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.
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.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday held in Lopez v. Pacific Maritime Association that an employer’s one-strike drug testing policy for applicants does not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The one-strike policy in question stated that the company would never hire any applicant who tested positive on a pre-employment drug screening. All applicants were given notice of the test seven days in advance. The plaintiff failed his test when he first applied in 1997. At the time he suffered from an addiction to drugs and alcohol. He re-applied in 2002, and was rejected based solely on his prior positive test. At that time the employer was unaware of plaintiff’s earlier addiction.
The plaintiff filed suit, alleging disparate treatment and disparate impact violations of the ADA based on his protected status as a rehabilitated drug addict. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court dispensed with plaintiff’s disparate treatment arguments on the grounds that the rule, while arguably unreasonably harsh, was neutral, in that it “eliminates all candidates who test positive for drug use, whether they test positive because of a disabling drug addiction or because of an untimely decision to try drugs for the first time, recreationally, on the day before the drug test.” Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Raytheon v. Hernandez, the court noted that “[t]he ADA prohibits employment decisions made because of a person’s qualifying disability, not decisions made because of factors merely related to a person’s disability.”
The Court also rejected plaintiff’s disparate impact argument, on the ground that he failed to produce evidence from which a juror could conclude that “the one-strike rule results in fewer recovered drug addicts in Defendant’s employ, as compared to the number of qualified recovered drug addicts in the relevant labor market.”
While this case does present something of a win for employers with similarly neutral policies, I would caution employers from getting too excited for two reasons. First, the Court hinted that summary judgment may not have been appropriate had the employer known of the plaintiff’s addiction before he reapplied. Second, plaintiff’s disparate impact claim failed only because he could not produce any evidence of disparate impact. The Court made clear that to survive summary judgment he’d only have to produce “some” evidence—a very low threshold indeed.
Supreme Court: Disparate Impact Plaintiffs Can Sue Based on the Application of the Discriminatory Practice
The Supreme Court today issued a judicial smackdown to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, unanimously reversing its decision in Lewis v. City of Chicago (as we suggested it should when we reviewed the details of this case back in October!). Briefly put, the plaintiffs are a group of approximately 6,000 black firefighter applicants who filed charges of race discrimination with the EEOC more than 300 days after the initial announcement of their application test results, but within 300 days of the hiring of the new firefighter class from which they allege they were denied consideration. The Seventh Circuit held that the “discrimination was complete when the tests were scored...and the applicants learned the results.”
Justice Scalia, writing for the entire Court, stated that because there is no dispute that the claim was filed within 300 days of the hiring of the new class, the issue in this case is not “whether a claim predicated on the [on the hiring of the new firefighter class] is timely, but whether the practice thus defined can be the basis for a disparate-impact claim at all.” (Emphasis in original.) In other words, while the parties agreed that the adoption of a practice had a disparate impact, the real question was whether a cause of action can arise from the application of that same practice. The Court held that it could. Citing its recent opinion in another firefighter test case—Ricci v. DeStefano, the court noted that “a plaintiff establishes a prima facie disparate-impact claim by showing that the employer ‘uses a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact’ on one of the prohibited bases.”
Per the Court, the City believes that this decision “will result in a host of practical problems for employers and employees alike,” in that it may subject employers to an increased number of disparate-impact lawsuits based on long-stranding practices. That may, in fact, be true. Following this decision, any employer engaging in a practice whose application may result in a disparate impact on some protected classification of employees should take the time to reevaluate that practice. While there may be a legitimate business defense for the practice (as remains to be seen in the Lewis case on remand), it’s going to be easier for employees to get their foot in the door and state a claim.
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.