Judicial Conference: To Whom it May Concern

The evidence has been building for years that federal courts are hostile to discrimination plaintiffs, and that corporate plaintiffs fare much better than individual plaintiffs.

The U.S. Courts were created under Article III of the Constitution to administer justice fairly and impartially.  So  it doesn’t seem right that federal judges appear to be biased, either consciously or unconsciously, against the discrimination victims and the individual plaintiffs who appear before them.

Individual federal judges are working to improve the operation of federal courts but this obviously is a systemic problem that deserves a systemic solution. Shouldn’t the entity that runs our nation’s federal court system be working to insure that our courts are independent and unbiased forums for all.

It seems the Judicial Conference of the United States runs our federal court system. The Conference describes itself as the “national policy making body” for U.S. courts and it is charged with “studying the operation and effect of the general rules of practice and procedure in the federal courts.”  The conference appears to be a 16-member body (with two observers) that is run by Chief Justice John G. Roberts. It includes the Chief Judge of the Court of International Trade and a district judge from each regional judicial circuit. There are no citizen representatives.

How do you contact the Judicial Conference? The web site of the Judicial Conference lacks  contact information, stating: “Requests for consideration of items by the Judicial Conference of the United States or one of its committees should be directed to the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.” There is no contact information or link to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts but I did a web search and found it here.

Nothing on the AOC landing page indicates how to contact the director of the AOC or what other individual(s) might receive a complaint about apparent systemic discrimination in federal courts. At the bottom of the page there is a “contact us” tab that leads to the AOC’s Washington D.C. address, the phone number of the “Public Information Officer” and a “Send us a Message” form. The “Send us a Message” form states: “Have a comment about uscourts.gov? Find a broken link? Need help finding a publication or statistics? Send us a message by filling out the form below. If you’d like a response, be sure to include your email address.”

I don’t have a comment, didn’t find a broken link and I’m not trying to find a publication. My problem deals with the nationwide apparent systemic unfairness of our federal courts toward discrimination victims and the apparent preferential treatment accorded to corporations. I want to know what, if anything, the leadership of our nation’s federal courts is doing to insure that these courts are independent and unbiased forums for all. Still, I left the following message on the AOC’s web site;

To Whom it May Concern:

I don’t have a comment, haven’t found a broken link, and don’t need a publication or statistics. I am contacting your because I think there is a major systemic problem in our federal court system that has existed for years. There is significant research showing that federal judges dismiss employment discrimination cases at a far higher rate than other types of cases, and that they accord preferential treatment to corporate plaintiffs. This doesn’t seem fair. What, if anything, are you doing to address this? Oh, I guess I do want a statistic after-all. What is the racial composition of the conference?  Thanks! Patricia G. Barnes

I might have directed them to my book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, which contains several suggestions for improving federal courts, but I don’t want to seem impudent.

AOC Public  Information Officer, Karen Redmond said the Judicial Conference ordinarily addresses issues that are brought to its attention by the various federal circuits.  She said American citizens who have a problem normally go to the federal circuit court in their geographical area to seek redress.

Frankly, I won’t hold my breath waiting for the  answer from the Judicial Conference.  I get the feeling from its web site that the Judicial Conference isn’t keen on citizen input. But if I do get a response, I’ll be sure to tell you.

Donald Sterling, Racism & Federal Courts

The life-time suspension from the National Basketball League of  Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist comments to his girlfriend raises questions about how such conduct is treated in the workplace.

Although Sterling received the equivalent of a death sentence from the NBA, it is  unlikely that a federal court would consider Sterling’s conduct to be severe enough to violate the nation’s leading civil rights law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1994.

It what may be a sad commentary about the federal courts, racist, ageist and sexist comments often are relegated to the category of ordinary workplace incivility.

The  U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned federal judges against changing  Title VII into a “civility code” for the American workplace. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. Reports 75 (1998). As a result, most federal judges require numerous instances of egregious racist or sexist conduct before they hold employers accountable.

Sterling told his girlfriend, in a telephone conversation, that he was bothered that she associated with blacks.

Racist & Sexist Comments

A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Title VII lawsuit brought by  an African-American clerk for CSX Transportation Company, Inc.  who was allegedly subjected to a racially and sexually hostile work environment.  The  court ruled that “occasional offensive utterances” do not rise to the level required to create a hostile work environment.

When Stephanie Williams declined to watch the Republican National Convention on a television at the plant in 2004, she said a male supervisor  told her that  she was a Democrat “only because she was a black woman; that unmarried women cannot ‘have the love of God in their heart[s]’; and this country should “get rid of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton because without those two ‘monkeys’ the country would be a whole lot better.”  The following day, the supervisor allegedly told Williams that “if she returned to school, she would not have to pay for her education because she was a single black mother. He also allegedly said all blacks should go back to where they came from.

A federal judge granted a pre-trial motion to dismiss Williams’ claim that she was a victim of a sexually hostile environment on the grounds that  her supervisor’s conduct was “neither severe nor pervasive enough to constitute a sexually hostile environment.”  He rejected on technical grounds evidence that pornography was left on tables at the plant for all to see.

The judge permitted Williams to proceed to a trial on the claim that she was subjected  to a racially hostile environment but dismissed the case before it reached the jury after finding that Williams’ evidence of a racially hostile work environment was not sufficiently “severe or pervasive” as a matter of law.

Mere Offensive Utterance

In two different opinions, the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which covers Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky,  upheld the lower court’s dismissal of Williams’ claims.  See Williams v. CSX Transp. Co. Inc., 643 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2011) and Williams V. CSX Transp. Co., No. 12-6197 (6thCir. Sep. 19, 2013).

The appeals court agreed the supervisor’s conduct was “despicable” but said the incident was not sufficiently ‘severe’ or ‘pervasive’ standing alone. “The statements were isolated, not pervasive; all but two occurred over a two-day period,” held the court.

The court said the reference to Jackson and Sharpton and the statement that black people should go back where they came from  “are certainly insensitive, ignorant, and bigoted. But they more closely resemble a ‘mere offensive utterance’ than conduct that is ‘physically threatening or humiliating.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he will try to force Sterling to sell his franchise. Sterling also was fined $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution.  Silver has called upon the NBA’s Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Fed Cts Eschew Social Media

youtubeAre federal courts out of touch?

 The National Center for State Courts reported the results of a recent survey that would indicate that federal courts literally are out of touch. The survey shows federal courts have thus far largely eschewed the use of “social media,” including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

 Out of the 135 responding courts, only 21 (15.6%) said that they were using social media (split almost evenly between District and Bankruptcy Courts).

This blog, of course, is concerned that federal courts are pro-business  and that federal judges disproportionately dismiss employment cases.  But the bigger issue is the extent to which federal courts simply are out of touch with the American citizenry.

Why would the judicial branch of the federal government pass up the incredible opportunities  offered by social media to inform the public about the court system and to essentially make the case that federal courts are important and should received taxpayer dollars?

 One can look for clues at the U.S. Supreme Court, the leader of the federal judiciary. It still refuses to allow television cameras in its courtroom. Television is archaic technology that dates back to the 1920s.

 Courts do have web pages, of course, but this is a small concession to the universe of opportunity available through social media. Here are some of the many uses of social media that federal court system could benefit from:

  •   Courts are in the business of deciding legal issues. Facebook and Twitter are tailor-made for courts to notify the public and the media when an important legal decision is issued or when a jury verdict is in.
  •  Social media offers the potential for timely dissemination of  useful information to the general public (i.e., Snow day – Court closed; Jury trial postponed so jurors need not report for duty; Delays possible – Parking lot closed for re-paving, etc.).
  •  Imagine the increase in efficiencies that would occur if a court posted YouTube videos showing how the court operates. For example, what should a visitor expect with respect to security screening methods?  Where do pro-se litigants sit in a courtroom and how do they present their case to a judge? 
  • Social media offers tools that can be used to education the citizenry about civil and criminal justice issues. What are the rules of evidence? What is hearsay? This type of educational outreach would be especially useful to litigants who cannot afford an attorney, which includes most poor and middle class Americans.

 Perhaps most importantly, social media offers the federal court system the opportunity to  build trust in the institution and to counteract common negative stereotypes about federal courts –  remote, insular,  obtuse,  elitist, pro-business, inappropriately “activist,” influenced negatively by political considerations, out of touch, etc.. These negative stereotypes  affect the public’s understanding of the important issue of judicial independence.  Enhanced trust also could come in handy when the federal court asked  taxpayers for money to operate.

  One wonders what model of leadership, administration or management is being followed in the federal courts? What credible business school today recommends that an institution which serves the general public reject the very tools of communication that are  most in use by the general public?  And, the last time I looked,  Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were free. 

The EEOC’s New Gameplan

The situation in the United States is bleak, to say the least, for workers who are targets of employment discrimination and harassment.

 Federal courts are blatantly hostile to these types of cases –  dismissing most of them before they ever reach a jury – and our leaders in Washington, D.C., seem to be oblivious.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that is supposed to be combating employment discrimination, is overwhelmed and underfunded.

 The EEOC says there has been  a 38 percent rise in the number of charges filed with the EEOC  against private employers and state and local government employers in the past 20 years.  But  the  EEOC’s staffing levels and funding dropped nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2008. An infusion of resources in 2009 allowed for some rebuilding of capacity, but that was quickly stalled when funding was reduced and hiring freezes were implemented in FY 2011 and 2012.

The bottom line is that  many observers feel the EEOC has been about  as effective as a gnat battling an elephant in recent years.

 But  it seems that change is afoot. The EEOC is seeking public comment  (see below) on a proposed new strategic plan that it hopes will be more effective than the EEOC’s prior practice of  filing individual lawsuits against select employers. 

In its new plan, the EEOC says it will strategically attack  practices and issues that adversely affect large numbers of employees. The EEOC identifies five national priorities:

1.  Eliminate Systemic Barriers in Recruitment and Hiring. The EEOC will target class-based  hiring discrimination and facially neutral hiring practices that adversely impact particular groups. This includes, for example, steering of individuals into specific jobs due to their status in a particular group, restrictive application processes, and the use of screening tools (e.g., pre-employment tests, background screens, date of birth screens in online applications) that adversely impact groups protected under the law.

2. Protect immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers. The EEOC will target disparate pay, job segregation, harassment, trafficking and discriminatory language policies affecting these vulnerable workers who may be unaware of their rights under the equal employment laws, or reluctant or unable to exercise them.

3. Address Emerging Issues. The agency will address emerging issues with respect to:

-The Americans with Disability Act, particularly coverage issues, and the proper application of ADA defenses, such as undue hardship, direct threat, and business necessity;

-Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals coverage under Title VII sex discrimination provisions.

-Accommodating pregnancy when women have been forced onto unpaid leave after being denied accommodations routinely provided to similarly situated employees.

4. Preserve Access to the Legal System. The EEOC will target policies and practices intended to prevent  individuals from exercising their rights under employment discrimination statutes, or which impede the EEOC’s investigative or enforcement effort, including retaliatory actions; overly broad waivers; and settlement provisions that prohibit filing charges with EEOC.

5. Combat Harassment. The EEOC will launch a national education and outreach campaign – aimed at both employees and employers – to prevent and appropriately respond to harassment in the workplace.

 Okay, some of this sounds like politically-correct gobbledygook that is incapable of measurement. At the same time, it is encouraging that the EEOC is rethinking its past practices. The  38 percent increase in charges filed with the EEOC  also represents an increase  the suffering of American workers and their families who are subjected to illegal discrimination by employers.  American workers need all the help they can get!

Comments and suggestions must be submitted to the EEOC about the plan by 5 p.m. ET on September 18, 2012 at strategic.plan@eeoc.gov or received by mail at Executive Officer, Office of the Executive Secretariat, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 131 M Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20507. The Commission plans to vote on the draft plan at the end of this fiscal year.

Federal Courts Disregard Longstanding Worker Rights

Workers continue to lose ground in federal courts, where judges are disregarding a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that says companies cannot require workers to sign away their right to bring class action arbitrations and lawsuits.

 The NLRB’s  administrative decision in January  served as a theoretical  counterpoint to an earlier 5-to-4  decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.

 The Concepcion case involved alleged false advertising by AT&T and a $30 claim by a California plaintiff, who sought to prosecute the case as  class  arbitration . As the  dissent noted in Concepcion: “What rational lawyer would have signed on to represent the Concepcions in litigation for the possibility of fees stemming from a $30.22 claim?”

 The Supreme Court majority held that the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 preempts state laws that prohibit contracts from disallowing class action lawsuits  – which means that contracts can exclude class action arbitration. 

 The NLRB ruling involved national homebuilder D.R. Horton’s practice, begun in 2006, of forcing all employees to agree as a condition of employment, not to pursue class or collective litigation of claims in any forum –  arbitral or judicial.  In its ruling, the NLRB said it has long held –  “with uniform judicial approval” –  that the National Labor Relations Act “protects employees’ ability to join together to pursue workplace grievances, including through litigation.”  

According to Thompson Reuters’ journalist Nate Raymond,  courts generally are rejecting the NLRB decision, some on the grounds that the  Federal Arbitration Act controls, and others cite the Supreme Court’s Concepcion decision. For example, in recent months:

  •  U.S. District Judge Gene Pratter in Philadelphia agreed with Tenet Healthcare and confirmed an arbitrator’s finding that a nurse could not bring classwide wage-and-hour claims in arbitration. The nurse’s lawyer had cited D.R. Horton in arguing that the arbitrator had erred.
  •  U.S. District Judge D.P. Marhsall in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Aug. 1, 2012 concluded that the FAA trumped the NLRA. and compelled individual arbitration in a putative class action of guards suing Securitas Services Inc.   Marshall said that accepting the NLRB’s reasoning would mean favoring litigation over arbitration, in contrast to the federal policy of favoring arbitration.
  •  Employees at Waffle House Inc. cited D.R. Horton in an effort to convince U.S. District JudgeCarlos Murguia of Kansas City, Kansas, to not compel individual arbitration. They lost. “Although Concepcion may not speak directly to the issue before the court,” the judge wrote, “it does illustrate a guiding principle: arbitration agreements are enforceable even when they prohibit the use of a class action.”

 Thomas Reuter News Service reports that  judges in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia have refused to allow employee class actions to move forward on the basis of the NLRB’s holding, in cases against Jenny Craig, Citigroup, P.F. Chang’s and UBS, among others.

The Concepcion decision likely will have a devestating impact upon workers who are cheated by unscrupulous employers out of overtime pay or hourly wages.

“Class claims frequently offer the only vehicle for consumers or employees to challenge unlawful actions that cause limited damages to each individual while often reaping millions for business,” law professor Ann C. Hodges writes in an American Constitutional Society blog analysis of D.R. Horton. “… In the workplace, Fair Labor Standards Act cases seeking minimum wage or overtime payments are most likely to be abandoned on this basis and Horton involved such a claim, alleging that the nonunion employer misclassified employees as exempt from overtime pay.”

The Progressive States Network (PSN) in a recent report entitled, Where Theft is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft Laws in the 50 States, estimates that more than 60 percent of low-wage workers suffer wage violations each week. On average, the PSN reports, low-wage workers lose $51 per week to wage theft, or $2,634 per year. For low-wage workers, that amounts to 15% of their annual income, at average earnings of $17,616 per year.

Federal judges are appointed for life (in good behavior) and earn annual salaries of $174,000..

* See earlier reporting by this blog on federal court judges’ hostility to employment discrmination lawsuits.

DECK STACKED IN FEDERAL COURTS?

Note: The media office of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has failed to respond to a request for comment about this blog entry. PGB

Workers who bring employment discrimination cases in federal court are not just paranoid. Apparently, the deck really is stacked against them!

(Isn’t this discrimination in itself?)

The New York Law School Law Review and The Employee Rights Advocacy Institute For Law & Policy co-sponsored a symposium April 23, 2012 to examine the high failure rates of plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases in federal courts.

Specifically, they discussed why employment discrimination cases are more likely to be summarily dismissed by federal judges through rulings on pre- and post-trial motions.  One factor is believed to be  U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal) that raised the quantum of facts that a plaintiff must plead to avoid a motion to dismiss.

“A substantial and growing body of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, shows that civil rights cases, and in particular those alleging employment discrimination, are disproportionately susceptible to dismissal before trial as well as to unfavorable  (judgment notwithstanding verdict)  motions after trial,” said the symposium planners.

Approximately 150 attended the symposium, including  retired Judge Nancy Gertner from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. She said the message sent by Twombly and Iqbal is that courts should be more concerned with protecting employers from being falsely accused of discrimination than they should be with allowing discrimination to go unpunished, and that as a result, the courts effectively have repealed the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination.  A report of the symposium is availble from the Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law and Policy.

A study by the Federal Judicial Center of summary judgment cases filed in seventy-eight federal district courts in 2006 found that federal judges granted requests by the employer for dismissal on a motion for summary judgment 73 percent of the time. This compares to a rate of dismissal of:

  • 53 percent in contract cases,
  • 54 percent in tort or personal injury cases
  • 70 percent in civil rights cases generally
  • 64 percent in prisoner cases
  • 53 percent in “other” cases, including antitrust (53%) and patent (47%) and trademark (50%).

See Joe Cecil & George Cort, Federal Judicial Center, Estimates of Summary Judgment Activity in Fiscal Year 2006 (2007).

Some district courts granted summary judgment motions in employment discrimination cases more than others. In the Ninth Circuit, which is based in San Francisco, CA, some courts granted summary judgment in employment discrimination cases 93% of the time. In the Eleventh Circuit, which is based in Atlanta, GA, some courts granted summary judgment in employment discrimination case 95 % of the time.

This is a trend that has been getting WORSE for years, according to Cornell Law School Professors Kevin M. Clermont and Stewart J. Schwab, authors of Employment Discrimination Plaintiffs in Federal Court: From Bad to Worse? 3 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. 103 (2009).

They write that the plaintiff win rate for employment discrimination cases in federal court from 1979-2006 was 15 percent, which was much lower than that for non-jobs cases (51%), possibly because of hurdles placed in jobs cases that do not exist in non-jobs cases.

Furthermore, the authors state that there was a startling 37 percent drop in the number of employment discrimination cases in federal district courts between 1999 and 2007.  They say the decline may be  because “federal courts disfavor employment discrimination plaintiffs, who are now forswearing use of those courts.”  In other words, fear of bias by federal judges may be discouraging  potential plaintiffs from even filing employment cases in federal court!

Plaintiffs who appeal their losses or face an appeal of their victory “again fare remarkably poorly in the circuit courts,” the authors write.  Defendant/employers in the federal courts of appeals have managed over the years to reverse forty-one percent of their trial losses in employment discrimination cases, while plaintiff/employees manage only a nine percent reversal rate.

Generally, it appears that employers do far better in federal courts these days than ever before. A 2010 study found  the U.S. Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and  42 percent by all courts since 1953.

Some other sobering but well-documented observations from the Clermont/Schwab article:

  • Plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases are much more likely to have to go to trial, possibly because employers perceive the anti-plaintiff bias works in their favor and refuse to settle.
  •  “ … [E]mployment discrimination cases constitute one of the least successful categories at the district court level, in that plaintiffs win a very small percentage of their actions and fare worse than in almost any other category of civil case.”
  • “Defendants, in sharp contrast to plaintiffs, emerge from appellate court in a much better position than they were in when they left trial court. … we have unearthed an anti-plaintiff effect that is troublesome.”
  • “The bulk of employment discrimination cases turn on intent … The subtle question of the defendant’s intent is likely to be the key issue in a nonfrivolous employment discrimination case that reaches trial, putting the credibility of witnesses into play.  When the plaintiff has convinced the fact finder of the defendant’s wrongful intent, that finding should be largely immune from appellate reversal … Reversal of plaintiffs’ trial victories in employment discrimination cases should be unusually uncommon. Yet we find the opposite.”

It is unlikely that employment law cases are weaker than other types of cases. The authors note that many studies show that people are not anxious to sue except in egregious situations and that contingent-fee attorneys, as well as those looking to fee-shifting, are reluctant to bring questionable claims. They say the impact of other factors on the decline of employment discrimination cases in federal court —  such as alternative dispute resolution — is not known but is unlikely to have caused the precipitous drop.

The authors say the employment discrimination category has dropped in absolute number of terminations every year after 1998, when the total was 23,722.  They say the drop has gone virtually unnoticed and unexplained.

It is understandable that courts want  to place procedural limitations on  cases to avoid overcrowded dockets and to  safeguard judicial resources. However, it is obviously unfair (or worse) for judges to single out employees who allege discrimination for disparate treatment. Like any other plaintiffs, these plaintiffs have  no where else to go but the courts for justice and they have every right to expect a fair and impartial hearing.

In fact, Americans are guaranteed a right to a trial by jury in federal court cases under the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Specifically, the Seventh Amendment states:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.