February may be the shortest month, but that does not mean that there are no important developments in the world of employment law. Here are some of the notable headlines:
1. After a 6-month lag, employment suits are on the rebound.
Statistics show that new employment suits in federal court started declining in May, 2020. However, a rise in pandemic-related cases caused a surge in the final months of 2020, with November, 2020, having the highest number of filings in the past 3 years. Analysts are attributing the rise to the government providing more guidance regarding COVID employee protections.
2. A Pennsylvania federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania sent back to state court a lawsuit accusing a meat processing company of causing an employee’s COVID-19 death based upon violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recommendations.
The court reasoned, “[a]lthough we recognize the unprecedented difficulties the pandemic has caused, we see no reason to diverge from analogous, well-reasoned holdings in our district, particularly where, as here, the complaint is rooted in tort law and refers only to OSHA and CDC guidance”. While this ruling could have major implications for keeping COVID-19-related litigation out of federal courts, it does not foreclose the possibility of negligence or other tort-based claims being brought against employers in state court. The case is Ferdinand Benjamin v. JBS SA et al., case number 2:20-cv-02594, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
3. A Massachusetts federal district court rejected claims from Whole Foods employees who filed discrimination claims against the grocery chain and its parent, Amazon.com, for disciplining employees who wore Black Lives Matter face masks to work.
Notably, the disciplined employees consisted of both African-American and other ethnicities. The court opined that the federal Civil Rights Act doesn’t protect a person’s right to associate with a social cause, and that the claims failed because the plaintiffs had not alleged that the defendants would have treated any individual differently if that plaintiff were of a different race. The case is Frith et al. v. Whole Foods Market Inc. et al., case number 1:20-cv-11358, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
Jeff Burke is an attorney at MacElree Harvey, Ltd., working in the firm’s Employment and Litigation practice groups. Jeff counsels businesses and individuals on employment practices and policies, employee hiring and separation issues, non-competition and other restrictive covenants, wage and hour disputes, and other employment-related matters. Jeff also represents businesses and individuals in employment litigation such as employment contract disputes, workforce classification audits, and discrimination claims based upon age, sex, race, religion, disability, sexual harassment, and hostile work environment.