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

Memorial Day Reminder: Remember Your Obligations to Employees Currently Serving and Those Returning From Service

As we pashutterstock_1371695303used on Memorial Day to remember those who gave their lives in active military service, employers should not forget that employees who are currently serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard (collectively, the “uniformed services”) are afforded a broad range of rights and protections by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”).  USERRA is a federal law that protects civilian job rights and benefits for veterans and members of the Guard and Reserves.  USERRA, like the Family and Medical Leave Act, includes both substantive job restoration rights—at the conclusion of one’s service—as well as non-discrimination and non-retaliation provisions.  The job restoration rights provided by USERRA, however, impose heightened obligations on employers in an effort to ensure the returning service member is not disadvantaged when reentering the workforce because of his or her service.  Many employers also do not realize that returning service members—those that return to the same employer from which they took leave to serve—may only be terminated for just cause for certain periods of time depending on the length of their service.

No discrimination or retaliation.  Let’s start with the easy part.  As you might expect, employers must not deny initial employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion or any benefit of employment to an individual on the basis of his or her military service.  Additionally, an employer cannot retaliate against an individual by taking any adverse employment action against him or her because the individual has acted to enforce protections under USERRA, testified or otherwise Continue reading

Eleventh Circuit Announces New “Similarly Situated” Standard for Workplace Discrimination Claims

In employment discrimination cases, employees often seek to prove their claims by presenting indirect evidence of discrimination.  Employees will seek to present evidence that they were treated differently than similarly situated employees outside of their protected class.  On March 21, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit adopted a new test for analyzing these “comparators” by issuing its decision in Lewis v. City of Union City, Ga..  In doing so, the Court rejected its previous standards for analyzing comparators.  shutterstock_judge rulingBefore Lewis, courts in the Eleventh Circuit evaluated “similarly situated” comparators under either the “nearly identical” or “same or similar” standard, and sometimes even used both standards simultaneously.  The fact that two standards had emerged, and at times, were even used together, without any clear guidance on their proper use, caused the Court to call the entire situation “a mess.”  Accordingly, in an effort to clean up and clarify the proper standard for comparator evidence, a full panel of the Court took on Lewis so that it could address whether “similarly situated” should be interpreted as “same or similar,” “nearly identical,” or something else.  Ultimately, the Court decided to depart from its previous standards, and went with something else.  Now, in order to prove intentional discrimination by indirect evidence, a plaintiff must show that employees “similarly situated in all material aspects” received preferential treatment.  The Court also reiterated that this burden remains with the plaintiff as part of plaintiff’s prima facie case.  So, what was the case about, and what does it mean for employers?

After the announcement of a new policy requiring all police officers to carry Tasers and receive a five-second shock, Jacqueline Lewis, an African-American detective with the Union City Police Department in Union City, Georgia, was scheduled to receive such training.  She had also been scheduled to receive pepper spray training.  But, before receiving either of these, Ms. Lewis submitted a doctor’s note Continue reading

Supreme Court Poised to Decide Whether Title VII Protects LGBT Employees

On Monday, April 22, 2019, the United States Supreme Court granted petitions for certiorari for three cases that center on the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) protects LGBT rights.  Two of the cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgiaconcern whether, under Title VII, sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of an emploshutterstock_EEOCyee’s sexual orientation.  The third case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC, poses the question of whether the Title VII prohibition against sex discrimination prohibits gender identity discrimination.  Due to the similarity of the issues, the Supreme Court has consolidated the Altitude Express and Bostock matters for briefing and oral argument.  The Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in each of these three matters is significant because it will settle current Circuit splits, as well as disagreement among Agencies in the Federal government, on the scope of Title VII.

As discussed in a prior blog post, in Altitude Express, the Second Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit in finding that Title VII does protect employees from being discriminated against based on sexual orientation.  Specifically, the Second Circuit held that the text of Title VII necessarily includes sexual orientation as “…the most natural reading of [Title VII]’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of…sex’ is that it extends to sexual orientation discrimination because sex is necessarily a factor in sexual orientation.”  The Seventh Circuit in Hively v. Tech Community College, similarly determined that a reading of Title VII in the current cultural and legal context includes sexual orientation in the scope of Title VII. 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

Pay Equity and EEO-1 Reporting Remain a Priority of Federal Regulators

Pay inequity, particularly compensation disparity based on sex, has become a very prominent political issue in the last decade and it looks like some additional changes could be on the horizon at the federal level.  Demshutterstock_532208329ocrats expressed that pay equity would be a priority in their labor agenda during the 2018 Congressional election cycle and, in February 2019, a proposal intended to further promote fair pay practices was reintroduced in Congress.   In addition, just last week, a federal judge lifted the stay on the changes to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) EEO-1 Report.  The revised EEO-1 report would require certain employers to provide pay data by sex, race, and ethnicity to the EEOC, allowing it to more easily detect and track impermissible pay differentials.  Though at very different stages in their respective lawmaking processes, the proposed law and final regulation are very clearly intended to address pay inequality and provide additional enforcement tools.

Stay Lifted on EEO-1 Report

In August 2017, ahead of the 2018 submission deadline, the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) stayed collection of pay data based on race, ethnicity, and sex to allow it to review the regulation related to the lack of public opportunity to comment on the format of submission of the additional data and burden estimates related to the specific data file format provided.  However, on March 4, 2019, a Washington, D.C. federal judge ordered the stay be lifted because she determined that OMB’s decision was arbitrary and capricious – citing unexplained inconsistencies based on its prior approval of the rule and failure to adequately support its decision.  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