Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Recently, the EEOC has filed a lawsuit for religious discrimination against Food Lion, LLC (“Food Lion).  While there are multiple types of religious discrimination, the lawsuit against Food Lion focuses on the failure of Food Lion to provide a “reasonable accommodation” based upon a sincerely held religious belief.  This is often the form that religious discrimination takes in the workplace.  In the recent lawsuit, the sincerely held religious belief was that of a Jehovah’s Witness.  Victaurius Bailey (“Mr. Bailey”) was hired as a meat cutter at Food Lion on June 6, 2011.  Mr. Bailey was also a Jehovah’s Witness minister and elder.  According to Mr. Bailey, as a component of his faith, he was required to attend church services every Sunday and Thursday evening.  Apparently, this fact was known when Mr. Bailey was hired as he disclosed the situation and requested an accommodation.  Mr. Bailey’s store manager, at hire, agreed to accommodate his request.  However, very shortly after his hire, Mr. Bailey was transferred to another Food Lion location.  The store manager at the second location told Mr. Bailey that if he could not work on Sundays then he could not work for Food Lion.  Mr. Bailey was terminated on June 27, 2011 because he was unavailable to work on Sundays.

While this matter is far from being resolved and must, first, work its way through the court system, it has piqued my curiosity regarding religious discrimination in the workplace.  As an employment attorney, I can assert that very few cases that I see involve religious discrimination in the workplace.  In fact, for many years religious discrimination seemed to be an afterthought to the anti-discrimination statutes and did not garner as much attention as some of the more typical protected classes.  Why is this?  My guess is that religious discrimination has been viewed as unchartered and unknown territory.   While state and federal law makes clear that you cannot discriminate against a person based on their religious belief, the U.S. Constitution also has something to say about religion.  Both the “anti-establishment” and “free expression” clauses of the First Amendment complicate the issue.  When does one person’s free expression/exercise of their religion constitute discrimination against another?

However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is beginning to give more attention to religious discrimination in the workplace.  Statistics show that in EEOC filings, religious discrimination charges have more than doubled since 1997.  Accordingly, employers must be aware of what they are permitted to do and not permitted to do, as it pertains to religion in the workplace.  Otherwise, employers will find themselves at odds with the EEOC, which is not a comfortable place to be.

What is religious discrimination?  Religious discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs or those of a person that the applicant or employee is associated with.  Essentially, a person’s religion cannot be the basis of any employment decision, i.e., hiring, termination, compensation, promotions, job assignment, etc.  Further, the prohibition against religious discrimination applies to both commonly understood and recognized religions as well as those that people are much less familiar with.  The only qualification is that the religious belief be sincerely held.  It is, also, not relevant if a belief or practice is newly adopted by an employee.  The rules apply to the sincerely unreligious as well, as long as these views relate to “what is right or wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional views.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. prohibits the following actions, among other things:

  • Disparate treatment based on religious affiliation
  • Denial of reasonable accommodation
  • Workplace job segregation
  • Workplace harassment based on religion
  • Retaliation for requesting an accommodation

While some of the prohibitions seem self-explanatory, a little more detail is required to fully understand others.  Probably one of the most common areas of religious discrimination, in the workplace, is the denial of a reasonable request for religious accommodation.  Food Lion is finding themselves in a lawsuit because of its refusal to accommodate Mr. Bailey’s request for accommodation.  Common among these types of cases is an employer’s refusal to allow an employee’s particular dress and/or grooming practices that are a part of that employee’s religious beliefs.  The EEOC has recently filed suit against an Alabama nursing home for refusing to allow a Muslim employee to wear a hijab.  The employer, in that situation, refused the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation, leading the employee to file a charge with the EEOC.  Assuming that the reasonable accommodation does not place an undue hardship on the employer, a person’s religious beliefs and customs must been respected.

As is evident in the case involving the Muslim employee’s request to wear the hijab, some religious customs and/or traditions make it clear that a person is a member of a particular religion.  However, employers cannot engage in workplace job segregation on the basis of religion.  Sometimes employers think that they can place an employee “in the back” and away from customers because to do otherwise would make the customers uncomfortable.  However, if an employer takes an action based on the discriminatory religious practices of others, including, customers, clients, or co-workers, the employer is unlawfully discriminating in employment based on religion.

Employers need to be very careful when it comes to the sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees.  Because of the diversity among religions, more and more people are beginning to affiliate themselves with various religions.  Likewise, when discussing religion, people, understandably, become very passionate.  If they believe that their sincerely held religious belief is being belittled or ignored, they will become vocal regarding the violation of their rights.  Vocal employees visit the EEOC.  EMPLOYERS BEWARE!

As with any rule, there are exceptions.

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Social Media in Jury Selection

If you have ever served as a jury member you probably remember completing a jury questionnaire prior to your service.  This jury questionnaire requires that you answer some fairly basic questions about yourself and submit it to the court.  The questionnaire assists in making the determination as to your suitability to act as a juror on specific cases.  What you may not know is that prior to the start of a trial, counsel receives copies of the questionnaires for all members of the jury pool.  While the questionnaire is fairly basic, it definitely contains information that allows attorneys to identify you and, if they desire, the information that would allow the attorney to find out a whole lot more about you.  Also, remember that we live in the “age of Social Media” and it is not difficult to foresee the problem.  I mean, really, you can find more out about a person by perusing their Facebook Page or Twitter feed than pretty much any other source.  People, quite surprisingly, are prone to broadcast their deepest, darkest, most private thoughts on social media.  Rest assured, that if you put the information out there, it will be discovered by those you wish did not have access to it, such as employers and now also attorneys.

You cannot really fault the litigation attorneys that are making social media review of jurors a part of their preparation for trial.  It is their job to discover as much about the prospective juror as they possibly can to ensure that they are suitable to be chosen as a juror and do not have any undisclosed bias against their client.  After all, attorneys are charged with the responsibility of zealously representing their clients and their clients’ interests.

Courts have, increasingly had to deal with jurors’ desire to discuss ongoing trials on social media.  While problematic, judges can normally curtail such activity by instructing the jurors that commenting about the trial on social media is a big no-no and that failure to heed the judge’s admonition could have undesired consequences, such as being held in contempt of court.

However, it is becoming so common for attorneys to view the social media pages of prospective jurors that the American Bar Association (“ABA”) has offered its advice in the form of Formal Opinion 466.  You may ask why it is such a big deal because like stated earlier, you should not have an expectation of privacy on anything you post on social media.  The crux of the problem is found in the Rules of Professional Conduct, specifically Model Rule 3.5(b), which prohibits ex parte communication with jurors.  In Formal Opinion 466, the ABA has determined what constitutes ex parte communications in the realm of social media.

The formal opinion divides social media review into three categories, two of which are permitted and one which is not.  Passive review of a juror’s social media profile that is set to “public” is permitted.  Essentially, passive review is that which is available without the attorney making an access request and review that occurs without the juror’s knowledge.  However, if the juror’s social media settings are “private”, thereby requiring an access request, then that request would be considered an ex parte communication because it would be a specific request from the attorney to the prospective juror.  Finally, the formal opinion states that if there is an automatic notification feature that notifies the person of a passive review, think LinkedIn, that it is permissible because the communication is from the social media entity and not the attorney.  However, the New York State Bar Association has reached a different conclusion regarding the automatic notification, classifying it as an improper communication.

The ABA ethics committee added a suggestion that judges may want to advise the jury pool that the attorneys have a legitimate interest in learning more about their backgrounds which may include searching for information on the internet.  While I definitely can see the benefit of such a statement, I am sure that most prospective jurors will not appreciate an attorney digging into their background.  Times, though, are definitely changing and people’s expectation of privacy is dwindling with each new technological invention.

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Original Wills and Safe Deposit Boxes

Whenever someone puts together their “important documents,” the question comes up, “Should I put this in my safe deposit box?”  Usually the answer to that is a resounding “Yes!”  When it comes to a Last Will and Testament though, my advice would be to put it someplace safe, but not in a safe.

Many times, at the decedent’s death, safe deposit boxes are sealed by the bank until someone has been appointed the executor or personal representative of the estate.  And herein lies the paradox…if you don’t know who the executor was intended to be without looking at the Last Will and Testament, then how can you get access to the safe deposit box, which will give you the executor’s name on the Last Will and Testament?

Well, you might say, my wife/my husband also has access to my safe deposit box…so they could just open it for me.  That assumes that they like the terms of your Last Will and Testament, and would gladly offer it up to the Court.  They may prefer to have the Laws of Intestacy rule instead of what you had written in a Will.

There is a proceeding that can be brought in the Probate Court to allow a friend or relative to access your safe deposit box in order to obtain the original document that is contained within.  This can be an extra expense that you hadn’t counted on.

Many estate planning attorneys will offer to keep the original in their files and give you a photocopy for your records.  But a good, sturdy fire-safe box from Home Depot or Lowes may really be all you need for your Last Will and Testament to remain safe…and accessible.


Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accomodation Under the ADA?

The U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which encompasses Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan) issued an important ruling on April 22, 2014, as to whether telecommuting was a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  In a 2-1 decision, the court reversed the dismissal of a suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which was filed on behalf of Jane Harris, a former employee of the Ford Motor Co. (“Ford”).  While, procedurally, the conclusion of the story is yet to be seen, the Sixth Circuit’s reversal is being hailed by the EEOC as the proper interpretation of the ADA.  Likewise, the Court’s opinion is being criticized by those representing business interests for its potential, far-reaching and disturbing conclusions.

Jane Harris (“Ms. Harris”) was employed as a resale steel buyer for Ford, which means that she served as an intermediary between steel suppliers and the companies that use steel to produce auto parts for Ford.  Since the time that she began her employment with Ford, in 2004, Ms. Harris has had irritable bowel syndrome.  Such condition has led to her intermittent leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act “(FMLA”).  It was determined that her absences began to affect her job performance.  Her supervisors, on a trial basis, permitted Ms. Harris to work on a flex-time telecommuting schedule.  Ultimately, though, and of great significance, is the fact that Ford determined that the trial schedule was unsuccessful because Ms. Harris was “unable to establish regular and consistent working hours.

In February, 2009, Ms. Harris, formally, requested permission to telecommute on as needed basis as an accommodation of her disability under the ADA.  The ADA requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees that are otherwise qualified for their position and can perform the essential job functions of their position, with the accommodation.  Additionally, Ford does maintain a, rather liberal, telecommuting policy which allows employees to telecommute for up to four days a week.  While all salaried employees are eligible for telecommuting, the policy states that “such arrangements are not appropriate for all jobs, employees, work environments or even managers.”

Ford, subsequently, denied Ms. Harris’ request for “reasonable accommodation”, claiming that her job was not suitable for telecommuting.  Ford’s executives claimed that the job’s essence was “group problem-solving” and that Harris must be available to interact with other Ford employees, steel suppliers and others in the production chain when problems arise.”  Ford did present other accommodations to Ms. Harris.  Ford suggested moving Ms. Harris’ workspace closer to the restroom or seeking another job for Ms. Harris, within Ford, that was more suitable for telecommuting.  However, Ms. Harris rejected the alternative accommodations and began complaining that her supervisor was harassing her for leave-related absences.  In April, 2009, Ms. Harris filed a charge with the EEOC.  Subsequently, Ms. Harris was placed on a performance enhancement plan in July, 2009 and was terminated the following month for failing to achieve her performance goals.

The EEOC filed suit, on behalf of Ms. Harris, for disability discrimination and retaliation under the ADA.  In 2012, the federal district court dismissed the action on the basis that the EEOC could not establish that Ms. Harris was a “qualified individual with a disability” because the sought accommodation would not allow her to perform the essential functions of her job, including collaboration with her workplace team for which physical presence in the office was required.

In a decision that surprised many, as it was a departure from previous Sixth Circuit opinions, the Court determined that the EEOC raised a triable issue regarding whether or not Ms. Harris could perform the essential functions of her job through attendance by technological means without causing Ford undue hardship.  Likewise, the Court determined that the EEOC raised a triable issue that Ford’s termination of Ms. Harris for failure to satisfy performance goals was a pretext for unlawful retaliation under the ADA.

While the Court acknowledge that Sixth Circuit precedent establishes that regular attendance is an essential function of most jobs and telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation in only the most unusual cases, it was persuaded by the argument that technological advances may have expanded the class of job for which telecommuting is reasonable.

The dissenting opinion, which was penned by Judge David W. McKeague, envisions an unfortunate impact.  Judge McKeague claims that the decision will probably result in employers revising their telecommuting policies to avoid legal liability, thereby harming those employees that benefit therefrom.

Detractors from the Court’s decision are claiming that the Sixth Circuit has overhauled its own precedent and are reading into the ADA things that were never intended.  Typically, according to opponents, an employer, not an employee, gets to define the essential job functions, which may include the location where the work is to be performed.  Additionally, it should not be forgotten that Ms. Harris was permitted to telecommute on a trial basis which proved to be unsuccessful due to her failure/inability to establish regular and consistent working hours.  Likewise, Ford did not simply deny Ms. Harris’ request for accommodation but, instead, suggested alternative solutions.  However, the Court was not persuaded by these arguments.

While the Sixth Circuit’s decision does not mean a “victory” for the EEOC and Ms. Harris, it will stand alone for the future.  In this instant case, Ms. Harris’ claims will be tried to a jury, which did not occur, previously, because of the district court’s dismissal.  At the end of the day, Ford may be successful on the merits of the case.  However, the Sixth Circuit’s decision will be cited time and time again for the proposition that telecommuting is a “reasonable accommodation” despite what the employer says are the essential functions of the job.  With advances in technology and every-changing case law, employers are unable to determine whether or not they are exposing themselves to legal liability under the ADA.

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Autism and Estate Planning

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder of brain development. ASD can cause difficulty in social interaction, communication, motor coordination, and sometimes physical health issues. The most obvious signs of autism tend to be noticeable between 2 and 3 years of age, and it affects boys five times more often than girls. It is estimated that 1 out of 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States. There is no one cause of autism, and there are many types of autism. The research is not conclusive as to who gets it and why.


What is the capacity of an autistic individual?

Each individual is unique. On the autistic spectrum, many individuals have exceptional abilities and unique ways of viewing the world. There are others on the spectrum that have significant physical or mental disabilities and will never be able to live independently. It really depends on the individual. Typically, the parents are in the best position to know the capabilities and mental capacity of their child, and at some point after the child turns 18, decisions will need to be made by the entire family about the continuing care of an autistic child.

What are the rights of parents of autistic children who have reached 18 years of age?

For parents of children with autism who are about to turn 18, this can be a really confusing time. Many parents of disabled children assume that they will remain their child’s guardian for the child’s lifetime, but this is not automatically the case. Once your child turns 18, you are no longer that child’s legal guardian, and he or she has the right to make his or her own decisions, regardless of whether that child should have been under a guardianship or conservator arrangement. This applies to medical decisions, special education decisions, and ability to be bound to legal documents (such as a power of attorney or a lease, contract or credit card agreement).


What is the difference between a Power of Attorney document and a Guardianship?

There any many differences between a guardianship and a power of attorney. Look at the chart below and you can see that a power of attorney, although less expensive, and easier to create, comes with many risks and problems for both the parents and the adult-incompetent. The choice of whether a guardianship is appropriate is ultimately a decision that may need input from the entire family.



Power of Attorney

A court-appointed guardian is a fiduciary (has a duty to serve the best interest of the ward) in both financial matters and life decisions of an incompetent.*   The court must be persuaded that there are no “less restrictive alternatives” to guardianship, such as a POA.  The guardian must prove that the incompetent person is incompetent in at least one important area of their lives.  There must also be a present need for a guardianship. A person might not be able to handle their affairs independently, but may have a support network of friends, family and service providers that make guardianship unnecessary. The agent has equal ability with the principal to handle assets, but cannot make medical decisions for the principal or have access to medical information, unless they are also the agent on a Health Care Power of Attorney document.  Neither document gives the agent the power to make life decisions over personal matters.
In the event of a conflict between the ward’s opinion and the guardian’s opinion, the guardian should consult the ward and try to incorporate input from the ward.  But the court will make the ultimate decision and can decide against the wishes of the ward, in favor of the guardian’s opinion, if the judge feels that the decision is in the “best interest” of the ward. The agent in a POA is not a fiduciary per se, but instead a signatory.  The principal cannot typically recover from the agent decisions that were made in good faith, but there is no “best interest” test in a POA.
A guardianship is comprehensive over both financial matters (estate) and life matters (personal).  A guardian may determine where the person will live, what type of medical treatment he or she receives, and most other aspects.  In certain situations, the guardian must obtain prior court approval before acting, such as sterilization or withdrawal of life-prolonging treatments.  If the court feels that it’s necessary, it can also place the ward under the guardianship of the person with one guardian, and under the guardianship of the estate with another guardian. A POA is not comprehensive, and instead only covers financial issues if they are explicitly spelled out as powers in the POA document.  Some personal decisions can be addressed by also signing a Health Care Power of Attorney, but not all life decisions, such as education, will be covered by that document, and until the principal lacks the ability to voice his or her opinion on health care matters, the agent is not even consulted, and has no access to medical records, charts or files.
The Probate Court has oversight in a guardianship.  The Court will review the actions of the guardian, and can remove or replace a guardian for cause.  The Probate Court also gives permission for the guardian to make any large or unusual expenditures. There is no oversight in a POA.  The principal can change his or her agent at will and this leaves an incompetent adult open to the risk of someone coming into his of her life with ulterior motives, and taking advantage of the principal.  An unscrupulous agent has the power to wipe out all of the funds of the principal.  Recovering those funds would take time and expense.
Guardians are entitled to compensation from the ward for the work that they do on the ward’s behalf. An agent in a POA has no compensation for the power that they exercise for the principal, unless that is written into the document.
Guardians represent a ward in all legal actions, such as the ability to accept or decline settlements and/or choose to pursue a claim.  The ward does have the ability to make some decisions, based on the capacity of the ward. The POA must be written to include all powers that would be necessary for legal representation.  The agent does not have the “standing” that would be required to file a lawsuit, unless the POA gave them that right.  The suit would still be brought on behalf of the principal who suffered damage.
There is often a surety bond in place for a guardianship, to protect the ward from loss. There is no bond required for a POA document, which means that the entire funds of the principal are at risk.
A guardianship, if uncontested, can be a simple process where everyone in the family and the legal professionals involved are working to accomplish an outcome that is in the ward’s best interest. A POA can be a simple document to create, is not very expensive, and can be accomplished fairly quickly.
If the guardianship is contested, it could be difficult, time consuming, and expensive.  It can be highly emotional and can involve attacks on the potential guardians’ characters.  The potential ward can argue that he or she is not incompetent (see definition below the table).  If it gets very complicated, to the extent that the judge cannot make a decision about any of the potential guardians, the judge can appoint a professional guardian (a non-related attorney), and then no one is happy with the outcome. A POA is not only a simple document to create, but also a simple document to revoke.  Because of this, the risk of theft can be quite high.  There can be complications if there are more than one agent in power at one time.  There is no court involvement or oversight of a POA, and therefore no continuity of care if the agent keeps changing.
The process of obtaining guardianship involves filing specific forms with the probate court.  At that time, a hearing is scheduled and notice of that hearing is given to all concerned parties (family members).  After the hearing, the court will decide if a guardian is necessary, and whom that should be.  If a guardian is appointed, the Court will issue Letters of Guardianship.  The Guardian is then responsible for filing annually with the Court the financial accounting, and bi-annually, the Guardian’s Report.  This report gives the Court information that it needs to determine the ward’s condition and whether guardianship should continue.  The ward’s Last Will and Testament must be filed with the court as well.  In 2014, the initial filing of a Guardianship for an Incompetent Adult in Montgomery County is $325.00.  This is the filing fee, but the initial attorney costs can be substantially higher, especially if the hearing ends up being contested and drawn out. A POA costs between $50 and $100 typically, and once executed, the principal can make copies to distribute to all 3rd parties who might need them (banks, financial institutions, etc.).  A Health Care Power of Attorney is an Ohio form that should be available at most health care institutions and online.  If you have an attorney prepare it for you, the cost is typically also between $50 and $100.  If you revoke the POA, you must give notice to 3rd parties or they are not bound by the revocation.  This can get confusing if you execute multiple POAs over time.  A revocation of the document is roughly the same cost as preparing the document itself, and when you have multiples, this could get expensive over time.
 * incompetent – Defined by Ohio as:  “any person who is so mentally impaired as a result of a mental or physical illness or disability, or mental retardation, or as a result of chronic substance abuse, that the person is incapable of taking proper care of the person’s self or property or fails to provide for the person’s family or other persons for whom the person is charged by law to provide, or who is confined to a correctional institution within this state.”


What is a Special Needs Trust?

Generally, a trust is a legal plan for placing funds and other assets in the control of a trustee for the benefit of an individual with a disability. A “special needs trust” (SNT) is a trust that makes it possible for the beneficiary to receive extra income without losing valuable state and federal benefits. The assets in a SNT can’t be used to purchase goods and services that government benefits provide, without invalidating the trust, and putting government benefits at risk. Instead the assets are used for recreation, vacations, special therapies that the government doesn’t cover, paid companions, and personal items, among other things. A SNT is irrevocable, which means once it’s set up, you can’t change your mind and alter the trust or revoke it, and get the money back without restriction. Also, in a SNT, only the trustee, not the beneficiary, can control how the funds will be used. A pooled SNT is a great option for those persons whose funds are not so great as to warrant the cost of managing and maintaining a private SNT. Remember, the trustee must be able to separate those goods and services that the trustee is able purchase, and those purchases that will cause the trust to convert from a SNT to a general trust, thereby putting government assistance benefits at risk.

A SNT trustee cannot make life decisions for the beneficiary of the Trust. A trustee can only make financial decisions as to whether or not to pay for a particular good or service. Access to medical records and decisions about education, medical procedures, and where the beneficiary will live are decisions that are not up to the SNT trustee, but they are of interest to him or her because the trustee must decide whether or not to fund them, or if there are funds available in the trust, not whether or not they are in the best interest of the beneficiary.

So, what do we do next?

Every autistic individual is unique, just like every family. In many families, the decision as to whether or not to involve the court will depend on what the family dynamics are. The adult with special needs may have full-functioning capacity to create legal documents, and to make his or her own decisions. On one hand, that’s great, because it gives him or her the ability to live semi-independently and to grow as an adult. But on the other hand, as the adult expands his or her social circle and meets new people, that same high functioning capacity can put him or her at risk of someone taking advantage.
In the alternate, where there is a low-level of independent function by the autistic adult, the parents may have spent most of their lives taking care of all of the needs of a disabled child, without the need of government benefits or court involvement in the form of a guardianship. The question then becomes, “Who will take care of the child when and if something happens to the parents?” This is where the family dynamics become extremely important, because we’re looking to siblings, if there are any, and whether those siblings are capable of continuing that high level of care, both financially and emotionally, without the needs of a guardianship or government benefits.

There is also the option in Ohio of having a limited guardianship. A limited guardianship is either guardianship over the person or guardianship over the estate. A limited guardianship can also be for medical purposes only (that is to provide consent for medical procedures), or for placement purposes only (such as approving behavior plans or the use of psychotropic medications). A full guardianship (also called a plenary guardianship) takes away nearly all of the rights of the person, and there are some instances where that would not be appropriate. In fact, the court will look very carefully at the case when a plenary guardianship is requested to see if there might be a limited guardianship that would accomplish the ultimate goal, which is protecting the individual.

No matter which guardianship you believe your family needs, there are fundamental rights that a court will typically not take away from a ward, which include the right to decide to have an abortion, or the right to consent to sterilization. The ward can get married, but usually only with the guardian’s consent. The Court can prevent or nullify the marriage of a ward, especially if the marriage takes place without the guardian’s consent. A guardian cannot make a will or execute a power of attorney for the ward, but guardianship doesn’t automatically take away the right of the ward to make a will if the ward has the capacity to understand what he or she is doing. Voting is always a fundamental right, which is not taken away, even in a plenary guardianship.

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Power of Attorney Revocation

When it comes to revoking a General Power of Attorney, notice is the most important element. When you put together a POA, you are essentially giving another person the authority to handle financial transactions for you. But that power is limited by the document itself. The document terms and conditions will establish how long the power lasts, whether it is effective immediately, and how it can be revoked.

In Ohio, if the document is silent as to its effective date, a durable financial power of attorney is effective the moment you sign in, and remains effective even if you’re incapacitated. If there is a suspicion that your agent on the power of attorney document is not acting in your best interests, then you need to move quickly to revoke the power.

First, contact your agent by phone and revoke his or her authority verbally. Your next step is to reduce that revocation to writing, and then send a copy of the revocation to your agent by mail, with a return receipt. This gives you proof that the agent knows or should have known about the revocation. Keep in mind that the revocation must identify the correct power of attorney that you are revoking. In other words, make sure that the date it was signed, who the parties are, and the specific powers that you are revoking are included in the revocation document. Your revocation document does not need to be notarized, but it’s not a bad idea, so that you can avoid questions about the validity of your signature later.

After the agent has been notified, you then turn to notification of any third parties that may be involved in transactions where your power of attorney was on file. Third parties are entities like your bank, or your financial planner, and perhaps your tax preparer, among others. You must send a copy of the revocation document to each of these individuals who may have a copy of your power of attorney on file. If there is a suspicion that time is of the essence, you can hand-deliver the revocation so that they can recognize the revocation of the power to your agent, immediately.

If you have already revoked the POA, but a third party uses it because they were never given notice that the document was revoked, the third party isn’t liable to you for any losses that you have suffered as a result. If your agent uses the document after you’ve revoked it, but before you’ve notified him or her, your agent is not liable to you for any damages resulting, as long as the actions of the agent were in good faith.

If you sold, bought or mortgaged real estate in an Ohio county, and you used a POA during that transaction, your POA would have been filed in the county’s land records. It is your responsibility to file your revocation with the county land records as well.

For your new POA, keep good records of who has a copy on file of the document. This will save you much time if the document needs to be revised again in the future.

NLRB Makes Landmark Ruling Regarding College Student-Athletes

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, issued a ruling that, potentially, may change the entire landscape of collegiate sports. For possibly the first time, student-athletes have been classified as employees. The resulting consequence of such a classification is that now Northwestern University football players may form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

Northwestern has already indicated its intent to appeal the ruling and I can guarantee that this matter is far from resolved. However, I can also guarantee that other private Division I Universities, nationwide, are keeping a very close eye on this situation.

The College Athletes Players Association (“CAPA”) petitioned the NLRB for a decision classifying the Northwestern student-athletes as “employees”, thereby permitting the football players to unionize. The attempt to unionize is led by Kain Colter, former Northwestern quarterback and co-founder of CAPA. The student-athletes have indicated that they are seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year (guaranteed) scholarships and the possibility of being paid. My guess is that the final aspect of what is being sought, i.e., getting paid, is what makes this situation so disturbing, to many.

The entire ruling of the NLRB focused on whether or not the student-athletes were employees based on the common-law definition of employee. According the NLRB and citing previous rulings, “under the common law definition, an employee is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.” Using this common law definition of employee, the NLRB determined that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are employees. The focus of the NLRB’s decision seemed to be that (1) student-athletes are compensated in the form of scholarships: (2) work between 20 and 50 hours per week; and (3) generate millions of dollars for their institutions.

Many have expressed disappointment in the NLRB decision. The NCAA, which was not a party to the proceeding, commented through its Chief Legal Officer, Donald Remy, as follows: “We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.”

Ramy further stated the goal of the NCAA, as it relates to student-athletes, “we want student-athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

The fallout from this decision, which is far from conclusive, may be significantly more than what was intended. Northwestern University, which is a prestigious institution, could, quite possibly, withdraw from Division I football and/or sports. Similarly, if other private university sports teams intend to go down this same path, the result could be the same. According to Henry Bienen, Northwestern‘s President Emeritus, “if the players won their fight, private institutions with high academic standards –he specifically cited Duke and Stanford –could abandon the current model in order to preserve academic integrity.” Such a statement clearly indicates how the attempt to unionize could backfire on the petitioners.

Technically, the Northwestern football players, armed with a favorable NLRB decisions could take the steps necessary to form the union. Considering the unsettled nature of this matter and the fact that Northwestern has indicated its intent to appeal the ruling, which could go all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it remains to be seen if the Northwestern players will exercise their right to collectively bargain.

For more information regarding this situation, please see the following article and NLRB ruling.

As with any rule, there are exceptions.

Please seek professional assistance with any questions or specific situations.

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Breastfeeding Mother Was Not Constructively Discharged

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the 2012 dismissal of a case of gender and pregnancy discrimination filed against Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. (“Nationwide”). The case highlights some interesting questions in the areas of constructive discharge and breastfeeding mothers.

Typically, to assert a claim of employment discrimination, whether the basis be gender, pregnancy, race, disability, age, etc., there must be an adverse employment action. In the normal situation, this element of the cause of action is easily met because most of the employment discrimination cases stem from a termination. A termination is clearly an adverse employment action. Therefore, the plaintiff’s efforts are more often devoted to establishing other elements of the cause of action, namely, that their termination was based upon their membership in the protected class. However, the case against Nationwide was not a typical case.

Angela Ames was not terminated; instead, she voluntarily resigned from her job the day that she returned from maternity leave. This brings up the question of constructive discharge. Constructive discharge occurs when a person is treated so badly that any reasonable person would have resigned under the same circumstances. The 8th Circuit determined that Ms. Ames, given the circumstances, was unable to meet the legal burden of constructive discharge.

Ms. Ames claimed that Nationwide denied her a room to allow her to pump breast milk and that she was pressured by her department head to resign. Nationwide has on-site lactation rooms for the employees to utilize. However, apparently unknown to Ms. Ames, to be able to use the room, Nationwide required mothers to complete paperwork seeking security access, which takes three days for processing. Ms. Ames was told that, in the meantime, she could use a wellness room in order to pump her breast milk, but was cautioned that doing so would expose her milk to germs.

Unfortunately, at the time, the wellness room was occupied. While waiting for the room to be vacated, Ms. Ames, naturally, experienced a great deal of pain. Additionally, she was informed that she would be expected to work overtime to catch up on her work, for the time spent in the lactation room, or face disciplinary action. Feeling lost, Ms. Ames approached her department head for assistance in finding a place to lactate and was told that was not her responsibility. However, the conversation between Ms. Ames and her department head did not end there. According to Ms. Ames, she was handed a paper for the purpose of drafting her resignation and told “I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a brief, in support of Ms. Ames, claiming that the department head’s statement was evidence of discrimination because it invoked stereotypes about the role of women.

The Court of Appeals disagreed that Ms. Ames was able to prove constructive discharge, i.e., any reasonable employee would resign under the same circumstances. According to the opinion, “rather than intentionally rendering Ames’ work conditions intolerable, the record shows that Nationwide sought to accommodate Ames’ needs.” Additionally, according to the Court, even if the department head’s comment was enough to prove that she intended to force the employee to resign, the employee did not give Nationwide a reasonable opportunity to repair the conditions that allegedly made the workplace intolerable.

The ultimate result of the decision is that Ms. Ames will not receive a trial on her claims of gender and pregnancy discrimination. This case highlights some obstacles of claims that involve constructive discharge. The “reasonable person standard” is a daunting standard to satisfy. Does it sound as if Ms. Ames was treated poorly and possibly unfairly? Yes. Should Nationwide have been more considerate of the breastfeeding mother? Yes. Would a reasonable employee have reacted the same way, given the facts? Not so sure. If unable to establish constructive discharge, Ms. Ames voluntarily resigned her position with Nationwide and is unable to proceed with her discrimination claims.

The result would have been completely different, in my opinion, had the department head terminated Ms. Ames instead of suggesting that she resign. Additionally and probably more to the point, had Ms. Ames been aware of the policy regarding the lactation room, this situation would have never occurred. She would have been permitted to use one of the lactation rooms and then would have, merrily, went about her business. Chances are that the policy was located in the Employee Handbook. If not, it probably is now.

As with any rule, there are exceptions.

Please seek professional assistance with any questions or specific situations.

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Wills and Intestate Succession in Ohio

Wills and Intestacy in Ohio

In the State of Ohio, if you die intestate (or without a Last Will and Testament), your property must still be transferred out of your estate. By not leaving a valid Last Will and Testament (also called a Will), or in some other way transferring your property (such as through insurance, pension benefits, or joint ownership), you have, in effect, left it to the laws of your State to write your Will for you. This does not necessarily mean that your money will go to the State. It does mean, however, that the state will make certain assumptions about where you’d like your money to go – assumptions with which you might not agree. For example, intestate descent laws prefer “blood” over “marriage,” assuming that the more closely related you are to someone, the more likely it is that you’d want your property to go to him or her. By writing a Last Will and Testament, you decide who gets your property, when they get it, how they get it, and how much they get.
Property that Does Not Pass via a Will

 Property held in joint tenancy.
 Life insurance payable to a named beneficiary.
 Property held in a trust.
 Retirement plans payable to named beneficiaries, including IRAs, Keogh accounts, and pensions.
 Pay-on-death accounts payable to a named beneficiary.
 Deeds in which the deceased held only a life estate, with the property going after death to a named beneficiary.
 Gifts made in contemplation of death.

The Essentials of a Valid Will

Whether your Last Will and Testament is valid or not, depends on the laws in the State where you reside. Here in Ohio, to have a valid Will, you have to satisfy the following statutory requirements:
 The maker must be of sound mind and memory
 The maker must be at least 18 years old
 The maker must not be under any restraint
 The maker must sign the Will on the last page
 The maker must sign in the presence of two disinterested witnesses

What does all that mean? Well, does the person making the Will understand what’s going on? This doesn’t necessarily mean that they can tell you what the date is. Maybe they can’t even recognize certain family members that at one time they were really close with. But when asked the question, “Do you understand that you are making a Will,” they will know what they are doing. They will be sharp-minded as to the task at hand.

They must be at least 18 years old. And they must not be coerced into writing a Will. How can you tell if someone is being coerced or forced? Sometimes it’s not easy. A good attorney will make sure that the right questions are asked…For example, if “Junior” brings his mom in to the lawyer’s office to make a Will, and he is the only sibling there, and her prime caretaker, I might suggest that he leaves the room for a few moments, so that I can ascertain whether she feels comfortable with what she’s doing. The attorney can ask the mom what are her thoughts about her family members, and if she generally wishes to make everything “equal” it would not make sense if one child is telling the attorney that mom wanted the terms to be unequal.
The person making the Will must sign it. A signature is defined as the mark of the maker. This could be an “X” or it could be someone else signing the document as a proxy for the maker…these are unusual cases, so it’s best to check with your State law as to what is an acceptable “mark.” As to the “disinterested witnesses,” you have to have at least two people sign that they witnessed the maker’s signature, and those witnesses cannot be beneficiaries of the Will. In small families, this can sometimes mean that you have to invite Fred and Ethel from next door to come over when you are signing the Will, since Fred and Ethel are not named in the Will as beneficiaries.

So, what is “intestate succession?”

Intestate succession simply means that, in cases where there is no valid Last Will and Testament, the property of the deceased person will pass by law to who the State determined are the closest relatives. In Ohio, under Ohio Revised Code Sec. 2105.06, the law reads as follows:

(A) If there is no surviving spouse, to the children of the intestate or their lineal descendants, per stirpes;
(B) If there is a spouse and one or more children of the decedent or their lineal descendants surviving, and all of the decedent’s children who survive or have lineal descendants surviving also are children of the surviving spouse, then the whole to the surviving spouse;
(C) If there is a spouse and one child of the decedent or the child’s lineal descendants surviving and the surviving spouse is not the natural or adoptive parent of the decedent’s child, the first twenty thousand dollars plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate to the spouse and the remainder to the child or the child’s lineal descendants, per stirpes;
(C) If there is a spouse and one child of the decedent or the child’s lineal descendants surviving and the surviving spouse is not the natural or adoptive parent of the decedent’s child, the first twenty thousand dollars plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate to the spouse and the remainder to the child or the child’s lineal descendants, per stirpes;
(D) If there is a spouse and more than one child or their lineal descendants surviving, the first sixty thousand dollars if the spouse is the natural or adoptive parent of one, but not all, of the children, or the first twenty thousand dollars if the spouse is the natural or adoptive parent of none of the children, plus one-third of the balance of the intestate estate to the spouse and the remainder to the children equally, or to the lineal descendants of any deceased child, per stirpes;
(E) If there are no children or their lineal descendants, then the whole to the surviving spouse;
(F) If there is no spouse and no children or their lineal descendants, to the parents of the intestate equally, or to the surviving parent;
(G) If there is no spouse, no children or their lineal descendants, and no parent surviving, to the brothers and sisters, whether of the whole or of the half blood of the intestate, or their lineal descendants, per stirpes;
(H) If there are no brothers or sisters or their lineal descendants, one-half to the paternal grandparents of the intestate equally, or to the survivor of them, and one-half to the maternal grandparents of the intestate equally, or to the survivor of them;
(I) If there is no paternal grandparent or no maternal grandparent, one-half to the lineal descendants of the deceased grandparents, per stirpes; if there are no such lineal descendants, then to the surviving grandparents or their lineal descendants, per stirpes; if there are no surviving grandparents or their lineal descendants, then to the next of kin of the intestate, provided there shall be no representation among such next of kin;
(J) If there are no next of kin, to stepchildren or their lineal descendants, per stirpes;
(K) If there are no stepchildren or their lineal descendants, escheat to the state.

You will see that the words “per stirpes” are repeated throughout this section of the law. There are two legal concepts that determine how property passes by intestacy. The first is “per capita” and the second is “per stirpes.” Let me give you an example about how these work. Imagine that there is a grandfather with two children, a boy and a girl. Each of his children also have two children. If the grandfather’s Will leaves his estate to his children equally, per capita, and the son passes away before the grandfather, the son’s share is absorbed by the daughter, leaving her with 100% of the grandfather’s estate. If that same grandfather left his estate equally to his children, per stirpes, and again the son passed away before the grandfather, the son’s share would be split between the two grandchildren that were born of that son.

As you can see from the Code section “K” above, if there are no lineal descendants, then your property will go to the State as a default. The bottom line is that estate property has to go somewhere, but by making a Last Will and Testament, you get to spell out where you want it to go, as opposed to letting the State decide.

What is the Future of the Constitutional Appointment Power?

On Monday, January 13, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning.  However, as is the case with most cases that the U.S Supreme Court determines worthy of certiorari, this case will, potentially, have an impact far greater than that experienced by the parties to the case.  In fact, Noel Canning has both Congressional Republicans and Democrats on high alert.  Additionally, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) is figuratively “holding its breath,” pending the outcome of this case.

The facts of Noel Canning are not really that important to the case.  Noel Canning is a Washington State bottling company.  Noel Canning engaged in a dispute with the Teamsters Local 760 union regarding a pay raise that had been agreed upon.  The Teamsters claimed that Noel Canning had reneged on the agreed upon pay raise for union employees.  The NLRB issued a ruling in favor of the union and against Noel Canning.  Noel Canning did not seek review of the NLRB’s decision in a court tribunal.  Instead, Noel Canning brought suit, against the NLRB, arguing that the NLRB lacked the authority to even decide the matter.

Unfortunately, at the heart of this matter, (as is often the case with U.S. Supreme Court cases) is partisan politics.  The NLRB is a body composed of five (5) individuals and is tasked with investigating and preventing unfair labor practices and adjudicating disputes between labor unions and companies.  Importantly, the NLRB requires a quorum of three members to issue decisions and orders.  Members of the NLRB are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate.  As I am sure you can surmise, this created a problem for the President’s nominations.  Senate Republicans sought to block approval of President Obama’s nominations.  While frustrating, initially there were still three (3) members of NLRB serving (two vacant seats), thereby constituting a quorum.  However, the number of NLRB members, thereafter, dropped to two (2), one below the requisite number needed for the NLRB to act.  However, the blockade of nominations continued.

In January, 2012, the Senate was out of town holding only pro forma sessions for a three week period.  Typically, no legislative activity takes place during pro forma sessions.  Instead, the members of the Senate (or the very few that show up) meet very briefly, possibly mere minutes and then the session is adjourned.  This occurred every three days for three weeks in January, 2012 (to satisfy the constitutional requirement).

The problem is evident.  The Senate refuses to approve the President’s nominees.  Additionally, for a three week time period, absolutely no legislative activity is occurring in the Senate.  Meanwhile, the NLRB is completely devoid of any authority to issue decisions and orders because it lacked a quorum.  What is a President to do?  In the case of President Obama (and many of his predecessors), he looked to Article II, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states:  “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

Based upon this Constitutional provision, President Obama made three “recess” appointments to the NLRB, restoring it to the intended five person membership, more than that needed to constitute a quorum.  Once the NLRB was “up and running” again, it issued a decision concerning Noel Canning.  Noel Canning, thereafter, filed suit claiming that the “appointments” of President Obama to the NLRB were unconstitutional because the Senate was not in recess, pointing to the pro forma sessions.  If the appointments are determined to be unconstitutional, then all decisions rendered by the NLRB, while lacking a quorum, are, potentially, invalid.

The D.C. District Court of Appeals held that the because the Constitution refers to “the recess” instead of “recesses”, that the President can only make recess appointments during the break between Congressional sessions, not during the periods when the Senate is away during the sessions.  The D.C. District Court of Appeals went further by holding that the power extends only to appointments to vacancies that occur during the recess (between sessions) and not those that were vacant prior to the recess.  Additionally, three federal appeals courts have held that President Obama overstepped his authority.

It is important to note that President Obama is not the first U.S. President to utilize Article II, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution to make such “recess” appointments.    Based upon the possible far-reaching impact of the Court of Appeals decision, all interested parties agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court should grant certiorari.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision could, potentially, affect other boards and other presidential appointments; not just those of President Obama.

Surprisingly, the implication of Article II, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution has, never before, been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The NLRB is arguing that if the Court of Appeals decision is affirmed that the recess appointment power will be, effectively, written out of the Constitution.  Noel Canning, on the other hand, supported by a good number of Senate Republicans, argues in favor of a plain reading of the text of the Constitutional provision.

The U.S. Supreme Court will be considering three issues:  (1) Whether the term “the recess”, in the appointments clause, only refers to the once a year recess between sessions (narrow construction) or any time the Senate is away (broad construction); (2) Whether the President is confined to the appointments necessary to fill vacancies that occur while the Senate is in recess (regardless of the construction); and (3)  Whether pro forma sessions of the Senate can prevent the President from making recess appointments (assuming recess is construed broadly).

While oral arguments have occurred in Noel Canning, it will be quite some time before the Court’s decision is released.  In the meantime, the President’s authority, pursuant to Article II, Section 2, Clause 3, is unsettled.  Until the Court’s decision is released, all involved parties (Noel Canning, NLRB, Senate, the Administration, legal scholars, etc.) are waiting with bated breath to see how the Supreme Court resolves this issue.  And to think, this all started because Noel Canning believed that its union workers were not entitled to a pay raise.

As with any rule, there are exceptions.

Please seek professional assistance with any questions or specific situations.

ADVERTISING MATERIAL ONLY: If you need legal services, please seek professional counsel.