Tag Archives: discrimination

Labor Dispute Drags at West Coast Ports: 3 Ways to Respond

With spring fast approaching, the continuing labor dispute at 29 West Coast ports could affect the ability of suppliers and retailers to stock seasonal merchandise. The backlog of ships at these ports — exacerbated in some instances by work slowdowns and closures — has delayed deliveries of agricultural and manufactured inputs and goods, depleted inventories and potentially harmed businesses across several industries.

This situation has resulted from a seven-month impasse between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and port terminal operators, following the expiration of their labor contract. The White House dispatched Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to San Francisco to reinvigorate negotiations, which resumed on Feb. 17. Previous talks had stalled over the process for arbitrating allegations of work slowdowns, discrimination and other issues.

The economic damage from port disruptions could be significant. According to the National Retail Federation, cargo moving through the 29 involved ports represents 12.5% of U.S. gross domestic product. In recent earnings calls, several publicly traded retailers have identified the labor impasse as a potential risk, noting the possible impact on seasonal merchandise. Food and beverage distributors, meanwhile, have reported that port delays have led to spoilage of perishables. And parts shortages attributed to congestion at West Coast ports have led some auto manufacturers to announce plans to halt or cut back production.

Although the reinvigorated talks have brought some hope for a quick resolution, retailers and other affected businesses should still consider taking steps to mitigate potential losses from continued disruptions and future work slowdowns, stoppages, or strikes. Specifically, you should:

  1. Diversify your supply chain. The work slowdowns and port closures, coupled with the potential for a strike, have led many businesses to diversify their ports of entry, turn to domestic suppliers or make raw material and finished product substitutions as necessary. Although such actions may bring financial and other costs, they may enable your company to remain competitive until the dispute is resolved. If you have identified alternate suppliers or workaround procedures, consider implementing those strategies and engaging additional or alternate resources now. If you have not identified such resources, now is the time to do so.
  2. Develop crisis management and business continuity strategies. If they are not already significant, the business implications for your organization may soon become so. Consider activating your crisis management and other business incident response teams. Your teams should think about the immediate impacts and workarounds from the current situation and forecast potential impacts should these interruptions continue or a strike occur, allowing a strategy to be developed and executed.
  3. Review your insurance coverage. Some insurance coverage — such as marine cargo and property damage policies with extensions for business interruption (BI) and contingent business interruption (CBI) — may only respond in the event of a strike or port disruption where there is also actual physical damage to insured cargo or property. Your organization should review whether it has or consider obtaining the following additional coverage options:
  • Voyage frustration endorsements to marine cargo policies, which can provide coverage for ground transportation costs and other extra expenses in the event that a shipment is diverted to an alternative port. Such endorsements do not typically provide indemnity for lost sales, contractual penalties or other financial losses.
  • “Seasonal merchantability” coverage, which can sometimes be added to marine cargo policies. This coverage provides indemnification for actual loss in sales as a result of a delay in arrival of goods but may not respond in the event of a strike and usually comes with a lengthy waiting period.
  • Trade disruption insurance (TDI), supply chain insurance and specialty BI insurance policies, which can protect against supply chain disruptions resulting from a variety of causes, including embargoes, acts of terrorism, windstorms and other natural catastrophes, supplier bankruptcy and other events.

For more information, read West Coast Port Disruptions: Insurance and Risk Management Implications.

D&O Coverage: A Low-Cost Alternative for Nonprofits

Who needs nonprofit directors and officers (D&O) coverage when you have volunteer immunity and homeowners insurance? Not so fast. It is possible to find some coverage, or form of immunity, under your homeowner’s policy, and there are attorneys that find ways to wedge things into coverage when there are no other remedies available.  However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the availability of the proper insurance. Rather than hope to fit a round peg into a square hole, buyers should look to purchase coverage for any exposure that keeps them up at night.

There are people who wrongly believe that if they are performing charity work they can’t be sued, won’t be sued, or have some form of mythical immunity or free insurance somewhere to protect them. Let’s explore those theories in more detail.

Isn't there a federal law that grants immunity?
In 1997, our government passed the federal Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) to promote volunteerism for nonprofit organizations. There is more to the act than can be summarized in this article, and any legal advice should come from an attorney, but it’s important to know that there is a federal law designed to provide protection to volunteers. Also, note that the immunity applies to volunteers, and not necessarily the nonprofit organization or compensated employees/executives. With that knowledge, it’s important to be aware of other limitations of the act.

Exceptions from the federal law include:

  • Acts of violence
  • Acts of international terrorism
  • Hate crimes
  • Sexual offenses
  • Civil rights violations
  • Claims involving use of alcohol or drugs

In the absence of a definition of “Civil Rights” in the act, all sorts of common problems could be exempt. Three instances that immediately come to mind are discrimination, sexual harassment and privacy rights. Those are common allegations in claims we see made against volunteers, nonprofit organizations and their leaders.

Volunteers may also lose their potential immunity in these situations if:

  • the volunteer is acting outside the scope of his or her responsibilities to the organization
  • the volunteer was unlicensed if required or appropriate
  • the harm was caused by gross negligence rather than ordinary or simple negligence
  • the harm was a result of operating a vehicle, vessel or aircraft that requires a license or insurance
  • the volunteer receives compensation or anything other than compensation that is worth over $500
  • the charity loses its nonprofit status

The VPA has provisions indicating that immunity provided by the act cannot be reduced by state laws, but can be broadened by state law. The federal law will apply to volunteers unless a state opts out of the law, which is permitted.  New Hampshire, for example, opted out in instances where everyone involved is a state resident and a New Hampshire state court is used.

Can we find immunity provided by state laws?
Many states do have immunity laws available to volunteers providing services to nonprofits. Every state has its own advantages and limitations. Again, seeking the advice of an attorney licensed in the relevant state is appropriate. When seeking the advice of counsel as to the immunity provided by state law, there are some questions to ask:

  • Does the state law only protect volunteers, D&O or both?
  • Will the state law prevail if the plaintiffs are from a different state?
  • What material limitations exist?
  • How is immunity impacted by willful or negligent activities?
  • Is the nonprofit organization immune from vicarious liability arising from the conduct of the volunteers?
  • Can an organization subrogate against a volunteer for costs associated with vicarious liability?

Will a personal homeowner's insurance or personal umbrella policy protect me?
The easy answer is that an insured might find some coverage, but not for all situations. Not all homeowners policies are the same and some may have special D&O enhancements. If you review what is generally covered, you will see coverage for bodily injury and property damage on those policies. It is also important to keep in mind that these are personal policies and any coverage provided would not be shared with the nonprofit organization or any other person affiliated with the organization. So if a homeowners policy or personal umbrella is designed to only cover bodily injury or property damage and is limited to protecting only one individual, is this the best solution for a nonprofit organization and all its leaders, employees and volunteers? That’s easy – no.

How about buying the proper insurance?
There is a policy specifically designed to protect the directors, officers, employees, trustees, volunteers, committee members, interns, domestic partners and the organizational entity.  Note that the coverage isn’t limited to just the directors and officers. Those other individuals are also protected by this insurance.  A typical D&O policy pays on behalf of the nonprofit organization when that organization is obligated to indemnify the individuals for their actions on behalf of the organization, as outlined in the organization’s bylaws.  The organization itself is also generally covered for alleged wrongful acts. D&O policies are broadly written to cover claims alleging any error, act or omission arising from activities on behalf of a nonprofit organization. The policy won’t cover bodily injury, property damage, pollution, workers’ compensation or issues arising from the administration of benefit plans. Those items should be covered on other policies specifically designed for those exposures.  You should also find coverage for the individuals and entity for things like discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination and other personal injury violations such as invasion of privacy, wrongful imprisonment and, in some cases, copyright violations.

Similar to personal lines policies, no two D&O policies are the same. Each one needs to be closely reviewed to identify limitations as well as unique coverage enhancements. Some limitations to avoid are antitrust exclusions, third party discrimination exclusions, or overly broad insured versus insured exclusions. There are enhancements to negotiate such as coverage for immigration claims, wage and hour claims, lifetime personal extended reporting provisions, publishers liability, public relations expense coverage, priority of payments, punitive damages coverage, where insurable, and more.

Considering the relatively low cost for a properly constructed D&O policy for a nonprofit organization, it makes a lot more sense to buy the coverage than try to hide behind limited immunity or wedge coverage into the wrong insurance policy.

The Right Way to Handle Employee Complaints

California employers have a legal duty to respond to certain employee complaints.  Failure to respond or failure to respond appropriately can result in significant liability.  This is particularly true with complaints of harassment, discrimination and other unlawful conduct.  Accordingly, employers should never take employee complaints lightly.  Even if no legal duty to investigate exists, a well-managed response can minimize or even eliminate problems and improve employee morale.

Achieving the well-managed response is not easy.  It takes careful planning and execution.  Fortunately, most employers do a very good job of managing their employees, and complaints are infrequent.  Unfortunately, this means most employers have little experience at managing the complaint process.  Being aware of and strategically planning at each step of the process can help make up for the lack of experience.

Here’s how you do it:

Receipt of the Complaint

How an employee complaint is received can be critically important.  If the employer has not created a culture of trust and respect, employees will not be comfortable coming to management with complaints.  That may mean fewer complaints but will also mean bigger problems — employees are not required to complain to the employer before filing a lawsuit.  Consistent with the culture of trust and respect, the manager receiving a complaint should express an interest in and concern for the employee making the complaint.  Remember, the employee is not happy about something.  A closed-minded, uncaring demeanor during the first contact will only make the unhappiness grow.

It is also very important to be aware of and address the complaining employee’s expectations.  If the employee requests that the complaint be kept confidential, the manager must be able to explain why it cannot be kept completely confidential and must be able to do so in a way that does not alienate the employee.  The manager should also address the employee’s expectations for the process and the result.  Obviously, it is too early for the manager to make promises about the result, but he can help build confidence in the fairness of the process.

Act Immediately

Once a complaint is received, the employer should act immediately.  Any delay in taking action on an employee complaint will be magnified tenfold in litigation, and the employer will have a very difficult time overcoming the perception that the complaint was dismissed as unimportant.

Conduct an Investigation

Every employee complaint warrants an investigation.  That does not mean that every complaint requires a lengthy, formal process conducted by professional investigators.  The investigation might be as simple as asking the employee a few questions.  Regardless of its scale, the investigation’s purpose remains the same: to get an accurate understanding of the facts.  Only with a solid understanding of the facts can the employer make an informed decision on the complaint.

As an initial matter, the employer must determine who will conduct the investigation.  Will it be conducted by a single individual or several people working in coordination?  Will it be conducted by the employer’s own staff or by an outside investigator?  In either case, the employer should consider the following factors:

  • The nature and seriousness of the complaint.  Complaints about the speed of the copy equipment do not warrant the same level of investigation as complaints about sexual harassment.
  • The skill and experience of the investigator.  Whether an employee or outside professional, the investigator should understand how to conduct a good investigation and have the skill to do it.  In some cases, an internal investigation is preferred.  If the employer does not have a skilled investigator on staff, the employer should hire an expert to guide and coach the employee conducting the investigation.
  • The investigator’s neutrality regarding the facts and witnesses.  Any bias, real or perceived, can render the investigation useless.
  • The investigator’s quality as a witness.  The investigator may well be a key witness in future litigation.  The ability to speak well and inspire confidence is essential in that arena.  It is equally important in giving the complaining employee and witnesses confidence in the investigative process.
  • The outside professional’s qualification.  California law requires outside investigators to be either a licensed private investigator or an attorney.
  • Whether creating a legal privilege around the investigation is important.  If it is, the investigation must be conducted by an attorney and conducted in a manner that maintains the privilege.
  • The scope of the investigation.  The investigator should find the facts and assess the credibility of the witnesses and information obtained.  The investigator should not make legal conclusions or suggestions on what actions to take, even if he is an attorney.

It is important to understand that the investigator or investigators cannot follow a set formula or pattern in every investigation and expect success.  A specific and strategic plan is always advised.  The plan will include consideration of who will investigate, who will investigate which parts, what order witnesses will be interviewed in, where they will be interviewed, what kind of record will be created and who will be responsible for communications.   As important as it is to have a strategic plan, it is even more important to not follow it blindly.  As facts are uncovered and circumstances change, the plan may need to be adjusted.  By definition, a good investigation will be flexible enough to ensure that all of the relevant facts are uncovered with a minimum of collateral damage.

Review the Investigation and Respond

The employer bears the ultimate responsibility for responding to the complaint.  Doing so appropriately requires a clear and complete understanding of the facts.  If the employer is uncertain about any facts contained in the investigator’s report, they should be clarified.  If the employer is not confident that the investigation was thorough, further investigation should be ordered.  With all the facts and confidence in them, the employer will decide what actions to take on the complaint.  This is the point where an employer should be interested in legal conclusions, particularly if the complaint is serious.  The deliberations about what actions to take and why should be protected against disclosure.  Often, it is advisable to have such deliberations protected by the attorney-client privilege.

While the deliberations may be secret, the decisions resulting from them are not. They will need to be communicated to the complaining employee and other interested employees and communicated effectively.  Once again, a strategic plan is critical.  How something is communicated is often as powerful as the content of the communication.   The effort put into the investigation and the problem-solving potential of the complaint process can all be lost by careless final communications.

Employers cannot escape the duty to investigate employee complaints.  Nor should they want to.  Employee complaints can be healthy for an organization.  They can uncover problems before they cause significant damage.  They can also be a vehicle for increased employee morale and productivity.  But the positive aspects surrounding employee complaints can only be achieved with a properly handled complaint process.

The Two Must-Haves for Employment Practices Liability Insurance

If you own or manage an organization and have not experienced an employee claim, count yourself lucky—and know that the chances are very good that your luck will change.

Many employers purchase Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) because general business insurance policies exclude employment-related claims for issues such as discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination.  Many EPLI policies do not, however, cover commonly asserted claims such as wage and hour violations or statutory penalties. The issues are complicated enough that decisions on EPLI require the assistance of two experts: a knowledgeable and trusted insurance broker and an experienced employment defense attorney. The insurance broker will guide you through the various policy options available and provide a wealth of risk-management information.  The defense attorney will advise on the real-world impact a particular policy will have when an employment claim arises.

If you purchase EPLI, you should prepare for employment claims before they are even asserted, by following these steps:

  • Select Defense Counsel in Advance. If you already use trusted employment law counsel, your carrier may allow you to designate your chosen law firm at the time the policy is purchased or renewed.  Some policies allow the insured to select its own counsel without such pre-designation.  Asking the right questions of your broker and specifying at the outset the employment lawyer you want is the best way to ensure that you get the defense counsel of your choice.  
  • Train Staff on Claims Recognition. Train key personnel to recognize a “claim” as it is defined under the EPLI policy.  What constitutes a “claim” is generally defined broadly.  A “claim” may even include pre-lawsuit claims, such as a discrimination complaint filed at a governmental agency like the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.  Even a “demand” letter from a threatening employee or lawyer may constitute a claim.  As policies change from year to year, the definition of a claim may also change.  Key personnel should know what to do when a potential claim is spotted, including the who, what and when of communicating with the insurance broker or carrier.
  • Develop Protocol for Receipt and Processing of Claims. It is a good idea to have a specific person designated to whom all “claims” are promptly forwarded. The protocol should also include things such as identifying the name of the employee who received the claim and the date, time and how the claim was received.  It is critical to ensure that a potentially covered claim is properly and quickly processed. Communication problems can arise inside organizations because finance and operations executives, who were involved in buying the EPLI policy, tend to be knowledgeable about the terms of the EPLI policy, while human resources personnel tend to be the first to know that a claim has been filed.
  • Be Thoughtful and Precise in “Tendering” Claims to the Carrier. Once a claim arises, carefully consider the requirements in the policy for tendering the claim.  This may involve discussions with legal counsel regarding the pros and cons of tendering a particular claim at all and will definitely include advice on how and what to communicate with the carrier. Careful consideration cannot result in much delay.  EPLI policies typically require very prompt communication of claims and potential claims.  Follow carefully the means and timing of “tendering,” i.e., providing written notice to the carrier, as stated in the policy.   A copy of the lawsuit, administrative charge or “demand” letter should accompany the tender.  Follow up to ensure that the carrier has received the claim and accepted it.

    As a general rule, attorneys' fees and costs incurred to defend a tendered claim may not “count” against the insured's retention (deductible) until the date of tender.   If you incur attorneys’ fees and costs before the claim is tendered to the carrier, your company will likely have to pay those fees plus the full amount of the retention.  Worse yet, if a claim is not tendered in the manner and time frame required by the policy, the claim may be denied.  

The great majority of employers in California should at least seriously consider the addition of an EPLI policy, but not just any policy will do.  Without the expert guidance of a knowledgeable broker and employment counsel, you might be shelling out premium dollars that do not effectively achieve your risk-management objectives.  Once you have a policy, the development of effective protocols for handling claims is essential.  Those protocols will ensure that claims are not denied and that they are positioned to be effectively defended.

Skiing The Slippery Slope Of Employment Practices Liability In The Nonprofit Sector

One of your employees has been out on disability with a workers’ compensation injury and you have been getting great advice and service from your workers’ compensation carrier regarding managing the employee while out on leave. Ultimately, you are advised that it has been determined in the workers’ compensation case that the employee has reached maximum medical improvement (known as permanent and stationary in some states) and cannot return to her job due to a permanent disability. With regret, you terminate the employee since she is now receiving workers’ compensation vocational rehabilitation benefits and you have heard that workers’ compensation is the exclusive legal remedy for employees suffering workplace injuries.

Not so fast! If an employer has 15 or more employees, it is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or a state disability accommodation law with a different threshold for applicability. In this instance, even though you acted appropriately in terms of not discriminating based on a work-related injury in violation of workers’ compensation law, you have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to engage in the interactive process to determine if there is any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed the employee to return to work for you — perhaps in a different job. Failing to engage in the interactive process prior to terminating a disabled employee is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and would subject you to legal liability resulting from the termination.

Okay, so maybe you knew about that issue. But what about the other employment law moguls out there just waiting for you? Let’s explore some of the common — and maybe not so common — employment practices law issues that face nonprofits, how to guard against mistakes, what it can cost if you do err, and how insurance fits into the picture.

Timing Really Is Everything
Culled from the claims files of the Nonprofits’ Insurance Alliance of California (NIAC) and the Alliance of Nonprofits for Insurance (ANI), member companies in the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (NIA Group) that insures over 11,500 nonprofits around the country, here are just a few examples of seemingly appropriate terminations by 501(c)(3) nonprofits that failed to withstand scrutiny because of their timing.

  • A couple of disruptive employees whose paychecks had been withheld for failure to have reports done on time filed a complaint about not being paid and were then terminated. (Two strikes on this one!) First, most states prohibit withholding paychecks just for poor performance. Second, terminating these two employees after they complained resulted in valid claims under the state’s “whistleblower” laws.
  • A poorly performing employee complained of sexual harassment. A thorough investigation concluded no harassment had taken place. The employee was then terminated on performance grounds alone. Problem — no contemporaneous documentation of the alleged poor performance existed, so it appeared to the state administrative agency that the termination was a result of the harassment allegation because it followed closely behind the report of it.
  • A long-term employee of an elder daycare facility, who was a “mandatory reporter” under state law, filed a report with the state about inadequate staffing at the facility when an elderly client was left unattended and was found wandering around in traffic. She was terminated for not following “internal reporting procedures” (in this case a warning was the appropriate remedy, not immediate termination).

So What’s An Employer To Do?
Let’s start with the exposures under Employment Practices Liability (EPL) that give rise to liability claims. Both federal — and most state — laws proscribe the most commonly known unfair employment practices of wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination and ADA violations. Embedded in each of those categories, however, are some lesser known prohibitions and strict liabilities.

By now most everyone knows that in most jurisdictions you can’t terminate someone based on age, race, gender, or sexual preference. But what if a poor performing employee is the only one working for your nonprofit that’s in a protected category? Termination here may have the appearance of discrimination sufficient to subject you to administrative or civil exposure.

You know that sexual harassment is illegal and that procedures need to be in place to train supervisory and management personnel about its ins and outs. But what if you’re in a state that imposes strict liability on an employer, even if the employer didn’t know the harassment was occurring? Or what about a delivery person that’s been making inappropriate suggestions to your receptionist, or if the delivery person believes that one of your employees has been harassing him or her? That can get you into as much trouble as the typical case.

So, what to do? Defense of Employment Practices Liability claims starts with your agency having documented procedures in place that you and your counsel can use to demonstrate to an administrative agency or a court that you intended to be — and were — in compliance. This is best accomplished from the beginning with a robust personnel handbook that includes policy statements and procedures around at least 12 key subjects.

Twelve Components of a Model Personnel Handbook

Following are twelve components that we recommend all personnel handbooks contain:

  • Introductory Statements
  • Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment
  • Organization and Structure
  • Training and Orientation
  • Employee Classifications and Categories
  • Employment Policies, Including Wage and Hour Regulations
  • Benefits Disclaimer
  • Leaves of Absence and Time Off
  • Standards of Performance
  • Workplace Violence Prevention and Safety
  • Search and Inspection
  • Drug-Free Workplace

At a minimum, the handbook should include statements regarding at-will employment, probationary, introductory or benefit waiting periods, and examples of disciplinary offenses (always prefaced with “including, but not limited to” language). Always have employees sign a written acknowledgment that they have read and understand the policies, or you might as well not have created them in the first place.

Next comes training and adherence. Regardless of size, every nonprofit needs to train its management personnel about the employment laws relevant to their jurisdiction and the policies and procedures the agency has adopted. Include here any state mandates such as sexual harassment training for supervisory personnel. Then, walk the talk! Follow those policies and procedures diligently — every day. Oh, and did you remember to include your board members in the training? They are at risk as much as the Executive Director because they are ultimately responsible for the agency’s overall management.

The Old “Ounce Of Prevention”
The last, and most overlooked, step in Employment Practices Liability claim prevention is checking in with experienced employment counsel before taking a significant personnel action. A poorly drafted employment offer letter can bind you for a lot more than you thought. So can the improperly announced new personnel policy or procedure — even if it’s meant to be a “positive” for employees.

More than anything else, however, is every Employment Practices Liability defense lawyer’s wish that you consult counsel before termination. There would be obvious questions about clear documentation of performance issues, protected classes of employees, and compliance with your own policies and procedures, but some circumstances might require some “drill down” inquiry. Suppose a health issue, disclosed or not, is involved. Is the employee perhaps entitled to an ADA accommodation? What about Family and Medical Leave Act entitlement, or workers’ compensation benefits?

Always, always, check with counsel experienced in employment law. Some are available on a pro bono basis — check with your local bar association. A number of Directors and Officers and Employment Practices Liability insurance carriers provide this service to their policyholders, although sometimes on a limited basis. So ask them if they do. If they don’t, ask them for a referral. At ANI-RRG and NIAC, we feel so strongly about the importance of our members getting good advice before they take an important employment action that we have three experienced labor law attorneys dedicated solely to providing preventative advice on this subject to our member-insureds.

And The New “Pound of Flesh”
If you haven’t heard or read about it, employment practices law is one of the latest and greatest fertile fields for aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys. It matters not that you are a charitable nonprofit (particularly if you have good insurance limits). Six-figure jury verdicts have become more frequent, particularly in metropolitan areas where the majority of the nonprofit sector does its work. Need convincing? Think about this data from ten recent years of our closed claim files:

  • One out of every 100 nonprofits (regardless of size) will have an EPL claim this year
  • 97% of all claims against directors’ and officers’ policies are in the EPL category
  • The average cost to defend when a claim has some merit is $29,000 and the average loss on those claims is $44,000 — a combined average of $73,000
  • 40% of EPL claims have some merit and when they do, one in ten will cost more than $100,000
  • When claims do not have merit, the average cost to defend is only $5,000, thanks to early intervention by our experienced employment defense counsel
  • The two largest claims cost $1 million and $400,000 respectively

Did You Say Something About Insurance?
Unless you have tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars just sitting around, you probably want to think about how your agency can protect itself in this vulnerable area and one other that directors and officers should be concerned about.

When Employment Practices Liability claims first came into vogue years ago, the insurance industry’s “knee jerk” reaction was to find a way to exclude the exposure. Smarter heads prevailed, fortunately, so that today EPL coverage is readily available. But like many things, it comes in different shapes and sizes, and not always where you think it is.

Let’s talk first about Employment Practices Liability as a stand-alone coverage. It’s available and commonly protects the nonprofit from damages claimed as a result of an adverse employment action. The defense component provides for payment of attorney fees and costs, and the indemnification component provides for payment of actual damages, if any. There are exclusions as discussed below.

It is more common, however, to find EPL coverage as either an attachment to, or embedded in, the nonprofit’s Directors and Officers (D&O) coverage. The components are generally the same as described above. Key issues to consider are detailed below, but look out for some tricky provisions such as the one that requires your consent before the carrier settles a claim, but makes you responsible for all the ongoing legal expenses if you don’t accept the carrier’s recommendation.

Typical exclusions include fines, penalties and sanctions (these are uninsurable risks), back wages, multiplied damages and plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. Wage and hour claims are one of the biggest uncovered liabilities that a nonprofit faces. Properly classifying an employee as exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Standards Labor Act (or similar state laws) can be tricky business and sometimes requires extra sensory powers of hindsight. To be properly classified as exempt, an employee must make a threshold salary as defined by federal and state law and pass the duties test of either the professional, executive or administrative exemptions. While most insurance policies do not cover payment of back wages and penalties, a few at least provide some defense costs to cover wage and hour claims.

So what are the key EPL components of a good D&O policy? At a minimum, expect the following:

Adequate policy limits

  • $1 million is generally adequate for small to mid-size nonprofits. Larger agencies should consider higher limits or an umbrella policy.

Broad definition of who is an insured

  • Is the nonprofit agency itself insured in addition to its directors and officers?
  • What about prior directors and officers?
  • Committee members?
  • Employees and volunteers? (Volunteers don’t have all the federal or state immunities you may think.)

Broad coverage for employment practices liability

  • Either by endorsement or imbedded in the D&O policy itself

Duty to defend

  • Does it extend to administrative proceedings (where most EPL claims start) or just to suits in civil courts?

Advancing of defense costs

  • The carrier should pay for defense costs as incurred, not after the nonprofit has paid for them and is seeking reimbursement

Anything Else?
Make sure that you understand your policy before you need to use it. For example, be sure that you understand when you need to report facts that may result in employment practices liability. For example, you may decide not to report to the insurer an employee grievance filed with your Human Resources Department pertaining to the employee’s termination, perhaps thinking that a legal claim may not develop from it. Unbeknownst to you, your policy may require you to report potential claims, including grievances filed with your HR Department. By the time the terminated employee files a legal complaint with the district court, the reporting period has passed and your insurer may deny coverage.

Don’t be disappointed if your insurance carrier insists on using defense counsel of its own choosing. It has the right to do so and generally has developed over time a panel of attorneys experienced in employment law defense who understand the nonprofit sector better than most.

While not directly EPL-related, make sure your Directors & Officers policy also protects you for fiduciary liability claims such as failure to properly account for grant funds.

If unsure about the nature and extent of your Employment Practices Liability coverage, by all means consult with your insurance agent or broker. They are usually paid commissions when they place your coverage, and providing appropriate advice is part of what they are paid for — and a service you have a right to expect.

Happy skiing!