Company Liable for Lovestruck HR Director

A federal appeals court in Puerto Rico has rejected the narrow limitations imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court on who is considered to be a “supervisor” in employment discrimination cases.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that Developers Diversified Realty Corp (DDR) can be held liable for sexual harassment by Rosa Martinez, an HR officer for the company, who engineered the ouster of Antonio Velázquez-Pérez, a company regional general manager, after he rebuffed her advances.

Both Martinez and Velázquez worked in the Puerto Rico offices of DDR, a shopping center management company based in Ohio.

In its ruling , the appeals court acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court last year limited employer liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in cases where a non-supervisor causes a discriminatory action. Martinez was not Velázquez’ supervisor.  However, the 1st Circuit court said, DDR should have known that Martinez’s recommendation that Velázquez be fired was the product of discriminatory animus and therefore can be held liable under Title VII for negligently allowing Martinez to cause Velázquez’s termination.

Noting the case presented issues that it had not addressed previously. the appeals court concluded that an employer can be held liable if  the co-worker acted for discriminatory reasons with the intent to cause the plaintiff’s firing; the co-worker’s actions were in fact the proximate cause of the termination; and the employer allowed the co-worker’s acts to achieve their desired effect though it knew (or reasonably should have known) of the discriminatory motivation.

The Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Velázquez’s claim of sexual discrimination in violation of Title VII.

According the  opinion, Velázquez and Martinez had mutually flirted with each other when they both went to a company meeting in April 2008 and stayed at the same hotel. That night, Velázquez was walking with two female employees of the company when Martinez appeared in their path and asked where they were going.  Martinez followed Velázquez to his room,  tried to force her way in and refused to leave until Velázquez threatened to call security.  She then telephoned hm several times and sent a jealous email to one of the women that he had been walking with.  Shortly thereafter, Martinez threatened to have Velázquez fired, stating, “I don’t have to take revenge on anyone; if somebody knows your professional weaknesses, that person is me.”

Velázquez complained about Martinez’s behavior to his supervisor, who advised him to send her a “conciliatory” email because “[s]he’s going to get you terminated.” He and another male employee then jokingly suggested that Velázquez have sex with Martinez.

Martinez began a campaign of harsh criticism of Velázquez’s work, culminating with a recommendation that he be terminated. The top company official in Puerto Rico suggested that instead of termination Velázquez be issued a formal warning and placed on a Performance Improvement Plan.  Martinez went over his head and complained to two senior officials at the company’s headquarters in Ohio.

Meanwhile, Velázquez and Martinez went to another business meeting and stayed at the same hotel.  This time Martinez followed Velázquez into an elevator and said  she loved him and “wanted to have a romantic relationship with him.” Velázquez refused. That night, Martinez sent an email to the Ohio officials recommending that Velázquez be terminated immediately “because his behavior has been against the company code of conduct and has already impacted the trust form other team members.”

Four days later, on August 25, 2008, Velázquez was terminated for “[a]bsenteeism,” “[f]ailure to report,” and “[u]nsatisfactory performance.”

Appeals Ct Sides with EEOC in Conciliation Dispute

A federal appeals court in Chicago has departed from several other federal circuits by ruling that judicial review is not appropriate over efforts by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  to settle employment discrimination complaints.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act directs the EEOC  to try to negotiate an end to an employer’s unlawful employment practices before it seeks a judicial remedy but it does not require the EEOC to actually reach a settlement.

Nevertheless, several federal appeals courts have allowed employers to raise an affirmative defense in employment discrimination cases that the EEOC failed to engage in good faith settlement negotiations  prior to filing a lawsuit. This is referred to as a “failure-to-conciliate” defense.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago ruled last week that an implied failure-to-conciliate defense would add an “unwarranted mechanism” in Title VII by which employers could avoid liability for unlawful discrimination. “They can do so through protracted and ultimately pointless litigation over whether the EEOC tried hard enough to settle,” said the panel.

In addition, the panel said, the implied failure-to-conciliate defense runs “flatly contrary to the broad statutory prohibition on using what was said and done during the conciliation process  ‘as evidence in a subsequent proceeding.’”

Six other federal circuits – the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits –  allow some form of judicial review over the sufficiency or good faith of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts.

The 7th Circuit ruling came in a 2008 sex discrimination case filed against Mach Mining, which  allegedly refused to hire female applicants  for coal mining jobs. After investigating, the EEOC found there was reasonable cause to believe Mach had discriminated against a class of female job applicants at its Johnston City site. The EEOC engaged in informal conciliation with Mach but in 2011 the EEOC concluded the parties could not agree and filed a lawsuit.

Mach argued the suit should be dismissed because the EEOC failed to conciliate in good faith.  The EEOC did not contend that its efforts were either sincere or reasonable, only that they were not reviewable as a defense to unlawful discrimination.

The 7th Circuit panel said the U.S. Congress gave the EEOC broad discretion to negotiate as it sees fit, including the power to accept or reject any offer or proposed settlement for any reason.  “Nor can Mach Mining explain just how many offers, counteroffers, conferences, or phone calls should be necessary to satisfy judicial review, despite repeated invitations to provide the court with a workable standard,” it added.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a brief in the case arguing that it was necessary to keep the EEOC on a tight leash to avoid “agency shenanigans” but the 7th Circuit panel noted the EEOC  filed only 122 merit lawsuits in 2012.  “That so few unsuccessful efforts at conciliation end up in court shows how constrained the agency is by practical limits of budget and personnel,” said the appeals court.

The panel remanded the case, EEOC v. Mach Mining, No. 13-2456,  to the lower court for further proceedings.

In brutally harsh decision last fall in  EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc.,  Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled  that the  EEOC  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.  Judge Reade dismissed at least 67 class members from that case because the EEOC’s allegedly failed to conciliate with CRST with respect to each individual class member.

Library of Congress v. Free Speech

do-not-enterThe Library of Congress (LOC) has closed its doors to a foundation that was created by current and former employees to assist LOC employees in pursing complaints of racial discrimination.

The issue is interesting because it raises concerns about the right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which would appear to be central to the Library’s mission.

A panel of three judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the LOC by The Cook and Shaw Foundation,  a non-profit group formed by present and past employees to assist LOC employees in filing race discrimination lawsuits.

The Library has a policy in which it recognizes certain employee organizations and gives them meeting space, the right to post materials on bulletin boards, etc.  The Foundation’s request for recognition was denied because “the Foundation’s purpose of helping employees bring and maintain lawsuits against the Library is inconsistent with the Library’s policy that recognized employee organizations be ‘concerned only with welfare, financial assistance, recreational, cultural, or professional activities.’”

The Foundation filed a lawsuit alleging the LOC violated the retaliation clause of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This clause makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any employees (or applicants for employment) because they have opposed any practice made an unlawful by the law or because they have made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing.

There is a certain logic to the Foundation’s view that helping employees file race discrimination lawsuits relates to their welfare and professional activities.  However, the appeals court ruled that Title VII covers only employees and job applicants and not foundations. The appellate panel said the Foundation failed to identify any particular library employee who was subjected to retaliation in violation of Title VII.

“Perhaps such allegations could have formed the makings of a First Amendment claim by the Foundation. But plaintiffs advanced a Title VII claim,” the panel concludes.

The case is Howard R.l. Cook & Tommy Shaw, et al v. James Billington, #12-5193.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act: 35 Years Later

No Accommodation Requirement

Thirty five years ago this week, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA).

The PDA,  an amendment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, has proven to be a weak tool to combat  a major societal problem;  It  requires employers to treat pregnant women like others in the workplace but  it does not require employers to make even minimal accommEEOCodation for pregnancy-related conditions  (such as difficulties standing for long period, lifting restrictions, insufficient bathroom breaks, etc.).

Efforts last year to address the PDA’s shortcomings died in the U.S. Congress but the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) in its 2013-2016 strategic plan  identified combating pregnancy discrimination as a top priority. The EEOC, which is responsible for enforcing the PDA, characterizes the problem as an “emerging and developing” issue. Specifically, the EEOC said it would address the problem of “accommodating pregnancy-related limitations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act and the PDA.

The EEOC and Fair Employment Practice Agencies around the country reported 5,797 complaints of pregnancy discrimination in 2011.

True to its word, the EEOC has filed a spate of lawsuits this year to combat pregnancy discrimination. Most, if not all,  of these lawsuits involve individual defendants and somewhat minor settlements but the EEOC’s effort raises awareness of the problem and, hopefully, puts employers on notice that they are being watched.

 Lawsuits Filed

Here is a sampling of the lawsuits filed this year by the EEOC involving the PDA:

  •  EEOC v. Reed Pierce’s Sportsman’ Grille:  A woman who was four months pregnant with her first child was fired because, her supervisor allegedly said, “The baby is taking its toll on you.”  The EEOC  filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.  After the defendant lost two motions to dismiss the case, it settled for $20,000.
  • EEOC v. Ramin, Inc.:   Ramin Inc., the owner of a Comfort Inn & Suites, allegedly fired a  housekeeper after she reported her pregnancy because of supposed concerns about potential harm that her job could cause the baby.  The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The defendant agreed to pay $2,500 in back pay and $25,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
  • EEOC v. Engineering Documentation Systems, Inc.:  A management official allegedly made derogatory remarks about a pregnant worker and  refused her request to move her office closer to the restroom to accommodate her nausea.  While she was out on leave, the company changed her job description and then terminated her.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. The defendant agreed to pay $70,000 to settle the case.
  • EEOC v. James E. Brown & Associates, PLLC:  A  Washington based law firm offered Zorayda J. Moreira-Smith a position as an associate attorney in January 2011.  The firm allegedly rescinded its job offer  the same day after when Moreira-Smith told them she was six months pregnant and asked the firm about its maternity leave policies.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The defendant agreed to pay an $18,000 settlement,  to implement a non-discrimination policy and  to provide training to the firm’s personnel.
  • EEOC v. Platinum P.T.S. Inc. D/B/A/ Platinum Production Testing Services:  A clerk  requested time off for medical treatment relating to her miscarriage.  After she missed five days of work,  the defendant fired her.  The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The defendant agreed to pay $100,000 to settle the pregnancy discrimination suit.

U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania proposed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) in 2012 to guarantee pregnant women the right to reasonable accommodation when the short-term physical effects of pregnancy conflict with the demands of a particular job, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. The bill died in committee.

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

 

 

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.

When Workplace Bullying is Illegal

blackandwhiteWhat is the  difference  between workplace bullying and illegal harassment?

The major difference is that no law at present prohibits workplace bullying –  despite the fact that workplace bullying can severely impact an employee’s emotional and physical well-being.  And most other industrialized countries have enacted laws or regulations that address workplace bullying.

However, bullying  can become illegal when it creates a hostile or abusive work environment in violation of  federal or state civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 Generally, two factors must exist:

  •  The harassing conduct must create a “hostile work environment.”
  •  The harassing conduct must be directed toward a characteristic that is protected under  federal and state  civil rights laws.  Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Therefore, workplace bullying may be illegal if it creates a hostile or abusive work environment and it is directed toward an individual who has protection under federal and state civil rights laws on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, etc.

What is a hostile work environment?  The U.S. Supreme Court says a hostile work environment  is a workplace that is permeated by discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of a victim’s employment and to create an abusive working environment.  Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17 (U.S. 1993).  The Court has repeatedly said that Title VII  does not prohibit simple teasing or a merely offensive utterance.

NOTE:  A  target of illegal harassment does not have to suffer a nervous breakdown to gain the protection of Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court says that as long as the environment would reasonably be perceived and was perceived as hostile or abusive, there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious. The court says psychological harm could be taken into account but is not required by the statute.

To sum up,  there may be no substantive difference between  the conduct that constitutes serious workplace bullying and the conduct that is acknowledged under the law to create an illegal hostile or abusive work environment.  The harassing conduct can be identical, with the exact same devestating  result.

The significant difference between serious workplace bullying and illegal harassment  is a legal distinction pertaining to  the characteristics of the  target of the conduct.

Nevada State Sen. Richard Segerblom has proposed making Title VII “status blind” so that the law provides a remedy for  all targets of a hostile or abusive workplace, whether or not they fall within a category that is now  protected under the law.

 As Shakespeare once observed: “If you prick us, do we not bleed.”

Individuals who are targets of workplace bullying may have other legal recourse, in addition to federal and state civil rights laws.  All targets of workplace bullying  are  encouraged to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law for employees (not companies) to discuss the specific facts of their case and any potential legal remedies within their jurisdiction.

Band-Aid Not Enough in Sexual Harassment Case

NOTE:  On 1/23/13, a federal judge  denied a request from a lawyer for Paul’s Big M Grocer to reduce the $467,269 punitive damages portion of the jury verdict against the store, former manager Allen Manwaring and the store’s owner, Karen Connors.

A federal appellate court panel has issued an important ruling that it is not enough for employers to pay off victims of sexual harassment. They also must fix the underlying problem that led to the harassment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled on Oct. 19, 2012 that a lower court abused its discretion in denying any injunctive relief in a sexual harassment case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Injunctive relief is essentially a court order that requires the employer to stop the practices that led to the discriminatory conditions.

“At minimum, the district court was obliged to craft injunctive relief sufficient to prevent further violations of Title VII by the individual who directly perpetrated the egregious sexual harassment at issue in this case,” ruled a three-judge panel of the appeal courts.

The case, EEOC v. Karenkim, Inc., 11-3309 (2nd Cir. 2012), involved  Paul’s Big M Grocer, which is owned by Karenkim, Inc.,  in Oswego, New York. Karenkim  was found liable for sexual harassment and fostering a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The jury awarded the ten members of the class of defendants a total of $10,080 in compensatory damages and $1,250,000 in punitive damages. The  award was subsequently reduced pursuant to a statutory cap to a total of $467,269.

The store is owned and managed by Karen Connors, who hired the store manager, Allen Manwaring, in 2001.  Connors and Manwaring almost immediately began a romantic relationship and now are engaged and have a son together. Women who worked at the store, some as young as 16, complained to no avail that they were being sexually harassed by Manwaring. Some were  terminated after filing a complaint.

At one point, Manwaring was actually arrested and pled guilty to second degree harassment after he approached an employee, a  high school student, who was talking on the phone, stuck his tongue in her mouth as she was talking and then walked away “with a smirk on his face.”    In deposition testimony, Connors said she did not believe Manwaring had done anything wrong and accepted his explanation that he had “falleninto” the girl.

The store had no anti-harassment policy until 2007 and no formal complaint procedure until after the trial.

 The EEOC asked the court for an injunction because the store had “not adopted adequate measures to ensure that harassment of the kind at issue in this action does not recur.”  Specifically, the EEOC noted that Connors and Manwaring remained in a romantic relationship, that Manwaring still worked at the store as a produce contractor, and that following the verdict Manwaring continued to deny he had engaged in sexual harassment.

The district court denied the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief, ruling it was unnecessary and overly burdensome in that it would require the defendant to “alter drastically its employment practices …”

The appeals court said that ordinarily terminating a lone sexual harasser might be sufficient to eliminate the danger that the employer will engage in subsequent violations of Title VII. In this case, however, the Appeals Court noted that Manwaring,  the store manager, engaged in harassing conduct that was “unchecked for years” because he was involved in a romantic relationship with the owner – a relationship that continues.

The appeals court panel said the EEOC’s requested ten-year proposed injunction was overly broad but that the lower court at least should have prohibited the store  from directly employing Manwaring in the future and from entering the store premises. In addition to those provisions the EEOC had asked the court to order KarenKim to hire an independent monitor for the store.

The appeals court concluded that under Title VII, “[i]f the court finds that the respondent has intentionally engaged in or is intentionally engaging in an unlawful employment practice charged in the complaint, the court may enjoin the respondent from engaging in such unlawful employment practice, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate. … Once a violation of Title VII has been established, the district court has broad, albeit not unlimited, power to fashion the relief it believes appropriate.”

Link Between Bullying & Discrimination

One of the most common types of lawsuits facing American employers is a discrimination lawsuit.

Workplace bullying and discrimination are closely intertwined and one might even say that bullying precipitates many discrimination lawsuits

Discrimination involves unfair treatment of an individual or group of individuals because of a distinguishing characteristic that is protected under state or federal law, such as sex, race, national origin, disability, religion, etc.   But it also frequently also involves workplace bullying, which is the systematic and repeated harassment of an employee over a period of time..  One employee  – often  a supervisor – attempts to exercise improper power and control over another, often a subordinate.

Even people who despise women or minorities probably would tolerate them if they silently accept whatever abuse the bully chooses to inflict upon them, never outshine or demonstrate competence that threatens the bully and act with complete subservience at all times. Of course, that doesn’t always happens. Targets of discrimination often complain and demand to be treated with fairness. That’s when the workplace bullying begins in earnest. A bully cannot tolerate a target who refuses to aknowledge the bully’s “right” to exercise complete power and control over the target.

Employers never win when they are sued by workers. Among other things, employers have to spend money to defend themselves. It is estimated that it costs an employer $100,000 to defend even the weakest and least meritorious lawsuit, nevermind a strong case that may ultimately result in a settlement or a judgment for the plaintiff.

Last March, a physician’s assistant at a Sacramento hospital won a jury award of $168 million after alleging she was harassed by cardiac surgeons at the hospital.  She filed 18 complaints with the Human Resources Department, which not only ignored her complaints but actually fired her! She speculates the hospital’s failure to address her complaints was because the cardiac surgeons are the highest revenue producers in the hospital. The jury award included $128 million in punitive damages.

Many industrialized countries have adopted health and safety laws and other kinds of legislation to protect workers from bullying and harassment, and to require employers to provide all employees with a workplace free from bullying and psychological harassment.  But America has resisted efforts to protect workers here from bullying for more than a decade. Why?

Some unscrupulous employers use bullying  strategically to get rid of good employees and to avoid legal obligations, such as paying worker’s compensation or unemployment benefits.  Some unscrupulous employers use bullying to thwart unions and  drive out workers who demand their rights under the law. In some cases, the worker actually has a technical right  under some law to sue the employer but the reality is that few workers today can afford the legal process. And it’s biased in favor of employers anyway.

Finally, it is not inconceivable that there’s a lot of ignorance out there  about how much workplace bullying costs American employers – literally billions of dollars a year- in unnecessary turnover, lost work and needless litigation.

The unscrupulous employers are probably a small minority of American employers. Most employers want to follow the law and be good citizens. 

There is an easy and relatively inexpensive way for good employers to mimize the risk of a  potentially catastrophic discrmination lawsuit . They should adopt and rigorously enforce a general anti-harassment anti-bullying policy that makes it clear that bullying will not be tolerated by anyone in the organization, including cardiac surgeons and the Chief Executive Officer.  By the way, that’s also the right thing to do. Doesn’t every employee deserve to be treated with dignity and respect?

Those who are interested in reading more about this topic should read my new book, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

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.