Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘employment discrimination’

Black Livelihoods Matter: The Civil Justice System Needs Reform Too

Friday, October 14th, 2016

downloadThe Black Lives Matter movement has brought much-needed attention to the disparity in the way our criminal justice system treats African Americans.

But there’s another side of American justice that matters too: our civil courts.

In the United States today, the civil justice system is the last line of defense for workers who have faced discrimination on the job. And not just for individuals, either. Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits have been the most effective way to force recalcitrant employers to take action against discrimination.

Still, our courthouses are not open to all. As a black lawyer who focuses on employment discrimination, I’ve seen first-hand how access to the courts, the racial makeup of law firms and the way cases are handled can throw up barriers to justice.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to how black workers’ cases get derailed.

Step 1: Black workers are more likely to represent themselves.

Few people can afford to pay an employment attorney up front. Instead, most lawyers in the field work on contingency—meaning they will only get paid if the worker receives a cash award. That makes these cases financially risky for lawyers, who might get nothing for hours of work if the case is dismissed. As a result, it can be hard for many workers to find an employment lawyer.

But for black workers, the problem is even worse. A study commissioned by the American Bar Association found that black plaintiffs are 2.5 times more likely than white plaintiffs to file employment discrimination claims pro se, or without a lawyer. Other racial minorities, including Hispanics and Asians, are 1.9 times more likely to file pro se than their white counterparts.

Winning an employment case is already difficult, even under the best circumstances. Pro se litigants, assuming that they can even get their cases inside a courtroom, are almost guaranteed to lose—no matter how strong the details of their case may be.

For example, litigants may be required to file their case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a certain number of days, and that time limit varies by state. Workers representing themselves may miss that deadline, and lose their cases before they even start.

Step 2: Attorneys are less likely to take cases involving black workers.

Even when black workers have found an attorney who might be interested in their case, they are less likely to get help. The ABA study found that the way employment attorneys screen their cases can contribute to the racial disparity.

In some cases, employment attorneys charge expensive consultation fees before considering a potential client. Black workers who can’t afford those fees never get in the front door. In other cases, the ABA study found that attorneys favored clients based on criteria that weren’t related to the merits of their case, such as perceived demeanor, mannerisms or a personal referral.

The disparity in pay between black and white workers adds to the problem. Because lost wages are a major part of the case, workers who make less money will receive smaller payouts. For employment attorneys who have to work for free upfront, that means less money at the back end.

Step 3: Juries aren’t always sympathetic to black workers.

Even when employment cases make it to trial, the worker still has only a 15 percent chance of winning, compared to a 50 percent win rate for other types of plaintiffs.

That means employment cases are particularly sensitive to jurors’ beliefs and prejudices. If a jury does not find the plaintiff’s story credible, or doesn’t believe that discrimination occurred, or doubts whether discrimination is all that common anyway—the worker loses.

In addition, damages for emotional distress are allowed in many employment discrimination cases. But jurors may not be as willing to provide them to black workers even when they have found in favor of them overall due to prejudices about their mythical inner strength or whether discrimination is serious.

The end result is that the same discrimination that black workers face in the workplace can also negatively affect them in the eyes of a jury.

Step 4: Even if they win, they are often awarded less money.

Workers who win their cases can receive money for emotional distress, punitive damages intended to send a message to the employer and lost wages. Under federal law, those first two amounts are limited between $50,000 and $300,000, levels set in 1991 that have not been adjusted since. (If they had been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, the cap would be closer to $525,000.)

Generally, the largest award in employment cases is for lost wages. Employees who win their cases can only get the difference between what they made since being illegally fired and what they would have made had they not been fired.

Black employees, on average, make less than white employees. As a result, black employees bringing discrimination cases are disproportionately affected by caps for damages for lost wages. This means that these employees have less leverage to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with employers prior to trial because of the low risk to the employer of having to pay a significant judgment—if the employee prevails at trial. As a result, employers may have less incentive to adequately address discrimination against black employees.

The deep-seated flaws in our civil justice system cannot be ignored. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed by employers, legal professionals, and lawmakers. There needs to be a serious examination as to why black employees who have often been unlawfully excluded from the workplace are then again denied recourse through the legal system.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Phillis h. Rambsy is a partner with the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee. Her legal practice focuses on workplace law where she represents employees in matters of wrongful termination and employment discrimination including racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other family-care issues such as caring for a sick child or an elderly parent. To learn more, visit www.spigglelaw.com.

A governor just sued his own attorney general over LGBT employment protections

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

pphlnood_400x400The attorney general said he wasn’t going to stop blocking contracts unless he was sued, so the governor sued.

Louisiana’s governor just sued its attorney general over whether lawyers the state hires should be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people.

If that sounds odd, that’s because it is. And though there’s an easy moral answer to the conundrum, the legal answer might be far more complicated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) was elected last year to succeed Bobby Jindal (R). One of the first things he did when taking office was reverse Jindal’s anti-LGBT policies, including Jindal’s executive order allowing businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples without any consequence from the state. Edwards then issued his own executive order protecting state workers and contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It was nearly identical to President Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBT federal employees and contractors, as well as Louisiana gubernatorial executive orders protecting LGB state employees that were in place before Jindal rescinded them in 2008.

But despite both the state and federal precedent for such executive action, Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) wasn’t having it. Prompted by anti-LGBT lawmakers opposed to both Edwards’ executive order and the Obama administration’s guidance protecting transgender students, he issued an eight-page opinion in May declaring that neither was legally enforceable in the state.

“The brief answer is an Executive Order cannot expand or create state law,” Landry wrote. “‘Gender identity’ is not and has never been a legally protected class under state or federal anti-discrimination laws.” He insisted that the order protecting LGBT employees “should be interpreted as merely aspirational and without any binding legal effect.”

Even giving Landry the benefit of the doubt that he was just trying to check the power of the executive, his own anti-LGBT biases are not in doubt. He also said that the federal transgender guidance “creates an environment in which children may be more easily exposed to sexual predators.” Rules simply affirming transgender students’ identities “place the mental well-being and privacy rights of ninety-nine percent of Louisiana’s children at risk without any demonstrable evidence of benefit to the less than one percent of the population this policy purports to benefit.”

For the past four months, Landry and Edwards have engaged in this standoff, warring over state legal contracts. Edwards keeps including LGBT nondiscrimination language in proposed contracts with private lawyers, and Landry keeps blocking them specifically because of this language. He hasblocked at least 37 contracts, including 11 from the Department of Insurance. Defending his actions, Landry’s office has asserted, “The Attorney General requires antidiscrimination clauses in legal contracts to be written in conformity with State and Federal law, therefore, these provisions should not contain language exceeding what the law requires.”

Matthew Block, general counsel for the Edwards administration, explained last week that these blocked contracts are starting to have a big impact on the management of the state. “We have a lot of things that need to get attended to and we need to have people doing their work,” he told NOLA.com. “I have law firms not getting paid for the work that they are doing. I have law firms that are waiting around to start work.”

1-ttjhkebbo9sxiijhid_lyaSo on Friday, Edwards sued Landry in state court. At a press conference Friday, he was pretty blunt about the standoff. “He basically told me that if I wanted him to approve those contracts that I would have to sue him,” Edwards said. “So I’m obliging him on that.”

The lawsuit states that Landry “has refused to perform the ministerial task of approving private contracts and appointing private counsel for numerous executive agencies of the State.” He has “explicitly rejected most of the contracts on the grounds that the contracting attorneys should not have agreed not to discriminate in employment and the rendering of services” in accordance with the executive order. In other words, the lawyers who would be impacted by the LGBT protections have already agreed to them, but Landry has still denied the contracts because that language is in them.

The conflict is spurring some interesting political divisions. For example, Louisiana Senate President John Alario (R), voted against LGBT nondiscrimination protections in the legislature, but he told NOLA.com that he believes the governor isn’t overstepping his authority. It’s Landry, he said, who he thinks “is stepping out of bounds.”

Landry has stood by his actions, saying in an interview that he looks forward to “defending the legislature and their priorities and their wishes.” He added that he believes the protections create “additional liabilities and expenses for the state,” but refused to answer questions about his own position on protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

It will now be up to the state courts to resolve the conflict, or at least to interpret whether Landry is within his authority as attorney general to rebuff the executive order. It could, however, be the first time that a court weighs the validity of an executive order that protects workers from discrimination.

But Louisiana is hardly an outlier for the actions Edwards took. There are 12 other states that, through executive order or similar administrative regulation, extend employment protections to state employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity that exceed protections under state law. And of course, past Louisiana governors protected sexual orientation without having to sue their attorneys general to enforce them.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on October 5, 2016.
Reprinted with permission
.

Zack Ford is the LGBT Editor at ThinkProgress.org. Gay, Atheist, Pianist, Unapologetic “Social Justice Warrior.” Contact him at zford@thinkprogress.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.

 

House Republicans stand strong for anti-LGBT discrimination in the wake of Orlando shootings

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

LauraClawsonLGBT people may be able to marry, but in many states they can also be fired or not hired because they’re LGBT. And House Republicans are fighting to keep that from changing.

President Obama’s executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity went into effect in 2015. Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has been trying to get the House to pass an amendment backing up that executive order, but House Republicans are not having it. They’ve beenfighting to keep allowing employers to discriminate against LGBT workers even if they get federal money, and they’re not stopping now.

The House Rules Committee blocked Maloney’s amendment from getting a full House vote. Again, we’re talking about something saying that if you want federal money, you can’t discriminate. And context matters here:

Maloney argued that allowing a vote to prohibit discrimination in the workplace after the targeted attack on the gay nightclub would send a message of solidarity with the LGBT community.

“It’s hard to imagine that any act that is so horrific could lead to anything positive. But if we were going to do anything, it would be a very positive step to say that discrimination has no place in our law and to reaffirm the president’s actions in this area,” Maloney told The Hill. “Seems to me a pretty basic thing to do.”

Sorry, make that—context should matter here. But House Republicans have made it clear that there’s no context that would stop them from enabling discrimination.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos.com on June 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

New Research Meta-Analysis Makes Compelling Case For Nondiscrimination Protections

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Our guest blogger is Crosby Burns, Research Associate for LGBT Progress.

Today the Center for American Progress, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law released a comprehensive database of research documenting the immediate need for federal policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This database includes nearly 40 documents totaling 680 pages of research from the ACLU, the Center for American Progress, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Gay and Lesbian Task ForceFreedom To Work, and the Williams Institute.

The findings of the research contained in this database are consistent and conclusive: LGBT workplace discrimination is a pervasive and persistent problem that requires an immediate solution. Additionally, this research establishes a strong business case for workplace nondiscrimination laws and policies, examines the potential impact of an LGBT nondiscrimination executive order for federal contractors, and highlights strong public and voter support for workplace fairness.

Given these realities, Congress should pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and President Obama should sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies. These actions would bring quick relief to the hundreds of thousands of LGBT workers who face employment discrimination in our country today.

Nondiscrimination-Laws-Map

This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on May 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Starbucks Served Venti-Sized Discrimination Lawsuit

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Leah BraukmanTwenty-five year old Eli Pierre has only one full arm, but he says he’s never been told there was something he couldn’t do.

That is, until last month, when a San Diego, California Starbucks interviewed and then refused to hire him. Mr. Pierre is now suing the Seattle-based company in California state court alleging discrimination and wrongful failure to hire “despite his capable work history,” in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). He’s also claiming failure to prevent discrimination, to make reasonable accommodations, to engage in the interactive process in violation of FEHA, wrongful failure to hire in violation of public policy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

According to ABC News, Mr. Pierre, a former bartender, claims he wasn’t hired because he is missing half of his left arm, and that throughout his interview, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to work there – besides being teased about a previous job he’s held at Victoria’s Secret. (“Maybe he can help you find the right bra size”, the interviewer allegedly said to another Starbucks employee.)

A spokesperson for the coffeehouse chain contends that Mr. Pierre’s version of the interview is “vastly different” from what actually took place, and that he wasn’t hired because of his qualifications and answers to interview questions.

While ABC and the rest of the media provided plenty of information about Mr. Pierre’s lawsuit, it didn’t size up the strength of his claims. LASIS will.

ABC had what little law it did report, wrong. It stated that Mr. Pierre sued for discrimination in violation of the Federal Employment and Housing Act. Such a law doesn’t exist.

California has a state law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, that is more expansive than federal employment discrimination laws, and that is what Mr. Pierre is relying on.

FEHA prohibits an employer from either refusing to hire or for firing someone based on a physical disability, defined in part as any anatomical loss that affects a body system and limits a major life activity. Not having an arm certainly qualifies as a physical disability, but it hasn’t stopped Mr. Pierre from working, a major life activity under the Act. A former boss even told ABC that Mr. Pierre “can carry more than somebody…with two arms.”

Even so, Mr. Pierre is clearly disabled and his discrimination argument seems pretty solid. Especially if what he said of the interview is true. In a 2002 California Court of Appeals case, a man with a prosthetic leg sued the Los Angeles Police Department when he wasn’t hired as a police officer. The court found no discrimination because the man didn’t meet the physical requirements of the job. And this makes sense. It would be ineffective for a police officer with a prosthetic leg to chase after a fleeing suspect by scaling fences and jumping over obstacles.

It’s harder for Starbucks to argue that it requires both arms to pour coffee. On the other hand, doing some field research I watched the baristas make my drink at a local Starbucks recently, and using two hands surely helped them work as quickly as they did.

But the crux of Mr. Pierre’s argument isn’t that Starbucks should have hired him on the spot, it’s that it didn’t engage in the “interactive process” of identifying reasonable accommodations that would allow him to work there.

In 2008, the California Court of Appeals said an employer is liable if the workplace could be modified to allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the job. For Starbucks, it wouldn’t take much. The interviewer had told Mr. Pierre it would never work out for him at Starbucks because he wouldn’t be able to reach certain syrups while making the drinks. Well, one place for Starbucks to start in trying to accommodate Mr. Pierre would be to move the syrups within reach.

Mr. Pierre also claims that when Starbucks didn’t give him the job or explore any potential accommodations, it violated public policy. The California Court of Appeals recognizes this as a separate claim, but as violations of FEHA are automatically violations of public policy, Mr. Pierre will likely succeed on this public policy argument, as his discrimination claims are rather robust.

Aside from the alleged FEHA violations, Mr. Pierre is suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress. To win on an emotional distress claim, Mr. Pierre would have to prove that Starbucks’ conduct was “outrageous” and exceeded “all bounds…tolerated by a decent society.” In 2006, the California Court of Appeals ruled that unlawful discrimination doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful emotional distress claim. That’s not to say a Starbucks interviewer should have treated Mr. Pierre as he did, but what happened during the interview doesn’t amount to the extreme behavior the court is probably looking for.

As a frequent Starbucks customer, I was disappointed when I heard of these accusations, especially as this isn’t the first time the company has been accused of discrimination. Last year, a Starbucks employee with dwarfism was fired after asking for a stool or stepladder because, the company said, “she could be a danger to customers and workers.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for discrimination and Starbucks shelled out $75,000 to settle. I’ll keep going to Starbucks for now because I’m hooked. But if I hear of more offensive behavior like this, I might just try Dunkin’ Donuts instead.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke, a project of the  Law and Journalism track at New York Law School, on March 5, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Leah Braukman (2L) is first and foremost a proud graduate of the University of Florida — Go Gators!  While a “Gator” at heart, she is thrilled to be in New York City and studying law at New York Law School, and is equally excited about contributing to this blog. Leah is a member of Law Review, the Institute for Information Law and Policy, the Media Entertainment Fashion Law Association, and the Program in Law and Journalism.

Wisconsin Legislature Votes To Repeal Employment Discrimination Law

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Ian Millhiser Wisconsin prohibits employers from discriminating “on the basis of age, race, creed, color, disability, marital status, sex, national origin, ancestry, arrest record, conviction record, military service, use or nonuse of lawful products off the employer’s premises during nonworking hours, or declining to attend a meeting or to participate in any communication about religious matters or political matters,” and it ensures that this law has teeth by allowing victims of discrimination to hold their employers accountable in state court. That’s about to change, however, as the Wisconsin legislature recently voted to strip the state’s workers of their ability to actually enforce this law — leaving anti-worker Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) as the only obstacle to the law’s total repeal:

The Equal Pay Enforcement Act was meant to deter employers from discriminating by giving workers more avenues to press charges. Among other provisions, it allows individuals to plead their cases in the less costly, more accessible state circuit court system, rather than just in federal court.

In November, the state Senate approved (SB 202) rolling back this provision. On Wednesday, the Assembly did the same. Both were party-line votes. The legislation is now in the hands of Gov. Scott Walker (R). His office did not return a request for comment on whether the governor would sign it. . . .

Women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men make. In Wisconsin, it’s 75 cents, according to [the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health], which also estimates that families in the state “lose more than $4,000 per year due to unequal pay.”

Walker, of course, has no power to repeal federal law, so he cannot strip Wisconsin workers of their right to be free from race, gender and other forms of discrimination that are banned by national civil rights laws. Nevertheless, Wisconsin law provides additional protections, such as safeguards for people with criminal convictions, that are not available under federal law.

Moreover, as Amanda Terkel points out, Wisconsin state courts can enable victims of discrimination to receive swifter justice instead of waiting for an increasingly overburdened federal judiciary to act. And this problem is only likely to get worse as Walker’s political allies in the U.S. Senate wage an unprecedented campaign of obstruction against President Obama’s nominees to the federal bench.

It’s tough to imagine something more fundamental to a just society that a guarantee that employers will not discriminate, which is why it is so baffling why Wisconsin lawmakers do not believe that their state should protect against such discrimination.

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author’s and not views expressed by Today’s Workplace/Workplace Fairness.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the Guardian, the American Prospect and the Duke Law Journal; and he has been a guest on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Fox Business and many radio shows.

Companies Can’t Discriminate, But Their Managers Can: The Supreme Court Gives Wal-Mart the Win in Dukes Gender Discrimination Class Action Case

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Piper HoffmanToday the Supreme Court sounded the death knell for Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the class action lawsuit accusing Wal-Mart of paying and promoting women less than similarly- or less-qualified men. To protect corporations from having to do more to prevent gender discrimination than pop a few politically correct paragraphs into the employee handbook, the Supreme Court resorted to a belabored procedural argument that incentivizes corporations to do as little as possible to prevent discrimination. The five-Justice majority did not rule on whether or not Wal-Mart actually discriminates against women – they didn’t let the case get that far. Instead they shut it down by changing the rules of engagement.

One of the plaintiffs’ central arguments was that Wal-Mart has a policy of leaving promotion and pay decisions to the discretion of individual managers, and that these managers have made discriminatory decisions. If the women suing Wal-Mart had prevailed, every American employer would have been on notice that it is not enough to sit on their corporate hands and allow gender discrimination to take its natural course in this way. Instead they would have had to make it their business to ensure that their managers treated women fairly. But the Court didn’t want that, as the majority feels that “allowing discretion by local supervisors” is “a very common and presumptively reasonable way of doing business.” (In his opinion for the majority Justice Scalia also announces, without citing any evidence, that most managers work carefully to avoid discrimination in their pay and promotion decisions when left to their own devices. That makes it all the more puzzling why the higher one gets in the corporate hierarchy in the U.S., the fewer women there are.)

So the Supreme Court looked to procedure. To bring a case as a class action in federal court, the plaintiffs have to get permission from the judge to proceed as a class. This makes sense: you wouldn’t want someone to be able to file a lawsuit on your behalf without an objective outsider considering whether the lawsuit was in your interest and whether the person filing it would represent you well. To protect you from becoming part of a class action that doesn’t benefit you, plaintiffs have to persuade a judge that they satisfy the requirements of what is known as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 before their lawsuit can proceed as a class action.

One of Rule 23’s prerequisites is that “[o]ne or more members of a class may sue…as representative parties on behalf of all members only if there are questions of law or fact common to the class.” The Wal-Mart plaintiffs clearly alleged common questions of law or fact, including statistical evidence that Wal-Mart pays and promotes men more than women; Wal-Mart’s policy of leaving decisions regarding promotion and (within certain ranges) pay up to individual managers; evidence that Wal-Mart has a uniform corporate culture across its stores; and evidence that Wal-Mart’s culture fosters discrimination against women. These are precisely the kind of “common questions of law or fact” that courts routinely accept as satisfying the Rule 23 “commonality” prerequisite.

The Court used this previously clear “common questions of law or fact” requirement to thwart the Wal-Mart women by redefining the requirement beyond recognition. According to Justice Scalia, “common questions of law or fact” now means that plaintiffs must “demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury.” In no universe that I have visited do these two phrases require the same thing.

It’s not clear just how far the Court will take this bizarre new rule. Does “same injury” mean that the plaintiffs must show that every single class member was denied the exact same promotion? Or that each one was underpaid by the same amount? Scalia writes that it does mean that suffering “a violation of the same provision of law” won’t suffice as suffering the “same injury.” This is a remarkable and counterintuitive holding: after this ruling, a group cannot sue their joint employer for violating the same legal right for each one of them. Instead they have to prove that the legal violation harmed them in the same way. This is completely backwards: courts exist to redress violations of the law, regardless of whether those violations cause their victims to suffer in the same or different ways. It is thanks to this procedural backflip that Wal-Mart and other employers can now delegate their way out of being responsible for discrimination in their workplaces.

Arguably before Monday’s Dukes v. Wal-Mart decision, American employers were subject to legal liability if they delegated so much discretion to individual managers that those managers created a pattern of discriminating against women – at least, the four Justices in the minority believe that this was the law. Now employers have every incentive to take their hands off the reins and let managers make pay and promotion decisions based on whatever criteria they choose. This is a major loss for women, minorities, senior citizens, the disabled, and any other group that tends to get the short end of the stick in the workplace. The procedural manipulations required to reach this point have caused a major loss for any group of people that seeks to redress a legal violation through a class action: now each individual will have to pay for legal representation alone and probably forego evidence of violations against similarly situated people. Goliath has won, and it is every David for himself.

This blog originally appeared on PiperHoffman.com on June 21, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author: Piper Hoffman is a writer and employee-side employment lawyer. She holds degrees with honors from Harvard Law School and Brown University. Hoffman blogs regularly on law and social justice issues at piperhoffman.com.

Women, Black Workers Hard Hit by Attacks on Public Employees

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Credit: Joe Kekeris

The improved jobs figures out last Friday obscured the ongoing decline in public-sector jobs. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted when releasing the March unemployment data:

Employment in local government continued to trend down over the month. Local government has lost 416,000 jobs since an employment peak in September 2008.

The loss of such jobs is important because the nation’s well-being depends not only on job numbers increasing, but on the creation of quality jobs—those that pay decent wages and enable people to attain or maintain a middle-class life. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), the new jobs being created aren’t as good as the ones that have been lost. NELP found that jobs in lower wage industries, such as retail and food preparation, made up 23 percent of the jobs that were lost in the recent recession. Yet they made up 49 percent of the jobs the economy has gained in the past year. As the BBC Business puts it:

In other words, it appears that while people may finally be returning to work, they have to work for less pay.

In contrast, jobs in the public sector have provided such economic stability. They have also made it possible for some of the nation’s most economically marginalized—women and minorities—to achieve financial security often denied them in the private sector.

So attacks on public employees hit women and black workers especially hard.

Susan Feiner, professor of economics and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, writes that:

employees at the federal (43 percent female), state (53 percent female) and local (61 percent female) levels have been able to better resist the wage reductions, benefit cuts and mass lay-offs that giant multinational corporations have visited upon employees over the last decade.

Yet Feiner finds that “while women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession,”

women lost the vast majority—79 percent—of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.

Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, writes today about the striking results of his new research brief, Blacks and the Public Sector. In sum:

  • The public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.
  • During 2008-2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers were public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers.  Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.
  • The public sector is also a critical source of decent-paying jobs for black worker.  For both men and women, the median wage earned by black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.
  • Prior to the recession, the wage differential between black and white workers was less in the public sector than in the overall economy.

As California Progress Report writes:

For blacks and others, “the best anti-poverty program is union organizing,” the UC Berkeley Labor Center notes on its website.”

And so moves by Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio to shred the ability of public employees to bargain for a decent middle-class life are also specifically targeting the ability of women and black workers to remain in the economic mainstream.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (she was represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

This blog originally was post on AFL-CIO on April 5, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Firing Because Of Bankruptcy Is Illegal

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Employee Terminated Because Of Bankruptcy Gets Right To Trial In Federal Court

I must admit that I don’t ever remember seeing a case involving bankruptcy discrimination — so when I ran across a recent federal court case out of Florida on the subject, it struck me as one well worth talking about.

The case,  Myers v. TooJay’s Management Corporation, is important because there are so few cases on the topic and because bankruptcy affects so many people. The case also highlights some flaws in the statute which could really use a Congressional fix.

What Happened In The Case

Plaintiff Eric Myers filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January of 2008. Around the same time, Myers moved his family to Florida to live with his parents. His debts were fully discharged in May of 2008.

At some point, Myers heard about an opening at one of Defendant TooJay’s restaurants in Sumter County, Florida for a management position.  He called the company contact, Tom Thornton, about the position. Thornton interviewed Myers and the interview went well.

Myers was then scheduled for a two day on the job evaluation which was held at on July 31st and August 1st. During those two days, for which he was paid,  Myers shadowed various employees.became familiar with restaurant procedures.

At the end of the second day, Thornton told Myers that he had performed well and according to Myers, offered him a job.  He was told that he was supposed to start work on August 18, 2008 at a salary of between $50,000 and $55,000 for a 40 hour week.

Thornton contended that he never told Myers he was officially hired, never discussed hours, salary, or a start date.

Thornton contended  he told Myers that any offer of employment was contingent on a background check.

There was no dispute that Thornton photocopied Myers’ drivers license and social security card and had Myers complete and sign several employment forms including :

  • an IRS withholding W-4 form
  • an order form for TooJay’s uniform and shoes
  • a food employee reporting agreement
  • an assistant manger trade secret non-disclosure agreement
  • an I-9 employment eligibility verification form.

Thornton also gave Myers a copy of TooJay’s employee handbook and sexual harassment policy, and directed Myers to sign forms indicating that he received copies. On each form, Myers signed in the blank listed for “employee signature.

Myers was also asked to sign a document which permitted TooJay to conduct a background check and consumer credit report check.

After that, Myers notified his then employer that he was resigning so that he could start at TooJay’s.

A little more than a week later, Myers received a letter from TooJay’s stating that it was rescinding its previous offer of employment because of the credit report. He called the Vice President of Human Resources and was told that he was not hired because he had filed for bankruptcy and that TooJay’s, as a matter of corporate policy, did not hire individuals who had a bankruptcy on their credit report.

Myers went back to his prior employer and asked for his job back but it was too late. His work hours had already been distributed to other employees, and he was told that he could only be rehired at a reduced schedule.

According to Myers no one told him that his employment at TooJay’s was contingent on a satisfactory credit report.

Myers filed a complaint in the United States District Court in Florida claiming bankruptcy discrimination in violation of 11 U.S.C s. 525(b).

Issues In The Case

The defendant TooJay filed a motion for summary judgment asking that the case be thrown out on the grounds that:

  • the statute only applied to discrimination after an employee was hired
  • the statute did not prohibit bankruptcy discrimination with respect to hiring decisions
  • Myers was never hired so the statute did not apply

Myers argued that:

  • the statue applied to hiring decisions in which an employer refused to hire an individual because of bankruptcy
  • the statute applied because Myers had been offered employment,
  • he accepted the offer and was terminated because of the bankruptcy
The Court’s Decision

The Failure To Hire Claim

The Court analyzed Section 525 of the Bankruptcy Code which protects individuals from discrimination. 

For whatever reason, there are two different standards in these bankruptcy discriminaion statutes– one for governmental employees [s.525(a)] and one for private employees [s.525 (b)] – and they are different.

The language of the statute regarding governmental employees states that the government :

[M]ay not . .. deny employment to, terminate the employment of, or discriminate with respect to employment against a person that is or has been a debtor under this title or a bankrupt or a debtor under the Bankruptcy Act or another person with whom such bankrupt has been associated . . .

Section 525 (b) was enacted several years later. It applies to private employers. Peculiarly, while the topic is the same, the language is different. It states that:

No private employer may terminate the employment of, or discriminate with respect to employment against an individual who is or has been a debtor under this title, a debtor or bankrupt under the bankruptcy Act, or an individual associated with such debtor or bankrupt,….

As the statutory language set forth above indicates, the section pertaining to government employees prohibits an employer from “denying employment” to a person because of bankruptcy.

The section pertaining to private employers does not contain a similar provision.

Therefore, according to the Court,  the section which applies to private employees only prohibits discrimination because of bankruptcy to those already employed.

If Congress intended a different result, the Court reasoned, it would have chosen different words in the statute. (as the opinion points out, only one court has reached a contrary result)

As the opinion states:

Thus by its plain language, the statute does not provide a cause of action against private employers for persons who are denied employment due to their bankrupt status….

In the absence of strong indicia of a contrary congressional intent, [a court should ] conclude that Congress provided precisely the remedies it considered appropriate.

Summary judgment was granted for the defendant TooJay on Myers discriminatory hiring claim.

The Termination Claim

Both parties agreed that terminating an individual’s employment because of bankruptcy status violates 11 U.S.C.s. 525(b).

Meyers argued that an employment relationship with TooJay’s was created on July 31 and August, 1, 2008.  When TooJay rescinded its offer of employment, Meyers claimed, it fired him solely because of his prior bankruptcy in violation of the statute.

TooJay contended that an employment relationship was never created.

The Court found that based on the evidence presented,  the jury could determine that an employment relationship was created.  Important to the Court was proof that:

  • Thornton made Myers an unconditional offer of employment
  • The parties finalized all key employment terms, such as start date, hours of operation,job duties,and salary
  • Myers signed numerous employee-related forms and received a copy of the handbook
  • Myers  actually worked for TooJay’s for two day.

On the other hand, as the Court pointed out TooJay presented evidence through Thornton’s testimony that:

  • Myers was never employed by TooJay’s and that
  • only a conditional offer of employment was made — contingent on a clean background and credit check.

Based on the record and the “material facts in dispute” TooJay’s motion for summary judgment was denied.  Meyers won his right to have a jury hear his claim.

Conclusion

It’s important for all employers to know that it’s illegal to terminate an individual because of an individual’s bankruptcy status.

Hiring decisions are more problematic. Government employers can’t refuse to hire a candidate because of bankruptcy. Private employers, according to most courts, are not covered by the bankruptcy statute with respect to offers of employment.  This makes no sense.

In light of today’s economy, with so many Americans sadly having to declare bankruptcy, these statues should be reconciled so that they are consistent.

All employers should be prohibited from discriminating against individuals due to bankruptcy with respect to all aspects of employment. Congress should amend the language of S. 525(b) so that private employers can’t refuse to hire someone because of bankruptcy.

After all, aren’t these the folks who desperately need to work and earn some income? Isn’t this why we have bankruptcy discrimination laws?

image: newzar.files.wordpress.com

www.floridabeerfestivals.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on December 15, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

Great Disability Rights Opinion From Seventh Circuit For Employees And Their Lawyers

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Employee With MS Wins Appeal In Seventh Circuit “Regarded As” Disability Decision

A case was decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week that was an important victory for the employee as well as his lawyers.

In Brunker v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. the Court reversed judgment in favor of Schwan’s on Brunker’s disability claim. It also reversed the lower court’s testy imposition of sanctions against Brunker’s lawyers.

What Happened In The Case.

Frank Brunker worked as a delivery driver for Schwan’s delivering frozen food to its customers. In February of 2003, Brunker started experiencing shaking of his hands, slurred speech, dizziness, light headedness, and headaches.

The symptoms continued, Brunker went to the doctor, tests were taken, and Brunker was told that he might have multiple sclerosis.

Brunker went on disability leave for two months. Eventually, he went back to light duty work, and then back to work without any restrictions by his physician. He performed his job and was able to complete his route in the same manner as he had in the past.

Four months later, Brunker told his supervisor that he wanted to go to the Mayo Clinic for some tests. Around the same time, he stared to get written up for various performance issues.

When Brunker returned two weeks later, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his supervisor fired him citing “unsatisfactory performance” and “unable to perform essential job functions” on the termination form.

(Notably, Brunker’s supervisor backdated the termination form to September 9, the day Brunker left for the clinic and before his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.)

Brunker filed a claim in federal court for disability discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lower court (N.D. Indiana) threw out the case and in an unusual move, sanctioned Brunker’s lawyers because of their discovery requests (attempts to get evidence to prove their case).

The Seventh Circuit Reverses

It would be tempting to go in to all of the reasons why the lower court’s opinion was just flat out wrong, but some of them don’t matter anymore since the Americans With Disabilities Act was amended to prevent precisely this result.

Multiple Sclerosis Is A Disability

The first part of the lower court’s ruling pronounced that Brunker had no claim because he was not disabled. In other words, the fact that he had multiple sclerosis didn’t matter, according to the court — even if that’s why he was fired — because MS was not a disability.

The court’s logic was based on case law developed under the ADA which left millions of people with disabilities unprotected from employment discrimination.

Fortunately,  the ADA was amended this past year. Under the new act, multiple sclerosis would be considered a disability (and should have been under the old act as well) so a judge theoretically should not be able to throw the case out on similar grounds. (the court did not address the amended ADA because the case was filed before it was passed)

(For information on new regulations proposed under the amended ADA see the article in the Connecticut Employment Law Blog)

Being Regarded As Disabled Is A Violation Of The ADA

Under the ADA (both the old act and the new one) a person has a claim for disability discrimination if he or she is subjected to an adverse employment decision because he or she is regarded as disabled.

To prove disability discrimination under a “regarded as” theory the employee can win by proving that:

  • The employer mistakenly believes that the employee has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or
  • The employer mistakenly believes that an existing impairment, which is not actually limiting, does substantially limit a major life activity (functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working)

In this case, the Court of Appeals decided that Brunker presented enough evidence that he was fired because Schwan’s regarded him as being disabled. In reversing the lower court, the Court of Appeals stated:

The record contains adequate evidence to support a theory that Schwan’s regarded Brunker as being disabled in the major life activities of walking, caring for himself, and speaking.

For example, the day before he left for the Mayo Clinic, Schwan”s issued Brunker multiple corrective action reports, including a dress code violation, suggesting that Schwan’s did not believe that Brunker was able to care for himself because of his apparent conditions.

Furthermore, Schwan’s disciplined him even though other employees were not cited for similar violations.

As to Schwan’s motive, the Court of Appeals had this to say:

Schwan’s fired Brunker immediately after he returned from treatment, but Schwan’s backdated the termination notice to before he left for the clinic, evidently hoping to avoid the impression that his apparent condition influenced Schwan’s decision to terminate him.

These facts are sufficient to create a triable question as to whether Schwan’s regarded Bunker as disabled when it fired him.

The Court Reverses Sanctions Against The Lawyers

It’s typical in these kinds of lawsuits for lawyers representing employees to request documents from the employer defendant to either prove their case  or disprove the defendant’s case. It not only typical; it is absolutely allowed the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In what I can only say is a quirky, outlandish, and mean-spirited ruling, the trial court in this case imposed sanctions on Brunker’s lawyers because they pressed to get the information they believed necessary to properly represent their client.

For example, the lawyers asked for records on whether Schawn disciplined other employees who failed to follow its dress code or to keep accurate route books (some of the reasons give for the discharge).

A request to see co-employees personnel files in order to prove unequal  treatment or whether what the company is stating is true (pretext) is quite standard, but in this case the lawyers were sanctioned for making it.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the information was relevant to Brunker’s disparate treatment claim since it related to the even handedness of the company’s expectations.

The Court also criticized the company’s lawyers for refusing to produce the requested documents and then using them to support their defense.

The Court said:

Indeed Schwan’s went further than merely raising an issue it had previously argued was irrelevant.

It faulted Brunker for failing to identify any route manager who had “similar performance issues” and was treated more favorably.

And Schwan’s also discussed the route manager who was terminated for failing to service customers, despite Schwan’s successful opposition to Brunker’s request for his personnel file.

Similarly,  Schwan denied the relevance of the personnel file of another former employee, Mike Devereaux, but then used parts of that file in the summary judgment reply.

Through its actions, Schwan’s concedes that the bulk Brunker’s requests were substantially justified. We therefore vacate the award of sanctions.

Conclusion

This case is a great win for both Mr. Brunker and his lawyers. He obviously had grounds to bring a case claiming that he was terminated because of his disability – and every right to have that case heard by a jury.

As far as the lawyers go, it’s always very difficult to get companies to produce the documents we need to prove our cases. Companies control the records in these cases and they do not give them up easily even when they are plainly relevant.

At the same time there is no doubt that lawyers representing employees have to get those documents both to support our clients claims and test the employers’ defenses. It’s simply a battle that must be fought.

The fact that these lawyers were punished for doing what they needed to do for proper representation of their client is plainly wrong. Fortunately, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

images: www.pocketyourdollars.com bowtielaw.files.wordpress.com

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on November 1, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome

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