Second Circuit Clarifies Federal Law on Employment Retaliation Claims

August 22, 2023

By Thomas G. Eron

In a recent decision, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court covering New York and adjacent states, sought to clarify the federal law standard for evaluating retaliation claims under the principal anti-discrimination statutes including, Title VII, the ADEA and the Reconstruction Era Civil Rights Act. Significantly, the court found that such retaliation claims are evaluated under a separate, more expansive standard than substantive discrimination (including hostile work environment) claims.

Read More >> Second Circuit Clarifies Federal Law on Employment Retaliation Claims

What to Expect When Your Employee is Expecting…and Beyond!

August 10, 2023

By Nihla F. Sikkander

Today, an employee shares joyous news and says, “I’m expecting and due in 20 weeks!” You respond with congratulations, but then start thinking about all the new pregnancy-related legal protections you must comply with. Look no further, here are some highlights on what to expect when your employee is expecting…and beyond.

Read More >> What to Expect When Your Employee is Expecting…and Beyond!

The Intersection of Employer Counterclaims and Retaliation: An Analysis of the Second Circuit’s Recent Decision in Kim v. Lee

March 28, 2023

By Kevin G. Cope, Stephen A. Sharkey, and Suzanne M. Messer

Employers are well aware of the risks a disgruntled employee may pose during their employment and even after their employment has ended. Sometimes, however, employers do not discover an employee’s unscrupulous behavior until after an employee has sued their employer for violation of one or more employee protection statutes, i.e., the New York Labor Law (NYLL), Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL). These statutes, however, also contain prohibitions against retaliation, leading many employers to question whether they could or should countersue an employee for tortious conduct and potentially risk a claim for retaliation. The Second Circuit in Kim v. Lee, 2023 WL 2317248, 22-61 (2d Cir. March 2, 2023), shed some light on this topic and held that an employer’s counterclaim is retaliatory when it is baseless or frivolous. The Court did not, however, decide whether non-frivolous counterclaims might support a valid retaliation claim.

Read More >> The Intersection of Employer Counterclaims and Retaliation: An Analysis of the Second Circuit’s Recent Decision in Kim v. Lee

New York’s Healthcare Vaccine Mandate Comes Under Fire . . . Again

January 17, 2023

By Adam P. Mastroleo and Hannah K. Redmond

In August 2021, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) implemented an emergency regulation – 10 N.Y.C.R.R. § 2.61 (the Regulation) – requiring covered healthcare entities to ensure that their “personnel” are “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19. The NYSDOH Commissioner permanently adopted the regulation in June 2022. Commonly referred to as a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, the Regulation has been the subject of several legal challenges in both state and federal courts.

Read More >> New York’s Healthcare Vaccine Mandate Comes Under Fire . . . Again

New York Expands Retaliatory Workplace Safeguards for Protected Leave

December 6, 2022

By Stephanie H. Fedorka and Jackson K. Somes

On Nov. 21, 2022 New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a Bill A8092-B/S1958 into law that expands retaliatory workplace protections for employees. The newly signed law amends New York Labor Law (NYLL) Section 215 to prohibit an employer from punishing or disciplining an employee who takes time off work for a “lawful absence” protected by federal, state or local law.

Read More >> New York Expands Retaliatory Workplace Safeguards for Protected Leave

USDOL’S Wage and Hour Division Announces Priority of Protecting Workers from Retaliation

March 16, 2022

By Subhash Viswanathan

On March 10, 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (which enforces the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and other federal wage and hour laws) announced that one of its top enforcement priorities is to protect workers from retaliation for exercising their rights. The USDOL launched an anti-retaliation page on its web site and published a Field Assistance Bulletin on the subject of retaliation.

Read More >> USDOL’S Wage and Hour Division Announces Priority of Protecting Workers from Retaliation

Employers Take Notice: The NLRB, the DOL and the EEOC Are Working Together to Combat Employer Retaliation

March 4, 2022

By Nihla F. Sikkander

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), three federal agencies that enforce major federal labor and employment laws, are joining forces to combat employer retaliation. Employers must be aware that these federal agencies are moving forward with concrete steps to jointly coordinate efforts to take action and litigate against workplace violations and are incentivizing workers to come forward with their concerns.

Read More >> Employers Take Notice: The NLRB, the DOL and the EEOC Are Working Together to Combat Employer Retaliation

Recent New York Legislation Prohibits Employers From Threatening to Report an Employee's Suspected Immigration Status in Retaliation for Labor Law Complaints

July 31, 2019

By Subhash Viswanathan

New York has for many years had a law on the books that prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee because the employee has complained about an alleged violation of the wage and hour laws.  Specifically, New York Labor Law Section 215 states that an employer may not "discharge, threaten, penalize, or in any other manner discriminate or retaliate against any employee" because the employee complained of an alleged violation of the Labor Law or otherwise cooperated with a Department of Labor or Attorney General investigation regarding an alleged violation of the Labor Law.

On July 29, 2019, Governor Cuomo signed legislation amending the statute to specify that the phrase "threaten, penalize, or in any manner discriminate or retaliate against any employee" includes threatening to contact or contacting United States immigration authorities or otherwise reporting or threatening to report the citizenship or suspected immigration status of an employee or an employee's family member.  The legislation is effective 90 days after the date on which the Governor signed it.

Read More >> Recent New York Legislation Prohibits Employers From Threatening to Report an Employee's Suspected Immigration Status in Retaliation for Labor Law Complaints

EEOC Issues Final Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues

September 29, 2016

By Sharon A. Swift
On August 25, 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its final “Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues.”  Along with the final guidance, the EEOC issued a Q&A publication and a Small Business Fact Sheet. Since 1998, the Supreme Court and lower courts have issued a number of significant rulings regarding employment related retaliation.  The guidance illustrates where the EEOC is in agreement with lower court rulings and, significantly, where the EEOC’s interpretation of the law differs from that of the courts.  It should come as no surprise that the EEOC takes a broad view of the protections afforded by the anti-retaliation provisions of the EEO laws it enforces.  The final guidance offers employers insight into how the EEOC will handle retaliation charges and suggests “promising practices” for employers to follow to avoid such charges.  Some issues of note include: The EEOC takes an expansive view of protected participation activity. The basic premise of “retaliation” has not changed.  Retaliation occurs when an employer takes a materially adverse action against an individual because the individual engaged in protected activity.  Protected activity includes participating in an EEO process (participation activity) or opposing discrimination (opposition activity). Both the courts and the EEOC recognize that participating in administrative proceedings or lawsuits to enforce rights under the EEO laws is protected participation activity.  However, the EEOC goes a step further, taking the position that participation in an employer’s internal complaint process is also protected participation activity.  This is significant because participation activity is so broadly protected.  Indeed, an employee need not have a reasonable good faith belief that discrimination actually occurred for participation activity (i.e., filing an internal complaint) to be protected.  According to the EEOC, even complaints made in bad faith or which contain false or malicious allegations are protected participation activity.  Further, it is the EEOC’s position that employers can be liable for retaliation if they discipline an employee for such bad faith actions taken in the course of participation. A wide range of actions are considered "materially adverse." Relying on Supreme Court precedent, the EEOC makes clear that in the context of a retaliation claim, a much broader range of employer actions will be considered “materially adverse” than in the context of a discrimination claim.  For purposes of a retaliation claim, a materially adverse action is “any action that might well deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.”  Work-related threats, warnings, reprimands, negative or lowered performance appraisals, and transfers to less prestigious or desirable work or work locations all likely meet this standard.  Note, however, that an employer’s actions need not be work-related to be considered “materially adverse actions.”  According to the EEOC, prohibiting only employment-related actions would not be effective in preventing retaliation because the employer could retaliate by taking action not directly related to the employee’s employment or by causing the employee harm outside of the workplace. The EEOC lists the following examples of materially adverse actions:  disparaging an employee to the media, making false reports to government authorities, filing a civil action, threatening reassignment, scrutinizing work or attendance more closely, removing supervisory responsibilities, requiring re-verification of work status or initiating action with immigration authorities, terminating a union grievance process, and taking or threatening to take adverse action against a close family member. There is a lower standard for actionable "retaliatory harassment." The EEOC recognizes that sometimes retaliatory conduct is characterized as “retaliatory harassment.”  The standard for establishing “retaliatory harassment” differs significantly from the standard for establishing a discriminatory harassment claim.  To constitute unlawful retaliation, harassing conduct does not have to be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.  If the alleged harassing conduct is reasonably likely to deter protected activity, it would be actionable retaliation, even if not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. The ADA's interference clause is interpreted more broadly than the anti-retaliation clause. In addition to retaliation, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits interference with the exercise of ADA rights.  According to the EEOC, the interference clause is much broader than the anti-retaliation clause, “reaching even those instances when conduct does not meet the ‘materially adverse’ standard required for retaliation.”  However, the EEOC notes that in its view, the interference provision does not apply to any and all conduct an individual finds intimidating.  Rather it only prohibits conduct that is reasonably likely to interfere with the exercise or enjoyment of ADA rights.  Examples of such conduct include:
  • Coercing an individual to forego an accommodation to which they are entitled;
  • Intimidating an applicant from requesting an accommodation for the application process by indicating they would not be hired as a result of the request;
  • Threatening an employee with termination if they do not “voluntarily” submit to a medical examination or inquiry otherwise prohibited by the ADA;
  • Issuing a policy purporting to limit an employee’s rights to invoke ADA protections (e.g., a fixed leave policy that states “no exceptions will be made for any reason”);
  • Interfering with a former employee’s right to file an ADA lawsuit by stating that a negative reference will be given if a suit is filed; and
  • Subjecting an employee to unwarranted discipline, demotion, or other adverse treatment because the employee assisted a co-worker in requesting a reasonable accommodation.
The guidance includes some suggested "promising practices" for employers. The final guidance includes “promising practices” which the EEOC posits may help reduce the risk of violations.  However, the EEOC is careful to advise that adopting these practices will not insulate an employer from liability or damages for unlawful actions.  The “promising practices” include:
  • Maintaining written policies which include examples of retaliation, steps for avoiding actual or perceived retaliation, a complaint procedure, and a clear explanation that engaging in retaliation will result in discipline, up to and including termination;
  • Training all managers, supervisors, and employees on the anti-retaliation policy;
  • Establishing a process for reminding the parties and witnesses involved in an EEO matter of the anti-retaliation policy, and providing advice to managers and supervisors alleged to have engaged in discrimination on how to avoid engaging in retaliatory conduct or conduct which may be perceived as retaliatory;
  • Following up with employees, managers and witnesses while an EEO matter is pending to ask if there are any concerns regarding potential or perceived retaliation; and
  • Reviewing proposed employment actions, preferably by a designated human resource or management official, to ensure that employees and witnesses are not subject to retaliation.

Proposed Guidance Highlights the EEOC's Continued Focus on Retaliation Claims

February 2, 2016

By Mark A. Moldenhauer

Employers face claims of retaliation at an increasingly alarming rate.  Nearly 43% of all charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in FY 2014 included some allegation of retaliatory conduct.  While retaliation is by no means a new concern for the EEOC, the Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues issued on January 21, 2016 shows very clearly that the agency intends to take an even more aggressive approach to address what it perceives as an epidemic of retaliation affecting the workplace. The EEOC last issued guidance on the topic of retaliation in 1998.  Since then, the percentage of retaliation charges has almost doubled and the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several significant decisions concerning the scope of the anti-retaliation protections under federal employment statutes, as discussed here.  Citing this backdrop, the EEOC chose to issue the proposed guidance to make known the agency’s current position on several key topics relating to retaliation.  Although not carrying the weight of law or regulation, the enforcement guidance, once adopted, will establish the various standards EEOC staff can be expected to apply while investigating charges or litigating cases. Perhaps not surprisingly, the EEOC’s proposed guidance advances a broader, claimant-friendly application of federal anti-retaliation statutes.  For instance, the EEOC’s classification of conduct as either “participation activity” or “opposition activity” – the two types of activities protected by most federal employment laws – differs sharply from the standard applied almost universally by courts.  Whereas nearly all courts hold that participation activity requires some connection to the administrative or litigation process (such as filing a charge or serving as a witness), the EEOC takes the position that even making an internal complaint with an employer constitutes participation activity.  This is significant because, unlike with opposition activity – which filing an internal complaint unquestionably is – an employee need not reasonably believe that unlawful discrimination actually occurred for participation activity to be cloaked with statutory protection.  In other words, according to the EEOC, an employee should be able to lodge a knowingly baseless internal complaint of discrimination without any potential for repercussion.  This is a dramatic departure from the current state of the law. Also, while the EEOC acknowledges that opposition activity is only protected if the manner of opposition is reasonable, the proposed guidance would make it extremely difficult for an employer to ever establish that an employee’s conduct was so outrageous that it loses the protection of federal anti-retaliation laws.  For example, the EEOC states that protected opposition activity may include engaging in a production slow-down, writing critical letters to customers, or protesting against discrimination in an industry or society in general – without any connection to a specific workplace – even if that conduct causes the employer financial harm. The proposed guidance shows that the EEOC intends to push the limits of federal anti-retaliation laws to expand the scope of employee protections.  To prepare for this, employers should re-evaluate their policies and procedures to ensure that the appropriate mechanisms are in place to minimize even the specter of retaliation.  In this regard, the proposed guidance lists several “best practices” that the EEOC believes employers should follow, including:

  • Maintaining written policies which provide examples of prohibited retaliation, a complaint procedure, and a clear explanation that engaging in retaliation can result in discipline, up to and including termination;
  • Training all managers, supervisors and employees on the employer’s written anti-retaliation policy and emphasizing to all employees that the employer will not tolerate retaliation;
  • Establishing a protocol to remind managers or supervisors who are accused of discrimination of the employer’s anti-retaliation policy, and to provide tips to help managers and supervisors avoid engaging in conduct which might constitute unlawful retaliation or be perceived as such;
  • Following up with employees, managers and witnesses while an EEO matter is pending to ask if they have any concerns about potential or perceived retaliation; and
  • Reviewing proposed employment actions, ideally by designating a management or human resources representative who can ensure that employees or witnesses involved in an EEO matter are not subjected to unlawful retaliation.

The EEOC’s proposed guidance is open for public comment until February 24, 2016.

Governor Cuomo Signs Bill Amending Public Employee Whistle Blower Protection Statute

January 20, 2016

By Jeffrey A. Kehl
On December 28, 2015, Governor Cuomo signed a bill repealing Civil Service Law § 75-b(2)(b).  This has a significant effect on the anti-retaliation provisions of New York’s “whistle blower” protection statute for public employees who report to a governmental body either (a) violations of a law, rule or regulation, or (b) something which an employee reasonably believes to be “improper governmental action." Civil Service Law § 75-b protects public employees who are whistle blowers against retaliation by public employers (which includes the State of New York, counties, cities, towns, villages, and school districts).  As originally enacted, § 75-b(2)(b) (now repealed) required that a public employee, in order to invoke the anti-retaliation protection, first “shall have made a good faith effort to provide the appointing authority or his or her designee the information to be disclosed and shall provide the appointing authority or designee a reasonable time to take appropriate action unless there is imminent and serious danger to public health or safety.” With the repeal, there now appears to be no requirement that the employee report the issue internally before taking it to another governmental body.  While no doubt well-intentioned, the repeal may very well empower disgruntled employees to pepper regulatory and criminal authorities with complaints of alleged misconduct. In addition to the fact that public employers should generally be aware of this change, public employers should also examine and review their existing whistle blower policies to determine if any revisions should be made.

New York Amends Human Rights Law to Protect Unpaid Interns

July 22, 2014

By Robert F. Manfredo

On July 22, 2014, Governor Cuomo signed a bill that amends the New York Human Rights Law by adding a new Section 296-c entitled, “Unlawful discriminatory practices relating to interns.”  The amendment prohibits employers from discriminating against unpaid interns and prospective interns on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status, or domestic violence victim status, with respect to hiring, discharge, and other terms and conditions of employment.  The amendment further prohibits employers from retaliating against unpaid interns who oppose practices forbidden under the Human Rights Law or who file a complaint, testify, or assist in a proceeding brought under the Human Rights Law.  The amendment also makes it unlawful for employers to compel an intern who is pregnant to take a leave of absence, unless the pregnancy prevents the intern from performing the functions of the internship in a reasonable manner.  The amendment also prohibits employers from subjecting interns to sexual harassment or any other type of harassment based on a protected category. This legislation was introduced following a 2013 case in which the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a sexual harassment claim asserted by an unpaid intern who alleged that her boss had groped her and tried to kiss her.  In that decision, the Court was bound by the language of the statute that existed at that time and the court decisions interpreting that language, which provided that the Human Rights Law only applied to paid employees and did not apply to unpaid interns.  The purpose of the legislation is to give unpaid interns the same right to be free from workplace discrimination and harassment as paid employees. Employers who have unpaid interns or expect to have unpaid interns in the future should consider revising their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to explicitly provide that discrimination and harassment against interns will not be tolerated, and that complaints made by interns regarding alleged unlawful harassment will be investigated in the same manner as complaints made by employees.  In addition, as we noted in a 2010 blog post, employers should also make sure that unpaid interns truly qualify as unpaid interns, and would not be considered "employees" who are entitled to the minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York wage and hour laws.