General Employment Discrimination

Over at In the Weeds, our Firm’s blog on the developments in cannabis law, my colleague Joseph McNelis shares a breaking development at the intersection of cannabis law and employment discrimination law.  This legal intersection poses a complicated series of questions, requiring courts to weigh the illegality of cannabis under federal law with state laws that authorize medical marijuana use (which themselves sometimes contain provisions prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of an employee’s state-authorized use of medical marijuana).  As Joe notes, a recent decision by the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company, LLC, addresses precisely this issue.

In July, 2016, the plaintiff in this case applied for and accepted a job offer from a health and rehabilitation center.  Several years prior, she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a car accident.  On the recommendation of a provider, she began using medical marijuana under Connecticut’s state-authorized medical marijuana program to treat her PTSD symptoms in 2015.  The case recites what happened after the plaintiff accepted the job:

Plaintiff and [employer’s administrator] agreed that a follow-up visit would take place on July 25 for the completion of pre-employment papers, background check, and drug screen.  At this follow-up meeting, plaintiff disclosed to [the administrator] her PTSD diagnosis and her participation in Connecticut’s medical marijuana program.  She explained that she took prescription marijuana in the evenings as a “qualifying patient” under [Connecticut’s medical marijuana statute] and showed [the administrator] her registration certificate and an empty pill container which displayed her name and dosage of her medical marijuana pills.

When the plaintiff subsequently tested positive for THC, a chemical component of marijuana, the employer rescinded the job offer.  The plaintiff then sued under Connecticut’s medical marijuana law, which contains anti-discrimination language:

[U]nless required by federal law or required to obtain funding: . . . (3) No employer may refuse to hire a person or may discharge, penalize or threaten an employee solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient . . . Nothing in this subdivision shall restrict an employer’s ability to prohibit the use of intoxicating substances during work hours or restrict an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of intoxicating substances during working hours.

Notably, the Court rejected each of the employer’s arguments and granted summary judgment to the plaintiff in this case–although it rejected her claims for attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.

For more details on the case and items for employers to consider in a situation like this, check out Joe’s post.  And for more general background information on states’ legalization of marijuana and how that can impact the workplace, check out our Firm’s recently published Resource Guide.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Our office was closed last Monday in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I was at the dog park talking to a woman I know who also happens to be a lawyer.  During our discussion of how nice it was to be off of work, she mentioned that not everyone at her firm felt that way.

She then told me that there is one partner in her office who every year insists on coming into work on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Not only does he insist on coming in, he insists on announcing to everyone in the office that the reason he is coming in was because Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was a “made up holiday” and he did not believe in the concept of the holiday.  Notably, this partner apparently has no such qualms about taking off other holidays, such as President’s Day.

As this attorney told me the story, she was annoyed but not visibly upset.  I should mention that the attorney I was speaking to is diverse.  Although she is not African American, I can imagine how she felt that this partner was going out of his way to basically say that he does not support the concept of equality and diversity.

I then thought about the fact that this partner, who is apparently very senior at her firm, is allowed to make such statements unchecked.  Although he did not use a racial slur or directly say that he was opposed to minorities, that certainly is one interpretation of his comments.

I can also imagine how other partners who heard his comments simply shook their heads and walked away, likely thinking to themselves that it was inappropriate but not bad enough that they should say something.  However, little comments like that fester just as much as other more egregious behavior.

If employers are truly serious about reducing harassment and discrimination in the workplace and reducing possible legal exposure, they must establish an inclusive culture.  No workplace is perfect and there might always be a bad apple, but one bad apple is likely to turn into a bushel if these “little” comments are not also addressed.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”), which enforces Pennsylvania’s state law prohibiting discrimination, has made a bit of splash in 2017.  How, you ask?  Well – that requires a bit of explanation.

One of the hottest topics of debate in employment law in the past few years relates to legal protections for LGBTQ employees.  While some states and municipalities expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, this isn’t the case everywhere.  Indeed, only 20 states and the District of Columbia protect these characteristics in all employment.  That leaves 30 states that lack comprehensive state law protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including 17 states who have zero express protections at all.  Similarly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which establishes protected characteristics and prohibits employment discrimination based on those characteristics, does not expressly cover sexual orientation or gender identity — despite a long history of Congressional efforts to amend Title VII to do so.

Nevertheless, both state and federal law prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sex.  Regular readers of our humble blog will recall a growing trend from courts around the country holding that sexual orientation/gender identity discrimination constitutes sex discrimination as a matter of law.  Moreover, the EEOC has adopted this position and taken enforcement action accordingly.  The EEOC has argued that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination under three separate legal theories: (1) a traditional “but-for” analysis, (2) an associational discrimination analysis, and (3) a sex stereotyping analysis.  You can read at greater length about these three theories here.

The PHRC’s proposed guidance focuses on the third of these: sex stereotyping.  This argument proceeds roughly as follows:  (1) sex discrimination in employment is prohibited;  (2) sex discrimination includes discriminating against employees because they fail to align with stereotypical male or female appearance, mannerisms, behaviors, etc.;  (3) the “default” assumption that an employee is or should be heterosexual and cisgender represents one of the preeminent kinds of sex stereotypes;  and therefore, (4) discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is impermissible sex stereotyping that constitutes sex discrimination as a matter of law.  While the nuances of this argument tend to vary with the facts of each individual case, this outline provides a 30,000 foot view of the sex stereotyping theory.

In late April 2017, the PHRC issued proposed guidance stating it would investigate complaints of discrimination by LGBTQ individuals, including claims of employment discrimination, as prohibit sex stereotyping.  Specifically, the proposed PHRC guidance states as follows:

The gist of these claims is that LGBTQ individuals do not comply with sexual stereotypes and that adverse action(s) against an LGBTQ individual due to that person’s failure to comply with sexual stereotypes amounts to discrimination based on sex. Accordingly, it is the position of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that it will take and investigate sex stereotyping claims filed by LGBTQ individuals.

The PHRC has received extensive public comment on this proposal, and it is expected that the Commissioners will review the public comments at their November commission meeting.  Pending further action by the commission, this guidance remains proposed guidance.  Nevertheless, the PHRC’s action reveals a growing enforcement trend in this area of law.  Stay tuned for the PHRC’s final decision regarding what, if any, guidance on this topic it will issue.

As of April 1, 2018, employers in Massachusetts will be required to provide accommodations to pregnant employees.

In July, the Governor signed into law the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that amends the Massachusetts’ general discrimination law to require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to pregnant employees and to prevent employers from discriminating against pregnant employees who request an accommodation.

Under the law, there is no set guarantee of leave, but paid or unpaid leave to recover from childbirth may be a reasonable accommodation.

Other accommodations listed in the law may include:

  • more frequent or longer paid or unpaid breaks;
  • acquisition or modification of equipment or seating;
  • temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position;
  • job restructuring;
  • light duty;
  • private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk;
  • assistance with manual labor; or
  • modified work schedules; provided, however, that no employer shall be required to discharge any
    employee, transfer any employee with more seniority, or promote any employee who is not able
    to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Employers do not have to provide an accommodation if doing so would create an undue hardship.

The law also poses some limits on the documentation that can be required from employees.  Generally, employers may require documentation to support a request for an accommodation, except when the employee is requesting one of the following accommodations:

  1. more frequent restroom, food and water breaks;
  2. seating; and
  3. limits on lifting over 20 pounds.

Employers will be required to give a written notice to employees of their rights beginning on January 1, 2018.  Employers will have to give such notice to any new hires after that date and to any employee who requests an accommodation.