On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court held in a monumental decision that an employer who discriminates against an employee or applicant based on that individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
On August 12, 2019, Governor Cuomo signed the legislation that was passed by the New York State Assembly and Senate on June 19, 2019, making sweeping changes to the New York Human Rights Law. We previously posted a summary of the significant amendments to the Human Rights Law and the potential impact that these amendments could have on the litigation of discrimination and harassment claims filed with the Division of Human Rights and in court. The legislation does not apply retroactively, so only future claims under the Human Rights Law will be affected.
If you’ve had occasion to converse with a management-side employment lawyer (and somehow survived it), it seems the edict of documenting performance issues is tattooed on his/her forehead. I must confess in my own supervisor training I have warned that, in essence, “if it’s not in writing, it did not happen” (at least for purposes of trying to get a case dismissed on a motion for summary judgment). I still believe that documentation is always the safest course, but can an employer still fire an employee for a series of undocumented incidents and avoid having to go to trial when the employee disputes them? The Seventh Circuit has answered this question in the affirmative.
On July 12, Governor Cuomo signed a bill amending the New York Human Rights Law to prohibit employment discrimination based on "traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles." The term "protective hairstyles" includes, but is not limited to, "such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists." This amendment took effect immediately upon the Governor's signature.
In 2018, Governor Cuomo signed a State Budget bill that included various provisions addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. Among those provisions was a prohibition on including in any written contract a clause requiring the submission of sexual harassment claims to arbitration, except where inconsistent with federal law. On June 26, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held, in Latif v. Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC, that this New York law prohibiting mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act and is therefore invalid.
On June 19, 2019, the New York State Assembly and Senate passed legislation that makes sweeping changes to the New York Human Rights Law. This legislation will have a significant impact on the litigation of discrimination and harassment claims filed with the Division of Human Rights and in court. It is expected that Governor Cuomo will sign the legislation soon. The legislation does not apply retroactively, so only future claims under the Human Rights Law will be affected.
On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case of Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis that the requirement under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title VII") to file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") is a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule. In other words, the Court held that a plaintiff's failure to file an EEOC charge does not automatically preclude a federal court from exercising jurisdiction over the complaint; instead, an employer must "promptly" raise the defense that the plaintiff failed to satisfy the procedural requirement of filing an EEOC charge. An employer's failure to raise such a defense promptly could result in forfeiture of the defense, and a federal court may exercise jurisdiction over the complaint despite the plaintiff's failure to file an EEOC charge.
On January 15, 2019, the New York legislature passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (“GENDA”). GENDA, which faced more than a decade of impasse in the State Senate, was signed by Governor Cuomo on January 25, 2019.
In 1980, the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in New York) held that the prohibition against "marital status" discrimination contained in the New York State Human Rights Law includes only discrimination based on the status of being married or not married, and does not prevent an employer from taking an adverse employment action against an employee based on the identity or occupation of a person's spouse. In that case, Manhattan Pizza Hut, Inc. v. New York State Human Rights Appeal Board, the Court upheld the employer's decision to discharge the plaintiff because her husband was employed as her supervisor in violation of the employer's anti-nepotism policy. In a recent decision, however, the First Department Appellate Division adopted a more expanded definition of marital status discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law.
Out-of-state entities with the power to dictate a New York employer's hiring and retention policies take notice: you can be subject to liability under the New York Human Rights Law ("NYHRL") if you "aid and abet" discrimination against individuals who have a prior criminal conviction, even if you are not the direct employer of those individuals. In Griffin v. Sirva, Inc., the New York Court of Appeals held that while liability under Section 296(15) of the NYHRL (which prohibits employment discrimination based on prior criminal convictions) is limited to an aggrieved party's employer, liability can extend beyond a direct employer under Section 296(6) of the NYHRL "to an out-of-state non-employer who aids or abets employment discrimination against individuals with a prior criminal conviction."
In Griffin, the plaintiffs were employees of Astro, a New York moving company. The plaintiffs had prior criminal convictions for sexual offenses against children. After the plaintiffs were hired, Astro entered into a moving services contract with Allied, a nationwide moving company based on Illinois. As a result of that contract, a large majority of Astro's work was thereafter performed on behalf of Allied.
The contract required Astro to adhere to Allied's Certified Labor Program guidelines, one of which required that employees who perform work in a customer's home or place of business pass a criminal background check. Under Allied's guidelines, employees with prior sexual offense convictions automatically failed the screening. Pursuant to the contract with Allied, Astro would have been subject to escalating penalties if it used unscreened labor. Accordingly, the plaintiffs were screened and when their convictions were identified, Astro fired them.
The plaintiffs filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against both Astro and Allied, alleging that their terminations based upon their prior criminal convictions violated the NYHRL. Allied, which was not the plaintiffs' direct employer, moved for summary judgment on the NYHRL claims. The District Court granted its motion, holding that: (1) Section 296(15) of the NYHRL applies only to employers and that Allied was not the plaintiffs' employer; and (2) Section 296(6) of the NYHRL (the "aiding and abetting" provision) could not be used to impose liability on Allied because Allied did not participate in firing the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs appealed the District Court's decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which posed the following three questions to the New York Court of Appeals regarding the interpretation of Section 296(15) and 296(6) of the NYHRL: (1) Does Section 296(15) of the NYHRL, prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of a criminal conviction, limit liability to an aggrieved party's "employer"? (2) If liability under Section 296(15) is limited to an aggrieved party's employer, what is the scope of the term "employer" for purposes of that provision? (3) Does Section 296(6) of the NYHRL extend liability to an out-of-state non-employer who aids or abets employment discrimination against individuals with a prior criminal conviction? The Court answered the first question by holding that liability under Section 296(15) is limited to an aggrieved party's employer. The Court answered the second question by holding that common law principles of an employment relationship should be applied, "with greatest emphasis placed on the alleged employer's power to 'to order and control' the employee in the performance of his or her work." The Court answered the final question by holding that an out-of-state non-employer who engages in conduct that aids or abets employment discrimination against individuals with a prior criminal conviction -- for example, by imposing contractual terms on a New York employer prohibiting the use of employees with certain types of criminal convictions from performing work under the contract -- can be held liable under Section 296(6) of the NYHRL if the employer is determined to have violated Section 296(15) of the NYHRL by complying with the terms of the contract.
While the plaintiffs' appeal to the Second Circuit regarding the dismissal of their claims against Allied was pending, their claims against Astro (their direct employer) proceeded to a jury trial. The jury found that Astro did not violate the NYHRL by firing the plaintiffs due to their prior criminal convictions. Therefore, in this particular case, it does not appear that Allied will be subject to liability. However, the interpretation of Section 296(6) of the NYHRL set forth by the New York Court of Appeals can certainly be used in future cases to impose liability on an out-of-state non-employer who imposes contractual terms on a New York employer that cause the New York employer to violate Section 296(15) of the NYHRL.
On May 18, the New York State Division of Human Rights adopted a new regulation prohibiting employment discrimination based on an individual’s relationship or association with a member of a protected category covered by the New York Human Rights Law. The proposed rule was published in the State Register on March 9. The agency did not receive any public comments regarding the proposed rule, and adopted the rule without making any changes.
According to the Division, the purpose of the new regulation is to confirm long-standing precedent supporting anti-discrimination protection for individuals based on their relationship or association with members of a protected class. The new regulation applies to employment discrimination and all other types of discrimination protected under the New York Human Rights Law, including housing, public accommodations, access to educational institutions, and credit. In order to prove a claim of employment discrimination in this context, an individual must prove that he or she was subjected to an adverse employment action based on the individual's known relationship or association with a member of a protected class.
This latest expansion of the protections afforded by the New York Human Rights Law underscores the importance of basing all employment decisions on legitimate reasons that can be supported by objective facts, and documenting the legitimate reasons for those decisions. Supervisors should also be trained to apply workplace policies and standards fairly and uniformly among all employees, to further reduce the risk of discrimination claims.
As we have reported in earlier posts, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has previously taken the position that discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although not explicitly listed as a protected category under Title VII, the EEOC views sexual orientation discrimination as a form of “associational discrimination” on the basis of sex because it involves an employee being treated differently based on his or her association with a person of the same sex.
The EEOC first asserted its position with respect to sexual orientation discrimination in April 2012, in Macy v. Holder, a case in which the Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives withdrew an offer of employment after an applicant revealed that she was in the process of transitioning from male to female. Later that same year, the EEOC issued its Strategic Enforcement Plan, in which the EEOC made “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions” a top priority. In July 2015, the EEOC issued another decision against the Federal Aviation Administration in which it held that discrimination based on sexual orientation constituted a form of sex discrimination.
On March 1, 2016, the EEOC took its position one step further by filing lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against Scott Medical Health Center and in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against Pallet Companies, d/b/a IFCO Systems NA, alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation under Title VII.
In the suit against Scott Medical Health Center, the EEOC alleges that a gay male employee allegedly suffered harassment in the workplace due to his sexual orientation. The complaint alleges that the employee’s supervisor referred to him using anti-gay epithets and made offensive comments about his sexuality and sex life. The complaint further alleges that although the employee complained of how he was treated, his manager refused to take any corrective action, forcing him to resign from his position.
In the suit against IFCO Systems, the EEOC alleges that a supervisor harassed a gay female employee because of her sexual orientation. The complaint alleges that the employee’s supervisor made comments about the employee’s orientation and appearance, and made sexually suggestive gestures toward her. The complaint further alleges that the employee complained about the harassment but was terminated shortly after making the complaint.
In a press release announcing the two lawsuits, the EEOC stated that these two suits “solidify its commitment to ensuring that individuals are not discriminated against in the workplace because of their sexual orientation.”
Despite the EEOC’s continued assertions that Title VII encompasses sexual orientation as a protected category, there is no dispute that the plain language of Title VII does not expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Of course, employees in New York are nevertheless protected against discrimination based on sexual orientation, because the New York Human Rights Law already includes such protection. If defense counsel challenges the EEOC’s interpretation, the federal district courts will have the opportunity to establish a precedent regarding whether this protection also exists under Title VII.