Fourth and Ninth Circuits Sink Trump Travel Ban as Prelude to High Court Review

In the most recent judicial setbacks to President Trump’s Executive Order earlier this year suspending the U.S. entry of aliens from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), reducing the number of refugees allowed entry in 2017 to 50,000, indefinitely and then temporarily barring the admission of Syrian refugees, and suspending the Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, on May 25 the Fourth Circuit en banc enjoined nationally enforcement of the Executive Order. Although the Justice Department argued that the Order’s primary purpose is advancing national security, the court, with three of the 14 judges dissenting, remained unconvinced that the travel ban had “more to do with national security than it does with effectuating the President’s promised Muslim ban.” The Fourth Circuit found that the Order “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” The opinion referenced statements that President Trump made in 2016 while on the campaign trail, which the court found supported its finding that the Executive Order was religiously motivated and violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. However, the court vacated the lower court’s injunction to the extent it enjoined the President. International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump.

On June 12 the Ninth Circuit in a per curiam decision by a three-judge panel, also upheld a lower court’s nationwide injunction against enforcement of the travel ban, but on the separate grounds that the Executive Order violated U.S. immigration law. The court stated that the revised travel ban “exceeded the scope of authority delegated to [the President] by Congress.” The panel held that by broadly prohibiting entry by all persons from the listed countries, the Executive Order is too broad and ignores important factors, such as the alien’s working arrangements, family matters and access to U.S. medical care. The Ninth Circuit did not address Establishment Clause issues, as the Fourth Circuit did. Instead, its major concern was that “the order does not provide a rationale explaining why permitting entry of nationals from the six designated countries under current protocols would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” However, the court vacated the injunction against the President and against the Government’s conducting internal reviews of security risks posed by nationals of the listed countries and the refugee program. Hawaii v. Trump.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether to hear the Administration’s appeal from the Courts of Appeals decisions this term. Most recently, in view of the current non-enforcement of the travel ban, on June 14 the President revised the 90-day ban on travelers and the 120-day ban on refugees to ensure they do not expire in the interim and will take effect 72 hours if and after the Administration prevails in having the injunctions lifted.

If you would like to discuss the implications of the Executive Order and these court decisions for your employees, your hiring plans, and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Immigration Law Practice at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nulllgenovaburns.com.

NYC Fast Food Employers Beware – Strict “Fair Workweek” Laws Are Coming December 1st

On May 30, 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill enacting four laws, together called the Fair Workweek legislation package, aimed at creating more predictable work schedules for NYC’s fast food workers.  The laws go into effect on December 1, 2017.

The first law requires that the fast food employer provide written notice to the fast food employee of the employee’s work schedule, including regular and on-call shifts, 14 days before the worker’s first day of the new schedule.  The written notice must be posted in a conspicuous place at the workplace that is readily accessible and visible to all employees and transmitted to each employee, including via e-mail, if e-mail is regularly used to communicate scheduling information. Modification to the employee’s work schedule within 14 days of the first day the schedule begins will result in employer penalties ranging from $10 to $75 depending on the nature and timing of the modification. The penalty is paid directly to the affected employee.

The second law mandates a minimum amount of time between a fast food worker’s shifts.  A fast food employer will no longer be permitted to schedule a worker for two shifts with fewer than 11 hours between the end of the first shift and the beginning of the second shift when the first shift ends the prior calendar day or spans two calendar days. However, the worker may request or consent in writing to working back-to-back shifts with fewer than 11 hours between. Absent such request or consent, the employer will be subject to a $100 penalty each time the employee works such back-to-back shifts.

The third law prohibits the fast food employer from hiring new employees, including subcontractors, to work regular or on-call shifts before exhausting its current workforce. Under the new law, when shifts become available, the fast food employer must post a notice in a conspicuous and accessible location for at least three calendar days, and transmit the notice directly to each employee that states, among other things, the number of shifts offered, the schedule of the shifts, whether the shifts will occur at the same time each week, the length of time required for coverage, and the number of workers required for coverage. Assuming these conditions are met, the employer may look to outside employment only if none of the current fast food employees accept the open shift.

Finally, the fourth law allows a fast food employee to authorize the employer to deduct voluntary contributions from the employee’s paycheck and to remit the payment directly to the employee’s designated non-profit organization. The deduction must be at least $6.00 and only once per pay period.

New York City follows San Francisco and Seattle as the third major city to enact Fair Work Week legislation. To understand how the Fair Workweek legislation package affects your fast food business and your employees, please contact Nicole L. Leitner, Esq., a member of the Wage & Hour Compliance Practice Group, at (973) 387-7897 or nleitner@nullnullgenovaburns.com, or John Vreeland, Esq., Chair of the Wage & Hour Compliance Practice Group and a Partner in the Labor Law Practice Group, at (973) 535-7118 or jvreeland@nullnullgenovaburns.com.

High Court Agrees Pension Plans Sponsored by Church-Affiliated Hospitals Are ERISA-Exempt and Upholds Decades of IRS, PBGC and DOL Guidance

In a much-anticipated decision, on June 5 the U.S. Supreme Court held that a pension plan sponsored by a religious affiliated nonprofit hospital qualifies as an ERISA-exempt church plan even though the plan was not initially established by a church. In this decision the Court reversed three consolidated decisions by the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits holding that defined benefit pension plans initially established and sponsored by church affiliated nonprofit hospitals and healthcare facilities were not ERISA-exempt church plans specifically because they were not initially established by a church.  These courts held that since the church plan exemption did not apply, the plans must comply with ERISA’s funding, participation, vesting, reporting and disclosure rules.  In doing so, the Court affirmed long-standing guidance by the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation that ERISA’s church-plan exemption applies to plans sponsored and maintained by religious affiliated nonprofit hospitals regardless of whether a church initially established the plans.  Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton.

The Court focused on the plain meaning of ERISA’s church plan exemption and noted that while the term “church plan” was initially defined in ERISA to include only those plans “established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church or by a convention or association of churches,” the definition was later amended to include additional plans.  The Court found that Congress specified that “for purposes of the church-plan definition, an ‘employee of a church’ would include an employee of a church-affiliated organization (like the hospitals here)” which the Court referred to as principal-purpose organizations. The Court found that Congress supplemented ERISA’s definition of church plan with the following provision: “A plan established and maintained for its employees . . . by a church or by a convention or association of churches includes a plan maintained by an organization . . . the principal purpose or function of which is the administration or funding of a plan or program for the provision of retirement benefits or welfare benefits, or both, for the employees of a church or a convention or association of churches, if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches.”  In effect, the Court held, “The church-establishment condition thus drops out of the picture.”

While the benefit plans at issue in this case were defined benefit pension plans, this holding has broad application to all benefit plans that are established by a principal-purpose organization and would otherwise be subject to ERISA’s funding, participation, vesting, reporting and disclosure rules.

For more information about this decision and its impact on your organization and your employee benefit plans, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com or Gina M. Schneider, Esq., gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com in the Firm’s Employee Benefits Practice Group.

Third Circuit Stymies Employer’s Attempt to Force FLSA Overtime and Meal Break Pay Claims into Collectively Bargained Arbitration

Earlier this month, in a 2-1 decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that certified nursing assistants covered by a collective bargaining agreement are not required to arbitrate their FLSA claims before seeking court relief despite a mandatory arbitration clause in their labor agreement. The assistants claimed that their shift differentials should be included in the calculation of their overtime pay and challenged the deductions from their pay for meal breaks they did not take. The Third Circuit held that resolution of the assistants’ FLSA claims did not depend on an interpretation of language in the labor agreement and, therefore, the assistants were not required to arbitrate their claims. Jones v. SCO Silver Care Operations LLC (May 18, 2017).

The Court of Appeals explained that a court may compel arbitration of an FLSA claim when (1) the arbitration provision clearly and unmistakably waives the employee’s ability to vindicate federal statutory rights in court; and (2) the statute does not exclude arbitration as an appropriate forum. Here, the labor agreement’s grievance-arbitration provision did not expressly refer to FLSA or wage-hour claims, so there was no effective waiver of the right to go to court. Nonetheless, the Third Circuit recognized that even where a labor agreement’s arbitration clause fails to refer to the FLSA, the FLSA claimant may be forced to arbitrate disputes over an interpretation of a labor agreement if the FLSA claims are “inevitably intertwined with the interpretation or application” of the labor agreement.

On the issue of shift differentials, SCO Silver Care argued that the FLSA claim alleging miscalculation of the overtime rate consisted of a dispute over an implicit term of the labor agreement and whether shift differentials already include an overtime pay component. The Court rejected this argument and held that the overtime claim was governed by the FLSA, no analysis of the labor agreement’s treatment of shift differentials was required, and the Court should determine only whether the shift differentials at issue are remuneration that the FLSA requires to be included in the calculation of an employee’s regular hourly pay rate.

On the question whether the assistants’ meal breaks must be treated as hours worked, the employer argued that resolution of this issue depends on determining various meal break practices that occurred while the labor agreement was in effect and that this determination should be made by an arbitrator. The Court rejected this argument as well and found that the alleged meal break practices raised factual issues as to what work was performed during meal breaks and did not require a review of language in the labor agreement. The Court stated that the employer could not “transform these factual disputes inherent to any FLSA claim into disputes over provisions of the CBA subject to arbitration.”

If you would like to discuss how the Third Circuit’s decision affects your pay policies, arbitration clauses, wage and hour compliance program, and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Wage and Hour Compliance Practice Group at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

 

 

 

New York City Bans Employer Inquiries Into Salary History

On May 4, 2017, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed a law amending the New York City Human Rights Law, barring all public and private New York City employers from asking job applicants about their prior wages and salary history.  The law will take effect on Tuesday, October 31, 2017. The new law makes it an unlawful, discriminatory practice for an employer to inquire about or rely upon the salary history of a job applicant to determine their salary amount during the hiring process.

The salary inquiry law bans New York City employers from:

  • Making an inquiry, either verbally or in writing, to an applicant and/or the applicant’s current or prior employer, to obtain the applicant’s salary history;
  • Searching public records for an applicant’s salary history; and/or
  • Relying on a job applicant’s salary history when making an offer of employment or extending an employment contract to the applicant.

Salary history is broadly defined in the bill as the applicant’s “current or prior wage, benefits or other compensation.”  However, salary history inquiries do not include inquiries into the objective measure of the applicant’s productivity, for example, through inquiries on revenue, sales, or production reports.  Further, employers may still discuss the applicant’s salary and benefits expectations, including the amount of unvested equity and deferred compensation an applicant would forfeit through resignation from his or her current employment.

The law contains several other exceptions to the prohibition on salary inquiries, which include the following:

  • Employers can consider and verify an applicant’s salary history if the applicant discloses the information voluntarily and without prompting;
  • Where federal, state, or local law specifically authorizes the disclosure or verification of salary history;
  • Where salary is determined by procedures in a collective bargaining agreement;
  • When current employees are transferred or promoted within the company; and
  • When a background check for non-salary related information inadvertently discloses salary history, provided the employer does not rely on that information in making an offer of employment.

The New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) will be responsible for investigating complaints and enforcing the new law.  The NYCCHR will also have the authority to impose fines ranging from up to $125 for intentional violations and up to $250,000 for intentional malicious violations.

New York City employers must start to update their employment applications and train their recruiters and human resources personnel on the new requirements to ensure compliance by the October 31, 2017 deadline.  Employers may also be forced to limit the scope of their background checks and revise their notices under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

For questions on this new law, background check laws, or other employment and hiring requirements, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resource Training & Audit Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Fate Uncertain for HHS’s Extension of ACA Discrimination Protections to Abortion & Gender Transition

In May 2016 HHS issued a final rule implementing the Affordable Care Act’s Section 1557 nondiscrimination provision, which applies to recipients of funding from HHS. The rule prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy, as well as race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability. The new rule has been interpreted to require covered entities to perform and provide insurance coverage for gender transitions and abortions, regardless of their contrary religious beliefs or medical judgment.

The HHS rule has been challenged in court at least twice. On December 31, 2016, the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas enjoined nationally the portions of the rule prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity and termination of pregnancy. Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, Civil Action No. 16-cv-00108. The Order was appealed by the ACLU and the River City Gender Alliance and the appeals remain pending.

The Trump Administration has not indicated whether it will challenge the Court’s injunction and enforce the rule. The current Administration position favoring repeal of ACA in its entirety is consistent with the policy changes already made by the Trump administration. On February 22 the Departments of Education and Justice withdrew agency guidance that mandated transgender student access to restrooms consistent with gender identity. In late March President Trump appointed Roger Severino to head HHS’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) which is charged with enforcing the HHS rule. Although Severino’s appointment has been controversial, as yet there is no indication from the OCR as to its enforcement position under new HHS leadership.

In the only other reported case brought under the rule’s prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity, on December 6, 2016 the U.S. District Court in Oakland, California stayed further proceedings in a case challenging an employer’s denial of gender transition health coverage. Robinson v. Dignity Health, Civil Action No. 16-cv-3035. The stay was granted pending the outcome of Gloucester County School Bd. v. G.G., a case scheduled for hearing before the Supreme Court. However, on March 6 the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for further consideration in light of Justice’s and Education’s withdrawal of guidance on February 22.  The California court has continued the stay in the Robinson v. Dignity Health case based on the pending bankruptcy of the plaintiff and scheduled the next hearing for May 19.

The Supreme Court’s action suggests that courts across the country may be taking a “kick the can down the road” approach on the Section 1557 rule as the Trump Administration has promised to repeal and replace ACA, or alternatively that the Court prefers to review the case only when the Court is back to full strength. Currently, the HHS rule’s provisions relating to gender identity and termination of pregnancy remain enjoined nationally.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how the Section 1557 rule affects you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq. at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Gina M. Schneider, Esq. at 973-535-7134 or gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com or Ryann M. Aaron, Esq. at 973-387-7812 or raaron@nullgenovaburns.com.

New York City Seeks to Ban Employer Inquiries Into Applicants’ Salary History

On April 5, 2017, the New York City Council passed a law amending the New York City Human Rights Law, barring all public and private New York City employers from asking job applicants about their prior wages and salary history.  The bill has been sent to Mayor DeBlasio for signature.  This new proposed law will take effect 180 days after Mayor DeBlasio signs it.

This bill would prohibit New York City employers from:

  • Making an inquiry, either verbally or in writing, to an applicant and/or the applicant’s current or prior employer, to obtain the applicant’s salary history;
  • Searching public records for an applicant’s salary history; and/or
  • Relying on a job applicant’s salary history when making an offer of employment or extending an employment contract to the applicant.

Salary history is broadly defined in the bill as the applicant’s “current or prior wage, benefits or other compensation.”  However, salary history inquiries do not include inquiries into the objective measure of the applicant’s productivity, for example, through inquiries on revenue, sales, or production reports.  Further, employers may still discuss the applicant’s salary and benefits expectations, including the amount of unvested equity and deferred compensation an applicant would forfeit through resignation from his or her current employment.

The bill contains several other exceptions to the prohibition on salary inquiries, which include the following:

  • Employers can consider and verify an applicant’s salary history if the applicant discloses the information voluntarily and without prompting;
  • Where federal, state, or local law specifically authorizes the disclosure or verification of salary history;
  • Where salary is determined by procedures in a collective bargaining agreement;
  • When current employees are transferred or promoted within the company; and
  • When a background check for non-salary related information inadvertently discloses salary history, provided the employer does not rely on that information in making an offer of employment.

The New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) will be responsible for investigating complaints and enforcing the new law.  The NYCCHR will also have the authority to impose fines ranging from up to $125 for intentional violations and up to $250,000 for intentional malicious violations.

If Mayor DeBlasio signs this law, employers must immediately update their employment applications and train their recruiters and human resources personnel on the new requirements.  Employers may also be forced to limit the scope of their background checks and revise their notices under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  For questions on this new proposed law, background check laws, or other employment and hiring requirements, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Virginia Federal Judge Upholds Trump Immigration Executive Order Signalling Possible Split in Circuits

On March 24 President Trump’s revised immigration ban which took effect March 16, 2017 (March Order) was found to be enforceable for the first time. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga in Alexandria, Va., denied an emergency request for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) to suspend enforcement of the March Order. Judge Trenga diverged from his counterparts in Hawaii and Maryland who granted temporary restraints against the March Order. On March 15 U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu issued a TRO pending further order of the Court and blocked core provisions of the March Order on the basis that the Order is an unconstitutional establishment of religion and inflicts immediate harm on Hawaii’s economy, education and tourism; this order is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Specifically, Judge Watson blocked the 90-day ban on entry of foreign nationals from the six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia) and the 120-day ban on U.S. entry by all refugees. The next day U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang in Greenbelt, Maryland issued a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking the part of the March Order that suspended the issuance of visas to citizens of the six banned countries; Judge Chuang’s decision is on appeal to the Fourth Circuit which will hear arguments on May 8. Judge Chuang and Judge Watson both found that the March Order was intended to discriminate against Muslims. On March 29, Judge Watson converted the TRO into a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking provisions of the March Order indefinitely.

The Virginia lawsuit was brought by Linda Sarsour, national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington and a Muslim activist. Ms. Sarsour relied on Trump’s public remarks and argued that the “long and unbroken stream of anti-Muslim statements made by both candidate Trump and President Trump, as well as his close advisors, which, taken together, makes clear that [Trump’s January and March Orders] are nothing more than subterfuges for religious discrimination against Muslims.” In deciding not to enjoin the March Order, Judge Trenga reasoned that the March Order was “explicitly revised in response to judicial decisions that identified problematic aspects of EO-1 [Trump’s January Order]…” and cited that part of the March Order that “expressly excludes from the suspensions categories of aliens that have prompted judicial concerns and which clarifies or refines the approach to certain other issues or categories of affected aliens.” Judge Trenga found no violation of the Establishment Clause on the grounds that the March Order “clearly has a stated secular purpose: the ‘protect[ion of United States] citizens from terrorist attacks, including those committed by foreign nationals.’” Judge Trenga also concluded that the substantive revisions reflected in the March Order precluded findings that the predominant purpose of the March Order is religious discrimination against Muslims and that the March Order is a pretext for this purpose. Judge Trenga wrote that to proceed otherwise required his “extending [the] Establishment Clause jurisprudence to national security judgments in an unprecedented way.”

Judge Trenga’s March 24 decision is not immediately appealable; Sansour’s court challenge will proceed and the Administration must answer the complaint. If Judge Trenga dismisses the complaint, an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected and may then be consolidated with the pending appeal of Judge Chuang’s preliminary injunction. Given the increased likelihood of a split in the Circuits, the March Order may ultimately be reviewed by a fully constituted Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Judge Watson’s national injunction remains in effect and the attorneys general for California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have joined Washington in filing another complaint challenging both the January and the March Orders.

If you would like to discuss how the March Executive Order or these court decisions affect your employees and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Immigration Law Practice at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

New District of New Jersey Case Shows Importance of Requiring Drivers to Form Corporate Entities in Misclassification Cases

Late last month, District of New Jersey Judge Robert B. Kugler partially granted FedEx Ground Package Systems Inc. (“FedEx”)’s Motion to Dismiss in a trucking misclassification case.  The court dismissed several claims but preserved the plaintiff’s wage claim.  One key in getting several of the claims dismissed for FedEx was that it had required the plaintiffs to form LLCs or corporations prior to contracting with them.

In Carrow v. FedEx Group Package Systems, Inc., No.: 16-3026, plaintiffs brought claims against FedEx arising under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), misrepresentation, rescission, New Jersey Wage Payment Law (“NJWPL”), and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The contract between the driver plaintiffs and FedEx classified the drivers as independent contractors and, for some agreements, first required the drivers to create a limited liability company or corporation and sign the agreement through the business entity.  Plaintiffs argued that despite language in the operating agreements, they were treated as employees as the agreements regulated the vehicle appearance, vehicle maintenance, liability insurance, driver reports, driver uniforms, and driver service areas.  FedEx was also responsible for determining the prices charged for services, route schedules, electronic equipment used, forms for paperwork, and approval of substitutes and assistants. It also actively monitored how drivers operated their vehicles, carry packages, and completed paperwork to ensure adherence to company policies.

Based on the fact that the name plaintiffs had formed corporate entities at FedEx’s request and therefore as individuals were not direct parties to the operating agreements with FedEx, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and rescission.  The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s NJCFA claim because the plaintiffs’ theory was that the fraud related to FedEx’s employment of the plaintiffs which is not a basis for a NJCFA claim.  Further, the court held that plaintiffs could not state a cognizable claim under the NJCFA because business opportunities are not covered by the NJCFA.  The court did, however, allow several claims to proceed, most importantly, the plaintiff’s NJWPL wage claim finding that the fact that the plaintiffs were not parties to the operating agreements was not in and of itself enough on a motion to dismiss to determine if an employment relationship existed between the plaintiffs and FedEx.

For our clients in the transportation, trucking, and logistics industries, requiring that drivers form LLCs or corporations before entering into contracts with them helps to defeat misclassification claims.  However, as this case shows, corporate status is not enough by itself to definitively defeat a misclassification claim as it is one of many factors that a court will consider.

For questions about employment issues involving the trucking and logistics industries, please contact John Vreeland, Esq., Chair of the Transportation, Trucking & Logistics Group and Partner in the Labor Law Practice Group at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 535-7118, or, Harris S. Freier, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 533-0777.  Please also sign-up for our free Labor & Employment Law Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to keep up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments effecting your workforce.

Second, Eleventh and Seventh Circuits Disagree Whether Title VII Extends to Claims of Sexual Orientation Discrimination

On March 27 the Second Circuit held that Title VII does not provide protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In Christiansen v. Omnicom Group Inc., the plaintiff alleged that his employer discharged him because of his sexual orientation and his nonconformity to gender stereotypes.  On appeal to the Second Circuit, the employer sought dismissal of the claims, and argued that claims of sexual orientation discrimination cannot be brought under Title VII.  Plaintiff urged the court to expand Title VII’s scope to reach these claims and, alternatively, that his suit claimed sexual stereotyping, as opposed to sexual orientation discrimination.  The Second Circuit held that it was bound by Second Circuit precedent in this regard and the plaintiff could not state a cognizable claim for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII.  The Christensen court relied heavily on the Second Circuit’s 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon where the court held that Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.

The Christensen court observed that the landscape of sexual orientation and the law have changed significantly since Simonton.  Most notably, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and in 2015, held that same-sex couples have the right to marry.  However, the Christensen court found that neither of these decisions relates to Title VII protections, but instead they reflect a change in social and judicial perceptions regarding protections for same-sex couples.

The Eleventh Circuit is in agreement with the Second Circuit.  However, on April 4 the Seventh Circuit en banc held that sexual orientation discrimination is cognizable under Title VII. Hively v. Ivy Tech Comm. College. The Seventh Circuit reversed a Circuit panel that found for the employer with reasoning consistent with the Christiansen decision. The EEOC’s enforcement position during the Obama Administration was that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by Title VII, although it remains to be seen whether this will change under the current administration.

Given the split in the Circuits and the rapid development of the law in this area, employers cannot ignore discrimination or harassment claims based on sexual orientation.  Several jurisdictions already have state and local laws that prohibit these workplace behaviors, including New Jersey, New York, and New York City.  Employers must review their anti-harassment and discrimination policies to ensure compliance not only with Title VII but also with state and local laws, and promptly and effectively respond to complaints of unlawful harassment and discrimination.

For more information on this decision, on the applicability of Title VII to your organization, or to ensure compliant employment practices, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.