Category Archives: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Fifth Circuit applies hostile work environment to age claims

Courts have sometimes questioned whether hostile work environment claims apply to all “flavors” of discrimination. Hostile work environment claims most frequently arise in claims of sex discrimination  and race discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but age discrimination claims under federal law arise under a different statute, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The Fifth Circuit directly held recently that hostile work environment claims are encompassed by age discrimination claims under the ADEA in Dediol v. Best Chevrolet, Inc., — F.3d — (5th Cir. September 12, 2011).

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US Supreme Court Rules for Employee on "Cat’s Paw" Theory

The United States Supreme Court recently unanimously issued a major victory for employees under “USERRA“, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq., on the “cat’s paw” theory in employment discrimination claims. The decision was in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, — U.S. — (March 1, 2011) (opinion at Google Scholar). Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the unanimous court. Justice Alito wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Kagan did not participate in the decision.

What is the “Cat’s Paw” Scenario?

Drew's kitty-cat, HannaSo, what the heck is the “cat’s paw” theory? Does it explain why my cat, pictured at the left, is staring so intently at you?

First, to define “cat’s paw” in a non-legal context, the Webster’s Online dictionary defines a “cat’s paw” as: “A person used by another to gain an end.” The term arises out of a fable in which a a shrewd monkey tricks a cat into pulling roasting chestnuts out of a fire—the cat gets its paw burned, and the monkey gets the chestnuts and scampers away unhurt.

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Single act may create hostile work environment, according to Seventh Circuit in Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority

A few days ago, I posted my article on PAR Electrical Contractors, Inc. v. Bevelle , in which the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a single episode involving multiple uses of the N-word could create a racially hostile work environment.

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit just released an opinion in Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, – F.3d –, – WL — (7th Cir. August 23, 2010), which raises the similar issue: Can a single instance of sexual harassment create a hostile work environment? And the answer was yes, depending on the circumstances.

Ms. Berry is Sexually Harassed in a Single Incident

Cynthia Berry was an employee at the Chicago Transit Authority. She was on her break and sat at a picnic style table with three male co-workers. A fourth male co-worker, Philip Carmichael, had followed her to the picnic area and ordered Ms. Berry to get up from the table. Offended by Mr. Carmichael’s “commanding tone”, Ms. Berry remained seated. Mr. Carmichael then sat down and “straddled the bench” so he was facing one of the male co-workers at the picnic table, and so that Mr. Carmichael’s back was close to Ms. Berry. The other three male co-workers got up from where they were seated at the picnic table and moved to the other end of the table. Then:

Berry says Carmichael remained where he was seated and began rubbing his back against her shoulder. She jumped up, told him not to rub himself against her, and sat down next to Hardy at the other end of the table. At this point,
Berry says, Marshall began telling her to get up from the table again. Not wanting Marshall to think he could order her around, she remained seated, but began rubbing her temples to compose herself. According to Berry, she next felt Carmichael grabbing her breasts and lifting her up from the bench. Holding her in the air, he rubbed her buttocks against the front of his body—from his chest to his penis—three times before bringing her to the ground with force. Berry landed off-balance, with only one leg on the ground, and says Carmichael then pushed her into a fence. Upset and wanting to avoid any men, she lay down in a bus for the rest of her shift.


Continue reading Single act may create hostile work environment, according to Seventh Circuit in Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority

Can you be sexually harassed behind your back?

It might be obvious, but it seems a bit difficult to win on a claim for sexual harassment where all of the harassment occurs behind your back (and by “behind your back”, I mean situations where the harassing behavior occurs when the complaining employee is not physically present to experience or hear what is happening).

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed this issue in Pueschel v. Peters, 577 F.3d 558 (4th Cir. 2009), in a unanimous decision written by Judge Roger Gregory in which Judges M. Blane Michael and Robert Bruce King joined.

The Fourth Circuit didn’t have much difficulty reaching the conclusion that, for any claim alleging a hostile work environment (including sexual harassment), you can’t succeed if all of the misconduct about which you complain occurred at work when you were not at work.

Twenty Eight Years of Litigation!!!

This case grows out of an incredibly long history of litigation (including several different lawsuits and appeals (some of which were successful)) filed by Ms. Pueschel against her employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). The litigation started in 1981 and ended with this Fourth Circuit decision in 2009 (I am not kidding, and I am not sure this decision marks the end of all of her litigation).

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Analysis: The "No Blood No Foul" Rule. When is an Employer’s Conduct Severe Enough to Constitute Retaliation?

I previously wrote about the Supreme Court’s retaliation decision in Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“Burlington Northern v. White”), in which the US Supreme Court substantially broadened the ability of employees to file retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a unanimous (9-0) decision.

National Basketball Association I wanted to set out some additional thoughts about Burlington Northern, because it addresses an issue that has troubled the courts in interpreting the federal anti-discrimination laws: When is an employer’s conduct serious enough in disadvantaging an employee so that the employee has a claim under the employment discrimination laws? The answer is easy when the employer’s decision affects the employee’s pocket book, like with termination, failure to hire, demotions, and the like. The answer has been much harder when the employer’s conduct didn’t directly affect the employee’s pocket book.

NBA referees struggle with a similar issue: where is there enough physical contact on the court to justify calling a foul on a player. So let’s explore some parallels between these employment discrimination issues and the NBA’s “no blood no foul” rule.

The NBA’s “No Blood No Foul” Rule

If you watch National Basketball Association games, you might be struck by how much physical contact there is on the court and how rarely the referees call personal fouls over that physical contact. Fans of the NBA have only a partially kidding way to refer to the “standard” by which the referees decide how much contact will result in a personal foul being called. It’s the “no blood no foul” rule. In other words, the referees will allow a lot of physical contact, and will only call a foul when someone gets bloodied as a result of the contact.

Let’s assume, with our tongues in our cheeks, that there is such a rule (no blood no foul) that NBA referees apply, regardless of what is written in the Official Rules. The idea behind the “no blood no foul” rule is this: there is so much fast-paced hurley-burly contact on the basketball court, much of which makes it more exciting for the fans, that calling a foul for any physical contact (or a lower defined level of physical contact) would slow down the game for fans and make the game less enjoyable, unreasonably impede the skill of the players, and makes it impossibly hard for officials to identify “contact”. So the appearance of blood is a more “objective” indication that the contact really mattered and really constituted an unfair interference with the other player.

The Supreme Court Struggles With “When is There a Foul”?

Courts for years have struggled with the employment discrimination equivalent of the “no blood no foul” rule. For the courts, assuming unlawful discrimination occurred: when is the consequence of the discrimination serious enough and objectively discernible so that courts will recognize a claim and intervene by activating the court’s process and potentially awarding damages.

Except for situations involving hostile work environment, the courts have translated the NBA’s blood requirement into a tangible economic consequence. Thus, much in the spirit of the NBA, the courts have said economic harm must be demonstrable as a result of discrimination, or else the courts won’t entertain the claim no economic consequence, no legal violation, case dismissed.

Continue reading Analysis: The “No Blood No Foul” Rule. When is an Employer’s Conduct Severe Enough to Constitute Retaliation?

US Supreme Court rules pay claims must be filed shortly after discriminatory decision; Ledbetter v Goodyear, 5/29/07

May 29, 2007: In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 550 U.S. 618, 128 S. Ct. 2162 (2007) (FindLaw site opinion), the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, issued an important decision in a sex discrimination case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which substantially limited the time period available to assert a claim for pay discrimination. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Eleventh Circuit in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Inc., 421 F.3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2005).

Ledbetter’s Claims of Sex Discrimination and Lower Pay, and the Trial Result

LillyLedbetter Ledbetter filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC in 1998 and then later in the year retired. She claimed that, years earlier in her career at Goodyear, male supervisors gave her bad performance reviews compared to what men received. She claimed that Goodyear awarded raises based on those performance reviews, so that her pay raises were reduced as a result of the discriminatory performance reviews.

Ledbetter went to trial and persuaded the jury that the performance reviews, years before she filed her EEOC charge, were discriminatory based on her sex, and the jury found her rights had been violated and awarded her damages based on her lower paychecks throughout her career. The trial judge entered a “judgment” in Ledbetter’s favor based on the jury’s verdict. So Ledbetter won at trial on her sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the jury verdict and trial court judgment for Ledbetter, and entered a judgment in favor of Goodyear, based on her failure to file her EEOC charge within 180 days of when the performance reviews had been conducted. The United States Supreme Court affirmed, meaning that Goodyear won.

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