Articles Posted in Hostile Work Environment

By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On May 15, 2017, the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied the Township High School District 214’s motion to dismiss in Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, where Noemi Valdivia, a Hispanic high school secretary, claimed that co-workers’ derogatory comments about Hispanic students and their families forced her to resign.  She brings a hostile work environment claim based on race under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and an interference claim for defendant’s failure to inform her that she was eligible for 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Ms. Valdivia began working at District 214’s Elk Grove High School in 2010. Although she claims that her coworkers had always made derogatory remarks about Hispanic students and their families, in September 2014, these remarks became more frequent. For example, one of her peers allegedly said that Hispanic people “came to America” and “want everything for free even though they have new cell phones and their nails done.” Another told Ms. Valdivia not to speak Spanish at work because they were in “America.” Ms. Valdivia claims that she complained to both the school principal and the assistant principal, but both told her there was nothing they could do since “the secretaries’ union was too strong.”

Lev Craig

On May 9, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied summary judgment in Ahmed v. Astoria Bank, where plaintiff Sherin Ahmed brought religion, race, and national origin discrimination claims against her former employer. The Second Circuit held that the district court had erred in concluding that Ahmed had not presented evidence of discrimination and harassment sufficient to meet the threshold for a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). As such, the court vacated the lower court’s granting of summary judgment, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

Ahmed, who is originally from Egypt and immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, is a practicing Muslim woman and wears a hijab as part of her religious observance. In 2013, Ahmed interviewed for a quality control analyst position at Astoria Bank, a Long Island City­-based bank serving the New York metropolitan area, and was hired, conditional upon a 90-day probationary period. But, she alleges, Astoria Bank discriminated against her based on her race, religion, and national origin beginning as early as the day of her interview, when Anthony Figeroux, a Vice President at the bank, told her that she and two other Middle Eastern employees were “suspicious” and that he was glad he was “in the other side of the building in case you guys do anything.”

Lev Craig

On May 3, 2017, in Philpott v. State of New York, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York joined a growing number of courts across the country in finding sexual orientation discrimination cognizable under Title VII, stating, “I decline to embrace an illogical and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination.”

Plaintiff Jeffery Philpott was employed at the SUNY College of Optometry as Vice President of Student Affairs, where, according to his complaint, he was subjected to years of discrimination and harassment because he is gay. Philpott alleges that his supervisors and coworkers mockingly called him “sensitive” and “flamboyant,” told him that “separate but equal treatment of gay people might be best,” dismissively referred to his relationship with his long-term domestic partner as “this marriage, or whatever you want to call it,” and refused to let him meet their families because they did not “want our children to be around homosexuality.” In addition, SUNY allegedly excluded him from meetings and projects because of his sexual orientation and implied that he deserved a lower salary because he is gay, telling him that “your team [i.e., gay people] doesn’t have kids. You have more than you need.” Shortly after Philpott complained to SUNY of the ongoing discrimination, Philpott claims, SUNY terminated his employment. Philpott filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), then filed suit in federal court, alleging hostile work environment, wrongful termination, and retaliation claims under Title VII.

Shelby Krzastek

On March 8, 2017, Anita Poe-Smith filed suit against Epic Health Services, Inc. (“Epic”), and Leo and Sherrie Weigand, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. Ms. Poe-Smith works for Epic as a home health aide.

In February 2015, Epic assigned Ms. Poe-Smith to work for a client residing in the home of Leo and Sherrie Weigand. Ms. Poe-Smith claims that from February 2015 to May 2015, Mr. Weigand sexually harassed her by directing sexual innuendos and inappropriate comments toward her and, ultimately, physically assaulting her when, according to Ms. Poe-Smith, Mr. Weigand pushed her down and hit her on her buttocks. After reporting the incident to Epic, Ms. Poe-Smith was offered a new assignment, which she was unable to accept because it interfered with her familial obligations. Several weeks later, Epic offered her another full-time assignment, which she accepted. Ms. Poe-Smith then sued Epic Health Services and the homeowners for sexual harassment and retaliation.

Shelby Krzastek

Bikram Choudhury is an Indian yoga teacher and the founder of Bikram yoga. In recent years, Choudhury has been surrounded by controversy amid allegations of discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault, resulting in multiple lawsuits. On Tuesday, December 13, 2016, a California judge ordered that Bikram Choudhury’s income and ownership of his signature yoga college be turned over to Minakshi Jafa-Bodden to satisfy a $6.7 million judgment in her sexual harassment case against him.

Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, Choudhury’s former in-house attorney, filed a sexual harassment and wrongful termination suit against Choudhury in 2013. According to Jafa-Bodden’s complaint, Choudhury degraded and harassed female students and employees, forced Jafa-Bodden to meet with him in his hotel room at night while female students massaged him, and, on one occasion, insisted that Jafa-Bodden join him on his bed during a meeting. Jafa-Bodden claims that, in addition to the sexual harassment she faced, Choudhury retaliated against her for investigating sexual assault allegations against him. In recent years, Choudhury has been surrounded by controversy amid allegations of discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault, resulting in multiple lawsuits.

In January, after a 12-day trial resulting in a verdict in Jafa-Bodden’s favor, a jury awarded Jafa-Bodden $4.6 million in punitive damages and nearly $1 million in compensatory damages for harassment she experienced while working at Choudhury’s Los Angeles headquarters. The jury also found in Jafa-Bodden’s favor with respect to her unlawful termination claim, finding that her complaints to higher-ups at Choudhury’s organization about the ongoing sexual harassment and gender discrimination had been a substantial reason for her termination.

Yet after the trial verdict, Choudhury refused to pay any of the award—and, in fact, fled the United States to avoid payment of this judgment. Earlier this month, on Tuesday, December 13, 2016, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark A. Borenstein approved Jafa-Bodden’s request to divert to her the income Choudhury receives from agreements with vendors, yoga studio franchise agreements, and royalty and licensing payments based on his trademark, copyrights, and other intellectual property. The Court also granted a charging order to give Jafa-Bodden her former employer’s ownership interest in Bikram Yoga College of India.

Judge Borenstein also signed off on the appointment of a post-judgment receiver tasked with seizing and selling Choudhury’s trademarks, copyrights, and web domain names. Jafa-Bodden is also seeking several dozen luxury vehicles allegedly owned by Choudhury to satisfy the judgment, along with his diamond-encrusted watch and any remaining stocks or other investments of which he retains control.

All employees have the right to a workplace free of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. If you have been the victim of sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the workplace, contact the experienced employment attorneys at The Harman Firm, LLP. Continue Reading

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Women of color are leaving large firms at an alarming rate. According to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession (the”Commission”), 85 percent of minority female attorneys in the United States leave large firms within seven yeas of hiring. This high attrition rate is largely due to the unique problems that women of color face at large law firms.

The Commission’s research concludes that women of color leave lucrative large firm jobs because they feel forced out due to discrimination, isolation and constant microaggressions. In 2003, it found that “in both law firms and corporate legal departments, women of color receive less compensation than men and white women; are denied equal access to significant assignments, mentoring and sponsorship opportunities; receive fewer promotions; and have the highest rate of attrition.” These problems force women of color to leave big law, resulting in the same problems for future generations, causing perpetual underrepresentation.

Lucie Rivière and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On Wednesday, March 2, 2016, The Harman Firm, LLP published the first part of its three-part article titled Microaggressions. The second part, which follows below, discusses practical examples of microaggressions and their impact on those subjected to them.

Microaggressions are hidden messages that are sent: (i) verbally (“You speak good English” to Latino or Asian coworker, suggesting that Latino and Asian Americans, because of their ethnicity, are foreigners and not ‘real Americans,’ regardless of their birth place); (ii) nonverbally (clutching one’s purse more tightly when a black man passes on the sidewalk, conveying the belief that Black people are prone to crime and are “up to no good”) and; (iii) environmentally (using American Indian mascots during football games, suggesting that American Indians are savages or otherwise outsiders and demeaning their culture and traditions).

Lucie Rivière and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

This blog is the first section of a three-part article discussing microaggressions and their effect in the workplace. This first section covers the development of the term “microaggression” and the different types of microaggressions that exist. The second section covers practical examples of microaggressions and their impact on those subjected to them. The third section covers the application of microaggression to employment discrimination law.

As more brazen forms of workplace discrimination slowly become less common, employees may experience more discrimination through microaggressions. Chester Pierce, M.D. of Harvard University, who developed the concept of microaggressions in the 1970s, describes microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Yarelyn Mena

On December 22, 2015, the California Northern District Court denied Defendant Recology San Francisco’s (“Recology”) motion for summary judgment against its former employee, Daryle Washington, who alleged that Recology discriminated against him based on his race.

On December 10, 2013, Mr. Washington, a material handler for Recology, saw his white co-worker, Jon Peralta, take a noose from the sorting line and place it on the backpack of another black employee, Greg Foster, as if to put it around someone’s neck. Mr. Washington immediately complained of the incident to his superior, Joseph Damele. The following day, Mr. Peralta was suspended without pay pending an investigation, which concluded that his conduct warranted a five-day suspension. Mr. Damele informed all material handlers on Mr. Peralta’s shift of the suspension, emphasizing the company’s “zero tolerance for harassment.”

Yarelyn Mena

As 2015 comes to a close, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) celebrates its record-breaking year in employee awards from employment discrimination cases. The EEOC earned $525 million for workers after handling nearly 90,000 charges of discrimination filing 142 lawsuits in the year 2015. The EEOC is tasked with enforcing federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, national origin, color, sex, gender, religion, age, disability or genetic information. Employees who are discriminated against and whose employer is covered by EEOC laws (most workplaces with over 15 employees), have the right to file a charge with the EEOC detailing the discrimination. The EEOC has the authority to mediate or investigate charges. After conducting an investigation, it can make a determination on whether discrimination occurred. If it finds that discrimination did in fact occur, the EEOC can opt to file a lawsuit to protect the rights of individuals and the public at large, or it will allow the employee to seek counsel on his or her behalf to litigate the case.

The EEOC is extremely busy, receiving 89,385 charges in 2015 alone. The EEOC mediated roughly 1 out every 9 charges totaling 10,579 mediations, 78% of which were successful. As a result of the more than 10,000 mediations in 2015, charging parties received $157.4 million. Most of the lawsuits filed by the EEOC were brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or Title VII. Throughout the year the EEOC has had 218 active cases in the United States’ district courts. The EEOC says it received a “favorable resolution” in 89.3% of its district court cases.