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.

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.

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.

gavelIn an decision of first impression in Connecticut, a federal court on Friday ruled that a transgender discrimination claim based on a failure to hire can proceed under both Title VII and Connecticut’s counterpart, CFEPA.

While the groundbreaking decision in Fabian v. Hospital of Central Connecticut (download here)  is sure to be the subject of discussion, as the court notes, Connecticut has — in the interim — passed a state law explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Thus, for a few years now, Connecticut has already explicitly prohibited transgender discrimination under state law. (The case was based on facts that occurred before passage of the state’s anti-discrimination law.)

But the decision obviously goes further than that and takes up the logic advanced by the EEOC and others of late — namely that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination “because of…sex” should be read to include transgender discrimination.  The court’s opinion should be mandatory reading not only in the state, but for practitioners nationwide faced with similar claims.

The decision addresses the notion of gender-stereotyping discrimination noting that such discrimination is sex discrimination “per se”.  In the court’s view, the Supreme Court’s decision years ago in Price Waterhouse has led to a “significant shift in the direction of decisions examining alleged discrimination on the basis of transgender identity”.

In doing so, the court notes the split in the circuits that has been developing, even though the Second Circuit hasn’t truly spoken yet on the issue:

In sum, discrimination on the basis of transgender identity is now recognized as discrimination “because of sex” in the Ninth Circuit (as Schwenk recognized the abrogation of Holloway), the Sixth Circuit (as recognized in Smith), and in the Eleventh Circuit (as recognized in Glenn); and the E.E.O.C. (in Macy) and has agreed with that authority.  Discrimination on the basis of transgender identity is regarded as not constituting discrimination “because of sex” in the Tenth Circuit (under Etsitty). The continued vitality the pre–Price Waterhouse decisions in the Seventh and Eighth Circuits (Ulane II & Sommers, respectively)  is unclear.

Judge Underhill, who penned the decision, then goes on to discuss the language of “because of…sex” found in the statute itself.  He notes that:

discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes, or on the basis of being transgender, or intersex, or sexually indeterminate, constitutes  discrimination on the basis of the properties or characteristics typically manifested in sum as male and female — and that discrimination is literally discrimination “because of sex.”

On the basis of the plain language of the statute, and especially in light of the interpretation of that language evident in Price Waterhouse’s acknowledgement that gender-stereotyping discrimination is discrimination “because of sex,” I conclude that discrimination on the basis of transgender identity is cognizable under Title VII.

For employers in Connecticut, this decision is likely to be closely followed by other federal courts in Connecticut. Judge Underhill is well-regarded and until this decision gets reviewed by the Second Circuit, it’s hard to see how other judges in Connecticut will decline to follow it.

In other words, employers in Connecticut should be alert that a plaintiff may make a gender identity claim under Title VII in Connecticut.

But, as I noted at the top, this decision’s impact in Connecticut may be more muted because Connecticut has now explicitly protected gender identity in the state’s anti-discrimination statutes.

Nevertheless, the decision is an important one to read in the field of gender identity claims.

As I said before, the notion that this might be a quiet year for employment law legislation at the Connecticut General Assembly has long since left the train station.

Indeed, we’ve appear to be swinging completely in the opposite direction. Anything and everything appears up discussion and possible passage this year — including items that really stood no chance in prior years.

GA2I’ll leave it for the political pundits to analyze the why and the politics of it all. But for employers, some of these proposals are going to be very challenging, at best, if passed.

One such bill, which appeared this week on the “GO” list (meaning its ready for considering by both houses) is House Bill 6850, titled “An Act on Pay Equity and Fairness”.  Of course, you won’t find those words in the bill itself which is odd.  There is nothing about pay equity in the bill; indeed, it is much much broader than that.

It stands in contrast to, say, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which tried to tackle gender discrimination in pay directly.

This bill would make it illegal for employers to do three things. If passed, no employer (no matter how big or small) could:

  • Prohibit an employee from disclosing, inquiring about or discussing the amount of his or her wages or the wages of another employee;
  • Require an employee to sign a waiver or other document that purports to deny the employee his or her right to disclose, inquire 1about or discuss the amount of his or her wages or the wages of  another employee; or
  • Discharge, discipline, discriminate against, retaliate against or otherwise penalize any employee who discloses, inquires about or discusses the amount of his or her wages or the wages of another employee.

You might be wondering: Isn’t this first bill duplicative of federal law? And the answer is yes, and then it goes beyond it.  Federal labor law (the National Labor Relations Act) already protects two or more employees discussing improving their pay as a “protected concerted activity”.  It’s been on the books for nearly 80 years. So, as noted in an NPR article:

Under a nearly 80-year-old federal labor law, employees already can talk about their salaries at work, and employers are generally prohibited from imposing “pay secrecy” policies, whether or not they do business with the federal government.

This provision goes beyond that by making it improper for an employer to prohibit an employee from even disclosing another employee’s pay.

Continue Reading “Pay Secrecy” Bill Goes Above and Beyond Other Proposals

IIMG_9091 don’t care who you are: Somewhere, in a doctor’s waiting room, or a supermarket checkout line, you’ve seen the headlines of Cosmopolitan magazine.

But, as luck would have it as an employment lawyer, imagine my surprise when I saw this headline:

“He Did WHAT?! The Cosmo Guide to Surviving Sexual Harassment at Work“.

Of course, this was right below the $10 Beauty Bonanza headline, but for the sake of the blog, I was determined to get to the bottom of this.

But just then, the nurse called me back for the doctor’s appointment.  Oh well.

As luck would have it though, the articles are now online for all.  And while it would be easy to dismiss this as just “headlines”, it’s actually worth a passing read by employers. Cosmo did a survey of 2235 women on this issue and while I wouldn’t take the statistical authenticity all too seriously, the survey did have some surprising and troubling results.

I’ve read it so you don’t have to and here are the tips I’ve gleaned:

1. The women surveyed report a higher rate of harassment or sexual conduct in the workplace than you might think. 

Here are some of the findings:

  • One in three women aged 18-34 believes that they have been sexually harassed;
  • Just 29 percent of those who believe they have been harassed reported it to their employer;
  • 75 percent surveyed said it was male co-workers who sexually harassed them, though 50 percent or so report harassment by male clients or customers.

There are several takeaways from this but here are two: Harassment by co-workers is still prevalent and that a lot of it is going unreported.

2. There are ways to respond to harassment besides filing a claim.

In another article entitled “Six Ways to Respond to Sexual Harassment”, Cosmo provides some tips to its readers. Notably, the first tip is a solid one: Tell the person to stop.  And even more notably, filing a claim isn’t really listed as the best option.  Nevertheless, employers need to remind employees that they should report harassment (and must report it if, as a manager, they hear or see about it.)

3. Technology is a blessing and a curse.

Technology has been great for the workplaces. E-mail allows us to communicate better and faster, for example. But there is a dark side to it as well. The Cosmo article and survey reports 25 percent of the women who were harassed faced lewd texts or e-mails.  For employers, this is a constant reminder that your systems still need monitoring and employers ought to be reminded about what is (or is not) appropriate.

 

 

With Congress in gridlock, we haven’t seen any federal laws impacting employment law for several years. Instead, we’ve now started to see a lot more action at the state legislative level where proposals to modify everything from family leave to the minimum wage are being passed in, it seems, increasing numbers.

Therefore, what happens in other states is becoming much more important.  For instance, we saw that Connecticut was considering an immigration-related employment bill that was modeled on laws in other states. 

Because of this, and because many employers now have businesses in multiple states, I’ve asked my friend, Courtney Ward-Reichard, a shareholder at Nilan Johnson Lewis in Minneapolis, to share her insights about a pretty broad employment law bill that was just signed into law earlier this week in Minnesota.  While Connecticut already has adopted some of these items, others may be on the horizon, such as lowering the employee threshhold for family leave to 20 or more employees. After all, if one state has passed it, propoants can argue that Connecticut’s passage won’t put us as a competitive disadvantage when compared with similar states. 

In any event, my thanks to Courtney for her insights here.

On May 11, 2014, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed landmark legislation – a group of bills that became known as the Women’s Economic Security Act (“WESA”). WESA will most directly affect employers with operations and employees in Minnesota. But employers in Connecticut and elsewhere should take note: this legislation – or its components – may well serve as a model in other states.

Here are the most significant changes:

• Creates new protected class for familial status: WESA expands the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) by adding familial status as a new protected class. Employers will likely face new state charges and lawsuits alleging discrimination on the basis of this status, and victorious plaintiffs may seek not only damages, but also their attorneys’ fees. This expansion makes Minnesota unusual, as federal law and most states’ laws do not include familial status as a protected class. This change became effective the day after Governor Dayton signed the bill.

• Expands pregnancy and parenting leave: Covered employers (with over 20 employees) must provide up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to eligible employees for: 1) the birth or adoption of a child; or 2) prenatal care, or incapacity due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related health conditions (for female employees). Employees may take the first type of leave within twelve months of the birth/after the child leaves the hospital. These changes will be effective July 1, 2014, and will affect numerous employers who are not covered by the federal FMLA. Employers will be allowed to require employees to use their sick leave during parental leave, and the leave will also run concurrently with any FMLA leave.

Continue Reading Guest Post: Women’s Economic Security Act May Serve As Model for Other States

Not every case that comes out from the Connecticut Appellate Court makes headlines.

Take the case of Walker v. Department of Children & Families, a new case that will be officially released next week (download here).

It is a fairly ordinary discrimination case — albeit a rare one where the employer has been successful on a motion for summary judgment. It is also a textbook example of how slow the legal system can be, with the court decision coming eight years after the employee was fired.

The plaintiff was hired as a social worker in June 2004 and was notified that he needed to successfully complete a “ten month working west period.”  His first performance review, about 10 weeks in, was generally favorable.  By December, though, he was transferred to a new unit and was required to prepare documents to be filed in court and attend court proceedings.

Continue Reading Appellate Court Upholds Summary Judgment for Employer

Let’s play the “law school hypothetical” game for a minute.  (I know, not as exciting as a cat being chosen in Monopoly, but bear with me.)

You hear the following allegations:

  • An gay, male employee starts works as a teacher in an “New Beginnings Alternative” program at a public school.
  • During his employment, he is subject to derogatory statements by a fellow teacher, a school police officer and a supervisor.
  • Allegedly a supervisor tells a social worker that the employee is “too flaming” or “too flamboyant”. Also, a fellow teacher is alleged to have said to the employee at a department meeting that “You are so overdramatic, you are being a bitch just like a woman.”
  • The employee is criticized for not being a “team player” and that his “apparent proneness towards using sarcasm and humor (that is often not understood by others) must change.”
  • The employee believes that the supervisor’s comments regarding how he and others cannot understand the employee’s sense of humor “stems from their divergent social views and pervasive stereotypes on gender and sexuality.”
  • Ultimately, the employee is informed that his contract may not be renewed which does, in fact, lead to a non-renewal of the contract.

Assuming, as you must for the moment, that the allegations are all true, does the employee have any claims? If so, what are they?

Continue Reading Can Being Called “Too Flamboyant” Be Basis for State Gender Discrimination Claim?