By Annette Tyman, Lawrence Z. Lorber, and Michael L. Childers

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”) is closing the summer by issuing two new enforcement directives. The first, Directive 2018-03, clarifies the OFCCP’s enforcement of religious non-discrimination in light of recent court decisions and executive orders. The second, Directive 2018-04, creates focused reviews for Executive Order 11246 (“EO 11246”), Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 503”), and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (“VEVRAA”). These two directives come just a week after the OFCCP released its much anticipated publication outlining what federal contractors can expect from the agency.

“What Contractors Can Expect”

On August 2nd, the OFCCP published the “What Contractors Can Expect” guidance which lays out the agency’s enforcement plans and echoes the message of transparency that the OFCCP announced when the new leadership took over and that Acting OFCCP Director Craig Leen recently reiterated to the contractor community during his opening address at the 2018 National Industry Liaison Group. In it the OFCCP assures contractors that they can expect:

  • Access to Accurate Compliance Assistance Material;
  • Timely Responses to Compliance Assistance Questions;
  • Opportunities to Provide Meaningful Feedback and Collaborate;
  • Professional Conduct by OFCCP’s Compliance Staff;
  • Neutral Scheduling of Compliance Evaluations;
  • Reasonable Opportunity to Discuss Compliance Evaluation Concerns;
  • Timely and Efficient Progress of Compliance Evaluations; and
  • Confidentiality

These expectations are consistent with the message of collaboration that the OFCCP has promised under the current administration. References to the neutral scheduling of compliance reviews and the opportunity to discuss concerns contained in the guidance echo previous actions taken by the agency in 2018.

The agency followed up on August 10th by issuing two new directives.

Directive 2018-03: Executive Order 11246 § 204(c), religious exemption

Directive 2018-03 clarifies the agency’s position on religious non-discrimination under EO 11246 in light of recent cases involving the relationship between federal regulation and the Free Exercise Clause, including Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In its press release, the OFCCP noted that this Directive also serves to align the agency’s enforcement actions with recent executive orders issued by the White House protecting religious freedom and the ability of faith-based and community organizations to compete fairly for government contracts and grants. The Directive instructs OFCCP staff to take these policies into consideration when providing compliance assistance, processing complaints, and reviewing compliance with EO 11246.

In practical terms, this Directive may not impact the vast majority of interactions that occur between the agency and the contractor community, as it is directed to OFCCP staff. However, it does signal a change in the way that the agency reviews religious accommodations during compliance evaluations. It may also impact complaint investigations against certain employers which allege discrimination on the basis of religion or sexual orientation and gender identity. The Directive specifically notes that “[t]his Directive supersedes any previous guidance that does not reflect these legal developments, for example, the section in OFCCP’s Frequently Asked Questions: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity regarding “Religious Employers and Religious Exemption.” See https://www.dol.gov/ofccp/LGBT/LGBT_FAQs.html.”

Directive 2018-04: Focused reviews of contractor compliance with Executive Order 11246 (E.O.), as amended; Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 503), as amended; and Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA), as amended

While the impact of Directive 2018-03 appears to be fairly limited, Directive 2018-04 represents a major change in the way that the OFCCP enforces affirmative action and non-discrimination requirements, particularly under Section 503 and VEVRAA. The Directive calls for the agency to direct a portion of future scheduling lists to “focused reviews” of EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA. The Directive further notes that in these focused reviews, “OFCCP would go onsite and conduct a comprehensive review of the particular authority at issue.” The reviews would include “interviews with managers…as well as employees affected” by the particular regulation and also evaluations of “hiring and compensation data.” The Directive instructs the OFCCP staff to develop a standard protocol for conducting the focused reviews as well as staff training, contractor education and compliance assistance materials. This policy suggests that the agency will be increasing its focus on the enforcement of Section 503 and VEVRAA which have historically received less attention than EO 11246 during compliance reviews.

What This Means for Employers?

Neither the “What Contractors Can Expect” policy, nor the directive clarifying the religious exemption signal any significant change for contractors. The creation of the focused reviews, however, puts contractors on notice that the OFCCP will be scrutinizing policies and practices that relate to disability and protected veteran status much more closely. In anticipation of the first round of focused reviews, contractors should ensure that their current policies and practices comply with the 2014 updates to the Section 503 and VEVRAA regulations. Contractors should specifically focus on the following:

  • Implementing an audit and reporting system to measure the effectiveness of their affirmative action efforts and take any necessary remedial measures;
  • Documenting requests for accommodations;
  • Ensuring that an interactive process for requesting accommodations during the hiring process is in place;
  • Soliciting protected veteran and disability status from applicants and new hires;
  • Listing all job openings with state employment delivery services; and
  • Reviewing job descriptions and qualifications to ensure that they do not screen out protected veterans or individuals with disabilities.

Contractors should also remember that in connection with both current compliance reviews and the new focused reviews, they may be asked to provide their most recent VETS-4212 Report. The deadline for filing the 2018 VETS-4212 Report is fast approaching on September 30, 2018.

It is unclear how the introduction of the focused reviews may impact desk audit submissions or whether these reviews will necessitate additional analyses for hiring or compensation. We anticipate further announcements from the OFCCP given its promise to provide contractor education and compliance assistance materials. We will continue to monitor these changes and will alert you as more develops.

In the meantime, if you have questions about best practices for OFCCP compliance and audit defense, please contact a member of Seyfarth’s Organizational Strategy & Analytics Team or your Seyfarth relationship partner.

By Karla Grossenbacher and Jaclyn W. Hamlin

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fourth Circuit revived the retaliation case of a former city employee who was terminated one day after expressing an intent to file a formal grievance against her supervisor for race-based harassment, finding the plaintiff’s belief that she was being subjected to unlawful harassment to be reasonable – and noting that the city was on notice of objectionable behavior by the supervisor for some time.

When Felicia Struthers interviewed for an administrative assistant job with the city of Laurel, Maryland, three out of four of her interviewers were persuaded that she was the best and “most qualified” applicant, and she was given a job offer. Unfortunately, the interviewer who disagreed was to become her immediate supervisor. According to Struthers’ second-level supervisor, her direct supervisor had wanted to hire “someone of a different race.” Strothers v. City of Laurel, Maryland, No. 17-1237 (4th Cir. July 6, 2018). Despite this opposition, Struthers was extended a job offer.

From the inception of her employment, Struthers experienced difficulty with her immediate supervisor. Prior to beginning employment, Struthers negotiated a 9:05 a.m. starting time to enable her to put her children on the school bus. On her very first day, her supervisor marked her tardy, then overruled management’s agreement to allow Struthers to start five minutes after the office opened – demanding instead that Struthers report to work at 8:55 a.m., before the office was officially open for the day. The clashes continued, with Struthers’ supervisor insisting that Struthers ask permission before every bathroom break and report how long she spent in the bathroom; reprimanding her for alleged lack of teamwork; giving her a negative performance evaluation; and on one occasion, grabbing Struthers’ pants in an attempt to establish a dress code violation. Struthers believed that she was being harassed because of her race – a belief bolstered by her second-level supervisor’s admission that the immediate supervisor had wanted to hire someone of a different race, and by the complaints of former employees, African-American like Struthers, who had also felt harassed by the supervisor.

Struthers complained internally about her supervisor’s behavior on several occasions. Finally, she requested a grievance form, indicating that she planned to file a formal grievance the next day – but before she could do so, the City discharged her for “tardiness.” Struthers filed claims of race discrimination and retaliation; while the EEOC dismissed her discrimination claim, her retaliation claim advanced to federal litigation, where the City prevailed on summary judgment.

Struthers appealed, and in a decision published in July, the Fourth Circuit overturned the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the City. The District Court had based its decision on a conclusion that Struthers could not possibly had a reasonable belief that the conduct of which she complained was based on her race. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, noting that the City itself had injected Struthers’ race into the conversation when, during one meeting, Struthers’ second-level supervisor had admitted that her immediate supervisor wanted to hire a white applicant for her job. Struthers’ reasonable belief was further bolstered, the Fourth Circuit noted, by other African-American former employees who had told her that they themselves felt harassed by the same supervisor, also because of their race, and by the fact that Struthers knew that her supervisor had only ever surveilled and reported policy violations upon other African-American employees.

The Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that Struthers’ belief that she was being harassed because of her race was indeed reasonable. The Court further found that a reasonable jury could find that the supervisor’s behavior – including requiring Struthers, and Struthers alone, to report all time spent in the bathroom, and on one occasion lunging at and grabbing Struthers’ pants – to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim, and that the City’s action in firing Struthers the very day after she expressed intent to file a grievance was so temporally close to her protected activity as to create an inference of retaliatory animus. Based on these findings, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the District Court had erred in dismissing the case, and remanded it for further proceedings.

Takeaway for employers: The Court noted that the City was on notice, and had been for some time, of a rogue supervisor who had already been the subject of multiple complaints by African-American employees. If there is a lesson for employers to learn from this case – which is still pending – it is that no employer can afford to bury its head in the sand. Where there is smoke, there is at least the possibility of fire, and to safeguard the interests of the organization, employee complaints should be taken seriously and addressed promptly.

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

By Andrew R. Cockroft

Seyfarth Synopsis: In May 2018, the Illinois General Assembly considered and also passed a series of measures aimed at changing existing employment discrimination law. On May 16, 2018, the Assembly passed House Bill 4572 which amends the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) to allow employers of any size to be liable under the IHRA. On May 18, 2018, an extensive amendment was added to Senate Bill 577, seeking to expand employer liability as well as reporting and notice requirements for claims of sexual harassment. On May 30, 2018, both chambers of the Assembly unanimously passed Senate Bill 20. SB 20 amends the IHRA to provide new powers to complainants, allow complainants to wait longer to file their claims, and to make the Illinois Human Rights Commission more efficiently address the existing backlog of charges.

The month of May was a busy one for the Illinois General Assembly. Last month, the Assembly passed a series of bills that together greatly expand which employers may be held liable under the Illinois Human Rights Act, reshape the Illinois Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) and Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) in order to increase transparency and efficiency, and gives employees new powers in exercising their rights under the IHRA.

What’s more, the Illinois Senate is now considering another amendment to the IHRA which expands liability for claims of sexual harassment and further adds new employer reporting and notice requirements when incidents of sexual harassment occur.

House Bill 4572

Currently, the IHRA only covers employers who employ 15 or more employees within Illinois for at least 20 weeks during the year. The now passed House Bill 4572 amends the IHRA such that any employer who employs one or more employees for at least 20 weeks during the year may be held liable under the Act.

On May 18, 2018, the measure officially passed both chambers of the Assembly, passing the House 64-37 and the Senate 33-13.

The measure has yet to go before Governor Bruce Rauner, however, and a spokesperson for the Governor declined to comment on whether he would sign it.

With this new development, employers who employ fewer than 15 employees should familiarize themselves with the IHRA as well as Commission and IDHR proceedings.

Senate Bill 20

On May 30, 2018, Senate Bill 20 was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Assembly. The bill contains numerous revisions to the IHRA which greatly expand the powers of employees in litigating their claims:

  • Previously, a complainant could not opt out of an investigation once they initiated it. Under the new bill, a complainant may now opt out of an IDHR investigation within 60 days after filing a charge with IDHR to commence an action in Circuit Court.
  • Previously a complainant had to file their claim with the Commission within 180-days of the incident giving rise to the claim. SB 20 extends the statute of limitations to 300 days to be consistent with federal law and EEOC limits.

The bill also devotes vast, new resources to reshaping the Commission itself and how it handles the existing backlog of claims:

  • The bill decreases the size of the Commission from 13, part-time members to 7, full-time members who must either be licensed to practice law in Illinois, served as a hearing officer at the Commission for at least 3 years, or has at least 4 years of experience working for or dealing with individuals or corporations affected by the IHRA or similar laws in other jurisdictions.
  • Each commissioner will be provided one staff attorney.
  • The bill also creates training requirements for Commissioners and further requires ongoing training of at least 20 hours every two years.
  • A temporary panel of 3 Commissioners will be created to specifically address the backlog of charges and requests for review. The panel also will have one staff attorney to assist them in addressing the backlog.

Finally, SB 20 provides a series of new requirements for how claims are processed, litigated, decided, and ultimately published:

  • If an employee has filed allegations of employment discrimination at the IDHR and in another forum, such as a municipal human relations agency, and if the employee makes the choice to have his or her claim of discrimination adjudicated in the other forum (such as in front of a federal judge, a hearing officer, or an administrative law judge), the IDHR will be required to dismiss the state-level charge and cease its investigation.
  • The statute will now require that Commission decisions are based on neutral interpretation of the law and the facts.
  • IDHR is permitted to allow an attorney representing the respondent or the complainant to file a response on a request for review.
  • Additionally, the bill mandates that within 120 days of the effective date of SB 20, the Commission must adopt rules for minimum standards for the contents of requests for review including, but not limited to, statements of uncontested facts, proposed statements of the legal issues, and proposed orders.
  • The Commission website must provide its decisions on requests for review or complaints within 14 days of publishing of the decision.
  • The IDHR must provide a new notice within 10 business days following the receipt of the EEOC’s findings, the EEOC’s determination, or after the expiration of the 35-day period when a decision of the EEOC has been adopted by the IDHR for a lack of substantial evidence.
  • The Commission must provide notice within 30 days if no exceptions have been filed with respect to a hearing officer’s order or when a Commission panel decides to decline review.
  • Each Commission decision must be published within 180 days of the decision.

The new provisions will hopefully create more transparency in Commission and IDHR proceedings and better allow employers to respond to claims of discrimination. Employers should keep track of any new Commission proposals in the event SB 20 is signed into law.

Senate Bill 577 – Amendment 1

A new proposed amendment to Senate Bill 577 seeks various changes to the IHRA.

First, the amendment expands what workers may bring claims of sexual harassment against an employer, what constitutes sexual harassment, and by when such a claim must be brought.

  • Independent contractors will become entitled to protections against harassment and discrimination under the IHRA.
  • The definition of sexual harassment is expanded to state that harassment on the basis of an individual’s actual or perceived sex or gender is prohibited.
  • Workers who experience harassment or discrimination will have two years to file a charge with the IDHR.

Additionally, the amendment creates new reporting and notice requirements for employers.

  • Public contractors and large employers must annually report to the IDHR on the number of settlements they enter into or adverse judgements against them related to sexual harassment or discrimination. This provision also allows the IDHR to initiate an investigation of repeat violators.
  • Employers will be required to post notice of an employee’s right to a workplace free from sexual harassment as well as the procedure for filing a charge.

The amendment also extends protections from the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA) to cover claims of sexual harassment. VESSA provides an employee who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence, or an employee who has a family or household member who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to address issues arising from domestic or sexual violence. This new amendment would, therefore, require an employer to provide 12 weeks of leave to any employee who makes a claim of sexual harassment.

Finally, the amendment also addresses the issue of non-disclosure agreements in the employment context. Employers would be prohibited from including nondisclosure clauses in settlements of sexual harassment allegations unless the employee alleging harassment chose to include such a provision. Even more, the amendment also prohibits an employer from entering into a nondisclosure agreement with any employee whose earnings do not exceed the federal, State, or local minimum wage law or who do not earn more than $13.00 an hour.

SB 577 has not passed either chamber of the Assembly. However, employers should note the Assembly’s increased focus on employment discrimination law and the myriad ways they seek to change it.

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

By: Scott Rabe, Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, Marlin Duro

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a largely symbolic ruling, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a cake shop owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his religious beliefs.  By limiting its holding to the facts of the case, however, the Court sidestepped an opportunity to delineate the intersection between free expression of religion and LGBT rights.  As a result, the decision provides little in the way of guidance to employers regarding the role of free expression of religion in the workplace.

In the highly anticipated decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case closely followed by the media, religious rights advocates, and gay rights advocates alike, the Supreme Court delicately avoided making a decision that could be declared a victory by either side.  Instead, the majority emphasized that the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop was limited to the facts of the case and that further clarification as to the boundaries between religious rights and LGBT rights would have to play out in the courts.

The Case

Charlie Craig and David Mullins were looking to celebrate their marriage by purchasing a custom wedding cake at Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado.  Jack Phillips, the owner of the bakery refused to make the wedding cake for the couple because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

The couple filed a Charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the “Commission”), claiming that the baker’s refusal was in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which makes it “a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or group because of  . . . sexual orientation, . . . the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [and] services” of “any place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.”  The owner of the bakery, however, maintained that the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion protected his refusal to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

The Commission found in favor of the couple and determined that the actions of the bakery violated Colorado law.  Phillips appealed the Commission’s decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Commission’s ruling.

After the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, Phillips appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals and found the Commission had violated Phillips’ First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

In its decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the case presented “difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles,” one, the authority of the State “to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services” and two, the “right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment.”  While acknowledging the tension between these two principles, the Court did not seek to reconcile them.

Instead, the Court first found the creation of wedding cakes was a “creative” endeavor implicating freedom of expression under the First Amendment, not merely selling a good which might not implicate the First Amendment.

The Court then explained that as Phillips’ refusal to bake  of a wedding cake implicated the First Amendment’s freedom of expression and free exercise of religion clauses, the Commission was obligated to weigh the cake shop owner’s First Amendment rights against the rights of the gay couple. Instead of performing this balancing with “the neutrality that the Constitution requires”, the Court found the Commission exhibited hostility toward Phillips’ beliefs throughout the hearing, making disparaging comments about his religious beliefs and treating the cake shop owner’s case differently than other cases addressed by the Commission involving cake shop owners with different beliefs.  The Court found that this treatment of Phillips’ case violated the First Amendment as it indicated a hostility to a religion or religious viewpoints.

The Court took great care to underscore that the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop was limited to the facts of that case, stating that “[t]he outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context that this disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

The Takeaway for Employers

Many anticipated that the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop would provide employers and small-business owners with guidance on how to lawfully traverse the landmines that arise when religious beliefs conflict with civil rights statutes. By restricting the decision to the facts, the Court did not provide this guidance.

As such, employers, need not and should not change their EEO or other employment practices, policies, and trainings in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Masterpiece Cakeshop does not place rights to the free exercise of religion over LGBT rights or other civil rights, and therefore employers should not take action that elevates the right to free exercise of religion within the workplace.

As always, we invite employers to reach out to their Seyfarth contact for solutions and recommendations regarding anti-harassment and EEO policies, addressing compliance with LGBT issues in the law, and tackling questions regarding the free exercise of religion in the workplace.

By John P. Phillips and Linda Schoonmaker

Seyfarth Synopsis: In recent months, sexual harassment has seized national headlines and raised significant questions about company policies, procedures, and culture. In response, many companies and HR personnel have questioned how to appropriately respond to complaints of sexual harassment. A recent decision out of the Western District of Wisconsin provides a helpful summary of the state of Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination and harassment law, and the appropriate company response to harassment. Given the national debate and this recent decision, now is a good time for employers to implement some best practices to (1) prevent harassment before it occurs and (2) take appropriate remedial action if it does.

Sexual harassment has been around for a long time, but recently it has garnered national headlines. Movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have appropriately focused the spotlight on company policies and procedures. It is important for companies to continue to improve workplace culture and their responses to harassment when it does occur. At the same time, it is important for companies to understand the legal framework for a harassment claim, and their legal responsibilities.

A recent decision out of the Western District of Wisconsin provides an important reminder on the state of the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, and an employer’s responsibility to prevent and correct any harassing behavior.

Background on the Case

In Lee v. Dairyland Power Cooperative, the plaintiff alleged that several of her co-workers sexually harassed her, and that the company failed to take adequate steps to prevent the harassment. After an analysis of the applicable framework for sexual harassment under Title VII, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s case, finding that she could not prevail on her harassment claim as a matter of law.

The facts of the case were largely undisputed and simple: on one occasion, the plaintiff overheard her immediate supervisor, a co-worker, and a security contractor—all male—discussing their desire for her to wear her “spring outfits.” They also compared her physically to another employee, who they described in a sexually suggestive manner; and they discussed the sex life of yet another employee. These facts were undisputed, and the plaintiff complained to Human Resources the same day. HR immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the sexually demeaning conversation had occurred.

The plaintiff’s supervisor personally apologized to the plaintiff and promised that the action would never happen again; that he would not engage in any further sexual harassment; and that he would protect the plaintiff from retaliation. The company asked the plaintiff to return to work, but she refused, believing the company’s response was inadequate. The company followed-up, explaining that there were no positions to which she could be transferred to be away from the supervisor. Feeling that the company had not fixed the situation, the plaintiff quit her employment. That same day, the company suspended the supervisor for two weeks without pay, and ordered him to attend retraining on the company’s sexual harassment policy.

Application of Title VII

The Court laid out the legal standard for maintaining a sexual harassment claim under Title VII (the federal law prohibiting harassment in the workplace): the plaintiff must prove that (1) she experienced unwelcome harassment, (2) the harassment was based on sex, (3) the harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of her employment and created a hostile or abusive environment, and (4) a basis exists for holding the employer liable. Here, it was undisputed that the plaintiff had experienced unwelcome harassment based on her sex. However, the Court found that she could not meet the third and fourth prongs of the test.

First, the Court found that overhearing the statements on only one occasion did not create an abusive working environment. Indeed, the Court applied Seventh Circuit precedent for the proposition that “verbal harassment limited to a one-time incident that was overheard, rather than intentionally inflicted, does not rise to the severe or pervasive standard under Title VII.”

Second, the Court found that the employer could not be held liable for the wholly inappropriate conduct of the supervisor. The company maintained an anti-harassment policy, which the supervisor violated. And as soon as the company learned that harassment had occurred, it initiated an investigation pursuant to its no harassment policy; and the company instituted discipline reasonably calculated to end the harassment. The Court found that the two-week suspension, apology, promise to protect the plaintiff from any harassment, and retraining on sexual harassment issues were sufficient for the company to meets its legal burden to resolve the problematic work environment. Accordingly, the company could not be held liable under Title VII.

Takeaways and Best Practices

When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, nobody wins. And as the Dairyland Power case makes clear, even companies that have and enforce no harassment policies can face costly litigation. Given the current national debate over harassment, now is a good time for employers to review and reevaluate their sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Employers should consider several proactive steps—to help prevent sexual harassment on the front-end and then to appropriately handle the situation if it were to arise—including: (1) ensuring the company’s no harassment policy and reporting structure is up-to-date and clear; (2) providing harassment and employment law training to supervisors and managers; (3) taking all allegations and complaints of harassment in the workplace seriously; (4) immediately performing a thorough and complete investigation of any harassment complaints; and (5) implementing swift, appropriate, and proportional remedial action, including termination or suspension if necessary.

Above all, employers should strive to ensure that their company’s culture is one where sexual, or any other form of harassment, is simply not tolerated. Instead, each employee should enjoy a safe and respectful work environment, and feel empowered to raise any workplace harassment issue with his or her supervisor, manager, or HR. At the same time, the company should feel secure that taking proactive action on the front-end to eliminate any harassment before it occurs, and taking immediate action to stop and remedy any harassment after it occurs, is sufficient to satisfy its legal obligations under Title VII. Fortunately, the Dairyland Power decision continues to apply this legal standard.

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 Marjorie Clara Soto, Kay J. Hazelwood, and Mary Kay Klimesh

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s recent opinion in Yeasin v. Durham, No. 16-3367, 2018 WL 300553 (10th Cir. Jan. 5, 2018), addresses the “tension between some students’ free-speech rights and other students’ Title IX rights to receive an education absent sex discrimination in the form of sexual harassment.” The Court of Appeals did not specify a test to be applied when a student’s alleged First Amendment right to free speech intersects another student’s alleged right to be free from harassment in a university community, but did affirm the district court’s decision that a KU administrator did not violate clearly established law when she expelled Yeasin for misconduct related to an off-campus incident and tweets.

The court specifically refrained from deciding “whether Yeasin had a First Amendment right to post his tweets without being disciplined by the university.” The Court’s analysis in this case is of particular interest to public colleges, universities and schools who grapple with managing and balancing student First Amendment rights and the responsibility to maintain an educational environment free from harassment.

Background and Procedural History

In November, 2013, Dr. Tammara Durham, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, made a decision to expel Navid Yeasin from the University of Kansas (“KU”) after her review of a hearing panel’s findings of fact based on a preponderance of the evidence that Yeasin had violated KU’s sexual harassment policy by engaging in conduct which included posting off-campus social media tweets making derogatory statements about his ex-girlfriend’s body, but not naming her.

Yeasin proceeded to contest the expulsion in Kansas state court which concluded that the findings, adopted by Dr. Durham, “were not supported by substantial evidence” and that “KU and [Dr.] Durham erroneously interpreted the Student Code of Conduct by applying it to off-campus conduct.” KU appealed, arguing that its interpretation of KU’s Code of Conduct was “consistent with the obligations imposed on it under Title IX” and allowed for the University to expel Yeasin since its student code allowed for students to be punished for off-campus conduct that violates federal, state, or local law. In September 2015, that court affirmed the lower state court’s findings and Yeasin subsequently re-enrolled at KU.

Thereafter, Yeasin brought suit in federal court against Dr. Durham under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 alleging her action to expel him from KU for the content of his on-line, off campus speech violated his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process. He sought monetary damages claiming that KU’s wrongful expulsion delayed completion of his education, cost him lost employment and wages, and caused him emotional distress and mental anguish. Dr. Durham moved to dismiss both of Yeasin’s claims on qualified-immunity grounds. The federal district court granted Dr. Durham’s motion to dismiss, concluding that she did not violate Yeasin’s clearly established rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On January 5, 2018, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Analysis and Findings

Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages if their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” In order to overcome this defense, a plaintiff must show (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was clearly established. The Court of Appeals here found that Yeasin’s claim failed the second prong of this analysis.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court analyzed free speech cases in secondary school and college/university settings including consideration of Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (finding that, while secondary-school students retained free-speech rights, schools can still prohibit actions that “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school…”); Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007) (allowing a K-12 school to discipline a student for flying a banner reading “BONG HiTs 4 JESUS” at an off-campus, school-approved activity because the banner could reasonably be viewed as promoting drug use); Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986) (K-12 schools can restrict lewd, vulgar, or indecent speech even without a forecast of disruption); and Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 273 (1988) (allowing public officials to restrict K-12 school-sponsored speech).

Yeasin argued that First Amendment cases which allow for the restriction of student speech in the secondary school context cannot be applied in the university context in the same way. Rather, Yeasin argued that cases including Papish v. Bd. of Curators of the Univ. of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667 (1973) (addressing distribution of newspaper in the university setting “containing forms of indecent speech”); Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981) (addressing a university’s refusal to allow a registered religious student group to meet in university buildings); and Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972) (addressing a state college’s refusal to officially recognize a student group known because of its potential affiliation with a national organization known for campus disruption) should be applied. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals distinguished the cases advanced by Yeasin noting that the cases didn’t concern “university-student conduct that interferes with the rights of other students or risks disrupting campus order.” The Court also countered with language from Widmar, quoting Healy, which “suggests that the Supreme Court believes that the material-and-substantial-disruption test applies in the university setting.” Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Yeasin could not establish that Dr. Durham had violated clearly established law when she took action to expel him, in part, for his off-campus social media tweets.

The Court considered Yeasin’s substantive due process argument, and found that it was flawed. The Court reasoned that Yeasin needed to show that the school’s decision to expel him was arbitrary, lacked a rational basis, or shocked the conscience. Butler v. Rio Rancho Pub. Sch. Bd. of Educ., 341 F.3d 1197, 1200 (10th Cir. 2003). The court declined to resolve the question of whether Dr. Durham’s decision to expel Yeasin violated his right to substantive due process, and limited its opinion to a finding that she violated no clearly established law in doing so.

The need for college and university administrators and school officials to navigate their legal obligations when addressing decisions to discipline a student for off-campus speech on social media will no doubt remain a prevailing issue, especially when such conduct implicates the rights of another student to be educated in a harassment-free learning environment. Not surprisingly, KU modified its student code of conduct after this incident to explicitly extend its disciplinary jurisdiction to off-campus incidents.

Seyfarth Shaw continues to monitor the developments in the battle between the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and rights under Title IX to an educational environment free of sexual harassment. We will keep our readers apprised.

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 Matt Gagnon and Chantelle C. Egan

Seyfarth Synopsis: Google now finds itself in the unfortunate position of being accused of discrimination against women in pay and promotions and – according to a new complaint filed in California Superior Court – against conservative white men. Most troubling, Plaintiffs in that case point to Google’s diversity and inclusion efforts, which are meant to combat discrimination in the workplace, as the very basis for their allegations of sex and race discrimination.

In December, Seyfarth’s Pay Equity Group reported on a lawsuit brought against Google in the California Superior Court under the California Equal Pay Act, which alleges that Google discriminates against its women employees by systematically paying them lower compensation than their male peers for performing substantially similar work under similar working conditions.

Now, Google is facing another class action lawsuit brought by two former employees, which alleges that Google discriminates against white conservative men. On January 8, former Google engineer James Damore, who famously circulated a memo about Google’s so-called “ideological echo chamber,” and David Gudeman filed a discrimination class action complaint against Google on behalf of all employees of Google discriminated against “due to their perceived conservative political views,” “their male gender,” and/or “their Caucasian race.” The case is Damore v. Google, LLC, Case No. 18CV321529 (Cal. Sup. Ct., Santa Clara Cty.).

The complaint alleges that employees who deviated from the “majority view” at Google regarding issues such as “‘diversity’ hiring policies, ‘bias sensitivity,’ or ‘social justice,’” were singled out, mistreated, and systematically punished and terminated from Google. The complaint also alleges that this “open hostility” to conservative thought leads to discrimination in hiring, promotion, and termination decisions on the basis of race and gender because of the “extreme” lengths Google allegedly goes to in taking race and/or gender into consideration as determinative hiring factors, to the detriment of white males.

The complaint specifically singles out several of Google’s diversity initiatives, including, among other things, a “Diversity and Inclusion Summit” and a “diversity training class,” as evidence of bias against conservative white men. According to the complaint, “Google’s current method of increasing diversity resulted in what is known as reverse discrimination, because Caucasian and Asian males were not being selected for jobs and promotions due solely to their status as non-females or non-favored minorities.”

Can They Do That?

Maybe. The term “reverse discrimination” has no legal meaning under the anti-discrimination statutes. The protected classes contemplated by these statutes are broadly defined: sex, race, and religion, to name a few. Indeed, every person is a member of a protected class, as everyone has a sex and a race. Discrimination is just discrimination, and it is just as unlawful if targeted against white men as it would be against any other group. As long as an employee is negatively impacted because of his or her membership in a protected class, that counts as discrimination and could form the basis for a lawsuit.

California law also bans private employers from discriminating against workers due to their political views, affiliations, or activities. However, a common misconception is that this protection grants private sector employees in California carte blanche to exercise free speech rights at work, including expressing political views. For instance, participating in a political activity that creates a conflict of interest with an employer’s business model could legitimize a termination. Additionally, if an employee cannot complete his or her work due to on-the-clock political activities, the employee may be putting his or her job on the line.

Implications For Employers

Regardless of its viability, this new complaint against Google raises some difficult questions for employers. Many employers have found that well-constructed diversity and inclusion programs can promote worthy goals, including greater acceptance and productivity in the workplace. In addition, some employers have found that a diverse work force translates into diverse thought, which in turn can be leveraged to promote innovation. The Damore complaint, however, points the finger at those very programs as vehicles for discrimination against groups who may feel shunned or shut out by those programs.

The Damore complaint is therefore a good reminder that employers should take heed to ensure that their initiatives emphasize inclusion, not division. Ideally, membership in affinity groups should be extended to all individuals. Likewise, a best practice for initiatives to hire and promote traditionally underrepresented groups is to emphasize selecting the most qualified candidate in terms of experience, education, and other legitimate criteria, regardless of race, gender, or other protected category.

How and to what extent this case proceeds from here could have a significant impact on employers’ use of diversity and inclusion programs. We look forward to bringing you, our loyal readers, news of further developments as they happen.

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 Samantha L. Brooks

Seyfarth Synopsis: Mandatory vaccines and flu shots present challenges to employers attempting to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of employees.  In this case, a hospital worker claimed that he was terminated for failing to get a flu shot due to his religious beliefs.  In affirming the District Court’s decision granting the employer’s motion to dismiss, the Third Circuit held that the worker’s anti-vaccination beliefs were not religious and that, as a result, he was not entitled to the protections of Title VII.  Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr. of S. Pa., No. 16-3573 (3rd Cir. Dec. 14, 2017).

The plaintiff, Paul Fallon, was a Psychiatric Crisis Intake Worker.  In 2012, Fallon’s employer, defendant Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania, began requiring employees to obtain a yearly flu vaccine, or submit an exemption form to obtain a medical or religious exemption.  Any employee granted an exemption was required to wear a mask as an accommodation.

Although Fallon did not belong to any organized religious organization, he held strong personal and medical beliefs opposing the flu vaccine.  As alleged in his complaint, Fallon believed that he “should not harm” his own body and that the flu vaccine “may do more harm than good.”  In 2012 and 2013, Fallon sought and obtained exemptions based on his personal beliefs, which he explained in a lengthy essay attached to his requests for exemption.  In 2014, Fallon again requested an exemption and again attached the essay to his request; however, his request was denied, and his employer explained that its standards for granting exemptions had changed.  His employer requested a letter from a clergy member to support his request.  Fallon could not provide one.  He was suspended and ultimately terminated for failure to comply with the flu vaccine requirements.

Fallon filed a complaint in federal District Court in Pennsylvania wherein he alleged disparate-treatment religious discrimination and failure to accommodate his religion in violation of Title VII.  The District Court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss because Fallon’s beliefs, while sincere and strongly held, were not religious in nature and, therefore, were not protected by Title VII.  The dismissal was with prejudice because the District Court concluded that an amendment to Fallon’s complaint would be futile.  Fallon appealed.

In its opinion affirming the judgment of the District Court, the Third Circuit analyzed whether Fallon’s beliefs were, in fact, religious.  Specifically, pursuant to Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedent, the Court analyzed:

  • Whether Fallon’s beliefs were, in the context of Fallon’s life, religious;
  • Whether Fallon’s beliefs occupied a place in Fallon’s life parallel to that filled by God in a traditionally religious person;
  • Whether Fallon’s beliefs addressed “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters”;
  • Whether Fallon’s beliefs were a “belief-system”; and
  • Whether there were any formal and external signs of Fallon’s beliefs.

After identifying and analyzing these factors, the Court held that Fallon’s beliefs were not religious because they did not “address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.”  Rather, Fallon “simply worr[ied] about the health effects of the flu vaccine, disbelieve[d] the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people, and wish[ed] to avoid this vaccine.”  In sum, the Court held that Fallon’s belief–although sincerely held–was medical, rather than religious, and did not occupy a place in Fallon’s life similar to that of a more traditional religion or faith.

Since Fallon’s objection to the flu vaccine was not religious, it was not protected by Title VII.  Importantly, the Court noted that anti-vaccination beliefs can be part of a broader religious faith and that, in those circumstances, they are protected.  In fact, in a footnote, the Court pointed out that Christian Scientists regularly qualify for exemptions from mandatory vaccination requirements.

Employer Takeaways Regarding Religious Accommodation Generally

For employers, and especially healthcare employers, this case reiterates the well-established standards for what constitutes a sincerely held religious belief–rather than a secular personal or medical belief — to warrant an accommodation.

Once an employer determines that an employee has a “sincerely held” religious belief, Title VII requires the employer to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious belief, unless the employer can demonstrate that it is unable to reasonably accommodate “without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  Importantly, if the employer denies the requested religious accommodation, the employer has the burden to prove the hardship.

The Fallon case also serves to remind employers that what is “religious” is a situational, case-by-case inquiry, especially when considering that one person may engage in a practice for religious reasons, but another person may engage in the very same practice for purely secular, non-religious reasons.

It is good practice for employers, in the interactive process, to ask the employee about the nature of the beliefs, in a sensitive, non-prying manner that respects the employee’s beliefs and privacy.  In doing so, the employer may help elicit what is religious versus what is personal preference.  Before doing so, employers should seek advice of counsel with expertise in this area because the distinction between religious and non-religious beliefs is tricky and highly fact-specific.

It is, however, not a best practice for an employer to request a letter from a clergy member to support an employee’s claim of a religious belief.  It is well-established that an employee’s belief need not be part of an organized, established religion, and it need not be approved by a clergy member.  The Court in Fallon, in a footnote, reiterated that “[a] letter from a clergy member is not the only way to demonstrate that one holds a religious belief.”  The Court further stated that Fallon’s employer mistakenly believed that it could not discriminate on the basis of religion if it terminated an employee who could not produce a letter from a clergy member.  (Nevertheless, the Court held that because Fallon’s beliefs were not religious, terminating him for acting on his beliefs did not constitute religious discrimination.)

The Legal Landscape Regarding Mandatory Vaccines and Religious Accommodation

Employers should be mindful that mandatory flu vaccine policies, particularly for healthcare employers, is a hotly contested issue that can be very jurisdictionally dependent.  Healthcare employers are in the unique position of balancing two equally important priorities: employee requests for religious accommodations, and patient health and safety.

Since 2016, the EEOC has brought several lawsuits against hospitals and healthcare providers in connection with mandatory flu vaccine programs.

In the recent case of EEOC v. Baystate Medical Center, Inc., No. 16-30086 (D. Ma.), the EEOC claimed the employer violated Title VII when it suspended and later terminated an employee after she refused to get the flu vaccine.  The EEOC claimed the employer violated Title VII when the only accommodation it allegedly offered to the employee who sought a religious exemption to the flu vaccine–wearing a face mask at all times while at work–did not allow the employee to effectively perform her job.  Although Baystate Medical Center, Inc. is still pending, both that case and Fallon reiterate the duty of healthcare employers to consider accommodations under Title VII based on the specific facts and circumstances of the situation.

Particularly in light of the EEOC’s recent activity on this issue, an employer must explore what reasonable accommodations can be offered to an employee (preferably with advice of counsel with expertise in this area) and, if the employer is going to deny the request for accommodation, it must document the justifications for the denial.

Employers, their human resources departments and counsel must also be aware of developments in federal, state, and local discrimination laws, which can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

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 Kelsey P. Montgomery and Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Telling African-American employees “that if they had ‘n—– rigged’ the fence, they would be fired” may be enough, standing alone, to state a hostile work environment claim.  The Third Circuit clarifies that “severe or pervasive” discrimination is the correct standard for hostile work environment claims.   

The Third Circuit recently held that a single word or incident, if severe enough, may create an actionable hostile work environment claim. The Court clarified that in hostile work environment cases, the proper legal standard is not whether the objectionable conduct in question is “pervasive and regular,” but rather whether it is “severe or pervasive.”

The plaintiffs in Castleberry v. STI Group, both African-American men, are pipeline workers who worked for defendants as general laborers on an all-white crew.  In their complaint, they alleged that despite having more experience than their white counterparts, the plaintiffs were assigned to clean around the pipelines, but were not permitted to work directly on them.  Moreover, on multiple occasions, a colleague anonymously wrote “don’t be black on the right of way” on the pipeline workers’ daily sign-in sheets.  The plaintiffs alleged that after working on a fence removal project, a supervisor told them “that if they had ‘n—– rigged’ the fence, they would be fired.”  They reported this final incident, and were terminated two weeks later without explanation.  The complaint alleged that although they were briefly rehired, the defendants’ terminated their employment a second time, claiming a “lack of work.”

The plaintiffs subsequently brought harassment, discrimination, and retaliation claims against the defendants. At the outset of the case, the defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that a single, isolated incident could not constitute a hostile work environment.  The trial court agreed, dismissing the plaintiffs’ hostile environment claims, holding that a single use of a racial slur was not “pervasive and regular” discrimination.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed. After acknowledging inconsistent precedent in the Circuit, the appellate court clarified that “severe or pervasive” was the correct standard for hostile work environment claims – not “pervasive and regular” or even “severe and pervasive.”  The Third Circuit explained:

Indeed, the distinction means that severity and pervasiveness are alternative possibilities: some harassment may be severe enough to contaminate an environment even if not pervasive; other, less objectionable, conduct will contaminate the workplace only if it is pervasive.

The Third Circuit relied on U.S. Supreme Court precedent to support the “severe or pervasive” standard.

Having clarified the hostile work environment standard, the Court in Castleberry found that “it is clear that one such instance [of a supervisor using the ‘n-word’] can suffice to state a claim.”  Moreover, as alleged here, the plaintiffs’ supervisor threatened to terminate their employment (and then actually did) at the same time that he used the derogatory racial epithet.  Thus, the Court held that this allegation was sufficiently severe to state a hostile work environment claim.

Notably, the Court also found that the plaintiffs’ allegations could have alternatively satisfied the “pervasive” part of the clarified standard; not only did their supervisor allegedly make the racially derogatory comment, but they were also allegedly exposed to racial hostility when on several occasions their sign-in sheets bore discriminatory comments and because they were relegated to menial tasks while their white colleagues were allowed to perform more complex work.

Few words are more malicious than the “n-word,” but employers should be alert to the fact that the Third Circuit’s reasoning would logically extend to isolated discriminatory remarks about religion, gender, or any other protected classification. It is, therefore, imperative that employers maintain strong anti-discrimination policies, require and encourage employees to report discrimination, and promptly investigate and remediate any alleged discriminatory remark or other conduct, even if the allegation is of a single remark or incident.

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 Anthony CalifanoAriel D. CudkowiczJohn Ayers-Mann, and Frederick T. Smith

Seyfarth Synopsis: On May 23, 2017, in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Co., a Rhode Island Superior Court issued a unique decision regarding employer obligations to medical marijuana users.

The Judge who penned the decision began his analysis by quoting a 1967 lyric from The Beatles’ song “With A Little Help From My Friends”: “I get high with a little help from my friends.”  In the 32-page opinion followed this witty opening, the Court held that an employer’s refusal to hire an individual based on her medical marijuana use violated Rhode Island’s medical marijuana statute, and the employer’s conduct may have amounted to disability discrimination under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (“RICRA”).

The Plaintiff, Christine Callaghan, applied for a position as an intern with Darlington Fabrics.  During her interviews, she disclosed to the company that she used medical marijuana and would test positive for it in her pre-employment drug test.  The company refused to hire her.  Callaghan filed a complaint alleging disability discrimination under the RICRA and seeking a declaratory judgment that the company’s refusal to hire her based on her medical marijuana use violated the Hawkins-Slater Act–Rhode Island’s medical marijuana statute.  Like its counterparts in numerous other states, the Hawkins-Slater Act prohibits an employer from refusing to employ “a person solely for his or her status as a [medical marijuana] cardholder.”

The Court addressed two primary questions. The first question was whether the Hawkins-Slater Act creates a private right of action that allows an individual to file a lawsuit in court for alleged violations of the statute.  The second question was whether a refusal to hire an applicant based on medical marijuana use could amount to disability discrimination under the RICRA.  The Court answered yes to both questions.

Addressing the private right of action question, the Court acknowledged that the Hawkins-Slater Act does not contain any express language authorizing an individual to sue an employer for violation of the statute.  The Court also acknowledged the general principle against assuming that a private right of action exists when the legislature chose not to create one.  On the other hand, the Court also recognized the legal principle that a court should not attribute to the legislature an intent to enact a meaningless statute.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that the Hawkins-Slater Act would be meaningless if it does not allow a private person to sue an employer for violating the statute.  Thus, the Court held that an implied private right of action exists under the Hawkins-Slater Act, and the employer violated the law by refusing to hire Callaghan because of her medical marijuana use.  In so holding, the Court rejected the notion that there is a meaningful distinction between a medical marijuana “cardholder” and a medical marijuana “user.”  The Hawkins-Slater Act, according to the Court, protects medical marijuana cardholders who use marijuana because a physician has recommended it. The Court therefore granted a declaratory judgment in Callaghan’s favor.

As for Callaghan’s claim of disability discrimination under the RICRA, the employer moved for summary judgment on several grounds.  The company argued, relying on the Americans with Disabilities Act, that active drug use is not a disability. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that the RICRA defines disability more broadly than the Americans with Disabilities Act.  It also reasoned that an individual must have a “debilitating medical condition” to qualify as a cardholder under the Hawkins-Slater Act.  Accordingly, the employer could have inferred that Callaghan was disabled, and thus, could have discriminated against her on that basis.

The Court also rejected the employer’s argument that Callaghan was not a “qualified individual” with a disability because she engaged in the use of illegal drugs.  The Court concluded that, unlike other disability discrimination laws, the RICRA does not protect only “qualified individuals” with disabilities, but rather all persons with disabilities.  Thus, the Court concluded that the employer’s defense was inapplicable to Callaghan’s claims.

Perhaps most notably, the Court rejected the employer’s argument that the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug, preempts the Hawkins-Slater Act.  The Court reasoned that the CSA is not intended to preempt state law unless it is in positive conflict with the CSA.  Because the Hawkins-Slater Act does not require the employer to violate the CSA, the Court held that the CSA does not preempt the Hawkins-Slater Act.

In light of its conclusions, the Court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment on Callaghan’s disability discrimination claim under the RICRA.  Callaghan did not more for summary judgment in her favor on this claim, but the Court observed that “but for [Callaghan’s] disability–which her physician has determined should be treated by medical marijuana–[Callaghan] seemingly would have been hired for the internship position.”

While the Callaghan decision is not binding on any other courts, it is noteworthy.  It goes against the weight of authority from courts in other states in its analysis of the interplay between medical marijuana and anti-discrimination laws.  More importantly, it does so in a way that could require many employers with operations in Rhode Island (and perhaps other states) to change their policies regarding the hiring and continued employment of medical marijuana users.  If appealed, will the decision hold up?  Will other courts in other states issue similar decisions?  Time will tell.