Employee Rights Short Takes: Wage Discrimination, Paternity Leave, Disability Discrimination And More

Here are a few employee rights Short Takes worth noting:

It's A First: Major League Baseball Player Takes Paternity Leave

National Public Radio recently announced that Texas Ranger’s pitcher Colby Lewis became the first major league baseball player to take paternity leave. The new MLB collective bargaining agreement allows players 24 – 72 hours off due to the birth of a child so Lewis took advantage of it. Shortly after the news, NBC Sports reported that another player, Washington National’s shortstop Ian Desmond, was also preparing to take leave to be at his wife’s side during the birth of their first child. It comes as no surprise that some folks aren’t happy about the new rule. For more, read here.

New Rules For The Americans With Disabilities Act

New regulations were issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and will take effect May 24th. The new rules were mandated by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADAAA"). The law made significant changes with respect to the interpretation of  the term "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Before the amendments, many employees who were discriminated against were not protected because the courts narrowly construed "disability" and determined that they were not disabled. The change in the legislation, which is spelled out in the final regulations, makes it crystal clear that the term “disability” should be broadly construed to include coverage.  As legal commentator noted:

The message from Congress and the EEOC for business couldn’t be any clearer. Stop focusing on whether someone is disabled and focus on the potential discrimination and reasonable accommodation.

The new regulations also list certain impairments which will almost always be considered a disability including deafness, blindness, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, and major depression. Employees with these disabilities were often excluded from coverage in cases interpreting the law before the ADA amendments. In other words, thousands of employees who had cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, etc. lost their discrimination cases because their employers argued, and the courts agreed, that they were not disabled under the ADA.

The bottom line is that thanks to the ADAA and the new regulations, ADA litigation will finally turn on whether the disabled employee was discriminated against – not whether he or she meets the definition of disabled under the Act. This is really good news and it’s about time. For more, read here.

Discrimination Lawsuit Raises Issue Of Who Is A Man

I ran across this very interesting story in the NY Times  about a recently filed discrimination case and it's worth talking about because it will make new law. The case is about  El’Jai Devoureau, who was born a female, but identified himself as a man his whole life. In 2006, after he began taking male hormones and had a sex change operation, he adopted a new name, and received a new birth certificate from the State of Georgia which identifies him a male. His driver’s license and social security records also identify him as a male. 

The legal problem for Devoureau came up when he began working part time as a urine monitor at Urban Treatment Associates in Camden.  His job was to make sure that people recovering from addiction did not substitute someone else’s urine for their own during regular drug testing. On Devoureau's second day, his boss confronted him stating that she had heard he was transgender. She asked if he had any surgeries. He refused to answer, stating that was private, and was fired.

Devoureau sued claiming discrimination. Michael D. Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund said it was the first employment case in the country to take on the question of a transgender person’s sex.

New Jersey is one of 12 states that ban discrimination based on transgender status.  The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity nationwide was reintroduced in Congress in April.

In its defense, Urban Treatment claims that the firing was legitimate since the sex of the employee in this particular position is a bona fide occupational qualification (“BFOQ”), an exception to employment discrimination laws which permits an employer to give preference to one group over another in narrow circumstances.  (for more about the BFOQ exception, see here)

This groundbreaking case will certainly be an interesting one to follow.

Fair Pay Act And Paycheck Fairness Act Reintroduced On Equal Pay Day

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009 shows that women who worked full time earned, on average, only 77 cents for every dollar men earned. The figures are even worse for women of color. African American women only earned approximately 62 cents and Latinas only 53 cents for each dollar earned by a white male.

Accordingly, Senator Tom Harkin most appropriately chose April 12, 2011 -- Equal Pay Day -- to reintroduce the Fair Pay Act of 2011. Harkin has introduced this bill every congress since 1996. The bill would require employers to provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent in skills, effort, responsibility and working conditions. It would also require companies to disclose their pay scales and rates for all job categories.

Under current law a women who believes she is the victim of pay discrimination must file a lawsuit and go through what is almost always a long drawn out legal discovery process to find out whether she makes less than the man working beside her.

Many will recall that it took Lilly Ledbetter nearly 20 years before she discovered she was being paid less than men doing the same job which prompted her to file a lawsuit.  After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against her in 2007 -- because it held that the case was filed too late -- Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which helps level the playing field for victims of wage discrimination. The bill was signed in 2009  by President Obama – but it didn’t go far enough.

Harkin was also an original co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act which passed the House during the 111th Congress but was filibustered in the Senate. The Paycheck Fairness Act would close loopholes in the enforcement of the current equal pay laws, prohibit retaliation against workers for sharing salary information with co-workers, and strengthen penalties against employers for violations of equal pay laws.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was reintroduced on Equal Pay Day by Senator Kristin Gillibrand and Senator Barbara Mikulski. For more about it, read here.

It’s both disheartening and disturbing that women still must fight this hard for laws intended to effectively prevent wage discrimination which remains rampant in the workplace today.  For more, read here.

images: blogs.orlandosentinel.com  image.spreadshirt.com www.glbtq.comf

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 .

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.

Multiple Sclerosis Is A Disability

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

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

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

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

Being Regarded As Disabled Is A Violation Of The ADA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court Reverses Sanctions Against The Lawyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court said:

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

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

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

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

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

 Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Top 2009 Priorities for EEOC

There was an interesting piece by Catherine Moreton Gray which reported Peggy Mastroianni's (associate legal counsel for the EEOC)  talk at the Society for Human Resource Managers Employment Law and Legislative Conference  in Washington last week. In that discussion, Mastroianni outlined the Commission's top priorities for 2009.

Here's what she listed:  

Enforcement of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act: The EEOC will look closely at complaints it dismissed since May 27, 2007, the effective date of the Act to see if reinstatement is appropriate.  She said that the agency did not expect a surge in wage claims as a result of the new law.  It will be interesting to see if her prediction is correct.

GINA:  I wrote a post about the Genetic Information Non Discrimination Act in February.  In short, GINA prohibits the use of  genetic tests concerning an employee's own or family's medical history to make an employment decision.The EEOC is in the process of formulating regulations for enforcement of the Act.  There will be more to come about this law once the regulations are published.

ADA Amendments Act (ADAA):  The EEOC is working on proposed regulations for the ADAA. The big change of course is that the definition of the term disability will be construed broadly so that more people will be covered by the Act consistent with the Act's original intent. Mitigating measures, such as medications or prosthetic devices, can't be considered for purposes of determining whether a person is disabled.

I attended a Society for Human Resource Management Conference a couple of months ago.  The panel of management lawyers from the large firms all agreed on the advice to the HR manager attendees:  "treat everyone as disabled and accommodate." 

This is a good thing and it's about time.  According to Gray's article, one of  Mastroianni's remarks about the new amendments:  "employer's doing the reasonable thing won't have to make any changes."  We'll see.

Religious Discrimination:  I thought this discussion was  very interesting,  Three areas mentioned were:

  1. Scheduling cases: While an employer is not required to make other employees swap shifts to accommodate scheduling around religious observances, they can't interfere with employees switching on a volunteer basis
  2. Muslim prayer breaks:  Observant Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Employers may need to stagger breaks to accommodate this request so long as it does not pose an undue hardship on the business. This apparently has been a problem.
  3. Modifying duties: If pharmacists do not want to fill prescriptions for contraceptives on religious grounds, the employer may  have to accommodate and pass the prescription on to another pharmacist. Again, this is a story we have heard about, and it's good to see that the EEOC is tackling it.

We'll be talking more about these topics as the regulations and new cases get reported.

Image: www.theaccidentalitleader.com