By Harrison C. Paige

On April 18, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York’s decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express, dismissing Donald Zarda’s sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In reaching its decision, the Second Circuit relied on its 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon, where the court held that Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on May 25, 2017, the Second Circuit granted en banc review in Zarda, signaling that the Second Circuit may be ready to reexamine Simonton and revisit its position on Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims.

In Simonton, Dwayne Simonton, a postal worker, was harassed because of his sexual orientation. The harassment was so severe that Simonton suffered a heart attack as a direct result of the abuse. While the Second Circuit’s decision noted the severity of the harassment and rebuked the behavior, the court nonetheless held that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination based on “sex” does not include discrimination based on sexual orientation and dismissed Mr. Simonton’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims. The precedent set by Simonton has prevented countless individuals from bringing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, leaving individuals stranded in their search for justice.

Lev Craig

On June 15, 2017, U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District of New York approved the parties’ consent decree in United States v. City of New York, a race discrimination case brought against the City of New York and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in January 2017, alleged that NYCDOT management violated Title VII by systematically discriminating against racial minorities over a nearly ten-year period.

According to the complaint, the NYCDOT “engaged in a pattern or practice of racial discrimination and retaliation based on the failure to promote minority employees” within the Fleet Services unit, an NYCDOT division responsible for maintaining NYCDOT vehicles such as trucks, passenger cars, and heavy machinery. The complaint described a “culture of fear and intimidation” created by nearly a decade of discrimination and retaliation against minority employees in the Fleet Services Unit, perpetrated primarily by two NYCDOT executive directors.

Harrison Paige

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc., a jury found that Consol Energy, Inc., violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) by constructively discharging Beverly Butcher, Jr., after he requested a religious accommodation related to his use of Consol’s new biometric scanning technology. Consol filed post-verdict motions, all of which were denied, then appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit found in favor of Butcher, finding no fault in the logic or judgment of either the jury or the West Virginia district court.

Butcher worked for Consol for almost 40 years before the company implemented a biometric hand scanner, intended to help the company more efficiently track its employees’ hours worked. Butcher, who is a devout evangelical Christian, was uncomfortable with the new system because he subscribes to a literal interpretation of the authority of biblical scriptures. Butcher explained to Consol that his adherence to the Book of Revelation’s verses regarding the “Mark of the Beast” prohibits him from using a biometric hand scanner because—although the scanner does not imprint any physical mark on the individual using it—using the scanner would nonetheless mark Butcher as a supporter of the Antichrist. Butcher requested a religious accommodation from Consol after the system was implemented, writing a detailed letter that cited Bible verses and explained why he was not comfortable using the scanner. Consol refused Butcher’s request and required him to obtain a letter from his church supporting the requested accommodation.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

In Griffin v. Sirva Inc., the New York Court of Appeals announced how New York State Human Rights Law § 296 (Section 296) should be interpreted with respect to employer and nonemployer liability for criminal conviction discrimination. Griffin involves two former employees of Astro Moving and Storage Co. Inc. (Astro), Tranthony Griffin and Michael Godwin. Griffin and Godwin sued Astro, a moving and storage company; Allied Van Lines, Inc. (Allied), a nationwide moving company with whom Astro had contracted to perform moving services­; and Sirva Inc. (Sirva)­, Allied’s parent company, for discriminating against them by terminating their employment for failing to pass Allied’s criminal background screen due to prior criminal convictions for sexual offenses.

After hiring Griffin and Godwin, Astro contracted with Allied to perform moving services. The contract required Astro to adhere to Allied’s Certified Labor Program guidelines, which provide that employees who “conduct the business of Allied at customer’s home or place of business […] must have successfully passed a criminal background screen […] as specifically approved by Allied.” If Astro violated these guidelines by using unscreened labor, it was subject to escalating monetary penalties. Under the Certified Labor Program guidelines, employees automatically failed the criminal background screen if they had ever been convicted of a sexual offense. In 2011, Griffin and Godwin consented to have Sirva investigate their criminal records, which identified their convictions, and Astro terminated them shortly afterward. Griffin and Godwin sued Astro, Allied, and Sirva, alleging criminal conviction discrimination under Section 296.

Lev Craig

Last September, we reported on a new Seattle worker scheduling law that was created to address the erratic and unpredictable schedules that often plague retail, restaurant, and fast-food workers. On May 30, 2017, New York City passed similar legislation for fast-food and retail workers when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law the “Fair Work Week” legislative package, a group of five bills which create several new requirements for NYC fast-food and retail employers. The Fair Work Week laws were passed to aid the tens of thousands of NYC workers who are, as Mayor de Blasio stated, “forced to deal with an arbitrary schedule at a job where they still don’t always make ends meet.”

The Fair Work Week package, which will go into effect on November 26, 2017, aims to ensure more stable and predictable schedules and paychecks for workers by setting restrictions on how and when fast-food and retail employers can schedule employees for work. The city introduced the Fair Work Week initiative last year—as we reported last fall—to address issues related to “flexible scheduling,” a problematic practice which often affects low-wage workers such as fast-food and retail employees. “Flexible scheduling” policies exploit workers by requiring them to be “on call” for work, with no guarantee of actually being assigned hours, or forcing them to accept an employer’s decision to cancel, shorten, or otherwise alter their shift with little or no notice.

Owen H. Laird

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are undoubtedly aware of the multi-year effort to raise the salary threshold for the purposes of overtime exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you are not a regular reader, then the previous sentence may not have made much sense.

To refresh: the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal law that provides for minimum wage, overtime pay, and other wage-and-hour rights. The FLSA requires employers to pay their employees overtime pay – that is, pay at one-and-a-half times their normal rate – for all hours worked above forty (40) per workweek. However, the FLSA creates a number of exemptions to the overtime pay requirement: categories of workers who are not entitled to overtime pay, even if they work more than forty hours in a workweek. For example, employers are not required to provide overtime pay to certain “exempt” employees: people with professional degrees, managers, executives, artists, administrators, and many tech workers, to name a few. However, in order to qualify as exempt, an employee needs to earn as much or more than the “salary threshold,” which is currently $455 per week, or $23,660 per year. In other words, a manager who earns less than $455 a week would be entitled to overtime pay, while a manager who earns more than $455 a week would not, even if their job duties are identical.

by Harrison Paige

In Martin v. SIMOS, the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Records Information Act (“CHRIA”) only protects employee applicants from criminal conviction discrimination, not those who are already employed. SIMOS, an insourcing solution job center, terminated Robert Martin, who was hired through SIMOS to unload trucks for Lowe’s, because of his criminal history. Martin brought suit against SIMOS, claiming that SIMOS had violated the CHRIA.

When applying, Martin disclosed his criminal history and was told he was “good to go,” starting work at Lowe’s shortly thereafter. Not long after his hire, Martin was suspended because a female employee alleged that he had harassed her. Although the allegations turned out to be false and Martin returned to work, a human resources representative told him only one day after he returned that he would be terminated because of his criminal history. About a week after that conversation, SIMOS terminated Martin’s employment.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On May 22, 2017, in Makinen v. City of New York, the Second Circuit certified the following question: does the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) preclude a plaintiff from bringing a disability discrimination claim based solely on a perception of untreated alcoholism?  The question will be answered by the New York State Court of Appeals.

Plaintiffs Kathleen Makinen and Jamie Nardini served as New York Police Department (NYPD) officers for several years.  During their employment, each was referred to the NYPD’s Counseling Service Unit (CSU), which offers treatment and rehabilitation for officers struggling with substance abuse. Once an officer is referred to CSU with alleged alcohol-related problems, a trained counselor conducts an intake interview and contacts references to gather information regarding the officer’s reported alcohol use. If an officer is diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, CSU staff develops a personal treatment plan, which may include educational videos, counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, outpatient treatment, or inpatient treatment. An officer who refuses treatment is referred to the NYPD’s Medical Division, which may order the officer to undergo treatment or face disciplinary action. The officer is entitled to challenge the disciplinary action in administrative proceedings by filing a grievance with the agency that oversees CSU or through an Article 78 proceeding. Otherwise, once an officer is diagnosed with an alcohol-related problem, receipt by CSU of subsequent evidence of alcohol consumption triggers a mandatory reassessment and, potentially, further treatment.

Lev Craig

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently refused to dismiss Kate Lynn Blatt’s gender and disability discrimination claims in Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc. Blatt, a transgender woman, brought suit against her former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that Cabela’s had discriminated against her based on her gender identity and her diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Being transgender does not necessarily involve a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Whereas a transgender person is someone whose gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth, gender dysphoria is a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), characterized by a “marked difference between [an individual’s] expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign [them],” which is present for at least six months and “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

By Edgar M. Rivera

On May 24, 2017, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff Brittany Tovar’s sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The court held that Defendant Essentia Health’s denial of insurance coverage for Ms. Tovar’s son’s transition-related medical procedures did not state a claim for sex discrimination under Title VII, since Ms. Tovar did not suffer discrimination based on her own sex and therefore lacked statutory standing.

Ms. Tovar, a nurse practitioner, worked for Essentia Health from 2010 to 2016. During her employment at Essentia Health, she was enrolled in an employer-provided health insurance plan that also covered her teenage child, who is a transgender boy, meaning that he was designated female at birth but identifies as male. In 2014, doctors diagnosed Ms. Tovar’s son with gender dysphoria and recommended various treatments, including medications and gender reassignment surgery, for which Ms. Tovar sought coverage under her employer’s insurance plan.