On “Survivor”, one of my favorite broadcast TV shows (or, as my YouTube/Netflix watching teens might say — “what’s that?”) the notion of “immunity” plays a central role in the outcome of an episode.

And in a decision released last week by the Connecticut Supreme Court, whether or not to grant immunity again plays a pivotal role for religious employers. In its unanimous decision, the court refused to grant outright immunity to a religious institution from an employment discrimination claim.  The case, Trinity Christian School v. CHRO, can be downloaded here.

For religious institutions, the case serves as reminder that while the employment discrimination laws may be more limited in their impact (more on that in a second), seeking “immunity” from such claims is a step too far for the courts.

In doing so, it’s helpful to note that the U.S. Supreme Court decided earlier this decade that the “ministerial exception” under federal anti-discrimination law only served as an “affirmative defense” against such claims.  That has important implications on the procedural posturing of a case and prevents appeals early on in the case on “jurisdictional grounds”.

Here, the court said that an additional state statute on the subject did not purport to confer on religious institutions immunity from employment discrimination actions.  That statute, § 52-571b (d), was intended to operate as a rule of construction for § 52-571b as a whole rather than a grant of immunity.  The effect of § 52-571b (d) was to retain the determination of the United States Supreme Court that the ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, which requires secular institutions to defer to the decisions of religious institutions concerning their employment of religious employees, serves as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable employment discrimination claim.

In doing so, the court notes that its prior decision, Dayner v. Archdiocese of Hartford, has now been explicitly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s pronouncement on the subject. “hat decision, of course, was short-lived in light of the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Hosanna-Tabor that the
exception operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable employment discrimination claim rather than a jurisdictional bar.”

 

The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities can sometimes be seen as an easy punching bag by legislators, employees, employers and employment law attorneys.

But there’s one area that has been an unequivocal success and where you won’t see almost any headlines.

The CHRO several years ago developed the Kids Court Essay Competition which runs each year.  In it, it gives high school and middle students the opportunity to talk about topics that are important to them and shine a spotlight on others who may not have the same opportunity.  In doing so, the competition focuses on important and contemporary civil justice issues.

This year’s essay topics were:

The CHRO received over 300 (!) entries.  Out of that, five essays were chosen as finalists at both the middle school and high school levels.  Each student then had the opportunity to address the Kids Court — a panel of distinguished lawyers, judges and others assembled for this purpose.

This week was this this year’s Kids Court and I was grateful the CHRO asked me to participate as a judge.

The students displayed a keen awareness of the local community; they each talked about topics that were important to them.  The students that talked about Hate Crimes and Educational Equity had a particular resonance to the current events of today.

As an employment lawyer, I found it notable that none of the finalists’ essays were actually on #metoo.  I don’t think there’s much to conclude from that, other than that the students’ essays on other topics were judged to be better.

In 2018, we’ve seen high school students rise to national prominence in Florida over the issue of school safety and gun violence. Listening to these “kids” and making sure their voices are heard is something that employers should consider. Today’s generation of students are increasingly impatient with the pace of change.

Congratulations to all the finalists and I look forward to hearing their continuing contributions to our civil discourse in the years to come.

 

Earlier this week, I made my long-awaited (ok, long-awaited by ME) return on WNPR’s ever-popular “Where We Live” show.

As always, I’m thankful for the invite.

My appearances date back quite some time (remember pizza and child labor in 2010?), so it was nice to be back in the studio to talk about age discrimination and other workplace issues.

So, is age discrimination still a problem?

The answer is plainly “yes”.

A related question, though is how MUCH of a problem? And is it getting better or worse?

By one measure, it’s been going down in a noticeable way the last several years.  In 2008 for example, there were over 24,500 charges filed on age grounds; in 2017 – it was down below 18,500 – a drop of over 20 percent.

Statistics, though, only tell part of the story because historically, you’d expect more to see more charges in a recession than an improving economy.

An article by The New York Times over the winter raised concerns that Facebook Job Ads were being used in a way to target younger potential applicants.  And some have suggested that the federal law itself is too weak.  

So, recognizing the age discrimination remains an issue in society is an easy task. But solving this — and ensuring that workplaces have a diversity of ages, remains a issue of which there are no easy answers.

With Memorial Day coming up this weekend, it’s often a time (or it ought to be a time) to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military.  And at the same time, consider how we, as a society, treat our veterans.

This issue was highlighted for me many years ago.  During a court proceeding in which fraudulent behavior of the witness was being discussed, the witness brought up his past military service, perhaps as a way to seek leniency from the court.

To my surprise, rather than dismiss the comment as outright pandering to the court, the judge took a few minutes to express appreciation to the witness for his service and to note that the judicial system should be sensitive to the needs of veterans.

The court didn’t rule in favor of the witness but I was still struck by the judge’s sensitivity.  It was a learning moment for me that all of us involved in the legal system ought to treat veterans in a similar way — with, at a minimum, recognition for their service and respect.  It didn’t matter at that time whether the veteran was honorably discharged or not; it was their service that mattered.

It is with that background in mind that employers should consider the new guidance from the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) entitled “Guide to the Nondiscrimination in Hiring and Employing Connecticut Veterans”.

In it, the CHRO reminds us that employment discrimination on the basis of “status as a veteran” became illegal effective October 1, 2017.

And what is a “veteran”? Anyone who served? Actually no.

According to the statute, “veteran” means “any person honorably discharged from, or released under honorable conditions from active service in, the armed forces.”

Thus, by its own terms, employers cannot discriminate against veterans who received an “honorable discharge” or a discharge “under honorable conditions”.

But the CHRO guidance addresses whether employers can make hiring decisions regarding veterans who have received discharges under the three other primary designations:  “other-than-honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge, and dishonorable discharge.”

The CHRO calls these designations (along with the discharge under honorable conditions) as “less-than-honorable” or “bad paper” discharges.

The CHRO’s guidance suggests that discrimination against someone who received these “bad paper” discharges might also violate the law because of their “disparate impact on veterans of color, LGBT veterans, and veterans with disabilities”.

Thus, the CHRO opines, “reliance on discharge status” may still violate Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws.

What’s the proposed solution from the CHRO? Several suggestions are offered:

  • “Provide individualized consideration to veterans with less-than-honorable discharges. This means you should consider the nature of the discharge (i.e. why the veteran was discharged—was it for a minor infraction or because of behaviors related to a mental health condition?), the time elapsed since the discharge, the nature of the positions sought and how the discharge is in any way related to the position the veteran is applying for.
  • Second, you should provide the veteran-applicant the opportunity to present her case for why the discharge should not be factored into your hiring decision. You might also consider the presence of mitigating circumstances like PTSD if the veteran discloses them to you.
  • Additionally, for those service members who were discharged due to conduct arising from a disability like PTSD, you have an independent obligation under both state and federal law to provide “reasonable accommodations” such as making the physical work environment accessible or providing a flexible work schedule.
  • Finally, if you contract with a consumer reporting agency such as HireRight or TransUnion to conduct background checks and your background check results in the discovery of information about an individual’s discharge status, you are required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to provide notice to the veteran applicant prior to taking any adverse action….”

Employer Takeaways

The CHRO’s guidance here is reminiscent of guidance issued by the EEOC in the early 2010s regarding the use of criminal background checks and the potential for a racial disparate impact.

At the time, some argued that the agency overstepped its authority because there was nothing that outright prohibited the use of such checks under the law and the reach to “disparate impact” was a step too far.

One could make a similar argument here that the CHRO’s suggestion that discrimination against veterans of all types of discharges might also be covered — after a new law that was passed that prohibited discrimination against only those veterans those who received honorable discharges — might be deemed to be overreach.  The legislature only sought fit to protect veterans with honorable discharges; why can’t employers consider those with “bad paper” discharges as a factor in their hiring decisions?

I’ll leave that for the policy-makers to debate.

For employers, the takeaway should be that the CHRO will be looking at discrimination against veterans who received so-called “bad paper” discharges more closely.  While the law may not outright prohibit it, the CHRO will be looking at whether the employer’s decisions might have a disparate impact on a protected class.

And for employers, making individualized determinations on an applicant based on the applicant’s overall fit and qualifications for the position isn’t a bad practice anyways.

 

 

Earlier this week, it seemed that a bill requiring employers to conduct additional training on sexual harassment matters was a no-brainer to pass the General Assembly.

After all, Senate Bill 132 passed 31-5 in the state Senate and in this #metoo environment (not to mention local elections in the fall), the House looked to be a near certainty.

But a lot can happen in a few days, and some of the bill’s more controversial provisions were simply too much for the bill to overcome.

Thus, employers do not yet have to worry about the new training requirements and changes to the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

That said, employers still need to follow existing state law regarding training of supervisors (if applicable) and should still exercise caution in dealing with cases of harassment.

One bill that did receive passage late last night was Senate Bill 175, which I haven’t talked much about.

That bill makes a number of changes to government and quasi-public agencies. (In other words, these aren’t applicable to private employers).

Sections 8 and 501 are the key provisions in employment law and limit the use of non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements.  According to the OLR report:

  • Beginning October 1, 2018, the bill generally prohibits state and quasi-public agencies from making a payment in excess of $50,000 to a departing employee in order to avoid litigation costs or as part of a non-disparagement agreement. Under the bill, “state agency” means executive branch agencies, boards, councils, commissions, and the constituent units of higher education.
  • For state agencies, the bill allows such a payment if (1) it is made under a settlement agreement that the attorney general enters into on the agency’s behalf or (2) the governor, upon the attorney general’s recommendation, authorized it in order to settle a disputed claim by or against the state.
  • It also specifies that, any settlement or non-disparagement agreement cannot prohibit a state agency employee from making a complaint or providing information in accordance with the whistleblower or false claims act.
  • Similarly, any settlement or non-disparagement agreement cannot prohibit a quasi-public agency employee from making a complaint or providing information under the whistleblower law.

For readers who work for the government, these particular provisions — namely seeking approval from the AG’s office — should be reviewed over the next few months.

Update: A few days after this post, the General Assembly failed to give final approval to this measure, leaving it to die at the end of the legislative session on May 9, 2018.  

Early Friday morning, the state Senate approved a bill that would significant broaden the sexual harassment prevention training requirements and many other provisions in discrimination law.  A similar (but notably different) bill passed the House; now, this Senate bill on the House calendar for this week.

It’s not a done deal just yet, but here are the key provisions of Senate Bill 132 (as amended) as it seems probable this bill is close to final passage.  Thanks to the OLR for summarizing the key aspects of the bill of which I’ve borrowed heavily from.

TRAINING

  • The bill would change the training requirements for sexual harassment prevention.
    • It would require training for supervisory employees of all employers, regardless of size
    • For nonsupervisory employees of employers with 20 or more employees, it would also require training.
    • Overall, the training would need to take place by October 1, 2019 with some additional tweaks specified in the bill.
  • The bill requires CHRO to develop and make available to employers an online training and education video or other interactive method of training and education that fulfills the bill’s training requirements.
  • Under the bill, employers who are required to provide such training must, at least every ten years, provide supplemental training to update employees on the content of the training and education.

INFORMATION AND POSTING

  • Currently, employers must post a notice that (1) that sexual harassment is illegal and (2) of the remedies available to victims. Under the bill, this information must be sent to employees by email, within three months of hire, if the (1) employer has provided an email account to the employee or (2) employee has provided the employer with an email address. The email’s subject line must include “Sexual Harassment Policy” or something similar.

Continue Reading Revised Sexual Harassment Training Bill (And So Much More) Close To Final Passage

Earlier this week, the Judiciary Committee (by a 25-16 vote) approved of Senate Bill 132, being labelled by it’s proponents as the “Time’s Up” bill but covers both harassment and discrimination cases. I covered an announcement of this a while back.  

As the bill moves closer to consideration now to the state Senate, it’s time for employers to start paying attention to what’s in the bill.  The CBIA has expressed concerns about some aspects of the bill.

Here are a few highlights:

  • To require employers to provide every employee with information concerning the “illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to victimes of sexual harassment”.
  • To require employers of three or more employees (currently set at 50) to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training and with such training being provided not just to supervisory employees, but all employees.
  • To eliminate affirmative defenses that employers otherwise have that: “(i) the claim of sexual harassment was properly investigated, immediate corrective action was taken and no act of sexual harassment subsequently occurred, (ii) the claim of sexual harassment was not reported to a respondent prior to the filing of a complaint with the commission, (iii) an employer has a policy of prohibiting sexual harassment or recently trained its employees on sexual harassment in accordance with subdivision (15) of section 46a-54, as amended by this act, or (iv) the sexual harassment was not severe or pervasive.”  These defenses would only be allowed to be introduced on the question of damages.
  • To prohibit employers from modifying the “conditions of employment” of the employee making the claim of sexual harassment when the employer takes “immediate corrective action”, unless employee agrees in writing to such a modification.
  • To allow the CHRO to order the promotion of an employee in response to a claim of discrimination.
  • To allow claims of discrimination that occur on or after October 1, 2018 to be subject to a new three-year statute of limitation, instead of the current 180 day requirement.
  • To allow punitive damages for discrimination claims to be awarded in some instances.
  • To allow lawsuits to be brought two years after the CHRO releases jurisdiction over a discrimination, instead of the 90 day requirement.

There’s more as well, so employers are best advised to review it and talk with their attorneys about the impact that this bill might have on their workplace.

From a procedural perspective, the change in the statute of limitations would be significant.

Take this example: Suppose an alleged discriminatory act took place on May 15, 2019.  An employee would then have until (approximately) May 15, 2022 to bring a CHRO charge.  The CHRO could investigate the claim for a while — say a year and release jurisdiction on May 15, 2023.  The employee could then have two additional years to bring suit in Court — taking it out to May 15, 2025.  Add another 18-24 months before a trial date, at best.

Ultimately, this could result in a claim being heard nearly eight years (or more!) after the alleged discrimination took place.

Supervisors may have long since left the company and evidence might not be available anymore for employers to defend themselves.  All told, these types of delays were exactly the type of issue that a shorter statute of limitations was designed to prevent.  Companies would be at a significant disadvantage in defending themselves, all the while damages continue to accrue.

This bill would also require the CHRO to renegotiate significantly large portions of the worksharing agreement in place with the EEOC.

There is certainly momentum for some type of action here; stay tuned to see what further modifications are made to this bill.

Last week, I posted about a proposed Governor’s bill that would expand the training requirements for some employers.

However, that appears to be just a small part of a wider political battle that is about to be raised.

Yesterday, a group of Senate Democrats proposed, according to a handout, the “Largest Overhaul in Modern Connecticut History of Sexual Harassment Laws” that would significantly alter the landscape for nearly all Connecticut employers.

They’ve titled their proposal the “Time’s Up Act: Combating Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault”.  

The bill has yet to be drafted, but the outlines are being shared by Senate Democrats and will be pursued first in the Judiciary Committee (not the Labor & Public Employee Committee as you might expect).

According to their handout, the proposed bill will contain the following relating to discrimination or harassment laws:

  • Require that any notice of sexual harassment remedies and policies by e-mailed to each employee at least once a year, in addition to the required posting.
  • Increase the fines that the CHRO can impose for failing to provide notice (currently at $250)
  • Require sexual harassment training to all employers with three or more employees (instead of the current 50 or more threshold)
  • Require training of all employees, not just supervisory employees with broader topics
  • “Give CHRO the resources it needs to go out into the community and conduct on-site trainings”
  • Increase the statute of limitations from 180 days to 2 years for not just harassment complaints, but all discrimination complaints
  • Eliminate the 90 day deadline after receiving a release from the CHRO to file a lawsuit but extend it to two years after a release from the CHRO.
  • Permit the CHRO to ask for injunctive relief for employers of 3 or more employees, not the current threshold of 50.
  • Allow for punitive damages in all discrimination and harassment complaints
  • Increase funding for the CHRO
  • Create a similar model to California in passing a Private Attorney General Act, which would allow litigants to, after giving notice to the CHRO, bring a claim for violations against himself or herself, but also against other employees as well.
  • Prohibit settlement agreements that prohibit a party from disclosing information regarding sexual harassment or sexual assault.

This is still in the early stages but expect to see a lot more about this in the weeks and months to come.  No doubt, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association will have something to say about this as well.

I’ll have more details as they become available.

In trying to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, how do we go beyond just training?

That is, in essence, the question that my colleagues (Jarad Lucan and Ashley Marshall) and I have been talking about recently.

And, fortunately for you, a topic of a free CLE webinar we are putting on a few weeks.  It’s set for February 13th at 12 p.m.

What we are really looking at is how do you get your company culture and actions in line to try to reduce and eradicate sexual harassment from your workplace?

It does not, obviously, happen overnight.  Perhaps it’s revising your policies. Perhaps it’s adding an ombudsman program if you’re large enough.

Or perhaps it involves encouragement of employee complaints so that you can tackle the issue more directly.

There is no one size fits all to this but it’s an important enough topic (naturally) that we wanted to devote a CLE webinar just to this.

Hope you can join us for this timely topic.

In college, I wanted to write for some of the major newspapers and be on their front page.

Little did I know that my big break would now come years later, as a result of being on the cover of the Hartford Business Journal.  

Wow.

But enough about me.  This blog is about employment law so let’s talk about the article inside the HBJ because it’s definitely worth a read.  

You see, the photo, has little to do with the content.  And the content is what employers should really be paying attention to.

The article is all about the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, which continues to make headlines each day.

As I noted in the article, we just haven’t seen an increase in lawsuits….yet.

[F]or non-celebrity victims and their employers, the implications are just as dangerous and costly, so prevention is becoming a greater focus for many companies, lawyers say.

“It’s been the topic of conversation,” said Dan Schwartz, an employment lawyer at Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin, who has his own blog where he’s been tackling the issue. “It is at a level we haven’t seen in at least 10 to 15 years. There’s always been a steady stream [of inquiries] but we’re getting more calls from clients. It doesn’t mean we’re seeing more legal cases being filed. Lawsuits are a trailing indicator here.”

The article also summarizes things that employers can be doing now, even if there isn’t a sexual harassment complaint made. Update policies. Train managers and supervisors. Continually create an environment where harassment isn’t tolerated.

Each week seemingly brings new issues to the table; employers that can keep their focus on the issue while also maintaining perspective will do well in the long-term to reduce the likelihood of a claim at the workplace.