Discrimination

Heads You Win, Tails You Lose: Government on Both Sides of the LGBT Protections Debate

Recently, much has been made about the government’s conflicting positions regarding whether sexual orientation is protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The EEOC (“Equal Employment Opportunity Commission”) has continued to assert its position that sexual orientation is protected under Title VII as a form of sex-based discrimination under the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse decision.  At the same time, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has claimed that Title VII does not protect sexual orientation as it is not based on sex.   Many have taken extreme umbrage at DOJ’s position as a complete reversal of the previous administration’s position as the Department filed an unsolicited amicus in the Second Circuit.  However, as the DOJ’s civil division filed the brief, it presents a rare window into the “Jekyll/Hyde” dynamic within the government.  As some agencies broadly seek civil rights protections, the federal government is also one of the world’s largest employers faced with the challenges of limiting countless claims. READ MORE

No Trial Needed: Ninth Circuit Confirms Summary Judgment Appropriate Where Discrimination Plaintiff Can’t Rebut Legitimate Business Reasons

Employers faced with discrimination claims must determine if summary judgment is a viable means to dispose of those claims. A recent Ninth Circuit decision provides some additional ammunition for employers moving for summary judgment going forward.

In affirming summary judgment on August 16, 2017, the Court in Merrick v. Hilton Worldwide, Case No. 14-56853, 2017 WL 3496030, held that “context is key when a plaintiff alleges age discrimination based on circumstantial evidence” and, on the facts before it, affirmed summary judgment for the employer. Id. at *8. Plaintiffs fond of quoting the standard for summary judgment articulated in Chuang v. Univ. of Cal. Davis, Bd. of Trs., 225 F.3d 1115, 1124 (9th Cir. 2000) – which held that a plaintiff in an employment discrimination case needs to produce “very little evidence” to defeat summary judgment – will need to contend with the more nuanced picture of summary judgment requirements that Merrick paints.

In Merrick, Plaintiff alleged that his employment was terminated in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) when he was laid off as part of a reduction-in-force, allegedly because of his age.  After concluding that Plaintiff had established a prima facie case and that Hilton produced evidence that it terminated Plaintiff’s employment for legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons, the Court found that Plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence to allow a jury to conclude that age was a “substantial motivating factor” in the decision, i.e., that Hilton’s reasons for termination were false or the true reason for the termination decision was discriminatory.  Specifically, “the evidence as a whole [was] insufficient to permit a rational inference that the employer’s actual motive was discriminatory” considering the substantial evidence the employer tendered supporting the business justification for his selection:

  • lost profits during a preceding economic downturn
  • a series of layoffs over several years, the overall age of the workforce
  • the fact that Plaintiff survived previous layoffs despite having also been a member of a protected class at the time of those layoffs, and
  • the business reasons for selecting his position for elimination.

Faced with this evidence, the Merrick court emphasized that a plaintiff “must do more than establish a prima facie case and deny the credibility of [the employer’s] witnesses”; if she does nothing more, summary judgment should be granted. Merrick, 2017 WL 3496030, at *5.

In affirming summary judgment, the Merrick court cited to a line of Ninth Circuit cases – Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co., 232 F.3d 1271 (9th Cir. 2000), Nidds v. Schindler Elevator Corp., 113 F.3d 912 (9th Cir. 1996); and Wallis v. J.R. Simplot Co., 26 F.3d 885, 891 (9th Cir. 1994) – that had affirmed summary judgment where a plaintiff failed to adduce adequate proof of pretext.  This contrasts with the Chuang line of cases that could be read to suggest that less is required of plaintiff.

The Merrick decision thus underscores that the summary judgment standard for discrimination cases in the Ninth Circuit is not as lax as some plaintiffs may suggest. Merrick‘s analysis was predicated on the familiar McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework—which the Court held applied to state law discrimination claims under FEHA just as it would to federal Title VII claims—and thus has implications for any claims in federal court analyzed under that framework.

President Trump’s DOJ Takes Website Accessibility Regulations off the Table

As those interested in website accessibility regulations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) know, the Department of Justice announced in May 2016 that it would issue a rule governing website accessibility standards for places of public accommodation to take effect in 2018. It now appears that we can expect an even longer indefinite delay. Last month, the Trump Administration launched its Unified Regulatory Agenda, which “provides an updated report on the actions administrative agencies plan to issue in the near and long term.” The Agenda is meant to effectuate Executive Orders 13771 and 13777, which require agencies to reduce unnecessary regulatory burden. According to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the Agenda “represents the beginning of fundamental regulatory reform and a reorientation toward reducing unnecessary regulatory burden on the American people. By amending and eliminating regulations that are ineffective, duplicative, and obsolete, the Administration can promote economic growth and innovation and protect individual liberty.” READ MORE

Fool’s Gold: Second Circuit Vacates Order Affirming Arbitrator’s Certification of Class of Jewelry Store Workers Including Absent Class Members

On July 24, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a federal district court’s approval for a class of roughly 69,000 women claiming that Sterling Jewelers, Inc. (“Sterling”) discriminated against them based on sex. The decision overturned a district court ruling that affirmed an arbitrator’s decision to let the women proceed to trial as a class in an arbitration.

Plaintiffs initially filed a class action lawsuit in March 2008, alleging that Sterling’s practices and policies led to women being deliberately passed over for promotions and paid them less than their male cohorts. The case was sent to arbitration several months later under Sterling’s arbitration clause.

In 2009, an arbitrator ruled that Sterling’s dispute resolution program did not specifically bar class actions and allowed claimants to seek class status. From there, the case took a number of twists and turns, which we reported on more fully at the time here.

In June 2013, the employees moved for class certification. In February 2015, the arbitrator ruled that that the employees could proceed as a class in the arbitration.  In November 2015, the district court affirmed the arbitrator’s decision concluding that the arbitrator did not exceed her authority by certifying a class that included absent class members i.e., employees other than the named plaintiffs and those who have opted into the class.  Sterling appealed. READ MORE

Access Denied: Trial on Website Accessibility Claims Results in Decision for Disabled Individual

Web accessibility online internet website computer for people with disabilities symbol blue keyboard Access Denied: Trial on Website Accessibility Claims Results in Decision for Disabled Individual

On Tuesday, a federal district court in Florida issued an order in the first known trial involving accessibility to a public accommodation’s website.  Ultimately, the court found that grocery giant Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) because its website was inaccessible to a visually impaired customer.  As we have written about previously here and here, currently there are no binding regulations that specify the accessibility standards for websites under Title III of the ADA.

READ MORE

No Similarly Situated Employees, No Claim: Vanderbilt Prevails on Summary Judgment in Professor’s Sex Discrimination Lawsuit

Last week the Sixth Circuit upheld a grant of summary judgment in the employer’s favor on a former employee’s sex discrimination claim, finding plaintiff failed to meet her burden to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

The Case

Dr. Jean Simpson was a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. While teaching at the University, Dr. Simpson started her own private consulting practice doing breast-pathology.  Upon learning of Dr. Simpson’s consulting practice, the University instructed her the external employment violated the Conflict of Interest Policy, the Vanderbilt Medical Group (“VMG”) By-Laws and the VMG Participation Agreement and asked her to cease the consulting work.  She refused.  The University later terminated Dr. Simpson because of these violations. READ MORE

Back To The Drawing Board: Tenth Circuit Denies EEOC Subpoena Request Seeking To Expand Individual Charge Into Pattern-or-Practice Investigation

“[A] single discriminatory act does not, by itself, warrant a broader patter-or-practice investigation.” That was the conclusion the Tenth Circuit reached recently when it affirmed a federal district court’s denial of an EEOC subpoena request.  Although the Tenth Circuit disagreed with part of the lower court’s reasoning, it ultimately determined the EEOC’s request was flawed on several grounds. READ MORE

I’ll Defer To You: Supreme Court Rules Appellate Courts Should Apply Abuse Of Discretion Standard When Reviewing EEOC Subpoena Efforts

Recently, in McLane Co., Inc. v. EEOC, case number 15-1248 , the United States Supreme Court clarified the standard for when an appellate court reviews a trial court’s order to enforce or quash a subpoena from the EEOC. Vacating a Ninth Circuit decision applying a de novo standard of review, the Court ruled that appellate courts should review based on the abuse of discretion standard. READ MORE

Salary History Becomes a Thing of the Past in New York City

On April 5, 2017, the New York City Council passed an amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law prohibiting employers or their agents from inquiring about the salary history of an applicant.  The law also restricts an employer’s ability to rely upon that salary history in determining the salary, benefits or other compensation during the hiring process “including the negotiation of a contract.” The term “salary history” is defined to include current or prior wages, benefits or other compensation, but does not include “objective measures of the applicant’s productivity such as revenue, sales or other production reports.”

There are several notable exceptions to the law.  READ MORE

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects Broadening USERRA’S Evidentiary Burden For Discrimination Claims

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”), 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301–4335, prohibits discrimination against members of the U.S. military and imposes various obligations on employers with respect to service members returning to their civilian workplace. 

 USERRA differs from other employment laws (e.g., Title VII, ADEA) in multiple respects.  For example, USERRA has no statute of limitations of any kind for claims that accrued after October 10, 2008 (and claims that accrued after October 10, 2004 may be timely as well). See 38 U.S.C. § 4327(b); 20 C.F.R. § 1002.311.  Also, USERRA applies to all public and private employers, irrespective of size.  Therefore, “an employer with only one employee is covered….” 20 C.F.R. § 1002.34(a).  READ MORE