Its a pretty clear First Amendment violation, firing Peter Strzok. The President and Rep. Meadows have made some hay about Agent Strzok supposedly using influence in regard to the Mueller investigation into Pres. Trump. But, there has been no evidence of Strzok allegedly using his influence to affect the investigation. Agent Strzok specifically said “we will stop” the election of Pres, Trump in 2016. He said he was talking about “we” the voters. That was protected speech by a federal employee. See CBS news report here.

In firing the FBI agent and linking the firing to his comments about the President, the employer has set up a lawsuit nicely for the agent, if he wishes to pursue it. It was very unwise of the FBI to fire him for unsupported reasons. If the President and others could show actual influence over the investigation, my opinion would change. But, for now, there is no evidence of him exerting any actual influence over the investigation. Too, as he pointed out when he testified to Congress, if he wanted to affect the outcome of the 2016 election, he could have leaked the fact that the Trump campaign was being investigated in 2016.

Firing the agent may have placated some folks in the Executive branch, but that short-term gain may result in long-term pain.

it happens more and more. A jilted lover posts pictures of his former girlfriend on the internet. Only this former lover kept doing it over and over. Mark J. Uhlenbrock was a pilot for United Airlines. He formed a relationship with a stewardess who uses the name Jane Doe. The relationship started in 2002 and lasted about four years. He took some pictures of her in the nude with her permission – and some pictures without permission. The stewardess obtained restraining orders against him here in Bexar County in 2009 and again in 2011. He just kept posting the pictures. The pilot settled her case against him for $110,000. But, the harassment did not stop.

In 2013, the stewardess went to their mutual employer, United Airlines. But, the employer failed to take appropriate action, says the EEOC. The EEOC filed suit recently against United Airlines for failing to do something about the pilot’s conduct. In 2015, Mr. Uhlenbrock was arrested by the FBI and his computers were seized. United granted him ing-term disability in January, 2016. He received the long-term disability payments until July, 2016. In June, 2016, he pleaded guilty in federal court to internet stalking. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison for the offense.

Mr. Uhlenbrock said he had an addiction to posting nude photos on the internet. See San Antonio Express News report here. The EEOC appears to be arguing that United kept the pilot on its payroll several months after he pleaded guilty to stalking and that the employer took no steps to stop him from posting the pictures. The challenge in these sorts of cases is showing the employer had a duty to address behavior which occurred off-premises. This may become the exemplar for such cases, since the relationship clearly started on company premises on company time. At least one of the pictures was of Ms. Doe in her flight attendant uniform.

Even worse, the federal violations continued long after the stewardess complained. Ms. Doe filed suit in state court in Bexar County, and complained to management long before the EEOC filed this new lawsuit. At one point, United said it could not take action because the harassment was not related to work. The captain never received any discipline for his conduct. See Texas Lawyer report. The lawsuit is filed as Suit No. 18-CV-817 in the Western District.

I wrote about a pushy judge in the Paul Manafort trial here. The judge was fussing at the prosecutor and the prosecutor fussed back a bit. Now, the judge has apologized and explained to the jury that he was “probably wrong” for criticizing the prosecutor regarding one of the witnesses. IRS agent Michael Welch had been allowed earlier to sit in the court room and observe testimony. Perhaps forgetting his previous order, Judge Ellis fussed at the prosecutors for allowing a witness to sit in the court room prior to his testimony. So, later the prosecutorial team asked the judge to explain his oversight to the jury. See The Hill news report here.

It is probably symptomatic of the poor working relationship between the judge and the prosecutors that this inadvertent mistake occurred. The judge had fussed at them so much that he assumed they had erred. He spoke too soon, apparently.

Trials are not what we see on television. The judges and juries are not always somber, listening closely and making no mistakes. This is real life. The prosecutors saw the error and asked the judge to fix it. The judge is acting strangely. When relating a ruling that the prosecutor, Greg Andres did not like. Judge Ellis said Mr. Andres should not cry. The prosecutor said he was not crying. Judge Ellis remarked that well, his eyes were watery. There was no need for that retort.

Many plaintiffs complain they are treated differently than other co-workers in some way. It might be about pay, promotion opportunities, etc. In one case, two plaintiffs said they were treated differently than other peers and that they were subjected to derogatory comments about Italians. In Cicalese v. University of Texas Medical Branch, No. 17-CV-0067, 2018 US Dist. LEXIS 46796 (S.D. Tex. 3/22/2018), the employer filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Rule 12(b)(6) addresses the failure to state a claim. Dr. Cicalese was born in Italy. He and his wife both worked for UTMB. His wife, Dr. Rastellini, was also born in Italy and was also a medical doctor. Things went well for the couple the first five years at UTMB. But, when a new dean started working there, things went downhill. The doctors say the new dean targeted them based on their heritage as Italians. The dean, said the plaintiffs, when he first met them, told them they should go back to Italy. He made additional negative comments about Italians.

The dean removed some positions from the two doctors. But, it appears the adverse personnel action which forms the basis of their suit is denial of tenure.

The Plaintiffs’ allegations were not specific. Dr. Rastellini alleged other, unnamed comparators were granted tenure with lesser credentials. But, she did not name them. She did not describe what those lesser credentials looked like. She did name others, but not in the context of comparative employees. The court resurrected the so-called four-part test found in Brown v. CSC Logic, Inc., 82 F.3d 651 (5th Cir. 1996), regarding so-called stray remarks. I previously discussed the stray remarks doctrine here regarding a 2015 Fifth Circuit decision. In that decision in Goudeau v. National Oilwell Varco, LP,793 F.3d 470 (5th Cir. 2-15), the court tried to clear up the confusion surrounding the stray remarks doctrine. The point of the 2015 decision was that a remark which shows discriminatory bias on its face has some value, even if they may be old. Even older remarks can serve as evidence of pretext, said the court in 2015.

But in Cicalese, the court relied on Brown to find the remarks too remote in time. But, as the Goudeau court explained, even remarks that might be old in time, provide some relevance to the circumstantial evidence case. They might well be relevant to help show pretext. “In a circumstantial case like this one, in which the discriminatory remarks are just one ingredient in the overall evidentiary mix, we consider the remarks under a “more flexible” standard.” Goodeau, at p. 475.

But, the Southern District (Hanks) made no reference to Goudeau. It did not discuss a more flexible standard. Instead, it relied on the old strict formula that makes little sense. The complaint apparently did not mention the time period in which the three purported remarks were made. But, if a decision-maker makes a remark which shows bias on its face, such a remark would hold some relevance for a very long time period. This decision does appear to be oriented toward reaching a particular result. See the Cicalese decision here.

In federal court, all lawyers run into the challenge of an overbearing judge. It can happen in state court. But, generally, pushy judges are mot likely to be encountered in federal court. In the Paul Manafort trial, the judge is not necessary overbearing, but he constantly presses the two sides to avoid lengthy, tedious testimony. That pressure has led to verbal fencing between the judge and the prosecutor.

For example, there was this exchange between Greg Andres, the prosecutor and Judge T.S. Ellis:

“The day’s first significant altercation came as Andres sought to question Manafort’s former  deputy, Rick Gates,            about his travels, using his passport as a visual aid.

“Let’s go to the heart of the matter,” Ellis said.

“Judge, we’ve been at the heart. …” Andres replied, before the judge cut him off.

“Just listen to me. … Don’t speak while I’m speaking,” the judge said, sharply. He added that he didn’t see how the testimony on travel “amounts to a hill of beans” with regard to the charges against Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.

See Politico news report.

There have been several such instances of Mr. Andres sniping at the judge and the judge fussing at him for perceived lack of respect, not looking at the judge, rolling his eyes, etc. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor can sometimes take the judge on like that. But, in a civil trial. the jury will perceive it as bad that the judge is fussing at a lawyer. So, usually in civil trials, we do not fuss back. In any event, it is frustrating that some judges will not let you provide testimony you believe essential to your case.

Pres. Trump and AG Sessions started a policy separating children from their parents at the border last April. It lasted just a few weeks, but resulted in some 2500 children separated form their children. The policy was changed and the federal government was able to re-unify most of the families. But, there are still several hundred children who are apart from some 500 parents.A federal judge in San Diego has presided over a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. The challenge now is those 500 parents were deported. This is a transient, mobile population. It will be very difficult to find them.

In a recent filing, the Department of Justice unwisely said the ACLU could locate these parents. DOJ said with their network of NGO’s. volunteers and other resources, the ACLU could find the parents. The DOJ was apparently trying to make a joke. The ACLU has no such network. It is more or less a national law firm, composed of individual lawyers in various cities. “NGO” refers to non-governmental organizations. The ACLU has no “network” of NGO’s. DOJ knows that. I can only think they intended the comment as a joke of some sort.

The judge, Dana Sabraw, said to be a dignified sort of judge, did not rise to the bait. He simply told the DOJ that this problem, created by the Trump administration must be solved by the Trump Administration. Judge Sabraw said that sort of plan was not “acceptable.”

It is never wise to make jokes about major problems. The judge will remember that callous humor later when DOJ might wish to be taken seriously. See AP news report here.

Texas Workforce Commission is supposed to enforce the Texas statutes regarding wages. TWC provides a helpful summary of the Texas Pay Day statute. See the TWC summary here. But, their summary does not answer one frequently asked question, when must an employer pay the last paycheck?  I am asked this often, since many employers withhold the last paycheck until the employee turns in his tools, pays for a damaged rear view mirror, turns in her uniforms, or whatever.

The employer has no choice. The employer must pay the last paycheck within six days of the last day of employment. See Texas Labor Code. Art. 61.014. But, what happens to an employer if they do not meet the six day deadline? Not much. The employer can incur a criminal penalty, but who will enforce that law and seek a criminal penalty? In reality, no one does. Most District Attorney’s are far too busy to prosecute a crime they see as relatively minor.

The National Labor Relations Act has always protected a worker’s right to discuss “terms and conditions” of employment. Sec. 7 of the NLRA protects the right of workers to discuss conditions at their job. Sec. 7 of the NLRA is found at 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). 

But, because labor unions are so rare in the country now, very few people are aware of this right. The right applies even before a union is formed. When the NLRA was passed into law, Congress recognized that to form a union, workers would have to discuss problems at work. I last discussed those Sec. 7 rights here. The Fifth Circuit has recently re-affirmed the right to discuss conditions at work. In the case of In-N-Out Burger v. NLRB, No. 17-60241 (5th Cir. 7/6/2018), some fast food workers demonstrated solidarity with a national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15. The workers wore buttons with the slogan “Fight for $15” to work.

Management then cited a company rule that forbade workers from wearing any pins or stickers on their work uniform. The workers complied. Someone filed a complaint with the NLRB. The NLRB found the burger chain to have violated Sec. 7. The Fifth Circuit agreed. Despite the rule against buttons, the burger chain requires its workers to wear holiday themed buttons at Christmas time and a donation button in April seeking donations to the In-N-Out Foundation. The burger chain argued that “special circumstances” under the NLRA would allow them to implement rules regarding food safety and to project a certain “public image.”

The appellate court was not impressed. It reviewed the history of Sec. 7, noting its critical role in forming labor unions. It noted that “special circumstances” under the NLRA pertain to work place safety. The no pins or buttons rule had no direct connection to the company’s desire to presenting consistent menu and ownership structure at each restaurant. Prior cases law does not support a “special circumstances” privilege in regard to buttons and interacting with the public. And, the use of a Christmas button and a donation button undercut the company’s claim that “special circumstances” required that uniforms be button free. The appellate court found in favor of the NLRB. See the decision here.

Overcoming Sec. 7 is very difficult. In-N-Out Burger wasted a lot of effort.

Judge Lynn Hughes in the Southern District of Texas is a difficult judge. He harangues attorneys who appear before him. He cancels discovery, even though the federal rules of civil procedure provide otherwise. He is a difficult judge on several levels. In the case of USA v. Swenson, No. 17-20131 (5th Cir. 7/3/2018), the US Attorney prosecuted an adoption agency for fraud. Shortly before trial, the US Attorney dumped thousands of documents on the defense. There were indications that the prosecution had been hiding or withholding documents until the defense knew to ask for those specific documents. The day before trial, the parties had another conference in front of Judge Hughes. The prosecution brought yet another large pdf file of documents to the hearing. The prosecutor apologized to the court, saying she had overlooked the documents.

Judge Hughes fussed at the prosecutor. He said she is supposed to know what she is doing. He said it was better in the old days, because the prosecutors wore dark suits and blue ties. They did not let “girls” do this in the old days. The case had been continued three time already. So, the judge dismissed the case with prejudice.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit panel found there was no Brady violation here, meaning the prosecutor did not intentionally withhold material that would have helped the defense. It noted that the district court did not explain why one more continuance – the first continuance to be requested by the prosecutor  – would not suffice. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the matter back to the district court. But, remarkably, the appellate court remanded the case not back to the same judge, but to the chief judge to re-assign the case to a different judge. That is, the court remanded the case to a different judge, not back to Judge Hughes. See the decision here.

Reassigning to a different judge is as clear a rebuke as judges get. I expect it was the comment about “girls” that concerned the court of appeals. But, Judge Hughes is always a concern for the Fifth Circuit.

Sexual harassment cases are complicated. The legal standard is that harassment by co-workers which is “severe or pervasive” will constitute a hostile work environment – if of course, management knows about the harassment and does nothing. But, what happens when the harasser is a customer? If an employer is aware of the harassment and does nothing, the employer is liable. In Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, LLC, No. 17-60052 (5th Cir. 6/29/2018), we see an additional twist. What happens when the person doing the harassment is a patient suffering from dementia?

The plaintiff was employed as a certified nursing assistant at an assisted living facility. She had years of experience in the field. Perhaps, that is why she was assigned to J.S., a difficult patient. J.S. was elderly. He suffered from dimentia. He would grope the female employees and become violent when they would resist. One day, he tried to grope Ms. Gardner. She resisted. He struck her breast. He struck her again, as they tried to move him. She may or may not have swung toward him deliberately missing him. She walked out, allegedly saying she was the wrong skin color. The other white nurse apparently was able to calm down J.S.

Ms. Gardner went out on worker’s compensation leave and was fired when she returned to work. The employer said her comment was racist and that she tried to hit J.S. The CNA filed suit. The employer was granted summary judgment.

There was no question J.S. frequently tried to grope women, on their thighs, breast, buttocks and their private areas. He did this daily. The appellate court found this was “severe or pervasive” harassment. J.S. was eventually moved to an all-male facility with lock-down security.

Ms. Gardner might have still lost her claim, but her supervisors were derisive toward her complaints about J.S. One of them told her to put on her big girl pants. And, as the court pointed out, another element of a sexual harassment claim is that management takes no action to stop the harassment. The court faulted management for doing nothing to even try to stop the harassment. After J.S. had punched her three times, she asked to be transferred. Management told her no. Management clearly was not even trying to fix the problem. The plaintiff presented evidence regarding what other nursing facilities had done where she worked. They would require two or more aids, try to use medications to control behavior, or simply transfer the patient to some other facility. CLC took none of steps. And, of course, long after firing Ms. Gardner, CLC did finally transfer J.S. out of the facility.

The court recognized that there may be times when it is simply not physically possible to keep an ill patient from acting aggressively. But, there were things the employer could have done this time, in this case. But, it did none of those. The Fifth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment. See the decisions here.