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Employers now have clarification that they will be able mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among their workers in certain circumstances without running afoul of key federal anti-discrimination laws, according to updated guidance issued Wednesday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While there are numerous issues to consider before mandating that your employees get vaccinated, this guidance is the first official pronouncement on the subject from the employment law watchdog agency and provides an outline of various hurdles to overcome. Here are the top seven takeaways for employers from this critical development.
1. The EEOC indicates that employers can require their workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine in certain circumstances, even under the Emergency Use Authorization.
The agency’s updated FAQs do not unequivocally state that “employers can require the vaccine.” However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) repeatedly answers questions discussing what actions employers can take in response to various circumstances after an employer has mandated the vaccine. This approach plainly suggests there must be circumstances where employers are legally permitted to require vaccine immunization of their workers without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII, and other federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the EEOC, this is true even though the COVID-19 vaccine is only authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), rather than approved under the full and comprehensive FDA vaccine licensure process, known as a Biologics License Application or “BLA.”
To be clear, the only scenario described by the EEOC as a permissible basis to mandate vaccination under the ADA is when a worker poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others by their physical presence in the workplace without being immunized. This means mandating vaccines is only permitted if workers would pose “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Therefore, if an employee is capable of fully performing their current job duties remotely without the potential spread of the virus to co-workers or work-related third parties, it does not appear that you can require that they get vaccinated.
2. Employers that require the COVID-19 vaccine must consider reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
Notably, simply because your company chooses to mandate vaccine usage for those workers who may pose a direct threat to themselves or others does not mean you have complete freedom to require the vaccine for all such workers. If an individual cannot be vaccinated because of a disability, you need to determine whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce the safety risk. You cannot automatically exclude them from the workplace or take any other negative action against them.
First and foremost, the EEOC recommends that those managers responsible for communicating with your employees about compliance with your vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an employee’s accommodation request. You should also train your managers about the process they should follow to refer accommodation requests through the proper channels for consideration. While the EEOC’s guidance does not mention this, you should strongly consider providing details about the accommodation request procedure in writing to all of your employees (whether in hard copy, electronically, or both).
Next, the EEOC indicates you should engage in a flexible, interactive process with any employee requesting an accommodation to identify options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. Some things you should consider include the prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination, the amount of involvement with customers, and the rate of vaccination in your community, as well as the amount of contact with others whose vaccination status could be unknown. You should consult your Fisher Phillips’ attorney in developing a medical inquiry for an employee’s doctor or a protocol for responding to requests for accommodation more generally.
Finally, the EEOC reminds employers that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation, just as it is a violation of federal law to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. Likewise, you should not reveal which employees have or have not been vaccinated.
3. Similarly, employers need to consider reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to receive the vaccine for religious reasons.
The EEOC says you must provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from receiving the vaccination – unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII. The definition of “undue hardship” is slightly different in the religious context compared to the disability context, as courts have defined it as simply “having more than a de minimis cost or burden” on an employer.
While you should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, you would be justified in requesting additional supporting information if you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance. The key word here is “objective.” This is a delicate area of the law and you should not unilaterally contact the employee’s place or worship seeking proof about their level of belief, or engage in any conduct that could raise potential discrimination issues. We recommend consulting with an attorney before making such a request to any of your employees.
4. Employers can require employees to show proof that they received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Assuming you can demonstrate that a mandatory vaccine is appropriate and that no accommodation requirements are in play, the EEOC indicates you can require workers to prove they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The EEOC says that simply requesting proof of receipt of the vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.
However, subsequent questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that disability-related inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” For this reason, if you require employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, you may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA. If you do receive medical information along with proof of vaccination, you should store the medical information in a confidential medical file consistent with ADA requirements.
5. The administration of a COVID-19 vaccine is not a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA.
The EEOC confirmed that the act of administering the COVID-19 vaccine is not an ADA “medical examination.” Therefore, if you (or a third party with whom you contract to administer the vaccine) simply administer the vaccine to an employee, the EEOC does not consider you to be seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status – but see the next point about questionnaires relating to giving the vaccine.
6. Employers can pose pre-screening vaccination questions, so long as they comply with ADA requirements.
The EEOC’s FAQs offered some direction for employers who want to ask pre-screening vaccination questions as they administer the inoculation. The first thing employers need to know is that pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries (defined as any such inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability). Therefore, if you administer the vaccine, you must show that any pre-screening questions are job-related and consistent with business necessity. To meet this standard, the EEOC says, you need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.
The EEOC does explain that there are two circumstances in which these screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, you can offer the vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), which means the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions would also be voluntary. If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, you may decline to administer the vaccine to them but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten them for refusing to answer the questions.
Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party with whom your organization does not have a contract (such as a pharmacy or other healthcare provider), the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply.
Finally, regardless of whether you meet the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” standard, the ADA requires you to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential. On a related note, the agency reminds employers that any pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories or immune systems of family members, may violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). As the EEOC explicitly says that “it is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations,” this is an issue that employers should be aware of as we move closer to vaccines being provided to members of the general population.
To avoid these complications, the EEOC says that employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves. However, to steer clear of unintended GINA violations, you may still want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. If this warning is provided, the EEOC says any genetic information you receive in response to your request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and, therefore, not a GINA violation.
7. Employees may be confused about their ability to “refuse” the vaccine as a result of the EUA.
We expect that some employees may believe they have the right the “refuse” the vaccine even if mandated by their employer. That’s because of language in the EEOC’s updated guidance about the EUA that may cause confusion.
The EEOC notes that, for any vaccine issued under an Emergency Use Authorization, the FDA (and the vaccination provider) has an obligation to inform vaccine recipients about its potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, whether any alternative products are available, and “that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine.” This language comes from the federal statute governing the EUA.
The FDA’s website (cited by the EEOC) says that the option to refuse is typically included in a “fact sheet” provided to the individual receiving the vaccine (or, alternatively, the party administering the vaccine can direct the individual to the weblink to view the fact sheet online). That fact sheet for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be found here, and it explicitly says that “the recipient or their caregiver has the option to accept or refuse [the] Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.”
This directive seems to be targeted at whether an individual can be forced to take the vaccine by a government entity (as a New York lawmaker recently suggested), not whether an employer can condition an individual’s continued employment on taking the vaccine. After all, in at-will employment settings, an employee can always pursue alternative employment if they do not want to get vaccinated as a condition of their current job. Note that this analysis may be different in unionized settings governed by a collective bargaining agreement. If you are working with a union, you should consult with your Fisher Phillips counsel before proceeding with any mandatory vaccination plan.
Although the EEOC seems to permit mandating vaccinations of employees in certain circumstances, most employers should consider encouraging rather than mandating vaccinations due to potential related risks. Whether you simply encourage or mandate vaccinations, you should be prepared with at least a policy framework and a communications plan as wider availability of the vaccine draws closer.
Article courtesy of Fisher Phillips
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that employers can’t terminate workers based on their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) status, and employers should understand that the ruling provides employment protections beyond being fired.
The court ruling is significant as the decision makes clear that “sex” discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against workers based on protected characteristics with respect to terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, firing, laying off, training or disciplining.
An employer may not discriminate with respect to benefits provided to any group of similarly situated workers that includes members of a protected class, and that would be particularly true with respect to health care coverage, parental leave and similar emoluments.
Employers should thoroughly review their application, hiring and ongoing work processes to look for issues that may relate to these areas, said Randy Coffey, an attorney with Fisher Phillips. The review should include health plan coverage and procedures, leave and insurance benefits, and any other areas in which LGBTQ employees conceivably might be affected or treated differently from other employees, he said.
Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against workers because of their color, national origin, race, religion or sex. The act makes it unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”
The Supreme Court held in its landmark ruling, Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., that an employee’s “homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.” Federal appeals courts had disagreed on whether Title VII’s ban on discrimination based on sex included LGBTQ status, but the high court found that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”
The decision focused on unlawful terminations, which were the subject of the cases before the court, but the ruling extends to all employment actions that are protected under Title VII.
“The Supreme Court’s decision not only prohibits an employer from refusing to hire or discharging an employee based on LGBTQ status, but also prohibits treating employees differently in the spectrum of compensation, terms or conditions of employment because of the individual’s LGBTQ status,” explained Amy Blaisdell, an attorney with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago and St. Louis.
Of course, employers will still be able to defend such discrimination claims in the same ways they have defended against other Title VII discrimination charges. In the event that an employee can make a viable, initial claim of discrimination—or prima-facie case—the employer will then have the opportunity to show nondiscriminatory reasons for the employment action.
As is the case generally with respect to Title VII, it is a best practice not only to be fair but to document employee-related decisions, furnish accurate evaluations, and maintain and publicize anti-discrimination policies.
Employers should note that Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, though many state and local anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ workers apply to smaller employers.
Scope of the Ruling
“There are definite health and benefit considerations for employers stemming from the court’s ruling,” Blaisdell said. For example, LGBTQ employees may rely on the case to argue that employers are required to offer medical plans providing transgender medical benefits to them.
“Yet, many faith-based employers decline coverage for such services on the basis that covering transgender benefits would conflict with moral and religious teachings,” she said. “This push and pull between individual rights and religious liberties was left unresolved by the court’s decision.”
Jay Dade, an attorney with Polsinelli in Kansas City, Mo., said he would caution anyone from drawing legal conclusions past the issues addressed by Bostock—that is, those of employment. However, he noted, employers are always free to offer protections beyond those provided by applicable laws and many provide employment protections to LGBTQ employees through workplace policies.
“The court also made it a point to note that these cases did not require the court to address concerns about religious conviction,” added Jason Plowman, also an attorney with Polsinelli in Kansas City, Mo. On that point, the court specifically noted that “how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases” because “none of the employers before us today represent in this court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.”
The intersection of these two sets of protections will almost certainly be a focus of future litigation related to sexual orientation and gender identity, along with how the Bostock ruling applies or does not apply in other contexts, Plowman said.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a final rule on June 12, three days before the Bostock decision, that eliminated anti-discrimination protections based on gender identity in health care and health insurance that the agency said were unenforceable and exceeded the prior administration’s authority.
“The Supreme Court ruling does not directly impact the recent HHS rule,” noted Jeffrey Smith, an attorney with Fisher Phillips. That’s because the HHS interpretation is based on Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, while the Supreme Court was interpreting provisions of Title VII.
“That said, it does demonstrate a shift in the legal landscape, and it may be harder for HHS to continue to enforce the interpretation it has just released,” Smith added.
Coffey said employers should expect a wave of litigation over the “outer reaches” of the Bostock decision. “There is no question that there will be many new filings alleging discriminatory failures to hire, harassment and hostile work environment claims, and discriminatory termination, all based on the sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity of applicants and employees.”
For many employers, the Bostock decision will reinforce their policies prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, said Lori Armstrong Halber, an attorney with Reed Smith in Philadelphia and Princeton, N.J. Other employers will need to amend their policies immediately to include sexual orientation and gender identity within the classes protected from discrimination in their workplace.
“All employers would be best served by taking the opportunity to educate and train their employees on their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and to focus some of that training on LGBTQ bias,” she said.
In “Alice in Wonderland,” the Queen of Hearts once proclaimed, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” This appears to be the rallying cry of many plaintiffs across the country when they file administrative charges and lawsuits. They continue to name individual supervisors and human resources directors as individual defendants despite case law that generally holds individuals cannot be found liable under some of the most common federal employment discrimination laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
Unfortunately, the clear language in case law supporting the dismissal of individuals has not prevented plaintiffs from bringing claims under these statutes. A federal court judge in Oregon recently outlined this costly and questionable practice in his dismissal opinion in a case involving Starbucks, stating:
[Plaintiff’s] attorneys regularly file suit in state court for violations of these [discrimination] statutes against individual employees, knowing that they likely will be defended and indemnified by the employer, for the ostensible purpose of educating and deterring them from unlawful behavior. This court fails to see any need to file a lawsuit to deter such unlawful behavior. Even if employees are not sued individually, their employer surely will take appropriate action to deter any future behavior. [Plaintiff’s] attorneys also admitted that as a matter of course they sue employees prior to engaging in discovery and obtaining any evidence as to how complicit the employees may have been in the alleged discrimination or retaliation. Instead, they appear to presume that any employee who questions the plaintiff’s work performance should be sued.
Being named in a lawsuit puts individuals in a terrible position of having to personally defend themselves. Even if they are able to eventually get dismissed from the complaint, they do not come out unscathed—they often get stuck paying defense costs and are usually subjected to the invasive discovery process.
This shotgun approach to employment litigation establishes that plaintiff take the Cheshire Cat’s words to heart, in pursuit of money: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there.”
Federal And State Laws That Permit Individual Liability
The frightening aspect of this trend is that those roads do sometimes lead plaintiffs to a place where they can recover from supervisors, managers, and HR directors. At the state level, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington are among the states that allow plaintiffs to bring claims against individuals under the theory that they “aided and abetted” discrimination or harassment. And California allows plaintiffs to bring claims against individuals for harassment. Likewise, many states allow plaintiffs to bring claims against individuals who “retaliate” against them for engaging in protected activity. These types of laws will continue to sweep across the country as the states that have enacted them are generally at the forefront of employee rights.
At the federal level, individuals are regularly found personally liable for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
For instance, a 2017 case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently held that an HR director may be individually liable for FMLA and wage violations. In Edelman v. Source Healthcare Analytics, LLC, the court determined that there is individual liability under the statute because it defines an “employer” to include “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” The court next found the HR director acted in the interest of the employer when she terminated plaintiff.
The court reasoned that the HR director is subject to personal liability under the FMLA because she exerted control over plaintiff’s specific leave and because she terminated her. Using this same reasoning, it appears that the court would have likely reached this same conclusion if it was a manager, or perhaps even a general counsel, who advised the plaintiff of her FMLA rights and subsequently terminated the plaintiff’s employment.
An even more recent case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a defendant’s request to have a race discrimination claim against the individual supervisor dismissed. In a 2018 case against a trucking company, the plaintiff made four different attempts to sue a former supervisor. The fourth time was the charm, as the court recently concluded that the plaintiff pled the bare minimum for his race discrimination claim to survive against the supervisor under § 1981.
Interestingly, the only allegation relating to possible race-based discrimination was plaintiff’s allegation that the supervisor ordered him “to go home early” and “leave work until his next scheduled shift.” The supervisor allegedly made this demand upon learning about plaintiff’s report to another employee of disparate treatment between Caucasian and African-American employees.
This case should serve as a cautionary tale to all HR directors, managers, and supervisors as there were no other allegations of race-based discrimination against the individual supervisor. In fact, there were no allegations that the supervisor had any involvement in the decision to terminate the plaintiff. Further, there were no allegations that the supervisor played a role in the union’s investigation and hearing. The court simply concluded the supervisor’s decision to send the plaintiff home was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.
Managers, HR directors, and supervisors should heed the Queen of Hearts’ recommendations when considering what steps to take to protect themselves and their company: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
To better protect yourself and the company, you should ensure your employee handbook accurately reflects the ever-changing laws related to protected classes and all forms of harassment. Second, you should schedule annual harassment and discrimination trainings with managers and non-managers. These trainings will act as a defense in the event of a discrimination or harassment lawsuit. Also, the trainings will put employees on notice that they may be personally liable for violations of both state and federal employment statutes.
Finally, there must be an emphasis, from the top down, to take responsibility for the company’s workplace culture. Remaining complacent exposes both companies and individuals to a disgruntled employee exclaiming “off with their heads!”
Article Courtesy of Fisher & Phillips
On June 19, 2018, the Trump administration took the first step in a three-part effort to expand affordable health plan options for consumers when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) finalized a proposed rule designed to make it easier for a group of employers to form and offer association health plans (AHP). A final rule relaxing rules around short-term, limited duration insurance and a proposed rule addressing health reimbursement arrangements are expected in the upcoming months. In cementing proposed changes to its January 2018 proposed rule, “Definition of ‘Employer’ Under Section 3(5) of ERISA — Association Health Plans,” the administration seeks to broaden health options for individuals who are self-employed or employed by smaller businesses. The final rule will be applicable in three phases starting on September 1, 2018.
Under the rule, it will be substantially easier for a group of employers tied by a “commonality of interest” to form a bona fide association capable of offering a single multi-employer benefit plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The rule outlines two primary bases for establishing this “commonality of interest”: (1) having a principal place of business in the same region (e.g., a state or metropolitan area), or (2) operating in the same industry, trade, line of business or profession. An association also may establish additional membership criteria enabling entities with a sufficient “commonality of interest” to participate in the AHP, such as being minority-owned or sharing a common moral or religious conviction, so long as the criteria are not a subterfuge for discrimination based on a health factor. Further, the final rule clarifies how the association must be governed and controlled by its employer-members in order to be considered a bona fide association capable of offering a single-employer health benefit plan.
Meeting the criteria for a bona fide group or association of employers in the final rule allows the AHP to be treated as a single-employer ERISA plan. Thus, assuming the association is comprised of employer-members with more than 50 total full-time employees, it will be considered a large group and exempt from key Affordable Care Act (ACA) market reforms, such as the essential health benefits requirements and modified community rating rules, that would otherwise apply to a health plan offered by any of its individual employer-members with less than 50 full-time employees. This is important because the ACA applies certain requirements only to small group (and individual) health insurance products and not to large group plans.
The split among appeals courts over whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual orientation discrimination deepened Feb. 26, as the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it does. The decision makes it likely that the Supreme Court ultimately will have to rule on the issue, said Michelle Phillips, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y.
Two appellate courts now agree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) position that Title VII protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Claims of sexual orientation discrimination are increasingly being litigated,” said Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. “[A]n increasing number of courts are finding that such claims can be brought under Title VII, the law remains in flux. This uncertainty will continue until the Supreme Court addresses the issue or Congress passes clarifying legislation.”
He recommended that employers increase their sensitivity to issues related to sexual orientation in the workplace during this period of uncertainty.
Phillips noted that 22 states plus the District of Columbia prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.
Fired Gay Skydiver Sues
In the 2nd Circuit case, a skydiving instructor sued his former employer, alleging he was fired from his job after he revealed to a female customer that he was gay. He told her this to calm her worry about being strapped tightly to him during the jump. Her boyfriend complained to the employer following this disclosure and alleged that the skydiver touched her inappropriately, and the instructor was discharged. He alleged sex discrimination under Title VII, asserting that he was fired because he failed to conform to male sex stereotypes and because he was gay.
The plaintiff died in a skydiving accident, but his estate continued with the claim. The district court dismissed his Title VII claim. It held that the plaintiff had failed to show gender stereotyping under Title VII based on his sexual orientation. In addition, it noted that prior case law in the 2nd Circuit held that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
2nd Circuit Changes Course
During oral arguments before the 2nd Circuit in this case, the EEOC advocated for a broad reading of Title VII that encompassed sexual orientation. But the Justice Department argued that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination did not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination, Schwartz-Fenwick noted.
The 2nd Circuit reversed, overruling prior case law and determining that sexual orientation should be treated as a subset of sex discrimination for several reasons:
The 2nd Circuit also observed that the EEOC and the 7th Circuit had reversed their previous views that Title VII did not bar sexual orientation discrimination, Schwartz-Fenwick noted.
But in 2017, the 11th Circuit held that Title VII did not extend to sexual orientation, he observed. The Supreme Court declined to review the 11th Circuit Court’s decision in December 2017.
The other federal appeals courts—namely the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th Circuits—have also held that sexual orientation is not expressly covered by Title VII, said Sean Crotty, an attorney with Honigman in Detroit. The Supreme Court may want to see more recent opinions from the circuits on the issue before granting review, he said.
The 2nd Circuit encompasses Connecticut, New York and Vermont.
Late yesterday (4/4/17), the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal court of appeals in the nation to rule that sexual orientation claims are actionable under Title VII. Their decision opened the door for LGBT plaintiffs to use Title VII to seek relief for allegations of employment discrimination and retaliation.
The April 4th ruling is important to employers because it broadens the class of potential plaintiffs who can bring workplace claims against them, and will require employers to ensure fair and equal treatment to all applicants and workers regardless of their sexual orientation (Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College).
The initial aim of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to protect employees from race discrimination in the workplace. Just before it was enacted, however, Congress added a provision prohibiting discrimination based on “sex.” Initially, federal courts took the position that “sex” should be interpreted narrowly.
However, over the years, plaintiffs have sought a much broader interpretation of what should be covered as sex discrimination. Following the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision which made same-sex marriage legal across the country, federal courts have grappled with determining which types of claims are actionable under the “sex” provision of Title VII. Meanwhile, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a July 2015 administrative decision ruling that “sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration’ and an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII” (Baldwin v. Foxx).
Although this decision involved a federal employee and was only binding on federal employers, other lower federal courts have discussed the rationale behind the EEOC’s conclusion and seemed ready to adopt the same approach. Indeed, on November 4, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with the EEOC and held that sexual orientation falls within the protection of Title VII (EEOC v. Scott Medical Center). However, no federal appellate court went that far – until now.
Kimberly Hively began working as a part-time adjunct professor for Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana in 2000. She worked there for 14 years until her part-time employment contract was not renewed in 2014. During her employment, she applied for six full-time positions but claims never to have even been offered an interview, even though she said she had all the necessary qualifications and had never even received a negative evaluation.
Hively filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, and in 2015, the trial court dismissed her case. She appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (which oversees federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), which initially agreed with the lower court by upholding the dismissal of her claim in July 2016.
The three-person panel of judges indicated that it had no choice but to deny Hively’s claim after reviewing a string of cases stretching back almost 40 years from across the country. The panel concluded that no other federal appellate court had decided that sexual orientation discrimination is covered under Title VII. The judges noted that we live in “a paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act,” but indicated they were all but powerless to rule otherwise absent a Supreme Court directive or a congressional amendment to Title VII.
In October 2016, the full collection of 7th Circuit judges set aside the ruling and agreed to re-hear the case en banc, which means all the judges would hear the case together. Late yesterday, the en banc panel issued a final ruling overturning its initial decision by an 8 to 3 vote and breathing new life into Hively’s case. More importantly, however, the 7th Circuit created a new cause of action under Title VII for other LGBT employees in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
In the opinion, drafted by Chief Judge Wood, the court concluded that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of discrimination” and that it “would require considerable calisthenics” to remove the “sex” from “sexual orientation” when applying Title VII. In addition, the court noted that efforts to do so had led to confusing and contradictory results.
In the end, the court concluded that the practical realities of life necessitated that it reverse its prior decision. It remanded Hively’s case back to the trial court for a new hearing under this broad new standard.
Employers in Illinois and Wisconsin are already subject to state laws protecting private workers based on sexual orientation, so yesterday’s decision should simply reaffirm their commitment to ensuring fairness and equality for these employees. For private employers in Indiana, however, the time is now to take proactive steps to ensure sexual orientation is treated the same as any other protected class – this includes reviewing your written policies, handbooks, training sessions, workplace investigations, hiring methods, discipline and discharge procedures, and all other aspects of your human resources activities.
As for employers in the rest of the country, it appears likely that yesterday’s ruling will be followed by decisions in other circuit courts similarly extending Title VII rights to cover sexual orientation. In fact, the plaintiff in a prominent case recently decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (hearing cases from Florida, Georgia, Alabama) has indicated she could seek a full en banc review of her case in the hopes of extending Title VII to cover LGBT workers in that circuit. It would not be surprising for the Hively case to be the first in a series of dominoes that brings about a new day for Title VII litigation across the country.
We can expect to see further judicial rulings in the coming years fleshing out this issue in more detail. For example, one issue not addressed by the 7th Circuit is how this new theory will affect religious institutions given that different standards apply to them under federal antidiscrimination laws. These and other considerations will be debated in courts across the country in the near future.
Even if these appeals court decisions do not immediately materialize, there are two other avenues whereby employers could still face immediate liability for such claims. The first is through state law. Almost half of the states in the country have laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in employment (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin), and some additional states protect state workers from such discrimination (Alaska, Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia).
Second, plaintiffs have successfully argued to various federal courts that Title VII sex discrimination covers claims where plaintiffs allege mistreatment based on gender non-conformity actions. This includes situations where employers are alleged to have discriminated against workers for failing to live up to stereotypical gender norms. Courts have noted that drawing a line that separates these “sex-stereotyping” claims from pure sexual orientation claims is “exceptionally difficult” because the distinction is often “elusive,” meaning that employers anywhere could face a Title VII claim akin to sexual orientation discrimination that would be accepted as valid by a federal court no matter what the federal appeals courts say. This concept was discussed in the 11th Circuit’s recent Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital decision, and the court in fact permitted the plaintiff to proceed with her case on a stereotyping theory.
While possible that the Supreme Court or Congress will step in and reverse this trend, as a recent court stated, “it seems unlikely that our society can continue to condone a legal structure in which employees can be fired, harassed, demeaned, singled out for undesirable tasks, paid lower wages, demoted, passed over for promotions, and otherwise discriminated against solely based on who they date, love, or marry.” Employers should take heed and prepare for what appears to be an inevitable extension of workplace protection rights for LGBT workers based on their sexual orientation.
The topic this month highlights record retention and cover what employers should be keeping and for how long.
Did you know that there are over 14,000 federal, state, and industry specific laws/standards/regulations that dictate how long employers are required to keep certain records? Non-compliance can result in fines against company employees personally as well as judgments against the company itself.
Some of the Federal Labor and Employment laws that require record retention include:
Please contact our office directly if you would like more information on this topic or if you would like more information regarding how to conduct an audit of your company record retention policies.
Employers should make sure that any background check they perform is job related and consistent with business necessity. As advised during the recent 2013 Workplace Strategies seminar, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), worker advocacy groups and plaintiff attorneys are not giving employee and applicant credit and criminal background checks intense scrutiny.
To avoid EEOC charges of disparate treatment or disparate impact based on a background check, an employer should follow four essential steps:
These steps involve the interplay of federal law including Title VII and the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) as well as state mini FCRAs.
When an Employer May Request a Background Check
According to the EEOC, employers must ensure that there is a direct connection between the type of background check performed and the individual applicant’s or employee’s job duties and that a particular type of background check is done for all applicants and employees in certain positions (not just certain applicants or employees) if there is not an individualized, specific reason for the background check.
The starting place is the job title. For example, while there would be a strong business justification to run a credit check on a CFO, there would not be a justification for a credit check for a janitor. The next step is to consider the nature of the job –whether it involves activities like data entry or just lifting boxes- and the circumstances in which the job is performed. Consider the level of supervision involved and whether there is interaction with vulnerable adults. Finally, take into account the location where the position is performed.
Requesting a background check requires the employee or applicant to sign a disclosure and authorization form that is separate from other documents, such as the employment application. Be sure to list and describe the background check information being requested and reviewed but don’t include a release from liability as that would invalidate the consent.
If the employer receives negative information about the applicant or employee, the FCRA requires that a pre-adverse- action letter be sent to the individual if there is potential for an adverse employment action. Title VII requires the employer to conduct an individualized assessment and send an action letter.
The individualized- assessment process must give the applicant or employee an opportunity to provide additional facts or context to explain why the background check’s finding should not be applied in his or her case. It is advised to ask for the response from the employee in writing as it exhibits the seriousness of your position and establishes a record. If the individual does not respond, the employer may make the employment decision without the extra information.
It is cautioned that employers generally should not use arrest information in making employment decisions, but rather consider if you would exclude the applicant if there was a conviction.
With regard to convictions, EEOC’s 2012 guidance on Title VII and background checks strongly recommends that employers use a targeted screening process that takes into consideration the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and the nature of the job held or sought.
The EEOC does not provide guidance on the time period to cover when looking into criminal records. Many employers use a seven year period, but it is best to consider a longer time frame if it is deemed appropriate for your business activities.
Several states have mini-FCRAs that restrict employers from requesting certain types of background checks. Currently, 11 states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington) limit an employer’s ability to run a credit background check. Similar legislation is pending in 13 other states as of 2013.
In addition, 12 states have state-specific disclosures that must be included on the disclosure and authorization form and some states require an employer to customize its form by position or type of check being run. In California, for example, employers must identify the specific state statutory basis authorizing them to request and use a credit report.
There are no state law restrictions on requesting criminal check however.
The media, paired with political figures, have paid increased attention to workplace bullying in recent years. Legislators in 21 states have even introduced bills to address and combat workplace bullying, starting with California in 2003.
However, none of the legislatures in states which these bills have been introduced have passed the bills into law. There are a variety of explanations for why there has not been a change in the law despite workplace bullying becoming a hot button employment issue, but the most obvious explanation is this: it truly is difficult to define workplace bullying.
What Is It….Exactly?
The general definition of work place bullying is a behavior in which an individual or group uses persistent, aggressive, or unreasonable behavior against a coworker or subordinate. As with childhood bullying, we often think of workplace bullying as being physical acts against another, such as assaulting a coworker or invading a coworker’s personal space in a threatening manner, however it often takes a more subtle forms. For instance, a supervisor can act as a bully by manipulating work tasks, like giving a victim repetitive or irrelevant assignments as a means of control. Supervisors can also act as a bully in the way they provide feedback. For instance, a supervising bully can choose to belittle a subordinate in a public setting so as to humiliate them, as opposed to delivering the constructive criticism in a private setting.
Because bullying comes in many forms and is often understated, it is a challenge to create a proper definition for it. Most notably, it is difficult to draw precise lines between assertive managers and bullying conduct. Employers depend on their managers to evaluate the performance of the employees under their supervision and to provide feedback so employees can learn from mistakes and improve. The big question is how do we know when that vital evaluation process has crossed the line and become bullying behavior, especially when criticism by its nature entails negative statements.
Employers can use two simple rules of thumb to aid in analyzing if certain behavior constitutes bullying, especially with respect to supervisor/supervisee relations:
Problems Are Both Legal and Practical
State legislatures might struggle to define workplace bullying, but the absence of specific anti-bullying laws should not deter employers from being wary to this phenomenon. If left unchecked, bullying can create a host of workplace headaches, such as (1) increased use of sick leave, (2) increased use of medication, such as anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers, (3) social withdrawal, (4) decreased productivity and motivation, (5) increases in the frequency and severity of behavior problems, (6) erratic behavior, such as frequent crying spells and increased sensitivity, and (7) increased turnover.
And the fact that there is no designated legislation for workplace bullying does not mean that the behavior cannot create lawsuits in other ways. Assault and battery claims are the most obvious legal actions that bullying can cause, but there are a host of other ways that employees who are bullied (or who perceive they were bullied) can gain access to the courts.
For instance, a bullying victim can bring a claim pursuant to Title VII for harassment or discrimination if the individual ties the activity to a protected characteristic, such as “my female boss degrades men under her supervision.” A bullying victim can also bring a claim against an employer for negligent hiring and retention on the theory that the employer knew about a supervisor’s bullying tendencies (either during the hiring process or thereafter) and did nothing. There are even implications under OSHA which requires that employers complete a Workplace Violence Incident Report in any instance which an employee commits a violent act against another employee.
In light of the performance, and litigation, related reasons to combat workplace bullying, you should take steps to handle this problem, if you have not done so already. Every employer should have an anti-bullying policy that : (1) defines workplace violence and bullying behaviors, (2) provides a reporting procedure that identifies multiple managers to whom incidents or threats can be reported, and (3) encourages employees to report incidents, especially by assuring them that the employer will not tolerate retaliation against an individual who complains of bullying.
The last point is especially important because bullying victims often feel powerless as a result of the power dynamic that the bully has fostered. You should also train your managers on workplace bullying so they have a basic understanding of the warning signs and the potential impacts for not addressing bullying at the first possible instance.
While the law has not caught up to the problem of workplace bullying, a savvy employer can get in front of the issue by taking basic steps to ensure a bully-free workplace.