Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Health Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “DFEH Publishes Materials to Assist Employers With Handling Harassment Allegations.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recently released a brief, nine-page guide for California employers, which was prepared in conjunction with the California Sexual Harassment Task Force.  This guide is intended to assist employers in developing an effective anti-harassment program, including information about how to properly investigate reports of harassment and understand what recourse is available.  The guide addresses all forms of workplace harassment, including harassment based on sex. …

Read the full post here.

On March 28, 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed three pieces of legislation passed earlier this month by The New York City Council to amend the City’s Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).

The new laws:

  1. require that the NYCHRL be interpreted expansively to maximize civil rights protections, regardless of how courts have interpreted similar provisions under federal and state anti-discrimination laws;
  2. permit the City’s Commission on Human Rights the authority to award attorney’s fees and costs to complainants in cases brought before the Commission; and
  3. repeal language addressing how to construe the NYCRHL’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The repealed language provided that the NYCHRL should not be construed to, among other things, restrict an employer’s right to insist that an employee meet bona fide job-related qualifications of employment, or authorize affirmative action on the basis of sexual orientation.

The laws became effective immediately upon the Mayor’s signature. Employers should be aware of the enhanced protections for their New York City employees.

The top story on Employment Law This Week is the EEOC’s filing of its first sexual orientation bias suits.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against an individual for sexual orientation. The EEOC concluded that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of unlawful gender discrimination. This month, the agency filed two landmark federal lawsuits seeking to enforce its interpretation of the statute for the first time. The agency is suing on behalf of workers at a company in Baltimore and one in Pittsburgh for harassment based on sexual orientation. Our colleague Jeffrey Landes, from Epstein Becker Green, has more.

View the episode below or read more about these landmark lawsuits in an earlier post on this blog.

Laura C. Monaco
Laura C. Monaco

This week, the EEOC filed its first two federal lawsuits that frame allegations of sexual orientation-based harassment and discrimination as claims of unlawful “sex discrimination” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In EEOC v. Pallet Companies the EEOC alleges that an employee’s night-shift manager harassed her because of her sexual orientation by making repeated offensive comments (sometimes accompanied by sexually suggestive gestures), such as “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “I want you to like men again.”  According to the Complaint, the employee was discharged after she complained about her manager’s comments to another supervisor and the Human Resources department.  The EEOC makes similar allegations in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center.  There, a supervisor allegedly harassed an employee by making repeated anti-gay comments and vulgar statements about the employee’s sexual orientation.  The employee claims that he was constructively discharged after the company refused to take any corrective action in response to his complaints.

In both lawsuits, the EEOC articulates three legal theories in support of its claim that the alleged sexual orientation harassment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII.  First, sexual orientation discrimination “necessarily entails” treating an employee less favorably due to his or her sex and, therefore, the employee’s gender unlawfully motivated the alleged harassment.  Second, the alleged harassment stemmed from the employee’s failure to conform to the harasser’s “sex stereotypes and norms.”  Third, the harasser displayed both general objections to the idea of individuals having romantic associations with others of the same sex, as well as a specific objection to the employee’s close, loving association with a same-sex partner.

Although these are the first lawsuits the EEOC has filed on the grounds of sexual orientation discrimination as “sex discrimination” under Title VII, the agency has actually raised these same three legal theories before.  In July 2015, the EEOC issued Baldwin v. Department of Transportation, an agency determination concluding that allegations of sexual orientation discrimination necessarily state a claim of unlawful sex discrimination because (1) the alleged discrimination would not have occurred but for the employee’s sex, (2) the challenged treatment was based on the sex of the people the employee associates with, and/or (3) the alleged conduct was premised on the fundamental “sex stereotype, norm, or expectation that individuals should be attracted only to those of the opposite sex.”

The EEOC’s new lawsuits attacking sexual orientation discrimination represent just one facet of the agency’s recent efforts to address emerging and developing issues – one of the six national priorities identified in its Strategic Enforcement Plan for fiscal years 2013 to 2016.  In addition to focusing on sexual orientation discrimination, the EEOC also recently filed federal lawsuits alleging unlawful sex discrimination against transgender individuals.  As the EEOC intensifies this focus, employers should review their antidiscrimination policies to determine whether LGBT employees have the same protections as employees in other protected categories, and should consider expanding their training programs to ensure they encompass issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender discrimination.  Employers should also remain mindful of state and local legislation that has increasingly expanded to prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in employment.

John M. O’ConnorRetail employers and other businesses that serve the public in New York City should take particular notice of the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ detailed written guidance issued on December 21, 2015, reinforcing its desire that the protections afforded to transgender individuals by the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) be broadly interpreted to ensure that transgender individuals receive the full protection of the NYCHRL. The guidance includes specific examples of what the Commission believes constitutes unlawful discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived transgender status, gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or gender expression.

The Commission stresses the need for employers in New York City to use an employee’s preferred name, pronoun (he/she) and title (Mr./Mrs.) regardless of the employee’s “sex assigned at birth, anatomy, gender, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on the individual’s identification.”  Recognizing that many transgender and gender non-confirming individuals choose to use a different name than the one they were given at birth, or chose to use gender neutral pronouns (such as ze/hir), the Commission explains that employees expressing such a preference “have the right to use their preferred name.”  Refusal by an employer to use an employee’s preferred name, pronoun or title because they do not conform to gender stereotypes is a violation of the NYCHRL.  Thus, if a transgender woman advises that her preferred name is Jane, even though her identification states that her first name is John, it would be a violation of the NYCHRL for the employer to refuse to call her Jane.  The Commission suggests in its guidance that employers should consider creating a workplace policy of asking all employees what their preferred name and gender pronoun are so that employees can self-identify, and so that no single employee is singled out for such questioning (giving rise to a potential harassment claim).

The Commission also addresses employer dress code and grooming policies, advising that employers “may not require dress codes or uniforms, or apply grooming or appearance standards, that impose different requirements for individuals based on sex or gender.”  The Commission expressly rejects the federal standard that allows employers to apply different dress code or grooming policies to male and female employees unless the policies create an undue burden on employees.  Rather, the Commission opines that “holding individuals to different grooming or uniform standards based on gender serves no legitimate non-discriminatory purpose.”  Thus, while employers are entitled to enforce a dress code or require certain grooming/appearance standards, they must do so without imposing restrictions or requirements specific to gender or sex.  In this regard, polices such as allowing only women to wear jewelry, or requiring only male employees to maintain short hair would be violations of the NYCHRL, as would a policy requiring different uniforms for men and women.  Accordingly, to avoid violations, employers should create gender-neutral dress codes and grooming standards.

Retailers and other businesses that serve the public should also note the Commission’s position that the NYCHRL, “requires that individuals be permitted to use single-sex facilities, such as bathrooms or locker rooms … consistent with their gender, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, anatomy, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on their identification.”  Recognizing that other employees or customers may object to sharing a bathroom with a transgender or gender non-conforming person, the Commission warns that “such objections are not a lawful reason to deny access to that transgender or gender non-conforming individual.”  The Commission suggests that, to avoid violating the NYCHRL, employers should, “wherever possible,” provide single-occupancy restrooms (that can be used by people of all genders), or provide private space within multi-use bathrooms or locker rooms for anyone who has privacy concerns.  However, it would be a violation to force a transgender or gender non-conforming person to use a single-occupancy restroom if he/she/ze does not want to use it.  The Commission suggests that employers should post signs in all single-sex bathrooms or locker rooms that state that: “Under New York City Law, all individuals have the right to use the single-sex facility consistent with their gender identity or expression.”

By issuing the guidance, the Commission makes very clear its intention to protect transgender individuals from discrimination based on their transgender status and gender expression.  The guidance concludes with a bold reminder of the penalties for violating the NYCHRL’s prohibition of gender identity discrimination.  In addition to the remedies available at law to aggrieved individuals who prevail on claims under the NYCHRL, the Commission can impose civil penalties up to $125,000 for violations, and up to $250,000 for violations that are the product of willful, wanton or malicious conduct.  Accordingly, to avoid potential violations, New York City employers should consult with counsel to ensure that they create new policies and/or amend existing policies to comply with the directives set forth in the Commission’s guidance, and to minimize the likelihood of a violation of the NYCHRL.

For additional information regarding the Commission’s guidance and other recent developments affecting New York City employers, see our January 28 Act Now Advisory, “NYC Employers Risk New Penalties in 2016: Gender and Caregiver Discrimination, Paying Freelancers.”

Since we last reported on the 2012 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) decision in Macy v. Holder,[1] the federal government has continued to extend protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) to transgender employees.  In July 2014, President Obama issued Executive Order 13672, prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Two months later, in September 2014, the EEOC filed its first-ever lawsuits alleging sex discrimination against transgender employees under Title VII.  Shortly thereafter, in December 2014, outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo announcing that the Department of Justice considers Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination to include discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status.  Finally, earlier this year, on March 30, 2015, the Department of Justice filed its first lawsuit alleging an employer engaged in discrimination and retaliation against a transgender employee in violation of Title VII.

As a result, private employers may increasingly face lawsuits asserting gender identity discrimination claims and should revisit their policies– including employment, non-discrimination, and even dress code policies – to avoid the litigation of such claims.  Just last month, on April 1, 2015, Alexia (formerly “Anthony”) Daskalakis, a former employee of clothing retailer Forever 21, filed a complaint in the Eastern District of New York alleging discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on the basis of her gender, gender identity, gender expression and/or failure to conform to gender stereotypes.  Daskalakis, who was assigned male gender at birth, worked as a visual merchandiser at a Forever 21 store located in Brooklyn.  Daskalakis’s allegations arise from her manager’s conduct after she began transitioning to a woman.  The claims in Daskalakis v. Forever 21, Inc. are currently based on New York State and City non-discrimination laws, but the complaint indicates that plaintiff will file and/or seek leave to amend the complaint to include Title VII claims after receiving a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC.

In another recent EEOC decision, Lusardi v. McHugh, Appeal No. 0120133395, Agency No. ARREDSTON11SEP05574 (EEOC Apr. 1, 2015), the EEOC found that the Department of the Army subjected the complainant-employee to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment.  In holding that denying the employee equal access to the common women’s restroom constituted disparate treatment, the EEOC wrote: “The decision to restrict Complainant to a ‘single shot’ restroom isolated and segregated her from other persons of her gender” . . . and “perpetuated the sense that she was not worthy of equal treatment and respect.”  Appeal No. 0120133395 at 13.  Notably, the EEOC stated that co-workers’ confusion or anxiety regarding sharing a restroom with a transgender individual would not justify discriminatory terms and conditions of employment.   Appeal No. 0120133395 at 10-11.  The EEOC found that the Department of the Army had subjected the employee to a hostile work environment because a team leader referred to the employee by male names and pronouns and made hostile remarks after being aware that the employee identified as female.  Appeal No. 0120133395 at 17.

While the Lusardi decision has no precedential effect for private employers, it is predictive of a potential enforcement position in the event of a transgendered employee’s charge of discrimination against a private employer.  Notably, the EEOC did not declare that in all situations an employer should designate the gender-corresponding common restroom for the transgender employee’s use, but rather that the employer should develop individualized transition plans appropriate for the employee’s circumstances.  Appeal No. 0120133395 at 10.  Such a transition might even “include a limited period of time where the employee opts to use a private facility instead of a common one.”  Id.

To reduce the risk of litigating claims of gender identity discrimination and retaliation, it is important for employers to confer with counsel to ensure that all policies comply with the employer’s obligations to transgender employees under Title VII.

[1] Macy v. Holder, Appeal No. 0120120821, Agency No. ATF-2011-00751 (EEOC, Apr. 20, 2012).

California has created additional protections for unpaid interns and created additional requirements for sexual harassment prevention training.  In addition, California has mandated a new requirement for most employers to provide their employees with paid sick leave.  This new sick-leave requirement will go into effect next summer on July 1, 2015. For a more detailed description of these changes, click here to review the Act Now Advisory written by our colleagues Jennifer L. Nutter and Marisa Ratinoff.

 

By Julie Saker Schlegel

In a 5-4 decision the dissent termed “decidedly employer-friendly,” the Supreme Court held on June 24, 2013 that only employees who have been empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against a harassment victim constitute “supervisors” for the purpose of vicarious liability under Title VII.  Per the holding in Vance v. Ball State University, employees who merely direct the work activities of others, but who lack the authority to take tangible employment actions, will no longer be considered supervisors under Title VII. 

Under long-standing precedent (Faragher and Ellerth), whether an employer can be found vicariously liable for harassment perpetrated by its employees is dependent on whether the harasser is a supervisor or merely a co-worker of the victim:

  • For co-worker harassment, the employer will only be found liable if it was negligent—that is, if it knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take corrective action;
  • For supervisor harassment where the supervisor takes a tangible employment action against the victim (such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits), the employer will be considered strictly liable; and
  • For supervisor harassment where the supervisor does not take a tangible employment action against the victim, the employer may establish an affirmative defense to liability if it can prove that: (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing behavior; and (2) the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities offered by the employer.

Despite this framework that is highly dependent on the status of the harasser, however, the Court had never definitively ruled on who constitutes a supervisor, until now.

As a consequence of the Court’s truncated conception of supervisory authority, the Faragher and Ellerth framework has shifted in a decidedly employer-friendly direction.”
—Justice Ginsburg, dissenting

In reaching this decision, the Court emphatically rejected the EEOC’s definition of supervisor, which had included both those who have the authority to take or recommend tangible employment actions and those who direct the daily work activities of others.  The Court noted that a significant advantage of its new definition is that supervisory status can now be readily determined early in the case, and will generally be capable of resolution on summary judgment.  Alternatively, if the issue should reach trial, the new definition will be easier for juries to apply.

While the new definition of supervisor should benefit employers, by leading to more cases being decided under the more lenient “negligence” standard, the Court’s opinion contained a few caveats.  While employees who merely direct the daily work activities of others will no longer be considered supervisors, the Court noted that the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor to be considered in determining whether the employer was negligent in controlling workplace harassment.  Further, an employer who attempts to evade liability by concentrating all decision-making authority in a few individuals, who in turn rely upon the recommendations of others who actually work directly with the affected employees, may be found to have effectively delegated the power to take tangible employment actions to those employees on whose recommendations it relies.  Accordingly, while the new definition of supervisor has been distinctly narrowed, the Court has allowed some room for it to be expanded in particular cases, should the situation warrant.

In accordance with this decision, employers should ensure that their job descriptions clearly define which employees have the authority to take tangible employment actions against others, keeping in mind that employees who make recommendations regarding such employment actions may also be deemed supervisors in certain situations.

By Amy Messigian

Last month, the California Court of Appeal ruled that a former employee of Forever 21 must try her claims against the retailer in arbitration, enforcing the company’s employment arbitration policy and reversing a lower court decision finding the agreement unconscionable under California law.  The plaintiff, Maribel Baltazar, alleged that she had been discriminated against by the retailer due to her race and sexually harassed by a supervisor and coworker.  She filed a complaint against Forever 21 and several of its employees in the Los Angeles Superior Court and the retailer moved to compel Baltazar to arbitration.

Reversing the lower court, the Court of Appeal found that Baltazar had been given the opportunity to review the arbitration agreement, which was contained in her employment contract, and that the contract’s provision allowing the parties to seek injunctive relief in court did not unduly favor Forever 21.  The panel noted that six of the claims asserted in Baltazar’s suit were brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), which authorizes injunctive relief, and that there was nothing to suggest that the employer would be more likely than the employee to seek provisional remedies.

Injunctive relief provisions have sounded the death knell for many employment arbitration agreements in California of late, with multiple appellate decisions citing an injunctive remedy as unduly favoring the employer.  Ostensibly, these courts are inclined to believe that an employer is more likely than an employee to seek injunctive relief.  The Baltazar court felt otherwise. Until this issue is considered by the California Supreme Court, it remains likely that the luck of the draw will ultimately decide whether an arbitration agreement is enforceable if it contains a provisional remedies provision that allows parties to seek an injunction in court.