New Expert Report Offers Policy Recommendations for Non-compete Agreements

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As this blog has discussed before, non-compete agreements are a real problem. A new report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project seeks does a deep dive on this nationwide problem, compiling the most comprehensive recent studies on non-compete agreements. The report’s author, Matt Marx, has several key policy recommendations for lawmakers who want to promote economic growth rather than stifle it:

  • Employers should inform employees if they will be required to sign a non-compete agreement before they accept the job. Employers routinely hide the fact that employees are required to agree to a non-compete until after an employee has accepted a position and presumably turned down other offers. (This takes away employees' negotiating power and hurts the economy.)
  • If existing employees are asked to sign new non-compete agreement, employers should be required to compensate them. (In Texas, employers often require long-time employees to sign new non-compete agreements with the promise of nothing more than continued at-will employment.)
  • Allow judges to rewrite overreaching non-compete agreements so that they are in-line with state law. (In Texas, judges already have this power. The problem is that in order to get the issue to a judge, a lawsuit needs to be filed by either the employer or employee, taking time and costing legal fees.)
  • Give attorneys general the power to go after firms that require workers to sign predatory non-competes. (This could be helpful in some states. Unfortunately in Texas our current Attorney General would have no interest in helping Texas workers in this way.)
  • Bolster non-disclosure agreements so that they make a better substitute for non-competes. (This sounds good but I'm not sure how much stronger they could be without creating a real imbalance of power in the workplace.)

You can read the entire report here.

Non-Compete agreements are not evil per se. In fact in some cases they make sense. But companies have gone way beyond using non-competes to protect legitimate trade secrets and now routinely abuse them in attempt to gain a competitive advantage over other businesses by keeping employees out of the labor pool. 

Union Membership Plummets in Most Right-To-Work States

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Terry Potter has an article out this past week on the insidious effect of so-called “Right to Work” laws on unionization across the country. As anticipated, the nationwide trend of enacting “right-to-work” (RTW) legislation has continued to grow – in the past few years alone, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Kentucky have joined the growing list of RTW states. In these states, and the approximately twenty others that have adopted RTW legislation, employers are prohibited from requiring employees to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment. This has caused dramatic drops in union membership over time.


If you had to pick only one reason for the vanishing middle class and the increasing gap between rich and poor in America, this would be it. Sadly, most workers don’t understand that they are voting against their own interests when they vote for “Right to Work” legislation or the politicians who push for such laws.

Visit Labor Relations Law Insider for the rest of the article.

The Saturday File - Person of the Year 2017: #MeToo

A weekly update on employment law developments and related news stories from The McKinney Law Firm.

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The Top Story

Time Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers
Discussions of sexual harassment in polite company tend to rely on euphemisms: harassment becomes "inappropriate behavior," assault becomes "misconduct," rape becomes "abuse." We're accustomed to hearing those softened words, which downplay the pain of the experience. 

It wasn't so long ago that the boss chasing his secretary around the desk was a comic trope, a staple from vaudeville to prime-time sitcoms. There wasn't even a name for sexual harassment until just over 40 years ago; the term was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University after an employee there, Carmita Wood, filed for unemployment benefits after she had resigned because a supervisor touched her. The university denied her claim, arguing that she left the job for "personal reasons."

In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency tasked with enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace, issued guidelines declaring sexual harassment a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It was a victory, but with caveats: even after sexual harassment became explicitly illegal, it remained difficult to lodge a complaint that stuck—in part because acts of harassment are often difficult to define. What separates an illegal act of sexual harassment from a merely annoying interaction between a boss and his subordinate? When does a boss stop just being a jerk and become a criminal? Because the Civil Rights Act offered no solid legal definition, interpretation has evolved slowly, shaped by judges and the EEOC over the past 37 years.

And then...2017 and #MeToo happened. Read Time Magazine's Cover Article Here

News From Around The Web

Weinstein Case Highlights Difficulty Employees Face When Reporting Workplace Harassment Claims

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NPR had an excellent story yesterday about the problems that employees face in the workplace when they report sexual harassment:

"Former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's ouster from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct have prompted others on social media to open up about workplace harassment complaints that have gone unheeded.
Most employers in most industries have written policies on and procedures for reporting incidents of sexual harassment, and human resources officials are required to investigate those claims.
And while recent decades have seen a cultural shift and more education to help minimize sexual harassment, HR consultant Sharon Sellers says there is still a big gap between what should happen, and what actually does. One concern is that many people don't feel safe reporting claims.
"The employer should take every complaint seriously, and this is one area I see where it falls down," Sellers says."

Most employees don't want a lawsuit; they just want to be allowed to do their job without being sexually harassed. Companies do their employees (and their bottom line) a disservice by not building a strong HR department that has the resources and independence within the company to investigate harassment claims and, when necessary, speak truth to power within the company.

Read the rest of NPR's article here.

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.