Closing out the year, here's a valuable reminder from the Fourth Circuit that the decision of whether an employee has objectively suffered severe or pervasive harassment belongs to the jury, not the district court judge. The panel reverses summary judgment, on facts that the opinion recognizes are "close to the line," recognizing that important judgment calls on fact-finding and credibility cannot be resolved without a trial.
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).
The Ninth Circuit, ruling en banc, overrules a prior panel decision and holds that the BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996), ratio test for excessiveness of punitive damages is essentially unnecessary for evaluating a capped award under Title VII governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(D).
Should a pregnant employee be treated the same as a non-pregnant employee with a similar work limitation? The Supreme Court will hear argument on that simple yet hotly contested question on December 3, 2014 in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., on appeal from the Fourth Circuit. 707 F.3d 437, 441 (4th Cir. 2013).
The Seventh Circuit today reverses dismissal of a union member's complaint that she was discriminated against in job referrals because of sex, in violation of Title VII. The court observes that she was not obliged to file an EEOC charge the first time she suffered discrimination, and was timely provided that she suffered one denial or more during the 300-day period before filing. The panel also notes that a failure of an applicant to register formally and repeatedly for openings does not necessarily bar a Title VII action.
A continuing, unresolved issue under Title VII is what constitutes discrimination in "terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." Most courts require proof of a "materially adverse employment action," which can include - by way of example - being placed on an onerous schedule or subjected to unhealthful conditions. But the Fifth Circuit has long required proof of a more exacting "ultimate" employment decision, e.g., "hiring, firing, demoting, promoting, granting leave, and compensating." In yesterday's 2-1 decision, though, a panel of the court holds that a material diminution of duties not otherwise accompanied by a change in title or pay may be actionable.
The Fifth Circuit addresses a seldom-litigated question under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j): whether plaintiffs in religious reasonable-accommodation cases must prove both that they hold sincere ("bona fide") religious convictions, and that the activities to be accommodated constitute true religious beliefs. The panel splits 2-1, with the majority reversing summary judgment for the employer and holding that even a non-religious observance (here, a community service event for the plaintiff's church) might require accommodation.
The Tenth Circuit addresses two issues of interest to those who regularly represent employees, especially those in the federal sector. First, the panel holds - in a widening circuit split - that a claim of constructive discharge under Title VII accrues not at the time that an employee quits, but when the last act of alleged discrimination by the employer occurs. In the federal sector, this significant because of the narrow 45-day window for complaining about discrimination. Second, the panel holds that a threatened suspension without pay may, even if it does not materialize, constitute a "materially adverse action" for a Title VII claim of retaliation.
This case presents the nice question of whether an employer violated Title VII by punishing a woman more harshly than her male counterpart for the same misconduct, i.e., jointly carrying on a workplace affair. The Seventh Circuit says that there is enough of a genuine dispute of facts to reverse summary judgment and remand for further discovery. The court also remands a claim of sex harassment, which included the extraordinary complaint that the employer tolerated employees having after-hours sexual liaisons on the plaintiff's office desk (which the panel found, notably, was not a form of sex harassment).
The U.S. Supreme Court in recent terms has encouraged federal courts to weed out supposedly meritless civil claims by use of the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Yet the Seventh Circuit reaffirms this week that this method is often not appropriate for Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims. The panel vacates and remands dismissal of a Title VII complaint, holding that the district court was too quick to demand facts and evidence in support of the class before discovery commenced. The court also reverses a decision holding that some of the claims were allegedly preempted by the Railway Labor Act.