Office Scuttlebutt Redux

June 24, 2010 - by: Chris Butler 2 COMMENTS

Additional Litigation Value:  $150,000 ($50,000 each for Stanley and Andy; $25,000 each for Kelly and Erin)

Tonight’s episode – Gossip – is a repeat from last season.  My law partner, Matt Rita, thoroughly covered Michael Scott’s shenanigans in the first run, astutely pointing out how Michael’s self-generated rumor mill could give rise to an invasion of privacy claim.  Let’s pile on another potential tort claim -– defamation.

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A Tale of Two Repeats

April 02, 2010 - by: Kristin Starnes Gray 2 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: Very Little.  Destination Wedding = $25,000; Niagara Falls Ceremony after Escaping Wedding = $100; Diapering Angela’s Cat = Priceless.

Given that last night consisted of two repeats, two of my colleagues have already done a wonderful job of covering issues raised by the Dunder Mifflin gang’s antics last night. Although last night’s episodes did not give rise to much in the way of litigation value, here’s a rundown of my top 10 things not to do at the office (or anywhere else, for that matter).

  1. Offer to stick spicy food (or anything else) into a coworker’s rectum.
  2. Discuss a coworker’s nipples. On the other hand, I definitely agree with Michael that no coworkers should be stimulating Pam’s nipples at Dunder Mifflin.
  3. Offer to bring a nippleless shirt to the office. Why Meredith has a nippleless anything in the car is a mystery to me. Of course, it may be the newest craze from the JWow collection.
  4. Pretend to shoot coworkers, even with your finger. This is particularly true if you intend to simulate gruesome brain splatter.
  5. Openly discuss the fact that Stanley has two lovers and you don’t have any.
  6. Decide to sleep nude in two coworkers’ bed, even if you are secretly eradicating mold and remodeling their kitchen for free.
  7. Announce that a coworker must have needed an “afternoon delight” with his wife.
  8. Discuss the relative hotness of a coworker as she stands uncomfortably next to you.
  9. Spread a rumor that a coworker has an elephant heart.
  10. Negotiate a parenting contract with a former office flame, even if your biological clock is ticking so loudly you awaken to find yourself cradling a gourd on your beet farm.

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Meet the New Boss

February 04, 2010 - by: Brian Kurtz 3 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: Approximately $5,000 – 10,000; Oscar’s Dunder Mifflin vacation time … and the replacement cost of Stanley’s busted windshield.

Employment law issues often get overlooked in a merger while the parties focus on stock price, transition planning, public relations, and other big-ticket concerns. When Gabe announced to the Scranton employees that Sabre offered two weeks of vacation, Oscar complained that he had six weeks banked from Dunder Mifflin. Is he entitled to either cash it out or carry it over to his Sabre employment? Probably.

While not entirely clear, it appears that Sabre purchased a controlling stake in Dunder Mifflin. In this type of stock purchase, the buyer “steps into the shoes” of the company being acquired. Of course, a new employer can make its own policy, but subject to state wage-hour laws. Most state laws prohibit an employer from taking away an employee’s earned or accrued vacation. Oscar’s complaint suggests that Dunder Mifflin permitted employees to carry over earned, unused vacation. So when Sabre stepped into Dunder Mifflin’s shoes, Oscar’s vacation bank should have carried over. Hey, Gabe. Let’s talk about a use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy.

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Classic Rewind

January 22, 2010 - by: Chris Butler 6 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: In the aggregate, $100 million; most of which is punitive damages

OK, so tonight’s episode – The Banker –- didn’t really bring us much new material, but it indeed highlighted five years of near-catastrophic employee-relations failures. As Dunder Mifflin verges on economic collapse, a potential investor dispatches its self-proclaimed “fact-checker” to conduct a due-diligence assessment of the company’s “H.R. liabilities.” While interviewing HR representative Toby Flenderson, the fact-checker poses a series of provocative questions that invoke Toby’s vivid recollection of why he so dearly hates his job. In essence, we rewind the tape a few years. Let’s take a look:

  • Racial/national origin harassment/discrimination: Michael Scott mocking Kelly Kapoor’s Indian heritage.
  • Inappropriate and/or sexually-suggestive language and innuendos: Michael’s skilled reliance on the phrase “that’s what she said” to transform seemingly innocuous comments into sexually charged double entendres; Michael’s lewd references to Stanley Hudson’s teenage daughter; Michael exposing himself to Pam; Meredith Palmer exposing herself to the entire office; and Michael kissing Phyllis Lapin to dissuade her from complaining to human resources about his sexually offensive language, and then immediately rewarding her graciousness with sexually offensive language.
  • Sexual harassment/sexual orientation harassment: Michael kissing the visibly-horrified Oscar  Martinez on the lips to illustrate his tolerance of same-sex relationships; again, Michael kissing Phyllis; and, yet again, Michael’s unbridled references to “that’s what she said.”
  • Age harassment/discrimination: Several mean-spirited references to Creed Bratton’s age and his “distinct old man smell.”
  • Workplace violence: Andy Bernard ramming his fist through the wall; Pam slapping Michael; Kelly slapping Michael; Jim Halpert slapping Dwight Schrute; Dwight punching Michael, and later pounding him in the face with a shoe; Phyllis hurling a wad of paper into Angela Martin’s face; and Oscar shoving Angela.
  • Potential workers’ compensation claims: Michael running down Meredith in the employee parking lot; Andy plunging from a transfer truck into an empty refrigerator box; and Michael ramming the warehouse forklift into a storage rack, causing a cascade of flying metal, boxes, and paper.
  • Health and safety violations: Dwight purposely igniting a trashcan paper fire to instigate an unscheduled fire “drill”; and, again, Michael ramming the warehouse forklift into the storage rack.
  • Property damage/waste of company resources: Michael and Dwight bouncing a watermelon from the office roof onto a parked car; several mutinous employees shoving paper, books, and supplies to the floor; an employee shattering a plate glass window with a toy-gun projectile; again, Michael overturning the storage rack; Jim disassembling Dwight’s desk and contents (classic) and enveloping them in holiday wrapping paper; and Jim encasing Dwight’s stapler in a Jell-O mold.
  • Invasion of privacy/HIPAA violations: Dwight demanding that each employee publicly identify his or her personal medical condition to determine its legitimacy.
  • Supervisor-subordinate romantic relationships/inappropriate public displays of affection: Dwight making out with Angela; Angela making out with Andy; Kelly making out with Ryan; Michael’s painfully inappropriate workplace relationship with his boss, Jan (and discussing his repeated vasectomies before the entire office); and Jim’s and Pam’s eternal office romance, despite Jim’s supervisory role (OK, we turn a blind eye to this because we really like them).
  • Hostile work environment/miscellaneous inappropriate and outrageous behavior: All of the above, and too many to mention.

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Office Scuttlebutt

September 18, 2009 - by: Matt Rita 2 COMMENTS

Litigation value: $100,000

A new season of The Office is upon us!  Although Michael Scott is hardly a man for all seasons (and unlikely to be confused with Thomas More, or any other saint), in last night’s premiere he provided us with yet another object lesson on employment law.  This time the principle involved was employee privacy, or rather the lack thereof. In Michael’s zeal to shed his “third wheel” status, he set out to spread gossip about virtually everyone at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch — other than himself, of course.  His rumors had nothing to do with company matters and everything to do with the personal lives of his staff members. For example, Michael would find it difficult to explain how the paper business has anything to do with Toby’s alleged virginity, Kelly’s supposed eating disorder, Creed’s asthmatic scuba diving, or the imaginary person inside of Kevin “working [him] with controls.”

The main focus of the rampant “scuttlebutt” was Stanley’s extra-marital relationship with a woman who had been his rehab nurse. Although an employee’s off-duty sexual conduct is a private matter, Michael saw fit to make himself “an equal part of it” — much as he did with Pam’s not-so-secret pregnancy. By disseminating such information to co-workers, Michael may have committed the tort of invasion of privacy.

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Invasion of the Privacy Snatchers

February 13, 2009 - by: Dominic Verstegen 3 COMMENTS

Employment law attorney Dominic Verstegen discusses Dunder Mifflin’s liability for its employees’ actions when Michael, Dwight, Kevin, and Oscar all cross the line and invade the privacy of their coworkers on the “Lecture Circuit, Part II” episode of The Office.

Litigation Value: $45,000

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The Outburst

December 19, 2008 - by: Dominic Verstegen 0 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $0

With “The Office” on hiatus for a few weeks, we thought we’d take a look at the webisodes to get our fix. In the most recent webisode, “The Outburst,” Oscar flips out on an unknown victim on his cell phone while sitting at his desk. Naturally, everyone within earshot becomes quite curious about the situation. They ask Oscar, but he’s not telling.  He claims it’s a private matter. Unfortunately, the others in the office don’t agree, and they do everything they can to pry into Oscar’s life and figure out who he was yelling at.

I won’t spoil the big finish –- that’s what she said –- but I will tell you that Oscar may or may not have a claim for invasion of privacy. If your company has a well written policy, they can peak around employees’ desks without much of a problem. Still, employees do have a right to be free from highly offensive invasions into private matters.

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The Deposition: Michael’s Secrets Revealed!

June 19, 2008 - by: Troy Foster 1 COMMENTS

In “The Deposition” episode of “The Office,” Michael Scott tries to testify against his employer, Dundler Mifflin, after his girlfriend Jan Levinson sues the company for wrongful termination.  While Michael is being deposed, his e-mail, personal diary, and performance reviews are  used. Employment law attorney Troy Foster reminds us that “that nothing at work should ever be considered completely private.”

I could write about Michael’s deposition all year long.  But for this post, I’ll focus on Michael’s rights.  Yes, I said Michael’s rights to privacy.  Not only did some e-mail get used in the deposition but also his performance review and even his diary were used.

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