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North Carolina responds to DOJ with a lawsuit over “Bathroom Bill”

North Carolina is in hot water once again, and this time there are two separate lawsuits involved: one filed by the state of North Carolina and one by the DOJ. How will this turn out?

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Local showdown goes national

The fight for transgender rights has just begun, but in North Carolina, the epicenter of controversy, things seem to be getting even more heated. Several companies have rallied against North Carolina’s new law, termed the “bathroom bill,” and refused to bring their business to the state because they felt North Carolina’s new policy violated a basic human right. PayPal and Deutsche Bank have publicly protested the bill by suspending expansion plans into the state, directly influencing the business ecosystem.

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Of course there have been other businesses, entertainers, and activists that have refused to do business with North Carolina because they do not agree with their new law.

Dueling lawsuits have been filed

Now, North Carolina is making headlines for a different reason: Both North Carolina and the Justice Department have filed dueling lawsuits over the state’s “bathroom bill.” The battle begins over the current law which bans transgender people from using bathrooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates.

These dueling complaints were filed mere hours apart according to The Washington Post. North Carolina continues to contend that its law does not discriminate against transgender people or treat transgender employees differently than non-transgender employees; the Justice Department disagrees.

The Justice Department’s civil right’s office states the measure is discriminatory and violates civil rights.

The DOJ’s position:

Attorney General, Loretta Lynch stated during a news conference, that “this action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them.”

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division stated Monday, that the lawsuit “speaks to all of us who have ever been made to feel inferior — like somehow we just don’t belong in our community, like somehow we just don’t fit in.” She added, “Let me reassure every transgender individual, right here in America, that you belong just as you are.”

North Carolina has until Monday to decide their course of action. Currently, North Carolina receives federal education funding every year in excess of $4 billion; this money can be withheld because the “bathroom law” violates civil rights. The government has withheld funding before over civil rights issues (desegregation for one) so North Carolina will want to make their decision in a timely manner to avoid some pretty hefty repercussions from the government.

North Carolina’s position:

North Carolina Governor, Pat McCrory, has asked the Justice Department for an extension to the “unrealistic” Monday deadline, but was turned down unless he stated that the law was discriminatory.

To this, Gov. McCrory stated, “I’m not going to publicly announce that something discriminates, which is agreeing with the letter [from the DOJ], because we’re really talking about a letter in which they’re trying to define gender identity. And there is not clear identification or definition of gender identity. It’s the federal government being a bully.”

McCrory said Monday that the Justice Department had asked North Carolina officials to “set aside their constitutional duty and refuse to follow or enforce our state law.” As he did last week after receiving the letter, he said that this has broad implications, stating: “This is not just a North Carolina issue. This is now a national issue.” Thus the lawsuit filed the same day as the DOJ’s.

What Americans think

More than 50 percent of people recently polled by CNN stated they opposed laws (like North Carolina’s) that require transgender individuals to use facilities that do not match their gender identity, while 38 percent support such laws. The CNN poll was conducted prior to the Justice Department’s finding that North Carolina’s law violates civil rights.

At the time of publication, it is not clear what path North Carolina will take, but one thing is clear: Something will need to change, on one side or the other.

#BathroomBill

Jennifer Walpole is a Senior Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds a Master's degree in English from the University of Oklahoma. She is a science fiction fanatic and enjoys writing way more than she should. She dreams of being a screenwriter and seeing her work on the big screen in Hollywood one day.

Business News

So the Labor Department is cool with unpaid internships again

(BUSINESS NEWS) Regulations on unpaid internships continue to wax and wane, and businesses that opt to use unpaid labor should be aware of new regulations.

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Unpaid internships are a deacreasingly common institution in the United States, with help from former regulatory attempts to make them more difficult to create.

That regulatory oversight might become more relaxed after the Department of Labor (DOL) issued new rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that governs the role of unpaid internships in the modern American workforce.

Last week, the United States’ labor governing body decided to revise its guidelines on unpaid internships using the concept of a “primary beneficiary test.”

The core principle behind the seven statements that comprise the primary beneficiary test revolves around the idea that the reason you are hiring unpaid interns is for work that provides the intern with the primary benefit (educational opportunities, hands on learning, and networking), not because the company isn’t paying someone else to perform the same activities.

So with these guidelines, there’d be no more call for jokes about interns fetching coffee or making copies. Sounds like a win for the intern, right?

Not exactly.

The guidelines stress, however, that there is no magic quota of yes or no answers that yields the unpaid intern in question has job duties that would require payment. That even includes answering “no” to the statement that reads: “the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation.”

Of course, if a company were in violation of these guidelines, especially the one regarding compensation, it would be easier for adjudication to be brought against the company into a court of law. These rules start as the groundwork for any legal action interns can bring against an organization.

The first set of six guidelines were developed in 2010. By 2011, a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns against Fox Searchlight while working Darren Aronofsky feature, Black Swan, claiming the interns were performing job duties in need of compensation (read: they weren’t already paying employees to do the same roles, rather using interns as free labor).

The ruling in 2013 was in favor of the interns, but a different federal court reversed that decision in 2015. It is interesting to note that the revised guidelines published by the DOL only a week ago were derived from the Court’s 2015 decision on this case.

The larger trend of lawsuits brought by unpaid interns may cause a company pause if they reverse decisions about payment of employees.

Despite the judicial onslaught, some organizations may still choose to pursue unpaid internships in light of the relaxation of the guidelines by the DOL.

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Business News

Starbucks’ Teavana chain finally settles lawsuit with Simon Property Group

(BUSINESS NEWS) A bitter battle over store closures concludes with private settlement – and Teavana stores are still closing.

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A months-long legal fight between Starbucks’ Teavana and Simon Property Group, the number one mall operator in the U.S., has come to an end with a private settlement that reportedly allows the tea chain to move forward with some of its store closures.

In July 2017, Starbucks unveiled plans to close all 379 retail locations of its floundering Teavana stores.

Shortly thereafter, Simon Property Group got a local judge to bar Starbucks from closing the 77 Teavana locations in its malls, a peculiar legal move for this situation. Starbucks would be breaking its lease agreement with Simon, and Simon wasn’t going to stand for it.

Simon Property Group cited the ongoing financial plights traditional malls have experienced for years as more and more retailers shut their doors as its primary reason for blocking Starbuck’s actions. The difference with Teavana is that Starbucks isn’t under great financial stress and can actually afford to keep the stores open, per court documents.

Starbucks disagreed, but in November, a judge sided with Simon and ordered Starbucks to keep its Teavana stores open and not break dozens of leases nationally. Starbucks fought back with a December appeal, but the case moved up to Indiana’s highest court, bypassing the intermediate Court of Appeals.

And now, before Starbucks’ appeal could be heard, the dueling companies have apparently reached an undisclosed settlement, according to New York Post reports. Exact settlement details have not been revealed, but the Post has found at least two Teavana locations that are closing in just a few days, indicating that settlement may play out in Starbucks’ favor.

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Business News

Zillow sued for concealing Zestimates on certain listings

(BUSINESS NEWS) Zillow being sued for Zestimates is nothing new, but they’re now being accused of concealing Zestimates on “Co-Conspirator Broker” listings, violating federal Antitrust laws.

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From our real estate section, The Real Daily:

The latest Zillow legal troubles again surround their Zestimates; this time they are being sued for their Zestimates violating federal Antitrust laws. The company has allegedly violated and continue to violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 and the New Jersey Antitrust Act, N.J.S.A. 56:9-3.

Plaintiff, EJ MGT LLC, based in New Jersey, filed suit again Zillow Group Inc. and Zillow Inc. today. In a 21-point legal brief outlining their specific violations, two things become immediately clear (assuming of course there is truth in these allegations): Zillow is giving preferential treatment to preferred brokerages (labeled ‘co-conspirator Broker[s] in the lawsuit) and Zestimates are wildly inaccurate (as many have adamantly stated since Zestimates’ conception).

The first few points of the brief explain exactly what Zillow is being accused of doing: “this antitrust action arises from Zillow’s conspiracy with certain real-estate brokerage companies to selectively conceal ‘Zestimates.’” Zillow’s estimate of a residential property’s “fair market value” which the lawsuit states they know “to be inaccurate,” have allowed “only select brokers to conceal the display of Zestimates on their listings to the exclusion of the general public.”

The lawsuit goes on to state that “these agreements between Zillow and certain co-conspirator brokers of residential real estate restrain trade (read: the agents/brokers being allowed to conceal unwanted Zestimates, henceforth referred to as ‘Co-conspirator Brokers’) and deprive Plaintiff and the public in general of the benefits of open and robust competition in two markets: the residential real estate market and the residential real estate brokerage market.”

In essence, Zillow and the Co-conspirators Brokers have made an illegal agreement regarding the display of Zestimates on Zillow’s site.

Zillow has long touted their Zestimates as a “user-friendly format to promote transparent real-estate markets and allow people to make informed decisions;” except Zestimates are often believed to be inaccurate and now they’re being concealed at the request of a select group of Co-conspirator Brokers – a far cry from making real estate more transparent.

If the lawsuit’s claims have any validity behind them, it seems as though Zillow may be in for a bumpy ride. Item 10 in the suit states, “Zillow has acknowledged that it conceals Zestimates as a result of agreements with only ‘certain brokers’ who receive ‘certain treatment’” and uses a message screenshotted from Zillow’s Help Center as proof these words were in fact used to explain why some listings had prominent Zestimates while others did not:

You may be wondering what brought about this lawsuit; it seems Plaintiff, EJ MGT LLC, owns and is marketing a property located in Cresskill, New Jersey, through an agent unaffiliated with Zillow (not a Co-Conspirator Broker). Therefore, their listing contains a prominently displayed Zestimate, while a similar listing in nearby Alpine, New Jersey, which is listed through a “Co-conspirator Broker,” conceals the Zestimate:

The above example is not the only one outlined in the case, however. Item 12 of the lawsuit states that further evidence can be seen by comparing a residence page for a property while it was listed with a Co-conspirator Broker versus the same residence page once the property was off the market. One clearly conceals the Zestimate, while the latter displays it clearly underneath the listing price.

For reference, the Co-conspirator Broker listing was screenshot on December 26, 2017 and the screenshot after it was taken off the market with the Zestimate was taken on January 2, 2018. Merely a week in between images, and yet the difference of how the ad is displayed is quite apparent:

In essence, Zillow has violated the very transparency they claimed to create.

Zillow is allegedly promoting misleading and inaccurate information while using their marketing power to charge brokers to hide this information which could negatively impact a sale, and which Zillow itself has acknowledged is sometimes inaccurate.

Also, general members of the public have no way to prevent Zillow from obtaining and posting information in this way, and it cannot be altered without hiring a Co-conspirator Broker, as Zillow has explicitly refused to offer the option to hide information to individual home owners, further deepening the dependency on Co-conspirator Brokers.

Because of their alleged refusal to treat everyone equally and “empower homebuyers with information,” they have potentially restrained trade in connection with the exchange of information regarding home valuation and offered anti-competitive benefits to only those brokers chosen to purchase that ‘special’ service package from Zillow that removes Zestimates from listings.

Therefore, brokers are not on even footing: when a seller attempts to price check; the brokers without it could be losing out to those who have the ‘special’ package and removal of Zestimates alongside listing prices.

So far, each individual Co-conspirator Broker has not been named; they have been named as a group: Sotheby’s International Realty, Inc., Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, Century 21 Real Estate LLC, The Corcoran Group ERA, and Weichert Realty, according to court documents. It is unlikely that any action would ever impact the brokerages, rather Zillow Group itself.

Zillow is being sued for five counts: two counts of conspiracy to restrain trade, one count of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, one count of slander of title/product disparagement, and one count of interference with prospective economic advantage. A jury trial has been requested.

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