On June 3, 2022, the full court of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned long-standing precedent regarding the burden of proof a plaintiff must carry in pursuing a Title VII Claim. In Chambers v. District of Columbia (D.C. Cir. 2022), the D. C. Circuit held in a 9-3 en banc decision that when an employer transfers an employee or denies an employee’s request for a transfer because of the employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the employer violates Title VII by discriminating against the employee in his or her “terms, conditions, or privileges” of employment. The court’s opinion overruled a nearly 24-year old precedent that held the denial or forced acceptance of a job transfer is actionable only if an employee suffers “objectively tangible harm.” See Brown v. Brody (D.C. Cir. 1999). The court’s decision could have sweeping effects on Title VII litigation throughout the country, as the diminished burden of proof is significantly more plaintiff-friendly and causes concern for employers when evaluating job transfers and potentially other employment actions.
The plaintiff worked in the Attorney General’s office in the District of Columbia for more than two decades as a clerk, Support Enforcement Specialist, and investigator. She requested several transfers to other units in the Attorney General’s office after complaining that she had a much larger caseload than her comparators. All of her transfer requests were denied, and she ultimately filed an EEOC charge and a lawsuit in 2014 alleging sex discrimination and retaliation.
The district court relied on Brown in granting the District of Columbia’s motion for summary judgement. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit upheld the district court’ ruling. However, two of the three judges highlighted that Title VII does not make any reference to “objectively tangible harm” and requested the full court to further review the matter.
The D.C. Circuit, in common with many other federal courts, has long imposed this tangible harm requirement articulated in Brown because of the view that Title VII is not a general “civility code” and that employees challenging discriminatory decisions should show more than de minimis harm lest courts be involved in supervising myriad routine business decisions. However, the en banc panel overruled Brown – holding that the refusal of a transfer request for one employee while granting similar requests to a similarly situated co-worker on the basis of a protected trait is discriminatory because it “deprives the employee of a job opportunity.”
Employee requests for medical and/or religious accommodations in the workplace are not new. However, never before have these accommodation requests been such a hot-button topic, nor have these accommodation requests been used so frequently (and in particular, religious accommodation requests). The imposition of COVID-19 vaccine mandates has changed that, particularly with regard to religious accommodation requests, which has become the ultimate “gray area,” as both employers and employees alike have learned that sincerely held religious belief can include an employee’s religious-based objection to vaccinations. As a result, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has issued guidance regarding the obligations of employers under Title VII when an employee presents with a religious objection to a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, which actually builds upon prior EEOC guidance regarding COVID-19 vaccinations in the employment context. Thus, there are multiple issues that employers need to keep in mind and juggle when addressing these vaccination accommodation requests.
Participants in this webinar learned how to best deal with such requests by their employees, including: Continue reading →
Announcing Conn Maciel Carey’s 2022 Labor and Employment Webinar Series
The legal landscape facing employers seems as difficult to navigate as it has ever been. Keeping track of the ever-changing patchwork of federal, state and local laws governing the workplace may often seem like a full-time job whether you are a human resources professional, in-house attorney or business owner. Change appears to be the one constant. As we enter Year 2 of President Biden’s Administration, employers will continue to closely track the changes taking place at the NLRB, the DOL and the EEOC. At the same time, a number of states will continue introducing new laws and regulations governing workplaces across the country, making it more important than ever for employers to pay attention to the bills pending in the legislatures of the states where they operate.
To register for an individual webinar in the series, click on the link in the program description below. To register for the entire 2022 series, click here to send us an email request, and we will register you. If you missed any of our programs from the past seven years of our annual Labor and Employment Webinar Series, here is a link to an archive of recordings of those webinars.
2022 Labor and Employment Webinar Series – Program Schedule
In October 2020, we published a blog post noting that with relatively low publicity at the time, the State of Maryland had enacted a law titled an “Act for Lodging Establishments – Accessible Rooms for Individuals with Disabilities – Bed Height,” requiring hotels and other places of lodging with at least 4 guestrooms to provide beds of certain heights in accessible guestrooms for individuals with disabilities, even though providing beds of specified heights in accessible guestrooms is not a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Now, once again with little fanfare, the State of Maryland has made an important change to this law, postponing, by one year, when each requirement is phased in over the course of four years. In the original version of the law, at least 25% of the beds in accessible guestrooms would have been required to meet the new requirements (explained below) by December 31, 2021. Now, however, by December 31, 2022 (i.e., instead of 2021), at least 25% of the accessible rooms in a lodging establishment must Continue reading →
Published in the Federal Register on November 5, 2021, the Federal OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard on Vaccination and Testing (“ETS”) first major compliance deadline was December 6, 2021. However, as a result of a stay entered by the 5th Circuit, and the 6th Circuit’s refusal to grant the Biden Administration’s petition to move up the briefing schedule, OSHA cannot begin enforcing, and has ceased all action, including answering employer questions about, the standard. (For continued updates on the status of the ETS review our Employer Defense Report and OSHA Defense Report.) As outlined in greater detail in a previous blog, the ETS generally requires employers with 100 or more employees to: develop employer policies on vaccination; provide paid time off for vaccination and to recover from vaccination; require employees to provide proof of full vaccination or submit to weekly testing; require unvaccinated workers to wear a face covering; remove COVID-19 positive cases from the workplace; and inform employees about the requirements of the ETS, COVID-19 vaccine efficacy and safety, prohibited retaliation, and the criminal penalties associated with knowingly supplying false statements or documentation. Given the robust requirements of the ETS, employers would be well advised to put in place mechanisms for compliance with the ETS in the event the stay is lifted, particularly if there is no delay in compliance deadlines. One important consideration is how to handle ETS-related medical and religious accommodation requests.
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation, so long as it does not impose an “undue hardship,” to qualified employees who have a disability. A person with a disability has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such impairment. A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is a person who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. If an employee or applicant with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation, employers must engage in an interactive process. In doing so, EEO guidance permits employers to consider whether complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic create a “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations. For example, it may be more difficult for an employer to provide an employee requesting an accommodation with a temporary re-assignment.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion. Employers are required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees with a “sincerely held” religious belief unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden. In Draper v. U.S. Pipe & Foundry Co., the court held Continue reading →
At long last, OSHA has revealed its COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing emergency regulation. The Federal Register site has updated to show the pre-publication package, which is set to run officially in the Federal Register tomorrow, November 5th. The 490-page package includes the Preamble and economic analysis of the regulation, as well as the regulatory text. The regulatory text begins on PDF page 473. Also here is a Fact Sheet about the ETS issued simultaneously by the White House.
We are extremely pleased to report that the rule aligns very well with positions for which CMC’s Employers COVID-19 Prevention Coalition advocated to OSHA and OMB on the most significant topics, like the responsibility for the cost of COVID-19 testing and a delayed implementation date, as well as very narrow record-preservation requirements, grandfathering of prior vaccine-verification efforts, and other elements. OSHA and the White House clearly listened to our views and the compelling rational we put forward for these positions, making the rule a much better, more effective and less burdensome one for employers.
In the meantime, below is a detailed summary of the rule:
What is the stated purpose of the regulation?
The ETS is “intended to establish minimum vaccination, vaccination verification, face covering, and testing requirements to address the grave danger of COVID-19 in the workplace, and to preempt inconsistent state and local requirements relating to these issues, including requirements that ban or limit employers’ authority to require vaccination, face covering, or testing, regardless of the number of employees.”
Who is covered?
As the president signaled in his announcement and action plan from September 9, the ETS applies only to employers with 100 or more employees, and the rule does make it explicit that the way you count those employees is on a company–wide basis, not establishment-by-establishment.
Earlier this week, the EEOC finally updated its guidance on Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates, which will impact how employers will implement their various vaccination, testing, and masking requirements.
US law has long-recognized an exemption from mandatory work policies (including vaccine-mandates) based on sincerely held religious beliefs, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and equivalent state statutes). For employers, evaluating religious exemption requests can be tricky (certainly trickier than requests for medical/disability-based exemptions), as there is often no readily verifiable evidence to help ascertain whether an employee’s religious objection to the work policy is a sincerely held religious belief (or even a religious belief at all). Indeed, although it is permissible to attempt to obtain a supporting statement from a religious leader or another member of their community who is familiar with the employee’s belief system, and employee is not required to provide such a statement, as they may not be affiliated with an organized religion. Furthermore, as an end-around to COVID-19 vaccine-mandates, many employees nationwide are attempting to seek a religious exemption when their actual objections are really based in political, ethical, or personal beliefs.
In response to requests from the regulated community, the EEOC has attempted to provide more clarity so that employers can have more confidence in implementing their accommodations process, and in many instances, to push back on suspect claims by employees of the need for a religious exemption. The guidance does offer some useful tools for employers, but unfortunately, it is not as helpful as we had hoped it might be.
The theme of the EEOC’s updated guidance is that employers must make an individualized evaluation of each employee’s request for a religious accommodation. The EEOC renewed Continue reading →
The seemingly never ending battle over employment arbitration agreements in California continues with last week’s Ninth Circuit court decision vacating a preliminary injunction over 2019’s California Assembly Bill 51 (previously discussed here and here).
Back in 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 51, which added section 432.6 to the California Labor Code and sought to ban new mandatory arbitration agreements to the extent they cover any discrimination claims under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), or any claims under the California Labor Code. Under this legislation, an applicant or employee could not, as a condition of employment, continued employment or the receipt of any employment-related benefit, be required to waive any right, forum, or procedure under the FEHA or any other specific statute governing employment. Employers would also be prohibited from threatening, terminating or otherwise retaliating or discriminating against an applicant or employee because of the refusal to consent to a waiver. Violations of these provisions would constitute unlawful employment practices under the FEHA and would be a misdemeanor.
Earlier this week, on August 23, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Earlier this year, many employers were hesitant to issue vaccine mandates and expressed concerns about potential legal risks associated with such a mandate since the COVID-19 vaccines were only approved for emergency use. While the full approval designation may not change the legal landscape as it relates to vaccine mandates, many employers may feel more comfortable imposing such mandates.
As explained in our prior blog, employers can mandate employee vaccinations under federal law. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance several months ago stating that employers generally can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees who physically enter the workplace without running afoul of the federal anti-discrimination laws it enforces. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) also issued a slip opinion on July 6, 2021, regarding vaccination mandates and the emergency use authorization status of the vaccines:
We conclude that section 564(e)(1)(A)(ii)(III) concerns only the provision of information to potential vaccine recipients and does not prohibit public or private entities from imposing vaccination requirements for vaccines that are subject to EUAs.
Happy anniversary to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which turns thirty-one this year. To celebrate its anniversary President Biden is “bringing agencies together to make sure Americans with long COVID, who have a disability, have access to the rights and resources that are due under the disability law.” According to President Biden, this “includes accommodations and services in the workplace, in school, and our health care system so they can live their lives in dignity and get the support they need as they continue to navigate these challenges.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) jointly with the Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as the departments of Education and Labor, have released guidance explaining that long COVID can be a disability under various federal civil rights laws, including the ADA.
“Long COVID.” “Long-haul COVID.” “Post-acute COVID-19.” “Long-term effects of COVID.” “Chronic COVID.” For clarity, all of these terms refer to new or ongoing symptoms experienced by some people after first being infected with COVID-19 and they are generally referred to as COVID long-haulers. Approximately 30% of COVID positive patients are COVID long-haulers and reported continued symptoms as long as nine months after their initial confirmed positive, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open in February. According to the CDC, symptoms may occur regardless of the severity of the COVID illness and include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, fatigue, sleeping problems, fevers, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety and depression, dizziness on standing, and “brain fog.” Some people who had severe COVID-illness may experience multiorgan effects or autoimmune conditions over a longer time with symptoms lasting weeks or months after COVID-19 illness. Finally, some who were hospitalized as a result of their COVID illness may suffer health effects during their recovery like severe weakness and exhaustion.