Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

July 02, 2010 - by: Matt Rita 0 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $0. Now that we’re into the summer season of recycled shows, we’ll assume that all stale claims are time-barred.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or so we thought. With a doubleheader of The Office repeats on last night’s schedule, this blogger was getting ready to post a rehash of two episodes from last season: The Banker and Sabre. (Before I forget, allow me to give obligatory yet sincere props to two of my colleagues, Brian Kurtz in Chicago and Chris Butler in Atlanta, for their prior write-ups on those shows.)

But news recently reached me, out here west of the Mississippi, that Steve Carell may be ending his run as our favorite show’s most (in)famous character, Michael Scott. That, in turn, has suggested that I write on a recurring and unavoidable topic: change.

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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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Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Litigation Value:  training management on whistleblower protections — $10,000; settling customer claims due to the flaming printers — more than Sabre would like to think about; finding out Holly’s coming back — priceless.

The printers aren’t the only things heating up at Sabre. Jo’s mission to root out the whistleblower had more than one person sweating in Scranton. Tensions were high given Pam’s admission to a reporter’s wife, Darryl’s misguided attempts to pick up a not-so-cute copy editor, Kelly’s infamous tweet, and Andy’s video. Unfortunately for Sabre, a variety of laws protect employees who choose to “blow the whistle” on employer wrongdoing.

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Blowing the Whistle

May 06, 2010 - by: Jody Ward-Rannow 0 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $50,000 for the office meeting Michael called to discuss his sex life with his employees.

In this week’s episode of The Office, we saw two storylines, both of which provide interesting employment law issues: Michael’s quest to find out if Donna is cheating on him and Darryl’s attempt to play a prank on Andy that turns out to resemble a whistleblower complaint.

Michael is concerned that his new girlfriend, Donna, is cheating on him because he thinks she is too good-looking for him. So, in classic Michael fashion, he holds an office meeting to ask everyone what they think. Of course, Michael cannot resist telling the office how much sex he is having with Donna. This meeting is an obvious problem in the office. Michael, the boss, forced his subordinates to listen to him talk about his sex life. If any person in that room was offended, Michael will have a sexual harassment complaint on his hands. This type of sexual harassment requires that the harassment was “severe and pervasive” so as to create a hostile work environment. The meeting shown in the episode likely wasn’t severe enough to create a hostile work environment (and most employees actually seemed to participate willingly), but if Michael continued his banter throughout the day, then the employees could have a claim.

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Sex Sells (OK, No It Doesn’t)

May 01, 2010 - by: Chris Butler 0 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $250,000 for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, and negligent entrustment.

Well, folks, the quintessential horndog – Michael Scott – is back on the stick. And this week, he didn’t disappoint. Michael’s recent announcement that this may be his final year sitting in the boss chair makes us wonder who will replace him; as if anyone could. We’ll address that later.

All right, so check it out: An attractive female, and potential Sabre customer, let’s just call her Donna (because that’s her name), visits the office dressed in eye-catching semi-business wear. Michael wastes no time in jokingly asking: “Did somebody order a hooker?” Soon thereafter, Michael interrupts Jim and Pam Halpert’s PowerPoint sales presentation by offering Donna a dog-eared Victoria’s Secret catalog. Michael further attempts to get Donna “turned on” by hijacking the presentation, superimposing wistful photos of himself, both fully clothed and facetiously standing behind a semi-nude strongman cutout (including an unnamed underwear model).

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Diabolical Laughter

April 09, 2010 - by: Jaclyn West 3 COMMENTS

This week’s episode was another repeat, and it was just as cringe-worthy as the first time it aired. Doug Hall did a fabulous job covering this episode in first run, so I’ll just use this space to talk about an issue that has been ongoing since the very first episode of the series: the personality clash between Dwight Shrute and Jim Halpert.

In tonight’s show, Dwight, jealous of Jim’s promotion, continues to pursue his Diabolical Plan to get Jim fired (or at least demoted). Although the conflict has since resolved (to the extent the Dwight-Jim war can) by Jim’s returning to the sales staff, it’s still worth talking about. What could Jim, as a manager, do when he encounters an employee like Ryan, who is determined to undermine his authority? Or, worse, like Dwight, who is determined to have him fired?

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Baby, Baby, Please

March 05, 2010 - by: Chris Butler 3 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: Not much.

With collective attentions devoted almost entirely to the miracle of childbirth, the Scranton branch didn’t leave us much to work with tonight. Whereas Dwight Schrute’s senseless destruction of Jim and Pam Halpert’s kitchen cabinetry exposes him to a cornucopia of civil and criminal liabilities in his own right, it’s unlikely that his misconduct would be attributable to Dunder Mifflin.

Indeed, Dunder Mifflin got off light this week. Were it not for the fact that Michael Scott’s systematically inappropriate behavior has become the norm -– considerably lowering the bar and desensitizing the work environment -– his rather unhealthy interest in Pam’s pregnancy might otherwise expose Dunder Mifflin and himself to a rare, but potentially fatal, harassment-based-on-pregnancy claim. Of course, in order to prove pregnancy harassment, Pam would have to show that she was both subjectively and objectively offended by Michael’s repeated references to, and his actions based on, her pregnancy; and that they were pervasive enough to interfere with her ability to perform her job or to otherwise create a hostile work environment. Inasmuch as Michael means well, and Pam doesn’t appear to be overly offended by his innocuous behavior, it’s doubtful this variation of a sex/pregnancy discrimination theory would hold up in court.

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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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Taking a Twirl on the Big Stage

November 20, 2009 - by: Matt Rita 6 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $0. For the second week running, our favorite paper company largely avoided any obvious liability on the employment law front. In fact, Dunder Mifflin may have a (nominal) claim of its own against Michael Scott and his road-tripping entourage, based on their unauthorized limousine frolic.

If this were a securities or bankruptcy law post, last night’s episode of The Office would provide ample material for a discussion of a corporation’s duties to its shareholders and creditors in the midst of creeping insolvency. But we’ll leave those topics to other bloggers. Given our focus, we’ll instead look at the experiences of three characters — Michael and Oscar attending the DMI shareholder meeting in New York City, and Jim minding the shop back in Scranton — to identify some common employee relations issues that have the potential to become employment law issues.

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Acting Koi

October 30, 2009 - by: Chris Butler 4 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: As to Dunder Mifflin, $500,000 (for potential hostile work environment, race discrimination/harassment, and/or intentional/negligent infliction of emotional distress damages); as to Andy, $25,000 (for potential assault, battery, humiliation, and emotional distress damages); as to Michael, $300 (value of decapitated koi).

Eight seconds. That’s precisely how long Michael needed to both sexually and racially harass the multitudes. To set the stage, Michael emceed the Scranton branch’s office Halloween party, staffed by Scranton branch employees and attended by their friends and families, including numerous children (and it was principally for them). Unencumbered by restraint, Michael spared no opportunity to “gift” the audience with a sexually provocative costume (paying homage to Mr. Timberlake and S.N.L.). Aside from his perpetually poor judgment, Michael’s offensive attire alone could land Dunder Mifflin with a hostile work environment lawsuit, particularly given his supervisory role. When will he learn to be the example, instead of being made the example?

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