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Examples of Employment Law Issues at the Workplace

Looking for some direction on 3 legal encounters.

The following three Legal Encounters involve NewCorp, your employer. You are required to provide a brief answer to the questions asked at the end of each encounter. Your boss expects a substantive answer, not simply a recommendation to refer matters to an attorney. The majority of businesses in the U.S. do not have staff counsel, and your boss does not want to spend money getting advice until after you provide an assessment. In your answer, identify what legal principles support your decision. All encounters can be supported from legal principles found in the readings for this week, including cases and statutes.

Legal Encounter 1: Newcorp hired Pat Grey as manager of real property for Newcorp in Vermont, responsible for activities related to maintaining leased office space. In that role, Pat supervised 51 employees and lower-level supervisors, and dealt with tenants who leased commercial space. For the job, Pat relocated from another city 300 miles away, moving his spouse and children, selling and buying a home, and dealing with a spouse having to quit her job to seek employment in the new state.

After Pat had been on the job for three months, his boss explained that things did not seem to be working out, and said that Pat would be discharged with 30 days severance pay. Pat was surprised because his employer gave no indication of any problem on the job. Newcorp's Personnel Manual, which had been provided to Pat upon his acceptance of employment, outlined the process for dealing with unsatisfactory employees:

Notice of Unsatisfactory Performance/Corrective Action Plan

If the job performance of an employee is unsatisfactory, the employee will be notified of the deficiency and placed on a Corrective Action Plan (CAP). If the employee performance does not improve to a satisfactory level within the specified period of time, termination will follow.

Pat acknowledged that upon employment, he signed an understanding that the company observed employment at will with respect to employment and discharge, but believed that the above provision limited Newcorp's freedom to fire him at will. Finally, Pat observes that Newcorp senior management was "noticeably unfriendly" after Pat had been vocal at a local school board meeting. In the meeting, Pat insisted that school sports funds should be equally allocated among all student athletic programs, not just concentrated on the boy's football and basketball programs. His position on the matter was unpopular, and although no one at the school board meeting identified Pat as a Newcorp employee, he believed that this contributed to the Newcorp decision to discharge him.

What liability and rights, if any, do Newcorp or Pat have in this situation? What legal principles (statutory or case law) supports those rights and liabilities? Remember to limit your answer to 350 words.

Legal Encounter 2: Newcorp employed Sam as a supervisor of electrical manufacturing for auto under-dash wiring harnesses. Sam's department employed about 100 men and women to create the wiring, coat it with various insulators, and then connect it to different types of universal couplings so car speedometers, oil gauges, and other instruments would work. The final product, an under-dash wiring harness, was sent to the final assembly plant for installation in cars.

Sam developed a relationship with one of his female employees, Paula. They began dating and it turned into a torrid affair that included frequent trysts at the workplace. Paula later met and began dating a man who did not work for Newcorp, and thereafter ended the affair with Sam. Sam did not give up easily and continued touching Paula and exhibiting a variety of other unwelcome behaviors, even after Paula clearly told him to stop. Sam suggested that Paula's work might be suffering from a "lack of interest" on her part, and since she stopped dating him, she seemed to lack interest in work quality.

Paula decided to get away from Sam, and applied for a transfer to the wire-coating section, which would not be directly under Sam's control. Sam blocked the transfer, citing company policy that there was evidence that the chemicals used in wire coatings could harm an early-state fetus being carried by a newly-pregnant woman. Because Paula was a young woman who could become pregnant, Sam argued, Newcorp could not take the chance for Paula to work in wire coating due to the possibility of Newcorp liability for a resulting birth defect. Paula believed this was probably Sam's way of keeping her under his thumb, and that even if it was not, it was discrimination based on sex and therefore illegal.

What liability, if any, does Newcorp have in this situation? What can and cannot Newcorp do? In your answer, identify what legal principles (statutory or case law) support your belief. Remember to limit your answer to 350 words.

Legal Encounter 3: Paul called OSHA to complain about Newcorp requiring him to work in a dangerous situation.

Newcorp employed Paul as senior maintenance technician, which required him to work in confined spaces to repair equipment. Repair of the pulp shredder was particularly difficult because the space in which Paul worked was very narrow and the machine noise and vibration irritated Paul when he turned the machine on and off during repairs. After one employee was injured while working on the machine, Newcorp moved the machine a little to create more working area, but nearby building support beams allowed little movement for the machine.

Paul refused to work on the machine, saying that it was still too confining and dangerous. The safety manager for Newcorp reviewed the area and deemed it safe. Paul also said that he became claustrophobic because of working in such confining spaces, and that this condition arose out of his employment, making it a worker compensation issue. In addition to calling OSHA, Paul threatened to get a lawyer and sue Newcorp. Management was not sure what legal principles apply to the circumstances presented in this situation.

What liability, if any, does Newcorp have in this situation? What regulatory and compliance requirements and legal principles (statutory or case law) are relevant to this situation? Remember to limit your answer to 350 words.

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Note: My legal analysis and suggestions are based on the facts described which states that Newcorp is located in the state of Vermont.

Legal Encounter 1:

Issues:

Employment-at-will Doctrine
Exceptions: Is there an exception to at-will-employment since Newcorp has an employee manual, specifically outlining a corrective action plan as a result of unsatisfactory employee performance

Legal Principles:

Vermont is an "employment-at-will"state. (For a definition of the employment-at-will doctrine go to http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Employment+at+Will) Basically this means that an employee who does not have an oral or written employment contract can be fired at any time, for any reason or no reason. Equally, the employee can resign for the same reasons stated.

However, Vermont has exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. They are the public policy exception and implied contract exception.

Public Policy Exception: The employment-at-will doctrine does not apply when there is a clear and compelling public policy issue. Since this is not the issue in this scenario I will not go any further explaining this exception.

Implied Contract Exception: The Vermont courts have ruled that the employment-at-will doctrine is "simply a rule of contract construction that can be overcome by evidence to the contrary. . . ."1 Therefore, employment-at-will employees who have been terminated can contest their termination based on the breach of an implied contract. Employee handbooks or personnel manuals can be used as evidence of an implied contract.

An important Vermont Supreme Court case is Taylor v. National Life Insurance Co., 161 Vt. 457, 652 A.2d 466 (1993). The Court held a personnel manual can be considered an implied contract between an employee and an employer, therefore, qualifying for an exception to employment-at-will. Therefore, if an employee was terminated based on the doctrine of employment-at-will, the personnel manual may be used by the employee as evidence that the employer has to terminate based on good cause.

The Court in the Taylor case recognized the inherent unfairness in a situation where an employer has a personnel manual and thereafter refuses to apply the policies and steps to follow described therein. The Court clearly held that an employee handbook (or in this case a personnel manual) is an enforceable implied contract by the employee.
The Vermont courts held that when there are disciplinary steps included in the personnel manual, such steps have to be followed before terminating an employee.2

Application to the Scenario:
Take the above legal theories and cases cited and apply it to the scenario described. I believe that from the doctrine of employment-at-will and the clear existence of the implied contract exception the employer needs to reevaluate Pat's termination and apply the steps described in the personnel manual regarding implementing the corrective action plan. If the employer does not reinstate Paul, Paul would have a strong case in Court for unlawful termination based on the violation of an implied contract and the employer's failure to following the personnel manual.

As to the issue that Paul believes that the true reason he was terminated was due to his outside activities and position regarding the sports fund, it would be difficult for Paul to prove in court. I believe it would be a waste of time and resources on the part of Paul and for the employer.

Legal Encounter 2:

Issues:

1. Sexual Harassment
2. Gender Discrimination

Legal Principles:

1. Sexual Harassment:
The statutes in Vermont are explicit regarding sexual harassment The laws are encoded in the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act. 21 V.S.A. Sec. 495. Below is the official description taken from the Office of the Attorney General. The website url address is: http://www.atg.state.vt.us/issues/employment-law/Harassment/Sexual-Harrassment

Definition of Sexual Harassment
"Sexual harassment" is a form of sex discrimination and means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: (A) submission to that conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment; or (B) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a component of the basis for employment decisions affecting that individual; or (C) the conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. (21 V.S.A. §495d (13))

Below is a copy of the Sexual Harassment Policy brochure from the Office of the Attorney General that employers are encouraged to have available to their employees. In this brochure, I have highlighted the behaviors ...

Solution Summary

This is a solution of employment law issues at a workplace in Vermont. There are legal encounters at the work place and suggested solutions citing the laws of Vermont and case law that apply. The three employment law problems are employment-at-will, sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and workers compensation. This is state specific as when answering an employment related problem, state statutes and case law where the problem arises have to be researched. If it is not a problem specific to Vermont, this solution will give you an example of how to approach the problem, where to look for the resources in law, and how to respond to the problem to the scenarios.

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