Stopping Sexual Harassment

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

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

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

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

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

Déjà Vu

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

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

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

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

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

Get Serious!

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

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

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

 France’s  Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lactation is Pregnancy-Related After-All!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EEOC’s 1st Genetic Discrimination Class Action

Update: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settled this case on Jan. 10, 2014 when Founders Pavilion Inc.  agreed to a five-year consent decree in which it will provide a fund of $110,400 for distribution to 138 individuals who were asked for their genetic information and $259,600 to five individuals whom the EEOC alleged  were fired or denied hire in violation of the ADA or Title VII.

IGenesmagine that an employer could ask applicants  about their family’s medical history: “Do you have a parent or grandparent who suffered from epilepsy. sickle-cell anemia Huntington’s Disease, etc.?”

Why would an employer ask such a question? To find out if the applicant could have a genetic predisposition for a disease that could lead to higher medical expenses down the road. Many employers would simply throw the application into the garbage if an applicant answered the question affirmatively. 

So-called “genetic discrimination”  has been illegal since the  Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was signed into law by former President George W. Bush  on May 21, 2008.  However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the authority responsible for enforcing GINA, has done little to enforce it.  Until now.

One of the six national priorities identified in the  EEOC’s strategic plan is  to address emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including the problem of genetic discrimination.

 The EEOC filed and settled its first GINA lawsuit on the same day earlier this month when it reached a consent decree with a Tulsa, Oklahoma company,  Fabicut, Inc.   Now the EEOC  has filed its second federal GINA lawsuit and its first Class Genetic Information Discrimination Suit.

Violations

The EEOC alleges that  Founder’s Pavilion, Inc., a  Corning, NY, nursing and rehabilitation center, violated GINA by asking for genetic information during the hiring process. Founders is also charged with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Founders allegedly conducted post-offer, pre-employment medical exams of applicants, which were repeated annually if the person was hired. As part of this exam, Founders requested family medical history, a form of prohibited genetic information.

The lawsuit alleges that Founders fired two women because of perceived disabilities and fired another employee after it refused to accommodate her during her probationary period,  all in violation of the ADA.

Founders also allegedly either refused to hire or fired three women because they were pregnant, in violation of Title VII.

The EEOC filed the lawsuit in federal court after it was unable to reach a pre-litigation settlement with Founders. 

GINA

GINA prevents employers from demanding genetic information, including family medical history, and using that information in the hiring process.

“GINA applies whenever an employer conducts a medical exam, and employers must make sure that they or their agents do not violate the law,” said Elizabeth Grossman, the regional attorney in the EEOC’s New York District Office. “Here, not only did the employer ask for prohibited information, it also discriminated against individuals with disabilities or perceived disabilities as well as pregnant women.”

GINA also forbids unions and labor organizations from discriminating on the basis of genetic information.  

Because some genetic traits are most prevalent in particular groups, members of a particular group may be stigmatized or discriminated against as a result of that genetic information. This form of discrimination was evident in the 1970s, which saw the advent of programs to screen and identify carriers of sickle-cell anemia, a disease which afflicts African-Americans.  In the early 1970s, some state legislatures began mandating genetic screening of all African-Americans for sickle-cell anemia, leading to discrimination and unnecessary fear.

Furthermore, genetic history does not  always equal genetic future. As a result of rapid advances in technology, there is far less certainty today that any individual will inherit  or be incapacitated by a genetic disease.

 * Patricia G. Barnes is the author of Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace.

EEOC & Age Discrimination: Then and Now

Chart going downWhen the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was 20 years old in 1987, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging sharply criticized the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for failing to enforce the ADEA.

What would  Senators Melcher, Heinz, Chiles, Chafee, et. al, say about the EEOC today?

The 1987 Senate  Committee blasted the EEOC in 1987 for, among other things, filing too few lawsuits and  hiring too few experienced staff to evaluated cases.

Today, there are fewer full-time staff members working at the EEOC than there were in 1987 during the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan (who was widely perceived to be hostile to civil rights).

There were 2,941 full-time employees working at the EEOC in 1987, compared to 2,505 in 2011.

And it appears the EEOC filed many more lawsuits in 1987 than it did last year.

Clarence Thomas, now a U.S.  Supreme Court Justice, was appointed to the EEOC in 1982 and was serving as its controversial chairperson in 1987.  Thomas  told the  Committee that the EEOC filed  526 actions in federal district courts in 1986. Of these, he said, a record 109 were lawsuits filed under the ADEA.  More than 25 percent of all cases filed in 1986 were class actions, said Thomas.  And  more than 40 percent of the class action lawsuits were age cases.

The EEOC recently reported that in fiscal year 2012 it filed only 122 lawsuits in federal court,  including 86 individual suits, 26 multiple-victim suits (with fewer than 20 victims) and 10 “systemic suits.”

Does lack of funding account for the paltry  number of lawsuits filed by the EEOC in 2012 compared to 1987?  No. The EEOC budget was $165,000 million in 1987 compared to $360,000 million in 2012.

The 1987 commitee generally was not satisfied with the EEOC’s performance. “It’s all well and good to have a strong bill on the record protecting the aged and preventing discrimination based on age in the work force but if the law isn’t enforced, then we haven’t got much,” said committee member John Chafee, then a senator from Rhode Island.

It appears that no one is criticizing the EEOC’s performance today.

Successor Committee

Interestingly, there is still a U.S. Senate Special  Committee on Aging in existance – though it  appears to lack the diligence of the 1987 committee.

Today’s Senate Select Committee on Aging does not mention the problem of age discrimination on its web page. Nor does it mention age discrimination as an issue of concern on its issue page. And it has no schedule listed for hearings in 2013.

The  issues of interest to the modern-day U.S. Senate Committee on Aging are elder abuse and fraud, long-term care, Social Security and Medicare, prescription drug costs and retirement security.

The Committee explains the retirement security problems this way: “Saving for retirement has shifted dramatically in recent decades, and seniors now increasingly face retirement with little money saved or little guaranteed income due to the shift away from traditional pension plans toward the 401(k) plan.

Of course, this explanation fails to acknowledge that many people over the age of 40 consider age discrimination to be a problem that has serious implications for retirement security.

In 2012, the EEOC received 22,857 complaints of age discrimination – 23 percent of  the 99,412 discrimination complaints it received that year.

According to a  report last year in  the New York Times, a “startling proportion” of older people report they’ve experienced discrimination –  63 percent –  in a study recently published in Research on Aging.  Age is the most commonly cited cause, followed by gender, race or ancestry, disabilities or appearance.

 Cases Harder to Win

Meanwhile, it is considerably more difficult today for older workers to win an age discrimination lawsuit, no matter how egregious the discrimination, because of a  decision by the U.S. Supreme Court,  Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., 557 U.S. 167 (U.S. 2009).

The Supreme Court held in Gross that a plaintiff in an age discrimination case must prove that  “but for” age discrimination, he or she would not have suffered the adverse job action (i.e. demotion, dismissal).   In most other types of discrimination, the plaintiff must only show the existence of age discrimination — not that it was the cause of the adverse action.

Interestingly, Supreme Court Justice Thomas, the first African-American to head the EEOC and to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court,  wrote the Gross  opinion.

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.”

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

Employment Discrimination: What’s with Indiana?

 

The number of  employment discrimination complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission  is at an all time high, and its expected to rise.

But there are indications that discrimination is more prevalent in certain states, which apparently have laws and a regulatory schemes that favor business. For example, Texas is an employment-at-will state, which means that employees can be terminated for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate the law (i.e. discrimination) or an important public policy.

Conversely, some high population states appear to have a lower incidence of employment discrimination, possibly indicating a more favorable climate for employer-employee relations.

Businessweek recently did an analysis based on the number of EEOC “merit resolutions” in 2010. These are cases resolved without litigation by the EEOC with private employers and state and local government employers (not federal government). The EEOC filed 250 lawsuits in 2010, resolved 285 lawsuits, and resolved 104,999 private sector charges.  Note: The EEOC “prosecutes” only a fraction of the complaints that are filed with the EEOC.

Businessweek’s analysis shows that Texas was the state with the highest number of merit resolutions in 2010. However, this is not particularly surprising given that Texas has the second highest population of any state, after California, which ranked 2nd.

But what’s with Indiana? It’s the 15th largest state but ranks 5th state in terms of EEOC merit resolutions. Indiana touts itself as America’s heartland, a family friendly place.  Apparently it is even friendlier to business.  If you’re looking for a job, you might want to take this into account. And if you have a job in states like Indiana, Alabama or Mississippi, well … good luck!

On the other hand, New York is the 3rd largest state but ranks 15th in merit resolutions. Go New York!

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says private sector workplace discrimination charge filings with the federal agency nationwide hit an unprecedented level of 99,922 during the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2010. All major categories of charge filings in the private sector (which include charges filed against state and local governments) increased. These include charges alleging discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended; the Equal Pay Act; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Americans with Disabilities Act; and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

For the first time ever, retaliation under all statutes (36,258) surpassed race (35,890) as the most frequently filed charge, while allegations based on religion (3,790), disability (25,165) and age (23,264) increased.

Here’s the Businessweek ranking of states with EEOC merit resolutions:

1. Texas, 2nd largest state, population 25,145,561; merit resolutions,  1,780.

2. California, largest state, pop. 37,253,956; merit resolutions, 1,600.

3. Florida, 4th largest state,pop.  18,801,310; merit resolutions, 1,409.

4. Georgia, 9th largest state, pop. 9,687,653; merit resolutions, 1,288.

5. Indiana, 15th largest state, pop. 6,483,802; merit resolutions, 1,063.

6. Illinois, 5th largest state,pop.  12,830,632; merit resolutions, 1,001.

7. Pennsylvania, 6th largest state, pop. 12,702,379; merit resolutions, 860,

8. North Carolina, 10th largest state, pop. 9,535,483; merit resolutions, 823.

9. Tennessee, 17th largest state, pop.  6,346,105; merit resolutions, 800.

10. Ohio, 7th largest state, pop. 11,536,504; merit resolutions, 680.

11. Alabama, 23rd largest state, pop.4,779,736; merit resolutions, 650.

12. New York, 3rd largest state, pop. 19,378,102′ merit resolutions, 609.

13. Michigan, 8th largest state,  pop. 9,883,640; merit resolutions, 559.

14. Colorado, 22nd largest state, pop. 5,029,196; merit resolutions, 509.

15. Virginia, 12th largest state, pop. 8,001,024; merit resolutions, 499.

16. Arizona, 16th largest state, pop.,  6,392,017; merit resolutions, 496.

17. Missouri, 18th largest state, pop., 5,988,927; merit resolutions, 463.

18. Mississippi, 31st largest state, pop., 2,967,297; merit resolutions, 392.

19.  Arkansas, 32nd largest state, pop. 2,915,918; merit resolutions, 376.

20. Washington, 13th largest state, pop. 6,724,540;  merit resolutions, 353.