On the Basis of Personal Appearance

As you know, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is one of the principal federal statutes prohibiting employment discrimination.  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex (including gender and pregnancy).  shutterstock_Washington DCOther federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination include Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  But, employers must also be aware of state and local laws that extend protection beyond these federally protected classes.  In the District of Columbia, for example, it is a violation of the law to discriminate on the basis of personal appearance, a category of protected class that has caused employers significant confusion with respect to what kinds of dress and grooming policies they may lawfully enforce.  So what does personal appearance discrimination mean?  And what should employers do to minimize their legal risk and ensure they do not run afoul of such laws?

Under the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA), personal appearance is one of 20 protected traits for people that live, visit or work in D.C.  Personal appearance is defined as the outward appearance of any person, irrespective of sex, with regard to bodily condition or characteristics, manner or style of dress, and manner or style of personal grooming, including, but not limited to, hair style and beards.  To flesh this out, the D.C. Office of Human Rights, which administers Continue reading

Good Faith Goes a Long Way: The Benefits of Fully Engaging in the Interactive Process Mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act

On Monday, March 25, 2019, I had the privilege to co-present on reasonable accommodations and the interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) at the HR in Hospitality Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the issues Picture1covered during our presentation involved the fact that the ADA does not require that employers provide the specific accommodation requested by an employee as long as the employer offers a reasonable accommodation to the employee who made the request.  While employers can use their business judgment when deciding how best to reasonably accommodate an employee, a settlement recently announced by the EEOC underscores that many employers would be well-advised to develop internal procedures or guidelines to help ensure that those involved in the accommodation process understand what is expected of them and the company when responding to accommodation requests.   According to a lawsuit filed by EEOC in Minnesota, a Bath and Body Works store failed to reasonably accommodation a sales associate with type-1 diabetes suffering retinopathy who asked that a larger monitor screen be placed at the cash register.  Instead, a store manager purchased what the EEOC described as “a cheap, hand-held magnifying glass” to be used by the sales associate when working the register.

Under a consent decree settling the suit (EEOC v. Bath and Body Works), Bath and Body Works agreed to pay Continue reading

N.J. Court Opens Door for Employees to File Disability Discrimination Claims for Adverse Employment Actions Related to Medical Marijuana Use

Several states have taken steps toward legalizing marijuana in some form.  However, these laws differ in many respects and raise interesting questions for employers, especially as they relate to off-duty conduct.

While some states such as Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota provide specific statutory protections for employees that have a valid prescription for medical marijuana, there has been an increase in litigation under state disability discrimination laws for failure to accommodate an employee’s use of marijuana to treat a disability. The lingering question remains whether an employer’s decision to take an adverse action against an employee for using medical marijuana outside the workplace is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or a state’s disability Continue reading

Have Faith: 4.9 Million Dollar Settlement Underscores Importance of Accommodating Religious Beliefs During Hiring Process

What happens when the religious beliefs of an applicant conflict with your grooming and appearance policy?  What if the applicant is seeking a public-facing position in which they will be the first (and only) representative of your organization with whom most members of the public interact?  shutterstock_EEOCWhile some employers may believe that “image is everything” when it comes to the appearance of their public-facing employees, a 4.9 million-dollar settlement of a religious discrimination lawsuit announced recently by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) serves as a stark reminder to employers that even your most straightforward policies may need to be modified in certain situations.  As detailed in our June 7, 2018 blog post, the EEOC has been aggressively making good on the promise made in the agency’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 – 2021 to focus on “class-based recruitment and hiring practices” that discriminate against people with disabilities by filing a series of lawsuits accusing employers of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by inquiring about prior medical histories, subjecting applicants to physical capacity tests and refusing to hire individuals who disclosed certain conditions.  The agency’s Strategic Enforcement Plan similarly committed to rooting out religious barriers to employment.  This is important because while many employers readily understand the need to reasonably accommodate disabled applicants and employees, it seems that some employers fail to grasp that they may also have to accommodate religious beliefs and practices of applicants and employees.

What the Law Requires

Title VII requires that employers, once informed that a religious accommodation is needed, accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.  If an employer’s dress and grooming policy conflicts with an employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the EEOC expects Continue reading

TROUBLE WANTED: EEOC CONTINUES EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE ILLEGAL HIRING PRACTICES

By: Aaron Gelb

shutterstock_application (002)Hiring practices, by their nature, have the potential to impact large groups of individuals.  Employers using certain screening tools such as pre-employment tests and medical questionnaires may thus find themselves having to defend their policies and procedures in litigation brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  Last year, the EEOC announced in its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for Fiscal Years 2017 – 2021 that it will continue to focus on “class-based recruitment and hiring practices that discriminate against racial, ethnic, and religious groups, older workers, women, and people with disabilities.”  Since issuing the SEP, the agency has filed a number of lawsuits across the country against employers accused of creating barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities.  These cases serve as important reminders that even the most well-intentioned employers should take a close look at the tools they are using to screen applicants for the various positions they are attempting to fill or run the risk of squaring off against the EEOC.

Prescription Medications

Two recently filed lawsuits highlight the perils associated with pre-employment drug testing and/or asking applicants about their prescription drug usage.

In EEOC v. M.G. Oil Co. d/b/a Happy Jack’s Casino, 4:16-cv-04131-KES (D. S.D.), the agency accused the defendant of discriminating against an applicant for a cashier position by revoking her conditional employment offer after learning she received a non-negative drug screen result.  M.G. Oil promptly filed a third-party complaint seeking indemnity and contribution from TestPoint Paramedical, LLC, the company which administered the drug test.  M.G. Oil accused TestPoint of failing to send the test results to a medical review officer to determine if there was a valid reason for the non-negative result. M.G. Oil’s gamble failed as the court dismissed the claims against TestPoint, leaving M.G. Oil to explain why it refused to reconsider its decision to revoke the applicant’s offer after she explained the non-negative drug test result was due to her lawful use of a prescription pain killer she took for back pain.  The EEOC also accused M.G. Oil of violating the ADA by requiring all employees to report both prescription and non-prescription medications they are taking.  Eventually, the Company entered a consent decree settling the lawsuit, agreeing to pay $45,000 and adopt company-wide policies to prevent future hiring issues under the ADA.  The company also agreed to only require employees to report prescription and non-prescription medications that may affect their performance. Continue reading