The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunity (CHRO) was sued yesterday by its longtime (and former) Regional Manager Pekah Wallace.  The federal lawsuit claims her employment termination was improper and provides a whole host of information about what has been going on behind the scenes at the agency.

You can download the complaint here.  

(As with all new lawsuits, my standard warning applies — these are allegations in a complaint, not a determination from a court.)

I’ll leave it for others to opine on the merits of the case because my firm represents a number of clients before the agency.

The allegations, however, show, at a minimum, that there was a great deal of friction going on at the agency for a number of years — even while the agency was investigating the outside complaints of employees against their own employers too.

Ms. Wallace alleges violations of: Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-51q (applying the First Amendment to the workplace); First Amendment retaliation under the Constitution itself and 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983; Denial of Equal Protection; Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress; Tortious Interference with Contractual Relations; and Defamation.

The lawsuit, in which she is represented by Anthony J. Pantuso, III, seeks an unspecified amount of dollars.

Among the allegations raised are a series of allegations that Ms. Wallace claims were unfair accusations that she released confidential CHRO case information to her own personal attorney, Miguel Escalera, of Kainen Escalera and McHale, LLC during the course of her employment.

Ms. Wallace claims that the “information included in the reports which Wallace prepared at the direction of [CHRO employee Cheryl] Sharp included only processing dates, and did not include information as to ‘what has occurred in the course’ of CHRO investigations…” (Complaint, Paragraph 145).

She alleges that CHRO Executive Director Tanya Hughes and Sharp have instead “repeatedly disclosed information on pending CHRO cases to Attorney Escalera when it suited their purposes,” (Complaint, 144), and that the information they disclosed “falls more closely within the prohibitions of the statute, contrary to the information Wallace provided.” (146)

Ms. Wallace alleges that when her employment was terminated, the CHRO “falsely stated” that Wallace had  “deliberately violated policies on the use of [her] state email account and the state network, by sending numerous non-business related emails;” (b) “on multiple occasions and in voluminous amount in violation of C.G.S. 46a-83(J) [she] had released to Miguel Escalera . . . information on active CHRO cases;” and (c) “that [she] had acted in an offensive manner to me, Tanya Hughes on January 29, 2018, when via email, [she] instructed me to contact [her] attorney if I wished to meet with [her].” (Complaint, 161)

The CHRO has yet to file an answer or a motion asking for a dismissal and there’s no indication yet that the agency has been served with the Complaint yet either.  The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shea.

This is not the first time that Ms. Wallace has sued the agency she works for.

In 2006, she brought a federal lawsuit making allegations regarding her employment as well including a claim that she was denied equal protection in violation of the 14th Amendment under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. (Download here.)  That claim was dismissed by stipulation before trial.

In 2007, two other employees filed suit against the agency alleging discrimination. In that Complaint, the former employees that “at least ten (10) women other than the Plaintiffs also experienced this discrimination and hostility” and that this individuals included “…Pekah Wallace…” (2007 Complaint, 38)

You do a blog long enough and everything comes full circle.  Back in January 2008, I took out my crystal ball and suggested that reductions in force (RIFs) and lawsuits would soon follow.

We all know what happened next. The economy crashed and discrimination claims at the EEOC peaked at their highest levels in more than 20 years.  

So here we are 11 years later.  A whole generation of HR professionals have never experienced a significant downturn.  Are we headed there again in 2019?

I’ll leave that to the economists and politicians.  Two weeks ago, the stock market was topsy-turvy. Now, we seem pre-occupied with the partial government shutdown.  And at least in Connecticut, new Governor Ned Lamont has a plan for growth, growth, growth.

But it’s worth considering whether your company is even prepared for a downturn, even if it still is many months away.

Again, we can first look to history. As I said back in 2008:

What is a reduction in force? Really, just a lawyerly way of saying “layoff”. Back in the early to mid 1990s, lots of companies went through them.  And the number of lawsuits arising from those reductions went through a major peak in 1995 or so.

But these types of lawsuits rise and fall with the economy.  When the economy is good, lawsuits go down. When it’s not so good, they go up. One reason is that when people can find another job quickly (i.e. the unemployment rate is low), then tend not to sue as much.

And even back in 2008, I noted that things might be different for employers and indeed they were.  The rise of the internet-fueled lawsuits have been a reality. Here was my prediction back then:

One more factor suggests to me that more lawsuits are on the horizon — it’s much easier for a few employees to band together than in the past. Previously, people would have to use their existing networks to find laid off employees to hear their stories (indeed, outplacement firms were a good source for employees looking to talk with other laid off workers). But now, with the rise of social networking sites, it seems only a matter of time before a group of employees will form a Facebook or MySpace page to compare experiences.  Employees from around the country can share information instantly, making it much easier to figure out if there are trends associated with the layoff that may give rise to a lawsuit.

Just as Uber or the employers in Connecticut facing class action lawsuits that one firm puts on their website have found out.

What’s an employer to do? I’ll tackle that in my next post.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the government shutdown has very real-world implications. Case in point? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As of now, it’s closed.  The agency has even posted a notice about it on its’ website. 

That doesn’t mean that the time limits for filing a charge have been extended.   Generally, federal claims must be filed within 300 days of the alleged discrimination. As noted by the EEOC, “These time limits may not be extended because of the shut-down.”

The EEOC thus encourages employees considering filing claims “within 30 days of your time expiring” or unsure “your time expires”, to not wait to file.

For employers with matters at the EEOC, mediations have been cancelled.  It is unclear from the shutdown notice whether the EEOC will continue to press the time frames for submitting position statements, but given the lack of action on anything pressing, the agency would certainly seem amenable to having those deadlines extended.

Employers with specific questions though should certainly check with their counsel to see if their particular case warrants action.

The bottom line is that the backlog that existed at the EEOC will continue to grow because of this delay; mediations are going to get rescheduled and action is just going to take longer.

Stating the obvious: The longer the shutdown, the longer the delays.

As part of my continuing series of posts about the CHRO, and following up from the 75th Anniversary panel discussion earlier this week, I wanted to provide an early look of the statistics that are soon to be released by the agency.

I was provided a preliminary draft in preparation for the panel presentation; it should be out in the next week or two and I was asked not to divulge the specific numbers.  Stay tuned for my deep dive into the numbers when they are officially released. (As a refresher, you can see last year’s numbers here.)

But there are few trends that are readily apparent from the draft.

First, as we have all suspected, sexual harassment claims filed with the CHRO are up substantially over the prior year.  This is not too surprising given the publicity regarding the #metoo movement.  Still, we haven’t seen these types of numbers in nearly 15 years.  When the final numbers are released, expect a big increase in sexual harassment claims from FY ’17 to FY ’18.

Second, we continue to see an increase in the numbers of employment discrimination claims being filed at the state agency.   While it is tempting to draw conclusions from this, the numbers seem to correlate closely to the increase in sexual harassment claims.  Normally, in an improving economy, we see decreases in the numbers of claims filed. We haven’t and that should raise some concerns for employers.

Third, the numbers of cases withdrawn “with settlement” are down substantially.  It’s hard to know what to make of this. With more cases getting dismissed by the agency, it could just be that some of the “nuisance” value cases are getting handled that way, but the drop seems to be much more than that. When the final report is released, it’ll be worth taking a deeper dive into the numbers.

Despite all of the numbers, the numbers of cases certified to public hearing and the number of reasonable cause drafts issues has remained constant from year to year.  This may be the result of the consistent approach that the CHRO has been seeking to implement over the last few years.

The biggest takeaway for employers? Discrimination and harassment complaints are likely at the second highest total they’ve been at in the last decade.

The age of increased discrimination and harassment claims isn’t over; it’s happening right now.

Yesterday I had the opportunity (along with my fellow Shipman & Goodwin partner Peter Murphy) to speak as part of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities’ (CHRO) 75th Anniversary celebration.

The panel — The Barriers to Employment Legal Update and Panel Discussion  — was chock full of the types of insights, data and analyses that is so often overlooked in this Twitter generation.

We spent a good 90 minutes talking about the changes that have been going on at the CHRO and talked about what types of changes could be made in the future.

Frankly, it’s far too much for one blog post.

So I’m going to tackle them in a few posts.  Today’s post: The re-emergence of the Case Assessment Review.

Indeed, if you haven’t been before the CHRO in the last year, you may be unaware that this is perhaps one of the biggest changes to the agency procedure over the last year.

Hyperbole? Actually no. At least not when you look at the statistics regarding CAR. (I did a deep dive into CAR last December which I’d strongly recommend if you want to learn more.)

Since the Legal Division has taken over this task — which is, in essence, a gatekeeping function — the dismissal rate has increased to 23% (up from just 5%).  Or, put another way, just 77% of cases are getting retained for mediation and investigation, down from 95% just a year ago.

This has big implications on how employers should view the CHRO process.  No longer is it the case that nearly all cases will get retained for investigation; as a result, position statements should play a greater role in telling the story.

The panel discussed other strategic implications of the numbers as well. Suffice to say, employers who are still viewing the CHRO in terms of 2015 (where I humbly suggested the CHRO Complaint process needed a reboot) are missing out on the changes happening right now.  Attorneys and their clients need to definitely stay up to speed with the latest developments.

What else is new? More on that in an upcoming post….

Lawyers love their cocktail chatter. And at a recent bar event, an interesting hypothetical came up among lawyers:

Suppose an employee is trying to get pregnant and is thinking about infertility treatments.  She’s considering time off for rest, and perhaps even for some in vitro fertilization (IVF) appointments. Perhaps even the doctor has said that the employee needs “light duty” work during certain days.   Maybe things are a little more hazy; suppose the employee just says that they are undergoing infertility treatment and needs some time off.

Is the employer obligated to provide such an accommodation?

The answers aren’t entirely clear.

Let’s go through some of the laws that may be implicated:

Employment decisions related to infertility treatments implicate Title VII under limited circumstances. Because surgical impregnation is intrinsically tied to a woman’s childbearing capacity, an inference of unlawful sex discrimination may be raised if, for example, an employee is penalized for taking time off from work to undergo such a procedure.

In doing so, the EEOC has cited to a Seventh Circuit case from 2008 which also found that the employer was liable for discrimination when it terminated employee for taking time off to undergo IVF.

  • ADA – Infertility may be an impairment that may “substantially limit” the major life activity of reproduction. Why is this important? Because it may then qualify the employee under the ADA as having a “disability”.   So, in such an instance, employers should review the “reasonable accommodation” portion of the statute. And the employer may decide that a day off for IVF treatment in “reasonable” under the circumstances.
  • State Laws – Connecticut has comparable laws on the subject as well.  Thus, employers should do the same analysis for CTFMLA and comparable state anti-discrimination laws as well.

But despite this, there are some courts — including the Second Circuit — that have found that a woman suffering from infertility does not have a medical condition related to pregnancy under Title VII and the Pregnancy discrimination Act because infertility is a condition that also affects many men as well.

Employers that have employees undergoing treatment for infertility should tread carefully in this uncertain area of law.  Each set of facts should be looked at on a case-by-case basis and consider enlisting trusted legal counsel for advice.

Last year I talked about how the new era of sexual harassment claims was coming.  The open question was: Would the number of claims actually increase?

The answer to that is now known: Yes.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released its preliminary data regarding workplace harassment today. And it’s findings shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve been paying attention.

Among the notable pieces of data:

  • Charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment increased by more than 12 percent from FY 2017.
  • The EEOC recovered nearly $70M for victims of sexual harassment through administrative enforcement and litigation, up from $47.5M in FY2017.
  • Reasonable cause findings in harassment claims increased to nearly 1200, up from 900 in FY 2017.
  • And public interest is skyrocketing: The EEOC’s website traffic to its sexual harassment page more than doubled in the last year.

In Connecticut, the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities hasn’t yet released their statistics on their website.  In years past, it’s been released in the fall — so stay tuned for that. But I anticipate hearing much more from the CHRO this month.

The CHRO is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a whole host of programs including one on Overcoming Barriers in Employment (I’ll be speaking at that one — details soon) and a #MeToo and LGBT Panel Discussion as well.

Interest in sexual harassment cases and actual cases show no sign of slowing down.  If anything, I would argue that public consciousness and awareness of these issues are nearing all-time highs.

Employers should continue to review their policies and procedures in this area and take another look at the training they are providing.

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.