Illustration of man receiving a bag of money from computer monitorIn a post on Fox’s Employment Discrimination Report blog, associate Justin Schwam in Morristown, NJ, briefly covers a recent $5 million settlement of gender and racial pay discrimination brought by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) against State Street Corporation. The settlement comes after a six-year investigation into the financial services firm’s compensation practices.

We invite you to read Justin’s commentary, as well as the corresponding Alert written by partner Ken Rosenberg in Morristown and Justin.

It is pumpkin spike latte time here in Florida which is one of the only signs of fall with our tropical weather.   Fall also is time for Florida employers to pay attention to the new 2018 Florida minimum wage.  As of January 1, 2018, Florida’s minimum wage will rise from the current rate of $8.10 per hour to $8.25 per hour.

Under Florida Statute § 448.110 4(a) and (b), the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity must calculate Florida’s minimum wage based upon the increase, if any, in the Federal Consumer Price Index for Urban Earners and Clerical Workers in the southern region.  Based upon this year’s calculation, Florida’s new minimum wage for 2018 is $8.25 per hour.

Employers of tipped employees, who meet eligibility requirements for the tip credit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, may count tips actually received as wages under the Florida minimum wage.  However, the employer must pay tipped employees a direct wage.  The direct wage is calculated as equal to the minimum wage, $8.25, minus the tip credit for Florida, $3.02, or a direct hourly wage of $5.23.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

I’ve posted before, here and here, regarding the dilemma business owners have when faced with a customer with a dog (fake service dog) or a customer with an animal (emotional support animal – which are not afforded the same protections as service dogs).  Many business owners simply don’t know how to respond or respond incorrectly (and generate bad press for themselves).  Many customers are fed up with fake service dogs everywhere and they resent businesses that do nothing as well and that means companies often can’t win.

Yesterday, there was an interesting article/editorial in The Hill regarding a proposal for creating a national certification database for service dogs.

What are your thoughts on a national certification program for service dogs?

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

Following up on my earlier post regarding fake service dogs, news from up north that Massachusetts is also considering a law to penalize those that pass off pets at service dogs.

The bill would makes passing a pet off as a service dog a civil infraction, carrying a $500 fine.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

Hurricane Irma did a number on South Florida and the Keys and while many people have no power and damage (myself included), we are all getting back to work.  Over the next few days I’m going to focus my posts on post-Irma employment law issues.

Before and during the storm, I noticed some companies were getting bad press for requiring their employees (mostly low paid non-exempt [hourly] service workers) to come into work when Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, was imposing mandatory evacuations in many areas.

First, requiring employees to work during mandatory evacuations means bad press on social media and in the news.  These days, news stories can quickly become viral and can negatively impact your company brand and your business.

Second, while there is no Florida state law that prevents termination of at-will employees who fail to report to work (even during an emergency) there are other protections for employees.

Specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) provides guidance to employers and employees regarding hurricane preparations and post-storm response.  Also, under the OSHA Act, it is against the law for an employer to retaliate against an employee who demands a safe and healthful workplace.  Obviously there are exceptions to the OSHA rules for first responders and some government workers.

While the OSHA anti-retaliation provision may not protect an employee who evacuates, if you are demanding that your employees work in an area where there is a mandatory evacuation your employees could certainly claim that the workplace was not safe at that time.  Employers in this situation may want to consider closing their operations so employees can evacuate or prepare for the impending storm.  Alternatively, companies may want to ask for volunteers to work during an emergency situation and/or not impose harsh penalties on employees who are no-shows.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

As the weather in South Florida turns cooler and the snow birds start flying south, there is a remarkable increase in the number of little dogs (and other animals) one sees in their local Publix grocery stores and favorite cafes.  Even off season, I recently spied a bunny rabbit at one of the restaurants I frequent on a regular basis.

This is my dog Simon.

That bunny encounter spurred my curiosity regarding whether anyone had been prosecuted under the Florida Law  passed in 2015 making it a second degree misdemeanor to misrepresent an animal as a service animal.  The answer, at least as of last year, is no.  No one has been criminally charged in Florida under the fake service dog law.

And in the bunny instance, it is clear that Bugs Bunny was in violation of Florida law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  Additionally, the restaurant owner could have gotten in trouble with Department of Health or put its business license at risk.  Florida law doesn’t permit bunnies or kitty-cats or monkeys, or parrots (there is one I’ve seen dining out regularly in my local down town) at restaurants inside or outside (outside means within designated outdoor portions of a public food service establishments).  Once, I even dined next to a kitty-cat in a stroller while in Key West (only in Key West).

Key West kitty in a stroller.

Its quite confusing for business owners when it comes to which animals can accompany customers into their businesses.  Many business owners are afraid of ADA Title III litigation so they don’t do anything when people bring animals into their stores or restaurants, but that may open them up to other types of litigation. For example a few years ago a Publix employee in Palm Beach was bitten by an emotional support animal (“ESA”).

The first thing to understand is there is a big difference, under the law, between a service animal and an emotional support animal.

Service animal under the ADA:

  • Almost always a dog (sometimes a miniature pony but no other kind of animal);
  • Individually trained to assist a person with a disability;
  • Generally, businesses must permit a service dog anywhere the public is permitted.
  • Service dogs must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service dog’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices.  In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

When it is not obvious what service a dog provides, only limited questions are permitted.  A business’ staff may ask two questions:  (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.

Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his or her service dog from the premises unless:  (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken.  When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service dog be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the dog’s presence.  Businesses that kick out customers with service dogs (or what they suspect as fake service dogs) should consider recording the dog and customer in case they are later sued under the ADA Title III.

Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service dogs in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

Here in Florida there are lot of people carrying around purse dogs and other pets that enter businesses and claim they can do so because the dog or animal is an emotional support animal (“ESA”).  Emotional support animals are not afforded the same access as service dogs.  So if a customer brings in a bunny or cat or snake into your business establishment they can be shown the door even if they claim that the animal is a service animal (remember that service animals under the ADA can only be dogs or miniature ponies) or ESA.  If someone claims their dog is an ESA that can be a murkier situation for a business owner, but dog ESAs are also not protected under the ADA.

An ESA is not a pet, rather it is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.  The person seeking the emotional support animal under fair housing laws must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship).  The animal is viewed as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA or FHAct) to those housing communities that have a “no pets” rule.

ESAs are also provided protection under the Air Carrier Access Act which is why you see so many dogs (and other animals) on planes these days.  Airlines are somewhat stuck and many people are gaming the system to avoid having to pay to fly their dogs and other pets and to get around other rules for pets on planes. There have been all kinds of incidents including dog attacks and planes having to be diverted due to pet poop such that many in the airline community are lobbying for new rules on pets on planes.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

Back in the Spring, I posted about the next frontier in ADA Title III litigation (web site accessibility), see my posts here and here.  Since those posts, the next frontier has shown up, with a vengeance, in the Southern District of Florida.

This summer, the first trial (in the country) on ADA web site accessibility was held right here in the matter of Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., Civil Action No. 16–23020 (S.D. Fla.).

Following trial in the Winn-Dixie matter, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola ruled that:

  1. Winn-Dixie’s website was a “place of a public accommodation” under the ADA.
  2. Based on the testimony of the plaintiff and his expert, Winn-Dixie’s website was not sufficiently accessible.
  3. Accordingly, the court issued injunctive relief and also awarded attorneys’ fees.
  4. The injunctive relief included a requirement that Winn-Dixie adopt and implement a website accessibility policy that ensures its website conforms to the WCAG 2.0 criteria.  Although the court did not note specify a level of compliance with WCAG 2.0 (A, AA, AAA).
  5. Further, the court ordered that any third-party vendors who interact with the website must also conform to such criteria.
  6. The court also ordered that Winn-Dixie homepage include a statement concerning its website accessibility policy.
  7. Winn-Dixie was also required to provide training to all employees who write or develop programs or code, and test its website to identify any incidence of nonconformance every three months for the next three years.

Since the ruling in the Winn-Dixie matter, there has been a summer deluge of cases filed in the Southern District of Florida and plaintiffs’ attorneys appear to be working their way through each and every national corporation to test web site accessibility and then sue for purported deficiencies.  While its mostly been the large national corporations that have been the target of these lawsuits or demands, there is no reason to believe that mid-size and smaller corporations are not next on the list.  Here in the Southern District of Florida, because of the legal precedent of the Winn-Dixie case (although nonbinding), I expect that web site ADA Title III litigation will follow the physical-plant ADA Title III litigation trend with the plaintiffs’ attorneys working their way down from big to small companies.

Retailers and other businesses (including restaurants, hotels, and other service based businesses) with web sites plus physical locations are advised to develop website accessibility policies for their web access and state those policies on their homepages.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori has in-depth experience counseling companies regarding ADA online access and defense of ADA website accessibility cases.  Dori also defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

Please see my update, over on Fox’s In the Weeds, on the Florida Legislature’s success in passing a medical marijuana bill during the recent special session.  Now we wait on Governor Rick Scott to sign the bill, which he is expected to do.

Once Gov. Scott signs the bill into law, Florida Statute s. 381.986 (Compassionate use of low-THC and medical cannabis law) will be amended to state the following:

This section does not limit the ability of an employer to establish, continue, or enforce a drug-free workplace program or policy.  This section does not require an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace or any employee working while under the influence of marijuana.  This section does not create a cause of action against an employer for wrongful discharge or discrimination. Marijuana, as defined in this section, is not reimbursable under chapter 440.

What that means is that employers will have some protections to maintain drug free workplaces and to discipline or terminate employees under the influence of medical marijuana.  But with all new laws, litigation establishing rights of employers and employees is likely.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.

Last month I posted Part I on this topic which covered the state of federal statutes and regulations regarding web site access as well as the most recent Florida Federal case law on the topic.

46690451 - dog.

This time I around, I want to talk about reality for companies.

Plaintiffs are bringing these website cases here, and elsewhere, and many have already figured out how to plead the claims to survive the motion to dismiss phase.  So, if your company has an inaccessible website and a physical location and the two are physically linked then you are eventually going to face a Title III ADA website case.

Physically linked can mean situations such as:

  1. you offer coupons on your website that people can use in your store or restaurant;
  2. you advertise specials on your website that apply in your store or restaurant;
  3. customers can order merchandise on your website and pick it up at your store;
  4. customers can return merchandise ordered online to your store;
  5. you post your menus on your website for your restaurant; and
  6. you have an online reservation system for your hotel or your restaurant, etc.

If you want to get your website accessible, what should you do?  Head back to the DOJ guidance and consider working towards moving your website to WCAG 2.0 AA or higher level of accessibility.  Since websites are always changing and being updated, you can ask your ecommerce teams (internal and external) to begin moving content or updating content so it meets these standards over time.

The WCAG standards include such things as making content Screen Reader Software (“SRS”) compatible, adding captions to video, photos, etc.  But, there are many other issues that come with meeting the WCAG 2.0 AA standards that involve organization of website, navigation between pages, checkout for ordering, etc. that may require expert guidance.

While the ADA Title III regulations and standards have not caught up with technology, the plaintiffs’ bar has gone beyond.  If you want to avoid litigation regarding your website (and it has a nexus to your companies’ physical locations), you need to think about moving forward with redesign of your website or at least a retrofit that includes SRS compliance until regulations are in place.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori has in-depth experience counseling companies regarding ADA online access and defense of ADA website accessibility cases.  Dori also defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.