Use work email with caution. Your employer probably has a right to read and review the messages you send to your spouse, friends, family, and even your lawyers, doctors, religious counsel and other privileged communication. Apart from permissible routine screening of messages, work emails may become evidence in lawsuit regarding sexual harassment, age discrimination, whistleblowers, retaliation, or other forms of wrongful termination. As employment lawyers, we are often asked by employees whether employers reading their email is a violation of their workplace rights.
According to Title VII it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who engages in statutorily protected activity by opposing a practice that is unlawful under the statute. Sexual harassment is unlawful under Title VII. Yet there remains a split in the federal district courts regarding whether an employee’s rejection or opposition to a supervisor’s sexual harassment constitutes protected activity under the law. Minnesota employment law is clear on this - federal courts have held that rejecting a supervisor’s sexual advances or harassment is “the most basic form of protected activity.”
Can “liking” a page or website lead to wrongful termination? Peter TerVeer claims this is exactly what happened to him and his story has recently been highlighted in the Washington Post. Essentially, TerVeer was employed as an auditor for the Library of Congress but after inadvertently coming out to his boss via facebook, he is jobless. TerVeer initially had a great relationship with his boss, who even tried to set him up with his daughter. After the daughter and TerVeer became Facebook friends, she noticed he “liked” a page that supported same-sex parents’ campaign against bullying. The daughter commented on the post, writing: “Don’t tell me you’re weird like that.” Days later, TerVeer’s supervisor sent him a harassing email mocking “diversity,” began lecturing him on the sin of homosexuality and proceeded to give him a negative performance review. TerVeer was later terminated. Earlier this month, VerTeer filed suit in federal court and brought claims of employment discrimination and retaliation.
Former Disney employees have brought suit under similar circumstances in at least two other cases – a 2010 case involving the hijab of a Muslim intern and another case in 2008 involving a Sikh musician wearing a turban. All of these cases demonstrate the conflict between an employer’s desire to maintain a certain “look” for their brand and the employee’s right to not be discriminated against based on their religion and appearance.
Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s trial order holding four female employees did not prove their hostile work environment claim for sexual harassment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. (opinion) At trial, the evidence showed the owner and sole shareholder made repeated sexually explicit and inappropriate comments to the employees, showed employees nude photos from Playboy, tried giving female employees pornographic movies and touched the female employees.
Marissa Mayer became the Chief Executive Officer of Yahoo after a distinguished career with Google. With her promotion, she became the twentieth woman to lead a Fortune 500 company and the youngest at 37 years of age. On the same day she became CEO, Ms. Mayer announced, through her Twitter account, that she is pregnant. Instantly, the media coverage shifted from Ms. Mayer’s vision for Yahoo to how Ms. Mayer would balance her new position, maternity leave, and having a young child.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the owner of 25 Wisconsin McDonald’s restaurants announced that the parties settled a sexual harassment class action lawsuit for $1 million dollars. (EEOC press release) The allegations in this case involve rampant sexual harassment over many years - male employees subjecting female co-workers to sexual comments, kissing, and inappropriate touching. Also at issue was the company’s failure and refusal to take prompt and appropriate action to correct the harassment.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed an order by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry that Daley Farm (Lewiston, MN) must pay overtime premium wages to its agricultural employees. At issue in this case was whether the commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry correctly determined that agricultural workers who are paid on an hourly basis are not exempt from the overtime requirements of the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (“MFLSA”).