CLOSE X
RSS Feed LinkedIn Instagram Twitter Facebook
Search:
FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

U.S. Supreme Court Rules 6-3 That Federal Employment Law Prohibits Discrimination On The Basis Of Sexual Orientation Or Gender Identity

Posted on: June 17th, 2020

By: Ryan Greenspan

In perhaps the most significant and far-reaching employment-law decision in decades, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 15, 2020 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination “because of… sex” necessarily includes discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This decision resolves a circuit split that had developed over the last three years, which meant that the question of whether sexual-orientation or gender-identity discrimination was unlawful depended on the federal circuit in which the case arose. In some circuits it was unlawful, in others it was not. Now there is uniformity on this issue throughout the country.

Before the Court were three cases from three different federal circuits:  Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia; Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda; and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The plaintiffs in Bostock and Zarda alleged they had been terminated because of their sexual orientation, while the plaintiff in Harris Funeral Homes alleged she had been terminated due to her gender identity.

The Supreme Court’s decision largely turned on the phrase “because of… sex” in the statute. As Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion:

An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids. Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

What does this mean for employers? Companies, including government agencies, that discriminate against a worker for being gay or transgender now face the same exposure as if they discriminate against an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. These remedies can include back pay, attorney’s fees, and compensatory and punitive damages up to the statutory caps from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of the employer. While 21 states and the District of Columbia already had such protections in place for gay and transgender employees, the Bostock decision adds an extra layer of protection at the federal level, which applies to all states. Employers should adjust their policies accordingly.

It bears noting the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies only to employers with 15 or more employees, so smaller employers are not affected by this ruling (or the Civil Rights Act in general). It is also important to note that, because this decision is interpreting a statute, Congress has the authority to revise or amend the existing law, though there is no indication that it intends to do so.

It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court’s decision may affect other laws. As Justice Samuel Alito noted in his dissent, over 100 other federal statutes also prohibit discrimination because of sex. If the very concept of sex discrimination necessarily includes discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as the majority opinion reasons, then these other laws, too, may well be impacted.

If you have questions or would like more information on this decision and its impact on the law, please contact Ryan Greenspan at [email protected].

Wage & Hour Violations, Family Leave, Discrimination, Harassment

Posted on: May 22nd, 2020

By: David Daniels

These topics continue to generate conversation throughout workplaces across the country. No matter the size of your business, at some point you will encounter one of these regulations. For that reason, it’s important for supervisors and managers to understand the basics of employment laws and regulations to maintain proper compliance.  Here is a 30,000 foot view of the employment areas that can be the most troubling for the employer.

At-Will Employment

We all know that at-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without suffering legal liability. Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.

Most organizations will define their employment policies in an employee handbook or manual, a job application or contract. Though not legally mandated, many employers require new hires to sign the employment handbook acknowledging that they have read and are aware of the policies in place.

State laws offer some general protection from at-will termination since most employers are required to provide the following within 24 to 72 hours of separation:

  • Final Paycheck
  • Benefits an employee is entitled to, such as severance or continued health insurance
  • Any statutory benefits, such as unemployment compensation or other forms of government benefits

If an employer violates the worker’s right through discrimination or harassment, the employee can sue for damages.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes this Act as forbidding age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older.  The law forbids discrimination in any facet of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, benefits and any other term or condition of employment. While this act doesn’t protect employees under the age of 40, some states have established laws that protect younger workers from age discrimination. It’s important to know that it is not illegal for an employer to favor an older worker over a younger one, even if both employees are age 40 or older.  In recent years it has been legal and popular for employers to ‘buy out’ older employees by offering attractive severance packages to workers they wish to replace. If an employee accepts the package, they sign away their rights to sue for age discrimination.

Here are some requirements for employers that choose to take this path:

  • Workers must be given 21 days to review the agreement.
  • They have the right to review with an attorney at the cost of the employer.
  • Even after they have accepted the offer, they must be given 7 days to revoke the deal.
  • If you are letting two or more people go, you must give them 45 days to review and 7 days to revoke the deal if they choose to accept.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

According to the US Department of Justice, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications.

A person with a disability is defined by the ADA as:

  • An individual who has a physical or mental impairment that considerably limits one or more major life activities
  • A person with a history or record of such an impairment, or;
  • An individual who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

In 2008, The Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) was added to the original law. These amendments make important changes to the definition of the term disability. The purpose of this addition was to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that he or she has a disability.

Potential disabilities in the ADAAA include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Asthma
  • Depression
  • Cancer in remission

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

According to the Department of Labor, the FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping and child labor standards.  Arguably the hottest topic surrounding the FLSA is wage & hour violations. Employers with the best intentions can improperly classify a worker as FLSA exempt and then fail to pay the overtime wages they’re due, leaving the organization open to potential penalties and litigation.  No matter the size of your business, the Department of Labor is keeping close watch on wage and hour violations. Think it can’t happen to you? Here are just a few examples of some businesses that were not spared the wrath of the DOL:

  • A Florida roofing company was required to pay $239,893 in back wages to 259 employees for overtime and recordkeeping violations
  • An Ohio restaurant was ordered to pay $118,354 in back wages and damages to a total of 21 workers
  • A Pennsylvania printing company was required to pay $1.45 million in back wages and damages

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA)

The FMLA is a labor law requiring covered employers to provide employees with job-protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. Eligible employees are entitled to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:

  • Pregnancy/ Birth of a child
  • Adoption
  • Foster Care placement of a child
  • Personal or family illness
  • Family military leave

The FMLA was introduced to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families. Should the FMLA be violated by an employer, workers can seek damages for lost wages and benefits, the cost of child care, plus an equal amount of liquidated damages unless an employer can show it acted in good faith and reasonable cause to believe it was not breaking the law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

This federal law originally prohibited employers from discriminating against workers or applicants on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. Now protections for physical or mental disability, reprisal and sexual orientation have been included as well.

Employment Class Actions

Class actions brought on behalf of employees for wage and hour violations have been around for decades, but evidence is emerging hinting that these allegedly illegal practices by employers are becoming more prevalent than ever.  

U.S. federal law protects individuals from discrimination or harassment based on the following nine protected classes: sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, religion, or genetic information (added in 2008). Many state laws also give certain protected groups special protection against harassment and discrimination, as do many employer policies. Although it is not required by federal law, state law and employer policies may also protect employees from harassment or discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation.  The following characteristics are “protected” by United States federal anti-discrimination law:

    Race – Civil Rights Act of 1964

    Religion – Civil Rights Act of 1964

    National origin – Civil Rights Act of 1964

    Age (40 and over) – Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967

    Sex – Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Civil Rights Act of 1964

    The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interprets ‘sex’ to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity[2]

    Pregnancy – Pregnancy Discrimination Act

    Familial status – Civil Rights Act of 1968 Title VIII: Prohibits discrimination for having children, with an exception for senior housing. Also prohibits making a preference for those with children.

    Disability status – Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

    Veteran status – Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

    Genetic information – Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

Individual states can and do create other classes for protection under state law.

To prevent class-action lawsuits, here are some established guidelines for what you cannot do during the hiring and firing process on the basis of  membership in a protected class:

  • Refuse to hire an individual
  • Segregate or force someone to segregate
  • Deny training to an individual
  • Fire or layoff an individual

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact David Daniels at [email protected].

FMG Client Headed to Supreme Court in Landmark Title VII Case to Resolve LGBT Employment Standards

Posted on: April 23rd, 2019

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review two federal circuit court decisions that reached differing conclusions as to whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers sexual orientation. For approximately 40 years, the EEOC and the federal circuit courts have unanimously held that Title VII does not encompass sexual orientation. The EEOC changed its position in 2014 and determined that Title VII encompasses sexual orientation. The Seventh Circuit likewise reversed its position in 2017, and the Second Circuit changed its position in early 2018 and held in Zarda v. Altitude Express that Title VII encompasses sexual orientation. Later in 2018, the Eleventh Circuit re-affirmed circuit precedent and held in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court agreed to review Bostock and Zarda and consolidated the two cases.

Freeman Mathis and Gary, LLP represents Clayton County in Bostock and will argue that Title VII does not apply to a claim of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In addition, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the Sixth Circuit case of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC. That case raises the question of whether Title VII provides protection to transgender persons. That case is similar in some regard to the Bostock and Zarda cases, however, their distinctions are evident in that the Court did not consolidate the Harris case with Bostock and Zarda.

In granting certiorari in the Harris case, the Supreme Court may revisit a concept outlined in its 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which held that it was unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII to discriminate against employees because they do not conform to ideas of how a certain gender should behave.

These cases will be argued and decided sometime during the Court’s 2019-2020 term, which begins in October.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact us at [email protected].

California Attacks Arbitration Agreements …. Yet Again!

Posted on: August 24th, 2018

By: Dave Daniels

On August 22, 2018, the California Senate voted to approve AB 3080, a bill prompted by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Nominally, the bill is intended to combat the use of mandatory arbitration agreements and confidentiality clauses to prevent the public disclosure of workplace sexual harassment, a practice vigorously opposed by the #MeToo movement. As written, however, AB 3080 goes much further, imposing a ban on mandatory arbitration agreements for all claims of employment discrimination, retaliation, and harassment, as well as wage and hour claims.

The bill is currently on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature or veto. If signed, the new law would apply to any employment contracts “entered into, modified, or extended” on or after January 1, 2019, and would make several sweeping changes to the California employment law landscape:

Ban on Mandatory Arbitration Agreements

Arbitration agreements are ubiquitous in employment contracts and provide for a low-cost, efficient means of resolving employment disputes.

AB 3080 would put a stop to this by adding Section 432.6 to the Labor Code, which would prohibit any person from requiring an applicant or employee, “as a condition of employment, continued employment, the receipt of any employment-related benefit, or as a condition of entering into a contractual agreement,” “to waive any right, forum, or procedure” for claimed violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) or the California Labor Code.

In other words, if AB 3080 is signed, it will be unlawful—indeed a misdemeanor—for an employer to require its employees to enter into mandatory arbitration agreements for any claims covered by FEHA (i.e., discrimination, retaliation, harassment) or the Labor Code (i.e., wage and hour claims).

While the bill only applies to mandatory arbitration agreements, Section 432.6(c) makes clear that employers will not be able to sidestep the new prohibitions by using opt-out clauses or otherwise requiring an employee to “take any affirmative action to preserve their rights.”  Moreover, Section 432.6(b) prohibits employers from threatening, terminating, retaliating against, or discriminating against any employee or applicant who refuses to voluntarily sign an arbitration agreement.

Finally, because these new provisions appear in the Labor Code, violations could subject employers to civil penalties under the California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act, also known as PAGA.

Elimination of Settlement Agreements

Because AB 3080 prohibits any person from requiring an applicant or employee “to waive any right, forum or procedure” “as a condition of entering into a contractual agreement,” it arguably also eliminates or curtails employers’ ability to enter into settlement and general release agreements with their employees for FEHA and Labor Code claims.  Given that the vast majority of these types of claims are settled, the full extent of AB 3080’s impact remains uncertain.

Ban on Confidentiality Agreements for Sexual Harassment

AB 3080 would also add Section 432.4 to the Labor Code, which would bar any person from prohibiting an applicant, employee, or independent contractor, “as a condition of employment, continued employment, the receipt of any employment-related benefit, or as a condition of entering into a contractual agreement,” from “disclosing to any person an instance of sexual harassment that the employee or independent contractor suffers, witnesses, or discovers in the workplace or in the performance of the contract.”

In short, employers will no longer be able to impose confidentiality obligations on their employees or independent contractors with respect to claims of sexual harassment.

Individual Liability

Importantly, AB 3080 applies to any “person” who commits any of the above-noted violations, not just an employer.  An earlier version of the bill was restricted to “an employer,” but was subsequently amended to replace “an employer” with “a person,” signaling the Legislature’s intent to impose individual liability for violations.

What Employers Should Know Now

For the moment, as it awaits Governor Brown’s signature, AB 3080 is still not the law.  In 2015, Governor Brown vetoed a similar bill, AB 465, which would have outlawed the use of mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.  In his veto message, Governor Brown noted that there is significant debate about whether arbitration is less fair to employees, and explained that he was “not prepared to take the far-reaching step proposed by this bill.”  Remember, however, that Governor Brown’s term ends in January 2019, and a re-introduced version of the bill could find a more sympathetic audience in his successor.

Even if Governor Brown signs the bill, there will be immediate legal challenges arguing that the bill is unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, which the United States Supreme Court has steadfastly enforced, most recently in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis. AB 3080 is just the latest in a long history of California’s antagonism towards arbitration agreements, both in the employment context and beyond.

Notwithstanding the hurdles that AB 3080 faces, employers should now begin reviewing their arbitration agreements and practices in light of these potential changes.  In particular, employers will want to think about best approaches to take during the period after the bill is signed and legal challenges work their way through the courts.

If you have any questions regarding the state of arbitration agreements in the Golden State, please feel free to contact Dave Daniels in our Sacramento office at 916-472-3301 or [email protected].

The California State Bar’s New Rule Follows a National Trend of Disciplining Attorneys for Discrimination

Posted on: August 24th, 2018

By: Paige Pembrook

The newly revised California Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys, set to take effect November 1, 2018, include a tougher approach to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in legal practice that exposes attorneys to State Bar discipline even where there has been no prior court determination of any wrongful conduct. The new rule is part of a national trend prohibiting discrimination as attorney misconduct.

Current Rule 2-400 that applies through October 2018 prohibits discrimination and harassment in connection with the management or operation of a law practice. Once a court determines that an attorney has committed unlawful discrimination and/or harassment, the State Bar can investigate and impose discipline. Given that no discipline appears to have been imposed under the current rule in the thirty years since its enactment in 1989, the new rule has teeth to allow for greater enforcement.

New Rule 8.4.1 replaces and fundamentally changes the current rule to expand attorneys’ exposure to State Bar discipline for discriminatory conduct. First, Rule 8.4.1 expands the scope of wrongful conduct to explicitly prohibit retaliation as well as discrimination and harassment. Second, Rule 8.4.1 prohibits all such conduct in connection with the representation of a client, the termination or refusal to accept the representation of any client, and law firm operations, whereas the current rule only prohibits conduct in connection with the management or operation of a law practice. Finally, Rule 8.4.1 eliminates the current requirement that there be a prior adjudication by a court that unlawful discrimination occurred before the State Bar can commence an investigation or impose discipline on an attorney for such discrimination.

The elimination of the requirement of a court adjudication of wrongdoing prior to State Bar investigation and discipline is the most drastic and contested change in the rule. Essentially, the State Bar Court becomes a forum of first resort for alleged victims of discriminatory, harassing, or retaliatory conduct by attorneys, despite the State Bar Court having limited resources and due process protections. Concern over the elimination of the prior adjudication requirement led to a new self-reporting requirement for attorneys who receive notice of disciplinary charges for violating Rule 8.4.1. It requires such attorneys to provide the disciplinary charges to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the U.S. Department of Justice, or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, allowing the agencies to become involved and institute parallel administrative or judicial proceedings stemming from the same conduct. Attorneys must also report such parallel proceedings to the State Bar, allowing it to step aside so that the appropriate court or agency can adjudicate the matter.

In sum, the new rule is harsh. The comments to the new rule make clear that it permits the imposition of discipline for conduct that would not necessarily result in an award or remedy in a civil proceeding. Any person (including but not limited to prospective, former, and current employees, clients, and opposing counsel) can file complaints alleging discrimination with the State Bar that trigger investigations and discipline up to and including disbarment. Disciplinary charges may also trigger reporting requirements to government agencies that may lead to further investigations and proceedings.  Discipline for misconduct can also serve as evidence in a legal malpractice claim, demonstrating that an attorney fell below the standard of care. For example, if an attorney’s harassment of a firm employee resulted in that employee missing critical deadlines that impacted the outcome of a client’s matter, State Bar discipline based on that harassment may be evidence in a malpractice action against the attorney.

Although California has had a rule prohibiting discrimination since 1989, the reinforced new Rule 8.4.1 is part of a national trend prohibiting discrimination in the practice of law. In 2016, the ABA approved Model Rule 8.4(g) that makes it professional misconduct to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination. Twenty states already have provisions in their attorney conduct rules addressing the subject of Model Rule 8.4 in some manner or adopting a version of Model Rule 8.4, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, to name a few.

California’s new Rule 8.4.1 is one of the strongest prohibitions and goes far beyond the ABA’s Model Rule 8.4 in policing discriminatory misconduct by attorneys. However, other states are likely to follow the ABA and California’s lead in increasing the State Bar’s powers to discipline attorneys for discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. Accordingly, all attorneys should be wary that conduct that was previously considered a professional discourtesy may be actionable misconduct that will lead to discipline, and any resulting discipline may provide evidence of attorney malpractice.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paige Pembrook at [email protected].