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Unemployment Compensation Ruling Cannot be the Basis for Collateral Estoppel

Many cases sounding in employment law involve other related parallel matters like unemployment compensation. Applicants for unemployment compensation, and their employers, engage in a legal administrative process wherein they make allegations and, fairly frequently, have to testify on the record at a hearing before a referee which can be reviewed by the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review and Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Based on the evidence presented, findings of facts and law are made during the unemployment compensation process relative to the applicant’s eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits.

The legal doctrine of collateral estoppel, sometimes called “issue preclusion,” serves to prevent a litigant from re-litigating issues which have been the subject of a finding of fact and/or law in a prior litigation. The recent case of Mathis v. Christian Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. 91 F.Supp.3d 651 (U.S.E.D.PA 2015) addresses whether findings of fact and/or law during unemployment compensation litigation can serve as the basis for collateral estoppel in court.

In Mathis, the District Court finds itself ruling upon what is, in effect if not in name, a motion to reconsider its ruling granting a motion to dismiss. The Plaintiff in Mathis is a self-described atheist, while the Defendant, Christian Heating and Air Conditioning (“CHAC”), is a company owned and operated explicitly as a Christian company.

As part of its work rules, all employees of CHAC are obliged to wear an identification badge with CHAC’s mission statement which reads as follows: “This company is not only a business, it is a ministry. It is set on standards that are higher than man’s own. Our goal is to run this company in a way most pleasing to the lord [sic].” Plaintiff alleges that people from CHAC would regularly make comments to him about his lack of religious belief and insist he attend church. Further, as it conflicted with his atheistic beliefs, he covered the above-quoted mission statement on his identification badge with a piece of tape. According to Plaintiff, his superior at CHAC informed him that the mission statement cannot be covered and refusing to remove the tape would result in his termination. Plaintiff refused to remove the tape and was promptly terminated.

Plaintiff, upon termination, filed for unemployment compensation benefits. An employee who voluntarily quits his employment is ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits. During the unemployment compensation process, a finding of fact was made by Unemployment Compensation that CHAC told Plaintiff that he could remove the tape on his badge and continue his employment, or leave and terminate his employment relationship with CHAC. Plaintiff then chose to leave instead of removing the tape. As a result, it was found that, for purposes of unemployment compensation, Plaintiff’s termination from CHAC was the result of Plaintiff’s voluntary decision to quit his employment with CHAC.

Plaintiff also filed charges against CHAC with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission on the basis of employment discrimination based on religion which resulted in Plaintiff receiving his right to file suit against CHAC in federal court, which he did, giving rise to the Mathis matter.

CHAC argued that Plaintiff’s discrimination claims were all barred by collateral estoppel as these same allegations were made in the context of the unemployment compensation litigation which made specific findings of fact upon which a ruling was entered against Defendant. Specifically, CHAC filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims on the basis that the unemployment litigation found he was not terminated due to religious discrimination but, rather, he voluntarily quit his job with CHAC. Based on the collateral estoppel argument, the Court granted CHAC’s Motion to Dismiss in part, ruling that Plaintiff was barred by collateral estoppel from re-litigating issues essential to his failure to accommodate his atheism claim. Plaintiff also made a retaliation claim (which is a separate issue from that described herein) against CHAC which survived the motion to dismiss.

After the Court’s ruling on the aforesaid motion to dismiss, Plaintiff discovered a Pennsylvania law which directly applied to his case as described above. As a result, Plaintiff filed what was, in essence (though not in name), a motion for reconsideration in light of the newly discovered law.

Plaintiff uncovered 43 P.S. Section 829 which reads as follows: “No finding of fact or law, judgment, conclusion or final order made with respect to a claim for unemployment compensation under this act may be deemed to be conclusive or binding in any separate or subsequent action or proceeding in another forum.”

To put it simply, the above-quoted law specifically states that any findings of fact or law in unemployment compensation litigation simply cannot be used as the basis for a collateral estoppel argument and/or defense.

In light of the clear terms of 43 P.S. Section 829, the Court reconsidered its granting of CHAC’s motion to dismiss by reversing its decision and denied it in toto to allow all of Plaintiff’s claims against CHAC to move forward.

Originally published on February 24, 2016 in Upon Further Review and can be found here.

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Fallout for Injuries Sustained by Contractor’s Employee

When construction is taking place on a piece of real estate, and an employee of the contractor doing the work is injured there, who bears the potential tort liability for the injury, the property owner, the general contractor, or both?  Luckily Pennsylvania law provides a way to discern how liability should be distributed if there is no existing contract between the contractor and property owner which addresses the liability question.

The basic legal principle is foundational, well established, and has manifold case support in Pennsylvania.  The standard of care present in such a case mirrors the standard of care a property owner has to an individual on the property owner’s land.  The standard of care a property owner has depends upon whether the individual on the property owner’s land is a trespasser, licensee, or invitee.  Under Pennsylvania law, the employee of a general contractor who is authorized to be on the property falls within the classification of business invitee, and therefore, the duty of care owed to a business invitee is the highest duty owed to any entrant upon the property.

Pennsylvania “case law sets forth the duty that a possessor of law owes to business invitees as follows:  A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, and only if, he (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.”  Chenot v. A.P. Green Services, Inc., et al., 2006 Pa.Super. 52, 63 (2006)  Therefore, a property owner is potentially liable for the injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee while on the property.

In addition, there is no doubt that a duty of care attaches to a contractor for the injuries sustained by its employees.  Suffice it to say, a contractor has a duty, for which it can be held liable if breached, for injuries sustained by its employees while they are engaged in working for the contractor at the property.  However, the duty of care applied to a contractor does not lessen or relieve the property owner of his/her/its duty of care over business invitees/visitors.  Despite a contractor’s duty of care, a property owner “must [still] protect an invitee not only against known dangers, but also against those which might be discovered with reasonable care.” The court in  Gutteridge v. A.P. Green Services Inc., A.W. et al., 804 A.2d 643, 657 (Pa. Super. 2002) stated that a property owner ‘“owes a duty to warn an unknowing contractor of existing dangerous conditions on the landowner’s premises where such conditions are known or discoverable to the owner.”’  Finally, it should also be noted that the property owner’s duty to warn remains regardless of whether a contractor ‘“exercises full control over the work and premises entrusted to him.’”  (See Gutteridge).

Based upon the above, it is abundantly clear that a property owner can be held liable for the injuries sustained by a contractor’s employee working at his property if he breaches the duty of care described above and does not fulfill his duty to warn.  Consequently, the highest standard of care that a property owner ought to maintain applies to an employee of a contractor at the property who is authorized to be working there.  Such an employee is a business invitee of the property owner.  Therefore, to that end, a property owner has a duty to protect such an employee from known dangers at the property and those which could be discovered with reasonable care.  The liability of the property owner is supplemental to, and/or in addition to, any liability the contractor may also have for his employee’s injuries.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 28, 2016 and can be found here.

The (Unemployment Compensation) Benefits of Not Minding One’s Own Business

The discernment of who is or who is not an independent contractor for the purposes of unemployment compensation has become more refined per the recent Commonwealth Court matter of Staffmore v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 92 A.3d 844 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2014).

The Claimant for unemployment compensation benefits went through a series of appeals and reversals until he found himself before Commonwealth Court. The Claimant was found ineligible for benefits by the Unemployment Compensation Service Center, but that decision was reversed after an appeal to, and hearing before, an unemployment compensation Referee. The Employer appealed to the Unemployed Compensation Board of Review which reversed the Referee’s decision. The Claimant filed for reconsideration which resulted in reversal of the Board’s decision. That decision was reversed after the Employer filed for reconsideration. However, after reviewing the case again, the Board found in favor of the Claimant, which led to the Employer appealing to the Commonwealth Court.

The Employer is a staffing service which provides workers to agencies for the care of children. Claimant worked for the Employer as therapeutic support staff. He was free to accept or reject clients, he signed an independent contract agreement, he was supervised by a behavioral specialist, who was not an employee of Employer but developed a treatment plan Claimant was obliged to follow. Claimant only worked seven (7) hours per week providing services for a single client. Claimant worked in the education field while he also worked for the Employer. Eventually, Claimant’s client no longer needed further services and Claimant subsequently advised the Employer that he would not accept any further assignments from the Employer.

It was uncontested that Claimant was free from the Employer’s control. The only issue before the Court was whether Claimant was customarily engaged in an independently-established trade, occupation, profession and/or business. If he was, he would be ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits as he would be an independent contractor. Of course, the Court made it clear that unemployment compensation law is to be construed and applied liberally in order to ensure the broadest possible availability of benefits.

In its review of the case law, the Court noted that a worker is an independent contractor only if he is in business for himself. To that end, he must be customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession, or business. The Court was clear that the Employer bears the burden to supply evidence of Claimant’s engagement in an independent business.

Although the Claimant was free from the control of the Employer, he testified that he was never, at any relevant time, customarily engaged in the business of providing therapeutic support. Claimant testified that his primary source of income, and indeed his chosen field, was working in education, not as therapeutic support staff, and never held himself out as being available for employment by anyone else other than Employer. Significantly, the Employer provided no evidence that Claimant provided comparable services to any other business or entity.

Based on the above, the Court found that the Employer simply did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that Claimant was engaged in an established business; however, the Court was concerned that Claimant testified that he appeared to have quit his position with the Employer. Consequently, the Court ruled that while Claimant may be eligible for benefits as he was not self-employed, he could be ineligible due to having voluntarily quit. As a result, the Court remanded the case back to the unemployment compensation referee to elicit more information on the circumstances of Claimant’s termination of his employment with the Employer.

Originally published on December 28, 2015 in Upon Further Review and can be found here.

Coordinating Unemployment Compensation With Severance Packages

When one applies for unemployment compensation, it is important to coordinate said application based on when one’s severance package expires and whether one is still within one’s base year, which is the length of time preceding an application for unemployment compensation.  The base year and one’s income earned over that period of time determines the calculations of the amount of one’s unemployment compensation benefits (see 43 P.S. §753(a)).  A credit week is a week within a base year where an employee (i.e.: a claimant for unemployment compensation benefits) has worked and earned above a specific threshold income (see 43 P.S. §753(g.1)).  In order to be eligible for benefits, one must receive employment income for a minimum of eighteen (18) credit weeks within a base year (see 43 P.S. §804(c)).

 

43 P.S. § 804(d)(1)(iii) states the following: “[n]otwithstanding any other provisions of this section each eligible employe who is unemployed with respect to any week ending subsequent to July 1, 1980 shall be paid with respect to such week, compensation in an amount equal to his weekly benefit rate less the total of … the amount of severance pay that is attributed to the week.”  In other words, when one applies for unemployment compensation benefits one must report the income received from a severance package and that income is deducted from the unemployment compensation benefits if they are collected simultaneously.

 

A severance package can be paid over time or in a lump sum.  If it is paid over time, usually in consecutive payroll periods, each week one receives a severance payment, said payment is considered income for a credit week which goes toward the unemployment compensation claimant’s base year, and this should be considered and accounted for before a claim for unemployment compensation benefits is made.  If the severance payment is received as a lump sum, the Court and the Department of Labor have tended to aggregate the severance on a pro-rata basis based on one’s typical earnings.  By example, if someone earns $1,000 per week, a $10,000 severance payment would be considered a ten (10) week severance.  (See: Ross v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 127 Pa.Cmwlth. 457 (1989)).

 

“Severance pay” is considered to be one or more payments made by a employer to an employee due to an employee’ separation from employment (without regard to whether the employer is contractually obligated to provide the pay).  Severance specifically does not include payments from a pension, retirement package, or accrued leave and/or supplemental unemployment benefits.  The law, pursuant to Section 43 P.S. §§ 804(e)(1)(2)(ii) and 804(d)(1) of the Unemployment Compensation law, lays out how severance packages are calculated and attributed for the purposes of benefits.

 

Based on the above, it would seem, in most cases, that the best time to apply for unemployment compensation benefits is after the expiration of one’s receipt of a severance package. As receipt of a severance package counts toward one’s base year, waiting until after the package is fully paid will not affect one’s eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits.  Furthermore, waiting until after one’s severance is paid avoids having one’s benefits deducted by the value of the severance package.  Instead, waiting until the severance package is fully paid before applying for benefits allows one to potentially receive the full severance package and a full complement of unemployment compensation benefits.  On the other hand, one ought not wait too long after the severance package expires before applying for benefits.  Regardless of the source or type of income one receives, one must always have at least eighteen (18) credit weeks within a base year to be eligible for benefits, and benefits always begin upon application for them not on one’s last day of work or receipt of the last severance payment.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer Blog on October 23, 2015 and can be found here.

Sole Legal Custody Means Solo Decision-Making

In the matter of M.P. v. M.P., 54 A.3d 950 the Superior Court of Pennsylvania clarified the extent of authority of a parent who enjoys sole legal custody s/he has over a child.

In M.P., the mother of the child at issue in the case is from Ecuador.  Most of mother’s family, including her own parents, still reside in Ecuador.  Mother was granted primary custody of the child in July 2009 and Father was awarded supervised visits for two hours per week.  Despite receiving such minimal custody, Father did not take advantage of it to spend time with his child.  In or about November 2011, after a hearing, Mother was awarded sole legal custody of the child.  Mother filed a petition to permit her to take the child to Ecuador for three weeks, a trip which Father opposed.  The lower court entered an order prohibiting Mother from taking the trip to Ecuador which led to Mother filing an appeal to Superior Court and it is the Superior Court’s decision that is the focus of this article.

Mother wanted to take the child to Ecuador as it is her own ancestral home and most of her family lives there.  It was not feasible for Mother’s family to come to the United States as there was testimony that Mother’s parents would have difficulty in securing visas to come to the United States and Mother’s mother has health issues which makes flying difficult for her.

Father opposed Mother’s proposed trip to Ecuador as he views Ecuador as a third-world nation filled with potentially dangerous diseases and crime.  He also had concerns about the compatibility of the child’s health insurance coverage with Ecuadorian hospitals and the difficulty retrieving the child if something unfortunate happened to the Mother.

The lower court, by its own volition, investigated international law and the terms of the Hague Convention regarding international custody arrangements and had concerns regarding Father’s options to retrieve the child if Mother failed to return her to the United States.

When reviewing this matter, the Superior Court reversed the lower court’s decision and permitted Mother to go to Ecuador with the child for her proposed three week trip.

The Superior Court first looked at what it means for a parent to have sole legal custody.  Legal custody is the right and ability to make major decisions for the child.  Sole legal custody is the granting of one parent exclusive and final right to make major decisions; indeed, specifically exclusive from the other parent.  The Superior Court ruled that the lower court, by allowing Father to block Mother’s trip to Ecuador, enabled him to undermine Mother’s sole legal custody, and, essentially, render it meaningless.  As a result, the Superior Court ruled that if a party has sole legal custody, the other parent cannot move to prevent it from being exercised but for a formal petition to modify the custodial arrangement.

In terms of the lower court’s reliance upon international treaties and the Hague Convention, it is notable that Father did not raise them at the hearing but the lower court took judicial notice of them.  Regardless, the Superior Court noted that it is not unusual for a court to take judicial notice of such things, so the lower court’s reliance upon them was not objectionable, at least in principle.  Instead, the Superior Court took issue with the fact that the lower court relied on that information after the hearing had concluded and without notice to the parties.  The Superior Court ruled that a party has the right to be heard as to the propriety of a court taking judicial notice of an issue, especially one as critical as international law.

Based on the above, the Superior Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling that sole legal custody cannot be undermined or otherwise disturbed without an order altering the custodial arrangement and a court taking judicial notice of an issue must indicate doing so on the record and allow the parties involved to address it.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 16, 2015 and can be found here and reprinted in Volume 37, Issue No. 3, September 2015 edition of the “Pennsylvania Family Lawyer” (see here).

Pa. Justices Clarify Evidentiary Standard for Child Abuse Registry

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court weighed in on the burden of proof required to place someone onto the statewide ChildLine Registry (“Registry”) in the matter of G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, et al., 91 A.3d 667 (2014).

In September 2009 the Lancaster County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) received a referral alleging that Plaintiff sexually abused his sixteen (16) year old niece, of who he had custody. After an investigation, CYS filed an “indicated” report against Plaintiff upon finding substantial evidence that Plaintiff had abused his niece.

Upon the finding that Plaintiff abused his niece, he was listed on the statewide Registry pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6301-6386. Subsequently, Plaintiff sought the expungement of his name from the Registry through DPW. DPW denied his request to expunge his name from the Registry and he appealed to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). After a hearing before the ALJ at which several witnesses testified against Plaintiff, the ALJ concluded that the “indicated” report was supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, denied Plaintiff’s appeal. Ultimately Plaintiff appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court which vacated the ALJ’s decision on the basis of using an improper evidentiary standard, and remanded the matter back to the ALJ.

The Commonwealth Court agreed that there was substantial evidence but further noted that there was no statutory direction as to what standard of proof is required to be placed onto the Registry and ultimately ruled that clear and convincing evidence is required to be placed onto the Registry. The Commonwealth Court’s decision was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and it is that appeal which is the subject of the case described herein.

The Supreme Court noted that an indicated report is warranted if there is substantial evidence, which is defined as “evidence that outweighs inconsistent evidence and which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” This is in contrast to the clear and convincing standard urged to be applied by the Commonwealth Court and the Plaintiff, which is defined as “evidence that is so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable the trier of fact to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts in issue.” Customarily, the clear and convincing standard is applied when a person’s “individual interests at stake in a state proceeding are both particularly important and more substantial than mere money” and especially when there is a potential for “significant deprivation of liberty or stigma.”

After an indicated report, and a placement of a person onto the Registry, that person must report his placement onto the Registry whenever he accepts some sort of position (whether through employment or volunteer work and the like) where he would have contact with children. In its review of the applicable case law the Supreme Court established that the substantial evidence standard is what has been historically used in cases such as the instant case despite an absence of a statutory directive to use that standard.

In its review of the Commonwealth Court’s decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the Commonwealth Court did not err in determining that the preservation of one’s reputation is protected under Pennsylvania’s Constitution. Nevertheless, it ruled that it did err by overestimating the significance of the Registry as something covered by the above-mentioned reputation protections as to warrant the application of the clear and convincing standard instead of the substantial evidence standard.

The Supreme Court pointed out that only a limited number of people in a limited number of circumstances could access the names on the Registry. Consequently, the Supreme Court suggested that the Commonwealth Court overstated both the potential and probability for disclosure of the information on the Registry as well as overstated the potential risk of the deprivation of a fundamental interest of someone on the Registry. As a result, the stigma that the clear and convincing standard is supposed to address is simply not present. In addition to the above, the Supreme Court found that the Commonwealth Court did not take appropriate consideration of the fact that the government has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of children.

Ultimately, in sum, the Supreme Court ruled that even though being placed on the Registry is significant, there is no legal justification to apply the clear and convincing evidence standard as opposed to the substantial evidence standard when deciding whether to place someone on it.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 20, 2015 and can be viewed here.

Unemployment Compensation Isn’t Very Charitable

A typical unemployment compensation matter is rather straightforward. The employer pays the unemployment compensation tax for each employee and the employee, if separated from employment through no fault of his own and if he has worked sufficient benefit weeks, applies for and receives benefits. This fairly typical scenario is significantly different when the employer is a not-for-profit entity.

If the employer is not-for-profit, while it is, with exception for the below, obliged to contribute toward unemployment compensation taxes, it is not obliged to do so with regularity per employee as with a typical employer. Instead, a not-for-profit entity has two other options available to it in order to accommodate the fact that it does not make a profit and may not have many assets to contribute toward the tax.

First, the not-for-profit entity can elect to use the “contributory method.” Under the contributory method, the employer must pay its unemployment compensation taxes quarterly and for the first $8,750 of each employee’s compensation, at a rate specified by the unemployment compensation law which can be found on the Pennsylvania Department of Labor’s website.

Second, the not-for-profit entity can elect to use the “reimbursable method”. Under the reimbursable method the employer must simply reimburse the Unemployment Compensation Fund, dollar-for-dollar, for the benefits outlaid. The reimbursement must be paid on a monthly or quarterly basis or else the not-for-profit employer will be switched to the contributory method.

Now, if the not-for-profit entity is a religious organization, it, pursuant to 43 Pa.C.A. Section 753(l)(4)(8)(a), is subject to a religious exemption and need not pay into the unemployment compensation fund at all but, as a result, none of the employees who work for that religious organization are able to collect unemployment compensation benefits regardless of the cause or reason for their termination and/or separation from employment. The aforesaid statute indicates that the religious organization exemption only applies to houses of worship, associations of the same, and/or entities which function and/or operate and/or are supported and/or controlled by the same which exist primarily for religious purposes. In applying this statute, cases such as Imani Christian Academy v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 42 A.3d 1171 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) make it clear that an entity such as an even a religious school would likely not be eligible for the exemption as the a school’s primary purpose is education as opposed to religion. The law is clear that an entity’s primary focus must be religion in order to receive the exemption.

The rules and law for unemployment compensation are generally applicable to most employers, however if the employer at issue is a not-for-profit entity and/or a religious organization, it must be aware of the special rules and guidelines which apply specifically to them.

Originally published on May 14, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be seen here.

U.S. Supreme Court Analyzes Definition of ‘Supervisor’

The United States Supreme Court, in the matter of Vance v. Ball State University 133 S.Ct. 2434 (2013), has weighed in on who qualifies as a supervisor of employees in order to assess liability for work place harassment. The Vance matter fills in the gaps left by the cases of Burlington Industries, Inc v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998).

 

In Vance, the Plaintiff, a black woman, worked as a substitute server at Ball State University’s (“BSU”) Banquet and Catering division of Dining Services. Over the course of her employment with BSU, the Plaintiff lodged numerous complaints of racial discrimination. Her complaints reached a head with her interactions with a fellow BSU employee Saundra Davis. Plaintiff alleged that Davis intimidated her by giving her a hard time, glaring at her, slamming pots and pans around her, and smiling at her suspiciously. Most notably for the purposes of the Vance opinion, Plaintiff claimed in her complaint that Davis was her supervisor which, alleged Plaintiff, would make BSU liable for Davis’ actions in creating a hostile work environment for Plaintiff. The case turns on whether Davis can be legally defined as a supervisor or as a fellow employee in order to hold BSU liable.

 

Pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of race or color and, through case law, an employer can be held liable under the aforesaid Act if it allows for the creation or perpetuation of a discriminatory work environment which, by definition, would unlawfully change the terms and conditions of employment. An employer can be held directly liable for a racially hostile work environment if it was negligent in taking remedial action upon a showing that it knew or should have known about the harassment; however, if the harasser is a supervisor, then an employer can be held vicariously, and strictly, liable for the actions of the supervisor. The Vance Court narrowed an employer’s vicarious, and strict, liability by ruling here that vicarious and strict liability will only attach when/if the supervisor takes a “tangible employment action”, such as exacting discipline upon or transferring or terminating the complaining employee. The rationale for finding an employer vicariously and strictly liable for the actions of a supervisor is that there is a presumption that a tangible employment decision taken by the supervisor must be officially sanctioned by the employer or, at the very least, delegated by the employer; otherwise, the supervisor would not have the authority to make such a decision. Indeed, the Court noted that even if a tangible employment action did not take place, liability can attach to an employer if a complaining employee can show the supervisor created a hostile work environment and the employer can not respond with an adequate affirmative defense for the supervisor’s actions. Affirmative defenses include the employer claiming that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and/or promptly correct the harassing behavior and/or the complaining employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the employer to remedy the matter.

 

When attempting to apply the above to the Vance matter, the Court explored all of the various uses, permutations, and definitions of the word “supervisor” and concluded that its interpretation must fit within the interpretive framework of employment cases. The Court believed that the guidelines provided by the EEOC regarding who or what defines a supervisor are vague and ambiguous. The Court ruled that the ability to direct the tasks of another employee, at least on its face, is not sufficient to qualify someone as a supervisor. The key is whether the alleged supervisor can take a tangible employment action and, in fact, the Court ruled that so doing is the “defining characteristic” of a supervisor. Indeed, the Court indicated that a co-worker can certainly inflict psychological injury and even create a hostile work environment, but a co-worker cannot dock the pay of, or demote, another employee unless s/he is a supervisor.

 

Ultimately, the Court held that the Plaintiff simply provided insufficient evidence to suggest that her harasser directed, or was empowered to direct, her day-to-day activities by BSU, let alone take tangible employment action, sufficient to qualify her as a supervisor to warrant holding the employer vicariously and/or strictly liable.

Originally published on December 24, 2013 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be found here.

Alcohol Putting Unemployment Compensation to the Test

In the matter of Dillon v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 2013 WL 2991042, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania interpreted Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law to include alcohol consumption within the meaning of 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1).

The Claimant in Dillon worked for the employer as a pipe fitter for about one (1) year. During that time, the Claimant tested positive in a random blood alcohol test and was provided a last-chance agreement in lieu of termination. Not long after the aforesaid test Claimant was subjected to another random blood test, tested positive again, and was terminated from his employment as a result of the positive test. Upon his termination, Claimant attempted to secure unemployment compensation benefits and was deemed ineligible due to having committed willful misconduct. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the Claimant is ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits. Strangely, however, instead of merely affirming the Board of Review and Referee’s findings that Claimant is ineligible, the Court embarked on what seems to be an unnecessary decision regarding which provision of the Unemployment Compensation law rendered the Claimant ineligible.

Under 43 P.S. Section 802(e), an unemployment compensation claimant is ineligible for benefits if he is terminated due to willful misconduct. The Court pointed out that as long as the employer in the instant matter can prove that the Claimant was aware of, and violated, a work rule (which the Court found the employer did prove), the Claimant could be determined ineligible for benefits. This seems to affirm the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review and Referee, yet the Court proceeded to rule that, although ineligibility could have been determined through the route just described, the Claimant was actually ineligible under 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1), which specifically addresses drug use.

The Court appeared to say that now that 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1) is available to use, it would not employ 43 P.S. Section 802(e) in drug and alcohol cases, even though the matter could reach same result. According to the Court, perhaps the most important application of 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1) over 43 P.S. Section 802(e) is that 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1) allows for ineligibility due to violation of a substance abuse policy absent any showing of willful misconduct.

43 P.S. Section 802(e.1) provides that a claimant can be determined ineligible for benefits if discharged for failing to pass a “drug test.” The issue clarified by the Dillon Court was whether alcohol, which is the substance abused by the Claimant, is a “drug” as contemplated by the aforesaid statute. The opinion of the Board of Review was that the language of the statute is clear: the word “drug” is used and not “alcohol,” therefore the Claimant cannot be deemed ineligible under 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1). In the Board’s view, if the legislature wanted to use the word “alcohol” it would have done so; as the legislature elected not to use it, it is not appropriate to read it into the law.

The Court, after an analysis which included looking at the definition of “drug” in both Black’s Law Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, concluded that alcohol can properly be considered a “drug” as the term is typically used and, indeed, read into the law. The Court further concluded, as a result, that the legislature intended to include “alcohol” as part of the definition of the word “drug” in 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1). Finally, the Court did not believe any analysis which would exclude alcohol from the definition of the word “drug” due to drugs being illegal and alcohol legal is persuasive. The Court pointed out that just as over-the-counter drugs are legal, but able to be abused, alcohol is also legal and able to be abused. In the Court’s estimation, it is the abuse of a substance that is relevant, not its legality.

In sum, then, while a claimant can be deemed ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits for violation of a drug and/or alcohol test on the basis of willful misconduct (pursuant to 43 P.S. Section 802(e)), the Court ruled that now that the statute is available, the ineligibility must now be pursuant to 43 P.S. Section 802(e.1) which speaks directly to issue of drugs.

Originally published in Upon Further Review on August 19, 2013 and can be seen here.

Is Working on the Sidelines Out of Bounds for UC?

As the economy remains precarious, unemployment compensation benefits remain vital to keeping many Pennsylvanians afloat. Of course, many applicants for unemployment compensation benefits attempt to make ends meet by doing some sort of job on the side, such as flea marketing or landscaping on the weekends for a few dollars here and there. The issue the courts have struggled with is attempting to determine whether that flea marketer or landscaper is an independent contractor or merely engaged in a sideline activity.

Under Pennsylvania unemployment compensation law, an independent contractor is considered to be self-employed and, therefore, ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits. An independent contractor is generally someone who is free from the control or direction of an employer but, rather, works for himself or herself. As the independent contractor is not an employee, he or she is ineligible for benefits if no further work is available under his or her contracts. The issue, of course, is that someone who works at a sideline activity is also similarly free from the control or direction of an employer. Would that person be similarly ineligible for benefits? The courts have generally indicated that engaging in a sideline activity does not render one ineligible for benefits, but the precise definition of what constitutes a sideline activity is still being developed.

The primary lines of distinction between independent contracting and a sideline activity include when the activity was first undertaken and whether someone is “customarily engaged” in the activity per the language of 43 P.S. Section 753(l)(2)(B) defining “employment.” The courts have ruled that earning money or engaging in a money-making enterprise for a few hours per week or month does not necessarily equate to independent contracting. The question is, after findings of fact, whether someone could be considered “customarily engaged” in the sideline activity. In fact, it is significant to note that a potential claimant engaged in a sideline activity may even consider himself or herself an independent contractor; however, this claimant’s self-identification is irrelevant, as the analysis is exclusively based on the factual underpinnings of each case.

For example, if someone, say a truck driver, loses his job and elects to work a few hours landscaping thereafter in order to earn some money to tide him over, does that make him a contractor or engaged in a sideline activity? It all depends on whether this former truck driver is now pursuing a new business venture as a landscaper or just trying to earn a little money to scrape by before he can engage actual employment. Obviously, the analysis to determine the difference between a new business venture and sideline activity is extremely fact-intensive and focuses on the number of hours spent at the work done and the amount of investment the person makes into the work. For instance, does this former truck driver help mow his neighbor’s lawns for $20 a cut every other week, or has he established “Ryan’s Lawncare” and purchased materials and advertising toward it? It likely goes without saying that the former is a sideline activity, which would not render him ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits, while the latter would be considered establishing a business (i.e., becoming an independent contractor), rendering him ineligible for benefits.

The other relevant issue in determining whether something is independent contracting or a sideline activity is when and how the work was established. If it began while one already had an established full-time job, it is more likely to be considered a sideline activity. For example, after a few years of practice, a full-time accountant may discover he enjoys doing Web design in the evenings or on the weekends for a few hours here or there for limited compensation. Would he be considered as customarily engaged as a Web designer? The likely answer would be no, as the Web designing a few hours per week arose while he was otherwise employed as a full-time accountant as opposed to after he became unemployed from his position as an accountant. Further, the accountant’s income and time is overwhelmingly because of being an accountant and, more than likely, when asked what he does for a living, he identifies as an accountant.

Finally, it should be noted that the precise number of hours or rate of compensation is not necessarily relevant to the analysis as neither is specified by the law. Take our accountant above as an example: If his five or six hours per week of Web design expanded to 10 or 15 after he lost his job as an accountant, the Web designing would likely remain a “sideline activity” and not render him ineligible for benefits. As far as compensation is concerned, someone who works on commission and, therefore, has compensation delayed for months, perhaps weeks, could be considered employed despite having no compensation for a long period of time, as compensation is contemplated in the future for the present work.

As the cases continue to be decided on the issue, the definition of “customarily engaged” will become more refined and clear. The fact pattern of each subsequent case will further refine and crystallize what a sideline activity is and help guide potential claimants in deciding whether to undertake such an activity. Of course, before embarking on an activity that could potentially risk one’s eligibility for unemployment compensation, it is always recommended that a claimant consult with an attorney first.

Some cases on this issue that the reader may find helpful include the following: Crocker v. Unemployment Board of Review, 63 A.3d 496 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2013), Minelli v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 39 A.3d 593 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2012), and Kelly v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 840 A.2d 469 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2004).

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer Blog on August 2, 2013 and can be viewed here.

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