The Justice Department’s announced prosecution and settlement of a disability discrimination lawsuit against Baltimore County, Maryland for allegedly violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by screening emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and other public safety workers provides another reminder to health care providers and other public and private organizations of the need to strengthen their disability discrimination management practices to defend against rising exposures to actions by the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other agencies as well as private law suits.
As part of a broader emphasis on the enforcement of disability and other federal discrimination laws by the Obama Administration, OCR is making investigation and prosecution of suspected disability discrimination by health industry organizations a priority. OCR recently has announced several settlement agreements and issued letters of findings as part of its ongoing efforts to ensure compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) as well as various other federal nondiscrimination and civil rights laws.
Defending or paying to settle a disability discrimination charge brought by a private plaintiff, OCR or another agency, or others tends to be financially, operationally and politically costly for a health care organization or public housing provider. In addition to the expanding readiness of OCR and other agencies to pursue investigations and enforcement of disability discrimination and other laws, the failure of health care organizations to effectively maintain processes to appropriately include and care for disabled other patients or constituents with special needs also can increase negligence exposure, undermine Joint Commission and other quality ratings, undermine efforts to qualify for public or private grant, partnerships or other similar arrangements, and create negative perceptions in the community.
In the employment arena, a settlement announced August 7 with Baltimore County is particularly notable as part of this trend, both for its challenge of medical exams and inquiries for EMTs and others in health care and other areas where safety could be a concern, as well as its objection to medical inquiries made to workers on medical leave during the course of that leave.
Baltimore County Nailed For Health Screening of Public Safety Workers
Employment disability discrimination risk management clearly must be a key element of health care and other organization’s disability discrimination risk management and risk assessments should not take for granted the defensibility of practices previously assumed defensible as required by law or for health and safety reasons. Rather, health care and other employers that require employees to submit to medical examinations, question employees about physician or mental conditions or disabilities, or engage in other similar activities should check the defensibility of those practices in light of the growing challenges to these and other employee screening practices by the Obama Administration and private plaintiff attorneys like the Justice Department disability discrimination complaint that lead to a $475,000 settlement against Baltimore County, Maryland announced by the Justice Department on August 7, 2012. According to the Justice Department, Baltimore County, Maryland will pay $475,000 and change its hiring procedures to resolve a Justice Department lawsuit filed that charged the county violated the ADA by requiring employees to submit to medical examinations and disability-related inquiries without a proper reason, and by excluding applicants from EMT positions because of their diabetes.
ADA Employment Discrimination Generally
Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability in various aspects of employment. The ADA’s provisions on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations show Congress’s intent to protect the rights of applicants and employees to be assessed on merit alone, while protecting the rights of employers to make sure that individuals in the workplace can efficiently do the essential functions of their jobs. An employer generally violates the ADA if it requires its employees to undergo medical examinations or submit to disability-related inquiries that are not related to how the employee performs his or her job duties, or if it requires its employees to disclose overbroad medical history or medical records. Title I of the ADA also generally requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as this does not pose an undue hardship or the employer the employer otherwise proves employing a person with a disability with reasonable accommodation could not eliminate significant safety concerns. Employers generally bear the burden of proving these or other defenses. Employers are also prohibited from excluding individuals with disabilities unless they show that the exclusion is consistent with business necessity and they are prohibited from retaliating against employees for opposing practices contrary to the ADA. Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability.
As reflected by the Baltimore County settlement, violations of the employment provisions of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits and can result in significant judgments. Employees or applicants that can prove they were subjected to prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).
Baltimore County Nailed For Medical Fitness Screening Of EMTs, Other Public Safety Workers
The U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Baltimore County, Maryland is one in a growing series of lawsuits in which the Justice Department or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is aggressively challenging medical examination and other medical screenings by private and public employers. In its lawsuit against the County, the Justice Department complaint identified 10 current and former police officers, firefighters, EMTs, civilian employees and applicants who were allegedly subjected to inappropriate and intrusive medical examinations and/or other disability-based discrimination. Justice Department officials claimed the County required some employees to undergo medical examinations or respond to medical inquiries that were unrelated to their ability to perform the functions of their jobs. The complaint also alleged the County required employees to submit to medical examinations that were improperly timed, such as requiring an employee who was on medical leave and undergoing medical treatment to submit to a medical exam even though the employee was not attempting to return to work yet.
According to the complaint, many affected employees – some of whom had worked for the County for decades – submitted to the improper medical exams for fear of discipline or termination if they refused. The complaint also alleges that the county retaliated against an employee who tried to caution against the unlawful medical exams and refused to hire two qualified applicants for EMT positions because they had diabetes.
In the proposed consent decree filed on August 7, 2012 and awaiting District Court approval, the County seeks to resolve the lawsuit by agreeing to:
- Pay $475,000 to the complainants and provide more work-related benefits (including retirement benefits and back pay, plus interest);
- Adopt new policies and procedures on the administration of medical examinations and inquiries;
- Refrain from using the services of the medical examiner who conducted the overbroad medical examinations in question;
- Stop the automatic exclusion of job applicants who have insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus; and
- Provide training on the ADA to all current supervisory employees and all employees who participate in making personnel decisions.
Obama Administration Aggressively Enforcing & Interpreting Employment & Other Disability Discrimination Laws
The Baltimore County suit is reflective of the aggressive emphasis that the Obama Administration is placing on challenging employers that require employees to undergo medical screening, respond to medical inquiries or engage in other practices that the EEOC, Justice Department or other Obama Administration officials under Title I of the ADA, as well as its heavy emphasis upon enforcement of the ADA and other disability discrimination laws against U.S. businesses and state and local government agencies generally.
The Justice Department action against Baltimore County is part of the Obama Administration’s sweeping effort to enforce employment and other disability discrimination laws against businesses and state and local government agencies alike. While the Administration’s disability law enforcement reaches broadly, disability discrimination enforcement is particularly notable in the area of employment law. This enforcement targets both public employers like Baltimore County, and private employers. In the private employer arena, for instance, the EEOC earlier this year sued Wendy’s franchisee, CTW L.L.C., (Texas Wendy’s) for allegedly violating the ADA by denying employment to a hearing-impaired applicant. In its suit against Texas Wendy’s, the EEOC seeks injunctive relief, including the formulation of policies to prevent and correct disability discrimination as well as an award of lost wages and compensatory damages for Harrison and punitive damages against CTW L.L.C. In the suit, the EEOC charged that the general manager of a Killeen, Texas Wendy’s refused to hire Michael Harrison, Jr. for a cooker position, despite his qualifications and experience, upon learning that Harrison is hearing-impaired.
According to the EEOC, Harrison, who had previously worked for a different fast-food franchise for over two years, was denied hire by the general manager. Harrison said that after successfully interviewing with the Wendy’s shift manager, he attempted to complete the interview process by interviewing with Wendy’s general manager via Texas Relay, a telephonic system used by people with hearing impairments. Harrison’s told the EEOC that during the call he was told by the general manager that “there is really no place for someone we cannot communicate with.”
As illustrated by the suits against Baltimore County, Texas Wendy’s and many other public and private employers, employers must exercise care when making hiring, promotion or other employment related decisions relating to persons with hearing or other conditions that could qualify as a disability under the ADA.
Defending disability discrimination charges has become more complicated due to both the aggressive interpretation and enforcement of the ADA under the Obama Administration and amendments to the ADA that aid private plaintiffs, the EEOC, the Justice Department and others to prove their case. Provisions of the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) that expand the definition of “disability” under the ADA, signed into law on September 25, 2008, broadened the definition of “disability” for purposes of the disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that a person has a disability within the meaning of the ADA. The ADAAA retains the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, provisions of the ADAAA that took effect January 1, 2009 change the way that these statutory terms should be interpreted in several ways. Most significantly, the ADAAA:
- Directs EEOC to revise that portion of its regulations defining the term “substantially limits;”
- Expands the definition of “major life activities” by including two non-exhaustive lists: (1) The first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating); and (2) The second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”);
- States that mitigating measures other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
- Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
- Changes the definition of “regarded as” so that it no longer requires a showing that the employer perceived the individual to be substantially limited in a major life activity, and instead says that an applicant or employee is “regarded as” disabled if he or she is subject to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire or termination) based on an impairment that is not transitory and minor; and
- Provides that individuals covered only under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.
The ADAAA also emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis. In adopting these changes, Congress expressly sought to overrule existing employer-friendly judicial precedent construing the current provisions of the ADA and to require the EEOC to update its existing guidance to confirm with the ADAAA Amendments. Under the leadership of the Obama Administration, the EEOC and other federal agencies have embraced this charge and have significantly stepped up enforcement of the ADA and other federal discrimination laws.
The ADAAA amendments coupled with the Obama Administration’s emphasis on enforcement make it likely that businesses generally will face more disability claims from a broader range of employees and will possess fewer legal shields to defend themselves against these claims. These changes will make it easier for certain employees to qualify as disabled under the ADA. Consequently, businesses should act strategically to mitigate their ADA exposures in anticipation of these changes. Given the Obama Administration’s well-documented, self-touted activism of the EEOC, Justice Department and other federal agencies in prosecuting disability discrimination and promoting a pro-disability enforcement agenda, businesses are encouraged to review and tighten their employment disability discrimination compliance procedures and documentation.
Likewise, businesses should be prepared for the EEOC and the courts to treat a broader range of disabilities, including those much more limited in severity and life activity restriction, to qualify as disabling for purposes of the Act. Businesses should assume that a greater number of employees with such conditions are likely to seek to use the ADA as a basis for challenging hiring, promotion and other employment decisions. For this reason, businesses should exercise caution to carefully document legitimate business justification for their hiring, promotion and other employment related decisions about these and other individuals who might qualify as disabled taking into account both the broadened disability definition and the aggressive interpretative stance of the Obama Administration. Businesses also generally should tighten job performance and other employment recordkeeping to promote the ability to prove nondiscriminatory business justifications for the employment decisions made by the businesses.
Businesses also should consider tightening their documentation regarding their procedures and processes governing the collection and handling records and communications that may contain information regarding an applicant’s physical or mental impairment, such as medical absences, worker’s compensation claims, emergency information, or other records containing health status or condition related information. The ADA generally requires that these records be maintained in separate confidential files and disclosed only to individuals with a need to know under circumstances allowed by the ADA.
As part of this process, businesses also should carefully review their employment records, group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies and practices to comply with, and manage exposure under the new genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy rules enacted as part of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) signed into law by President Bush on May 21, 2008. Effective November 21, 2009, Title VII of GINA amends the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination based on genetic information and restricts the ability of employers and their health plans to require, collect or retain certain genetic information. Under GINA, employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees face significant liability for violating the sweeping nondiscrimination and confidentiality requirements of GINA concerning their use, maintenance and disclosure of genetic information. Employees can sue for damages and other relief like currently available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other nondiscrimination laws. For instance, GINA’s employment related provisions include rules that will:
- Prohibit employers and employment agencies from discriminating based on genetic information in hiring, termination or referral decisions or in other decisions regarding compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment;
- Prohibit employers and employment agencies from limiting, segregating or classifying employees so as to deny employment opportunities to an employee based on genetic information;
- Bar labor organizations from excluding, expelling or otherwise discriminating against individuals based on genetic information;
- Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information of an employee or an employee’s family member except as allowed by GINA to satisfy certification requirements of family and medical leave laws, to monitor the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace or other conditions specifically allowed by GINA;
- Prohibit employers, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from discriminating in any decisions related to admission or employment in training or retraining programs, including apprenticeships based on genetic information;
- Mandate that in the narrow situations where limited cases where genetic information is obtained by a covered entity, it maintain the information on separate forms in separate medical files, treat the information as a confidential medical record, and not disclosure the genetic information except in those situations specifically allowed by GINA;
- Prohibit any person from retaliating against an individual for opposing an act or practice made unlawful by GINA; and
- Regulate the collection, use, access and disclosure of genetic information by employer sponsored and certain other health plans.
These employment provisions of GINA are in addition to amendments to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act that are effective for group health plan for plan years beginning after May 20, 2009. Added together, employment related disability discrimination are large and growing, meriting stepped up risk assessment and management.
Health Care & Other Organizations Also Targeted For Violations Of Public Accommodation & Other Federal Disability & Other Disability Discrimination Laws
In addition to the well-known and expanding employment discrimination risks, public and private health care and housing providers also increasingly face disability discrimination exposures under various federal laws such as the public accommodation and other disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA, Section 504, the Civil Rights Act and various other laws that the Obama Administration views as high enforcement priorities.
Section 504 requires recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, Department of Education, welfare and most other federal assistance programs funds including health care, education, housing services providers, state and local governments to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The ADA extends the prohibition against disability discrimination to private providers and other businesses as well as state and local governments including but not limited to health care providers reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or various other federal programs The ADA requirements extend most federal disability discrimination prohibits to health care and other businesses even if they do not receive federal financial assistance to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities have equal access to their programs, services or activities. In many instances, these federal discrimination laws both prohibit discrimination and require health care and other regulated businesses to put in place reasonable accommodations needed to ensure that their services are accessible and available to persons with disabilities. Meanwhile the Civil Rights Act and other laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, sex, age, religion and various other grounds. These federal rules impact virtually all public and private health care providers as well as a broad range housing and related service providers.
As a result of its stepped up enforcement of the ADA, Section 504 and other civil rights and nondiscrimination rules, OCR is racking up an impressive list of settlements with health care providers, housing and other businesses for violating the ADA, Section 504 or other related civil rights rules enforced by OCR. While OCR continues to wage this enforcement battle in the programs it administers, the Departments of Justice, Housing & Urban Development, Education, Labor and other federal agencies also are waging war against what the Obama Administration perceives as illegal discrimination in other areas. Along side their own enforcement activities, OCR and other federal agencies are maintaining a vigorous public outreach to disabled and other individuals protected by federal disabilities and other civil rights laws intended to make them aware of and to encourage them to act to enforce these rights. To be prepared to defend against the resulting risk of claims and other enforcement actions created by these activities, health care, housing and other U.S. providers and businesses need to tighten compliance and risk management procedures and take other steps to prepare themselves to respond to potential charges and investigations.
Recent Settlements Highlight Risk
Within recent settlement agreements, entities agreed to take steps to come into compliance with Section 504 and ADA, including: review and revision of policies and procedures; training staff on their non-discrimination obligations; providing a grievance procedure for patients; and other corrective actions specific to each entity’s violations. To learn more details about these actions and settlements, see https://www.cynthiastamer.com/documents/articles/20111019%20OCR%20Disability%20Enforcement%20CMSPC.pdf.
Enforcement of Discrimination & Other Civil Rights Laws Obama Administration Priority Putting Public & Private Providers At Risk
These and other enforcement actions by OCR and other agencies demonstrate the significant increased federal emphasis on the enforcement of federal discrimination laws against private and public health care and housing providers, state and local governments and other businesses under the Obama Administration. In keeping with this renewed emphasis, the DCF settlementis one of a growing list of federal disability, national origin and other discrimination charges and settlements OCR, has brought over the past year against physicians, public and private hospitals, insurers, federally financed housing providers and other parties providing services financed under programs administered by OCR. As the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and other federal agencies also similarly have increased emphasis in federal discrimination law enforcement during this period, health care providers and other federal program service providers need to be prepared to defend their programs and practices to withstand federal discrimination charges or other investigations by federal agencies, private plaintiffs or both.
As for employment discrimination, violators of these and other federal discrimination prohibitions applicable to the offering and delivery of services and products also face exposure to large civil damage awards to private plaintiffs as well as federal program disqualification, penalties and other federal agency enforcement. Unfortunately, while most businesses and governmental leaders generally are sensitive to the need to maintain effective compliance programs to prevent and redress employment discrimination, the awareness of the applicability and non-employment related disability and other discrimination risk management and compliance lags far behind.
Many private health care organizations assume that OCR’s enforcement actions are mostly a problem for state and local government agencies because state and local agencies and service providers frequently have been the target of OCR discrimination charges. However the record shows OCR enforcement risks are high for both public and private providers.
OCR can and does investigate and brings actions against a wide variety of public and private physicians, hospitals, insurers and other private health care and other federal program participants. In October, 2009, for instance, OCR announced that an Austin, Texas orthopedic surgeon whose practice group sees an average of 200 patients per week, had entered into a settlement agreement to resolve OCR charges that he violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by denying medically appropriate treatment from patients solely because they are HIV-positive.
Obama Administration Also Aggressively Prosecutes Disability Discrimination In Other Business Operations
Guarding against disability discrimination in employment is not the only area that businesses need to prepare to defend against. The Obama Administration also has trumpeted its commitment to the aggressive enforcement of the public accommodation provisions of the ADA and other federal disability discrimination laws. In June, 2012, for instance, President Obama himself made a point of reaffirming his administration’s “commitment to fighting discrimination, and to addressing the needs and concerns of those living with disabilities.”
As part of its significant commitment to disability discrimination enforcement, the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department has aggressively enforced the public accommodation provisions of the ADA and other federal disability discrimination laws against state agencies and private businesses that it perceives to have improperly discriminated against disabled individuals. For instance, the Justice Department entered into a landmark settlement agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will shift Virginia’s developmental disabilities system from one heavily reliant on large, state-run institutions to one focused on safe, individualized, and community-based services that promote integration, independence and full participation by people with disabilities in community life. The agreement expands and strengthens every aspect of the Commonwealth’s system of serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in integrated settings, and it does so through a number of services and supports. The Justice Department has a website dedicated to disabilities law enforcement, which includes links to settlements, briefs, findings letters, and other materials. The settlement agreements are a reminder that private businesses and state and local government agencies alike should exercise special care to prepare to defend their actions against potential disability or other Civil Rights discrimination challenges. All organizations, whether public or private need to make sure both that their organizations, their policies, and people in form and in action understand and comply with current disability and other nondiscrimination laws. When reviewing these responsibilities, many state and local governments and private businesses may need to update their understanding of current requirements. Statutory, regulatory or enforcement changes have expanded the scope and applicability of disability and various other federal nondiscrimination and other laws and risks of charges of discrimination.
To help mitigate the expanded employment liability risks created by the ADAAA amendments, businesses generally should act cautiously when dealing with applicants or employees with actual, perceived, or claimed physical or mental impairments to decrease exposures under the ADA. Management should exercise caution to carefully and proper the potential legal significance of physical or mental impairments or conditions that might be less significant in severity or scope, correctable through the use of eyeglasses, hearing aids, daily medications or other adaptive devices, or that otherwise have been assumed by management to fall outside the ADA’s scope. Employers should no longer assume, for instance, that a visually impaired employee won’t qualify as disabled because eyeglasses can substantially correct the employee’s visual impairment.
Invest in Prevention To Minimize Liability Risks
In light of the expanding readiness of the EEOC, Justice Department, OCR, HUD and other agencies to investigate and take action against health care providers for potential violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other federal discrimination and civil rights laws, health care organizations and their leaders should review and tighten their policies, practices, training, documentation, investigation, redress, discipline and other nondiscrimination policies and procedures. In carrying out these activities, organizations and their leaders should keep in mind the critical role of training and oversight of staff and contractors plays in promoting and maintaining required operational compliance with these requirements. Reported settlements reflect that the liability trigger often is discriminatory conduct by staff, contractors, or landlords in violation of both the law and the organization’s own policies.
To achieve and maintain the necessary operational compliance with these requirements, organizations should both adopt and policies against prohibited discrimination and take the necessary steps to institutionalize compliance with these policies by providing ongoing staff and vendor training and oversight, contracting for and monitoring vendor compliance and other actions. Organizations also should take advantage of opportunities to identify and resolve potential compliance concerns by revising patient and other processes and procedures to enhance the ability of the organization to learn about and redress potential charges without government intervention.
For More Information Or Assistance
If you need assistance reviewing or tightening your policies and procedures, conducting training or audits, responding to or defending an investigation or other enforcement action or with other health care related risk management, compliance, training, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, may be able to help. Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer has more than 24 years experience advising health industry clients about these and other matters. Her experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.
A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her presentations and programs include How to Ensure That Your Organization Is In Compliance With Regulations Governing Discrimination, as well as a wide range of other workshops, programs and publications on discrimination and cultural diversity, as well as a broad range of compliance, operational and risk management, and other health industry matters.
Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications. You can get more information about her health industry experience here. If you need assistance responding to concerns about the matters discussed in this publication or other health care concerns, wish to obtain information about arranging for training or presentations by Ms. Stamer, wish to suggest a topic for a future program or update, or wish to request other information or materials, please contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.
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