Articles Posted in Civil Rights

checkDigital technology has brought all sorts of conveniences into our lives, but these conveniences might come at a significant cost for some people. Our daily activities leave a trail of information behind, which is accessible to credit reporting agencies (CRAs). Employers often ask to conduct credit checks as part of the hiring process. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., offers some protection to job applicants by making this process reasonably transparent. An employer must provide job applicants with various disclosures, particularly if it decides not to hire an applicant because of information in their credit report. A proposed class action currently pending in New Jersey claims that a transportation network company (TNC), also known as a rideshare company, failed to provide disclosures required by the FCRA to prospective drivers. Cuccinello v. Uber, Inc., No. 2:15-cv-06604, am. complaint (D.N.J., Dec. 7, 2015). The complaint also alleges FCRA violations against a CRA.

A person’s credit report potentially includes their complete financial history for the previous seven years, if not longer, along with other information about their current life and history. This might include criminal convictions and arrests, marriages, divorces, and children. In order to protect people’s privacy, the FCRA places restrictions on the CRAs that collect consumer credit information and issue credit reports, as well as on individuals and businesses that request those reports.

An employer that wants to obtain a job applicant’s credit report must give the applicant “a clear and conspicuous disclosure,” stating that it intends to use the report “for employment purposes.” 15 U.S.C. § 1681b(b)(2)(A). The disclosure must be provided “in a document that consists solely of the disclosure.” Id. The job applicant must consent in writing to the issuance of a credit report for this purpose. CRAs are not permitted to issue a credit report unless the employer certifies that it has complied with these provisions. Id. at § 1681b(b)(1).

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policeThe U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a New Jersey police officer who claimed that his employer violated his First Amendment rights. Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 578 U.S. ___ (2016). This case is particularly notable because the underlying action by the plaintiff’s employer was based on a mistake. The employer thought the plaintiff was engaging in a “constitutionally protected political activity,” Heffernan, slip op. at 1, by supporting a political candidate opposed by the police chief. The district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that, since he was not actually engaging in constitutionally protected speech, his employer could not have deprived him of any constitutional right. The Supreme Court reversed this ruling based on a 1994 case, which held that an employer’s subjective belief is the controlling factor.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of “freedom of speech” means, in part, that the government cannot punish a person for the content of their speech. In an employment law context, this protects public employees like the plaintiff, a police officer. Government employers are generally prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee for acts that are protected by the Bill of Rights. This restriction does not necessarily apply to private employers, since the First Amendment only restrains government actions. Congress enacted a statute in the 19th century giving individuals the right to file suit against a government official for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” while acting in an official capacity. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The plaintiff in Heffernan was a 20-year veteran of the police department in Paterson, New Jersey. He was assigned to work in the police chief’s office in 2005, according to the court’s opinion. The mayor, who had appointed both the chief and the plaintiff’s direct supervisor, was running for reelection at the time. The plaintiff was reportedly “a good friend” of the mayor’s challenger. Heffernan, slip op. at 2.

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unions mapLaws in New Jersey and many other states protect workers’ right and ability to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining with employers. Some states, however, have passed laws aimed at significantly reducing workers’ ability to unionize, ironically named “right to work” laws. These laws prohibit requiring workers who choose not to join a union to pay any sort of fee to the union, even if they benefit from working conditions only made possible by union efforts. In a bit of good news, a Wisconsin court has ruled that its state’s “right to work” law constitutes a taking of union property by the government without just compensation, in violation of the state constitution. Int’l Assoc. Of Machinists Dist. 10, et al. v. State of Wisconsin, et al., No. 2015CV000628, order (Wis. Cir. Ct., Dane Co., Apr. 8, 2016).

Unions represent employees in collective bargaining negotiations with their employers. These types of negotiations, backed by strikes and other actions, helped make possible many of the features of employment taken for granted today. Workers who do not join a union generally still benefit from the union’s activities, so unions have, in the past, sought contractual terms with employers to address this imbalance. A “closed shop” refers to an employer that, under the terms of a union contract, may only hire union members. A “union shop” is an employer that must require all employees to join the union.

Federal law has banned closed-shop clauses in union-employer contracts. States can prohibit union-shop clauses, but federal law allows unions to require the payment of an “agency fee” by non-union workers. See Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988). “Right to work” laws prohibit union-shop clauses, particularly agency fees. The Wisconsin Legislature passed a “right to work” law in 2015. See WI Stat. §§ 111.04(3)(a)(4), 111.06(1)(c).

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A challenge to a state law mandating the payment of union fees by certain public employees met with an unusual, if not unexpected, end in March. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in January 2016 in Friedrichs v. Cal. Teachers Assoc., and observers at the time suggested that the court seemed to be leaning toward striking down the law in question. The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February, however, left the court evenly divided, politically speaking. The court tied 4-4 and therefore had to allow the lower court ruling to stand. Friedrichs, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

railway strikeThe plaintiffs alleged that a law requiring them to pay union fees even if they were not union members violated their First Amendment rights. This type of arrangement is often known as a “fair share provision,” since employees who are not union members still benefit from a union’s collective bargaining activities. Employers with fair share provisions are known as “agency shops.” When an employer enters into a contract with a union that requires all employees to join the union if they are not already members, and to remain members for the duration of their employment, this is known as a “union shop.”

Some states have enacted laws that prohibit union shops and agency shops. Supporters of these laws call them “right to work” laws, while critics often call them “right to work for less” laws. One argument in favor of requiring union membership or the payment of a fee is that it reduces the problem of “free riders,” an economic term referring to people who benefit from something, such as collective bargaining agreements, without paying for them.

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ClkerFreeVectorImages [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayA lawsuit pending in a New Jersey Superior Court seeks review of a township’s decision to dock the plaintiff’s pay by 60 hours, resulting in a loss of about $3,500. O’Hare v. Township of Morris, et al., No. L-000710-16, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Morris Co., Mar. 24, 2016). The plaintiff, a police officer, made negative comments about a township official in an email sent to members of the police officers’ union, and he was brought up on disciplinary charges as a result. The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleges that his comments are protected by the First Amendment and laws protecting union activities.

Federal laws and laws in many states protect the rights of workers to form and join organizations, commonly known as unions, for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers. New Jersey law guarantees the right of most public employees “to form, join and assist any employee organization.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:13A-5.3. The federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) extends these rights to many private-sector employees, along with the right to engage in “concerted activities” related to labor organizing. 29 U.S.C. § 157.

The rights protected by the NLRA and similar statutes generally include discussions and other communications among employees regarding negotiations with employers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extends much broader protections against restriction or retribution by the government based on the content of speech. See, e.g. Sable Commc’ns of Cal. v. Fed. Commc’n Comm’n, 492 U.S. 115, 131 (1989).

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stevepb [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayWinter and spring are “flu season” throughout the U.S. and much of the world, and millions of people obtain flu vaccine shots in order to obtain some protection against the disease. Influenza, or the “flu,” can be a very serious disease. The health care industry has required employees to obtain annual flu shots for some time, but other employers have also begun to require flu shots. Some people cannot get flu shots for medical reasons, and others decline them for a variety of personal reasons. Several recent lawsuits have considered whether New Jersey law prohibits employers from taking adverse action against an employee who refuses to get a flu shot, based on various theories of religious discrimination.

For most people, a case of the flu means a few miserable days in bed, but it can mean hospitalization or even death for some. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), the annual death toll from 1976 to 2007 ranged from a low of around 3,000 to a high of close to 49,000 in a single season. The vast majority of fatalities are people who are 65 years old or older.

Preparing a vaccine against seasonal influenza, the type of the disease that rears its head during the winter and spring months, is difficult, since it requires advance predictions of which strains are most likely to appear. Unlike vaccines for childhood diseases like measles and whooping cough, a flu vaccine obtained one year is not likely to provide protection beyond that year. It is also not guaranteed to prevent the flu. It only bolsters the immune system.

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By American Newspaper (http://www.guyana.org/features/shape_guyana.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsArbitration clauses, by which the parties to a contract agree to submit disputes to an arbitrator or arbitration panel before filing suit, or in lieu of litigation entirely, are becoming increasingly common in both consumer and employment contracts. Arbitration is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that has some similarities to the litigation process, but it is conducted almost entirely outside the court system. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently issued a ruling that clarifies the requirements for the validity of an arbitration clause in an employment contract, holding that the clause must state a “clear and unmistakable” waiver of an employee’s right to a jury trial. Milloul v. Knight Capital Group, et al., No. A-1953-13T2, slip op. at 15 (N.J. App., Sep. 1, 2015).

New Jersey courts, as a matter of policy, encourage litigants and prospective litigants to use arbitration and other ADR methods. The New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 2A:23B-1 et seq., sets basic guidelines for arbitration. A neutral third party, known as an arbitrator, reviews both sides’ claims and defenses, and he or she may conduct a proceeding that is similar to a trial before rendering a decision. Arbitrators are often former judges with experience in conducting trials, as well as training and certification through various private arbitration organizations. State and federal laws do not require licensing for arbitrators the way they do for attorneys and other professionals, although courts may set their own criteria.

Some arbitration clauses state that the result of an arbitration is binding on the parties. In that case, a court’s authority over the matter is limited to ratifying the arbitration decision, unless it finds evidence of fraud, bias, or misconduct during the arbitration process. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 2A:23B-22, 23, 24. When an arbitration clause appears in an employment contract, much as when one appears in a consumer contract, the employee is often not in a position to negotiate the details of the clause, due to both a lack of bargaining power and a lack of understanding of what the clause means. Arbitration clauses are the subject of much criticism, partly because of this disadvantage.

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Drano_Lake_accessible_fishing_platform_signage.jpgThe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The ADA helps ensure that people with disabilities have access to public buildings, public transportation, and private businesses considered “public accommodations.” It also protects disabled workers against discrimination and requires employers to provide them with reasonable accommodations. The difficulty tends to come in the applicability of the ADA’s definition of “disabled” to a particular worker, or the reasonableness of a requested accommodation under its specific circumstances. It is worth taking a moment to review the ADA and the ways it has been interpreted and adapted over the years.

In numerous ways, the ADA has literally changed the landscape of the country. Title II of the ADA requires government buildings and public transportation to allow access by disabled individuals. This might include wheelchair ramps, elevators, or assistance for people with impaired vision or hearing. Title III establishes similar requirements for “public accommodations”–private businesses that offer products or services to the general public, such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, grocery stores, gas stations, bus depots, libraries, parks, schools, day care centers, and golf courses. 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7). Title IV requires telecommunications service providers to make services available to people with hearing and speech impairments. 47 U.S.C. § 225.

Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on disability. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. Title V includes a prohibition on retaliation for asserting rights under any of the ADA’s provisions. Congress has added to the ADA’s protections with subsequent laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which both became law in 2008.
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New_Abercrombie_&_Fitch_Store_(869376027).jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who claimed that a clothing retailer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it turned down her job application. She specifically alleged that the retailer discriminated against her because she wore a headscarf as part of her religious practice as a Muslim, which the retailer claimed violated a policy on employee attire. The retailer claimed that she never requested a religious accommodation–such as an exception to the policy prohibiting headwear–and argued that it was not liable for any violation of her rights because it had no “actual knowledge” that she needed an accommodation. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the complainant only needed to prove that her need for a religious accommodation motivated the decision not to hire her. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n (EEOC) v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).

The complainant was a teenager when she applied for a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2008. She wore a headscarf to her interview with an assistant manager at the store. The assistant manager determined that the complainant was qualified for the position. She was reportedly concerned, however, that the complainant’s headscarf violated the store’s “Look Policy,” which regulated how employees dress at work in an effort to maintain a consistent style across the retailer’s nationwide locations. The assistant manager took her concerns to the store manager, who stated that the headscarf violated the Look Policy and instructed the assistant manager not to hire the complainant.

The EEOC filed suit against the retailer in 2009 on the complainant’s behalf, alleging that the decision not to hire her was motivated by her religion, as signified by her headscarf, in violation of Title VII. A district court granted summary judgment for the EEOC on the question of liability. 798 F.Supp.2d 1272 (N.D. Ok. 2011). It awarded the complainant $20,000 in damages after a trial. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed these rulings and entered summary judgment for the defendant. It held that the defendant lacked “actual knowledge” of the complainant’s need for a religious accommodation because she failed to request it, and the defendant therefore could not be liable for religious discrimination under Title VII. 731 F.3d 1106 (10th Cir. 2013).
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Gender-Symbol_Transgender_M2F_Lesbian.pngA transgender woman’s sex discrimination lawsuit examined the extent of protection, if any, offered for gender identity by federal anti-discrimination law. Jamal v. Saks & Company, No. 4:14-cv-02782, complaint (S.D. Tex., Sep. 30, 2014). Issues relating to transgender persons, generally defined as someone who identifies with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, have gained considerable prominence in recent years, particularly with regard to their rights against workplace and public discrimination. New Jersey and other states prohibit employment discrimination based on “gender identity or expression” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a), but federal anti-discrimination laws do not expressly mention gender identity.

The defendant operates the Saks Fifth Avenue chain of department stores. The plaintiff, a transgender woman, first worked at an outlet store in suburban Houston, Texas until she was transferred to its “full-line store” in Houston. Jamal, complaint at 3. She alleges that the defendant routinely “misgendered” her by referring to her with male pronouns and other indicators, and denying permission to use the women’s restroom. The store manager allegedly requested that she “change her appearance to a more masculine one.” Id. at 5. Managers and fellow employees, the plaintiff claims, routinely harassed and belittled her on the basis of her gender identity. She complained to the EEOC, and was fired ten days later.

The plaintiff sued for wrongful termination, hostile work environment, harassment, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981a. The defendant filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss in December 2014 that referred to the plaintiff as “he,” and used the term “[sic]” when quoting portions of the plaintiff’s complaint that used female pronouns. This term is used to indicate that quoted text includes errors or inaccuracies found in the original. The defendant later withdrew its motion, and the parties stipulated a dismissal of the lawsuit in March 2015. The questions it raised still remain, though.
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