition, he had admitted giving Ms. Constand pills but had said that he still thought the encounter was consensual.  His defense attorney has pointed to 72 phone calls that occurred after Ms. Constand says Mr. Cosby assaulted her. Something that Constand describes as returning Mr. Cosby’s phone calls due to his position on Temple University’s board essentially necessitating due to her position with the school. While Mr. Cosby has previously admitted to giving woman quaaludes, a prescription sedative, he and his lawyers state that he instead gave Ms. Constand Benadryl-something Cosby says he considered a sleeping aid. They point to a15 minute session of “holding” in a casino hotel room, along with one or two alleged encounters of a more sexual nature, as proof that they had a previous romantic relationship. Ms. Constand says she rebuffed Mr. Cosby on all these occasions.

Trial is Still Ongoing

Mr. Cosby is being tried by a jury of his peers. While his admitted actions are beyond inappropriate, it would also be premature to speculate on his guilt before testimony is complete in this case. That the act itself occurred is not contested, this case will certainly come down to a matter of whether the act was consensual. Consent especially is a historically unpredictable thing in courts, often coming down to the opinion of a specific jury. This can often take some particularly unfortunate forms as laws meant to prevent somebody from defending themselves are used to inappropriately attack a victim’s credibility.

We will know soon enough whether the evidence is there for a jury to treat his actions as criminal. What Mr. Cosby has already admitted to, as a man in a position of power taking advantage of a woman under that power, certainly seems at least morally reprehensible if not criminal. As to potential enhancements under the Pennsylvania statue, they seem unlikely at this time as Ms. Constand was both conscious for the act and knowingly took the medication Mr. Cosby provided her. If found guilty Cosby will go to jail for up to 10 years as felony sexual assault is a second degree felony in Pennsylvania. Were the charges enhanced, he would have faced up to 20 years.