Employment Discrimination

EEOC Issues Additional Guidance Concerning Discrimination Claim Waivers

July 30, 2009

By Robert A. LaBerge

On July 15, 2009, the EEOC issued additional guidance to employees and employers on the use of releases in employment severance agreements.  After acknowledging the current economic downturn and the resultant increase in workforce reductions, the EEOC noted that increasing numbers of employees are being presented with severance agreements containing release language and are wondering: “Is this legal? Should I sign it?”  The EEOC Guidance is designed to assist employees in understanding waiver agreements and answering these questions.  The Guidance is also useful to employers seeking to develop severance and release arrangements that will pass muster with the EEOC. 

The EEOC Guidance provides instruction on the general requirements for a valid release of discrimination claims, as well as on the additional requirements applicable to age discrimination waivers covered by the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act (“OWBPA”) amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).  The EEOC has issued detailed regulations interpreting and implementing the OWBPA/ADEA waiver rules (29 CFR § 1625.22), and much has previously been written about the requirements that must be satisfied to obtain an effective age discrimination waiver.  Under the ADEA waiver rules:  workers must be advised in writing to consult with an attorney; be afforded specified minimum time periods to consider the waiver (at least 21 days, or 45 days if offered as part of an “exit incentive” or "other termination program”); be allowed at least seven days after signing the waiver to revoke it; and receive other information about the benefits they will be receiving and the rights they will be giving up in order for the ADEA waiver to be valid (See EEOC Guidance at pp. 5-15). 

The EEOC Guidance is perhaps most instructive on rules applicable to non-age discrimination waivers.  The Guidance confirms that a waiver will not be valid unless it is signed by the employee “knowingly and voluntarily” and it is supported by sufficient “consideration” provided by the employer.  The EEOC states that for the employer’s “consideration” to be adequate, it must be something of value that is additional to the payments or benefits to which the employee is already entitled.  Therefore, offering employees their existing pension benefits or payments for their earned and unused vacation time or sick leave in exchange for a release will not be sufficient in the EEOC’s view.  Moreover, while acknowledging that Title VII, the ADA, and the EPA do not require employers to satisfy the OWBPA/ADEA disclosure requirements, the EEOC indicates that the following factors will be carefully examined to ascertain whether the employee’s waiver was provided “knowingly and voluntarily:”

  1. Was the waiver obtained through fraud, duress, undue influence, or other improper conduct?;
  2. Was the waiver written in plain language sufficient to be understood by an individual with the employee’s education and business experience?;
  3. Was the employee given enough time to read and consider the advantages and disadvantages of the waiver?;
  4. Was the employee encouraged to consult, or discouraged from consulting, with an attorney?;
  5. Was the employee allowed to negotiate the terms of the agreement?; and
  6. How valuable was the consideration offered for the waiver?

The EEOC Guidance illustrates the importance of specifically referencing employment discrimination claims as part of the waiver language, indicating that even if a general release is “clear and unambiguous,” it may not bar employment discrimination claims if they are not mentioned specifically.  Examples provided in the EEOC Guidance highlight the significance of an employee’s education and sophistication levels in assessing whether the waiver of employment discrimination claims was “knowingly and voluntarily” provided by that employee.

Finally, the EEOC Guidance states that if an employee signs a waiver and later files a discrimination charge against the employer, the EEOC will not require that individual to “tender back” the severance pay received before attempting to pursue that charge.  In this regard, the EEOC apparently will apply the “no tender back” rule applicable to ADEA waivers in the context of the other federal employment discrimination statutes (See Questions and Answers: Final Regulation on “Tender Back” and Related issues Concerning ADEA Waivers). The EEOC Guidance likewise reaffirms that broad language in severance agreements that seeks to limit employees in, or discourage them from, filing charges with the EEOC or participating or testifying in an EEOC investigation or proceeding is invalid and will not be enforced (See EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Non-Waivable Employees Rights under EEOC Enforced Statutes (Apr. 1997)).

In view of the growing willingness of agencies and courts to scrutinize and limit the terms of waiver agreements, employers planning additional workforce reductions will be well-served to review their standard severance agreements to ensure compliance with the EEOC Guidelines.  If you have questions or comments on the EEOC Guidance, please post them below or contact your BS&K employment attorney for additional information. 

State Legislature Amends Human Rights Law to Provide for Civil Fines

July 20, 2009

By Louis P. DiLorenzo

 

Somehow our legislature and Governor found time to amend the New York State Human Rights Law to expand the application of civil fines and penalties to include cases of employment discrimination occurring on or after July 6, 2009. N.Y. Exec. Law Sec. 297(4). Previously, the imposition of civil fines had been limited to cases of housing discrimination. With the enactment of the new law they may now be assessed in all cases of employment discrimination, which account for 80% of Division of Human Rights’ cases.  A fine of up to $50,000 may be imposed, or in the case where the conduct is found to be “willful, wanton or malicious,” a fine of up to $100,000. Where the employer has fewer than 50 employees, civil fines and penalties may be paid in installments by the employer.

The purpose of the amendment, according to the Division, is to:

…greatly advance the Division’s mission to exercise the police power of the State for the protection of the public welfare, health and peace of the people of this State, and in fulfillment of the provision of the constitution of this State concerning civil rights. N.Y. Exec. Law § 290.1. The fines imposed will further the goal of equal opportunity in New York State by acting to deter and reduce discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, military status, and other protected categories.

Furthermore, the imposition of such fines will be in addition to and will not reduce or offset any compensatory damages awarded to a prevailing complainant. The fines are payable to the State.

The law does not change the types of relief that may be awarded to the complainant. Complainants who prevail in an action under state law may be awarded affirmative relief from the employer (e.g., be hired, promoted or reinstated) and awarded compensatory damages (economic damages and emotional distress damages. However, there is pending legislation in New York which would allow individuals to also recover punitive damages and reasonable attorneys fees for human rights law violations.

There is presently little guidance on how the penalties will be applied. The Division promises future guidelines. It may be that the standards applied in housing discrimination cases will be considered relevant.  In housing discrimination cases, the factors that determine if civil fines and penalties are appropriate are: 1) whether the respondent previously committed unlawful housing discrimination; 2) the respondent’s financial resources; 3) the degree of respondent’s culpability; and 4) the goal of deterrence. The Division may also consider whether: 1) the employer has an established anti-discrimination policy; 2) the policy was distributed to employees; 3) there is an effective complaint procedure; and 4) employees have been trained in the law and the employer’s policies.

Political Discrimination in New York

July 14, 2009

By Richard G. Kass

In many workplaces, it is not uncommon for employees to speak with each other about politics. As managers and employees learn each others’ political views, some employees may get the impression—rightly or wrongly—that their employers are discriminating against them because of political disagreements. 

Sometimes, political discrimination can be overt. In the 2004 presidential campaign, there was a well-publicized incident in which an employer in Alabama told an employee that she was being discharged because she had a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car.   But even when the employer does not expressly state why it has taken an adverse action against an employee, the circumstances may support an inference that the reason was political.

Employers and employees often assume that employment discrimination on the basis of political beliefs is unlawful. After all, discrimination on the basis of such obscure categories as marital status and genetic predisposition is unlawful, and human resources professionals constantly stress that all personnel decisions should be based on merit.  However, surprising as it may seem, federal and New York law do not generally prohibit political discrimination in the private sector. The First Amendment restricts action against political dissentersby the government, but it does not restrict action by private actors. An employer that fires an employee because of a political bumper sticker may well be acting within its legal rights, reprehensible as such an action may seem. This blogpost examines the types of political discrimination that are plainly unlawful, as well as legal theories that can be argued when none of the well-established prohibitions applies.

 

Political Discrimination in the Public Sector

It is well-established that public employers (e.g., federal, state, and local governments, school districts, public authorities, etc.) may not discriminate against their employees on the basis of their political beliefs or affiliations. The United States Supreme Court, in Elrod v. Burns and Branti v. Finkel, has held that such discrimination violates the First Amendment rights of the employees, and may be challenged in federal court.  A major exception to this rule provides that policymaking employees may be lawfully subjected to political discrimination, so that the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box can be carried out by officials who are loyal to the political agenda of elected officials. 

The Elrod/Branti rule has generated a complex body of caselaw. A discussion of the intricacies of First Amendment law under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as applied to public employees would take volumes. It is sufficient for our purposes here to state that public sector employees have a great deal of protection against political discrimination.   

New York “Political Activities” Law

In 1992, the New York Legislature added Section 201-d to the New York Labor Law. This statute is best known for its prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of off-duty “recreational activities” such as smoking and skiing.  Less well known is the statute’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of an employee’s “political activities outside of working hours, off of the employer’s premises and without use of the employer’s equipment or other property.”

The statute’s definition of “political activities” is relatively narrow. It covers “running for public office,” “campaigning for a candidate for public office,” or participating in political fundraising activities.  It does not include mere political belief, or an expression of political views. Thus, an employer would violate the statute if it were to discharge an employee because she handed out leaflets for a candidate at a train station in her spare time, but would be in compliance with the statute if it were to discharge an employee because she expressed dislike for a particular candidate, or simply because it suspects that the employee favors a particular political philosophy.

The statute does not define “campaigning,” and there are no reported court decisions interpreting that word in this context. For this reason, it is uncertain whether a court would say that the statute would protect an employee who has a political bumper sticker on her car. The employee’s rights would depend in part on whether the display of a bumper sticker is considered “campaigning,” as opposed to simple expression. If the bumper sticker favors a party or a cause instead of a particular candidate, the statute would almost definitely not apply, since the only kind of campaigning that is protected is “campaigning for a candidate for public office.” For the same reason, a bumper sticker that opposes a candidate would also not appear to constitute “campaigning” within the meaning of the statute. Only a bumper sticker that favors a particular candidate would clearly invoke the statute’s protection.

The question would also arise whether driving a car with a political bumper sticker is conduct “off of the employer’s premises.”  If the employer owns the parking lot where the bumper sticker is displayed, the statute arguably would not apply. Only conduct that takes place off of the employer’s premises, outside of work time, is protected by the statute.

The “political activities” clause is not the only provision of Section 201-d that can be used by someone who claims to be a victim of political discrimination. The statute also prohibits discrimination on the basis of what an employee chooses to read or watch in her leisure time.  Thus, an employer may not treat an employee adversely because she reads the Daily Worker instead of the Wall Street Journal, or because she watches Norma Rae instead of Sleeping Beauty

An exception to the statute permits employers to take action against employees when their political activities create “a material conflict of interest related to the employer’s . . . business interest.”  Thus, a newspaper should be able to prohibit a journalist that it employs from campaigning for or against a candidate she covers, in order to protect the newspaper’s business interest in appearing impartial. Using the same exception, an employer that sells goods or services to government agencies may be able to argue that it is permitted to discharge an employee who is running as a candidate against the head of that agency, or who is campaigning for such a candidate. 

Even when the law would otherwise apply, Section 201-d of the New York Labor Law permits employers to restrict the outside paid political activities of employees who are contractually bound to devote their “entire compensated working hours” to the employer, as long as the employee is paid at least $50,000 in 1992 dollars (approximately $76,000 in 2009 dollars).  Similarly, an employer may enforce a contractual restriction on the outside activities of an employee who has a professional services contract because of the “unique nature of the services provided.”  For example, a celebrity who is engaged by a movie studio may be restricted from running for office or campaigning for a candidate, if the contract contemplates that such activities may diminish the celebrity’s marketability. 


New York Human Rights Law

The New York Human Rights Law, the state statute that prohibits most forms of unlawful employment discrimination, could perhaps be interpreted to cover political discrimination, but the courts have so far rejected such an argument. 

Like most states, and like the federal government in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, New York does not include “political views” or “political activities” in its list of categories protected by discrimination laws.  However, the New York statute does prohibit discrimination on the basis of “creed.”  Although the “creed” clause is most commonly invoked to prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, the word has a sufficiently broad dictionary definition to include political beliefs as well.

To date, the courts have insisted on restricting the word “creed” to religious beliefs, not political ones. The only reported court case to squarely face the issue is Keady v. Nike, Inc.  Keady was an employee of St. John’s University who claimed he was forced to resign from his employment because he protested the University’s decision to accept endorsement money from Nike in light of its labor practices in Third World countries. The court held that the employee could not sue under the Human Rights Law, because that law does not protect employees on the basis of their “ethical or sociopolitical views.” The court, however, failed to give convincing support for its holding. The only authority it cited other than the statute itself is  a federal appeals court decision called Avins v. Mangum.  But Avins merely noted that the State Commission for Human Rights declined jurisdiction over a claim of political discrimination. The Avins court did not rule on whether the State Commission was correct to decline jurisdiction, and it made no holding on the scope of the “creed” clause. Thus, there is still no reasoned decision that convincingly limits the “creed” clause to religious, as opposed to political, discrimination.

Perhaps the best argument against extending the Human Rights Law’s “creed” clause is the Legislature’s passage of Labor Law §201-d, discussed above. If the Legislature had believed that political discrimination was already prohibited by the Human Rights Law, it would have had no need to prohibit “political activities” discrimination in the new statute.

Religious Discrimination

Another possible strategy for challenging political discrimination would be to take advantage of the broad definition of religious discrimination under Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination statute. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has stated that “[r]eligion is very broadly defined under Title VII. Religious beliefs . . . include . . . non-theistic ‘moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”  This would seem to include at least some political beliefs, e.g., the belief that government should seek to maximize freedom, or the belief that government should seek to help the poor. 

However, the EEOC goes on to state that “[s]ocial, political, or economic philosophies . . . are not ‘religious’ beliefs protected by Title VII.”  This is a distinction that is difficult to define, and the EEOC makes no serious attempt to do so. If the facts presented in a particular case are favorable, it may be possible to convince a court that the distinction between protected non-theistic ethical beliefs on the one hand and unprotected political philosophies on the other is so untenable as to be arbitrary and capricious. This would open the door to at least some types of claims of political discrimination in federal court.

National Labor Relations Act

The National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) primarily involves union relations, but it also grants rights to employees in a nonunion setting. Specifically, it grants employees the right to “engage in . . . concerted activities . . . for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection.”  The Supreme Court has held that this right extends to at least some political activities, as long as they have a connection to the workplace.

 In July of 2008, the NLRB’s General Counsel released an official memorandum exploring the distinction between protected and unprotected political activity.  The memorandum concluded that in order for political activity to be protected under the NLRA, there must be a “direct nexus between the specific issue that is the subject of the advocacy and a specifically identified employment concern of the participating employees.”  The General Counsel found that such a nexus existed when employees participated in demonstrations against proposed immigration laws that would have made it more difficult for aliens to obtain work in the United States.

By analogy, it could be argued that the NLRA protects employees who seek to persuade other employees to vote for a political candidate who will work for improved family leave laws, or to support a political party that promises to raise the minimum wage. Like the immigration concerns discussed by the General Counsel, these causes are directly linked to employees’ interests as employees.

Conclusion

Contrary to the assumptions of many employers and employees, there is no law clearly prohibiting most forms of political discrimination in the private sector in New York. The New York Labor Law prohibits discrimination on the basis of active political “campaigning” or engaging in fundraising, but discrimination on the basis of mere political belief or expression is not prohibited. Creative plaintiffs may attempt to base claims on other legal theories, but so far such attempts have been successful only in narrow circumstances. Employees should beware of a gap in their legal rights, and employers should beware of the restrictions that do exist.

Prevailing Defendants in Employment Discrimination Case Obtain $58,000 Cost Award

June 22, 2009

By Subhash Viswanathan

It’s a case that has been to the Second Circuit twice, resulting first in a win and then a “bonus” for the prevailing Defendants. After an approximately one-month trial in November 2005 before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Town of Huntington and an individual board member and dismissed Plaintiff’s claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the verdict. 

After winning the case, Defendants requested reimbursement for their “costs” incurred during the lawsuit, including copying costs, deposition transcripts, and daily trial transcripts, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) and a federal statute, 28 U.S.C. §1920. The request involved a significant amount of money. During the trial, the Defendants had ordered daily transcripts of the trial testimony from the court reporter. Those transcripts cost approximately $50,000 for over 3,000 pages of testimony generated during the course of the lengthy trial.

District Court Clerks have the power to award costs initially. The Clerk’s decision, however, is reviewable de novo by the District Court which tried the case. The Clerk denied Defendants’ request for the high cost of the daily transcripts, but the District Court reviewed the Clerk’s decision and granted the request – including fees for daily trial transcripts.

Such costs are not customarily awarded. Daily trial transcripts are taxable to the losing party as costs only if they are “necessarily obtained for use in the case.” 28 U.S.C. §1920. In this case, the District Court agreed with the Defendants that all relevant factors favored awarding the cost of daily transcripts. The District Court cited the length of the case, Plaintiff’s “confusing and muddled” presentation, the fact that Plaintiff’s credibility was a crucial issue in the case, and the fact that the Court and the Defendants’ counsel had to resolve confusion by pointing to the record, as factors requiring the use of daily transcripts. The Court also noted that the Plaintiff failed to make any affirmative showing that he was financially unable to bear the cost of the daily transcripts. In some cases, indigency may convince a District Court that a significant award of costs is not appropriate. Perks v. Town of Huntington, Slip Op. 99-cv-4811 (March 31, 2008).

Plaintiff appealed the award of costs to the Second Circuit, challenging the District Court’s award of costs as an abuse of discretion. On May 27, 2009, the Second Circuit issued a summary order affirming the District Court's decision. Perks v. Town of Huntington, Slip Op. 08-cv-2123 (May 27, 2009). As a result, the Defendants not only won their case but the Plaintiff was also required to pay them over $58,000 in costs.

The Defendant Town of Huntington was represented by Ernest R. Stolzer of Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC in Garden City, New York.

Coordinating Retiree Health Insurance with Medicare Not Illegal Age Discrimination

June 15, 2009

By Subhash Viswanathan

In what appears to be the first reported decision of its kind, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York recently interpreted an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulation to permit an employer’s efforts to control retiree health insurance costs by coordinating its retiree health insurance plan with Medicare. Lefevre v. Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., slip op. no. 1:06-CV-768 (N.D.N.Y. April 21, 2009). The employer provided health insurance benefits to retirees under a plan that required a Medicare eligible employee to apply for Medicare Parts A and B. Medicare then became the primary health insurance coverage, and the plan paid benefits to supplement the benefits paid by Medicare. Due to the terms of the plan, a Medicare eligible retiree’s share of the plan premium was somewhat greater than that of a non-Medicare eligible employee. 

Several Medicare eligible employees sued alleging that the higher premium share constituted age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ADEA prohibits discrimination based on age in terms and conditions of employment, including the terms of benefit plans. 29 U.S.C. §§ 623(a) & 630(l) However, the ADEA also authorizes the EEOC to create reasonable exemptions from the statute’s prohibitions when necessary and proper in the public interest. 29 U.S.C. § 628 EEOC created a coordination with Medicare exemption for employee benefit plans that provide health insurance benefits that are altered, reduced, or eliminated when the plan participant becomes Medicare eligible. 29 C.F.R. § 625.32(b) 

In the Lefevre case, the Court found that the regulation applied and required dismissal of the plaintiffs’ age discrimination claim. Because the premium differences were the result of the coordination with Medicare, they fell squarely within the regulatory exemption, even though they only impacted individuals who were age 65 (the age of Medicare eligibility) and older.

The Court also examined and applied a safe harbor provision within the ADEA which permits employers to implement a bona fide employee benefit plan which treats older and younger workers differently when either the costs are the same for both sets of workers, or the benefits are the same, the equal cost/equal benefit provision. 29 U.S.C. § 623(f)(2)(B)(1).  In Lefevre, the Court found that the equal cost provision did not apply – the employer was in fact trying to lower its retiree health insurance costs by coordinating benefits with Medicare – but that the equal benefit rule did apply because the Medicare eligible retirees received the same benefit as non-Medicare eligible retirees. The plan supplemented any benefit provided by Medicare to provide full coverage.

Because the plan fell within the EEOC’s regulatory exemption, as well as qualifying under the equal benefit rule, the Court granted summary judgment to the employer and dismissed the complaint. The employer was represented by Robert A. LaBerge and Louis Orbach of Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, in Syracuse, New York.