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How Online Activists Ended Insurance Company Discrimination Against Women

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Last year, we ran a story about Peggy Robertson of Colorado. Robertsons’ health insurer, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, had required that she be sterilized to receive health insurance. Peggy later testified before a Senate HELP subcommittee on insurance company discrimination against women, and told her story to millions on ABC Nightly News and on YouTube.

The committee Chair, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, reacted strongly to Robertsons’ testimony, calling it a bone-chilling and morally repugnant story of insurance company abuse. Today, the New York Times caught up with Robertson and asked for her reaction to the health care bills’ passage into law:

In a telephone interview on Friday, Ms. Robertson said: Barbara Mikulski told me, she promised me, This will never happen again. She did it. Its wonderful.

But it wasnt just Sen. Mikulski. Activists first mobilized in September, after discovering that domestic violence could be legally deemed a pre-existing coverage in eight states and the District of Columbia.

Online activists reacted by flooding Congress with petitions and emails and it paid off. The original House and Senate bill included specific language banning this practice.

In the months that followed, tens of thousands of SEIU online activists rallied against insurance company discrimination, sending thousands of personal emails to Congress. And even more signed petitions to Congress asking that they include language in the final bill to ban practices like gender rating and classifying domestic violence as a pre-existing condition.

Thousands more publicized this issue across social networks, taking their ticket and stating “I am not a pre-existing condition” on Twitter and Facebook.

We also rigged our phone system to direct calls into male members of Congress to educate them on gender discrimination by insurers.

Supporters joined the “I am not a pre-existing condition” Facebook group and wore t-shirts to the gym and around their neighborhoods.

And finally, bloggers and partner organizations (esp. the National Women’s Law Center) wallpapered the web with original reporting, thoughtful analysis and calls to action on ending insurance company discrimination against women. Blogs like Feministing, RH Reality Check, and Feministe fiercely reported on these stories and directed their readers to actions.

Together, we made history. Because of your activism, in four years, United States law will ban insurers from discriminating against women with higher fees, denial of coverage, and failure to provide coverage of critical procedures and services, like maternity care and c-sections.

*This post originally appeared in SEIU Blog on March 30, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jessica Kutch is an online campaign manager for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where she directs the union’s new media campaign to win health insurance reform. She’s been organizing online since 2005, and has expertise in email advocacy, online advertising, social media and blogger relations.  Before joining SEIU, Jess managed online campaigns for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. She’s a graduate of Bennington College.


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JetBlue Loses Appeal On Hostile Work Ennvironment Age Discrimination And Retaliation Claims

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Complaints To Supervisor/Harasser Are Sufficient To Overcome Affirmative Defense On Hostile Environment Claim

There’s lots of meaty reading in the Second Circuit case of Gorzynski v JetBlue Airways Corporation decided this month. The 31 page opinion hits multiple issues including sexual harassment, age discrimination, race discrimination, and retaliation.

The Federal District Court threw out the case on summary judgment. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.

Facts Of The Case

It’s a long story, but here’s the gist of it.

JetBlue hired Diane Gorzynski as a customer service agent in January 2000 for its operation at Buffalo International Airport. She was 54 years old at the time. In May 2000 she was promoted to the position of Customer Service Supervisor and stayed in that position until she was fired on July 5, 2002.

The customer service supervisors were managed by James Celeste, the General Manager. William Thro, a regional manager, was responsible for overseeing the General Managers of several JetBlue stations.

During her employment, Gorzynski experienced age and gender discrimination including sexual harassment. She also observed discrimination of other employees. The main culprit was her supervisor, James Celeste.

Gorzynski complained to Celeste on numerous occasions about the discrimination and harassment she experienced and about the discrimination and harassment of her co-employees.

She was retaliated against and fired, she believed, because of her complaints.

The Lawsuit

Gorzynski filed a lawsuit claiming that JetBlue:

* discriminated against her because of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

* discriminated against her because of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

* retaliated against her for complaints to her supervisors about age and gender discrimination and race discrimination of co-employees in violation of Title VII and the ADEA

She also claimed numerous violations on the New York Human Rights Law.

The federal District Court granted JetBlue’s Motion for Summary Judgment of all claims. Gorzynski filed an appeal.

The Second Circuit Reverses

The Faragher/Ellerth Defense

One of the most important and interesting parts of the decision is its holding regarding JetBlue’s affirmative defense on which the District Court hung its hat to throw out Gorzynski’s sexual harassment claim – and it’s a holding which can effect lots of people.

In order to establish a hostile environment sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must produce enough evidence to show that the workplace was:

* permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is

* sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and

* create an abusive working environment

In analyzing a hostile environment claim, the court is required to “look at the record as a whole and assess the totality of the circumstances.”

In this case, Gorzynski presented evidence that Celeste:

* grabbed Gorzynsi and other women around the waist

* tickled them

* stared at them as if” he was mentally undressing them”

* made numerous sexual comments including remarks about wanting to suck on or massage their breasts.

The District Court did not consider this evidence. Instead, it found that JetBlue was entitled to win as a matter of law because of its “affirmative offense” under the Supreme Court Faragher and Ellerth decisions.

The employer is entitled to raise the defense in certain sexual harassment scenarios involving supervisors and co-workers if it can show that:

* it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and

* the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid the harm

With respect to the first element, JetBlue presented evidence of its sexual harassment policy (contained in its employee handbook) which stated that: “any crewmember who believes that he or she is the victim of any type of discriminatory conduct, including sexual harassment, should bring that conduct to the immediate attention of his or her supervisor, the People Department or any member of management.”

JetBlue argued that Gorxynski was not entitled to proceed on her sexual harassment claim because she failed to take advantage of the policy in the handbook when she:

* only complained to her supervisor — the harasser

* did not complain to other members of management.

The District Court agreed with JetBlue and granted judgment in its favor on Gorzyynski’s sexual harassment claim.

The Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s conclusion and reversed. It stated:

We reject such a brittle reading of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. We do not believe that the Supreme Court, when it fashioned this affirmative defense, intended that victims of sexual harassment, in order to preserve their rights, must go from manager to manager until they find someone who will address their complaints.

Considering the courage it takes to complain about what are often humiliating events and the understandable fear of retaliation that exists in many sexual harassment situations, we decline to read the rule so rigidly.

Accordingly, we hold that an employer is not, as a matter of law, entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense simply because an employer’s sexual harassment policy provides that the plaintiff could have complained to other persons as well as the alleged harasser.

Instead, we conclude that the facts and circumstances of each case must be examined to determine whether, by not pursuing other avenues provided in the employer’s sexual harassment policy, the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventative measures.

In this case, the Court noted that:

* the other manager Gorzynski could have complained to was Thro — the regional manager

* the evidence showed that Thro was not receptive to receiving complaints from employees

* the evidence also showed that Thro was intimidating

* Thro retaliated against those who made complaints

Therefore, the Second Circuit held — in reinstating the sexual harassment claim — the question of whether or not Gorzynski unreasonably failed to take advantage of the options provided in the sexual harassment policy was a jury question.

Remaining Issues Of Fact For The Jury

Age Discrimination

Gorzyski established a prima facie case of age discrimination:

* she was over 40

* she was qualified for her position

* she was fired

* she was replaced by a woman in her 40’s

JetBlue countered this inference of age discrimination with its “legitimate business reason”: it fired Gorzynski because of her “management style,” “unprofessional conduct and poor interpersonal skills” and the “hostile work environment she created.”

The District Court found that Gorzynski did not present any evidence that JetBlue’s reasons were false or pretextual – and threw out her age discrimination claim.

The Second Circuit disagreed. Some of the evidence it noted was:

* the negative evaluation Gorzynski received from Celeste — a 2 out of 5 — was conducted after he had supervised her for only one week

* a contemporary, anonymous crewmember gave her a 4 out of 5

* at the same time Celeste gave Crowly, a 30 year old customer service rep. a 4 out of 5 even though Crowly had been written up and counseled on numerous occasions –Celeste then promoted him

* JetBlue’s investigation regarding an incident which immediately preceded Gorzynski’s discharge was “questionable at best”

* Celeste told Gorzynski she reminded him of his 80 year old aunt

* younger employees were not disciplined for violating numerous policies including smoking and sleeping on the job

The Court stated:

Given the cumulative weight of this evidence, we believe that a reasonable jury could find not only that the explanations given by JetBlue for Gorzynski’s termination were pretextual, but also that, together with Celeste’s passing comment about his aunt, it was her age that was the ‘but for’ cause of Gorzynski’s termination.

Accordingly, we vacate the District Court’s dismissal of Gorzynski’s age discrimination claims.

(the case also has a very interesting discussion of “age plus” discrimination in connection with her claim that Celeste discriminated against older women)

Retaliation

The District Court also dismissed Gorzynski’s claim that she was discharged in retaliation for complaining about race, gender and age discrimination.

In order to establish a retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show

1. that she participated in a protected activity
2. suffered an adverse employment action
3. a causal connection between her engaging in the protected activity and the adverse employment action

The Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s holding on the retaliation claims noting in part:

* five months – the time between Gorzynski expressed concern about a co-workers race discrimination and her discharge – was “not too long to find a causal relationship.”

* a complaint about a sexual harassment incident two months before her discharge sufficiently alleged a causal connection between her protected complaint about sex discrimination and her termination

* Gorzynski’s statements in her affidavit that there was unequal enforcement of the rules at the Buffalo station with respect to older employees versus younger employees should have been considered by the Court

In sum, the Court said

JetBlue has articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Gorzynski’s termination, and Gorzynski has produced evidence that casts significant doubt on that rationale, leaving a triable issue as to whether JetBlue retaliated against her for complaining about prohibited discrimination.

Lessons To Be Learned

The decision is filled with points of law that are very helpful to employees who have filed employment discrimination claims. It gives numerous examples of what may be considered evidence of disparate treatment, pretext, and retaliation.

It also has a very interesting discussion of gender/age “plus” discrimination, where a subset of women are being discriminated against in the workplace, ie., older women, or black women, but not all women — which in reality is quite common.

Most noteworthy is the discussion of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. While it is critical for those who have been sexually harassed to complain to someone in management, the opinion makes it clear that victims of sexual harassment will not lose their rights because they did not complain to each person designated in a company’s sexual harassment policy.

Complaints to the supervisor/harasser are sufficient. That particular point of law will be a huge help to many victims.

Images: www.bajanfuhlife.com/news/news

*This article was originally published in Employee Rights Post on February 28, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights attorneys in the United States, Ellen Simon has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. A sought-after legal analyst and expert, she discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post www.employeerightspost.com/ has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. Learn more about Ellen Simon at www.ellensimon.net/.


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Court Upholds $1.9 Million Dollar Verdict In Gender Discrimination Case Against Wal-Mart

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Female Pharmacist Wins Appeal Including Punitive Damages and Huge Front Pay Award

It’s one thing to prove discrimination. It’s an altogether different thing to prove damages which occurred as a result of it.

In the recently published gender discrimination case of Haddad v Wal-Mart Stores Inc,*, the Supreme Court Judicial Court (“SJC”) of Massachusetts affirmed a jury verdict which included $733,000 for 19 years of front pay (future economic loss) and $1 million dollars in punitive damages – and that’s big news.

What Happened In The Case

Cynthia Haddad worked as a pharmacist at Wal-Mart for ten years (seven of those in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts store) mostly as a staff pharmacist. Throughout her time at Wal-Mart, she received excellent evaluations.  

Towards the end of her employment, Haddad accepted the position of pharmacy manager.

During that time, she received less pay than any male pharmacy manager which she consistently complained about.

On April 14th, 2004, Haddad was questioned by three Wal-Mart managers about abut two fraudulent prescriptions.

One of the prescriptions was written in 2002 while Haddad was on duty, and another was written in 2004 while a male pharmacist was on duty.

Haddad told the managers that she did not know anything about the fraudulent prescriptions.

She did admit that the 2002 fraudulent prescription could have been written when she briefly left the pharmacy area to buy a soda at a nearby counter, or when she was in the restroom, eating lunch, or talking to customers.

Haddad’s employment was terminated that same day.

She was told that the reason for her termination was based on her statement during the interview that she failed to secure the pharmacy and left Baran (the technician) unattended in the pharmacy area. Baran, who admitted that she falsified the prescription,was also terminated.

The other pharmacist involved — Richard Blackbird — was on duty the day the fraudulent 2004 prescription was written. That prescription contained his initials.

In a clear case of unequal treatment, neither Blackbird, nor any other pharmacist was questioned about or disciplined for the 2004 fraudulent prescription.

In stark contract to the treatment Haddad received,  Blackbird was appointed to be pharmacy manager at the time of Haddad’s departure.

In addition, Blackbird testified that he commonly left the pharmacy area unsecured to talk to a customer, go the restroom, or get a snack – and that he was unaware of any policy prohibiting this practice.

Haddad filed a lawsuit alleging unequal compensation and termination of employment in violation of Massachusetts laws against discrimination. (M.G.L. c. 151B, s.4) The complaint also stated a claim for defamation.

The jury found in Haddad’s favor and awarded $922,774 in compensatory damages which included:

  • $17,700 in special damages
  • $125,000 for emotional distress
  • $95,000 in back pay
  • $733,000 in front pay

The jury also awarded $1 million dollars in punitive damages.

The Appeal

Wal-Mart appealed claiming a number of errors.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Wal-Mart claimed that Haddad did not introduce enough evidence to prove discrimination. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts disagreed. It held that there was sufficient proof to support the verdict including evidence that:

  • Wal-Mart’s proffered reasons for terminating Haddad were false
  • Similarly situated male employees were treated differently than Haddad for similar infractions of the same policy
  • Other incidents occurred  in which male pharmacists were not disciplined for far more serious infractions, ie. one pharmacist was caught writing prescriptions and taking drugs for himself and was not fired
  • Wal-Mart failed to follow its progressive discipline policy

Front Pay

The jury awarded the plaintiff nineteen years of future economic loss which consisted of the difference in pay and benefits that Haddad would have earned at Wal-Mart compared to the pay and benefits she earned at the job she held at the time of trial.

Nineteen years of compensation represented Haddad’s loss of earning through age 65.

Wal-Mart contended that the front pay award was excessive and speculative. The Court disagreed:

While the award of $733,307 represents a significant dollar figure for front pay, the evidence supported such an award ….

The plaintiff testified to her difficulty in obtaining a new job. There was evidence that Wal-Mart’s allegations concerning her alleged responsibility for drug losses became generally known….

[T]he award of lost income of nineteen years is consistent with the plaintiff’s anticipated retirement age of sixty-five.

Based on the plaintiff’s ten-year tenure at Wal-Mart, her testimony that she had planned to continue working at Wal-Mart for the remainder of her career, and the limited number of pharmacies in the area around Pittsfield, the jury permissibly could have concluded that an award of nineteen years was appropriate.

The Court discussed other cases (both state and federal) in which employees were awarded economic loss for long periods of time into the future – particularly where the circumstances indicated that plaintiffs would have difficulty obtaining comparable employment.”

It’s a very helpful opinion for plaintiffs and their lawyers on the issue of damages for future economic loss in wrongful discharge cases

Punitive Damages

It’s not often that we see cases in which an award of punitive damages is affirmed on appeal.

To sustain the award of punitive damages in this case, Haddad had to prove that the defendant’s act “was outrageous, egregious, evil in motive, or undertaken with reckless indifference to the rights of others.”

Some of the evidence which the SJC of Massachusetts relied upon to support the award included proof that:

  • Wal-Mart was aware that gender discrimination was not illegal
  • Wal-Mart refused to pay Haddad the hourly rate it paid male pharmacy managers
  • Wal-Mart fired a ten-year employee for a single infraction after a sham investigation
  • Male pharmacists were not disciplined for similar or far more serious infractions

It wrote:

The jury was warranted in concluding that Wal-Mart’s pattern of unequal treatment of male and female pharmacists was outrageous and reprehensible.

Lessons To Be Learned

There is no doubt that in today’s economic climate the chances of finding comparable employment after a discharge are slim. What this means is that when employees unlawfully lose their jobs, and prove it, it’s likely that we will see larger and larger verdicts just like this one. It’s an important case both for its content and as a harbinger of what’s to come.

* Reprinted from Westlaw with permission of Thomson Reuters

** This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on December 1, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Images:

63.135.122.65/bergdahlphoto/Wal-Mart

www.a-fib.com/images

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome


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One Strike and You’re Out

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Image: Bob RosnerNEWS FLASH: A recent Working Wounded column on the “battle of the sexes” generated the most negative mail that I’ve received in almost ten years.

I’ve gotten a lot of angry mail through the years—people who challenged my credentials, those who attacked my point of view and even some who really hated my photo. I thought I’d heard it all. That is until the “battle of the sexes” column ran a few weeks back.

The emails were angry. Really angry. You could tell it just by the subject lines: “My God, how could you get it so wrong” and “More female apologist crap.” And those were two of the printable ones.

I could argue in my own defense that the content for the column was based on a book written by a best-selling business guru—Tom Peters, the pioneering author of “Search For Excellence.” I could point out that although the tips in the article were provocative, they have been made in other publications. Finally I could say that men and women really do manage differently and that there is a value in exploring these differences.

But that isn’t the point of this blog. No, I would like to focus on one email that I received and what it says about where disagreements seem headed. So without further ado, here is the email in question:

“As a mental health therapist in private practice for over thirty years, I frequently deal with gender issues. Your column was one of the most biased collection of generalizations I have seen in some time. No doubt many males do not have it together but it appears from your writing that all women are positive in the work environment and men are just a negative. I asked my wife of 35 years for her reaction and she gave several examples opposite to each of the points you listed. I have written a letter to the editor…which carries your column in the Chicago area, asking that they consider dropping your column and considering one that gives a more balanced view of workplace issues.”

Criticism is a part of the life of a workplace columnist. A very big part. And I accept it. But I did find it fascinating that someone would read one column and decide that I should be fired. One strike and you’re out. Why should my column be dropped? According to this reader, because publications should provide a “more balanced” view. Is it balance he’s looking for or someone who is unbalanced and actually tips in his direction? (Ouch, and I was doing such a good job of not coming across as defensive up until that sentence.)

It’s fine for people to not like my stuff. Heck, sometimes I’m not even fond of it. But to take it to the point that you believe that the best way to handle a differing opinion is to fire the messenger, well that seems just a bit extreme to me. Especially when it comes from a seasoned mental health professional.

Diversity of ideas. A range of opinions. Seeing things from a different point of view. These are things that seem to be under attack today. Do I read things in the paper and on the web that make my blood boil? Yes. But as Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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Important Decision From Sixth Circuit in Discriminatory Failure to Promote Case

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Female Officer Wins Big In Fight For Discriminatory Denial Of Promotion

It’s not uncommon for women to be passed over for promotions they deserve – but proving gender discrimination has been difficult.

The good news is that the recent decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Risch v. Royal Oak Police Department will make it easier to succeed in these cases in the future. 

What Happened In The Case

Karen Risch was a patrol officer for the Royal Oak Police Department for seventeen years.

In 2005 Risch was passed over for a promotion to the position of detective. Two male applicants, who had lower scores than Risch under the promotion system used by the Department, were awarded the positions instead of her.

Risch claimed that the Department failed to promote her to a command position six times between 2002 and 2005.

Risch filed a gender discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal district court (Eastern District of Michigan) granted judgment in favor of the Royal Oak Police Department and threw out Risch’s case.

On September 23, 2009, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.

Evidence of Pretext

Discrimination cases are hard to prove but here’s how it’s done in a nutshell.

The plaintiff can prove her lawsuit by establishing what is called a prima facie case which can establish an inference of discrimination. If she does that, the defendant must come forward with admissible evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.

Once the Defendant establishes a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its conduct,  the plaintiff must identify evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the employer’s proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

A plaintiff can prove pretext by showing that the employer’s stated reason for the adverse employment action either:

  1. has no basis in fact or
  2. was not the actual reason or
  3. is insufficient to explain the employer’s action

In this case, the trial court granted judgment against Risch because it concluded that Risch failed to present sufficient evidence that the Department’s proffered explanation for not promoting her was pretextual.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed, holding that Risch did present ample proof of discrimination to to go before a jury.

Here’s the evidence the Court determined to be  evidence of pretext and gender discrimination.

Superior Qualifications

As the Court pointed out, Risch had superior qualifications for the position of detective than two of the male candidates (Moore and Spencer) promoted to the position in 2005. Her scores were better and she had greater experience in the department.

As the Court stated:

Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Risch … it is clear that Risch was as qualified as or better qualified than either Moore or Spencer.

Discriminatory Remarks

The Court noted that male officers frequently made degrading comments regarding the female officers. Some of those remarks included the following:

  • “The chief will never have a female officer on the command staff”
  • “None of you {female officers} will ever go anywhere …”
  • A majority of male officers told Risch that women do not belong in the police force

As the Court stated:

We have held that discriminatory remarks, even by a nondecisionmaker, can serve as probative evidence of pretext ….

The statements in this case evidence a discriminatory atmosphere in the Department in which male officers frequently made derogatory or discriminatory remarks about female officers. …

We do not view each discriminatory remark in isolation, but are mindful that the remarks buttress one another as well as any other pretextual evidence supporting an inference of discriminatory animus.

Other Evidence Proving Discrimination

The Court also made note of other evidence it considered to prove a “general atmosphere of discrimination” including discrimination against women in duties, shift assignments, and work distribution.

Part of the evidence was that Lieutenant Foster, who held a senior position in the command staff, gave the men:

  • any kind of detail they wanted
  • all of the plum assignments

The assignments and the work the men didn’t want went to the women.

This evidence, according to the Court, supported Risch’s claim that she was discriminated against regarding her promotion.

As the Court stated (citing its decision in Ercegovich v. Goodyear Tire &Rubber Co. interestingly written by the same judge as this case):

We have explained that management’s consideration of an impermissible factor in one context may support the inference that the impermissible factor entered the decisionmaking process in another context.

In light of the above evidence … we conclude that Risch has produced sufficient evidence to establish a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the Department’s proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual.

What’s Important About The Case

What’s important about the case is that the Court broadly looked at a combination of evidence about Risch’s experiences at work (as well as that of other women) and used it to hold that Risch could challenge the department’s failure to promote her. That evidence included:

  • a record of comparative qualifications
  • discriminatory statements by decisionmakers and others in the department
  • an atmosphere of discrimination experienced by Risch and co-workers
  • the lack of women in command positions
  • proof that Risch was arguably better qualified than male candidates

The federal district court disregarded much of the evidence presented by Risch and that, according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, constituted reversible error.

The simple fact that the Court of Appeals considered all of the evidence of gender discrimination — instead of narrowly limiting the inquiry to the reasons given by the employer for the denial of the 2005 promotion — is what’s really important about this case.

It’s been historically quite difficult for women to prove that they they were denied promotions which went to less qualified male counterparts.

The Sixth Circuit’s opinion in this case —  and its broad interpretation of what kinds of evidence can support these claims —  should go a long way in helping women, as well as other victims of discrimination, get their cases in front of juries where they properly belong.

image:img.alibaba.com

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on October 8, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. With more than $50* million in verdicts and settlements and over 30 years of experience, Ellen has been listed in Best Lawyers in America and in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. She has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. Ellen also possesses a wealth of knowledge as a legal analyst discussing high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. She is the author of the Employee Rights Post, a legal blog devoted to employee and civil rights.

*prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome


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Trumped-Up Reasons For Termination Can Prove Retaliatory Discharge

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When employees are fired for misconduct, employers often think that they have an airtight defense to any charges of wrongful discharge. But that’s often not so.

The case of Upshaw v. Ford Motor Company, decided last week by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, brought this point home.

What Happened In The Case

Here’s a brief synopsis of what happened in the case.

Carolyn Upshaw worked for Ford Motor Company in Michigan as a production supervisor for several years. In spite of the fact that she received excellent reviews, she was repeatedly denied a promotion.

In 2003, she filed a charge of race and gender discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Upshaw alleged that Ford had “improperly promoted similarly-situated while male production supervisors to Salary Grade 7 while continually denying her the same promotion.”

She later filed two more EEOC charges alleging various retaliatory acts by Ford. In 2004, she filed a lawsuit. In 2005, Upshaw was fired.

In response, Upshaw filed an additional EEOC charge claiming that she was terminated in retaliation for filing her prior EEOC charges and filing a lawsuit.

Upshaw also amended her complaint to contain a claim for retaliatory discharge. All of her claims were filed pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The district court judge threw out Upshaw’s case against Ford. Upshaw appealed, and the Court of Appeals found in her favor on her claim for retaliatory discharge.

Why The Lower Court Was Reversed

Ford claimed that it fired Upshaw for cause. These were the reasons the company gave to support the discharge:

  1. Falsification of company records by under-reporting scrap
  2. Harassment of and retaliation against one the employees she supervised
  3. Violation of company safety policies on multiple occasions by driving an  uninspected personnel scooter and continually failing to wear a required safety vest, and
  4. Insubordination

Upshaw submitted proof that none of these reasons would warrant the termination of a supervisor on its own or together.

Upshaw presented evidence to prove that business reasons for the discharge were not true or not believable (what’s called evidence of “pretext”) Therefore, she contended, she should have been allowed to present her case to a jury. The Court agreed.

Evidence of Pretext
The Court had several problems with Ford’s justification for Upshaw’s termination, not the least of which was that other employees who engaged in the same misconduct were not terminated.  As the Court put it:

As a threshold matter, Upshaw has established that two of Ford’s four proffered reasons for terminating Upshaw – safety violations and her failure to timely resolve union health and safety complaints – do not typically warrant any formal discipline at Ford’s Sharonville plant, let alone termination.

In addition, the charges which were raised because Upshaw allegedly was insubordinate when she failed to timely resolve union safety complaints in a timely fashion were neither valid nor true. 

According to the Court’s opinion:

Ford employees testified that no supervisor could be expected to resolve nineteen health and safety complaints by a union representative within a twenty-four hour period, and that they did not know of anybody who has ever been disciplined or fired for failure to complete health and safety forms within 24 hours.

What’s more, the supervisor involved with the so-called insubordination testified that “she could never recall asking Upshaw to do something that she did not do.”

Finally, as to  the incorrect scrap reports,  the evidence showed that Ford had never previously treated misreporting scrap as a serious offense that would result in discipline or termination of a supervisor.

In sum, what you have in the case is evidence that employees who engaged in the same conduct as Upshaw were not disciplined or terminated.  The other reasons given by Ford for the discharge were simply not credible or plainly false.

The Court’s Conclusions

Viewing the evidence presented by Uphsaw (in a light most favorable to her at the summary judgment stage as the rules require) the Court concluded that her case should not have been thrown out and Upshaw should be entitled to take her retaliation case to a jury.

This is some of what the Court had to say when it reversed the lower court:

Although Ford is entitled to terminate an employee for an actual violation of its internal policies, Upshaw has introduced evidence suggesting that these actual violations were nothing more than trumped -up charges.

The Court also said:

When an employer waits for a legal, legitimate reason to fortuitously materialize and then uses it to cover up his true longstanding motivations for firing the employee, the employer’s actions constitute the very definition of pretext

In addition, the Court also relied on its previous decision in Hamiliton v. General Electric, ((discussed in Employee Rights Post)) — a case in which the employee filed a charge of discrimination and  was then fired for misconduct :

Plaintiff alleged that after he had filed an age-discrimination claim against GE with the EEOC, his supervisors intensified their scrutiny of his work and harassed him more that they ever had before.

GE terminated plaintiff when he allegedly engaged in “unacceptable conduct;” the parties disputed the details of the incident.

The district court granted summary judgment for GE but we reversed explaining that “a reasonable fact-finder could determine that GE waited for, and ultimately contrived a reason to terminate Hamilton to cloak its true, retaliatory motive for firing him.

Therefore since the jury could find that Ford’s reasons for the discharge were “contrived” following the filing of her EEOC charges and the filing of the lawsuit, Upshaw should  — according to the Court — have a right to prove her case to a jury.

Lessons From The Case

This case is a huge help for employees who face charges of misconduct to mask a discriminatory or retaliatory motive for discharge under any civil rights statute.

When employees are not comparably disciplined for the same misconduct, or the reasons given for the discharge just don’t hold up to scrutiny, employers can find themselves in big trouble as far as liability for civil rights violations is concerned.

Employers need to watch out for trumped up charges that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

This article originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on August 16, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She has been listed in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. Ellen has been listed as one of The Best Lawyers in America for her landmark work representing individuals in precedent-setting cases. She also received regional and national attention for winning a record $30.7 million verdict in an age-discrimination case; the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Ellen has served as an adjunct professor of employment law and is an experienced and popular orator. Ellen is Past-Chair of the Employment Rights Section of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and is honored to be a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. In additional to work as a legal analyst, she currently acts as co-counsel on individual employment cases, is available as an expert witness on employment matters and offers consulting services on sound employment practices, discrimination awareness and prevention, complaint investigation and resolution, and litigation management. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post, and her website is www.ellensimon.net. Ellen has two children and lives with her husband in Sedona, Arizona.

 

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Miami Anchor Files Sexual Orientation Bias Charge

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One of the few openly gay TV anchors in the country–Charles Perez of WPLG in Miami–has filed a charge with the local human rights authority alleging sexual orientation and gender discrimination by station managers that resulted in his demotion from weeknight anchor. Perez says his openly gay news director made comments about his performance and on-air presence that reflected anti-gay animus and that he was treated differently from heterosexual news employees.

According to the intake questionairre filed with the Miami-Dade Equal Opportunity Board–Florida does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and so the claim would gay bias claim would be brought under local law–Perez says that beginning in March 2009 he was subjected to bias at the hands of news director Bill Pohovey. The turning point appears to be an e-mail that was distributed by Perez’s ex-partner implying Perez was seeking the assistance of a therapist for issues relating to “gender identity issues.”

The allegations–and they are allegations at this point–suggest that Perez had been criticized for being “too anchor-like” and that he needed to lighten up with his female co-anchor, but then was told he should not interact with his co-anchor like “girlfriends.” He also alleges the news director made comments to him about marriage and family that he would never make to a heterosexual employee.

The complaint paints a picture of the news director showing photographs of “conquests” and talking explicitly about sex at one moment and then suggesting Perez was “too soft” the next.

In a statement from the station, Pohevey said “[a]s a gay man myself, I can safely say the Station does not discriminate against gay people. Charles’ claim that the Station discriminates against gay people is untrue and offensive. WPLG has a reputation of being a leader in this community with a very diverse staff. The Station does not discriminate. The Station will bring the facts out in the appropriate legal forum and fully expects to be completely vindicated.”

At this stage of the game, these are classic “he said, she he said” allegations. Perez provides a lot of evidence of conversations between him and the station and makes a number of inferences about the meaning of those conversations. There isn’t a lot of case law to parse out what is considered evidence of sexual orientation discrimination, although he clearly is making the argument that inferences of him being “soft” and “girlfriends” has homophobic overtones.

It’s also not true that a member of the same protected class–another openly gay man, in this case–cannot also discriminate. From same-sex sexual harassment cases to race discrimination cases, courts have never been persuaded that someone of the same protected class can’t also be a harasser or a discriminatory actor.

michael R. Triplett: Michael Triplett is the president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of NLGJA and a member of the NLGJA Rapid Response Task Force. He is the assistant chief of correspondents for BNA.

This article was originally posted at RE:ACT on August 4, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission fromt he author.


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