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.

Crime & Sexual Harassment

_41030565_mugging_203_bbcWhy isn’t sexual harassment a crime in the United States?

 It is in France.

 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 and a fine of approximately $56,000 for serious cases.

 The new French law defines harassment as imposing on someone, in a repeated way, words or actions that have a sexual nature and either undermine the person’s dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.

 In the United States, sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The remedy is civil, which means it is up to the victim to sue and the damages are monetary and/or  injunctive relief.  In criminal cases, a prosecutor sues on behalf of the state and may seek  fines and imprisonment.

It can be very difficult to win a sexual harassment case in the United States. The  U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  This leaves a lot of room for interpretation by judges, especially with respect to whether sexually harassing conduct  is frequent enough  and severe enough to be actionable.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that WirelessComm, a Northern California distributor for the Metro PCS cell phone service provider, had agreed to pay $97,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the agency.

 According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the store manager of WirelessComm in Watsonville, CA,    subjected then-19-year-old Deisy Mora to abuse throughout her seven months of employment at the store

He frequently commented about her physical  appearance, texted her photos of himself and the words “Te quiero” (‘I love  you’ in Spanish), and referred to women in general with slurs and epithets.

In addition, the EEOC said, the store owner  contributed  to the harassmen by inviting Ms. Mora to travel with him, asking her and others if  they were pregnant and, on one occasion, asking her to text photos of herself  and other female staff members.

The EEOC says Ms. Mora’s complaints were not addressed and she eventually quit her job  when she could no longer endure the harassment.

 What happened to the store manager and the store owner?

Under the consent decree, WirelessComm agreed to train the store owner and staff regarding anti-discrimination laws.  But there is no indication the WirelssComm store owner and store manager didn’t understand anti-discrimination laws in the first place, only that they didn’t place any importance on these laws and didn’t follow them.

The EEOC said  WirelessComm also  agreed to hire an equal employment opportunity consultant and a human resources consultant to revise its EEO policies; monitor the workplace; respond to any allegations of harassment arising during the three-year  pendency of the decree; and report harassment complaints to the EEOC.

In other words, WirelessComm will start following the law.

In  the final analysis, it seems like a small price  to pay for a campaign of a harassment waged by two adult men in positions of authority against a  vulnerable teenager.  If the store owner and store manager had mugged Ms. Dora while she was walking down a street, they’d probably spend at least some time in jail.  Here  they stole  her peace of mind and robbed her of  financial security in a time of high un employment.

 The United States recognizes two types of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo and (2) hostile environment.

 Quid pro quo is Latin for “this for that.” This type of harassment occurs when a  boss or supervisor asks for a sexual favor in return for a job benefit.

 Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it creates a sexually intimidating or abusive work environment. Hostile environment sexual harassment must be:

  • based on sex (sexual conduct, sexual comments, or nonsexual conduct that is based on your gender);
  • unwelcome (you must show that you do not enjoy the harasser’s attention and that you are not encouraging it); and either
  • severe (one or more serious incidents that affect your job) or pervasive (a pattern or series of smaller incidents that are so widespread that you have trouble doing your job as a result).

Federal Courts Disregard Longstanding Worker Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best is Yet to Be?

Grow old along with me!
 The best is yet to be,
 The last of life, for which the first was made.
– ROBERT BROWNING

An AARP national survey points to the existence of  a climate of fear among older workers of seemingly  pervasive and unchecked age discrimination in America.

The AARP survey finds that 64 percent of older American voters think workers over the age of 50 face age discrimination in the workplace and 34 percent report that they or someone they know has experienced age discrimination in the workplace.  Meanwhile, older workers face increased pressure to work longer than ever before as a result of dwindling savings and disappearing pensions.

In addition, the AARP reports roughly 8 in 10 older American voters say:

  •  It is important for Congress to take action and restore workplace protections against age discrimination (81%).
  •  Across party and ideological lines, they support the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) (78%).

Age discrimination has flourished since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that workers who assert they are discriminated against because of their age have a higher burden of proof than workers who  are discriminated because of their race, sex, national origin, religion, etc. (see Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009))

The proposed POWADA would restore the previous legal rules and protections that existed before the 2009 decision.

POWADA was introduced in March by  Iowa Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).  Harkin is Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee while Leahy and Grassley are the Chairman and ranking member respectively of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The AARP notes the unemployment rate for older workers has soared in recent years, and once out of work, older jobseekers experience far longer spells of unemployment – well over a year, on average – than their younger counterparts.   The AARP says age discrimination is one of the significant reasons why it takes so much longer for older jobseekers to become reemployed.

The Supreme Court decision requires age discrimination victims to show that  “but for” age discrimination they would not have suffered an adverse employment action.  In other words, they must prove that age was the decisive factor in how they were treated.

 Prior to the ruling, age discrimination victims, like other discrimination victims, were required to show only that discrimination was a factor behind how they were treated.  The employer then was required to show that discrimination was not a factor.

The number of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more than doubled in the past decade, to a total of 23,465 in 2011.

Here are some other findings in the AARP survey:

  • Seventy-seven percent of respondents are concerned that their age would be an obstacle  to finding work if they had to find a new job in the current economic climate;  56% say they are “very concerned.”
  • Ninety-one percent agree that older Americans should be protected from age discrimination just as they are protected from other forms of discrimination, including a 73 percent supermajority of respondents who strongly agree.

The AARP (a.k.a. the massive insurance company) describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a membership that helps people 50+ have independence, choice and control in ways that are beneficial and affordable to themand society as a whole.

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.

U.S. Supreme Court Hides Behind Anonymity

The Revolution Won’t be Televised

A while back, I noted the U.S. Supreme Court has done more than it’s fair share to contribute to the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our society.

The President and the U.S. Congress receive much of the blame in the “one percent v. 99 percent” debate because they can be seen sweating under the glare of the television spotlight. They can be held accountable. But the nation’s highest Court conveniently refuses to allow its proceedings to be televised.

Now the Court has issued a press release that makes it clear it will not allow television cameras when it hears arguments on President Obama’s health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, on March 26, 27, and 28.  The law  is being challenged by 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business. Instead, the Court will provide the audio recordings and transcripts of the oral arguments on the Court’s website, www.supremecourt.gov.

The audio recordings and transcripts undoubtedly will be of interest to a few law students and historians but 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.

A 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.

Many Americans are dismayed by the tawdry spectacle of the on-going Presidential race – which is infused with money funneled through superpacs from foreign countries and their lobbyists.  How many know that this is the direct result of the Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), which held that corporate funding of “independent” political broadcasts in elections is protected speech under the First Amendment?  Many on both sides of the political aisle believe the Citizens United ruling is literally one of the worst rulings in history and reflects a Court that is sadly out of touch with reality.

Could the Court be unaware of the deleterious effect of the Citizen’s United ruling on our country?  One could make a compelling argument that televising court proceedings would not only be good for America but also for the  U.S. Supreme Court.

DECK STACKED IN FEDERAL COURTS?

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

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

(Isn’t this discrimination in itself?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double Standard for Older Workers

It is much more difficult for older workers to prevail in federal discrimination lawsuits than for victims of race, sex, national origin, color and religion.

But why?

As Shakespeare said: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA),  29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., makes it  “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age. Id. at § 623(a).”  The ADEA covers employees who are age 40 and older.

To prevail on an ADEA claim, however, the U.S. Supreme Court says a plaintiff must establish that “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009).

In other words, the ADEA plaintiff must show that but for age discrimination, the employer would not have made the adverse job decision (i.e. demotion or dismissal)..

This is a far higher standard than required in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, color and religion.

In Title VII lawsuits, it is sufficient for the plaintiff to show that discrimination was a “motivating factor” in the adverse job action. The Title VII plaintiff is not required to show that age was the determining factor.

Once the Title VII plaintiff shows that the employer’s motivation included unlawful discrimination, the burden of persuasion shifts to the employer to prove that it would have taken the same employment action for a legitimate reason in the absence of discrimination.

The burden does not ever shift from the plaintiff to the employer in an ADEA case.

There has been discussion – but no action – in the U.S. Congress to adopt new legislation to establish the same causation theory for the ADEA that exists with respect to Title VII but so far nothing has happened except that older workers continue to lose lawsuits where they have shown they were victims of gross age discrimination.

By holding ADEA plaintiffs to a much higher standard than other discrimination victims, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court seem to be saying that  age discrimination is somehow less harmful than other types of discrimination. But where is the evidence for that?

Age discrimination is possibly more insidious today than it has been at any other time in history.  When older workers lose their job today, they may never find another job, let alone another job that is comparable to the one they lost. Many hurtle toward their retirement years unprepared, without sufficient funds or even health insurance.

According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 42 percent of unemployed workers older than 55 had been out of work for at least a year in the fourth quarter of 2011 — the highest percentage of any age category. Only 21 percent of people under 25 are long-term unemployed. That number rises to 29 percent for ages 25-34; 36 percent for ages 35-44; and 39 percent for ages 45-54.

It’s no picnic for many older workers who remain employed either. They may be “stuck” in bad jobs. Employers know that older workers will find it difficult – if not impossible – to prevail in age discrimination lawsuits. And they know that older workers can’t afford to quit and face the risk of chronic unemployment.   This situation does not provide any incentive for employers to treat older workers with respect and dignity.

Not surprisingly, the number of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more than doubled in the past decade, to a total of 23,465 in 2011.

The real tragedy in all of this is the sense that many older workers —  who have spent a lifetime paying taxes and being good citizens — are denied equal protection by the very democratic institutions that are charged with  insuring equal protection for all.

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?