Articles Posted in Title VII

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By Owen Laird

Employees across the country are protected from discrimination by three main federal laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 (Title VII) protects against discrimination based on race and color, national origin, sex, and religion, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protect against discrimination based on disability and age, respectively. Workers in New York City, however, enjoy the protections of one of the most expansive anti-discrimination statutes in the nation: the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), a city law that is extensive as well as adaptive to their needs.

In addition to those federally protected characteristics listed above, the NYCHRL provides additional protection against sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, and partnership status discrimination (to name a few). Protection against sexual orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination is essential as these characteristics are not protected by other statutory regimes, and New Yorkers cannot rely on federal laws to provide this security.

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Leah Kessler and Lev Craig

On the third Monday of January each year, we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an occasion to remember, reflect on, and do our best to promote the vision for which Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died. Yet, as a nation, our remembrance of Dr. King’s work often ignores (or, perhaps, those with the power to write history, decided to elide) some of the core goals and values of his activism—among them, his commitment to anti-poverty work, labor organizing, and workers’ rights, issues he viewed as inextricable from his civil rights activism.

While U.S. states and employers now observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this was not accomplished easily or without resistance. While President Ronald Reagan officially recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a U.S. holiday in 1983, he initially opposed the holiday (citing “cost concerns”), despite a petition to Congress with more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. Though President Reagan ultimately passed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law, it was not actually observed until three years later, and many states continue to resist doing so; in fact, the holiday was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000. Even today, several states—including Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia—still choose to “combine” Martin Luther King Jr. Day with observances of holidays recognizing Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

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Lev Craig

Earlier this year, we reported on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital affirming the dismissal of a former security guard’s claims that her employer had discriminated against her because she is a lesbian and did not conform to gender stereotypes. This Monday, December 11, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Evans, leaving unanswered the question of whether Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination.

Plaintiff Jameka Evans, who is a lesbian, worked at an Atlanta regional hospital as a security officer. She was open about her sexual orientation with her coworkers and dressed in a masculine manner, wearing the men’s security guard uniform, men’s shoes, and a short haircut. According to Evans’s complaint, the hospital discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation and nonconformity with gender stereotypes by denying her equal pay, harassing her, physically assaulting her, and targeting her for termination, then retaliated against her after she complained about the discriminatory treatment.

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Lev Craig

Last week, on November 20, 2017, in Chauca v. Abraham, the New York State Court of Appeals set the standard for punitive damages awards in claims brought under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The New York  Court of Appeals, in keeping with the New York State common law standard, held that the NYCHRL entitles a plaintiff to punitive damages “where the wrongdoer’s actions amount to willful or wanton negligence” or “recklessness” or involve “a conscious disregard of the rights of others or conduct so reckless as to amount to such disregard.”

In 2009, Plaintiff Veronika Chauca became pregnant, took a period of maternity leave from her job as a physical therapy aide, and was terminated after her return from leave. She then filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, bringing sex and pregnancy discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the NYCHRL.

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Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On November 15, 2017, in Berghorn v. Texas Workforce Commission, the District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed with prejudice plaintiff Kyle Berghorn’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, but allowed him to re-plead his gender stereotyping claim. Berghorn alleged that Xerox terminated his employment because he is gay and because he failed to conform to Xerox’s gender stereotypes. Both of Berghorn’s claims arose under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

Berghorn was employed by Xerox from 2002 until February 29, 2016. At the time of his termination, he held the position of senior manager. Xerox terminated Berghorn after finishing an investigation, which purportedly concerned Berghorn’s use of expenses, but in which Xerox instead asked Berghorn several questions about whom Berghorn was sleeping with and whether the person was male. Allegedly, Xerox employees had previously made other disparaging comments about Berghorn’s sexuality, like, “He has no children. He’s gay.” Ultimately, the investigation revealed that Berghorn had not stolen any money from the company and that he had himself paid for personal charges on his card; his expenses were in order. Nonetheless, Xerox fired him.

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Leah Kessler

On October 19, 2017, in John L. McKinney Jr. v. G4S Government Solutions, Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the district court, dismissing John McKinney’s hostile work environment, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claims against his former employer, G4S Government Solutions, Inc. (“G4S”). The Fourth Circuit concluded that Mr. McKinney failed to follow G4S’s procedure for reporting discrimination and his emotional distress lacked the necessary severity to sustain a claim.

In September 2005, G4S hired McKinney, who is Black, as a security officer at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (RFAAP).  On May 23, 2013, McKinney observed four of G4S’s white superior officers laughing in a common area near his office. One of them, Shawn Lewis—a project manager and G4S’s highest ranking supervisor at RFAAP—asked McKinney “if he knew that there was a noose hanging on a nail inside a small closed cabinet outside the security captain’s office.” After showing McKinney the noose, Lewis directed McKinney to get rid of it, over McKinney’s objection.  As McKinney was walking away with the noose, another employee—who lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood—told McKinney, “I know what to do with [the noose]. I can use that around my house.” That same day, McKinney saw Lewis standing on a ladder in the supply room, holding a white sheet over another supervisor’s head to resemble a Ku Klux Klan hood.

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Lev Craig

On September 29, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed all claims in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, finding that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” precluded a gay music director at a Catholic church from bringing wrongful termination claims after he was fired just days after marrying his male partner.

In 2012, St. Andrew Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago hired Sandor Demkovich as music director, choir director, and organist, where he was responsible for selecting and performing music played during mass at St. Andrew. Reverend Jacek Dada, the pastor at St. Andrew, knew that Demkovich was gay and engaged to a man. But shortly before Demkovich married his now-husband in September 2014, Demkovich’s coworkers told him that Reverend Dada intended to ask him to resign after the wedding and had already started telling St. Andrew employees that Demkovich had been fired.

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Lev Craig

On September 26, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied defendants’ motion to dismiss in Shakerdge v. Tradition Financial Services, Inc., allowing Jo Layla Shakerdge to move forward with her claims that her previous employer, Tradition Financial Services (TFS), retaliated against her for filing a complaint about discrimination at TFS by sabotaging her subsequent job search.

Shakerdge was employed as an energy commodities broker at TFS, a brokerage firm, where she alleges that she was subjected to sexist and racist comments and sexual harassment. Shakerdge describes a workplace that “objectified and degraded women”: her male coworkers allegedly openly viewed pornography on their computer screens, made offensive comments about TFS clients and employees, including Shakerdge herself, and subjected Shakerdge to physical sexual harassment, including an incident where TFS’s CEO attempted to whip Shakerdge with a riding crop Shakerdge had brought to the office to use for horseback riding. After her termination in June 2015, Shakerdge filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO), bringing hostile work environment, wrongful termination, and retaliation claims.

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Lev Craig

On October 5, 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to the heads of all federal government agencies and all U.S. attorneys, stating that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is now taking the position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or transgender status. The memo reverses the DOJ’s previous stance on the issue and runs contrary to the position taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as various federal appellate and district courts.

While Title VII explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, there has been heated debate in recent years over whether that prohibition includes discrimination against transgender workers. The status of legal protections for transgender employees is complicated: no federal law explicitly forbids discrimination against transgender people in the workplace, state and city employment protections vary widely, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address the question of whether Title VII covers gender identity­–based discrimination. The EEOC views discrimination against transgender people as discrimination based on sex and therefore a violation of Title VII, but the EEOC’s interpretations of Title VII are not legally binding, and federal appellate and district courts have differed in their applications of the statute to transgender workers.

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Owen H. Laird

The Harman Firm blog has run several stories over the past year about the evolving case law concerning sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Last week, a plaintiff in a sexual orientation discrimination case in the Eleventh Circuit, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, requested that the United States Supreme Court take up the issue.

To recap: Title VII is one of the foundational federal anti-discrimination statutes; it protects employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.  Sexual orientation is not one of the protected statuses enumerated in Title VII.  In 2016, however, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) – the federal agency tasked with administering Title VII – filed two lawsuits asserting sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  This was a major change, as both the EEOC and nearly every federal court had previously taken the position that sexual orientation discrimination was not prohibited under Title VII.