Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Seventh Circuit’

Time’s Up: Time to Reconsider the “Severe and Pervasive” Standard for Sexual Harassment

Friday, March 8th, 2019

“The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements constitute a revolution in women’s rights that is too powerful to be turned back,” said Roberta Kaplan, co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, in October 2018. But a recent Seventh Circuit decision (Swyear v. Fare Foods Corp.) dismissing an employee’s sexual harassment claim could jeopardize the momentum of the revolution.

On June 18, 2015, Fare Foods interviewed Amy Swyear for an outside sales representative position. During the interview, a hiring manager remarked that most of the other outside sales reps were men. He questioned Swyear about her ability to perform in a male-dominated field. The manager’s comments only hinted at what Fare Foods had in store for Swyear.

At the office, Swyear frequently overheard her new coworkers making crude sexual remarks and referring to female customers as “Cunty” and “Big Tittie.” Working in the field proved to be worse. In mid-July, Swyear and another sales representative, Russell Scott, attended an out-of-town overnight business trip. During a conversation with the client, Scott falsely implied that he and Swyear were sharing a hotel room.  At the hotel, Scott followed Swyear into her room and suggested that they have dinner together. Scott followed Swyear into her room without consent, got in her bed and said he wanted a “cuddle buddy.” He asked Swyear to go “skinny dipping” with him and put his hands on her lower back and arms. Scott eventually left Swyear’s hotel room, but he later returned. Swyear pretended to be in the shower and ignored Scott’s knocking. But Scott would not relent. He repeatedly called Swyear’s cell phone, demanding to enter her room.

Swyear reported Scott’s harassment during a performance meeting about one week later. Less than one month after the meeting, Fare Foods terminated Swyear’s employment.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that the harassment was not sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment and entered summary judgment for Fare Foods. The court forgave the “crude,” “immature,” and “vulgar” sexual comments because they were “off-hand” and not directed at Swyear. Similarly, Judge Bauer, writing for the court, excused Scott’s unwelcome sexual comments, advances, and touching because it occurred just once. The court’s decision indicates that, absent physical sexual assault, an employee cannot meet his/her burden to show a ‘severe and pervasive’ hostile work environment.

Essentially, the court’s decision gives employers a free pass for egregious sexual misconduct, as long as it only happens once. But one time is one too many. The #MeToo movement has helped thousands of sexual harassment victims get justice against their harassers. Unfortunately for Amy Swyear, the Seventh Circuit has yet to realize the effects of the movement. But worse, it may have set a dangerous precedent for future sexual harassment claims.

About the Author: Krista Wallace is an Associate Attorney at Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C. in Washington, D.C. Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C., has partnered with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to represent private and public-sector workers in federal court proceedings and before administrative agencies.

Federal appeals court holds workers can’t be fired for being gay

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

With a lopsided majority joined by a bipartisan coalition of judges, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held on Tuesday that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates federal civil rights law, at least in the context of the workplace.

The court telegraphed in an order last October that Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College was likely to be a victory for victims of discrimination in the workplace. The final vote in the case, however, is a bit more surprising.

Eight of the Seventh Circuit’s judges joined Tuesday’s opinion, including Republican appointees Richard Posner, Joel Flaum, Frank Easterbrook, Ilana Rovner, and Kenneth Ripple. Only three judges dissented.

The case involves Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of an employee’s “sex.” Though Title VII contains no explicit statement that discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” is prohibited, two crucial Supreme Court precedents inform Chief Judge Diane Wood’s majority opinion in Hively.

The first is Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which established that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination is violated when an employee faces discrimination due to gender stereotyping. Thus, in that case, a female accountant could allege illegal discrimination if she was denied a partnership because her superiors deemed her too masculine. (One partner told her to take “a course at charm school.” Another deemed her too “macho.”)

One of the the core insights of Chief Judge Wood’s decision in Hively is that, because she is a lesbian, “Hively represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype.” Stereotypical women enter into romantic and sexual partnerships with men. Hively defies this stereotype by engaging in such relationships with women. So presuming that she must prefer relations with men is itself a form of gender stereotyping forbidden by Hopkins.

Wood’s opinion also offers several other reasons why sexual orientation discrimination should be understood as a form of sex discrimination. Indeed, as Wood explains, this case is actually pretty straightforward. “Hively alleges that if she had been a man married to a woman (or living with a woman, or dating a woman) and everything else had stayed the same, Ivy Tech would not have refused to promote her and would not have fired her,” Wood writes. If this claim proves to be true, then it “describes paradigmatic sex discrimination.”

In reaching this conclusion, Wood acknowledges that the lawmakers who drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 probably did not expect it to be used this way. But the conclusion that Title VII can be read more expansively than its drafters anticipated was embraced by Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion for the Supreme Court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services.

Oncale was a case of male-on-male sexual harassment, something that, as Scalia wrote, “was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII.” But so what?

As Scalia explained, “statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

A prohibition on discrimination “because of . . . sex” was expansive enough to cover male-on-male sexual harassment in Oncale. And it is big enough to encompass discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. So holds the Seventh Circuit in Hively.

As Wood notes in her opinion, “for many years, the courts of appeals of this country understood the prohibition against sex discrimination to exclude discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.” Hively is now an outlier, and the Supreme Court typically takes up cases where the federal appeals courts disagree. It is all but certain to take up this case.

That means the fate of gay and bisexual workers is likely to rest with Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often provides the fifth vote in favor of gay rights. Whether Kennedy does so in this case remains to be seen—though the lopsided vote in Hively should be an encouraging sign for supporters of LGBT rights.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on April 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor at ThinkProgress. He is a skeptic of the Supreme Court, hater of Samuel Alito, and a constitutional lawyer of ill repute. Contact him at  imillhiser@thinkprogress.org.

Employee Rights Short Takes: Hostile Work Environment, GINA, FMLA And More

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Here are a few Short Takes worth sharing:

Sex Bias Case Ends With Huge Punitive Damages Award

The drug maker Novartis was hit with $250 million in punitive damages last week because of discrimination against thousands of female sales representatives. Issues involved discrimination in pay, promotion and pregnancy. The punitive damages award represented 2.6 of the company’s 2009 $9.5 billion revenue. Earlier in the week, the jury awarded $3.3 million dollars in compensatory damages to 12 of the women who testified. The case is reported to be the largest discrimination verdict ever.

Genetics Discrimination

Complaints were filed against MX Energy, a Connecticut natural gas retailer, under Title II of  Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), which prohibits genetic information discrimination in employment. The new federal law took effect on November 21, 2009.

GINA prohibits discrimination against employees or applicants because of genetic information. GINA also restricts acquisition of genetic information by employers and other entities covered by Title II, and strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information.

The charging party Pamela Fink, claims that her employer fired her, despite years of glowing evaluations, after learning she tested positive for the breast cancer gene. Fink filed complaints against her employer with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. About 90 GINA-related complaints have been filed nationwide since the law went into effect. This should be an interesting case to follow. For more about genetic discrimination, read here.

Rights Of Undocumented Workers

With all the talk about illegal immigration, one might wonder what the rights are of the over eight million undocumented workers in this country. Carolina Nunez, a law professor at Brigham Young University’s Reuben Clark Law School, wrote an interesting article about the topic which you can read here. The piece appeared in the Spring 2010 issue  of the Clark Memorandum, a publication of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Should undocumented workers enjoy the same workplace protections that authorized workers enjoy? When and how much should immigration status matter? Does being here count for anything? It is no surprise that the answers are less than clear.

Recent Cases Of Interest From The Circuits

Plaintiff Wins FMLA Appeal: In Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Dorothy Goelzer was fired from her administrative job with the county government after 20 years. Her supervisor told her about the termination decision two weeks before she was scheduled to begin two months of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Goelzer had taken a significant amount of authorized FMLA during the four preceding years to deal with her own health issues as well as those of her husband and mother. The defendants claimed she was fired because they wanted to hire someone with a “greater skill set.” The district court granted judgment against Goelzer.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this month stating that comments suggesting frustration with her use of leave, Goelzer’s favorable performance reviews, and the timing of her termination could lead a jury to conclude that Goelzer was fired because she exercised her right to take FMLA. This is a very good case for those who are claiming an interference or retaliation claim under the FMLA.

Employers Liable For Third Party Harassment: In Beckford v. Department of Corrections, Melanie Beckford, and thirteen other female employees, claimed that the Florida Department of Corrections failed to remedy the sexually offensive conduct of inmates  — including the frequent use of gender-specific abusive language and pervasive gunning, the notorious practice of inmates openly masturbating toward female staff. The jury found in favor the plaintiffs and awarded each $45,000 in damages.

The Department appealed and contended that it could not be liable under Title VII unless its staff actively encouraged or participated in the harassment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the verdict and concluded that the jury was entitled to find the Department liable because it unreasonably failed to remedy the sexual harassment by its inmates. The Court said:

It is well established that employers may be liable for failing to remedy the harassment of employees by third parties who create a hostile environment. …It makes no difference whether the person whose acts are complained of is an employee, an independent contractor, or for that matter a customer.

Employees are often harassed at work by individuals who are not employees. This case, which holds that employers are liable for harassment by third parties, is an important affirmation of this particular aspect of employer liability under Title VII.

images: www.hivplusmag.com charityrisk.squarespace.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

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