On May 29, Roseanne Barr posted a tweet comparing former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape. ABC’s reaction was swift and decisive: it fired Barr and cancelled her show.
ABC’s decision led to pontification from various pundits and Twitter personalities arguing that Barr’s “humor” was somehow “free speech” protected by the First Amendment.
But even if Barr was exercising free speech when she posted her tweets, that has no bearing on ABC’s lawful right to fire her. ABC is a private employer, not the government, so the First Amendment did not prevent it from taking action based on employee speech.
Companies and individuals frequently enter into arbitration agreements requiring that claims be brought before a private arbitrator, rather than a judge and jury. Arbitration has various benefits: it can provide quicker resolutions, reduced costs, the right to participate in the selection of the arbitrator, and arbitral expertise. In addition, some parties prefer arbitration because it offers a cloak of confidentiality that does not exist in the state and federal courts.
Federal law—specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on a number of protected characteristics, including sex, race, national origin, and religion.
One major open question, however, is whether Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. For example, if a job candidate is openly gay, can the employee refuse to hire that person because of his sexual orientation without violating federal law?
The Supreme Court has never spoken on the issue.
The ongoing trial in Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers has made headline news across the country. It’s being covered by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among other national publications. Those interested in following the trial can monitor the #ellenpao hashtag on Twitter, or watch liveblogs from Re/code or the San Jose Mercury-News.
Why is the trial so newsworthy? As we reported here, Pao claims that Kleiner Perkins, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm, discriminated against her because of her gender and then retaliated because she complained. She claims that she was not promoted to a plum senior partner position because she was a woman, and that the firm fired her because she complained and later sued it. Her story involves sex, boorish behavior, and office intrigue that ranges from the mundane to the highly dramatic.
With that introduction, here are some -- of many -- takeaways for employers from what has transpired thus far:
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard argument in the religious discrimination case of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., which made our list as one of our five issues to watch for 2015. The case arises under Title VII, the federal law that makes it illegal for an employer “to discriminate against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . . religion.” The EEOC alleges that Abercrombie, purveyor of “authentic American clothing,” discriminated against Samantha Elauf on religious grounds. The company refused to hire Elauf because she wore a headscarf, or hijab, to her job interview, and the company’s “Look Policy” prohibited employees from wearing “caps.”
In earlier depositions in the case, Elauf’s interviewer at Abercrombie testified that she “assumed that [Elauf] was Muslim,” and “figured that was the religious reason why she wore her head scarf.” The interviewer said that she went to her district manager to discuss the headscarf issue, and told him that “[Elauf] wears the head scarf for religious reasons, I believe.” The interviewer testified that the district manager then told her not to hire Elauf because of the headscarf and said, “[S]omeone can come in and paint themselves green and say they were doing it for religious reasons, and we can’t hire them.” As a result, the interviewer lowered Elauf’s “appearance” score on her evaluation, and Elauf didn’t get the job.
Despite this testimony, the Tenth Circuit still entered summary judgment for Abercrombie, holding that the EEOC’s discrimination claim could not proceed to trial because Elauf “never informed Abercrombie prior to its hiring decision that she wore her headscarf or ‘hijab’ for religious reasons and that she needed an accommodation for that practice, due to a conflict between the practice and Abercrombie’s clothing policy.”
The fact that the Tenth Circuit granted summary judgment, even though the interviewer admitted that she assumed that Elauf wore the scarf for religious reasons, helps explain the concerns, and potential solutions, that the Justices raised in yesterday’s argument.
Did you hear the one about the Buddhist marketing director who refused an order to add Bible verses to the daily morning e-mail he sent to all employees – and then got fired the next day, after an otherwise successful eight-year career?
This is, of course, not an opening line to a joke, but another installment in our occasional series about the intersection of religious beliefs (of all types) and employment – also of all types. Religion and employment issues – whether it’s an employee in the C-suite or someone further along the hierarchy – almost never mix well. Just this week, of course, nine of our fellow lawyers who happen to sit on the Supreme Court are hearing arguments in two cases about whether a company with a religious belief about contraception is exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for employer-provided health insurance.
Far away from the hallowed marble home of the Supreme Court (which, by the way, we think is in a fine building -- unlike former Justice Harlan Fiske Stone) and down in the Eastern District of Texas, a new suit raises an interesting question of prohibited religious discrimination under Title VII: namely, can a fired Buddhist employee win damages from a company that, he says, fired him after eight years because he refused to put Bible quotations in the daily e-mail his employer had him write and send to all of the company’s 500 employees?
There’s been another important development in the legal landscape with respect to age discrimination cases, as last week a federal district court in Oklahoma ruled that the EEOC could proceed to trial on behalf of an employee who alleges that she was terminated by her employer for being “old and ugly.” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Kanbar Property Mgmt., LLC, Case No. 12-CV-00422-JED-TLW (Aug. 23, 2013). (Although similar factually, this is a different lawsuit than the “you’re not that pretty” case discussed by our colleague Bill Schreiner last week, which survived a motion to dismiss.)
If you’re not an employment lawyer, this might strike you as the proverbial “dog bites man” headline. After all, if you can't be fired for being old, certainly you can't be fired for being old and ugly, right? Right?
Well, as it turns out, the law isn’t quite so straightforward. Read on….
In the previous part, we looked at Elke Tober-Purze’s lawsuit against her employer, the City of Evanston. The federal court hearing the case ruled in Tober-Purze’s favor on Evanston’s motion to dismiss her claim that it had discriminated against her by paying her male colleagues more and ultimately terminating her from her job as an assistant city attorney.
In the same opinion, the court also denied Evanston’s motion to dismiss Tober-Purze’s claim for age discrimination based on federal law. That law – the Age Discrimination in Employment Act – requires an aggrieved employee to demonstrate that he or she: 1) is over forty; 2) otherwise meets the employer’s expectations; 3) suffered an adverse employment action – such as being terminated or passed over for promotion; and 4) was treated less favorably than others who are not over forty.
The toughest part of this post, for me, is how to categorize this one: does this go in my file of “Things Not To Do At Work?” Or is this one another example of “Lawyers Behaving Badly?” Or maybe “Generally Unacceptable Management Styles?”
Well, I’ll let you decide. But here is the takeaway: however you categorize it, it’s likely a bad idea to tell a woman that works for you that she’s “not that pretty,” that prior female employees were “smart…good-looking…just gorgeous” and used to wear tight sweaters, and that “it’s all been downhill since women got the vote.”
Statements like that can give rise to allegations of gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that can survive a motion to dismiss. That’s what the City of Evanston, Illinois learned last week, in Elke Tober-Purze v. Evanston, pending in federal court for the Northern District of Illinois.
On Tuesday, we examined the dismissal by a Georgia federal court of Lisa T. Jackson’s race-based discrimination claim against Paula Deen and others, and noted that, under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate against an employee for associating with employees of another race. But we don’t want you to be left with the impression that the association has to be between co-workers. Courts also have recognized “interracial association” Title VII claims for associations occurring outside of the workplace. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is one such court.
Last week, a federal court in Georgia dismissed Lisa T. Jackson’s race-based discrimination claim against Paula Deen, her brother Earl “Bubba” Heirs, and their restaurant businesses. Earlier events in the Jackson v. Deen case – including Deen’s deposition testimony and what it may mean for alter ego liability – caught our attention at Suits by Suits. This recent ruling interests us as a reminder that it is not always the case that a white employee who works in an environment that is hostile to blacks has no claim for damages against her employer for race-based discrimination.
This week in suits by suits:
A necessary part of life that no one particularly enjoys is the job interview: it’s tricky for the interviewee and taxing for the interviewer. Unless the interviewer gets a thrill out of asking why manhole covers are round or testing the applicant’s knowledge of medieval saints.
We’ve written about questions that shouldn’t be asked on interviews, because they can suggest a discriminatory basis for the employer’s failure to hire the job applicant. But can an interview that doesn’t include potentially discriminatory questions – just the failure to hire the applicant after the interview itself – provide the basis for the rejected applicant to allege discrimination?
Hiring executives may be interested to know the answer to this question, which was the central issue in an opinion in Hill v. Virginia Department of Transportation, released by a federal court in Virginia at the end of January.
Between baking cookies, assembling toys and driving to the in-laws, you may have missed the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision on December 21 that a male dentist was not liable to his former female assistant of ten-and-a-half years – admittedly the best assistant he ever had – for gender discrimination. The dentist fired the assistant after: he complained that her clothing was too tight, he told her that she would know her clothes were too revealing if she saw his pants bulging, he texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm, he observed that the apparent infrequency in the assistant’s sex life was “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it,” and he was confronted by his wife, who believed the assistant was a “big threat” to the dentist and wife’s marriage and demanded that the assistant be terminated, which he then did by reading a prepared statement to the assistant in the presence of his church pastor.
On Thursday, a 4-3 majority of the Virginia Supreme Court held in VanBuren v. Grubb that individuals such as supervisors or managers could be sued as individuals and held personally liable for the common law tort of wrongful termination (also known as wrongful discharge) in addition to whatever corporate liability the employer may have.
As a practical matter, this gives plaintiffs and their lawyers additional leverage when bringing suits that contain a cause of action for wrongful termination in Virginia by being able to name the former employee’s boss as a co-defendant. From the boss's perspective, this decision means that you, personally, could be named as a defendant and ultimately forced to satisfy a judgment for improperly firing an employee from your own pockets -- not just your company's. It also means that employers and their executives who operate in Virginia need to review their D&O insurance coverage with this potential exposure in mind.
In short: whether you're an executive or an employer, you need to know about this case and its implications on the employment relationship.
Here’s the tale of two cases with four lessons about Title VII and the Equal Pay Act when it comes to claims that an employer (in this case, Dollar Tree Stores) pays employees (in this case, Dollar Tree Store Managers) less because of their gender. As we’ve said previously, claims for pay discrimination can be brought under both laws.
The first case was filed in 2008 in federal court in Alabama by Cynthia Ann Collins and Beryl Dauzat against Dollar Tree alleging that the company violated the Equal Pay Act by paying them and other female Store Managers less compensation than male Store Managers doing the same work. In 2009, the court certified an opt-in collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (or, the “FLSA,” of which the Equal Pay Act is a part), allowing all women who were classified as Store Managers for Dollar Tree between 2006 and 2009 to join the lawsuit. Under the court’s order, notice of the lawsuit was sent to all Dollar Tree Store Managers employed by the company between 2006 and 2009. To join the lawsuit, a woman would have to complete and sign a form and send it to the court no later than the deadline expressly consenting to become a party to the lawsuit and authorizing the named plaintiffs and their counsel to act as her agents in prosecuting her Equal Pay Act claims against Dollar Tree. About 350 women joined the lawsuit.
This week's latest in Suits by Suits:
When we promised yesterday that we would have more on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 later this week, we hadn’t realized that Ms. Ledbetter would be speaking to the Democratic National Convention about it last night. As Ms. Ledbetter reminded the crowd last night, the law named after her was the first bill that President Obama signed into law.
In a nutshell, the Ledbetter Act was Congress’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., that Ms. Ledbetter, a nearly 20-year employee of Goodyear, did not timely file an EEOC charge against Goodyear alleging that, in violation of Title VII, Goodyear paid her less because of her gender.
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed a suit brought by Dr. Diljit K. Chatha, a professor at Prairie View A&M University, against the University (there was a dissenting opinion).
Dr. Chatha, who is of Indian national origin, claimed that she was paid less than other professors because of her race and nationality. The Texas Supreme Court found that Dr. Chatha’s claims were “jurisdictionally barred” because she did not file a complaint under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) within 180 days of the University promoting her to full professor in 2004, which was when Dr. Chatha was informed of the University’s allegedly discriminatory pay decision. Instead, Dr. Chatha filed the complaint about two years later.
We cover a broad range of issues that arise in employment disputes. Occasionally, we also spotlight other topics of relevant legal interest, ranging from health care to white-collar defense to sports, just to keep things interesting.
Led by Jason Knott and Andrew Goldfarb, and featuring attorneys with deep knowledge and expertise in their fields, Suits by Suits seeks to engage its readers on these relevant and often complicated topics. Comments and special requests are welcome and invited. Before reading, please view the disclaimer.