Category Archives: Retaliation

November 3, 2016

$4.25M Age Discrimination and Retaliation Verdict Tough Pill For Abbott Laboratories To Swallow

By Steve GutierrezGutierrez_Steven

Four-and-a-quarter million dollars. That is what a federal jury recently awarded an ongoing employee at Abbott Laboratories for her age discrimination and retaliation claims. What caused the jury to award such a large amount in damages? Here is a look at the facts, followed by tips on how to avoid such liability when dealing with older employees.

All Seems Fine—Until Employee Hits Her Fifties

Luz Gonzalez-Bermudez (Gonzalez) has worked for Abbott since 1984, beginning her career as a pharmaceutical representative followed by promotions that ultimately made her the HCP national sales manager. In that role, Gonzalez was classified in Abbott’s compensation system as a Level 18 position, warranting a six-figure salary, an annual incentive bonus, stock options, and a company car.

But, eighteen months after her promotion to the HCP national sales manager, when Gonzalez was about 51 years old, her position was eliminated and she was demoted to a marketing manager position. Her new job was a Level 17 position, but Abbott allowed her to keep her Level 18 compensation and benefits for up to two years.

In the marketing manager position, Gonzalez reported to Kim Perez, the Director of Marketing (and later, the General Manager). Perez evaluated Gonzalez’s performance as a marketing manager negatively. Gonzalez complained internally that Perez was creating a hostile work environment, due to repeatedly asking her about outstanding work, sending a lot of emails following up on pending matters, and a lack of communication about things Gonzalez needed to know to do her job.

When Gonzalez’s two years of Level 18 compensation was up, Perez and the Human Resources Director told her that she had been assigned a Product Manager position, which was a Level 15 classification. At that level, Gonzalez took a pay cut, lowered bonus, loss of stock options, and lowered company car benefits.

Employee Lawyers Up 

About six months later, Gonzalez’s attorneys sent a letter on her behalf to Perez and others at Abbott, notifying them that they had been retained to represent her in any age discrimination claims that Gonzalez may have against them. Despite the letter, Abbott did not conduct an investigation into any possible claims. Shortly thereafter, Gonzalez filed an administrative charge with the Antidiscrimination Unit of the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources alleging age discrimination and retaliation. Read more >>

September 6, 2016

Tips For Avoiding Retaliation Claims Under EEOC’s New Guidance

Bryan_Benard of Holland & HartBy Bryan Benard

In recent years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has received more retaliation charges than any other type of discrimination claim. Last year, almost 45 percent of EEOC charges included an allegation of retaliation – yes, almost half!

Because of the alarming frequency of charges and the need for employees to report discrimination without fear of reprisal, the EEOC recently issued a new enforcement guidance on retaliation that replaces and updates its 1998 compliance manual on the subject. Even though the EEOC’s position is not necessarily the final word on these issues, as courts often disagree with the EEOC’s interpretation of federal discrimination laws, employers should know how EEOC  staff, including its investigators and litigators, will approach retaliation charges. Here is a look at the new guidance with tips on how to avoid becoming another retaliation charge statistic.

Overview of Retaliation and Protected Activities

The federal discrimination laws enforced by the EEOC, such as Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and others, prohibit employers from taking adverse action against an employee or applicant because the individual engaged in “protected activity.” Adverse actions that can be seen as retaliatory by the EEOC include not just discipline or discharge, but also transferring the employee to a less desirable position or shift, giving a negative or lower performance evaluation, increasing scrutiny, or making the person’s work more difficult.

“Protected activity” falls into two categories: participation and opposition. Participation activity is when an individual “participates” in an EEO process, which can include filing a charge, being involved in an investigation, or testifying or serving as a witness in a proceeding or hearing. Opposition activity is when an individual complains, questions, or otherwise opposes any discriminatory practice. Employees have the right to engage in both types of protected activity without being subject to retaliation from their employer.

Harassment As Retaliation

According to the EEOC, harassing conduct can be seen as retaliation, even if it does not rise to the level of being severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of employment. The agency states that harassment can constitute actionable retaliation so long as the conduct is sufficiently material to deter protected activity in the given context.

Evidence That May Support a Retaliation Finding

To determine whether there is a causal connection between a materially adverse action and the individual’s protected activity, the EEOC will consider different types of relevant evidence, alone or in combination. Some of the facts that may lead to a retaliation finding include:

  • Suspicious timing, especially when the adverse action occurs shortly after the individual engaged in protected activity;
  • Inconsistent or shifting explanations, such as where the employer changes its stated reasons for taking the adverse action;
  • Treating similarly situated employees more favorably than the individual who engaged in protected activity;
  • Statements or other evidence that suggest the employer’s justification for taking the adverse action is not believable, was pre-determined, or is hiding a retaliatory reason.

Read more >>

June 8, 2016

Prayer Breaks Present Difficult Religious Accommodation Issue

Collis_SBy Steven Collis

Recent news stories describe the tension between Muslim workers seeking multiple prayer breaks at specified times during their workday and employers who need those workers on their assembly lines. Many Muslim employees, including some in Colorado, have walked off the job, claiming their prayer requests have been unlawfully denied. With religious accommodations cases in the news, let’s look at how to handle these tricky situations.

Case In Point

The Muslim faith requires five daily prayers at specific times of the day, such as pre-dawn and sunset. Ariens Company, a manufacturer of lawn mowers and snowblowers, previously had allowed 53 Somali immigrant Muslim production workers to leave their work stations to pray at times required by their faith. In recent months, however, Ariens decided not to accommodate special prayer breaks, requiring instead that workers only leave their assembly-line positions during their two 10-minute breaks per shift. Although Ariens provides prayer rooms that the Muslim employees may use for their daily prayers, it says it costs too much in lost productivity to shut down an assembly line for unscheduled prayer breaks.

In January of this year, the Muslim employees walked off their jobs to protest Ariens’ policy which they say forces them to choose between their religion and their jobs. By February, many had returned to work but seven were fired for continuing to take unscheduled prayer breaks and 14 resigned because of the policy.

The issue has attracted the attention of the news media as well as advocacy groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group planned to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that Ariens failed to reasonably accommodate the Somali Muslim workers’ religious beliefs.

Religious Discrimination Prohibited

Title VII and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) both prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. These laws protect against offering less favorable terms or conditions of employment, such as pay, job assignments, promotions, training, fringe benefits, etc., as well as prohibiting workplace harassment and retaliation based on religion.

Title VII defines “religion” very broadly to include organized religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as sincerely held religious beliefs that are not part of a formal church or sect. In determining whether a practice or belief is religious under Title VII, the inquiry is whether it involves moral or ethical beliefs as to right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Title VII also extends workplace protections to those who are discriminated against because they do not believe in religion or a particular set of religious beliefs.

CADA also embraces a broad definition of religion and creed. Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission regulations define religion to mean all aspects of religious observance, belief and practice that need not be part of a particular organized religion, sect, or faith.

Reasonable Religious Accommodations

Under both federal and state law, Colorado employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate the religious practices or observances of employees, unless doing so would result in an undue hardship. An applicant or employee must make the employer aware of the need for an accommodation and that it is being requested due to a conflict between a work policy or requirement and a religious belief or observance.

Common types of religious accommodations that may be required include:

  • scheduling changes, voluntary substitutes, and shift swaps
  • providing an exception to your dress or grooming policy
  • use of the work facility for a religious observance
  • accommodating prayer or other types of religious expression
  • lateral transfer or change of job assignments

Importantly, an employer may not deny employment to an applicant based on an assumption that the applicant will need a religious accommodation. Following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., if an applicant can show that the need for a religious accommodation is a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision not to hire him or her, the employer violates Title VII, regardless of whether the employer had actual knowledge of the applicant’s religious beliefs or whether he or she will actually need an accommodation. Read more >>

June 6, 2016

Colorado’s New Pregnancy Accommodation Law

By Micah Dawson

Effective August 10, 2016, Colorado employers will commit an unfair employment practice if they fail to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee, or an applicant for employment, for health conditions related to pregnancy or physical recovery from childbirth, absent an undue hardship. Last week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law House Bill 16-1438 which requires Colorado employers to engage in an interactive process to assess potential reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. The new law, section 24-34-402.3 of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, also prohibits employers from denying employment opportunities based on the need to make a pregnancy-related reasonable accommodation and from retaliating against employees and applicants that request or use a pregnancy-related accommodation.

 Posting and Notification Requirements

The new law imposes posting and notification requirements on Colorado employers. By December 8, 2016 (120 days from the effective date), employers must provide current employees with written notice of their rights under this provision. Thereafter, employers also must provide written notice of the right to be free from discriminatory or unfair employment practices under this law to every new hire at the start of their employment. Employers in Colorado also must post a written notice of rights in a conspicuous place at their business in an area accessible to employees.

For more information on this new law, read our full post about its requirements here.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

May 11, 2016

Colorado Pregnancy Accommodation Bill Passes

By Micah Dawson

The Colorado legislature passed House Bill 16-1438 requiring Colorado employers to engage in an interactive process to assess potential reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. The bill, expected to be signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper, will ensure that employers engage in the interactive process, provide reasonable accommodations to eligible individuals, prohibit retaliation against employees and applicants that request or use a pregnancy-related accommodation, and provide notice of employee rights under this law. Once signed by the Governor, the new law will go into effect on August 10, 2016.

Pregnancy-Related Workplace Accommodations

This law will add a new section, section 24-34-402.3, to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, making it an unfair employment practice for you to fail to provide a reasonable accommodation for an applicant for employment, or an employee, for health conditions related to pregnancy or physical recovery from childbirth, absent an undue hardship on your business. You also may not deny employment opportunities based on the need to make a pregnancy-related reasonable accommodation.

Interactive Accommodation Process 

You will need to engage in a “timely, good-faith, and interactive process” with the applicant or employee to determine effective reasonable accommodations.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include but are not limited to:

  • more frequent or longer breaks
  • more frequent restroom, food and water breaks
  • obtaining or modifying equipment or seating
  • temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, if available (with return to the current position after pregnancy)
  • light duty, if available
  • job restructuring
  • limiting lifting
  • assistance with manual labor, or
  • modified work schedules.

In engaging in this process, you need to be sure to document your good-faith efforts to identify and make reasonable accommodations because doing so can negate punitive damages if an individual sues you for failure to make a pregnancy-related accommodation. You may require that the employee or applicant provide a note from her health care provider stating the need for a reasonable accommodation.

No Forced Accommodations or Leave 

Under the new law, you may not force an applicant or employee affected by pregnancy-related conditions to accept an accommodation that she has not requested, or that is unnecessary to perform the essential function of her job. Similarly, you may not require a pregnant employee to take leave if there is another reasonable accommodation that may be provided. As stated in the legislative declaration for the bill, the intent is to keep pregnant women employed and generating income so forcing pregnant women to take time off during or after their pregnancy generally is not permitted.

Analyzing Undue Hardship Of Accommodations 

Reasonable accommodations may be denied if they impose an undue hardship on your business. That requires an analysis of the following factors in order to decide whether the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation
  • the overall financial resources of the employer
  • the overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees and the number, type, and location of the available facilities, and
  • the accommodation’s effect on expenses and resources or its impact on the operations of the employer.

Broad Definition of “Adverse Action” in Retaliation Prohibition 

The new law prohibits you from taking adverse action against an employee who requests or uses a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition. An adverse action is defined very broadly as “an action where a reasonable employee would have found the action materially adverse, such that it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” This approach harkens to the NLRB’s use of a “chilling effect” on employee rights as a basis for unfair labor charges. By not limiting an adverse action to concrete actions, such as a termination, demotion, pay reduction, or similar actions, the broad definition opens the door to a wide range of employer responses that could be deemed retaliation.

Notifying Employees of Their Rights

If signed into law, you will have until December 8, 2016 (120 days from the effective date) to provide current employees with written notice of their rights under this provision. Thereafter, you also must provide written notice of the right to be free from discriminatory or unfair employment practices under this law to every new hire at the start of their employment. You also have to post the written notice in a conspicuous place at your business in an area accessible to employees.

What To Do Now 

With enactment almost certain, prepare now to comply with this new pregnancy accommodation requirement. A checklist of action items includes:

  • Review and update job descriptions to designate essential functions of each job.
  • Update your accommodation policies and handbook to include pregnancy-related accommodations and information on how employees may request such an accommodation.
  • Train your supervisors, managers, and human resources department on the new accommodation requirements and the anti-retaliation provision.
  • Prepare written notifications of employee rights to send to current employees no later than December 8, 2016.
  • Include the written notification of rights in your onboarding materials so that after December 8, 2016, all new hires receive the notice.
  • Post the written notification of rights in a conspicuous place accessible to employees, such as your lunch room bulletin boards, intranet, or wherever other required employment law posters are posted.

September 15, 2015

Wyoming Discrimination Charges: A Look at the Numbers

Cave_BBy Brad Cave 

Mark Twain is credited with saying that “facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” The Wyoming Labor Standards Division and the EEOC both keep statistics of the types of discrimination charges the agencies receive from Wyoming employees. When it comes to discrimination charges, the allegations are almost always pliable, but the statistics show us some interesting things for employers to ponder.

Wyoming Labor Standards Charges 

The Wyoming Fair Employment Practices Act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of age, sex, race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, pregnancy or disability. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Labor Standards Division is the state agency that processes and investigates most complaints of employment discrimination filed by Wyoming workers. 

In 2014, the Wyoming Labor Standards Division received a total of 203 discrimination charges. It processed 182 of those charges and deferred the remaining 21 charges to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because they were either untimely under state law or contained allegations of Equal Pay Act violations. The Division reports the breakdown of 2014 charges by allegation as follows: 

Type

No. of Charges

Percentage of Total Charges

Retaliation

76

41.8%

Sex

55

31.2%

Disability

46

25.3%

Age

33

18.1%

National Origin

27

14.8%

Race

21

11.5%

Religion

  7

  3.8%

You math wizzes in the audience have already exclaimed that the percentages exceed 100%, and the author must be numerically challenged. But, many charges include allegations of multiple types of discrimination. Indeed, charges often include an allegation of discrimination on the basis of protected class, and an allegation of retaliation in response to complaints about the discrimination. As you can see, Wyoming had more retaliation charges than any other type of charge. That mirrors the nationwide statistics where retaliation charges lead the list of most-filed charges. Not far behind are sex discrimination charges, with disability charges as the third most-frequently filed. 

EEOC Charge Statistics for Wyoming Charges 

The EEOC also maintains charge statistics for each type of discrimination that is alleged under the federal discrimination laws that it enforces, and annually publishes those statistics on a state-by-state basis.The EEOC count includes charges under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion and national origin, as well as charges under other federal discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. 

The EEOC’s most recent data for fiscal year 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014) shows that the federal discrimination charges for Wyoming received by that agency track the Labor Standards Division’s statistics, with retaliation charges leading the list. With a total of 69 discrimination charges filed with the EEOC by Wyoming workers in FY2014, here are the numbers by type:

Type

No. of Charges

Percentage of Total Charges

Retaliation

30

43.5%

Sex

29

42%

Disability

25

36.2%

Age

20

29%

Race

14

20.3%

National Origin

  6

  8.7%

Color

  4

  5.8%

Equal Pay Act

  3

  4.3%

Religion

  2

  2.9%

Wyoming employers received significantly more sex discrimination charges in 2014 than compared to 2013. The percentage of sex discrimination charges filed with the EEOC went up from 29.2% in FY 2013 to 42% in FY2014. Retaliation charges topped the list in both FY2013 and FY2014. The full list of EEOC charge receipts for Wyoming for the last five years may be viewed on the EEOC’s website at  http://www1.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/charges_by_state.cfm#centercol

Lessons Learned 

The charge statistics from the Wyoming Labor Standards Office and the EEOC reflect discrimination complaints filed by applicants and employees, not cases in which discrimination was determined to exist. Even so, the charge numbers for Wyoming suggest a number of action items for employers who want to avoid being included in next year’s statistics. 

First, retaliation gets a lot less attention from employers than it should, as these numbers show.  Whenever an employee complains about something at work that implicates a statutory right, like the right to be free from discrimination or harassment, or requests an accommodation or FMLA leave, the employee has engaged in protected activity. Most discrimination laws prohibit adverse actions because an employee has engaged in protected activity. And, it makes little difference whether the employee’s underlying complaint or request was valid – the employee is still protected against retaliation. 

Employers need a strong, stand-alone anti-retaliation policy, not just a couple of sentences at the end of the policy prohibiting discrimination. Employers also need to train supervisors and managers about the significance of employee complaints, and how the law protects employees. And careful consideration should be given to any adverse employment action for an employee who has opposed discrimination in the workplace, been interviewed as part of an investigation, or participated in a discrimination proceeding. 

Second, the prevalence of sex discrimination charges, which includes harassment charges, suggests that employers should review and update their discrimination and harassment policies, and continue periodic harassment prevention training. A strong harassment prevention policy, with understandable definitions and examples and multiple reporting options, is usually the best defense against a charge of sexual harassment. Of course, any observed or reported harassment must be investigated and any behavior which violates your policies must be stopped. 

Finally, adopt a policy that guides employees who wish to request an accommodation, and train supervisors how to recognize employee requests that could be interpreted as a request for accommodation. Once a request is made, follow a thorough interactive process to explore reasonable accommodations that do not place an undue burden on your organization but will allow the person to perform their job. Only when you are absolutely sure that no reasonable accommodation is available should you terminate a disabled employee. 

These action items will go a long way toward keeping you from becoming a statistic!

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

July 13, 2015

EEOC’s Conciliation Efforts Must Be Real, Not “For Appearances Only,” After Mach Mining Decision

Wiletsky_M

By Mark Wiletsky 

An unsupported demand letter cannot constitute an actual attempt by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to engage in the required pre-lawsuit conciliation process, according to a federal judge in Ohio. EEOC v. OhioHealth Corp. (S.D.Ohio June 29, 2015). In one of the first cases to review the sufficiency of EEOC conciliation efforts after that review was authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its April Mach Mining decision, it is clear that courts are not willing to rubber stamp the EEOC’s purported conciliation efforts and will delay the lawsuit until actual conciliation takes place. 

Insufficient Conciliation Efforts Often Frustrate Employers 

If the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe that employment discrimination occurred, it is required to try to eliminate the alleged discrimination through informal conference and conciliation with the employer. The goal is to get the employer to voluntarily comply with federal discrimination laws and resolve the alleged discrimination privately. In fact, the conciliation process is a necessary precondition to the EEOC filing a discrimination lawsuit against the employer. The EEOC is prohibited from suing the employer until after its conciliation efforts have failed. 

At times, employers have been frustrated by a lack of real conciliation efforts, particularly in cases where the EEOC seems to prefer going to court rather than settling with the employer. The Mach Mining decision was a win for employers as it allows an employer to ask a judge to conduct a limited review of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts before a lawsuit goes forward. 

EEOC’s Affidavit on Its Conciliation Efforts  

The Supreme Court had explained in Mach Mining that a sworn affidavit from the EEOC describing its conciliation efforts would usually suffice to show that it had met its obligations. Many who analyzed that statement feared that an EEOC affidavit would effectively end the employer’s challenge to the sufficiency of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts, resulting in an empty judicial review. But Judge Frost’s decision out of the federal court in the Southern District of Ohio shows that is not the case. 

In this case, the EEOC submitted an affidavit that stated that the EEOC had issued a reasonable cause determination letter that invited the parties to join “in reaching a just resolution of this matter” and stating that “conciliation of this matter has now begun.” The affidavit further states that over one month, the EEOC communicated with the employer, OhioHealth, including sending a conciliation proposal which was rejected. The EEOC then sent OhioHealth a final letter stating that conciliation efforts had not been successful. 

OhioHealth countered the EEOC’s affidavit by providing its own declaration which stated that the EEOC had made a take-it-or-leave-it demand and failed to provide any information to back up its demand. Even though the EEOC’s determination letter had indicated that a commission representative would prepare a dollar amount that included lost wages and benefits, applicable interest and any appropriate attorney fees and costs, no such calculation was ever provided by the EEOC to OhioHealth. OhioHealth stated that it remained ready and willing to negotiate but that the EEOC instead declared that conciliation efforts had failed. 

Judge Frost ruled that the EEOC’s “bookend” letters – first declaring the conciliation process open and then closed — did not constitute an actual attempt at conciliation. He wrote that without the EEOC providing the calculation of the charging party’s damages to OhioHealth, the parties could not shape their positions and the “conciliation process could have been nothing but a sham.” The judge ordered that the EEOC’s lawsuit against OhioHealth be stayed for 60 days while the EEOC engaged in good faith conciliation. 

Judge Frost went on to offer a cautionary note to the EEOC. He was disturbed by the EEOC’s statements that it simply would not reach a private resolution of this matter via conciliation and that only a public resolution would be possible. He admonished the EEOC, stating that its position was “ridiculous” and defied the statutory scheme, binding case law, the court and common sense. He wrote that if the EEOC failed to engage in good faith efforts at conciliation as ordered, the court would impose all available consequences, including contempt and dismissal of the lawsuit. Pretty strong words indeed! 

Lessons for Employers 

Although this is only one court’s review of one conciliation process, employers should be pleased that the Mach Mining decision may have teeth, with courts taking a serious look at the actual conciliation efforts being made. If faced with a reasonable cause determination from the EEOC (and assuming you do not want to go to court), make certain to engage in conciliation by responding to the EEOC’s communications. If the EEOC makes a settlement demand, ask for the calculation of damages that supports the demand. Remain ready and willing to negotiate and document that willingness in writing. And if the EEOC files a lawsuit against you without first making real conciliation efforts, consider seeking a stay of the case by asserting that the EEOC failed to meet a condition precedent to filing the lawsuit.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 29, 2015

EEOC Conciliation Efforts Are Reviewable, Says Supreme Court

By Dustin Berger 

Employers have a narrow right to seek judicial review of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) statutory obligation to give an employer adequate notice of the charges against them, including the identity of the employees (or class of employees) claiming discrimination, and to engage in informal resolution of the charges. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts have the authority to review whether the EEOC has met its duty under Title VII to attempt informal resolution of alleged discriminatory practices prior to filing suit. Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 575 U.S. ___ (2015). 

While the scope of review is limited, it is good news for employers as it limits the EEOC’s ability to take high priority cases to court without first engaging in any discussion with the employer to remedy the alleged unlawful practices. Unfortunately, however, under the Supreme Court’s decision, the courts’ review of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts will be too limited to ensure that the EEOC makes a genuine and meaningful attempt to reach a voluntary resolution of a charge before the EEOC sues. 

Title VII Mandates Informal Methods of Conciliation 

Title VII, the primary federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, sets forth a procedure to be followed by the EEOC when handling a complaint of employment discrimination. In part, the law requires that when the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, it must first attempt to eliminate the alleged unlawful practice through “informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” The EEOC may choose which informal method it chooses to attempt resolution of the charge, and the agency ultimately retains the right to accept any proposed settlement or to sue the employer. 

Letter From EEOC Without Follow-Up Was Insufficient Conciliation Effort 

In the case before the Court, a female applicant filed a charge alleging that Mach Mining, LLC had refused to hire her as a coal miner because of her sex. The EEOC investigated her charge and found reasonable cause to believe that Mach Mining had discriminated against not only that applicant, but also a class of women who had similarly applied for mining jobs. 

The EEOC sent Mach Mining a letter inviting both the company and the female applicant to participate in informal conciliation and stated that an EEOC representative would contact them soon. That never happened. Instead, about a year later, the EEOC sent Mach Mining a second letter stating that “such conciliation efforts as are required by law have occurred and have been unsuccessful” and further stated that any further efforts would be “futile.” The EEOC proceeded to sue Mach Mining in federal court alleging sex discrimination in hiring. 

Mach Mining asserted that the EEOC had failed to conciliate in good faith prior to filing suit, as was required by Title VII. Although the federal district court agreed with Mach Mining that it should review whether the EEOC had met its conciliation duty, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision and held that a party could not assert as a defense that the EEOC had failed to conciliate the claim as Title VII required. The Seventh Circuit explained that conciliation was solely within the EEOC’s expert judgment and that there was no workable standard that would allow judges to review that process. Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit believed that court review of conciliation would complicate Title VII lawsuits by allowing the focus of the litigation to drift from the merits of the Title VII claim to the sufficiency of the EEOC’s conciliation effort. 

Although other federal appellate courts, however, have held that Title VII does allow a court to review the EEOC’s conciliation effort, there was no uniformity among the other appellate courts in what that review should entail. The Supreme Court agreed to take the Mach Mining case to resolve whether and to what extent courts may review the EEOC’s conciliation attempts.

 

Notice to Employer and Discussion Required 

Justice Kagan, writing for a unanimous Court, first explained that courts routinely enforce compulsory prerequisites to suit in Title VII cases. Although Congress had given the EEOC wide latitude over the conciliation process, the Court refused to allow the EEOC to police itself on whether it had complied with its conciliation duty. Accordingly, it overruled the Seventh Circuit’s decision and held that courts have the authority to review whether the EEOC has fulfilled its Title VII duty to attempt conciliation of discrimination charges. 

The Court then turned to the proper standard of judicial review. In other words, it considered what the EEOC must show in order to meet its conciliation duty as a precondition to filing suit. The agency argued for minimal review, suggesting that its letters to Mach Mining were a sufficient attempt at conciliation. Mach Mining argued for a much deeper review, urging that the Court adopt a standard from the National Labor Relations Act that would require a negotiation in good faith over discrimination claims. The Court rejected both approaches and took a middle line. 

The Court explained that judicial review was available but was limited to ensuring that the EEOC provided the employer with notice and an opportunity to discuss the matter tailored to achieving voluntary compliance. The Court stated that the EEOC must inform the employer not only about the specific allegations of discrimination, but also about which employees (or what class of employees) have suffered as a result. Ordinarily, the Court noted, the EEOC’s “reasonable cause” letter will provide this notice.  Then, the EEOC must attempt to engage in some form of discussion with the employer to give the employer a chance to remedy the allegedly discriminatory practices prior to being sued. That discussion may be in written or oral form and the EEOC will retain a great deal of discretion about how to conduct its conciliation efforts and when to end them. 

Evidence of the conciliation efforts may be supported or challenged through written affidavits. Ordinarily, the EEOC’s affidavit will show it has met its conciliation duty, but employers may create a factual issue through affidavits or other credible evidence that indicates that the EEOC did not provide the requisite information about the charge or attempt to engage the employer in discussion prior to filing suit. If a reviewing court finds in the employer’s favor on such a challenge, the appropriate remedy is for the court to order the EEOC to engage in conciliation. 

Confidentiality of Conciliation 

In reaching its decision, the Court focused in part on Title VII’s non-disclosure provision. This provision states that “[n]othing said or done during and as a part of such informal endeavors may be made public by the [EEOC], its officers or employees, or used as evidence in a subsequent proceeding without the written consent of the persons concerned.” Mach Mining argued that this confidentiality provision meant only that the actions taken and statements made taken during conciliation could not be used as evidence of the merits of the claim. The Court rejected that argument and reiterated that the non-disclosure provision protects actions and statements made during conciliation from disclosure for any evidentiary purpose. And, the Court explained, the non-disclosure provision alone precluded the courts from engaging in any deeper inquiry into the EEOC’s actions during conciliation.  

What This Means For You 

As the EEOC has been aggressively pursuing employers on novel theories of discrimination, it is beneficial to have the ability to ask a court to review whether the EEOC provided proper notice of the allegedly discriminatory practice and the employees allegedly affected by it and offered the employer an effort to discuss the matter for the purpose of achieving voluntary compliance. Although this review is narrow, it is an improvement over the Seventh Circuit’s view because it gives employers a limited opportunity to hold the EEOC accountable for satisfying its statutory obligation to conciliate claims. If your organization receives a “reasonable cause” finding, be sure to track what efforts the EEOC makes to engage you in discussions to pursue voluntary compliance. If those efforts do not meet the standard announced by the Court, you can seek to compel the EEOC to make an effort compliant with its statutory obligations before it proceeds with its suit. 

What the Mach Mining decision will not do, however, is allow an employer to seek the aid of a court in requiring the EEOC to make a genuine effort to achieve a voluntary resolution of a charge. For instance, the Mach Mining decision does not require the EEOC to negotiate in good faith, apprise an employer of “the smallest remedial award the EEOC would accept,” lay out the legal and factual basis for its position or any request for a remedial award, refrain from “take-it-or-leave-it” offers, or provide any particular amount of time for an employer to consider and respond to the EEOC’s position or offers. Accordingly, you are well advised to set expectations of the conciliation process at a low threshold and, to the extent you believe voluntary resolution is desirable, take the initiative in working with the EEOC after receiving a reasonable cause determination letter.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 20, 2015

You’ve Received a Discrimination Charge from NERC or the EEOC – Don’t Throw It in the Trash!

Lane_DBy Dora Lane 

When asked about a discrimination charge sent to them months ago, a client once answered “I did not know what to do with it, so I threw it in the trash.” Needless to say, that was a bad idea. Unfortunately, many employers do not understand their obligations when faced with a discrimination charge and that can backfire if the charge is not informally resolved. 

What is a discrimination charge? 

Ordinarily, before an employee can bring a harassment, discrimination, or retaliation lawsuit in court, the employee must “exhaust their administrative remedies.” In plain English, they have to file a complaint (called a “charge”) with one of the administrative agencies responsible for enforcement of the respective employment laws before they sue the employer in court. 

In Nevada, a charge may be filed with either the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC) (state administrative agency) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (federal administrative agency). Because of a work-sharing agreement between the two agencies, a charge filed with NERC is also deemed filed with the EEOC (though the opposite is not true). A charge ordinarily includes the name of the employee who submitted it, a brief summary of the employee’s allegations, and certain applicable deadlines. Where the charge is filed matters because different requirements for responding to it apply. 

What are the differences between responding to a NERC charge versus an EEOC charge? 

An employer should respond to any discrimination charge, regardless of the agency in which it was filed, or risk an adverse determination based only on the employee’s evidence. However, there are differences in the type of information you must provide and the timing of your response, depending on which agency sends you the charge. 

EEOC charge notifications are usually accompanied by Requests for Documents/Information. These requests must be answered and submitted along with a position statement addressing the allegations in the charge. The requests are frequently quite sweeping, requiring a lot of time and attention. NERC does not usually include Requests for Documents/Information in its charge notification packets. Rather, such requests may be sent – on a case-by-case basis – as part of the investigation process. (Of course, the EEOC may also request additional information during the course of its investigation.) 

Another difference is the timing of submitting a position statement if the charge proceeds to mediation (called “Informal Settlement Conference” by NERC). If you receive a charge notification from NERC, the notification comes in a packet, which also usually contains an Election of Response form. That form lets you choose whether or not you wish to participate in an Informal Settlement Conference, which is automatically scheduled on a certain date. If you do not respond by the election deadline or you decline the conference, the charge is ordinarily placed into investigation. 

Even if you choose to participate in the Informal Settlement Conference before NERC, however, you still must submit a position statement approximately a week before the conference. A potential cost-saving measure is to provide a brief, summary position statement first, in anticipation that the matter will resolve at the Informal Settlement Conference, and reserve the right to supplement at a later date in the event it does not. 

By contrast, with EEOC charges proceeding to mediation, you are only required to submit a position statement if the case does not settle during mediation. That said, in some cases, it may be useful to give the mediator a brief factual background offering your company’s perspective prior to the mediation. 

What if I did not get notice that I can mediate or participate in an Informal Settlement Conference? 

If you receive a NERC charge notification without an Election of Response form, you might consider contacting NERC to ask for one. NERC schedules Informal Settlement Conferences as a matter of course, and it is highly unusual not to be invited to one. Sometimes lack of invitation has resulted from inadvertent administrative oversight so if you want to pursue early settlement, ask for a conference. 

If you receive an EEOC charge notification that does not allow for mediation, it may stem from various reasons, which may or may not be a cause for concern. For example, there might have been an unintentional failure to check the “Mediation” box. Or, it is possible that the complaining party was not interested in mediation. Or, in the worst case scenario, the charge was not eligible for mediation because it was characterized as a “Category A” charge. “Category A” charges involve matters considered priorities by the EEOC, allegations of widespread legal violations by the employer, or other matters where the EEOC has concluded that further investigation would probably result in a cause finding (i.e., determination against the employer). 

If you are interested in mediating an EEOC charge, consider contacting the EEOC to inquire whether mediation would be available, even if the mediation box is not checked, as the EEOC’s response may offer some information as to the basis for the initial mediation unavailability. And, while the EEOC would rarely admit that the charge is “Category A,” that information might enable you to prepare for the EEOC’s upcoming investigation. 

What should I do when I get the charge?  

First and foremost, you should immediately preserve all relevant documents and information, in both paper and electronic format. You should also suspend all automatic electronic deletion policies and direct your employees not to destroy anything related to the allegations in the charge. In some cases, it may be appropriate to make forensic images of computer hard drives to preserve the integrity of metadata and other electronic information. 

Second, if an internal investigation has not already been conducted, you should investigate the complaining party’s allegations and begin gathering relevant information to prepare for defending the charge. Sometimes that includes collecting employee statements which can later be used to support your response to the charge. 

Finally, take your obligation to provide a position statement seriously. Position statements should be prepared by – at a minimum – an experienced human resources professional. Better yet, contact your employment counsel. Position statements not only shape the administrative agencies’ investigations and conclusions, but they are also discoverable in litigation. So, even though employment disputes are not criminal in nature, it is wise to heed the Miranda warning that “anything you say will be used against you” in court. 

Bottom Line: Responsibilities Flow From Receipt of a Charge 

As tempting as it may be to ignore or dismiss an EEOC or NERC charge, resist the temptation and take steps to protect your organization from potential liability. Deadlines are triggered from the charge notification. Failure to preserve all relevant evidence can result in severe sanctions, including ruling against your organization on the ultimate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation issue. Failing to conduct an internal investigation can limit your ability to properly defend against the employee’s claims and to determine your possible liability. In short, no good can come from ignoring a charge. Instead, follow the steps outlined above to put you in the best position to handle the allegations and minimize liability to your organization.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 14, 2015

EEOC Fails to Show Telecommuting Would Be A Reasonable Accommodation

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky 

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) “does not endow all disabled persons with a job—or job schedule—of their choosing,” according to the majority of judges on the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In an 8 to 5 decision, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled en banc that Ford Motor Company did not violate the ADA when it denied an employee’s request to telecommute up to four days per week in order to accommodate her irritable bowel syndrome. EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. Apr. 10, 2015). 

“Good, Old-Fashioned Interpersonal Skills” Made In-Person Attendance Essential 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that a resale buyer for Ford, Jane Harris, who had irritable bowel syndrome that made it difficult for her to be far from a restroom, should be allowed to work from home up to four days per week. The agency cited Ford’s telecommuting policy that allowed other workers, including some resale buyers, to telecommute as evidence that Harris’ telecommuting request was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 

The Court disagreed. It ruled that regular and predictable on-site attendance was an essential function of the resale-buyer position at Ford. Resale buyers needed to purchase raw steel from steel suppliers and then resell it to parts manufacturers to make parts used in Ford vehicles. Although some interactions could be done by email and telephone, the Court found that many required “good, old-fashioned interpersonal skills,” and resale buyers needed to be able to meet face to face with suppliers, parts manufacturers and Ford employees during core business hours. 

Importantly, the Court reiterated the general rule is that regular attendance at work is essential to most jobs, especially interactive ones. It pointed to past court opinions as well as to EEOC regulations that support the premise that regular and predictable on-site attendance is an essential job function. The Court even relied on that “sometimes-forgotten guide” – common sense, stating that non-lawyers (as well as judges in other appellate circuits) recognize that regular in-person attendance is an essential function, and a prerequisite to other essential functions, of most jobs. 

Other Buyers Telecommuted on a Predictable, Limited Basis 

But what about the fact that Ford had a telecommuting policy that allowed other employees, including resale buyers like Harris, to work from home? Wouldn’t that make telecommuting a reasonable accommodation for Harris? 

The Court said no, because she proposed to telecommute four days per week on a schedule of her choosing. The other resale buyers who telecommuted did so only one established day per week and they agreed in advance that they would come into work that day, if needed. They were also able to perform well and maintain productivity. Harris, on the other hand, wanted to be able to pick and choose which days she would telecommute, up to four days per week, without agreeing to come in those days, if necessary. The Court found that none of these other employees’ more predictable and more limited telecommuting schedules removed regular on-site attendance from the resale buyer’s job. 

As a result, the Court ruled that Harris’ proposed telecommuting accommodation unreasonable.

In addition, Ford had allowed Harris to telecommute on an as-needed basis on three separate occasions and her performance suffered. Other attempts to improve Harris’ attendance also failed. The Court found that Harris could not perform the essential functions of her job and was unable to establish regular and consistent work hours. Therefore, it ruled that she was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA. 

Technology Did Not Carry the Day 

The EEOC argued that advances in technology make on-site attendance less essential. The Court disagreed in this case, stating that there was no evidence presented that specific technology made personal interactions unnecessary for resale buyers. 

No Blind Deference to Employer’s Judgment 

The Court made a point of stating that its opinion did not open the door for courts to blindly accept as essential whatever an employer says is essential for a particular job. It emphasized that an employer’s words, policies and practices were all important in deciding whether a particular task or requirement is an essential job function. 

In Ford’s case, the evidence supported Ford’s judgment that regular and predictable in-person attendance was essential for resale buyers. The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Ford. 

No Retaliation For Termination 

The Court also ruled that Ford did not retaliate against Harris when it fired her for poor performance just four months after she had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Key was Ford’s good documentation of Harris’ performance and interpersonal issues. She had been ranked in the bottom 10% of her peer group before she filed her charge. Documentation showed that she failed to update spreadsheets, complete her paperwork, schedule training sessions, price items correctly and finish her work on time. Despite the closeness in time of the firing to her charge filing, the Court ruled that the EEOC failed to present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the real reason that Ford terminated Harris was unlawful retaliation instead of poor performance. 

Dissent: Either Physical Presence is Not Essential or Telecommuting is A Reasonable Accommodation 

Five judges on the Sixth Circuit dissented, believing that the EEOC had presented enough evidence to send the EEOC’s claims to a jury. Specifically, the dissent stated that the evidence was sufficient to show that there remained genuine disputes over whether Harris was a qualified individual, either because in-person attendance was not an essential function of her job, or because telecommuting would be a reasonable accommodation for her. It pointed to Ford’s telecommuting policy which allowed for “one to four days” of telework each week. It noted that Harris proposed that she be able to work from home up to four days each week, as was arguably allowed under the policy, not that she be permitted to telecommute four days each and every week. 

The dissent also asserted that Harris’ past attendance issues that were a result of her disability should not be used against her in deciding whether a telecommuting arrangement during core business hours would be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Moreover, the dissent found that Ford should have engaged in a more interactive process to clarify Harris’ telecommuting accommodation request. Finally, the dissent believed that there was a genuine dispute over whether Ford retaliated against Harris for filing her discrimination charge. 

Lessons for Employers Facing ADA Telecommuting Accommodation Requests 

The majority’s decision finding that regular and predictable in-person attendance is an essential function of most jobs, especially interactive ones, is favorable for employers. But it does not mean that telecommuting can never be a reasonable accommodation. In fact, the dissent in this case demonstrates that telecommuting requests for disabled employees is likely to continue to be an issue with which employers will grapple in coming years.  

If face-to-face interactions and in-person attendance at meetings or other work-related functions is essential for certain jobs at your workplace, be certain to include those tasks in your job descriptions. If you generally allow telecommuting, be sure to have a written policy and apply it consistently. If presented with a request to telecommute in order to accommodate a disability, engage in an interactive process to discuss whether telecommuting would be appropriate for that particular position and employee, whether it would constitute an undue hardship for your organization and if alternative accommodations would allow the employee to perform his or her essential functions. And by all means, make sure you have concrete documentation of an employee’s poor performance or policy infractions before taking adverse action against anyone who has filed a discrimination charge.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.