The Michigan Civil Rights Commission has taken significant action to clarify that its state statute prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sex (among other characteristics) extends to prohibit employment discrimination based on orientation and gender identity:

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted 5-0 to approve a statement legally interpreting the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act’s ban on “discrimination because of . . . sex” to include discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity . . .

The idea of an interpretive statement from the commission, initially requested by Equality Michigan last year, was revived after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a transgender woman who said she was illegally fired by a funeral home in Garden City while transitioning from male to female . . .

The [Michigan Department of Civil Rights] will begin taking complaints related to sexual orientation or gender-based discrimination.

Regular readers of our blog will be familiar with this particular legal issue, as we have previously discussed the question of whether bans on sex discrimination necessarily also ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the context of federal law.  This legal question is a hot topic in employment litigation in federal courts across the country.  Because of widely divergent outcomes in federal district and circuit courts across the country in addressing this question, we will likely have to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in to have a definitive interpretation of federal law.

Irrespective of the federal question, however, there appears to be a trend toward states considering this issue in the context of their own non-discrimination laws.  The Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s decision is similar to proposed guidance announced by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission from late 2017.  This development is important because a Supreme Court decision on this issue under federal law may not necessarily prove binding on states’ interpretations of state law.

We will, of course, continue to monitor this issue as it develops around the country.

Last week, Minnesota legislators introduced a bill to amend the definition of sexual harassment under state law.  Indeed, this legislation has already received significant attention in the media throughout Minnesota.  And although the bill adds only a single sentence to existing law, it has the potential to significantly reshape the legal landscape for employees who bring sexual harassment claims against their employers.  The substantive text of the amendment reads as follows:

An intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment … does not require the harassing conduct or communication to be severe or pervasive.

To unpack what this means, it’s necessary to first review some general principles of the law concerning sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is a prohibited form of sex discrimination under state and federal employment non-discrimination law.  For a time, courts struggled to precisely define prohibited harassment.  In 1986, the Supreme Court, interpreting federal law, held that “[f]or sexual harassment to be actionable, it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive ‘to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.'”  Generally, state law in Minnesota has followed this interpretation.

The severe or pervasive standard is an attempt by courts to reconcile issues of degree (i.e., severity) and frequency (i.e., pervasiveness) into what constitutes unlawful sexual harassment in the workplace.  The standard recognizes that some acts of alleged harassment are so severe that the conduct may be actionable even if it occurred only once.  For example, a single instance of unwanted, inappropriate physical contact from a coworker might be sufficiently severe to be actionable, depending on the facts.

Simultaneously, the standard acknowledges that severity is not the only way by which illegal sexual harassment can occur.  Hence, the standard recognizes that some acts of alleged harassment, which may not seem as severe, can occur with such frequency as to create a hostile working environment.  For example, workplace remarks that might be considered only mildly inappropriate may, if made regularly or with a high frequency, constitute sexual harassment.  Note: the complained of conduct must only be severe or pervasive to be actionable; it is not necessary to be both severe and pervasive, although some complaints of sexual harassment may meet both standards.

Critics of the severe or pervasive standard, who presumably include the bill’s sponsors, have argued it discourages employees from making legitimate reports and/or claims of sexual harassment by setting the bar too high.  In removing the severe or pervasive standard, the Minnesota bill therefore redefines illegal sexual harassment in employment as “conduct or communication has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s employment . . . or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment . . .  environment.”  What, exactly, meets this standard would be determined by Minnesota courts.

Critics of the bill have argued that removing the severe or pervasive standard removes important guideposts for courts evaluating sexual harassment claims.  In their view, this bill risks creating a flood of new lawsuits, broad exposure for employers without large, sophisticated Human Resources departments, and potential inconsistencies in how the law of sexual harassment is applied.

Employers should keep an eye on this legislation as it proceeds through the legislative process.  If passed in its current form, the bill would apply to causes of action arising on or after August 1, 2018.  Employers can track the status of this legislation at the Minnesota Legislature’s website.

Today, as expected, Governor Murphy signed into law the Paid Sick Leave Act.  The Paid Sick Leave law is effective October 29, 2018.

The Law requires all New Jersey employers, regardless of size, to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.  Full details about the law can be found in our alert here.

Employers do have some time to get ready for the new law.  Employers should review their paid time off policies to determine if changes need to be made.

In the meantime, we will keep an eye out for the required poster that will be developed by the Department of Labor and let you know when it is issued.

The NJ legislature has been busy in recent weeks with new employment laws.  Yesterday, Governor Murphy signed the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, which will go into effect on July 1, 2018.

The law is probably one of the broadest equal pay laws in the country. Unlike most equal pay laws that prohibit pay disparity based on gender, the law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees in compensation based on membership in any protected class.  This means employers might see claims raised based on race, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.

More details about the new law can be found in our alert here.

Maryland’s Disclosing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act of 2018, which awaits Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, imposes stricter waiver and disclosure requirements regarding sexual harassment on Maryland employers beginning on October 1, 2018.  The bill was passed by both houses of the Maryland General Assembly and a Governor’s veto is not anticipated.

The bill impacts Maryland employers in two ways.  First, the bill prevents employers from asking employees to waive their future rights to come forward with sexual harassment complaints and provides that such waivers are void as a matter of public policy.  Second, the bill requires employers with 50 employees or more to disclose: 1) how many settlements the employer has made after a sexual harassment allegation; 2) how many times an employer has settled allegations of sexual harassment made against the same employee; and 3) the number of settlements of sexual harassment complaints that included non-disclosure provisions.  The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights will collect and compile the data and make it publicly available, including the employers’ identities (although not the identities of the alleged harassers or victims).

Maryland employers should  pay close attention to whether any of their contracts, policies, or agreements require employees to waive a future right to assert a sexual harassment claim or complaint.  Any waiver requirements should be eliminated by October 1, 2018, in accordance with the new law.  Additionally, employers subject to the reporting requirement should develop a reliable method of accurately tracking the data required to be disclosed.  This is a good opportunity for employers operating in Maryland to perform a comprehensive review of their sexual harassment policies, make any necessary revisions, and provide training to their managers in an effort to educate their employees as well as reduce the risk of sexual harassment claims being asserted in the future.

 

This week, the 9th Circuit issued a decision that many say represents a sea change in how employers may defend against Equal Pay Claims. The decision in Rizo v. Yovino issued on April 9, 2018 overturned decades of interpretation of the Equal Pay Act and held that prior salary history may not be considered by employers.  However, there is some language in the ruling that appears to muddy the general rule announced by the Court.

Under the Equal Pay Act, it is illegal for employers to pay men and women different salaries for substantially similar work.  However, an employer may defeat an Equal Pay Act claim by proving that there were legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the salary differential.  Traditionally, courts have found that one of those legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons might be that the employer based the salary on the compensation the employee received at a prior job.

Indeed, many employers routinely ask what salaries applicants are currently making.  In that way, employers understand applicants’ salary expectations but also have an awareness of where to set the salary being offered to the applicant.

In recent times, some jurisdictions have passed laws prohibiting employers from asking about prior salary history.  The stated reason for these laws is that it perpetuates prior gender pay discrimination.  Basically, if an employee was subjected to a discriminatory wage rate at a prior employer, using that salary at the new employer would set the employee’s salary lower than other employees and, even if the new employer is not overtly acting in a discriminatory manner, would continue the past discriminatory practice.

Right now, the number of jurisdictions with such laws is limited.  However, the Rizo decision may change that.

Rizo, a school teacher, was hired by Fresno County as a math consultant.  Fresno County had a standard operating procedure that set ten salary steps.  When a teacher was hired, salary was set based on taking the teacher’s former salary and adding 5%.  Once the salary was calculated, the teacher was placed in the appropriate step of the pay scale.  After her hire, Rizo discovered that male math consultants had been hired at higher salary steps.  For its part, Fresno County claimed that the use of prior salary was a long-recognized legitimate factor and that if salaries were reviewed as a whole, more women were placed at higher salary steps than men.

The Ninth Circuit heard the case en banc in order to clarify the law as to whether prior salary history alone or in combination with other factors could be a legitimate factor “other than sex” that justified the salary differential.

The Ninth Circuit held that prior salary alone cannot be a legitimate factor other than sex. It then went even further, which caught most people off guard, and said that prior salary is never a legitimate business factor even if taken into consideration with other factors. The Court did say that there might be individualized cases where salary was negotiated and past salary came into play  and that it took no position on whether prior salary could be considered in those cases.

This ruling is contradictory and employers should not consider this language a safe harbor.  Given the other language in the opinion that repeatedly states that asking about prior salary frustrates the entire purposes of the Equal Pay Act and should never be considered, employers should not bank on the fact that there might be some conceivable fact pattern that allows employers to consider prior salary history.  This is true, despite the very valid points brought out in the concurring opinions, that there are times that prior salary history has nothing to do with gender.  For example, prior salary may have been set based on cost of living or demand for particular jobs.

Based on this ruling, the safest course of action would be for employers within the Ninth Circuit to never ask about prior salary history.  However, what happens if the applicant volunteers it while trying to negotiate terms and conditions of the new job?  This decision doesn’t really answer that question.

At this point, there are other circuits that allow for the consideration of prior salary history in combination with other factors.  It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court decides to take up the split.

 

Monday, New York’s budget bill for FY 2019 was presented to the Governor for signature.  Buried among the usual budget line items are several provisions that will drastically affect employers.

In what seems to be a direct response to the #metoo movement, the bill sets training requirements, prohibits mandatory arbitration of discrimination claims, and outlaws confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements unless specifically requested by the complainant.

The employment related provisions are set forth in S7507-C.  Here are the highlights (or low lights depending on your point of view):

  • Mandatory Harassment Policies:  All employers must have a policy against harassment that complies with or exceeds the model harassment policy that will be developed by the Division on Human Rights.  At a minimum, the policy must:
    • prohibit sexual harassment consistent with guidance issued by the department in consultation with the division of human rights and provide examples of prohibited conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment;
    • include information concerning the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment and a statement that there may be applicable local laws;
    • include a standard complaint form;
    • include a procedure for the timely and confidential investigation of complaints and ensure due process for all parties;
    • inform employees of their rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating sexual harassment complaints administratively and judicially;
    • clearly state that sexual harassment is considered a form of employee misconduct and that sanctions will be enforced against individuals engaging in sexual harassment and against supervisory and managerial personnel who knowingly allow such behavior to continue; and
    • clearly state that retaliation against individuals who complain of sexual harassment or who testify or assist in any proceeding under the law is unlawful.
  •  Mandatory Training:  All employers must also provide “interactive” training to their employees.  The Division will also be developing a model training program that must include:
    • an explanation of sexual harassment consistent with guidance issued by the department in consultation with the division of human rights;
    • examples of conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment;
    • information concerning the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment;
    • information concerning employees’ rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating complaints; and
    • address conduct by supervisors and any additional responsibilities for such supervisors.
  • Statements by Public Contractors:  Public contractors submitting a bid for work with the State must include a statement that they have a policy against sexual harassment and that they provide training to employees on that policy.  Public Contractors must generally comply with the policy and mandatory employment training that applies to all employers under new Labor Law §201-g which sets for the policy and training requirements.
  • Prohibition on Mandatory Arbitration Agreements:  No employer may require that a claim of unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment be submitted to mandatory arbitration.  Voluntary arbitration provisions are still okay.  Collective bargaining agreements trump this provision, so if the CBA requires arbitration of discrimination or sexual harassment, then that would not run afoul of the law.  The law only bans this on a prospective basis and the law will not apply to any agreements entered into prior to the effective date of the law.
  • Bar on Most Confidentiality Agreements:  Settlement agreements may not contain confidentiality provisions requiring the complainant to keep the facts of the harassment or discrimination confidential unless the complainant voluntarily agrees to it.  Employers may still put a draft provision in agreements requiring confidentiality for the complainant to review.  The complainant must be given 21 days to review the provision. If the complainant accepts the provision, there must be a separate writing stating that.  Complainants must also have 7 days to revoke their acceptance of the agreement.
  • Provides Protection (and a Cause of Action) for Non-Employees:  the bill makes clear that an employer may be held liable if one of its employees sexually harasses a contractor, subcontractor, vendor, consultant or other non-employee providing services to the employer.

These provisions will go into effect 180 days after the law is enacted.  We assume that the forthcoming regulations may clarify certain aspects of the law such as how frequently harassment training must occur.  We will keep you updated when the regulations are issued.

In the meantime, employers should begin assessing their harassment policies and training programs.  Employers should also review settlement agreements and employment agreements for compliance with the law.

Recently I watched a male attorney speak to opposing counsel (a female) in a condescending, chastising manner that I cannot imagine he would have used if he had been speaking to a male attorney.  Her male colleague, who was standing right next to her, said nothing.  I said nothing.  And the female opposing counsel said nothing in her own defense.

During an emergency custody hearing a female friend of mine who practices family law pushed back on the terms proposed by opposing counsel, an older male.  Opposing counsel shook his head and muttered “every time with female attorneys.”  When my friend asked “what did you say?” he responded, “nothing, just talking to myself.”

We all know that discrimination based on gender is prohibited in the workplace.  We can’t refuse to hire or promote a woman simply because she is a woman.  We can’t prefer a male over a female solely on that basis.  We can’t do that because the law won’t allow it.

But what about the much more subtle, and yet maybe more pervasive, forms of discrimination that women experience every day, such as the examples above?  What about being expected to laugh demurely when a male judge referred to me as “kiddo” in front of a jury?  What about criticizing women based on appearance instead of their qualifications or capabilities (“she’s such a fat slob” instead of “she’s incompetent”)? What about the female told to “stop overreacting” or to “calm down” when she advocates fiercely on behalf of a client (or herself)?  And what about all of us who silently tolerate these types of behavior?

In many (although certainly not all) professional environments, blatant gender discrimination is the exception, rather than the rule.  However, more subtle forms of gender discrimination are ignored, shrugged off, and even accepted or condoned every day in the workplace.  Until we stop tolerating this behavior, gender discrimination will continue to permeate and poison work environments.  Not only does this perpetuate gender imbalance in the workplace, it also hurts morale, results in decreased productivity, increases turnover, and promotes inefficient hiring and promotion practices.  Accordingly, employers should pay close attention to the day-to-day practices in the workplace and enforce anti-discrimination policies to help ensure that productivity and profitability are not being negatively affected by gender discrimination.

Volvo Group North America, LLC will pay $70,000 and institute a three-year consent decree to resolve a federal disability discrimination suit brought by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC).

According to the suit, Volvo made a conditional job offer to a qualified applicant for a laborer position at its Hagerstown, Maryland facility.  The applicant, a recovering drug addict enrolled in a supervised medication-assisted treatment program, disclosed during his post-offer physical that he was taking medically prescribed suboxone.  When he arrived for his first day of work, a human resources representative told the applicant that Volvo could not hire him because of his suboxone use, the EEOC said.

The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Volvo Group North America, LLC, Civil Action No. 1:17-cv-02889) alleging that Volvo violated Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to conduct an individualized assessment to determine what effect, if any, the suboxone had on the applicant’s ability to perform the job.

In addition to the $70,000 in monetary relief to the applicant, the consent decree prohibits Volvo from violating the ADA in the future. Additionally, Volvo will distribute to all employees at its Hagerstown facility an ADA policy explaining the right to a reasonable accommodation and will amend its policy on post-offer medical and drug evaluations to explain how it will assess whether an employee’s or applicant’s lawful use of prescription medication poses a threat under the ADA.  Volvo will also provide ADA training, report to the EEOC about its handling of future complaints of disability discrimination, and post a notice regarding the settlement.

 

This case is a good reminder to employers that the ADA protects recovering addicts who are not currently using illegal drugs and prohibits discrimination on the basis of past drug addiction. Of course, employers are allowed to hold such individuals to the performance standards applicable to their jobs, may prohibit the use of illegal drugs in the workplace, and may require that employees not be under the influence of illegal drugs in the workplace.  However, recovering addicts prescribed medication as part of a treatment program are likely entitled to full ADA protection, including the right to a reasonable accommodation that does not cause undue hardship to the employer.  This means that employers cannot simply dismiss individuals in such a treatment program as unfit for employment.  Instead, employers should routinely review their policies regarding the use of prescribed medications to ensure compliance with the ADA.

 

In one of his final acts in office, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation to prohibit discrimination against breastfeeding employees.  The bill, which was introduced by Democratic legislators and passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously, amends the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and takes immediate effect.  New Jersey employers should expect this law to affect their workplace in at least two ways.

First, the law amends the NJLAD’s enumeration of protected classes, adding the words “or breastfeeding” after “pregnancy” as a protected basis in employment.  In other words, an employee’s status as a breastfeeding employee joins the ranks of protected characteristics that employers may not consider in taking adverse actions against employees and applicants.  Moreover, the law provides for a broad definition, defining “breastfeeding” as including “breast feeding or expressing milk for breastfeeding . . . or medical conditions related to . . . breastfeeding.”

Second, the law requires employers to provide employees who are breastfeeding an infant child with a reasonable accommodation, which “shall include reasonable break time each day to the employee and a suitable room or other location with privacy, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the work area for the employee to express breast milk.”  The employer is not required to provide this specific accommodation if the employer can demonstrate that this accommodation would cause an undue hardship, and the hardship analysis requires consideration of the following factors:

[T]he overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees, number and type of facilities, and size of budget; the type of the employer’s operations, including the composition and structure of the employer’s workforce; the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, taking into consideration the availability of tax credits, tax deductions, and outside funding; and the extent to which the accommodation would involve waiver of an essential requirement of a job as opposed to a tangential or non-business 
necessity requirement.

Note, though, that it is the employer’s obligation to establish that an undue hardship exists.  And, the employer must establish an undue burden, in light of these specific factors.  It is not enough to just conclude accommodations would be burdensome without examining these specific factors.

In light of the change in the law, employers should consider whether their workplace policies, HR/accommodation request processes, and facilities are up-to-date with the newly enacted law.