Discrimination & Harassment

Typically, in our court system, we operate under the “American Rule” which means that parties have to pay their own attorneys’ fees in cases, regardless of whether they win or lose.  (Contrast that with the English Rule which is a “loser pays” system.)

But there is one big exception to the American Rule — and it can be found in lots of employment law cases.   In several instances, the governing statute allows the prevailing party (or, in some instances, just the Plaintiff — read “employee”) to collect attorneys fees.

This is often seen in wage & hour claims, where an overtime claim may get dwarfed by a claim for attorneys’ fees.  One blog pointed out a few years ago in an FLSA case on “how attorney’s fees can grow to be the tail that wags the dog.”

A recent case out of the District Court of Connecticut also shows the impact in employment discrimination cases too.

The decision flows from a jury trial that awarded damages in an employment discrimination case to an individual suing a major employer.  Afterwards, both parties engaged in extensive post-trial litigation concerning attorneys’ fees, damages and more.  Ultimately, the court issued a ruling and then a final ruling after both parties asked for reconsideration.

The court awarded the Plaintiff in the discrimination claim the following:

  • Compensatory damages: $125,000
  • Punitive damages: $175,000
  • Economic damages (back pay): $ $243,711.89
  • Pre-judgment interest (on back pay): $15,665.37
  • Reinstatement

So, ultimately, the verdict is a little more than $550,000.

But the court also awarded attorneys’ fees.  And these fees far exceeded the verdict itself.

Grand total?  $973,083.50 in attorney’s fees and $30,960.24 in costs.

Such awards make employment cases unique animals in the law.  They provide extraordinary incentives to attorneys to not only take such cases, but pursue them.

For employers, the case is a difficult reminder that even when you value the case as somewhat small based on damages, the award of attorneys’ fees can add a substantial amount to what a case is worth.

 

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.

 

 

As I noted earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of the use of class action waivers in arbitration agreements with employees.

My colleague, Gabe Jiran, has a recap of Epic Systems v. Lewis on my firm’s blog, Employment Law Letter, that you can access here.

So, it’s a foregone conclusion that employers of all shapes and sizes will start using arbitration agreements and insert provisions with class action waivers, right?

Not so fast.

As Jon Hyman astutely noted in his Ohio Employer’s Law Blog yesterday, this decision may not be the panacea employers are looking for.

For example, it might end up being more costly for employers because arbitration may be more costly than litigation.

Moreover, these costs only increase if you are arbitrating dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, of individual claims instead of one class or collective action. Don’t think for a second that this decision will end wage and hour litigation. Instead, plaintiffs’ lawyers, who currently have claimants opt-in to FLSA collective actions, will instead merely file a plethora of individual arbitration claims.

It’s a valid point but I’m not sure I buy into this entirely.  Arbitration may be cheaper in many instances.

Moreover, part of the attraction that some lawyers have to wage/hour class actions are the attorneys’ fees that can get added on to the case automatically.  Filing a lot of individual arbitration cases may be good in theory, but in practice? That’s still a lot of work for a plaintiff’s-side attorney to follow.  While some enterprising attorneys will continue, we may see a thinning in the practice area as a result.

That said, I could certainly see unions encouraging this type of action at some workplaces — the death by 1000 paper cuts is something to keep in mind.

Employers may also be wary of entering into arbitration agreements with class action waivers because of the public backlash against forced arbitration, particularly  in sexual harassment matters.

This is not new — indeed, there was a Law Tribune editorial in 2014 before #metoo was well-known that suggested legislative reforms in the area.

Employers that are seen as enforcing “coercive” arbitration provisions may face a social media or publicity campaign. Each employer will have to figure out its risk tolerance and how it wants to be seen by its employees and the public before implementing arbitration agreements.

Moreover, in states like California, there are statutes that allow for an employee to sue over workplace violations individually as well as on behalf of others, allowing for “representative suits”, similar to class actions.  These “Private Attorneys General Act” cases may become the norm in California.

Could Connecticut follow?

These are just a few of the considerations that employers ought to be thinking about in light of the Epic Systems decision.  The decision certainly provides employers with another tool in managing their workforce. The question on the table now is whether that tool is useful or not.

Over the last several months, I’ve been asked to do far more sexual harassment prevention trainings than typical and the issue of profanity in the workplace has popped up.

No doubt that much of this is due to the recent spate of cases of very public sexual harassment and assault cases (Thank You Matt Lauer!). This has led to the #metoo and #timesup movements becoming more than a mere hashtag.

But at a recent training, we got into a discussion about whether profanity could ever be used in the workplace.  Does it create a “hostile work environment” under federal anti-discrimination law?

I’m not the only one to think about this question. In fact, the Hostile Work Environment podcast (how appropriate!) tackled this subject a few weeks back — and also delved into the subject about whether an employee’s use of profanity could be protected speech as well.

But one of the most interesting cases I’ve seen on the subject differentiated between different types of profanity (h/t Ohio Employer’s Law Blog for the original cite to this case) and came out of the 11th Circuit early this decade.

Before we go further, let me use the words of the 11th circuit to issue a warning:

We recite the profane language that allegedly permeated this workplace exactly as it was spoken in order to present and properly examine the social context in which it arose. We do not explicate this vulgar language lightly, but only because its full consideration is essential to measure whether these words and this conduct could be read as having created “an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.”

(I’m still going to keep this post PG-13 but now that you’ve been warned, read on….)

The court’s decision focuses on the difference between profanity of the general type, which it calls “general, indiscriminate vulgarity” (presumably, words like “sh**”), and “gender-specific, derogatory comments made about women on account of their sex.”

The court said that there was ample evidence that, as one of two female workers, the Plaintiff overheard coworkers used such gender-specific language to refer to or to insult individual females with whom they spoke on the phone or who worked in a separate area of the branch. Indeed, the court said that her male co-workers referred to individuals in the workplace as “bitch,” “f**king bitch,” “f**king whore,” “crack whore,” and “c**t.”

And thus begins a discussion of profanity that hasn’t often been seen in the court system.

[T]he context may illuminate whether the use of an extremely vulgar, gender-neutral term such as “f**king” would contribute to a hostile work environment. “F**king” can be used as an intensifying adjective before gender-specific epithets such as “bitch.” In that context, “f**king” is used to strengthen the attack on women, and is therefore relevant to the Title VII analysis. However, the obscene word does not itself afford a gender-specific meaning. Thus, when used in context without reference to gender, “f**k” and “f**king” fall more aptly under the rubric of general vulgarity that Title VII does not regulate….

The court then focuses on the notion that what is important to decide if conduct is “severe or pervasive” to create a work environment is the entirety of the situation.

[W]ords and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff…. It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as “bitches,” “whores” and “c**ts,” to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way. The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically: “and you are a ‘bitch,’ too.”

The court opines that “Evidence that co-workers aimed their insults at a protected group may give rise to the inference of an intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, even when those insults are not directed at the individual employee.”

But what if the workplace just had a lot of profanity?

Then, the court says that might not be enough. “If the environment portrayed by [the Plaintiff at the Company] had just involved a generally vulgar workplace whose indiscriminate insults and sexually-laden conversation did not focus on the gender of the victim, we would face a very different case. However, a substantial portion of the words and conduct alleged in this case may reasonably be read as gender-specific, derogatory, and humiliating.”

For employers, the case is a reminder than a hostile work environment need not have pornography in the workplace to satisfy the standard; words can be enough depending on the context and the pervasiveness of it.  Employers should be mindful that profanity in the workplace — particularly when it is sexually-laden and directed at or around others — can have serious legal ramifications.

One last point: The employer here argued that the environment existed before the employee joined too and that it was not, therefore, directed to the Plaintiff.  The court easily dismissed that argument.   Once [the Plaintiff] entered her workplace, the discriminatory conduct became actionable under the law. Congress has determined that [the Plaintiff] had a right not to suffer conditions in the workplace that were disparately humiliating, abusive, or degrading.”

 

Last night, I had the honor of being elected as Chair of the James W. Cooper Fellows Program of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, after serving for a year as Vice-Chair and Chairperson of the Fellows Education & Program Committee.

The Fellows are comprised of outstanding Connecticut lawyers, judges, and teachers of law; the Fellows put on a variety of programs during the year including symposia, roundtable discussions and mentoring programs for high school students.

At the annual dinner, I sat next to and talked with the Keynote Speaker for the evening, Teresa Younger, who is currently President & CEO of the Ms. Foundation — the Foundation started by icon Gloria Steinem.

Those of you with memories here in Connecticut may remember that she was Executive Director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and Executive Director of the CT Chapter of the ACLU, before leaving to go to the Ms. Foundation.

I’ve met her several times — each time, I’m left with just awe at her accomplishments and, more importantly, by her wisdom and insights.

During her prepared remarks, Ms. Younger had a lot to say about the #metoo and #timesup movements in ways that I think many employers can take notice of.

Among them was her reminder to all of us that the movement isn’t just about stopping harassment in the workplace.

Rather, it’s designed to listen to voices that haven’t yet had the seat at the table, or who have been too timid to speak up thus far.

She highlighted a ABC News report and conversation recently about the shifting views in the workplace and that even among women, there are differences based on age.

As one of the participants in that ABC News conversation said:

From this conversation, I recognized that not everyone feels comfortable and assured in their position to speak up and voice concerns when they experience inappropriate behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Recognizing this, I encourage people experiencing any form of what they interpret as inappropriate behavior not to feel intimidated and talk with a colleague or a supervisor whom they trust and ensure that there is support if they decide to take next steps.

The workplace continues to shift and evolve.  It’s up to all of us to be cognizant of this and adjust our expectations and actions accordingly.

My thanks to Ms. Younger for providing a valuable insight at last night’s CBF meeting.

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.

Today is the last day of the General Assembly session and there are only so many hours to debate and pass bills.

And so, in a year when so many labor & employment law bills were up for consideration, it’s come down to a finish line where just one or two might pass.

The Pay Equity bill I highlighted earlier this week is on to the Governor’s desk, where he has indicated he will sign it.

But the bill making broad changes to the harassment and discrimination laws in the state now appears to be on life support. Perhaps even “mostly dead”.

You will recall from my post earlier this week that the bill passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority with language that seemed to have broad support.

According to a report in CT News Junkie, a deal has yet to be reached in the House and there may be too many issues with it to come to a deal today.

At issue has been the language eliminating the statute of limitations for some sex crimes.  It’s possible that a fix that revises the training requirements could perhaps see it’s way out of the mess but that is seeming increasingly unlikely according to news reports.

There are other bills still floating out there: Paid FMLA, changes to minimum wage, etc. None of them though seems to have enough steam at this stage to get over the finish line.

So stay tuned.  There’s a budget bill that is still up for grabs and the last day always has a way of surprising.

I’ll have a full legislative recap once the dust settles.

Over the weekend, the General Assembly approved a bill prohibiting employers, including the state and its political subdivisions, from asking, or directing a third-party to ask, about a prospective employee’s wage and salary history.

I have previously discussed the measure here.  There were a few versions floating around and it was House Bill 5386 that carried the day (as amended).

The prohibition does not apply in two situations:

  • if the prospective employee voluntarily discloses his or her wage and salary history, or;
  • to any actions taken by an employer, employment agency, or its employees or agents under a federal or state law that specifically authorizes the disclosure or verification of salary history for employment purposes.

While salary may not be inquired, the bill DOES allow an employer to ask about the other elements of a prospective employee’s compensation structure (e.g., stock options), but the employer may not ask about their value.

The bill has a two year statute of limitations. Employers can be found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper.  This bill amends Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-40z

As amended, the effective date of the bill is now January 1, 2019.

The final bill is different from a prior bill because it eliminates provisions that generally would have (1) allowed employers to ask about the value of a prospective employee’s stocks or equity, (2) allowed employers to seek a court order to disallow compensatory or punitive damages, and (3) required certain employers to count an employee’s time spent on protected family and medical leave towards the employee’s seniority.

For employers, upon signature from the governor, this bill will become law.  As such, employers should notify all of their hiring personnel of the new restrictions that are likely to go in place effective January 1, 2019. I’ll have more updates after the legislative session winds down this week.

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