By Erin Dougherty Foley and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: These new regulations require federal agencies to be “model employers” of individuals with disabilities. As such, they now must take specific steps that are “reasonably designed” to gradually increase the number of employees who have a disability.

We had blogged previously about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), inviting the public to comment on how it should amend its regulations implementing Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and to clarify the federal government’s obligation to be a model employer of individuals with disabilities. 79 Fed. Reg. 27824 (May 15, 2014).

The regulations — which apply only to federal agencies — that previously implemented the Section 501 affirmative action requirement simply stated that the federal government shall be a “model employer of individuals with disabilities,” and that federal agencies shall “give full consideration to the hiring, placement, and advancement of qualified individuals with disabilities.”

While the “model employer” of individuals with disabilities provisions of Section 501 require affirmative action and non-discrimination in employment only by federal agencies, what the EEOC determines to be best practices for federal agencies may be a preview of how it will handle private sector disability claims and charges. The regulations imposed an obligation on federal agencies to be “model employers” of individuals with disabilities, but did not explain what federal agencies needed to do to comply with the obligation.

Now the Final Rule, 82 Reg. Reg. 654 (January 3, 2017), requires those federal agencies to take specific steps that are “reasonably designed to gradually increase the number of employees who have a disability as defined under Section 501, and the number of employees who have a ‘targeted disability,’ which is defined for purposes of this Rule to mean a disability that is either designated as ‘targeted disability or health condition’ on the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM’s) Standard Form 256, or that falls under one of the first 12 categories of disability listed in Part A of Question 5 of the EEOC’s Demographic Information on Applicants form (Applicant Flow Form), until they meet specific goals set by the EEOC.”

Targeted disabilities are defined as “disabilities that the government has, for several decades, emphasized in hiring because they pose the greatest barriers to employment, such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, convulsive disorders, and mental illnesses, among others.”

The EEOC indicates that the New Final Rule is similar to the approach taken by the DOL’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in regulations issued to implement the obligation of federal contractors to engage in affirmative action for individuals with disabilities pursuant to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. 793 (Section 503). See for instance, 41 CFR pt. 60-741.45(a), establishing a 7% utilization goal for employment of qualified individuals with disabilities in each job group in the contractor’s workforce.  According to the EEOC news release, the regulations “set goals for federal agency workforces of 12% representation for individuals with disabilities, and 2% for individuals with ‘targeted’ disabilities.”

In addition, this New Rule requires agencies to provide personal assistance services (PAS) to employees who, because of targeted disabilities, require assistance in order to be at work or participate in work-related travel. PAS are services that help individuals with disabilities are to perform activities of daily living, including assistance with removing and putting on clothing, eating, and using the restroom.

The EEOC has also published a question-and-answer document for the new regulations.

The Rule provides federal agencies one year to make any necessary changes in policy, staff, or other aspects of their operations. The Rule is effective on March 6, 2017, and applicable on January 3, 2018.

The Rule specifically applies to federal employers. However, as noted above, this may also impact the EEOC’s handling of disability claims generally. The EEOC continues to make protecting individuals with disabilities a top priority. Employers that work on or seek to contract for government projects should vigilantly review their policies, procedures and practices to ensure that they are also acting as a “model” employer as that has been defined by the agency.

If you have questions regarding this New Rule or the topic of this post, please contact the authors, a member of Seyfarth’s OFCCP & Affirmative Action Compliance Team, or your Seyfarth attorney.

By Steve Shardonofsky and Tiffany T. Tran

iStock_000072969307_MediumSeyfarth Synopsis: In a somewhat rare interlocutory appeal, the Fifth Circuit reviewed and reaffirmed a 40-year old case holding that emotional distress and punitive damages are not available under the ADEA. This decision rejected the EEOC’s own interpretation and is welcomed news for employers doing business in the Fifth Circuit because damages under the ADEA will be limited to front and back pay. This victory may be short-lived, however, as we expect many plaintiffs will file claims under the corresponding state-law statutes, which typically do allow for the recovery of emotional distress and punitive damages. 

In Vaughn v. Anderson Regional Medical Center, Susan Vaughan, a nurse supervisor, alleged that her employer fired her in retaliation for raising age-discrimination complaints.  The district court dismissed Vaughan’s claims for pain and suffering and punitive damages under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) based on Fifth Circuit precedent, Dean v. Am. Sec. Ins. Co., 559. F.2d 1036 (5th Cir. 1977), barring such recoveries.  Noting that the EEOC and other circuits held divergent views on this issue, however, the district court certified the question for a rare interlocutory appeal, and the Fifth Circuit granted review.

The Fifth Circuit rejected Vaughan’s effort to distinguish Dean on the basis that the case involved age discrimination claims, as opposed to retaliation claims under the ADEA. According to the Court, Dean held “in unqualified terms” that the type of damages Vaughn sought are not recoverable “in private actions posited upon the ADEA.”  Because the ADEA contained a prohibition on retaliation since its inception, Dean was controlling unless some intervening change in law “undermine[d] its continued vitality.” The Fifth Circuit rejected Vaughn’s arguments on this issue as well.

Vaughn argued there was a change in law since Dean because of the 1977 amendments to the FLSA, which the Fifth Circuit has interpreted as providing remedies “consistent” with the ADEA. According to the Fifth Circuit, those amendments added language that was identical to the provision in the ADEA allowing for “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate,” which Dean had already interpreted as precluding emotional distress and punitive damages. These changes, the Court explained, “brought the FLSA’s remedies for employer retaliation into line with the ADEA’s remedies for similar conduct.”  Notably, however, this explanation seems to conflict with another decision (Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC) issued by a different panel of the Fifth Circuit just a few days later, which held that plaintiffs may recover emotional distress damages in FLSA retaliation claims.

The Fifth Circuit also declined to give deference to the EEOC’s interpretation on this issue, finding that the agency’s reliance on a Seventh Circuit decision was unpersuasive because it mistakenly relied on the 1977 amendments to the FLSA, which the Court had already rejected. Even if  the Fifth Circuit had found the EEOC’s view persuasive, it would not be sufficient to displace Dean because it is not binding precedent. The transfer of ADEA administrative/investigative functions from the Secretary of Labor to the EEOC also did not constitute an “intervening change” in law to override precedent.

Given the apparent conflict between this case and the recent Pineda decision, we may see these issues reviewed by the full panel of the Fifth Circuit.  Because the case also creates a split among the circuits courts, we may also see intervention by the Supreme Court in the future.  Until the full panel or the Supreme Court rules on this issue, claims for emotional distress and punitive damages under the ADEA will be subject to dismissal, at least in the Fifth Circuit.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Bridget M. Maricich

Seyfarth Synopsis: Though only an informal guidance, this resource document reminds employers of the EEOC’s expansive interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable workplace accommodation. Employers should continue to meaningfully engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking workplace accommodations for a physical or mental disability and assiduously document those efforts.

Citing an increase in charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions during fiscal year 2016, the EEOC released a “resource document” on December 12, 2016, explaining “workplace rights” for individuals with mental health conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The resource document – Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights – is presented in a question and answer format intended for applicants and employees.  The informal guidance is a useful primer for understanding the EEOC’s expanding stance on employer obligations to provide reasonable workplace accommodations.

At first blush, the resource document is nothing new. In question 1, the EEOC reiterates that employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants and employees because of a mental health condition.  The document also notes that employers do not have to hire or retain individuals who are unable to perform the essential functions of a job or who pose a direct threat. However, the Agency strongly caveats that employers must “rely on objective evidence,” “not myths or stereotypes,” that would indicate that an individual is unable to perform a job or poses a significant safety risk, even with a reasonable accommodation, before taking an adverse action against the individual.

Question 2 addresses the right of an applicant or employee to keep a mental health condition private. The EEOC notes that under the ADA, employers are only permitted to ask questions about the medical or health information of an applicant or employee when (1) an individual requests a hiring process or workplace accommodation; (2) when the employer requests medical information or testing post-offer, but pre-employment, provided everyone entering the same job category is subject to the same requirement; (3) when the employer is engaging in affirmative action for persons with disabilities; and (4) when there is “objective evidence” that the employee may not be able to do his or her job or poses a safety risk in the workplace because of his or her condition.

Questions 3 through 6 respond to hypothetical questions about when a reasonable accommodation may be required, how to request one, and the employer’s obligation to respond, even when no accommodation exists that permits an employee to fulfill the essential functions of a position. The EEOC’s responses here reveal the breadth of the Agency’s interpretation of the ever-vexing question of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation.  In the first instance, in response to Question 3, the EEOC, without using the word “disability,” states that an individual is entitled to a reasonable accommodation for “any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, ‘substantially limit’ your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other ‘major life activity.’”   The EEOC notes that the mental health condition need not be either permanent or severe to constitute “substantially limiting” and that conditions like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) should “easily qualify.”

The answer to Question 3 also provides broad, if imprecise, definition of reasonable accommodation, defining it as simply “some type of change in way things are normally done at work” and providing standard examples such as altered break and work schedules, quiet office space, changes in supervisory methods, along with some more controversial recommendations, such as choice of specific shift assignments and permission to work from home. And in Question 6, the Agency re-states the EEOC’s vague standard that an employee who is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her position, even with an accommodation, may be entitled to an indeterminate amount leave – independent of FMLA leave – that “will help you get to a point whether you can perform those functions.” The document also notes that failing leave, if an employee is “permanently” unable to perform his or her job, he or she may be entitled to job reassignment.  Importantly, the Agency does not caveat here that any request for reasonable accommodation must be fundamentally intended to facilitate the employee’s performance the essential functions of the job. Rather, the document implies that by virtue of having a mental health condition an individual or employee may be entitled to ask for some “change in the way things are normally done at work.”

Questions 4 and 5 fortunately return to well-worn ADA principles. The EEOC directs employees who need a reasonable accommodation to ask for one and encourages employees to do so before workplace difficulties arise because “an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.” The EEOC also notes that  employers are entitled to ask for health care provider documentation verifying the employee has a mental health condition and requires a workplace accommodation because of it.  The document provides the link to what it terms the “companion document” –The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work .  The EEOC suggests that individuals provide the document to their health care providers when seeking medical documentation in relation to a request for a reasonable accommodation.  The document also reminds that if a reasonable accommodation, justified by relevant medical provider documentation, would help an employee do his or her job, the employer must implement it barring “significant difficulty or expense.”

Though only informal guidance, this resource document reminds employers of the EEOC’s expansive interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable workplace accommodation.   What does that mean for employers? Employers should continue to meaningfully engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking workplace accommodations for a physical or mental disability and assiduously document those efforts.  In light of this guidance, however, employers should strongly consider seeking trusted legal counsel before denying a requested accommodation or taking adverse action against an employee who has or is seeking an accommodation.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Lucas Deloach

Seyfarth Synopsis: Increasingly, courts have held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity violates Title VII. Federal district courts in Nevada and Pennsylvania have recently joined their ranks.  Nonetheless, the issue remains unsettled.

In the previous two months, federal courts in Nevada and Pennsylvania held that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, respectively. These rulings accompany the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision to vacate its panel ruling that Title VII did not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination and to re-hear the case en banc.

In Roberts v. Clark County School District, a transgender police officer brought suit in the District of Nevada after the Clark County School District prohibited him from using either the men’s or women’s restrooms.  The school district argued in its motion for partial summary judgment that Title VII only prohibits discrimination based on “biological sex.”  In an October 4, 2016 ruling, the court disagreed and “join[ed] the weight of the authority” concluding that discrimination based upon an individual’s transgender status violated Title VII.  It further concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to summary judgment on his discrimination claim, as he was “clearly treated differently than persons of both his biological sex and the gender he identifies as ­­- in sum, because of his transgender status.”

In EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued a pain management and weight loss clinic and alleged that a gay male employee was constructively discharged after a manager created a sexually hostile work environment.  The complaint recited a number of the manager’s alleged homophobic slurs and statements. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Title VII does not protect discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  The court denied the defendant’s motion exactly one month after the Roberts decision.  The court remarked that “the singular question” is “whether, but for [the employee’s] sex, would he have been subjected to this discrimination or harassment.”  The court thought not and held that Title VII’s “because of sex” provision prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Of course, these decisions are not the final word. As President-elect Trump assembles his administration, it is not yet clear whether the executive branch and its agencies will depart from the position that the protections of Title VII extend to LGBT statuses.  Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal which asks the Court to weigh in on the issue of restroom access for transgender students.  While the appeal directly implicates Title IX, the ruling could also impact courts’ interpretations of prohibitions on sex discrimination under Title VII.

Given this uncertainty and the patchwork of court decisions across the country, employers should consult with counsel to review their policies, practices, and procedures as they relate to sexual orientation and gender identity claims.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

 

 

 

By Johanna T. Wise and Arielle Eisenberg

Seyfarth Synopsis: On November 18, 2016, the EEOC issued new guidance on its enforcement of anti-discrimination laws related to national origin. The guidance provides clarification on the scope of national origin under Title VII and supersedes the 2002 update to the EEOC Compliance Manual, Volume II, Section 13.

Immigration, and thus the number of employed immigrants, has been steadily rising. In the wake of this increase in national origin diversity within the workplace, the EEOC issued an updated guidance to inform both employers and employees how it interprets, approves, and/or disapproves of court interpretation of national origin discrimination cases.  Tellingly, this is the EEOC’s first update to its national origin guidance since 2002, which reflects the EEOC’s current focus on national origin discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

The guidance clarifies the definition of “national origin,” and what constitutes discrimination based on “place of origin” and “ethnicity” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

  • National Origin: “discrimination because an individual (or his or her ancestors) is from a certain place or has the physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics of a particular national origin group.”
  • Employment Discrimination Based on Place of Origin: “discrimination ‘because of an individual’s, or his or her ancestor’s, place of origin.’ The place of origin may be a country . . . may be the United States . . . may be a geographic region, including a region that was never a country but nevertheless is closely associated with a particular national origin group.”
  • National Origin Group/Ethnic Group: “a group of people sharing a common language, culture ancestry, race, and/or other social characteristics.” This includes discrimination based on ethnicity and physical, linguistic or cultural traits.

The EEOC has also added Native American, or tribe members, to the definition of national origin. The guidance then provides an analysis of the intersection of national origin discrimination and other protections under Title VII such as race, color and religion.

The guidance further includes a non-inclusive list of all aspects of employment to which Title VII applies, as well as a list of “promising practices” or employment practices which “may help reduce the risk of violations.” Some highlights include:

  • Recruitment: “use a variety of recruitment methods to attract as diverse a pool of job seekers as possible.”
  • Hiring, Promotion and Assignment: establish “written objective criteria for evaluation candidates; communicating the criteria to prospective candidates; and applying those criteria consistently to all candidates.”
  • Discipline, Demotion, and Discharge: develop “objective, job-related criteria for identifying the unsatisfactory performance or conduct that can result in discipline, demotion, or discharge.”
  • Harassment: communicate clearly “to employees through policies and actions that harassment will not be tolerated and that employees who violate the prohibition against harassment will be disciplined.”

Other areas the new guidance covers are national origin as it relates to human trafficking, harassment, language barriers, citizenship, retaliation and foreign employers in the United States.

Lastly, the EEOC has also published a FAQ to be used in conjunction with the guidance and a small business fact sheet.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By

Seyfarth Synopsis: The EEOC recently released its annual Performance and Accountability Report for the fiscal year 2016, a must-read for employers regarding statistical data on EEOC litigation. Continuing a trend from recent years, the EEOC has reaffirmed its commitment to targeting companies in high-profile systemic litigation, albeit with uninspiring results.

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On November 16, 2016, the EEOC released its annual 2016 Performance and Accountability Report (“PAR”) (the Report is here). The PAR highlights the progress of the EEOC’s continued efforts to meet the performance goals that are articulated in its 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”), including its systemic litigation initiative. As the saying goes, the numbers speak volumes.

The PAR functions as a statistical “scorecard” for the EEOC. It provides a report on its activities during the past fiscal year, from October 1, 2015 through September 30, 2016, including its progress toward meeting the goals outlined in the SEP. While the PAR typically provides a preview of what we can expect to see from the EEOC in the upcoming months, this year’s edition notably avoids speculating as to the future of the EEOC under a new President.

The EEOC’s Overall Results

The EEOC reports that it increased the number of charges resolved to 97,443 charges, up 6.5% from the 91,503 last year. In FY 2014 and FY 2015, the EEOC received 88,778 and 89,385 charges respectively, so the number of charges filed is up slightly over past years.

One of the major goals the EEOC identified in its 2012 SEP was to increase its efforts to champion bigger, more media-focused “systemic” cases, including pattern or practice cases where the alleged discrimination “has a broad impact on an industry, occupation, business, or geographic area.” In the SEP, the EEOC set forth a goal to ensure that systemic cases make up at least 20% of its annual litigation docket and at least 22% to 24% of its litigation docket by 2016. (Read more here.)  In FY 2016, the EEOC asserts it “meets or exceeded” five of the seven measures outlined in the SEP, while it “partially met” the other two.

The EEOC noted that it filed 18 systemic lawsuits in FY 2016, which represents a slight increase from 17 in 2014 and 16 in 2015.  Nevertheless, the number of pending systemic cases declined slightly, with 47 cases on its litigation docket (versus 54 in FY 2013, 57 in  FY 2014, and 48 in  FY 2015). Finally, the EEOC reports it recovered approximately $38 million in relief for victims of systemic discrimination (down from $40 million in FY 2015, but up from $13 million in FY 2014).

Charges: Breezin’ Through The Backlog

The EEOC reduced the charge workload by 3.8% to 73,508, a 3,100 charge reduction compared with FY 2015.  As of the end of FY 2015, the EEOC had a backlog of 76,408 charges, which was an increase of 750 charges over the backlog at the conclusion of FY 2014. The EEOC also noted that it responded to over 585,000 calls to its toll-free number and more than 160,000 inquiries to field offices.

The EEOC resolved over 15,800 discrimination charges through the agency’s administrative processes – comprised of settlements, mediations, and conciliations. This included 273 resolutions of systemic investigations, obtaining more than $20.3 million in remedies. The agency’s mediation program achieved a success rate of over 76%. Regarding conciliation, the EEOC notes that its success rate has remained at 44% over the past two fiscal years.

Settlements: Slowing Down

The EEOC secured more than $482.1 million in total relief in FY 2016. For victims of discrimination in private, state and local government, and federal workplaces, the EEOC obtained $347.9 million through mediation, conciliation, and settlements, again a slight decrease from the $356.6 million it collected in FY 2015 (but an increase from the $296.1 million that it collected in FY 2014). Litigation recoveries also decreased, as the EEOC recovered $65.3 million in FY 2015 while recovering only $52.2 million in 2016.

Lawsuits: Less Litigation

The number of lawsuits filed by the EEOC took a sharp decline, dropping from 142 merits lawsuits (including 100 individual suits, and 42 suits involving discriminatory policies or multiple victims) in FY 2015 to only 86 lawsuits in FY 2016 (including 58 individual suits and 29 suits involving multiple victims or discriminatory policies). Further, at the end of the fiscal year, the EEOC had 165 cases on its active docket. At the end of FY 2015, the EEOC had 218 cases on its active district court docket. This data illustrates how the EEOC has refocused its agenda to put its eggs into ever larger baskets.

Systemic Investigations

The number of systemic investigations completed by the EEOC remained the same. In FY 2016, EEOC field offices resolved 273 systemic investigations and obtained over $20.5 million in remedies in those resolutions (with 71 of the FY 2016 resolutions resulting from successful conciliations). In addition, the agency issued reasonable cause determinations finding discrimination in 113 systemic investigations. By comparison, in FY 2015, the agency reported that it completed 268 systemic investigations; issued 109 cause findings; and resolved 70 systemic investigations by voluntary conciliation agreements, obtaining over $33.5 million in remedies as a result of its systemic initiative.

Accordingly, although the EEOC completed roughly the same number of systemic investigations in FY 2015 and FY 2016 and issued a similar number of reasonable cause determinations in those years, FY 2016 collected a substantially lower amount of money as a result of these larger pattern and practice cases.

Implications For Employers

While the numbers confirm our predictions from 2015 (here) and 2014 (here) that the EEOC would continue its pursuit of high-profile systemic litigation, whether that agenda has been a success is an open question. For example, the EEOC’s financial recoveries have not markedly increased. If and how the EEOC adjusts its tactics to adapt to the incoming Trump administration remains to be seen. If that administration moves in a more employer-friendly direction, or restricts the EEOC’s funding, that could cause the EEOC to rethink its priorities and  its approach to its enforcement program.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

 

By Mary Kay Klimesh, Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, and Abigail Cahak

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court is poised to hear and rule on the Obama Administration’s position regarding coverage of gender identity within Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination. However, the status of the case is uncertain in light of who the incoming Trump Administration will appoint to the currently vacant ninth seat vacancy on the Court.

On October 28, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in the matter of Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., which asks the Court to weigh in on the issue of restroom access for transgender students.  The Supreme Court’s ruling is anticipated to address whether the U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) may interpret a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination to cover claims based on gender identity.

The case appeals the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which concluded that a Virginia school board violated Title IX when it decided not to allow a transgender male student to use the boys’ restroom.

The District Court Dismisses the Case

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia initially dismissed the plaintiff’s case, reasoning that, although Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, it does not include concepts such as gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in that prohibition. The District Court concluded that Title IX’s regulations allow schools to provide separate restrooms on the basis of sex, that the plaintiff’s biological sex is female, and that requiring him to use the girls’ restroom did not constitute sex discrimination.

The Fourth Circuit Reverses Due to Deference to the DOE’s Interpretation

The Fourth Circuit reversed based on deference to the DOE’s position that the term “sex” as used in Title IX incorporates gender identity.

Since 2014, the DOE and other federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have interpreted and enforced their respective statues and regulations prohibiting sex discrimination to include a ban on gender identity discrimination.

In a January 7, 2015 opinion letter, the DOE stated that “[w]hen a school elects to separate or treat students differently on the basis of sex . . . a school generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity” and cited its prior statements in a December 2014 policy document to similar effect.  More recently, in May 2016, the DOE issued a Dear Colleague letter reiterating its position that, when a school is notified by a parent or guardian that their child will assert a gender identity different from previous representations or records, the school must begin treating the student consistent with that gender identity and that Title IX imposes no medical diagnosis or treatment requirement as a prerequisite.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that the DOE’s interpretation of its own Title IX regulations was entitled to Auer deference, which requires that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation be given controlling weight unless the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent.  The court found the DOE’s interpretation permissible because “[a]lthough the regulation may refer unambiguously to males and females, it is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female.”  Further, “[t]he regulation is silent as to which restroom transgender individuals are to use when a school elects to provide sex-segregated restrooms, and the Department’s interpretation, although perhaps not the intuitive one, is permitted by the varying physical, psychological, and social aspects.”  And although the DOE’s interpretation was “novel,” this alone “does not render the current interpretation inconsistent with prior agency practice,” particularly where the DOE and other federal agencies have consistently enforced the position since 2014.

An Uncertain Future

The school board petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case arguing that the Fourth Circuit erred because the DOE’s interpretation actually alters the meaning of Title IX.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and has granted certiorari on two questions: first, whether Auer deference should extend to an unpublished agency letter and, second, whether, regardless of deference, the DOE’s interpretation of Title IX and its regulations should be given effect.

It is unclear how President-elect Trump will handle the pending case once in control of the DOE and he has not clearly indicated his intentions on the matter.  However, Vice President-elect Pence has stated his position that the issue should be resolved at the local level.  As a practical matter, the new Administration could withdraw the DOE’s policy statements which could render the case-or-controversy requirement moot or which could otherwise prompt the Supreme Court to remand the decision to the lower courts for reconsideration.

Assuming the case proceeds forward, it will be heard during the Supreme Court’s October 2016 Term, which runs through June 2017.  The Supreme Court’s ruling will likely have a broader impact beyond education and could also have application to cases interpreting prohibitions on sex discrimination contained in other federal statutes, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The decision is expected to be sharply divided amongst the justices and, with Justice Scalia’s seat still sitting vacant, it is unknown how the lack of a ninth justice or the appointment of that position may impact the ruling.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By David J. Rowland

Seyfarth Synopsis: A divided panel of the Eighth Circuit recently decided that an employer may be required to assume or infer from the circumstances that an employee is seeking a reasonable accommodation – even when no affirmative request is made.

The courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have made clear for decades that an employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is not triggered until the employee seeking reasonable accommodation actually requests assistance.

To quote a recent case decided by the EEOC: “generally an individual with a disability must request a reasonable accommodation by letting the [employer] know the individual needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition” Adina P. v. Brennan, 2016 EEOPUB LEXIS 336 (EEOC 2016).  To be sure, no “magic words” have been required and no court would expect each employee to ask for a “reasonable accommodation” by those words, but, until now, courts have uniformly required that an employee at least indicate that she wants help or assistance because of a disability.

Earlier this month, though, a divided panel of the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, lowered the bar substantially and held that a jury should determine whether an employee requested a reasonable accommodation by simply notifying her supervisor that she could not obtain a required CPR certification until after she completed physical therapy. See Kowitz v. Trinity Health, et al., Case No. 15-1584 (8th Cir. October 17, 2016). The employee never asked to be given extra time to complete the certification, nor to be transferred to another position that did not require CPR certification.  Still, the majority held that a reasonable jury could find that the employer “understood” the employee’s communications to be a request for accommodation. Id. at p. 9, n. 1.

The dissenting judge reiterated the point that virtually every employer would assume to be true: “an employee who wants additional assistance cannot ‘expect the employer to read her mind and know she secretly wanted a particular accommodation and then sue the employer for not providing it” Id. at p.12 (citation omitted).

Blurring a Bright Line

Thus, what was a bright line rule has been blurred, but, as usual, the particular facts of the case may have driven the majority to this hand-scratcher of a result.

The plaintiff was a respiratory therapist with cervical spinal stenosis, She had undergone surgery, and had returned to work on October 19, 2010 with the restriction of a reduced schedule until November 29, 2010 (yes, the dates may be important).   In the meantime, on November 19, 2010, her supervisor posted a memo directing all of the respiratory therapy department’s employees to provide updated copies of their basic life support (BSR) certifications by November 26 and added :”If you are not up to date you will need to submit a letter indicating why you are not up to date and the date you are scheduled to take the BSR class”.

On November 30, having already passed the written component of the BSR test, the employee wrote a letter to her supervisor indicating that she “will not to be able to do the physical part of the BSR” until cleared by her doctor, with whom she had an appointment on December 2 and also thanked the supervisor “for understanding [her] condition”. On December 2, the employee’s doctor opined that she could not take the physical portion of the BSR test until she had completed at least four additional months of therapy.  The employee left a voicemail with the supervisor that evening.  The very next day, December 3, she was terminated for failing to provide the certification.

This sequence of events (and perhaps the seemingly harsh and abrupt decision to terminate) lead the majority to conclude that the employee’s written notification of the need for clearance and her follow-up communication about needing four months of therapy “could readily have been understood to constitute a request for reasonable accommodation”. Id. at 9.

Bad facts often make for bad law, and many employers in the same circumstances would have taken the logical step of engaging the employee in an interactive dialogue. But, as the dissent rightly noted,  the idea that there can be such a thing as an implied or understood  request for accommodation generates “regrettable uncertainty” by “eliminating the requirement of a clear request for accommodation”.  Id. at 13.

Employers take heed: a request for reasonable accommodation may be implied by the circumstances in some instances.  As a result, it is more dangerous than ever to ignore the warning signs that an employee is seeking help.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Kylie Byron

Seyfarth Synopsis: A Seventh Circuit panel’s ruling that Title VII does not cover claims of sexual orientation discrimination will be heard en banc by the Circuit.  Whether an en banc ruling affirms or reverses the panel’s decision, it is likely that this issue will only be resolved with certainty by the Supreme Court.

On October 11, 2016, in response to a petition for rehearing filed by the Appellant, and as we predicted in our blog, the Seventh Circuit vacated its panel ruling that Title VII did not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination, and decided to hear the case before the entire Seventh Circuit en banc.

The panel decision, issued in August 2016, was controversial and for many inconclusive.  The Court was friendly to the reasoning of the EEOC, which has been arguing that sexual orientation discrimination is per se sex discrimination covered by extant law.  Despite negating the rationale for not covering sexual orientation discrimination, the panel held fast to stare decisis and upheld the district court’s decision that sexual orientation discrimination claims were not covered by Title VII.

Reading the tea leaves, many believe the Seventh Circuit may be poised to reverse the panel decision.  Judge Posner, most notably, has recently been outspoken in his opinions on LGBT issues.  He wrote a scathing dissent in a recent Seventh Circuit case, Fuller v. Lynch, No. 15-3487, lamenting an immigration judge’s denial of relief to an asylum seeker on, in Posner’s words, “a supposed lack of ‘proof’ of bisexuality.”  Posner also previously authored the opinion striking down Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage in Wolf v. Walker, on the basis of equal protection.

Judge Posner is not, of course, the only Judge in play.  He is, however, singularly and vocally outspoken on the issue, acting as a correspondent on LGBT rights in the law in the media.  Between Judge Posner’s vocal position, the panel’s internally conflicted initial opinion, and the willingness of the Seventh Circuit to take the case up for rehearing, many see the case as a ripe opportunity for the Seventh Circuit to become the first Circuit Court of Appeals to endorse the EEOC’s outlook on Title VII’s protection on the basis of sexual orientation.

However the Circuit Court rules will hardly be the last word on this issue.  The rehearing may result in some stabilization of the law in the Circuit, but is unlikely to portend for consistent results nationwide.  A Circuit split is likely to emerge, a split that will only be resolved by legislative or Supreme Court action.

In this time of flux, employers should consult with counsel to evaluate their internal policies, practices and procedures with an eye towards sexual orientation claims.

If you have questions regarding this topic, please contact the authors or your Seyfarth attorney.

 

By Kristin McGurn and Molly Mooney

Seyfarth Synopsis: A coalition report issued by DOJ and EEOC that tackles workplace diversity barriers in the ranks of law enforcement sheds light on the agencies’ views of best practices for enhancing diversity in recruitment, hiring and retention, which are applicable to all employers.

On October 5, 2016, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) co-released Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement, a report aimed at tackling diversity in America’s law enforcement ranks.  The DOJ/EEOC coalition resulted from President Obama’s December 2014 Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  That Task Force brought together law enforcement leaders, advocates, academics, policymakers, and community members to strategize around strengthening community-police relations, reducing crime, and advancing public safety.  A key Task Force recommendation was to ensure law enforcement agencies better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.  The EEOC and DOJ’s findings are generally applicable to employers hoping to promote or maintain diversity in the workplace.

As a result of the Task Force, DOJ and EEOC launched an interagency research initiative designed to help law enforcement agencies recruit, hire, and retain officers that reflect the diversity of the communities in which they work. The report focuses on these primary channels for improving diversity, and concludes that significant barriers to diversity hinder recruitment, hiring and retention.  For example, strained relationships between law enforcement and underrepresented communities may dissuade members of those communities from applying to be officers.  Similarly, law enforcement agencies’ reliance on inadequately tailored examinations as part of the screening process may inadvertently exclude qualified individuals from underrepresented communities from the applicant pool.  Finally, when such individuals are hired, they may face difficulties in the promotion process due to a lack of transparency, and a scarcity of role models, mentors, and development opportunities.

DOJ and EEOC collaborated with law enforcement leaders, civil rights advocates, employment litigators, and other subject matter experts to analyze promising practices being developed and used to combat these barriers to diversity. The report acknowledges that employers in many industries have engaged in proactive efforts to improve diversity, and ultimately concludes that the three most important ways to do so in law enforcement, where the need is urgent, are focusing on community policing, engaging stakeholders (within and outside of law enforcement), and reevaluating employment criteria, standards, and benchmarks.

With respect to recruitment, the report urges agencies to pursue targeted community outreach efforts to encourage people from diverse populations to consider careers in law enforcement. It also concludes that partnerships with schools and universities can address, and reverse, historically negative perceptions or experiences diverse communities report having had with law enforcement.  Additionally, the innovative use of technology and social media was found to be critical to law enforcement’s ability to connect with all members of the community.  The DC Metropolitan Police Department, for example, maintains a robust social media presence and reported that ninety percent of applicants reach the department from either their smartphone or tablet.

With respect to hiring, the report concludes that agencies that adopt a holistic view of the skills and strengths of applicants may be better able to diversify their ranks. This involves a willingness on the part of law enforcement agencies to reevaluate information revealed during background checks and to reconsider selection criteria that are unrelated to job performance.

Finally, the report advocates for mentorship programs and leadership training, which are considered essential. Incentives, such as temporary housing, college credit, or financial bonuses for foreign language skills, also can help diverse officers stay on the job.

The processes and practices identified in the report are easily transferrable to a variety of workplaces and settings. For example, the report concludes that mentorship programs can help retain diverse employees by providing them with an informal mechanism through which to learn critical, and often unwritten, information about how to succeed and advance in a particular workplace.  The report also serves as a reminder to employers that all stages of employment — recruitment, hiring, and retention – call for implementing and maintaining practices that will promote and sustain diversity.  Research supporting the report suggests that increasing workplace diversity yields employers that are more responsive, open to reform, and willing to initiate cultural and systemic changes, which are worthy goals for all employers.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.