Articles Posted in Civil Rights

The 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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The 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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A 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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A federal judge denied a motion to dismiss a police officer’s lawsuit against a Pennsylvania borough and multiple borough officials for alleged retaliation and civil rights violations. The plaintiff alleged retaliation for reporting fraud by the former police chief to state authorities. Beatty v. Ohioville Borough, et al, No. 2:14-cv-00067, 2nd am. complaint (W.D. Pa., Jul. 25, 2014). The police chief eventually pled guilty to theft and forgery for submitting fraudulent timesheets. Several defendants moved to dismiss the suit, arguing in part that they could not be sued in their official capacities. The court disagreed, finding that Congress intended to allow lawsuits to hold public officials individually liable for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The plaintiff is a part-time police officer in Ohioville Borough, Pennsylvania. He reportedly found evidence that the police chief was defrauding taxpayers and took this to the Pennsylvania State Police in August 2012. A criminal investigation led to allegations that the chief submitted fraudulent timesheets over a three-year period, costing taxpayers over $45,000. He was charged with 63 felony counts of forgery and one felony count of theft in February 2013. The Ohioville Borough Council voted unanimously in January 2014 to allow him to retire instead of firing him. He pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of theft and forgery in September 2014.

While the police chief’s saga was unfolding, the plaintiff claims that he faced retaliation by borough officials, including the mayor, the assistant chief of police, the solicitor, and the members of the Borough Council. He claims that he was denied a promotion in August 2012, shortly after he went to the state police, and that he was suspended in October without good cause. The mayor allegedly “encouraged private citizens to file false and fraudulent complaints” against him during this time period. Beatty, complaint at 7. The plaintiff was suspended again in January 2013, allegedly without any explanation or opportunity to respond. He was placed back on the schedule again in March but suspended indefinitely on March 17 for reasons he claims were pretextual.
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A community college violated a program director’s First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, when it fired him after he testified during an investigation of corruption in the program. Lane v. Franks, et al, 573 U.S. ___, No. 13-483, slip op. (Jun. 19, 2014). The court held that the plaintiff did not give up his rights under the First Amendment when he accepted public employment. It remanded the plaintiff’s case against the community college to the trial court for further proceedings, but it affirmed the lower courts’ findings that the college president, named as an individual defendant, had limited immunity for acts performed in an official capacity. Despite this, the case is an important victory for whistleblowers in the government.

The plaintiff, Edward Lane, was hired in 2006 as the Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a statewide program run through Central Alabama Community College (CACC) to assist underprivileged youth. CITY was facing serious financial problems at the time, according to the court’s opinion, which prompted Lane to audit the program’s expenses. He discovered about $177,000 paid to Democrat state representative Sue Schmitz between February 2003 and October 2006, with little record of any actual work done by her. When Schmitz reportedly refused Lane’s demand to show up for work at CITY’s office in Huntsville, Lane fired her. This allegedly drew threats of retaliation from Schmidt and the attention of the FBI.

In November 2006, Lane testified to a federal grand jury, which later indicted Schmidt on multiple counts of mail fraud and theft. Lane testified under subpoena at her trial in August 2008. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, prosecutors tried Schmidt again, and Lane testified again. Schmidt was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. In January 2009, CACC President Steve Franks terminated 29 probationary CITY employees, including Lane, citing budget shortfalls. He then rescinded all but two of those terminations. Lane was one of the two who were not reinstated.
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An employee who relied on medical marijuana for debilitating pain lost his job after failing a drug test, and his case has raised the difficult question of whether moves towards marijuana decriminalization have changed the legal standards in cases of termination for marijuana use. The employee alleged that the employer violated a statute prohibiting termination for “lawful activity” outside of work, but the Colorado Court of Appeals disagreed in Coats v. DISH Network, L.L.C., 303 P.3d 147 (Col. App. 2013). The state supreme court has agreed to hear the employee’s appeal. The question involves both state and federal law, especially now that marijuana is at least partly legal in many states, but still illegal under federal law.

The plaintiff worked as a telephone operator for the satellite television service provider DISH Network. A spinal injury left him quadriplegic, and he obtained a prescription for medical marijuana to treat severe muscle spasms. Despite a good employment record, he was terminated in 2010 after failing a random drug test. He sued DISH, citing a Colorado statute that prohibits termination for “lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonwork hours.” C.R.S. § 24-34-402.5 (PDF file).

Both the trial court and the appellate court ruled that marijuana use outside of work, even with a legal prescription, was not “lawful activity” within the meaning of the state statute. Marijuana use of any kind is still prohibited by federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005) that state laws allowing marijuana use do not supersede federal laws prohibiting it. For an activity to be “lawful” in a wrongful termination case, the Colorado court held, “it must be permitted by, and not contrary to, both state and federal law.” Coates, 303 P.3d at 151.
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The United States Senate has passed a bill designed to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers across the country from discrimination. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit employers with at least 15 workers from engaging in discrimination against an employee based upon his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill also provides an exemption for religious institutions and the military. The measure was passed after two Independent, 10 Republican, and 52 Democratic Senators voted in favor of the bill. The proposed law will now move on to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Despite the bill’s bipartisan success in the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner reportedly opposes the workplace rights bill. A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rory Cooper, stated the proposed measure is not currently on the legislative schedule. President Obama stated it is his hope that the bill will be considered, passed, and sent to his desk for signature quickly. It is unclear, however, whether the measure will be ever considered by the House.

Although a number of state anti-discrimination laws are in place, there is currently no federal law that protects gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers in the U.S. from discrimination. The landmark Employment Non-Discrimination Act was first introduced to the Congress in 1994. Since then, the measure was re-introduced each year with varied success. In 1996, the proposed law failed in the Senate by only one vote. In 2007, the measure was passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate.
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A bill that was recently introduced in the New York Legislature would provide unpaid interns with many of the same statutory protections that employees across the state currently enjoy. S05951 would make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against interns who are members of a protected class. If the proposed measure is approved, interns would be legally protected from discrimination based upon race, creed, age, national origin, color, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, and other factors. It would also provide unpaid employees with both sexual harassment and whistleblower protections.

The bill was introduced by democratic lawmaker Liz Krueger of Manhattan. She stated a recent New York federal court ruling in which an intern’s sexual harassment lawsuit was dismissed for lack of standing under the New York Human Rights Law demonstrates the need for the proposed legislation. In the past, some courts have also held that interns are not afforded the same protections as employees under federal civil rights laws. If the proposed measure is passed, New York will become the second state to provide unpaid interns with substantially similar legal protections as paid employees. Oregon enacted a so-called intern rights law in June.

Employers in New York, New Jersey, and throughout the nation are not legally required to treat each worker fairly. For example, in some situations an employer may engage in nepotism, favoritism, or simple “office politics.” An employee who is treated poorly may only seek legal action where the discrimination was based on a legally protected status. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against a worker based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Both the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law prohibit employment discrimination based on gender and other factors. New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination also makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate in any job-related action on the basis of one or more of the statute’s protected categories.
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A restaurant has agreed to pay $20,000 to a former employee, along with other relief, to settle a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). EEOC v. Reed Pierce’s, No. 3:10-cv-00541, consent decree (S.D. Miss., Feb. 5, 2013). The lawsuit alleged that the restaurant unlawfully terminated the employee because she was pregnant. The restaurant continues to deny the EEOC’s allegations, but agreed via a consent decree to pay damages, allow injunctive relief, modify its employment policies, and mandate training for its employees.

The complainant worked for Reed Pierce’s, a restaurant in Byram, Mississippi, as a waitress. According to the amended complaint filed by the EEOC, the complainant notified supervisors that she was pregnant in November 2008. She reportedly had an allergic reaction to prenatal vitamins in February 2009, and asked to leave work as a result. The employer had allegedly granted similar requests by non-pregnant employees to leave work because of illness, but it denied her request. She made a similar request to take off from work for a doctor’s appointment in March 2009, but was denied. The employer had allegedly granted requests to leave work for medical appointments for other employees. The complainant received notice of her termination from the employer on March 7, 2009, allegedly because “her pregnancy was interfering with her ability to do her job.” Reed Pierce’s, am. complaint at 3-4 (Oct. 18, 2010). She maintains that she was still able to perform her job duties, but received disparate treatment from her employer because of her pregnancy.
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A nurse at a hospital in Flint, Michigan is suing her employer for alleged racial discrimination and civil rights violations. Battle v. Board of Hospital Managers of Hurley Medical Center, et al, No. 13-99763, complaint and jury demand (Mich. Cir. – Genesee Co., Jan. 21, 2013). She claims that the hospital reassigned an infant under her care to a different nurse after the infant’s father demanded a nurse who was not African American. The lawsuit, which names the hospital and a supervisor as defendants, asserts causes of action for equal protection violations, violations of state anti-discrimination law, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

According to her complaint, the plaintiff, Tonya Battle, began working at Hurley Medical Center in June 1988 as a registered nurse (RN) in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She alleges that she was caring for an infant in the NICU on October 31, 2012, when the infant’s father asked to speak to her supervisor. The charge nurse then spoke to the father, and Battle allegedly heard him tell the charge nurse that “he did not want any African Americans taking care of his baby.” Complaint at 3. Battle also alleges that the man pulled up his sleeve to display a tattoo that she believed was a swastika. The charge nurse relayed the father’s request to the nurse manager, Mary Osika, who allegedly told the charge nurse to reassign the infant.
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