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.

 

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Seventh Circuit affirmed that a transgender student demonstrated a likelihood of success on claims that his school district’s decision to prohibit him from using the boys’ restroom violated both Title IX and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, a transgender male high school student alleged that his school district informed him that, because he was listed as “female” in the school’s records and had not undergone a surgical transition–a procedure prohibited for minors–he could use only the girls’ restroom or a gender neutral bathroom.  The Complaint asserted that this violated his civil rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  One month after initiating the case, the student filed a motion for preliminary injunction.  The next day, the school district filed a motion to dismiss.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied the motion to dismiss and granted the preliminary injunction.

On May 30, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The Seventh Circuit declined to hear an appeal on the motion to dismiss, concluding it was not “inextricably intertwined” with the preliminary injunction ruling.

In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the appellate court held that the student met his burden by making a threshold showing in support of the preliminary injunction. First, because two experts opined that use of the boys’ restroom was integral to his “transition and emotional well-being,” the student was likely to suffer irreparable harm without an injunction.  Second, any harm the student would face without an injunction could not be remedied by an after-the-fact award of monetary damages because he provided evidence that he had contemplated suicide and this potential harm cannot be adequately remedied by legal relief.  Third, the student’s chances of success on his Title IX and Equal Protection Clause claims were “better than negligible.”

Regarding Title IX, the court analogized to Title VII, finding that current case law did not foreclose the student from bringing his claim on a theory of sex stereotyping, as articulated by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  With regard to the Equal Protection Clause, the court found the school district’s policy was a classification based on sex and thus merited application of heightened scrutiny, noting that “[w]hen a sex-based classification is used, the burden rests with the state to demonstrate that its proffered justification is ‘exceedingly persuasive.’”

The Seventh Circuit rejected the school district’s argument that the student’s presence in the boys’ restroom infringed on the privacy of other students. In so doing, the court recognized the legitimate interest a school district has in ensuring bathroom privacy rights are protected, but noted that the “interest must be weighed against the facts of the case and not just examined in the abstract, to determine whether the justification is genuine.”  The Seventh Circuit reviewed the record and concluded that the “School District’s privacy argument is based on sheer conjecture and abstraction,” citing the fact that the student had used the restroom for months without issue and that the school district presented no evidence that his presence was any more intrusive than that of “an overly curious student of the same biological sex who decides to sneak glances at his or her classmates performing their bodily functions.”

The decision suggests that, although the present administration has backed away from interpreting Title IX to prohibit discrimination based on transgender status, private litigants may find support for this theory in court. Further, Whitaker may be indicative of a growing trend in the Seventh Circuit to take an expansive view of coverage of LGBT status under civil rights laws.  For example, just over two months ago, the court concluded in its en banc decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana–a decision cited in Whitaker–that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination.  Stay tuned for further developments in this rapidly evolving area of the law.

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 Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis: Anti-Muslim rhetoric dominates many media headlines.  A May 9, 2017 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit highlights the risks to an employer when anti-Muslim rhetoric enters the workplace.

The Facts

In Ahmed v. Astoria Bank et al., the Second Circuit considered a claim brought by a plaintiff employee who had been terminated from her employment at Astoria Bank, at the end of her probationary period, for tardiness and carelessness in checking important documents.  The employee’s claims included that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment because she is Egyptian and Muslim.

The History

The District Court had granted summary judgment to the employer. As to the hostile-environment claim, the Court had reasoned that the alleged stray comments did not rise to the required “severe and pervasive” level.  The employee appealed only the ruling on the hostile environment claim.

The Second Circuit’s Holding

The Second Circuit reversed, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the employee was subject to severe and pervasive discriminatory harassment. The Court relied principally on the employee’s evidence that the supervisor “constantly” told her to remove her hijab head-covering, which he referred to as a “rag”; demeaned her race, ethnicity and religion “on several occasions”; and made a comment during her September 11, 2013 interview that she and two other Muslim employees were “suspicious” and that he was thankful he was “in the other side of the building in case you guys do anything.”

Considering this evidence, together with allegations such as that another manager used hand gestures and spoke slowly to the plaintiff in everyday conversation as if to suggest she did not know English, the Second Circuit held that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff was subject to a “steady barrage of opprobrious” racial and anti-Muslim comments.

On that basis, while acknowledging the evidence was “on the knife’s edge” between summary judgment and trial, the Court reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded for a jury trial.

The Broader Context

Concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment affecting the workplace are hardly new. We’ve blogged before about the EEOC’s 2016 Questions and Answers for employers concerning workers who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern.

In that publication, issued in the wake of the Paris and San Bernandino attacks, the EEOC posited that, “Reactions in the workplace to world events demand increased efforts by employers to prevent discrimination.” Since then, the need has arguably only increased.

So What Can Employers Do?

Employers can take preventative steps to mitigate the risks.

  • The current climate is an opportunity for employers to take a fresh look at anti-discrimination and harassment policies, complaint mechanisms, and accommodation practices, to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws.
  • Effective training not only helps prevent litigation, but can assist a defense. All employees should be trained that harassment and discrimination – including comments such as those alleged in the Ahmed case – will not be tolerated.  Training that is specific and interactive is most effective.
  • Companies should further train managers on nondiscriminatory hiring practices, and how to manage employee complaints.
  • Managers should also be aware of the need to consider accommodations for certain religious practices, such as the wearing of a hijab, and how to process such requests. Managers should be trained that an employee who receives a religious accommodation should never be subject to negative comments as a result.
  • When an employee complains of alleged discrimination or harassment, the employer should investigate promptly, and if a violation is found, take prompt remedial action.

 

By Paul Galligan and Samuel Sverdlov

Synopsis:  The Seventh Circuit affirmed a summary judgment decision in favor of the employer on the plaintiff’s race discrimination and civil conspiracy claims where the employer did not hire the plaintiff after the plaintiff tested positive for marijuana at orientation.

Last month, in Turner v. Hirschbach Motor Lines, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of Hirschbach Motor Lines (Hirschbach) on plaintiff, Robin Turner’s claims of race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and civil conspiracy under state law.

Background

Mr. Turner, an African American, was initially offered a job at Hirschbach as a commercial truck driver on the condition that he complete both the company orientation and a drug test. During orientation, Turner tested positive for marijuana.  Pursuant to Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, Turner’s drug test was carried out at an independent medical facility, the urine sample was split into two, and the results of the first half of the sample were given to Turner through Hirschbach’s independent medical review officer.

Once Turner was given his results, Hirschbach’s safety officer explained to Turner that he had the right to request that the second half of his urine sample be tested at different laboratory. Turner told the safety officer that he wanted the second split test, but for disputed reasons, the second split test never happened.  Turner alleged at deposition that the safety officer cancelled the second split test.

Hirschbach ended up not hiring Turner. Pursuant to DOT regulations, Hirschbach reported Turner’s positive drug test “to an industry consortium from which future employers could, with Turner’s permission, seek his previous test results.” In turn, Turner filed race discrimination and conspiracy claims against Hirschbach.  Specifically, Turner alleged that: (1) Hirschbach did not hire him because of his race; (2) Hirschbach reported his drug tests to the industry consortium because of his race; and (3) Hirschbach conspired with the independent medical review officer to cancel the second split test.

Decision

Hirschbach moved for summary judgment on all of Turner’s claims. Turner argued that he could withstand Hirschbach’s summary judgment motion on a “cat’s paw theory.” Said otherwise, Turner argued that Hirschbach’s safety officer, who was not a decision-maker in Turner’s hiring, had racial animus towards Turner, which was a proximate cause of the decision to not hire Turner.  The district court was unpersuaded.  The court held that Turner did not put forth any evidence that: (1) the initial drug test was unreliable; (2) the second test would have been negative; or (3) the decision-maker based her decision on race rather than the positive drug test.  Further, the court held that reporting Turner’s negative drug test to the consortium was non-discriminatory because it was required by federal regulations.  Finally, the district court held that Turner’s conspiracy claim failed because there was no evidence on the record that Hirschbach and the independent medical review officer had an agreement to cancel the split test.

On appeal, Turner challenged the district court’s decision, and argued that he should have defeated summary judgment based on the simple assertion that the cancellation of the second split test violated DOT regulations. However, the Seventh Circuit held that Turner’s burden is greater than demonstrating a mere violation of a federal regulation.  Rather, given that the employer had put forth evidence that Hirschbach would not have hired someone who failed a drug test, Turner had “to support his cat’s paw theory with evidence casting doubt on the reliability of the initial drug test.”  Turner’s lack of evidence that the first test was a “false positive,” or that a second test would have come back negative, is fatal to Turner’s discrimination claim.  Regardless, the court held that Turner has not put forth evidence that Hirschbach actually violated any federal regulations.

Outlook

The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hirschbach is a big win for employers, especially those employers who are subject to DOT or other onerous regulations.  Employers should rejoice in the Seventh Circuit’s willingness to hold Turner accountable for his burden of establishing a connection between the alleged racial animus and the adverse action.  However, employers should remain cautious and vigilant when taking adverse action against employees for hot-button issues such as failed drug tests.  Although the employer prevailed in Hirschbach, the court reminded employers that employees could prevail on a race discrimination claims where there is evidence of similarly situated employees of other races being treated differently.

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

By Steve Shardonofsky and Brian A. Wadsworth

Texas Law Legal System ConceptSeyfarth Synopsis:  In a decision that is sure to increase the costs and complexity of litigation, the Texas Supreme Court recently held that a former employee’s common law assault claim was not preempted by the state’s anti-discrimination statute. The Court reasoned that if the gravamen of an employee’s claim is that the employer committed assault through a “vice principal”–as opposed to sexual harassment–the employee may pursue the common law claim directly and would not be preempted.

Recently, in B.C. v. Steak N Shake Operations, Inc., the Texas Supreme Court held that an employee could sue her employer for assault where the gravamen of the claim was sexual assault by the employer’s “vice principal”, and not sexual harassment. In doing so, the Court narrowed its previous holding in Waffle House, Inc. v. Williams, 313 S.W.3d 796 (Tex. 2010) that common law torts predicated on the same or similar facts as a sexual harassment claim are preempted by the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”).

In a somewhat bizarre twist of logic, the decision suggests that employees subject to a single, severe instance sexual assault by a “vice principal” may bring a common law claim against the employer; but employees subject to a pattern sexual harassment involving sexually suggestive comments and conduct (including less violent or offensive touching constituting assault) may only bring a claim under the TCHRA (subject to administrative exhaustion requirements and damages caps). Until the courts resolve this open question, employers will likely be forced to defend both types of claims at the same time, while also having to litigate factually-intensive questions regarding who qualifies as a “vice principal” under Texas law.

Plaintiff B.C. worked as a server in the Steak N Shake restaurant in Frisco, Texas. During a shift in October 2010, she claimed that her supervisor assaulted her in the bathroom, pushing her against the wall and sink, groping her, and exposing his genitals. She was able to escape the attack only after the supervisor lost his balance and fell to the ground. Steak N Shake conducted an internal investigation after B.C. reported the incident, but was unable to confirm B.C.’s story. Steak N Shake extended an unqualified offer to B.C. to return to work at any Steak N Shake location of her choosing. B.C. declined the offer and instead resigned. She later sued Steak N Shake for a variety of common law claims, including assault, on the basis that her supervisor was a “vice principal” and therefore Steak N Shake was directly liable for his tortious actions. Steak N Shake moved for summary judgment arguing, in part, that the TCHRA preempted B.C.’s common law claims. The trial court granted summary judgment without explanation and B.C. appealed. The Dallas Court of Appeals, relying on Waffle House decision, affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that the TCHRA preempted B.C.’s assault claim.

In reversing, the Texas Supreme Court distinguished the facts in Waffle House, noting that the plaintiff in that case (Williams) had asserted a common-law negligent retention and supervision claim based on the employer’s alleged failure to prevent a pattern of sexual harassment by co-workers over six months that included inappropriate comments, suggestive winks, and arguably sexual assault (the employee allegedly held the plaintiff’s arms with his body pressed against hers and rubbed against the plaintiff’s breasts with his arms). Because sexual harassment under the TCHRA based on co-workers harassment is predicated on the employer’s alleged negligence and because it was the employer’s continued negligent supervisor and retention of the harasser that constituted the factual basis of Williams’ claims, the Texas Supreme Court held in Waffle House that the gravamen of the Williams’ complaint was a TCHRA-covered claim and not the negligence claims.

The Court then distinguished its holding in Waffle House from the claim raised by B.C. First, the factual basis for Williams’ common law claim in Waffle House was Waffle House’s continued supervision and retention of the harasser. B.C., on the other hand, only alleged a single instance of violent assault. Second, the Court reasoned that Williams improperly repackaged the assault portions of her sexual harassment claim in terms of negligence. Yet the gravamen of her complaint was sexual harassment by co-workers. Conversely, unlike Williams, B.C. did not allege a pattern or practice of sexual harassment by co-workers. Instead, she alleged that on a single occasion, Steak N Shake, acting through her supervisor, sexually assaulted her. Third, Williams alleged that a co-worker physically harassed her, whereas B.C. alleged that her employer was directly responsible for the alleged assault of a “vice principal” (i.e., her supervisor). Therefore, the Court reasoned, the gravamen of B.C.’s complaint was assault, not sexual harassment under the TCHRA. The Court also noted that there is no indication that the Texas legislature intended for the TCHRA to preempt assault claims against individual assailants (whether a corporate entity or an individual).

The Court’s holding here is likely to cause confusion and lead to strange outcomes. With little guidance, courts will be forced to decide whether the gravamen of a complaint is assault or sexual harassment. Because the Court did not draw a bright line, employees subject to a pattern of non-physical harassment and only one incident of assault may be limited by the TCHRA, whereas employees subject only to sexual assault (but no ongoing harassment) may be free to assert common law claims. Regardless of the final outcome, in the short term employers will likely be forced to defend both claims at the same time, particularly in cases involving sexual harassment by supervisors, managers, or executives. Litigating assault claims and questions about who qualifies as a “vice principal” will also likely increase the costs of litigation in this context.

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

By Steve Shardonofsky and Tiffany T. Tran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Lucas Deloach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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