Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘9th Circuit’

Crossing the Line: The Ninth Circuit’s Guidelines for Flirting at Work

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Patrick KitchinAfter months of complaining that a female co-worker had repeatedly harassed him to have sex with her, Rudolpho Lamas’s boss offered a suggestion.  Maybe, the boss said, Rudolpho should try walking around the office singing, “I’m too sexy for my shirt.”  Everyone at work thought the situation was hilarious:  a widower turning down the explicit sexual advances of an attractive woman.  But Rudolpho Lamas and his lawyers are not laughing.

When does flirting at work cross the line and become sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Lamas’s lawyers asked.  And, does Title VII impose different standards on men and women in sexual harassment cases?  Finally, do gender stereotypes have a place in the jurisprudence of Title VII?

Earlier this month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco answered Rudolpho’s attorneys’ questions in a case involving a man who alleged he had been sexually harassed by a female co-worker in direct violation of Title VII.  (E.E.O.C. v. Prospect Airport Services (9th Cir. 9/3/2010).) The Court’s decision is interesting, not so much for its ultimate finding—that Title VII indeed provides equal protection to male and female victims of sexual harassment is well established—but for the way the Court considers socio-cultural stereotypes about gender in the context of a Title VII claim.

Before turning to the drama of E.E.O.C. v. Prospect Airport Services, a few words about the stage on which Rudolpho Lamas’s story is now playing out.

It is illegal to discriminate in the terms and conditions of employment based on the gender of a person under Title VII of the Civil Right Act.  Under Title VII, sexual harassment is considered to be a form of sex discrimination.

A Title VII sex harassment claim can be based on two theories of liability:  (1) economic quid pro quo; or (2) hostile environment.

In a typical case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, “a supervisor relies upon his [or her] apparent or actual authority to extort sexual consideration from an employee.”  Hensen v. City of Dundee 682 F.2d 897 (11th Cir. 1982). “Have sex with me,” says the supervisor, “and you’ll get that promotion.”

In a hostile work environment Title VII case, a co-worker or a supervisor’s gender-biased conduct is so severe or pervasive that the employee’s work environment is severely impacted.  “[W]hen a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, that supervisor “discriminate[s]” on the basis of sex.”  Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 US 57 (1986). And, of course, that is what Title VII’s gender provisions guard against:  discrimination based on sex.

This month’s Ninth Circuit case was based on the second of these two Title VII liability theories.  To maintain a gender-based, hostile environment case, a worker must show that:

(1) he or she was subjected to verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature

(2) the conduct was unwelcome, and

(3) the conduct was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 875-76 (9th Cir.1991)

Element 1:  Conduct of a sexual nature

Lamas presented evidence that a female co-worker repeatedly asked him to go out with her and on several occasions made explicit references to her desire to have sex with him.  She wrote to him, “I’ve been thinking of you a lot lately. I’ve been having crazy dreams about us in the bath tub yeah in the bath tub… Seriously, I do want you sexually and romantically!”

The Court had no trouble finding that the conduct was sexual.  “She performed gestures simulating fellatio, and gave him a photograph of herself emphasizing her breasts and possibly without clothes on.  Her proposition was for sex, not a cup of coffee together.”

Having established the conduct was of a sexual nature, the Court went on to consider whether Lamas might have welcomed the conduct.

Element 2:  Welcomeness

The Court next considered how the welcomeness element of the three-part prima facie case must be proved in a case involving a male victim and female harasser.  What evidence does a male victim of sexual harassment need to present to establish that the sexual advances of a co-worker were unwelcome?  The short answer is, the same evidence a woman needs to present.

Lamas’s employer apparently argued in the lower court that men are more likely than women to welcome the sexual advances of a co-worker.  Even Lamas admitted that “most men in his circumstances” would have welcomed the invitations.  So, what did the Ninth Circuit think about this digression into cultural stereotypes?  Not much.

The Court was quick to point out that suppositions about what most men wanted at work was itself a stereotype and, thus, was not evidence of anything.  “[W]elcomeness is inherently subjective, (since the interest two individuals might have in a romantic relationship is inherently individual to them), so it does not matter to welcomeness whether other men might have welcomed Munoz’s sexual propositions.”

“Title VII is not a beauty contest, and even if Munoz looks like Marilyn Monroe, Lamas might not want to have sex with her, for all sorts of possible reasons.”  Though the reference to Marilyn Monroe is a bit old school, the message is clear and contemporary.  Men, like woman, have lots of reasons to reject sexual advances by co-workers, including religious beliefs, fear of sexual harassment lawsuits, fear of complications in the workplace, fear of pregnancy or, as the Court explained, fears about facing two decades of child support payments.  Or, the Court explained, “[Lamas] might feel that something was mentally off about a woman that sexually aggressive toward him. Some men might feel that chivalry obligates a man to say yes, but the law does not.”

While the Court focused on the subjectivities of welcomeness, it observed that welcomeness has an objective component as well.  To hold the employer liable under Title VII, the unwelcomeness must be communicated. The employer must be told about the harassment so it can evaluate and respond to the allegations.  “Sometimes the past conduct of the individuals and the surrounding circumstances may suggest that conduct claimed to be unwelcome was merely part of a continuing course of conduct that had been welcomed warmly until some promotion was denied or employment was terminated. That is a credibility issue.”

Element 3:  Severe or Pervasive

Title VII is not a “general civility code” either.  It is not meant to protect workers against “the ordinary tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing.”  Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 US 775 (1998).

Title VII is designed to provide legal remedies to those employees who have been subjected to significant gender-based harassment and discrimination.  In other words, it protects employees who have been subjected to sexual conduct that is severe or pervasive.

Some conduct, such as a sexual assault of a co-worker, is severe enough to provide an immediate remedy to a worker under Title VII.  A sexual assault immediately creates an abusive working environment.

Less egregious conduct can provide grounds for a Title VII claim, as well, if:  (1) it happens often; and (2) it is of such nature that it is offensive to both the victim and a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.

Having a co-worker flash a nude picture of himself (or herself) to you one time at a holiday party might be offensive. The one-time, alcohol-driven transgression of a co-worker would not provide grounds for a Title VII claim, however.  But what if a co-worker (male or female) constantly displayed pornography on his (or her) computer in a cubicle shared with another worker?  What if this conduct was part of an attitude that permeated the workplace with gender bias?  If the cubicle mate’s objections and complaints were ignored by the employer, and the conduct continued, it might become pervasive enough to alter the conditions of the workplace in violation of Title VII.

Most Title VII claims involve a series of such increasingly troublesome events, none of which alone would support a strong Title VII lawsuit.  But taken together, they often do.  So, on a behavioral scale ranging from off-color jokes to things you only see on Mad Men episodes, the case law teaches that the more outrageous the conduct, the fewer times it must occur to be actionable, and vice versa.  The courts treat it as a classic inverse relationship.

Putting It All Together

By looking at the all of the circumstances of the workplace in Prospect Airport Services, the Ninth Circuit found sufficient evidence of unlawful sexual harassment to send the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.   The female employee’s conduct obviously was sexual.  And Lamas made it clear that he wanted the conduct to stop.  The conduct was pervasive and had a serious negative impact on conditions at work.  Lamas’s job performance suffered.  When the harasser told her co-workers about her efforts to seduce the victim, they mocked Lamas and questioned his sexuality.  Lamas complained several times to his supervisors about the harassment, but nothing was done.

If Rudolpho Lamas can convince a jury that all of this is true, then he will have proved all of the elements of a Title VII sex harassment case.

Guidelines for Flirting at Work?

In its decision earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit made it clear it does not consider all romantic overtures, or even all sexual propositions, to constitute unlawful sexual harassment

People spend most of their waking hours with other people at their workplaces, so that is where many meet and begin social relationships, and someone has to make the first overture. Some people have more social finesse than others, and many might suggest coffee or a trip to an art exhibition rather than sex, but mere awkwardness is insufficient to establish the “severe or pervasive” element.

Directly propositioning a co-worker to have sex might be incredibly cheeky and against company policy (it could get a person fired), but it does not violate Title VII.  “Had Munoz merely asked Lamas to go out on a date, or to see whether they might have a romantic relationship, or straightforwardly propositioned him for sex, and then quit when he clearly told her no, the EEOC would not have shown enough evidence to survive summary judgment.”

Does this mean that acting like a normal, socio-sexual human being at work is legal under federal law?  Undoubtedly so; but the definition of normal remains as subject to context, credibility and the uncertainties of the civil litigation system as ever before.

Has the Ninth Circuit now established federal guidelines for flirting at work that are applicable to men and women across the country?  Not really.  But, what the Court has done is to restate well established principles of law: men and women have identical employment rights, as well as identical burdens of proof, in sexual harassment cases brought under the Civil Rights Act.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere. For more information about his practice you can visit his website here.

“But I Signed An Independent Contractor Agreement…”

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Patrick KitchinThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Weighs In On Workforce Classification Under California Law

Every time I review an independent contractor agreement I find myself humming George and Ira Gershwin’s song, It Ain’t Necessarily So from Porgy and Bess. In California, at least, such agreements do not prove that a worker is an independent contractor. (“The label placed by the parties on their relationship is not dispositive, and subterfuges are not countenanced.” SG Borello & Sons v. Dept. of Industrial Relations)

Were it otherwise, of course, companies and individuals who hire workers would have an incentive always to require workers to sign independent contractor agreements so they might avoid the costs associated with maintaining a workforce made up of employees. Complying with minimum and overtime wage requirements, paying workers’ compensation insurance premiums, and making rest and meal breaks available are significantly more burdensome and expensive than maintaining a workforce made up of independent contractors. Further, because independent contractors generally are not protected by federal or state anti-discrimination laws, maintaining a workforce comprised of independent contractors can shield companies from civil rights lawsuits.

California’s Multi-Factor Approach

Under California law the existence of an independent contractor agreement is only one of over a dozen factors used by the courts to evaluate whether a worker has been properly classified under the law. The most important factor is the “right to discharge at will, without cause.” In a state where employment is “at will,” but where contracts often include specific provisions pertaining to the termination of the contractor’s services, the right to fire a worker without apparent consequence is a prime indicator of an employment relationship. As the California Supreme Court ruled back in 1989, other factors crucial to the classification determination are:
• whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;
• the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;
• the skill required in the particular occupation;
• whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work;
• the length of time for which the services are to be performed;
• the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;
• whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal;
• whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee;
• the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his managerial skill;
• the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of helpers;
• the degree of permanence of the working relationship; and
• whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

California courts are required to evaluate the specific terms of engagement carefully and analyze the conditions under which a person works for another before reaching a classification determination in a wage and hour or discrimination lawsuit. Further, under California law, one who works for another is presumed to be an employee, unless the employing party proves otherwise. The burden of proving the existence of an independent contractor relationship shifts to the “employer” to demonstrate its classification is proper once a worker presents sufficient evidence that he or she performed work for the company. Robinson v. George. This burden shifting is set out in the California Labor Code at section 2750.50.

While determining the proper classification of a worker is extremely fact intensive, and not every factor always points in the same direction, California appellate courts have been consistent in their use of the multi-factor approach set out more than 20 years ago by the California Supreme Court.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Weighs In

On August 5, 2010, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed California’s employment classification law in a lawsuit brought by “independent contractors” of a freight pick-up and delivery service who claimed they had been misclassified as independent contractors.

In Narayan v. EGL, Inc. the Ninth Circuit rejected the defendant’s contention that because its workforce signed independent contractor agreements, the court was compelled as a matter of law to find that its workers were properly classified as such.  The court applied the appropriate California classification test to the facts of the case and ruled that the relationship between the drivers and the freight-handling company was one of employment.  The independent contractor agreement was only one of several factors the court considered in coming to its Porgy and Bess conclusion:  Call it what you may, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Evaluating the many factors deemed relevant to the determination of the nature of the relationship between the drivers and the company, the Court found, among other indices of an employment relationship, that EGL:
• trained the workers;
• provided them some tools of the trade;
• required them to wear company uniforms;
• required them to paint their vehicles in company colors;
• assigned them routes;
• required them to attend company meetings;
• required them to arrive at a company facility at a set time each day; and
• required them to apply for vacation time;

Based on its analysis of all of these characteristics of the relationship between the drivers and EGL, the Ninth Circuit determined that the lower court’s dismissal of the worker’s employment-based claims was contrary to California law. Though the drivers had signed independent contractor agreements with EGL, the facts demonstrated the workers were employees from start to finish.

While the Ninth Circuit decision in Narayan v. EGL is not earth-shattering or unexpected, the decision is important for California workers whose lawsuits are often transferred (“removed”) from state courts to U.S. District Courts within the Ninth Circuit . The decision re-affirms the Ninth Circuit’s recognition that its District Courts, like California’s Superior Courts, are obliged to use the multi-factor test set out by the California Supreme Court in S.G Borello & Sons v. Department of Industrial Relations many years ago. This is good news for California workers.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California. He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999. According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

It's Unanimous: Supreme Court Permits Search of Employees' Electronic Communications

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Molly DiBiancaIn Quon v. City of Ontario, the 9th Circuit held that a California police department’s review of an officer’s text messages was an invasion of the officer’s right to privacy. In a unanimous ruling issued yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Quon decision and ruled that the police department’s review of the provocative text messages sent by the officer to his wife and to his mistress from his employer-issued pager, did not constitute an invasion of the officer’s privacy. (Link to the full opinion in City of Ontario v. Quon).

For employers, the key component of the decision is the Court’s focus on the fact that the police department-employer’s review of the messages comported with its policy and was conducted for a legitimate business reason. The department’s policy provided that messages would not be reviewed unless the employee went over the allotted monthly usage. In Quon, the officer had exceeded the monthly limit and the department reviewed the messages to determine whether the overages were work-related. Officers were responsible for costs incurred for non-work-related messages if they went over the monthly limit.

The 9th Circuit ruled that this review constituted an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That decision was based largely on the fact that the officer’s supervisor had told the officer that messages were never reviewed by the department. The federal appellate court found that, because he’d been permitted to use the pager for both personal and work-related use, the officer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in those communications.

This important decision is the Supreme Court’s first in the area of an employer’s right to monitor the electronic communications of its employees sent and received during working time or with work-issued devices.

The decision was not a free-for-all pass for employers who want to review employees’ electronic messages. The Supreme Court warned employers of the possibility that an expectation of privacy may exist in certain circumstances. Interestingly, the Court noted that the expectation of privacy may exist due to to the pervasiveness of electronic communications. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, explained that “cellphone and text message communications are so pervasive that some persons may consider them to be essential means or necessary instruments for self-expression, even self-identification.”

But the Court also recognized that the pervasiveness of cellphones and other electronic-communication devices, has also driven down the cost of such devices, making them “generally affordable.” The low cost of electronic-communication devices, the Court found, supports the argument that there is a very low or no expectation of privacy because an employee who needs a cellphone for personal use can buy one and avoid having to use the work-issued device for anything other than work-related communications.

The decision is a critical one for employers who want to ensure employee compliance with company rules and policies without violating the employee’s privacy rights and, in turn, exposing the organization to legal liability. The Quon opinion has two key components for employers:

1. Any workplace monitoring must comply with the employer’s policy—if you don’t have a clear policy, now is the time to get one; and

2. A search of electronic communications should not go beyond what is necessary to accomplish the legitimate business purpose behind the policy—use the least intrusive means possible to make the determination at issue.

About The Author:

Margaret (Molly) M. DiBianca maintains a legal practice consisting of equal parts litigation and client counseling. She represents employers in a variety of industries in employment rights claims, discrimination matters and equal employment disputes at the state and federal court level.

Cert Granted in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Image: Jean SternlightYesterday the Supreme Court granted certiorari in what could be an extremely important case addressing the intersection of mandatory arbitration and class actions.  AT & T Mobility v. Concepcion, 2010 WL 303962, Docked 09-893 (May 24, 2010) poses the following question:  “Whether the Federal Arbitration Act preempts States from conditioning the enforcement of an arbitration agreement on the availability of particular procedures — here, class-wide arbitration –  when those procedures are not necessary to ensure that the parties to the arbitration agreement are able to vindicate their claims.”

The lawsuit, brought in the 9th Circuit, is a consumer class action contending that AT&T Mobility acted fraudulently when it offered a “free” phone to all who signed up for service, but then charged substantial sales tax ($30.22 for two phones to the named plaintiff) to each consumer.  When plaintiff sought to litigate the claim as a class action the defendant demanded individual arbitration, citing an arbitration clause that prohibited class actions.  Relying on California unconscionability law, specifically Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 113 P.3d 1100 (Cal. 2005) the District Court, 2008 WL 5216255, and Ninth Circuit, 584 F.3d 849 (9th Cir. 2009) both courts found the class action prohibition unconscionable.

AT&T Mobility’s cert petition recognizes that provisions in arbitration agreements can sometimes be held unconscionable, but argues that the decisions below are preempted because California courts are purportedly interpreting unconscionability law differently (and more strictly) when they review arbitral class action prohibitions than when they review other kinds of contracts.   In particular, the California Supreme Court’s Discover Bank decision states:

“when the [class] waiver is found in a consumer contract of adhesion in a setting in which disputes between the contracting parties predictably involve small amounts of damages. and when it is alleged that the party with the superior bargaining power has carried out a scheme to deliberately cheat large numbers of consumers out of individually small sums of money, then, at least, . . . the waiver becomes in practice the exemption of the party from responsibility for its own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another.  Under these circumstances, such waivers are unconscionable under California law and should not be enforced.”

The Ninth Circuit states that this specific test is not a new rule applicable only to arbitration agreements but rather merely a “refinement” of the “general sliding-scale approach to unconscionability in the specific  context of class action waivers.”

The arbitration clause at issue in Concepcion is highly unusual, because it includes a provision stating that if the arbitrator awards the customer an amount greater than the phone company’s last written settlement offer made before selection of an arbitrator then the consumer is entitled to a premium payment of $7,500.  The company argues that this “premium” provision is sufficiently generous  that a class action is not necessary to allow individual claimants to enforce their rights, and that it was wrong in this context to hold a class action prohibition unconscionable.  The plaintiffs respond (and the Ninth Circuit found) that “the premium payment does not transform a $30.22 case into a predictable $7,500 case.”  Instead, finds the Ninth Circuit, “predictably AT&T will simply pay the face value of the claim before the selection of an arbitrator to avoid potentially paying $7,500.  Thus, the maximum gain to a customer for the hassle of arbitrating a $30.22 dispute is still just $30.22.”  Normally, finds the Ninth Circuit, a person “will not find it worth the time or the hassle to try to recover such a small amount, even if that person spends no money to hire an attorney or to invoke the arbitration process.”

It seems that the Concepcion case will require the Court to walk a difficult line.  If the majority of the Court want to find that California’s approach to unconscionability in this context is preempted  it will have to find a way to do that without purporting to wade too far into state law.  While it may be easy for the Court to say that unconscionability law can’t be applied more strictly to arbitration agreements than to other kinds of contracts, it may be hard for the Supreme Court or lower courts to apply that test in particular situations.

The case will also be interesting because it raises the issue of the purpose of class actions and litigation more generally.  Is the accepted purpose of plaintiffs’ class action only to reimburse plaintiff for the cost of the phone or is an accepted purpose also to help other similarly situated consumers or to deter the defendant or other companies from engaging in such fraudulent behavior in the future?  Is it appropriate to find a class action prohibition unconscionable because it harms persons other than the named plaintiffs or prevents deterrence, and not merely because it prevents the particular named plaintiffs from recovering their loss?  Note that class actions serve a notice function — helping present claims of persons who did not even know they had claims.  Is it appropriate (not preempted by the FAA)  to find that eliminating that aspect of class actions is unconscionable?

The case will be watched extremely closely by both sides of the class action/arbitration debate.  Probably no one believes that  all class action prohibitions are per se unconscionable.  Equally, while some companies might want to eliminate unconscionability arguments altogether in all likelihood Section 2 of the FAA ensures that some types of arbitration clauses can be unconscionable.  Thus,  the question the Court will try to answer is are class action waivers contained in arbitration clauses somehow immune from unconscionability challenges and, assuming they are not, how should courts decide whether such waivers are unconscionable.    A broad decision in favor of AT&T Mobility could  potentially allow companies in a variety of contexts to insulate themselves from class action exposure by including class action waivers in their arbitration clauses.   This would be a huge deal in the world of consumer litigation, as many consumer challenges are only brought through class actions.  Such a ruling could also affect employment cases, particularly wage and hour claims, which are typically presented in class actions.   This type of ruling could spark legislative action on the proposed Arbitration Fairness Act (which would prohibit mandatory arbitration in the consumer and employment settings).  Alternatively a narrower decision in favor of AT&T could open a floodgate of future litigation to determine whether a lower court had issued a permissible or impermissble decision holding that a particular class action waiver was unconscionable.  A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would reinforce existing law in many jurisdictions which provides that arbitral class action prohibitions are at risk of being held unconscionable.

Stay tuned for another exciting arbitration decision from the Supreme Court!

*This post originally appeared in Indisputably.org on May 25, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Jean R. Sternlight is the Michael and Sonja Saltman Professor of Law and also Director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Boyd School of Law.  She teaches courses on dispute resolution, including both litigation and alternatives thereto.  Frequently cited by courts and the media, Sternlight is co-author of Mediation Theory and Practice 2d ed. (LEXIS 2006), Arbitration Law in America: A Critical Assessment (Cambridge Univ. Press 2006), and Dispute Resolution: Beyond the Adversarial Model (Aspen 2004).  She has published articles in numerous well-respected journals including Stanford Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Journal of Law & Contemporary Problems, William & Mary Law Review, and The Ohio State Journal of Dispute Resolution.  Sternlight received her B.A. (High Honors) from Swarthmore College, and her J.D. (cum laude) from Harvard Law School.   After practicing law in Philadelphia for eight years she began her academic career at Florida State University College of Law.  She subsequently moved to the University of Missouri-Columbia and has been at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas since the summer of 2003.

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