By Julia Gorham

Seyfarth Synopsis: The global market for wearable devices continues to grow and has been embraced not only by consumers but organizations as well. Wearables use in the workplace is here to stay, but employers should consider the risks at the outset.

Wearables — where to start? With the smartwatch languishing in my junk drawer, the step tracker, heart rate monitor, security pass, two smartphones (private and business), smart clothing or the Santa list with a virtual reality headset?

It is hardly surprising that ABI Research predicts 500 million wearable devices will have been sold by 2021. Not counting the apps. If our personal time is tracked by wearables, what happens on the job? Organizations are embracing wearable technology to engage with their employees, monitor movements and productivity, to assess wellbeing, and even to market/cross-sell new products.

Using technology in this way is not without risk, but it is here to stay. Data privacy risks, ethical considerations (such as the right to a private life), and continued liability for employers all need to be considered at the outset of implementing programs using wearables for work. One of the biggest considerations is what is the data used for? One obvious use of such data is how long staff spend working are their designated site, but do they know and understand the extent to which that data is monitored, what type of analytics are applied to it and even what other decisions are being made using that data that the employees do not see? In operating wearables for work (and collecting, using and storing data from them), organizations need to comply with relevant legislation/guidelines, including being mindful of the duty of care to their staff, be transparent with their employees, and consider wider ethical issues.

In the health and wellbeing space: Workplace schemes encouraging staff movement and activity, via apps or subsidized sports bands for example, are not new and are an established part of corporate culture for big businesses. Good for health, wellbeing and engagement in the employee population, insurance companies also recognize these benefits and adjust premiums accordingly. But do employees know what the data is used for? Some of this data may be used to look at employee attendance by employers and could form the basis of disciplinary action for example — is that made clear at the outset? If an individual were to suffer an accident or over-exert themselves during a fitness drive it is not a stretch to assume that, even if waivers have been signed by staff, liability (including vicarious liability) will still be placed firmly at the employer’s door.

For senior executives, often an organization’s biggest asset, wearable technology can monitor sleep patterns, stress levels and other more invasive biometrics that will help an organization manage its people risks. Even with consent to such a program, would that remove liability where a senior employee suffers a heart attack or stress-related illness as a result of their role? Unlikely, the normal legal tests would still apply. For staff in ‘high risk’ roles, for example pilots, wouldn’t a heart rate monitor or other device that can track and monitor extreme or abnormal changes in biometrics be important — could it help predict or stop human-error disasters?

In terms of movement and productivity assessment — wearable technology can be a huge asset to organizations with thousands of staff — keeping track of where people are. For example, you can monitor ‘hot spots’ for office infrastructure and plan effective working spaces. However, many countries have significant privacy laws and a legal right to a private life. If these technologies continue monitoring and tracking out of hours (including breaks) can the benefits of safety justify the impact to privacy/private life? In terms of productivity, the world’s biggest e-commerce companies now track their employees’ productivity and efficiency via wrist bands embedded with microchips against metrics which are often determined relative to the speed at which robots can operate. To what extent do employers have a responsibility to maintain human oversight of their staff even when such wearables are being used and to what extent are they reviewing potentially high rates of fatigue or burnout?

Much has already been made about potential inherent discrimination that may be written into algorithms. To what extent will employees in the future have the ability to challenge material decision making made by or data collected by devices, programs, technology on the basis of underlying discrimination. For example, selection for poor performance discussions, selection for redundancy or other serious impact to an employee’s career. If the underlying data or collection methodology is allegedly compromised, then it potentially follows that an organization could be held to account for relying upon it. Human oversight should always be included as part of any decision making process.

In terms of identifying fraud, the ability to track staff movements is extremely useful. Local laws usually provide that employers can process and use data to identify crimes or serious misconduct/dishonesty offences — but it is always going to be important to have made staff aware of this type of monitoring before implementation and ensure compliance with local law/codes of practice.

Finally, let’s look at France and the decision to give employees the right to time off from technology — to discourage emails out of hours, over the weekend or on annual — leave unless business critical. In a connected world where staff often have smartphones issued by their employer or ‘bring your own device’ programmes pushing native work emails onto their personal phones and now smart watches sending instant messages — what obligation do companies have not to overburden their staff? Many employees do not want colleagues whatsapping them on a Saturday when it could wait until Monday.

For many multi-national employers and particularly those working across time zones, the French approach goes too far; it also depends on sectors, cultural norms in jurisdiction and expectations on workers in terms of productivity. For most of us, the view is that legislation is not needed in this area but good corporate culture and management leadership is. Unions and collective labour organizations are taking up this mantle in some jurisdictions and negotiating with companies for workers’ rights in this area.

However your organization chooses to adapt and adopt new technologies, be clear about the drivers for change, the expectations on your staff and be balanced about business needs. It is increasingly important to carry out risk assessments on a rolling basis to check if your technology programs continue to meet the aims they were introduced to address and remain fit for purpose or need to be adapted to reflect changing laws or social and cultural norms.

Julia Gorham is a partner in our Hong Kong office and works closely with leading employers assisting them with their cross border matters, particularly in the Asia Pacific region.

By Kyla J. Miller and Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of a nursing home employee alleging she was forced to receive a flu shot to keep her job when she could not provide a note from a clergy member in support of her request, causing emotional distress that made her fear “going to Hell.” U.S. v. Ozaukee Cty., No. 2:18-cv-00343, (E.D. Wis. March 6, 2018).

In a complaint against Ozaukee County in Wisconsin, the Department of Justice alleges the County engaged in religious-based discrimination in violation of Title VII when their nursing home required all health care workers to receive the flu vaccination unless they could provide a note from a clergy member.

The Employer’s Flu Shot Policy

Under the employer’s flu shot policy, employees could receive a religious exemption from the mandatory flu shot if they had a pastor, priest, or another member of the clergy submit a written note stating a clear reason and explanation for the exemption. If the note was accepted, the employee was required to wear a protective face mask throughout the flu season. If an employee refused the flu shot and did not provide the proper written statement, the employee would be considered to have “voluntarily resigned.”

Employee Feared “Going to Hell” if She Received the Shot But Could Not Provide A Clergy Note

The employee allegedly viewed her body as a “holy temple,” and believed the Bible forbids foreign substances including the flu shot in the body. During a meeting with her supervisor, the employee stated she was not affiliated with any church or formal religious organization at the time, and therefore could not provide a note from a pastor. Instead, she volunteered family and friends who would attest to her sincere religious belief. The supervisor told the employee it would be her last day if she could not provide a proper letter from a clergy member.

According to the complaint, the employee felt forced to receive the flu shot.  Shortly after taking the shot, the employee “cried uncontrollably,” and experienced emotional distress including “withdrawing from work and her personal life, suffering from sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of ‘going to Hell’ because she had disobeyed the Bible by receiving the shot.”

Employer Takeaway

 It is not a “best practice” for an employer to require a clergy note to support a religious accommodation request, because an employee need only have a sincerely held religious belief–it is irrelevant whether they are a part of an organized religion.  This is especially important in light of the EEOC’s aggressive approach to mandatory flu shots in recent years, targeting employers who terminate employees who refuse the shot based on a religious belief. According to Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District Office, “Title VII requires employers to make a real effort to provide reasonable religious accommodations to employees who notify the company that their sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with a company’s employment policy.”

There are several ways employers can minimize the risk of becoming a target for this type of litigation. Employers should narrow the applicability of their flu shot policies to those employees for whom the employer can justify the policy on health, safety or other legitimate business grounds. If an employee has a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a  job requirement, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation if it would not cause undue hardship. Employers should engage in the interactive process and properly assess what is a “reasonable accommodation” or “undue hardship” in the context of their workplace.  It is wise for employers to consult with counsel with expertise in religious accommodation to make this case by case assessment.

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

By Kelsey P. Montgomery

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employee committed to taking opioids loses his job and his disability discrimination lawsuit because he refused to consider alternative pain management.

The “interactive process” required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the ADA Amendments Act, is a two-way street between an employee and his or her employer.  Consistent with this mutual obligation, a federal court in Ohio recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee who refused to consider alternative pain management for his degenerative disc disease and arthritis in his neck and back.

In Sloan v. Repacorp, Inc., No. 3:16-cv-00161 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 27, 2018), the plaintiff worked as a production manager for Repacorp, which manufactures and prints labels using heavy machinery.  While Sloan’s job required him to spend only a small portion of his time working on heavy machinery, he always worked around this equipment and his working environment was extremely dangerous.  As a safety precaution, Repacorp maintained a policy requiring employees to notify management if they were taking nonprescription or prescription medication.

A year before his termination, Sloan began taking morphine and Vicodin while at work.  Occasionally, he took the morphine in a manner inconsistent with his prescription and he did not have a prescription for Vicodin.  He secured the Vicodin from his mother and a co-worker.  Sloan did not inform his supervisor, or anyone else at Repacorp, that he was taking these medications.  After several months of using these opioids at work, an employee reported to management that Sloan was obtaining Vicodin from his colleague.  He was immediately removed from the manufacturing floor and required to submit to a drug test.

When he tested positive for hydrocodone (an  in Vicodin), Repacorp placed Sloan on leave and referred him to its Employee Assistance Program.  While on leave, Sloan disclosed his morphine prescription.  Fearing a “huge liability,”  Repacorp asked if there were alternative, non-opioid treatments for his pain condition that would not put the company and Sloan at risk.  Although Sloan tried, he was unable to reach his physician to make this inquiry.  He then told the company president, without having consulted his doctor, that he needed to “stay on [his] medication” and that he “wouldn’t stop taking it.”  The company president believed Sloan “chose drugs over his job.”  Because Repacorp did not have any positions that would permit an employee to safely use opioids in the workplace, Repacorp terminated Sloan’s employment following this conversation.

Sloan subsequently filed a lawsuit against Repacorp, alleging disability discrimination under Ohio law and the ADA.  He claimed that Repacorp failed to accommodate his disabilities by refusing to grant his request to use prescription morphine.  Sloan argued that he could have safely performed his job while taking the medication, and that his employer should have conducted a “direct threat” analysis before denying his request.  The Court disagreed, finding that Sloan impeded Repacorp’s ability to investigate the extent of his disability and the breadth of potential accommodations that it might have reasonably afforded to him by refusing to cooperate with the company’s request for additional information.  Without this information, Repacorp could not determine whether Sloan was a qualified individual able to do his job either with or without a reasonable accommodation.  Accordingly, the Court granted Repacorp’s Motion for Summary Judgement and dismissed Sloan’s case.

Employer Take Away

An employer should conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether it can accommodate an employee’s disability.  Had Repacorp simply terminated Sloan for violating its policy against taking medications at work, the Court likely would have decided this case differently.  Thus, it serves as a good reminder for employers to always document their attempts to engage in the interactive process.  If an employee is terminated after refusing to engage with his or her employer, the employer will have a strong defense to any subsequent disability discrimination claim.

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

By Scott Rabe and Marlin Duro

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent decision in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., No. 16-2424, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit has sent the strong message that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has minimal impact on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) authority to enforce the anti-discrimination laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

The RFRA, enacted in 1993, prohibits the government from enforcing a law that is religiously neutral against an individual, if the natural law “substantially burdens” the individual’s religious exercise and is not the least restrictive way to further a compelling government interest. Importantly, the RFRA applies only in the context of government action, and therefore would not provide a defense for an employer in a civil suit brought by a private plaintiff.

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a Sixth Circuit panel held in a unanimous decision that: (i) Title VII’s proscription of discrimination on the basis of sex encompasses a prohibition on discrimination based on transgender status, and that (ii) in this case the RFRA would not limit the EEOC’s authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws under Title VII. With this decision, the Sixth Circuit became the first federal Court of Appeals to address the extent to which the RFRA may limit the EEOC’s power to enforce Title VII.

By way of background, the EEOC brought suit against a funeral home on behalf of a transgender employee, Aimee Stephens, who was terminated from her employment shortly after informing her employer that she intended to transition from male to female. The EEOC alleged the funeral home violated Title VII by terminating Stephens’ employment on the basis of her transgender or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes. The funeral home argued that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of transgender status and that the funeral home was protected from enforcement of Title VII by the RFRA as the government action would constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon the funeral home owner’s exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Both parties moved for summary judgment and the district court found in favor of the funeral home on both motions The district court found that Title VII did not protect against discrimination based on transgender status and that, while Stephens had suffered discrimination based on sex stereotyping, the RFRA prevented the EEOC from suing on her behalf.

On the EEOC’s appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court with respect to both motions and granted summary judgment in favor of the EEOC. First, the Sixth Circuit held that the funeral home’s conduct violated Title VII, reinforcing its prior holdings that discrimination against employees because of their gender identity and transgender status are illegal under Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination based on sex stereotyping. The Sixth Circuit explained that “discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex” and found that firing a person because he or she will no longer represent him or herself as the gender that he or she was born with “falls squarely within the ambit of sex-based discrimination” forbidden under Title VII. Id. at *18.

Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the EEOC’s enforcement of Title VII against the funeral home did not violate the funeral home’s rights under the RFRA. A viable defense based on the RFRA requires a demonstration that the government action at issue would substantially burden a sincerely held religious exercise. Although the Sixth Circuit treated the running of the funeral home as a sincere religious exercise by the owner, it held that the alleged burden caused by the enforcement of Title VII was not “substantial” within the meaning of RFRA. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that tolerating an employee’s understanding of his or her sex and gender identity was not “tantamount to supporting it” and that mere compliance with Title VII, “without actually assisting or facilitating transition efforts,” did not amount to an endorsement by the employer of the employee’s views. Id. at *59, *61. Nor, the Sixth Circuit explained, could the funeral home rely on customers’ “presumed biases” against transgender individuals to meet the substantial burden test. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that the funeral home had not demonstrated a substantial burden on the its religious exercise.

While the Sixth Circuit could have ended its analysis there, it went on to hold that even if tolerating Stephens’ gender identity and transitioning status were a “substantial burden” on the funeral home’s religious exercise, the EEOC did not violate the RFRA because the agency had a compelling interest in eradicating all forms of invidious employment discrimination, and enforcement of Title VII through its enforcement function was the least restrictive means for eradicating discrimination in the workforce. This analysis, if found not to apply only to the facts of this case, could ostensibly doom any defense to a Title VII action within the Sixth Circuit where an employer raises a defense based on the RFRA.

The Sixth Circuit’s opinion is an important one, as it addresses two of the more hot button topics in employment jurisprudence: the scope of the definition of “sex discrimination” under Title VII and the impact of laws protecting the free exercise of religion in the workplace. On the former, this opinion joins the recent trend in decisions finding that gender identity is inextricably linked with sex and therefore is protected under Title VII. And on the latter, the Sixth Circuit has laid down a gauntlet as the first federal circuit addressing the RFRA’s impact on the EEOC’s Title VII enforcement power. The decision is clearly intended to send a strong message that the RFRA has limited application, if any, in defense of a Title VII action brought by the Commission. While time will tell whether other federal circuits will adopt a similar interpretation, if the Sixth Circuit’s legal rationale is followed, employers will be hard-pressed to defend Title VII claims brought by the EEOC based on the alleged exercise of religious freedom.

In light of the current uncertainty regarding the ultimate interpretation of Title VII as it applies to gender identity, employers should regularly review their policies to ensure that adequate protections are provided to employees on the basis of their gender identity, and transgender and transitioning status. As always, we also invite employers to reach out to their Seyfarth contact for solutions and recommendations regarding anti-harassment and EEO policies and addressing compliance with LGBTQ+ issues in the law.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seyfarth Shaw’s Pay Equity and International Law Groups celebrated International Women’s Day a day early with a webinar on Wednesday, March 7, 2018 entitled “Pay Equity Around the Globe”.

Tessa Cranfield, Marjorie Culver, and Christine Hendrickson had a crowd for the webinar on global pay equity but in case you missed it, here are the slides from the webinar. Some of the highlights of the webinar included:

  • A discussion of the key trends in global pay equity, which included strengthened anti-discrimination laws, pay transparency, and pay reporting requirements;
  • An overview of key pay equity laws in Europe (focusing on Iceland, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) and APAC and LATAM (focusing on Australia, China, India, and Brazil); and
  • Practical tips on how to undertake global pay equity analyses, focusing on the “who”, “what”, and “how” to conduct these reviews.

If you are considering undertaking a global pay analysis — and is there a better way to celebrate International Women’s Day? — reach out to Seyfarth’s Pay Equity Group and they will be happy to guide you through this process.

By Anthony Califano & Timothy Buckley

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recently-filed lawsuit in the federal district court in Arizona alleges that an employee’s use of medical marijuana may be permissible under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Although the employee faces an uphill battle, the case presents a challenge to the commonly-held view that the ADA does not support such a claim.

In Terry v. United Parcel Services, Inc., No. 2:17-cv-04972-PHX-DJB (D. Ariz., filed Dec. 29, 2017), a former UPS sales director alleges, among other things, that UPS terminated his employment in violation of the ADA and the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA). Terry alleges that he was a medical marijuana card holder under the AMMA, and that, at the direction of his doctor, he used medical marijuana during non-work hours to treat his nearly constant and extreme hip pain. He claims that he never possessed, used, or was impaired by marijuana, alcohol, or any other impairing substance while present on UPS’s premises or during working hours. According to the complaint, in April 2017, UPS required Terry to report immediately for a drug and alcohol screening test, and was informed that the reason for the test was “observable behavior.” At a meeting with UPS officials one week later, Terry claims that UPS terminated his employment due to his positive drug and alcohol screening results and violating the company’s drug and alcohol policy. Terry claims that he responded by notifying UPS that he has a valid medical marijuana card under the AMMA and a valid prescription for Adderall that he took to treat his ADD.

In his lawsuit, Terry alleges that he was a disabled individual within the meaning of the ADA, and that UPS failed to offer him any reasonable accommodation for his disabilities. Presumably the accommodation that he was seeking was exemption from UPS’s drug policy and the ability to use medical marijuana off-duty and outside the workplace. Terry also claims that his termination constituted unlawful discrimination under the AMMA because it was a result of the positive drug and alcohol screening test and the AMMA prohibits an employer from terminating an employee who is a valid card holder solely because of a positive drug test for marijuana.

Terry’s ADA claim faces an uphill battle. The ADA prohibits disability discrimination and requires reasonable employment accommodations for individuals with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a)-(b). The ADA does not consider individuals who currently use illegal drugs to be qualified disabled individuals entitled to reasonable accommodation. 42 U.S.C. § 12114(a). And marijuana is an illegal drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 812(c). Accordingly, these authors are not aware of any published case law holding that an employee’s use of medical marijuana is subject to the ADA’s protections. To the contrary, authority out of the Ninth Circuit (within which the District of Arizona resides) has held that medical marijuana use is not protected under the ADA, as the ADA does not protect illegal drug use and marijuana remains illegal under federal law. See James v. City of Costa Mesa, 700 F.3d 394, 397-98 (9th Cir. 2012).

Nevertheless, Terry is a case worth watching. Terry challenges the prevailing view and case law that the ADA does not protect medical marijuana users. It does so in the wake of a growing number of laws that legalize medical marijuana at the state level and decisions recognizing viable claims under state anti-discrimination laws.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Ariel D. Fenster

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA when the employee is able to perform the essential functions of the position remotely and the request is for a finite period. Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, No 17-5483 (6th Cir. 2018).

The Facts

The Plaintiff, an in-house attorney for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLG&W), requested to work from home for ten weeks while she was on bedrest from pregnancy complications.  MLG&W denied the request.

MLG&W maintained a rather strict policy that attorneys must be in the office from 8:30 am – 5:00 pm.  “However, [it] did not maintain a formal written telecommuting policy at that time, and in practice, employees often telecommuted.”

MLG&W argued that physical presence was an essential function of Plaintiff’s position. Plaintiff stood her ground and stated she was able to perform the essential functions of her position remotely.  In fact, Plaintiff knew she could perform the job remotely.  During the dispute over whether Plaintiff could telecommute, she was also working remotely.  Plaintiff also previously worked remotely for two weeks several years prior.

At trial and in favor of Plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim, the jury awarded Plaintiff $92,000 in compensatory damages and $18,184.32 in back pay.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed.  In its finding, the Court noted that MLG&W failed to engage in an interactive process as required by the ADA to determine if working remotely was appropriate. The Court further noted that one of MLG&W’s key pieces of evidence, the job description, was significantly outdated and unreliable (20 years old outdated!).

Additional Guidance

Unfortunately for employers, there is no bright line test on the issue.  Just a handful of cases have weighed in on the “telecommute dispute.”  The two most notable cases come out of the Sixth Circuit, Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, and EEOC v. Ford Motor CoThe cases are distinguishable from Mosby-Meachem for two reasons.  First in Williams and Ford, the employees never previously worked remotely.  Second, the requests to work remotely were for unlimited periods.

Just last month, in Morris-Huse v. Geico, the Middle District of Florida granted Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment holding that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation because Plaintiff’s physical presence was an essential function of her position.  The Court, like many other courts, reasoned that telecommute disputes are highly fact specific and require a true inquiry into the essential functions of the employee’s position.

For some additional guidance, the EEOC has issued some limited guidance on the matter.

Five Helpful Tips

While there is no hard and fast rule as to whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, here are five tips that may avoid putting you in a telecommute dispute:

  1. Evaluate each and every accommodation request on a case by case basis.
  2. Engage in the interactive process with the employee.
  3. Determine if the telecommuting is for a finite period of time.
  4. Think about whether the employee will be able to perform the essential functions of his or her position while telecommuting.
  5. Maintain up-to date job descriptions that accurately reflect the essential functions of each position.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Scott Rabe and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: In landmark decision, the Second Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit in holding that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a subset of sex discrimination.

In a landmark decision today in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No. 15-3775, the Second Circuit ruled en banc that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a subset of discrimination on the basis of sex. The Second Circuit now joins the Seventh Circuit, the EEOC, and a number of district and administrative courts across the country that have interpreted Title VII to extend its prohibition of sex discrimination to sexual orientation.  Chief Judge Katzmann authored the decision for the plurality, in which four judges joined in full, five judges joined in part, and to which three judges dissented.  In total, eight of the thirteen judges issued an opinion.

The Appellant in Zarda, a former skydiving instructor, sued his employer, alleging that he was terminated from his job after he revealed to a customer that he was gay.  Specifically, he alleged sex discrimination under Title VII asserting that his employment was terminated because he failed to conform to male sex stereotypes because he was gay.  The district court dismissed Zarda’s Title VII claim at summary judgment, holding that, although there was sufficient evidence to permit his claim for sexual orientation discrimination to proceed under New York law, which explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of gender stereotyping under Title VII based on his sexual orientation.  The district court explained that in reaching this decision it was constrained by Second Circuit precedent in Simonton v. Runyon and Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, which held that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Today the Second Circuit reversed, and in doing so, explicitly stated that it was overturning its prior opinions in Simonton and Dawson.

In the plurality opinion, Judge Katzmann explained that sexual orientation discrimination should be treated as a subset of sex discrimination for several reasons.  He observed that “sexual orientation is defined by one’s sex in relation to the sex of those to whom one is attracted,” that “sexual orientation discrimination is . . . based on assumptions or stereotypes about how members of a particular gender should be, including to whom they should be attracted,” and that “sexual orientation discrimination is associational discrimination because an adverse employment action that is motivated by the employer’s opposition to association between members of particular sexes discriminates against an employee on the basis of sex.”   The plurality also found compelling that, while the consensus among Circuits and the EEOC in 2000 at the time of Simonton was that Title VII did not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the EEOC and the Seventh Circuit both changed their stance on this issue and courts across the country continue to explore this issue.

The main dissent, written by Judge Lynch and joined in part by two justices, argued primarily that under a strict textual interpretation of Title VII, the statute did not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as it is clear Congress could have but did not include sexual orientation as a protected class.  This is the same rationale employed in 2017 by the Eleventh Circuit in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, which recently held in a divided opinion that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination does not encompass discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Today’s decision widens the Circuit split on this issue.  Further, the diverse array of opinions among the judges on the Second Circuit mirrors the nationwide divergence in views regarding the protections that Title VII affords employees based on their sexual orientation.  While the EEOC has now taken the clear position that discrimination against workers because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual is sex discrimination under Title VII, the Department of Justice has issued guidance and sought to enforce an interpretation of Title VII that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not prohibited under Title VII as sex discrimination.  Circuit, district, and administrative courts are also split.  With the Circuit divide, complicated by vastly divergent interpretations of Title VII by the very agencies entrusted to enforce Title VII, the issue is poised for a Supreme Court ruling.

In light of the current uncertainty regarding the ultimate interpretation of Title VII as it applies to sexual orientation, as well as gender identity, see our prior post, and because numerous state and local laws already explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, employers should regularly review their policies to ensure that adequate protections are provided to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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

By Christine Mary Costantino and Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Tenth Circuit has recently vacated summary judgment in favor of an employer in a religious accommodation case that centers on what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation of an employee’s observance of – and consequent inability to work on – the Sabbath. In this case, the Court found that the employer’s reliance on neutral paid time off policies and voluntary swift swaps could not be determined “reasonable” as a matter of law. While the Court’s decision remanding the case for further proceedings leaves the ultimate question of “reasonableness” open, the Court’s analysis is instructive for employers facing similar religious accommodation requests. Tabura, et al. v. Kellogg, USA, Case No. 16-4135 (10th Cir. Jan. 17, 2018).

Procedural History

Two individuals employed at Kellogg’s food production plant filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Utah. At the trial court level, their claims included religious discrimination, failure to accommodate their religious practices and retaliation. The parties cross-filed motions for summary judgment. The District Court granted summary judgment in its entirety in favor of Kellogg. On appeal, the plaintiffs only challenged the District Court’s ruling on the failure to accommodate claim. Therefore, the issue before the Court was the propriety of the District Court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the employer, Kellogg, on two grounds: that the employer’s accommodation was reasonable as a matter of law and that further accommodation would constitute an undue hardship for the employer.

Factual Background

The plaintiffs, both Seventh Day Adventists, refrained from working from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown as part of their observance of the Sabbath.

The plaintiffs were long-time employees at Kellogg’s food production plant. They both worked Monday through Thursday, ten hours per day, until March 2011. At that time, Kellogg changed its staffing model to “continuous crewing.” Under this model, the employees of the food production plant were divided between four shifts – A, B, C and D. Each shift was scheduled to work 12 hours per day for two or three days in a row, and then scheduled for two or three days off. Additionally, the shifts were paired so that, for example, Shift A would work 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and the Shift C would work from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Shifts B and D were similarly paired. Both plaintiffs were assigned to Shift A.

Under the continuous crewing model, every shift was assigned to work 26 Saturdays per year, creating a scheduling conflict with plaintiffs’ Sabbath observance. Additionally, as scheduled day shifts ended at 6:30 p.m., the plaintiffs had a further conflict in the winter when the sun set, marking the beginning of the Sabbath, before their Friday shifts ended.

Kellogg’s proposed accommodation was to permit the plaintiffs to use paid time off or swap shifts with qualified co-workers in order to avoid scheduling conflicts with their observance of the Sabbath. These options were part of a neutral attendance policy that was available to any employee who wanted to take a day off for any reason and were not specially established for plaintiffs’ religious conflicts.

The plaintiffs earned between 160 and 200 hours of paid time off annually. Therefore, even if the plaintiffs used all of their earned paid time off to observe the Sabbath, they would still be left with between 9 and 13 Saturdays that they could not cover with paid time off. On those days, under Kellogg’s proposed accommodation, they would have to secure a voluntary shift swap with another employee to avoid a conflict between their work schedules and their religious observance.

Kellogg’s attendance policy assessed disciplinary points for any employee who missed part or all of a scheduled work day without taking paid time off or trading shifts with another employee. Accumulation of points triggered certain disciplinary measures, including termination for amassing sixteen disciplinary points in a twelve-month period. Consequently, under Kellogg’s proposed accommodation, if the plaintiffs could not secure coverage via a swap for these remaining Saturday shifts, they would each earn over sixteen disciplinary points in a twelve-month period, warranting termination under the attendance disciplinary policy.

The plaintiffs put forth evidence that there were very limited options to trade shifts with other employees. First, in order to swap shifts with another employee, an employee needed to be qualified to perform the other’s position. Additionally, per Kellogg’s policy, no employee could work more than 13 hours in a row, eliminating the possibility of swapping with an employee assigned to Shift C. Because Shift D was regularly scheduled to work night shifts, it was less likely that an employee on the night Shift D would voluntarily swap with an employee on the day Shift A, which would require adjustment to their regular sleep schedules. After consideration of all of these factors, the plaintiffs argued that they were essentially limited to swapping shifts with “qualified” employees on Shift B, which left them each with three or fewer qualified employees with whom they could seek shift swaps.

Both plaintiffs contended that they were unable to regularly find qualified employees who would voluntarily agree to swap shifts, causing them to miss Saturday shifts to observe the Sabbath and accumulate disciplinary points for leaving their shifts uncovered. Eventually, both plaintiffs were terminated under Kellogg’s attendance policy for accumulation of disciplinary points, at least in part due to missed Saturday shifts.

The Decision

The Court looked at two questions in its decision – whether Kellogg reasonably accommodated the plaintiffs’ religious practice of not working on the Sabbath, and, if not, whether Kellogg could have offered a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship to the business.

Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit vacated summary judgment in favor of Kellogg, holding that there were questions of fact on both issues presented that precluded the entry of summary judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Although the decision leaves open the ultimate question of whether Kellogg’s accommodation was reasonable, the Court did provide additional guidance for employers in rejecting two theories advanced by plaintiffs and the EEOC, which submitted an amicus brief on behalf of plaintiffs.

First, the Tenth Circuit held that there is no per se requirement that a “reasonable” accommodation “completely” or “absolutely” eliminate any conflicts between an employee’s religious practices and his or her job requirements, which in this case could require, for example, that the plaintiffs never be scheduled for a Saturday shift. The Court found that such a rule would read “reasonably” out of the statute. The Tenth Circuit thus expressly declined to adopt the position that in order to be reasonable an accommodation “must eliminate, or totally eliminate, or completely eliminate, any conflict between an employee’s religious practice and his work requirements.” The Court reiterated that the statute only requires that the accommodation to be “reasonable” and the assessment of reasonableness is made on a case-by-case basis. Employers should note that the question of whether a reasonable accommodation must completely eliminate the conflict varies significantly by jurisdiction, as noted in the decision.

Second, the Tenth Circuit rejected plaintiffs’ blanket position that an employer cannot meet its accommodation obligations through use of a neutral policy, such as the accommodation provided in this case. Rather, the Court reaffirmed that a neutral employment policy “may” satisfy the need for a reasonable accommodation, and specifically stated that the combination of paid time off and voluntary shift swaps “might, under the facts of a particular case, reasonably accommodate an employee’s Sabbath observance.”

Nonetheless, the Court found that the evidence created a dispute of fact as to whether the accommodation in this case was reasonable. Specifically, in this case, the Tenth Circuit explained that “an accommodation will not be reasonable it if only provides Plaintiffs an opportunity to avoid working on some, but not all, Saturdays.” And here, there was evidence in the record that, after narrowing the pool of individuals with whom they could seek swaps based on these limitations, each plaintiff was left with less than three options from which to seek voluntary shift trades. Neither plaintiff had substantial success in consistently obtaining shift swaps for Saturdays, and upon advising their supervisor of this difficulty, plaintiffs contend that no further action was taken to assist or accommodate them. The Court noted that in consideration of the limited options for swapping shifts and the demonstrated difficulty plaintiffs had in swapping shifts, a reasonable accommodation “could” require an employer to take a more active role in the accommodation rather than merely permitting the voluntary shift swaps.

The Court emphasized, however, that this does not mean that the employer in this case was required to guarantee that the plaintiffs would never be scheduled for a Saturday shift. And there is no requirement that an accommodation be without cost to the employee.   For example, the Court noted that requiring an employee to take unpaid leave could eliminate the conflict between a religious practice and work requirements. Unpaid leave is only a loss of income for the period that the employee is not at work and has no direct effect on either employment opportunities or job status.

With disputed factual issues surrounding the reasonableness of the accommodation and the plaintiffs efforts to utilize the provided accommodation, the Tenth Circuit determined that the case must be decided by a jury.

The Tenth Circuit’s decision touched only briefly on Kellogg’s affirmative defense that any additional accommodation would be an undue hardship for the company. The Court noted that Kellogg did not move for summary judgment on that ground, but the District Court’s granted summary judgment in the alternative on that defense. Similar to the Court’s analysis of the issue of what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation, the Court found that whether further accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer is a question of fact that turns on the particular circumstances in each case.

Employer Takeaways

The resounding theme in the Court’s decision is that “determining what is reasonable is a fact-specific determination that must be made on a case-by-case basis.” This is good advice for any employer in responding to a request for accommodation; the employer should make a factual inquiry into the particular circumstances of each request and whether, as a practical matter, the proposed accommodation provides a realistic opportunity for the employee to avoid conflicts between job requirements and religious practices. It is also a good example of how neutral policies are not always sufficient to constitute a reasonable accommodation. Finally, the decision serves as a reminder that religious accommodation standards may vary considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Employers are wise to consult with an attorney with expertise in this area who can help assess the specific religious conflict and accommodation possibilities, within the legal standards applicable to the jurisdiction.

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

By Samantha L. Brooks

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent decision, the Eighth Circuit held that Title VII does not require an employer to provide an employee a reason for termination at the time of termination, and that an employer is not strictly bound in litigation to whatever reasons may have been provided at the time of termination. Rooney v. Rock Tenn Converting Company, et. al., No,. 16-3631 (8th Cir. Jan. 9, 2018).

In Rooney v. Rock Tenn Converting Company, et. al., the Eighth Circuit affirmed judgment against a former sales executive who alleged he was terminated for not being Jewish and not being female. Rock-Tenn, which makes packaging and merchandise displays for retailers, hired Rooney in March 2010 to sell its products in the Bentonville, Arkansas market. Rooney was terminated in 2015 after Rock-Tenn received multiple internal complaints, and multiple complaints from the main client whose account he serviced. Rooney was told that the reason for his termination was “difficulties with interacting with coworkers and failure to support” the client.

Rooney filed suit under Title VII, claiming that he was really terminated for not being Jewish, and that his former supervisor was “building a Jewish empire,” that included his most recent supervisor and the employee who allegedly replaced him. He also claimed he was terminated for not being a woman, that he was replaced on other accounts by women, and that his supervisor made statements that she “couldn’t wait until there’s more ladies in the office.”

Rock-Tenn moved for summary judgment and identified a number of reasons why Rooney was terminated. The district court granted Rock-Tenn’s motion for summary judgment, and found that although Rooney had established a prima facie case of discrimination based on religion and sex, Rock-Tenn had articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing him, and that Rooney was unable to show that the reasons for Rooney’s termination proffered by Rock-Tenn were pretext for discrimination.

The Eighth Circuit noted that Rooney made two arguments on appeal: that the district court erred by allowing Rock-Tenn to provide new reasons for his termination in court; and that the new reasons were not credible.

Rooney argued that the district court impermissibly permitted Rock-Tenn to expand upon the reasons for his termination in the summary judgment motion. Rooney claimed that the additional legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons proffered by Rock-Tenn increased his burden of defending against the motion for summary judgment. The Court noted, however, that Rooney’s interpretation of the familiar burden-shifting framework created by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) was not as narrow as Rooney argued. Rather, the Court noted that the employer’s burden under McDonnell Douglas to articulate legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for an adverse employment action, such as termination, “does not arise when the adverse employment action is taken—rather, it is triggered during litigation, when an employee meets his burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Title VII does not impose a legal obligation to provide an employee an articulated basis for dismissal at the time of firing, and an employer is certainly not bound as a matter of law to whatever reasons might have been provided.”

Importantly, the Eighth Circuit noted that “it is well-established that [an] employer may elaborate on its explanation for an employment decision,” and that such an elaboration–without a “substantial shift” in the employer’s explanation for a termination decision–is not evidence of pretext. The key factor, according to the Court, was that there was no contradiction between the reasons provided to Rooney at the time of termination and the non-discriminatory reasons articulated by Rock-Tenn during litigation. The “additional examples of Rooney’s poor performance” were not evidence of a substantial shift in Rock-Tenn’s reasons for termination, and instead provided “additional justification . . . consistent with [Rock-Tenn’s] proffered belief” that Rooney interacted poorly with his co-workers and failed to adequately support the client’s account. This, the Eighth Circuit held, is not evidence of pretext.

Finally, the Court noted that Rooney failed to offer evidence that Rock-Tenn’s reasons for terminating him were pretext. Rock-Tenn provided multiple examples of Rooney’s mistakes and failures, and the Court held that “nothing in Rooney’s argument rebuts, or even mitigates, Rock–Tenn’s evidence of repeated errors and omissions on the [client’s] account, and there is nothing in Rooney’s argument to suggest that Rooney was not responsible for the mismanagement.”

Employer Takeaways

Employers are not required to provide employees with an articulated basis for termination at the time of their termination, nor is the employer bound by the reasons that may have been provided. Nevertheless, to prepare for possible litigation, employers should decide why the employee is being terminated, keep it short, and stick to it. Managers and Human Resources personnel must remain consistent in how they describe and document termination decisions. Although employers will be able to elaborate upon the reasons for an adverse employment action in litigation, inconsistent explanations will strengthen an employee’s claim of discrimination or retaliation.

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