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)

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….

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.