Class Certification Denied in Physician Equal Pay Lawsuit Under a Blanket Compensation Plan

An Illinois District Court recently denied certification of a class of female physicians claiming that their employer’s pay practices unlawfully discriminated against women in violation of Title VII, the Illinois Equal Pay Act, and the Illinois Civil Rights Act (Ahad v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University).

Plaintiff alleged that the implementation of the defendant’s, Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees’, “compensation plan” resulted in pay disparity between male and female physicians.

In holding that the plaintiff failed to meet the Rule 23(a) requirements of “commonality” and “typicality,” the court held that the mere implementation of the compensation plan failed to form the “glue” needed to meet class certification standards. The Court found that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate how the facially gender-neutral compensation plan could have created disparate compensation results. While the plaintiff argued that the compensation plan delegated discretion to the department chairs based on objective criteria, the plaintiff failed to present any argument that those objective factors were in any way biased against women, or that the factors were the “cause” in pay disparity.

Plaintiff’s expert’s findings showed that female physicians were paid significantly less (a point that was directly contradicted by defendant’s expert), and the plaintiff argued that there was no other explanation for the alleged disparity. However, the Court held that the compensation plan, on its own, did not provide the necessary glue to show that adjudicating the claims on a class-wide basis would “produce a common answer to the questions of whether and why compensation for female physicians was lower…”

The court likewise held that the plaintiff’s expert statistical evidence failed to “turn the tides” of its analysis. Citing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Holding in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the court held that statistical evidence, on its own, “does not and cannot” satisfy the Rule 23(a) commonality requirement.

The court also noted that Rule 23(a)’s typicality requirement tends to merge with the requirement of commonality. Having already found that the plaintiff failed to show commonality, the court summarily held that typicality likewise was not satisfied.

This case provides employers with further authority that, where employees are subject to a blanket compensation policy that may (even with supporting statistical evidence) result in pay disparity, plaintiffs cannot maintain class claims solely on the existence and implementation of the policy in and of itself.

Five Things Human Resources Professionals Are Doing to Make a Difference in Healthcare

The Association of Healthcare Human Resources Administrators’ 54th Annual Conference & Exposition held on September 15-18, 2018 in Pittsburgh focused on empowering attendees to meet the new realities faced by health care human resources professionals. Here are the Jackson Lewis Healthcare Industry Team’s “Top 5” takeaways from the conference.

  1. Investing in Developing Physician Leaders Pays Off. Being a physician leader requires more than being a great practitioner. Conference attendees heard how executive coaching can help physicians develop strong leadership skills. One presenter shared metrics from her health system demonstrating significant return on the investment in executive coaching for physicians. Attendees also noted the importance of framing “coaching” as an organization’s commitment to helping a physician succeed rather than as a form of corrective action.
  2. Data Analytics Can Increase Recruiting Efficiency and Improve Employee Performance. Advanced data analytics can be leveraged in the recruitment process and to measure performance across several important recruitment metrics, including quality of hire. In addition, the data can be used to create and drive performance improvement initiatives.
  3. The #MeToo Movement is a Call to Examine and Improve Your Culture. Healthcare organizations are not immune from the #MeToo Movement. Therefore, organizations must develop effective anti-harassment programs, which include senior leaders modeling and communicating a culture of respect. Once the message is out, the organization should train the entire workforce and then carefully manage and monitor its anti-harassment procedures.
  4. HR Adds More Value When Partnering With Other Leaders. The healthcare industry faces many challenges, including recruiting and retaining highly skilled and engaged caregivers, ensuring respect and accountability in the workplace, and financial constraints tied to reimbursement rates. Several presentations highlighted the importance of human resources professionals partnering with other leaders to meet these challenges. Examples include collaborating with nurse leaders to better understand the implications of the ANCC Magnet Recognition program standards, working with medical staff leaders to confront troubling behaviors, and working with other C-Suite leaders to anticipate and avoid potential pitfalls in growing health systems.
  5. Addressing the Pay Equity Question. The last several years have brought a flurry of legislative activity to address the question of pay equity. In addition, many healthcare industry groups are raising awareness of pay inequality and calling for change. Human resources professionals can shepherd their organization through the process of identifying and correcting pay equity problems.

Seventh Circuit Holding in Sexual Orientation Fair Housing Lawsuit May Foreshadow Similar Claims Brought Against Health Care Providers

On August 27, 2018, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an Illinois District Court in holding that a seventy-year-old homosexual woman could maintain her Fair Housing Act (FHA) claims against retirement community, Glen St. Andrew Living Community, for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent the “torrent of physical and verbal abuse from other residents” allegedly suffered by the plaintiff because she is openly lesbian.

The plaintiff’s complaint alleges that she routinely reported incidents of rampant verbal and physical abuse from other residents of the nursing facility. According to the plaintiff, her complaints were dismissed, and she was branded a liar and continued to be discriminated against. The complaint further alleges that the nursing home retaliated against the plaintiff by providing her with less desirable amenities, barring her from common areas, halting her cleaning services, and even physically assaulting her.

The Court of Appeals cited to its 2017 decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana in holding that discrimination based on sexual orientation applies equally to claims under Title VII or the FHA.

Most notably, the Court of Appeals held, “Not only does [the FHA] create liability when a landlord intentionally discriminates against a tenant based on a protected characteristic; it also creates liability against a landlord that has actual notice of tenant-on-tenant harassment based on a protected status, yet chooses not to take any reasonable steps within its control to stop that harassment.” While the Court acknowledged that the plaintiff was in “uncharted territory,” it was satisfied by prior U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of analogous anti-discrimination statutes that the plaintiff’s claims were covered by the FHA.

Of most interest to the health care industry, the Court left the door open for analysis of sexual orientation claims against proprietors of traditional nursing homes and hospitals under anti-discrimination statutes. In dicta, the Court stated, “We say nothing about the situation in a setting that more closely resembles custodial care, such as skilled nursing facility, or an assisted living environment, or a hospital. Any of those are different enough that they should be saved for another day.”

The Court’s comment is telling, and based on its interpretation of the FHA in this case and its 2017 Hively decision, it is quite possible that, at least in the Seventh Circuit, a hospital or nursing care employer could be held liable for sexual orientation discrimination or retaliation claims for failing to adequately respond to harassment complaints made by patients.

Preparing for ICE Enforcement Actions at “Sensitive Locations”

ICE and CPB consider hospitals and other healthcare facilities to be sensitive locations where enforcement actions should be avoided without prior approval or unless there are exigent circumstances. Despite that policy, undocumented aliens continue to be arrested at medical facilities where they are receiving treatment or where they have accompanied ailing family members. Since the sensitive locations policy is only guidance, legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and the House to codify and therefore strengthen those policies. The Protecting Sensitive Locations Act was sponsored in the Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and by Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) in the House to give greater protection to hospitals, medical facilities, schools, churches and courthouses and to eliminate the “climate of fear” that may prevent immigrants from seeking necessary care.

Here are some general tips on what to do in if ICE comes to your facility to gather information or arrest a patient or family member. Remember, an ICE enforcement action can have serious civil and criminal consequences for your patients, your staff and your facility. It is therefore essential to protect your rights and those of your patients and staff by consulting with counsel on these matters. The following overview is simply meant to provide medical facility employers with some basics to consider in advance of any enforcement action.

  1. Assign and prepare several staff members to be the contact person in case ICE arrives at your facility and make sure all receptionists know to notify a contact person if there is enforcement activity.
  2. Identify appropriate legal counsel in advance of any enforcement action and be sure that receptionists know to contact that attorney immediately for advice if ICE agents arrive on the premises.
  3. Ask the ICE officers to provide identification when they enter your facility.
  4. The assigned contact person should accompany the ICE officers at all times while they are at your facility and take notes of all actions.
  5. There is no obligation to collect information on immigration status. If you do not collect that information then you do not need to worry about being asked to disclose that information.
  6. During an enforcement action, staff should not engage in any activities that could be considered harboring or obstruction.
  7. Once the officers leave, there should be a full debriefing.
  8. Agents can look into anything that is in “plain view” in a public space. Make sure your staff understands that patient information must be protected everywhere in the facility–this includes paperwork and oral conversations.
  9. Without a warrant or probable cause, immigration officers cannot enter private areas absent consent of an authorized representative. Individuals can be vulnerable in public spaces within your facility where there is no expectation of privacy. You may want to consider establishing specific “private spaces” within your facility where there is an expectation of privacy. Access in those private areas would be limited to patients, family members and necessary staff. Policies, signage and barriers can be used to delimit these private areas.
  10. If ICE has obtained a warrant, the contact should examine it to ensure it is properly signed, review the specific premises to be searched and not allow agents to search areas outside of those specific premises unless they have probable cause.
  11. Your employees are not required to give any statements to ICE officers or allow themselves to be interrogated.
  12. Conduct training for staff members and make educational materials available to patients about their rights.

Labor Department Independent Contractors Guidance Targets Home Care, Nursing, Caregiver Registries

In its first substantive guidance on independent contractors, the Trump Administration has targeted misclassification in the healthcare industry. Our colleagues in the Staffing & Independent Workforce team offer details on the July 13, 2018 guidance to Wage and Hour Division field staff on determining whether home care, nurse, or caregiver registries are employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act. You can read it here.

Physician Pay Equity Issues Are Under the Microscope

As our blog reported on June 21, and as is the case across many industries, issues related to physician pay equity are receiving increased attention nationwide.

Doximity’s 2018 Physician Compensation Report (its second annual report) contained key national findings on the gender wage gap that point to widespread disparities in physician compensation:

  • The overall disparity increased from 26.5% in 2016 to 27.7% in 2017.
  • As was the case in 2016, “female physicians did not out-earn their male counterparts in any of the top 50 metro areas.”
  • More than half of these metro areas saw the gender wage gap increase in 2017 as compared to 2016.
  • In 2017, in 25 of these top 50 metro areas, the gap was greater than $100,000 (and the largest was $134,499 in Charleston, SC).
  • The tightest (smallest) gap in dollars was still more than $68,000 ($68,758 in Rochester, NY).

Separately, the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi) recently conducted its own compensation survey.  After surveying 508 physicians, MedChi found that Maryland’s male physicians earn almost 50% more than its female physicians (an average salary of $335,000/year vs. $224,000).

Relatedly, Modern Healthcare reported last week that women are “still a rarity in high-paying surgical specialties.”  Doximity’s Report also contained data that physician compensation widely ranges by specialty – with surgery dominating the top slots (from the high of $662,755 for neurosurgery) – and different pediatric medicine specialties rounding out the bottom of the list (with a low of $191,735 for pediatric infectious disease).

While many healthcare organizations are tackling issues related to diversity and inclusion, the studies discussed above suggest they also should be examining the factors behind the gender pay gap and identifying means to address it.  This is especially important today as an increasing number of jurisdictions are enacting pay equity laws that impose significant penalties for violations, such as those enacted by enacted by California, Connecticut, Vermont, Oregon, and Massachusetts.  For more information about how your organization can be proactive regarding pay equity challenges, contact your Jackson Lewis attorney.

Fifth Circuit Permits Employee Allegedly Harassed by Patient to Proceed to Trial

A recent Fifth Circuit decision reminds healthcare employers that liability not only stems from potential harassment of employees by coworkers, but by patients as well. In Gardner v. CLC of Pascagoula, L.L.C. dba Plaza Community Living Center, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 17939 (5th Cir. June 29, 2018), the Fifth Circuit held that Kymberli Gardner, a former assisted living facility certified nursing assistant who was allegedly harassed by a patient, can proceed with her hostile work environment claim to trial. The Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer.

The patient at issue is an elderly man who resided in the employer’s assisted living facility and suffers from illnesses, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Gardner and other female nurses complained to their supervisor about the patient’s inappropriate behavior, including repeated groping and lewd sexual comments. The plaintiff also asserts that, as a result of the patient’s behavior, she was required to take a leave of absence from work. The plaintiff alleges that, instead of taking action, her supervisor laughed at her concerns, and told her to “put [her] big girl panties on and go back to work.” Gardner later requested reassignment after an incident wherein she was reportedly punched by the patient three times while assisting him out of bed. The plaintiff’s request was denied and she was ultimately terminated based on her response to this incident, as she is alleged to have made inappropriate comments (including swearing and racial statements) and tried to hit the patient.

The Fifth Circuit overturned the lower court’s summary judgment finding in favor of the employer, concluding that a jury could find that these disputed facts satisfy the elements of a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The Court emphasized the patient’s physical assaults, distinguishing “occasional inappropriate touching or minor slapping” from “persistent sexual harassment or violence with the risk of significant physical harm.” The Court held that under the facts presented, a “jury could conclude that an objectively reasonable caregiver would not expect a patient to grope her daily, injure her so badly she could not work for three months, and have her complaints met with laughter and dismissal by the administration.” The Court also noted the employer’s alleged lack of remedial measures in light of their knowledge of the patient’s conduct based on informal complaints, and that the behavior was recorded in the patient’s chart. In making this finding, the Court recognized the employer’s demonstrated ability to fix the situation, as the patient was later removed to an all-male facility after assaulting another patient.

This decision is another important reminder of the complexities facing healthcare employers in addressing hostile work environment claims, not just amongst employees but based on patient behavior as well. Healthcare employers must expand sexual harassment discussions beyond employee-employee interactions, and maintain a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns. For more tips, see the prior Jackson Lewis blog post about making meaningful culture change in the healthcare industry amid the #TimesUp movement.

Fifth Circuit Finds Employer’s Peer Review Process Does Not Constitute an Adverse Employment Action

The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an interesting decision finding that the actions of an employer’s peer review committee did not constitute an adverse employment action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This decision was driven by the specific facts presented to the court, so it does not necessarily signal a trend toward peer review actions being treated in this manner in Title VII cases. Visit our EPL Risk Mitigation blog to learn more about this decision.

November 2018 Ballot Question Seeks to Impose Registered Nurse-to-Patient Ratio Limits on Massachusetts Health Care Facilities

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), the state’s highest court, has held that an Initiative Petition (Initiative Petition 17-07) seeking to create a new law (“The Patient Safety Act”) that would dictate to hospitals and acute care units in state-operated health care facilities the number of patients that may be assigned to a registered nurse is constitutional and could be placed on the November ballot if a sufficient number of supporting signatures were submitted to the Secretary of the Commonwealth by July 3. Supporters of the Initiative Petition submitted the required number of signatures by July 3, so it will be placed on the November ballot as Question #1.

If Question #1 passes, the Initiative Petition would become law and impose strict registered nurse-to-patient staffing ratios on hospitals in Massachusetts. This new law would include two key provisions:

  1. Creation and enforcement of registered nurse-to-patient ratios in Massachusetts hospitals.
  2. Implementation of those ratios cannot result in a workforce reduction (see below).

For hospitals covered by the proposed law (rehabilitation and long-term care facilities are expressly excluded), the proposed law would impose strict limits on the number of patients who may be assigned to an individual registered nurse. Here are some examples of the proposed patient-to-registered nurse ratio limits:

  • Emergency Services Department: A maximum of one intensive care patient per registered nurse, although another may be accepted if both patients’ conditions are stable.
  • Pediatric Units: A maximum of four pediatric patients per registered nurse.
  • Psychiatric Units: A maximum of five psychiatric patients per registered nurse.
  • Units with Rehabilitation Patients: A maximum of five rehabilitation patients per registered nurse.
  • Maternal Child Care Units: A maximum of six well-baby patients per registered nurse.

In addition to imposing these ratios, the proposed law would prohibit hospitals from reducing “health care workforce” staffing levels in order to comply with the patient-to-registered nurse assignment limits. “Health care workforce” is broadly defined as personnel who “have an effect upon the delivery of quality care to patients,” including nurses (RNs and LPNs), maintenance, clerical, and other workers. The challenge to the Initiative Petition noted the “possible sweeping consequences” of this provision, but the SJC found this did not render the Initiative Petition unconstitutional. The SJC explained that the restriction on reducing the health care workforce “dictates how nurse-to-patient ratios may be maintained: in a manner such that there be no reductions in staff among other members of the health care workforce.”

Question #1 is supported by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a labor union representing less than 25 percent of nurses working in Massachusetts. However, the Massachusetts Hospital Association, the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Nurses Association and the Organization of Nurse Leaders oppose it. Many hospital administrators believe the ratios will require them to add a substantial number of registered nurses to their workforce, with a large increase in their facilities’ labor costs and the potential elimination of certain services in order to fund the larger registered nursing workforce required to meet the registered nurse-to-patient ratios.

If 30 percent of all voters who cast ballots in the November 6, 2018 election vote “yes” to Question #1, and a majority of those who vote on the question vote yes, Question #1 becomes law effective on January 1, 2019. This would leave hospitals less than two months to implement a plan to comply with the new staffing ratios. If passed, the law would authorize the Attorney General to seek injunctive relief and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day against hospitals failing to meet the mandated staffing ratios. Massachusetts hospitals should begin preparing now for the possible advent of registered nurse-to-patient ratios.

While California is the only state with mandatory staffing ratios, hospital administrators in other states should follow developments in Massachusetts because a yes vote here could lead to similar staffing ratio efforts by nursing unions or advocacy groups in their states.

Summer Clerk Jessica Murphy, in our Hartford office, contributed to this blog post.

Is Your Institution Doing Enough to Reduce Disruptive Physician Behavior?

Disruptive physicians are staple characters on television shows about the medical field. Some of the most recent T.V. doctors of this vein that come to mind are Dr. Gregory House of House and Dr. Perry Cox of Scrubs. While Dr. House and Dr. Cox present entertaining caricatures of disruptive physician behavior (“DPB”), in “real life” DPB has long presented many significant workplace challenges for health care institutions.

The American Medical Association defines DPB as, “personal conduct, whether verbal or physical, that that negatively affects or that potentially may negatively affect patient care constitutes disruptive behavior.”

In July 2008, The Joint Commission issued a Sentinel Event Alert about DPB noting that, “intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors, contribute to poor patient satisfaction and to preventable adverse outcomes, increase the cost of care, and cause qualified clinicians, administrators and mangers to seek new positions in more professional work environments.” To combat DPB and its negative impact on the health care industry, The Joint Commission introduced a new Leadership standard that required hospitals to develop a code of conduct that defines disruptive and inappropriate behaviors as well as a process for managing these behaviors.

While The Joint Commission’s efforts have helped healthcare institutions become more aware of DPB, ten years later, industry consultants observe that many medical professionals remain afraid to report DPB for fear of retaliation. A March 2018 article published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine entitled, “Disruptive Physician Behavior: The Importance of Recognition and Intervention and Its Impact on Patient Safety,” echoes the sentiment that there is more work to be done. Specifically, the article suggests four interventions that hospitals should take to limit disruptive behavior and its attendant potential legal and financial consequences:

  1. Prevent the Behavior. Make physician health and wellness a priority. Encourage physicians to seek professional care for their own health and wellness. If your institution has an employee assistance program, consider hiring a clinician trained in dealing with DPB. Stress the importance of a peaceful and professional work environment.
  2. Build the Right Infrastructure. Create a fair system for reliable reporting and monitoring. Develop a medical staff “Professionalism Committee” tasked with investigating DPB complaints, and making recommendations. Ensure that a system exists for a fair hearing.
  3. Take a Progressive Approach and Be Consistent. Minor incidents should be addressed with verbal coaching in a timely manner. If incidents are more serious or if informal warnings have been provided in the past, institutional progressive discipline policies should be adhered to consistently for all physicians.
  4. Collaborate. Involve counsel, human resources, the office of medical affairs, and the hospital’s medical board when drafting policies and making decisions.

To learn more about how the firm can assist with proactive measures to help remediate DPB in your institution through our EngageMD service, please contact your Jackson Lewis Attorney.

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