EEOC Whacked Again on Background Checks

Ct Rejects Race Discrimination Initiative

Another court has rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s initiative to combat race discrimination by limiting the use of criminal background checks in hiring.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Michigan this week upheld a lower court ruling requiring the EEOC to pay $751,942.48 in fees and costs to Peoplemark, a temporary-employment agency with offices in Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida.

The award includes $526,172 in fees to Peoplemark’s in-house expert, an amount the EEOC  called astounding, inappropriate and poorly documented.

 EEOC Director Jacqueline Berrien recently maintained that the EEOC does not challenge an employers’ decision to conduct criminal background checks but instead challenges screening processes that are not job related and consistent with business necessity and which have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans.

The EEOC filed a complaint in 2008 alleging that Peoplemark had a blanket policy of denying employment opportunities to persons with felony records and that this policy had a disparate impact on African Americans.

Obvious?

Initially, it appeared obvious that Peoplemark had a policy of denying employment to applicants with felony records. Peoplemark used  an application form that asked applicants if they have a felony record and conducted independent investigations into the criminal records of all applicants. Most importantly, Peoplemark’s Associate General Counsel Judd F. Olsten actually admitted to the EEOC that Peoplemark had a company-wide policy of rejecting felon applicants

Peoplemark did not did not deny the existence of a company-wide policy against hiring felons until July 2009 – almost two years after the EEOC began investigating and a year after the  EEOC’ filed its complaint.

The appeals court notes that Peoplemark had  turned over 178,888 discovery documents to the EEOC by Oct. 1, 2010 which showed that Peoplemark had referred felons to job opportunities.  The fee award  dates October 2010.

According to the appeals court: “When discovery clearly indicated (Peoplemark’s Chief Counsel’s) statements belied the facts, the Commission should have reassessed its claim.”

The appeals court also noted the EEOC identified a class of 286 individuals that included applicants that did not have felony convictions and applicants who obtained employment through Peoplemark despite their criminal records.

The EEOC and Peoplemark agreed by joint motion to dismiss the case in March, 2010, with Peoplemark held to he prevailing party for fee purposes.  The EEOC argued it could have filed an amended complaint stating a valid claim against e at that time, an argument the court found to be irrelevant.

The award includes  $219,350.70 in attorney’s fees, $526,172 in expert witness fees (for 123.55 hours of work) and $6,419 in other expenses.

The case involved a complaint by Sherri Scott, an African-American with a felony conviction, submitted an application and was not referred for employment.  She filed a discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the EEOC began an investigation.

In August, Judge Roger Titus of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed a lawsuit brought by the EEOC in 2009 against Freeman, Inc., a service provider for corporate events, which alleged Freeman unlawfully relied upon credit and criminal background checks that caused a disparate impact against African-American, Hispanic, and male job applicants.

The Attorney Generals  of West Virginia, Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, South Carolina and Utah have complained about the EEOC background check policy.

The EEOC last summer filed lawsuits against BMW and Dollar General Store for refusing to hire individuals with felony records. In the Dollar Store case, the individual was incorrectly reported as having a felony record when she did not.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that approximately 9 percent of all men will serve time in state or federal prisons, including 28 percent of black males, 16 percent of Hispanic males, and 4 percent of white males.

Courts Scrutinize Employer “Look” Policies

Dreadlocks and Hijabs

An employer’s vision of a company’s “culture” can be risky business when it involves the appearance of workers.

Abercrombie & Fitch recently settled two lawsuits involving a provision of its dress code or “Look Policy” that prohibited Muslim employees from wearing a hijab (religious scarf) on the job.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit against Catastrophe  Management Solutions, a Mobile, Alabama catastrophic  insurance claims company, for alleged discrimination against a  black applicant for employment because she wore dreadlocks.

In both cases, the employers allegedly interpreted their culture in such a way as to exclude workers who demonstrated physical or cultural characteristics  of race or religious identity.  Other employers run afoul of  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 law when they interpret their culture in ageist or sexist ways.

Eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring, especially class-based recruitment and  hiring practices that discriminate against racial, ethnic and religious groups,  older workers, women, and people with disabilities, is one of six national  priorities identified by the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan.

Dreadlocks

Chastity Jones was among a group of  applicants who were selected for a group interview by Catastrophe Management Solutions on May 12, 2010.  Jones, who is black, had blond hair that was dreaded in neat curls, or “curllocks.”  Jones was offered a position as a customer service  representative.

According to the EEOC, Jones’s offer of employment was rescinded later that day when  human resources staff met with Jones to discuss her training schedule and realized that Jones’s curled hair was in  dreadlocks.  The manager in charge told  Jones  the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to cut  them off to obtain employment.  Jones  refused to cut her hair.

The EEOC argues that Catastrophe’s ban on dreadlocks discriminates against African-Americans is based  on physical and/or cultural characteristics in violation of Title VII. The EEOC filed suit in U.S.  District Court for the Southern District of Alabama (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management  Solutions, Inc., Civil Action No. ­­­­­­­­­­­1:13-cv-00476-CB-M).

“This litigation is not about policies  that require employees to maintain their hair in a professional, neat,  clean or conservative manner,” said C. Emanuel Smith, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Birmingham District Office.  “It focuses  on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are  singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standards  for other races.”

Third time’s the Charm?

The EEOC reports that three federal judges have issued rulings in different cases in recent years rejecting Abercrombie’s claim that it would create an undue hardship and/or violate Abercrombie’s free speech rights to require the company to permit employees to wear hijabs. Title VII requires employers to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs or practices of employees unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business.

Abercrombie & Fitch last month settled two EEOC lawsuits involving its “Look Policy” –  an internal dress code that included a prohibition against head coverings.

The settlement follows a ruling by U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that Abercrombie was liable for religious discrimination in the firing of Muslim employee Umme-Hani Khan for wearing her hijab.

Khan, 19, started working in  2009 at the firm’s Hollister store (an Abercrombie & Fitch brand targeting teenagers aged 14 through 18) at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo, Calif.  As an “impact associate,” she worked primarily in the stockroom.  At first she was allowed to wear headscarves in Hollister colors. Several months later, she was informed that her hijab violated Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” and that she would be taken off schedule unless she removed the hijab while at work.  Khan refused and was fired on Feb. 23, 2010.

Judge Rogers rejected Abercrombie’s argument that its Look Policy goes to the “very heart of [its] business model” and any deviation from the policy threatened the company’s success. She said Abercrombie offered only “unsubstantiated opinion testimony of its own employees to support its claim of undue hardship.”  That testimony, she added, demonstrated “their personal beliefs, but are not linked to any credible evidence.”

Abercrombie settled Hahn’s case along with a lawsuit by Halla Banafa, who was not hired as an “impact associate” in Abercrombie’s Great Mall outlet in Milpitas, Calif., because of her headscarf. In April, U.S. Judge Edward J. Davila dismissed Abercrombie’s undue-hardship claims on summary judgment, citing the “dearth of proof” linking store performance or the Abercrombie brand image to “Look Policy” compliance.

The settlement requires Abercrombie to create an appeals process for denials of religious accommodation requests, inform applicants during interviews that accommodations to the “Look Policy” may be available, and incorporate headscarf scenarios into all manager training.  The company must make regular reviews of religious accommodation decisions to ensure consistency and provide biannual reports to the EEOC and Khan.  Khan and Banafa will also receive $71,000 under the terms of the settlement.

In a third lawsuit not part of this settlement, a district court in Tulsa, Okla., ruled on July 2011  that it was religious discrimination for Abercrombie not to hire a Muslim applicant for a sales position due to her hijab. The case is pending on appeal.

EEOC Defends Criminal Background Checks

They’re Permitted Unless …

The EEOC has been slammed in recent weeks for filing discrimination lawsuits against employers who used criminal background checks to assess job applicants that resulted in the disproportionate exclusion of minority group members.

A feEEOCderal judge ridiculed the EEOC in August for a seeming double standard, noting the EEOC itself uses criminal background checks with respect to hiring employees at the EEOC.

Jacqueline A. Berrien, chairperson of the EEOC, recently responded to a July 24,2013 letter from nine state Attorney Generals asking the EEOC to reconsider its April 25, 2012 Enforcement Guidance, Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

She said the Guidance merely clarifies and updates a longstanding EEOC policy and does not prohibit employers from using criminal background checks in hiring.

She said an employer can be held liable for discrimination if it “uniformly administers a criminal background check that disproportionately excludes people of a particular race, national origin, or other protected characteristic, and is not ‘job related for the position(s) in question and consistent with business necessity’ within the meaning of Title VII. However, she said employers can avoid liability by using the EEOC’s recommended two-step process when evaluating criminal history checks of applicants. The EEOC recommends that employers:

1. Use a ‘targeted’ screen of criminal records that considers such factors as the nature of the crime, the time elapsed and the nature of the job.

2. Use a follow-up individualized assessment of employees who are screened out to ensure the employer is “not mistakenly screening out qualified applicants or employees based on incorrect, incomplete, or irrelevant information.” The second step also gives individuals a chance to correct errors in their records.

Berrien said the EEOC’s proposed individualized assessment process does not add significant additional costs for employers.

She said an employer does not have to conduct an individualized assessment “if it can demonstrate that its targeted screen is always job related and consistent with business necessity.”  She called the individualized assessment “a safeguard that can help an employer to avoid liability when it cannot demonstrate that using only its targeted screen would always be job related and consistent with business necessity.”

In August, Judge Roger Titus of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed a lawsuit brought by the EEOC in 2009 against Freeman, Inc., a service provider for corporate events, which alleged Freeman unlawfully relied upon credit and criminal background checks that caused a disparate impact against African-American, Hispanic, and male job applicants. See EEOC v. Freeman, No. 09-CV-2573 (2013).

Titus notes the EEOC conducts criminal background investigations as a condition of employment for all positions and conducts credit background checks on approximately 90 percent of its positions. He acknowledged that credit and criminal background checks adversely affect some groups more than others but maintained that these checks are essential.

Berrien did not address the issue of background checks conducted by the EEOC on its job applicants.

Earlier, Berrien said recent EEOC lawsuits against BMW and Dollar General did not challenge the employers’ decisions to conduct criminal background checks but instead challenged screening processes that have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans that the commission believes are not job related and consistent with business necessity.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that approximately 9 percent of all men will serve time in state or federal prisons, including 28 percent of black males, 16 percent of Hispanic males, and 4 percent of white males.

The Attorney Generals who complained about the EEOC policy are from West Virginia, Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, South Carolina and Utah.

Is the EEOC’s Strategic Plan Enforceable?

Hostile Courts Present Obstacle to Success

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) has come under attack in recent weeks in federal courts, raising questions about its ability  to implement its new strategy of filing systemic lawsuits.

Earlier this month, Judge Roger Titus of the U.S. District Court for the EEOCDistrict of Maryland dismissed a nationwide pattern or practice lawsuit brought by the EEOC that alleged that Freeman, Inc., a service provider for corporate events, unlawfully relied upon credit and criminal background checks that caused a disparate impact against African-American, Hispanic, and male job applicants. See EEOC v. Freeman, No. 09-CV-2573 (2013),

In another case,  EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc.,  Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled  that the  Commission  must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport companies,  a judgment of $4,694,422.14  stemming from a lawsuit filed by the EEOC alleging sex discrimination on behalf of  trainee Monika Starke and other similarly situated employees.  She had earlier dismissed the lawsuit.

In their decisions, the judges eviscerate the performance of the EEOC, the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing the nation’s discrimination laws.

All of this occurs in a climate that is not favorable to workers’ rights.   The U.S. Supreme Court is the most anti-employee court in modern history and has issued  decisions this year making it more difficult for workers to win class action and  discrimination cases. Research also shows that discrimination cases are dismissed at a higher rate in federal court  than other types of cases. 

Freeman

In the Freeman decision, Judge Titus points to the seeming irony of the EEOC’s goal of  prohibiting  background checks in hiring.   He notes the EEOC conducts criminal background investigations as a condition of employment for all positions and conducts credit background checks on approximately 90 percent of its positions. Judge Titus acknowledged that credit and criminal background checks adversely affect some groups  more than others but maintained that these checks are essential.  According to Judge Titus:

 “Because of the higher rate of incarceration of African-Americans than Caucasians, indiscriminate use of criminal history information might have the predictable result of excluding African-Americans at a higher rate than Caucasian. Indeed, the higher rate might cause one to fear that any use of criminal history information would be in violation of Title VII.  However, this is simply not the case. Careful and appropriate use of criminal history information is an important, and in many cases essential, part of the employment process of employers throughout the United States …”

Judge Titus also bashed  the expert report prepared by Dr. Kevin R. Murphy, the EEOC’s statistical expert. He excluded it as evidence in the case on the grounds that  Murphy used an incomplete and inaccurate database. The  EEOC blamed  Freeman for failing to produce sufficient  information during discovery.

CRST

In the CRST case, Judge Reade castigated  the EEOC for failing to properly identify  potential class members. She expressed concern that the EEOC subjected CRST to a “moving target’ of prospective plaintiffs.”  

Judge Reade dismissed  more 67 potential class members from the lawsuit because the EEOC failed to  “conciliate” or attempt to reach a settlement in those cases –even though the EEOC took the position that this was not required.

Fair?

Whether or not these federal judges were fair to the EEOC,  the dismissals are disconcerting.  They represent a huge expenditure of scarce federal resources to combat a huge national  problem – employment discrimination and harassment. The number of lawsuits filed by the EEOC has declined dramatically over the years, from a high of 465 in 1999 to 155 in 2012.   

The EEOC last year  approved a Strategic Enforcement Plan to promote  more strategic use of agency resources.

The EEOC’s budget  has generally increased  in recent years – until last year. The EEOC’s budget was $341,900 million in 2009; $367,303 million in 2010; $385,303 in 2011; and $ 373,711 in 2012.

Judge Whacks EEOC With $4.7 in Fees

Case of Female Truck Drivers Crashes and Burns

It’s easy to forget that EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. started with a 2005 sex discrimination complaint by a female truck driver trainee, Monika Starke, who said she was sexually harassed  by her two “Lead Trainers.”

 Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled recently that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport companies,  $4,694,422.14 in attorney fees and costs stemming from the case.

Judge Reade’s decision  is brutally unsympathetic to the EEOC and the  255 female trainees and drivers who alleged sex discrimination and harassment against CRST.  She appears to be much more concerned about the supposedly unfair burden the litigation placed on CRST. 

The case began with a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of Starke and other similarly situated employees.  

 Court records show that Monika Starke alleged that one of the CRST trainers told her “the gear stick is not the penis of my husband, I don’t have to touch the gear stick so often”  and “You got big tits for your size, etc. . . “  She said she told him she was not interested in a sexual relationship with him and called the CRST dispatcher to complain.   “[I] was told that I could not get off the truck until the next day.”  she said.

 Starke’s other “Lead Trainer”  allegedly forced Starke to have sex with him while traveling from July 18, 2005 through August 3, 2005  “in order to get a passing grade.”

 Starke is described as a German who struggles with English. She and her  husband subsequently hired a lawyer and filed for bankruptcy.  They failed  to mention  the CRST lawsuit, prompting CRST to file a motion to prevent Starke from proceeding against CRST on grounds of judicial estoppel –  a doctrine that is meant to protect the integrity of the court.  Judge Reade granted the motion.

 In fact, Judge Reade granted CRST’s pre-trial motions to dismiss all of the complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination filed by the EEOC against CRST. 

  In a dozen cases, Judge Reade said the complaints were not “severe or pervasive” enough.

  In other cases, Judge Reade said CRST did not have legal (as opposed to real)  notice of the harassment and the “Lead Drivers” – who evaluated the performance of the female trainees – did not fall within the court’s technical definition of  supervisor in that they could not fire the trainees.

 Judge Reade dismissed 67 cases because the EEOC did not attempt to conciliate or negotiate with the CRST to settle the cases –  which appears to be a brand  new requirement that could severely limit the  EEOC in the future. Judge Reade conceded that dismissal was a  “severe” sanction for these complainants.

 The EEOC appealed Judge Reade’s dismissal of the case  to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

Appeals Court

In its decision, the  Eigth Circuit agreed that the “Lead Drivers” are not supervisory employees and that CRST was not vicariously liable for sexual harassment/discrimination committed by these employees.  

 The  appellate court generally agreed that claims by female complainants that they were propositioned for sex by male trainers and drivers were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim. The Court said an individual must show “more than a few isolated incidents” to support such a claim.  (It was unclear exactly how many times  a worker must be propositioned for sex to qualify as being harassed.)

 However, the appeals court disagreed with the dismissal of the claims of three female plaintiffs and ordered them reinstated. The court also reversed Judge Reade’s earlier grant of attorney fees to CRST in the amount of $4,560,285.11.

One of the three employees whose case was reinstated was Sherry O’Donnell,  who spent  seven days on the road with a male co-driver who asked her on three to five occasions to drive naked;  refused her request to stop at a truck stop so she could go to the bathroom,  ordering her instead to urinate in the parking lot; and, “in a culminating incident grabbed O’Donnell’s face while she was driving and began screaming that ‘all he wanted was a girlfriend.’ Regarding this third incident, O’Donnell testified that Sears grabbed her face so vigorously that it caused one of her teeth to lacerate her lip.”

Her lead trainer began screaming that ‘all he wanted was a girlfriend.’ He grabbed her face so vigorously that he caused one of her teeth to lacerate her lip.

 The other complainant, Tillie Jones, testified that during a two-week training trip, her Lead Driver, wore only underwear in the cab and on several occasions rubbed the back of her head, despite her repeated requests that he stop. He allegedly referred to Jones as  “his bitch” five or six times and, when Jones’s complained about his slovenly habits, ordered Jones to clean up the truck, declaring “that’s what you’re on the truck for, you’re my bitch. I ain’t your bitch. Shut up and clean it up.”  Like many of CRST’s Lead Drivers, Jones said he routinely urinated in plastic bottles and ziplock bags while in transit, leaving  his urine receptacles about the truck’s cab for her to clean up.  

 The appeals court ruled the EEOC established material issues of fact regarding the harassment that O’Donnell and Jones allegedly suffered. “We hold that the district court erred in concluding, as a matter of law, that the harassment they suffered was insufficiently severe or pervasive,” the court said.

 Finally, the Court rejected Judge Reade’s finding that the EEOC itself was barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel from proceeding on Monika Starke’s behalf, noting the EEOC had not misrepresented any facts to the court.  That brought Ms. Starke case back into the litigation.

 After the appeals court’s decision, CRST agreed to pay Ms. Starke $50,000 to settle Ms. Starke’s case, which most people would interpret as a victory for Ms. Starke. 

 The EEOC decided it could not proceed with respect to O’Donnell complaint, citing the “law of the case.” This presumably refers to Judge Reade’s ruling that the EEOC was required to directly engage in “conciliation” with CRST on each complaint.  

 Which left Ms. Jones as the sole surviving plaintiff.

Even though  the appeals court ruled in the EEOC’s favor with respect to several issues, Judge Reade ruled CRST was the ‘prevailing party” in the case and was entitled to almost $5 million in fees and costs.

 The final award to CRST is actually larger than the earlier award by Judge because Judge Reade included fees and costs expended by CRST related to the appeal.

 Judge Reade was appointed to the federal court in 2002 after being nominated by President George W. Bush.

 

Stopping Sexual Harassment

In the past, this blog has questioned why sexual harassment is not a criminal offense in the United States as it is in France.

Now the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a second complaint against a business owner who is  characterized as a “serial” sexual harasser because he paid  $780,000 to five women in 2003 to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

The EEOC alleges that Fred Fuller Oil Company, a Hudson, N.H.-based oil company, violated federal law when  owner Fred Fuller sexually harassed two women, caused the constructive discharge of one, and fired the other.

Fuller allegedly forced Nichole Wilkins to quit in July 2011 after he sexually assaulted her by grabbing and squeezing both her breasts from behind while pinning her against her desk.  The EEOC says this assault was the culmination of a growing number of unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments and incidents of touching by Fuller. 

 Fuller then allegedly created a sexually hostile work environment for Wilkin’s friend and co-worker, Beverly Mulcahey. Shortly after Wilkins notified Fuller in October 2011 that she intended to file an EEOC charge of discrimination, Fuller fired Mulcahey for poor performance.

Déjà Vu

The EEOC sued Fred Fuller Oil Company in 2003 and settled that case in July 2005, winning  $780,000 in relief for five women.  As part of the settlement, the company agreed to undergo training aimed at conforming to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment.

Markus L. Penzel, trial attorney in the EEOC’s Boston Area Office, said in a press release last month, “The Commission characterized Fred Fuller as a ‘serial sexual harasser’ in its first lawsuit.  Unfortunately, that still seems to be true.”

With sincere respect to Mr. Penzel, it is more than unfortunate that additional women were allegedly targeted by Fuller.  If the EEOC’s complaint is true, these women not only suffered emotional distress but were hounded out of their jobs, resulting in a loss of their financial well-being.

The women who worked for Fred Fuller Oil Co. probably have little in common with  Sherly Sanburg, the billionaire Harvard University graduate and  chief financial officer of Google. She implies in a recent bestselling book that women are partly responsible for their own lack of equality in the workplace. 

The reality is that victims of sexual harassment often are single mothers living paycheck-to-paycheck, with few other employment options, and college students who are trying to earn money to pay their tuition. These women are vulnerable, often not believed, sometimes blamed, almost always powerless and utterly disposable.   

Get Serious!

There’s been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment in the military as a result of publicity surrounding alleged improper sexual conduct of military officers who are responsible for protecting  women from sexual harassment. Surveys show that a third of American women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers have done far too little to halt sexual harassment and the EEOC lacks the resources to effectively address this problem. 

It appears that Fred Fuller  was not deterred by a monetary fine. He  also did not appear to  benefit from education about what constitutes improper sexual conduct in the workplace or training on  how to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. What might have deterred Mr. Fuller?

 France’s  Law

France’s General Assembly enacted a new sexual harassment law on July 31, 2012 that includes criminal penalties of up to three years in prison.

New articles in the French Labor Code and the Penal Code state:

“Harassment is the fact of imposing on a person, in a repetitive fashion, statement or behavior of a sexual connation which violate a person’s dignity by virtue of their degrading or humiliating character or create as concerns such person an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.”

Under the French law, it is considered an “aggravating circumstance” if a perpetrator of workplace sexual harassment is abusing his or her authority.

If Fred Fuller had snatched the purse of his first victim, he would have been lucky to get just a warning.  If he had continued this behavior, he would  have spent time in jail. That’s because stealing a  purse is a crime. 

Shouldn’t it be a crime to steal someone’s peace of mind and financial livelihood?  

Oregon Interns Get Harrassment/Discrimination Protection

InternsUnpaid interns are especially vulnerable to predatory behavior in the workplace because they are young and inexperienced.

However, many courts have ruled that unpaid interns are not protected by state and federal harassment and discrimination laws.

This week the Oregon legislature agreed to extend workplace protections against harassment and discrimination to unpaid interns.  These protections formerly were reserved only for employees.

The Oregon Senate unanimously passed HB 2669, sending it to Gov. John Kitzhaber for signature. The Oregon house unanimously passed the bill last month. Kitzhaber has indicated that he will sign the bill. 

The new law will give unpaid interns legal recourse against employers for workplace violations including sexual harassment; discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age; and retaliation for whistleblowing, among other things.

With no protection in state law, you might think that unpaid interns could turn to federal law. You’d be wrong.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued  guidelines that provide coverage to volunteers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “if the volunteer work is required for regular employment or regularly leads to employment with the same entity.”  However, unpaid interns have been unable to bring sexual harassment or civil rights complaints under Title VII  because judges have not found them to be “employees”  to whom protections are explicitly afforded.

According to a  2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), federal courts have consistently found that the question of whether an individual is compensated for his or her work by an employer is the first test for determining employee status. Accordingly, unpaid interns, or even interns paid by an entity other than an employer, do not receive workplace discrimination protection.

The EPI study reports that the leading precedent for the failure to protect unpaid interns is the case of O’Connor v. Davis,  126 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 1997).  Bridget O’Connor was required to complete an internship for her college degree and chose to work at a local psychiatric center. There, O’Connor allegedly was subject to repeated sexual harassment by one of her supervisors, Dr. James Davis. The district court summarily dismissed O’Connor’s complaint because the plaintiff, as an unpaid intern, did not receive compensation from the center, and thus did not qualify as an employee protected under Title VII. The decision was upheld on appeal.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told the Associated Press that interns had contacted his office looking for help in the past and “we had to tell them that the law did not protect them.”

Under the measure, an intern who alleges workplace harassment or discrimination, among other violations, can bring a lawsuit against the employer or file a formal complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Avakian said the idea for the bill came from a legislative intern at the Bureau of Labor and Industries. He said the intern discovered the loophole and brought it to his attention.  In 2011, a similar bill failed to gain traction. This year, however, the bill passed with broad support from civil rights groups and a student advocacy group.

The Oregon law  does not create an employment relationship and does not affect wage or workers’ compensation laws.

 Photo by: John Amis

 

 

Lactation is Pregnancy-Related After-All!

Judge Lynn D. HughesA federal appeals court panel has unanimously ruled that firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 The decision by the  U.S.  Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit  in Houston, TX,  overturns a somewhat notorious ruling last year by U.S.  District Judge Lynn N. Hughes, also of Houston.

 Judge Hughes ruled that federal law did not prevent Houston Funding II, L.L.C., from firing a new mother because she asked for permission to pump breast milk in a back office after she returned to the job. He concluded that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition”. and thus  “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”

Houston Funding had argued Title VII does not cover “breast pump discrimination” and filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by Judge Hughes. 

The  dismissal was appealed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had filed the lawsuit  on behalf of the employee, Donnicia Venters, who gave birth to a baby girl in 2008.

 The Fifth Circuit ruled that Title VII (as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978) protects working women against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.  The appeals court ruled:

“Lactation is the physiological process of secreting milk from mammary glands and is directly caused by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth … It is undisputed in this appeal that lactation is a physiological result of being pregnant and bearing a child.”

The court reasoned that firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination, since men as a matter of biology could not be fired for such a reason.

The case was remanded back to the lower court for a trial on the merits.

 David Lopez, General Counsel of the EEOC, said, “We are gratified that the Fifth Circuit gave plain meaning to the words of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and ruled in our favor that discrimination on the basis of lactation is discrimination on the basis of sex.”

The EEOC looks forward to trying  the case, according to Jim Sacher, regional attorney in the EEOC’s Houston District Office, which brought the initial litigation. “We hope this litigation sends a message to other women that discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions is against the law and that the EEOC is here to help,” he said.

One of the six national priorities identified by the Commission’s Strategic Enforcement Plan is to address emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including issues involving pregnancy-related limitations.

According to the website www.houstonfunding.com, Houston Funding “is a company which purchases charged-off debt portfolios nationwide from most large institutions.”

Few Consequences for Sexual Harassment

sexual-harassmentUPDATE:  Shortly after this story was written, the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult to win a sexual harassment lawsuit by raising the bar for who constitutes a “supervisor” in the workplace – a designation that has important consequences with respect to the employer’s liability. See Vance v. Ball State University.

Sexual harassment in the military underscores a much bigger problem in American society.

 Sexual harassment is a major problem in all workplaces but it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for victims  to hold abusers accountable for their illegal conduct. Surveys show that third of American women say they have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

For years, women in the military complained that the military did little or nothing about complaints of sexual abuse.  Then two military officers whose duties include preventing sexual harassment and assault were arrested for alleged sexual assaults and the military was forced to confront the issue.

 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel  recently offered a solution that seems oddly misdirected.  Hagel said that  all of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention coordinators and military recruiters will be retrained, re-credentialed and rescreened. But there is no evidence that this is a problem of training; the evidence points to a problem of lack of consequences.

Members of the military who commit sexual harassment and assault have not been held to account by the “employer”  and so it continues. And this is also the problem in the wider society. There is a yawning lack of accountability for perpetrators of sexual abuse and the employers who tolerate this behavior.

Victims in non-military workplaces also complain to supervisors and human resource officers who often do little or nothing to hold the perpetrator accountable.

At that point, the victim’s only  recourse is to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – which is a necessary precursor to filing lawsuit alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The  EEOC receives about  30,000 sex discrimination complaints a year and, of these,  the agency targets systemic cases involving numerous victims. If the victim’s case doesn’t fit its parameters, the EEOC likely will do nothing but issue a “Right to Sue” letter.  That can take 180 days.  

 Now the victim’s only recourse is to file a lawsuit.  The first hurdle is finding a private attorney willing to take the case.  This can be very difficult for mid- to –low wage earners because there are more than enough high-earner victims with potentially higher damages. The victim also must pay the attorney’s up-front retainer – which in some areas is $25,000 or more.. People like to blame money-grubbing lawyers but legislatures and judges have made these cases very difficult to win and very costly.

 If the case ever gets to court it may be there for only a short time. Federal judges dismiss discrimination cases in the early stages at a much higher rate than other types of cases. If that happens, the victim’s only option is to file a costly appeal.  But if the case is not dismissed, it will take years to wind it way through the system. 

Occasionally one hears of a particularly egregious case of sexual assault that results in a spectacular jury verdict. These are rare.

In short, it is extremely difficult for victims of sexual abuse in the workplace to hold perpetrators accountable for  sexual abuse, not to mention the employers that tolerate abusive work environments. The system screens out all but the most dedicated victims and the most egregious cases. It’s like a lottery that few will win. And that’s a huge part of the problem.

It could get worse
If that’s not bad enough – the situation could get worse.

The  U.S. Supreme Court, the most pro-business Court since WWII,  heard arguments last year on a case that involves who qualifies as a “supervisor” under a federal employment discrimination law. This  question is important because it goes to the issue of damages and whether the employer – rather than the individual abuser –  is liable for the conduct of the abuser.

 The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that only a person with the ability to fire or hire employees can be considered a supervisor,  not managers who supervise workers but cannot fire them. Other federal appeals courts and the EEOC  define a supervisor as a person with authority to direct daily work activities and can undertake or recommend “tangible employment decision affecting employees.”

 The case was brought by Maetta Vance, an African-American catering specialist at Ball State University, who accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005. She  claimed the university was liable because Davis was her supervisor. A federal judge dismissed her lawsuit, saying that Davis was not her supervisor because she could not fire Vance. The judge also ruled the university was not liable because it  took corrective action. The 7th Circuit of Appeals upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

EEOC Settles1st Genetic Discrimination Suit

GenesThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has settled its first  lawsuit alleging genetic discrimination.

 Fabricut, Inc., one of the world’s largest distributors of decorative fabrics, has agreed to pay $50,000 to a woman who  applied  unsuccessfully for a position of memo clerk at the company.

The Tulsa, Oklahoma corporation “allegedly” violated Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008  when it asked job applicant Rhonda Jones for her family medical history in its post-offer medical examination. Jones was required to fill out a  questionnaire asking about “the existence of heart disease, hypertension, cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, arthritis and ‘mental disorders’ in her family.”

The EEOC filed the lawsuit and the settlement on May 7 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. The EEOC called it  the first lawsuit ever filed by the EEOC alleging a violation of GINA. 

“Fitness for Duty”

 This may be the first EEOC lawsuit alleging genetic discrimination but it follows a controversy last year when the EEOC sought to enforce an administrative subpoena seeking genetic information collected by Nestle Prepared Foods.

The EEOC was investigating a complaint of genetic discrimination by Nestle employee Michael Peel, who was fired a month after he was required to complete a “fitness-for-duty” medical examination that included the collection of his family medical history.

 Nestle and the National Chamber of Commerce objected to the subpoena.

 A federal judge in Kentucky refused to enforce the subpoena after concluding he was “ not persuaded that [the EEOC] has free reign to conduct a broad, company-wide investigation based upon a single  allegation of an isolated act of discrimination.”

Disability Issue 

Fabricut also was charged with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it  deemed Jones unsuitable after concluding that she had carpal tunnel syndrome even though Jones’ physician said she did not have carpal tunnel syndrome. The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities and  individuals who are incorrectly regarded as having disabilities.

After working a temporary position as a memo clerk for 90 days, Jones applied for a permanent job. Fabricut made Jones an offer of permanent employment on Aug. 9, 2011, and sent her to its contract medical examiner, Knox Laboratory, for a pre-employment drug test and physical. Jones was required to fill out a questionnaire seeking disclosure of medical disorders in her family’s medical history.

 The examiner concluded that further evaluation was needed to determine whether Jones suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. Fabricut told Jones she needed to be evaluated for CTS by her personal physician and to provide the company with the results. Jones’s physician gave her a battery of tests and concluded that she did not have carpal tunnel syndrome. Despite this Fabricut, rescinded its job offer because Knox Labs indicated that she did have carpal tunnel syndrome.

 Fabricut  also agreed to disseminate anti-discrimination policies to employees and provide anti-discrimination training to employees with hiring responsibilities.

 Title II of GINA prohibits employers with more than 15 employees, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management training and apprenticeship program committees from using genetic information when making employment decisions (e.g. hiring, firing, promotions, placement, compensation, privileges, seniority, etc.).