Author: Leora Eisenstadt

7

Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Michael Maslanka of work matters recently made some predictions about the Supreme Court’s handling of current employment law issues and about what the Court will likely take up next in this field. He predicted that the Court will soon address a growing split among district and some circuit courts on whether an employee engages in protected activity when he/she rebuffs an unwanted sexual advance. I was frankly surprised to see that there is a split on this issue, which seems fairly obvious to me. I will lay it out here and hope to hear what others think.

Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to “discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment . . . because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” In Dozier-Nix v. District of Columbia, the court recently found, correctly I think, that rejecting an unwanted sexual advance counts as “protected activity” under the opposition clause (i.e. “because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter”). But the court noted that not all courts are in agreement on this point and referenced a collection of cases on both sides of the issue and a recent Fifth Circuit case, LeMaire v. Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, that came out the other way. The Fifth Circuit rejected a retaliation claim based on rejection of sexual advances because the plaintiff had failed to provide any authority to suggest that it did constitute protected activity and cited an unpublished Fifth Circuit case in support.

Although the Fifth Circuit relied on a lack of authority, it seems to me to have overlooked the basic meaning of the retaliation provision in Title VII. Clearly, I think, rejecting sexual advances (i.e. sexual harassment) constitutes opposing a practice made unlawful under Title VII. Consider the likely scenario when this issue arises: A supervisor sexually propositions his subordinate employee. She (I’m using the genders most commonly associated with these claims but it could arise in many variations) rejects his advances, telling him she is not interested. Before she has a chance to complain about the sexual harassment to a manager, her supervisor demotes her, saying that after their interaction, he is no longer comfortable supervising her work. Eventually, the female employee complains and after a three-month investigation, the harasser is terminated. But for three months, the employee earns less money, has diminished responsibilities, and misses professional development opportunities. There is no doubt that her rebuff of the sexual advance led to an adverse employment action. I don’t think there is a doubt that the rebuff itself was protected activity. In fact, this scenario turns the sexual advance into a kind of after-the-fact quid pro quo harassment, and there is little debate about its illegality. The boss never told her she would be demoted unless she went out with him but her rejection led to that consequence.

Can courts that find such actions not to be protected activity really intend victims of harassment to endure sexual advances in the moment and complain later in order to insure they won’t face retaliation? What if the sexual advance was more than verbal? Is an employee required to endure physical touching or worse to preserve her job? I cannot imagine how the answer could be yes but perhaps I’m not seeing all sides of the issue. I’ll look forward to comments on this.

I also want to say that this is my final post as a guest blogger for the month of August. I am now back to focusing my energies on the fall semester, revisions to my forthcoming article  in the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, and the roller-coaster that is the hiring market! I have truly enjoyed my time as a guest blogger. Thanks so much to CoOp for this opportunity.

 

13

Is “racial balance” always discriminatory?

In a recent case out of the Sixth Circuit, the court addressed the concept of “racial balance,” finding that an effort to achieve racial balance in disciplinary measures constitutes direct evidence of discrimination. While this is by no means the first case to deal with “racial balance” and discrimination, I am wondering: are all “racial balance” cases created equal?

In Ondricko v. MGM Grand, the plaintiff, a white woman, claimed reverse race discrimination (and sex discrimination) after she was fired from her job as a floor supervisor in the casino. Ondricko was ostensibly fired for participating in a “bad shuffle” at a blackjack table that she supervised. This type of incident is apparently not uncommon, and the court had at least six other similar incidents to compare involving white and black men and women who had engaged in similar conduct and whose discipline varied from several-day suspensions to terminations.

The “smoking gun” in this case is the interesting part. Four months before Ondricko’s incident, a black woman was terminated for her involvement in a similar incident involving unshuffled cards put into play. Around the time that supervisors were discussing the appropriate discipline for plaintiff, two managers had a conversation in which one noted that the black woman’s lawyers had called and wanted to know how the casino was going to handle Ondricko’s case (presumably because they viewed her as a similarly situated comparator). The other manager responded by saying, “do you think I wanted to fire [Ondricko], I didn’t want to fire [her], how could I keep the white girl?” The Sixth Circuit determined, based on this statement, that a reasonable jury could conclude that race was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate. “[I]t is certainly reasonable to conclude . . . that MGM was motivated by a desire to be racially balanced in its terminations for misconduct related to shuffling.” In support of this proposition, the court cited another Sixth Circuit case involving a school board’s attempt to be racially balanced in the hiring of school employees. And that was essentially the end of the court’s analysis.

But Ondricko was not an affirmative action case nor was it a case about achieving racial balance in hiring. Instead, the case was about insuring racial balance in the employer’s discipline of its employees. The Sixth Circuit did not see a distinction between these two types of “racial balance” cases, but I think that is a flawed view. This case may not be the best example because the desire to mete out the same discipline across races was expressed in response to a call from a lawyer but what if that had not been the case? Although race is technically a motivating factor when an employer attempts to be “racially balanced” in its approach to disciplining employees, is that the type of case Title VII is intended to cover? Shouldn’t we, on some level, be encouraging employers to be mindful about race when meting out discipline and to insure that they are treating employees of all races the same? If they don’t, they risk disparate treatment claims for treating employees differently based on race. To call race a “motivating factor” in this type of case and not discuss the potentially legitimate reason for consideration of race seems to be a flawed or, at least, an incomplete analysis.

I think there is an analogy here to Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the Supreme Court recently concluded that an employer’s fear of disparate impact litigation is only a legitimate basis for intentional discrimination when the employer possesses a “strong basis in evidence” for believing that a valid disparate impact claim can be asserted. The Court in Ricci may have made my argument about Ondricko and racially balanced discipline more problematic, but I would be interested to hear others’ views on this issue.

 

3

The Parenting Debate

Although I am somewhat hesitant to add another voice to an already loud debate about the work-family conflict that has arisen again in the last month or so, I am finding it difficult to stay quiet.  As the working mother of a 3 ½ year old and a 3 month old, this is the legal and policy issue that affects me most these days.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her piece in the Atlantic, arguing that women in top government and business positions are leaving because of the difficulty of combining work and family, she predictably drew loud praise and equally loud critique (including an interesting post by Sherilyn Ifill, linked to from Concurring Opinions).  But then, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s newly appointed CEO, added her voice to the debate (perhaps unwittingly) when she told Fortune that she was pregnant and that her maternity leave would be “a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.”  That comment brought a new onslaught of responses including criticism that she was doing a disservice to all working women whose employers would now expect them to “work throughout” their maternity leaves.

Whether this is a male/female issue or merely a parenting issue that cuts across gender, what is clear from the numerous opinions out there is that one size does not fit all.  In fact, if I am any example, one approach might not even work throughout one person’s working/parenting life. As a first time mom and associate at a law firm, I took a 6½ month leave, made possible by a hefty pay check and 12 weeks of paid leave.  Now that it’s my second time around and I am transitioning to academia, I chose to work from home through the first few months after my son was born and (mostly) don’t regret it.

The notion of privileging women or parents by building in options for them is not new and is, in fact, the dominant approach in many European countries and in Israel (which I have written about in the past).  But it has not been the American way.  Might we be changing?  In my prior article, I wrote about the emergence of the Israeli approach as a function of the society’s overall collectivist culture and a national interest in promoting reproduction and the parent-child bond.  I am wondering whether there is a chance that Americans could recognize this too.

Of course, that would not be the end of the debate.  What would the privileging of women or parents mean for equality?  If women (by law) gain options that men don’t have, do they come out equal, better, or worse?  For example, if we mandate paid maternity leave as some countries do, will employers stop hiring fertile age women out of fear that they will exercise this option and be less productive than men?  What if the option is non-gendered and open to all parents?  Will men exercise the option or continue to feel pressure to return to work immediately after a child is born?  Will women?  While the answers to these questions remain unclear, one thing is obvious—this is not a problem that parents can solve on their own.  Beyond the debate in the media, it is high time for a serious debate in government about remedies (beyond the Family Medical Leave Act) for working parents who are having trouble being good at both jobs.

 

0

Identity, Language, and Discrimination

As I mentioned in my prior post, I am thinking a lot right now about the intersection between identity and linguistic meaning as it impacts employment discrimination.  In my last post, I wrote about the Seventh Circuit’s view of the word “bitch” and its failure to mention the relevance of the gender identity of the speaker of that word when considering its contextual meaning.  I recently posted a draft of my article on this topic, “The N-Word at Work: Contextualizing Language in the Workplace,” on SSRN.  The article primarily deals with the “n-word” but makes the broader point that linguistic meaning is a product of numerous contextual factors including the racial, gender, religious, etc. identity of the speaker and listeners.

“The N-Word at Work” argues that there is a widening gap between the use and meaning of words in modern American culture and courts’ treatment of those words. This is particularly true in the case of derogatory slurs and phrases but is equally true for discriminatory language in general.  For example, in American culture, it is a virtually universally accepted reality that a word, like the “n-word,” can have horrific or endearing meanings depending on the identity of the speaker and other contextual factors.  There is a striking difference between a white man using the word with his colleagues and a black man using it among his friends. But given Title VII’s prohibition of different treatment on the basis of race, the white man’s use of the term raises difficult questions about whether he can claim protection from discipline under Title VII’s reverse race discrimination jurisprudence.

Nonetheless, both the legal literature and judicial system have largely ignored this problem of language in discrimination cases.  Perhaps sensing an emerging problem in the lower courts, in its 2006 decision in Ash v. Tyson, the Supreme Court devoted a single, vague sentence to the meaning of language in discrimination cases.  Despite this, the problem persists among appellate and district courts alike.

My article calls attention to this issue by examining the uses and meanings of discriminatory language in modern culture and advocates a theory of meaning that relies on the context in which it is used, the identity of the user, and the social, historical, and cultural framework in which the language developed.  The article highlights the mistreatment of language by trial and appellate courts and tracks the troubling history of Ash, which was finally resolved in December 2011 after two trials, a trip to the Supreme Court and four reviews by the Eleventh Circuit.  Finally, the article suggests solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, including the need to (1) recall the purposes of anti-discrimination law and the permissible non-literal applications of that law, and (2) permit and encourage the use of extra-legal expert testimony akin to social framework evidence that could translate the cultural realities of language for courts.

Any comments on the topic in general and the solutions I offer would be helpful as I am currently revising the article and am working on my next project, which deals with the changing nature of identity and the “protected class” paradigm in discrimination law.

6

Context is Everything

I am thrilled to be guest-blogging for Concurring Opinions for the month of August.  For my first post, I thought I would draw your attention to an interesting case out of the Seventh Circuit last month.  In Passananti v. Cook County, the court considered a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim brought by an investigator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.  The primary issue on appeal was whether the “frequent and hostile use of the word ‘bitch’ [was] a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment.”  In other words, is “bitch” always sexist?

Putting aside the use of the word in dog-training circles, you might be wondering how this word could possibly not be sexist? It turns out that the Seventh Circuit, in a prior case, actually concluded that the use of the word was not based on sex but rather on personal animosity that “arose out of an earlier failed relationship between the plaintiff and the harasser.”

But in Passananti, the Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court, finding that the mere use of the term in this case, without other gendered words, is sufficient for a finding of sexual harassment.  And the court, quite reasonably, pointed out that “when gender-specific language is used in the workplace . . . context is key.”  A laudable approach until you look one step further at the specific context that the court looked to for help here:  “The jury heard testimony that Sullivan used the word “bitch” regularly in reference to the plaintiff. He did not use the word in jest, but instead used it together with his threats against Passananti’s employment.”  Not exactly convincing. We are supposed to understand that the term is gendered because he didn’t use it in jest and was threatening her employment?

Most of us would agree that the supervisor’s use of the word “bitch” in this case was gender-derogatory for one simple reason:  he is a man, using a gendered word, against a woman, and there is no other explanation for its use.  Can the term have different meanings in other contexts?  Absolutely.  When women use it amongst themselves, for one, the term can be endearing or playful.  But it is rarely benign when spoken by a man and directed at a woman.  But nowhere in the court’s lengthy discussion of context does this simple truth appear.  Why is the court so hesitant to name this reality – that linguistic meaning is the product of multiple contextual factors, including, importantly, the identity of the speaker?

I’ll save additional discussion and some possible answers for a later post.  Suffice it to say, I am thinking a lot about this question right now and have just posted a draft of my article on the topic on SSRN. I’ll discuss the article in a later post but for now here’s the link to The N-Word at Work: Contextualizing Language in the Workplace.