Category Archives: employment discrimination

California Amendments on Hairstyle-Related Discrimination Will Likely Have Broader Effect

Contributed by Steven Jados, July 19, 2019

Wooden judge gavel with USA state flag on sound block – California

The state of California recently passed legislation that amends the definition of race under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (the California State statute that prohibits employment discrimination, among other things) to include “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”  The legislation defines “protective hairstyles” to include, without limitation, hairstyles such as “braids, locks, and twists.”  In passing this legislation, California’s Legislature made clear that the amendment was directed toward addressing persistent, racist norms that certain hairstyles associated with black people are inferior or unprofessional. The amendment is effective January 1, 2020, and several other states are considering similar measures. 

Along similar lines, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued lengthy legal enforcement guidance relating to hair grooming policies earlier this year. The NYC Commission’s guidance provides an extensive discussion of natural hair textures and hairstyles associated with black people, and the various ways in which discrimination based on hair textures and hairstyles has occurred in the past and present.   

All of this is significant to employers, nation-wide, because even though the jurisdictions that have expressly recognized hairstyle discrimination as a form of race discrimination are limited, courts and governmental agencies across the country are likely to accept hairstyle discrimination as a cognizable theory of discrimination–particularly as more and more light is shed on this issue through actions like those of the California Legislature and the NYC Commission.  

With that in mind, employers must ensure that their managers and decision-makers are aware of this issue, and trained to ensure that discrimination based on hair textures and hairstyles associated with particular races, religions, and other legally-protected categories of employees does not occur.  It is also critical for employers to examine their grooming and dress code policies that cover hairstyles to ensure that such policies are strongly rooted in non-speculative safety and health concerns.  Such policies must not have a tendency to discriminate against natural or other hairstyles commonly associated with black people or any other racial or cultural group (e.g., twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, and hair kept in an otherwise natural state). In particular, employers should not impose a “neat and orderly” hair grooming policy if such a policy prohibits, for example, twists or cornrows, under the presumption that such hairstyles are inherently messy or unkempt. 

The take-away for employers is, as the NYC Commission stated, that an “employee’s hair texture or hairstyle generally has no bearing on their ability to perform the essential functions of a job.”  

Missouri Supreme Court Opens New Door To LGBTQ Protections Under The Missouri Human Rights Act

Contributed by Brian Wacker, March 1, 2019

gavel and scales of justice

In a pair of rulings handed down on Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court expanded the reach of the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) to encompass, under certain circumstances, LGBTQ individuals and additional types of evidence that can support MHRA discrimination and retaliation claims. Both cases – Lampley, et al v. Missouri Comm’n on Human Rights, et al and R.M.A., et al v. Blue Springs R-IV Sch. Dist., et al – should have a significant impact on employers in Missouri and how they evaluate the risks of employment actions against LGBTQ individuals moving forward.

By its text, the MHRA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate or retaliate against an employee with respect to compensation, terms of employment, or privileges of employment because of that employee’s race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, or sex. The MHRA does not expressly prohibit discrimination or retaliation based on an employee’s sexual orientation. Missouri courts have interpreted the MHRA accordingly.

In Lampley, the complaining employee was gay, but his sexual orientation was not the issue presented to the court. Instead, the plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination complaining that his employer, the Missouri Department of Social Services, subjected him to sex discrimination and retaliation, which is prohibited under the MHRA. The plaintiff asserted he was subjected to sex discrimination and harassment at work because “he does not exhibit the stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave” and that other similarly-situated co-workers (i.e., non-gay co-workers who exhibited stereotypical attributes) were treated differently.  He also complained that he received lower performance evaluations at work as retaliation for his complaints about the alleged harassment. His co-worker and co-plaintiff also filed a Charge of Discrimination, complaining that she was discriminated against based on her association with him. 

The court in Lampley distinguished claims of discrimination based on sex-based characteristics from discrimination based on sexual orientation.  According to the court, the plaintiff’s sexual orientation was “merely incidental” to his sex discrimination complaint. Since the plaintiff did not actually allege he was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation, he could pursue his claims under the MHRA since “stereotyping” can give rise to an inference of discrimination against a member of a protected class, and is considered an unlawful hiring practice by the Commission’s own regulations. 

Whether intended or not, it is easy to see that the court’s ruling in Lampley now provides LGBTQ employees (and their attorneys) a clearer path to pursue discrimination and retaliation claims under state law, framing their claims as sex-based rather than sexual orientation-based. This ruling, coupled with the court’s contemporaneous ruling in R.M.A., in which the court vacated a lower court’s dismissal of a transgender student’s MHRA sex discrimination claim against his school for refusing him access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms, constitutes a clear victory for LGBTQ advocates.   

The Missouri Supreme Court sent a message on Tuesday with regard to LGBTQ rights. Employers in Missouri should take heed. 

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.

Opioids in the Workplace

Contributed by Michael Wong, November 3, 2017

One of the first questions I ask when providing drug and alcohol training to managers, supervisors and employees is “What is the most commonly used illegal drug?” Typically, the response that I get will be alcohol (albeit not illegal) or marijuana. What most do not realize until the training is that prescription drugs, in particular opioids, are the most commonly abused illegal drug. Prescription opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine and fentanyl, while illegal opioids include heroin.

J0337282Opioid use in the United States has started to take on a whole new form and is now commonly referred to as the opioid epidemic. Illinois has not escaped the opioid epidemic; in 2016 there were 2,278 drug overdose deaths of which over 80% (1,826) were opioid related. The number of opioid related deaths in 2016 was an increase of over 30% of the opioid related deaths in 2015 and an increase of over 70% of the number of opioid related deaths in 2013.

In looking at these numbers, it is important to understand that these are only the deaths – not the actual number of individuals using or abusing opioids. In a recent study by the National Safety Counsel, over one in three Illinois residents (35%) reported being impacted by opioid/heroin use by knowing someone (self, family/friend, co-worker/co-workers’ family, or neighbor/neighbor’s family) that started using opioids/heroin, became addicted to opioid/heroin, survived an opioid/heroin overdose or had died from an opioid/heroin overdose. Indeed, one issue with the opioid epidemic is that the gateway to opioid use does not always come from illegal activities, but can start out with a legitimate legal prescription. When there is a valid use for a prescription drug, an individual can feel like they are not doing anything wrong and their use can quickly turn into a slippery slope of addiction, activities that negatively impacts their work performance and potentially illegal activities. As a result of this, the opioid epidemic does not discriminate and can be found across all demographics, industries and positions.

One of the concerns with opioids for employers is that it is more difficult to tell if someone is under the influence or using opioids or heroin than other more traditional drugs. For instance, opioids and heroin do not come with symptoms or indicators that are easy to perceive like with alcohol – a smell, shaking hands and movements, and behavior changes; or with marijuana – a smell, red eyes, delayed reaction time, anxiety, and lack of coordination. With opioids, it is often difficult for employers to make the connection between an employee appearing groggy, sleepy or forgetful in the workplace to being linked to drug use. Indeed, what employers will typically see, if anything at all, is a gradual decline in an employee’s attendance and performance, until the employee loses their job or stops coming to work altogether.

The traditional tool of employers to identify and prevent drug and alcohol use within the workplace is drug testing. Pre-hire drug testing can be effective in preventing illegal opioid users from joining the workforce. However, drug testing is not always effective where the opioid user has a legal prescription or where the individual is not yet an opioid user. Reasonable suspicion drug testing can also be effective, but first requires reasonable suspicion of opioid use which can be difficult to identify.

So what does this leave? First and foremost, employers should re-evaluate their drug policies and testing procedures and understand the potential legal implications. For example, drug testing can be modified to test for legal prescription medications, but in order to avoid a violation of the ADA the applicant or employee must be able to provide an explanation for the positive drug test, such as a prescribed medication. Additionally, employers must realize that even if the employee is using prescription medication, there may be an underlying medical condition that they need to be aware of to avoid any kind of disability discrimination claim.

Next, employers should consider questioning its health care benefit carrier and workers’ compensation carrier on what actions they are taking to address the opioid epidemic and collaborating with them on any specialized programs or options for addressing. This can include learning about whether the carrier has programs for the conservative use and risk of prescription opioids, an opioid management program and/or a prescription benefit management program, which can help in preventing prescription medication abuse and identify the abuse of prescription medications. In doing so, employers should also consider investing in an employee assistance program (EAP), which can help employees avoid or address addiction.

Another investment that can pay dividends is management and employee education. Better training and education for not only management, but also employees regarding the impacts of opioids, how to identify opioid use and how to address opioid abuse. Management training can help make management more aware of how to identify potential issues before they occur and get employees help before it escalates to more serious problems. This includes not only taking into consideration the symptoms of opioid and other drug use, but also recognizing changes in how employees are acting, their performance, their attendance, any recent injuries they have had and any other issues that could indicate drug abuse. Employee training can help employees understand the danger of opioids, how the use of legal use of prescription opioids can lead to addiction, and what steps can be taken to seek assistance. Of course, any training should be tailored to include information regarding the Company’s policies, drug testing, benefit programs and reassurances regarding the Company’s commitment to providing confidential and accessible help and treatment.

Finally, one thing to remember is that despite the high numbers of deaths in 2016 in Illinois, Illinois is still behind many states in its exposure to the opioid epidemic. Indeed, in some places manufacturing employers have found using pre-hiring drug testing was not effective. The reason for this is it significantly increased the number of applicants they have had to go through in order to hire for a position or was making it near impossible to fill their staffing needs due to applicants not returning after learning there was drug testing or applicants consistently failing the drug test.

 

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?

Employer May Be Held Liable For Employing Murderer!

Contributed by Noah A. Frank, July 27, 2017

Claims of negligent hiring, training, and retention is alive and well. Employers must be prepared to investigate, and fully remediate supervisors’ misconduct.

code of conduct

Recently, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana) held that an employer may be liable for intentional acts committed by supervisory employees against other employees outside of work if the employer has been negligent. The tragic case, Anicich v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 852 F. 3d 643 (7th Cir. 2017), arose from the death and rape of a pregnant employee at the hands of her supervisor.

Background

Home Depot and its garden centers subcontractors (together, the “Employer”) jointly employed Brian Cooper as a regional manager. The victim’s estate alleged the employer knew Cooper had a history of sexually harassing, verbally abusing, and physically intimidating female subordinates, which included making crude and lewd comments, yelling and swearing at them, rubbing against them, controlling their conduct by pressuring them into spending time with him alone, and even throwing things.

The supervisor’s mistreatment of one subordinate, Alisha Bromfield, began in 2006 when she started working for the employer seasonally as a teenager. Cooper fixated his attention on her, calling her his “girlfriend” at work and repeating the above misconduct with her. Senior management, aware of Bromfield’s repeated complaints, failed to take reasonable steps to protect Bromfield, ensure that Cooper completed mandated anger management training or remove his supervisory duties. This ended in tragedy.

In 2012, when Bromfield was 7 months pregnant, Cooper threatened her. Using his supervisory authority, he demanded that she attend an out-of-town wedding with him, telling her he would fire her or reduce her hours if she refused. Bromfield acquiesced, but denied Cooper’s recurring demand to “be in a relationship.” After the wedding, Cooper murdered Bromfield, and then raped her corpse.

The Court held that employers have a duty to act reasonably in hiring, supervising, and retaining their employees, and that this was part of a broader trend toward recognizing employer liability for supervisors’ intentional torts committed outside the scope of employment – even where the harm caused was wholly disproportionate to more predictable harms (e.g., murder/rape versus continued sexual harassment, emotional/mental trauma). Because Cooper was alleged to have abused the employer’s grant of supervisory authority over Bromfield, the employer could be vicariously liable for Cooper’s torts committed against Bromfield.

Employers’ Duty in Light of the Seventh Circuit Court Ruling

Anicich is instructive. Employers that fail to act to stop an employee’s abuse of supervisory authority could be held liable for even the most extreme and gruesome intentional tortious and criminal conduct.

As such, employers must protect their businesses, including the following minimum steps:

  • Understand the risks associated with subcontracting and joint employer relationships, including supervision and control;
  • Implement and train employees on anti-discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment policies, including a published complaint/reporting procedure, and prohibiting retaliation;
  • Take seriously and investigate all reports and complaints – no matter how minor, and even for repeat complainants;
  • Remediate any issues – including stripping supervisory authority, mandating training, and transferring/terminating employees;
  • Prohibit and protect those involved from, retaliation;
  • Respect and comply with collective bargaining rights – and get the union’s buy-in when necessary; and
  • Seek the advice of and guidance from experienced employment counsel when issues arise to ensure legal compliance and implementation of best practices to mitigate exposure.