Nebraska Employment Law

 

Nebraska Supreme Court defines “restore” and “suitable employment” for vocational rehabilitation plans

Nebraska law permits the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court to approve vocational rehabilitation plans for certain injured workers to facilitate their return to gainful employment. Read on to learn about the Nebraska Supreme Court’s recent consideration of what the law means to “restore” an employee to work and in “suitable employment.”

Factual Background

            Charles Anderson injured his arm while working as a millwright with EMCOR Group, Inc. When Anderson was injured, he was making $26.50 an hour and $1060 per week. When Anderson reached maximum medical improvement, the workers’ compensation court determined that he was entitled to a vocational rehabilitation evaluation. Anderson and EMCOR agreed on a vocational rehabilitation counselor, Lisa Porter.

            Porter prepared a “Vocational Rehabilitation Plan Justification for Formal Training Proposal.” Under Nebraska statute, there are five priorities that must be used in developing and evaluating a vocational rehabilitation plan. A higher priority may not be used “unless all priorities below it are unlikely to result in suitable employment.” For Anderson, the three lowest priorities were inadequate as they involve a plan to work for the same employer. EMCOR did not have any suitable employment available for Anderson. Porter decided that the next highest priority would be unavailable to Anderson as well, which involved employment with a new employer. Porter’s research showed that available jobs for Anderson paid $9 to $11 an hour; not suitable in light of his earnings at EMCOR of $26.50 per hour. Porter also contacted other employers but they did not have suitable employment for Anderson.

            As a result, Porter decided the only option for Anderson was under the highest priority plans. This priority involved “formal training that will lead to employment in another career field.” Anderson had grown county-fair award winning vegetables in the past. Anderson also had an interest in this area. Therefore, Porter felt the career field best suited for Anderson would be in horticulture or agriculture.

            Upon making this finding, Porter prepared the plan for Anderson. Under her plan, Anderson “would obtain a 2-year associate’s degree of applied science in agriculture business and management with a focus in horticulture at Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska.” Anderson’s hourly wage would be $13.20 after completing his education.

            After the plan was created by Porter, it was evaluated by a vocational rehabilitation specialist appointed by the compensation court. The vocational rehabilitation specialist denied Porter’s plan. Based on information the court’s specialist learned from the community college’s placement services director, formal training was unnecessary for the job goals of the plan. The specialist also stated that the job search done by Porter showed six jobs that did not require training and that paid between $9 and $14 per hour. The specialist ultimately decided that Porter’s formal training plan was “not reasonable or necessary” as one of the plan goals (employment as a vegetable farmer) was something that Anderson was already performing so he had no need for further training.

            After the specialist denied the plan, EMCOR petitioned to modify the award of vocational rehabilitation benefits and services. EMCOR alleged that Anderson’s “condition and circumstances no longer support an award of such services.” EMCOR claimed these services were no longer necessary because Anderson was already partaking in the practice of gardening and Anderson admitted “his inability to earn a similar or increased wage performing the work for which he seeks vocational rehabilitating retraining, and consent to earning such a lower wage.” Anderson responded by filing a motion requesting the implementation of Porter’s plan.

Anderson’s Testimony

            The court heard evidence on Anderson’s motion. Anderson testified that he had earned his GED and received a diploma in computer-aided drafting in 1998. Due to changes in technology, this education was no longer useful. Anderson testified that there were few jobs available in his area, and he was unwilling to work more than 25 miles away from his hometown. Anderson did not seek employment in the previous year but did earn $150 a week for five months from selling vegetables that he grew in his garden. Collectively, Anderson and his wife made $8,000 per year. Anderson testified that his “ultimate career employment goal was to be self-employed.” Anderson wanted to expand his greenhouse. Formal education would qualify him for jobs in selling chemicals, farm management, or as a golf course manager. In learning these potential jobs, he could then build a greenhouse and become self-employed.

Compensation Court’s Opinion

            The compensation court dismissed EMCOR’s petition to modify the award of vocational rehabilitation benefits and services and declared that Anderson was “entitled to participate in the proposed plan” because his current job of farming was not “suitable employment.” The court then determined that it was “unable to conclude that [Porter’s] plan will not lead to a suitable job.” EMCOR then appealed.

Nebraska Supreme Court Ruling

            In considering the appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court noted one of the primary purposes of the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act is “restoration of an injured employee to gainful employment” and that if an employee is “unable to perform suitable work for which he or she has previous training or experience, the employee is entitled to vocational rehabilitation services as may be reasonably necessary to restore him or her to suitable employment.” The central focus of EMCOR’s appeal was on whether the vocational rehabilitation plan set forth by Porter would restore Anderson to “suitable employment.”

            The court explicitly adopted definitions of “restore” and “suitable employment.” “Restore” was defined to mean “to put back.” The court defined “suitable employment” to mean “employment which is compatible with the employee’s pre-injury occupation, age, education, and aptitude.”

            The compensation court determined that income of less than $8,000 per year was not “suitable employment” for Anderson. In order for him to gain employment in the relevant field of horticulture, additional education would be required. The compensation court had also taken into consideration the fact that job opportunities were limited in the area where Anderson lived. The Supreme Court held there was sufficient evidence to support the lower court’s findings in this regard.

            Porter’s plan involved Anderson working full-time as a supervisor or manager and the median annual wage in the area of farming, fishing, and forestry was $49,100. The Court held that Porter’s plan would place Anderson into employment making similar wages prior to the injury and “in a field that would be compatible with his age, education, and aptitude.”

            Since the plan “was reasonably necessary to restore Anderson to suitable employment, the [compensation] court did not err in ordering that Anderson was entitled to participate in it.”

For employers

            When you have an employee claiming a workplace injury or are facing issues with regarding an employee’s claim to benefits following an injury, engaging an experienced workers’ compensation attorney is vital.

Durational terms in an offer created an employment agreement—not at-will employment

In an employee’s appeal, the Nebraska Court of Appeals recently considered an offer of employment, whether its acceptance by the employee created a valid employment contract, and whether the employer had cause to revoke the offer upon learning new information. The trial court had ruled for the employer as a matter of law, but the Court of Appeals recently sent the case back down to the trial court so a jury can decide these issues. Read on to learn more!

Background

    Paula Crozier (“Crozier”) was employed as executive director of a nonprofit organization. She resigned from that position in March of 2014. She then applied for the position of marketing and communications director at Brownell-Talbot School (“Brownell”). During an interview for the positon, Crozier was asked why she left her previous employment. She answered, “due to differences in business practices and ethical standards.” 
    Crozier was offered the position, and Brownell sent an offer letter for her to sign and return. The letter stated that Crozier would be hired for a twelve-month position but then stated her period of employment would be May 5, 2014 to July 30, 2015, a period of about fourteen months. The letter also stated that Crozier would receive an annual salary of $55,000 and made reference to various benefits that Crozier would receive after two years of employment.
    The letter was sent by Brownell on April 28, 2014 and was signed and returned by Crozier on April 29, 2014. On May 1, 2014 Brownell made an announcement that it had hired Crozier.
    On May 2, 2014 a newspaper article was published that described several issues involving Crozier’s former employer. The issues included billing and management problems and a failure to respond to an allegation of sexual abuse by an employee. Neither Crozier’s name nor any dates coinciding with Crozier’s dates of employment were mentioned in the article.
    Crozier brought the article to her direct supervisor who brought it to the attention of the head of the school. That day, the head of the school held a meeting with Crozier. At the meeting, Crozier explained she was not responsible for any of the problems and that she had resigned before the incident regarding the sexual abuse. Crozier also explained that she left her former employer upon discovering the issues that were mentioned in the article. Crozier reported the issues to the attorney general and the Department of Health and Human Services.
    Later that day, Brownell retracted the offer to Crozier over fears of public relations and damage to its reputation.
    Crozier filed a complaint against Brownell alleging a breach of contract and lack of good cause to revoke the offer of employment.

District Court Proceedings
    The district court found that the “durational terms in the letter were ambiguous and there was no clear intent sufficient to overcome the presumption of at-will employment.” The district court also found that Brownell had good cause in revoking the offer to Crozier. Subsequently, Crozier appealed.

Court of Appeals’ Ruling
    a.  Contract of Employment. The court noted that a contract is considered ambiguous “when a word, phrase, or provision in the contract has, or is susceptible of, at least two reasonable but conflicting interpretations or meanings.” Here, the court determined that the contract was in fact ambiguous. The contract identified Crozier’s job as a “twelve-month position” and conferred an “annual salary” but then stated the term of Crozier’s employment will last from May 5, 2014 to June 30, 2015, a total of 14 months. The court stated that there is no way to read the letter that “can reconcile these conflicting durations, which stand in direct contradiction of one another.” Since a term in the contract was susceptible to two different interpretations, evidence beyond just the terms of the contract could be considered to construe the parties’ actual agreement. 
The court then considered the testimony of Brownell’s director of business and finance. He stated that the reference to the 12 month period was in order to distinguish Crozier’s employment from that of a 10-month or 9-month employee. He further specified the salary stated in the offer was for determining Crozier’s monthly rate of pay. 
The court concluded that, in light of this testimony, a jury could find Crozier was to be employed for a definite term from May 5, 2014 to June 30, 2015 for a specific rate of pay. As a result, the question of breach of contract should have proceeded to the jury, and the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision.
    b.  Good Cause for Revoking Offer
    The court clarified that an employer can terminate an at-will employee at any time for any reason but if an employee is contracted for a defined term, that employee “cannot lawfully be terminated prior to the expiration of that term without good cause.” The court defined “good cause” in terms of what a reasonable employer would determine to be a good reason for terminating an employee. 
    The court determined that reasonable minds could differ as to whether Brownell revoked its offer to Crozier for good cause. Brownell stated that it terminated Crozier out of public relations concerns and that it could harm its reputation. Crozier presented evidence that her name was not mentioned anywhere in the news article and those allegations stated in the article were the reason she resigned from her previous employment in the first place. As a result, this issue should also have been left to a jury to decide. 
    The matter will be returned to the district court for trial of these issues to a jury.
Crozier v. Brownell-Talbot School, 25 Neb. App. 1 (2017).

Takeaway for employers
    Placing temporal terms on an offer of employment can transform what might otherwise have been an offer of at-will employment. Think carefully about crafting offer letters and involve your legal counsel for any special circumstances when offering new employment or renewing employment.
Bonnie Boryca can be reached at boryca@eslaw.com or (402) 397-2200.

Can’t Tell the Difference? Eighth Circuit distinguishes protected concerted efforts from employee disloyalty and malice

   Whether you employ unionized employees or not, Nebraska employers must be aware of the concept of protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Employees who engage in concerted (i.e., joint) efforts with co-workers to address their working conditions or terms of employment, may be engaging in conduct protected by federal law. Terminating or disciplining because of that conduct can give rise to an unfair labor practice charge before the National Labor Relations Board. Recently, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions govern Nebraska employers) recognized the difference between protected concerted activity and employee conduct that is disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue—and not protected. Read on to better understand the important distinction!
Background
    MikLin Enterprises (“MikLin”) owns and operates ten Jimmy John’s sandwich shops in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Michael Mulligan is the owner and co-owner and Robert Mulligan is the vice-president. MikLin workers started an organizing campaign, attempting to gain union representation by the Industrial Workers of the World (“IWW”).   
    As part of the campaign, employees demanded paid sick leave. The MikLin handbook stated that MikLin did not allow people to simply call in sick  ̶  they were required to find their own replacements for any time off. The IWW began posting on community bulletin boards in MikLin stores. These posters contained two identical Jimmy John’s sandwiches next to each other and stated above one sandwich:  “Your sandwich made by a healthy Jimmy John’s worker,” and above the other identical sandwich: “Your sandwich made by a sick Jimmy John’s worker.” Below the sandwich was the question, “Can’t tell the difference?” followed by:  “That’s too bad because Jimmy John’s workers don’t get paid sick days. Shoot we can’t even call in sick.” 
MikLin managers quickly removed the posters from the stores.   IWW dispersed a press release, posters, and a letter to over 100 media contacts.  It discussed “unhealthy company behavior” and concluded by threatening that if Robert and Michael Mulligan would not meet with the IWW supporters to discuss their demands, “dramatic action” would be taken and they would display their posters around the city. Within the letter, there was an assertion that MikLin stores committed health code violations daily. The letter went on to state that because of the sick leave policy, MikLin was jeopardizing the health of their customers.
    Four IWW organizers met with Mulligan, and he stated that MikLin was in the process of amending its policies. The new policy involved a point system for absences. If an employee received four disciplinary points in a twelve-month period, he or she would be terminated.  This new policy stated that employees were not allowed to work until any flu-like symptoms had subsided for a 24-hour period.
    After the implementation of the new policy, the IWW supporters followed through with their threat but this time created posters with Mulligan’s phone number on them, encouraging people to call him. Mulligan and store managers removed these posters and Mulligan fired six employees who organized the campaign and delivered written warnings to three others who aided in the attack.  This gave rise to charges of unfair labor practices.
NLRB Finds an Unfair Labor Practice
    The Administrative Law Judge with the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that MikLin violated Sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3), of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects concerted  activities of employees  ̶   “Section 7 of the NLRA protects employee communications to the public that are part of and related to an ongoing labor dispute.” Employee communications are not protected if they are “disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue.” To lose protected status, the employee communications must have been made with a “malicious motive” or have been “made with knowledge of the statements’ falsity or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.”
    The ALJ determined that the posters, press release, and letter were all related to the ongoing labor dispute as they dealt with the sick leave issue. Although the posters were not literally true (employees could call in sick; they just had to find coverage for their missed shift), employees were disciplined if they failed to find a replacement.  Therefore, it was a “protected hyperbole,” or somewhat exaggerated truth.
    The ALJ also found that, even though MikLin had only been investigated twice by the Minnesota Department of Health for food borne disease, it was possible that MikLin’s sick leave policy could increase the risk of food borne disease.  Again, that statement was considered to be true or hyperbole.
    The ALJ ruling then went to the NLRB.  A divided NLRB affirmed the ALJ’s conclusions. It determined that the posters were clearly related to the ongoing labor dispute over the sick leave and the statements were not “so disloyal, reckless, or maliciously untrue so as to lose the Act’s protections.”
The Eighth Circuit Declines to Enforce Much of the NLRB’s Ruling
(1)    “Sick Day” Poster Issues

The court noted that an employer commits unfair labor practices if it terminates an employee for engaging in activities that are protected under the NLRA, including  communications to third parties or the public that are utilized to improve their position as employees. But, Section 10(c) of the NLRA allows employers to terminate employees for cause.
    Courts have determined that disloyalty to an employer amounts to “cause” under Section 10 (c).  In determining disloyalty, the central question is “whether employee public communications reasonably targeted the employer’s labor practices, or indefensibly disparaged the quality of the employer’s product or services.” The former is protected and the latter is not. The court also stated that an employee’s disloyal statements can lose protection under section 7 of the NLRA without a showing that the statements were made with actual malice.
    Here the court agreed with the NLRB that the sick day posters, press release, and letter were related to other section 7 protected concerted activity intended “to improve the terms and conditions of their employ by obtaining paid sick leave.” However, the court determined that the posters, press release, and letter were not protected because they were a “sharp, public, disparaging attack upon the quality of the company’s product and its business policies.” This was evidenced here by the fact that the posters, press release, and letter were done to convince customers that they may get sick if they eat a Jimmy John’s sandwich, attacking the product itself.  An allegation that a food industry employer is selling unhealthy food is the “equivalent of a nuclear bomb” in a labor-relations dispute.  The nature of the attack was likely to outlive, and also unnecessary to aid, the labor dispute.
    The court also determined that claims about the sandwiches were “materially false and misleading.” The press release and the letter claimed that MikLin committed health code violations daily, putting customers at risk of getting sick. The court stated that these were not true statements, evidenced by MikLin’s record with the Minnesota Department of Health over ten years and requiring employees to call in sick if they have had any flu-like symptoms in the previous 24 hours.
    In sum, MikLin had cause to terminate and discipline the employees involved.  
(2)     Facebook Postings by MikLin Supervisors  
The Eighth Circuit considered other aspects of the NLRB ruling.  As the IWW began organizing, a MikLin employee created a “Jimmy John’s Anti-Union” Facebook page. On this page, MikLin employees posted disparaging comments about an IWW supporter. The ALJ determined that these posts violated section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by encouraging harassment of the IWW supporter, which the NLRB affirmed.
    The appeals court determined that the public disparagement and degradation of the union supporter “restrained or coerced MikLin employees in the exercise of their section 7 rights” out of fear they would suffer similar treatment if they chose to support the IWW.  Thus, this aspect of the NLRB ruling was enforced.
(3)    Removal of In-Store Union Literature
After losing the first election, the IWW had filed unfair labor practice charges and objections to the election with the NLRB. MikLin and the IWW settled by stipulating to set aside the election and hold a re-run election.  After this, a MikLin employee posted a notice on a bulletin board to the employees (pursuant to the settlement) of the settlement and what it meant. A union supporter posted next to this notice an IWW “FAQ about the Union Election & Settlement.” The IWW post was taken down repeatedly.  The ALJ had determined that this was a violation of section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, and the NLRB affirmed.
    The court enforced the NLRB’s order on this issue.  Section 8(a)(1) protects employees’ rights to “bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Removal of the IWW poster interfered with union supporters’ right to communicate about their organization in violation of section 7 of the NLRA. 
Miklin Enterprises, Inc. v. NRLB, Nos. 14-3099 & 14-3211 (8th Cir. July 3, 2017).
Bottom Line for Employers
    If you face efforts from employees that may deal with their working conditions or terms of their employment but believe they may be acting in a disloyal, reckless, or malicious way, contact your employment and labor attorney to fully discuss the issue.

Bonnie Boryca may be reached at (402) 397-2200 and boryca@eslaw.com.