It’s hard to swing a paycheck these days without hitting someone who’s sued his or her employer. The stuff of newspaper headlines and Hollywood scripts, employment-related lawsuits are soaring.
Just ask John W. Robinson IV, a fellow of the College of Labor & Employment Lawyers who was instrumental in launching the exploding employment law practice group at Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa. When Robinson began his career in 1975, employment law primarily meant wage and labor disputes. Today, it also covers discrimination, workplace litigation, employee benefits, sexual harassment and non-compete covenants. Robinson, 56, during his more than 25 years in employment law and litigation, has heard just about everything, such as the employee who lost his job because he didn’t show up for work. The employee sued, claiming it wasn’t his fault because he was in jail at the time.
Then there was the chief financial officer who was dismissed for accounting mistakes. When she sued, an investigation found that her accounting degree didn’t exist.
Employers need lawyers both to defend them and to help minimize risk. And in Florida, many rely on Robinson. “He is very well known and respected as an employment lawyer,” says Rhea Law, president and CEO of Fowler White Boggs Banker.
Robinson’s peers ranked the firm shareholder among the top Super Lawyers in central and northern Florida. “He’s a man of integrity,” says his wife, Ellen. “In everything John does, whether practicing law, participating in community affairs or simply being with his family, John is a person who can be counted on absolutely to do the right thing, be there for you and give you an honest, candid opinion.”
Indeed, in a time when respect is often linked to celebrity status, Robinson has earned it the old fashioned way: through diligence, discipline and the ability to stay abreast of ever-evolving legislation.
After a stint in the Marine Corps, Robinson moved his family to Florida in 1980 and began working at Fowler White Boggs Banker. At the time, the firm had 40 lawyers and three locations. Today, there are nine offices and 230 lawyers. “I helped build the practice,” says Robinson, now the firm’s secretary and treasurer, former chair of the American Bar Association’s Employment & Labor Relations committee, and former chair of The Florida Bar’s Labor & Employment Law section.
Robinson was co-counsel on the brief and attended oral arguments for Adams Fruit Company Inc. v. Barrett. The case, which in 1990 went to the U.S. Supreme Court, clarified compensation for migrant workers injured on the way to and from work.
He defended Motel 6 in a case that defeated class action allegations for employment claims. The case set critical standards for class certification in claims of this type.
Along with defending clients, Robinson offers them advice so they can guard against potential lawsuits. Even when clients follow the proper protocol, they often wonder if an employee will sue. “They can always sue you,” Robinson tells them. “But can they win or can we win?”
An ex-employee, fired because she repeatedly missed work, filed two administrative charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and complained to Civil Service. “She lost at every level but has now sued,” Robinson says. “That’s her right. That’s America.”
It’s easy to understand the current demand for employment lawyers. But it takes a detail-oriented individual to do the job well. Amendments to labor statutes are numerous. Witness the hefty Federal Labor Laws manual, now in its 27th edition. Moreover, different courts may interpret laws differently. “There are novel emerging claims and defenses,” Robinson says. “State laws and court decisions change, too.”
Robinson’s passion for history and his background in journalism help him mark the developments. Robinson edited several publications for the American Bar Association especially useful for young lawyers including Employment & Labor Relations Litigation and the Employment Litigation Deskbook. He was also co-editor of Model Jury Instructions: Employment Litigation and Developing Labor Law, a handbook on employment litigation, which follows a case from the beginning to the end from both sides. “We sent a copy to every federal judge, and they use it,” he says.
Robinson shares his expertise in other ways. He is general counsel for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. “He’s been a big help,” says Kim Scheeler, president of the chamber, which has 35 employees. “We’re a highly visible organization. We need to make sure we do things right.” In 2007, Robinson, a member of Leadership Florida, will chair Leadership Tampa, which educates participants about area issues and opportunities in Tampa and Hillsborough County.
Although Robinson majored in politics and journalism, he chose the law. “It’s tough to make it financially as a reporter,” says Robinson, who graduated with honors.
At the University of Georgia, he took every available labor law course. He credits his ambition and fascination with the law to his father, an accountant who rose through the ranks at a check-printing company to become president and CEO, and Ralph Beaird, a respected law school dean. His mother, who received her master’s from Duke University, taught English in public school. His grandmother had also been a teacher. “Education was important in our family — for men and for women, which was unusual in the South in those early days,” Robinson says.
His parents’ work ethic and ambition evidently influenced their children. In high school, Robinson joined the Army ROTC, then a mandatory program. He accepted an ROTC academic scholarship to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Given the tumultuous time, some might find the teenager’s acceptance unusual. But Robinson’s family had a tradition of military service. His father served on a destroyer during WWII, and his uncle was a B-52 pilot.
Robinson says his college friends accepted his ROTC involvement. “No one gave me any grief,” he says. “If anything, I suspect my peers respected my commitment.” Or perhaps his 6-foot-4-inch stature intimidated them. Robinson’s brother, Lee, a former Vanderbilt University basketball player, is now “the world’s tallest accountant,” he says. His sister, Margaret, is an in-house lawyer for Siemens. Although he is clearly in love with his career, Robinson makes time for family. “He has a balanced approach,” says Law.
When their children were young, the Robinsons exposed them to numerous activities, including sports, history, culture, the arts — “you name it,” he says. “We encouraged and supported both children in all their studies and interests.”
It’s paid off. Both children are Stanford graduates. Will is a computer software engineer for Google; Anna is a public school English teacher. While Robinson may not have imagined their careers, he did envision their success. “We were confident and, more importantly, they were confident that they would achieve,” he says.
Clearly, they are following a family tradition.
Unlike corporate or entertainment law, employment law cuts a wide swathe. During a lifetime, most of us will either be an employee, an employer — or both.
John W. Robinson IV of Tampa-based Fowler White Boggs Banker, an employment law attorney for more than 25 years, helps clients avoid potential problems. Following are three hot labor topics.
1. Absence Issues
Chronic absenteeism is a leading reason for terminating employment, but it can be a tricky issue. Employers must review sick-leave policies in the employee handbook, Robinson says, and clearly document absences.
To avoid the question of whether time off was due to illness or vacation, some employers no longer differentiate. They offer a flat number of days off, which can be used for sick days or vacation.
Companies must enforce policies to make them “effective and defensible,” Robinson says. He also suggests using a probation period to weed out employees who could present problems.
Employers should suspend employees for attendance problems. Last-chance agreements give employees the opportunity to either improve their attendance or lose their job.
2. Illegal Immigration
In 2005, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to settle federal allegations that it used illegal immigrants to clean its stores. Twelve businesses that provided contract janitor services to Wal-Mart agreed to pay $4 million.
Always require picture identification from a prospective employee, Robinson says. Employers also need proof that an employee is legally eligible to work. Consider a social security card or green card. Make copies of these documents and keep them on file in case government officials make you prove that you demanded them.
Employers must also record the employee’s identity and eligibility information on Form I-9.
As was the case with Wal-Mart, contractors can present a risk if they fail to meet these requirements. Ultimately, the employer is likely to be the “deep pocket” target of any claim, Robinson says.
3. Non-Compete, Non-Disclosures and Other Restrictive Covenants
If a company lacks written protection, there’s nothing to keep its valuable secrets — and key employees — from traveling to the competition. Lawyers like Robinson encourage companies to guard intellectual property, financial data, marketing and business plans, and other vital information.
Ex-employees may contest the agreement, claiming that it prevents them from making a living in their community. “The purpose of non-competes is to protect the employer’s investment in the employee and its business,” Robinson says, “not to stop a departing employee from working. There are reasonable limits on the length and geographic scope of non-competes.”
Increasingly, companies are also looking to keep contractors from spiriting away clients and intellectual property.