Tag Archives: Title VII

January 18, 2017

National Origin Discrimination Checklist

west_lBy Little V. West

National origin discrimination may not be as high on your radar screen as sex, race, or disability discrimination, but it accounted for almost 11% of the total number of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in fiscal year 2015. The numbers are even higher for states with more diverse populations – 18.1% of total charges for New Mexico were for national origin discrimination, 16.6% in California, 16.2% in Colorado, and 15.3% in Texas, to name a few.

Title VII Prohibits National Origin Discrimination

As you may know, Title VII, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Its protections extend to all employees and applicants for employment in the United States.

The EEOC defines national origin discrimination as discrimination because an individual, or his or her ancestors, is from a certain country or region, or shares the physical, cultural, or language characteristics of a national origin or ethnic group. For example, national origin discrimination would result from treating an employee adversely because he or she is from another country or former country (such as Mexico, China, or Yugoslavia), a place that is closely associated with an ethnic group but is not a country (such as Kurdistan), or belongs to a group that shares a common language, ancestry, or other social characteristics (such as Arabs or Hispanics).

While outright discrimination may be more obvious, Title VII also prohibits less straightforward forms of discrimination. For example, Title VII prohibits associational discrimination, which is when an employer treats an applicant or employee less favorably because he or she associates with (e.g., dates, marries, lives with, is the parent of, etc.) someone of a particular national origin. Employment discrimination also results when an employer treats an individual less favorably because he or she does not belong to a particular ethnic group. For example, a Hispanic business owner who refuses to hire anyone other than Hispanics would be discriminating on the basis of national origin. Moreover, discrimination based on the perception or belief that an individual (or his or her ancestors) belongs to a particular national origin group can be discriminatory, regardless of whether the individual is in fact part of that group.

In addition to prohibiting discriminatory employment decisions, Title VII also prohibits unlawful harassment and retaliation based on national origin. Harassment can include the use of ethnic slurs, intimidation, threats, mocking, and other verbal, written, or physical conduct that is directed toward an individual because of his or her birthplace, ethnicity, culture, language, dress, or accent.

EEOC Issues Updated National Origin Discrimination Guidance

In late 2016, the EEOC published an updated enforcement guidance on national origin discrimination. Intending to better explain employee rights and promote employer compliance, the EEOC guidance offers many examples and HR practices in a wide variety of employment situations that could result in Title VII national origin violations.  In addition, it addresses how national origin discrimination often intersects with other protected characteristics, such as race, color, or religion.  The updated guidance includes several noteworthy points:

  • A place of national origin may be within the United States; in other words, “[n]ational origin discrimination includes discrimination against American workers in favor of foreign workers.”
  • Title VII applies to human trafficking. The guidance explains that, in addition to criminal liability for forcing labor and/or exploiting workers, Title VII may also impose civil liability if the conduct is directed towards person(s) in a protected class, including national origin.
  • The joint employer doctrine applies in the context of staffing firms and client employers. The guidance explains that, “[i]f both a staffing firm and a client employer have the right to control the worker’s employment and have the statutory minimum number of employees,” the entities can be considered joint employers. As an example, a staffing firm can be held liable under Title VII if it were to fail to take prompt corrective action for discriminatory actions based on national origin by the client employer.
  • Recognizing that employees have a choice as to which documents to present to establish authorization to work in the U.S., and that  “newly hired employees should be allowed to work if they have applied for but not yet received a Social Security number,” the guidance states that a blanket policy not to hire candidates who lack a Social Security number can violate Title VII if it disproportionately screens out work-authorized individuals in a national origin group.
  • Preference for U.S. citizenship may be unlawful if it has the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin.

We encourage you to review the EEOC’s guidance document.

Checklist For Avoiding National Origin Discrimination Liability

To put the EEOC’s guidance into practical terms, here is a handy checklist that highlights concrete HR policies and employment practices to help your organization avoid liability for national origin discrimination or harassment.

  • ˜Your job application and posts should include an equal employment opportunity statement.
  • When recruiting applicants and posting job openings, do not:
    • state a preference for (or against) a particular national origin (e.g., “looking for U.S.-born candidates” or “must not speak with a foreign accent,” etc.);
    • ˜rely only on word-of-mouth referrals from existing employees (keeps applicant pool too homogenous); or
    • ˜send job postings only to non-diverse outlets or communities.
  • ˜Be careful not to reject applicants based on an ethnically sounding name; consider redacting or hiding names on your initial review of applications and resumes so you are not inadvertently influenced by an ethnic name.
  • ˜During interviews, do not ask candidates about their ethnic heritage, ancestry, accent, or any other direct or indirect questions about national origin, even if you are just trying to be friendly or curious.
  • If you conduct background checks or pre-employment testing, conduct it on all candidates/employees in a particular job category – do not single out only those individuals with foreign-sounding names, accents, etc. for such tests.
  • ˜Refrain from segregating or isolating employees based on their national origin (e.g., do not assign all Hispanic workers to lower-paying positions, or keep all Filipino employees away from the public, etc.).
  • ˜Be careful imposing an English-only language rule – any restriction on language spoken at work must be job related and consistent with business necessity, and should not be imposed during employee breaks or other employee personal time while on the employer’s premises.
  • Make sure your harassment policy prohibits harassment based on national origin, and that you train your employees to avoid using ethnic slurs, stereotypes, name calling, mocking tones, etc.
  • ˜Remember that customer and coworker preferences or prejudices do not justify discriminatory hiring, firing, promotion, or discipline decisions.

A culturally diverse workplace can present unique issues for management but can also help employers remain relevant in our increasingly diverse society. Use this checklist to help avoid potential liability for national origin discrimination in your workplace. Additional information on national origin discrimination may be found on the EEOC’s question-and-answer publication and small business fact sheet.

May 23, 2016

Limitations Period For Constructive-Discharge Claim Starts When Employee Gives Notice of Resignation

Dawson_MBy Micah Dawson

The Supreme Court made clear today that the filing period for a constructive-discharge claim begins to run when the employee gives notice of his or her resignation. In a 7-to-1 decision, the Court favored the five-circuit majority who recognized such timeline and rejected the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning that the clock begins to run on the date of the “last discriminatory act.” Green v. Brennan, 578 U.S. ___, (2016). Although the case involved a federal employee, the Court noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) treats federal and private sector employee limitations periods the same so this ruling should affect constructive-discharge claims against private employers as well.

Discriminatory Act That Triggers Limitations Clock 

In the case before the Court, Marvin Green, a postmaster in Colorado, claimed he was denied a promotion because of his race. A year after that matter was settled, Green filed an informal EEO charge with the Postal Service alleging that he was subjected to retaliation for his prior EEO activity due to his supervisor threatening, demeaning, and harassing him. After the Postal Service’s EEO Office completed its investigation of his allegations, he was informed he could file a formal charge, but he failed to do to.

A few months later, Green was investigated for multiple infractions, including improper handling of employee grievances, delaying the mail, and sexual harassment of a female employee. Green was placed on unpaid leave during the investigation. Federal agents quickly concluded that Green had not intentionally delayed mail, but neither Green nor his union representative was told. Instead, the Postal Service began negotiating with Green’s union representative to settle all the issues against Green, resulting in Green signing a settlement agreement in December 2009 that included giving up his postmaster position. On February 9, 2010, Green submitted his resignation which was to be effective March 31.

During that time, Green filed multiple charges with the Postal Service’s EEO Office. By regulation, federal employees must contact an equal employment opportunity officer in their agency within 45 days of “the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory” before bringing suit under Title VII. Green’s allegations included that he had been constructively discharged by being forced to retire.

Green eventually sued the Postal Service in federal court in Denver. The district court dismissed Green’s constructive discharge claim, ruling that he had not contacted an EEO counselor about his constructive-discharge claim within 45 days of the date he signed the settlement agreement in December. On appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Green argued that the 45-day limitations period did not begin to run until he announced his resignation, even though that was months after the last alleged discriminatory act against him. The Tenth Circuit disagreed with Green, ruling that the clock began to run on the date of the “last discriminatory act” giving rise to the constructive discharge, as two other circuits have held.

Limitations Period Begins When Employee Gives Notice of Resignation 

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Green asserted that the statute of limitations began when he actually resigned due to constructive discharge, the act that gave rise to his cause of action, which was consistent with the rulings of numerous other Courts of Appeals. Interestingly, the Court agreed with the position taken by the Postal Service, which was different from the Tenth Circuit’s decision, ruling that the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim begins to run when the employee gives notice of his resignation.

In an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court explained that “the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ in a constructive-discharge claim necessarily includes the employee’s resignation.” The Court noted that to the “standard rule” governing statutes of limitations, the “limitations period commences when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” It means that period begins when the plaintiff “can file suit and obtain relief.” In effect, a constructive-discharge claim is like a wrongful-discharge claim which accrues only after the employee is fired. With nothing in Title VII or its regulations to the contrary, the Court therefore found that the limitations period should not begin to run until after the discharge itself.

So precisely when does an employee resign for purposes of triggering the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim? The Court ruled that the limitations period begins on the day the employee tells his employer of his resignation, not the employee’s actual last day of work.

The Court did not decide the factual question of when Green actually gave notice of his resignation to the Postal Service, sending the matter back to the Tenth Circuit to determine that fact.

Significance of Decision for Employers

The practical effect of the Court’s ruling is to extend the period in which an employee may allege a constructive discharge beyond the limitations period for the underlying discriminatory acts that gave rise to the resignation. Hypothetically, employees who resign may be able to bootstrap any alleged discriminatory act during the course of their employment to their decision to abandon employment. In his dissent, Justice Thomas further opined that a discrimination victim may extend the limitations period indefinitely simply by waiting to resign. Yet the Court believed such concerns to be overblown, doubting that a victim of employment discrimination would continue to work under intolerable conditions only to extend the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim. Nonetheless, even if the applicable Title VII limitation period (typically 180 or 300 days for private employers) for the underlying discrimination has passed, an employee may still have a timely claim for constructive discharge under the Court’s rule.

Time will tell if Justice Thomas’s concerns were more realistic that his colleagues believed.

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May 20, 2016

Employers Who Prevail In A Title VII Case May Seek Attorneys’ Fees Even Without A Ruling On The Merits

Lane_DBy Dora Lane

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Title VII defendant is not required to obtain a favorable judgment on the merits of the underlying discrimination case to be eligible to recover its attorneys’ fees. The decision means that employers who are able to dispose of Title VII claims for non-merits reasons, such as a dismissal on statute-of-limitations grounds, lack of subject matter jurisdiction, failure of the EEOC to conciliate, or something similar, may ask a court to award the attorneys’ fees incurred in contesting the claims (assuming, of course, it satisfies the remaining requirements for an attorneys’ fees award). Refusing to decide whether the EEOC must pay the $4 million attorney fee award at issue, the Court sent the case back to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to consider an alternative theory proposed by the EEOC. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

Trucking Company Gets Sexual Harassment Claims Dismissed 

In the case before the Court, a new female driver at a large trucking company, CRST Van Expedited, Inc., filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC alleging that she was sexually harassed by two male trainers during her 28-day over-the-road training trip. After a lengthy investigation and unsuccessful conciliation, the EEOC filed suit alleging sexual harassment on behalf of the driver and other allegedly similarly situated female employees. During discovery, the EEOC identified over 250 other women who had supposedly been harassed.

Years of legal battles ensued, during which the district court ultimately dismissed all of the EEOC’s claims for various reasons, including expiration of the statute of limitations, lack of severity or pervasiveness of the alleged harassment, employees’ failure to complain timely, CRST’s prompt and effective response to harassment complaints, and discovery sanctions for the EEOC refusing to produce certain women for depositions. Upon dismissing the lawsuit, the court ruled that CRST was a prevailing party and invited them to apply for attorneys’ fees. CRST did, and the court awarded CRST over $4 million in fees.

The EEOC appealed (twice) and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, among other things, reversed the award of attorneys’ fees. Bound by previous decisions in its circuit, the Court of Appeals held that before a defendant could be deemed to have prevailed for purposes of recovering attorneys’ fees, the defendant had to obtain a favorable judicial determination on the merits of the case. The Eighth Circuit then determined that CRST had not prevailed on the claims brought on behalf of 67 women because their claims were dismissed due to the EEOC’s failure to investigate and conciliate, which was not a ruling on the merits. As a result, the Eighth Circuit ruled that CRST was not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees on those claims. CRST appealed to the Unites States Supreme Court.

Defendant As “Prevailing Party” 

Title VII provides that a court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. Accordingly, before deciding whether to award attorneys’ fees in any given case, a court must determine whether the party seeking fees has, in fact, prevailed. That determination is relatively clear when a plaintiff proves his or her discrimination case and a favorable judgment or court order is entered in the plaintiff’s favor. But there has been no clear definition on how courts should determine whether a defendant has prevailed, especially when the complaint is dismissed for procedural deficiencies or on jurisdictional grounds.

In rejecting the Eighth Circuit’s requirement that “prevailing party” status depends on a ruling on the merits, the Court stated that “[c]ommon sense undermines the notion that a defendant cannot ‘prevail’ unless the relevant disposition is on the merits.” Instead, the Court held that a defendant fulfills its primary objective whenever it can rebuff the plaintiff’s case, irrespective of the precise reason for the court’s decision. Looking to the congressional intent for Title VII’s fee-shifting provision, the Court ruled that a defendant may “prevail” even when the court’s final judgment in not on the merits.

Fees Expended in Frivolous, Unreasonable, or Groundless Litigation

The Court noted that under Title VII’s fee-shifting provision, prevailing defendants may seek attorneys’ fees whenever the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. The Court recognized that defendants spend significant attorney time and expenses contesting frivolous and unreasonable claims that result in their favor, whether on the merits or not, and that a request for an award of fees in such cases is appropriate.  

Good News For Employers

The Court’s decision is good news for employers defending Title VII claims because it makes clear that a defendant may ask for attorneys’ fees when it gets a favorable judicial result for reasons not on the merits, where the defendant can show that the plaintiff’s claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. That clarification may help deter the EEOC and individual plaintiffs from filing or continuing to litigate groundless claims.

That said, we may not have seen the final word on application of the Title VII fee-shifting provision as the Court sent the CRST case back to the Eighth Circuit to consider a new argument put forth by the EEOC, namely that a defendant must obtain a preclusive judgment in order to be the “prevailing party.” We’ll keep tabs on this case and let you know of any further developments.

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March 16, 2016

Muslim Teacher May Proceed With National Origin Hostile Work Environment Claim

Hobbs-Wright_EBy Emily Hobbs-Wright

A Turkish-born Muslim teacher claimed that her school had a culture of racial and ethnic hostility. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico) recently ruled that her complaints of national origin discrimination may move forward, offering lessons in how to handle cultural differences in the workplace.

School Principal Made and Allowed Insensitive Comments

Zeynep Unal worked as an elementary teacher in the school district’s gifted and talented program for about four years before the district hired Katheryn Vandenkieboom as the principal at Unal’s school. Born in Turkey, Unal spoke with a distinct Turkish accent and was the only foreign-born teacher at the school. Prior to Vandenkieboom’s arrival, Unal was considered a good teacher and received regular positive reviews.

According to Unal, Vandenkieboom made numerous hostile comments to her and allowed other school staff to do the same. When Vandenkieboom and other faculty began discussing an American movie in the faculty lounge, Vandenkieboom, in front of the staff, told Unal “You wouldn’t know about this. You are not from here.” During an after-school Christmas concert, Vandenkieboom thanked various teachers for being at the concert but then approached Unal to ask, “what are you doing here?” despite Unal’s own child participating in the concert. Vandenkieboom also would correct Unal’s pronunciation in front of staff. Another staff member once called Unal “a turkey from Turkey,” but later apologized.

Unal alleged that Vandenkieboom and her staff also made insensitive remarks about other nationalities, such as repeatedly referring to a Vietnamese family as the “little people,” and openly joking about an Asian family’s surname, Fu, by turning it into the crude insult, “F.U.” The office staff also made announcements over the school’s intercom system while faking foreign accents and then laughing about it.

Unal Alleged A Hostile Work Environment Based On National Origin

Unal sued the school district, its superintendent, and principal Vandenkieboom for, among other things, a violation of Title VII on the basis of a hostile work environment based on her national origin. The parties agreed that she was subject to some unwelcome harassment, but her employer argued that the harassment was not based on her national origin and was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to demonstrate a hostile work environment. The district court agreed with the school district, granting it summary judgment on Unal’s claims. But on appeal, the Tenth Circuit overturned that ruling, sending it back for trial.

Title VII Is Not A “General Civility Code”

The Tenth Circuit panel noted that Title VII is not a “general civility code.” In order to proceed to trial, Unal needed to show that a rational jury could find that the workplace was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [her] employment and create an abusive working environment.”

Evidence of Harassment Supported Claim

Unal needed to show that the harassment was based on a discriminatory animus toward her national origin. Evidence of such animus directed toward Unal’s specific nationality is the strongest evidence, but the Court noted that incidents of harassment of other nationalities could also be considered in evaluating her claim.

The Court found that Unal provided evidence that some comments were directed toward her own nationality. Such comments included Vandenkieboom’s question as to why Unal would attend a school Christmas concert while thanking other teachers who attended, Vandenkieboom’s exclusion of Unal from the faculty lounge discussion of an American movie because she was “not from here,” and another staff member’s comment that Unal was a “turkey from Turkey.” Though each comment was not necessarily supportive of a hostile work environment claim, the Court found that taken together, they were intended to negatively emphasize Unal’s status as a foreigner.

The Court also determined that comments directed to other nationalities, such as the derogatory remarks made about the Vietnamese and Asian families, as well as making school announcements with feigned foreign accents, support an inference that the school’s administration permitted a culture of animus toward foreign-born individuals.

In addition, the Court gave weight to several incidents where seemingly neutral conduct resulted in Unal being treated differently than other teachers. For example, Vandenkieboom solicited negative feedback about Unal from a substitute teacher but did not do so with respect to any other teachers. Vandenkieboom also discounted Unal’s expertise in the gifted program, excused other teachers from attending Unal’s meetings while not excusing attendance at other teachers’ meetings, and letting months pass before assigning an instructional assistant to help Unal while assigning an assistant to another teacher in only a week. Even though these events were not discriminatory on their face, the Court viewed them in relation to the totality of the circumstances and determined that a reasonable jury could conclude that those events were the result of a larger environment of hostility based on national origin.

Close Case On Severity or Pervasiveness

The conduct alleged by Unal as creating a hostile work environment occurred over a three year period. While noting that there is no “mathematically precise test” to determine whether harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive to have altered a term, condition, or privilege of employment, the Court concluded that Unal met that standard. Calling it a close case, the Court viewed the totality of the circumstances of Unal’s allegations and found that a reasonable jury could find that Unal was subjected to unwelcome harassment based on her national origin that created an abusive work environment.

Handling Diverse Employees

By allowing this case to proceed to trial, the Court sent a strong message to employers to clean up a workplace culture that excludes or segregates workers based on their national origin, or creates hostility toward employees from other countries. Jokes, name-calling, correcting pronunciations, and other conduct that treats individuals differently because of their name, accent, appearance, food or music preferences, religious observances, or traditions can lead to a hostile work environment claim.

To avoid hostile work environment claims based on national origin, take these steps to make sure your managers and staff understand what is, and is not, acceptable behavior at work:

  • Make sure your harassment policy prohibits unlawful conduct based on all protected characteristics, not just sexual harassment.
  • Provide examples of unacceptable conduct in your harassment policy, including conduct that targets workers on the basis of their national origin, religion, or ethnicity.
  • Require all employees to review and acknowledge your harassment policy at least annually.
  • Train management to recognize and stop such conduct before it becomes severe or pervasive.
  • Promptly investigate any complaint of workplace harassment and take steps to correct improper conduct so that it doesn’t happen again.

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March 3, 2016

Handling Harassment Allegations: What Constitutes A Hostile Work Environment?

Vilos_JBy Joanna Vilos

Employees sometimes complain about undesired or harassing conduct that does not rise to a level that creates a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. A recent federal court case in the District of Wyoming reveals how to take steps to avoid liability and how to defend against such allegations if an employee files a claim.

Hostile Work Environment Claim

As we all know, employees tend to use the phrase “hostile work environment” pretty loosely.  But a true hostile work environment claim generally consists of conduct that is so severe or pervasive that it alters the terms or conditions of the individual’s employment. It also must be unwelcome conduct that is based on an employee’s protected characteristic, such as sex, religion or national origin.

On the other hand, conduct that is merely insensitive, tasteless or vulgar may not give rise to a hostile work environment claim. According to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose cases apply to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma), “Title VII’s mandate is not to ensure workplace harmony or create a finishing school.”

Whether conduct is severe or pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim depends on many factors, such as the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, how severe the conduct is, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating versus a mere offensive utterance, and the extent to which it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

In a recent case in federal court in Wyoming, Carolin Miller, an administrative assistant for the Union Pacific Railroad Steam Locomotive Shop in Cheyenne, alleged that her supervisor, Edgar Dickens, sexually harassed her by:

  • forcing into a seat next to Miller at a group dinner and forcefully pushing his legs against the side of Miller’s legs;
  • complimenting Miller on a costume she wore to a group event and asking if he could adjust her cap, and then adjusting it;
  • telling Miller that “the most unattractive woman could be wearing the same style cap and it would be a major turn on for him;”
  • lingering to get his things when Miller asked Dickens to leave so she could change her clothes;
  • texting Miller on her private phone to ask if she wanted to go to dinner with him alone (she declined);
  • texting Miller to ask if she would join him at the train to keep him company (she declined);
  • sitting next to Miller at a second dinner and again, forcibly pushing his legs into hers; and
  • on multiple days, asking Miller to work late to keep him company because he “did not have a life.”

Based on that alleged conduct, Miller sued her employer alleging a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.

Claim Failed As A Matter of Law

Judge Nancy Freudenthal dismissed Miller’s hostile work environment claim against Union Pacific Railroad without holding a trial. She ruled that no reasonable jury could find that the “workplace was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of Miller’s employment and create an abusive working environment based on Miller’s sex.” Miller v. Union Pac. R.R., Case No. 14-CV-47 (D. Wyo. June 18, 2015).

In dismissing Miller’s claim, Judge Freudenthal noted that Miller admitted that Dickens never touched her in any intimate way or private area, never used graphic or sexual language with her, and never showed her anything that was sexually offensive.

Company’s Remedial Measures

Despite finding that no hostile work environment existed, the Court briefly described the measures that Union Pacific Railroad took upon learning of Miller’s allegations – steps that helped the company avoid liability. A company representative, Donna Colley, talked to Dickens and explained that Miller believed he had acted inappropriately and Miller did not appreciate his requests that she stay late or go to dinner. Colley told Dickens to stop those behaviors. Colley also reviewed the company’s EEO policy book with Dickens and discussed the retaliation policy.

Minor Snubs Were Not Retaliation

Miller also alleged that Dickens retaliated against her after she made the sexual harassment complaint. She alleged that her office was moved to a toilet/closet room, she was ostracized by management, some of her job duties were taken away for no reason and Dickens sent her home for two days.

Noting the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision explaining that Title VII retaliation claims require that the desire to retaliate be the “but-for” cause of the challenged employment action, Judge Freudenthal ruled that Miller failed to establish a retaliation claim. Notably, she found that some of the alleged retaliatory conduct did not constitute an adverse employment action at all. For example, the suggestion that Miller work out of a break room instead of sharing office space with Dickens came from the company’s EEO officer who was attempting to provide Miller with some distance from Dickens in light of her claims that he was sexually harassing her. Because the suggestion was not mandatory but instead was just an option, the court determined that it was not an adverse employment action.

As for Miller’s claims that Dickens was unfriendly, failed to respond to her emails and was “generally unpleasant” to her after she filed her complaint, the court found that such behavior was only a minor slight or snub that was not actionable under Title VII.

The court noted that Miller’s salary and benefits did not change after she filed her harassment complaint. Her vagueness about what job duties were taken away from her and the fact that Miller voluntarily chose to take a couple days off also undermined her retaliation claim. The court also noted that because Miller’s time off occurred approximately two months after her harassment complaint, Miller failed to establish a causal connection that would support a retaliatory motive. The court ultimately dismissed all of Miller’s claims, including her retaliation claim, in their entirety.

Practical Steps When Facing Less Severe or Pervasive Allegations

In order to avoid liability for a hostile work environment, you must take steps to stop and remedy the unlawful harassing behavior. But what should you do when the complaint involves relatively minor conduct, or behavior that is not based on a protected characteristic?

First, investigate it. Even though the initial report may involve conduct that you don’t believe rises to the level of a legal violation, you still need to find out the full extent of the conduct. Engage in a thorough and timely investigation by interviewing the individuals involved as well as potential witnesses. Obtain any supporting evidence, such as videos of the workplace, diaries or other documents that may shed light on the allegations. Make sure you have the facts before deciding if any action needs to be taken.

Second, if you conclude that the conduct may have been sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to create a hostile work environment, take appropriate steps to stop it immediately and impose appropriate discipline in accordance with your policies.

If, however, you question whether the conduct was severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, your best practice is to take steps to defuse the situation and put a stop to any unprofessional conduct. Without going into detail about any actions you’ve taken toward other employees and any specific statements made by other employees, talk to the employee who reported the alleged harassment and give a general overview of the outcome of your investigation. Emphasize to the reporting employee that your organization takes such reports seriously and you want to know immediately if any inappropriate conduct continues or escalates. If appropriate, offer any viable options that may make the employee feel more comfortable, such as changing work areas or shifts to reduce contact between the employee and the perceived “harasser.” Just be careful not to make any mandatory changes that could be construed as an adverse employment action that would give rise to a retaliation claim.

Be sure to talk to the alleged “harasser” as well. Let him or her know the conclusions you’ve reached in your investigation (again, without divulging confidential details) and any company policies that may come into play. Identify any behavior that may be having a negative effect on the workplace and remind the individual that neither discriminatory harassment nor retaliation will be tolerated.

Third, follow up periodically to ensure that no inappropriate behavior is occurring. Keep your eyes and ears open and check in with the employee who was feeling harassed. If any new allegations surface, investigate them. As always, be certain to document your remedial efforts. 

Deciding whether conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to result in liability is not always an easy determination. And, truth be told, if inappropriate or unprofessional conduct is occurring in your workplace, you have reason to take action to put a stop to it even if it might not rise to the level of a legal violation.  Follow the steps above to show that you treat all reports of inappropriate conduct seriously and do not tolerate conduct that creates a hostile work environment. In the end, you may not be able to stop employees from pursuing their claims in court, but you will have taken the necessary steps to defend against them and help avoid liability.

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January 19, 2016

An Uncomfortable, But Not Hostile, Work Environment

Cave_BBy Brad Cave

Certain workplace behavior may be unusual, uncomfortable or downright weird, but may not be unlawful. Do you want to take the chance of knowing what crosses that line?

Imagine receiving this complaint from an employee: “My supervisor frequently compliments my appearance, clothing and cologne. He touched my back and buttocks, claiming he was showing me where he was experiencing back pain. He instructed me to participate in two body-fat contests requiring me to wear a speedo where he again complimented my appearance and tried to touch my buttocks. He repeatedly asked me to join him for drinks during a company event.”

Do these allegations suggest a hostile work environment? Would your company be liable for sex discrimination?

Real Case Offers Guidance

These facts arose in an actual lawsuit filed by Bryan McElroy, a former district sales manager for American Family Insurance (AFI). McElroy was fired by his supervisor, Tony Grilz, after failing to meet sales goals and engaging in insubordinate behavior. After his termination, McElroy filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and later filed suit in federal court, alleging, among other things, that he was subjected to a hostile work environment based on the above-recited behavior by Grilz.

Uncomfortable Work Behavior

The federal court acknowledged that “some of Grilz’s conduct could make many people uncomfortable.” But the district judge ruled that the conduct did not rise to the level of being so objectively offensive that it created a hostile or abusive work environment. The district court rejected McElroy’s hostile work environment claim and granted summary judgment to AFI.

On appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to employers in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Kansas, and New Mexico), McElroy argued that if the conduct could make many people uncomfortable, a jury could find it sufficiently offensive to support his hostile work environment claim. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. It failed to see how behavior that was capable of causing “mere discomfort” would necessarily alter the conditions of employment so as to create a hostile work environment.

The court stated that to succeed on a hostile work environment claim, an employee must establish that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. The court reiterated that “even incidents that would objectively give rise to bruised or wounded feelings will not on that account satisfy the severe or pervasive standard” necessary for an actionable claim under Title VII. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of AFI and against McElroy on his hostile work environment claim. McElroy v. Am. Family Ins., No. 14-4134 (10th Cir. Oct. 30, 2015).

Handling Questionable Complaints

What would you do if you received a complaint based on conduct such as what McElroy reported? Act on it? Ignore it? Here are some tips for handling complaints that may, or may not, rise to the level of severe or pervasive conduct.

Tip #1: Treat Each Complaint Seriously

It may be tempting to dismiss complaints of workplace harassment that may seem minor or inoffensive to you. Don’t do it. You never know if the complainant is telling you the full story or if other, more serious allegations are waiting to be told. In addition, failing to look into a report of workplace harassment will negate certain defenses if the complainant decides to file a lawsuit.

Tip #2: Conduct an Investigation

All reports of workplace harassment should be investigated. Hopefully, your investigation will show that no additional inappropriate behavior is occurring and that the reported conduct was an isolated, non-severe incident. You may, however, find that the conduct is more widespread. Perhaps other employees reporting to the same supervisor have experienced similar conduct, or the conduct has been escalating to involve more physical contact. You need to dig deeper to get the full picture of what the employee and his/her co-workers may be experiencing.

Tip #3: Take Action To Stop Inappropriate Behavior

Whether the behavior rises to the level of creating a hostile work environment or not, take action to stop it. Talk to the person acting inappropriately and explain that conduct such as touching and making comments about other employees’ looks leads to an uncomfortable work environment and must cease. Follow up with the complainant to make sure that he or she is not experiencing further inappropriate behavior or retaliation. Nip such conduct in the bud so that mere uncomfortable behavior does not escalate to unlawful harassment.  

Tip #4: Train Supervisors and Employees Annually

Conduct annual training on sexual harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior in order to educate your workforce on your harassment policies and complaint-reporting mechanisms. Use training sessions to reinforce your commitment to keeping your company free of discrimination and retaliation. Make sure managers and supervisors are trained on recognizing and responding to complaints of workplace harassment.

Conclusion

Unlawful workplace harassment is tricky to define with any certainty. Conduct that one judge or appellate court finds as causing “mere discomfort” may be deemed sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to create a hostile work environment by another judge or court. Your best practice is to keep inappropriate behavior out of your workplace, follow the tips above and stay out of court in the first place.

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June 10, 2015

Employers Must Raise Defense of Unverified EEOC Charge or It Is Waived

Gutierrez_SBy Steven M. Gutierrez 

According to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, verifying an EEOC charge is not a jurisdictional requirement, necessary to give the federal courts the authority to resolve the case; rather, the Court ruled that verifying an EEOC charge is a condition precedent to filing a Title VII lawsuit in federal court, which may be waived if the employer does not challenge it when first responding to the lawsuit. Gad v. Kansas State University, No. 14-3050 (10th Cir. May 27, 2015). 

Verification of EEOC Charge 

Title VII, the federal statute that prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or religion, requires that claimants submit a charge to the EEOC prior to filing suit in federal court. That submission must be “in writing under oath or affirmation.” EEOC regulations require that the written charge be signed and verified, which means sworn under penalty of perjury or affirmed before a notary public, an EEOC representative or another person authorized to administer oaths. 

So what happens if the individual asserting discrimination does not verify his or her EEOC charge prior to filing suit? Does the employer-defendant have to raise the issue of the unverified charge, or does the lack of compliance with the verification requirement mean that the federal court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case at all? 

Verification Not a Jurisdictional Prerequisite to Title VII Lawsuit 

Not every defect in the administrative process defeats jurisdiction, rendering federal courts without authority to hear the case, pointed out the Court. After discussing previous U.S. Supreme Court cases that examined Title VII jurisdictional issues, the Tenth Circuit focused on four key points: 

  1. Whether a Title VII statutory requirement is jurisdictional or not depends on whether it is written within Title VII’s jurisdictional subsection – here, the verification requirement is contained in a separate provision that does not deal with jurisdiction of the district courts;
  2. Because non-lawyers initiate Title VII processes, courts should not interpret procedural rules in a way that deprives individuals of their rights under the law – here, interpreting the verification requirement as jurisdictional might lead to inadvertent forfeiture of Title VII rights;
  3. Verification is intended to protect employers from the burden of defending against frivolous claims or claims of which they had no notice – here, because verification remains a Title VII requirement, an employer may raise the plaintiff’s failure to satisfy the requirement as a defense, which serves to protect employers; and
  4. Failure to verify a document as required by a federal rule should not render the document fatally defective – here, if a claimant’s failure to verify destroyed subject-matter jurisdiction, it would make the charge fatally defective by destroying a court’s ability to hear the case at all. 

Based on its analysis of these four points, the Court concluded that the EEOC verification requirement is not jurisdictional. 

Lack of Verification As Defense 

Because verification of the EEOC charge remains a Title VII requirement, an employer defending a Title VII discrimination claim may raise a plaintiff’s failure to satisfy the requirement and seek dismissal of the case on that basis. The Court likened the verification requirement to other Title VII requirements that have been deemed non-jurisdictional, waivable defenses. For example, compliance with the statutory time limit for filing EEOC charges is prerequisite to bringing a Title VII suit in federal court that has been ruled to be subject to waiver and estoppel. Similarly, TitleVII’s application to employers with 15 or more employees has been determined to be a non-jurisdictional requirement that is waivable by an employer. Consequently, if an employer fails to raise a known verification defect during the EEOC proceeding, it likely waives the requirement and the case proceeds. 

Waiver Left For Further Analysis 

Because the district court in Gad had dismissed the plaintiff’s case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, it had not examined the issue of waiver of the defense. The Tenth Circuit noted that Gad had not argued that her employer, Kansas State University (KSU), had waived the verification requirement. (In its answer, KSU stated generally that Gad had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies but did not specifically mention her failure to verify her EEOC charge.) Instead, Gad argued only that the EEOC had waived the verification requirement, due to an EEOC investigator allegedly telling Gad that she did not need to return the signed EEOC form. 

In reversing on the jurisdictional issue, the Tenth Circuit sent the case back to the district court to determine whether the verification requirement had been waived. The Court stated that despite the conclusion that an employer may waive the verification defect, it “does not necessarily follow that the EEOC can waive the requirement unilaterally.” But, the Court noted that there may be extreme circumstances where non-compliance with the verification requirement might be excused, such as negligent EEOC conduct that would mislead a reasonable layperson into thinking that he need not verify the charge. The Court refused to define the scope or parameters of a waiver rule, as that specific issue was not before the Court. 

What This Case Means to You 

When faced with a Title VII lawsuit, get a copy of the EEOC file at the earliest possible moment and check whether the claimant’s EEOC charge was verified. If not verified, you should seek dismissal of the proceeding on the basis that the claimant failed to verify his or her EEOC. If you choose to respond to the merits of the lawsuit ,without asserting lack of verification as a defense, you have likely waived that requirement.

It does not, however, appear that you should always raise the issue of lack of verification prior to your first response to the federal lawsuit. That is because an EEOC regulation permits “an otherwise timely filer to verify a charge after the time for filing has expired” and to cure technical defects or omissions, including failure to verify the charge. Consequently, if you point out the defect at any time prior to the claimant filing the lawsuit, the claimant will likely be able to amend their charge to correct the verification defect.  But you should always raise the defense before responding to the merits of the charge of discrimination to ensure that you do not waive the defense. 

Less clear, however, is the issue of an EEOC waiver of the verification requirement. Because the Court did not define the circumstances, if any, under which a claimant may argue that the EEOC did not ask for or require verification, we must wait for further guidance before knowing whether a claimant may proceed with a Title VII lawsuit even after you’ve raised the unverified charge defense.

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June 1, 2015

Religious Accommodation: Employer Need Not Have Actual Knowledge of Accommodation Need, Says High Court

Bennett_D

By A. Dean Bennett 

An employer’s motives, not its actual knowledge, determine whether it has discriminated against an applicant or employee in violation of Title VII, ruled the U.S. Supreme Court today. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court ruled that an employer that refuses to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice may be liable for discrimination even though the applicant did not inform the employer of the need for an accommodation. As long the applicant can show that her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision to refuse to hire her, the employer can be liable for disparate treatment under Title VII. The Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit’s opinion which held that liability for failure-to-accommodate a religious practice applies only when the applicant directly informs the employer about the need for an accommodation.  EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015). 

Head Scarf Versus “Look Policy” 

This case arose when Samantha Elauf, a seventeen-year old applicant, went to an interview for an in-store sales position at an Abercrombie & Fitch store wearing a headscarf. Although the topic of religion did not come up at the interview, the interviewer, assistant store manager Heather Cooke, assumed that Elauf was Muslim and that she wore the headscarf due to her Muslim religion. 

Cooke rated Elauf as qualified to be hired but was concerned that the headscarf would conflict with Abercrombie’s strict “Look Policy” which forbids wearing of “caps.” Cooke consulted with her district manager who told Cooke not to hire Elauf because wearing the headscarf would violate the Look Policy, as would all other headwear, religious or otherwise. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Abercrombie on Elauf’s behalf. The District Court granted summary judgment to the EEOC, finding Abercrombie liable for failing to accommodate a religious practice in violation of Title VII, with a jury awarding $20,000 in damages. Abercrombie appealed and the Tenth Circuit reversed, concluding that Abercrombie could not be liable for failing to accommodate a religious practice where Elauf never provided Abercrombie with actual knowledge of her need for an accommodation. The EEOC appealed to the Supreme Court. 

No Knowledge Requirement in Title VII 

“An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in  employment decisions,” stated the Court in an opinion written by Justice Scalia. Intentional discrimination under Title VII looks only to the employer’s motives in making its employment decisions, not its actual knowledge. Consequently, if an employer thinks that a job applicant might need an accommodation, such as time off to attend religious observances, and denies the applicant a job in order to avoid that prospective accommodation, the employer violates Title VII, regardless of whether the employer actually knows of the applicant’s religious practices or need for accommodation. 

ADA Has Knowledge Requirement 

The Court recognized the difference in the reasonable accommodation duty under Title VII versus under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Discrimination under the ADA is defined to include an employer’s failure to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an applicant. However, Title VII does not include the knowledge requirement. Therefore, failure to accommodate a religious practice will be deemed discrimination under Title VII as long as the employer’s desire to avoid the accommodation was a motivating factor in its employment decision. 

Neutral Policies Still Require Religious Accommodation 

Abercrombie argued that its Look Policy was neutral and that it did not treat religious practices less favorably than similar secular practices so it could not be liable for intentional discrimination. The Court disagreed, stating that Title VII gives religious practices favored treatment. The Court acknowledged that an employer is entitled to have a neutral dress policy, such as a no headwear policy, but when an applicant or employee requires an accommodation as an aspect of a religious practice, Title VII requires that the employer accommodate that practice, in the absence of an undue hardship. 

Lessons on Religious Accommodations 

The practical implication of this decision is that you may not make employment decisions based on suspected religious accommodations. In other words, if you think that an applicant has certain religious beliefs which might lead to the need for an accommodation once hired, you cannot reject them – even if you never discussed or confirmed their religious practices. If the applicant’s potential need for an accommodation is a factor in your decision not to hire them, you may be found liable for discrimination under Title VII.

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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.

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August 7, 2014

Favoritism to Paramour is Not Gender Discrimination

Cave_BBy Brad Cave 

Friendship, cronyism, nepotism, affairs – many types of personal relationships may result in one employee being treated better than another employee.  But is that favoritism discriminatory?  Does the non-favored employee have a discrimination claim against the employer?  No, Title VII does not prohibit favoritism based on a special relationship, says the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“I Like You Best” 

If an employer pays the CFO’s sister a higher wage than other employees doing similar work,  offers the most lucrative deals to an employee who is the boss’s best friend or gives playoff tickets as a bonus to the manager’s boyfriend who works at the company, that special treatment is permissible because it is based on the special relationship or bond between the parties, not on a protected characteristic.  It is only when the differential treatment is based on an impermissible classification, such as gender, race or age, that it crosses the line into unlawful discrimination.  In a recent decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that distinction, ruling that a supervisor’s favoritism toward a female subordinate based on their purported intimate relationship did not amount to reverse gender discrimination against her male counterpart.  Clark v. Cache Valley Elec. Co., No. 13-4119 (10th Cir. July 25, 2014). 

Reverse Gender Discrimination Under Title VII 

Project manager Kenyon Brady Clark sued his employer, Cache Valley Electric Company, alleging violations of Title VII.  Clark’s discrimination claim alleged that his supervisor, Myron Perschon, favored a female project manager, Melissa Silver, over him because Perschon and Silver were in a romantic relationship.  Clark asserted that Perschon gave Silver better work assignments, paid her more for performing less work and performed most of Silver’s job duties himself.  Although it turned out that there had been no affair, Clark still asserted that “whether they were having sex or not, there was favoritism.”  When asked about the reason for the favoritism at his deposition, Clark admitted that if the favoritism was not due to a romantic relationship, he did not know the reason for it. 

The Court analyzed Clark’s claim as a reverse gender discrimination case under which Clark needed to show circumstances that would support an inference that his employer discriminates against the majority (i.e., males) or that “but for [his] status the challenged decision would not have occurred.”  Significantly, Clark did not assert that the favoritism was due to Silver being a female or that Cache Valley treated women more favorably than men.  Instead, Clark focused on the preferential treatment that his supervisor offered to one specific female employee.  That deficit was fatal to his reverse gender discrimination claim.  The Court cited numerous cases where the motives for preferential treatment were other special relationships, such as friendship, nepotism or personal fondness or intimacy, in which it had ruled that such favoritism was not within the purview of Title VII’s anti-discrimination provisions.  Because Clark’s discrimination claim was based only on the favoritism shown to a special friend and not on a protected characteristic, his claim was not covered by Title VII.  The Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Cache Valley. 

Retaliation Claim Fails Too 

Clark also raised a retaliation claim in his lawsuit against Cache Valley.  Clark asserted that his supervisor, Perschon, retaliated against him by trying to get a competitor to hire him, refusing to communicate with him and otherwise distancing himself from Clark.  Clark also alleged that he was fired in retaliation for complaining about Perschon’s favoritism and retaliation.  He had complained to management about the alleged affair between Perschon and Silver, stating that it was difficult to continually respond to vendors and suppliers who had questions about the purported relationship.  He reported that they were acting like a married couple.  He later complained about the preferential treatment that Silver received from Perschon, including receiving better job assignments and higher bonuses.  In a letter to the company’s CEO and to human resources, Clark wrote that over the past three years, he had personally and professionally suffered serious and real adverse effects to his employment due to the alleged affair.  He wrote that the affair created a hostile work environment and that it was the company’s responsibility to ensure that the workplace was free of harassment and retaliation.  Shortly after meeting with HR and the company’s legal counsel to discuss his letter, Clark was terminated. 

The Court rejected Clark’s retaliation claim.  To make out a Title VII retaliation claim, Clark needed to show that (1) he engaged in protected opposition to discrimination, (2) a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, and (3) a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the materially adverse action.  The Court concluded that Clark failed to show that he engaged in protected opposition to discrimination.  He needed to show that he had a reasonable good-faith belief when he complained to the company that he was engaging in protected opposition to discrimination and that his good-faith belief was reasonable both subjectively and objectively.  He failed to do so.  Although he made statements about a “hostile work environment” and “discrimination” in his complaints to the company, the Court found such statements to be conclusory and not related to gender discrimination.  The statements were about Perschon’s favoritism to Silver based on the alleged inappropriate relationship, which was not gender discrimination.  Therefore, Clark’s retaliation claim failed. 

Just ‘Cuz It’s Legal Doesn’t Make It Smart 

Clark’s reverse discrimination claim was a little more cut and dried than most because he essentially admitted that the preferential treatment shown by his supervisor to a female colleague was not due to her status as a female.  Consider whether the outcome would have been different had Clark provided evidence that the supervisor historically treated women better than men.  Or think about other situations where special relationships result in favoritism, such as when the boss takes all his male cronies to play golf with clients while the female employees toil away at work.  Even though the courts have been clear about distinguishing favoritism based on special relationships from discrimination based on a protected class, employers are wise to steer clear from favoring some employees over others, especially when it comes to pay, bonuses and benefits where the non-favored employees can prove financial harm.  Keeping the terms and conditions of employment on an even footing will help keep your workplace productive, the morale of employees high and your company out of court.

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