In a recent decision handed down by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, No. 17-5483 (6th Cir. 2018), the Court held that in certain circumstances telecommuting may constitute a reasonable accommodation.

Andrea Mosby-Meachem was hired by Memphis Light in 2005 as an in-house labor, employment and workers’ compensation attorney. In 2011, the General Counsel for Memphis Light issued a written policy, which stated her expectations that her staff members were to work in the office. The Company, however, did not have a formal, written policy regarding telecommuting, some employees often telecommuted, and in 2012 Mosby-Meachem was allowed to work from home for two weeks while recovering from neck surgery.

In early January 2013, Mosby-Meachem was in her 23rd week of pregnancy when her doctor ordered her on 10-weeks of bed rest. She requested to work from home, but approximately three weeks later an ADA committee formed by Memphis Light denied her request on the basis that her physical presence in the office was an essential job function, and because of concerns regarding the confidentiality of her work. Significantly, Mosby-Meachem worked from home while her request was being considered and until it was denied, as no one from Memphis Light told her to stop working.

Mosby-Meachem brought claims of pregnancy discrimination under Tennessee law, and failure to accommodate and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Memphis Light’s motion for summary judgment was denied and a jury subsequently awarded Mosby-Mecheam $92,000 in compensatory damages for disability discrimination, but it denied her claims of pregnancy discrimination and retaliation. The trial court also awarded her $18,184.32 in back pay.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit noted that determining essential job functions was highly fact specific, and that while Memphis Light had produced several pieces of evidence to support the need for in-person attendance, Mosby-Meachem had demonstrated that she could and had performed the essential functions of her job remotely, that Memphis Light’s job description was 20-years old and did not reflect changes in technology, and that Memphis Light had not engaged in the interactive process regarding Mosby-Meachem’s accommodation request. The 6th Circuit accordingly affirmed the jury’s verdict. In upholding the verdict, the 6th Circuit found that the case was distinguishable from prior precedent (Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, No. 16-6078 (6th Cir. 2017) and EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. 2014), where plaintiffs either had requested to telecommute indefinitely, they had not previously telecommuted, or being in the workplace truly was an essential job function given the plaintiff’s performance issues or the need to be logged into a computer at the work place in order to receive customer telephone calls.

Some takeaways from this decision are that an employer needs to:

  • Review every accommodation request on an individualized, case-by-case basis;
  • Engage in the interactive process with the employee making the request;
  • Analyze the essential functions of the position in issue to determine if they can be (or have been) performed with the requested accommodation; and
  • Review and update job descriptions on a regular basis.

On March 7, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined in a landmark ruling that federal law protects transgender individuals from employment discrimination. The Sixth Circuit also determined that private employers cannot use their religious beliefs to justify discrimination against transgender individuals.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision case in the case of EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes involved Aimee Stephens, who was born biologically male, and who was working as a funeral director. After working for some time, Aimee told the company’s owner of plans to transition to female and to begin dressing as a woman at work due to a gender identity disorder. The owner then fired Aimee on the basis that “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man.” The owner further explained that he disapproved of gender transition as part of his sincerely held religious beliefs because it “violat[es] God’s commands.”

Aimee filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to challenge the termination on the basis that it amounted to unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The EEOC sued the company, and a district court in Michigan ruled that the company had engaged in sex discrimination against Aimee because the termination was based on unlawful sex stereotypes.  The district court further ruled that the company nonetheless legally terminated Aimee because a federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permits private employers to discriminate against workers when their personal religious beliefs compel them to do so.

The case went to the Sixth Circuit on appeal, where the Court held unequivocally that Title VII does protect transgender individuals from employment discrimination. As a result, the company’s decision to terminate Aimee due to Aimee’s transgender status and plans to transition did amount to illegal sex discrimination. The court explained that discrimination based on transgender status improperly punishes an employee based on sex stereotyping, or failing to confirm to gender norms. The court rejected the company’s argument that transgender discrimination is not sex-based discrimination and explained that it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on transgender status without taking the employee’s sex into account.

After resolving the first issue, the Sixth Circuit turned to the issue of whether the company could justify its discrimination against Aimee by pointing to the owner’s religious beliefs. This was significant because the Sixth Circuit was the first federal court of appeals to address the religious defense in a case of this nature. The Sixth Circuit evaluated all of the issues and ruled that the owner’s religious beliefs did not provide a defense and therefore did not excuse Aimee’s discriminatory termination. The Sixth Circuit rejected the company’s argument that Aimee’s presence as a transgender individual would create a distraction for the company’s customers and explained that this argument was based on assumptions about the customers’ “presumed biases” and it was therefore inadequate. The Sixth Circuit also rejected the company’s argument that employing Aimee would substantially burden the owner’s religious practices, since merely employing Aimee was not tantamount to supporting Aimee’s sex or gender identity.

These issues are sure to spark further debate and litigation, especially in light of statements made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others in the administration and the legislature. We will continue to monitor the developments.

Thanks to a recent federal appellate court decision, OSHA now has even more leeway to issue costly repeat citations to employers. As many employers know, there are different classifications for civil violations of OSHA regulations, including other-than-serious, serious, repeat, and willful. Penalties, both monetary and non-monetary, increase with higher classification levels. OSHA recently increased the maximum penalty for repeat violations to $129,336, and additional increases to the maximum penalty are expected. Click here to read the full client alert.

On Monday, the NLRB unanimously vacated its December 2017 Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors decision, marking yet another abrupt reversal in the method for determining whether two employers can be held jointly liable for violations of labor and employment laws committed by either employer. In doing so, the Board effectively reinstated its 2015 Browning-Ferris Industries (“BFI”) decision, meaning that two businesses are joint employers when one has “indirect” or “reserved’ control over the other’s workers. Click here to read the full client alert.

Employers should take note that on April 1, 2018 more rigorous Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulations take effect governing the administration of benefit claims and ensuing appeals under ERISA plans providing disability benefits. (“ERISA” refers to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, the federal law governing private sector employee benefit plans). These regulatory changes will have their most significant impact on private sector long-term disability plans. However, they will also affect those retirement plans (including 401(k) plans) that provide benefits upon disability. Short-term disability plans are generally not subject to these rules because they are typically exempt from ERISA as “payroll practices”. Click here to read the full client alert.

On January 4, 2018 the Department of Justice rescinded Obama-era guidance to United States Attorneys, including the 2013 memorandum issued by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole, calling previous guidance “unnecessary” in light of general principles governing federal prosecutorial discretion. Up until this point, the 2013 Cole Memo was widely viewed as the biggest reason state-legal marijuana programs to flourished over the past 5 years, as it directed United States Attorneys to consider distinct federal enforcement priorities when deciding whether to utilize finite government resources to prosecute state-legal marijuana businesses or whether to rely on state and local law enforcement to address those concerns. Click here to read the full client alert.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration of the Department of Labor has just released for public consideration, and published for comment, a significant new interpretation of the term “employer” under ERISA. Under the proposal, small businesses and sole proprietors would have more freedom to band together to provide health coverage for employees in what are referred to as “Small Business Health Plans” or “Association Health Plans”.  The proposal would allow employers to form a Small Business Health Plan on the basis of geography or industry. A plan could serve employers in a state, city, county, or a multi-state metro area, or it could serve all the businesses in a particular industry nationwide.

Up until now, most association arrangements, such as Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements (MEWAs), have been considered as a collection of individual employer plans, rather than a single plan. This meant that the plans were treated as being in the small employer group market or the large employer group market based on the number of participants in each employer’s workforce. The effect of the new interpretation would be to put all the employer populations together, so they would all be in (most commonly) either the large group market or, if the association decides to be self-insured, in the self-insured market.

In addition, the new interpretation would permit sole proprietors and partners to be treated as both employers, for certain purposes, and employees for the purpose of being able to participate in the Association Health Plan. In the past, “employee-less” groups were treated as not covered by ERISA. Now, entrepreneurs with zero employees can obtain coverage through the association, and business owners who are active in the business can obtain coverage alongside their employees.

A third major part of the new interpretation is a non-discrimination requirement. As currently envisioned, an association cannot discriminate against employers based upon any health characteristic of the employer’s workforce. Nor can the plan discriminate within an employer group based on health characteristics of any participant. However, the association can establish different rates for “non-health” characteristics, such as bargaining unit membership, beneficiary vs. participant status, retiree vs active status, full- vs. part-time status, and occupation. The specifics of what associations can do to “police” member employer conduct and how the association can encourage wellness initiatives will require additional interpretation.

The fourth major change from current interpretative guidance is that associations may be formed specifically for the purpose of having a benefit plan. Until now, an association had to have had a reason to exist apart from providing benefits, such as promoting the industry in which its members operate. The limitation is now that the association may be formed specifically to offer health plans if it offers them (1) within a state or (2) within a metropolitan area, even if the metropolitan area covers more than one state. The definition of the metropolitan area is one of the points as to which the DOL is seeking input.

As with all things ERISA, the new interpretation is complex and raises significant issues for small- and medium-sized employers who are not already self-insured. Interested parties now have 60 days to submit comments. Because the initiative for the new interpretation was an Executive Order, it is anticipated that the time from the close of comments to issuance of a final rule will be short. Employers would be well-advised to follow developments closely, submitting comments where appropriate and encouraging any associations to which they belong to weigh in.

Last week the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) continued to correct its course to a more even balance between union and employer interests. It overturned four controversial decisions that had created a great deal of consternation and uncertainty in the employer community. Click here to read the full client alert.


On November 21, 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Agency (“FINRA”) fined J.P. Morgan Securities, LLC, $1.25 million for HR due diligence failures from 2009 until May of this year. Pursuant to federal securities laws, broker-dealers must fingerprint certain non-registered associated persons to help determine if any of them have been convicted of a disqualifying criminal offense. According to FINRA, J.P. Morgan did not “conduct timely or adequate background checks on approximately 8,600, or 95 percent, of its non-registered associated persons.”

Over the last few years, there has been a “Ban the Box” legislative movement designed to provide greater employment opportunities to job applicants with criminal histories. As background, “Ban the Box” laws usually require employers to delay inquiries into an employee’s criminal history until later in the hiring process, and not have a “box” on the employment application. These criminal inquiries would then be made after a conditional offer of employment has already been extended based on the prospective employee’s qualifications, and then the prospective employee would be given a chance to explain any criminal history.

The “Ban the Box” movement has spread nationwide, with 27 states having some sort of policy which regulates the use of criminal history in state-employment applications, and with some localities extending such policies to government contractors and even private employers. Although the motives behind the “Ban the Box” movement may be noble, “Ban the Box” may not always be the safest policy. As is made clear by the significant fine that FINRA administered to J.P. Morgan, employers must ensure that they are aware of applicable laws in their industry with respect to the required HR due diligence. In the financial services industry particularly, employers must not delay too long in performing adequate checks, or worse yet, fail to do them at all.

While many convicted felons are rehabilitated and can be valuable employees, others do pose real risks. Employers owe it to themselves and all their employees and stakeholders to make decisions based upon the most accurate and complete information available.

More information on FINRA’s fine of J.P. Morgan can be found at:

Fresh off his Senate confirmation two weeks ago, new National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Peter Robb has issued guidance that may portend welcomed changes for employers regarding controversial Obama-era pro-labor decisions.

The guidance comes in the form of a memorandum to the Regional Offices, dated December 1, 2017, in which Mr. Robb introduces what is essentially the General Counsel’s office’s new enforcement agenda. This memo emphasizes the General Counsel’s efforts to address several pro-labor Board decisions that were issued in the past eight past years and that concern key issues for employers. Such issues include:

  • the expanded scope of protected concerted activity,
  • unlawful handbook rules,
  • use of the employer’s e-mail system for organizing purposes,
  • joint employer status,
  • conflicts between the NLRA and other statutes (such as Title VII).

To be sure, these decisions cannot be changed by the General Counsel or the Regional Offices alone—but only by contrary Board decisions. The  General Counsel’s promise to provide the Board with the Agency’s “best analysis” of these issues, however, may help facilitate changes down the road.

On a more immediate note, the memo also rescinds several prior General Counsel Memoranda interpreting various Board precedents in a pro-labor manner. These rescissions include prior General Counsel Memoranda concerning, among other things:

  • unlawful handbook rules (again),
  • inclusion of front pay in Board settlements,
  • pre-arbitral deferral guidelines, and
  • intermittent and partial strikes.

These rescissions are effective immediately. And while no replacement guidance has been issued yet, the rescissions likely signal the issuance of more employer-friendly guidance from the General Counsel in the future.

As the summary above suggests, any practical relief for employers  will likely come about only with new cases that give the Board and the General Counsel the opportunity to address these issues. This will take time. Meanwhile, the memo is quick to point out that, with regard to current and pending cases, the General Counsel will continue to apply existing Board precedent in making determinations as to whether to issue complaints. Obviously, it will be up to the new Board to make a determination as to whether that Board precedent will remain or should be overturned yet again. Nevertheless, this memo is perhaps the clearest indication yet that changes to the Obama Board’s pro-union labor policies are headed employers’ way, after all.