Articles Posted in National Origin Discrimination

world mapA New Jersey teacher’s lawsuit for alleged national origin discrimination took an unusual turn in a recent court hearing, according to media reports. The plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to disparate treatment and retaliation because of her Palestinian heritage. Hashem v. Hunterdon Cty., et al., No. 3:15-cv-08585, 2d am. complaint (D.N.J., Oct. 19, 2016). During a hearing in early 2017, the defendants reportedly claimed that the case lacks merit because Palestine is not a “nation,” and therefore the plaintiff cannot claim “Palestinian” or “Palestinian-American” as a national origin. While this does not appear to be a prominent element of the defendants’ legal arguments, it captured media attention, and it raises important questions about how U.S. and New Jersey employment laws define “national origin.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) both expressly identify national origin as a protected category for discrimination claims. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The term “nation” can have multiple meanings, depending on the context. It can refer to a sovereign country, such as the United States, Canada, or Mexico. It can also refer to a group of people with a shared heritage, language, or culture who do not have their own distinct country, like the Indian tribes of the United States, the First Nations of Canada, and trans-national regions like Kurdistan. Palestine, with its limited international recognition and “non-member observer” status at the United Nations, would seem to fit the second definition.

Since “countries” can come into being and cease to exist, multiple courts have held that “national origin” is not limited to countries in existence at the time of a discrimination claim. In Pejic v. Hughes Helicopters, a court held that Serbians were a protected class at a time when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia. 840 F. 2d 667, 673 (9th Cir. 1988). Serbia had been independent in the early 20th century and would become independent again in the 1990s. The Pejic court cited a district court decision finding that Louisiana Acadian—a/k/a Cajun—is a national origin under Title VII. Roach v. Dresser Ind. Valve & Instrument Division, 494 F. Supp. 215, 218 (W.D. La. 1980).

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Ellis IslandTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of five distinct factors:  sex, religion, race, color, and national origin. The “national origin” category can apply to individuals who are not originally from the United States and also to people who are perceived to have a particular national origin. Title VII enforcement is the responsibility of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In late 2016, the EEOC issued new guidelines for enforcement of Title VII’s national origin discrimination provisions. These guidelines help the agency identify its priorities and provide examples of situations that constitute unlawful employment practices.

National origin discrimination under Title VII should not be confused with discrimination on the basis of citizenship or immigration status, also known as “alienage” discrimination. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 states that employers cannot discriminate against workers because of alienage, provided that the employees in question have work authorization issued by the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that discrimination based solely on alienage is not actionable under Title VII. Espinoza v. Farah Mfg. Co., Inc., 414 U.S. 86 (1973); see also Cortezano v. Salin Bank & Trust Co., 680 F.3d 936 (7th Cir. 2012). It is possible for a case to involve violations of both statutes, but the responsibility for enforcing these laws is placed in different agencies. An office within the Department of Justice enforces these provisions of IRCA.

The EEOC’s definition of national origin discrimination includes adverse employment decisions based on a person’s place of origin, or that of the person’s ancestors, or because the person has “physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.” 29 C.F.R. § 1606.1. This applies to currently existing countries, such as Canada, Mexico, or China, or countries that formerly existed, like Yugoslavia. It can also apply to regions that have a distinct identity but are not “countries” in the traditional sense—the EEOC gives the examples of Kurdistan and Acadia.

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timerThe New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) protects workers in this state from a wide range of unlawful employment practices. In order to assert their rights and claim damages, individuals must follow procedures outlined in the LAD, as well as case law interpreting the statute. This includes a two-year statute of limitations for filing suit. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that an employment contract may not limit the protection offered by the LAD by reducing this time period from two years to six months. Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Co., No. A-27 Sept. Term 2014, 074603, slip op. (N.J., Jun. 15, 2016). The court held that any such restriction “defeats the public policy goal” of the LAD. Id. at 4.

The LAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of various protected categories, including race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12. It also prohibits retaliation against an employee for asserting their rights, such as by making an internal complaint to a human resources official or an external complaint to state or federal officials.

An individual may file a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, or they may file suit in Superior Court against an employer for alleged violations of the LAD. The statute does not specify a time frame during which a complainant must file suit, but the state Supreme Court has determined that the applicable statute of limitations is two years. Montells v. Haynes, 627 A.2d 654, 133 N.J. 282 (1993).

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Statue of LibertyPeople who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents, and who lack official authorization to be in the U.S., are often referred to as undocumented immigrants—as well as a variety of less polite terms. Although undocumented immigrants are not officially allowed to live or work in the U.S., they may still be able to avail themselves of the protections of certain federal, state, and local laws. New Jersey courts have held that undocumented immigrants have standing to sue an employer under some laws, but not others. A recent federal appellate court ruling could affect these precedents. A court ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has the authority to subpoena employment records in connection with an undocumented immigrant’s discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. EEOC v. Maritime Autowash, Inc., No. 15-1947, slip op. (4th Cir., Apr. 25, 2016).

The Constitution gives the federal government exclusive authority over immigration law and policy, including official determinations of an immigrant’s status and work authorization for immigrants. Employers are prohibited from recruiting, hiring, or employing anyone who lacks work authorization. 8 U.S.C. § 1324a. They must verify every employee’s work eligibility by collecting documentary proof that they are a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident, or an authorized visa holder.

Federal immigration law includes employment discrimination provisions, but they specifically exclude people who lack work authorization. 8 U.S.C. § 1324b(a)(3). In determining whether a particular employment statute applies to undocumented immigrants, courts often look at whether the statute expressly limits its coverage to individuals with work authorization, or otherwise excludes undocumented immigrants.

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Skitterphoto [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)], via PexelsTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not the only federal statute that protects employees from discrimination in the workplace. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which was first enacted in 1952, prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of “national origin” and “citizenship status.” 8 U.S.C. § 1324b. Those two terms have specific meanings in this context. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces these provisions through its Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC), and the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) adjudicates claims. In late 2015, the OSC issued an opinion letter addressing questions about the extent of the INA’s anti-discrimination protections.

The INA prohibits discrimination in hiring, recruitment, and firing of individuals based on their national origin. It also prohibits discrimination in these areas on the basis of citizenship status, but only for “protected individuals,” whom it defines to include U.S. citizens, individuals who have recently attained lawful permanent resident status (i.e., a “green card”), and people who have been granted official status as refugees or asylees. 8 U.S.C. § 1324b(a)(3). These provisions are much narrower in scope than those of Title VII.

The INA states that its prohibition against national origin discrimination does not apply if the alleged discriminatory act violates Title VII’s provisions on national origin, meaning there is not intended to be any overlap between the INA and Title VII. Id. at § 1324b(a)(2)(B). The prohibition on discrimination based on citizenship only applies to “protected individuals,” as defined above, and it does not apply if an employer prefers to employ a U.S. citizen or national over an equally qualified non-citizen. Id. at 1324b(a)(4).

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food-284418_640.jpgA former program manager for the internet company Facebook has filed a lawsuit against the company in state court in California, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination based on race and gender. Hong v. Facebook, Inc., et al, No. CIV-532943, complaint (Cal. Super. Ct., San Mateo Co., Mar. 16, 2015). The case alleges numerous acts of conduct towards the plaintiff that, when taken in isolation, might seem minor, but that add up over time to constitute significant disparate treatment based on her gender and her national origin. The laws at the state and federal level are clear that employers may not discriminate in promotions, job duties, and other features of employment based on these categories. These types of claims, unfortunately, can be difficult to prove. Another recent lawsuit against a Silicon Valley venture capital firm made similar allegations but resulted in a jury verdict for the defendant. The current case makes a wide range of allegations, however, that indicate overtly discriminatory treatment towards the plaintiff.

According to her complaint, the defendant hired the plaintiff in June 2010 for the position of program manager. It transferred her to “technology partner” in October 2012. She claims that she performed her job duties well throughout her time with the company, pointing to “satisfactory performance evaluations” and regular raises as evidence. Hong, complaint at 2. Prior to the events immediately preceding her termination, she states that she “received no significant criticism of her work.” Id. She was allegedly terminated on October 17, 2013.

The plaintiff alleges that multiple employees of the defendant, including her supervisor, who is named individually as a defendant, and others identified in the complaint as “Does One through Thirty,” discriminated against her based on gender. This allegedly included comments belittling her work and admonishment for “exercis[ing] her right under company policy to take time off to visit her child at school.” Id. at 3. She also claims that she was given assignments that no male co-workers were expected to do, such as organizing office parties and serving drinks. She makes a direct allegation that the company hired a “less qualified, less experienced male” to replace her. Id.
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lipstick-259411_640.jpgA federal lawsuit filed by a former cosmetics company employee, which has since been settled and dismissed, raised claims of race, ethnicity, and national origin discrimination, retaliation, and other claims. Meyers v. Revlon, Inc., et al, No. 1:14-cv-10213, complaint (S.D.N.Y., Dec. 30, 2014). The plaintiff accused the chief executive officer (CEO) of numerous derogatory statements, and of retaliation for noting and reporting safety and regulatory concerns. The lawsuit asserted causes of action under federal, state, and city law, including New Jersey’s whistleblower protection statute.

According to his complaint, the plaintiff worked in the cosmetics industry for 35 years, rising from an entry-level position to the defendant’s Chief Science Officer. He took that position in 2010, and he stated that “his career progressed without impediment until November 2013.” Id. at 1. The defendant acquired Colomer, a beauty care company based in Spain, in August 2013. In November 2013, it named Colomer’s CEO as its new CEO and President.

The plaintiff claimed that he played a key role in integrating the two companies, which included reviewing Colomer’s regulatory compliance. He reported concerns about Colomer’s facility in Barcelona to the new CEO. He claimed that the CEO became angry and told him not to discuss regulatory or safety matters with him in order to maintain “plausible deniability.” Id. at 15. From then on, the CEO allegedly harassed and belittled the plaintiff, often in front of colleagues.
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AtlanticCityAirport.pngA federal judge in New Jersey recently denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging race and national origin discrimination. A former employee, who worked for nearly two decades as a contract employee for a federal agency, is claiming that the agency wrongfully failed to hire him for a permanent position. Suri v. Fox, et al., No. 1:13-cv-05036, 2nd am. complaint (D.N.J., Apr. 16, 2014). After the defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit, the court ruled that the plaintiff had made a prima facie case for race and national origin discrimination. This means that the case may proceed, and that the burden shifts to the defendants to show a non-discriminatory basis for their actions.

The plaintiff, who is originally from India, became a U.S. citizen in 1992. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in environmental engineering. He began working for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a summer intern in 1995. During the internship, he states that he asked about a permanent position but was told that a hiring freeze prevented the FAA from offering him a permanent job. He accepted a contract position with H-Tec Systems, an FAA contractor, when his internship ended in September 1995. He continued working on site at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey for 13 years. In 2008, he took a job with another contractor, EIT, that kept him in the same place.

According to his complaint, the plaintiff worked with FAA employees on a daily basis, had an office cubicle at the FAA facility, and used office equipment, supplies, and furniture provided by the FAA. The details of his employment, including work assignments, discipline, and leave, were under the control of FAA supervisors. He claims that he continued to ask about a permanent position and was still told about a hiring freeze. The supervisor who cited the hiring freeze, however, allegedly hired several Caucasian employees with lesser qualifications than the plaintiff to permanent positions during this time period. At various other times, the plaintiff claims that employees with lesser qualifications and less seniority than him, all Caucasians, were placed in positions over him.
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teamwork-294584_640.pngA former sales executive obtained a substantial verdict in May 2014 in a lawsuit against Microsoft, which accused the software company and a consultant of employment discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and defamation. Mercieca v. Rummel, et al, No. D-1-GN-11-001030, third am. pet. (Tex. Dist. Ct., Travis Co., Apr. 12, 2013). He alleged a conspiracy to make false allegations of sexual harassment against him, which resulted in a hostile work environment and discriminatory treatment. The company then retaliated against him, eventually constructively terminating him, after he formally complained about the hostile work environment.

The plaintiff worked for Microsoft for 17 years in offices around the world. At the time of the events described in the lawsuit, he was a Senior Sales Executive in the company’s Austin, Texas office. He claimed that he had an excellent reputation within the company and had received multiple awards for sales performance, customer service, and service to the company.

In the fall of 2007, Lori Aulds was named Regional Sales Director, which made her the plaintiff’s direct supervisor. The two of them, according to the plaintiff, had a sexual relationship that ended several years prior to her promotion. She allegedly remarked about her current relationships to the plaintiff and tried to get him involved in disputes with her new significant other, despite his insistence that it made him uncomfortable.
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US_Permanent_Resident_Card_2010-05-11.JPGFederal immigration law requires employers to verify the employment eligibility of their workers. It also, however, prohibits them from discriminating on the basis of national origin or citizenship status, provided that the employee is not an undocumented immigrant. The Department of Justice (DOJ), through its Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices, recently offered guidance for employers regarding internal audits or other inquiries into employees’ work eligibility beyond that required by law. Any sort of employment eligibility verification policies applied unevenly or inconsistently could lead to liability under federal immigration law.

Employers are prohibited from employing unauthorized workers, and are required to verify that all employees and new hires are authorized to work in the United States. 8 U.S.C. § 1324a. Knowingly hiring or employing an unauthorized worker, which could be an undocumented immigrant or someone with a visa that does not allow employment, could result in civil or criminal penalties. Immigration authorities have created Form I-9, the Employment Eligibility Verification form, to enable employers to verify work authorization. An employee or new hire must present certain documents establishing their identity and their employment authorization. The employer is only required to examine the employee’s document and attest that it “reasonably appears on its face to be genuine.” Id. at § 1324a(b)(1)(A).

Federal immigration law also prohibits most employers from discriminating based on national origin or citizenship status. 8 U.S.C. § 1324b. It is not considered unlawful discrimination under this statute for an employer to prefer equally-qualified U.S. citizens over noncitizens with regard to hiring or recruiting. It is, however, considered unlawful discrimination for an employer to require a noncitizen to provide more or different documents than a citizen to complete Form I-9, or to refuse to accept certain documents that reasonably appear valid solely because the person is not a U.S. citizen. Id. at § 1324b(a)(6).
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