Robert Brooks has an employment practice closely attuned to the clients he represents. For companies in both the public and private sectors, Brooks negotiates contracts, informs on reorganizations and mergers, and goes up against unions on collective bargaining agreements. He advises management on the shifting regulatory landscape, and helps them build internal structures to maintain equitable and efficient work environments. Brooks is the Managing Partner of Providence, R.I.-based Adler Pollock & Sheehan and Chairman of the firm’s Labor and Employment Law Group.
Lawdragon: What do you focus on in the employment arena?
Robert Brooks: My practice focuses on representing employers in both the private and public sectors and touches on every aspect of employment and labor law imaginable. On the employment law side, I defend employers accused of discrimination on the basis of age, race, national origin, sex and sexual orientation. I counsel employers on compliance with federal and state employment laws, such as the FMLA, the ADA and the Equal Pay Act. I also counsel employers on wage and hour law and OSHA compliance.
In addition, I have a very busy labor practice, representing employers in the public and business sectors in a wide range of industries. I have negotiated collective bargaining contracts for municipalities with police officers, firefighters and municipal workers, and I have also represented public utilities, construction companies, manufacturing companies, performing arts venues and sports arenas. I have negotiated collective bargaining contracts with every conceivable public and private sector labor union.
LD: What do you enjoy about this variety of work?
RB: On the employment side, I enjoy assisting clients to achieve their governmental or business objectives. This can range from advising clients that are merging workforces as part of an acquisition of another company, or reorganizing a company when it is starting a new business line, or expanding into a new geographic region. The complexities of how the various employment laws impact the employer’s decisions is both interesting and challenging. It is very satisfying to help the client achieve its business goals.
On the labor side, I enjoy the art of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. Each collective bargaining negotiation is different. Some employers want to achieve economic goals, and others want to make sure that the language covering its operations allows it to remain flexible and utilize the talents of its workforce as efficiently as possible. I have a great deal of respect for all of the workers on the various union negotiating teams that I bargain with. I grew up in a working class family, so I understand their hopes, dreams and concerns, and I try to make sure that I set a tone at the bargaining table of professionalism and respect. It does my client no good if the union bargaining team leaves the table disgusted with the contract it has signed, or with management. While I might leave the day-to-day interaction with the parties once the contract is completed, the union and the employer must continue to live and work together after the new contract is signed.
LD: What trends you are seeing in employment law these days?
RB: I’ve seen an increase in the number of cases involving bullying and harassment, particularly in the construction industry. These cases have involved male employees bullying female employees and employees using rough language and then going too far by using ethnic and racial epithets. Unfortunately, some employers in the construction industry have either not been successful in creating a more tolerant work atmosphere, or have not tried hard enough to promote a work environment in the field that is free from bullying and discriminatory conduct. There is still in some places a “boys will be boys” mentality that permeates the day-to-day work environment, and I have seen some unfortunate cases in which employees have been made to suffer considerably as a result.
LD: Have you been working on any other particularly interesting cases lately?
RB: I recently represented a construction employer with a female safety director. One of this company’s oldest and most experienced male employees did not appreciate taking safety advice from the company’s safety director. This employee, while showing off for his co-workers, decided that he would “scare” the safety director by throwing a pocketknife into a wooden board that was close to where the safety director was standing. The safety director immediately reported this conduct, and the male employee was forced to retire.
The story does not end there. A month or so later, the same safety director was at a safety training for a group of the company’s employees. A male employee sat down next to the safety director, faced his camera phone toward her and showed her that he was taking her picture. He then showed her he was attaching the picture to a text message and he then sent the picture to one of his contacts, which turned out to be the previously retired employee. A little while later, this employee received a text message back in which the sender asked why he was being forced to look at a picture of the safety director in terms that were both offense and derogatory. The safety director, who was both petrified and horrified, reported the conduct and this second employee was terminated.
I was fortunate enough to successfully defend this employer, which was accused of wrongful termination of the offending employee.
LD: What challenges did you face in building your defense?
RB: The first key challenge in defending the construction employer that terminated the employee in this case was gathering all of the different types of evidence needed to demonstrate the employee’s wrongdoing. Fortunately, the safety director reported the terminated employee’s offending conduct immediately after the safety meeting. The employer launched an investigation that day and also placed the offending employee on a suspension pending this investigation. The employer also confiscated the employee’s company cellphone, which contained all of the electronic evidence of the photo he had taken of the safety director and the text messages he exchanged with the previously-terminated employee. Having this evidence was crucial to proving the employer’s case.
The other key challenge in successfully representing the client in this case was preparing the safety director to testify against the offending employee. To testify in a case like this can be very intimidating for the victim, and practicing the testimony and preparing the witness for what she might encounter during her testimony was key to the successful defense of this employer. The safety director was courageous and did a great job in her testimony, and we could not have won the case without her.
LD: Can you talk a bit about the impact of this win?
RB: For the client, having two employees leave the workforce, one by a forced retirement, and the other by a termination so quickly due to harassing behavior sent a clear message to the rest of the workforce that such conduct would not be tolerated. This employer followed up these cases with harassment and bullying training for all employees and its work atmosphere has been greatly improved.
This case is also a message to the construction industry that although it is dominated by males, particularly white males, women and other protected class employees are becoming a larger percentage of construction workforces and the employees in these workforces need to exhibit the same respect and conduct that are expected of employees in any other professional work atmosphere.
LD: Is there an employment lawyer you’ve come up against whom you admire?
RB: One lawyer I particularly admire is Joseph F. Penza of Olenn & Penza. Joe specialized in representing police officers at the collective bargaining table, in grievance arbitrations, and in police disciplinary matters. I admire Joe because he is the consummate professional. He is always prepared, and it very obvious that he has put a lot of thought into the matter he is handling before he gets to the hearing or negotiating table. When I have a case against Joe, I know I need to bring my “A” game. I feel like I am getting ready to play the New York Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, or the Boston Celtics of the 1960s. Because of this, I always try and go the extra mile in getting ready for a case with Joe, and at the end of a long day, I always feel as though I have done my best. Joe and I are often asked to speak together at various labor and employment law conferences, and it is always an honor to be on the same stage with him.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you?
RB: My style as a lawyer is to be knowledgeable about my case and the law and prepared for whatever is required to be done on behalf of my client. I am straightforward and I pull no punches, but I am respectful and polite to my adversaries. I also have a good sense of humor, and I have a knack for being able to lighten the mood just at the right time.
I hope others see me as someone who truly loves what he does, that is professional and prepared and is a worthy adversary. I also hope that they know that I very much enjoy interacting with those that I encounter in my cases and collective bargaining negotiations, whatever side they may be on.