Last year, we posted about a decision from the Southern District of Texas in which the court ruled that firing a woman because she was lactating or breast-pumping did not amount to sex discrimination under Title VII or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed the district court’s decision. In a none-too-surprising opinion, the Fifth Circuit ruled that taking an adverse employment action against a woman because she is lactating or expressing breast milk is a cognizable sex discrimination claim because (1) it imposes upon women a burden that male employees do not suffer, and (2) lactation is a medical condition of pregnancy under the PDA.
Is this earth-shattering news? Probably not. To most of us, it probably seems like common sense. But the opinion likely does represent a significant victory for the EEOC, which now has another tool in its belt to pursue pregnancy discrimination claims. Employers should be wise to know that pregnancy discrimination claims may now be viable for a longer period of time after childbirth than was the case prior to this ruling. The district court essentially took the position that a woman does not fall within the protections of the PDA after she gives birth to her child. Now, under the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, mothers could fall under the protections of PDA for as long as they are breastfeeding.
The Fifth Circuit was careful to note, however, the Title VII and the PDA do not require employers to provide special accommodations for nursing mothers to pump breast milk. Title VII and the PDA only prohibit an employer from taking an adverse employment action against a mother for lactating. Although the Fifth Circuit was careful to note this distinction, employers should remember that under the recent amendments to the FLSA imposed by the Affordable Care Act, employers must provide breaks and a room for nursing mothers to pump. Nursing mothers who are exempt under the FLSA are not afforded rights to pump in the workplace under either federal statute, but may be covered under applicable state statutes, which are summarized here.
Utah State Senator Steve Urquhart (R-St. George) is sponsoring a bill that would amend Utah’s employment and housing antidiscrimination statutes to address discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Urquhart introduced Senate Bill 262 to the Utah Senate Rules Committee on March 1, 2013. Currently, several municipalities in Utah have ordinances prohibiting employment or housing discrimination against LGBT individuals, but there is no state-wide protection against such discrimination, nor is the state’s Labor Commission empowered to investigate or remedy any such discrimination.
S.B. 262 would amend the Utah Antidiscrimination Act to make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against or harass an otherwise qualified person because of that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill defines “sexual orientation” as “an individual’s actual or perceived orientation as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.” The bill defines “gender identity” as “an individual’s internal sense of gender, without regard to the individual’s designated sex at birth.” Utah’s Antidiscrimination Act applies to employers employing 15 or more employees but does not apply to religious organizations or associations. S.B. 262 would also exempt organizations “engaged in public or private expression if employing an individual would affect in a significant way the organization’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints protected” by the First Amendment from the definition of “employer.” Thus, certain advocacy groups would not be required to employ LGBT individuals under S.B. 262 if doing so was inconsistent with their mission and would significantly affect their ability to advocate their viewpoints.
S.B. 262 also contains provisions aimed at dress codes for transgendered employees and whether an employer can require proof that an individual is legitimately seeking protection as a transgendered individual. The bill specifies that an employer may require an employee undergoing gender transition to adhere to the same dress or grooming standards for the gender to which the employee has transitioned or is transitioning. If an employer has reason to believe that an applicant’s or employee’s gender identity is not “sincerely held,” S.B. 262 specifies that the employer may require the person to provide evidence of his or her gender identity, such as medical or counseling records. With respect to restroom use at the workplace, S.B. 262 provides that the employer must provide access to a restroom that is consistent with the employee’s gender identity, though an employee undergoing gender transition has the burden to provide notice to the employer of his or her gender transition in order to receive protection under this provision.
S.B. 262 also empowers the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division to investigate and address violations of the Utah Antidiscrimination Act based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Whether or not S.B. 262 will make it out of committee and eventually become law remains to be seen. Stay tuned for updates on the bill’s progress.
EEOC's Multifaceted Effort To Aggressively Target Employer Policies Potentially Having "Disparate Impact"
As many of you know, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been on an aggressive tear of late on a broad range of issues. In addition to upping its investigations of charges of individual “disparate treatment” discrimination, it is undertaking a number of new initiatives that show a renewed focus on facially neutral employer policies that may have a (frequently unintentional) “disparate impact” on protected classes of employees. Because of the EEOC’s renewed interest in disparate impact, it is prudent for employers to be thoroughly reviewing and auditing their policies and practices to ensure they are not having an unintentional disparate impact on protected categories of employees.
Below is a quick run-down of the EEOC’s recent efforts on this front. These and other topics were covered recently in a Stoel Rives Labor & Employment Breakfast Briefing: "Back to School with ‘Hot Topics’ In Employment Law,” by Stoel Rives attorneys Brenda Baumgart and Ryan Gibson, on Sept. 11, 2012 in Portland, OR.
EEOC 2012-16 Strategic Enforcement Plan Targets “Systemic” And Other Forms of Disparate Impact Discrimination
On September 4, 2012, the EEOC issued an updated version of its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for 2012-2016, in which it highlighted its enforcement priorities now and in the coming years. In addition to highlighting education and outreach efforts, the SEP shows a strong focus on disparate impact concerns, including:
- Preventing “Systemic” Discrimination. The EEOC is targeting general practices, handbooks, online applications and similar policies that may have disparate impacts on protected classes of employees such as racial minorities, older workers, or disabled employees. Examples identified by the EEOC include “exclusionary policies and practices, the channeling/steering of individuals into specific jobs due to their status in a particular group, restrictive application processes, and the use of screening tools (e.g., pre-employment tests, background screens, date of birth screens in online applications) that adversely impact groups protected under the law.”
- Protecting “vulnerable workers.” The EEOC’s efforts here are focused on immigrant, migrant, or seasonal employees who, due to language or other barriers may be unaware of rights or are reluctant to pursue them. Again, the EEOC is focusing largely on systemic, disparate impact concerns, such as job segregation, pay disparities, and the unintended impact of English fluency requirements for particular jobs where language skills may not really be necessary.
- “Emerging issues.” A decade ago, the EEOC identified discrimination against Muslim and Arabic employees in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as an “emerging issue” in employment law. Now, EEOC has identified a number of new “emerging issues” where it has shifted its efforts. Those include enforcement of the 2009 amendments to the ADA (ADAAA) and related regulations, and the EEOC's recently recognized protections for gay or transgendered employees under Title VII. They also include another “disparate impact” concern: accommodation issues specific to pregnant employees who may be forced to take unpaid leave in lieu of (paid) accommodations—such as temporary job restructuring, reduced schedule, temporary job transfers, or light duty assignments—offered to non-pregnant employees with similar short-term health restrictions.
- Preserving Access to the Legal System. The EEOC is prioritizing investigation of retaliation charges, because they account for over 37% of all charges filed (the most common type), and because the EEOC believes retaliation amounts to a denial of justice by discouraging employees from exercising their rights. The EEOC also will focus on what it views as other “systemic” barriers to justice, including “overly broad waivers” and settlement agreements with releases that may unfairly discourage employees from exercising rights or pursuing claims.
EEOC Pilot Project To Directly Audit Employer Pay Practices Under Equal Pay Act
In mid-2012, the EEOC began a pilot program in three district offices (Phoenix, Chicago, and New York) pursuant to its authority to enforce the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), a 1963 statute that prohibits paying female employees differently for the same work done by male employees. While gender-based pay discrepancies are also prohibited under Title VII, the EPA specifically empowers the EEOC to conduct “Directed Investigations,” or audits, of employer pay practices to search for gender-based pay disparities, without having to wait for a charge to be filed as is often required for it to investigate alleged Title VII violations. This has been characterized as a fairly “radical” departure for how the EEOC conducts enforcement, and it is. While the EEOC has provided few details about how the program will work, at the very least it may simply call or show up at an employer’s doorstep and request policies and information related to pay practices. If it finds that your pay practices may show a gender-based disparate impact, it may decide to take further enforcement action.
Yikes! These audits could essentially subject employers to a form of wage and hour class action against the EEOC. And who knows what else the EEOC may find as a result of its audit, including potential evidence of other “systemic” problems it may wish to investigate further.
Employers, especially in the regions where the pilot project has begun, are well advised to conduct internal audits of their pay practices to identify and remedy any unexplainable gender-based pay disparities that could be unlawful under the EPA. Practical pointer: it’s often a good idea to involve your in-house or outside counsel in these internal audits to maximize the chance that any (potentially bad) findings are resolved and the process for doing so is protected by the attorney client privilege.
EEOC Guidance Limits Employer Use of Criminal Background Checks
A few months ago, the EEOC issued its long-awaited “Enforcement Guidance” document on when using criminal background checks can be unlawful under Title VII. The guidance will likely require many employers to revise their hiring policies and requirements that rely heavily on criminal background checks to screen applicants.
The EEOC’s focus here is, again, the “disparate impact” that facially neutral policies may have on particular protected classes. With criminal background checks, the implicated protected class is usually race, particularly black and Hispanic men, who studies have shown are statistically and disproportionately more likely to have a criminal record than members of other races. While the EEOC recognizes that using criminal background screens are appropriate for some jobs, excessive use can have a disproportionate impact on members of certain race groups.
Under the new guidance, blanket policies barring employment because of any criminal conviction will be heavily disfavored. Instead, the EEOC directs employers to adopt “targeted screens” for particular types of jobs, and also conduct an “individualized assessment” for each applicant affected by a screen. In developing a targeted screen, the employer is to consider the actual requirements of each job and justify why convictions for specific types of offenses should bar employment in that job. Although the guidance offers few specifics, as an example it is probably appropriate to screen applicants for jobs working with children for child abuse or molestation convictions, for recent drunk or reckless driving convictions in jobs requiring operating vehicles, or for theft or embezzlement convictions in accounting positions or jobs requiring handling large amounts of cash.
In performing the individualized assessment, the employer is to look at the type, severity, date, and number of prior convictions, and any extenuating circumstances such as rehabilitation efforts or post-conviction work history, to determine whether an employee with a conviction could nevertheless be hired. Under this approach, an employer may have a difficult time justifying not hiring an applicant for a computer programming job who has worked successfully for a decade simply because he was convicted for being drunk and disorderly at a college frat party in the 1990s. Conversely, an employer may be more justified in denying employment to someone more recently convicted of violently assaulting a coworker, who violated parole, and had been fired from his last job after a short time for insubordination.
The EEOC’s new guidance is technically not a fundamental departure—the EEOC first articulated its position on criminal background checks in the 1980s, and courts have long held that the use of criminal history screens (or any facially neutral policy, for that matter) can be discriminatory under a disparate impact standard. But, consistent with its renewed focus on “systemic” discrimination, the EEOC now appears to take a stronger stand that employer policies that broadly rely on using criminal history to screen out applicants will be presumed to be discriminatory, and that employers have the burden to show the screen is justified.
Employers that use criminal history to screen applicants should review such policies, with a particular eye toward identifying any “blanket” screens (e.g., we don’t hire anyone with any criminal conviction ever). It may be prudent to then develop detailed written policies implementing the targeted screen and individualized assessment approach promulgated by the EEOC. Employers should also begin training managers and recruiters on the new standards.
In conclusion, it is important for employers to be aware of these areas of concern to the EEOC, and review policies or practices for potential "systemic" or "disparate impact" effects. And we will also be closely following any other new initiatives the EEOC may consider in the future.
On September 13, the Washington Supreme Court held that a 2006 amendment to the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, does not apply retroactively. But the Court also held that evidence of pre-amendment harassment is admissible to show why post-amendment conduct is discriminatory.
Loeffelholz, a lesbian, sued the University of Washington in 2009, alleging that Lukehart, her supervisor, harassed her from 2003 to 2006 because of her sexual orientation. She claimed that Lukehart’s conduct had created a hostile work environment. She alleged only one incident, however, that occurred after the effective date of the 2006 amendment, and that incident was not explicitly related to her sexual orientation. The trial court dismissed her claim, stating that Lukehart’s post-amendment conduct was insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim. The court of appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court affirmed in part.
The Supreme Court first determined that the 2006 amendment applies only prospectively. Thus, Loeffelholz was not entitled to recover for Lukehart’s actions before the amendment’s effective date. The Supreme Court held, however, that evidence of Lukehart’s pre-amendment conduct was admissible as context to prove that his post-amendment behavior was discriminatory. The only explicit comments Lukehart made regarding Loeffelholz’s sexual orientation, asking if she was gay and telling her not to “flaunt it,” occurred when she started working in 2003. The Court further held that if Loeffelholz prevailed in her post-amendment hostile work environment claim, she would be entitled to damages from the effective date of the amendment, not just from the date of Lukehart’s post-amendment conduct.
Thus, while Loeffelholz v. University of Washington precludes recovery for sexual orientation discrimination occurring before the amendment, it does allow employees to bolster sexual orientation discrimination claims with evidence of pre-amendment conduct.
In Short v. Battle Ground School District, Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals held last week that Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, which makes it unlawful for employers to discharge employees because of creed, does not require employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.
Julie Short, a devout Christian, was employed as an assistant to the superintendent of the Battle Ground School District. Ms. Short alleged that the superintendent demanded that she to lie to a colleague about the existence of a meeting, even after she informed the superintendent that lying was contrary to her religious beliefs. After quitting her job, Ms. Short filed a lawsuit. One of the claims she brought was for failure to accommodate her religious beliefs. The trial court dismissed Ms. Short’s claim on summary judgment.
The Court of Appeals affirmed. It acknowledged that such a claim exists under federal law, as Title VII expressly imposes an affirmative duty on employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices. Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, however, pre-dates Title VII and does not contain similar language. The Court of Appeals declined to read a duty to accommodate religious beliefs into the statute without any indication from the legislature or the Washington Human Rights Commission that such a duty was intended.
While the Short case is a victory for employers, the question of whether Washington’s Law Against Discrimination requires employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs will not be resolved definitively unless and until the Washington Supreme Court takes up the issue. It declined to do so in Hiatt v. Walker Chevrolet Co., a case decided almost 20 years ago, and has not readdressed the issue since. In Hiatt, the Court recognized that Washington’s Law Against Discrimination did not expressly provide for a failure-to-accommodate claim but noted that it might implicitly require such accommodation. The Court declined to address the issue without more briefing, stating that it was an “important and complex question” that could have “constitutional implications.”
It is also well-settled that Title VII requires employers with 15 or more employees to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices, unless to do so would create an undue hardship upon the employer.
Last week, we reported that several senators had introduced new amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") to make it easier for plaintiffs in age discrimination cases to prove their claims. U.S. Senators aren't the only ones busy refining federal age discrimination laws - on March 30, 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published its final rule on the “reasonable factors other than age” (RFOA) defense under the ADEA. Acting in response to two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Smith v. City of Jackson in 2005 and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories in 2008, the rule bring the EEOC regulations in line with Supreme Court precedent and clarifies the scope of the RFOA defense.
In Smith, the Supreme Court held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the ADEA. The Court further held that a practice having a disparate impact on older workers need only be justified by “reasonable” factors other than age; an employer need not satisfy the more rigorous “business necessity” defense applicable to Title VII claims. In Meacham, the Court held that the employer bears the burden of production and persuasion on the RFOA defense.
The regulation points out that the EEOC believes that “reasonable” factors other than age reflects a higher standard than a simple “rational basis” standard. According to the EEOC, equating the RFOA defense with a rational-basis standard would improperly conflate ADEA disparate-treatment and disparate-impact standards of proof: “If an employer attempting to establish the RFOA defense were only required to show that it had acted rationally, then the employer would merely be required to show that it had not engaged in intentional age discrimination.”
The rule provides a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered in determining whether an employment practice is based on RFOA:
- The extent to which the factor is related to the employer’s stated business purpose;
- The extent to which the employer defined the factor accurately and applied the factor fairly and accurately, including the extent to which managers and supervisors were given guidance or training bout how to apply the factor and avoid discrimination;
- The extent to which the employer limited supervisors’ discretion to assess employees subjectively, particularly where the criteria that the supervisors were asked to evaluate are known to be subject to negative age-based stereotypes;
- The extent to which the employer assessed the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers; and
- The degree of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the extent of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took steps to reduce the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps.
The final rule makes clear that the EEOC will take a very dim view of an employer’s RFOA defense where supervisors are given broad discretion to make subjective decisions. Accordingly, prudent employers will take steps to ensure that decisions are made consistent with business purpose, that supervisors are properly trained, and that supervisors exercise their discretion in a way that does not violate the ADEA.
For more information, visit EEOC’s Questions and Answers page. The rule will take effect on April 30, 2012.
On March 12, several senators introduced Senate Bill 2189, known as the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would overturn a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case, Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc, that had made it more difficult for older workers to prove claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"). Under the new bill, it would be much easier for employees to prove age discrimination in many cases.
In the Gross case, the Supreme Court held, by a 5-4 margin, that the “mixed motive” analysis of discrimination claims was not available under the ADEA, and that plaintiffs asserting age discrimination must prove that age was the “but for” cause of the adverse employment action. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which codified the mixed motive analysis in cases of race, sex, and other protected statuses, only applied to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and not the ADEA, which is a separate statutory scheme. Under Gross, in ADEA cases the plaintiff was required to prove that age was the “but for” cause of the employment action, not simply a motivating factor.
This bill is sponsored by Senators from both parties (Sen. Harkin [D-IA], Sen. Grassley [R-IA], and Sen. Leahy [D-VA]), but exactly how much support it has remains to be seen. Similar bills were introduced in both the House and Senate in 2009, but neither were voted on. It remains to be seen whether this bill will gain traction or suffer a similar fate.
Seasons' Greetings From The California Legislature--New Laws That Apply To Employers In January 2012
The California legislature has done plenty this year to leave in employers' stockings for the holidays--new employment laws that will become effective January 1, 2012. In addition to the new California Transparency in Supply Chains Act we blogged about earlier, after some eggnog and holiday cheer, employers will need to be aware of new legal obligations that will kick in as we kick off 2012. Here are the highlights.
“Anti-Wage Theft” Law (AB 469). The Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2011 requires employers to provide non-exempt employees, at the time of hiring, a notice specifying the employee’s rate or rates of pay and the basis on which the employee’s wages are to be calculated (such as hourly, daily, piece, salary, commission, etc.). The notice must also include applicable overtime rates, allowances (if any) claimed as part of the minimum wage, the employer’s designated regular payday, the name of the employer (including any “doing business as” names), the employer’s physical and mailing addresses, and contact information for the employer’s workers’ compensation carrier. The Act also requires the employer to notify employees in writing of any changes made to any of this information within seven days of the implementation of such changes, unless the changes are reflected on a timely wage statement or other writing required by law. The Act adds an element of criminal liability by providing that any employer who willfully fails to pay wage-related Labor Commissioner orders or court judgments is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Independent Contractors (SB 459). This new law cracks down on employers who misclassify their employees as independent contractors by imposing a fine of between $5,000 and $25,000 for “willfully” misclassifying a worker as an independent contractor. “Willful misclassification” means avoiding employee status for an individual by voluntarily and knowingly misclassifying that individual as an independent contractor. The law also imposes joint and several liability for a non-attorney consultant to advise an employer to willfully misclassify someone as an independent contractor.
Background Checks (AB 22). This law prohibits most employers from obtaining or relying on consumer credit reports regarding employees or job applicants, except in certain specified limited circumstances. The law does not apply to financial institutions or entities required by law to perform credit checks. Under the new law, employers may still obtain and rely upon credit reports for managerial employees covered by the executive exemption.
Pregnancy Disability Leave (AB 592 and SB 299). This law expressly prohibits “interference” with the exercise of any right provided under the California Family Rights Act, or due to disability by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. In a provision that may prove to be preempted by ERISA, the law also requires employers to maintain and pay for health coverage under a group health plan for any eligible female employee who takes up to four months of leave due to pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition in a twelve month period.
Gender Identity and Expression (AB 887). Existing law prohibits discrimination and harassment based on gender. This law expands the definition of “gender” to include both gender identity (how the person sees him or herself) and gender expression (how other people view the person). Under the new law, an employee must be permitted to dress consistent with the employee’s gender identity and expression.
Genetic Information Discrimination (SB 559). Discrimination in hiring or employment based on genetic information is now unlawful under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Genetic information is defined to include the individual employee’s genetic tests, the genetic tests of the employee’s family members, and the manifestation of a disease or disorder in the employee’s family members.
Commission Agreements (AB 1396). This law requires all contracts for employment involving commissions as a method of payment to be in writing and to set forth a method by which the commissions are required to be computed and paid. The employee must be given a signed copy, and the employer must obtain a signed receipt from each employee. This law does not take effect until January 1, 2013, so employers have a year to prepare for compliance.
Agricultural Labor Relations (SB 126). This law authorizes the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify union elections when employer misconduct affects the outcomes.
As almost everyone knows, last week President Obama presented a $447 billion jobs bill, called the American Jobs Act, to a joint session of Congress full of proposals designed to stimulate the lagging U.S. economy. What many people probably don't know is that, tucked into the bill, is a provision that would make it unlawful for employers to refuse to hire someone because that person is unemployed. This small part of the stimulus bill would create an entirely new protected class under federal discrimination law—the unemployed person. If enacted it could expose employers to a raft of new employment discrimination lawsuits.
What The Bill Says
Section 375 of the proposed bill actually has several anti-discrimination provisions. First, it prohibits employers and employment agencies from refusing to hire an individual “because of the individual’s status as unemployed,” including prohibiting employers from directing employment agencies to do so. It also contains a broad anti-retaliation provision prohibiting employers from interfering or refusing to hire someone because the person reports a violation of the Act. The Act will provide many of the same remedies available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—the same federal law that prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, or sex—including the right to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), or file a lawsuit to recover money damages and attorney fees.
The bill would also prohibit employers and employment agencies from expressly advertising in written job posts that unemployed persons are automatically disqualified from applying.
The Rub: Full Employment...For Employment Lawyers
While the bill expressly states that it is not intended to preclude employers from considering an individual’s employment history or even from “examining the reasons underlying an individual’s status as unemployed,” that subtle distinction will be a small comfort to employers. Employers routinely scrutinize employment history, and employment “gaps” on a resume have always been a red flag to hiring managers. Under this new law, however, employers would need to walk a very fine line between scrutinizing only the “reasons underlying” unemployment, while avoiding letting the fact the person is unemployed to begin with affect a hiring decision.
Those types of mental gymnastics are not only difficult for hiring managers to keep straight while reviewing job applicants, the distinction will be even harder to prove in court if the employer is later sued. As a practical matter, any unemployed person rejected from a job could demonstrate a prima facie claim for discrimination simply by showing he or she was unemployed and then didn’t get the job. Further, the cases will invariably turn on "yes you did, no I didn't" factual disputes about the hiring decision: did the employer make the decision because of reasons underlying the person's unemployment (lawful) or simply because the person was unemployed (unlawful)? Because of those subtle factual nuances, and procedural rules that presume the truth of a plaintiff's allegations until trial, it could be virtually impossible to get even baseless claims dismissed before trial, such as at summary judgment. That makes defending those cases much more difficult and expensive.
While much remains unsettled about the state of the U.S. economy, including whether Congress will even pass the American Jobs Act, one thing is very certain. If the current anti-discrimination provision in the American Jobs Act passes, employers will be seeing a lot more discrimination claims from a whole new protected class of protected people--the unhired unemployed.
A recent decision from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reminds employers of their affirmative duty to engage in an interactive process once an employee raises a medical condition and requests some change to their work environment to accommodate it. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act at issue in Harden v. Social Security Administration, protect an employee from discrimination based on a disability, where the employee can otherwise perform his or her job with a reasonable accommodation. Tips for the interactive process are provided below, and next week we will go through a “hypothetical.”
In Harden, a claims assistant who was frequently late notified the SSA about her depression and general anxiety which were causing her problems sleeping and functioning early in the morning. She requested approval to arrive between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., rather than between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. like other employees, or else to use leave rather than leave without pay or discipline. The claims assistant supplied the SSA some medical documentation, but the SSA found that the documentation did not show that her medical condition kept her from getting to work before 9:00 a.m. The SSA denied the employee’s request for a modified schedule, and disciplined her when she was again tardy.
Based on information about the employee’s medical condition that came out during the EEOC complaint process, the EEOC found that the SSA engaged in discrimination. The claims assistant had a disability that could have been reasonably accommodated with a modified schedule. The EEOC disagreed with the SSA’s argument that medical documentation provided during the complaint process was irrelevant to the SSA’s decision to deny the modified schedule and discipline the employee.
What does Harden teach us? Disability discrimination laws place affirmative duties on employers to engage in a meaningful process after an employee raises a medical condition. Do not cut short the interactive process because the facts will come out eventually. This 4-step process provides a helpful framework for an ADA request.
1. Get the facts: What is the medical condition? Get documentation from the employee’s doctor if necessary (with an appropriate release), including any limitations and potential accommodations. Allow the employee or doctor to provide additional information if you are not satisfied. What is this employee’s job? Identify the essential functions of her position. Is the employee performing the job, except for reasons related to her disability?
2. Decide whether the employee is eligible for an accommodation: Based on the facts, is the employee qualified for the job? Can he or she perform the essential functions of the job, with or without an accommodation? Determine whether the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Is the employee regarded as having such impairment?
3. Have an interactive dialogue with the employee about an accommodation: Ask the employee what he or she wants. Quite frequently, this simple communication can result in a practical, cost-effective solution that works for everyone involved. Can the employee do the essential functions of the job with the employee’s proposed accommodation? Identify other accommodations that may work, and consider the effectiveness of each proposed accommodation. Discuss the cost and burden of each effective accommodation and assess whether it would be an “undue hardship.”
4. Put the accommodation into action: Document the dialogue with employee. Choose and implement an accommodation. Document the expectations on all sides. Inform others of the accommodation, only to the limited extent they must know (such as a supervisor). Ensure confidentiality at all times, and maintain a separate confidential file for the employee’s medical documentation. Reassess the effectiveness of the accommodation after a time.
Retaliation claims are increasing at an alarming pace. Not only have these claims tripled in number within the last two decades, they now exceed race discrimination as the leading claim filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Click here to see EEOC statistics.
Why the startling trend? First, Congress has gone to great lengths to protect employees’ rights to speak out against unlawful employment practices. Protections are regularly included in new laws, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
Second, courts have adopted a broad definition of what constitutes retaliation and who should be protected. An employee must prove she engaged in a protected activity (like reporting harassment) and suffered an adverse employment action as a result (like being passed over for a promotion). An employer may ultimately defeat the harassment claim, but still face liability for retaliation. Third parties also may be protected from retaliation. For instance, in a recent United States Supreme Court decision the court found that the fiance of an employee who files a discrimination complaint is protected from retaliation under Title VII.
Third, jurors understand retaliation claims because they involve natural reactions to being accused of something awful, like sexual harassment. Jurors know how natural it is for the accused to have negative feelings after such an accusation, and at the same time jurors will sympathize with an employee who allegedly suffers for rocking the boat by making a complaint.
So what’s an employer to do?
- Start with a clear anti-retaliation policy and train employees on it. Include an outlet for employees to raise retaliation concerns.
- Counsel supervisors to be vigilant in their efforts to be objective, to exercise restraint, and to avoid knee-jerk reactions, and educate supervisors on how to spot situations where retaliation among co-workers is a risk.
- Limit retaliatory behavior between employees by limiting the number of people who know about employee complaints.
- Establish consistent processes that will catch subtle or unintended retaliation, so that employment decisions are based on legitimate business-related factors.
- Timely investigate and address any appearance or allegation of retaliation.
Meghan M. Kelly also contributed to this post.
In an unpublished opinion in Conitz v. Teck Alaska Inc. the Ninth Circuit held that an Alaska Native corporation’s shareholder employment preference was not facially discriminatory because it was based on shareholder status, not racial status.
Teck employee Gregg Conitz works at the Red Dog Mine, which Teck operates and NANA Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation, owns. Conitz alleged that he was passed over for promotions as a result of Teck’s policy favoring NANA shareholders in hiring – a preference Conitz argued was racially discriminatory because the majority of NANA shareholders are Alaska Native. The district court found that Teck’s employment preference for NANA shareholders was not a racial distinction and therefore did not violate either the Civil Rights Act or any other provisions of federal or state law. Given this, the district court declined to address Teck’s argument that as a joint venture between NANA and Teck, the Red Dog Mine is exempt from Title VII under a provision of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The district court also found that Conitz failed to show he was qualified for the promotion, and therefore failed to make out a case of discrimination under Title VII.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that a shareholder preference is not facially discriminatory because it favors candidates based on shareholder status, not race. The court also found that Conitz failed to show the elements of a prima facie case of discrimination under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Conitz did not demonstrate he was qualified for the supervisory position and was, in fact, not promoted because he was not qualified. The court declined to decide whether the shareholder preference policy constitutes racial discrimination since the policy did not affect Conitz.
Today the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, upholding the "cat's paw" theory of employer liability, under which employers are liable for discrimination where lower-level supervisors with discriminatory motives influence, but do not make, adverse employment decisions made by higher-level managers. The near unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, is likely to greatly increase employer accountability for the actions and recommendations of lower-level supervisors.
Vincent Staub worked for Procter Hospital as an angiography technician; he was also a member of the Army Reserves. His immediate supervisors resented his absences, which required coworkers to “bend over backwards” to pick up the slack. In January 2004 Staub was placed on Corrective Action for failing to be at his desk as required, and in April 2004 his supervisor informed HR that Staub was again away from his desk without notifying a supervisor as required. Staub disputed the original Corrective Action, and also said he left a voice mail for his supervisor before leaving his desk in April. The HR Manager largely relied on the supervisor’s accusation, reviewed Staub’s personnel file, consulted with another HR employee, and decided to terminate Staub’s employment.
Staub sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”), which prohibits discrimination based on military service. Under the so-called “cat’s paw” theory, Staub claimed that Procter Hospital was liable for discrimination, because the neutral decision-maker (the HR Manager) relied on information provided by lower-level supervisors who had discriminatory motives and were out to get him fired. After winning in a jury trial, the district court granted Proctor Hospital’s motion to dismiss. In affirming, the 7th Circuit had held that the employer should not be liable under the cat’s paw theory, because the lower-level supervisors’ input was not the “singular influence” on the decision, and because the HR Manager conducted “her own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision” and therefore was not “wholly dependent” on the discriminatory input.
Staub begins with an analysis of the text of USERRA, which expressly defines causation to include situations where discriminatory animus is "a motivating factor" in an adverse employment decision. Drawing also on tort and agency principles, Justice Scalia concluded that the cat’s paw theory applies in cases where 1) a supervisor acts with discriminatory motive, 2) the discriminatory supervisor intends to cause the adverse action, and 3) the discriminatory act is a “proximate cause” of the adverse action. Scalia rejected the argument that the decision-maker’s independent investigation should purge the decision of discriminatory motive, noting that the hostile supervisors’ recommendations remained a motivating factor in the decision. He also noted, in contrast to the 7th Circuit, that the HR Manager largely relied on the supervisors’ account of the facts underlying the termination, and did not independently determine whether the supervisors’ recommendations were justified.
What Employers Can Do: Don’t Be A Cat’s Paw
While Staub opens the door wider to discrimination cases under the cat’s paw theory, the case offers some guidance on what employers can do to minimize exposure from these claims. Most obviously, ultimate decision makers cannot simply rely on recommendations from subordinates, but should conduct a thorough and independent investigation into the facts underlying the employment action. The subtext of Staub suggests the HR Manager’s investigation was far from adequate—she merely reviewed the personnel file and consulted another HR employee, but largely relied on the (hostile) supervisor’s accusation that Staub had, in fact, violated a workplace rule. The better the independent investigation, especially into the underlying facts, the more likely it is to break the “proximate cause” nexus between coworkers’ discriminatory motive and the employer’s ultimate decision.
In addition, and perhaps just as obvious, employers should do everything possible to detect and immediately end discriminatory animus brewing among lower level employees. The plaintiff inStaub easily satisfied the other two prongs of the Court’s test—that the supervisor acted with a discriminatory motive and intended to cause Staub’s firing—because the trial record was full of choice remarks by coworkers disparaging his military duty and complaining about his absences. His supervisors described his Reserve military duty as a “bunch of smoking and joking and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” and scheduled him additional shifts “to pay back the department for everyone else having to bend over backwards to cover his schedule for the Reserves.”
The Reach of the Cat’s Paw
Staub makes clear that its reasoning applies to more than just USERRA cases. The opinion expressly noted that Title VII also uses the “a motivating factor” causation standard. What is less clear is whether it applies to just discriminatory supervisors, or also to non-supervisory coworkers. For the moment, however, the Supreme Court has given a green light to cat’s paw cases, and employers should assume it could apply broadly and to any discrimination claim.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Staub v. Proctor Hospital to address the question of when an employer may be held liable in “cat’s paw” situations, where an employee with unlawful intent influences a decisionmaker but is not involved in making the ultimate employment decision.
In this case the employee, Vincent Staub, was a member of the Army Reserves. He was required to attend occasional weekend training as well as a two-week training program during the summer. Reservists, of course, are protected from discrimination by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”). The department’s second in command, Janice Mulally, resented the fact that Staub was in the Reserves. She made numerous anti-Reserves comments and purposely scheduled him on weekends when he had training. In the weeks leading up to his termination, Staub was disciplined for allegedly insubordinate behavior. The veracity of the allegations against him were suspect, coming largely from Mulally, who was known to dislike Staub. Staub was terminated by the Vice President of Human Resources after he allegedly engaged again in similar insubordinate behavior. The parties agree that the decisionmaker had no unlawful animus whatsoever. She testified that her decision was based on both the more recent allegations of insubordination, as well as Staub’s well-documented history of being difficult to work with.
At trial, Staub sought to attribute Mulally’s animus to the decisionmaker, arguing that the decision would not have been made but for Mulally’s unlawful animus. The jury returned a verdict in Staub’s favor. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed that decision, noting that in order to successfully assert a cat’s paw theory, the discriminatory animus of the non-decisionmaker can only be attributed to the decisionmaker where the non-decisionmaker had “singular influence” over the decisionmaker. The Court held that while the decisionmaker was clearly influenced by Mulally, there was no evidence of “blind reliance,” and the cat’s paw theory should never have gone before the jury. The Court pointed to undisputed evidence that the decisionmaker took into account other aspects of Staub’s employment unrelated to the alleged acts reported by Mulally, including his reputation for being difficult to work with, and his history of employment issues dating back to the beginning of his employment--before Mulally became second in command of the department.
While not completely eviscerating the cat’s paw doctrine, the Seventh Circuit in Staub enunciated a very narrow, pro-employer, interpretation of the “singular influence” requirement. What the Supreme Court may do is anybody’s guess, but it seems likely that given the Court’s current makeup it will affirm the Seventh Circuit’s narrow interpretation of the cat’s paw doctrine. A copy of the Seventh Circuit opinion can be found here.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently that an independent contractor may assert a disability claim against an employer under the Rehabilitation Act. Click the link to read the opinion on Fleming v. Yuma Regional Medical Center.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors. The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In Fleming, an anesthesiologist who worked as an independent contractor sued the medical center at which he worked, alleging a discriminatory constructive discharge. The trial court dismissed the case on the basis that Fleming was an independent contractor and that the Rehabilitation Act applied only to employee-employer relationships. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Rehabilitation Act provides a cause of action to any individual subjected to disability discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. While the Rehabilitation Act adopts the standards that are applied under the ADA, it does not adopt the ADA's limitation to the employee-employer relationship.
Independent contractors are not considered "employees" for purposes of most employment discrimination laws, and many employers hire independent contractors to avoid potential liability under such laws. Fleming shows that, at least for employers covered by the Rehabilitation Act, independent contractors may still find ways to seek the protections of those laws despite their "non-employee" status. In addition, many employers incur significant tax and other liabilities by misclassifying people as "independent contractors" when they really should be treated as employees. For more information, the Internal Revenue Service offers this guidance for determining whether someone is or is not correctly classified as an independent contractor.
New Salt Lake City Ordinances Prohibit Housing and Employment Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation
Yesterday the Salt Lake City Council unanimously passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Click here to download a copy of the City Council's Staff Report on the ordinances, along with full text of the new laws. Highlights of the employment discrimination ordinance include:
- Forbids employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity in Salt Lake City.
- "Sexual orientation" is defined as "a person’s actual or perceived
orientation as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual."
- "Gender identity" is defined as "a person’s actual or perceived gender identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other characteristics of an individual with or without regard to the person’s sex at birth."
- "Sexual orientation" is defined as "a person’s actual or perceived
- Creates a complaint and investigation process. The complaint could be resolved through mediation or a fine of up to $1,000.
- Does not create a "private right of action" to sue over alleged discrimination.
- Exempts religious organizations, the State of Utah, and businesses with fewer than 15 employees.
- "Does not create any special rights or privileges," because "every person has a sexual orientation and a gender identity."
- Requires annual reports by the city's Human Rights Commission on the effectiveness of the ordinances.
- Takes effect on April 2, 2010.
In case you were wondering, the ordinances passed with the full support of the LDS Church. "The church supports these ordinances," LDS spokesman Michael Otterson told the City Council, "because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage." For more coverage of the SLC ordinances, read this article from the Salt Lake Tribune, or this article from the Deseret News.
SLC employers should review the new laws and review existing policies and procedures to ensure compliance. Many states, counties and cities across the country have adopted similar ordinances. To check the state of the law in your location, check out this handy list of state and local sexual orientation and gender identity laws from the Human Rights Campaign.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has filed several proposed rules pertaining to labor and employment law, and is inviting public comment. Click on the title of each to read the proposed rule:
- Religious worship, child support obligors, physical accommodations for eligible disabilities. The proposed rules would implement statutes:
- requiring employers to reasonably accommodate wearing of religious clothing and leave for religious practices (SB 786)
- making discrimination by employers against child support obligors an unlawful employment practice (ORS 25.424(3))
- requiring places of public accommodation to provide access to employee toilets for customers with eligible medical conditions (SB 277)
- requiring transient lodging of 175 or more units to provide lifts for individuals with disabilities (HB 3256).
- Compliance with the ADAAA, preferences for veterans, and discrimination on the basis of uniformed service. The proposed rules and amendments would implement:
- amendments to statutes providing for employment preference for veterans.
- amendments to disability discrimination statutes to conform them to the
federal Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) (SB 874)
- statutes prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of uniformed
service (HB 3256).
- amendments to statutes providing for employment preference for veterans.
- Home Health Agencies, Wage Security Fund. The proposed rule amendment would:
- implement HB 2595, enacted in 2009, which prohibits home health agencies and hospice programs from paying nurses providing home health or hospice services on a per-visit basis
- clarify conditions to be met in qualifying for payments from the Wage Security Fund and delete obsolete references in the agency’s insurance cancellation notification rules.
- Employment of Minors. The proposed rule amendment would:
- implement House Bill (HB) 2826 enacted in 2009, which removes the requirement that employers obtain a special permit before employing a minor under 16 years of age until 7 p.m. (9 p.m. between June 1 and Labor Day).
- conform current language in the rules to the provisions of HB 2826, which shifts authority for the issuance of agricultural overtime permits from the Wage and Hour Commission to the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries
- clarify that minors may not be employed to operate or assist in the operation of power-driven farm machinery unless the employer has obtained an employment certificate as required and the minor has received required training in the operation of such machinery.
- Rest and meal periods. The proposed rule amendment would address the provision of rest and meal periods to employees, including factors to be considered in determining when an employee is prevented from receiving regularly scheduled meal and rest periods.
- Prevailing Wage. The proposed rule amendments would make permanent the temporary rules currently in place regarding prevaling wage rates.
Click here for more information on BOLI's proposed rule changes, including information on how to make public comment and the deadlines for doing so.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) takes effect November 21, 2009. Is your workplace ready? Employers will soon be required to post a notice stating that they do not discriminate on the basis of genetic information, under proposed regulations interpreting GINA.
If you don't already have one, click here to download the full "EEO is the Law" poster, which describes all of the Federal laws prohibiting job discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, equal pay, disability and genetic information. If you already have a copy of "EEO is the Law," then you can download and print the "EEO is the Law Supplement," which contains GINA information. (If you don't want to print it yourself, or if you need the poster in Arabic, Chinese or Spanish, click here to order a copy from the EEOC.)
What else should employers do to prepare for GINA? Here's a short, non-exhaustive list of things you can do to get ready:
- Add appropriate language to your EEO and anti-discrimination policies stating that you do not discriminate on the basis of genetic information;
- Review your employment applications and employee questionnaires to make sure you are not intentionally or inadvertently requesting information about an applicant’s/employee’s family medical history;
- If you need to get information about a family member’s illness for purposes of determining whether a request for leave qualifies for Family and Medical Leave Act or state law leave coverage, make sure it is limited to only what you need to know to make the determination;
- Determine whether incoming medical information you receive on an employee contains genetic information (defined as: genetic tests of an individual or his/her family members; the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of an individual, genetic services and participation in genetic research by an individual or his/her family member) and if so, maintain and treat the information as you would a confidential medical record for ADA purposes – i.e., maintained in a separate confidential medical file with proper limitations on disclosure.
- Make sure appropriate policies and procedures are in place to prevent inadvertent disclosure of genetic information when responding to a litigation discovery request, like a subpoena. If you require a court order compelling disclosure before releasing the information, this should protect you.
- If you are a self-insured entity, make sure that you do not request or require or use purchased genetic testing or information for purposes of underwriting or to determine an individual’s contribution/premium amounts. Note that you can use genetic test results for purposes of making a determination regarding payment, though.
- Also note that genetic information is included as “protected health information” for HIPAA purposes and should be treated accordingly.
The Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy today launched a new website that may be of use to employers seeking information on how to accommodate a disabled worker. At www.disability.gov an employer can research the applicable law and regulations, get ideas for appropriate reasonable accommodations, and locate additional resources. For example, clicking here will take you to information about accommodating deaf and hearing impaired workers. And here is useful information about tax incentives for complying with the ADA. The new site offers a myriad of social networking capabilities including a Twitter feed, RSS feeds and a blog. The site also includes a handy multi-state guide which employers could find very useful as they work to comply with all applicable federal and state disability laws.
Congress did not intend for the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) to be retroactive, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled yesterday, and applied pre-ADAAA law to dismiss an employment discrimination claim. Click here to read the court's decision in Lytes v. DC Water and Sewer Authority.
Congress passed the ADAAA in 2008 and the new law became effective January 1, 2009. The ADAAA significantly expanded the definition of "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Lytes court reviewed the legislative history of the ADAAA, and could not find in that history any indication that Congress intended the law to apply retroactively. The court also noted that Congress signaled its intend that the law not apply retroactively when it gave the ADAAA a specific effective date.
The DC Circuit joins the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled in EEOC v. Agro Distribution, LLC that the ADAAA is not retroactive. Notably, the Department of Labor has also taken the position that the law should not apply retroactively. And, at least for now, it appears that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees.
Lytes and Agro Distribution are important cases for employers defending ADA claims; they make clear that for claims arising before January 1, 2009, pre-ADAAA standards of what constitutes a "disability" are likely to apply. For more information on the ADAAA, click here for the Stoel Rives World of Employment's ADAAA coverage.
Oregon Court of Appeals Upholds Employer's Right to Ask Potentially Disabled Employees to Take Medical Exams
Today in Heipel v. Henderson et al., the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment on an Oregon disability discrimination claim in favor of an employer who asked an employee to take an independent medical exam (IME) as part of an investigation into the employee's disturbing work-related behavior. The court confirmed that such exams must be "job related and consistent with business necessity," and that the exam in this case met those criteria.
Plaintiff Barbara Heipel worked for the Oregon Employment Department. Her supervisors received an escalating string of complaints about her job performance and erratic behavior. Her actions included:
- standing in the bathroom in a "trance" pulling out paper towels into an overflowing trash can;
- leaning against a bathroom stall in a "despondent state";
- total loss of emotional control with supervisors and coworkers;
- accusing her coworkers of stealing shredded documents from a trash can and pasting them together for personal use; and
- false and contradictory complaints to customers about her employer and coworkers.
Heipel's employer asked her to take an IME to determine whether she posed a threat to herself and others and whether she could perform the essential functions of her position. Plaintiff refused, and the Employment Department terminated her for refusing. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that her employer had unlawfully discriminated against her under Oregon employment statutes for having a disability.
ORS 659A.136(1) provides that such examinations are appropriate only where they are "job related and consistent with business necessity." The Oregon Court of Appeals, relying on federal cases in the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, ruled that, under these circumstances, the requested exam met both requirements.
This decision should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of all IMEs in the workplace. Although this exam was ruled appropriate, the Court of Appeals' inquiry was fact-specific -- and the facts here were unusual. Employers should understand the risk of requesting such exams and should carefully evaluate the individual circumstances before forging ahead.
A school bus driver who was demoted after his "shy bladder syndrome" left him unable to comply with his employer's drug testing procedures may proceed with claims under the Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA) according to a recent ruling from a Tennessee federal court. Click here to read the full opinion in Melman v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville.
In Melman, the plaintiff was required to submit to random drug tests. During two tests he could not provide an "adequate" urine sample, and explained that he could not because of a "shy bladder." A urologist diagnosed the plaintiff with paruresis (aka shy bladder syndrome) and offered to perform the urine sampling via catheterization. The employer declined that offer. Instead, it placed the plaintiff on unpaid leave, required him to attend a drug rehabilitation program at his own expense, and demoted him to a position as a bus monitor. (Notably, the plaintiff ultimately did provide a negative sample obtained via catheter.) The court denied the employer's motion to dismiss, holding that shy bladder syndrome substantially limited the plantiff's major life function of eliminating bodily waste.
Employers with drug testing programs should take note: employees who are unable to comply with standard drug testing procedures may have a qualifying disability, especially given the more liberal standards under the ADA Amendments Act. Employers should not shy away (okay, bad pun) from engaging in the interactive process with the employee to find ways that the employee can comply with the procedures - such as providing a sample through catheterization. The International Paruresis Association also provides suggestions for accommodating shy bladder syndrome.
Ricci v. DeStefano -- Supreme Court Holds City Violated Title VII By Rejecting Racially Disparate Test Results
To end its term, the Supreme Court today issued its long awaited opinion in Ricci v. DeStefano--a case that has received extra media attention because Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel that decided the case below. The conservative justices on the Court reversed the Second Circuit (and by extension, Judge Sotomayor) in a 5-4 decision, ruling that the city of New Haven violated Title VII by discarding the results of a firefighter promotion test where white applicants fared disproportionately better than other applicants. As one might expect, Justice Kennedy provided the swing vote and authored the majority opinion.
New Haven used the test in question to identify firefighters best qualified for promotion. Despite being objectively administered, the test's racially disproportionate results led the city to question whether it should validate the results. The city, of course, found itself in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position: certify the test results, and face Title VII disparate impact litigation from minority applicants; fail to certify them, and face Title VII reverse discrimination litigation from the white officers who passed but were denied a promotion. The city opted for the latter course, and, as expected, the white firefighters filed a reverse discrimination lawsuit. The city prevailed on summary judgment at the district court level, and the Second Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court found that discarding the tests violated Title VII , while certifying the test would not have been a violation of law because there was no "strong basis in evidence" for believing that the black firefighters would prevail on a disparate impact claim. The court noted that despite what otherwise would have constituted a "prima facie" showing of disparate impact race discrimination, several defenses were available to the city--namely that the exam at issue was job related, consistent with business necessity, and there existed no equally valid, less discriminatory alternative that suited the city's needs but was not adopted. The four dissenting justices disagreed, arguing that the majority's analysis was flawed because "New Haven had ample cause to believe its selection process was flawed and not justified by business necessity."
Ultimately, the Ricci decision will have little to no impact on most employers, but represents a small victory for employers (despite the positioning here that held against the city/employer). Employers can now take a somewhat more confident stand in backing test results that may demonstrate some disparate impact, so long as the test was objective and no other less discriminatory alternative exists. The Ricci decision may not last for long, however. Political condemnation by Democrats has been swift, with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) saying that "it is less likely now that employers will conscientiously try to fulfill their obligations under this time-honored civil rights law. This is a cramped decision that threatens to erode these protections and to harm the efforts of state and local governments that want to build the most qualified workforces." Don't be surprised if Congress passes legislation down the road aimed at upending the Ricci decision.
Just in time for Pride Month, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 (ENDA) earlier this week. If passed, ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also prohibit employers retaliation against employees who oppose such discrimination who participate in any investigation or proceeding under ENDA. To read more about ENDA, check out this article from the Human Rights Campaign.
ENDA would be the first federal law prohibiting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sex; it does not explicitly prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination). Several states already have similar protections in place, but ENDA would apply nationwide. ENDA would exempt from its coverage small businesses (those with less than 15 employees), religious organizations, and the armed forces.
This isn't ENDA's first trip through Congress; versions of the bill have been introduced in almost every Congress since 1994. However, with a strong Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, a Democratic President who is feeling the heat from the GLBTQ community, and the gay rights movement riding a wave of successes in state legislatures, 2009 may well be the year ENDA becomes law.
Employers whose policies and handbooks don't already address discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should consider a revision. For an example of how one company has addressed such discrimination, click here to read IBM's anti-discrimination policy. Click here for a state-by-state analysis of existing sexual orientation discrimination laws;
Another slow news day, another fun case: the Texas Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of Frito Lay, Inc. and against a former route sales representative who was fired for using his saliva to remove the "best before" dates from expired products. Click here to read the decision in Cantu v. Frito Lay, Inc.
When one of Frito Lay's customers caught Cantu using his spit to remove expiration dates, it banned him from entering any of its many stores; Frito Lay then terminated him, following its policy to terminate any employee who is banned from a customers' premises. Cantu sued Frito Lay claiming age and sex discrimination, because Frito Lay did not also fire a younger female sales rep who was also banned from the same customer's stores.
Well, it turned out not to be so simple. The younger female employee was banned from only one store because she was gossiping about that store's manager, who happened to be her relative; further, that manager intervened and asked that she not be reprimanded. Cantu, on the other hand, was barred from all of the customer's stores, and as the court noted, had “wiped bags of Frito-Lay chips with his saliva, conduct that is qualitatively different and distinct from the imprudent sharing of personal information.”
Is there a lesson to be learned here? We can think of two. First, don't use spit to remove expiration dates. Really. Second, when disciplining employees, make sure that you apply consistent standards to similar behaviors. Cantu lost because the younger female employee was not similarly situated, as she had engaged in much less egregious misconduct. Had she also been caught smearing her spit on the merchandise, the case may have turned out differently.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued two helpful resources for employers coping with the Swine Flu outbreak. First, the Commission has issued this technical assistance document on ADA-Compliant Employer Preparedness For the H1N1 Flu Virus. It answers basic questions about workplace preparation strategies for the 2009 H1N1 flu virus (swine flu) that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Second, the Commission has issued this notice on Employment Discrimination and the 2009 H1N1 Flu Virus, reminding employers that the Swine Flu outbreak is not an excuse to discriminate against employees and potential employees on the basis of disability or national origin. Of course, you didn't need that reminder because you read the Stoel Rives World of Employment, right?
According to the Wall Street Journal, discrimination filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) went up 15 percent in 2008 compared to 2007, and age discrimination suits in particular showed a dramatic 29 percent increase over the previous year. Click here to read the WSJ Article.
The conventional wisdom is that discrimination claims go up in a down economy -- more people lose their jobs through layoffs or heightened performance standards, and a certain percentage of those affected will file discrimination claims. That doesn't necessarily explain the spike in certain types of claims, however, such as the recent increase in age discrimination claims.
So why the spike in claims? It could be as simple as an aging workforce, but we suspect more is at work. In a troubled economy, many employers focus their layoffs on more highly-compensated employees, and that can have a greater impact on older workers (while specifically targeting older workers for layoff is unlawful, it may be lawful to select higher-paid workers). Also, older workers have a harder time finding replacement employment, and that might lead them to file claims against their former employers rather than move on.
These are challenging times for employers, and now more than ever it pays to be careful when conducting layoffs and terminations.
Today the EEOC published its proposed regulations on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Click here to download the proposed regulations. Interested members of the public have 60 days (or until May 1, 2009) to comment on the new regs.
GINA, passed by Congress last year, prohibits the improper use of genetic information in health insurance and employment. GINA prohibits group health plans and health insurers from denying coverage or charging higher premiums based solely on the insured's genetic predisposition to developing a disease in the future.
Title II of GINA, which takes effect November 21, 2009, will prohibit employers from using genetic information to make hiring, firing, promotion or other employment decisions based on genetic information. Why would anyone want to do that? Perhaps you should watch this movie:
What do terms like "feisty," "spry," "elderly" and "grandmotherly" have in common? Yes, they are commonly used to refer to older people; but they can be used to express derogatory stereotypes about someone because of age.
An article in today's New York Times, "Goodbye Spry Codgers, So Long Feisty Crones," reports that two groups, the International Longevity Center in New York City and the Aging Services of California, have put together a stylebook to guide media professionals through the minefield of politically correct and politically incorrect ways of identifying and portraying the elderly. Among the potentially unwelcome terms identified are “senior citizen," “golden years," “feisty,” “spry,” “feeble,” “eccentric,” “senile” and “grandmotherly.” Likewise, it can be viewed as patronizing to call someone “80 years young.” As for what's on our coffee mug? Don't even go there.
Is this another example of "political correctness" run amok, and can we just ignore it? Probably not. As previously reported here in the Stoel Rives World of Employment, ageist remarks like "grandma" can form the basis of an age discrimination lawsuit. Employers should be careful about how age-related terms are used in the workplace. It is unlikely that using a term like "senior citizen" by itself will lead to a lawsuit, but using it in the context of a performance review or a termination meeting might.
The Senate voted 61-36 yesterday to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which is intended to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the time frame for bringing pay discrimination claims. The bill now will have to be reconciled with the House's version of the bill (H.R. 11), approved on a 247-171 vote Jan. 9, before President Obama can sign it into law.
The bill is named after Lilly Ledbetter, a former supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, who discovered that she had been receiving less pay than her male counterparts who were doing the same work. She discovered this by an anonymous note after working for the company for nearly 20 years. Her subsequent lawsuit was fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In May 2007, the Court ruled in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), that the time limits for filing a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission start to run when the employer makes a discriminatory decision about the employee's compensation, not each time the employee receives a paycheck affected by discrimination. Though she lost her lawsuit, Ms. Ledbetter became a champion for equal pay for women.
The bill would reverse the Ledbetter ruling by amending most federal anti-discrimination laws to provide that the charge-filing periods—300 days in most states and 180 days in the few states that do not have a fair employment agency—would be triggered whenever an employee is affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision or practice.
The U.S. Supreme Court opened its 2008-2009 term on October 6 with six labor and employment law cases on its docket. (For docket information and questions presented, click on the name of the case).
- Locke v. Karass: may a public employee union may charge nonmembers for representational costs for litigation expenses incurred by the international union on behalf of other bargaining units?
- Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings & Investment Plan: is a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) is the only valid way under ERISA for a divorcing spouse to waive his or her right to the other spouse's pension benefits?
- Crawford v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County: Is an employee who cooperates with an employer-initiated investigation into alleged unlawful discrimination protected by Title VII's anti-retaliation provisions?
- Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Ass'n: does an Idaho law that prohibits local government employers from allowing employee payroll deductions for political activities violate the First Amendment free speech rights of unions and their members?
- 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett: do employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement which providies that statutory employment discrimination claims must be pursued through the contractual grievance and arbitration procedures have a right for a court to decide their discrimination claims?
- AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen: must an employer give full service credit for purposes of calculating retirement benefits for pregnancy leaves taken before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 if the plan gave full credit for other types of temporary disability leaves?
Some of these cases (such as the Penn Plaza and Crawford cases) have the potential to make significant changes in existing law. Stay tuned to the Stoel Rives World of Employment for developments as they occur!
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week certified a question to the Washington Supreme Court, seeking that court's help in defining "disability" under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD).
Two years ago, in McClarty v. Totem Electric, 137 P.3d 844 (2006), the Washington Supreme Court significantly narrowed the definition of "disability" under the WLAD. In 2007, the Washington Legislature passed a law codifying the broader, pre-McClarty definition of disability, and explicitly stated that definition would apply retroactively.
This week, in Moore v. King County, the Ninth Circuit certified to the Washington Supreme Court the question of whether the retroactive application of the 2007 law is lawful under the separation of powers doctrine in the Washington Constitution, where the cause of action arose prior to the McClarty decision.
This case is of interest to Washington employers with pending disability claims under the WLAD. It will be a significant win for Washington employers if the Washington Supreme Court answers that the retroactive application is unlawful, as any WLAD disability cases arising before July 6, 2007 (the effective date of the new definition of "disability"), will be decided under the narrower McClarty definition of disability.
The ADA Amendments Act ("ADAAA") was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier today. For more information, read the House's Press Release. As reported previously by the Stoel Rives World of Employment, the same version of the bill was recently approved by the U.S. Senate.
The next stop for the ADAAA is the White House. President Bush previously indicated he has some misgivings about the ADAAA, but given the broad bipartisan support that carried the bill through Congress, he is expected to sign it into law. (Keep in mind, it was George H.W. Bush that signed the original ADA.)
Assuming it becomes law, the ADAAA will greatly broaden the scope of the ADA. Some highlights of the ADAAA:
- Reverses several Supreme Court decisions that have seemingly narrowed the coverage of the ADA, restoring what the drafters perceive to be the original Congressional intent
- Broadens the definition of disability, including what it means to be “substantially limited in a major life activity
- Clarifies that accommodations are not be required if an individual is merely "regarded as” having a disability
- Prohibits the consideration of mitigating measures such as medication, prosthetics, and assistive technology, in determining whether an individual has a disability
- Provides coverage to people who experience discrimination based on a perception of impairment regardless of whether the individual experiences disability
The Stoel Rives World of Employment will let you know as soon as we receive word on what the White House intends to do. Stay tuned!
Number of Companies with Top Rating for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Workers Jumps by One-Third
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation yesterday released its seventh annual Corporate Equality Index ("CEI"), which rates 583 large businesses on a scale from 0 to 100 percent on their treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. This year 259 businesses--employing more than 9 million full-time employees--achieved a perfect score, a one-third increase over last year. These companies protect their employees from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression through policies on diversity & inclusion, training, health care, and domestic partnership benefits.
One notable trend is that of the 583 business rated in the CEI, 99 percent have policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a 13 percent increase over last year. 92 percent of rated employers provided health insurance coverage to employees' same-sex domestic partners.
According to Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil, “A 100-percent rating helps us to better attract, recruit and retain diverse talent to contribute to our overall business success.” But having anti-discrimination policies is frequently more than good business--it is also the law. Many states, including California, Oregon, Minnesota and Washington, have state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and more states are considering adopting such laws. If you don't already have an anti-discrimination policy that prohibits such discrimination, now might be a good time to adopt one.
The Ninth Circuit ruled last August that AT&T violated Title VII by calculating the female plaintiffs' retirement benefits based on a system which denied them credit for pregnancy leaves taken before the 1978 by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, while giving credit for other types of leaves. Hard to say which way this one will go, but odds are it will be a 5-4 decision. Stay tuned.
In Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, the plaintiff alleged that she was fired not because she was a member of a protected class (such as race, sex, age, disability, national origin, etc), but simply for "arbitrary, vindictive, and malicious reasons." In other words, she was a "class of one" and her employer fired her because it simply didn't like her, and she claimed that termination violated her constitutional due process rights.
While other Supreme Court decisions had upheld the "class of one" theory outside of the employment context, in this case the Court concluded that extending the class-of-one theory to public employees would lead to undue judicial interference in state employment practices and invalidate public at-will employment.
For public employers, this is good news: had the court upheld the "class of one" theory, it would have effectively provided for lifetime employment for public employees (of course, it seems like they have that already).
For private employers, this case is purely academic and a reminder of how good you have it: there has never been a "class of one" theory in the private workplace (no matter how much some employees seem to think there is).
While Gomez-Perez applies only to federal employees, Humphries will impact private-sector employers in two ways: first, unlike Title VII, Section 1981 has no damage caps and for a plaintiff, the sky is the limit; second, while Title VII does not apply to employers with under 15 employees, Section 1981 applies to all employers regardless of size.