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FAMU coach loses job over sexual harassment claims

A controversial legal battle has ended the career of a baseball coach at Florida A&M University, according to media reports. The man, who had coached for more than 10 years, will be fired from his position in the athletics department because of allegations of sexual harassment. The charges were brought by a walk-on infielder who was cut from the team on two separate occasions.

The coach is accused of making rude and offensive statements to the player, allegedly threatening to dress the man in a bra and other ladies’ attire because of his poor playing skills. The player also alleges that he was offended by the coach’s foul language and other inappropriate comments.

As with many sexual harassment cases, this suit hinged upon sworn statements provided by witnesses; 24 baseball team members were interviewed in connection with the alleged incidents. About half of those players reportedly signed statements swearing that they had not witnessed any harassment. Players who provided testimony in the case said they interpreted the coach’s comments as good-natured ribbing, a practice common among coaches nation-wide. Some even said that the comments were not directed toward the plaintiff, but rather toward the team as a whole.

In this case, university officials have reacted with contempt, saying that the player has effectively prevented coaches from doing their jobs at public institutions. Still, if the coaches were treating players with more respect, the sexual harassment allegations would never have surfaced.

The coach himself calls the allegations defamatory, even though several players confirmed the plaintiff’s accusations. He will not return to coach at the school for a second season. He abandoned his defense case after realizing that he was unlikely to prevail in a session before an independent tribunal. It is not clear whether the player will be recovering financial damages in connection with the case.

Source: USA Today, “FAMU baseball coach fired amid sexual harassment claim,” St. Clair Murraine, Jan. 17, 2013.

Florida school officers pursue harassment claim against chief

Police officers at our nation’s schools are essential to keeping students safe and should be treated with respect for the service they provide. Recent reports show that two officers within the Miami-Dade Schools system have been sexually harassed at work by the school district police chief. The officers, both female, have accused the man of attempting to have sex with them and initiating lewd conversations on the job.

Both of the women say they were retaliated against when they reported the blatant sexual harassment. One of the women said the police chief went as far as revealing himself to her on the job. The other said she was attacked when she met the man at his home while still in uniform; she just wanted to view some renovations he had performed on his house. The man reportedly grabbed that woman, forcibly kissed her and attempted to engage in sexual relations before she was able to escape.

The women have filed a suit based on the fact that the school district did not respond appropriately to their complaints about the chief. Even though the women reported the incidents, supervisors and school board personnel were reticent to handle the matter. In response to their complaints, the women were repeatedly threatened with termination. One of the women was transferred to another job many miles away after she reported ongoing harassment.

Both women said they were intimidated by the man during the course of their employment. They were afraid to lose their jobs, but they also feared for their physical safety. This type of harassment, which creates an exceptionally hostile work environment, is allowed to persist when employers don’t exercise their ability to promote and maintain a safe, welcoming workplace. Alternatively, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor attempts to trade sexual favors for professional advancement.

Media reports have not disclosed what kind of conditions on which the suits have been filed.

Source: NBC Miami, “Miami-Dade Schools police chief faces sexual harassment allegations in 2 lawsuits,” Willard Shepard, Jan. 16, 2013

Man receives settlement for mishandling of harassment claim

Sexual harassment charges can quickly derail a supervisor’s career. Although sexual harassment┬ácharges are heard, sometimes the alleged perpetrator does not receive due process and is wrongfully terminated. If a person accused of sexual harassment is fired without the appropriate procedural steps, the company could end up paying significant amounts of money for a breach of employment contract.

A former Morgan Stanley executive has been the recipient of just such a judgment this month, as a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority panel ruled that he should receive approximately $1 million in compensatory damages. The three-member panel decided that the man had been unlawfully terminated after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced at his firm.

The man had been assigned to oversee a branch manager that was underperforming, according to official documents. That branch manager submitted a complaint about the man to upper management. That same week, the man met with his supervisors and was told that he would be required to resign or be fired; he chose to accept the forced resignation. The decision came at a time during which wealth management firms had been forced to lay off many of their workers, so the resignation requirement was doubly suspicious.

During arbitration, the man’s lawyers alleged that he had not been given adequate time to respond to the allegations. Not everyone accused of sexual harassment actually commits the acts of which they are accused, but this man was left without procedural recourse to prove his innocence. Although he is dismayed that the settlement was significantly less than the $8 million he had sought in connection with the case, the man reports that he still feels vindicated by the decision.

The man has since moved on to a similarly high-ranking position at another financial institution in South Florida. Even though he said his career has been stunted by the sexual harassment allegations, he looks forward to moving on with his professional ventures.

Source: On Wall Street, “Arbitration panel awards former Morgan Stanley manager $1M,” Lorie Konish, Jan. 7, 2013.

Google exec wins non-compete case against Amazon

Non-compete agreements are common in the business world. These legally binding documents prevent scientists, researchers and experts from sharing proprietary secrets with other industry leaders if they are hired elsewhere. These non-compete agreements do not always protect employee interests, however; many high-level workers are prevented from exercising the full scope of their knowledge. The agreements may be binding for a period of months, though they can be applicable for years at a time. A recent case out of Seattle has shown that restrictive noncompetition clauses can be circumvented to protect employee rights.

The case involves a worker who was hired by Google from competitor Amazon in 2010. Amazon was attempting to limit the scope of the sales executive’s work, claiming that he would violate the non-compete agreement if he worked for Google. A federal judge ruled in favor of the executive and Google, largely because the man’s new employer had crafted an adequate contract to protect all parties.

The man had initially been restricted from soliciting Amazon customers for six months, based on the offer letter created by Google. A federal judge upheld that decision, striking Amazon’s request for an 18-month restriction on the man’s work activity. In other words, he will be able to solicit new clientele from the Amazon consumer base as soon as the six-month probationary term expires in March.

Experts say the case reveals several important attributes of non-compete agreements, particularly in jurisdictions where those documents are commonly enforced. Employees are urged to carefully consider all documents they sign because agreements can have an impact on future career opportunities. Although the executive in this case was green-lighted to solicit consumers from his old firm after just six months, many judges may not be so lenient. It is unlikely that a judge will totally void a non-compete agreement; rather, he or she will probably shorten the agreement’s terms to be more palatable to the employer and newly hired worker.

Source: GeekWire, “Legal lessons from Amazon’s ‘noncompete’ battle with Google,” William Carleton, Dec. 31, 2012.

African-American principal unfairly targeted in Title 1 inquiry

A district principal has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against school leaders with the Manatee County district. The man, who had been employed at Palmetto Elementary School, had claimed that his employee rights were violated because he was not paid for activities in which he participated after the school day. The man asserts that Caucasian principals were fairly compensated, while African American principals were left without adequate pay for their work.

The man also alleges that he was placed under investigation for stealing Title 1 money, which is designed to provide assistance to low-income schools. He says he legitimately used the money to pay himself for activities performed outside of normal school hours, a practice that was common among the other workers in the region. Title 1 program representatives confirm that their funding is designated only for teachers. Administrators are characterized as salary workers, so overtime generally is not compensated.

The district had abandoned its investigation of all administrators after discovering that it had not made its compensation policies clear. The man in this case was the only person punished in connection with the activities, and he was also one of the few African-Americans involved in the case.

Still, the man argues that he was only following precedent, and he was not reprimanded for taking the money for his extra work. He says that he did not violate any rules because program auditors were aware of his activities and failed to address them during their periodic reports.

The man contends that money was unfairly taken from his paycheck to compensate the Title 1 program because of his race. Caucasian principals were not subjected to the same punishment. Other administrators reportedly took about $10,000, while the man who filed the complaint is accused of taking $30,000.

In this case, the man could recover damages that would allow him to keep the money he rightfully earned. He could also receive money for pain and suffering and emotional distress caused by the stress of the incident.

Source: Bradenton Herald, “Principal Ed Hurley files racial discrimination complaint against Manatee County school district,” Katy Bergen, Dec. 21, 2012.

USF workers fight for minimal wage increase

Low-wage workers such as janitors, secretaries and maintenance personnel are often overlooked by employers. According to experts, these vulnerable workers are more likely to have their benefits and pay revoked and their employee rights violated. News out of the University of South Florida supports that assertion, with low-wage workers hitting a block in their negotiations for more pay.

Officials at the university have reportedly refused to increase the low-wage earners’ pay to accommodate the increased cost of living due to inflation. The employees’ union was working to negotiate a new payment schedule that would have provided additional wages for the lower-tier workers.

State officials say the decision to refuse cost-of-living increases comes as higher-education funds are drying up, though those cutbacks do not seem to affect the highest-paid workers at the school. The university president, for example, has received a 20 percent pay increase during the past five years, and the school’s football coach was slated to earn $2 million in 2012 before he accepted an even larger severance.

The wage problems have dominated the negotiations between union leaders and school officials for about six months, according to officials. University leaders say they are unable to afford additional expenditures at this time, considering the extreme cuts that continue to buffet institutions of higher learning at every step.

Media reports show that the union, which represents more than 1,500 USF employees, sought two increases of 3.5 percent, one for each year of a remaining contract. Although the union was willing to negotiate for a lower increase, university officials unilaterally opposed any pay increase for the school’s most vulnerable workers. Workers at the school have not received pay increases since October 2009.

Custodians and secretaries who work at the school only make between $16,000 and $25,000 each year, while skilled tradesmen such as electricians only receive about $30,000 annually. Representatives from both the union and the school continue to negotiate the remaining contract payments, though the next meeting date has not yet been set.

Source: Tampa Bay Online, “USF, workers’ union at odds over pay raise,” Mike Salinero, Dec. 17, 2012.

Employers: Prepare for holiday layoffs

Beware your holiday stocking this year. Experts say a pink slip could be lurking inside. The end of the year is among the most volatile annual periods for businesses, according to industry leaders, which can lead to high numbers of layoffs. Many employers realize they have fallen short of their earnings goals as the holidays approach, causing firms to blatantly ignore employee interests even as a festive season dawns.

Experts anticipate that national job-loss numbers could reach past 150,000 this year, nearly a 50 percent increase over the fall quarter of 2012. An early example of this carnage is Citigroup, which slashed 11,000 jobs worldwide, sending about 4 percent of its total workforce packing.

Rumors of layoffs often fly through offices at this time of year, which can cause panic, anxiety and confusion. Business leaders say employees can take some proactive steps to ensure their financial security after a layoff. First, call on all of your networking resources to lay the groundwork for obtaining another job. Next, begin crafting the best severance package possible so you can fight for your rights when the ax finally falls.

If you know ahead of time that layoffs are coming, you can be better prepared. Enter your layoff conference with several important questions regarding your financial future. You need to know whether a severance will be issued. The length of that severance is also important. The details of the severance matter, as well. When will payments begin, will the payment be a lump sum, and which taxes will apply? Consider petitioning for health benefits that continue through the term of your severance. Also, ask what will happen to your retirement account upon your departure.

If the severance package does not meet your expectations, you do not have to sign the documents immediately. Rather, take some time to review the paperwork with a qualified attorney who can help you fight for the benefits and wages you deserve. You should always fight for more benefits, more wages and additional services such as career counseling. After all, they can only tell you “no.”

Source: LFPress.com, “Layoff rumors? Gird yourself before the axe falls,” Chelsea Emery, Dec. 10, 2012

EMS workers robbed of their personal lives because of policy

A recent meeting of the Manatee County Commission allowed a score of paramedics and emergency workers to air their grievances about the lack of employee rights in the current EMS system. The discussion occurred as a vote for union representation for the workers is pending within the county government.

Long-time emergency medical technicians in the area say the workers’ morale has decreased significantly during the past decade. Thirteen individual EMS workers addressed the board to make the case for union representation, arguing that the staff is unable to effectively negotiate with county management without legal backup.

Employees cite as an example a current policy that requires paramedics to come in on their off days to fill in for absent coworkers. This practice essentially disregards the personal lives and activities the paramedics may want to nurture, according to workers. The current drafting policy requires the person who is at the top of a “call-in” list to come to work if someone else is sick or unable to work during their shift.

These emergency services workers say they have had to sacrifice vacations that they have planned months in advance simply because of the current drafting policy. Some workers have also been forced to come in during the midst of family emergencies, according to staff members, which has increased personal turmoil during an already difficult situation

In this case, the workers are being effectively robbed of their personal time because of an irresponsible policy designed to keep ambulances staffed at minimal cost to local government. This practice is causing extremely high job dissatisfaction and employee turnover, which is likely to cost the county even more than the price of simply changing the policy.

The EMS workers met with the commissioners as a courtesy to inform them about the issues within the department. A formal vote will determine whether the workers choose to unionize. Those votes will be counted on Dec. 19.

Source: The Bradenton Herald, “Manatee EMS workers air their grievances to commissioners,” Carl Mario Nudi, Dec. 5, 2012.

Local government workers must first report problems to bosses

A ruling handed down by the 1st District Court of Appeal in late November has informed local government whistleblowers that they cannot be protected by anti-retaliation laws unless they tell their supervisors about their workplace complaints. The decision is likely to have a significant impact on employee rights, perhaps discouraging workers from revealing allegations against smaller government agencies that are acting unethically.

In contrast, state and federal government workers are protected by a 1992 law that allows them to directly report concerns to other state or federal agencies without fear of retribution.

The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by a worker at the Panama City Housing Authority who was fired in 2008. The worker reportedly sent a document to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that he was not receiving pay that was commensurate with his station. The maintenance worker was laid off in November 2008, about seven months after filing the complaint with the federal agency.

Courtroom documents show that the man thought he was fired because of the report to the HUD. He asked for protection under a whistleblower’s act. Justices at the Court of Appeal decided that the man should not receive the protection because he failed to address the problem with a local supervisor. Local government workers should seek help from their employer’s chief executive officer or other high-ranking official.

Essentially, this decision requires employees to reveal potentially unethical actions to their bosses before consulting state or federal officials for help. This could stop many workers from reporting workplace violations, largely because they might fear retribution or inaction from their supervisors.

The decision appears to argue that the worker should first present the information to their supervisor and then give the information to state or federal workers if the problem persists. Employees should remember to keep reliable documentation throughout this process to ensure credibility and prove their case if their allegations are contested in court.

Source: Sunshine State News, “Local whistleblowers must tell local bosses,” Michael Peltier, Nov. 29, 2012.

Bird sanctuary employees net thousands in back pay

Nine employees of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary will be receiving a combined $21,000 in owed back wages thanks to the results of a federal investigation into the company’s payroll processes. Media reports show that investigators discovered several minimum wage violations after an audit of the facility’s records.

The sanctuary reportedly failed to pay several employees for a period of weeks. That omission resulted in minimum wage law violations. Some employees were also paid salaries without considering how many hours they actually worked at the facility. As a result, some workers’ wages dropped below the $7.25 per hour minimum wage rate. Investigators also discovered that those employees were not appropriately compensated for the overtime hours they worked at the sanctuary.

Overtime violations are particularly easy to spot; employers must pay additional wages when workers are on the clock for more than 40 hours each week. Overtime pay often involves time-and-a-half wages, which allows employees to collect 150 percent of their regular earnings.

This is not the first time that the 67-year-old owner of the sanctuary has run into legal trouble because of workers’ rights issues. The facility was forced to close its doors for several days in 2007 because it failed to pay its workers’ compensation insurance premiums. After that, the recession seemed to hit the sanctuary hard, and violations continued to spiral out of control for the owner.

As a result, the IRS is currently seeking nearly $200,000 in owed back payroll taxes, all of which remain outstanding. The IRS has placed liens for those funds, which are in addition to the $21,000 owed to the nine workers.

Wage and hour violations are not uncommon in today’s working world, especially in small, privately run businesses. Often, such establishments do not keep proper records of hours worked and wages paid; this can lead to misunderstandings and underpayment. All employers are required to pay employees for every hour worked, even if the employee works more than 40 hours per week. Failure to do so leaves the company open to lawsuits, because employees who have not been fairly compensated have a right to pursue litigation to recover the wages that are owed to them.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, “Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary to pay $21,336 in back wages after violations found,” Anne Lindberg, Nov. 16, 2012.