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Tenth Circuit holds no adverse employment action is required in a failure-to-accommodate case

The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes several types of claims that a disabled worker might file against their employer. Typically statutory employment claims include a requirement that the plaintiff prove an adverse employment action, meaning that they suffered harm to their employment, such as being discharged, promoted or other material impact on the significant terms and conditions of employment. The adverse employment action element poses a threshold against de minimis claims.

The Tenth Circuit held that a disabled plaintiff who asserts their employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation need not prove an adverse employment action. In the case before it, the jury found that, even if the employer may have failed to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff’s disability, it did not result in her discharge, demotion or other harm to the terms and conditions of her employment. Initially a panel of the Tenth Circuit affirmed, but, re-hearing the case en banc, the Tenth Circuit held, over a strong and sizable dissent, that no adverse employment action need be proven because a failure-to-accommodate is itself actionable.

Source: Exby-Stolley v. Weld County, No. 16-1412, — P.3d —, 2020 BL 417137 (10th Cir. 10/28/20)

OFCCP clarifies and requests comments on Executive Order 13950 re EEO training by government contractors

On 9/22/2020 President Trump issued Executive Order 13950, which appears to prohibit government contractors who are subject to Executive Order 11246 (OFCCP jurisdiction) from undertaking EEO training that, merely reading the order on its face, might possibly even implicit bias trainings. In today’s Federal Register, 85 FR 67375, the OFCCP initiated rulemaking under the new Executive Order by soliciting “comments, information, and material” re such trainings.

In a widely reported and documented speech, U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia confirmed that Executive Order 13950 does not prohibit common EEO trainings, even those that include training on implicit bias.

I should be clear about what the President’s new Order does not do. It does not prohibit workplace training about non-discrimination and equal opportunity—that training is important, the Labor Department encourages it, and in some instances we require it. Nor does the Order prohibit the diversity training offered by countless American employers; training that, like my remarks today, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the value and worth of people of all races and creeds. American employers should value diversity and take extra strides to assure opportunity for those who in the past have been denied it—although they must do so in a way that does not discriminate against others based on race, ethnicity, or other protected characteristics. Finally, the President’s Order does not prohibit trainings about pre-conceptions or biases that people may have—regardless of their race or sex—about people who are different, and which could cause slights or even discrimination that’s not intended. What the Order does prohibit, though, is instruction in which federal contractors tell workers that because of their particular race or sex, they are racist, morally culpable, or less worthy of being heard.

Rather, he announced, and the OFCCP’s regulatory publication today confirms, that Executive Order 13950 is getting at something it calls “race or sex scapegoating.” It is not clear what this term means since, as today’s regulatory publication confirms it has long already been prohibited as a subset (just one kind, or one example, of) what was already prohibited: “race or sex stereotyping.” The OFCCP explains this in today’s rulemaking publication, as follows:

As used in this request for information, “race or sex stereotyping” means “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of his or her race or sex.” [4Race or sex scapegoating” means “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex,” and includes claims “that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of his or her race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.” 

In short, Executive Order 13950 apparently does not prohibit the common kinds of EEO training, including on implicit bias, that companies currently use to combat race and sex discrimination, including unlawful harassment. It does apparently prohibit training that accuses the members of a particular gender or race of being “inherently inclined to oppress others.”

The EEOC has limited its own authority to file “pattern or practice” lawsuits

The EEOC has formally acknowledged its own limitations on its authority to bring a “pattern or practice” lawsuit against an employer. When the EEOC brings such a lawsuit, it is not acting in a representative capacity on behalf of any particular employees (as it does in a so-called sec. 706 claim, citing Title VII’s relevant section), rather it is suing (under sec. 707) as the government itself asserting the employer has a pattern-or-practice of discrimination, which according to the Supreme Court requires it, in short, to prove that the employer’s “standard operating procedure” is to discriminate, quoting Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters v. U.S., 431 U.S. 324 (1977). Previously the EEOC has argued that, when it sues under sec. 707 it does not have to comply with a number of pre-lawsuit requirements. In a recent opinion letter, the EEOC reversed course on that argument and acknowledged that, no, it must comply with those pre-lawsuit requirements.

This opens a number of possible defenses by employers faced with pattern-or-practice lawsuits, including arguments that the EEOC failed to satisfy pre-lawsuit requirements such as the following:

  • The requirement for an actual charge to have been filed first.
  • The requirement for an investigation of that charge.
  • The requirement for good faith conciliation efforts by the EEOC prior to filing its lawsuit.

This also permits employers to assert that

  • They acted in good faith, and/or
  • They modified or rescinded the pattern-or-practice.

Arguably the latter gives employers the ability now to moot any pattern-or-practice lawsuit by the EEOC by modifying or rescinding the practice, even after the EEOC has filed its lawsuit.

In its opinion letter, the EEOC also took the position that it can no longer use the pattern-or-practice process to challenge employer actions that are not themselves discriminatory. Specifically this seems to be a concession on its part that, contrary to its litigation efforts to-date, it does not actually have the authority to challenge mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even if they ultimately had the effect of limiting a worker’s ability to participate in governmental investigations.

Because the EEOC’s opinion letter was not issued through the formal rule-making process, future EEOC Commissioners could re-reverse course. However, this opinion letters is publicly available and at least establishes a dispute over the EEOC’s jurisdiction in pattern-or-practice cases, which, if re-reversed by an EEOC under the leadership of a Democratic President, could be seen by the courts as arguably at least in part political in nature and therefore deserving of Congressional clarification.

EEOC expands mediation and conciliation opportunities

The EEOC has increased the mediation and conciliation opportunities available to employers as part of its charge-handling procedures.

Mediation is the process employers are most familiar with. Some, but not all, charges are automatically eligible for mediation when a charge is filed with the EEOC. Employers will have noticed receiving a written offer to mediate (instead of investigating) with most charges. Although the EEOC hasn’t yet disclosed details, the EEOC has announced it will increase the types of charges automatically eligible for mediation. Employers are reminded that, when they receive notice of a charge without an offer to mediate, it is often an indication that the EEOC believes the charge raises possibly very severe allegations. Employers are always free to request mediation of such charges too, though the EEOC reserves the right to decline to undertake mediation in lieu of investigation.

Conciliation is less common. The EEOC is generally required to undertake conciliation before, itself, filing suit against employers in court. As part of its new initiative, and again without yet disclosing details, the EEOC has announced it will expand its conciliation efforts, including by requiring management within the EEOC to review settlement demands before they are even communicated to employers.

Employers facing charges of discrimination, or even possible litigation by the EEOC, should consider the availability of mediation and conciliation, especially under these expanded opportunities.

SCOTUS holds LGBTQ status is protected within Title VII’s meaning of “sex”

The Supreme Court held that LGBTQ status is already protected within Title VII’s meaning of the word “sex.”

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.

In authoring the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch observed that the word “sex” would likely not have been read that way by the drafters of Title VII in 1964, but the majority held that the term is unambiguous as drafted; according to well-established precedent, resort to legislative history is not permitted when a statutory text is unambiguous.

Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

The majority confirmed that, while Title VII’s “sex” protections directly protect such traits/classes, plaintiffs may also assert sex-stereotyping claims related to such traits/classes, just as plaintiffs can assert sex-stereotyping claims based on male-female cys-gendered status.

To be sure, there may be cases in which a gay, lesbian, or transgender individual can make a claim like the one in Price Waterhouse. That is, there may be cases where traits or behaviors that some people associate with gays, lesbians, or transgender individuals are tolerated or valued in persons of one biological sex but not the other. But that is a different matter.

Reminder to provide compliant sexual harassment and other EEO-related training

As the new year begins, employers should consider reviewing their training regimen. A number of jurisdictions require sexual harassment and/or EEO-related training, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York State, and New York City. Even more encourage employers to provide training, and in all 50 states and the federal judicial system, training is a vital component of a possible defense in the event of litigation.

Employers are reminded not to simply engineer their own training programs, as some jurisdictions, such as California, specify minimum content and training qualifications.

Likewise, employers should not assume that recent training will suffice. For example, in 2018 California, which has confirmed it requires such training for both non-supervisors and supervisors, amended its 2004 sexual harassment training law, to require training, at least every two years, to all new and current employees, starting in 2019, even if the employee was also trained on sexual harassment in 2018.