Older Workers Vulnerable to Age Discrimination

daggerThe U.S. Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act a few years ago in its decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 129 S. Ct. 2343 (2009).

Prior to Gross, the same standard of proof applied equally to all workers who faced illegal discrimination on the job. The Court in Gross established a far higher standard of proof for plaintiffs in age discrimination cases than exists for plaintiffs in cases alleging discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion.  This has left older workers more vulnerable to age discrimination.

A bi-partisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate in March to rectify this wrong. Under the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act , if a victim can show that age discrimination was a “motivating factor” behind a decision, the burden shifts to the employer to show it complied with the law. The bill is co-sponsored by Iowa Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

After Gross, older workers who filed age discrimination cases were required to prove that age discrimination was the “but for” cause of their termination (i.e., “but for” age discrimination, they would not have been demoted or fired.)

Alternatively, employers could point to any other “legitimate non-discriminatory” reason for firing the Plaintiff to avoid liability.  (“Sure we thought the old fogey was an over-paid dinosaur but he failed to follow company procedure when he called in sick one day so he’s gotta go!”)

Under the proposed bill, it wouldn’t matter if the employer had more than one motivating factor – if one of those motivating factors was age discrimination, the employer could be held liable.

The  Court reasoned backwards in Gross.  The Court said that Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to permit mixed-motive claims in discrimination claims involving race, color, religion, sex and national origin. So the fact that Congress failed to amend the ADEA to permit mixed-motive claims meant that Congress intended to disallow mixed -motive claims.  The Court threw out decades of precedent that treated age discrimination like every other invidious form of discrimination and left countless older workers without real protection against age discrimination.

The Gross decision has also had reverberations in a wide range of civil cases in addition to age discrimination, including discrimination based on disability.

Harkin is Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee while Leahy and Grassley are the Chairman and ranking member respectively of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Great Policy; No Follow-Through

The best policy in the world won’t protect you without follow-through.

That’s the lesson of a decision by the Seventh Circuit  Court of Appeals  in a Wisconsin sexual harassment case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Management Hospitality of Racine, Inc., et al., No. 10-3247 (Jan. 9, 2012,).

The defendant, a company owned by Salauddin Janmohammed  which operates 21 International House of Pancakes restaurants, had a “zero-tolerance”  anti-harassment policy in place, anti-harassment training, and a policy of investigations of complaints.

What it didn’t have was follow-through. Or, in the words of the Court, “the policy and complaint mechanism were not reasonably effective in practice.”

According to the Court:  “the presence of a sexual harassment policy is encouraged by Title VII [but] the mere creation of a sexual harassment policy will not shield a company from its responsibility to actively prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The Court upheld an award of $105,000 to two teenage servers at an IHOP operated by the defendant in Racine.  Katrina Shisler and Michelle Powell said they were sexually harassed in 2004 and 2005 by an IHOP assistant manager in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.

Normally, an employer can advance the so-called Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense in a Title VII case sexual harassment claim involving a hostile work environment. This allows the employer to escape liability for damages if:

 (a) it “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior,” and

 (b) “the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any protective or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.”

The Court said the  Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense was not available to the Management Hospitality because both teens had complained to managers about sexual harassment  and the managers did nothing.  The company did not begin investigating until a private investigator hired by an attorney for one of the teenager began asking questions.

The Court said a rational jury could have found that the sexual harassment occurred “every shift,”  was “highly offensive,” and included “physical touching.”

The Court said a rational jury also could conclude that the employer failed to follow its own policies by discouraging  employees from reporting complaints, providing inadequate anti-harassment training to supervisors, and failing to “promptly” investigate the complaints.

The EEOC filed suit on behalf of the two teenaged servers. A jury awarded one of the servers $1,000 in compensatory damages and the other $4,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages.

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

Ron Paul to sexual harrassment victims — Go home?

Unlike Herman Cain, his former competitor in the GOP presidential race,  Ron Paul is not facing accusations of sexual harassment.

However, Paul, a member of the U.S. Congress from Texas, may be accused of having stunningly little understanding of the problem.

Earlier this month, Paul told Fox News he is standing by statements he made in a 1987 book, Freedom Under Siege, that workers who are targets of sexual harassment must bear some responsibility for the abuse and do not require any special legal protection.

“Why don’t they quit once the so-called harassment starts?” wrote Paul. “Obviously the morals of the harasser cannot be defended, but how come the harassee escapes some responsibility for the problem about sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Earlier this month, host Chris Wallace of  Fox News Sunday asked Paul whether he still agreed with those 1987 statements.  Paul said he does, adding that neither verbal and physical harassment  warrants a federal law.

Regarding the issue of verbal harassment, Paul said:  “If it’s just because somebody told a joke to somebody who was offended, they don’t have a right to go to the federal government and have a policeman come in and put penalties on those individuals. They have to say maybe this is not a very good environment. They have the right to work there or not work there.”

Paul said workers who are victims of physical sexual harassment also do not require protection from a federal law because there already are laws prohibiting assault and rape.

“Because people are insulted by rude behavior, I don’t think we should make a federal case about it. I don’t think we need federal laws to deal with that. People should deal with that at home,” he said.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment, which is a form of sex discrimination. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has said that Title VII doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  Harassment becomes illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

In other words,  to be actionable, victims of sexual harassment must feel their very freedom to work  is … under siege.