Back to the Drawing Board for EEOC Wellness Program Rules

On August 22 the U.S. District Court in D.C. granted summary judgment to the AARP which challenged the EEOC’s rules governing employer wellness programs. The rules allow an employer to offer or impose on an employee financial incentives or financial penalties depending on participation in an employer wellness program. The Court chose not to vacate the EEOC’s rules for the time being, but instructed the EEOC to explain its rationale for setting a 30% maximum on the incentive or penalty, which would be applied to the employee‘s premium cost,  to determine whether disclosure of the employee’s personal medical information is voluntary, instead of determining that any employer wellness program requiring disclosure of personal medical information is involuntary and therefore unlawful. AARP v. U.S. EEOC, (D.D.C. Aug. 22, 2017).

Under ACA, health insurance plans may lawfully offer an incentive of up to 30% of the cost of coverage, in exchange for the employee’s participation in a health-contingent wellness program. These employer-sponsored wellness programs often involve the collection of personal medical information, which implicates substantive protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), both enforced by the EEOC.

Both the ADA and GINA permit employers to collect personal medical information as part of a wellness program if the employee provides the information voluntarily. In May 2016, the EEOC issued an ADA rule stating that imposing a penalty or offering an incentive capped at 30% of the cost of self-only coverage that requires disclosure of ADA-protected information, does not render participation in the wellness program involuntary. Similarly, the EEOC issued a GINA rule allowing employers to offer the same 30% incentives for disclosure of a spouse’s medical information in the course of wellness program participation.

In 2016 AARP sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the ADA and GINA rules which became effective January 1, 2017. The EEOC’s arguments in opposition to the injunction were:

  • The 30% incentive level is in harmony with the ACA incentive level.
  • The 30% incentive level is a reasonable interpretation of “voluntary” based on current insurance rates.
  • The EEOC relied on comments submitted by the American Heart Association endorsing the 30% incentive level.

The Court determined that the EEOC provided inadequate explanation for determining that a 30% penalty or incentive is an appropriate measure of voluntariness. The Court remanded the rules to the EEOC but without vacating them to avoid disrupting current wellness programs. The Court ordered the EEOC to report back to the Court by September 21, 2017.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how this decision or the EEOC’s wellness program rules affect you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Labor Law Practice Group  at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Firm Counsel Gina M. Schneider, Esq. at 973-535-7134 or gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com, or Firm Associate Ryann M. Aaron, Esq. at 973-387-7812 or raaron@nullgenovaburns.com.

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.

What Pretext? The Tenth Circuit Shows the Value in Trucking & Transportation Employers Citing to Safety and Customer Complaints to Justify Discharge

On March 10, 2017, the Tenth Circuit in Henson v. AmeriGas Propane, Inc., no.: 16-7057, declined to revive a discrimination and wrongful discharge lawsuit in finding that the lower court was correct in its holding that that the former AmeriGas Propane, Inc. delivery driver who brought the claims had not shown that his termination was pretextual.  While this case originated out of Oklahoma, it provides beneficial guidance for our transportation trucking, and logistic clients.

In his initial complaint, filed in May 2015, Plaintiff Isaac Henson alleged that AmeriGas Propane, Inc. (“AmeriGas”) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (and subsequent Amendment) as well as Oklahoma’s Retaliatory Discharge Act for terminating his employment because his disabilities and/or because AmeriGas regarded him as disabled. Henson also asserted that he was terminated because he engaged in statutorily protected activity under Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation law.

Henson began working as a delivery driver for AmeriGas in May 2011. His responsibilities included filling and delivering propane tanks to commercial and residential customers. While executing those tasks in August 2012, he injured the middle finger of his right hand. AmeriGas attempted to accommodate him by assigning light work duties as needed. Despite this, Henson still required over sixty medical and occupational-therapy appointments and underwent hand surgery in April 2013. In September 2013, he advised AmeriGas that his doctors recommended a second surgery. During this time, Henson’s performance declined, though his initial performance appraisal was generally positive. There were repeated safety violations, including three separate incidents of Henson driving too fast and running a stop sign. In November 2012, he received a formal written warning in an employee disciplinary report for the safety violations. Also in April 2013, Henson received a second written warning and a four-day suspension for insubordination, a negative attitude, and customer service deficiencies. In May 2013, his performance appraisal reiterated AmeriGas’s safety concerns and advised him to be more positive toward the company. Ultimately, Henson was terminated in October 2013, with AmeriGas citing insubordination along with another safety violation: leaving the gauge open on a customer’s propane tank.

Dissatisfied with the termination, Henson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. He exhausted his administrative remedies but secured a right-to-sue letter, prompting him to file suit asserting that (1) AmeriGas violated the federal law when it fired him because of his hand impairment; and (2) AmeriGas violated the Oklahoma state law when it fired him in retaliation for engaging in statutorily protected activity. The district court found that Henson established a prima facie claim of discrimination under both federal and state law, however, it also found that AmeriGas established a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason for termination. Moreover, the court said that AmeriGas was aware of Henson’s injury and its impact on his ability to perform his duties well before the need to go for a second surgery.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit rejected Henson’s pretext argument using a standard similar to the Third Circuit and found that Henson’s performance history outweighed any timing issues as to the discharge being close to Henson’s workplace injury. The court also found that Henson’s self-assessment of his performance was not enough to show pretext. Rather, it noted that it is the manager’s perception of the employee’s performance, as opposed to a subjective self-evaluation, that is relevant to review of legitimate and nondiscriminatory termination practices carried out in good faith by a company.

This case is useful for our clients in the transportation, trucking, and logistics industries because it shows that when an employer effectively uses written discipline and can cite to safety and/or customer complaints, this can provide a powerful counter to a plaintiff’s claims of pretext.  Employers in any industry should always try to ensure that there is a written and comprehensive record of discipline and/or performance reviews of employees to negate a plaintiff’s pretext argument.

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.

EEOC Releases 2016 Enforcement Data: Charges Increase, Downward Trend in Litigation & Monetary Recovery, LGBT Charges Highlighted

Each year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) releases data detailing the charges of workplace discrimination it receives, the number of enforcement suits filed and resolved, and any areas of targeted investigations and compliance initiatives from the prior year.  On January 18, 2017, the EEOC released its Fiscal Year 2016 Enforcement and Litigation Data summarizing its findings.

Rising Number of Discrimination Charges – According to the EEOC, in 2016 it received 91,503 charges of discrimination, making 2016 the second consecutive year that the agency has seen an increase in the number of charges.  2016 also marks the third consecutive year in which retaliation was the most frequently filed charge.  Below is a chart summarizing the EEOC’s breakdown of the categories of charges filed in 2016 along with a comparison to those charges filed in New Jersey and New York:

  National New Jersey New York
Retaliation:  

42,018 (45.9%)

 

731 (1.7% of total Retaliation charges in US)  

1,604 (3.8% of total Retaliation charges in US)

 

Race:  

32,309 (35.3%)

 

624 (1.9% of total Race charges in US)  

1,084 (3.4% of total Race charges in US)

 

Disability:  

28,073 (30,7%)

 

583 (2.1% of total Disability charges in US)  

1,061 (3.8% of total Disability charges in US)

 

Sex:  

26,934 (29.4%)

 

500 (1.9% of total Sex charges in US)  

1,202 (29% of total Sex charges in US)

 

Age:  

20,857 (22.8%)

 

437 (2.1% of total Age charges in US)  

865 (4.1% of total Age charges in US)

 

National

Origin:

9,840 (10.8%)

 

254 (2.6% of total National Origin charges in US)  

601 (6.1% of total National Origin charges in US)

 

Religion:  

3,825 (4.2%)

 

104 (2.7% of total Religion charges in US)  

180 (4.7% of total Religion charges in US)

 

Color:  

3,102 (3.4%)

 

42 (1.4% of total Color charges in US)  

208 (6.7% of total Color charges in US)

 

Equal Pay:  

1,075 (1.2%)

 

Info not available Info not available
Genetic

Information:

 

238 (.3%) Info not available Info not available

Steady Increase in Charges Filed by LGBT Individuals – For the first time, the EEOC included details in its year end summary about sex discrimination charges filed specifically by members of the LGBT community.  In fiscal year 2016, it settled 1,650 of such charges, recovering $4.4 million.  This accounts for roughly 40% of the 4,000 sex discrimination charges filed by LGBT individuals since fiscal year 2013, which indicates a notable, steady rise in the number of charges filed by members of the LGBT community.  Also trending are the issues involving transgendered employees’ restroom rights.  In July 2015, the EEOC ruled that denying an employee equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee’s gender identity constitutes sex discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as does conditioning an employee’s such right on proof that the employee underwent a medical procedure, and/or restricting a transgendered employee to a single-user restroom.

Overall Decrease in Monetary Awards – The EEOC recovered a total of over $482 million in fiscal year 2016, down from the $525 million in 2015, broken down as follows:

  • $347.9 million for private-sector, state, and local government employees through mediation, conciliation, and settlements;
  • $52.2 million through litigations; and
  • $82 million for federal employees.

Downward Trend in Litigation – Over 76% of cases that were referred to mediation in 2016 were resolved successfully, though conciliation had a lower success rate of only 44%.  Litigation by the EEOC is experiencing a downward trend, with only 165 active cases on the EEOC’s docket at the end of 2016, as opposed to the 218 that existed at the end of 2015.  In addition, the EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits alleging discrimination in 2016, down from its 142 filed in 2015 and 133 in 2014.

New Online Charge Status System – The EEOC launched digital services allowing employers and charging parties to receive and file documents electronically, check the status of charges online, and communicate electronically with the EEOC.  These services are intended to streamline the charge process and reduce the number of paper submissions and phone inquiries, easing administrative burdens on the EEOC.  These changes may make it easier not only for the agency to handle more charges and resolve them more quickly, but for complainants to file them.

New ADA Regulations on Employer-Sponsored Wellness Plans – The EEOC issued regulations and interpretive guidance advising that employers may provide limited financial and other incentives in exchange for an employee answering disability-related questions or undergoing medical exams as part of a wellness program.

Employers should review the EEOC’s 2016 charge and enforcement data in order to remain vigilant when responding to complaints of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace.  The EEOC’s statistics also reinforces the need for employers to train managers, supervisors, and employees on those policies.

For more information on the EEOC’s year-end summary, the EEOC’s strategy for future enforcement of federal employment discrimination statutes, or ways to ensure that your company is in compliance with the EEOC’s mandates, 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.

Key 2017 Legal Changes that Employers and Federal Contractors Must Know About

Ready or not, 2017 is upon us and with it come many regulatory changes and important deadlines for employers and individuals. Make sure your New Year’s resolutions include compliance with the following changes and deadlines pertinent to employers and federal contractors.

Affordable Care Act

Employer Reporting. In November, the IRS extended the deadline for employers to meet their ACA reporting requirements. Employers required to furnish employees with Forms 1095 now have until March 2, 2017 to do so. The deadline to submit the Forms to the IRS remains February 28, 2017 for paper returns or March 31, 2017 for electronically-filed returns.

Marketplace Insurance. The deadline for individuals to obtain marketplace insurance coverage beginning January 1, 2017 expired on December 15, 2016. Individuals who want to enroll in marketplace insurance coverage for the balance of 2017 must do so by January 31, 2017. After the January 31 deadline, individuals may enroll in marketplace coverage only if they qualify for a Special Enrollment Period.

Required Contribution Percentages. For tax years and plan years beginning on and after January 1, 2017, the IRS increased to 9.69% of employee household income the maximum cost of coverage the employer can charge the employee for purposes of the employer mandate penalty. The IRS also increased to 8.16% of the employee’s household income the maximum cost of coverage the employer can charge the employee for purposes of determining whether the employee is eligible for an affordability exemption from the individual mandate.

IRS 2017 Contribution Limits for Retirement Plans and IRAs

The following are the IRS contribution limits for 2017:

  • 401(k) and 403(b) employee contribution limit: $18,000.
  • 401(k) and 403(b) catch-up contribution limit: $6,000.
  • IRA employee contribution limit: $5,500.
  • IRA employee catch-up contribution limit: $1,000.
  • 401(a)(17) compensation limit: $270,000.

Benefit Plan Changes

In May, the HHS Office of Civil Rights issued final rules implementing Section 1557 of ACA. Health programs must comply with these nondiscrimination rules effective January 1, 2017. Additionally, in May, the EEOC issued rules implementing Title I of the ADA and Title II of GINA as they relate to employer wellness programs. Employers must conform their wellness programs with these rules effective January 1, 2017. Plan sponsors that made material modifications to their benefit plans in the past plan year must provide participants with a Summary of Material Modifications within 210 days after the end of the plan year of the modification. For plan years ending on December 31, 2016, the SMM must be provided by July 30, 2017.

New York Minimum Wage and Overtime Salary Exemption Increase

Effective December 31, 2016, the N.Y. minimum wage and salary threshold exemption for time-and-a-half overtime pay increase based on the employer’s size and region as follows:

Minimum Wage Increase

  • New York City: Large Employer (11 or more employees): $11.00 per hour.
  • New York City: Small Employer (10 or fewer employees): $10.50 per hour.
  • Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties: $10.00 per hour.
  • Remainder of New York: $9.70 per hour.

Overtime Salary Exemption Increase

  • New York City: Large Employer (11 or more employees): $825.00 per week.
  • New York City: Small Employer (10 or fewer employees): $787.50 per week.
  • Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties: $750.00 per week.
  • Remainder of New York: $727.50 per week.

New Jersey Minimum Wage Increase

Effective January 1, 2017, the New Jersey minimum wage increases to $8.44 per hour.

EEO-1 Report

During 2017, no federal contractor or subcontractor is required to file an EEO-1 Report with the EEOC or DOL Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The next filing date is March 31, 2018. For the March 31, 2018 filing and all future filings, EEOC and DOL will not accept paper filings. All filings must be done online. Finally, the snapshot pay period for the EEO-1 Report due on March 31, 2018 will be from October 1 to December 31, 2017 instead of July 1 to September 30.

Pay Transparency

Beginning January 1, 2017, pursuant to E.O. 13673 and the DOL Final Rule, a federal contractor or subcontractor must furnish a wage statement to each individual performing work under the federal contract if the individual is subject to the wage requirements of the FLSA, the Davis Bacon Act or the Service Contract Act. The wage statement must be provided each pay period and must include 1) the number of straight time hours worked; 2) the number of overtime hours worked; 3) the rate of pay; 4) gross pay; and 5) itemized additions to or deductions from gross pay. The federal contractor or subcontractor must inform an overtime-exempt individual in writing of the exempt status. For individuals treated as independent contractors, the federal contractor or subcontractor must provide a written notice that the individual is classified as an independent contractor.

Paid Sick Leave

Beginning January 1, 2017, pursuant to E.O. 13706 and the DOL Final Rule, a federal contractor or subcontractor must provide an employee with at least 56 hours per year of paid sick leave or permit an employee to accrue not less than one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked under a covered federal contract.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how these changes and dates affect you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq. at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, or Nicole L. Leitner, Esq. at 973-387-7897 or nleitner@nullgenovaburns.com.

Tick-Tock Goes the Clock: SCOTUS Clarifies the Statute of Limitations in Constructive Discharge Actions

On May 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Green v. Brennan, Postmaster General, in which the Court gave aggrieved employees in workplace discrimination cases more time to file complaints against their employers.  The Court in Green addressed when the 45-day clock during which an employee must file a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) when pursing a claim for employment discrimination begins to run.  In a 7-1 opinion by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that because part of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” in a constructive-discharge claim is an employee’s resignation, the 45-day limitations period for such an action begins to run when the employee “gives notice of his resignation,” not the last day of the last discriminatory workplace incident. Justice Thomas, a former chairman of the EEOC, dissented.  Justice Alito concurred with the majority’s outcome, but not with its reasoning.

In Green, the petitioner complained to his employer, the United States Postal Service (“USPS”), because he believed he was passed over for a promotion due to his race.  After making the complaint, his supervisors accused petitioner of intentionally delaying mail, a federal offense.  On December 16, 2009, petitioner and the USPS entered into an agreement whereby the USPS agreed not to pursue criminal charges in exchange for the petitioner either retiring or accepting another position in a less desirable location for less pay.  The petitioner chose to retire, and submitted his resignation on February 9, 2010, with an effective date of March 31, 2010.

On March 22, 2010, 41 days after submitting his intention to retire but 96 days after signing the agreement with USPS, the petitioner contacted the EEOC to report an unlawful constructive discharge, which is a prerequisite to filing a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Federal District Court dismissed his complaint as untimely because it ruled that petitioner did not contact the EEOC within 45 days of the complained discriminatory action.  The Tenth Circuit affirmed, holding that the 45-day window began to run on December 16, 2009, when the agreement with the USPS was signed.

In holding that the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” in a constructive-discharge claim includes the employee’s resignation, the majority in Green offered three reasons to start the 45-day period with the notice of resignation:

  • The employee’s resignation is a part of the completed cause of action, which has two elements: discriminatory conduct such that a reasonable employee would have felt compelled to resign and the actual resignation. Relying on Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 149 (2004), the majority held that it is only after an employee has resigned that they have a complete and present cause of action to trigger the limitations period.
  • The majority held that the natural reading of “matter alleged to be discriminatory” includes the allegations that form the basis of the claim, e. the employee’s resignation.
  • Lastly, the majority relied on practical considerations of its holding in order to further the policy goals of Title VII’s remedial structure. Otherwise, the majority noted, an employee would be forced to file a complaint only to later amend it to allege a constructive discharge after resigning.

Importantly, the majority concluded that the constructive-discharge claim accrues, and the limitations period begins to run, when an employee gives notice of their resignation, not from the effective date of that resignation.  So, if an employee gives their two-week notice to their employer, their claim would run from the date that notice was given, not from their last day of work two weeks later.  The Court did not rule on the merits of the petitioner’s claim, instead remanding the matter to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine when exactly Green gave notice of his resignation.

While Justice Alito concurred in the outcome of the majority’s decision as it applied to the petitioner, he did not agree with the majority’s bright-line rule for all constructive-discharge claims. Rather, Justice Alito would start the 45-day period from the employer’s last discriminatory act, which could include the employee’s resignation if it was the employer’s intent to force that employee to resign.  Without that intent however, Justice Alito argued that the resignation is not an “independent discriminatory act but merely a delayed consequence of earlier discrimination” that does not give rise to a fresh limitations period.  In his dissent, Justice Thomas would have affirmed the Tenth Circuit because, he argued, only an employer’s action can trigger the 45-day period, and not the action of an employee.  To Justice Thomas, an employee’s decision to resign does not fall within the meaning of a “matter alleged to be discriminatory” because it is an action taken solely by the employee.

The effect of this decision is that it eliminates procedural uncertainties for when the limitations period begins for a claim of constructive discharge.  It is important for employers to remember that this decision only applies to the claims of constructive discharge, and not for other claims of discriminatory conduct.  As noted by Justice Sotomayor, the “limitations-period analysis is always conducted claim by claim.”  The 45-day period for those other claims will begin to run from when those alleged acts occur, but for claims of constructive discharge, the clock does not start until the employee gives notice of their resignation.

For more information regarding the potential impact of this decision, please John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Law & Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or at 973-533-0777 or contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com.

Transgender Accommodation Issues at the Forefront of Employment and Education

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a new Fact Sheet, announcing its formal position on bathroom access rights for transgender employees.  The Fact Sheet provides employers with a nuanced look into what practices and procedures the EEOC will be investigating should a charge be brought alleging sex discrimination in the context of bathroom usage by transgendered individuals.

As noted therein, the EEOC defines the term “transgender” as referring to “people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the sex assigned to them at birth,” and specifically notes that “[a] person does not need to undergo any medical procedure to be considered a transgender man or a transgender woman.”

The EEOC reiterates that it enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in instances of discrimination against transgendered individuals, as Title VII prohibits employer discrimination on the basis of sex where the action is “motivated by hostility, by a desire to protect people of a certain gender, by gender stereotypes, or by the desire to accommodate other people’s prejudices or discomfort.” The EEOC also noted that employers cannot and should not rely on state laws contrary to this guidance.

Bathroom Access Rights for Transgender Employees Under Title VII

The EEOC’s interpretation of “transgender” in the context of Title VII and bathroom usage is based upon two cases before the EEOC: Macy v. Dep’t of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (Apr. 12, 2012) and Lusardi v. Dep’t of the Army, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133395, 2015 WL 1607756 (Mar. 27, 2015), as well as a recent opinion from the Fourth Circuit in G.G. ex rel. Grimm v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd., — F.3d –, 2016 WL 1567467 (4th Cir. 2016).

Lusardi held that prohibiting equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee’s gender identity is sex discrimination.  Further, in Macy, the EEOC noted that an employer cannot avoid the requirement to provide equal access to a common restroom for transgender employees by providing single-user restroom access instead.  However, the EEOC advised that an employer can make single-user bathrooms available to all employees who might choose to use them. In G.G., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit followed the Department of Education’s position that sex discrimination under Title IX is prohibited and that educational institutions are to give transgender students access to bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

In the Fact Sheet, the EEOC reaffirms its position that any state law to the contrary of these decisions and interpretations is not a defense under Title VII.  Thus, employers would be wise to update their policies and procedures to conform with the EEOC’s directives as to transgendered individuals, rather than look to their resident state for guidance.

Transgender Access to School Bathrooms

On May 13, 2016, President Obama issued a directive that requires every public school to provide appropriate access for transgender students or risk the loss of federal funds. The directive has received strong backlash from conservative leaders who have accused the President of blackmailing and the federal government of getting involved in local issues.

On the same day, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice (“the Departments”) issued a Dear Colleague letter to assist in ensuring that transgender students can “enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.” Although the joint letter does not carry force of law, the intent is clear: schools must agree or lose federal funding.  Specifically, schools must agree that that it will not exclude, separate, deny benefits, or otherwise treat students differently on the basis of sex in its educational programs or activities unless Title IX so authorizes. Schools are required to treat transgender students according to the gender that they identify as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that the identity is different from previous records.

Much like the EEOC guidance pertaining to employers, the Departments do not require a medical diagnosis or treatment as a prerequisite to be considered transgender; they also explicitly state that accommodating the discomfort of others cannot be justified by excluding or singling out a particular class of students. The Departments provide specific guidance on sex-segregated activities and facilities and reiterate that schools may provide separate facilities (including housing) but must allow transgender student to access those which align with the gender that which the student identifies. Records must be kept consistent with the gender that which the student identifies with as well. There are some limitations. The Departments note that non-vocational elementary and secondary schools and private undergraduate institutions are permitted under Title IX to set their own sex-based admissions policies.

New York City Commission on Human Rights’ Transgender Guidance

On May 19, 2016, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) issued new guidelines requiring employers and landlords to implement transgender pronouns (“ze/hir”) as requested by transgender workers or tenants. Failure to comply may open organizations and individuals up to $250,000 in fines if that failure is motivated by malicious intent.

NYCCHR specifically notes that “harassment motivated by gender is a form of discrimination” and outlines examples of violation of its guidance in the context of failure to use an individual’s preferred name or pronoun, refusing to allow individuals to utilize single-sex facilities and programs consistent with an individual’s preferred gender, sex stereotyping, imposing different uniforms or grooming standards based on sex or gender, providing employee benefits that discriminate based on gender, considering gender when evaluating requests for accommodation, and engaging in discriminatory harassment and retaliation.

For more information regarding the EEOC’s Fact Sheet, related guidelines, and best practices with respect to transgender individuals in the workplace, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

The EEOC’s New One-Way Street: Providing Position Statements to Charging Parties

Effective February 18, 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will uniformly allow employees bringing unlawful discrimination claims to gain access to the employer’s Position Statement submitted in response to the filing of a Charge of Discrimination. The disclosure will also retroactively apply to all requests for Position Statements made on or after January 1, 2016. Instead of verbally advising the Charging Party of the contents of the employer’s Position Statement, the EEOC will now provide the employer’s Position Statement and non-confidential attachments to Charging Parties upon request. The EEOC will also allow the Charging Party with an opportunity to respond within 20 days. The Charging Party’s response, however, will not be provided to the employer during the pendency of the investigation. The EEOC maintains that the new “Nationwide Procedures for Releasing Respondent Position Statements and Obtaining Responses from Charging Parties” are meant to unify approaches across all of its offices and will allow it to gain better information to strengthen its investigations.

The EEOC’s new policy also fails to assure employers that documents provided in support of their Position Statement will remain confidential.  The EEOC only advises that its “staff may redact confidential information as necessary prior to releasing the information to a Charging Party or her representative.” Thus, when submitting a Position Statement, employers must now carefully review whether or not any confidential proprietary business information is being produced. If so, employers should clearly mark exhibits as “confidential” to alert the EEOC that the document(s) should not be provided to the Charging Party. The EEOC also advises that employers should provide an explanation justifying the nature of the information contained in the attachments. The EEOC suggests that the following information should be segregated into separate attachments and designate them as follows:

  • Sensitive medical information (except for the Charging Party’s medical information).
  • Social Security Numbers.
  • Confidential commercial or confidential financial information.
  • Trade secrets information.
  • Non-relevant personally identifiable information of witnesses, comparators or third parties, for example, social security numbers, dates of birth in non-age cases, home addresses, personal phone numbers, personal email addresses, etc.
  • Any reference to charges filed against the employer by other charging parties.

The EEOC also warns that it will not accept “blanket or unsupported assertions of confidentiality.” In addition, the EEOC announced the implementation of a new Digital Charge System. Now, employers can upload Position Statements and attachments into the digital Charge file rather than faxing or mailing the documents to the EEOC.

For more information regarding the potential impacts of the EEOC’s new procedures and best practices on how to respond to a Charge of Discrimination, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

Proposed NJ Equal Pay Bill Could Lead to More Wage Gap Disputes if Passed

On February 4, 2016, a bill that would close the wage gap amongst women and men advanced out of the New Jersey Senate Labor Committee.  On average in New Jersey, studies have shown that women make 80.4 cents for each dollar a man earns, making it slightly more than the national average of 79 cents.  Further, the wage gap is larger for African-American and Latina women, who make 58.1 cents and 42.7 cents, respectively, for every dollar men earn. If signed into law, the new Equal Pay Bill (Senate Bill 992) will amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

What Will the New Equal Pay Law Require?

The two year statute of limitations for pay discrimination claims would restart with each unlawful paycheck that is issued by the employer. The new law would allow employees to file claims after termination if the employee was unaware that the pay disparity existed during the course of his or her employment. The proposed bill will also expand back pay awards for successful plaintiffs for the entire period of time if the violations continued to occur within the statute of limitations. Employers will also be prohibited from requiring employees or prospective employees to consent to the shortening of the statute of limitations period or to waive any violations of the law.

The Equal Pay Bill will also require employers to prove that any disparity in pay was based on a factor other than sex, such as a seniority system, a merit system, training, education or experience (including position title), or the quantity or quality of production.  Employers would also have to prove that reasonable application of these factors accounts for the entire wage differential, that the factors are job-related and consistent with job necessity, and that there were no other alternative business practices that would serve the same purposes without causing a difference in pay between female and male employees. Employers will also be prohibited from retaliating against employees for disclosing information about job title, occupational category, and rate of compensation of any employees or former employees.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Given the increased fervor to close the pay gap for women and minorities, the advancement of the new Equal Pay Bill and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new requirements with regard to EEO-1 pay data reporting beginning in 2017, the time is now for employers to begin to take preemptive action to correct any discriminatory pay practices that may exist.

  • Employers should review and update their policies to ensure that employees are not discriminated against or retaliated against for discussing or questioning compensation.
  • Employers must ensure that their wage rates in all of their operations and facilities are similar and should document that their pay-related decisions are based on a legitimate, business necessity.
  • Managers and supervisors should also be trained to comply with the employer’s nondiscriminatory pay practices.
  • Employers who are engaging in pay disparity can certainly expect an increase in pay discrimination cases both under the LAD as well as cases brought by the EEOC for illegal pay practices.

For more information regarding the potential impacts of this legislation and how to implement nondiscriminatory pay practices, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

Refusing to Attend a Fitness-For-Duty Exam May Not Be Grounds For Termination under the ADA

On January 25, 2016, the New Jersey Appellate Division clarified the requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the related guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as to when employers may require a medical examination or make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability. In the case of In Re Paul Williams, the appellant-employee began working as a truck driver for the Department of Public Works for the Township of Lakewood in November 2003. In March 2013, the Township received an anonymous letter, purportedly written by another Public Works employee, expressing concern regarding Mr. Williams’s mental state and fear for his and his co-workers’ safety. More than eight months later, the Township scheduled psychological examinations and warned Mr. Williams that he would be subject to discipline should he fail to attend. Mr. Williams refused to attend and maintained that the examinations were not job-related and were thus illegal under the ADA. Under the ADA, examinations are lawful if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  The Township thereafter issued a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking his termination on the grounds of incompetency, inefficacy or failure to perform duties and other related charges. After the departmental hearing, the matter was appealed to the Office of Administrative Law.

The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that there was not adequate evidence of the Township’s investigation into the anonymous letter to determine its veracity and thus agreed with Mr. Williams that the demand to attend the examinations was not related to work performance or any allegation of disruptive behavior. Moreover, the ALJ found that while Mr. Williams had failed to attend the exam, the request lacked a reasonable basis and thus, he could not be disciplined. The Township appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission which reversed the ALJ’s determination.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the guidance set forth by EEOC which defines “job-related and consistent with business necessity” as instances where an employer reasonably believe (through direct observation or reliable information from credible sources) that an employee’s medical condition is impacting his or her work or that, because of the medical condition, the employee serves as a direct threat. As the EEOC points out, “[t]hen and only then, may the employer lawfully require the employee to undergo a psychological fitness-for-duty examination.” The EEOC’s guidance also provides that employers may not require an employee to take a medical exam when the information received is based in whole or in part on information learned from third party unless it is reliable and would suggest that the employee’s ability to perform job duties or that a direct threat exists as a result of the medical condition.

The Appellate Division affirmed the EEOC’s guidance and sided with Mr. Williams, noting that the Township waited over eight months to require psychological examinations based largely on “innuendo and rumor” contained in the anonymous letter. Thus, the Court found that the Township failed to meet its burden under the ADA of demonstrating the examinations were “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and that Mr. Williams was a direct threat to himself, others or property. The Appellate Division ordered Williams reinstated and back pay calculated for his time suspended.

Employer Takeaways:

  • Requiring employees to attend a fitness-for-duty examination must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Employers must have objective evidence to support any required medical examination.
  • An employer must conduct a timely individualized assessment to determine the reliability of third party information regarding an employee’s medical condition: the relationship of the source to the employee, the seriousness of the medical conditional the possibility motivation of the third party providing the information, how the third party learned of the information, as well as other evidence that the employer has that bears on the reliability of the information.

For more information regarding compliance with accommodating disabilities, requiring independent medical examinations in compliance with the ADA, and EEOC’s guidance regarding same, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.