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David Foley's Labor and Employment Law Blog

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Seinfeld and Labor and Employment Law

Since posting about the Information Age causing "worlds to collide", I get a fair number of visitors who search Google for things like "George Costanza and Employment Law." I feel bad because I don't think my post is what they had in mind.  A lot of Seinfeld episodes touched on work situations, and so it's not surprising to see these kinds of searches. To try to give those visitors a post more in line with what they were searching for, here are some Seinfeld episodes that touch on labor and employment law subjects and a little bit of comment from me.

                                                             Kramer at Work

Episode: The Strike (Epidsode 166)
Plot: Kramer returns to H&H Bagels after striking for twelve years.  The strike ends when the minimum wage rises to the wage that the employees had demanded when the strike began.  Kramer returns to the bagel shop where the manager tells him that he needs help over the holidays and hires him.  Kramer subsequently becomes interested in Frank Costanza's Festivus holiday. Wanting to celebrate Festivus, Kramer asks for December 23 off.  The manager explains that he hired Kramer specifically for the holidays, Kramer says that his rights are being violated and walks out.
Comment: This episode raises two issues: the strike and religious accommodation.
    The Strike.  It appears that this was an economic strike rather than an unfair labor practice, thus 
Kramer was not necessarily entitled to immediate rehire.  Do strikes ever go twelve years? It's rare, but it has happened before. A strike at Diamond of California lasted thirteen years.
    Religious Accommodation. Kramer has two problems here: First, he has to demonstrate a strongly held religious belief that requires him to miss work on the day in question.  At this point, it looks like Kramer is interested in Festivus, but it's hard to say he had a strong belief about it.  The second problem is that Kramer was hired specifically for the holiday season and so H&H can argue that giving him the day off would be unduly burdensome.  

Elaine at Work

Episode: Friar's Club (Episode 128)
Plot: A deaf employee is hired at J. Peterman.  The deaf employee (perhaps conveniently) fails to hear when work is assigned to him, and Elaine is repeatedly stuck with extra work.  Antics ensue.
Comment: Unlike other forms of discrimination, there is no "reverse discrimination" under the ADA.  Thus, Elaine can't claim to be discriminated against on the basis of not being disabled.

Jerry as an Employer
Epidsode: The Maid (Epidisode 175)
Plot: Jerry hires a maid for his apartment.  Jerry and his maid begin an affair.  Eventually the maid no longer cleans his house, but still wants to be paid.  Jerry refuses to pay as he wonders what he is paying for.
Comment: The episode raises an interesting point in a quid pro quo sexual harassment situation.  If the employee stops doing his/her job functions, but continues to be paid, are criminal prostitution laws implicated?

                                                        George at Work

Episode: The Red Dot (Episode 29)
Plot: George drinks scotch at work with a cleaning woman after hours and the two consummate an affair in the office. The cleaning lady gets upset and threatens to tell the boss about what happened. To pacify her, George gives her a cashmere sweater with a red dot on it. Once she discovers the dot, the cleaning woman reports George and he is fired.
Comment: As is often the case, George provides the audience with good examples of how not to behave. George may well have created a hostile work environment and his attempt to buy off the woman was both inappropriate and inept.

Update: Jon Hyman notes that a recent case Stevens v. Saint Elizabeth Med. Ctr. (6th Cir. 8/29/13), addresses the issue of whether George could have sued the employer for sexual harassment based on his firing. 
Episode: The Boyfriend (Episode 34)
Plot: George tries to extend his unemployment benefits by making up a company, Vandelay Industries, and telling the unemployment officer that he is close to a job there.  George involves Jerry in the scheme by providing Jerry's number as the number of the fictitious company.
Comment: Here's what the State of New York has to say about unemployment fraud:

When someone collects unemployment insurance (UI) benefits by lying to the Department of Labor, he or she is committing fraud. We take UI benefits fraud very seriously. It is a crime that affects businesses and workers. It drives up UI taxes on law-abiding businesses, and it frustrates honest workers. We need every dollar to help those who honestly need these benefits.
Episode: The Barber (Episode 72)
Plot: George interviews for a job.  It seems like he is about to be offered the job but the interviewer suddenly has to leave. George is left uncertain as to whether he has the job or not. He decides to show up and start working. George is handed a file to work on, but has no idea what he is supposed to be doing. Eventually, he meets the client whose file he is working on (Penske). Penske seems to offers him a job, but is likewise interrupted before the conversation is finished. In reliance upon Penske's offer, George quits in order to take it. However, Penske has been indicted and the company can't hire anyone.
Comment: In the ordinary circumstance, it is easy to know when an employment relationship has begun, but as in other contract scenarios, offer and acceptance aren't always clear.

Episode: The Maestro (Episode 113)
Plot: George decides that he should help a security guard who works at his fiance's uncle's (Mr. Ross) store and must stand all day. George gives the guard a chair and the guard asks if it is all right by Mr. Ross. George explains to him that he is the owner's uncle and says not to worry about it. The guard is later asleep when the store is robbed.
Comment: Whether a person has the authority to speak on behalf of an employer is not always clear.

Episode: The Millennium (Episode 154)
Plot: George is working for the New York Yankees and gets recruited by the New York Mets to be their head scout. The Mets tell George that they can only hire him if he gets fired from the Yankees. George tries to get fired by wearing and getting food on Babe Ruth's jersey, pseudo streaking through a game, and finally trying to destroy a World Series Trophy by dragging it with his car. His boss claims responsibility for the trophy incident, gets fired and takes the Mets job.
Comment: The teams seem to have an interesting "no raid" pact. George and the Mets recruiters demonstrate what bad faith is all about.

Episode: The Butter Shave (Episode 158) and The Voice (159)
Plot: Recovering from an accident, George is walking with use of a cane. He is hired at Play Now apparently because of the cane. Play Now, thinking George has a disability, provides him with a personal, fully equipped wheel chair accessible bathroom. When George sprains his good leg, Play Now buys him a motorized cart as a result. George runs into trouble with legitimate cart riders and after being chased by them, picks up his cart and runs. George's boss sees him running with the cart. Play Now wants to fire George since they know he has been faking his disability. However, George has a one year contract and try as they may, Play Now cannot make the work environment hostile enough to drive George out. It all ends when George allows Kramer to drop a ball full of oil from his office window. The oil injures Jerry's girlfriend and the lawsuit puts Play Now out of business.
Comment: Is ficitious disorder/M√ľnchausen syndrome a disability itself?

Seinfeld Audience at Work

Episode: The Junior Mint
Plot: Jerry does not know his girlfriend's name, but knows that she was teased about it in school.
Comment: From Wikipedia:
A conversation in Milwaukee the day after the episode aired led to a lawsuit in which jurors awarded Jerold J. Mackenzie $26.6 million on July 15, 1997. Mackenzie was terminated by Miller Brewing Co. on the basis that, amongst other reasons, discussing the episode with his secretary constituted sexual harassment.[2] Later, however, the decision was overturned by the court of appeals, and the ruling of the appeals court was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.[3]
One more episode on a subsequent post: The Race, Episode 96.

  Apparently a CLE seminar was once offered on (non-labor and employment) legal issues from the Seinfeld series.

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