OK for Dentist to Fire Object of Desire

flossIn a small office, an employee often has no where to go  when she is mistreated by an employer.

The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The all-male Court  ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.

The  Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment  in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded  there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson.  Therefore, the case was dismissed before  trial.

Knight said he fired  Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years,  after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.

 Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”  Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.

 Nelson also recalls that  Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that  Nelson did  not remember ever telling  Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

 When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been  texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.  The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife  consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.

 The Court states in its decision that the question  to be decided was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”   In this case, the Court held that  Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.

The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

 The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.

 So if  Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them,  presumably a Court could find discrimination  on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.

This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.  Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.

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.

No Age “Good” for Women Workers?

A survey by the accounting firm, Ernst & Young , has found that age – either being too old or too young – is the chief concern of women in the workplace.

 The survey, conducted in the United Kingdom, involved 1,000 women between the ages of  18 and 60 (which does not even account for the oldest category of women in the workplace who are most likely to be concerned about age discrimination!). 

 The survey found four key barriers facing women in the workplace:

  •  Age  was identified as the biggest obstacle that women face during their careers. Thirty two per cent of the women surveyed said age had impacted on their career progression, with an additional 27 % saying that they thought it would inhibit their progression in the future.  
  •    Lack of experience or qualifications was the second highest factor that had inhibited women’s careers to date (according to 22 % of respondents), and the third highest factor cited as a future inhibitor (19 %).
  • Nearly one in five (19 %) of those surveyed said becoming a mother had impacted their career and 25% said they thought it was the second biggest inhibitor to their future careers, after age.
  •    Three out of four (75%) said they have few or no female role models within their organizations. Eight percent said a lack of role models had had a detrimental impact on their career to date.

             “The focus around gender diversity has increasingly been on representation in the boardroom and this is still very important. But the notion that there is a single glass-ceiling for women, as a working concept for today’s modern career, is dead. Professional working women have told us they face multiple barriers on their rise to the top,” says Liz Bingham, Managing Partner for People at Ernst & Young.

            When respondents were asked to identify what three things their company could do to remove these barriers, or better support women’s career progression, they said companies should provide:

  •      More support after returning to work from having children (32 %);
  •    More support at every stage of her career lifecycle (24%)
  •    More visible female role models (19%)

And when asked what government could do, the survey respondents said:

  • Making companies reveal the ‘pay gap’ between men and women. (45%);
  •     Affordable child-care/ tax relief for childcare. (43%);
  •    Flexible work policies.  (28%).

New Record for Discrimination Claims

Employment discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reached an all-time high in 2011.

A total of 99,947 charges of employment discrimination were filed with the EEOC in Fiscal 2011, compared to  99,922 in Fiscal 2010. This sets a new record for discrimination claims.

Once again, charges alleging retaliation under all the statutes the EEOC enforces were the most numerous at 37,334 charges received, or 37.4 percent of all charges, followed by charges of race discrimination ( 35,395) and sex discrimination (28,534).

Other allegations include:

  • Disability discrimination–25,742
  • Age discrimination—23,465
  • National Origin  discrimination – 11,833
  • Religious discrimination – 4,151
  • Color discrimination – 2,832
  • Equal Pay Act – 919
  • Genetic Discrimination Act – 245

The EEOC filed 300 lawsuits in 2011, which resulted in $91 million of relief.  Twenty-three of the lawsuits involved systemic allegations involving large numbers of people.

Through its combined litigation, enforcement, mediation programs, the EEOC obtained  $455.6 million in relief for private sector, state, and local employees and applicants,  an increase of more than $51 million from the 2010 fiscal year and a new record for the agency.

Of possible interest to workplace anti-bully advocates, the EEOC’s enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) produced the highest increase in monetary relief among all of the statutes the EEOC enforces: the administrative relief obtained for disability discrimination charges increased by almost 35.9 percent to $103.4 million.  Back impairments were the most frequently cited impairment under the ADA, followed by other orthopedic impairments, depression, anxiety disorder and diabetes. Many of these ADA claims could be stress related – targets of workplace bullying suffer high levels of stress that are blamed for short-and long-term physical impairment.

The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

The fiscal year 2011 enforcement and litigation statistics, which include trend data, are available on the EEOC’s website at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/index.cfm

The Veil over the U.S. Supreme Court

In Cleveland, puppets are being used by a TV station to reenact excerpts from a political corruption trial that is closed to the public … Why not have puppets reenact  U.S. Supreme Court hearings?  Big Bird could play Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Abbie Cadabby could play Elena Kagen. PGB

 

Our society is increasingly divided between the “haves” and the “have nots,” with the vast majority of Americans now strongly disapproving of the way that government is operating.

The President and the U.S. Congress receive much of the blame because they are seen fumbling in prime-time under glare of the television spotlight. But there is another equally or even more powerful branch of government that manages to stay out of the spotlight – the judiciary, led by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you think that corporations have disproportionate influence in American government, you need only look to the Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), holding that corporate funding of “independent” political broadcasts in elections is protected speech under the First Amendment. That ruling alone has spurred a tsunami of money into partisan election politics from corporations seeking to advance their interests.

Most people today “watch” their news on television or the Internet. Refusing to be televised is akin to insisting in 1440 that the bible be penned in ink by monks, longhand, rather than printed on the newfangled Gutenberg printing press. However, federal judges are elected for life and if they don’t want to be televised then who’s going to make them?

Now the Court is getting another opportunity to affect the balance of interests between corporate America and the average American. The Court has agreed to review the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law, which is being challenged by 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business.

A recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that 72% of the people surveyed think the Court should allow cameras to televise oral arguments on the health care law, which are scheduled to be held in March.

Courts in the United States generally are unsympathetic to issues surrounding workplace abuse and unfair dismissal,  especially when compared to courts in many other industrialized societies.  Last summer, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to certify a class action involving 1.5 million workers at Walmart who allege sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The Court’s ruling will have an enormous  impact upon the ability of workers to secure fair treatment in the workplace.

Unfortunately, most non-union workers are clueless about how few  protections they really have until  they are escorted from the building with their possessions in a cardboard box.  Televising the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court is important to the goal of having an informed and educated public. Or is that what the Court is afraid of?