Senator Wants to Turn Back Clock at EEOC

Senator Wants to Turn Back Clock at EEOC

Not only has Congress failed to  help victims of age discrimination for more than a  decade, now the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions  wants to stop the EEOC from helping.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn)  called upon the EEOC  at a hearing last week to change its strategy of litigating big, high profile lawsuits and, urged it instead to resolve its backlog of almost 71,000 discrimination charges. The EEOC adopted a new strategic plan last year that, among other things, year calls for making better use of the EEOC’s limited resources by focusing upon large-scale and systemic discriminatory practices.

Ironically, Alexander, 74, focuses criticism upon EEOC efforts to insure that major law and accounting firms abide by a provision of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) that prohibits mandatory retirement. Alexander complains that the EEOC has pursued cases without complaints in which “partners” voluntarily adopted a mandatory retirement age. Two law firms — Sidley Austin LLP and Kelley Drye & Warren LLP — faced EEOC claims over mandatory retirement in recent years.  Sidley settled in 2007 and Kelley Drye settled in 2012.

Alexander ignores the fact that the title of “partner” is conferred by some employers for the specific purpose of avoiding compliance with the ADEA, and that the supposed “partner” has none of the duties or responsibilities of an actual partner.  He also fails to acknowledge that “voluntary” agreements can be coercive,  one-sided and illegal.

Alexander effectively regurgitates the mantra of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the EEOC needs to be reigned in. He notes that “[n]umerous federal courts have criticized EEOC’s litigation practices, failure to attempt to resolve cases and avoid court, misuse of authority and reliance on faculty expert analysis, among other complaints.” He said the EEOC’s lawsuits have been so unfounded or mismanaged that it has been required to pay attorney’s fees in ten different cases since 2011. However, Alexander fails to consider whether this criticism is merited or even valid.

A federal judge in Iowa in 2013, for example, assessed millions in attorney fees against the EEOC for bringing a sex discrimination class action lawsuit against the national trucking company,  CRST Van Expedited, Inc. The judge dismissed dozens of class members who had suffered egregious sexual harassment – arguably even sexual assault – on the grounds that the EEOC had not tried hard enough to reach a settlement with the company. The so-called “failure to conciliate” defense at issue in the trucking case was flatly rejected  in another case by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which called it a legal tactic used by employers to tie up the EEOC in useless litigation to avoid the consequences of discrimination. The  Chicago court found the defense has no basis in law and, in fact, contradicts a provision of Title VII.

Alexander made his comments at a hearing last week on the nominations of P. David Lopez and Charlotte Burrows to serve as general counsel and member of the EEOC.

It is not likely that Alexander is seriously interested in reducing the backlog at the EEOC. However, if he is, Congress might consider providing additional resources to the EEOC to address the legacy of the past while moving forward with efforts to combat discrimination  today.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I criticize the U.S. Congress for ignoring the plight of older workers. I argue that the ADEA was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving older workers with little or no real protection against age discrimination.  I note that Congress has failed for more than five years to pass the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would reverse a 2009 Court decision that raised the level of proof in age discrimination cases far beyond that of race or sex discrimination cases.

 

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.”

Settlement is Mother’s Day Gift to Working Mothers

On the heels of Mother’s Day,  a Texas woman has won an important victory for all nursing mothers in the workplace.

Donnicia Vetters  accepted an out of court settlement of $15,000  on the eve of a trial in her lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination by her former employer, Houston Funding II, LLC, a Houston, TX,  debt collection agency.  After giving birth in 2012, Vetters inquired whether  she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to her job.  Her boss allegedly responded by telling her that her position had been “filled.”

If that wasn’t outrageous enough,  U.S.  District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of Houston summarily  dismissed Vetters’ lawsuit against Houston Funding on the grounds that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” He said that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” Judge Hughes, who is male, suggested that “pregnancy-related conditions” end on the day that a mother gives birth.

Fortunately, Judge Hughes’ opinion was unanimously reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held that firing a woman because she is expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978).  Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect working women against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.

Ms. Vetters was represented in the case by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In  EEOC v. Houston Funding II, LLC, the Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.  Accordingly, the court said, firing a woman because she is 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.

Instead of showing some decency, acknowledging fault and apologizing to Ms. Vetters, an attorney for Houston Funding was quoted as blaming the EEOC for forcing it to pay up.

The monetary settlement won’t put Ms. Vetters’ baby through college, and won’t compensate for the loss of a job in a difficult economy, but it is a great victory for all working mothers to know that they can’t be fired simply because they choose to nurture their infants with breast milk.

Donald Sterling, Racism & Federal Courts

The life-time suspension from the National Basketball League of  Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist comments to his girlfriend raises questions about how such conduct is treated in the workplace.

Although Sterling received the equivalent of a death sentence from the NBA, it is  unlikely that a federal court would consider Sterling’s conduct to be severe enough to violate the nation’s leading civil rights law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1994.

It what may be a sad commentary about the federal courts, racist, ageist and sexist comments often are relegated to the category of ordinary workplace incivility.

The  U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned federal judges against changing  Title VII into a “civility code” for the American workplace. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. Reports 75 (1998). As a result, most federal judges require numerous instances of egregious racist or sexist conduct before they hold employers accountable.

Sterling told his girlfriend, in a telephone conversation, that he was bothered that she associated with blacks.

Racist & Sexist Comments

A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Title VII lawsuit brought by  an African-American clerk for CSX Transportation Company, Inc.  who was allegedly subjected to a racially and sexually hostile work environment.  The  court ruled that “occasional offensive utterances” do not rise to the level required to create a hostile work environment.

When Stephanie Williams declined to watch the Republican National Convention on a television at the plant in 2004, she said a male supervisor  told her that  she was a Democrat “only because she was a black woman; that unmarried women cannot ‘have the love of God in their heart[s]’; and this country should “get rid of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton because without those two ‘monkeys’ the country would be a whole lot better.”  The following day, the supervisor allegedly told Williams that “if she returned to school, she would not have to pay for her education because she was a single black mother. He also allegedly said all blacks should go back to where they came from.

A federal judge granted a pre-trial motion to dismiss Williams’ claim that she was a victim of a sexually hostile environment on the grounds that  her supervisor’s conduct was “neither severe nor pervasive enough to constitute a sexually hostile environment.”  He rejected on technical grounds evidence that pornography was left on tables at the plant for all to see.

The judge permitted Williams to proceed to a trial on the claim that she was subjected  to a racially hostile environment but dismissed the case before it reached the jury after finding that Williams’ evidence of a racially hostile work environment was not sufficiently “severe or pervasive” as a matter of law.

Mere Offensive Utterance

In two different opinions, the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which covers Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky,  upheld the lower court’s dismissal of Williams’ claims.  See Williams v. CSX Transp. Co. Inc., 643 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2011) and Williams V. CSX Transp. Co., No. 12-6197 (6thCir. Sep. 19, 2013).

The appeals court agreed the supervisor’s conduct was “despicable” but said the incident was not sufficiently ‘severe’ or ‘pervasive’ standing alone. “The statements were isolated, not pervasive; all but two occurred over a two-day period,” held the court.

The court said the reference to Jackson and Sharpton and the statement that black people should go back where they came from  “are certainly insensitive, ignorant, and bigoted. But they more closely resemble a ‘mere offensive utterance’ than conduct that is ‘physically threatening or humiliating.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he will try to force Sterling to sell his franchise. Sterling also was fined $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution.  Silver has called upon the NBA’s Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.