For anyone under a misimpression that our nation has totally vanquished racial discrimination in employment, the Second Circuit today affirms a $1.32 million compensatory award by a jury to an African-American employee subjected to scarifying harassment at a steel plant. It also upholds a punitive-damage verdict, though it orders a remittitur of the award of no more than a 2:1 ratio with compensatory damages (about $2.65 million).
Lawyers who represent employees in the state and local public sector know that, for sex discrimination and harassment claims, they can bring suit under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The former law was passed specifically to combat sex discrimination, while the latter attacks discriminatory practices by way of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Yet while section 1983 has some specific advantages to employees - there is no administrative prerequisite to file a charge with the EEOC, the limitations period is longer, there is individual liability, and legal relief is uncapped - there are also some distinct disadvantages, such as overcoming qualified immunity. So, in this case, the Second Circuit holds that in contrast to Title VII, a plaintiff must show that each individual defendant was personally motivated by gender in order to establish liability. On this basis, the panel mostly reverses denial of qualified immunity for several individual police officers charged with sex harassment and discrimination.
The Second Circuit reaffirms the general understanding in Title VII law that an employer that tells a minority employee seeking a transfer that he won't "fit in" to a mostly non-minority workplace raises an inference of discrimination.
Employees should be on their guard when contemplating a secondment or assignment agreement and ensure that they understand through counsel what law applies and where a dispute can be adjudicated. On January 14, the Second Circuit in Martinez v. Bloomberg LP affirmed the dismissal of an employee's discrimination claims for improper venue, underscoring the enforceability - and importance - of international forum selection and choice of law clauses in cross-border employment agreements. The court held that an American employee's discrimination claims could only be adjudicated in London under English law, as his employment agreement prescribed.
A divided Second Circuit panel, reviewing a judgment from a jury trial, recognizes a Due Process/First Amendment right-of-intimate-association claim for two people engaged to be married (a right of "betrothal"). The court affirms liability and $304,775 in back pay (plus $5000 in punitive damages) for a plaintiff who the jury found was assaulted and harassed - and ultimately terminated from his job - because his cross-racial engagement to an African American woman.
After three trips to the district court - and a side visit to the U.S. Supreme Court - the Second Circuit issues a liability judgment in this ERISA matter, dating back to 1989. It holds the Xerox retirement plan liable as a matter of law for miscalculating retirement benefits and for misinforming class of their rights under the summary plan description (SPD). The case is remanded yet again to the district court for entry of remedy. Notably, the Second Circuit puts real teeth in the ERISA requirements in 29 U.S.C. §§ 1022 and 1054(h) that a plan must accurately inform participants of plan terms and of any amendments.
Here's a potentially important case for disabled persons and their advocates residing in the Second Circuit (NY, CT and VT) and elsewhere. A panel reverses summary judgment in a case involving a city professional employee with schizophrenia under medication, holding that accommodations such as flex-time and unsupervised work may be reasonable in some instances. In this particular case, the record reflected that the employee had been so accommodated for ten years before a supervisor suddenly and inexplicably called an end to it.
This week, the Second Circuit issued two opinions that at least partially reversed summary judgment in Title VII harassment and retaliation cases. In the first, Desardouin, the panel returned a sex harassment claim that concerned sexual comments made to the plaintiff weekly by her supervisor over a two to three month period. In the second, Summa, the court held that under Title VII (and Title IX, governing educational institutions), it can be a protected activity under the statute's anti-retaliation provisions to complain of even a single incident of alleged harassment.
Between the holidays, the Second Circuit published a decision that might serve as a warning to employees to keep abreast of their companies' data-use policies. Depending on the jurisdiction, violation of company policies may also violate state law that protect data privacy - and such violations can get you in trouble, even remotely. The court holds that the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut had long-arm jurisdiction over the plaintiff's former employee in Canada, because she e-mailed herself data from servers located in Waterbury, Connecticut.
It was a long-time commonplace in federal case law that a mere threat to terminate an employee was not a "materially adverse action" under employment discrimination law. But at least under the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII, the Second Circuit seems to have recognized that such a threat may be actionable in light of Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006). The court also holds that a hostile response to an harassment complaint can itself constitute retaliation.