Articles Posted in Employment Law

The restaurant industry has long been famous for chefs who yell, insult, and throw things at their staff. Various reality TV shows, such as Hell’s Kitchen, have even glorified celebrity chefs throwing temper tantrums when something comes out of the kitchen with minor imperfections, and even targets of such abuse often say it’s just part of the job: you put up with the abuse, you get better, and you move up the ladder until you’re head chef at your own restaurant … if you’re a man.

Recent movements, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, have called for society to stop enabling the toxic behavior of white men in power, including chefs. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but the call has been heard and the tide has shown signs of turning, however slowly.

One of the most recent chefs to come under fire for creating a toxic work environment, as well as for allegedly violating various labor laws is Blaine Wetzel, head chef and co-owner of the Willows Inn. The inn is located on Lummi Island near the San Juan archipelago in Washington State and is only accessible by ferry. People come from all over the country to stay at the inn and eat at the restaurant, all while enjoying the rustic scenery of the island, but the employees allege the true story of the inn is much uglier.

Many former employees of the Willow Inn allege Wetzel used sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs with his staff. Wetzel also allegedly used a slur to suggest some of his staff members were mentally challenged when he didn’t consider their work to be up to par.

According to several employees, the abuse wasn’t always verbal, especially when it came to the girls and women who worked at the Willows Inn. Wetzel and other male employees allegedly plied them with drugs and alcohol (including underage employees), often to the point of unconsciousness. The toxic behavior started at the top with Wetzel who at one point allegedly offered a girl a ride home after work, then drove to his house and refused to take her home until after she’d taken shots with him. He then allegedly drove her home while drunk. Continue reading ›

A startup employee advised his employer that it could withhold his and others’ wages until it secured future funding. The employee was a lawyer and drew up contracts to reflect this agreement. The employee later left the company on bad terms and demanded arbitration to recover his back wages. An arbitrator ruled for the employee, determining that the company had violated the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act because it had withheld wages beyond the statutorily allowed time period. The company later sued the employee, arguing that it was the employee’s own advice that led to the company’s liability. The district court granted the employee’s motion to dismiss, and the company appealed. The appellate panel affirmed the decision of the district court, finding that the company’s CEO had failed to show that the employee owed her a duty, and that the company had failed to show that the employee’s advice was the proximate cause of its actions.

UFT is a commercial finance company founded by Joanne Marlowe in 2008. Richard Fisher worked as a consultant with UFT from February 2013 to September 2013 and then became employed by UFT as its chief legal officer in October 2013. While he was employed at UFT, Fisher was the sole source of legal counsel to UFT and Marlowe regarding the company’s operations. Fisher also drafted the employment agreements between UFT and its employees, including both Marlowe’s and his own. The employment agreements included mandatory arbitration clauses.

During this time period, UFT’s revenues were inconsistent. The company therefore failed to pay Marlowe, Fisher, and all other employees their agreed salaries when they were due. Fisher and other employees continued to work at the company because they believed in its potential. At various times, Fisher recommended and drafted “supplemental agreements” allowing for the accrual of wages owed to various employees who could not be paid on schedule due to UFT’s revenue shortfalls. Continue reading ›

The right to free speech is the very first Amendment to our Constitution, and it’s one of the most frequently cited amendments, especially when things get heated between two individuals or political parties. The right to free speech, specifically as it relates to public figures, was promised by our founding fathers as a way to protect our democracy. The idea is that free speech encourages an open debate and exchange of information and ideas about candidates before people head to the polls, but is there a difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical?

Because of the importance of being able to exchange information about political candidates and public figures, the law is designed to make it more difficult for public figures to sue for defamation, but what if, instead of suing for defamation, you have a conversation with the employer of the person whose speech you don’t like about whether their speech is ethical?

Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist who used to work at Yale University, published a tweet back in January of 2020 when Donald J. Trump was facing an impeachment trial. His attorney, Alan M. Dershowitz, came under fire for his connections to Jeffrey Epstein, who had been accused of sex trafficking. Mr. Dershowitz said he and his wife enjoyed a “perfect sex life,” and Dr. Lee pointed out that the use of the word “perfect” suggested Mr. Dershowitz was under a “shared psychosis” with his client, Mr. Trump, who also likes to use the word “perfect” a lot. Continue reading ›

Can Illinois employers fire employees for their political speech or affiliations? The events of the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots along with the riots and protests across the country throughout the summer of 2020 have led many employers to ask similar questions. And as protests become more commonplace and political debates run rampant on social media, employers and employees alike will be seeking answers to this question more and more frequently as time passes.

As with most questions in employment law, the answer depends on the circumstances. Generally speaking, Illinois, as an “at will” state, is more likely to permit a termination over political views than other more worker-rights-focused states such as California. Being an “at will” state means that an employer can fire its employees for any reason that is not prohibited by law or against public policy. Despite having one of the most liberal human rights acts of all the states, however, the Illinois Human Rights Act is silent when it comes to private employer discrimination based on political party affiliation and political speech. The Illinois Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on a specific protected trait or class including race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment), citizenship status, familial status, national origin, ancestry, age (40 and over), order of protection status, marital status, sexual orientation (including gender-related identity), physical or mental disability, pregnancy, military status or unfavorable discharge from military service, and, in certain circumstances, arrest record. Notably absent though is political affiliation or speech. Continue reading ›

Michael Papandrea, the owner of three restaurants in the Chicago suburbs, is being sued for allegedly sexually harassing and secretly recording at least eight female employees in his restaurants, although investigators think Papandrea’s misconduct extends far beyond the eight plaintiffs in the existing lawsuit.

Papandrea is the owner of Parmesans Wood Stone Pizza in Frankfort, Tinley Park, and Matteson, and according to the lawsuit, he regularly instructed his female employees to wear skirts and dresses to work, and routinely touched them, including rubbing and poking their backs, arms, and shoulders. His habit of touching them was allegedly an excuse to get close enough to them to film up their skirts using a camera he kept in the toe of his shoe and controlled with an app on his phone.

The employees (all of whom were teenagers at the time of the alleged misconduct), reported the harassment to their supervisor, but as the owner of the restaurants, Papandrea outranked her. The supervisor has also joined the sexual harassment lawsuit as a plaintiff, so the fact that she was also being harassed by Papandrea most likely contributed to her feeling she could do nothing to help her subordinates.

Of the eight named plaintiffs alleging sexual harassment, most of them were underage at the time – five of them were 16, one was only 14, and one was 18. Continue reading ›

By now, we’ve all gotten used to hearing stories of high-level executives of huge corporations getting fired for misconduct, and while some people might be glad to see some signs of accountability, it’s usually bittersweet when it gets announced that they received a severance package worth tens of millions of dollars. But now McDonald’s is suing their former CEO, Steve Easterbrook, to return the $37 million he was paid as part of his severance package, claiming his misconduct was more extensive than they realized at the time they negotiated his severance package.

Easterbrook was removed as CEO back in November of 2019 for having a personal relationship with a female colleague. The relationship was apparently consensual and consisted of nothing more than text messages and video calls, but it violated company policy, and as a result, Easterbrook was fired from his position as CEO without cause.

Only after Easterbrook had been fired, and had negotiated his severance package with the company, did the company receive information from an anonymous source claiming Easterbrook had had sexual relations with at least three other women at the company. In one instance, Easterbrook allegedly approved a discretionary stock grant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to be granted to one of the women while they were involved. Continue reading ›

Pinterest is far from the first tech company to face allegations of gender discrimination, but it is the first to publicly announce that it will be paying more than $20 million to settle those allegations in a recent lawsuit involving a single plaintiff.

Françoise Brougher, the company’s former chief operations officer, sued the company in San Francisco Superior Court back in August, claiming she was paid less than her male peers, received feedback that was gender-biased, and was left out of meetings – all this despite the fact that she played a key role in driving revenue for the company.

Pinterest has reached a settlement agreement with Brougher and her attorneys in which Pinterest will pay them $20 million, and Pinterest and Brougher together will donate a total of $2.5 million to organizations that work to advance women and other minorities in tech. According to reports, the money is to be paid before the end of 2020.

The settlement did not include Pinterest admitting to having done anything wrong, and in fact, the company continues to insist it values diversity, equity, and inclusion in its workplace. Brougher even released a joint statement with Pinterest to that effect, claiming she’s encouraged by the company’s commitment to building a workplace culture that includes and supports all its employees. Continue reading ›

Amazon claims it fired Chris Smalls, a management associate, in March for violating safety procedures by continuing to come to work after having been exposed to COVID-19, despite the fact that the company says it offered to pay him to stay home for 14 days after the exposure. Smalls, who is suing his former employer in the Eastern District of New York for discrimination and retaliation, tells a different story.

According to Smalls, Amazon failed to take several safety precautions related to the pandemic, including taking employees’ temperatures before allowing them on the premises; providing hand sanitizer or personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves; enforcing social distancing; or making sure the facility was properly cleaned and sanitized between shifts.

In the complaint, Smalls said he felt a responsibility to bring his concerns to management. He alleges management did not care about the health or welfare of the employees working under him because they were largely Black, Latino, and/or immigrants whose recent entry into the country made them unlikely to speak up on their own behalf. When Smalls again met with Amazon management, this time with a group of workers that included white employees, he alleges management was significantly more receptive to their complaints. Continue reading ›

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified employees with disabilities. The key phrase in that sentence that is so often the subject of litigation is “reasonable accommodation.” In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit considered whether a two-pound lifting limit and a restriction on repetitive grasping and lifting arms more than 5% above the shoulder were reasonable accommodations for an employee of a regional sporting goods retailer. In affirming an order of summary judgment in favor of the sporting goods store, the Seventh Circuit found that such accommodations were unreasonable and left the employee unable to perform her essential job functions.

The plaintiff in the case, Angela Tonyan, was employed as a store manager at a Dunham’s Sports store in Wisconsin. During her employment, Tonyan sustained a series of injuries to both shoulders and left arm. After multiple surgeries and various temporary restrictions failed to remedy her condition, her doctor imposed several permanent restrictions including a two-pound lifting limit and restricting her from having to raise her arms above her head.

In response to these restrictions, Dunham’s fired Tonyan. The sporting goods retailer contended that its “lean” staffing model made physical work such as unloading and shelving merchandise essential job functions of its store managers like Tonyan. Following her termination, Tonyan sued claiming that the company violated her rights to reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The District Court found that the store did not violate her rights under the ADA and granted summary judgment to her former employer. Continue reading ›

Over the coming weeks and months, employees will begin returning to work in increasing numbers across the state. As they do, employers will find themselves facing unique challenges created by the risk of workplace exposure to COVID-19. Potential transmission of COVID-19 by employees can create liability concerns for employers. The primary concern for employers is whether they will be entitled to the tort immunity typically provided by workers’ compensation laws in light of the unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Far from being just a hypothetical concern, the first workplace COVID-19 exposure case in Illinois was filed a few weeks ago by the estate of an employee who passed away from complications of COVID-19.

Under many states’ workers’ compensation statutes, a claim under the state workers’ compensation system is the exclusive remedy for an employee who suffers a work-related injury. This is often referred to as the “workers’ compensation bar” or “exclusivity bar” and represents a trade-off for employers and employees. For employees, workers’ compensation laws make it easier for employees to recover from employers for workplace injuries. Many workers’ compensation laws are no-fault laws, meaning the employer must cover the employee’s injury even if it was not at fault for causing the injury. In exchange for lowering the threshold for recovery, the workers’ compensation laws usually prevent employees from suing their employer for additional compensation under a different legal theory for workplace injuries. Continue reading ›

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