May an employer deny employment to a Black applicant who would not cut her dreadlocks? A decision by the Eleventh Circuit yesterday goes to the very core of the anti-discrimination statutes: what does it mean to discriminate in employment on the basis of "race"? The panel unfortunately holds that "race" under Title VII is limited to "immutable" physical characteristics, rather than cultural and other traits associated with race. In so doing, it potentially creates a rift between two major federal race-discrimination statutes, Title VII and § 1981.
The dubitante judicial opinion affirms a result, but casts suspicion on the underlying law or basic fairness of the decision. Two recent, split Title VII opinions fall into this category. The Seventh Circuit declined to overrule its decades' old precedent holding that Title VII does not cover sexual-orientation discrimination, and the D.C. Circuit applied its case law that denials of lateral transfers are generally not "adverse employment actions." Yet both opinions sow the seeds for future challenges to these questionable and unfair outcomes.
One pernicious "stereotype is the idea that men are better suited than women for positions of importance or leadership in the workplace." Here, the First Circuit reverses summary judgment in a federal-sector Title VII case, citing (among other things) a male supervisor's allegedly hostile tone and emphasis on the word "she" when he acted to block the only woman in the office from performing her job. Oh, and There's a baseball bat in the case, too.
An Arab-American Muslim woman from Morocco alleges that she suffered years of ethnic and religious harassment by the company's Chief Financial Officer, and was then fired 75 minutes after complaining about it. The fourth Circuit reverses summary judgment on her Title VII and § 1981 complaint, in a blockbuster, 46-page opinion that straightens out several wrong turns that district courts take when ruling on dispositive motions.
The D.C. Circuit, in a Title VII race-discrimination case, hands down a mixed decision for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee. It reverses summary judgment on her challenge of a suspension, holding that she was entitled to a trial where There was evidence that the lower-level decision maker who prompted the action made racially-biased remarks, especially one directed at the plaintiff. Yet it affirms dismissal of her termination claim, concluding that the plaintiff failed to exhaust the exacting administrative requirements that apply to federal-sector workers.
In two recent federal-sector race discrimination decisions, the D.C. Circuit - while ruling in the employer-agency's favor - issued opinions that may be even more useful for employees in future cases. Both opinions criticized short-cuts sometimes used by district courts to improperly weigh summary judgment records.
In the Supreme Court's only substantive Title VII case this term, the six-justice majority takes a plaintiff-friendly view of when a claim for constructive discharge accrues - on the date that the employee declares his resignation - while Justice Alito's special concurrence and Justice Thomas's dissent would start the limitations clock with the last discriminatory event. The court also dispenses with the requirement (imposed by some courts) that hostile working conditions be created by the employer with the intent of making the employee resign.
Today's Two-fer Tuesday in the Second Circuit: a pregnancy discrimination case is returned for retrial, in light of the intervening decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1338 (2015); and a panel holds that a state human-resource professional's opposition to changes in the EEO complaint-reporting procedures is not a "protected activity" under Title VII.
The Sixth Circuit holds, in an opinion that potentially expands remedies for Title VII claimants, that a back-pay award may include amounts that an employee could have earned from alternative employment, had the employer not engaged in discrimination or retaliation. Nonetheless, the court holds that the employee in this particular case failed to prove that she suffered such damages.
The Fifth Circuit affirms that an employee interviewed as part of a company's internal investigation into sex harassment complaints is protected under the "opposition" prong of the anti-retaliation section of Title VII. Yet it also holds that the witness must manifest at least a "reasonable belief" that what she witnessed rose to a violation of that act.