45110001 - small bath of a kindergarten without children

Yesterday, the newly confirmed Education Secretary and Attorney General issued a joint letter eliminating the Obama administration’s guidance from last year addressing the issue of bathroom use by transgendered students.  Specifically, the former guidance had said that schools must allow students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, even if that gender is different from the students’ biological gender.

The Obama administration had decided that under Title IX, discrimination based on transgender was sex discrimination.  This guidance was in line with positions taken by the EEOC pushing the issue that Title VII covered sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination because of its broad ban on sex discrimination.

Yesterday’s action only impacts public schools and not private employers.  The question is whether it will have a broader impact on EEOC enforcement strategies going forward.

Of course, the Supreme Court may, sooner, rather than later, have the final say on whether Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.  The Court is scheduled to hear argument in the case of Gavin Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board next month.  The case could have an impact on the interpretation of Title VII, not just Title IX.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.

This past week, a news story appeared in New Jersey that caught my eye. It was the story of an eighth grade female basketball player at St. Theresa’s school in Union County. Admittedly, the story initially piqued my interest because it was set at was my childhood parish, with the accompanying warm memories of playing basketball in the parish hall gym.

But after reading the story, it was a great illustration of how to handle opportunities in the workplace that, for one reason or another, are not available to all genders. St. Theresa’s had previously made a decision to cut the girls eighth grade basketball team due to low enrollment. However, the boys’ eighth grade program was left intact. Thereafter, the girl sought to play on the boys team but was rebuffed by the archdiocese.

sttheresas

In fairness to the archdiocese, it offered her the opportunity to play on the girls basketball team at a neighboring parish. Her family declined the offer and brought suit. This week, the court dismissed the case as a matter of law, saying that there was no implicit right to play on a team of the other gender.

While your company likely does not have single-gender sports teams, there are undoubtedly company activities that intentionally or unintentionally segregate by gender or another identifier. We discourage such practices. Even if separate activities are provided to both genders, there runs the risk that one activity will be seen as more desirable than the other.

To the extent that you must segregate workplace activities by gender, make sure the terms and conditions (time, place, budget) are the same for both. Also, ensure that decision makers and senior employees attend both events, regardless of their gender.

Employers take note:  the EEOC has issued an updated Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for fiscal years 2017-2021.

What’s a Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP describes the areas that will be a priority focus for its enforcement efforts over a particular period of time.  In some instances, it describes a particular component of the employment relationship (for example, the application process) that it will scrutinize more.  In other instances, it describes a particular basis of discrimination that it will focus on (for example, employees who are or are perceived to be Muslim, or LGBT employees).  Ultimately, the SEP is best understood as a kind of statement of intent–i.e., where the EEOC will focus resources in the coming years.

What Isn’t a Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP is not a statement of exclusion.  That is, just because a specific workplace issue or protected characteristic is omitted (or not emphasized) within the SEP doesn’t mean the EEOC will ignore that particular issue or characteristic.  Employers should expect that the EEOC will continue to enforce all of the relevant discrimination laws on the books.  The SEP merely acts as a guide for the EEOC to focus its enforcement efforts.

What Will the EEOC’s Priorities Be Under the Updated Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP has identified six national priority areas for enforcement in FY 2017-2021:

1.  Eliminating Recruitment/Hiring Barriers.  Moving forward, the EEOC will put additional emphasis on recruitment and hiring.  This includes exclusionary policies and practices.  In addition, the EEOC has noted it will focus on job channeling/steering and job segregation; restrictive applications; pre-employment tests/screenings and background checks that affect African-American and Latino employees; date-of-birth inquiries that affect older employees, and medical questions that affect people with disabilities. On the issue of restrictive applications, the EEOC has also highlighted online application systems that are inaccessible to applicants with disabilities.

2.  Protecting Vulnerable Workers and Underserved Communities.  Evaluating local issues and concerns, the EEOC’s district offices will identify particular vulnerable workers and underserved communities for enforcement attention.  As an example, the EEOC notes that some offices may target discrimination against Native American employees for increased focus.

3.  Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues.  These include: qualification or leave policies that discriminate on the basis of disability; accommodations for disabilities and pregnant workers; protecting LGBT employees from sex discrimination; addressing discrimination laws in the context of evolving job market structures/relationships (for example, temps, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, the on-demand or “gig” economy, etc.); and “backlash discrimination” against Muslims, Sikhs, persons of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent (or perceived members of these groups).

4.  Equal Pay.  The EEOC will continue its efforts to address sex-based pay discrimination under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act and will also focus on pay practices that discriminate on any protected basis.  In particular, the EEOC has noted pay discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, and disability remains an issue that it intends to continue targeting.

5.  Preserving Access to the Legal System.  The focus here will be on employer policies or practices that it perceives as limiting employee rights, discouraging employees from exercising their rights, or impeding the EEOC’s efforts.  In addition to retaliation, the EEOC has indicated it will focus on overly broad waivers/releases, certain mandatory arbitration agreements, and employer failure to retain required applicant/employee data.

 6.  Preventing Systemic Harassment.  The EEOC notes that over 30% of charges allege harassment (and that “the most frequent bases alleged are sex, race disability, age, national origin and religion, in order of frequency”).  The EEOC has stated it will seek to promote “holistic prevention programs” that it believes will serve as a deterrent to violations.

Of course, this brief summary is not exhaustive; click here for the full document.  Ultimately, the updated SEP is a reminder for employers to review their policies and practices as 2016 draws to a close, in order to ensure compliance.

Query: a longtime employee, who has previously identified in your workplace as female, begins dressing for work like a man, grooming according to male standards, and identifying as male.  He begins to make arrangements to have his name formally changed, and a number of other legal documents changed as well.  He also begins using the men’s room at work.  Other coworkers complain about “a woman using the men’s bathroom at work.”  What do you do?

According to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, what you do not do is: 1) ban him from the men’s bathroom for being biologically female, 2) ban him from the women’s bathroom for identifying as male, and 3) require him to use only gender-neutral bathrooms.  Last week, the court made headlines when it granted summary judgment against a school district, on a Title VII sex discrimination claim brought by one of the district’s police officers.  (Roberts v. Clark County School District, No 2:15-cv-00388-JAD-PAL, ECF No. 147).

While the court denied summary judgment as to the officer’s retaliation and hostile workplace claims, it noted that established case law holds that sex stereotyping is prohibited sex discrimination under Title VII.  In this case, the court noted that the district banning the officer from using the women’s bathroom “because he no longer behaved like a woman” was direct evidence of impermissible sex stereotyping.

Also of note: in granting partial summary judgment, the court held that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes both sex and gender.  At this point, some of our readers might be somewhat confused at the difference between sex and gender. Citing language from the Ninth Circuit, the court noted the difference between these key terms, in recounting the case law history in this area:

These early cases distinguished between the term ‘sex’, which referred to an individual’s distinguishing biological or anatomical characteristics and the term ‘gender’, [which] refers to an individual’s sexual identity, or socially-constructed characteristics.

The court’s language is significant because it simultaneously rejected the school district’s argument to draw legal distinctions based on these terms:

Although [the district] contends it discriminated . . . based on his genitalia, not his status as a transgender person, this is a distinction without a difference here. [The officer] was clearly treated differently than persons of both his biological sex and the gender he identifies as–in sum, because of his transgender status.

Moreover, the court held that the bathroom action alone was a sufficiently adverse employment action — in that “access to restrooms is a significant, basic condition of employment” — to involve Title VII protections.

We have previously discussed two separate theories that the EEOC and plaintiffs have used to argue sexual orientation and/or gender identity are incorporated into Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  These theories have had a mixed track record of success, and there is no certainty in predicting how they will continue to play out in the coming months and years.

Still, a key takeaway from this case is that employers should retain knowledgeable counsel to advise on employee workplace transitions.  Effective transition management can not only help defuse potential workplace tension and avoid litigation, but it can also lead to a more productive workplace, happier employees, and keeping pace with the market’s movement in this direction.

Regardless of the type of employer you are, you depend, on some level, on customers who are willing to pay for the goods or services being offered.  And the old adage, “The Customer is Always Right,” a mantra of the American business community since this country’s founding, is as true today as it was then.  But from time to time, valued customers will step over the line and act inappropriately towards company employees.  If and when that occurs, employers need to understand the legal ramifications of dealing with the fallout.

Recently, a receptionist at a New Jersey automobile dealership brought an action against her employer for violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  In the Complaint, she alleged, inter alia, that her employer retaliated after she pressed charges against a high-profile customer who had tugged at her shirt and exposed her bra.   Thereafter, she alleged that her work environment became hostile until she was terminated.

13130540_s

This case has been up to the Appellate Division in New Jersey, who ruled that the employer is not responsible for the conduct of a non-employee, and will not be held responsible for customer conduct under most circumstances.  However, the Appellate Division did find that an employee filing charges against a customer is a protected activity that protects and individual against employer retaliation.

The upshot of the case is that in the rare case that customer behavior crosses over the line of good taste, take immediate measures to correct the situation.  In the even rarer case that the conduct becomes criminal, let your employees know that if they choose to press charges, they will not the subject of retaliation in any way, shape, or form.

As my colleague Christina Stoneburner wrote earlier in the week, we aren’t even through summer 2016, yet the number of new employment laws and regulations enacted that employers must contend with are already piling up.  Massachusetts recently joined the fray, with Governor Baker signing into law earlier this month S.2119 (effective January 1, 2018), which addresses pay equity discrimination based on gender.  Notably, the new pay equity legislation reiterates what Massachusetts and federal law have long stated: pay disparities based on gender are unlawful.  However, this new law goes further, is more employee-friendly than ever, and specifically addresses neutral conduct that arguably affects gender pay equality.

35827527 - question sign from packs of dollar isolated on white. where to invest money concept. 3d

One unique and notable component of the new law is a first-of-its-kind “ban the box” type prohibition that makes it unlawful to inquire regarding the prior salary history of prospective employees (similar to the prohibition of criminal conviction questions that many jurisdictions have recently adopted). Questions about prior salaries are extremely common and can be found on most employment applications.  However, this practice must now be eliminated in Massachusetts.  The intent of the legislature is to root out historic pay discrimination by forcing pay decisions to be made based on the job and not prior salaries.  The law prohibits, any time prior to making an offer of employment (with salary offer), either directly requesting prior salary information from the prospective employee and/or his or her former employers, or indirectly researching the same.  Moreover, employees cannot be prohibited from discussing their wages amongst themselves (although such policies are already prohibited by current interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act).

In addition, the law reiterates that actual pay differences based on gender are expressly prohibited where employees are engaged in “comparable work,” which is defined as any job(s) (regardless of titles) that require “substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility . . . under similar working conditions.”  Moreover, the law clearly delineates the few bona fide non-discriminatory reasons allowed for neutral pay policies, namely: (i) seniority pay systems, (ii) merit pay systems, (iii) production or sales quality/quantity pay systems, (iv) geographic differences, (v) job relevant education, training, and/or experience, and (vi) job related travel.  Lastly, the statute contains an anti-retaliation provision that prohibits taking retaliatory action against employees or applicants that oppose practices prohibited by the law.

An action enforcing the statute may be brought within three years of any discriminatory act, either by the attorney general or through civil litigation by the affected employee(s) and/or applicant(s), including but not limited to by class action.  Damages recoverable include any owed or diminished wages and benefits, as well as additional “liquidated” damages (which doubles any owed compensation) and any reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

The one piece of good news for employers is that an affirmative defense is provided in the statute where an employer, within the prior three years, conducts a good faith self-evaluation of its pay practices in order to eliminate pay discrepancies based on gender. As a result, it is recommended that prior to the effective date of the act that employers conduct a thorough review of all employee handbooks, non-disclosure agreements, employment applications, and other new hire policies and forms, as well as review institutional pay structures and systems, to ensure compliance with the law.  As always, your friendly Fox Rothschild attorneys are here to help in this regard.

 

3324553_s Yesterday, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling holding that Title VII does not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  The case involved a lesbian part-time employee, who alleged she was deprived of the opportunity for full-time employment and was not promoted due to her sexual orientation.  After losing her case at the District Court level, the employee appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit noted its hands were tied in the matter:

Since Hamner and Spearman, our circuit has, without exception, relied on those precedents to hold that the Title VII prohibition on discrimination based on ‘sex’ extends only to discrimination based on a person’s gender, and not that aimed at a person’s sexual orientation.

In affirming the decision, the court also pointed to the fact that Congress had not amended the law to include sexual orientation and the fact that the Supreme Court has not established precedent extending Title VII protections to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation.

While Title VII does not expressly include sexual orientation as a protected characteristic in its ban against employment discrimination, your faithful blog authors have discussed a number of legal theories under which LGBT employees have sought relief.  We have discussed the sex stereotyping theory, i.e., the idea that an employee’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes or norms may be actionable for LGBT plaintiffs under Title VII.  We have also discussed what might be called the “referential” theory, under which the EEOC has argued that sexual orientation cannot be understood as a distinct concept from sex, and that sexual orientation discrimination is therefore sex discrimination by definition.

Absent congressional action or Supreme Court guidance, employers continue to face some uncertainty as to the viability of these kinds of claims — which some courts may find persuasive.  In light of this uncertainty, employers should consider doing three things:

  • Remember that even if not covered by Title VII, sexual orientation may be a protected characteristic in employment under state, county, local law, or executive order — depending on the jurisdiction(s) where a business operates
  • Proactively develop policies and procedures to prevent sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, even in jurisdictions where it is not a protected characteristic
  • Continue to monitor these legal developments and discuss them with legal counsel
Contract
Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

(Many thanks to Christina, for her gracious invitation to join the blog as a regular contributor! -Brian)

In the wake of controversy over efforts in North Carolina and other states to roll back legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) people, Pennsylvania’s taking a different approach.

On April 7th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued Executive Order 2016-05, hailing it as an effort to combat discrimination.  The Commonwealth’s Department of General Services will now require contractors and grantees to agree not to discriminate in hiring, promotion, or other labor matters, or in the award of subcontracts or supply contracts.

Specifically, contractors and grantees will be required to agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, creed, color, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.  The EO defines sexual orientation as heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality.  Gender identity or expression is defined as an individual’s gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, expression, or other gender-related characteristics, regardless of the individual’s sex at birth.

Notably, EO 2016-05 requires agency heads to recommend to the Secretary of General Services such sanctions “as may be appropriate” for entities that fail to comply with Commonwealth contracting programs.  Coupled with provisions that establish compliance, reporting, and audit systems, this EO suggests the Wolf administration intends to pursue enforcement through a broad variety of executive branch tools—with a particular eye toward addressing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Department of General Services will also be charged with ensuring that contractors and grantees have a written sexual harassment policy and that the contractor’s or grantee’s employees are aware of that policy.  These requirements are expressly made a condition of payment or funding—heightening the urgency for contractors and grantees to review their current policies and employee training programs on non-harassment and non-discrimination.

As a result of this EO, Commonwealth contractors/grantees and potential contractors/grantees should contact knowledgeable employment counsel to ensure compliance, as the Department of General Services begins to set up enforcement efforts.

Title VIIAs my colleague Christina Stoneburner posted yesterday and today, North Carolina recently enacted the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which, among other similar state laws that continue cropping up (such as the recently vetoed religious exemption bill in Georgia), curtails protections based on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and/or Transgender (LGBT) status.  These proposed laws have drawn significant media attention and are likely to continue expanding and developing in the foreseeable future.  However, despite these local exceptions, please remember that federal law may still apply.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken an aggressive position on sexual orientation and gender identity under federal law, finding they are both protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Several federal court decisions have found the same, including for example, a recent decision by the federal district court in Arizona, which found with almost no analysis or fanfare, that a transgender prison guard is clearly entitled to protection under Title VII. Doe v. Arizona, No. CV-15-02399-PHX-DGC, 2016 WL 1089743 (D. Ariz. Mar. 21, 2016).  This decision illustrates just how far Title VII jurisprudence has evolved over the past decade.  Many district courts regularly hold that transgender and/or sexual orientation status is protected under federal anti-discrimination laws.

Previously such theories were not readily accepted, and even today remain debatable. Courts have had trouble in the past resolving the dissonance of Congress’ intent, which specifically excluded from the Civil Rights Act sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.  Indeed, Congress has repeatedly refused to expand Title VII to list sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

However, the United States Supreme Court originally opened the door for these gender identity and sexual orientation status protections in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989) and Oncale v. Sundowner Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1998).  To recap, very briefly, Hopkins involved a woman who was “too aggressive” and “not feminine enough,” and was ultimately passed over for partnership. The Court found that discrimination for failing to live up to gender stereotypes was actionable. Oncale similarly found same-sex harassment, in this case men harassing other men on an oil rig, was actionable because the harassment was based on expected gender norms.  Since then, the EEOC and some intermediate federal appellate courts have applied this reasoning and found that Title VII can protect transgender status and/or sexual orientation based on these gender norm theories. Macy v. Holder, App. No. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (EEOC Apr. 20, 2012); see also Glenn v. Brumby, 663. F.3d 1312 (11th Cir. 2011); Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566 (6th Cir. 2004).

As a result, for prudent employers, the question may be moot even in states that may curtail transgender and/or sexual orientation protections.  A body of federal cases protecting against gender identity and/or sexual orientation status discrimination exists and continues to develop.  In addition, many state and local jurisdictions affirmatively provide such protections (e.g., California and New York).  Until further guidance is provided by the Supreme Court or Congress, it would be best to assume discrimination based on these protected characteristics remains prohibited nationwide.

Last week, the EEOC reached a $1.02 million settlement with Vail Run Community Resort Association, Inc. and its management company, Global Hospitality Resorts, Inc.  The settlement came after the EEOC sued based on its allegations that a housekeeping manager, Omar Quezada, repeatedly sexually harassed female subordinates.  The settlement will resolve the claims of 8 female employees.

This case certainly caught my eye because of the size of the settlement, but also because of the other obligations set forth in the consent settlement decree.  Pursuant to the settlement, there are some relatively minor “extras,” for example, giving favorable references and apology letters to the former employees.

The settlement also requires regular training on harassment and discrimination and, more unusually, the appointment of a monitor to assess compliance with the decree.  This is not a simple one-off check-in to see if the the companies are complying with the settlement.  Instead, the companies will have to pay an outside monitor for five years.

22207527_sUnder the settlement, the Spanish speaking monitor will insure that semi-annual training is conducted and will regularly be interviewing employees to determine if harassment or discrimination is occurring.  The monitor will also have to review any and all charges of discrimination during this time period.

If this were a Roadrunner cartoon, that outside monitor would be represented by a 1 ton weight hanging over Wile E. Coyote’s head.  Granted, there are rather serious allegations in the complaint and the supervisor in question has already been criminally convicted of unlawful sexual contact and felony extortion, so this is not your usual discrimination claim.

I think most employers would not relish having a monitor coming into the workplace and speaking with employees.  It may seem counter-intuitive but this is why you want to encourage employees to come to you with complaints, no matter how minor.  If you have an open door policy and then actually investigate the complaints that arise, you, hopefully, are dealing with much less severe situations and resolving them without the employee ever needing to get the EEOC involved.