We all know that age discrimination is an issue when an older worker is replaced by a younger worker. But, can we still show age discrimination when an older worker is replaced by someone who is also older? The Firth Circuit says yes, sometimes. In the case of Alaniz v. U.S. Renal Care, Inc., No. 19040043, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 40266 (5yh Cir. 12.23.2020) (unpublished), Juan Alaniz was a Licensed Social Worker at a medical clinic. His supervisor, Rebecca Perez, who hired Mr. Alaniz, told him younger workers can work more quickly and more quickly be molded. Another time, she said a younger persons as waiting to be called in for his position. A co-worker told Alaniz that it was a joke for older persons to continue to work.

Co-workers, who were younger, would call him for specious reasons to come to the office. They would then tell him to hurry up. The younger co-workers would walk into his office without knocking, while Alaniz was with a patient, and take papers from his desk. patients complained about the lack of respect shown toward Mr. Alaniz. Mr. Alaniz complained to HR. A regional director came to the clinic and told him he sided with Ms. Perez. he said he would fire Mr. Alaniz if he had to come back to the clinic.

A fe months later, Mr. Alaniz filed a complaint with the EEOC. A doctor came into Mr. Alaniz’ office. He asked Alaniz if he had filed a complaint with the EEOC. Upon hearing Mr. Alaniz’ response, the doctor stormed out. The clinic accused Mr. Alaniz of forging patient signatures and fired him. he was 53 years old. The clinic re-hired a former Social Worker, who was 60 years old, to replace Mr. Alaniz. It also hired a second, younger Social Worker, 26 years old.

In the resulting lawsuit, the clinic moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion.

But, on appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that just because an older replacement was hired, that does not establish a lack of age discrimination. The supervisor made several ageist comments to Mr. Alaniz. The clinic may have hired the older Social Worker simply as cover for a lawsuit while also hiring a younger Social Worker for the future. The 60 year old Social Worker may been intended as a temporary replacement. The court noted the lack of organization in the employee’s brief. But, stills aid, the court summary judgment should not have been granted. The court then reversed the grant of summary judgment. See the decision here.

 

 

Glenn Hamer claims the pending bill known as “Protecting the Right to Organize” will stop gig workers from working in the gig economy. In a recent opinion piece with the San Antonio Express News, Mr. Hamer claims the PRO, which is pending in the U.S. Senate, will make all gig workers traditional employees and not independent contractors. If true, such a result would indeed stop gig employment.

The CEO of the Texas Association of Business points to no authority for his claim. My reading of the bill reveals nothing that applies to independent contractors in general. The bill does have a provision that applies to joint employer situations. Joint employers are those situations in which an employer contracts out some of its hiring to a third party staffing agency. There are valid questions regarding these sorts of independent contractors. Are they true independent contractors, or are they traditional employees masquerading as independent contractors? The joint employer situations are growing, but they are still rare. See the pending bill here.

What the bill does do is over-rule so-called right to work laws in various states, including Texas. These laws allow a worker who is not a union member to not pay union dues. You might call these the “Protect the Freeloader” statutes. The PRO would stop the Protect the Freeloader statutes. The PRO also prevents employers from requiring attendance at anti-union organizing meetings. For more information about the bill, see the NPR report.

The bill amends the National Labor Relations Act. So, even if someone wants to change gig employment, this bill could not do that. The NLRA is one part of U.S. labor laws. It is not the entire labor law across all areas of the economy. The NLRA only applies to union workplaces and workplaces that are considering forming a union. Even if Mr. Hamer or someone wanted to change the law regarding gig workers, this law just physically could not accomplish that sort of a goal.

The PRO is legally impossible of effecting the changes Mr. Hamer assigns to it. We just hope he made this large error accidentally, and not deliberately. See his piece here.

Every lawsuit has some small but critical detail. One critical element for any defense is the number of workers employed by the employer. If the Defendant employer wants to take advantage of the caps on damages, it must show the number of employees. In THF Management Houston Corp. v. Gideon, No. 14-18-01103-CV, 2020 WL 771332 (Tex. App. Amarillo 1/6/20201), the jury found for the employee and found she suffered discrimination. The jury awarded $225,000 in compensatory damages. TJF Management had enough employees that the lowest cap would apply, $50,000. But, the $50,000 cap would only apply if the employer plead the caps, and if the employer then showed the number of employees at trial. But, the employer did not plead the cap and did not seek a finding by the jury about the number of employees.

But, said the court, THF Management did raise the issue in a motion for new trial. A motion for new trial is not trial evidence. The appellate court found testimony by one of the THF witnesses that it had less than 50 employees, so the FMLA did not apply. The court of appeals also pointed to the plaintiffs EEOC charge that indicated the defendant had 15-100 employees. The court of appeals then relied on those two pieces of evidence to find the cap should apply. See the decision here. That is pretty thin evidence, but it satisfied the court.


In a new decision on the issue, a federal judge in Chicago has ruled that reduced seating does amount to an “interruption” in business for purposes of insurance coverage. The insurance carrier, Society Insurance, had submitted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Judge Edmond Chang said capacity limits can constitute “direct physical loss” for “business interruption” policies.

Society Insurance had argued that the tables, chairs, walls and floors remained in working condition. But, the restaurants argued that the virus pandemic had created a dangerous condition in the restaurant. The judge said a reasonable jury could conclude the pandemic effected direct physical loss tot he restaurants.

See ABA Bar Journal report.

In Union Pacific RR Co. v. American Railway & Airway Supervisors Assoc., No. 18-50110 (5th Cir. 12/16/2020), the Fifth Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer. A railroad employee, Roland Beltran, twice tested positive on a drug test. Aided by the union, he appealed to arbitration. He presented evidence that prescription drugs likely caused the false positive. The arbitration delivered a decision overturning Mr. Beltran’s termination. Union Pacific Railroad Company then sued seeking to overturn the arbitration result.

The case turned on the meaning of 49 C.F.R. Sec. 40.149, which provides that only the medical testing review board can overturn a drug test result.  The district court held that an arbitration panel does not have the authority to reverse the drug test result. The district court faulted the employee for not providing information about his prescription drugs when asked by the medical review board.

But, the Fifth Circuit saw the role of the medical review board as more  narrow. Its sole function was to verify the drug test’s validity for purposes of personnel procedures, not to implement federal safety regulations. At bottom, said the court, transportation safety policy and labor policy are driven by different concerns. That means the arbitration panel decision did not conflict with the medical review board result. Therefore, no public policy has been violated.

Too, noted the court, the employer did not challenge the jurisdiction of the arbitration board when that mater was still pending. That means the employer waived its jurisdictional argument in front of the arbitration panel. Union Pacific did not raise the issue concerning 49 C.F.R. Sec. 40.149 before the arbitration panel. See the Fifth Circuit decision here.

Well, a recent study confirms what many of us expected. Joanna Shepherd, law professor at Emory University, conducted a study of employment discrimination lawsuits.The study looked at whether backgrounds of individual federal judges had an impact on the outcome of a discrimination lawsuit. The study asks whether the professional background of some judges makes them more likely to rule against workers. The study found the answer to be yes.

The study found that judges appointed by Presidents Obama with corporate backgrounds are 36% less likely to rule on behalf of employees. Obama judges who have a background as prosecutors are 56% less likely to decide in favor of employees in those cases compared with non-prosecutors.

The study looked at federal court decisions in 2016 to 2019. It focused on judges appointed by Pres. Obama and Pres. Trump. Nearly 25% of Trump’s picks came from the 200 largest law firms in the country. About 45% of Obama’s choices had previously served as prosecutors at the state or federal level. The study found similar results whether the judge was appointed by a Republican or Democratic President.

The study looked at the rulings in regard to motions for summary judgment, motions for judgments on the pleadings and motions for judgments as a matter f law. It did not look behind the decisions. It did not attempt to assess whether the judge made the “right” decision in a given case. It simply noted that judges of a coporare or prosecutorial background were more likely to grant anti-employee motions.

See NPR news report here. See the report here.

 

The case of the mysterious Ken Paxton machinations continues to develop. I previously wrote here and here about the whistleblower allegations against him. Four of his fired aides filed a lawsuit. Their lawsuit papers provide further details about their allegations. They allege that real estate developer Nate Paul was helping Mr. Paxton remodel his house and agreed to hire Paxton’s mistress. In return, AG Paxton helped Mr. Paul settle a lawsuit and investigate Paul’s business adversaries. The lawsuit describes Paxton’s “bizarre, obsessive use of power.”

In January, the AG’s office filed a motion to dismiss the whistleblower lawsuit. The motion claimed that the AG was not a public figure under the Whistleblower Act. Good luck with that argument.

The lawsuit also alleges that AG Paxton issued a legal opinion helpful to Mr. Paul’s business. Mr. Paul’s business was able to use that legal opinion to avoid foreclosure on several of his properties. See Texas Tribune report here.

It is always risky to predict lawsuits. But, as I mentioned previously, these four aides were top level AG officials. It is very unlikely they lack evidence for their allegations.

Lawyer Lin Wood, the pro-Trump lawyer who filed a handful of election lawsuits, is being investigated by the Georgia Bar Association for alleged ethical lapses. In response, Mr. Wood published online the addresses for the 18 members of the Georgia grievance committee. Four of the addresses were home addresses. Disciplinary or grievance committees are typically composed of volunteer lawyers and a few public members at large. Mr. Wood asked that his followers “investigate” these 18 grievance committee members. Wood published the addresses on his Telegram account. Can someone say, “Please sanction me”?

More than 350,000 Telegram users viewed that post. Mr. Wood justified his action, saying the information was public. I do not know how the Georgia Bar Association does things. But, in Texas, us lawyer persons can choose to make our home addresses public or not. But, otherwise, our work addresses are indeed public. Mr. Wood said the state bar started the fight, but he would finish it.

The Georgia state bar said it is proceeding with an inquiry under its rule regarding lawyers who suffer a mental capacity issue or a substance abuse issue. See ABA Bar Journal report. Mr. Wood insists he has not taken a drink in eight years and that his doctors said he was mentally fit. Fit or not, this is a good way to find his law license in jeopardy.

Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas is at it again. In the case of Miller v. Sam Houston State Univ., No. 19-20752 (5th Cir. 1/29/2021), Judge Hughes flat denied the Plaintiff any depositions, while granting summary judgment against the plaintiff. Worse, he made statement after statement expressing skepticism about the plaintiff’s case. I have written about Judge Hughes here and here. He often denies discovery to one or both parties. But, in this case, he seemed to focus his ire on the plaintiff.

Early Hearing

At one early hearing, he insisted on dismissing two of the four defendants. The plaintiff had sued Sam Houston State University and its higher level entity, the Texas State University System. The Plaintiff also sued the University of Houston and its higher level entity, the University of Houston System, in a separate lawsuit. The judge told the plaintiff’s lawyer that she must dismiss two of the four, which two would she choose? Of course, that is very unorthodox way to dismiss two properly served parties. He then added the the “systems” were not important. All they did was make it harder for University employees to do their job.

As the early hearing progressed, Judge Hughes made other comments. Is there nothing the plaintiff has not complained about? He discussed Prof. Miller’s case, saying she seemed to be complaining about less pay and not getting tenure. He added,

“I have never thought about it, but I have had more tenure decisions than you can imagine working here. You wouldn’t think professors were litigious, but apparently they are.” 

He specifically ordered that Plaintiff Miller be deposed at his courtroom. As the hearing drew to a close, Judge Hughes suggested consolidating the two lawsuits, the one against SHSU and the one against UH. Both parties objected. The judge replied to Miller’s counsel: “All right. I will get credit for closing two cases when I crush you.” When the lawyer resisted, Judge Hughes interjected:“How will that look on your record?” 

Attending the Plaintiff’s Deposition

The judge then attended plaintiff Dr. Miller’s deposition. He participated in the deposition. He warned her that if she did not like his rulings, that is okay. This is a free country, he said. But, the Defendant has a right to to know exactly why she sued the defendant. He later lectured Dr. Miller when she tried to discuss her view of Supreme Court precedent. Meanwhile, Judge Hughes rejected repeated attempts by the plaintiff to take her own depositions.

The judge called for another hearing. The judge suggested the employer seek summary judgment. The plaintiff’s lawyer agued that they needed more discovery. She suggested the data provided by the defendant was inaccurate. Replied the judge, “I think you’re making that up.” 

The employer did submit a motion for summary judgment. At the close of an oral hearing on the summary judgment motion, Judge Hughes allowed the plaintiff to depose a key witness, but only for two hours. The court then denied repeated motions for more discovery. He later granted the motion for summary judgment.

On Appeal

On appeal the Fifth Circuit was quite annoyed. The opinion starts with a general discussion that the appearance of fairness is important. Fairness, said the appellate court, is upheld by avoiding even the appearance of partiality. The court was very troubled by the court’s dismissal of claims sue sponte. There was no pending motion to dismiss claims against two defendants. There was no briefing on the issue until Plaintiff Miller submitted a motion for reconsideration. The Fifth Circuit found the motion for reconsideration to have some merit. It was simply unfair to force the plaintiff to make her arguments after the decision had already been made. The dismissal, said the court of appeals, appeared to rest on the lower court’s assertion that “systems don’t do anything.”

The court then pointed to the decision in McCoy v. Energy XXI GOM, LLC, 695 Fed.Appd’x 750 (5th Cir. 2017,), another Judge Hughes case. In that case, Judge Hughes again only permitted a deposition of the plaintiff. As in McCoy, it was reversible error to prevent one party from conducting full and fair discovery, said the Fifth Circuit panel.

The Plaintiff also asked that the case be transferred to a different judge, an extraordinary remedy. The appellate court granted her court. It found that Judge Hughes had from the outset, shown a lack of impartiality. See the decision here.

Anytime a court of appeals transfers a case to a different judge, you know they have lost faith in the most fundamental requirement of any judge, that he not show favor or partiality.

Alex Jones and InfoWars were sanctioned in 2019. See my prior post here. Now, Mr. Jones’ motion to dismiss has been denied. Alex Jones has been sued in Texas by three families from the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Alex Jones and InfoWars claimed the shooting was not real. Two suits (field by Fontaine and Heslin) allege defamation. A third lawsuit (filed by Lewis) alleges Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

Defamation

Among Jones’ various claims, he argued in court that Texas defamation law requires that the alleged slander be directed specifically at certain persons. It is not enough, argued Jones, that he spoke about the families in general. He needed to mention specific persons, claims his lawyers.  The lawyer for the family members argued no, on the contrary that InfoWars accused the families of colluding in a hoax. The family also argued that Mr. Jones’ statements were so reckless that no reasonable publisher would have published those statements without some corroboration. The majority agreed with the family. The court denied the petition seeking review of the lower court opinion. See Yahoo news report here. Two members of the court would have granted the petition for review. The decision was issued without an opinion. See Petitioner’s request for review in InfoWars v. Fontaine, No. 1901029 (Tex. 1/22/21) here.

In a related action, the Supreme Court also denied a petition to review regarding a third lawsuit. The Supreme Court also denied a motion for sanctions. See decision here. But, the decision is very brief and does not include the court’s reasoning.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In a related suit, Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, sued Alex Jones for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, not for defamation. On appeal, Alex Jones attacked the lower court rulings in taking what Jones described as an “expanded” view of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Supreme Court also rejected that appeal without comment. Alex Jones v. Lewis, No. 19-1050 (Tex. 1/22/21). In this matter, the Supreme Court also denied a motion for sanctions. Plaintiff Scarlett Lewis had asked for sanctions because InfoWars changed its legal position on appeal. Before the lower court, Alex Jones argued that the only appealable issue was whether Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress can lie for someone never named in a specific public statement. But, on appeal to the Supreme Court, counsel for Alex Jones admitted that no individual need be named in a claim of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. The Supreme Court denied that motion for sanctions and rejected Alex Jones’ petition for review.

Sio, the two lawsuits go back to the district court to continue with the normal process.