The Expansion of Regarded-As Discrimination

June 17, 2015

by Jay Wolman

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects three categories of individuals:  those presently disabled, those previously disabled, and those perceived to be disabled.  The latter is deemed “regarded as”; it does not require the member of the protected class to actually have or have had a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.  This is the only statute explicitly providing for “regarded as” protection.  However, caselaw seems to be filling the gaps in other laws.

In Macy v Holder, the EEOC explicitly found that discrimination against transgendered individuals is unlawful under Title VII, discussing the difference between sex and gender.  It also reviewed cases finding that failure to conform to gender stereotype is actionable discrimination.  Of note, Title VII does not speak to gender.

Recently, in EEOC v Abercrombie & Fitch, the Supreme Court ruled that where an employer perceived that an employee might require a religious accommodation, even if that perception is wrong, and discriminates against the employee on the basis of that perception, such discrimination is unlawful under Title VII.  In that case, as you may recall, a Muslim job applicant was perceived to potentially need a modification of the dress policy, even though the employer disavowed actual knowledge of the need.  For all intents and purposes, it is now deemed unlawful to discriminate on the basis of being regarded as having a specific religious belief if the motive is then to deny a reasonable accommodation to that belief.

Taking it a further step is the case of Rachel Dolezal who regards herself as African American.  Let’s assume she is actually Caucasian.  If she applies for a job and is denied because she is perceived to be African American, does she have a claim?  She has not been discriminated against on the basis of her actual race.  However, she might have a claim based on color, as Title VII does cover both “race” and “color”.  But, she could lose if the employer replaces her with another bronzed or tanned Caucasian–“color” might not be sufficient.  Yet, expanding on Macy and cases cited therein, Ms. Dolezal may be viewed as not conforming to racial stereotype.  Thus, a white person, regarded as being black, might have an actionable claim.  And, if so, others may have actionable claims for not being white, black, asian, hispanic, or native american “enough“.


The Future of Restrictive Covenants in Settlements and Severance

June 5, 2015

by Jay Wolman

The law is ever changing and what is common may, at some point, become unlawful (or already is without folks realizing it).  Recent developments in statutory law and enforcement actions in existing law have really made me think about all of those clauses that commonly appear in agreements with former employees, whether as part of a severance agreement or as a settlement of claims.

For instance, many of these agreements include a confidentiality clause that prohibits the former or soon-to-be former employee from disclosing how much is being received in severance or settlement.  Many of these agreements contain new restrictions on the disclosure of trade secrets (or reaffirmations of prior such covenants), including personnel practices and wage scales.  Many of these agreements contain nondisparagement clauses prohibiting the employee from saying anything that might be deemed as negative against the employer.  Each of these may be or may soon be unlawful.

As noted by Connecticut attorney Dan Schwartz, the Connecticut legislature just passed a bill that prohibits employers from taking action that would bar an employee from disclosing his/her wages or that of another employee.  As noted therein, “wages” means “means compensation for labor or services rendered by an employee, whether the amount is determined on a time, task, piece, commission or other basis of calculation”.  Certainly, to the extent severance or settlement represents such compensation, the law could be read to make settlement/severance payments that were confidential now free and open.  It also would render inapplicable any trade secret clause that prohibits disclosure of a wage scale or other compensation basis.  In fact, in the situation where there was a confidential settlement, where the claimant employee settled for, perhaps, too little, and thus wanted confidentiality, another employee with knowledge might now be free to publicize the settlement amount.

But wait, you might ask, the law says “employee”, not “former employee”, so isn’t that inapposite?  Not necessarily.  In Robinson v. Shell Oil, that noted liberal Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court, held that “employee” for Title VII purposes, included “former employee” in order to effectuate anti-retaliation policy.  Connecticut courts may follow this rationale, and other states may adopt similar legislation.

That said, some of these provisions may already be unlawful nationwide.  Last year, the EEOC challenged CVS severance provisions that, among others, included nondisparagement clauses and prohibitions on disclosing personnel information. CVS won, but on a technicality, not substantively.  And the NLRB has found success in the 5th Circuit in the Flex Frac Logistics case, where a ban on discussing “personnel information and documents” interfered with employee section 7 rights to discuss wages with coworkers and non-employees.  As a hypothetical, imagine that the former employee wants to get hired as a union organizer to organize the workforce of the employer–the nondisparagement, nondisclosure, confidentiality clauses of a severance or settlement would likely interfere with the ability to organize and would probably not survive.

These clauses are very common, but likely are not long for this world.  In the interim, employer counsel may want to rethink the standard severability clause.  Although employers are certainly keen on obtaining as much a release as possible, it may be time to reconsider whether the agreement should survive if the former employee can simply ignore these clauses.  This also might not bode well for former employees, as employers are apt to pay less in severance/settlement if the amount will be subject to public scrutiny.


When Disabilities Compete

April 18, 2012

Gentlemen, start your engines.  The city of Indianapolis is facing a lawsuit arising from competing disability claims.  In one corner, a person using a service dog to help them with their disability (while the typical scenario is the seeing-eye dog, apparently this is a paprika-sniffing dog).  In the other, a person with a dog allergy.  Paprika

The Americans with Disabilities Act (along, likely, with the Indiana state law equivalent), in a nutshell, requires employers to not discriminate against employees in the terms and conditions of their employment on the basis of a disability, so long as the employee can perform the essention functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodation.  Here is where it gets sticky.  Let’s first assume both employees in question are disabled within the meaning of the statute, which they likely are as they suffer from physical impairments (exposure to specific allergens) that substantially limit a major life activity (e.g. anaphylaxis preventing breathing in severe reactions).  Using a service dog or preventing dogs in the workplace are both likely reasonable accommodations.  Problem is, these are mutually exclusive accommodations.

Of course, there is an escape clause:  employers are not required to make an accommodation, even if reasonable, if it otherwise would impose an undue hardship.  Here, if the dog-allergy employee (DAE) is valuable, the employer could state that it would be an undue hardship to permit dogs as it would cause the loss of services of the DAE.  It is an affirmative defense that the employer would have to prove, though it may be conflated with the reasonableness of the paprika-allergy employee’s (PAE’s) request.  Also, employers are not required to provide the most reasonable accommodations, or the best reasonable accommodations, but rather one of the list of possible reasonable accommodations.

In the choice between DAE and PAE, the employer is free to choose DAE.  However, the inquiry does not end there.  The city apparently offered her only her job w/o dog or unpaid leave, neither of which are reasonable.  What about a transfer of position or location that could accommodate both?  Cities are usually sufficiently spread out to permit such an accommodation, so long as there is no conflict with civil service laws or collective bargaining agreements.  So, PAE may yet have a case; in the meantime, she should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Also, who knew?  Paprika is everywhere!


First Amendment trumps Equal Opportunity Employment

January 11, 2012

Today, the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC  issued a unanimous ruling on the First Amendment.  While this blog regularly celebrates the Freedom of Speech clause, the decision focuses primarily on the Free Exercise Clause and, to a lesser extent, the Establishment Clause.

In a nutshell:

  1. Church had 2 types of teacher–lay and ministerial.
  2. Ministerial teacher develops disability and takes leave of absense; replaced by lay teacher.
  3. Church rules normally prioritize ministerial teachers, but when this teacher tries to get her job back, she is denied.
  4. She becomes insubordinate and complains of an ADA violation.
  5. She is terminated.
  6. Teacher sues the church for retaliation against her for making an ADA claim.
  7. Supreme Court says church wins.

Assuming there was blatant retaliation, the church still wins.  Why?  Because if the government were to tell a church they couldn’t fire a particular minister, that would prevent a church from freely deciding who gets to spread the gospel and who doesn’t.  To its extreme, though excepted specifically in Title VII, if the government had the power to dictate who a church could fire, it could prevent the Pope from defrocking an American Bishop who pronounces the Shahada and converts to Islam.  Basically, the 1st Amendment lets a religion freely decide who gets to be a minister, even if the reasons for hiring or firing are otherwise abhorrent to society.  If you don’t like it, you are free to change religions.  Or declare the person who did the firing a heretic and stone them.  Either way.


The Mark of Cain

November 3, 2011

Looks like Herman Cain is having a three way and not in the awesome sense.  A third woman has reportedly come forward with an allegation that Mr. Cain acted inappropriately toward her.  While I’m sure someday Mark might take a pro-sexual harassment case to the Supreme Court, arguing for the 1st Amendment right to be saucy, for now it is considered unlawful.

A side note to political candidates:  if you have a skeleton or three in your closet, reveal it yourself.  It will come out and you want to control the message.

Sexual harassment is a fascinating area of the law.  Sometimes, and rarely, it is blatant quid pro quo, the old casting couch.  Most times, it is something said that offended the listener, with some sexual or gender based content, that is deemed to have gone too far.  It’s like pornography, Rule 34 aside, you generally know it when you see it.  The hard fought cases are the ones where it is less clear.  According to the article:

she said Cain told her that he had confided to colleagues how attractive she was and invited her to his corporate apartment outside work.

Maybe that implied he wanted to sleep with her.  Maybe he was paying her a compliment and the invitation was platonic or business related.  President Obama is an attractive man and I’d welcome him to dinner at my house.  It doesn’t mean I want to become the First Lady by proxy.  As to the complaint Mr. Cain “settled” or reached an “agreement” on (synonyms to me, different to him), he states that it was about a comparison he made of a female coworker to the height of his wife.  If that was a pickup line, it is the worst ever; what woman gets turned on by a man who compares her to his wife?  I’m pretty sure that violates Ashley Madison’s own standards.  But, she may have taken it as such, and maybe that is what he intended.  There may be more to it, but he isn’t talking and she is bound by a confidentiality agreement.  Given both of these, and whatever the third is, you can see why these cases take a lot of lawyering.

As to the two that settled, it sounds like a year’s severance was given for one, and the other got something confidential.  A year’s severance is a pretty nice package; it’s not nuisance.  Confidentiality, on the other hand, does not imply a large settlement; some companies demand it even for nuisance suits.  They don’t want to set any form of precedent.

Some commenters have suggested she breach the confidentiality clause.  That is a huge no-no.  She’d likely have to repay the money, and the statute of limitations has run on filing a claim.  Plus, she’d probably owe attorneys’ fees.  And we’ve all seen how much it sucks to be hit with attorneys’ fees.  Others have suggested Mr. Cain is violating a non-disparagement clause.  My guess is: no.  Like confidentiality clauses, these are typically one sided.  An employee might get a neutral reference clause, but it usually isn’t as broad as the non-disparagement clause given to the employer.

My advice to Mr. Cain:  don’t blame Gov. Perry or Romney.  Air your dirty laundry now.  And watch what you say in the future.  I don’t want to hear any claim that “is” is ambiguous.

 


Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum

October 26, 2011

By Jay Wolman

As the newest Satyriconista, with a practice of civil litigation and employment law in Boston, I thought I’d begin my first post with something high-brow.  Everything sounds better in Latin.  This was St. Augustine’s way of saying “Hate the player, not the game”.  Fast forward 1500 years and the message remains relevant.

David Madden, the now former mayor of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a small town about a half hour south of Boston, is the player.  The public sector pension system is the game.  He is getting a lot of flack for manipulating the system to his benefit.  Unlike most private sector pensions (union pensions excluded), public sector pension benefits in many jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, are not determined solely by how much the worker contributes to the system (defined contribution), but rather include benefits based on status or job classification (defined benefit).  [Yes, pensions are far more complicated than that, but nuance does not matter for this discussion.]  It seems that Mayor Madden would make an extra $30k per year by retiring as Fire Chief rather than Mayor.  So, Mayor Madden did some nifty maneuvering with the help of his pals:  He takes leave from the position of Mayor at the end of his second term, appointing his buddy, the Town Solicitor (i.e. the top lawyer) as interim Mayor.  The incumbent Fire Chief takes a voluntary demotion and the Solicitor (now Mayor) appoints Mayor Madden as Fire Chief.  Two days later, without showing up to work, Fire Chief Madden retires and puts in for the higher pension.  And the Town approves it (the State is fighting it, but has lost in Court so far).

Now, not every Mayor can get away with this–Mr. Madden actually was the Fire Chief before becoming Mayor.  He technically took a leave of absence, meaning he had this in the works for eight years.  And his buddies go along with it.  Sure, it looks bad, but this is the system that was set up and no laws appear to have been broken.  I actually feel bad for Mayor Madden; he has to pay legal fees to defend what the law allowed him to do (although I am a lawyer, it is a personal pet peeve that “loser pays” is not the American Rule.)  If my fellow Massachusetts residents don’t like what he did, they shouldn’t take it out against Mayor Madden, they should change the rules.  Hard to do when the legislators also game the system, but not impossible.

Here’s a thought for my first post as a Satyriconista:  eliminate pensions.  I’m not saying we renege on current promises, but I’ve wondered why we even have this complicated mess. (I know, they are the result of WWII wage freezes.)  As we are no longer at war with the Axis powers, I don’t know anyone who really thinks “Hey, boss, I know I’m doing all this hard work for you now, but I don’t want you to pay me for all of it now.  I think it would be great if you held on to a portion so you could give it to me in thirty years.  I trust you to handle it more than I trust myself.  And I know you’ll pay every penny.

 


Dominatrix Lawyer Spanks Former Boss

October 21, 2011

Former New York state prosecutor Alisha Smith, who helped secure a $5 billion settlement from Bank of America, was unceremoniously suspended from her job because she spent her spare time as a dominatrix.

She was suspended from her job because the New York Post questioned whether she was paid for her nocturnal activities. The prosecutor’s office has a policy that prohibits outside employment without prior approval if the prosecutor earns more than $1,000. (source)

The New York Post reports:

Famous in the S&M world for her skillful spandex-clad spankings, Smith, while not denying her freaky ways, says she did not make money trolling the dungeons while working for the state’s top law-enforcement official, a job she’s held since 2002. (source)

Nice of the New York Post to have a positive story about Ms. Smith, since its sloppy reporting on her private life is why she got suspended in the first place.

She appeared at a press conference with Gloria Allred by her side to quit her job. (source) Working for $78,000 a year at a job where your boss doesn’t give you a chance to explain when the New York Post, of all places, writes crap about you — yeah, that’s grounds to say “I don’t get paid enough for this shit.”

Lets keep score:

    She kicks the shit out of Bank of America and brings $5 billion into the public coffers.

    The New York Post writes a sloppy piece full of muck and innuendo about a her private life.

    The prosecutor’s office lacks a spine and suspends her, without so much as giving her a chance to respond to the story.

    And now all of us suffer, because a seemingly good prosecutor is now making the Gloria Allred circuit instead of kicking the crap out of criminals.


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