In 2011, researchers released the results of a study on nurses who acted as whistleblowers or were bystanders in a whistleblowing incident at work. The alarming reports of depression, distress, panic attacks, anxiety and increased reliance on cigarettes and alcohol, underscores that reporting wrongdoing in the workplace can cause serious emotional distress. Nevertheless, those damages can be difficult to quantify and prove at trial. Two recent cases show that some judges and juries are beginning to understand the toll blowing the whistle can take on employees, but challenges remain.
A few weeks ago, the California state legislature passed a bill that unequivocally prohibits employers from using an employee's prior salary, even in combination with legitimate factors, to justify a gender- and race-based pay differential for performing the same or similar work. The new legislation, which California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law on July 18th, reflects a welcome trend both at the federal and state levels to combat a common pay practice that has perpetuated the gender pay gap for decades: basing new employee compensation on the applicant's salary history.
The Sixth Circuit holds that full-time, in-office attendance is not a per se "essential function" for purposes of the ADA, and must be established just like any other element of the claim. The court vacates summary judgment and remands a claim brought under the ADA, Title VII, and the FMLA that the employee needed a reduced schedule to accommodate her post-partum depression and separation anxiety.
The Fourth Circuit reverses summary judgment in a Title VII retaliation case, where the plaintiff's direct boss allegedly declared that she "wanted someone of a different race" in the job, then proceeded to subject her to "constant surveillance, badgering, and criticism." When the plaintiff "told the City that she intended to file a formal grievance" about the hostile work environment, the defendant fired the plaintiff the very next day.
There are several lessons in this Seventh Circuit decision, reviewing a summary judgment and jury verdict in a Title VII and § 1983 case involving state university police officers. First, the court continues to consider the use of the N-word in the workplace to be virtually per se racial harassment. Second, the filing of false reports against an employee may be deemed a materially adverse action, for purposes of retaliation. Third, even if the law mandates strict liability against an employer for retaliation by a supervisor, the jury must still be instructed on the theory or it may be waived.
Title VII sex harassment law has persisted over the decades to place the onus on the victim to report the violation through the employer's anti-harassment policy, and - failing in that step - most courts find no employer liability. But the Third Circuit today issues an opinion that takes a step away from that stance, holding that there can be a genuine dispute about liability for supervisor harassment even when there was no complaint to the employer at all.
The Fifth Circuit vacates and remands summary judgment in a Title VII case, holding that the record presents a genuine dispute of material fact whether an assisted living facility took reasonable precautions to prevent a resident from sexually harassing a nurse, and also whether she was retaliated against when--as a self-protective measure--she refused to attend the harasser.