Sex Discrimination

IN THE NEWS – FAIR PAY ACT EXTENDS TIME FOR CLAIMS

President Obama signed into law on January 29, 2009 the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, extending the time period for filing of wage discrimination claims. This legislation was passed specifically in response to a 2007 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court dismissing as untimely an employee’s Title VII sex discrimination claim that for many years she was paid significantly less than her male counterparts for performing the same job.

Most discrimination claims require timely filing with the EEOC or applicable state agency. In Florida, claims under Title VII and/or the Florida Civil Rights Act must be filed with the EEOC within 300 days, and with the Florida Commission on Human Relations (the FCHR) within 365 days, of the incident giving rise to the claim.

While this rule makes sense with respect to discreet acts of discrimination, such as termination of employment, many critics of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Ledbetter case (including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a strong dissenting opinion in the 5-4 decision), have pointed out that because workers generally treat salary information as confidential, an employee may be unaware for years that a pay disparity exists. In the Ledbetter case the plaintiff, who had worked as a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant for 19 years, started out at the same salary as her male counterparts. By the time she discovered the pay difference as she neared retirement, her salary was 40% lower than male supervisors, who had received significantly higher raises over the years.

Under the new law, the statute of limitations period is restarted every time the employee receives a paycheck.

As a practical matter, this decision means that more employees will have the opportunity to file wage claims under the sex discrimination prohibition in Title VII (which provides higher damages), and will no longer be limited to the remedies under the Equal Pay Act (which has a lower cap on damage awards and no provision for punitive damages).

IN THE NEWS – SUPREME COURT TAKES ON RETALIATION ISSUE

A significant employment law case involving retaliation under Title VII is on the docket for the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened its 2008-2009 term on October 6. Oral arguments will be heard on the case of Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville. In that case the Sixth Circuit Federal Appeals Court held that an employee who is fired in retaliation for statements made during a company’s internal investigation of sexual harassment allegations falls outside the protection of Title VII.

In the underlying case, Plaintiff Vicky Crawford claimed that she was fired because of statements she made to the company’s H.R. representative when Crawford was questioned about sexual harassment allegations another employee had made against Crawford’s supervisor. Crawford was not the employee who made the original complaint. However, when called into H.R. and questioned, she confirmed that she too had been sexually harassed by the supervisor.

Crawford was fired shortly thereafter, and filed a lawsuit claiming retaliatory discharge in violation of Title VII, which prohibits retaliation against an employee because that employee “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter [of Title VII],” or because the employee “has made a charge, testified, assisted or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.”

The court in the Crawford case held that even if Crawford’s employer fired her in retaliation for statements she made in the company’s internal investigation, that investigation was not an investigation “under this subchapter” because it was purely internal. In other words, no EEOC complaint had been filed, nor was any lawsuit pending.

That outcome, though counterintuitive at first blush, does have a certain logic behind it. The court in Crawford reasoned that if Title VII’s retaliation protection were extended to cover every internal investigation conducted regardless of whether any formal charges had been filed, employers would be less likely to conduct full investigations based solely on internal complaints for fear that they would be blanketing every employee interviewed with immunity from firing. And indeed, it is not difficult to imagine situations where nonperforming employees could take advantage of the fact that their supervisor has been accused by another employee and attempt to shield themselves from disciplinary action by confirming completely baseless allegations.

Employee advocates and some academics, on the other hand, view the outcome in Crawford as having a profound chilling effect on the willingness of employees to speak truthfully about a supervisor’s harassment if interviewed by H.R., rendering the company’s investigation completely ineffectual, and impeding the employer’s legitimate objective of ridding the workplace of sexual harassers.

It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules on this case.

IN THE NEWS – RESTAURANT CHAIN PAYS $1MILLION SETTLEMENT TO MALE SERVERS, BARTENDERS AND JOB APPLICANTS

Hiring preferences based on gender can result in significant liability for your company, as illustrated by a recent federal court case filed against Razzoo’s Cajun Café, a Texas-based restaurant chain. As part of its image, Razzoo’s told restaurant managers to maintain an 80/20 ratio of women to men bartenders. This resulted in a low number of male servers who were promoted to work behind the bar, and low hire rates for male job applicants. Even those men who were promoted to bartender were excluded from working at the high-paying “girls only” bartending events. The company’s website depicts servers and bartenders predominantly as young, attractive women, with only an occasional male employee shown.

The EEOC filed suit under Title VII on behalf of the male servers, bartenders and job applicants, and settled the case last week for $1 million, primarily to be distributed among the affected applicants and employees. A portion of the settlement proceeds is also earmarked to establish company-wide HR policies and training to prevent future gender-based discrimination.

The lesson to be learned from this case is that efforts to create a marketing image do not excuse excluding employees based on gender. The same principle applies to age, race, disability, religion and national origin. Caution should also be used not to bring preconceived notions about the stereotypical applicant best suited for the job into the interviewing and hiring process.