July 24, 2015

New Indiana Law Designed to Protect Domestic Violence Victims Creates New Exposure/Restrictions for Employers

Effective July 1, 2015, a new Indiana law prohibits employers from discharging employees who have sought protective orders in connection with alleged domestic violence. More specifically, HEA 1159 makes it illegal to terminate employment: (1) because an employee has filed a petition for a protective order (whether or not the protective order itself actually has been issued); or (2) based on the actions of the person against whom the protective order is sought (i.e., the alleged abuser or wrongdoer).

HEA 1159 is clearly aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence and presumably comes in response to certain high-profile cases in which domestic violence victims have — in addition to the trauma of the violence itself — found themselves without economic support after their employers tried to protect the workplace by ending their employment.

Notwithstanding the obvious good intentions behind the law, HEA 1159 contains a second provision that can create significant exposure to employers when dealing with a situation in which an employee reports threats or abuse. In addition to prohibiting the outright termination of such employees, the law also appears to prohibit any changes to the employee’s job (including temporary relocations, scheduling changes or compensation changes) unless the employee agrees to the changes. In situations involving a potentially violent third party, one of the most effective ways to protect the safety of both the employee at issue and co-workers, customers and vendors is to relocate the employee temporarily pending intervention by those best suited (e.g., law enforcement and/or the judiciary).

In many cases, employees will cooperate with their employer to relocate, take time off or otherwise alter their working arrangement until the most immediate dangers subside. However, employees stuck in a “cycle of abuse” or those who only feel “safe” at work are far less likely to agree to such changes. In addition, even employees who genuinely fear for their safety but later “reconcile” with their abusers may subsequently claim that their employers’ protective efforts were coercive, exaggerated or otherwise “unagreed.” 

HEA 1159 contains no provision requiring employees to cooperate in securing the workplace in these inherently sensitive, high-risk and time-sensitive situations. Similarly, the law contains no limits on the size or type of employer to which it applies. Effectively then, HEA 1159 requires every employer to ensure the physical and financial security of its workforce against potentially volatile third parties over whom it has little or no control.

Again, though well-intended, HEA 1159 protects a specific class of employees by greatly amplifying the already-sizable risk faced by employers when attempting to prevent “outside” violence from spilling into the workplace. Employers who encounter these situations should consult legal counsel as soon as possible (but usually after consulting law enforcement) to ensure that their efforts to keep everyone safe remain effective while still accounting for the exposure created by this new law.

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