Employee Rights Short Takes: Hostile Work Environment, GINA, FMLA And More
June 3rd, 2010 | Ellen Simon
Here are a few Short Takes worth sharing:
Sex Bias Case Ends With Huge Punitive Damages Award
The drug maker Novartis was hit with $250 million in punitive damages last week because of discrimination against thousands of female sales representatives. Issues involved discrimination in pay, promotion and pregnancy. The punitive damages award represented 2.6 of the company’s 2009 $9.5 billion revenue. Earlier in the week, the jury awarded $3.3 million dollars in compensatory damages to 12 of the women who testified. The case is reported to be the largest discrimination verdict ever.
Complaints were filed against MX Energy, a Connecticut natural gas retailer, under Title II of Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which prohibits genetic information discrimination in employment. The new federal law took effect on November 21, 2009.
GINA prohibits discrimination against employees or applicants because of genetic information. GINA also restricts acquisition of genetic information by employers and other entities covered by Title II, and strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information.
The charging party Pamela Fink, claims that her employer fired her, despite years of glowing evaluations, after learning she tested positive for the breast cancer gene. Fink filed complaints against her employer with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. About 90 GINA-related complaints have been filed nationwide since the law went into effect. This should be an interesting case to follow. For more about genetic discrimination, read here.
Rights Of Undocumented Workers
With all the talk about illegal immigration, one might wonder what the rights are of the over eight million undocumented workers in this country. Carolina Nunez, a law professor at Brigham Young University’s Reuben Clark Law School, wrote an interesting article about the topic which you can read here. The piece appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the Clark Memorandum, a publication of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.
Should undocumented workers enjoy the same workplace protections that authorized workers enjoy? When and how much should immigration status matter? Does being here count for anything? It is no surprise that the answers are less than clear.
Recent Cases Of Interest From The Circuits
Plaintiff Wins FMLA Appeal: In Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Dorothy Goelzer was fired from her administrative job with the county government after 20 years. Her supervisor told her about the termination decision two weeks before she was scheduled to begin two months of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Goelzer had taken a significant amount of authorized FMLA during the four preceding years to deal with her own health issues as well as those of her husband and mother. The defendants claimed she was fired because they wanted to hire someone with a “greater skill set.” The district court granted judgment against Goelzer.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this month stating that comments suggesting frustration with her use of leave, Goelzer’s favorable performance reviews, and the timing of her termination could lead a jury to conclude that Goelzer was fired because she exercised her right to take FMLA. This is a very good case for those who are claiming an interference or retaliation claim under the FMLA.
Employers Liable For Third Party Harassment: In Beckford v. Department of Corrections, Melanie Beckford, and thirteen other female employees, claimed that the Florida Department of Corrections failed to remedy the sexually offensive conduct of inmates — including the frequent use of gender-specific abusive language and pervasive gunning, the notorious practice of inmates openly masturbating toward female staff. The jury found in favor the plaintiffs and awarded each $45,000 in damages.
The Department appealed and contended that it could not be liable under Title VII unless its staff actively encouraged or participated in the harassment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the verdict and concluded that the jury was entitled to find the Department liable because it unreasonably failed to remedy the sexual harassment by its inmates. The Court said:
It is well established that employers may be liable for failing to remedy the harassment of employees by third parties who create a hostile environment. …It makes no difference whether the person whose acts are complained of is an employee, an independent contractor, or for that matter a customer.
Employees are often harassed at work by individuals who are not employees. This case, which holds that employers are liable for harassment by third parties, is an important affirmation of this particular aspect of employer liability under Title VII.
*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.
About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.
Tags: Beckford v. Department of Corrections, Eleventh Circuit, Ellen Simon, FMLA, genetics discrimination, Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, hostile work environment, punitive damages, Seventh Circuit, sex discrimination, sexual harassment, Wisconsin