The filing of a discrimination complaint at the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has certainly garnered a wide variety of responses from the local and national media. Indeed, yesterday, I was one of several invited guests to appear on WNPR’s "Where We Live". (You can download the podcast here.)
But what’s been lacking so far has been some perspective and analysis, beyond the superficial and headline-grabbing claims of a manager allegedly using the term "Big Boob Fridays". Here are some answers to some common questions or misconceptions about the matter.
- This is a lawsuit, right?
No, all that has been filed thus far is a complaint of discrimination with the state agency responsible for investigating such complaints. Normally, these types of complaints are confidential, but Ms. Sindland and her attorney have publicized the filing of this complaint. As discussed below, at some point, Ms. Sindland can ask the state agency to stop its investigation and ask for permission to file her claims in state or federal court. But we’re still some ways away from that point.
- What exactly is Ms. Sindland’s complaint about?
Ms. Sindland alleges 4 different types of discrimination. She claims her age, marital status (single), and gender have all been factors in how she has been treated. She also alleges that she has been treated differently because she complained about that discrimination; this is known as a "retaliation" claim. She has cited both the federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination.
- How does Ms. Sindland contend she was treated differently?
She contends that she was: 1) given a poor performance review; 2) sexually harassed; 3) earned unequal pay; 4) delegated unequal duties; 5) given a deduction in pay; and 6) retaliated against.
- I just saw Ms. Sindland on the air; how can she sue for discrimination?
Although a significant majority of discrimination claims arising from the termination of employment, both federal and state law prohibit employers from discriminating in the terms and conditions of a person’s employment as well. Here, Ms. Sindland is claiming, among other things, that she has been treated differently in those terms and conditions (like salary) then her male and younger counterparts.
Nevertheless, Ms. Sindland’s damages (in other words, how much harm she has suffered as a result of the alleged discrimination) are significantly lower at this stage because it mainly consists of the gap of salary she contends she should be paid.
- Ms. Sindland is only 40 years old; how can she sue for age discrimination?
Federal law (ADEA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, and covers those who are 40 years of age or older. Connecticut law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, regardless of the age of the employee. Thus, in Connecticut, in theory, a 20 year old could claim that he or she was treated differently because of his or her age. Those claims though are extremely rare.
- Now that she’s filed a complaint (which can be downloaded here) at the state agency, what happens next?
The company has at least 30 days to file a response with the state agency (though it can ask for a 15 day extension of time). After that, the CHRO will issue a Merit Assessment Review within 90 days after the Complaint is received (basically determining whether the complaint is frivolous on its face). If it passes the MAR review, then the matter will be set down for a fact-finding and mediation, typically within the next six months.
But cases like this don’t tend to stay at the state agency. Typically, the employee prefers to file the claim in state or federal court, where he or she can conduct discovery and take depositions of key witnesses. However, ordinarily she must wait approximately 210 days from the date of filing to ask for permission from the state agency to bring the matter to court.
- I’ve read the complaint and it seems like she’s got a really strong case; how can the Company even defend the complaint?
The employer has emphatically denied the allegations of complaint in a press release, but has yet to spell out its legal and factual defenses for the public. However, it is important to remember too that the complaint contains mere allegations; it may be that a thorough review of factual background of some of the incidents will provide a much clearer context than is given in the complaint.
In addition, the company may have a number of legal defenses that it has yet to discuss. For example, the same supervisor who is alleged to have given her a demotion in 2009 was also the same supervisor who gave her a promotion and a three year contract in 2006. Thus the question that can be asked is: If he were biased against women or older reporters, why did he give her such promotions a few years prior? Did he suddenly realize now that she was a woman or had gotten "old"? Indeed, I suspect we may hear that one reason for the company’s decision now was an economic one.
In Part II, I’ll discuss the company’s policies and procedures manual and the fact that it seemingly tries to insulate itself from some types of harassment claims. The question is, can the company do that? Here’s part of the policy according to its website:
Working at Tribune means accepting that sometimes you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use. You might experience an attitude that you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you might not consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, non-linear atmosphere is important to the creative process.