Race/Sex/Religion Discrimination  Articles

Supreme Court Clarifies Pregnancy Accommodation Requirements

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In July 2014 the EEOC issued guidance on accommodating pregnant employees. Its focus was centered on a section of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), which requires employers to treat pregnant employees in the same manner as non-pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” The EEOC basically took the position that under the PDA any accommodations given to disabled employees must also be made available to pregnant employees. Therefore, greater accommodations could not be provided to employees with non-pregnancy related disabilities than were given to pregnant employees. The EEOC also relied on the 2008 amendments to the ADA, which it argued extended reasonable accommodation protections to pregnant employees, even though pregnancy is not technically considered a “disability” under the law. By applying ADA concepts to pregnancies, it stated that employers could only deny reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees if the accommodation being sought met the undue hardship standard.

Court Eases Ability to Bring Religious Discrimination Claims

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              The U.S. Supreme Court recently made it easier for applicants and employees to bring religious discrimination lawsuits. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores.  Under Title VII, employers cannot refuse to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice, unless the accommodation creates an undue hardship on the organization. The question in Abercrombie was whether an employer who lacked actual knowledge of the need for accommodation could be sued for its failure to provide the accommodation. In siding with the applicant, the Court held actual knowledge is not required. Instead, an applicant need only show that an employer’s decision to deny employment was motivated by a suspected need for accommodation.

Religious Discrimination Gets Renewed Attention

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               The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released additional guidance on religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. EEOC’s Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities. Under Title VII employees may not be discriminated against because of their religion, or denied reasonable accommodations linked to their “sincerely held” religious practices, unless doing so causes the employer an “undue hardship.” To prove undue hardship, employers must show more than a de minimis cost or burden. Further, employees may not be segregated, or harassed, based on their religion. In addition, retaliation against employees who file a claim of religious discrimination, participate in EEOC proceedings, or otherwise oppose religious discrimination is prohibited.

Supreme Court Makes it Harder to Prove Supervisory Harassment

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           The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that a “supervisor” is someone with the power to take “tangible employment actions” against an employee.  Such actions include the right to hire, fire, promote, demote, reassign to a position with significantly different responsibilities, discipline, or significantly change benefits.  Vance v. Ball State University.  In doing so, it rejected the EEOC’s broader definition, which treated any person with the authority to direct another’s tasks, as a supervisor.  The case is important because under the well known Faragher/Ellerth decisions employers are vicariously liable for supervisory harassment, unless they prove they exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct the harassing behavior, and the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.  Conversely, if the harassment is conducted by a non-supervisor, including a co-worker, the plaintiff must prove the employer was negligent by failing to take appropriate corrective action when it knew or reasonably should have known the harassing conduct was taking place.  The Supreme Court’s decision now firmly places the burden on the employee in harassment cases to prove employer negligence, unless she can prove the harasser meets the new definition of “supervisor.”

Listing All Reasons for Discharge Can Help Employers Win Discrimination Cases

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     When communicating the reasons for a discharge, employers sometimes believe less is more.  While “at will” employees can be terminated for any reason, or none at all, and are not legally entitled to a reason, it often makes sense to provide the specific rationale for the separation.  Not only may it convince the employee that the decision is legitimate and business related, but in the event legal action against the employer is taken, early and consistent communication of the reason adds credibility in the defense of the claim.  Moreover, where more than one reason for the decision exists, each reason should be articulated.  Doing so provides multiple opportunities to overcome claims of discrimination, and as the Appellate Court of Connecticut recently ruled, only one of the proffered reasons need be legitimate to overcome a discrimination claim.  Callender v. Reflexite Corp.


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