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What’s your duty to accommodate domestic violence victims?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

Employees bring their families to work every day—even though you may not physically see them. And, sometimes, family issues flare up into domestic violence.

About a dozen states have laws that allow employees to take job-protected leave to deal with domestic violence issues, such as obtaining medical care, getting psychological treatment and attending court hearings (see box).

But take note: Even if your state doesn’t have a specific law, you may need to grant such rights as a matter of “public policy.” A recent court ruling from Washington state shows the legal risks.

Case in Point:
Ramona Danny was a scheduling manager for a state transit agency. Her husband had subjected her five children to domestic violence. When she requested leave to move her children out, her supervisor denied the request, saying her responsibility to a big work project prohibited the leave.

A few months later, Danny’s husband allegedly beat their 13-year-old son so severely that he required hospitalization. Danny immediately moved all the children out. She requested and was granted a two-week leave to move the kids to a shelter and seek domestic violence counseling.

When she returned to work, she was demoted within a month. Two months later, she was fired for allegedly falsifying payroll records. She sued.

At the time, Washington state didn’t have a law providing employment protection for victims of domestic abuse. But she claimed that the state had established a “public policy” prohibiting employers from firing workers because they experienced domestic violence or took leave related to it.

The state Supreme Court sided with Danny, ruling that victims of domestic violence can’t be forced to choose between protecting their lives and protecting their livelihoods. (Danny v. Laidlaw Transit Servs. Inc., Wash., No. 78421-3).

3 lessons learned

1. Be humane.
I cannot imagine any project on this planet that could be so important that it would justify denying Danny her initial request for leave.

2. No laws in your state? Check out public policies. As in this case, while there was not a specific law protecting the employee against domestic violence, there was plenty of state legislative intent recorded to support a “public policy” protection.

3. Don’t mess with an employee’s job after leave.
It took only a month before Danny was demoted and a few more months until she was fired. Courts have “legal stopwatches” and they start them with the request for leave and stop them when you take action against the employees. If that’s a short time, you may be forced to write a big check.


Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial.

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