Supreme Court Invites DOJ to Weigh In on Scope of Title VII

shutterstock_litigationOn October 15, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to weigh in on a petition to revive the discrimination case of Peterson v. Linear Controls Inc.  David Peterson, a former offshore electrician at Linear Controls, petitioned for a writ of certiorari on May 7, 2019, asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Fifth Circuit’s holding that more difficult working conditions alone are not enough to be considered an “adverse employment action” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The petition is currently pending, with the most recent action being the Supreme Court’s invitation to the DOJ’s Solicitor General to file a brief in the case to express the views of the United States.  So what is the case about, and what might the implications be for employers? 

Under Section 703(a)(1) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is 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 “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because of the individual’s race, religion, sex, or other protected status.  In this case, Peterson alleged Continue reading

Waitress Fired for Failing to Serve Transphobic Customers

shutterstock_transgenderLast month, a waitress, Brittany Spencer, was fired after refusing to serve transphobic customers at a Fat Joe’s Bar and Grill in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, raising questions as to whether the restaurant engaged in impermissible discrimination by doing so.  During her shift, Spencer was asked by a couple of patrons sitting at one of her tables what she thought of a transgender customer sitting at the bar.  According to Spencer, the couple asked her if she thought it was “disgusting and wrong,” and asked why the restaurant would “let someone like that into the establishment,” to which Spencer answered that she did not agree and walked away.  When Spencer asked her manager if another employee could serve the table because she was uncomfortable, her manager said no, and Spencer decided to leave.  That night, Spencer shared what had happened on Facebook, stating that she was sent home for refusing to serve the customers, and the following day, Spencer was alerted by restaurant management that she had been fired.  The restaurant claims that it fired Spencer for “refusing to do the duty [it] hired her for.”  Spencer has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Before diving into the analysis of Spencer’s potential discrimination claim, it is important to understand what she would be required to show.  As we have previously posted, as with almost all claims of discrimination, Spencer will likely seek to prove her case through the use of indirect evidence under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, requiring her to show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the unfavorable action gave rise to an inference of discrimination.  The question, however, will likely turn on Continue reading

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Rule on Website Accessibility Issue

In a blog post from February of this year, we discussed the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizzain which a blind man sued Domino’s in 2016 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) shutterstock_pizzaafter he was unable to order food from the pizza chain’s website using screen reading technology because the website lacked sufficient software compatibility capabilities.  Because the ADA guarantees people with a disability “full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services … of any place of public accommodations,” the plaintiff claimed that he had been the victim of unlawful disability discrimination.  Domino’s, on the other hand, argued that while the ADA applies to its brick-and-mortar locations, it does not apply to its website because a website is not defined in the ADA as a place of public accommodation.

In its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the ADA protects not just restaurants, hotels, stores, and other physical “brick and mortar” locations, but also the “services of a public accommodation,” notably websites and apps.  The Court then found that Domino’s violated Title III of the ADA because its website’s incompatibility with screen reader software impeded access to the goods and services of its physical pizza franchises.  Notably, this decision was the first by any U.S. Court of Appeals Continue reading

D.C. Circuit Raises Bar For Employers to Defend Discrimination Complaints

On May 10, 2019, the D.C. Circuit issued its opinion in Figueroa v. Pompeo, 923 F.3d 1078 (D.C. Cir. 2019), raising the bar for employers to articulate legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons for taking alleged unlawful actions against plaintiffs.  shutterstock_complaintAs we explained in a prior post, under the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework, after the plaintiff makes his/her prima facie case of discrimination, the employer has an opportunity to rebut plaintiff’s prima facie case by articulating legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons for taking the alleged discriminatory action.  And, if the employer is able to do that, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s stated reasons are a pretext for discrimination.  Figueroa now makes it more difficult for employers to successfully argue that the actions they took were for legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons.  So, what happened in the case, and what should employers do going forward?

The facts of the case are straightforward.  Figueroa, a Puerto Rican employee, alleged that his employer, the State Department, discriminatorily passed him over for promotions.  At the trial court level, the State Department moved for summary judgment, claiming that it did not discriminate against Figueroa, but rather decided not to promote him because other candidates were better qualified.  The State Department explained that candidates for promotion are ranked based on substantive criteria called “core precepts.”  These precepts consist of six performance areas: (1) leadership skills; (2) managerial skills; (3) interpersonal skills; (4) communication and foreign language skills; (5) intellectual skills; and (6) substantive knowledge.  The State Department explained that, although Figueroa

Continue reading

SSA No-Match Letters Are Back: How Should Employers Respond?

Capitol BuildingRecently, the Social Security Administration (SSA) resumed their practice of sending Employer Correction Requests (informally “no-match letters”) to employers advising them that information submitted on an employee’s Form W-2 does not match SSA records.  The SSA stopped sending no-match letters in 2012, but in recent months, employers across many industries have received letters.

The no-match letter states that there is an error with at least one name and the Social Security Number (SSN) on a W-2 that is submitted by the employer.  Importantly, the no-match letter does not imply that the employer or the employee intentionally reported incorrect information.  They are educational in nature to advise employers that a correction may be needed for the SSA to post the correct wages to the right record because discrepancies could occur due to typographical errors, unreported name changes (such as changes due to marriage or divorce) and inaccurate employer records.

If your company has received a no-match letter, consider taking the following action: Continue reading

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