Author Archives: Kristin Emmons
One area of employment law that often trips up Minnesota companies is whether a worker should be considered an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” In general, independent contractors are considered to “be their own bosses.” In other words, because employers have less control over them, independent contractors are not subject to employment laws relating to wages, workplace health and safety, and withholding taxes. But the line between an independent contractor and an employee can be hard to draw, and federal and state agencies have been stepping up enforcement of the laws prohibiting misclassification of workers as independent contractors.
One mistake we frequently see is that when an agency, such as the U.S. Department of Labor or the Minnesota Department of Revenue, initiates an inquiry or enforcement action based on potential misclassification of a worker as an independent contractor, the company tries to respond informally, without involving their employment attorney. This can lead to unnecessary difficulties. For example, as the company tries to explain to the investigator why the worker is an independent contractor, the company may inadvertently provide information that the investigator can use against the company. Or, the company may not understand the impact of the investigation—misclassification can result in significant taxes, fines, or other liabilities. And, the company may not know the best practices for how to resolve the dispute. The last thing the company needs is for the result of one agency’s investigation to spur other agencies into undertaking their own investigation. Briggs and Morgan, P.A. has experience working with the Minnesota Department of Revenue and other relevant agencies to conclusively resolve misclassification inquiries.
Usually, the agency looks at a variety of factors to determine whether it believes the classification is correct. A company’s honest belief or good faith intent regarding classification of its workers as independent contractors is generally irrelevant, which is why so many companies may face liability for misclassifications. Instead, the agency will look at certain factors regarding the relationship between the worker and company. Another factor often working against the company is that the agency has an interest in finding an employee-employer relationship, so the scales may often tip in that direction when there is uncertainty.
Takeaway: When an employer receives notice of an investigation relating to misclassification of a worker as an independent contractor, it should not try to respond on its own—that can often make the situation worse. Instead, the employer should contact its employment law counsel right away so that a response strategy can be developed.
Last week the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Ayala v. CyberPower Sys. (USA), Inc. that an employee’s compensation agreement did not modify his status as an at-will employee. No. 17-1852, 2018 WL 2703102, at *1 (8th Cir. June 6, 2018). In Ayala, the plaintiff entered into an agreement with defendant CyberPower that detailed the salary and bonus structure for his position as Executive Vice President of CyberPower. The agreement provided that it “outlines the new salary and bonus structure to remain in place until $150 million USD is reached. It is not a multiyear commitment or employment contract for either party.” The plaintiff was terminated before sales reached $150 million.
In 2015, the plaintiff sued CyberPower for breach of contract, claiming that the agreement secured his employment until the $150 million sales threshold was met. CyberPower argued that the agreement did not modify the plaintiff’s status as an at-will employee, so it had the right to terminate him at any time. The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota agreed with CyberPower and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed.
On appeal at the Eighth Circuit, the court stated that there is a strong presumption under Minnesota law in favor of at-will employment, and to alter the plaintiff’s status as an at-will employee, CyberPower “must have ‘clearly intended’ to do so by entering the Compensation Agreement.” Because the agreement stated that it only governed compensation and did not create a multi-year employment contract for either party, the court held that the plaintiff’s employment was at-will. Importantly, the court stated that “Minnesota law does not require a clear statement to continue at-will employment—it presumes such employment.”
Takeaway: This decision is a win for employers who have at-will employees, as it reiterates the strong presumption under Minnesota law in favor of at-will status, even if the employment agreement is silent on the issue. Employers should still be cautious, however, when drafting compensation agreements to ensure they are not unintentionally creating employment for a definite term.
The Minnesota Legislature has been considering H.F. 4459, “a bill for an act clarifying the definition of sexual harassment” under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The bill would amend Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, subd. 43, which defines sexual harassment in employment, education, housing, and public service contexts.
Currently, Minnesota courts require that sexual harassment be “severe or pervasive” to be actionable under the MHRA. See Rasmussen v. Two Harbors Fish Co., 832 N.W.2d 790, 796 (Minn. 2013). This definition of actionable sexual harassment also mirrors the definition of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The proposed bill would add language to Minn. Stat. § 363A.03 providing that “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment … does not require the harassing conduct or communication to be severe or pervasive.” If passed, the amendment would apply to sexual harassment claims after August 1, 2018.
If the bill is successful, it will arguably lower the bar for actionable claims in Minnesota which could in turn significantly increase the number of claims faced by employers. Recent reports state that the bill is stalled in the Senate due to concerns from the business community.
Takeaway: Stay tuned for updates to Minnesota’s sexual harassment law. If you want to express concerns about this proposed legislation, contact your legislators.
Yesterday the comments period ended on a proposal from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regarding tip-pooling regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). On December 5, 2017, the DOL published a news release regarding a proposed rule which would give employers greater freedom to allow tip pools and to determine how tips should be distributed to staff, including non-wait staff.
The comments period was originally scheduled to end 30 days after the DOL announced the proposal on December 5, 2017, but was extended to February 5, 2018 after the proposal gained widespread attention. The proposed regulation received 374,064 comments.
The current FLSA tip-pooling regulations prohibit redistribution of tips by the employer to an employee other than the one who originally earned and received the tips. The new DOL proposal would rescind these regulations to allow employers to make different rules regarding the distribution of tips to employees who do not traditionally receive tips. If the DOL adopts the proposal, employers could only take advantage of the new rule if they pay the full minimum wage to their employees and do not take a tip credit against payment of minimum wage.
The DOL release is available at https://www.dol.gov/newsroom/releases/whd/whd20171204.
Takeaway: Employers may see changes to federal regulations regarding tip-pooling in the near future. However, employers should be aware that specific state laws may still govern their business and may provide for separate regulations regarding tip pools.
Does the MHRA Require an Employer to Engage in an Interactive Process to Determine an Appropriate Reasonable Accommodation?
The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently held that the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) does not require an employer to engage in an interactive process with an employee to determine whether an appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary.
In McBee v. Team Industries, Inc., the plaintiff, a machine operator, received medical attention for back and neck pain, including numbness in her hand and arms. No. 03-CV-15-1470 (Minn. Ct. App. Jan. 16, 2018). Her doctor placed her on a lifting restriction and she subsequently notified her employer of the restriction. The employer terminated her due to concerns related to her medical restrictions. The plaintiff brought suit alleging disability discrimination and reprisal in violation of the MHRA.
In deciding the case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals first analyzed whether the plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability. Because she could not perform the essential functions of her job – the ability to lift ten pounds – the court determined that she was not qualified. The court also held that the plaintiff was unable to be accommodated because “an employer is not required to reallocate or eliminate essential functions of a job to accommodate an employee with a disability.”
Notably, the court also held that, unlike the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the MHRA “does not require an employer to engage in an interactive process to determine an appropriate reasonable accommodation.” The court noted that this holding runs contrary to Eighth Circuit case law holding the MHRA require an interactive process, similar to the ADA. However, the court explained that the Eighth Circuit cited “federal law for this ruling based on language in the ADA, not language in the MHRA.” And the plain statutory language of the MHRA, unlike ADA regulations, makes no mention of a required interactive process.
Takeaway: The MHRA, which applies to all employers who employ at least 1 employee in Minnesota, does not require the employer to engage in an interactive process to determine an appropriate reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. The ADA however, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, may still be applicable to certain companies and does require an interactive process.