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Put up or shut up – workers claiming emotional distress must produce medical records to prove it

July 19th, 2013  |  Lorene Park  |  1 Comment

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

While many think the doctor-patient privilege is sacrosanct, in fact, it is not absolute. Much like an attorney-client privilege is waived when the client places the attorney’s representation at issue (such as in a malpractice claim), an employee who puts his or her mental condition at issue by claiming that an employer’s actions or inaction caused emotional distress is often held to have waived the doctor-patient privilege. Basically, it’s a put-up-or-shut-up situation.

As explained by a court in a sexual harassment case, because the employee claimed the employer’s actions caused mental anguish and emotional distress, access to her medical and mental health records was warranted so the employer could evaluate, for purposes of its defense, whether the emotional distress stemmed from a pre-existing condition or other unrelated events (Seegmiller v Macey’s, Inc, DUtah June 19, 2013). Likewise, in a case where an employee sought damages for emotional pain and suffering allegedly caused by an employer’s race and gender bias, the court held that her demand for such damages waived any broad assertion of physician-patient privilege (Johnson v Federal Express Corp, MDPa  April 24, 2013). However, the production of her records was subjected to a protective order in the interest of maintaining her privacy. Protective orders are common in these situations. Notably, an employee who refuses to comply by providing records risks sanctions, such as having to pay attorneys’ fees incurred by an employer in having to re-do depositions or to obtain a court order compelling the employee to comply (see, e.g., Knight v Domtar Paper Co, LLC, DSC April 17, 2013).

Compelled exams. In some cases where an employee alleges severe emotional distress as an element of damages, or asserts a separate claim for emotional distress, courts will often grant an employer’s motion to compel the employee to undergo an independent psychiatric exam under Rule 35. This usually happens when the court finds that the employee has claimed more than “garden variety” emotional distress. As explained by one court, to warrant an examination under Rule 35, the employee must affirmatively put her mental condition at issue and the employer must show good cause (Denny v Wingspan Portfolio Advisors, LLC, NDTex June 5, 2013). To the court, allegations of general emotional distress for which an employee seeks no treatment are not enough to put mental condition at issue.

In the view of many courts, an employee places her mental condition at issue when she alleges a permanent or ongoing psychiatric mental disorder or emotional distress that requires psychiatric or psychological treatment as a result of discrimination. But this issue is not limited to discrimination cases. For example, a court in Washington found that an employee, who sought compensation for wages lost during a period of disability caused by emotional distress, waived the physician-patient privilege by asserting more than a “garden-variety” claim and granted, in part, an employer’s motion to compel discovery of her medical records and information (Carrig v Kellogg USA Inc, WDWash January 30, 2013). According to the court, “emotional distress which is so severe that it eliminates a person’s ability to work and forms the basis for leave is not ‘garden variety.’”

Conversely, in one case, an employee who sought emotional distress damages, but characterized them as “garden variety” and denied receiving professional mental health treatment, was not required to undergo a Rule 35 exam, even though he supported his claims by producing the report of a psychologist identified as a “workplace bullying” expert (Montana v County of Cape May Board of Freeholders, DNJ April 22, 2013). He did not seek to produce any mental health records at trial, or to call a medical expert on his behalf. The court held that the bullying expert’s report did not put the employee’s mental health in controversy because it focused on the nature of the employer’s actions, not the employee’s mental health.

As for “good cause” for the employer’s seeking the Rule 35 exam, courts will consider whether the employee has retained an expert and whether the employer has other means of obtaining the information (i.e., whether the examination could reveal specific facts necessary to the claim or defense), among other factors.

The message for employees (and plaintiffs’ attorneys) is clear — if you want to claim emotional distress as more than just a general “garden variety” element of damages, be ready to back that up with medical records.

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President withdraws two NLRB nominations, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection nominee is confirmed

July 16th, 2013  |  Pamela Wolf  |  Add a Comment

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

As a result of a brokered deal to avert a potential disaster, President Obama withdrew the nominations of his two recess appointments to the NLRB, the question of whether the Senate rules should be changed to get rid of the filibuster with regard to executive nominations has been delayed, and one of the president’s nominees has been confirmed by the Senate.

At about 11:00 am (ET) July 16, 2013, the Senate, by a vote of 71-29, agreed to a cloture motion to limit the debate on President Obama’s nomination of Richard Cordray to be Director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection for a term of five years. The move signaled a halt to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev) threat to impose the so-called “nuclear option,” under which he would move forward with a plan to change the Senate rules to eliminate filibusters with regard to executive branch nominations.

The battle between the parties over the stall on Obama’s nominations reached fever pitch this week, particularly with regard to Cordray, the five slated candidates to serve as members of the NLRB, and the pending nominee for Secretary of Labor. Without action on the NLRB nominees, the agency would be effectively shut down when the term of the only confirmed board member expires on August 27.

Good for the Senate. In floor statements leading up to the cloture vote, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) noted that a meeting last night between 98 senators working to avoid the nuclear option was a “productive discussion” on resolving issues. Reid noted this was “not a time to flex muscles” and was appreciative of McCain’s “advocacy and persistence.” Reid concluded that compromise was “good for the Senate.” Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), a member of the Senate Banking Committee, noted that after moving past the cloture vote on Cordray it was time to “work constructively” on the country’s problems.

Deal to end stand-off. Under a deal forged to avoid the nuclear option, the president has withdrawn the nominations of his two recess appointments to the NLRB, members Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, and will nominate two other individuals with input from organized labor, which traditionally has been aligned with Democrats, according to media reports. In exchange, Reid agreed to delay action on the question of whether the Senate rules should be modified.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), the senior Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, released a statement confirming the agreement reached by Senate leadership and the White House, under which the administration will send two new nominees to the NLRB and pull the Griffin and Block nominations. The White House, Alexander said, will submit two new nominations shortly. The HELP Committee has already scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. on July 23 on the two new nominees, he noted.

HELP Committee Chairman Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also issued a statement: “Today’s deal, while not ideal, will allow for a fully-confirmed Board for the first time in a decade, and that is a step forward for our country. It is my hope that Republicans will make good on their word to give swift consideration to these nominees, and that this could bring a new beginning for the Board, so that the dedicated public servants at the agency can do their jobs without the constant political attacks and interference that we have seen in recent years.”

“While today’s agreement on nominees leaves the necessary work of Senate rules reform still to be done,” he continued, “I am pleased that the minority appears to be willing to allow the Senate to move on a number of important executive nominations, consistent with the history of the Senate and, I believe, with the framers’ intent. In particular, I welcome the news that the Senate will act to advance the nomination of Thomas Perez to serve as Labor Secretary.”

Meanwhile, Cordray’s nomination was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 66-34.

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Would you fire an employee for using the n-word?

July 11th, 2013  |  Joy Waltemath  |  Add a Comment

I’m not asking whether you agree with the Food Network, or the sponsors who responded to Paula Deen’s acknowledged prior use of the n-word by dismissing her or severing ties with her. I’m asking whether, as an employer, you would have fired one of your employees who used that particular racial slur in the workplace; whether as a law firm, you would have advised your client to fire an employee who did so. What about other discipline: Suspension? Final warning? What would you have done?

I looked at a sampling of recent (within the last six months) cases Employment Law Daily reported involving that particular racial slur to see what employers actually did. Specifically, I looked for cases where disciplinary action (or the lack thereof) for using racial epithets was discussed in the case; that was not always easy to find.

Not terminated, but was owner’s wife. The Northern District of Alabama (Sales v Five Points Temporaries, L.L.C., June 19, 2013) found ample evidence, based on the sheer number of racially charged comments, to support an African-American employee’s claim that she was discharged by a temp agency because she objected to assigning workers according to clients’ racial preferences, The temp agency owner’s wife, a manager with supervisor authority over the employee, regularly called African-Americans, including this employee, the n-word. So did the branch manager/VP of operations; so did the company owner. Perhaps this case is not a fair example, since it was the owner’s wife whose racial slurs were at issue here.

Final warning given, but was retaliation for union activity. Here’s one where the NLRB found (Ozburn-Hessey Logistics, LLC, May 2, 2013) that an employer’s final warning to an employee for allegedly calling a co-worker the n-word during a confrontation was actually retaliation for her pro-union activity. Although the warning supposedly was for violating the employer’s anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy, there was evidence that the employer did not believe that the use of racial slurs merited discipline, since it overlooked similar offensive statements made by a high-level supervisor to subordinate employees.

Not terminated, but complaining employee was. The Northern District of North Carolina found a jury question in whether an African-American employee who was involved in a fracas with a white coworker was terminated unfairly while the other employee was retained. Amidst a backdrop of racially derogatory comments by coworkers and management, including use of the n-word by the white employee who was not terminated, plus threats of physical harm, management’s response was “indifference.” The African-American employee’s complaints were disregarded, and the physical threats characterized as “horseplay.” (Billips v Benco Steel, Inc, April 30, 2013).

Terminated three months later. In April, the D.C. Circuit revived an employee’s race discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims (on which the lower court had granted summary judgment), one of which involved a vice-president calling him the n-word during a meeting to discuss the employee’s concerns. Here, the vice-president was terminated. Although the employer argued that it promptly corrected the vice president’s behavior by firing him three months after the incident, the court noted that a reasonable jury could find that the three-month delay was not “prompt” (Ayissi-Etoh v Fannie Mae, April 5, 2013).

Final warning given. This case involved a coworker’s use of the n-word that was overheard and not directed at the complaining employee, which was reported immediately; Walmart investigated the same day. The coworker admitted the slur and apologized; Walmart gave the coworker a final warning, coached her, and cautioned her that the next disciplinary level would be termination. Unhappy that her coworker was not fired, the employee called the Walmart hotline to complain. Walmart reopened the investigation but stood by its earlier decision. The Southern District of Alabama found  (Denham v Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, March 26, 2013) that any employee’s use of the n-word was “patently offensive,” but an “isolated utterance on a single occasion,” not directed at anyone in the workplace, was a stray remark that failed to meet the legal threshold for a cognizable Title VII claim.

No apparent discipline. Two of a trucking company’s employees were racially harassed and one was fired because of race and in retaliation for complaining about racial harassment (EEOC v A.C. Widenhouse, February 22, 2013). The African-American truck drivers were repeatedly subjected to unwelcome derogatory racial comments and slurs, including the n-word, by the general manager (who was also the supervisor) and other white employees. There was no record in the Middle District of North Carolina’s decision of any discipline against the manager or employees who used the racial slurs.

No discipline. Within the context of a foreman calling the African-American employee “boy” over 200 times within an eight-month period and other harassing conduct, that foreman’s failure to discipline a white coworker for using the n-word was evidence of a racially hostile work environment, the Southern District of Alabama ruled (Jackson v Dunn Construction Company Inc, February 21, 2013).

No discipline. After a welder reported a barrage of racial slurs including the n-word to his supervisor, he was told not to worry about his coworkers because they were “from the mountains. They’re not used to being around black people.” (Nooses were also founding hanging from welding booms at the worksite). The Eastern District of Pennsylvania found this evidence of a racially hostile work environment (Francis v Atlas Machining & Welding, Inc, February 14, 2013).

Ineffective discipline. The sole African-American employee in the processing area of a steel plant was subjected to egregious racial harassment by coworkers and supervisors, including liberal use of the n-word and other slurs, KKK and King Kong graffiti, stuffed monkeys hanging on nooses, and a death threat (Turley v ISG Lackawanna, Inc, January 11, 2013). With respect to any disciplinary action taken by management against employees using racial slurs, the Western District of New York found that the manager of labor relations, manager of HR, and the area manager dismissed the misconduct as trivial, conducted half-hearted investigations, and administered “slaps on the wrist” rather than genuine discipline. The jury awarded $24M in punitive damages, which the court reduced to $5M, but it let stand $1.32M in compensatory damages.

My conclusion from this admittedly unscientific survey? Despite the ugliness in the case law I found, which primarily (but not exclusively) reflected late, ineffective, or no discipline at all, it seems that employers that do discipline and/or terminate individuals who use egregious and inexcusable racial language in the workplace—well, they’re not the ones getting sued.

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Height as a disability: Employee advances claim based on short stature

July 9th, 2013  |  Kathy Kapusta  |  1 Comment

To paraphrase a line from an old Randy Newman song, short people got no reason to file a disability discrimination claim under the ADA. Or do they? In McElmurry v Arizona Department of Agriculture, a federal district court in Arizona has given employers yet one more reason to think twice before taking any adverse employment action.

In that case, the employee, who worked for the Arizona Department of Agriculture helping to combat the Asian citrus psyllid — a small insect — had a contentious relationship with her supervisor, who allegedly berated employees for not taking her calls at lunch; falsely accused the employee of making mistakes on her reports; and would not allow anyone to talk, listen to the radio, or use the restroom in the building. When she increased the employee’s bug screening quota despite her concerns about eye-strain, headaches, neck aches, and back pains, the employee declared her intent to file harassment charges.

The supervisor then accused the employee of sabotaging screening results, demoted her to field work, and forced her to drive a work vehicle despite the employee’s objection that she couldn’t drive it because of her small stature (she was approximately 4’10’’). The employee, who was fired after she was subsequently injured, sued for disability discrimination.

Not your typical impairment. The court first noted that a person is disabled within the meaning of the ADA if he or she suffers from “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” Beyond this definition, the court pointed out, the ADA does not specify what impairments qualify. However, it noted, the EEOC has clarified that the definition of the term “impairment” does not include physical characteristics such as eye color, hair color, left-handedness, or height, weight, or muscle tone that are within “normal range.” Thus, the court observed, height is not a typical impairment.

Moreover, in Sutton v United Airlines, Inc, the Supreme Court stated that “an employer is free to decide that physical characteristics or medical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment — such as one’s height, build, or singing voice — are preferable to others, just as it is free to decide that some limiting, but not substantially limiting, impairments make individuals less than ideally suited for a job.”

Outside “normal” range. Here, however, the employee alleged that her height was outside the “normal” range. While her employer, citing Sutton, contended that height can never be a disability, the court disagreed, stating that it was “unable to make such a conclusion on the very limited record before it.” Breathing life into the employee’s claim, at least for purposes of a motion to dismiss, the court found that it was plausible that “short stature” could, in some contexts, substantially limit one or more of an individual’s major life activities. Thus, the court rejected the employer’s contention that the employee could not demonstrate that her height was a disability.

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Without notice and comment rulemaking, DOL’s first Administrator Interpretation deeming mortgage loan officers nonexempt invalid

July 3rd, 2013  |  David Stephanides  |  Add a Comment

In a win for the Mortgage Bankers Association, the D.C. Circuit has reversed a district court order dismissing the Association’s challenge to the Wage and Hour Division’s first “Administrator Interpretation” concluding that mortgage loan officers were nonexempt under the FLSA (Mortgage Bankers Association v Harris, July 2, 2013, Brown, J). Without addressing the merits of the Interpretation, the appeals court remanded the case with instructions to vacate it.

Administrator interpretations. Reflecting a change in direction for compliance assistance, the Department of Labor in 2010 announced that in lieu of opinion letters, it would issue more generalized guidance in the form of Administrator Interpretations when it finds it necessary to provide further clarity regarding the proper interpretation of a statutory or regulatory issue. To date, four Interpretations have issused – two under the FLSA and two under the FMLA.

Administrator Interpretations are “intended to set forth a general interpretation of the law and regulations that are applicable across-the-board to an entire industry, category of employees, or to all employees,” the agency explained. In the DOL’s view, the approach represented a more efficient use of resources than attempting to provide definitive opinion letters in response to fact-specific requests submitted by individuals and organizations.

In the agency’s inaugural Interpretation, the exempt status of mortgage loan officers was addressed “to provide needed guidance on this important and frequently litigated area of the law.” The 2010 Administrator Interpretation rescinded a 2006 opinion letter and held that mortgage loan officers did not qualify for the administrative exemption. The appeals court found that the agency’s 2010 Interpretation was inconsistent with its white-collar exemption regulation, 29 CFR Sec. 541.203(b), as revised in 2004. Because the agency’s new interpretation was at odds with the agency’s rule, it had to conduct notice and comment rulemaking.

Notice and comment required. Relying on its decisions in Paralyzed Veterans of America v D.C. Arena L.P. and Alaska Professional Hunters Ass’n v FAA, the appeals court reaffirmed that when an agency has given its regulation a definitive interpretation, and later significantly revises that interpretation, the agency has in effect amended its rule, which it could not accomplish under the Administrative Procedure Act without notice and comment.

The appeals court found itself in general agreement with the association that there is no “separate and independent” requirement of reliance in determining whether an agency’s interpretation qualifies as definitive. Rather, reliance is just one of several factors courts can look to. Because the DOL conceded the existence of two definitive—and conflicting—agency interpretations at oral argument, the association prevailed. Thus, the appeals court reversed a lower court order and remanded the case with instructions to vacate the 2010 Administrator Interpretation. 

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