By Brian A. Wadsworth

Seyfarth Synopsis: In her appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel argues that the trial court wrongly concluded that it was unreasonable for O’Daniel to believe that a complaint about discrimination based on sexual orientation constituted a protected activity. The EEOC recently joined the fray by filing an amicus curiae brief, which argues that it was reasonable for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to sexual orientation discrimination constituted protected activity.

The EEOC argues that O’Daniel need only “reasonably believe[]” the opposed conduct was unlawful and that O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable when viewed in the context of recent decisions reached by the Southern District of Texas, Second Circuit, Seventh Circuit, and the EEOC. The EEOC also cites the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues as another reason O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable.

Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel filed suit against her employer, Plant-N-Power, and its parent company (Defendants) in the Middle District of Louisiana alleging, amongst other things, retaliation on the basis of her sexual orientation—heterosexual. O’Daniel alleged that Defendants terminated her employment because of one of her Facebook posts. In the post, she included a photograph of a man wearing a dress at a Target store and expressed discontent with his ability to use the women’s restroom and/or dressing rooms. O’Daniel alleged that this offended the President of Plant-N-Power, a member of the LGBT community, and that the president subsequently suggested O’Daniel’s termination.

Defendants responded to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss and argued that O’Daniel’s retaliation claim failed in part because she did not “plead any protected activity … under Title VII.” By consent of the parties, a magistrate judge heard Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The magistrate judge ultimately agreed with Defendants and dismissed O’Daniel’s retaliation claim because it was “unreasonable for [O’Daniel] to believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes protected activity” and cited the Fifth Circuit’s 1979 holding in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp. to support its holding. The trial court noted that while Title VII may protect gender-non-conformity, O’Daniel did not allege discrimination on this basis. O’Daniel appealed the magistrate judge’s decision to the Fifth Circuit.

On May 2, 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus curiae brief with the court, taking issue with the trial court’s finding that it was “unreasonable” for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation was a protected activity. In arguing this, the EEOC pointed out that the employee need only “reasonably believe[] the opposed conduct was unlawful.” The EEOC maintains that, “given recent appellate decisions …, the EEOC’s view that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, and the rapidly changing legal landscape,” O’Daniel had a reasonable belief that discrimination based on sexual orientation was impermissible.

The EEOC pointed to a number of decisions in the Southern District of Texas, the Second and Seventh Circuits, as well as holdings from the commission itself, to demonstrate that the “law on sexual orientation discrimination” had evolved and that at least some courts prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment. In addition, the EEOC noted the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues and the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions endorsing the right of gay and lesbian individuals to be free from discrimination in Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor. Given this context, O’Daniel—“a layperson without legal expertise”—could “reasonably conclude that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination encompasses discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation.” This would extend, in the EEOC’s view, to discrimination on the basis that an employee is heterosexual.

The EEOC similarly noted that Fifth Circuit precedent did not preclude an individual from harboring a reasonable belief that sexual orientation is unlawful. To argue this, the EEOC distinguished Blum, in which the Court held that “[d]ischarge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.” The EEOC argued that Blum was decided on the issue of pretext and not on whether Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Moreover, according to the EEOC, there were post-Blum decisions that recognize that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex stereotyping, to include Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction, Co. Thus, O’Daniel could have relied on these post-Blum holdings to arrive at a reasonable conclusion that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Defendants have not yet filed their appellate brief.

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

By Kevin A. Fritz

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decline of a Seventh Circuit appellate decision solidifies that where an employee is medically unable to return to work within a very short time period following a leave of absence, the employer has no additional federal legal obligation to provide additional leave, or hold the employee’s job open.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined review of a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision establishing a rule that leave of more than a few weeks in duration falls outside an employers’ reasonable accommodation obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

Plaintiff took Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for multiple herniated discs in his back. He notified his employer that he was scheduled for back surgery the same day his FMLA leave expired, and he requested another three months of medical leave to allow him to return to work. The employer denied this request and discharged his employment. Plaintiff sued, claiming that his employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation by denying him the additional leave.

What is interesting about this case is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus brief in support of Plaintiff’s claims. The agency argued that any fixed period of post-FMLA leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation the ADA, and that employers have the burden of demonstrating this additional leave poses an undue hardship.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the argument, affirming summary judgment for the employer. In its decision, the Court concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA that extend for more than a brief period of time are never required under the ADA. The Court never answered the question of whether the additional leave request constituted an undue hardship because once it found that employees who are unable to perform their duties for extended periods of time are “not qualified” as defined by the ADA, the inquiry stops.

Now, the Supreme Court’s decline to review this holding establishes that, at least in the Seventh Circuit, employers do not have to provide significant additional leave following expiration under the FMLA because doing so would convert the ADA to a medical leave entitlement statute. Which it is not. The Seventh Circuit stands in opposition to four other federal appellate circuits and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which treat leave in the same manner as any other requested medical accommodation. Other appellate courts, including the Fourth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit have not litigated this issue up to the appellate level.

As the workforce continues to change its makeup, and individuals continue to take leaves of absences to attend to their personal needs, this area will surely continue to develop.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Kyla J. Miller and Dawn Reddy Solowey

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

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

The Employer’s Flu Shot Policy

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

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

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

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

Employer Takeaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Philippe Weiss and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: In the last in a three-part series addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, we asked Philippe Weiss, Esq., Managing Director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, to share insights from the front lines, that can help organizations credibly and effectively ensure their company culture is respectful and not tolerant of discrimination, harassing behavior or other inappropriate workplace conduct.

Q.  Based on your client and agency interactions, how have leadership and organizational mindsets changed since the rash of harassment scandals started to make national news?

A.  Daily headlines detailing high-profile harassment scandals clearly have many company executives and compliance professionals talking and worried. (Our call volume at SSAW has spiked and, notably, a significant number of callers are C-Suite members, themselves.) High-level executives have sought out our attorney-trainers and asked about strategies to avoid becoming an unwitting enabler.  We sense a wake-up call among many of those in key positions of power.

In-house legal and HR teams are reporting to us that they are now more fully appreciating how uncomfortable it can be for employees to confront those who cross a respect line and to report misconduct by higher-ups.  Organizations realize that they need real solutions that will be impactful and help reinforce a culture of non-tolerance for harassment in the workplace.

Q.  What kind of an opportunity has this created for compliance professionals? Do you and your group view the current momentum as sustainable?

A.  We see a significant opportunity for compliance professionals, as organizations are now willing to invest and prioritize harassment prevention and EEO – with longer term, comprehensive, and more strategically designed initiatives.   We have seen line items suddenly open-up in many annual budgets for compliance and conduct programming. Organizations are also increasingly investing in climate and employee surveys/focus groups, which (of course) must be handled delicately and skillfully – but which can also powerfully inform training and communications.

It is certainly challenging to predict the future and determine whether the current momentum is sustainable.  But given the depth and breadth of the publicity and #MeToo movement and related issues being raised, we see a clear shift that shows no signs of abating.

Q.  Given the apparent failure of passive and cookie-cutter training programs, what training solutions have you and others in the field found actually achieve buy-in and create meaningful behavioral change?

A.  There are a number of different things companies should be considering:

From a training planning standpoint:

  • Consider your claims history, internal complaint records, climate surveys, questions and concerns raised by employees, and organizational environment industry factors in program development.
  • Ensure that policies, codes of conduct and statement of values are just where you want them, in terms of content, core messaging and design.

From a training content perspective:

  • Focus on encouraging and simplifying internal reporting; in this regard many clients are asking for more extensive skill-building around “Responding to and In-taking Complaints and Concerns” to be added into their programs;
  • Focus on “Gateway Conduct” – such as leaders dressing down subordinates, which many have seen devolving into more egregious behavior, over time;
  • Focus on encouraging and creating a “step-up” culture of bystander intervention. Clients we work with report real value in referring to bystanders in the positive – as in “Accountable Allies” or “First Responders.” They have also found critical value in both championing and equipping bystanders with credible skills and simple scripts. “Accountable Allies” must be trained to:

** Spot colleagues’ discomfort;

** Support colleagues, using a safe, step-up, speak-up model;

** Employ distraction and extraction strategies, as appropriate;

** Know when and how to call in reinforcements.

We have known for some time that this is all about surmounting barriers of unease and reluctance to appropriately, safely and collectively “check” those starting to cross a line of conduct/norms (including peers at the C-Suite level). That is why the simplest, most user-friendly and tailored scripts can prove surprisingly effective, when built into a larger and cohesive culture strategy.

From a training design and delivery methodology standpoint:

  • Deliver training in everyday language that emphasizes real-world skill-building and avoids “legalese;”
  • Utilize organizational policies, corporate value statements, and best practices as core aspects of the messaging;
  • Wherever possible, arrange content around a set of practical thematic core elements. Choose central concepts and mantras so that delivery is not perceived as a litany of do’s and don’ts;
  • Sessions should all be engaging and fully interactive. This feature is essential. While always calibrating for an audience, the rule is: the more true interactivity, the better. (Having said that, individuals should not be singled out and “compelled” to answer questions.) Post-training surveys show that participants learn little from a “talking head” instructor. They learn and buy-in from collaborating and seeing how their colleagues respond to relevant situationals – and by building a consensus.
  • Ensure that best practices answers come from the group.
  • Keep to a minimum the use of PPTs, videos, and other relatively passive tools.
  • Because the credibility and impact of the presenter is critical for effective training, facilitators should be qualified attorney-trainers with practice and business leadership experience, who are also (importantly) entertaining and professional presenters with a recognized facility for high-energy delivery and an ability to draw-out individuals and powerfully connect their answers.

An added forward-looking defense bonus is deploying a course that has been evaluated and cited as a credible “culture changer” by federal agency-designated monitors in consent decrees. (Editor’s Note – SSAW has such programs! SSAW has participated in numerous EEOC and DOJ consent decrees where the long-term impacts of various communication and training strategies targeting harassment were comprehensively – and positively – evaluated.)

Q.  What additional top-down communications solutions are most effective in the current climate?

A.  One common approach is an all-employee memo re-articulating the organization’s commitment to respect – a “dignity-declaration” of sorts.

Beyond that, many forward-thinking organizations are employing a “wrap around” training communication cascade/approach. Like the training program itself, communication cascades should use simple terms, statements and values – the simpler, the more memorable.  Communications should be delivered through as many valuable and resonant mediums as possible – from team meetings, to emails, to postings on portals, to delivery of hard copies – and should be presented in differing and creative ways, whether virtually, visually or verbally.  With some forethought, organizations can calibrate the timing and variety of such communications so they impact without becoming redundant.

Of course, the most effective communication strategy is one where management at every level consistently refers to your harassment prevention and conduct training mantras and take-aways.

If you have questions about training or how to work toward a more respectful culture within your organization, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney or Seyfarth Shaw at Work directly.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Last week, members of the Chicago L&E Team hosted the Fourth Quarter Breakfast Briefing to a packed room.  This Briefing looked at four key governmental agencies/trends (OSHA, OFCCP and equal pay, EEOC, and NLRB) to review key highlights from 2017 and how 2018 was shaping up.

In case you missed it, here are the slides from the presentation.

Please consider joining us for Firm Breakfast Briefings (which also offer CLE credit if that’s on your yearly “to do” list).  Upcoming topics likely include the ongoing issues impacting ADA/FMLA and other leave laws; paid sick leave; and other emerging topics in HR and employment law. We will be announcing dates for 2018 Chicago briefings in the next several weeks; so be on the (Employment Law) “Lookout” for those emails.

 

By David J. Rowland and Megan P. Toth

Seyfarth SynopsisThe Eleventh Circuit is the next to find a long-term leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Just a few months after a recent and definitive decision by the Seventh Circuit that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Eleventh Circuit has issued a similar opinion. This decision may signal a growing trend that courts are attempting to curb the abuse of long-term leaves of absence under the ADA that has been rampant and debilitating to employers for many years.

In the recent Eleventh Circuit case, Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, the plaintiff injured his shoulder at work and took Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.  He was not able to have corrective surgery during this time, so under the employers medical leave policy, he was granted another three-month medical leave.  However, at the end of this period — a total of six months of leave — the employee was still not medically able to return to work. He told the employer that he had a doctors appoint in a month and would likely be released to work in six weeks, but it was unclear whether he would have any restrictions at that time. Thus, the employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment and he sued, alleging failure by the employer to provide additional leave as an ADA reasonable accommodation.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim on summary judgment. The plaintiff acknowledged that case precedent says that employers are not required to provide indefinite leaves. However, he argued that these prior decisions involved situations where employees suffered from chronic medical conditions that could continue indefinitely. In this case, the plaintiff contended that an unspecified leave was reasonable because there was a projected end date and once concluded, his medical condition would be resolved without the potential need for additional leave.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument finding that even though the plaintiff would eventually recover, his request was essentially an “open-ended request” for leave of a sufficient time to recover, which is not reasonable under the ADA.  The Court also noted that the employer did not violate the ADA because it already provided six months of leave and the plaintiff inarguably could not perform the essential functions of his job at the time of his termination, with or without a reasonable accommodation and therefore he was not a qualified individual.  Thus, the court found that regardless of the nature of his underlying medical condition and his projected but uncertain recovery, the employer was not required to provide continued long-term leave.

It appears that the Seventh Circuit is not the lone-ranger in its attempt to invalidate the EEOC’s historic and strongly advocated position that long-term leaves are required “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA.  If other circuits continue to follow suit, employers may no longer have a legal obligation to provide lengthy post-FMLA leaves of absence, without the need to justify the denial based on specific business needs.  This case also demonstrates the importance of requesting updated medical information from employees nearing the end of FMLA or other medical leave periods.

If an employee cannot medically substantiate that they can return to work close to the expiration of their FMLA leave, employers may have greater legal flexibility in determining whether or not to accommodate the request. While employers should be aware of this apparently growing trend and may choose to adjust their leave and accommodation approaches accordingly, they still must approach long-term and indefinite leave requests very carefully as there are conflicting decisions from other circuits and the EEOC’s position will remain unchanged unless the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sides with the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By David J. Rowland and Cheryl A. Luce

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Seventh Circuit sent shockwaves through the EEOC and through the employer community by concluding that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the ADA.

To the surprise of many observers, and undoubtedly the EEOC, the Seventh Circuit held last week in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., — F. 3d — Case No. 14-cv-1141 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017) that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Id. at 7. Judge Sykes, on behalf of a power panel that included Chief Judge Wood and Judge Easterbrook, analyzed the language of the ADA and concluded that it “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” Id. at 2.

The facts of the case are straightforward. Severson had a chronic back condition that pre-dated his employment at Heartland that would occasionally flare up and affect his ability to walk, bend, lift, sit stand, move and work.  In June 2013, Severson experienced such a flare-up and took a leave from work.  Over the summer months, he submitted periodic notes from his doctor informing Heartland that he was receiving treatment and could not work.

Heartland approved his request for 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Two weeks before his leave expired, he informed Heartland that his condition had not improved and that he would need surgery the date that his leave expired, and that the typical recovery time for this surgery was at least two months.  Heartland notified Severson the day before his surgery that his employment with Heartland would end when his FMLA leave expired the following day and invited him to reapply with the company when he recovered from surgery and was medically cleared to work. He recovered several months later and, instead of reapplying, filed a lawsuit.  The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of Heartland on Severson’s ADA claims and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The EEOC filed an amicus brief and participated in oral argument.  In its opinion, the court took special care to explicitly reject the EEOC’s argument that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is of a definite, time-limited duration, requested in advance, and likely to enable to perform the essential functions of his job when he returns.  The court found the EEOC’s reading of the statute to equate “reasonable accommodation” with “effective accommodation,” a concept rejected by the Supreme Court in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002). Severson at 9.  More importantly, the court found that by the EEOC’s logic, the length of the leave did not matter and therefore transformed the ADA into a medical leave statute—“in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA”—which the court found “untenable.” Id.

The court left open the possibility that “intermittent time off or a short leave—say, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule.” Id. at 8.  But, relying upon prior precedent from Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003), the court found that the “[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.” Id.

This decision is the firmest and most comprehensive rebuke of the EEOC’s long-held and vigorously pursued position that long-term leaves are a required form of reasonable accommodation. The Chicago office of the EEOC, in particular, has leveraged multi-million dollar settlements in the past after suing employers that actually had long term, “multi-month” extended leave policies in place, but were unwilling to extend leaves beyond six months or even a year.  This avenue of ADA attack now appears blocked in the Seventh Circuit.

Employers must proceed with great caution in this area for several reasons. First, the Seventh Circuit’s decision arguably conflicts with decisions in the First, Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits (at least according to the EEOC’s amicus brief at pp. 15-16 ).  As a result, employers with a national footprint cannot assume this same rule will apply outside of the Seventh Circuit.  Second, Severson could seek rehearing en banc, likely with the EEOC’s support.  Given the panel in Severson, though, a rehearing bid may be an uphill battle.

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC lawsuit alleging that an employer failed to reasonably accommodate its Muslim employees’ requests for prayer breaks, a federal court in Colorado granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions — as a result of the employer’s failure to preserve and produce various records — and barred the employer from presenting evidence, testimony, or arguments that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  This ruling provides an important lesson for businesses regarding the preservation of documents in ongoing EEOC litigation.

***

In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, Case No. 10-CV-02103, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122908 (D. Colo. Aug. 4, 2017), the EEOC alleged that JBS USA, LLC (“JBS”), a meat packing company, discriminated against its Muslim employees on the basis of religion by engaging in a pattern or practice of retaliation, discriminatory discipline and discharge, harassment, and denying its Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations.  After the EEOC moved for sanctions regarding JBS’s failure to produce two types of records relating to delays on JBS’s production line, Judge Phillip A. Brimmer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted in part the EEOC’s motion and barred JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.

For employers involved in government enforcement litigation, this ruling serves as a cautionary tale regarding the importance of preserving and producing relevant records, and that the failure to do so might cost employers the ability to later use such records in their defense.

For more information on this lawsuit (and a similar Nebraska case where JBS successfully obtained summary judgment), see our blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Case Background

JBS operates a beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado.  Id. at *2.  During the first week of Ramadan 2008, a dispute occurred between JBS and its Muslim employees over their opportunities to pray, resulting in hundreds of Muslim employees walking off the job.  On September 10, 2008, JBS fired 96 Muslim employees that refused to return to work.  After the mass termination, numerous former employees filed discrimination charges with the EEOC.  Id.  In response, on February 3, 2009, JBS submitted a position statement where it argued that granting prayer breaks to employees would be an undue burden, in part, due to losses resulting from “each minute of production down-time.”  Id.  JBS continued to assert its undue burden affirmative defense throughout the case, for instance, arguing in its summary judgment motion that production line slowdowns and downtime would have been caused by allowing prayer breaks to Muslim employees.

The EEOC sought discovery from JBS about its undue burden affirmative defense.  Relevant here, on November 21, 2012, the EEOC served a production request regarding the production of all reports or data showing all dates and times the fabrication lines on any and all shifts were stopped, as well as the speed of the lines.  In response, JBS produced documents that included records showing scheduled breaks, but did not provide or reference the Down Time Reports or Clipboards, which show unplanned downtime and slowdowns.  The EEOC thereafter moved for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents directly relevant to JBS’s allegations of undue hardship.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions.  While JBS had produced Clipboards from 2012-2016 and Down Time Reports from 2016, it claimed that all others had been destroyed.  JBS later testified via Rule 30(b)(6) deposition that the Down Time Reports were shipped to storage each year, but may have been destroyed.  After searching its warehouse for “a day” in 2017,  JBS later located and produced some additional records.  Id. at *6.  The Court thus found that JBS failed to supplement its production with responsive records in a timely manner.  The Court held that because JBS did not show that its failure to supplement was substantially justified or harmless, it would impose sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1).  Id.

Next, the Court explained that spoliation occurs when a party loses or destroys evidence that it had a duty to preserve because it was relevant to proof of an issue at trial in current or anticipated litigation.  Id. at *7 (citation omitted).  JBS argued that it did not have a duty to preserve these documents because it had no way of knowing or anticipating that the EEOC would be interested in knowing the specific time of every instance of every day that the production line stopped for an unplanned or unexpected reason.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that JBS ignored the fact that it asserted an undue burden defense within a year of the September 2008 incident and after charges of discrimination had been filed against it.  As such, the Court held that JBS had a duty to preserve documents relevant to the burden posed by the proposed accommodations.  Id. at *8 (citation omitted).

Arguing that the lack of production of records did not cause a prejudice to the EEOC, JBS stated that the records did not show whether any slowdown or stoppage was related to a prayer break because the information they contained was “only as specific as the information known to the person filling out the Down Time Report.”  Id. at *10.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that “[r]ecords such as those sought, which potentially show the actual impact of unscheduled employee prayer breaks, are particularly important to understanding the impact such breaks would have on production line slowdowns or stoppages because they would provide contemporaneous records of whether unscheduled breaks led to production downtime.”  Id. at *12.  Accordingly, the Court found that the EEOC was prejudiced by JBS’s spoliation of evidence.  Id.

In fashioning a sanction that “appropriately addresses the prejudice to the EEOC resulting from JBS’s spoliation or failure to produce the records and is proportional to JBS’s culpability,” the Court held that it would bar JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  Id. at *14.  The Court explained that this sanction was “tailored to the evidence lost, destroyed, or withheld by JBS because it alleviates the prejudice which the EEOC would otherwise suffer, namely, that JBS may present evidence of stoppages through witnesses, but the EEOC would not be able to rebut such testimony with records that would likely prove whether stoppages actually occurred and, perhaps, for what reason.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Court granted in part the EEOC’s motion for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents.

Implications For Employers

An employer’s likelihood of defeating a workplace class action is often dependent on its ability maintain and preserve thorough employment records.  Here, the employer’s failure to preserve records that ultimately could have helped establish an affirmative defense resulted in the Court limiting the employer from using certain types of evidence in its defense of the litigation.  This sanction should serve as a cautionary tale for employers in regards to complying with the written discovery process, as employers are best-positioned to defeat workplace class actions when they have as many defenses as possible in their arsenal.

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

 

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.