Employee Rights Short Takes: Scalia's Impartiality Questioned, Two Punitive Damage Awards, Disability Discrimination And More

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

Scalia Says Due Process Clause Does Not Prohibit Sex Discrimination

For those who may have missed it, Justice Antonin Scalia recently expressed his view that neither women nor gays are protected against discrimination under the 14th amendment of the Constitution. The statement was made in an interview this month published in the California Lawyer.

While it’s newsworthy because of the shock value alone, Scalia has expressed this view before. All one has to do is read the 1996 decision of  United States v. Virginia,  in which Scalia was the only justice to dissent from the Supreme Court’s decision to end the Virginia Military Institute’s 157 year old state supported practice of only accepting male students.

Not surprisingly, Scalia’s recent remarks angered liberals and was criticized by many legal scholars. Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-President of the Women’s Law Center, as reported in the Huffington Post, called  Scalia’s comments “shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection."

Scalia’s comments stem from his view that the 14th amendment , when written, was not intended to ban sex discrimination. As to Scalia’s originalist view, Eric Segall, a professor at Georgia State College of Law, had this to say in his letter to the editor published in the New York Times:

On issues of affirmative action, gender rights, gun control and campaign finance reform, among most other controversial constitutional law questions, Justice Scalia does not truly use an originalist methodology. Much more of his judicial style can be gleaned from looking at the Republican Party Platform than at the drafters of either the original Constitution or the 14th amendment.

For Justice Scalia, it is about results, not process, no matter how much he protests otherwise.

In the same vein, Scalia also also made news with the announcement of his role as a featured speaker at  Michele Bachmann's tea party / "Constitutional Conservative Caucus" later this month. For more about questions raised regarding Justice Scalia's impartiality, read Nan Aaron here.

EEOC Settles Disability Discrimination Case For 3.2 Million

Jewel –Osco’s parent company Supervalu  Inc. has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a federal lawsuit claiming that the company discriminated against its disabled employees.

The suit, filed by the EEOC, alleged that Jewel-Osco fired employees with disabilities at the end of their leaves rather than bringing them back to work with reasonable accommodations.

According to the EEOC, roughly 1000 employees at Jewel-Osco stores were fired under this policy. One employee who will benefit from the settlement is Rosemary Bednarek who is representative of the class.

Bednarek injured her back lifting boxes of chicken at a Jewel-Osco store in 2004. When she was able to return to work, her doctor advised that she should not lift more than 20 pounds but the company would not accommodate the restriction. Bednarek re-injured her back and was fired a year later.

This is a great settlement that will not only benefit the plaintiffs in the case, but also serve to remind employers of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate employees with disabilities -- including those who are injured on the job.

Two New Decisions On Punitive Damages

We do not often see employment law decisions in which punitive damages are addressed, so to see two in the last few weeks is worth talking about.

Generally speaking, punitive damages are available in some cases in which the defendant engaged in a deliberate or reckless disregard of the rights of others.

The jury, in determining the amount of the punitive damage award, is permitted to consider a number of factors, including a sum of money that would discourage the defendant from engaging in the conduct in the future as well as the income and assets of the defendant. Some large punitive damage awards are challenged on grounds that they violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Here's a brief synopsis of the cases:

Hamlin v Hampton Lumbar Mills, Inc.:  Plaintiff Ken Hamlin was injured while working at the Hampton Lumbar Mills. When he was released to return to work, the defendant falsely asserting that he was a “safety risk" and refused to to reinstate him as required by Oregon law.

The case went to trial and the jury awarded lost wages of $6000 and punitive damages in the amount of $175, 000. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the punitive damage award was "grossly excessive" under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and reduced it to a sum equivalent to four times the amount of the compensatory damages.

In an instructive review of the case law on punitive damages, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed holding that a punitive damage award may exceed a single digit multiplier of a compensatory damage award without violating due process or being “grossly excessive.”

The case is an excellent reference point for anyone briefing an argument for punitive damages in an employment case.

Claus v. Intrigue Hotel, LLC:  In this age discrimination case, the jury awarded $50,000 in actual damages and $150,000 in punitive damages in a bifurcated trial. The defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in a decision issued late last month.

In brief, Glenda Claus worked for Intrigue Hotels (including its predecessor) since 1984. Her last position was housekeeping supervisor. In 2007, Claus was fired and replaced by a 31 year old employee. 

Claus, 63 at the time, testified that she was completely blindsided by the news of her termination. With a record of positive job performance evaluations, a failure to admonish Claus regarding job deficiencies, and replacement with a 31 year old employee with performance issues, the Court of Appeals held that the jury could have rejected Intrigue’s after the fact rationale that Claus was fired for poor performance.

In addition, there was evidence that her new supervisor (Galaviz ) stated he wanted employees who would be at the hotel for the “long haul” and that Claus was “resistant to change.” The Court held that the jury could have reasonably taken these statements to mean that Galaviz did not want older employees and that Claus’s age was a factor in her firing.

The evidence also showed that Galaviz had been engaged as a human resources consultant and had an extensive knowledge of employment law at the time he made these comments and fired Galaviz.

Worth noting is the Court's statement that the same evidence which supported Claus’s substantive claim for age discrimination also supported her claim for punitive damages  As the Court pointed out,  both Copidas (the owner of the hotel) and Galaviz:

  • knew it was against the law to fire an employee because of age
  • fired a 63 year old employee with a spotless record
  • replaced her with a 31 year old with documented performance problems
  • promoted several younger employees with performance issues
  • altered its rationale for firing Claus several times and created pretextual reasons for firing her

In sum, the Court concluded that the jury’s award of punitive damages was supported by the evidence. The case was remanded to the trial court for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs -- a great victory for Claus and her lawyer.

This case is a good example of the kind of evidence which supports a claim for age discrimination as well as a claim for punitive damages. As stated above, since we don't often see decisions affirming a punitive damage award, these cases are worth noting.

images: newsimg.bbc.co.uk  www.pryers-solicitors.co.uk  www.beachvillaresort.com 

Eleventh Circuit Delivers Important Opinion On Retaliation Case

Employee Gets Trial on Title VII Retaliation Claim

What happens when an employee in a sensitive position complains about discrimination and immediately gets fired because the company claims the employee might use her position to sabotage the business?

It’s a defense that is appealing to many judges, but not one that can be taken at face value according to the case of Alvarez v. Royal Atlantic Developers  decided by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week.

What Happened In The Case

Eliuth Alvarez, a Cuban-American, worked as a controller for Royal Atlantic Developers, a Miami based real estate development company owned by the Verdezoto family. The Verdezotos also own Royal Flowers International.  Edwin Verdezoto is CEO of Royal Atlantic and President of Royal Flowers. Heidi Verdezoto, his sister,  is CFO of both companies. The two companies have over 50 employees.

Alvarez had eighteen years of experience in accounting, auditing, and controllership at the time she arrived at the company. Alvarez reported to the Chief Financial Officer, Heidi Verdezoto.

By all accounts Heidi Verdezoto was impossible to please. Alvarez’s two predecessors were fired by her within two to three months of their hiring because they failed to meet her standards.

Alvarez suffered the same fate.  About four months after she was hired, the Verdezotos decided to fire her but wait until a replacement was found before the termination was to take place.

Alvarez got wind of the plan and wrote a letter of protest to her bosses, complaining, among other things, about what she believed to be discrimination against her because of her national origin. The Verdezotos read the letter and fired Alvarez the next morning because of it.

Alvarez filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida claiming discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The company defended by claiming that Alvarez did not prove discrimination because of her national origin and that she was fired because of poor performance.

Regarding the retaliation claim, the company claimed there was no causal connection between Alvarez’s letter and her firing because she was going to be fired anyway. In addition, the company claimed that even if her letter of complaint was a factor in the firing, it had a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for firing her immediately, specifically because:

  • it would be "awkward" and "counterproductive" for Alvarez to remain in the office after she expressed such unhappiness with the job
  • it feared that she might use her position as controller to sabotage the company’s operations

The district court granted judgment in favor of the company. On the discrimination claim, it found that Alvarez did not show that she was replaced by a non-Cuban or that similarly situated non-Cubans were treated more favorably than she had been. On the retaliation claim, the court concluded that the company offered legitimate reasons for firing Alvarez. Alvarez appealed.

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Truck Driver Wins Gender Discrimination Case In Fourth Circuit

Court Elaborates On Types Of  Evidence For Proof Of  Discrimination

The recent case of Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight is hands down one of the best decisions I have come across in a long time.

It addresses gender discrimination, sex stereotyping, and a corporate culture of discrimination in a way few cases have. It’s simply a great case for employees – particularly for victims of sex discrimination.

What Happened In The Case

Merritt worked as a line haul truck drive for Old Dominion, a nationwide trucking company. As a line haul driver, Merritt made lengthy cross-country trips. She performed her duties without incident or complaint. At some point, Merritt became interested in becoming a pickup and delivery driver so she could work more regular hours and spend  nights and weekends at home.

To prove that she could do the job, she filled in numerous times as a pickup and delivery driver, and once again performed the duties without incident or complaint.

When a permanent pickup and delivery position became available at Old Dominion’s Lynchburg Virginia terminal, Merritt talked to Bobby Howard, the terminal manager about it. Howard told her that he lacked the authority to fill the position and proceeded to hire a less experienced man for the job.

The following year another permanent pickup and delivery position became available in Lynchburg and Merritt again expressed an interest in the position to Howard. Once again, Merritt was passed over in favor of a less experienced male.

When Merritt asked why she was not hired, Howard told her that :

  • it was decided and they could not let a woman have that position.
  • the company did not really have women drivers in the city (as pick up and deliver drivers)

On another occasion he told her:

  • the Regional VP was worried about hiring a female pickup and deliver driver because women were more injury prone and he was aftaid a female would get hurt
  • the VP didn’t think a girl should have that position

Finally, a year later, Old Dominion hired Merritt to fill a permanent Pickup and Delivery position in Lynchburg. Merritt was placed on a ninety-day probationary and told she could lose her job if any performance problems arose. Male drivers were not subject to similar probationary terms.

For the next two years, Merritt performed her Pickup and Delivery duties without a problem. Unfortunately, she then suffered an ankle injury at work which was diagnosed as plantar fascititis with a superimposed strain. She was put on light duty work by her doctor at first, but a couple of months later, he gave her a clean bill of health.

When she attempted to return to her regular duties, Brian Stoddard, Vice President of Safety and Personnel, required Merritt to take a physical ability test (“PAT”), a full-body test divided into six components that evaluates the test taker’s general strength, agility, and cardiovascular endurance. The test was graded on a pass/fail basis. The PAT was created for Old Dominion to be used in the hiring process and had been used to evaluate potential hires, but only on a variable basis.

Merritt struggled with several segments of the test and received a failing grade. According to Merritt, the tasks she had problems with had nothing to do with her ankle. In one portion of the test, for example, Merritt was unable to place a box of weight on an overhead shelf simply because she was too short.

After receiving the results of Merritt’s PAT, Stoddard terminated Merritt’s employment. Merritt filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC and then filed a lawsuit in federal court in Western District of Virginia claiming that Old Dominion terminated her because of her gender in violation of Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The district court granted judgment against Merritt because it found that Old Dominion produced a legitimate reason for firing Merritt (she failed the PAT) and because she had not produced any evidence that Stoddard (the decision maker) harbored any “discriminatory animus” towards Merritt. Merritt appealed.

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It's Nothing New: Male Dominated Professions Foster Culture Of Sex Discrimination

Bankers and Police Officers Charged With Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Two vastly different professions – banking and law enforcement – yet they share something in common and that is a culture of gender discrimination.

It’s the same stuff that’s been going on for decades in spite of federal laws which make sex discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and sexual harassment illegal in the workplace. I have heard similar complaints from women for close to 30 years. That's one of the reasons why I think it's important to to spread the word about some courageous women  who are out there fighting for their rights.

Here are some of the cases that made the news.

Citigoup and Goldman Sachs Accused Of Discrimination Against Mothers

Two women filed gender discrimination cases against Wall Street banks claiming they were discriminated against after taking time off to have children.

According to ABC news.Charlotte Hanna, a former Golden Sachs VP in the HR department claimed that she was demoted and moved from her private office into a cubicle after the birth of her first child.

She was then fired while she was on maternity leave with her second child. Hanna was told that her position was eliminated, but leaned that another employee was hired to take over her duties.

Dorly Hazan-Amir complained about a long standing “boys club” culture at Citigroup’s asset finance division since the beginning of her employment. When she got pregnant, things got worse.

One manager asked whether she planned to be a “career mom” or “mom mom.” Another told her if she planned to continue working, she would have to put her career first and family second. Her pregnancy became the butt of office jokes.

Wall Street has had an ongoing problem with sex discrimination. Morgan Stanley settled two class action lawsuits brought by thousands of employees for more than $100 million dollars in 2004 and 2007. Smith Barney paid out $33 million in settlement of a case two years ago.

Syracuse Police Officer Gets $400,000 Jury Award

Last month, a New York jury found in favor of Officer Katherine Lee on her claim of sex discrimination and retaliation against the Syracuse police department. It was the third significant verdict against the police department for discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation of female officers in the last ten months.

Sgt. Therese Lore was awarded $500,000 by a jury in May, and Officer Sonia Dotson was awarded $450,000 last month.

 Lee, a police officer for 14 years claimed she was repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment, and denied equal pay and promotions to her male counterparts.

Lee claimed that male officers frequently watched pornographic movies at the workplace and made sexually derogatory remarks about women. When she complained about male officers’ behavior, the department would conduct sham investigations, and then accuse her of misconduct for making those complaints.

A similar lawsuit was filed last week by Maj. Martha Helen Haire, a 22-year veteran of the LSU Police Department. 

She sued the university claiming she was denied the position of chief of police, for which she was clearly qualified, because she is a woman.

Haire also claimed that she was harassed on account of her gender and “subjected to illegal retaliation/reprisal on account of her whistle-blowing activities consisting of protesting and opposing gender-based discrimination in the workplace.’"

Retaliation for complaining about discrimination and opposing discriminatory practices is illegal under Title VII.

It’s been decades since this kind of conduct has been declared illegal throughout the country yet sadly, the culture of discrimination and harassment in male dominated professions is awfully slow to change.

Images: corporette.com farm4.static.flickr.com

Southwest Flight Attendant Wins ADA Appeal

 Employee Fired For Taking Medical Leave Gets Jury Verdict Reinstated

When does too much time off for an illness justify a termination because of poor attendance? Not every time according to a case decided this past week from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Here's what happened.

Facts Of The Case

Edward Carmona worked for Southwest Airlines as a flight attendant. He was plagued with psoriasis since he was a teen. As an adult, Carmona developed psoriatic arthritis which causes painful swelling and stiffness in the joints during attacks of psoriasis on the surface of his skin.

During flare-ups, Carmona is in great pain and has difficulty walking and moving around. The flare ups occur three or four times every month and each flare-up lasts for three or four days.

In order to get time off as needed for his condition, Carmona filed for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. He was granted FMLA leave between 1998 and 2005, until Southwest determined that he had not worked enough hours to be eligible for renewal.

After Carmona’s FMLA leave expired, he was no longer able to excuse absences caused by his psoriatic arthritis. What followed was a round of progressive discipline which culminated in termination because of an accumulation of points relating to unexcused absences.

The Lawsuit

Carmona sued Southwest claiming that he was terminated because of his disability in violation of  the Americans with Disabilities Act. (ADA)*.

In order to prove an ADA claim, an individual must prove:

  • that he was an individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA
  • that he was a qualified individual for his job, despite his disability,
  • and that he was discharged because of his disability

In order to establish a disability, Carmona had to establish that he had:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities
  • a record of such an impairment or
  • that he was regarded as having such a impairment.

After a jury trial which Carmona won,  the judge granted judgment against Carmon as a matter of law on the grounds that he did not present sufficient evidence of a disability.  Specifically, the judge found Carmona's intermittent limitations didn’t prove a substantially limiting impairment. In other words, the judge ruled that Carmona was not disabled as a matter of law and took away the verdict.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed in it's opinion issued this week. You can read the decision here.

In sum, it held that the verdict should stand because there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that:

  • Carmona had an impairment that substantially limited his major life activity of walking
  • he was a qualified individual for his job
  • he was terminated because of his disability
Take Away

This is a really good decision for those who have conditions which cause intermittent disabling flare-ups and need to take time off of work because of it. It will particularly benefit those employees who work for employers not covered by the FMLA (companies with less than 50 employees).

The case also has a helpful discussion on Southwest's core argument --- that Carmona was not qualified for the job because of his poor attendance.

It’s also  good decision for those with cases pending before the ADA amendments Act of 2008. The Court did not apply the amendments retroactively, yet still found for the plaintiff under the narrower pre-amendments law.

The Court also wrote about reinstatement as a remedy -- another topic we don't see very often in ADA opinions.

In sum,  this case is a good result for employees and instructive to employers on the interplay of attendance policies and the ADA.

( *Carmona also had a Title VII claim; the jury found against him on that claim )

Image: blog.cleveland.com

About Ellen

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 .

AIDS Discrimination Victim Gets New Trial

Admission Of EEOC "No Probable Cause" Determination Is Reversible Error

I ran across this case recently and I think it’s definitely worth talking about.  It deals with a real problem in discrimination cases that has been around for as long as I can remember and it affects just about everyone who files an EEOC charge.

The case, Byrd v. BT Foods, Inc., addresses the controversial issue regarding the admissibility of  EEOC findings at trial and it's a good result for employees.

What’s The Problem?

When an individual files an EEOC charge, the EEOC  conducts an investigation. At its conclusion, the EEOC issues a determination letter stating one of two things:

  1. there was probable cause to believe that discrimination, retaliation, etc. occurred or
  2. there was no probable cause to believe that a violation of the civil rights law occurred

After the determination, the EEOC issues a Notice of Dismissal and Notice of Right to Sue which gives the individual the right to go to court.

Here’s the potential problem for the employee who did not prevail at the EEOC (or its state counterpart).  At trial, the employer always tries to introduce the EEOC dismissal and no probable cause determination.

In effect,  the employer wants to argue to the jury, “the government investigated this case, didn’t find discrimination, and you shouldn’t either.”  It doesn’t take Clarence Darrow to figure out that this argument can be quite damaging to the plaintiff’s case at trial.

 What Happened In The Case

Cemeshia Byrd worked at Wendy’s in Coral Springs, Florida. Byrd filed a lawsuit against BT Foods (doing business as Wendy’s Coral Springs) claiming that she was discriminated against when she was terminated because she had Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). 

Discrimination because of AIDS is illegal in the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's also illegal under many state civil rights laws, including the Florida Omnibus Aids Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act.

Before proceeding to court, Byrd filed a charge of discrimination with the Broward County Civil Rights Division, an agency which conducts investigations for the Equal Opportunity Commission.

After receiving a no probable cause letter of determination, Byrd filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court claiming discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Before trial, Byrd filed a Motion in Limine -- which is a request for an order to exclude the admission of particular evidence at trial. Generally the gist of the augment on a Motion in Limine is that:

  • the evidence is irrelevant, highly prejudicial, or hearsay and
  • the jury should not be able to hear or see the evidence nor should there be any reference to it

In this case, Byrd asked for an exclusion of EEOC documents including the Notice of Determination and Notice of Dismissal of her EEOC charge.

She argued that the EEOC “NO PROBABLE CAUSE STATEMENT" written in capital letters in the Notice of Determination were highly misleading, unduly prejudicial, and too conclusory to provide any meaningful probative value . She also argued that the jury would be likely to give the dismissal and “no probable cause determination” more weight than is appropriate.

The judge ruled against Byrd and in favor of BT Foods on the Motion in Limine.  During the trial, according to Byrd, BT Foods made the reasonable cause determination the centerpiece of its defense.

Byrd lost her jury trial and filed an appeal. In it she claimed that the court’s admission of the EEOC findings constituted reversible error which entitled her to a new trial.

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Could This Be News? Employee Fired Because She Was Too Old And Too Expensive Has Right To Age Discrimination Trial

Direct Evidence Of Age Discrimination Gets Plaintiff Jury Trial: Court Wrongfully Applied Mixed Motive Standard To Bounce The Case

It’s hard to believe that this age discrimination victim got thrown out of court and had to go to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals for a reversal but here’s what happened in the recently decided case of  Mora v. Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Facts Of The Case

Sixty-two year old Josephine Mora worked for Jackson Memorial Hospital ("Hospital') as a fundraiser. She initially worked for someone named Chea who recommended to the Hospital’s chief executive, Rodriguez, that she be fired. The reasons for the recommendation are not set out in the opinion. 

Rodriguez first agreed, but then decided to give Mora a different position in his own office “where he could observe her more closely.” Mora worked with Rodriguez for a month. Rodriguez claimed during that time Mora was responsible for several errors and displayed a lack of professionalism.

At the end of the month, Rodriguez fired Mora. When he did so, according to Mora, Rodriguez called her into his office and said:

I need someone younger I can pay less … I need Elena [Quevedo, a 25 year old employee]

In addition, one employee heard Rodriguez tell Mora:

You are very old and inept. What you should be doing is taking care of old people. They really need you. I need somebody younger that I can pay less and I can control.

Another employee heard Rodriguez say, "she's too old to be working here anyway" in reference to Mora.

In the course of  Mora's lawsuit filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, ("ADEA") Rodriguez denied making these discriminatory remarks. In addition, the Hospital argued that even if it did discriminate against Mora, she would have been fired anyway because of poor performance.

The district court agreed with the defendant, concluded that the Hospital had met its burden under the “same decision” affirmative defense, and granted judgment in favor of the Hospital. Mora appealed.

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JetBlue Loses Appeal On Hostile Work Ennvironment Age Discrimination And Retaliation Claims

Complaints To Supervisor/Harasser Are Sufficient To Overcome Affirmative Defense On Hostile Environment Claim

There’s lots of meaty reading in the Second Circuit case of Gorzynski v JetBlue Airways Corporation decided this month. The 31 page opinion hits multiple issues including sexual harassment, age discrimination, race discrimination, and retaliation.

The Federal District Court threw out the case on summary judgment. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.

Facts Of The Case

It’s a long story, but here’s the gist of it.

JetBlue hired Diane Gorzynski as a customer service agent in January 2000 for its operation at Buffalo International Airport. She was 54 years old at the time. In May 2000 she was promoted to the position of Customer Service Supervisor and stayed in that position until she was fired on July 5, 2002.

The customer service supervisors were managed by James Celeste, the General Manager. William Thro, a regional manager, was responsible for overseeing the General Managers of several JetBlue stations. 

During her employment, Gorzynski experienced age and gender discrimination including sexual harassment. She also observed discrimination of other employees. The main culprit was her supervisor, James Celeste. 

Gorzynski complained  to Celeste on numerous occasions about the discrimination and harassment she experienced and about  the discrimination and harassment of her co-employees.

She was retaliated against and fired, she believed, because of her complaints.

The Lawsuit

Gorzynski filed a lawsuit claiming that JetBlue:

She also claimed numerous violations on the New York Human Rights Law.

The federal District Court granted JetBlue’s Motion for Summary Judgment of all claims. Gorzynski filed an appeal.

The Second Circuit Reverses
The Faragher/Ellerth Defense

One of the most important and interesting parts of the decision is its holding regarding JetBlue’s affirmative defense on which the District Court hung its hat to throw out Gorzynski’s sexual harassment claim – and it’s a holding which can effect lots of people.

In order to establish a hostile environment sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must produce enough evidence to show that the workplace was:

  • permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is
  • sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and
  • create an abusive working environment

In analyzing a hostile environment claim, the court is required to “look at the record as a whole and assess the totality of the circumstances.”

In this case, Gorzynski presented evidence that Celeste:

  • grabbed Gorzynsi and other women around the waist
  • tickled them
  • stared at them as if” he was mentally undressing them”
  • made numerous sexual comments including remarks about wanting to suck on or massage their breasts.

The District Court did not consider this evidence. Instead, it found that JetBlue was entitled to win as a matter of law because of its “affirmative offense” under the Supreme Court Faragher and Ellerth decisions.

The employer is entitled to raise the defense in certain sexual harassment scenarios involving supervisors and co-workers if it can show that:

  • it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and
  • the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid the harm

With respect to the first element, JetBlue presented evidence of its sexual harassment policy (contained in its employee handbook)  which stated that: “any crewmember who believes that he or she is the victim of any type of discriminatory conduct, including sexual harassment, should bring that conduct to the immediate attention of his or her supervisor, the People Department or any member of management.”

JetBlue argued that Gorxynski was not entitled to proceed on her sexual harassment claim because she failed to take advantage of the policy in the handbook when she:

  • only complained to her supervisor -- the harasser
  • did not complain to other members of management.

The District Court agreed with JetBlue and granted judgment in its favor on Gorzyynski's sexual harassment claim.

The Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s conclusion and reversed.  It stated:

We reject such a brittle reading of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. We do not believe that the Supreme Court, when it fashioned this affirmative defense, intended that victims of sexual harassment, in order to preserve their rights, must go from manager to manager until they find someone who will address their complaints.


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Employee Fired Because Of Depression Wins Right To Jury Trial

Banker Terminated When "Regarded As Disabled" And Because Of Perceived Mental Impairment Has ADA Claim

Disability claims involving mental impairments can be tough. That’s why this recent case from a federal district court in the Eight Circuit is an important and helpful read. Here’s what happened in the case of Lizotte v. Dacotah Bank.*

Facts Of The Case

Alfred Lizotte was an assistant vice president of commercial lending at Dacotah Bank where he had been employed since 2003.

On Thursday, November 30, 2006 Lizotte consumed somewhere between 10-12 drinks at a local bar. On his way home, “and for whatever reason”, he decided he “had enough of this shit”, drove to a cemetery, took a gun out of his backseat, and called his sister.

When his sister arrived at the cemetery, he told her that he “didn’t want to be here anymore.” She unsuccessfully struggled to get the gun and called the police.

Lizotte drove away, was stopped by the police, and taken into custody. He was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric inpatient unit for four days following the incident. 

On December 1, 2006 Lizotte called his immediate supervisor and told him that he was unable to come to work. On December 5, 2006 Lizotte’s physician faxed a Dacotah Bank “Certification of Health Care Provider” form indicating that Lizotte could return to full work duties in a week.

On December 8, 2006 the HR director (Bobby Compton) sent Lizotte a letter stating: “Because of the impact of your action in the community, and the ability to perform your job, we are placing you on Leave of Absence to allow us to review the information and consider the issue.”

On December 14, 2006 Lizette met with Compton and two officers of the bank. He was given a letter to sign which said that it was his last day of employment. In exchange for signing the letter he got $6,500.00 in severance pay. Lizette unwillingly signed the letter and thereafter received a “Notification of Employee” resignation form which he refused to sign.

The Lawsuit

Several months later, Lizotte filed a lawsuit in federal district court in North Dakota alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The complaint also asserted several state law claims.

ADA: What’s The Law?

The Americans with Disabilities Act  law is quite complicated but here it is in a nutshell.

In order for an employee to establish a prima facie case under the ADA, he must show he:

  1. is disabled within the meaning of the ADA
  2. is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation, AND
  3. suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability

The ADA defines disability as:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities OR
  2. a record of such impairment OR
  3. being regarded as having such impairment

If a plaintiff establishes all of those elements, the burden shifts to the employer to produce a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the discharge.

If the employer establishes a legitimate reason for the discharge, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the reason given by the employer is a pretext for discrimination --- meaning that it’s a “phony excuse.”

The bottom line is after jumping through all of these hoops, there must be evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that the individual’s disability “was a factor in the employment decision at the moment it was made.”
The Court's Opinion In The Case

Regarded As Disabled

The bank argued that Lizotte’s claim should be dismissed as a matter of law because he did not have a disability as defined by the ADA.

Lizotte contended that he met the definition of disability because Defendants regarded him as disabled and mistakenly  believed that his mental disorder substantially limited the major life activity of working .

The Court agreed with Lizotte.

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Workplace Retaliation Results In $1.5 Million Dollar Verdict

Winning Plaintiff In Supreme Court Crawford Decision Gets Big Verdict For Title VII Retaliation

We often read about cases in the courts of appeals, including the ultimate court of appeals -- the United States Supreme Court -- in which the plaintiff prevails and gets the opportunity to take his or her case to a jury.

We study these cases because of the legal principles and precedents involved and how they will affect other clients and cases in the future.

We don't usually hear -- and it's not commonly reported -- what eventually happens to the plaintiff who won the reversal and got the chance to go to court. That's because some of those cases are settled, and the settlements are often times confidential. In other instances, the results of the trial simply don't make the news.

So I was really pleased this morning to read in one the bulletins I receive from the National Employment Lawyers Association about the fantastic verdict on Monday for Vicky Crawford, the plaintiff in the landmark United Supreme Court decision Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson Cty .

Here's what happened in the case.

Facts Of The Case

In 2002, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee ("Metro") began looking into rumors of sexual harassment by the Metro School District's employee relations director, Gene Hughes.

When Vicky Crawford, a 30 year Metro employee , was asked whether she had witnessed "inappropriate behavior" on the part of Hughes, Crawford described several instances of sexually harassing behavior including instances where Hughes: 

  • repeatedly put his crotch up to her window and
  • entered her office and grabbed her head and pulled it to his crotch

Two other employees also reported being harassed by Hughes.

Metro took no action against Hughes, but fired Crawford and the two other accusers soon after finishing the investigation.  Metro claimed it fired Crawford for embezzlement.

Crawford filed a lawsuit claiming that she was fired in retaliation for her report about Hughes's behavior in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII's Anti-Retaliation Provisions

Title VII has two provisions which prohibit retaliation in employment discrimination cases and make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any of its employees because:

  1. he or she "has opposed any practice which is unlawful" under Title VII
  2. he or she has "made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding or hearing under this subchapter"

These provisions are commonly known as the "opposition clause" and the "participation clause".

The District Court and Sixth Circuit Decisions

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Metro. It held that Crawford did not satisfy the opposition clause because she had not "instigated or initiated any complaint", but had "merely answered questions by investigators in an already-pending investigation, initiated by someone else."

The District Court also concluded that Crawford's claim failed under the participation clause because it held that the only circumstances in which an employee would be protected from retaliation for participation in an employer's internal investigation was where "the investigation occur[ed] pursuant to a pending EEOC charge."

Crawford appealed and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on the same grounds.

Crawford next filed a petition for certiorari requesting that the United States Supreme Court accept the case. The petition was granted.

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Gender Based Profanity Constitutes Sexual Harassment

C.H. Robinson Loses Another Sexual Harassment Hostile Environment Appeal

I read about this case decided by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week with great interest. In it the Court held quite clearly that a constant flow of profanity in the workplace can constitute sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

After reading it I thought,  "this sounds familiar."  In fact I thought, "I've already written about this case," so I researched my blog and there it was -- an almost identical lawsuit against the same company for the same awful conduct decided in June by  the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and I thought, "doesn't this company ever learn?"

Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. is  a long decision -- 27 pages -- and one definitely worth the read. In a nutshell, here's what happened in the case.

The Facts

Ingrid Reeves worked as a sales representative from July 2001 to March 2004 in the Birmingham, Alabama branch of C.H. Robinson.  She worked in a cubicle in an open area with six male co-workers.

During that time, she was subjected to an onslaught of foul and disgusting language at work on a daily basis.  Women were repeatedly referred to as:

  • bitch
  • fucking bitch
  • fucking whore
  • crack whore 
  • cunt

Co-workers also listened to a crude radio show each morning, displayed pornography on a computer, and sang songs about gender-derogatory topics.

Though she complained to her co-workers they persisted in the conduct.  She complained to her branch manager on at least five separate occasions and in two separate work evaluations. She also contacted two C.H. Robinson executives. Nothing changed, and Reeves resigned.

Reeves filed a lawsuit alleging that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What Happened In The Courts

The federal district court granted judgment in favor of C.H. Robinson and threw out the case. Its reasoning was that the offensive conduct was not motivated by sex and not directed at Reeves.

Reeves appealed. A panel of the appellate court reversed the district court's decision holding, among other things, that Reeves presented jury issues as to whether the offensive conduct was based on sex.

That decision was vacated and a rehearing en banc was granted -- meaning that the whole court was going to hear and decide the case.

The Eleventh Circuit Finds For Reeves

The Court started the opinion with some "core principles of employment discrimination law" in hostile work environment cases:

  • a plaintiff must show that
  1. her employer discriminated because of her membership in a protected group (race, sex, etc.) and that
  2. the offensive conduct was either severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms or conditions of employment
  • Title VII is not a civility code, and not all profane or sexual language or conduct will constitute discrimination
  • workplace conduct can not be viewed in isolation, but but must be viewed cumulatively and in its social context
  • a plaintiff can prove a hostile work environment by showing severe or pervasive discrimination directed against her protected group, even if she herself is not individually singled out

Applying these principles, the Court held that sufficient evidence had been presented for a jury to find that Reeves was subjected to a  "discriminatorily abusive working environment."

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Outback To Pay 19 Million For Sex Discrimination Case

EEOC Settlement Shatters Glass Ceiling

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a whopping 19 million dollar settlement of a class action "glass ceiling" lawsuit against Outback Steakhouse last week.

The lawsuit involved a class of female employees who claimed that they were illegally denied:

  • equal opportunity for advancement
  • promotional opportunities to high level profit sharing management positions
  • favorable job assignments, particularly, kitchen management experience, which was required for employees to receive consideration for top restaurant management positions

Stuart J. Ishimaru, EEOC Acting Chairman had this to to say in conjunction with the announcement:

There are still too many glass ceilings left to shatter in the workplaces throughout  corporate America. ...

Hopefully this major settlement will remind employers about the perils of perpetuating promotion practices that keep women from advancing at work.

Let's hope so. It's been almost 30 years since the Wall Street Journal popularized the term "glass ceiling" in an article describing the invisible barriers that women confront as they approach the top of corporate hierarchy.

The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and issued several reports between 1991 and 1996. The last report noted that among Fortune 500 companies:

  • 95 -97% of senior managers were men
  • 97% of male top executives were white
  • 95% of the three to five percent of the top managers who were women were white

I don' t know how much better the data would look today but my bet would be that the difference wouldn't be significant.  No doubt  ladies -- after all of these years, we still have a long way to go.

I have talked to hundreds of women through the years who confront these issues at work each day. Many just don't want to rock the boat to fight for the promotions they deserve -- and that's understandable.

That's why cases like this one are so important. Three cheers for the courageous women who brought this class action lawsuit and the EEOC's vigorous pursuit of equal opportunity for women.

 image: pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/wp-content/uploads/feminis_difference_lg.jpg 

One Shocking Incident Of Disability Discrimination Supports Verdict For Employee

Judgment For Employee Due To Employer's Failure To Accommodate  

I don’t remember ever reading a case quite like this one. The facts are quite graphic so be prepared. The story revolves around an incident of a store’s failure to accommodate a disability which led to a tragic result.

What Happened In The Case

A woman identified only as A.M. came to America in 1981 from El Salvidor after civil war broke out. She started working at Albertsons in 1987. She worked in various jobs, but at the time of the incident giving rise to the case, she was working as a checker. 

In 2003, A.M. underwent chemotherapy and radiation for cancer of the tonsils and larynx. The treatment affected her salivary glands which caused her to drink large volumes of water and urinate repeatedly.

While at work, A.M. was required to have water with her at all times and needed to go to the bathroom frequently -- sometimes as often as every 45 minutes.

Most managers accommodated her but on the evening of February 11, 2005, A.M. encountered a horrific problem.

She worked a shift that day which began at 1:00 p.m. and was scheduled to end at 10:00 p.m.

By 7:00 p.m. there were only three employees in the store – A.M. who was working as checker, another woman who acted as courtesy clerk (and was not allowed to relieve a checker), and Kellie Sampson – the person in charge.

At 8:00 that evening, A.M. told Sampson that she needed take a break. Sampson asked A.M. to wait because a delivery truck was coming

Some time later, A.M., who had a line of customers waiting to check out, called  Sampson and told her again that she needed to go to the bathroom. Sampson told her that she was unloading the merchandise and that she had to wait.

About 10 minutes later, A.M. still had customers in the line. She called Sampson once more and told her that she really had to go. Sampson said that she was busy and unable to come to the front of the store.

Unable to control herself, A.M. urinated while standing at the checkout stand. She was having her menstrual cycle, and so she was drenched with both urine and blood.

Understandably, A.M. was shaky and humiliated though she did not think the customers saw what happened. When Sampson finally got to the front of the store, A.M. went into the bathroom to clean herself.

Sobbing, she called her husband to tell him what happened. A customer observed her crying, asked what was wrong, and A.M. explained that she had wet herself because no one let her go to the bathroom.

The customer helped her to her car. She had a horrible drive home and thought about killing herself.

When she got home, still nervous and crying, she took a long shower and tried to scrub the smell off her. She wouldn’t get out of the shower and her husband had to remove her.

After that, she was unable to return to work and began to deteriorate psychologically. She became listless and withdrawn. She refused to see family and friends. She feared that people would be able to smell the bad odor she sensed about herself.

She had crazy dreams and couldn’t sleep. Each day, she took multiple showers to try and remove bad smells from her body. She shaved off all of her body hair, hoping that the bad smell would go away.

Eventually A.M. told a doctor that had thoughts about killing herself. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several days.

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Big Settlements InTwo Male Sex Discrimination Cases

Sex Discrimination Against Men Violates Title VII

It’s not often that you see cases involving discrimination against men, but in the last few weeks the EEOC has reported two noteworthy settlements.

The Sex Discrimination Case Against Lawry’s

In early November, the EEOC announced a $1,025,000 settlement of a class action lawsuit against Lawry’s Restaurants Inc., which operates steak houses in Las Vegas, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Corona del Mar, California. 

In the lawsuit, the EEOC charged Lawry’s with maintaining a longstanding company wide policy of hiring only women for server positions.

The policy, which has been in place since 1938, is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination because of sex.

Lawry’s claimed that the policy was based on long standing tradition. The EEOC found that the policy adversely affected a class of men on the basis of sex.

The parties reached an agreement to settle the case in early November. Under the consent decree Lawry’s agreed to:

  • change its practice and actively promote the hiring of men into server positions
  • provide monetary relief including a class fund of $500,000
  • pay over $300,000 to initiate an advertising campaign regarding the hiring of food servers
  • pay $225,000 for training its employees on compliance with Title VII and related laws
  • take additional steps to insure compliance with Title VII and the decree

In its announcement of the settlement, Olophious E. Perry, who managed the EEOC investigation said:

The EEOC will never condone discrimination in the name of so-called tradition. Every individual deserves a fair chance to obtain a job based on their talent and qualifications, regardless of gender.

It seems to me that there are lots of restaurants out there that still have male only, or female only servers. This case makes it clear that this is one "tradition" that has seen its day.

Cheesecake Factory Settles Case Of Male On Male Sexual Harassment 

The EEOC announced this week that Cheesecake Factory, Inc, a nationwide restaurant chain, will  pay $345,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit involving six male employees who were subjected to repeated sexual harassment at the company’s Chandler Mall location outside of Phoenix.

The complaint charged that the restaurant knew about and tolerated repeated sexual assaults against six male employees by a group of kitchen staffers.

The evidence included abuse involving the harassers:

  • directly touching the victims’ genitals
  • making sexually charged remarks
  • grinding their genitals against them
  • forcing victims into repeated episodes of simulated rape
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ADA Changes Better Late Than Never

New ADA Regulations Will Bring Necessary Change

I received a call from a reporter from MSNBC a few days ago. She indicated that she wanted to ask me some questions about the new Americans with Disabilities Act regulations recently put out by the EEOC.

The interview caused me to reflect on just how important the amendments to the ADA are --along with the new regulations --- and the struggle we have gone through to get here.

When the ADA was written, I remember being at a meeting in Cleveland with a group of employment lawyers which was sponsored by a committee of the American Bar Association. The guest speaker was a lawyer from D.C. and he was there to talk to us about the new legislation and give us a preview.

I remember listening to and reading all of these complex, confusing terms and thinking “this is going to result in tons of litigation and be a big nightmare." I walked out of the meeting and talked about my deep concern with some friends and colleagues from both sides of the bar.

We all seemed to reach the same conclusion – that this was going to be an ugly litigation mess -- and though we saw the handwriting on the wall, there was nothing we could do about it. The ADA was written and this is what it was going to say.

And indeed what our group of experienced employment lawyers predicted that day in 1990 turned out to be true. While the intent of the ADA was certainly noble, the way in which it was written has caused nothing but problems.

What’s more important is that the problems with the ADA have had a terrible negative effect on those individuals who were supposed to be protected by the legislation.

The ADA was intended to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. Because of the way in which the Act was written, combined with the way in which it has been interpreted by an exceedingly conservative federal judiciary, most cases got thrown out on summary judgment because the courts determined that the individual plaintiff employee was not disabled.

If he/she was not disabled, then he/she was not protected by the ADA from disability discrimination, and so they lost. Here’s an example of what I mean.  

A secretary gets fired for going to chemotherapy. We file a case of disability discrimination. The employer argues that cancer is not a disability as defined by the Act. The judge buys the argument and the case gets thrown out. (based on a true story)

That scenario occurred thousands and thousands of times. Employees with disabilities were getting fired, or not hired in the first place, or passed over for promotions – and the cases were thrown out of court because the employers argued that the person was not disabled so the ADA did not apply.

Those rejected included people with AIDS, people with cancer, people with MS, people with epilepsy, diabetes, with prosthetic devices and the list goes on and on.

As a consequence,  those of us who tried to represent these folks never even got to the stage of the case in which we had a chance to prove discrimination.

As I explained to the MSNBC reporter, in other discrimination lawsuits such as age, race, or gender discrimination cases, we don’t have a fight about whether the client is a woman, or over 40, or black.

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

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.

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Congress Introduces Age Discrimination Bill To Fix Supreme Court's Gross Decision

Age Discrimination Legislation Will Overturn Gross Decision

Last June, the Supreme Court issued the awful and controversial age discrimination opinion in the Gross v. FBL Financial Services case.

I wrote about the case at that time and predicted that it was just a matter of time until Congress fixed it with a bill that would overrule the decision and set the record straight on the fair standard of proof for age discrimination plaintiffs.

Last Tuesday, the Senate and House introduced legislation designed to do just that.

The bill -- introduced as H.R. 3721 -- and called the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimation Act, will put age discrimination plaintiffs back where they were before the Gross decision.

The bill will apply to all cases pending on or after June 17, 2009,  the day before the Gross decision.

Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the authors of the bill had this to say (as reported in the New York Times):

What our bill does is restore the intent of Congress, an intent that I believe the Supreme Court negligently ignored.

In Gross, the Court held that the Plaintiff, Jack Gross, was required to prove that age was the “but for” reason he was demoted from his job.

In other words, the plaintiff would have to prove that “but for" his age, he would not have been demoted (fired, hired, etc.).

Most interpret this as a new and more stringent requirement that age be the sole reason for the adverse employment action (though the case has conflicting language on that issue).

What's fundamentally flawed about the Court's interpretation of the federal age discrimination statute (ADEA) is that it's not consistent with all  of the other comparable civil rights statutes.

Simply stated, it makes no sense for an age discrimination plaintiff to be treated differently, and more harshly, than a plaintiff in a race or gender discrimination case. The method of proof and standard of proof has been, and ought to be, the same.

In other discrimination cases a plaintiff must prove that the alleged discrimination was "a motivating factor," not the  sole reason, for the challenged adverse employment decision.

This bill establishes that age discrimination cases are to be interpreted by the same "motivating factor" standard of proof.

The bill also explicitly recognizes the difficulty of proving discrimination cases and makes clear that victims of any kind of prohibited discrimination can prove their cases with direct or circumstantial evidence.

According to Senator Tom Harkin, one of the co-sponsors of the bill -- as reported in Workforce Management:

The Court invented a new standard that makes it prohibitively difficult for a victim to prove age discrimination

This extraordinarily high burden radically undermines older workers’ ability to hold employers accountable.

It’s no secret that workers over 55 have been hit hard by the recession. According to the EEOC, 25,000 age discrimination cases were filed last year, a 30%increase from 2000.

The last thing these folks need is a more difficult standard of proof when age discrimination is at play.

Fortunately, Congress has the final say on what its legislation means and how it should be interpreted. That’s why it gets to say that all discrimination plaintiffs should be treated consistently by the courts.

Let’s hope that this important Congressional fix gets passed soon.
 

image:blog.prospect.org   images1.wikia.nocookie.net

Important Decision From Sixth Circuit in Discriminatory Failure to Promote Case

Female Officer Wins Big In Fight For Discriminatory Denial Of Promotion

It’s not uncommon for women to be passed over for promotions they deserve – but proving gender discrimination has been difficult.

The good news is that the recent decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Risch v. Royal Oak Police Department will make it easier to succeed in these cases in the future. 

What Happened In The Case

Karen Risch was a patrol officer for the Royal Oak Police Department for seventeen years.

In 2005 Risch was passed over for a promotion to the position of detective. Two male applicants, who had lower scores than Risch under the promotion system used by the Department, were awarded the positions instead of her.

Risch claimed that the Department failed to promote her to a command position six times between 2002 and 2005.

Risch filed a gender discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal district court (Eastern District of Michigan) granted judgment in favor of the Royal Oak Police Department and threw out Risch's case.

On September 23, 2009, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.

Evidence of Pretext

Discrimination cases are hard to prove but here's how it's done in a nutshell.

The plaintiff can prove her lawsuit by establishing what is called a prima facie case which can establish an inference of discrimination. If she does that, the defendant must come forward with admissible evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.

Once the Defendant establishes a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its conduct,  the plaintiff must identify evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the employer's proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

A plaintiff can prove pretext by showing that the employer’s stated reason for the adverse employment action either:

  1. has no basis in fact or
  2. was not the actual reason or
  3. is insufficient to explain the employer’s action

In this case, the trial court granted judgment against Risch because it concluded that Risch failed to present sufficient evidence that the Department’s proffered explanation for not promoting her was pretextual.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed, holding that Risch did present ample proof of discrimination to to go before a jury.

Here’s the evidence the Court determined to be  evidence of pretext and gender discrimination.

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Eighth Circuit Sets Record Straight On Age Discrimination

Age Discrimination Plaintiff Gets Great Decision From Court of Appeals

It looks like a typical age discrimination scenario. A supervisor makes hostile remarks about older employees and expresses a preference for younger ones. An older employee with an excellent record gets fired for trumped-up reasons and a younger employee is hired to replace her.

What seems like an obvious case of age discrimination was not so obvious to the Federal District Court in the Western District of Missouri when it threw out the case of Baker v. Silver Oak Senior Living Mgt. Co. on summary judgment.

Fortunately, the Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed this month in an important opinion about the proper interpretation of evidence in an age discrimination case. 

What Happened In The Case

Kathy Baker worked as the director of assisted living at a center operated by Silver Oak since 2003. Her 2004 review was excellent in every category.

A few months later, Carolyn Thomas was hired as Baker’s new supervisor. After taking over, Thomas told Baker that:

  • Silver Oak needed people that were "young and vivacious, not slow and old"
  • Baker "needed to get rid of the dead wood"
  • Employees who had been fired were "slow and old"

She also told Baker that:

  • She dressed like an old lady
  • Everyone had to "keep up with" two supervisors who were in their thirties

The CEO, Eric Lindsey, made similar remarks at meetings attended by Baker.

Thomas also admitted that she teased Baker about walking slowly and having poor hearing. She also repeatedly asked Baker to fire and discipline older employees.

When Baker told Thomas that  "you can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old," Thomas responded that:

  • "firing older employees would allow Silver Oak to hire younger employees for less money'"
  • "younger employees would be better workers, have more energy, be more enthusiastic, and stimulate the residents"

After refusing Thomas’ demands to get rid of the older employees, Baker was disciplined and placed on indefinite probation.

The reason given was that Baker allegedly failed to get proper approval before admitting a special-needs resident and dismissed an employee without having an administrator present.

Baker claimed that that these allegations were false.

Following those events, Thomas gave Baker a negative performance evaluation and asked Baker whether she was going to quit. She said no.

A couple of months later, Baker went on an approved medical leave. She was called in at some point during her leave, told that she had been temporarily replaced and that she was being transferred to another city.

She was again asked if she wanted to quit and again she said no.

Shortly after that she was fired . The reason given was that she did not call in each day during her medical leave. Baker was 53 years old at the time.

Angela Thomas, age 30, temporarily took over Baker’s duties until a new director -- 22 year old Starr McGinnes --  was hired to replace Baker a couple of months later.

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Punitive Damages Go To Jury In Pregnancy Discrimination Case

Awareness of Pregnancy Discrimination Law Sets Stage For Punitive Damages

When you litigate a discrimination case, you never know for sure when you’re going to recover punitive damages. For those of us who represent employees, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals -- in the case of  EEOC v. Siouxland Oral Maxillofacial Surgery Assoc., L.L.P. decided last week -- made that job far easier.

What Happened In The Case

The case involves two women and their experiences at Siouxland, a medical clinic in South Dakota specializing in oral and maxillofacial surgery. 

The First Pregnancy Discrimination Victim

Richelle Dooley, was hired in December of 2001 and started work in January 2002. The day after she began, she filled out health benefit forms.

At that time, she told her supervisor that she was pregnant and that her baby was due in July. "Don't worry," the supervisor said, "we can hire a temp. while you're out."

The supervisor told two of the partners including the managing partner, Dr. Harvey Lee Akerson, about Dooley's pregnancy. Akerson decided that Dooley had to be terminated.

According to Kathy Fjellestad, Siouxland's business manager, this is what he said:

[T]he young lady we just hired is going to have a baby this summer. She isn't going to be available to work. It doesn't make any sense to begin training her.. when she won't be able to work the summer ... [W]e are going to have to let her go.

Fjellestad informed Akerson that Siouxland could not terminate Dooley because of her pregnancy. Akerson decided to fire her anyway.

He told Dooley that "her baby was going to be born during our busy season" and if they had known she was pregnant they would not have hired her.'"

The Second Pregnancy Discrimination Victim

In March of 2002, Angie Gacke interviewed for a position at Siouxland. During the interview she told the interviewers : "I don't know if this is going to be a problem or not, but I'm four months pregnant."

Shererena Kost, supervisor of  Siouxlands's surgical staff said:

Yes, it's a problem. Your are just going to end up causing more work for everybody else than you will be helping them.

One of the other interviewers recalled Kost saying:

Because of her pregnancy occurring at the time it was going to be occurring, that it would be best if she just continue her pregnancy, have the baby, have her maternity leave, and then we would talk.

Kost wrote on her resume that she was:

  • overqualified for job
  • needed insurance
  • "4 months pregnant!"

Kost informed Gacke later that day that she did not get the job. As set forth in the opinion:

Kost was aware throughout this process that discriminating on the basis of pregnancy was illegal.

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EEOC Goes After AT&T On Class Action Age Discrimination Case

Age Discrimination Claimed For Failure to Rehire Former Employees

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had hearings last month on recent and alarming developments in age discrimination including the effect on older workers of widespread layoffs, threats to employee benefits, and controversial recent court decisions.

In keeping with its commitment to aggressively enforce the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) the Commission announced on Thursday that it filed an age discrimination lawsuit against AT&T and a number of its subsidiaries.

A successful outcome, which is no doubt years away, would be a huge victory for older workers.

About The Case

AT&T, like many companies, offered various retirement incentive programs over the last few years, in order to reduce its workforce. In those types of programs, employees who meet the qualifications (usually a combination of age and years of service) are offered enhanced severance packages if they voluntarily leave the company.

Some of those employees later applied for openings at the company, but were not hired because they had previously participated in the program.

Since October of 2006, AT&T has maintained a policy which prohibited hiring employees who retired under these plans.

The suit maintains the AT&T’s no-hire policies have a disparate impact on employees and applicants for employment who are age 40 and over in violation of the ADEA.

The suit further maintains that AT&T has no legitimate reason or purpose for this policy.

Disparate Impact Lawsuits

Generally speaking, there are two types of employment discrimination cases involving protected classes (age, race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, veteran status) of individuals.

1. Disparate treatment cases:

  • involve proof that an individual was treated differently/discriminated against because of his/her protected characteristic
  • requires proof (with either direct or circumstantial evidence) of intentional discrimination

2. Disparate impact cases :

  • involve the company’s use of a neutral policy which adversely/more harshly affects a protected group
  • proof of intentional discrimination is not required
  • the plaintiff need only prove that the policy, while neutral on it’s face, has a disparate impact on a protected group when applied to current or prospective employees
  • employer must prove a legitimate business reason (a reasonable factor other than age) for the discriminatory policy

Disparate impact litigation was widely used in the 1970’s to combat race discrimination, particularly in the South. It has also been used to challenge various policies and practices which have adversely affected women in the workplace.

It wasn’t until fairly recently that the Supreme Court recognized the use of a disparate impact analysis as a way to prove age discrimination.

Therefore, there are very few cases on this topic, and none that I know of which has challenged a company’s policy of not hiring former  employees who accepted severance packages, voluntarily retired, and then later applied for open positions.

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Business Is Big Loser In Supreme Court Firefighters Case

Supreme Court's Ricci Decision Is Bad For Business and Everyone Else

It took me almost a whole day to read and digest the 89 page Ricci v. DeStefano decision. I have spent most of a  whole second day reading the commentary and analysis.    

Here's where I'm at regarding this case:

  • it's really hard for businesses to deal with   
  • it's also really bad for everyone else
  • it's procedurally unsound
  • it's got to go
Bad For Business

There is a general consensus that business is the big loser in the Ricci decision. Almost without exception, all of the commentary points to the fact that the Supreme Court has now made it harder than ever for employers to follow Title VII law which prohibits discrimination in the workplace. That's not good.

A described in a Lawyers USA article today, the lawyers who represent employers believe that they have been put in a "lose-lose" situation:

The outcome really puts employers in a box, said Andrew J. Pincus, a partner in the Washington office of Mayer Brown who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National League of Cities and other groups. Before, employers had some leeway. Under the new standard, they are really in a box because they will be facing costly litigation no matter what they do.

In sum, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision found in favor of white firefighters who claimed discrimination because of race when test results for promotions were discarded because no black employees scored high enough to be considered for promotions. The city feared a disparate impact discrimination lawsuit and set aside the test results.

The Court held  that an employer may not discard test results on account of race unless it shows a "strong basis in evidence" that it would be subject to disparate impact liability. Statistics alone are not enough to make a "strong showing in evidence",  but no one seems to know what is.

As Rae T. Vann,  general counsel for the Equal Employment Advisory Council, which submitted an amicus brief in the case commented:

“I think [the justices] made the situation a little more challenging as far as navigating that Catch-22 because they changed the rules of the game without giving employers the guidance that they need.”

Without knowing just what qualifies as a “strong basis in evidence” of the likelihood of being found liable for creating a disparate impact, many employers will chose not to discard a selection or promotion process that yields few minority candidates once it is in place, possibly drawing a disparate impact suit.

What's ironic is that this decision came from the Roberts pro business court. Ilya Somin wrote a very interesting piece about the subject in the Volokh Conspiracy and here are some excerpts:

The Supreme Court's decision in Ricci v. DeStefano has interesting implications for the longstanding debate over whether the Roberts Court is "pro-business."

The bottom line is that the business interests were among the big losers here. The Court's ruling makes it difficult for employers to use race-conscious measures to avoid disparate impact liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And this defeat was inflicted by the supposedly business-friendly conservative justices. Although Ricci addressed promotion decisions by a government employer, the same Title VII standards apply to private employers too.

 If a business adopts a race-neutral hiring or promotion standard that results in few or no minority hires or promotions, it is potentially vulnerable to a disparate impact lawsuit. As several Supreme Court cases make clear, that can happen even if the business was not intentionally trying to disadvantage minorities.

But if the business adopts race-conscious measures to try to shield itself from liability (e.g. - by practicing affirmative action, adopting a standard that is more favorable to minority applicants, and the like), it opens itself up to "disparate treatment" lawsuits by whites, such as one the filed by the New Haven firefighters in Ricci.

No One Seems to Like the Decision

It's not like anyone else likes the decision either. John Payton, the president of he NAACP Legal Defense Fund said that the Ricci decision is a "step backward from the goal of equal employment opportunity.

The law professors have written excellent articles for the academics and theorists on the many things that are flat out wrong and troubling about the decision. The New York Times Opinionator did a good job of gathering some of them.

One was an excellent analysis on the Workplace Prof Blog by Marcia McCormick. Here's a piece of it:

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New Supreme Court Age Discrimination Decision Will Be Gone In A Flash

Did the Supreme Court Discriminate Against Victims of Age Discrimination?

The only good thing to say about the new age discrimination case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. is that it will be gone in a flash. 

There are so many things wrong with it that it's hard to know where to begin, and because I really do believe that it will be legislatively overruled in the very near future, I don't want to beat it to death.

Let me say this. For those immersed in discrimination law, the opinion and the dissenting opinions are a must read.

For the rest of the country, I believe that the decision will have little impact and there are several reasons why that's so.

Case Background

The question before the Supreme Court was whether a plaintiff must present direct evidence of age discrimination in order to obtain a mixed motive instruction in a suit brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

It's a pretty dry academic issue with little to no practical effect in the real world of age discrimination litigation. 

For those interested in the background of the issues presented in the case, you can take a look at the article I wrote on the case when it was argued in March.

What The Court Did In The Gross Case

Instead of deciding the issue before it, the Court did two really strange things in this case:

  1. It decided an entirely different issue than the question accepted for review -- one that was not properly presented or briefed.
  2. The issue it chose to rule on manifested a complete disregard for Supreme Court precedent and Congressional intent.

Here's an attempt at an explanation.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that a person can't be discriminated against  in his/her employment "because of " his/her race, color, sex, religion or national origin.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") was passed in 1967.  Like Title VII, the ADEA prohibits discrimination in employment  "because of " age.

The Supreme Court has interpreted the "because of" language and so has Congress. 

The issue first came up for interpretation before the Supreme Court in the Price Waterhouse case in 1989.  In that case, Justice Kennedy pushed for a "but for" standard which meant that the plaintiff in a Title VII case would have to prove that "but for" his race (sex, national origin, religion, etc.) he would not have been terminated (demoted, transferred, etc.).

The Price Waterhouse decision rejected the "but for" standard and held that the plaintiff in a Title VII employment discrimination case bears the burden of  proving that membership in the protected class was a "motivating factor in the employment decision" in order to prove that he or she was discriminated against because of it.

Congress ratified the "motivating factor" interpretation when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991.The precise language of the statute is as follows:

An unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race, color religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.

What happened in the Gross case last week is that the majority resurrected the"but for" standard and held that:

To establish a disparate treatment claim under the plain language of  the ADEA, the plaintiff must prove that age was the "but-for"cause of the employer's adverse decision.

It's important to point out that Title VII and the ADEA have previously been interpreted uniformly by courts throughout this country including the Supreme Court.

After all discrimination is discrimination, and it make no sense to use different methods, burdens, or standards of proof for age discrimination cases than sex or race discrimination cases, and it's not been done before.

 Why The Decision Makes No Sense

For all of the reasons why the majority opinion written by Justice Thomas (joined by guess who) is in my opinion, just  plainly wrong (there are other words I would love to use but I am constrained to be respectful) I recommend that you take a look at  Justice Stevens scathing dissent. Here's a glimmer:

The Court is unconcerned that the question it chooses to answer has not been briefed by the parties or interested amici curiae.  It's failure to consider the views of the United States, which represents the agency charged with administering the ADEA, is especially irresponsible.

Unfortunately, the majority's inattention to prudential Court practices is matched by its utter disregard our our precedent and the Congress' intent.

Not only did the Court reject the but-for standard in [Price Waterhouse], but so too did Congress when it amended Title VII in 1991. Given this unambiguous history, it is particularly inappropriate for the Court, on its own initiative, to adopt an interpretation of the causation requirement in the ADEA that differs from the established reading of Title VII.

The Court's endorsement of a different construction of the same critical language in the ADEA and Title VII is both unwise and inconsistent with settled law. 

I disagree not only with the Court's interpretation of the statute, but also with its decision to engage in unnecessary lawmaking. 

(Justice Souter agreed with Justice Stevens and also wrote a separate dissent. He raised additional problems with the "but for" language -- not the least of which is that it's a tort concept of causation that has no place in the actual context of a discrimination case and its proof.)

What's Coming

The talk has already started about a Congressional bill which will overturn the decision. As reported in the Washington Times  on Friday:

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Harassed Female Wins "Locker Room" Hostile Environment Case

For all employees who are subjected to a sexually hostile work environment, the recent case of Gallagher v.. C.H. Robinson  from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is fantastic news -- and that's an understatement.

There are so many women who are faced with a regular onslaught of  dirty jokes, pornography, demeaning references about women, and sexual bantering in the workplace.  For those victims, this case is a godsend.

Here's what happened in the case. 

Julie Gallagher worked for C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. in a sales position in the Cleveland office. The area in which she worked had 20 employees and 3 support staff.

The sales staff worked in cubicles that were organized in pods in an open floor plan. Short dividers between the cubicles provided little privacy.

During the four months during which Gallagher worked at C.H.Robinson ("CHR") she described a “locker room” atmosphere characterized by unprofessional behavior and an environment that was hostile to women. 

According to the evidence the work atmosphere was filled with:

  • Prevalent use of foul language
  • References to female customers, drivers, and co-workers as" bitches, whores, sluts, dykes and cunts"
  • Pornography and nude pictures of girlfriends in various sexual poses
  • Dirty jokes and graphic discussions of sexual liaisons, fantasies and preferences on a daily basis

In addition, Gallagher was personally:

  • Called a bitch in anger on several occasions
  • Called fat and referred to as a “heifer with “milking udders”
  • Told that by hiring her CHR covered it’s “girl quota and fat quota”

Gallagher complained frequently to the branch manager, Greg Quest, but things only got worse. Four months after starting, and following an incident during which some drunk male so-workers “flipped her off”, she finally quit and took a job working for a former employer.

Gallagher filed a case for hostile environment sexual harassment under both state (Ohio R.C. 4112.02)  and federal law (Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964).

What's truly shocking about this case is that the district court judge -- for reasons that I am at a complete loss to genuinely understand -- threw out the case.

Fortunately, the Sixth Circuit wrote a fantastic opinion reversing the district court judge. Here are the highlights and the meat of the decision -- all of which will be very helpful to other victims of this sort of disgusting conduct in the future.

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Harassed Pro Choice Doctor Gets Million Dollar Lawsuit Settlement

 Retaliation  Because of Fight for Abortion Training Gets Doc Million Dollar Lawsuit Settlement

A $1.4 million dollar settlement was reached last week in this important case about a doctor's advocacy for reproductive rights.

Here's the story as reported by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Dr. Christopher Carey served for many years as both Chief of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Director of the Obstetrics & Gynecology Residency Program at Maricopa County Hospital in Phoenix.

While in that position, Dr. Carey supported providing OB/GYN residents the opportunity to participate in abortion training if they so desired.

Carey also spoke out against the efforts of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and others who wanted to end those training opportunities.

As a result, Carey claimed he was harassed and retaliated against  by the Board of Supervisors and other officials who:

  • carried on an eighteen month campaign to force Carey out of his position
  • spread false statements which damaged his reputation
  • worked to block his re-appointment to the Medical Staff
  • conducted multiple baseless investigations
  • voted to remove him from his position at the hospital

Carey was terminated from his position in September of 2004.

Carey sued alleging that his Constitutional rights were violated under the First and Fourteenth Amendments,  and that he was discriminated against because of his religious and moral beliefs.

A settlement of $1.4 million dollars was announced on May 22nd by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges which represented Dr. Carey. The case was set to go to trial on June 23rd.

In an interview after the settlement, Dr. Carey said:


I am extremely pleased with the settlement, but it’s important to remember that the shortage of abortion providers in this country is extensive.

A resident’s ability to obtain abortion training is crucial to ensuring women receive quality health care when they need it.

No doubt Dr. Carey is a real champion on this very important and controversial issue.  It's reassuring to many of us that Dr. Carey was vindicated.

In addition to the important principles concerning  quality health care, and freedom free from discrimination and retaliation,  there's a broader lesson to be learned from this case.

It was simply stated by Janet Crepps, deputy director of he U.S. Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights who said:  "Personal politics have no place in medical care."

It's not often that we see cases which send this message -- let's hope it gets delivered.

 Image:blog.lib.umn.edu

            s1.causes.com

Another Victory for Working Moms

I love the decision of Gerving v. Opbiz, LLC which was decided by the Ninth Circuit a few days ago. Thanks to mmmglawblog for pointing it out.

It’s a great example of  “caregiver discrimination” about which the EEOC issued a report just last week (I wrote about it : Read Carefully to Avoid Caregiver Discrimination), and it's a case in which the caregiver wins.

The case also has a very clear analysis of what kind of evidence allows a plaintiff to get to a jury in a typical gender discrimination case.  

Here’s what happened in the case.

Karen Gerving worked as a sales manager for Opbiz (Alladin Resort and Casino) until she was fired by her supervisor, Jim Lauster.

Gerving filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Gerving’s evidence showed that after she became a stepmother, Lauster:

  • began to give her poor performance reviews
  • told her that working mothers should stay at home
  • told her that she would have to choose between being a mother and a sales manager
  • made similar discriminatory remarks to a pregnant co-worker
  • treated  Gerving differently than a male co-worker when she was reprimanded for making calls to her children while he was not

Because of the discriminatory treatment, Gerving complained to the Human Resource Deparatment. Two weeks later, an angry Lauster tried to get Gerving fired.

It turned out that Luster wasn’t able to fire Gerving until some months later when new management was in place.

In a typical discrimination case, the plaintiff can establish an inference of discrimination if she can prove:

1)   she belongs to a protected class

2)   she performed her job satisfactorily

3)   she suffered an adverse employment action

4)   she was treated differently than a similarly situated employee who does not belong to the protected class

Once the employee establishes an inference of discrimination – what’s called the prima facie case – the employer is required to "articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason" for it's employment action.

If the employer does that, the employee must prove pretext – meaning that the employee presents evidence that the reason given by the employer is not believable or made-up.

In this case, Alladin said that Gerving was fired because of poor performance and because she used profanity in an argument with a co-worker.

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Third Circuit Sends Wake Up Call to Employers About Discriminatory Hiring Practices

In the spirit of National Equal Pay Day on Tuesday, I wanted to share the important gender discrimination case of Donlin v. Phillips Lighting North America Corp. decided by the Third Circuit last week.

Here's what happened in the case.

Colleen Donlin was hired by Phillips as a temporary warehouse employee at its Mountaintop, Pennsylvania distributions center. Her job was to help prepare orders for shipment.

Like other temporary workers, Donlin applied for a permanent position. She was not hired and her eight month temporary assignment ended.

Donlin got two other jobs after she left Philips. At the first job, Donlin earned  $14.70 an hour, but it was a 32-mile commute.

She left that job and found a job closer to home at which she made $13.00 an an hour. Had she been hired by Philips, she would have earned $14.67 an hour as a base salary

Donlin learned that Phillips hired several men for the position she had applied for after it refused to hire her.  She filed a Title VII lawsuit for gender discrimination,  won the trial and was awarded damages.

In discrimination cases, the compensation which can be awarded by a judge or jury  is designed to make victims whole and put them in the position they would have been in had they not been discriminated against.

A winning employee can recover "back pay" and "front pay."

  • Back pay represents losses from the the time of the discrimination up to the time of trial. 
  • Front pay represents the losses that the victim will experience in the future if he or she does not find a comparable position.

Based on the premise that Donlin would have worked for another 25 years, an advisory jury awarded Donlin:

  • $63,050 in back pay
  • 395,795 in front pay
  • for a total of $458,845

The award was based on the difference in pay and benefits between the $13.00 hour job she was holding at the time of trial and the $14.67 hour job she would have had at Phillips had she not been discriminated against when Phillips refused to hire her.

The judge modified the front-pay award by reducing it to account for 10 years of damages instead of 25, finding that a 25 year period was too speculative -- so the total award was $164,850.

Phillips appealed and the decision came out last week. The issues decided are very important for both victims of discrimination and their lawyers. 

Here are the highlights:

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Read Carefully to Avoid Caregiver Discrimination

Did you know that:

  • 90.7 % of families with children under 18 have at least one working parent
  • 1 in 10 workers cares for both children and an elderly relative 

It's well documented that most of that burden falls on women who continue to serve as the primary caregivers for children and sick or disabled relatives.

The result is that because of these responsibilities, women have suffered widespread discrimination in employment for as long as they have been working.

That's why it was really good news last week when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)  issued a document on best practices to avoid discrimination against workers with caregiving responsibilities.

The Work Life Law Center at UC  Hastings College of the Law  describes "caregivers discrimination"  this way:

Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD) is employment discrimination against workers based on their family caregiving responsibilities. Pregnant women, mothers and fathers of young children, and employees with aging parents or sick spouses or partners may encounter FRD.

They may be rejected for hire, passed over for promotion, demoted, harassed, or terminated -- despite good performance -- simply because their employers make personnel decisions based on stereotypical notions of how they will or should act given their family responsibilities.

The purpose of the new EEOC  document is to educate employers about what caregiver discrimination is, how it is manifested, and how it can be minimized or avoided. It also illuminates the not-so-obvious fact that men are victims too.

The report includes some good examples of flexible workplace policies and their proven benefit to both employees and employers.  Sue Shellenbarger's Wall Street Journal article on some of those programs is referenced in the report and is an interesting read.

The EEOC report also includes helpful examples of what this kind of discrimination looks like and here are a few:

Common unlawful stereotypes

  • assuming that female workers who work part-time or take advantage of flexible work arrangements are less committed to their jobs than full-time employees
  • assuming that male workers do not, or should not, have significant caregiving responsibilities
  • assuming that female workers prefer, or should prefer, to spend time with their families rather than time at work
  •  assuming that female workers who are caregivers are less capable than other workers
  •  assuming that pregnant workers are less reliable than other workers. 

 Unlawful conduct that results from the bias

  • asking female applicants and employees, but not male applicants and employees, about their child care responsibilities
  • making stereotypical comments about pregnant workers or female caregivers
  • treating female workers without caregiving responsibilities more favorably than female caregivers
  • steering women with caregiving responsibilities to less prestigious or lower-paid positions;
  • denying male workers’, but not female workers’, requests for leave related to caregiving responsibilities

Just to be clear, while caregiver discrimination has not been around as a legal concept for very long, it is not just theoretical.   Here's an example of some of the cases where caregiver discrimination has appeared:

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Supreme Court Faced With Perfect Storm In Firefighters' Discrimination Case

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in Ricci v. DeStefano a case which many are saying is one which may fundamentally change civil rights protection in the workplace.

As noted by Lia Epperson, a law professor at Santa Clara University: 

This is the Roberts court's first major decision on the issue of racial discrimination.

In the world of civil rights law, it doesn't get much more important than this.

When cases get to the United States Supreme Court, they are generally complex and this one is no different. Discrimination cases particularly,  in terms of the law, are never really very easy to explain but here's a try.

In order to understand the case at all, it's important to know the difference between the two kinds of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

disparate treatment discrimination

  • where a person is being treated differently --  because of his/her race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, veteran status or age -- than a person who is not in the protected class
  •  proven with direct or circumstantial evidence of an intent to discriminate

 disparate impact discrimination

  • when a neutral policy, standard or test has a disparate impact on a protected class.
  • i.e. if a company only hires individuals who are 5 foot 6 inches tall or over -- the qualification while neutral on its face, would have a disparate impact on women.
  • no intent to discriminate is required to prove these kinds of cases

These two types of discrimination are implicated  in this case and come together like a perfect storm for the Court. Here's what happened .

In 2003, the New Haven Fire Department was filling captain and lieutenant positions.  The union contract required promotions to be based on examinations,  The city contracted with a company to develop the exams which were given to qualified applicants.

Under the city's rules, once the test results were certified, the department was required to promote those individuals with the top three scores. It turned out that the Black applicants' pass rate on the exam was approximately half of the rate for white applicants which was not the case on prior exams.

The city was concerned that the exam was flawed.  City officials believed that if the results were certified, the city could be subject to a disparate impact discrimination lawsuit from the minority applicants who did not qualify for the promotions.

New Haven is a city where 37 percent of residents are African-American, 21 percent are Hispanic, and only 15 percent of the fire department's officers are minorities.

A group of white firefighters, and one Hispanic,  (the petitioners) who scored the highest on the test filed a disparate treatment discrimination lawsuit claiming that they were being adversely treated because of their race --- what is commonly called a "reverse discrimination" case.

The main question before the Supreme Court is:  Under what circumstances can a plaintiff prove a disparate-treatment case when the employer's justification for it's decision is that it acted to comply with Title VII's disparate-impact provisions?

New Haven's counsel pointed out the dilemna  as reported in The Washington Post:

 The city was placed in a position where it was bound to be sued by one side or the other and opted to "pause" and reconsider how promotions should be made

He added that if it is unfair to white firefighters to have the promotions scuttled, it would be equally unfair to black firefighters who were "locked out" by test results that did not truly produce a list of those most qualified.

"I certainly have sympathy for the plaintiffs, but at the end of the day it was the wrong test," Bolden said

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Why EEOC Claims Are On The Rise

There have been a number of good articles this week which reported the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's news that discrimination charges are on the rise. including the Workplace Prof Blog  the Connecticut Employment Law Blog,and The Wall Street Journal. There's also some debate as what these new statistics mean.

These are the statistics:

  • Overall discrimination charges are at a record high up 15%
  • Age discrimination charges are at a record high up 29%                               
  • Sex discrimination charges are up 14%                                                
  • Religious discrimination charges are up 14%
  • National Origin discrimination charges are up 13%
  • Race discrimination charges are up 11%
  • Disability discrimination charges are up 10%

I think it's pretty obvious that discrimination is going to occur in a time of economic distress.  When managers are given the opportunity to let people go, it is an opportunity to discriminate for:

  • younger managers who don't like or who are uncomfortable with the "old timers" and replace them with younger cheaper workers
  • men who think women should be at home instead of work
  • whites who don't like blacks and other minorities

I wrote about this topic last  week in an article about the hidden dangers of workforce reductions.  My opinion comes from thirty years of representing employees in discrimination claims and both proving and winning those cases.

Not surprisingly, those who represent managers have a different perspective. I just read an article on Job-Bias Claims Soaring  to Record Highs in 2008 which quoted a management lawyer with one of the top firms in the country.  His opinion was that there really is very little discrimination and that people are just looking for money:

Someone who has lost his job is in a very tough situation and may be looking for a number of avenues where he can replace revenue, said Gerald Hathaway, and employment lawyer with Littler Mendelson in New York.  But true victims of discrimination are rare.  Most commonly, someone files a claim thinking he's a victim of discrimination, but is not.

I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with a very well regarded insurance executive who handles discrimination claims nationwide and she sincerely expressed a similar view.

Obviously, there is a real difference of opinion.

Those of us who represent employees and have done so over time have seen the patterns of a spike in discrimination claims when downsizing takes place.  We have scrutinized the documentation, explanations, and business justifications for the decisions that have been made.  Often times the objective support for the termination decision simply does not exist.  In other cases we find that the particular manager has a history of racist, ageist, or sexist remarks, or that other minorities, women, or older workers were selected in disproportionate numbers by the same manager or management group.

Certainly there are some employees who believe that they were discriminated against when they were not.  Many do not understand what the term means or how discrimination is proven.   Many believe that they were treated unfairly, and perhaps they were, but an unfair decision is not necessarily a discriminatory one.  There is no doubt that some of the charges filed with the EEOC have no merit.

On the other hand, there is real discrimination that takes place in the workplace.  If these prejudices did not exist, there would be no need for civil rights laws to protect these groups.  These claims do rise in times of economic distress when people are being singled out for termination or layoff.The news from the EEOC this week is no surprise.

Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion. But it seems to me the belief that little discrimination occurs, or that most of the claims have no merit, or that people are just looking for money  is a belief that may not fully appreciate the real prejudice which still exists and is patently manifested in  times of economic distress.  

Image: eeopreventionorpenalty.com

One More Reason Why We Need the Employee Free Choice Act

There a host of good reasons why the Employee Free Choice Act should pass. They are very well articulated in the AFL-CIO website and AFL-CIO Blog. There’s also a wealth of information on TheHuffington Post.

According to those reports:                                                                                    

  1. 60 million people say that they would join unions if they could
  2. An employee who helps to organize a union has 1 in 5 chance of being fired
  3. Three quarters of the public -- nearly 73% -- are in favor of giving employees a fair chance to organize without employer obstruction and interference

There’s also a good reason for the passage of the Act I would like to share as an individual who has been representing employees for over twenty-five years. It may be obvious, but it's not often articulated.

Time and time again I have seen cases where employees were either prevented from or strongly discouraged from organizing a union.  In some of those instances, employees were given handbooks which looked similar in many ways to union contracts as a substitute or an appeasement.

The handbooks contained provisions, employees were told, which would give them similar benefits and protections to what they would have if they formed a union. The handbooks contained provisions for progressive discipline, layoffs by seniority, bumping rights and more.  The employees believed that they were protected and secure.

But when the time for layoffs came, seniority provisions were routinely not followed. Older employees were let go with 25, 30, and 40 years of experience. Women and minorities were fired in disproportionate numbers.

When we sued and attempted to get the provisions of the handbooks enforced we were told: “That’s just a handbook. Those are just 'guidelines’. It’s not a contract so we, the employer are not bound by it and can make choices as we see fit."  Most judges went along with the corporations.  The employees had no protection.

The result in tough economic times is that many employees in their 50’s and 60’s  are let go while the younger, less experienced employees stay on. The older employees lose the only jobs they had ever had with little chance of finding any work and no chance of finding comparable work – too young for social security, not old enough for retirement benefits, no health benefits without income to pay for it – not a good situation for our country.

And it's not safe.  Sometimes the older experienced workers -- those who know what they're doing -- are let go while the young and inexperienced workers are either retained or hired in to replace them. In many plants, it's a dangerous situation both for the workers and the community in which they live. I know of a case pending right now involving a chemical plant which frighteningly presents that precise scenario.

So unions are important for many reasons. But for someone who has represented countless individuals in age discrimination cases, they are particularly important in times of workforce reductions so that rules of fairness and safety instead of subjective attitudes of discrimination serve to control the harsh decisions that must be made.

Image: www.americasolidarity.org

White Employees Sticking Up For Black Friends Can't Be Discriminated Against

Is it illegal to discriminate against a Caucasian employee against because of her friendship with and advocacy for African-American co-employees? According to a new decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett, et al v. Whirlpool Corporation, the answer is yes. 

In this important case, three Caucasian production workers  sued Whirlpool claiming that they were retaliated against and subjected to a hostile work environment. They said it was because they were friendly  with African American co-employees and stuck up for them when faced with racial hostility at work.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 42 U.S.C. Sec.1981 both forbid discrimination on the basis of association with or advocacy for non-whites.

While admitting that association discrimination claims could be valid, Whirlpool contended that the plaintiffs' claims fell short because the associations with their black co-workers were only casual work friendships and not the type protected under these statutes. Only a significant association that extends outside of the workplace could give rise to a claim according to Whirlpool.

Put another way,  Whirlpool argued that the only kinds of  association claims which can be brought are the kind where an employee was discriminated against because of an intimate or family relationship with a minority like the cases where:

The Court  rejected this argument and held (like the7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Drake v. 3M ) that associational discrimination could be found in the case of friendship between co-workers of different races:

If a plaintiff shows that 1)she was discriminated against at work 2) because she associated with members of a protected class, then the degree of the association is irrelevant. … The absence of a relationship outside of work should not immunize the conduct of harassers who targets an employee because she associates with African-American co-workers.

While the Court  of Appeals found insufficient evidence to support two of the employees claims, it found in favor of the third -- Treva Nickens, a Caucasian woman who worked at Whirlpool since 1983 and testified:

  • it was commonplace to hear racist jokes and racist slurs including he word “nigger”
  • she complained on a daily basis about theses comments but that her supervisor refused to do anything to stop it.
  • she was harassed for “hanging around with blacks”
  • she was told that “she needed to stay with her own kind”
  • when she reported the conduct she was physically threatened
  • she was directly harassed by her supervisors
  • she was denied promotions for higher paying jobs because she spoke out on behalf of her African American friends.

The Court also held reaffirmed the proposition that advocacy on behalf of African-American co-workers was protected. According to the Court:

[A]s long as a plaintiff offers proof that she was, in fact, discriminated against because she advocated for protected employees, she may state a discrimination claim under Title VII.

The bottom line is that  when friends stick up for their minority co-workers in the face of discrimination or harassment, and as a result are subjected  to a a hostile work environment , there is legal protection.  I don't  remember seeing another case quite like it .

What's more, there is little doubt that its reasoning extends beyond race and can be relied upon to protect co-workers who stick up for women, the disabled, or anyone else in a protected class if the individual is then harassed because of it.

This is an excellent case for the promotion of fairness and dignity in the workplace and one that  all managers and human resource professionals should keep in their back pocket. 

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