Posted on 02/25/2016 at 03:20 PM by Russell Samson
Law firms are not exempt from state employment laws -- Including "WARN" requirements
Lawyers in the Employment and Labor Section here at Dickinson are often called upon to advise the firm and even if not called upon, often inject themselves into advising the firm on employment and labor law matters as it may relate to the law firm as an ongoing business enterprise. (And yes, one of our attorneys is on the Iowa Board of Bar Examiners, which recently clarified that nursing mothers may request and be given a break from the exam for breast feeding or breast pumping.
It certainly would do my reputation no good if my name, or even the name of my firm, were published in some news article regarding a claim that the firm violated some law about which I routinely provide advice to clients. On Wednesday, February 16, 2016, we saw articles announcing the impending dissolution of the Milwaukee-based law firm of Gonzalez, Saggio & Harlan LLP. The firm is apparently closing its doors effective February 29, 2016 or about two weeks from the announcement. The news was apparently given first to the staff of the firm in an all-hands conference call on Monday morning, February 15, 2016.
The firm reportedly had some 127 lawyers (and, of course, support staff) in offices in 15 cities. While the firm's website lists three attorneys in the West Des Moines, Iowa office, there are (or were) reportedly 41 lawyers in the Milwaukee office and 22 in the office in New York. The more entrepreneurial management of some small and medium sized businesses are sometimes surprised to learn that the laws of many jurisdictions (including Iowa) impose a general requirement for advance notice of closures or mass layoffs of a certain size. While the requirements of the mini-WARN laws of various states may be less burdensome than those imposed by the federal WARN legislation, each of the laws may vary in standards and requirements. Implying that there may be a problem, the Gonzalez is closing article in Above the Law dated February 17, 2016, reported:
The firm has yet to file a notice of mass layoff with the State of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. In looking at the summary of Wisconsin's mini-WARN law on the website of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, to be covered by the law, a business must employ 50 or more individuals in the state of Wisconsin. With 41 lawyers in the Milwaukee office, and assuming that there was non-lawyer support staff, it would appear the coverage standard for Wisconsin's law would be met. But assumptions are dangerous. Under Wisconsin law, sixty (60) calendar days advance notice is required if there is an employment loss affecting 25 or more employees. Iowa's mini-WARN legislation, Iowa Code Chapter 84C, applies to businesses that employ 25 or more employees, excluding part-time employees. The state's website summarizing the New York State WARN act recites that the threshold for coverage under New York state's law is 50 or more full-time workers in the State of New York. The New York statute requires a 90-day notice in advance of the employment loss.
Iowa's law calls for 30 days advance notice. Like the federal WARN statute, all three of the state laws mentioned above look to an employment loss at a single site of employment. It is most certainly possible that the Gonzalez firm, with its 15 offices, did not have a single office which met the threshold requirements in the jurisdiction where the office is soon-to-be was located. But the Milwaukee numbers suggest Wisconsin's requirements may have been tripped.
Each of the three state laws mentioned above recognize that there are situations which may preclude the notice from being provided. If one assumes that the shuttering of the Gonzalez firm and the closing of all of its offices triggered the advance notice of at least one state's law (and further assumes that the particular state requires more than 14 days' notice), we may learn more details about the otherwise unspecified financial reasons which reportedly prompted the closure with so little advance warning. Or we may see litigation. Apart from reading picket signs of employees striking the labor union which employs them, there's nothing more fun than seeing what is said by former employees of labor law attorneys who are suing the attorneys for violation of labor and employment laws. If you employ individuals, in business, and are thinking about closing the business or a reduction in force, call your lawyer well in advance to clarify how your ability to close at will may be otherwise restrained by law.
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