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Posts Tagged ‘Department of Justice’

Trump wants to dismantle decades of discrimination protections

Monday, January 7th, 2019

The Trump administration is looking to either eliminate or severely restrict regulations designed to protect people from discrimination in a number of categories, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

The Department of Justice is asking federal agencies to assess ways to scale back regulations that allow for “disparate impact” legal challenges to discrimination.

Disparate impact refers to discrimination that occurs against a group even when there is no clear evidence of an intent to discriminate.

For example, an employer might implement a broad restriction on hiring people who have criminal records. Such a policy might not mention race at all, but because of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, it could end up leading to far more discrimination against people of color.

Disparate impact litigation would be a vehicle for challenging that policy as racial discriminatory, even if there’s no evidence that the employer put the policy in place in an attempt to give white candidates an advantage.

The approach is not new; in fact, it’s been a practice dating back a half-century to when civil rights laws were first put on the books. And litigation based on showing a disparate impact has been used to combat discrimination in just about every way, including employment, housing, education, and credit.

The administration has already demonstrated a willingness to gut this important tool for combatting discrimination.

Last month, the Federal Commission on School Safety recommended rolling back disparate impact policies in education. These policies sought to minimize the amount of punitive discipline for minor infractions, because such discipline was disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities — fueling the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” The commission claimed without a clear explanation that allowing such discipline would somehow protect students from gun violence.

There are many inconsistencies in terms of when courts will consider disparate impact claims. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that disparate impact claims are viable in terms of housing complaints. But there are other forms of discrimination where the Court has not guaranteed that the claims can be heard.

Tom Silverstein, associate counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, explained to ThinkProgress that where the Supreme Court has not resolved the issue, the administration will try to prohibit bringing disparate impact claims at all. Where the Supreme Court has said such claims are viable, the administration could place many limitations on them that make it far harder for them to succeed.

In that 2015 case, the Court may have upheld disparate impact claims in housing, “but there was no holding on how you prove a disparate impact claim or what the standard of proof is,” Silverstein explained. New regulations could heighten the standard for showing a causal relationship between a company’s policy and its disparate impact, or they could burden plaintiffs with having to prove that a less discriminatory policy would still serve the company’s interests. These would shift the advantage more to the company discriminating and make it harder to bring successful claims against them.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development already has indicated that it is seeking to undo its disparate impact rule, which would make it easier for insurance companies to implement policies that discriminate against minorities.

In the case of lending, the Supreme Court has not weighed in on whether disparate impact claims are viable under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Silverstein offered a hypothetical situation in which a company’s car purchase loans resulted in people of color disproportionately paying higher interest rates on their vehicles. “If it’s not an instance of intentional discrimination — or it is but you can’t prove that without going through discovery — it makes it harder to challenge that kind of discrimination.”

Sasha Samberg-Champion, a civil rights lawyer at Relman, Dane & Colfax, told ThinkProgress that the proposed changes are “harmful” because they will make it far harder to prove discrimination is taking place. An insurance company, for example, might be relying on a certain automated algorithm that ends up making it harder for people of color to obtain coverage, but it might not be possible to trace that algorithm back to specific individuals or any intent to discriminate.

“There may be some bad intent going on as well,” he said, “but it’s virtually unknowable when you begin investigating and begin litigation. You know there’s a bad practice that has a severe disparate impact on minority populations, and you know it’s irrational and has no justification. But you don’t know why unless they’re stupid enough to announce that they’re bigots.”

The administration’s restrictions could lead to a situation where plaintiffs basically have to find some clear evidence that a company was trying to discriminate, not just show that they happened to be discriminating. “If you make it a requirement that you prove intent, you’re making it impossible to bring litigation for practical purposes, even if in the real world there is bad intent,” he said.

There has long been a partisan divide on disparate impact litigation, with Republican presidential administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan opting simply not to pursue such cases. But completely dismantling the regulations that allow for them is a substantial change.

“This is a major attack on civil rights enforcement,” said Joe Rich, who recently retired from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “In the past, they would not use disparate impact, but they would not try to change the regulation. They would not try to destroy it,” he told ThinkProgress. “If you get rid of the regulation, there will be nothing to enforce.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Zack Ford is the LGBTQ Editor at ThinkProgress.org, where he has covered issues related to marriage equality, transgender rights, education, and “religious freedom,” in additional to daily political news. 

This man was denied a job as a sheriff’s deputy just because he has HIV. Now he’s suing.

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

A Louisiana man has filed a federal lawsuit against the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office (IPSO) for allegedly discriminating against him in 2012. According to the complaint, filed last week by Lambda Legal, IPSO was prepared to hire Liam Pierce as a deputy sheriff, but allegedly opted not to after learning that Pierce has HIV.

“It was like a punch to the gut,” Pierce, 46, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “It really frustrated me that for all the wonderful things that are here in Louisiana and all the wonderful people we have, we still have people that are not appropriately educated with HIV, how it’s transmitted, what the risks are, and what isn’t risky.”

As the complaint recounts, two days after Pierce had his in-person interview with IPSO in March, 2012, Captain Rickey Boudreaux told him that was going to be hired by the department, pending a medical examination. That examination, completed two weeks later, found that Pierce indicated “no significant abnormalities or medical findings,” with all physical findings “within normal limits.” But it did state that he is HIV-positive. Two days after submitting the medical examination, Pierce received a letter from IPSO indicating that he would not be hired.

“It’s clear on the medical evaluation: The only thing negative was the HIV status,” Pierce said, adding that a friend’s contact at the department relayed to him that he wasn’t hired because he failed the medical. He immediately knew it was because of his HIV status. “Anybody with a simple amount of education is able to see right and wrong and this is plainly wrong. It’s no different than discriminating against somebody because they have diabetes or because they have cancer. You can’t discriminate against that. It’s wrong.”

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice has resources dedicated specifically to educating the public about how discrimination on the basis of HIV status is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Pierce has a long history of service to others. He’s been an EMT, a paramedic, a firefighter, and a police officer. It was actually Hurricane Katrina that brought him to Louisiana in the first place; he ditched his old job after securing authorization to join the first-responder recovery efforts. He was hired full-time shortly thereafter by a local agency. To this day, he still teaches various public safety courses, including firearm safety, first aid, CPR, and — ironically — blood-born pathogens. His enthusiasm for helping others even convinced his husband to take an interest in firearm safety and they now teach the classes together.

Trump’s Justice Department Is Trying to Turn Back the Clock on Workers’ Rights 100 Years

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a trio of cases, captioned as NLRB v. Murphy Oil, that examined whether management commits an unfair labor practice when it requires employees to sign arbitration agreements that waive their right to wage class-action lawsuits. The question of whether an employee can give up her right to act in concert with other workers may seem technical, but it implicates the very core of collective action.

During the hearing, Trump’s Department of Justice clearly sided with employers, who are calling for significant cutbacks to workers’ rights to take collective action.

The significance of this case was evident throughout the oral arguments. On one side the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a University of Virginia Law Professor argued that the issue implicates the basic employment rights of tens of millions of U.S. workers. On the other side, the Principal Deputy U.S. Solicitor Jeff Wall (“Solicitor”) and an attorney for the companies argued that these are technical issues related to contract and civil procedure.

The case revolves around a key question: Do forced arbitration agreements that ban collective or class legal actions violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)? That section permits employees “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

The employers’ and Solicitor’s position is that Section 7 only protects workers’ rights to get to the “courthouse door.” According to the line of reasoning this side presented in the courtroom, the NLRA gives workers the right to act together at work, but the moment their workplace concerns get to a legal forum, they have no right to continue together. Once they enter the courtroom or arbitrator’s chambers, the argument went, all parties must abide by the rules of the forum, be it the NLRB, the federal courts or the arbitrator. They argued that this principle applies even if those rules require workers to proceed individually.

The problem, of course, is that there is a long history of employers using forced contracts to require employees to waive their rights as a condition of employment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg invoked this history when she asked the attorney for the employers whether forced arbitration agreements are simply “yellow dog” contracts by another name. This was a reference to contracts where employees agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. (“Yellow dog” contracts were made illegal in the 1932 Norris LaGuardia Act.)

Justice Stephen Breyer put an even finer point on the matter when he expressed his concern that the employers’ position “is overturning labor law that goes back to, for [Franklin D. Roosevelt] at least, the entire heart of the New Deal.”

Nonetheless, the arguments of the management-side attorneys appeared to gain traction with conservative Justices. This iss despite the fact that the employers’ side consistently failed to address a key problem: the rules of the forum that they said everyone has to follow are not made by some neutral third party. They are written by the employer, who then makes participation in the forum a condition of employment for the employee to sign the agreement. Research shows that almost 25 million non-union workers have been forced to sign such arbitration agreements.

Yet, some Justices bought the management-side argument. At one point, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who seemed to be the swing vote in this case, insisted that workers can still engage in collective action because they can simply go to the same attorney and ask her to represent them each individually.

Presumably, Justice Kennedy did not intend to imply that the attorney could share the details of each of the cases with each worker, because that would violate the confidentiality clause in many of these agreements. And presumably, he did not mean that the attorney could share confidential information, because then there would be no attorney-client privilege protection.

The employers’ counsel agreed with Justice Kennedy, and said that even though the confidentiality clause would prohibit the attorney from sharing information among the workers, it couldn’t “stop the same lawyer from thinking about the three cases in conjunction.” In Justice Kennedy’s words, “that is collective action.”

In reality, forced arbitration agreements that prohibit class or collective action have grown exponentially in recent years through a tactical decision by corporations to strip Americans of their rights to litigate their claims together. The NLRB responded in 2012 to the growing use of these forced arbitration agreements by finding that these agreements violate federal labor law.

The liberal Justices repeatedly demonstrated that this case is not about neutral rules of a forum, or technical issues of civil procedure, but about basic concepts of power.

Justice Ginsburg asked the Solicitor, “What about the reality? I think we have in one of these cases, in Ernst & Young, the individual claim is $1,800. To proceed alone in the arbitral forum will cost much more than any potential recovery for one. That’s why this is truly a situation where there is strength in numbers, and that was the core idea of the NLRA. There is strength in numbers. We have to protect the individual worker from being in a situation where he can’t protect his rights.”

Justice Ginsburg was making the point that if workers cannot bring class or collective actions, many who have low-dollar claims will be denied justice because it would be more expensive to bring their cases than they could possibly win.

The Solicitor’s response was telling. He claimed that the different arbitration agreements have different clauses, which deal with issues of costs and fees. In essence, he insisted, the contract takes care of those concerns. And, in the final analysis, the employers’ attorney and Solicitor explained that the contract—even if it is a forced contract—should trump any possible rights workers may have to bring their actions collectively.

In a sense, this position answered Justice Breyer’s initial question: Yes, this case does bring us back to a pre-New Deal framework, and the employers and Trump administration are comfortable with that.

This case is poised to have a far-reaching impact. When the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting consumer arbitration agreements that waive consumers’ rights to file a class action, such arbitration agreements ballooned. If the Court similarly holds that workers do not have a substantive right under the NLRA to vindicate their labor and employment rights collectively, then it is likely that soon almost every non-union worker will face even more limitations to real justice.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Justice Department brief argues against protections for LGBTQ workers

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

On Wednesday evening, the Department of Justice moved to undermine rights for LGBTQ people to ensure they are treated fairly in the workplace. The department filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The federal law in question is Title VII, which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

The case before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Zarda v. Altitude Express, centers on a now deceased skydiver. In 2010, Zarda said he was fired because of his sexual orientation. In April, the Second Circuit decided that it would not accept the argument that discrimination on sexual orientation isn’t permitted under Title VII. However, Lambda Legal requested that the ruling be reconsidered, which is why the Justice Department planned to file its amicus brief.

The power of the federal government to influence LGBTQ workplace rights can’t be underestimated, said Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“It is the Justice Department of the U.S. It’s not just anyone, so it’s definitely going to have a lot of weight because it is the position of the U.S. government, so it will be interesting to see how Second Circuit takes those arguments,” Gruberg said.

The role of Title VII in protecting lesbian, bisexual, and gay people against discrimination has been fuzzier than the issue of whether it can protect transgender people from discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized that Title VII protects transgender people from discrimination in 2012. In 2015, the agency also held that Title VII covers claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But court decisions on sexual orientation protections have been mixed.

The strongest decision for the recognition of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII was in Hively v. Ivy Community College, in which the Seventh Circuit held that sexual orientation was covered under sex discrimination in Title VII for three reasons. In that ruling, Chief Judge Diane Wood referenced Price Waterhouse V. Hopkins, a case that is commonly used to support sexual orientation as protected through Title VII by arguing that says sex discrimination includes sex stereotyping. If a stereotypical woman is considered to be heterosexual, then dating women is a failure to conform. Looking at it another way, if a woman were a man dating a woman she would not face discrimination; therefore she is facing discrimination because she is a woman. And yet another way to consider discrimination would to look at the matter of association. The Loving v. Virginia case found that discrimination based on association with someone of a different race is discrimination on the basis of race. In the case of sexual orientation, Wood used this “associational theory” to say that a refusal to promote someone based on their association with someone of the same sex qualifies as sex discrimination.

Gruberg said that with conflicting decisions from the courts, including a March 11th Circuit ruling that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation, and statements from judges such as Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is likely covered under Title VII, the issue could come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There has been an indication last time they considered this, where Chief Katzmann noted that this is still a developing issue in courts and he felt that court should reexamine whether sex orientation discrimination is covered under Title VII, so it has been mixed,” Gruberg said. “We’re already at a circuit split so it’s something I am convinced is going to be in front of the Supreme Court soon.”

In the brief, the Justice Department noted in Hively, Judge Diane Sykes said sex as “common, ordinary usage in 1964” means “biologically male or female.” Gruberg, who commented before the brief was released, said it would not make sense for the department to address gender identity, given the courts’ past rulings.

“Courts have been much more willing to see that gender identity discrimination is straight up sex discrimination. That has not really been a question. Sexual orientation is a little bit [of a question], so it is shocking that DOJ would bring that [gender identity] up,” Gruberg said. “That is not as contested in federal courts and yet they are bringing it up as an assault on the idea that trans people have civil rights protections.”

Gruberg said that the department will likely take the most prevalent argument against including sexual orientation and say that the statute doesn’t explicitly mention sexual orientation.

“But it doesn’t say sex stereotyping either, and the courts ruled on that, and it doesn’t mention sexual harassment but we now see harassment as covered,” Gruberg said. “What it means under Title VII has been understood as far more broad than what Congress in 60s believed it meant… It is a willful disregard of the evolving definition of sex discrimination.”]

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress.

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