My partner Gary Starr returns with this pre-Thanksgiving tale that seems appropriate not for the holiday, but for the headlines of late. 

Happy Thanksgiving and stay out of trouble.

Another day, another celebrity figure accused of harassment.

Or worse.

Many of the accounts reveal the abuse of power and the lack of respect shown to women.  A recent case adds another aspect to the ways in which harassment or discrimination against women may occur.  While the case is out of New York, the scenario is one that has applicability in states like Connecticut.

The basic facts:

  • A chiropractor hired an attractive yoga and message therapist to his office staff.
  • While he oversaw the medical aspects of the business, his wife served as the chief operating officer.
  • During the therapist’s six months of employment, she described her relationship with the doctor as professional.
  • His wife, however, was disturbed by her presence.
  • Within 3 months, the chiropractor commented to the therapist that she might be “too cute” and his wife may become jealous.
  • Three months later, the wife texted the therapist that she was no longer welcome at the office and she “should stay the [expletive] away from my husband.”
  • Later that day, the chiropractor fired the therapist.

So what happened next?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the therapist filed a gender discrimination claim under New York law.

She said her firing was motivated by sexual attraction and as such was unlawful gender discrimination.

She did not claim that she was actually harassed, but argued that it could be inferred that the discharge resulted from the chiropractor’s desire to appease his jealous wife and therefore the motivation was sexual in nature.

The discharge allegedly occurred for reasons of jealousy, not because the employee had a consensual affair with her boss.

This case was not based on the employee’s conduct, but because the therapist was sexually distracting to the doctor and disturbing to his wife.

While this case originally was dismissed, the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court decided to allow the therapist to pursue her claim.

The court explained that what potentially made the discharge unlawful was not that the wife had urged the firing, but the reason she urged her husband to do it and his compliance.

The therapist had not done anything inappropriate and had allegedly performed her work satisfactorily.  She now has an opportunity to overcome her status an at-will employee to prove that the motivation of the chiropractor and his wife was sexual in nature.

The court made clear that a spouse can urge a husband to fire an employee, but what makes it unlawful is the basis for the firing.  In this case, there are allegations of a gender-based motivation, which was sexual in nature.

What the court ruling suggests is that attractiveness can be a protected condition … if the person is singled out because of his/her appearance. It’s not always going to be the case, but at least here, the allegations are enough to let the case proceed.

The motivation to fire someone due to his/her appearance can be viewed as sexual in nature and therefore discriminatory.  In light of the headlines on sexual harassment, this decision adds a new dimension and another source of problems at work.

You can download the case here.

Recently, I had the opportunity to see Rags, a new revival now running at the classic Goodspeed Opera House.

I don’t often do theater reviews on this site, but I give it a thumbs up.

The musical tells the story of Jewish immigrants coming to the Lower East Side just after the turn of the century.

They experience outright discrimination and difficult working conditions.

So much so, that they end up even participating in a labor strike asking for better working conditions.

Of course, as an employment lawyer, I’m always looking for a good story to relate.

The musical obviously has undertones of today’s political environment, where refugees are facing barriers to entry from certain countries.

Workplace laws actually limit what employers should be asking in the interview process about immigration status.  And even when a Form I-9 is being process, an employer cannot reject valid documents or insist on additional documentation too.

And it can’t target certain people either.

The EEOC recaps it here:

For example, an employer cannot require only those who the employer perceives as “foreign” to produce specific documents, such as Permanent Resident (“green”) cards or Employment Authorization Documents. Employees are allowed to choose which documents to show for employment eligibility verification from the Form I-9 Lists of Acceptable Documents. Employers should accept any unexpired document from the Lists of Acceptable Documents so long as the document appears reasonably genuine on its face and relates to the employee.

Federal law also prohibits employers from conducting the Form I-9 and E-Verify processes before the employee has accepted an offer of employment.

According to the EEOC, “applicants may be informed of these requirements in the pre-employment setting by adding the following statement on the employment application”:

In compliance with federal law, all persons hired will be required to verify identity and eligibility to work in the United States and to complete the required employment eligibility verification form upon hire.”

I’ve always been a fan of learning from history. With a musical like Rags, you can get many employment law lessons in one.

Probably not the endorsement you will see from other theater critics, but you work with what you have.

So a few weeks back, I suggested that we were entering into a new era of sexual harassment cases and wondered out loud when the statistics would back up my observations.

We now have our first signs.  Maybe.

In my exclusive continued look at the case statistics from the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, we can see the first signs of an increase.

But as I’ll explain below, it’s difficult to know if this is a statistical anomaly.

Despite significant drops in most types of discrimination complaints, the number of sexual harassment complaints in Connecticut went up last fiscal year to 145, up from 135 the year before.

As a percentage of overall claims, sex harassment employment claims are just 3 percent of the overall claims filed, up from 2.5 percent the prior year.

But here’s the issue: When you look back at prior fiscal years in 2014 and 2015, the number of sex harassment claims is still below those years.

In other words, is it a trend up? Or overall down? Indeed, the numbers from FY 2012 are comparable to FY 2017’s numbers. Except that as a percentage, there were more sex harassment claims made 5 years ago, then now (3.6% to 3.0).

What else do we see? Well, as expected with an overall drop in cases is an drop in claims of wrongful discharge, refusal to provide reasonable accommodations, terms and conditions, and even demotions.

Remaining constant were claims for failure to promote, termination of employment due to pregnancy, and aiding & abetting discrimination.

When you review the basis for claims filed, we see drops in claims for age (FY 2017 451 vs FY 2016 518), race (551 vs 616), sex (507 vs 532) and physical disability (445 vs 520).

Some other bases hold steady or even slightly increase: ancestry claims (200 vs 188) and mental disability claims (103 vs. 110).

For employers, watch the trends. Will sex harassment claims continue to increase? And will overall claims decline?

There’s more that we can glean from these numbers too. I’ll have more in an upcoming post.

 

 

Through a recent FOI request, I was able to take a peek at the latest case statistics coming out of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. (The CHRO has since added them to the website as well.)

I’ve done these recaps in years before (here’s 2016 for example) and I think you can learn a lot not just on the latest statistics but when you compare them to prior years.

So, what do the numbers from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017 show?

Well, for the first time in several years, we’ve seen a noticeable decrease in the numbers of complaints filed.

In FY 16-17, 2376 total complaints were filed, down from 2616 the prior year – a 9 percent decrease.  Of course, it’s still up from FY 11-12 when just 1838 total complaints were filed.

And what about employment discrimination complaints in particular?

The report also shows a drop in the number of complaints being filed, 1936, as compared to 2160 in the prior fiscal year.  That represents over a 10 percent drop. Again, however, it’s still up from FY 2012 when just 1559 employment claims were filed.

After years of marked increases, it’s nice to confirm what we have been seeing internally — that discrimination claims seems to be on the decline.

It’s difficult to know exactly why; we had seen increases the last few years at a national EEOC level too, but these new statistics from the CHRO show that the trendline up has finally broken.

Certainly the improved economy seems one factor but it’ll be interesting to see if this trend continues.

I’ll have a deeper dive into the statistics in an upcoming post.

An applicant for a job posting in education lists his most recent relevant experience as occurring in 1973.  You don’t bring him in for an interview.

Is it gender discrimination?

Beyond that, if he says that he is the most qualified candidate — do you have to hire him?

And if you don’t hire the most qualified person, is that evidence of gender discrimination?

No to all three, says one recent federal court decision.

The decision by the court was quietly released late last month and might otherwise go unnoticed, but it underscores an important point for employers.

In the matter, the Plaintiff argued that the employer discriminated against him because of his gender by denying him the opportunity for a job interview.   The employer chose four female and two male candidates for interviews.

The Plaintiff argued that he was more qualified than the female candidates who were interviewed and ultimately hired by the employer.

The court said, however, that the mere fact that the employer hired people of a different gender does not suggest that it failed to hire the Plaintiff “on account of his gender”.

Indeed, the employer had various reasons as to why the Plaintiff was not interviewed:

  • he hadn’t filled out the entire job application and didn’t answer whether he had any criminal offenses in the last ten years.
  • his resume was “perceived to be outdated, as the most recent job listing in education was from 1973.”

So, you might not think much of the case.

But the court’s decision is notable because it contains language that will be helpful in other cases for employers.  Says the court: “[T]here is no legal requirement that the most qualified candidate be hired.”

In doing so, the quote revisits a quote from an 1980 decision.

Title VII does not require that the candidate whom a court considers most qualified for a particular position be awarded that position; it requires only that the decision among candidates not be discriminatory. When a decision to hire, promote, or grant tenure to one person rather than another is reasonably attributable to an honest even though partially subjective evaluation of their qualifications, no inference of discrimination can be drawn. Indeed, to infer discrimination from a comparison among candidates is to risk a serious infringement of first amendment values. A university’s prerogative to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach is an important part of our long tradition of academic freedom.

All that being said, employers should have SOME rational basis for their decisions. Even if the candidate is “more qualified”, the employer may determine that there are other reasons why the employee should not be hired; maybe the employee’s qualifications cannot overcome a bad job interview, etc.

Keeping bias out of your decision-making process is central to employers.  But it’s nice to know that employers don’t have to be perfect in its determinations of qualifications either.

Last week I talked about the new state law regarding pregnancy discrimination that is going into effect on October 1, 2017.  In that post, I mentioned a new notice that was required to comply with the law.

Although there is no set form that is required to be used, the Connecticut Department of Labor has created one that is available for employers to use that will comply with the state law.  It is free to download here.  

Because the content is useful, I’m using it down below so that employers can cut and paste it into a handbook or into a notice to be given to employee upon starting work too.  One can quibble with some of the word phrasings that are used, but overall — and stating the obvious — if you use this, you’ll be in compliance according to the state.

Covered Employers

Each employer with more than 3 employees must comply with these anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation laws related to an employee or job applicant’s pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions, including lactation.

Prohibition of Discrimination

No employer may discriminate against an employee or job applicant because of her pregnancy, childbirth or other related conditions (e.g., breastfeeding or expressing milk at work).

Prohibited discriminatory conduct includes:

  • Terminating employment because of pregnancy, childbirth or related condition
  • Denying reasonable leave of absence for disability due to pregnancy (e.g., doctor prescribed bed rest during 6-8 week recovery period after birth)*
  • Denying disability or leave benefits accrued under plans maintained by the employer
  • Failing to reinstate employee to original job or equivalent position after leave
  • Limiting, segregating or classifying the employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities
  • Discriminating against her in the terms or conditions of employment

    *Note: There is no requirement that the employee be employed for a certain length of time prior to being granted job protected leave of absence under this law.

Reasonable Accommodation

An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to an Employee or job applicant due to her pregnancy, childbirth or needing to breastfeed or express milk at work.

Reasonable accommodations include, but are not limited to:

  • Being permitted to sit while working
  • More frequent or longer breaks
  • Periodic rest
  • Assistance with manual labor
  • Job restructuring
  • Light duty assignments
  • Modified work schedules
  • Temporary transfers to less strenuous or less hazardous work
  • Time off to recover from childbirth (prescribed by a Doctor, typically 6-8 weeks)
  • Break time and appropriate facilities (not a bathroom) for expressing milk

Denial of Reasonable Accommodation

No employer may discriminate against employee or job applicant by denying a reasonable accommodation due to pregnancy.

Prohibited discriminatory conduct includes:

  • Failing to make reasonable accommodation (and is not an undue hardship)**
  • Denying job opportunities to employee or job applicant because of request for reasonable accommodation
  • Forcing employee or job applicant to accept a reasonable accommodation when she has no known limitation related to pregnancy or the accommodation is not required to perform the essential duties of job
  • Requiring employee to take a leave of absence where a reasonable accommodation could have been made instead
    ** Note: To demonstrate an undue hardship, the employer must show that the accommodation would require a significant difficulty or expense in light of its circumstances.

Prohibition of Retaliation

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee because of a request for reasonable accommodation.

Notice Requirements

Employers must post and provide this notice to all existing employees by January 28,2018; to an existing employee within 10 days after she notifies the employer of her pregnancy or related conditions; and to new employees upon commencing employment.

Complaint Process

CHRO:

Any employee aggrieved by a violation of these statutes may file a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). Complainants have 180 days from the date of the alleged act of discrimination, or from the time that you reasonably became aware of the discrimination, in which to file a complaint. It is illegal for anyone to retaliate against you for filing a complaint. CHRO main number: 860-541-3400 CHRO website: www.ct.gov/chro/site/default.asp CHRO link “How to File a Discrimination Complaint”: http://www.ct.gov/chro/taxonomy/v4_taxonomy.asp? DLN=45570&chroNav=|45570|

DOL:

Additionally, women who are denied the right to breastfeed or express milk at work, or are discriminated or retaliated against for doing so, may also file a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Labor (DOL). DOL phone number: 860-263-6791 DOL complaint form: For English: http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/wgwkstnd/forms/DOL-80%20fillable.doc For Spanish: http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/wgwkstnd/forms/DOL-80S%20fillable-Spa.doc

For those unfamiliar with the way a lot of Connecticut laws get implemented, October 1st could seem like just another day.  (Though for my kids, they would be impressed that it was a different October 1st in 1982 that EPCOT opened at Disney World.)

But a lot of bills that are passed by the Connecticut General Assembly go into effect on October 1st each year. This year is no exception.

For employers, the biggest of these bills is the new law concerning “Pregnant Women in the Workplace”.  I’ve previously recapped the law for pregnant employees in a prior post way back in May, but because we’re getting close to implementation, it’s time for a little refresher.

Existing law makes it a discriminatory practice to:

  • To terminate a woman’s employment because of her pregnancy;
  • to refuse to grant to that employee a reasonable leave of absence for disability resulting from her pregnancy;
  • to deny to that employee, who is disabled as a result of pregnancy, any compensation to which she is entitled as a result of the accumulation of disability or leave benefits accrued pursuant to plans maintained by the employer;
  • to fail or refuse to reinstate the employee to her original job or to an equivalent position with equivalent pay and accumulated seniority, retirement, fringe benefits and other service credits upon her signifying her intent to return unless, in the case of a private employer, the employer’s circumstances have so changed as to make it impossible or unreasonable to do so.

Those rules remain unchanged. But the new law revises some other provisions and adds more to the protections. Effective October 1st, it will now also be unlawful to:

  • Limit, segregate or classify the pregnant employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities due to her pregnancy;
  • Discriminate against an employee or job applicant on the basis of her pregnancy in the terms or conditions of her employment;
  • Fail or refuse to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee or job applicant due to her pregnancy, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship;
  • Deny employment opportunities to an employee or job applicant if the denial is due to the request for a reasonable accommodation due to her pregnancy;
  • Force an employee or job applicant affected by pregnancy to accept a reasonable accommodation if she (i) does not have known limitation related to her pregnancy, or (ii) does not require a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential duties related to her employment;
  • Require an employee to take a leave of absence if a reasonable accommodation can be provided in lieu of the leave; and
  • Retaliate against an employee in the terms, conditions or privileges of her employment based upon the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation.

The changes don’t stop there. The new law also explains that the word “pregnancy” will also include “pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition, including but not limited to, lactation”.  It also expands the definition of “reasonable accommodation ” and “undue hardship”.

  • “Reasonable Accommodation” means, but is not limited to, being permitted to sit while working, more frequent or longer breaks, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, light duty assignment, modified work schedules, temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work, time off to recover from childbirth or break time and appropriate facilities for expressing breast milk; and
  • “Undue Hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as (A) the nature and cost of the accommodation; (B) the overall financial resources of the employer; (C) the overall size of the business of the employer with respect to the number of employees, and the number, type and location of its facilities; and (D) the effect on expenses and resources or the impact otherwise of the accommodation upon the operation of the employer.

Continue Reading Two Weeks Until New Protections for Pregnant Employees Become Effective

There’s an old(?) Bonnie Raitt song that my parents used to listen to when I was in college called “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About”.  It’s about a crush, but the intro could be just as applicable to a new court decision. The lyrics start: “People are talkin’, talkin’ ’bout people, I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it.”

The short lesson? Don’t give your employees something to talk about — namely when a lawsuit is filed, caution is strongly advised in distributing information about that lawsuit.  Interested in more? My colleague, Gary Starr, shares more:

A recent Connecticut district court decision (EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS) is a cautionary tale for in-house lawyers and human resource managers who want to tell employees about an investigation into discrimination claim brought by a former employee, and that investigation may involve those employees.

Following a disability discrimination charge, the EEOC sought contact information about other employees as well as information about their employment.

Rather than simply advise the employees that the EEOC was being provided with their job title, dates of employment, home address, and phone number, the company also described the accommodation that was requested and information that the former employee’s doctor had indicated that without the accommodation, the employee could not perform the essential functions of the job.

The EEOC viewed this as retaliation against the former employee by disclosing the information and interference with the rights of the employees receiving the letter as the agency thought it would discourage others from making claims in the future out of concern that their personal information would be shared widely.

The Company’s efforts to justify the letter were rejected by the court, which decided that a jury will have to decide whether the letter was retaliation and/or interference.

In communicating with potential witnesses in an agency investigation or lawsuit, employers must be clear on why the notice is being sent.  And employers should exercise caution on deciding what information is being shared.  What the decision suggests is that employees do not need to know what the medical condition another employee may have, what accommodation has been requested by that employee, or what recommendation a doctor has made about the employee.

Letting employees know that their contact information has been given to the EEOC and that they may be contacted would likely have have been sufficient and not opened up the employer to criticism.  And the decision does suggest that offering them the choice of having a lawyer present should not interfere with their rights.

In this instance, less information is better than more.

In any case, in the unlikely event you do need to inform employees about a lawsuit, check with your counsel about the details you should (and should not) be sending.

The Connecticut Appellate Court today released an important disability discrimination decision that gives employers some support for employees who struggle with employees who ask for “accommodations” for an indefinite leave for a medical condition.

The case ostensibly addresses the request for “indefinite leave” which I’ve previously talked about it in prior posts.

But the case boils down to a familiar set of facts for employers. An employee who one day says, “I need to take 30 days off for a medical condition” and leaves the employer to twist without further response. As explained by the court:

The plaintiff informed the defendant that she would be taking a leave of absence, did not provide the defendant with any time frame for her return, and did not respond to the defendant’s subsequent attempts to contact her regarding her request for leave. The plaintiff effectively asked the defendant ‘‘to hold [her] position open indefinitely while [she] attempt[ed] to recover. . . .’’

Under these circumstances, the court said that the Plaintiff cannot establish even a prima facie case of discrimination because she cannot show that she “requested a reasonable accommodation that enabled her to perform the essential functions of the job”.

In doing so, the state court reviewed federal law and noted that “[R]easonable accommodation does not require [an employer] to wait indefinitely
for [the employee’s] medical conditions to be corrected . . . .’’

In this particular case, the court said, the plaintiff, prior to her departure, informed her supervisor that she would be taking leave for ‘‘over thirty days depending on my lung condition . . . .’’  At a subsequent deposition, the court went on to say, the plaintiff was asked, with respect to her request for leave, that ‘‘you didn’t know how long you were going to be out, correct?’’ The plaintiff responded, ‘‘[c]orrect.’’

The forms submitted by the employee at the time were confusing and the Plaintiff did not respond after requests by certified and regular mail by the employer for more information.  When the employee was told to submit information by a date certain and did not do so, the employer just went ahead and fired her. The court upheld that termination.

For employers, the case offers some helpful reminders:

  • Reasonable accommodation is an interactive process. So long as the employer holds up its end, courts will be more inclined to support the employer in the end.
  • Seeking medical documentation from employees regarding their requested leaves is both necessary and essential to defending a claim where the documentation is vague.  Don’t hesitate to followup and set firm deadlines to the employee to provide the information.
  • As always, seek legal counsel to help navigate through this and work through any issues regarding termination.

Employers may feel like anti-discrimination laws are rigid, but there is built-in flexibility for employers if they know where to look.

The case, Thomson v. Department of Social Services, can be downloaded here. 

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Over the weekend, I was doing a lot of driving.  Having a kid at camp near the New Hampshire border to pick him up will do that.

So, it was time for me to catch up on some podcasts I had downloaded but hadn’t yet listened to.

I had already finished S-Town (worthy of a listen) but one of the others that I had been meaning to catch up on was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”.

In these episodes, he revisits an item from history that is often overlooked.

The first two episodes I picked were the most recent ones (State v. Johnson, and Mr. Holloway Didn’t Like That) and were based, in part, on interviews with legendary attorney Vernon Jordan and concerned legal cases from the Civil Rights Era.  Start there.

But the other one I listened too was from earlier in the season, called “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”.

It too is riveting.

It tackles the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (the legendary school desegregation case) but from the perspective of the teachers who worked at the “colored-only” schools and who were subsequently laid off — allegedly for “performance” related reasons.

Even as a history major in college, I don’t remember hearing about this — how thousands upon thousands of black teachers lost their jobs when the schools that they taught at were closed. Different reasons were given — sometimes it was deemed to be too “difficult” for white students to be taught by black teachers.

But the effect was the same — a generation of teachers were lost to history.

That could be the end of a discrimination story, but Gladwell notes that the impact of this decision isn’t just that these teachers lost their jobs.

But rather, black students lost the opportunity to be taught by black teachers. And empirical research has shown that for black students, having a black teacher can be pivotal in reducing drop-out rates and ensuring students’ success.

The impact of these decisions still resonates today.

Gladwell highlights a study from just last year that looked for explanations about the under-representation of students of color in gifted programs.  Their conclusion?

Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.

For schools that employ teachers (including many of our clients), the podcast is a good reminder that the employment decisions that are made have a big impact beyond just the teachers themselves. Students lives and their successes and failures depend, in part, on the teachers that they have in life.

For other employers, listening to this podcast is a reminder that our laws governing the workplace are not all that old. Our current laws are a reflection on what occurred in the recent past. Indeed, the major federal law — Title VII — wasn’t passed until 1964 — nearly a decade removed from the Brown decision.

We’ve made a lot of progress, thankfully, since then. But ensuring fairness and eliminating race discrimination are still items that should remain high up in a company’s “must-do” list.

If you’re looking for something different to listen to, give the podcast a listen.  Gladwell may have his own agenda, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining.  And it’s a good reminder that compliance with employment laws is about more than just doing the right thing.