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

New Year’s Resolutions Aplenty for Illinois Employers

By Aaron R. Gelb

shutterstock_checklistWhile many employers view California as a particularly challenging state in which to do business due to the variety of “unique” workplace laws and regulations, Illinois is not very far behind after a rather busy legislative session during the first year of Governor JB Pritzker’s term.  Whether or not you plan to hit the gym in 2020 or eat more vegetables next year, here is a list of New Year’s resolutions every organization should adopt if it has employees in Illinois:

□          Make sure you are not asking applicants about their salary history.

Hopefully, this is not on your list of New Year’s resolutions because the bill went into effect on September 29, 2019 after being signed into law by Governor Pritzker over the summer.  Under this new law, the Illinois Equal Pay Act has been amended to bar employers from asking a job applicant about their salary history.  Illinois employers may no longer screen or disqualify applicants because of their current or prior salary, nor can they insist that an applicant disclose his or her salary history in order to be interviewed, considered for or offered employment.  Forget about going straight to the source as the law also prohibits seeking such information from the applicant’s former employer.  Perhaps most significantly, the amendment also prohibits employers from factoring salary history information into compensation or hiring decisions even if an applicant provides the information voluntarily without prompting

□          Allow your employees to discuss their wages or other compensation issues with each other.

While Illinois employers can still prohibit select employees—human resources, for example—from disclosing confidential wage and salary information, they cannot otherwise place such restrictions on other employees.  The ability to discuss compensation has long been protected by federal law, so this new Illinois law should not pose any particularly unique challenges for Illinois employers.  That said, employers should take steps to ensure their managers understand the extent of the rights afforded their employees to openly discuss such issues, even if it has the potential to cause waves with their coworkers.

□          Schedule sexual harassment training in the latter part of the year.

Beginning July 1, 2020, Illinois employers will be expected to provide annual workplace sexual harassment training to employees and managers.  While the IDHR will be required to develop and make available a model sexual harassment prevention training to the public at no charge, it is not clear at this time when that will take place.  In the meantime, employers may develop their own program or wait for the free model program to be released.  Those employers that opt to create their own program must ensure that it includes an explanation of sexual harassment, examples of unlawful sexual harassment, a summary of relevant federal and state statutory provisions, and a summary of the employer’s responsibilities under the law.

□          Update your EEO policies.

There have been several amendments to the Human Rights Act, which will become effective July 1, 2020. Importantly, with a few limited exceptions, the amendments make the Illinois Human Rights Act (“HRA”) applicable to all Illinois employers, not just employers with 15 or more employees.  The HRA will now also apply to working environments beyond the physical location at which employees perform their assigned duties, which means that remote workers who claim to have been harassed online may presumably bring a claim against their employer; whether that will apply to individuals employed outside of Illinois but work for an Illinois company or report to an office in Illinois, remains to be seen.  This also means that employers would be well-advised to pay closer attention to off-site events such as holiday parties and ensure that any off-site incidents that are brought to the company’s attention are addressed as if they had occurred in the workplace.  EEO policies should also be revised to reflect the fact that the HRA now protects against discrimination or harassment on the basis of an individual’s “perceived” status; meaning that an employee may now bring a claim that they were discriminated against or harassed because they were perceived to be from a certain country or of a certain sexual orientation, for example, even if that is not the case.

Employers that operate a restaurant, bar or casino will face additional requirements intended to protect their employees from sexual harassment, including the need to (1) provide certain employees with personal safety and notification devices that may be used to summon help if they are the victim of or are witnessing sexual harassment or a crime; (2) expressly inform each of their employees about the protections against sexual harassment and discrimination as provided by state and federal law (by giving them a copy of a harassment-free workplace policy); and (3) to take measures to separate employees from offending guests and accommodate employees who seek legal protection against offending guests.

□          Reevaluate your drug testing policy and procedures.

The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (“CRTA”), which goes into effect January 1, 2020, allows individuals 21 years of age and over to consume, possess and purchase cannabis. Unlike most of the other states that now allow recreational cannabis use, Illinois took the additional step of amending the Illinois Right to Privacy Act to include cannabis within the definition of lawful products.  The Right to Privacy Act, often referred to as a smokers’ rights law, prohibits employers from taking adverse actions (refusing to hire, terminating, demoting) against employees because they use a lawful product while not at work.  While the CRTA does not prohibit employers from adopting policies concerning drug testing, use, or storage while at work or on call, an employer must—in order to discipline or discharge an employee—have a good faith belief that the employee manifests specific, articulable symptoms while working that decrease or lessen the employee’s performance of the duties or tasks of employee’s job.  The statute sets forth a number of factors that may be considered, such as disregard for the safety of the employee or others, carelessness, physical dexterity, agility, speech and irrational or unusual behavior, among others.  If an employer elects to discipline any employee on the basis that the employee was under the influence or impaired by cannabis, the employer must afford the employee a reasonable opportunity to contest the basis of the determination.  The State has yet to issue regulations that provide guidance regarding what constitutes a “reasonable opportunity” to challenge such a finding; for now, employers would be wise to adopt a specific process that can be used to document the explanation offered by the employee and the company’s ultimate conclusion.  Given these requirements, employers will likely be unable to justify taking an adverse action against an employee because of a positive random test result or against an applicant due to a pre-employment test.

□          Prepare the necessary disclosures regarding adverse judgments.

The amendments to the Human Rights Act also require employers to make certain disclosures to the Illinois Department of Human Rights.  Beginning July 1, 2020, employers must make annual disclosures to the IDHR with information about adverse judgments or administrative rulings against them in the prior year.  The required disclosures cover the number of adverse judgments or administrative rulings, whether an employee obtained equitable relief, and a breakdown of the judgments and rulings by unlawful employment practice including sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, military status or unfavorable discharge from military status; sexual orientation or gender identity; and any other characteristic protected under the Human Rights Act. It is not yet clear—as no regulations have issued to date—the means by which these disclosures must be made.  The IDHR will compile the reported information about adverse judgments and administrative rulings for publication in an annual report, but it will aggregate individual data to avoid exposing personal information.  Note, also, that the IDHR while investigating a charge filed under the Illinois Human Rights Act, may request similar information about an employer’s settlements in the preceding five years that involved allegations of sexual harassment or unlawful discrimination occurring in the workplace or involving an employee or corporate executive.

□          Reassess your arbitration agreements.

Beginning in January 2020, the Workplace Transparency Act (“WTA”) bars employers from unilaterally requiring that a current or prospective employee waive, arbitrate, “or otherwise diminish” existing or future claims, rights, or benefits related to unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.  Unilateral arbitration provisions or “agreements” are quite common and often presented as a condition of employment, so there are many employers that will be impacted by this new law.  However, provisions that would be void in a unilateral agreement under the WTA may be allowed if an employer and the current or prospective employee mutually agree to it in writing, and the agreement reflects “actual, knowing, and bargained-for consideration” from both parties. To comply with the WTA, the agreement must acknowledge the employee’s right to: (1) report a good-faith belief of an unlawful employment practice or criminal conduct to the appropriate governmental authorities; (2) participate in governmental proceedings; (3) make truthful statements or disclosures as required by law, regulation, or legal process; and (4) seek or receive legal advice.  If an employer does not comply with these requirements, the WTA establishes a rebuttable presumption that the condition is unilateral and void as against public policy.

[Webinar] Trust the Process: A Deep Dive into Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

On Wednesday, November 13, 2019 at 1:00 PM Eastern  Aaron R. Gelb and Daniel C. Deacon of Conn Maciel Carey will present a complimentary webinar regarding “Trust the Process:  A Deep Dive into Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment, unless to do so would cause undue hardship.  Generally, reasonable accommodations can include modifications or adjustments to a job shutterstock_212097706 (1).jpgapplication process, modifications or adjustments to the work environment or to the manner or circumstances under which the position is customarily performed, or modifications or adjustments that enable a disabled employee to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities.  When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, his or her employer must engage in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas and information in an effort to determine whether and how the employee can be accommodated.  While this interactive process sounds simple, employers often fall short of what the law requires, resulting in costly and unnecessary investigations and/or litigation.

Participants will learn about the following: 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

Potential and Pending Requirements for D.C. Employers of Tipped Employees

shutterstock_waiterIn October 2018, the District of Columbia (“D.C.”) Council passed a law called the “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018” (the “Act”), which had the immediate impact of repealing legislation (“Ballot Initiative 77”) that eliminated the use of a tip credit in D.C.  Because the D.C. Council repealed Ballot Initiative 77 through passage of the Act, employers with tipped employees are still permitted to take a tip credit toward meeting minimum hourly wage requirements.  However, the Act also imposes certain training, reporting, and notice requirements for all employers of tipped employees.  Some of these requirements have already gone into effect, while others require budgetary approval before they will kick in. We review some of the more significant requirements below.

Under the Act, all employers of tipped employees will have to provide sexual harassment prevention training to employees, as well as managers, owners, and operators of the business.  Specifically, the D.C. Office of Human Rights (“OHR”) will make available a sexual harassment training course, or will certify a list of providers to give the training, that covers how to respond to and prevent sexual harassment by co-workers, management, or patrons/guests.  The Act mandates that employers provide the training to new hires within 90 days of hire unless they received the training within the last two years.  All other workers already employed must receive training within two years.  Managers, owners, and operators must then receive training every 2 years and all training should be given in-person or online.  If the training is given by a certified provider, the employer must submit a certification to the OHR that the training has been completed.  Certification is required within 30 business days after completion. Continue reading

California Employers Should Think Twice Before Inserting No Rehire Language in Settlement Agreements

AB 749California has just passed Assembly Bill (AB) 749 resolving an ambiguity under current case law by generally prohibiting an employer from requiring, in settling an employment dispute, that a current or former employee agree not to obtain future employment with that employer.

A similar issue arose last year in Golden v. Cal. Emergency Physicians Med. Grp., in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the no hire provision contained in a settlement agreement between a physician and his former employer, a physician medical group, constituted a “restraint of a substantial character” on the physician’s medical practice and therefore violated California’s non-compete law, Business and Professions Code section 16600.  Specifically, the Ninth Circuit found that the agreement’s preclusion of the physician from working at “any facility owned or managed by” the employer was lawful but that it violated Section 16600 to the extent that it permitted the employer to terminate the physician from employment with any medical facility where the employer contracts or may later contract for services.

AB 749 expands on this Ninth Circuit ruling by barring any agreement to settle an employment dispute from containing a provision “prohibiting, preventing or otherwise restricting” the employee from obtaining employment with the employer or “any parent company, subsidiary, division, affiliate or contractor of the employer.”  Significantly, the law only applies in circumstances where 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