Category Archives: EEOC

The #MeToo Effect on Your Company

Contributed by Beverly Alfon and Allison Sues, November 13, 2018

#MeToo

#MeToo on white paper

As we draw closer to the end of 2018, let’s reflect a bit and look forward with purpose.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released preliminary FY 2018 sexual harassment data that is consistent with the #MeToo movement:

  • Sexual harassment charges increased by more than 12 percent – the first increase in at least eight years;
  • EEOC focused on harassment claims and filed 66 harassment lawsuits; and
  • EEOC recovered nearly $70 million for sex harassment victims (up from $47.5 million in 2017).

These statistics do not include the many charges that individuals have filed with state agencies, internal complaints made with employers, lawsuits filed by employees in state or federal courts, or settlements of those claims.

These notable statistics come just one year after the EEOC released an online resource, Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment, in which the agency focused on a checklist of four core elements to “enhance employers’ compliance efforts” when it comes to addressing workplace harassment.

  • Leadership and Accountability – Consistent and demonstrated commitment of senior leaders to maintain a culture in which harassment is not tolerated. Such commitment should be demonstrated, by allocating workplace time to training on harassment, consistently disciplining any employees who harass others, and seeking out feedback from employees on the effectiveness of the employer’s anti-harassment measures.
  • Comprehensive and Effective Harassment Policy – Policy should be clear and communicated to all employees, at every level of the organization. The policy should explicitly apply to applicants and every type of employee, and must make clear that the employer will not tolerate harassment of employees by anyone, including customers, clients, or any other individuals at the worksite. The policy should be easily understandable and periodically reviewed and updated.
  • Effective and Accessible Harassment Complaint Systems – The system should welcome questions, concerns and complaints. It should encourage employees to report potential problems, and provide for prompt, thorough and neutral investigations. It should be flexible enough to allow employees to choose from multiple channels to make their complaint.
  • Effective Harassment Training – Employees need to be aware of leadership values, the policy and complaint systems.  Regular, interactive, and comprehensive training of all employees must be understandable and tailored to the specific workforce.

These guidelines are significant because they are issued by the federal agency that is charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws – and courts are starting to take notice.  Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, even if an employee does not suffer an adverse employment action (e.g., demotion, termination, etc.), an employer can be held liable for harassment by a supervisor.  However, the employer may avoid liability if it can prove that (a) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent/correct any harassment; and (b) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.  As a result, most employers have an anti-harassment policy in their handbooks for the purpose of defending against claims.  Recently, however, a federal appellate court acknowledged the existence of an employer’s anti-harassment policy, but specifically asked, “Was the policy in place effective?” In Minarsky v. Susquehanna County, No. 17-2646 (3d Cir. 2018), the plaintiff alleged that she had been harassed by her supervisor for a number of years. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer under the Faragher/Ellerth standard because she never complained to her employer about the harassment. However, the Third Circuit appellate court reversed and remanded the case based on evidence that although the supervisor was reprimanded twice and ultimately fired, the supervisor’s conduct toward the plaintiff was not isolated. Other employees previously complained about similar behavior by the supervisor, and the employer took no action in response. The court held that whether the employer took reasonable care to detect and eliminate the harassment and whether Minarsky acted reasonably in not availing herself of the employer’s anti-harassment safeguards should be decided by a jury. The mere existence of an anti-harassment policy and the plaintiff’s failure to make a complaint pursuant to that policy was not sufficient for the appellate court to uphold summary judgment for the employer.

On the legislative front, California, New York (both city and state), and Delaware, have passed laws that now require employers to train all employees on harassment prevention. New York City requires bystander intervention training. California has specific time and content requirements for its training. Notably, these all seem to be in line with what the EEOC’s Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace called for in its 2016 report and again in its 2017 compliance guide.  In this growing number of states and cities, employers are no longer allowed to shirk off training for fear of “stirring the pot,” or out of a reluctance to commit resources to anti-harassment efforts.

All of this points to is a rising legal standard for what will suffice to establish an affirmative defense for employers.  A dormant anti-harassment policy in the employee handbook will no longer cut it.

BOTTOM LINE:  In this period of heightened awareness, control what you can by fully implementing the terms of your anti-harassment policies so that your company is in its best defensible position when these harassment claims arise. While we understand that not all employers have the resources to devote to the loftier goals encouraged by the EEOC, there are three concrete steps that you can take to begin mitigating your risks:

  1. Confirm the last time that your company educated all employees on your anti-harassment policy and complaint procedures – and consider another round of training for all levels of employees;
  1. Seek a legal audit of your company’s complaint process;  and,
  1. Seek a legal audit of your company’s investigation procedures (i.e., whether best practices for investigation, documentation and follow-up are being utilized).

 

The Illinois Human Rights Act is Amended: Increased Filing Timeframes, Opt-Out Provisions, and a Restructured Commission. Oh, My!

Contributed by Julie Proscia, August 29, 2018

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Black and white gavel

On August 24, 2018 Governor Rauner signed PA 100-1066 into law thereby amending the Illinois Human Rights Act which revamps, and sometimes streamlines, discrimination complaints on the state level.  This legislation, effective immediately, comes after months of hearings and recommendations from both the Senate and House Task Forces on Sexual Misconduct.  I have had the privilege of sitting on the Illinois Task Force on Sexual Misconduct and take this opportunity to report on these amendments. During the course of the hearings, the Task Force heard testimony from business organizations, individual plaintiffs, and stakeholders regarding their concerns related to the current administrative system. The core discussions focused on changes that would give individuals the right to opt out of the administrative process, create parity between the filing of claims at the EEOC and the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and reduce the backlog of cases before the Illinois Human Rights Commission. The most significant amendments are:

  • The Illinois Human Rights Act is amended to increase the time frame that individuals have to file a charge, from 180 to 300 calendar days, from the date of the alleged civil rights violation;
  • Sets forth opt out provisions in which an individual may, within 60 days of filing a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, opt out of an investigation at the Illinois Department of Human Rights and proceed to circuit court; and
  • Restructures the Illinois Human Rights Commission in order to decrease the backlog of cases and theoretically prevent a backlog from occurring in the future. Effective January 2019, the Commission will, amongst other initiatives, be comprised of 7 full time members, as opposed to 13 part-time members, with dedicated staff attorneys and training for newly appointed commissioners.

So what does this mean for employers?  Some good, some bad, and some neutral.  The change from 180 to 300 calendar days is not a significant change, although on the surface it appears to be.  In the State of Illinois, an individual currently has, even before the new legislation, 300 calendar days from the date of alleged harm to file a charge with the EEOC.  As such, the new legislation creates parity in deadlines for filing between the state and its federal administrative counterpart.  The inclusion of opt out provisions can potentially increase the flow of discrimination litigation away from the administrative system, while the restructuring of the Commission is designed to decrease congestion.  In either scenario or design, prevention prior to this level of escalation is paramount.  Good policies, procedures, and annual training can reduce the likelihood of having to test the new amendments.

Sixth Circuit Says Transgender Discrimination is Protected Under Title VII

Contributed by JT Charron, March 15, 2018

Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held—for the first time—that discrimination based on transgender and transitioning status violates Title VII. Although the court has previously held that discriminating against transgender employees because of gender non-conforming behaviors constitutes gender stereotyping in violation of Title VII, this decision takes it one step further—protecting all transgender and transitioning employees regardless of any outwardly observable behaviors or characteristics.

36419114 - hand about to bang gavel on sounding block in the court room

 hand about to bang gavel on sounding block in the court room

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Aimee Stephens was fired by her boss—and owner of the funeral home—after she informed him that she was transitioning from male to female. After investigating Stephens’s complaint of sex discrimination, the EEOC filed a lawsuit claiming that the funeral home violated Title VII by terminating Stephens’s employment because of her transgender or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes.

The sixth circuit court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision in favor of the employer, holding that “[d]iscrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex.” In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the funeral home’s argument that Title VII’s definition of “sex” does not encompass transgender status, finding that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” The court also cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which held that Title VII requires “gender to be irrelevant in employment decisions.” According to the sixth circuit, “Gender (or sex) is not being treated as irrelevant . . . if an employee’s attempt or desire to change his or her sex leads to an adverse employment decision.”

The court also rejected the Funeral Home’s argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) precludes the EEOC from enforcing Title VII against it here because doing so would substantially burden its religious exercise. Instead, the court held, as a matter of law, that:

  • “[A] religious claimant cannot rely on customers’ presumed biases to establish a substantial burden under the RFRA”;
  • “[T]olerating an employee’s understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it”; and
  • “[B]are compliance with Title VII—without actually assisting or facilitating Stephens’s transition efforts—does not amount to endorsement of Stephens’s views.”

Practical Impact

Employers in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee should immediately review and—if necessary—revise policies, procedures, application forms, or other documents to ensure that transgender status is referenced as a protected category. Employers should also consider providing training to managers and other supervisory personnel on how to appropriately respond when an employee indicates that they are transgender and/or transitioning.

The decision also has potential ramifications for employers across the United States. It is the third federal appellate court decision in the past 12 months holding that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s LGBTQ status. The first came last year when the seventh circuit issued its decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana (as we previously blogged about), holding that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by Title VII. The second circuit reached the same conclusion on February 26, 2018, in Zarda v. Altitude Express. As courts take a more expansive view of Title VII’s protections, employers everywhere should take proactive measures to ensure they are complying with this evolving area of the law.

 

Federal Court Strikes Down Certain EEOC Wellness Program Regulations, Effective January 1, 2019

Contributed by Steven Jados, January 12, 2018

In a recent decision with a nation-wide effect, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down certain provisions of the EEOC’s Wellness Program regulations.

As we have previously discussed, workplace wellness programs generally provide certain incentives to employees as part of programs intended to prevent illness and encourage healthier lifestyles.  But these programs can run afoul of various federal and state anti-discrimination laws, particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”), if the programs require employees to disclose private medical information under circumstances that are not truly “voluntary.”

The inherent difficulty with wellness program incentives is the notion that, at some point, a reward or penalty becomes so great that it becomes impossible to refuse.  At that point, the incentives are so coercive that the wellness program can no longer be considered voluntary under the ADA and GINA.

To assist employers with implementing ADA and GINA-compliant wellness programs, the EEOC issued regulations in May 2016 that set an upper limit on incentives (which can take the form of rewards or penalties) linked to wellness program participation of 30% of the cost of employee-only health care coverage.  Under the regulations, the EEOC considered wellness programs that complied with the 30% incentive threshold as falling within the definition of “voluntary.”

In August 2017, however, the D.C. district court ruled that the 30% incentive regulations were improper.  The main shortcoming of the regulations, as identified by the court, is that the EEOC apparently set the 30% threshold without any concrete data or reasoning to support the proposition that an incentive crosses the line from voluntary to involuntary at 30% of the cost of health insurance.  Instead of striking down the regulations entirely at that time, the court gave the EEOC the opportunity to modify the regulations.

In the closing days of 2017, the court revisited the issue and determined that the EEOC was not moving quickly enough to correct the regulations on its own, and the court vacated the 30% incentive regulations—but did so with an effective date of January 1, 2019, in order to minimize disruptions to existing wellness programs and to allow employers sufficient time to modify their wellness programs in the future.

The court also noted that the effective date of January 1, 2019, was intended in part to provide the EEOC additional time to issue new regulations.  Prior to the December ruling, the EEOC told the court that the EEOC intended to issue proposed regulations by August 2018, but that final regulations would not go into effect until 2021.  The court’s response was that 2021 is “unacceptable,” and the court “strongly encouraged” the EEOC to accelerate its timeline.

With all of that in mind, the bottom line is that until the EEOC issues new regulations, employers must consider structuring wellness program incentives with an eye toward documenting, with concrete data and analysis, that the program’s incentives are not so great–and, therefore, not so coercive—that the program becomes involuntary.  Stay tuned, as we will closely monitor any further action and guidance from the EEOC on this issue.

EEOC Actively Enforces Equal Pay Violations

Contributed by Jonathon Hoag, November 28, 2017

The EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2017-2021 identified “Equal Pay” as a priority area that demands focused attention. The EEOC’s recent press releases show it is actively fulfilling this strategic mission.

gender equality

Gender equality scale

In the third scenario, the EEOC obtained a judgment against a pizza restaurant for violating the Equal Pay Act. Two high school friends-one male and one female-applied to be “pizza artists” and both were hired. However, the female applicant received $0.25 less an hour in starting pay. When she realized this discrepancy, she contacted the restaurant to complain. In response, the restaurant withdrew the offers of employment to both individuals. The EEOC’s attorney referenced the vast amount of recent news related to sexual harassment and stated unequal pay is simply another form of sex discrimination in the workplace. Further, the EEOC stressed that it will continue to thoroughly investigate and enforce equal pay requirements.

Bottom Line

The overwhelming media coverage of sexual harassment and unequal treatment in the workplace reinforces that employers must make equal treatment a top priority. Periodic review of policies and practices, with attention to pay policies, remains critical to limit employer exposure to lawsuits alleging unequal pay or treatment.

Spoliation and the Dangers of Failing to Preserve Evidence

Contributed by Carlos Arévalo, September 12, 2017

In a case pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. GMRI Inc., the EEOC recently argued that a restaurant chain acted in bad faith, and should be sanctioned for “spoliation” of evidence because, the EEOC claimed, it intentionally destroyed hiring data. It argued the destruction of evidence “prejudice[d] EEOC by opening the door for GMRI to attack EEOC’s statistical and anecdotal evidence, and to rely upon otherwise impermissible [defendant] favorable proxy data.”

investigate documents

Investigate and analyze magnifying glass and stack of documents

Among the allegedly destroyed evidence are emails the EEOC claimed would have established the fact that the managers for the defendant were instructed to hire “young.” In addition, the defendants are said to have intentionally shredded paper applications and interview booklets used for new restaurant openings that would have supported the EEOC’s allegations that the company had a pattern or practice of failing to hire applications over the age of 40. In response, GMRI argued that the EEOC is looking at sanctions because it has failed to find any evidence of age discrimination.

In a different case that has been pending in Colorado since 2010, the EEOC secured sanctions against an employer for its failure to produce records it claimed had been destroyed. In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. JBS USA LLC, the EEOC claimed that a meat-processing company failed to reasonably accommodate Muslim workers’ requests for prayer breaks. JBS asserted an undue burden affirmative defense throughout the case, arguing production line slowdowns and downtime would have been caused by allowing prayer breaks to Muslim employees. The EEOC sought discovery from JBS about its undue burden affirmative defense, specifically, all reports or data showing all dates and times the fabrication lines on any and all shifts were stopped, as well as the speed of the lines.

After years of maintaining these records were destroyed, JBS produced a number of reports it found in a warehouse; however, more records presumably stored in boxes at the warehouse could not be located. The Court sanctioned JBS for the loss or destruction of documents directly relevant to JBS’s allegations of undue hardship. The critical problem for JBS, as the Court noted, was the fact that JBS management knew “within a year” after downtime records were created that they were relevant to the EEOC investigation, yet still failed to set them aside for use in the litigation.

What is the lesson to be learned? 

EEOC v. GMRI Inc., teaches that the EEOC may claim spoliation and pursue sanctions against a defendant, even (or perhaps particularly) where the evidence does not readily support the EEOC’s allegations of discrimination. EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC provides an important lesson for businesses regarding the preservation of documents in ongoing litigation. As noted above, the critical problem for JBS was that JBS management knew downtime records were relevant yet still failed to preserve them.

Both cases illustrate the importance of immediately implementing Litigation Holds. Employers must, as a matter of course, establish appropriate procedures and work with staff, IT professionals, and legal counsel to ensure all relevant evidence is preserved.  Failure to preserve evidence may deprive defendant of an otherwise viable defense.

Supreme Court Clarifies That Limited Appellate Review Applies To EEOC Subpoena Enforcement

Contributed by Steven Jados, May 2, 2017

The Supreme Court’s recent McLane Company v. EEOC decision addresses the constraints placed on appellate review of actions to enforce or quash broadly written Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) subpoenas. The case arose from a supply chain company’s requirement that employees in certain physically demanding positions pass a physical examination prior to returning to work from medical leave. The company terminated an employee who failed the exam three times while attempting to return to work after taking maternity leave.

gavel

Gavel

The employee filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, and the EEOC eventually issued a subpoena to the company seeking, among other things, the names, social security numbers, and last known contact information for all employees, nation-wide, who had been asked to take the physical exam at issue. The company refused to comply with the subpoena, and the EEOC filed actions against the company in the Arizona federal district court to enforce the subpoena.

Federal law gives the EEOC the authority to issue subpoenas that are “relevant” to a charge of discrimination and “reasonable.” The meanings of relevant and reasonable are often unclear—and employers that have been the target of EEOC-issued subpoenas know all too well the EEOC’s tendency to use subpoenas to transform what may be minor employee complaints into nationwide investigations.

When facing a wide-ranging EEOC subpoena, employers must carefully decide how much to push back on the EEOC by making objections to the subpoena and refusing to comply. As the McLane case demonstrates, an employer’s refusal to comply with the EEOC’s subpoena carries the risk that the EEOC will file an action in federal court to compel the employer’s compliance.

In McLane, the Arizona district court ruled against the EEOC, in relevant part, and the EEOC appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ninth circuit conducted an entirely new review of the matter, and overruled the district court. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the ninth circuit should not have conducted an entirely new review of the matter. Instead, according to the Supreme Court, appellate courts reviewing orders on EEOC subpoenas should only decide whether the lower court abused its discretion in ruling upon the subpoena. Generally speaking, a court abuses its discretion only when it makes a serious error of judgment, such as applying the wrong legal standard or ignoring an essential element of a legal claim.

Because the abuse of discretion standard is difficult to meet, the McLane decision may cause the EEOC to re-evaluate its subpoena strategy, and issue subpoenas more narrowly tailored to facts actually relevant to the underlying charge of discrimination. Whether the EEOC changes its strategy or not, McLane also demonstrates that companies must make the strongest, most comprehensive objections possible at the earliest stage of the subpoena response because, in practical terms, the application of the abuse of discretion standard means the company may only have one true chance to challenge an EEOC subpoena in court.