• Thank you for all your help on [AW's] case. Without you, nothing would have come from it. We will be sending people your way. We hope that we will not need your help again, but if we do you will be hearing from us.”

    - J.W., East Machias.
  • We appreciate everything you have done for us. You made this whole process much easier on [P.C.] and me. Words cannot express our gratitude.”

    - K.C., Sanford.
  • Thank you for your efforts and hard work in resolving my case. Your leadership and initiatives were outstanding. I felt truly represented, respected and was treated with honesty and integrity. We are grateful for a positive result and grateful for the excellent teamwork!”

    - L.D., Portland.
  • I want to thank you and your staff for all you and they did. The professional and compassionate way my case was handled is greatly appreciated. It was a pleasure to do business with your firm and if the need ever arises I will be back in touch. Thank you again.”

    - M.H., Bangor.
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Two former Walmart employees in New York have filed a class action against the company under New York’s law that entitles pregnant employees to reasonable accommodations.  Under a New York law enacted in 2016, employers must provide pregnant employees with reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related medical conditions, such as changes to their work schedules or leave from work.

According to the advocacy group representing the women who filed the lawsuit, New York is one of 23 states with a law that have enacted laws which specifically entitle pregnant employees to reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related medical conditions.  Maine does not have such a law and, thus, it is more legally complicated in Maine to establish that a pregnant worker is entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

The class action, filed in New York state court, alleges that Walmart violated this New York state law because it assessed attendance points to the two women when they had to miss work due to pregnancy-related medical conditions.  According to the lawsuit, Walmart has an attendance policy, similar to many employers, where it assesses points to employees who have unscheduled absences and then disciplines them when they accumulate a certain number of points.  The two women who filed the lawsuit had to miss work in order to seek medical care related to their pregnancies and Walmart held that time missed against them.  According to the women, they asked if they could be excused from work for these medical reasons but Walmart managers refused and, so, the women had to choose between their jobs and their health.

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The Rhode Island ACLU has sued the Newport Grand Casino claiming that the casino paid their client, Paula Borrelli, less because of her gender.  Borrelli claims that she learned during a meeting in December 2016 that her male colleague received higher pay than her.  She says that she immediately asked for the same pay as this male colleague but the casino denied her request in May 2017 without any explanation.

“I just held myself together. I was falling apart inside because I was disgusted,” Borrelli said. “I was thinking they were building me up over these months thinking to myself that they’re working on it and this is it. And the answer was ‘we’re doing nothing.’”

“Ms. Borrelli’s case epitomizes both the deeply-ingrained problem of wage discrimination that too many women routinely face and the need for stronger, not weaker, protections in the law to address this discrimination,” said RI ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown in a statement. “That is why, although we rarely handle employment discrimination cases in the private sector, we felt it important to get involved in the case and help bring attention to this important issue.”

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medical-marijuana-300x300Last month the Maine Supreme Court struck a blow against medical marijuana users and the marijuana industry in Maine.  In the case, a worker who sustained a work-related injury received a prescription for marijuana to treat his pain.  Maine’s Workers Compensation Board ordered the employer to cover the cost of the marijuana but the Maine Supreme Court reversed that decision because, according to the Court, it conflicted with federal law.  Two Justices on the Court dissented from the decision.

The Court reasoned that if the employer was forced to pay for its employee’s medical marijuana, it would violate federal laws that still classify marijuana as a dangerous controlled substance.  Those laws prohibit anyone from “aiding and abetting” someone in possessing or selling marijuana.  The Court determined that if the employer paid for its employee’s marijuana, it would aid and abet the employee’s violation of federal law and, thus, violate the law itself.  In circumstances such as this, the Court held, federal law preempts state law and state law cannot be enforced against the employer.

The Court expressly stated that it was not deciding whether Maine’s marijuana law was entirely invalid.  The Court noted that courts in other states have held that state law protections for marijuana consumers who choose to buy marijuana are not preempted by federal law.  The Court, thus, left the issue of the validity of these consumer protections for another day.

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is starting a pilot program that will allow some truck drivers under the age of 21 to drive trucks across state lines.  In Maine, you can get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) when you are 16 years old but federal regulations require you to be 21 to drive across state lines.  Only drivers who operated heavy vehicles in the military will be eligible to participate in this FMCSA pilot program.

According to the FMCSA, the “purpose of the Under 21 pilot program will be to determine whether persons under the age of 21 can safely operate CMVs in interstate commerce, and to enhance opportunities for persons with relevant military training to enter the CMV industry. While many intrastate CMV drivers are already in this age group, the Agency is not aware of any studies or published reports comparing their safety performance with that of drivers over 21, either interstate or intrastate.”

Members of Congress introduced a bill earlier this year to lower the commercial truck driving age to 18.  There is a shortage of truck drivers that has been creating problems for businesses who need trucks to ship their goods.  One way to increase the number of truck drivers would be to increase the amount of pay they make but lowering the age of drivers could also increase the number of truck drivers.

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In Minnesota, the legislature is debating a bill that would expand the types of sexual harassment that would violate state law.  The bill would overturn court decisions which require sexual harassment to be “severe or pervasive” to be illegal.  If passed, this bill would provide a powerful incentive to employers to do even more to address the epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Both federal and state courts use the “severe or pervasive” standard to distinguish between harassment that an employee can sue her employer for and harassment that she cannot.  There are numerous examples of court cases where courts applied this standard and dismissed cases where many people believe the harassment should have been unlawful.  For example, in one case from Alabama, a court held that harassment was not “severe or pervasive” even though it included a man doing things to a female subordinate such as knocking her over onto a couch and asking her to “blow” him; propositioning her for sex; referring to women as “tramps,” “sluts,” and “bitches;” playing with his zipper in front of her while saying “hey babe;” and other crude sexist conduct.

If this Minnesota bill becomes law, it is unclear where Minnesota courts will draw the line between actionable harassment and unactionable harassment.  They could decide that any sexual harassment, no matter how severe or pervasive, is actionable.  In which case, women who experienced minor forms of sexual harassment could get very small amounts of monetary relief if they sued.  But perhaps even more important than providing some monetary relief, those lawsuits could permit the courts, through their powers to order “injunctive relief,” to force employers to take actions to better prevent and correct sexual harassment.

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Last week, a federal judge held that a jury could reasonably find that Hannaford fired one of the Maine Employee Rights Group’s (MERG) clients because of his age, disabilities, and need for medical leave.  MERG’s client worked for Hannaford for over thirty years and served as the Produce Manager at the Waldoboro Hannaford store when Hannaford fired him.  At the time of his termination, he was 58 years old; suffered from heart disease, knee and back impairments, and a shoulder injury; and had repeatedly needed medical leaves due to his medical conditions.  Hannaford fired MERG’s client on the day he returned from a medical leave.

Before MERG’s client went out on medical leave, the Waldoboro store was planning to undergo a major remodel and expansion which would increase both the sales volume of the store and the stress on the store’s employees.  The store manager asked MERG’s client whether he could “handle” the stress associated with the expansion but there was evidence that he did not ask other managers in the store—who were younger and not disabled—this same question.

While MERG’s client was out on medical leave, Hannaford claims it received information indicating that MERG’s client was not complying with food safety policies relating to the preparation of cut fruit.  Hannaford launched a food safety investigation and the store manager and an associate relations manager met with MERG’s client in connection with that investigation on the day he returned from medical leave.  During this meeting, the store manager claims MERG’s client admitted that he knowingly violated food safety policy and that is why Hannaford claims it fired him.  MERG’s client denies that he admitted to violating policy and says that no one even asked him if he thought he was violating food safety policy.

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This week a Federal judge in Maine denied, in large part, Hannaford’s motion to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Maine Employee Rights Group (MERG).  MERG argued that Hannaford violated disability discrimination and medical leave laws when it refused to modify our client’s schedule.  As a result, the case is slated to go to trial later this year.

MERG’s client works as an Assistant Manager in the Meat Department of the Waterville, Maine Hannaford store.  He suffers from Lyme disease and, due to this disability, he asked Hannaford for a modified schedule as a reasonable accommodation which would allow him to start and finish work earlier in the day.  He needed this early schedule because his Lyme disease symptoms (which include fatigue, dizziness, and pain) escalate in the late afternoon.  Our client had been working this early schedule for a long time, without any problems, and then Hannaford changed his schedule to make it consistent with the schedules of Assistant Meat Department Managers in other stores.  Even though our client got a note from his doctor supporting his request for the early schedule, Hannaford denied the request.  The judge held that a reasonable fact-finder could determine that Hannaford’s denial of our client’s request violated his right to reasonable accommodations and was discriminatory under state and federal disability discrimination laws.

After Hannaford denied our client’s request to go back to his old schedule, he asked for a reduced leave schedule under the FMLA.  Under the FMLA (state and federal), eligible employees are entitled to a reduction in their hours if they need such a reduction due to a serious health condition.  Our client still thought he was entitled to start and finish work earlier, as a reasonable accommodation for his disability; but because Hannaford denied that request, he and his doctor asked Hannaford to reduce his schedule so that he would consistently finish work in the mid-afternoon.  Hannaford denied this request as well.  To add insult to injury, Hannaford also retaliated against our client for requesting a modified schedule by refusing to let him punch-in early.  The judge held that a reasonable fact-finder could determine that Hannaford violated our client’s rights under the FMLA and unlawfully retaliated against him when it refused to let him punch-in early.

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Uber recently capitulated to public pressure and decided to no longer require victims of sexual harassment or assault to bring their individual claims against the company through arbitration. Uber, like many companies, puts arbitration clauses into the fine print of agreements that employees, drivers, and passengers must agree to in order to do business with Uber. Just about no one reads this fine print and many probably would not understand what the fine print meant even if they read it.

Arbitration, when used appropriately, can be an efficient and fair process. It can be fair when the parties to the agreement have equal bargaining power and one party does not have a built-in advantage over another if a dispute goes to arbitration. For example, companies and unions often agree to use arbitration and that process is usually fair and efficient. However, the way Uber and many other companies use arbitration, serious problems can get swept under the rug and go unaddressed because arbitration is often secretive and slanted in favor of large companies.  (Please see other posts on this blog regarding arbitration for an explanation of why it is problematic.)

For these reasons, Uber faced increasing pressure to permit sexual harassment and assault victims to pursue claims against the company in court, instead of through arbitration. Interestingly, Uber only exempted sexual harassment and assault claims from the arbitration process. So, for example, if the company systematically discriminated against racial minorities, those claims would still have to go through the unfair arbitration process. Furthermore, Uber’s arbitration fine print still does not permit people to file class actions against the company for sexual assault or harassment.

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This week, the Supreme Court held in the Epic Systems case that corporations may legally force employees to choose between their jobs and their right to bring class or collective actions for wage theft—which really is not a choice at all. The vast majority of employees cannot refuse their employers’ demands to relinquish their rights to bring class or collective actions  because they cannot afford to lose their jobs.

The Supreme Court Justices split 5-4 in this controversial decision. Justice Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion and Justice Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion that Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent described the horrible injustices that will occur due to this wrongly decided case. Because of the Court’s decision, many employees will have no choice but to pursue wage theft claims against their employers on an individual basis, which, as Justice Ginsburg explained, will allow an increasing number of corporations to get away with wage theft.

Justice Ginsburg’s description of the events likely to unfold as result of this decision was spot on:

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Starbucks has decided to institute company-wide training on implicit bias. The company’s decision came on the heels of an incident where Starbucks employees called the police to remove some black people from the store for doing something that white people do all the time. These black people were waiting for a friend before they bought their coffee. It is, of course, possible that conscious racism against black people motivated these employees to call the police. However, it is more likely that implicit bias, motives that people don’t think about but that cause them to act in certain ways, caused these Starbucks employees to call the police.

Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of implicit bias for decades. Pretty much everybody has an implicit bias against certain groups of people and in favor of other groups of people. For instance, regardless of how much they abhor racism, almost everyone who is not black has implicit bias against black people which unconsciously drives their actions when they interact with black people.

One of the consultants assisting Starbucks believes that companies need to implement systems where employees work together to combat implicit bias, as opposed to asking individuals to police their own biases. “Any strategy that essentially relies on people to try not to be biased is doomed to fail; that’s the heart of the problem,” said David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. “You’ve got to shift the focus from individuals trying not to be biased to teams being able to catch bias,” he said.