Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Title VII’

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.

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.

Federal judge concludes transgender worker can sue for sex discrimination

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

A federal court in Kentucky is allowing a transgender workplace discrimination suit to proceed, recognizing that mistreatment in regards to gender identity constitutes illegal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Plaintiff Mykel Mickens sued General Electric Appliances (GE) for harassment and disparate treatment in the workplace. He was not permitted to use the men’s restroom, so he had to use a facility much farther away from his work station, and he was then disciplined for how long his breaks were to accommodate that journey. Mickens also had a conflict with an employee, but though GE addressed a complaint one of his white, female colleagues had with that employee, his complaint went unaddressed. He says that when he disclosed that he was transgender to his supervisor, he was singled out and reprimanded for conduct no one else was reprimanded for, and when he reported the harassment, GE said there was nothing it could do.

Federal Chief Judge Joseph McKinley, a Clinton appointee, concluded that there was significant evidence to bring a discrimination case for race and gender discrimination. He agreed there is precedent that punishing an employee for failing to conform to gender stereotypes can qualify as gender discrimination under Title VII. “Significantly,” he wrote, “Plaintiff alleges that GE both permitted continued discrimination and harassment against him and subsequently fired him because he did not conform to the gender stereotype of what someone who was born female [sic] should look and act like.”

McKinley noted that several court cases, including G.G. v. Glouchester County School Board?—?currently before the Supreme Court?—?could impact future trans discrimination suits. In the meantime, however, “what is clear is that the Plaintiff’s complaint sufficiently alleges facts to support discrimination or disparate treatment claims based upon race and gender non-conformity or sex stereotyping.”

GE did not comment directly on the suit but reaffirmed in a statement its commitment to “creating, managing and valuing diversity in our workforce” and “ensuring that our workplace is free from harassment.”

McKinley’s ruling isn’t an automatic victory for Mickens, but it is a sign of progress for those seeking the justice system’s protection for discrimination against transgender people.

Just last week, a transgender man in Louisiana won his discrimination complaint against his employer through arbitration. Tristan Broussard involuntarily resigned from the financial services company he worked for when he was intolerably forced to “act and dress only as a female.” He was awarded more than a year’s salary as well as additional damages for emotional distress.

The Obama administration has extended protections to transgender people in various ways, including advocating for their civil rights in employment discrimination cases. Many advocates worry the Trump administration will roll back these protections and abandon support for these plaintiffs, if not take an antagonistic position against their discrimination claims.

A recent massive survey of transgender people found that 16 percent had lost a job due to being transgender, and 27 percent had either been fired, denied a promotion, or not been hired due to being transgender.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on December 13, 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.

Second Class Citizenship for Older Workers

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Patricia Barnes

There is little cause for celebration as the Age Discrimination Against Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) approaches its fiftieth birthday.

The law has failed to prevent widespread discrimination against older workers. It was weak and riddled with loopholes to begin with and has since been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Moreover, the problem is virtually ignored by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which received almost 21,296 age discrimination complaints in 2013 and filed seven lawsuits with ADEA claims.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I argue that catch-phrases like “long-term unemployment” and “early retirement” hide epidemic age discrimination in the workplace. Older workers have no real recourse to combat age discrimination in the federal court system due to the ineffectiveness of the ADEA, and general hostility toward employment discrimination claims.

When the ADEA was enacted most workers were subjected to mandatory retirement at age 65 and job advertisements routinely stated that older workers need not apply.

Over the years, the ADEA eliminated mandatory retirement for all but a few categories of workers. However, older workers today are routinely forced out of the workplace by cost-conscious employers using strategic layoffs and dismissals. This is possible because in 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins that a company could dismiss an older worker shortly before his pension was about to vest because the employer was motivated by cost savings and not age discrimination.

More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court make it virtually impossible for a worker to win an ADEA lawsuit. In Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., the Court in 2009 raised the level of proof in ADEA cases far above that required under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin and religion. Congress could have re-established parity between the ADEA and Title VII by passing the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act but has not bothered to do so.

Many employment law attorneys will not take cases involving age discrimination to federal court because they know the chances of prevailing are slim to non-existent.

Perhaps the most obvious failure of the ADEA is in the area of hiring discrimination. Many employers completely disregard the ADEA prohibition against using job advertisements that indicate “any preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination, based on age.” Even the U.S. government routinely advertises for “recent graduates.”

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2010 that permits federal agencies to bypass older workers and hire “recent graduates.” Of course, the vast majority of recent graduates are under the age of 30. Obama’s justification for his order was that the government was at a “competitive disadvantage” in recruiting recent graduates during the worst recession in a hundred years. Really?

Victims of age discrimination have tried to fight discriminatory state and federal actions under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution only to hit a brick wall. The U.S. Supreme Court accords age discrimination its lowest level of scrutiny – rational basis review – which is far below that accorded to race and sex discrimination claims.

In my book, I argue that it’s time for Congress to do what it should have done almost 50 years ago – include age as a protected class under Title VII. And then let’s start enforcing our nation’s anti-discrimination laws as if they really mattered.

Age discrimination is every bit as harmful and damaging to individuals and American society as any other type of illegal discrimination. There is no moral or legal justification for treating older workers like second-class citizens. If an older worker is not capable of adequately performing a job, that worker should be treated like any other worker in that circumstance.

This originally was written on September 22, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Patricia G Barnes  is an attorney, judge and the author of several books, including a leading book on workplace bullying, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace. She writes a syndicated blog about employment discrimination, bullying and abuse called When the Abuser Goes to Work  at abusergoestowork.com. She is a consultant for both workers and employers in addressing problems related to workplace abuse.

Court Says Lactation Is Related to Pregnancy, Refrains From Saying, "Duh"

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Donna photo redwrote about a really stupid case out of Texas where a federal court said that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” and thus decided that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”  I was irked, to say the least. Lactation not related to pregnancy and childbirth? Really?

Well, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals which, to its credit, refrained from saying, “Well, duh,” has unanimously ruled that lactation is, indeed, related to pregnancy and is therefore covered by Title VII. EEOC reports this about the decision: “The Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.  Accordingly, under Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination, since men as a matter of biology could not be fired for such a reason. The case was remanded back to the lower court for a trial on the merits.”

Personally,  I think the 5th Circuit should be applauded, not only for its common sense, but for the fact that it did not openly mock the lower court’s ruling. I wouldn’t have had that much self-control.

I should also point out that almost all employers are required to provide nursing mothers with break time to pump breast milk, along with a private space that isn’t the restroom to do so.The Fair Labor Standards Act requires this, so employers who fire moms for lactating may also run afoul of this law, even if they aren’t large enough to be covered by Title VII.

I rarely get to say this, so: Hooray for common sense in the courts!

This article was originally posted on Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home on September 27, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Donna Ballman‘s new book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, was recently named the Winner of the Law Category of the 2012 USA Best Books Awards and is currently available for purchase. She is the award-winning author of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She’s been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, was named one of the 2011 and 2012 ABA Blawg 100 best legal blogs and the 2011 Lexis/Nexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Law Blogs.

She has written for AOL Jobs and The Huffington Post on employment law issues, and has been an invited guest blogger for Monster.com and Ask A Manager. She has over 6000 followers on Twitter as @EmployeeAtty. She has taught continuing legal education classes for lawyers and accountants through organizations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association, Sterling Education Services, Lorman Education Services, Alison Seminars, the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, and community organizations.  Ms. Ballman has published articles on employment law topics such as severance, non-compete agreements, discrimination, sexual harassment, and avoiding litigation. She’s been interviewed by MSNBC, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Lifetime Television Network, the Daily Business Review, and many other media outlets on employment law issues. She was featured on the Forbes Channel’s “America’s Most Influential Women” program on the topic of severance negotiations and non-compete agreements.

EEOC loses battle (but not war) on discriminatory background checks

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Christian SchreiberWhen it dismissed a federal lawsuit last week, the U.S. District Court for Maryland made it even harder for workers with poor credit histories and past criminal convictions to find a job.  Civil rights advocates hope the decision is not a bellwether for similar cases pending around the country.

The lawsuit, brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged Freeman, a privately-held event-management company, with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through its use of credit and criminal background checks.  According to the EEOC’s complaint, the employer’s decision to use background checks to screen out job applicants amounted to discrimination because it disproportionately impacted African-American and male job applicants.

Freeman’s hiring process involved detailed inquiries into both the applicant’s credit histories and criminal backgrounds.  Freeman “regularly ran credit checks for 44 job titles,” and excluded all applicants from certain positions who met any of 12 different categories of purported credit-unworthiness.  Even common credit blemishes, such as credit card charge-offs, medical liens, unpaid student loans, or foreclosures would result in the applicant being rejected.

The Freeman court joined the chorus of employers extolling what some consider the “common sense” of performing credit and criminal background checks.    These proponents also ignore the studies demonstrating that credit problems do not predict employee performance, as well as those that document atrocious error rates on credit checks.   A report released by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year found that a quarter of consumers identified errors on their credit report that might affect their credit scores.

In 2011, California limited the use of credit checks in employment.  After three prior attempts were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the bill was itself an object lesson in persistence.  However, the law also established broad exceptions to the “prohibition” on employment-related credit checks, effectively blessing their use across jobs and industries where the need or utility has never been demonstrated.

In addition to the credit-check hurdle, Freeman’s standard employment application form asked, “Have you ever pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of, a criminal offense?”  Applicants were told certain convictions would not be considered in the hiring process (yeah, right), but the company acknowledged a “bright-line rule” that disqualified any applicant who “failed to disclose a conviction, seriously misrepresented the circumstances of a criminal offense, or made any other materially dishonest statement on the application.”

In June, the EEOC filed two similar complaints against Dollar General Corp and BMW, alleging that the companies’ use of criminal background checks resulted in a disparate impact against African-American job applicants.  Referred to as “disparate impact” cases, these types of challenges stand or fall on the persuasiveness of the parties’ statistical evidence.  In the EEOC v. Freeman case, the court let loose on the EEOC’s expert, excoriating his methodology and ultimately calling his findings “an egregious example of scientific dishonesty.” (Ouch.)  Though it may be possible to blunt the impact of Freeman simply by putting on better statistical evidence, the decision nonetheless entrenches practical misconceptions and legal standards that are hostile to workers.

These cases are being watched closely by consumer and civil rights advocates, who still hold out hope that the EEOC’s oversight of these employment policies will curtail the increasing use of background checks to screen out applicants.   Advocates hope Freeman doesn’t signal that more bad news lies ahead.

This article originally appeared on CELA Voice on August 19, 2013.  Re-posted with permission. 

About the Author: Christian Schreiber is an active member of the California Employment Lawyers Association, where he serves on CELA’s Legislative Committee and Wage and Hour Committee.  He is also a member of the American Constitution Society, the Public Justice Foundation, and the Consumer Attorneys of California. Mr. Schreiber received his B.A. from UCLA in 1996.

Workplace Bullying vs. Workplace Harassment: Is There a Difference?

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Teresa Zerilli-EdelglassBack when my workplace nightmare first began in 1992, during an 11-year tenure at New York City Transit that ended in termination on the heels of a hard-fought federal court victory, there was no such thing as “workplace bullying”.  Bullying – or at least the term – was reserved for what one mean-spirited kid did to another in the schoolyard.  However, “bullying” has now become the catch phrase for every mean-spirited act that one human being commits against another, whether in the workplace or the schoolyard — or just about anywhere!

Just at the time when I was finally beginning to realize my American Dream, the harassment began. Over time, with no help in sight, it escalated to epic proportions, causing debilitating mental illness that would eventually render me incapacitated.  What I experienced back then was characterized as “harassment”. Today, this same treatment has evolved into “workplace bullying”, though legally speaking, it is still called harassment.  (Unless I’ve missed something, I’ve never heard of anyone filing a “workplace bullying” claim.) Still, if one is harassed, he is being bullied.  But are these terms legally interchangeable?  Is it just semantics that separates them?  Or do they, in fact, have different meanings.

We have traditionally associated workplace harassment with the unlawful behavior described under the various acts created by Congress to protect workers from unfair employment practices.  Legislative measures (such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) exist to protect workers from discrimination against age, gender, race/color, religion, national origin, disability, genetic information, pregnancy, and compensation.  It also prohibits sexual harassment and retaliation.  While this might sound like a fairly inclusive body of protection, do these seemingly well-intentioned laws really cover everything?  Should protection be afforded only to these “protected classes” for the specific violations they are designed to address?

The short answer: no.

An obvious gaping hole in employment law still remains; the door is wide open for a cornucopia of offenses screaming to be addressed.  For instance, what about the fat person, the ugly (or pretty) one, the smelly one or the annoying one?  And how about the once untouchable white guy who gets wrongfully kicked around?  These folks have no real recourse except to complain to their supervisors, who, in all likelihood are ill-equipped to handle such matters.

When I worked for New York City Transit, I witnessed bullying like it was for sport.  In fact, it was the managerial style of choice. When one of “the men” as they referred to themselves, got out of line in any way believed to be even remotely threatening, he would likely pay for it lest he fell back in line posthaste.  God forbid, he resisted for he would be shipped off to the most undesirable location, usually the place no one wanted to be and that would make his life a living hell.  In fact, that same threat was deviously employed on job interviews.  One was pretty much forced to say he was okay with working at any one of the numerous locations in the system, albeit an outright lie.  Then, once he conceded to being the flexible, indispensable best man for the job, he might well find himself in one of our little “Siberias” anyway because, after all, he said he was willing to go there.  A real Catch 22, for sure.

Was this modus operandi unto itself harassment in the legal sense – or was it simply bullying? Well, unless one individual of a particular protected class, let’s say an employee over 40 amidst a group of twenty-somethings was singled out, it wouldn’t be classified as unlawful; however, it is not less wrong and must be treated as such.  Working forever shrouded in fear of retribution is unacceptable.

Since having written Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of the American Worker, it is amazing how many folks have felt compelled to come forward to share their workplace horror stories with me.  They, too, attest that it is the bully’s way or the highway – with no help in sight.  I pray that my book serves to lend some insight to ways in which to successfully navigate “the system” without undue repercussion.

In a nutshell, the message is this: workplace harassment has evolved to a new form of the same called ‘workplace bullying’, the catch-all phrase for the ubiquitously inappropriate treatment of anyone and everyone where such behavior rises to the same egregious level of currently actionable legal claims under the law. If you can prove that which you claim to have occurred as having risen to the same degree of unlawfulness as prescribed by Congress, you shouldn’t need to be part of a protected class, just an aggrieved employee of any stripe with a legitimate claim.

Printed with permission

About the Author:  Teresa Zerilli-Edeleglass is the author of Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of the American Worker, the provocative true story that begs the question: Is the American Dream ours for the taking, or can it just be taken away?  Ms. Zerill-Edelglass earned a Bachelor of Science degree from St. John’s University in 1989 and an Executive Masters in Public Administration from Bernard Baruch College in 1992. It was in 1988 that the opportunity presented itself for Ms. Zerilli-Edelglass to switch gears from the private to the public sector, one she enthusiastically embraced. No sooner had all of her hard work finally begun to pay off when everything suddenly went up in smoke, laying the groundwork for ‘Thrown’.  Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of the American Worker is available online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and through the author’s website.

Supreme Court Narrows Definition of "Supervisor" Under Title VII

Monday, July 1st, 2013

sheppard mullinEarlier this week, the United States Supreme Court narrowed the definition of “supervisor” for purposes of employment-related claims.  Specifically, on Monday, June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Vance v. Ball State University, et al., that, under the federal Title VII discrimination statute, an employer can be held vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only where that particular employee has been empowered with the authority “to take tangible employment actions against the victim.”  The Court’s 5-4 decision resolves a circuit split concerning the extent of authority an employee must exercise and be granted to be classified as a “supervisor.” The term “supervisor” is not defined in Title VII.  Instead, it was adopted by the Supreme Court as a way to identify those individuals whose actions could give rise to vicarious employer liability in the two earlier decisions of Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998).  As established in Ellerth and Faragher, the standard to determine the employer’s liability is different based on whether or not the alleged harasser held a “supervisor” position.  First, where the alleged harasser is only the individual’s co-worker (and not a supervisor), the employer is liable only if it was negligent in failing to prevent the harassment from taking place.  Conversely, where the alleged harasser is the individual’s supervisor, and the harassment results in an adverse tangible employment action, the employer will be strictly liable.  However, if no tangible employment action is taken, the employer can avoid liability if it can demonstrate, as an affirmative defense, that (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and eliminate harassment, and (2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or remedial opportunities provided by the employer. Despite the central focus in Ellerth and Faragher on the status of the alleged harasser, neither case presented the Court with the question of what degree of authority an individual must have imbued to him or her so as to be classified as a “supervisor.”  This precise issue reached the court in Vance, and provided the Supreme Court with its first opportunity to address this matter.  In Vance, an African American woman (Maetta Vance) claimed that a white Ball State University employee (Saundra Davis) created a racially hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.  The trial court held that the University could not be liable for Davis’ alleged harassment because she did not have authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline” Vance and, therefore, was not a supervisor.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court. In holding that “the authority to take tangible employment actions is the defining characteristic of a supervisor,” the Supreme Court rejected guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) – and adopted by several other circuit courts –that links supervisor status, in part, to an employee’s ability to direct another’s daily tasks.  Accordingly, according to the Majority decision, “an employer may be vicariously liable for an employee’s unlawful harassment only when the employer has empowered that employee to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a ‘significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.’” Rather than adopt the EEOC’s definition of a supervisor, which the Supreme Court characterized as “nebulous,” “vague” and “a study in ambiguity,” the Supreme Court emphasized that its own definition is “easily workable.”  Significantly, the Supreme Court explained that, because of its newly-announced definition, parties will be able to determine whether an alleged harasser was a supervisor even before litigation commences, thereby permitting the parties to assess a case’s strength, and to potentially resolve a dispute, before filing suit.  Furthermore, where parties fail to reach an early resolution, the Supreme Court’s framework “can be applied without undue difficulty at both the summary judgment stage and at trial” and will “very often [resolve the question of supervisor status] as a matter of law before trial.”  Indeed, the Supreme Court noted that its definition permits supervisory status to generally be determined by “written documentation,” as opposed to the EEOC’s approach, which requires litigants to engage in a “highly case-specific evaluation” of a number of factors including how often the alleged supervisor directs an employee’s daily activities and how many tasks the individual directs. Conclusion The Supreme Court’s ruling in Vance narrows the class of employees whose actions can potentially hold an employer vicariously liable for creating a hostile work environment under Title VII.  Based on the Supreme Court’s indication that supervisory status generally can be determined through written documentation, employers should review the job descriptions of individuals in supervisory roles to ensure their accuracy.  Additionally, employers should identify which of their employees are vested with the authority to take tangible employment actions and provide them with anti-harassment training which is targeted to the workplace issues that supervisors are likely to encounter.

This article was originally posted on Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP’s Labor & Employment Law Blog.  For more information, please visit: http://www.laboremploymentlawblog.com/.

About the Authors:

Gregg A. Fisch is a partner in the Labor & Employment Practice Group in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter, & Hampton LLP’s  Century City office

Jonathan Sokolowski is an associate in the Labor and Employment Practice Group in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter, & Hampton LLP’s New York office.

Catholic Teacher Fired for Having a Baby

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Katherine LazarowIn one way or another, we agree to contracts with fixed terms every day: before downloading music on iTunes, buying a cell phone plan, or taking out a student loan. More and more, another area in which the terms of contracts may be non-negotiable is in the area of employment, as individuals desperate for a job agree to an employer’s conditions or risk not being hired. But what if—in addition to a set number of vacation days and an agreement not to publically disparage the employer—potential employees were also asked to commit to other, more fundamental provisions?

In fact, many employees already do.

For example: When Christa Dias of Cincinnati, Ohio, was hired as a part-time technology teacher in 2008 at Holy Family School, and in 2009 at St. Lawrence Catholic School, she had to sign employment contracts agreeing to comply with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Ms. Dias is not, herself, Catholic.

In October 2010, shortly after Ms. Dias asked for maternity leave, she was fired from both schools for breaching her employment contracts. Her violation? Well, it’s confusing.

Ms. Dias alleges that the schools first informed her she was being dismissed “for becoming pregnant outside of marriage,” but upon realizing that this might violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the schools quickly changed their tune. They now claim that they fired her for having undergone artificial insemination, which the Church views as a grave immoral act, and, they say, is in direct violation of her employment agreements, which require employees to “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” part 1F. (According to Catechisms 2353, 2366, and 2376, premarital sex and pregnancy outside of marriage are frowned upon, but only artificial insemination is labeled “gravely immoral.”)

In response, Ms. Dias filed an employment discrimination suit against the two schools and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the U.S. District Court in April.

Does Ms. Dias have a case? Are these employment contracts enforceable? If a teacher can be fired for engaging in behavior that violates Catholic teachings, can she lose her job for using birth control? What if she has an abortion? How do courts balance employment discrimination laws against the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom? Questions the press did not tackle. LASIS will.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers from firing employees because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1978, through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Congress amended Title VII to include pregnancy discrimination within the definition of sex discrimination; women can’t be fired solely because they’re pregnant.

To make a case of sex discrimination based on pregnancy, a woman must show that she was pregnant, she was qualified for the job, she was fired, and there is a connection between her pregnancy and the termination of her employment. If she makes her case, then the burden shifts to the employer to provide a nondiscriminatory justification for firing her, maybe because she bribed her students, fell asleep in class, or posted inappropriate comments on Facebook. You can figure out how things play out from here. If the employer can’t come up with a legitimate reason for firing the employee, she wins. But if the employer offers a legitimate reason, the employer wins . . . unless the teacher proves that the school’s explanation was merely an excuse to hide its discriminatory conduct.

If she weren’t working for religious institutions, it appears that Ms. Dias would have a clear case of sex discrimination: she was pregnant, by all accounts she performed her job well, she was fired, and there is a connection between her termination and pregnancy.

But Ms. Dias did work for religious institutions, and so we continue our way through this legal maze, and ask: When a religious institution claims that it fired an employee for a religious reason, should courts look into whether the stated reason is just a pretext to hide its discriminatory conduct? This investigation into the employer’s motivation can entangle the government in religious issues, and some courts are not so keen to engage in this inquiry. For example, in 1991 the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that, under the First Amendment, a court must accept a church’s religious justification for dismissing an employee without question. Fortunately for Ms. Dias, the Sixth Circuit is more willing to explore whether an employer’s stated reason for firing its employee is genuine.

In cases when a school initially told its teacher she was being fired for certain conduct and then changed its reason to a religious one, some courts are more likely to disbelieve the school’s “on-second-thought” religious reason for dismissal. This may bode well for Ms. Dias.

In addition, the provision of Ms. Dias’ employment contract in which she agreed to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily doom her case. Employment contracts and handbooks requiring employees to follow specific church teachings are common in religious schools, but the terms of the contracts are still subject to Title VII. A court will refuse to enforce a contract if an employee can show that it was not applied equally to men and women, in which case the court will view the policy as a ploy to engage in sex discrimination.

In a 1999 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, the court explained that for a school to enforce its policy against premarital sex solely by observing the pregnancy of its female teachers would constitute a form of pregnancy discrimination. So Ms. Dias can win if she demonstrates that the schools only enforced this provision against women. The fact that in 2002 the Archdiocese of Cincinnati suspended, rather than fired, a teacher (who was also a priest) accused of sexual misconduct with two male students might weigh in her favor. We think it’s safe to wager that this kind of behavior went against church teachings and would have been prohibited under his employment contract.

Now let’s take things a step or two further. Could an employer of a religious institution regulate whether an employee uses birth control? Has an abortion?

Unlike premarital sex or artificial insemination, which may result in pregnancy, these activities are private matters that are probably difficult for an employer to discover. But suppose a teacher in a Catholic school confides in a coworker that she had an abortion and this coworker tells the school administration. Under Title VII, could the school fire the teacher, if the teacher agreed to these terms when she was hired? If the policy is applied equally to men and women, the answer will most likely be “yes.”

You may be thinking, “But doesn’t the fact that men can’t have abortions automatically make any policy against abortions discriminatory?” Not necessarily (!)

If the policy doesn’t target abortions specifically but rather requires employees to abide by Catholic teachings in general, it’s not discriminatory on its face. So the only way to maintain an employment discrimination claim is to show that, although the policy is “facially neutral,” it’s not applied equally to men and women. This can be demonstrated with proof that a male teacher who also violated the employer’s policy was not fired even though the school was aware of his misconduct as well.

But before you start breaking out the champagne for Ms. Dias: There is an ever-expanding exception to employment discrimination cases against religious institutions that may negate the possibility of Ms. Dias winning her case altogether. In 1972, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first recognized the “ministerial exception” to Title VII, holding that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit the government from interfering in a church’s decision to fire a minister. Basically, religious institutions must be free to dismiss ministers for any reason, without worrying whether their decision will subject them to employment discrimination claims.

If the schools can prove that Ms. Dias served as a minister, she will be barred from bringing a Title VII claim. And courts have expanded the ministerial exception to include many employees who aren’t ordained ministers, as long as their primary duties are ministerial.

Unfortunately for Ms. Dias, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broadened the definition of ministers under the exception even further. In that case, the plaintiff, a teacher, instructed her students on mostly secular subjects with the exception of approximately 45 minutes each day, when she taught religion and led the students in prayer. The plaintiff also completed eight college-level theological courses in order to obtain the title of “called” teacher (as opposed to “lay” teacher). According to a unanimous Supreme Court, those activities were sufficient to label the teacher a minister and dismiss the suit based on the ministerial exception to employment discrimination claims.

In her complaint, Ms. Dias states that she worked as a technology coordinator, teaching computer classes and overseeing the computer systems at the schools. There is no indication that she instructed the students on religious topics or led them in prayer. So Ms. Dias will probably not be considered a minister and the school won’t be able to use the ministerial exception as a defense to her discrimination claim.

Regardless of the outcome of her case, Ms. Dias has no regrets about having artificial insemination, and is delighted with her little girl. “I would do it all over again for her,” she said.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke on January 25, 2012. Legal as She is Spoke is a blog produced by New York Law School’s Program in Law and Journalism. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katherine Lazarow is a staff editor for the New York Law School Law Review, a member of the Justice Action Center, and an intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. Katherine graduated from McGill University in Montréal with a Bachelor’s in Sociology.

It's A Long Road To Justice

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

ellen simonFederal Employee Wins Appeal On Sex And Age Discrimination Claim

Lawyers representing employees in discrimination cases are forever frustrated by federal district court judges whom routinely grant summary judgment to employers instead of allowing cases to proceed to trial for a jury determination.

This recent case of Bartlett v.Gates, in which the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s summary judgment ruling, is a perfect example of what we potentially face on every case no matter what kind of evidence has been produced.

What Happened In The Case

Barry Bartlett worked for the United States Department of Defense at the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA). In September of 2005, he applied for a promotion to GS-12 contracting officer.   At the time of his application, Bartlett was 58 years old and had 34 years of experience as a GS-11 contract administrator. In addition, Bartlett’s resume showed:

  • a record of military service
  • a bachelor’s degree in history
  • completed graduate course work in business administration, accounting and law

Bartlett was deemed qualified at the initial screening stage and his name was forwarded to Kathleen Lehman, the selecting official for the promotion.

Another long term employee, Marvin Greenberg, also applied for the position. Greenberg was 63 years old at the time of his application. His resume showed:

  • a bachelor’s and doctoral degrees
  • authorship of a length book and numerous scholarly publications
  • a 27 year tenure at DCMA

In October of 2005, without conducting any interviews, Lehman chose Angela Lucas for the promotion. Lucas, another internal candidate, was 39 years old at the time and did not have a college degree.

Bartlett claimed that between 2003 and 2005, employees who were 55 years or older received only one DCMA promotion, despite making up 36% of the agency’s workforce. He also claimed that female employees were promoted in a series of personnel decisions that involved the manipulation of agency procedures.

Bartlett decided to challenge the decision. In February of 2007, after exhausting his administrative remedies, he filed a lawsuit against the DCMA claiming that he was discriminated against because of his age and sex in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which was referred to a magistrate for a report and recommendation. In October of 2008, the magistrate issued a report which found that Bartlett established a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII, but the DCMA provided a non-discriminatory reason for its promotion decision and Plaintiff failed to rebut it by showing pretext.

The federal district court judge adopted the recommendation and granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment against Bartlett. He appealed.

The Sixth Circuit Reverses

Burden of Proof Under The Title VII  And The ADEA

Under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of discrimination in a failure to promote case when he:

  • is a member of a protected class
  • objectively qualified for the position
  • considered for but is denied the promotion
  • an individual outside of plaintiff’s protected class is selected for the position

Once the plaintiff presents a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a nondiscriminatory reason for its action. In order to overcome summary judgment, the plaintiff must produce evidence which can rebut the employer’s explanation demonstrating pretext – which means “only enough evidence … to rebut, but not to disprove, the defendant’s proffered rationale.”

A plaintiff can prove pretext with evidence that the employer’s stated reason for its adverse business action either

  • has no basis in fact
  • was not the actual reason, or
  • is insufficient to explain the employer’s action

It’s worth noting that the Sixth Circuit in this decision joined a number of other circuits in holding that age discrimination claims — post Gross– should continue to be analyzed under McDonnell Douglas.

The Court’s Analysis Of The Evidence

Since the Defendant conceded that Bartlett established a prima facie case of discrimination the appeal turned on Defendant’s explanation for its decision, and whether Bartlett presented sufficient evidence of pretext to rebut it.

As to its reason, Defendant claimed that Angela Lucas was the best qualified candidate based on the written submissions of the applicants and Lehman’s personal knowledge of their background, performance, work product, and communication abilities.

It further claimed that Lucas was highly motivated, very experienced and a strong communicator who had earned performance awards and commendations of her peers.

Bartlett, it claimed in contrast, was an average employee who lacked a sufficient background in contract negotiations as well as a strong writing ability.

Bartlett offered several grounds of support for his argument for that Defendant’s reasons were pretextual.

Relative Qualifications

As the Court noted, the relative qualifications of applicants as well as discriminatory remarks may establish pretext in a failure to promote case.

In this case, the Court pointed to:

  • Bartlett’s 24 years of experience as a contract administrator: Lucas had 8
  • Bartlett’s superior educational credentials including a bachelor’s degree and advanced course work: Lucas did not graduate from college
  • Bartlett’s communication skills, as well as those of Greenberg, which were satisfactory if not superior to Lucas’s as evidenced by favorable performance reviews, education credentials, and scholarly publications and familiarity in the area of contract negotiations.

The Court stated:

Construing the fact in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, we find that while Plaintiff may not have been a “plainly superior candidate” that rendered a DCMA’s promotion decision unreasonable on its face …Plaintiff was as qualified if not more qualified than Lucas.

Although this finding does not conclusively establish pretext, it warrants denial of summary judgment where other probative evidence of discrimination is presented.

Discriminatory Remarks

As the Court noted, discriminatory remarks may constitute direct evidence of discrimination and also serve as evidence of pretext.

In this case, Bartlett presented evidence that his supervisor, Gail Lewin, and the selecting official Kathleen Lehman:

  • informed him that 34 years on the job was enough
  • joked about whether he had taken up “antiquing or traveling or something like that”
  • suggested that he should retire – a topic which Bartlett had neither broached nor considered

The Court stated:

Because these statements were made by DCMA decisionmakers just weeks before the promotion decision and because the ostensible motivation of the comments was to hasten Plaintiff’s departure from the agency, these remarks provide strong ‘probative evidence of pretext.’

Furthermore, when coupled with record evidence that Plaintiff was as qualified if not more qualified that the selectee, these statements created triable issues of fact on the question of pretext.

Defendant’s Explanation Was Not Believable

In addition, the Court held that Bartlett had presented evidence of pretext because the reason given for its failure to promote him was not credible.

As the Court noted, Lehman testified that she made the decision that Lucas was the best qualified candidate without conducting interviews because she was familiar with the applicants experience, backgrounds, and competency. However, when asked, Lehman was unable to answer basic questions about the candidates’ qualifications.

The Court noted:

The fact that Lehman was unable to describe the candidates’ credentials creates a triable issue of fact as to the actual basis for Defendant’s promotion decision, suggesting it was pretext for discrimination based on sex and age.

In sum, the Court concluded that Bartlett presented sufficient evidence to suggest that DCMA’s proffered explanation for its promotion decision was pretextual, and had no basis in fact. Accordingly, DCMA was not entitled to summary judgment.

The case was reversed and remanded for trial.

Take Away

This case is a good example of something that’s often wrong with many federal court decisions when it comes to employment discrimination cases.

When reviewing summary judgment motions, trial court judges are, according to the Supreme Court “required to view all facts and draw all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” In employment discrimination cases, the nonmoving party is almost always the plaintiff employee.

It’s no secret to plaintiffs’ employment lawyers that, for some reason, many trial court judges fail to abide by this requirement in case after case and instead seem to draw all inferences in favor the employer.

The result of what appears to be this employer oriented approach in discrimination cases, or as some call it  — a hostility on the federal bench to employment cases —is a clogging of the docket with summary judgment motions and appeals, as well as considerable delay and expense to both sides.

It also encourages management side lawyers to file summary judgment motions in every case no matter what record of evidence has been established by the plaintiff because they just might win – and just might get affirmed or the employee might just get worn down and give up.

Mr. Bartlett filed his lawsuit in 2007. The events giving rise to claim occurred in 2005. While it’s a great victory to have won the reversal in the Court of Appeals, let’s not forget that it’s almost 2011 – and that all he has won thus far is his right to get a trial and have his case decided by a jury.

The reality is that if someone chooses to litigate an employment discrimination case, it’s virtually certain that it’s going to be a long road to justice.

This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Post.

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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