Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’

Why Wal-Mart Matters, But Perhaps Less Than You Think

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

David Weisenfeld

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Monday in Wal-Mart v. Dukes understandably garnered front-page headlines in the nation’s newspapers. After all, the case was the largest employment discrimination case in history, dwarfing all other competitors by far with its potential to have included more than one-million current and former female Wal-Mart employees.

But in reality, this mammoth pattern and practice class action was decided December 7, 2010. That’s the day the Supreme Court agreed to hear the dispute. The women who brought this 10-year-old case had won every step of the way. In fact, Ninth Circuit Judge Susan Graber said in her 2010 concurrence in one of the plaintiffs’ victories, “There is nothing unique about this case except for its size.”

As it turned out, however, size mattered. There was no direct circuit split on this issue. Indeed, there was no other case that was truly directly on point. So when the Supreme Court decided to wade into the fray, there was no chance it was doing so to pat the West Coast appellate court on the back for a job well done. Instead, the Court was going to place limits on class actions.

Lead plaintiffs’ counsel Brad Seligman fought hard and fought well throughout this ten-year-old litigation. But a case that could have led to billions of dollars in litigation was going to face a difficult hurdle at the nation’s highest court, and it did. The cries that plaintiffs now cannot proceed in employment class actions, however, could be premature.

The Wal-Mart case included hourly greeters, company vice presidents earning six figures, and female employees in all sorts of jobs between those extremes. The claim by the plaintiffs’ attorneys that Wal-Mart provided “unchecked discretion” to its managers was one that swing voter Anthony Kennedy undoubtedly found difficult to square with the allegation that the company had a top-down culture of discrimination emanating from Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters.

In fact, during the oral arguments Justice Kennedy said as much when he wondered aloud what the unlawful policy was. “It seems to me there’s an inconsistency there,” he said. “If it’s standardless and recordless, then why is there commonality?” If there was any doubt as to the outcome, that comment and question put it to rest.

This was less a case of Wal-Mart being “too big to sue” than the majority of the justices wondering how 1.5-million women at 3,400 stores in widely divergent positions could have something in common besides their gender.

The opinion was notably silent, however, about whether or not the retailer had engaged in sex discrimination. And, it leaves open the possibility of smaller groups of employees banding together, ideally from similar job classifications.

Wal-Mart’s attorney Theodore Boutrous said immediately following the decision, “Under [this] ruling, the way we read it, no class can be certified in this case.” But that seems to be more than a bit of hyperbole.

Will it be tougher for plaintiffs to proceed? Unquestionably. And when they do so, the litigation will be much smaller in scope. But the women and those who represent them have vowed to continue fighting Wal-Mart over what they see as unequal treatment. Smaller class actions against other big companies have succeeded before and likely will again. Those cases just need to be more focused than ever on complying with the Supreme Court’s call for commonality among class members.

About the Author: David Weisenfeld served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for LAWCAST from 1998 through June 2011. During that time, he covered every employment law case heard by the Court including Wal-Mart v. Dukes, and also wrote and co-anchored the company’s employment law newscasts. In addition, his work has appeared in the American Bar Association’s Supreme Court Preview magazine.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby? Maybe Not.

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Is it legal to fire a front desk clerk for not being “pretty enough”? Not in Iowa. Last Monday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial judge’s decision and ordered Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America to trial.

Brenna Lewis was a front desk clerk at Heartland Inns in Ankeny, Iowa. She was promoted to the day shift, sight unseen, after enthusiastic recommendation from previous managers. Once on the job, Lewis’ loose-fitting clothing and unisex appearance caused Director of Operations Barbara Cullinan to express reservations about whether she was a “good fit.”

Lewis wore short hair, no makeup and sported an “Ellen DeGeneres look.” She was “tomboyish,” friendly, and well-liked by customers. Cullinan preferred a pretty “Midwestern girl look” on the day shift. She fired the manager who refused to reassign Lewis and demanded that Lewis undergo a videotaped “second” interview to keep her job. A distraught Lewis objected to the second interview, questioning whether it was lawful to require one just because of her appearance. Three days later she was fired.

When Lewis sued Heartland for sex discrimination, the company countered that Lewis was terminated for “thwarting” the interview procedure and exhibiting “hostility” to Heartland’s policies. The trial judge dismissed the case. Lewis appealed. In January, a three judge panel ruled in Lewis’ favor. On March 8, the full court denied Heartland’s request for rehearing, and ordered the case back to jury trial.

In some ways Lewis’ victory is not surprising. Over twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ann Hopkins, a hard-charging and aggressive manager denied partnership despite outperforming all other candidates in her year. Hopkins was told that future success at the firm would depend upon her learning to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”

The Court held that unless Price Waterhouse could prove that it would have made the same decision without reference to gender stereotypes, Hopkins was entitled to prevail on her sex discrimination claim because “we are ‘beyond the day’ when an employer could evaluate employees by … insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”

But are we? Consider this: Had Heartland Inns turned Cullinan’s personal preference for pretty women into a formal job requirement, the case might well have gone the other way.

In 2006, the Ninth Circuit received a great deal of notoriety for its decision in Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., 444 F.3d 1104 (9th Cir. 2006). The famously liberal court ruled not once, but twice in favor of Harrah’s casino, after it terminated bartender Darlene Jespersen for refusal to comply with its “personal best” appearance code. The code, which included both gender-neutral and gender-specific requirements, mandated “big hair” and a daily makeup regime for women.

Jespersen, a highly regarded 20-year employee, felt degraded by makeup. The business of a bartender is to mix drinks, assess sobriety, and maintain order. Jespersen argued that wearing makeup interfered with the deft personal touch and sense of authority she relied upon to perform those functions. Unimpressed, the Court held that her “personal preference” did not trump Harrah’s “personal best” grooming policy.

Employers, particularly in the service industry, adopt gender-specific appearance standards for competitive advantage, and defend them on grounds of customer preference. Fortunately, the law already imposes limits on this “business case” for discrimination. “Customer preference,” once a serious barrier to hiring minorities and women, was struck down long ago. “Competitive advantage,” the rationale for requiring stewardesses to parade around in hot pants, was rejected with the tart observation that the business of airlines is to fly passengers safely, not to sell sex.

Even if the required “look” is not overtly sexy, enforcing an idealized standard of feminine attractiveness increases the salience of gender over competence. This can undermine the authority of women whose jobs involve controlling the activities of others: police officers, construction supervisors and – yes — bartenders and flight attendants. While there may be rare situations in which idealized gender-specific appearance is a “bona fide occupational qualification,” the essence of most jobs is providing a service, not fulfilling a fantasy.

Yes, we have come a long way, but sadly, we are not “beyond the day” when employers can enforce gender stereotypes. It should not matter whether a stereotype-driven termination is the result of an individual supervisor’s preference or a company-wide appearance policy, but it does. This is wrong. Courts should know better than to give the green light to gender stereotypes “dressed up” as formal job requirements. If this trend is not reversed, and soon, the resulting effect on equal employment opportunity will definitely not be pretty.

Image: Pick UPAbout the Author: Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco attorney, and Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.

California's Salaried Workers Score a Victory

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

On Thursday, March 19, 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District Court’s order and reinstated a class action lawsuit against FedEx Kinko’s Office and Print (“FedEx”) seeking unpaid overtime and related penalties on behalf of a class of hundreds of the company’s Center Managers. This short three page decision carries monumental implications which extend far beyond the class members of this single action to reinforce the rights of all California employees who are paid on a “salaried” basis and denied compensation for their overtime work.

The case filed in May 2005 alleged that Center Managers at FedEx’s California Stores were improperly classified as “exempt” from overtime pay under California law on the basis that these employees met what is commonly referred to as the “managerial” exemption. Under California law, exemptions from overtime pay are narrowly construed and the employer has the burden to prove the exemption applies. For the managerial exemption to apply, the employer must prove, among other things, that the employees spend more than one-half of their work time on exempt duties and “customarily and regularly” exercise discretion and independent judgment under Cal. Labor Code § 515.

The case was certified as a class action in 2006. In May 2007, FedEx moved for summary judgment asking the District Court to conclude that the entire class was exempt from overtime under California’s “executive” exemption. The District Court agreed and granted Defendant’s motion. The Plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit seeking to have that decision overturned.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision holding that the class members testimony and expert witnesses raised triable issues regarding whether the Center Managers were primarily engaged in management duties. The decision is important as it reinforces the heavy burden employers must meet in order to show that their employees are spending at least half of their time on exempt tasks – merely referring to those employees as “managers” is not enough.

By reversing the District Court’s finding for FedEx, the Ninth Circuit sent a clear message of the Court’s intention to require employers who seek to circumvent overtime laws by paying their employees fixed salaries to provide substantial evidence to support these decisions – rather than merely referring to thoseemployees as “managers”. The fact that the decision was issued a mere eight days after the hearing is somewhat unusual and bodes well for the rights of all salaried employees throughout the state.

In light of the ruling, the parties will be proceeding toward trial. If successful there, hundreds of FedEx Center Managers could recover compensation for years of lost wages. Employees with similar claims would be well advised to strike while the iron is hot in seeking to recover owed wages pursuant to this ruling. If you are currently working in the state of California and are not receiving overtime pay (or if you are an attorney currently representing such an employee), please visit the Scott Cole & Associates, APC website to obtain further information regarding this lawsuit.

About the Author: Matthew R. Bainer, Esq. is an experienced and successful advocate of employees’ rights and has successfully represented tens of thousands of employees, both in California and throughout the nation. Mr. Bainer, a well-respected practitioner in his field, has written for both legal periodicals and academic law reviews. For more information about Mr. Bainer and his firm, please visit the Scott Cole & Associates, APC website at www.scalaw.com.

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