Showing posts with label national origin discrimination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label national origin discrimination. Show all posts

Thursday, May 23, 2013

When state law conflicts with the EEOC on criminal background checks, who wins?

Last year, the EEOC issued its long awaited Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions under Title VII. While the Guidance was much more fair and balanced than many employer advocates (me included) expected, it does include some head-scratchers for businesses. One such conundrum is how regulated employers are supposed to act when across-the-board criminal background searches are required by state law, as the EEOC takes the position that a blanket requirement violates Title VII.

Per the EEOC:

States and local jurisdictions also have laws and/or regulations that restrict or prohibit the employment of individuals with records of certain criminal conduct. Unlike federal laws or regulations, however, state and local laws or regulations are preempted by Title VII if they “purport[] to require or permit the doing of any act which would be an unlawful employment practice” under Title VII. Therefore, if an employer’s exclusionary policy or practice is not job related and consistent with business necessity, the fact that it was adopted to comply with a state or local law or regulation does not shield the employer from Title VII liability.

How is an employer supposed to handle this conflict? Waldon v. Cincinnati Public Schools, currently pending in the Southern District of Ohio, may provide some future guidance.

That case concerns the application of Ohio H.B. 190, which became law in 2007. That law requires criminal background checks of all current school employees, regardless of whether their duties involve the care, custody, or control of children, and mandates the termination of any employee with a certain number of historical convictions, regardless of the convictions’ age.

Two African-American employees challenge that H.B. 190 has an unlawful disparate impact because of race. Both were terminated based on decades-old convictions. All told, the Cincinnati Public Schools fired 10 employees as a result of background checks conducted pursuant to H.B. 190; nine of the 10 fired were African-American.

It is early in the litigation of the Waldon case. The court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss.

First, it concluded that it was clear that the Plaintiffs pleaded a prima facie case of disparate impact.

Although there appears to be no question that Defendant did not intend to discriminate, intent is irrelevant and the practice that it implemented allegedly had a greater impact on African-Americans than others.
The existence of statistically significant disparate impact, however, if only the first step in the analysis. An employer can avoid liability if the challenged practice is justified by business necessity. While the court believed this issue to be “a close call,” it ultimately concluded that it could not make that call on a motion to dismiss:
Obviously the policy as applied to serious recent crimes addressed a level of risk the Defendant was justified in managing due to the nature of its employees’ proximity to children. However, in relation to the two Plaintiffs in this case, the policy operated to bar employment when their offenses were remote in time, when Plaintiff Britton’s offense was insubstantial, and when both had demonstrated decades of good performance. These Plaintiffs posed no obvious risk due to their past convictions, but rather, were valuable and respected employees, who merited a second chance.… Under these circumstances, the Court cannot conclude as a matter of law that Defendant’s policy constituted a business necessity.
Talk about a tough position in which to place an employer. Does the employer violate state law or violate Title VII? Ultimately, I think the correct answer should be neither. Shouldn’t the need to follow state law provide the employer’s “business necessity?” If not, employers will be faced in the untenable position of following one law and violating the other.

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

This post originally appeared on The Legal Workplace Blog.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

EEOC announces new guidance on the use of criminal background checks under Title VII that focuses on individualized assessments of past crimes

Yesterday afternoon, the EEOC announced its long awaited, and, by employers, long dreaded, Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions under Title VII (along with a short and sweet Q&A).

The Guidance is not nearly as bad for employers as it could have been. Anyone who feared that the agency would over-reach and proclaim that pre-employment criminal background checks per se violate Title VII will be greatly relieved. As SHRM points out:

SHRM is pleased that the guidance does not appear to impose a one-size-fits-all set of rules on employers and seems to take into consideration that every employer will have different needs and concerns in the use of criminal background checks in hiring.

Nevertheless, the Guidance is not perfect. For example, “as a best practice, and consistent with applicable laws,” the EEOC “recommends that employers not ask about convictions on job applications.” While I certainly appreciate the EEOC’s recommendation, I’m not sure what “applicable laws” it references. This attempt to codify “ban the box” is one clear example where the EEOC is over-reaching.

Perhaps the most controversial piece of the new Guidance is the EEOC’s belief that to survive a potential disparate impact claim, employers must develop a targeted screen that considers at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job, and then must provide an opportunity for an individualized assessment to determine if the policy as applied is job related and consistent with business necessity.

In engaging in this individualized assessment, the EEOC directs employers to consider the following factors:

Individualized assessment generally means that an employer informs the individual that he may be excluded because of past criminal conduct; provides an opportunity to the individual to demonstrate that the exclusion does not properly apply to him; and considers whether the individual’s additional information shows that the policy as applied is not job related and consistent with business necessity.

The individual’s showing may include information that he was not correctly identified in the criminal record, or that the record is otherwise inaccurate.

Other relevant individualized evidence for employers to consider includes:

  • The facts or circumstances surrounding the offense or conduct;
  • The number of offenses for which the individual was convicted;
  • Older age at the time of conviction, or release from prison;
  • Evidence that the individual performed the same type of work, post conviction, with the same or a different employer, with no known incidents of criminal conduct;
  • The length and consistency of employment history before and after the offense or conduct;
  • Rehabilitation efforts (e.g., education/training);
  • Employment or character references and any other information regarding fitness for the particular position; and
  • Whether the individual is bonded under a federal, state, or local bonding program.

I’m not aware of any requirement under Title VII that requires an individualized assessment in all circumstances. In the EEOC’s opinion, however, forgoing a screen that includes the individualized assessment will make it difficult, if not impossible, for an employer to justify a criminal background check as job related and consistent with business necessity. Yet, applying this individualized assessment for all applicants will impose a heavy burden on employers. And, the greater an employer’s attrition and hiring needs, the heavier that burden will become.

The EEOC concludes by suggesting some best practices for employers who consider criminal record information when making employment decisions:

  • Develop a narrowly tailored written policy and procedure for screening applicants and employees for criminal conduct.
  • The policy should Identify essential job requirements and the actual circumstances under which the jobs are performed.
  • The policy should also determine the specific offenses that may demonstrate unfitness for performing such jobs, and the duration of exclusions for criminal conduct.
  • Record the justification for the policy, procedures, and exclusions, including a record of consultations and research considered in crafting the policy and procedures.
  • Train managers, hiring officials, and decisionmakers on how to implement the policy and procedures consistent with Title VII.

There is a lot to digest in this comprehensive policy guidance. For example, the EEOC discusses the differences between arrest records and conviction records, and provides specific examples of exclusions that will and will not fall under the umbrella of job related and consistent with business necessity.

This Enforcement Guidance is required reading for any business that takes arrest or conviction records into consideration in any employment decision.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

National origin harassment depends on the national origin of the harassee

Consider the following examples, both of which come from harassment cases decided in the past two weeks by the Northern District of Ohio:

  • EEOC v. Spitzer Management [pdf]: Employer denied summary judgment based on allegations that an Asian-American employee was called “slant eye” and “rice rat,” and an African-American employee was called a “jungle bunny” and a “gorilla.”
  • Burrage v. FedEx Freight [pdf]: Employer granted summary judgment based on allegations that an employee was repeatedly called “Mexican” and referred to as “cheap labor.”

How do you rationalize these two seemingly incongruous decisions? The reconciliation depends on the national origin or race of the complainant. In Spitzer, an Asian-American was complaining about harassment based on his national origin, and an African-American about harassment based on his race. In FedEx, however, the complainant was not Mexican-American, or any Hispanic descent. In reality, he was half-white/half-black. As the court in Burrage v. FedEx explained:

At best, the references to Burrage as “the Mexican” and “cheap labor,” and the use of the Spanish terms “andale” and “ariba,” represent the very unfortunate employment of offensive stereotypes of Hispanics, and can be said to arise out of a misperception that Burrage was of Hispanic descent….

Burrage seems to argue that he was harassed because of physical characteristics that made him appear to be a member of a protected class of which he was not an actual member. Claims based on perceived class membership are not legally viable under Title VII, and the Court will not expand the reach of Title VII to cover that which Congress chose not to protect.

Do not take refuge in Burrage v. FedEx and use it as an excuse to condone harassment. FedEx just as easily could have gotten dinged for ignoring an employee’s four years of complaints. Regardless of whether there is synergy between the harassment and the harassed, take the complaint seriously, investigate, and deploy appropriate corrective action if necessary. Do not hang your harassment hat on a technicality, because the court hearing your case might not be so generous.

Monday, October 10, 2011


On last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Chalky White, a jailed African-American bootlegger, comforted his wife with the following information about his attorney: “He a Hebrew gentleman.” Lest you think that such observations were left in the 1920s, I once had a client I was defending in a race harassment case refer to me as his “Jew lawyer.”

I relay these tales (both real and fictional) because of a story on about a national origin discrimination case recently filed by the EEOC against a Colorado hotel. The lawsuit claims that hotel ownership directed management “to hire more qualified maids, and that they preferred maids to be Hispanic because in their opinion Hispanics worked harder.” The lawsuit further claims that management told one of the fired employees that ownership did not want to employee American or Caucasian workers “because it was their impression that such workers are lazy.”

There is no hiding that stereotypes—both positive and negative— exist. To some degree we all harbor them (and anyone who tells you differently is full of it). The better job you do of insulating your personnel decisions from these stereotypes, the less often you will find yourself in need of my services—which is a positive stereotype you can embrace.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

EEOC lawsuit is a reminder that, yes, businesses can still discriminate

photo by Mykl Roventine, on Flickr Yesterday, I wrote about how far we’ve come since 1943. Today, I bring you another reminder of how far yet we have to go.

The EEOC has announced a lawsuit it filed against Bass Pro Outdoor World, LLC, for failing to hire African-American and Hispanic applicants for positions in its nationwide retail stores. According to the EEOC:

Bass Pro has been discriminating in its hiring since at least November 2005. The EEOC’s suit alleges that qualified African-Americans and Hispanics were routinely denied retail positions such as cashier, sales associate, team leader, supervisor, manager and other positions at many Bass Pro stores nationwide.

The lawsuit alleges that managers at Bass Pro stores in the Houston area, in Louisiana, and elsewhere made overtly racially derogatory remarks acknowledging the discriminatory practices, including that hiring black candidates did not fit the corporate profile….

The lawsuit also claims that Bass Pro unlawfully destroyed or failed to keep records and documents related to employment applications and internal discrimination complaints. Bass Pro punished employees who opposed the company’s unlawful practices, in some instances firing them or forcing them to resign.

A lawsuit is merely a set of yet-to-be-proven allegations. And, as we’ve seen recently, the EEOC can overreach from time to time. Regardless of how much truth is behind these allegations, this lawsuit serves as an excellent reminder that overt racism can still exist, and employers need to be diligent about combating discrimination of all kinds.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do you know? Discrimination against Muslims

We are now nine years post-9/11. To say that relations between Americans and Muslim-Americans are poor is an understatement. Our country has been worked into a froth over a proposed Mosque at Ground Zero. It seems that Muslims rank first in the category, “People against whom discrimination and marginalization is culturally acceptable.” Employment discrimination claims brought by Muslims have hit record numbers—higher in 2009 than even in 2002.

Discrimination against Muslims comes in two forms: national origin discrimination and religious discrimination. Both types are not that much different than a race discrimination claim. Failures to hire or promote, terminations, other unlawful employment actions, or harassment because of on one’s national origin or religion all constitute unlawful discrimination. For example, take the recent pair of cases filed by the EEOC against meatpacker JBS Swift, in which Muslim employees alleged that  blood and bones were hurled at them, bathroom walls were covered with vile graffiti and company supervisors fired many Islamic employees.

Religious discrimination, however, presents its own unique set of issues, because employers have an affirmative obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. Two recent stories illustrate the problems that these claims present for employers. Muslim employees continue to sue retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, challenging its “Look Policy” that prevents those who wear hijabs (religious head scarves) from being hired. Then, there is the Disneyland case, in which a Muslim employee, working as a hostess at a restaurant, protesting the theme park’s insistence that her costume cover her hijab so that she meets the “The Disney Look”—a 17-page document [pdf] outlining dress and grooming guidelines for all Cast Members to maintain uniformity and the suspension of disbelief, which has been used since Disneyland opened in 1955.

We all know that discrimination of all kinds is wrong. But, Muslim-Americans are practicing politics of exclusion in a time that calls for the opposite so that we, as a nation, can heal. The issue isn’t one of rights. Of course, one has a right to build a Mosque where one wants (and the law cannot stop the Ground Zero Mosque from being built). One should have the right to pray at work (as long as it doesn’t interfere with job performance or otherwise disrupt the workplace). One should have the right to wear religious garments in the workplace (although Abercrombie and Disney have the right to protect and project the public image that forms the foundation of their companies). Yet, as long as people insist on building a Mosque at Ground Zero, others will feel it’s okay to hurl meat and epithets.

There are no easy answers to these ugly problems. But, it’s not enough simply to say that employers have to cease discrimination. For the healing to begin, and for the discrimination to stop, there also has to be a showing of willingness, participation, and inclusion from the other side of the argument.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do you know? Using criminal histories and conviction records in hiring

A rejected applicant has filed a class action lawsuit against management consulting firm Accenture, claiming that it discriminates against minorities through a policy of rejecting qualified individuals with criminal histories. Judy Greenwald at Business Insurance provides the details:

According to Roberto J. Arroyo vs. Accenture L.L.P., filed … in federal district court in New York, Mr. Arroyo spent two and one-half years in prison in a 10-year-old conviction for vehicular homicide in a car accident in which he had been driving while intoxicated.

Mr. Arroyo worked for Chicago-based Accenture as a contract employee in its Murray Hill, N.J., office from November 2005 to April 2007. In April 2007, the firm offered Mr. Arroyo permanent employment subject only to the results of a background check, but withdrew the job offer and terminated his employment as a contract worker based on his conviction, according to the lawsuit.

This lawsuit illustrates an important issue—that the EEOC targets blanket policies that bar the employment of any applicant because of an arrest or conviction. According to a December 14, 2004, informal EEOC opinion letter:

Although Title VII does not, on its face, prohibit discrimination on the basis of conviction records, the EEOC and courts have concluded that a policy or practice of excluding individuals from employment on the basis of their conviction records may have an adverse impact on certain minority groups in light of statistics showing that they are convicted at a rate disproportionate to their representation in the population.

Just because a company cannot per se disqualify individuals because of criminal histories does not mean that they can never be used a factor. What are the rules for the proper use of arrest and conviction records as employment criteria?

1. If an employer collects arrest or conviction information, it must do so consistently. It is unlawful under Title VII to obtain criminal records in an inconsistent manner—based on the race, color, religion, national origin, or sex of the applicant. For example, it would be facially unlawful for an employer only to require background investigations of applicants who were born in the Middle East or are Muslims.

2. An Employers should assure applicants and employees that honestly providing criminal histories will not result in an automatic disqualification from consideration.

3. If a policy concerning arrest or conviction records disproportionately affects minorities, an employer may nevertheless maintain the policy if it can prove a business need. According to the EEOC, an employer must consider whether a particular applicant should be excluded from a particular job based on:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense;
  • The time since the conviction and/or completion of the sentence; and
  • The nature of the job held or sought.

In other words, employers must undertake a job-by-job, employee-by-employee, check-by-check analysis of the relationship between the conviction and the ability to perform the job.

If you have a question about the use of criminal backgrounds in hiring and other employment decisions, you should contact employment counsel to guide you through this thorny issue.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or

Monday, September 14, 2009

Muslims perceived as suffering the worst discrimination

We are a few days past the 8th anniversary of what many consider to be the worst day in the history of our country. According to a recent survey conducted by The Pew Research Center, there is still a perception that Muslims are discriminated against more than any other religious or other group.

2,010 adults were asked the following question: “Just your impression, in the United States today, is there a lot of discrimination against ____ or not?” Here are the results:













Evang. Christians









Gays & Lesbians












This study does not reveal actual incidents of discrimination, but people’s perception of others’ discrimination. Interestingly, the only group that fairs worse than Muslims is gays and lesbians.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or

Thursday, May 7, 2009

EEOC chimes in on swine flu with guides on how to prepare and remain Title VII/ADA compliant

We’re well into week two of the swine flu, and this story continues to have legs. Now, the EEOC is offering its opinion on how employers can prepare for a workplace outbreak while remaining compliant with employment discrimination laws. It released two documents: Employment Discrimination and the 2009 H1N1 Flu Virus (Swine Flu) and ADA-Compliant Employer Preparedness For the H1N1 Flu Virus.

The former simply reminds employers, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of national origin, for example, discrimination against Mexicans.” In other words, do not discriminate against Mexicans simply because there is a slight chance they might be carrying the virus.

The latter goes more detail about how to prepare a workplace for an outbreak within the limits of the ADA. In addition to running through the general rules dealing with disability-related medical inquiries and medical exams, the agency also provides a brief, but helpful FAQ on issues such as how to ask employees about exposure, infection control practices, personal protective equipment, and telecommuting.

The most useful aspect of the EEOC’s guidance is a sample ADA-Compliant Pre-Pandemic Employee Survey. It is designed to assist employers in asking employees about factors, including chronic medical conditions, that may cause them to miss work in the event of a pandemic:

Directions:  Answer “yes” to the whole question without specifying the reason or reasons that apply to you.  Simply check “yes” or “no” at the bottom.

In the event of a pandemic, would you be unable to come to work because of any of the following reasons:

  • If schools or day-care centers were closed, you would need to care for a child;

  • If other services were unavailable, you would need to care for other dependents;

  • If public transport were sporadic or unavailable, you would be unable to travel to work, and/or;

  • If you or a member of your household fall into one of the categories identified by CDC as being at high risk for serious complications from the pandemic influenza virus, you would be advised by public health authorities not to come to work (e.g., pregnant women; persons with compromised immune systems due to cancer, HIV, history of organ transplant or other medical conditions; persons less than 65 years of age with underlying chronic conditions; or persons over 65).

Answer:   YES __________   NO __________


As I said last week, businesses should prepare for an infectious disease outbreak, but not panic over the possibility. This EEOC guidance, while not groundbreaking, does provide employers another arrow in their quiver of preparedness.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or

Thursday, April 16, 2009

EEOC settlement highlights red flags for English-only policies

The EEOC announced that it settled a national origin discrimination claim against a California nursing home company for $450,000. The lawsuit arose from a charge of discrimination filed by a Hispanic janitor who only spoke Spanish. The nursing home terminated him for violating its English-only policy. By contrast, employees who spoke other languages at work, such as Tagalog, were not disciplined or terminated. According to the EEOC, it identified a total of 53 current and former Hispanic employees who were prohibited from speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking residents, or disciplined for speaking Spanish in the parking lot while on breaks.

The Los Angeles Times further discusses some of the affected employees:

Shilo Schilling, a 40-year-old certified nursing assistant, said she was emphatically told at orientations … that only English would be allowed. In one case … she said a resident told her in Spanish that she needed to use the restroom. When Schilling responded in Spanish, she said, she was told by a supervisor that she would be written up or fired if she continued to speak that language….

Jose Zazueta, a Mexico native who worked as a janitor at the Royalwood facility, filed the original complaint alleging that he was fired because he could not guarantee he would speak only English. Anna Park [the EEOC’s regional attorney] said Zazueta was a monolingual Spanish-speaker who warned a colleague in Spanish to watch out for the wet floor he had just mopped. When a supervisor heard him, Park said, he was asked to pledge to use only English but could not and was fired.

Despite this lawsuit, there is nothing inherently illegal about English-only policies. Generally speaking, an English-only rule is okay if supported by a legitimate business justification such as promoting communication with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English, enabling employees to speak one language to promote safety or cooperation, or facilitating supervisors’ ability monitor job performance. The employer in this case made a few critical errors:

  1. It applied the rule during employees’ breaks.
  2. It selectively applied the rule to certain nationalities, but not others.
  3. It prohibited employees from communicating with patients in their native tongue.

As this case illustrates, employers should be careful to limit the reach of an English-only requirement only as far as it necessary to reach the articulated business rationale for the policy. Businesses should also consult with employment counsel before implementing any English-language requirements in the workplace to ensure that the policy is not discriminatory as written or as applied.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How to avoid a discrimination lawsuit in 5 easy steps

  1. Don’t change your explanation about why an employee was fired mid-stream while in the midst of defending a discrimination claim.

  2. Don’t refuse to assign meaningful work to a Muslim employee while at the same time keeping non-Muslim employees busy, or fire an employee for alleged lack of work, while at the same hiring others to perform the same exact assignments.

  3. Don’t suggest to others that you speak over the phone about the employee, which suggests that you are trying to avoid a written record that can later be used against you.

  4. Don’t tell people on 9/11 that “those people don’t belong

  5. Finally, and most importantly, don’t refer to a meeting about a Muslim employee’s supposed poor performance and termination as a “sand-nigger pile on.”

One Chicago law firm, in Hasan v. Foley & Lardner LLP (7th Cir. 12/15/08), failed to follow this advice. Remarkably, the district court, when faced with this mosaic of evidence, granted summary judgment to the employer. The 7th Circuit, however, reversed and sent the case back for trial:

Mr. Hasan submits that the facts in the record, while possibly weak proof of discrimination individually, together would allow a jury to infer that Foley terminated his employment because he is Muslim and of Indian descent…. Those facts include Simon’s and Hagerman’s anti- Muslim comments, Mason’s warning to Jaspan about Mr. Hasan’s religion, the suspicious timing of the downturn in his hours and evaluations following September 11, one partner’s testimony that Foley fired no other associates for economic reasons and did well financially in 2001 and 2002, the Business Law Department’s treatment of its other Muslim associates and Foley’s shifting justifications for firing Mr. Hasan….

The record shows that Simon attended the meeting at which the partners decided to fire Mr. Hasan and that he participated in that decision. That others were also involved in making that decision does not make Simon’s participation irrelevant…. There is also evidence in the record that Simon’s criticisms at that meeting incited anti-Muslim and racially charged commentary from other partners. Vechiola’s description of the meeting as a “sand-nigger pile on” suggests as much, as does Pfister’s comment that Simon had targeted Mr. Hasan just as he had targeted another lawyer, albeit unsuccessfully. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Hasan, the record would allow the rational inference that Simon not only participated in the decision to fire Mr. Hasan but also may have instigated it.

This case might not necessarily break new legal ground, but it is a good reminder that even those that should know better sometimes slip, and how a lapse in judgment can come back to bite an employer.

[Hat tip: MMMG Law Blog]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

LPGA Tour implements English proficiency requirement

From this morning's USA Today:

The LPGA tour will use the next four months to create evaluation procedures for its new policy requiring its member golfers to speak English or face suspension.

All players who have been on the tour for two years could be suspended if they fail to pass an oral evaluation of their English proficiency starting at the end of the 2009 season.

The evaluation will assess communication skills, including conversation. Players will be required to conduct interviews, interact with pro-am partners and fans and give acceptance speeches in English and without the help of an interpreter, according to LPGA deputy commissioner Libba Galloway.

"For an athlete to be successful in the sport-entertainment business we live in today, they need to perform on and off the field of play, and communicating effectively is a big part of that," Galloway said "We are a U.S.-based tour, and the majority of our pro-am players, our fans, our sponsors speak English."

I've written before about the legality of English-only rules. Generally, courts uphold English-only rules if the employer can show a legitimate business justification for the requirement. Examples include:

  • Curbing employee hostilities.
  • Promoting communication with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English.
  • Enabling employees to speak a common language to promote safety or enable cooperative work assignments.
  • Facilitating a supervisor's ability monitor the performance of an employee.
  • Furthering interpersonal relations among employees.

548016_golfer The LPGA's rule is not a ban on the use of foreign languages, but, as the press has been reporting it, a requirement that its members are proficient in English. Thus, it is less onerous than a prohibition on the use of one's native language. Nevertheless, pundits are already decrying this proposal and opining on its illegality.

Let's look at the LPGA's rationale for this rule. 18 of this year's 23 LPGA tournaments have been won by players for whom English is not their native language, including all four of this year's majors. 45 of the 120 players on tour are South Korean, seven of which in the top 20. The LPGA has made the decision that to grow its sport in its home country, its stars need to be able to communicate effectively with the media. The LPGA is not requiring its members only speak English, but that they are able to communicate in English when the need arises (such as in press conferences or pro-am events). Because of this legitimate business purpose, the LPGA's proposed rule should pass muster under Title VII.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

English-only rule at Philadelphia restaurant upheld

As a native of Philadelphia, nothing makes my mouth water more than a cheesesteak (please, please, don't call it a Philly cheesesteak, which is redundant, or a steak and cheese, which will just show your ignorance). You might be asking yourself, what do cheesesteaks have to do with employment law?

Geno's, one of the sacred temples of cheesesteaks at the corner of 9th and Passyunk in South Philly, had a small problem with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations about a sign hanging in its window that reads, "This is America. When ordering, please speak English." Yesterday, a split three-member panel of that Commission ruled that the sign did not convey a message that service would be refused to non-English speakers. Anti-immigration groups are heralding Geno's owner, Joey Vento, as a hero. Today's Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the one dissenting commission member relied on testimony from witnesses who "felt intimidated and unwelcomed by the sign's message. One witness, University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Camille Z. Charles, likened the 'speak English' signs to 'whites only' signs from the Jim Crow era."

While Professor Charles might be overly dramatic, her comments highlight the raw emotion that people feel over English-only rules. As the debate continues in Congress over the legality of English-only workplaces, and some state legislatures consider similar bills that would permit employers to require their employees to speak English, businesses should continue to tread carefully before implementing such a policy. English-only workplace policies should only extend as far as necessary to reach an articulated business reason (such as safety or work-related communication among employees), and it is a good idea to consult with employment counsel to evaluate whether the policy is not discriminatory as written or applied.

[Hat tip: Overlawyered]

Friday, February 8, 2008

Retaliation decision underscores importance of termination discussions

A couple of weeks ago, the 6th Circuit held that where an adverse employment action occurs very close in time after an employer learns of a protected activity, such temporal proximity between events is significant enough to constitute evidence of a causal connection for the purposes of satisfying a prima facie case of retaliation (see 6th Circuit holds that temporaral proximity alone is sufficient to show a causal nexus in retaliation cases). Today, that same court, in Imwalle v. Reliance Medical Products, illustrates the converse of Mickey v. Zeidler Tool & Die, what additional evidence will prove a nexus when temporal proximity alone is not enough. It also highlights the importance of carefully watching one's words in termination meetings, and how saying the wrong thing can come back to haunt you.

Imwalle concerns a corporate president who was terminated from his long-tenured position 3 months after he filed an age and national origin discrimination charge with the EEOC. During the termination meeting, the COO told Imwalle: "I know that you know that Haag-Streit (HS) never committed discrimination in the past, at present, and will not in the future. I therefore canot [sic] understand why you raise such a claim. We are not discriminatory, just not."

The Court relied heavily on that statement in affirming the jury's verdict in Imwalle's favor on his retaliation claim:

[T]he fact that Ott made this statement about Imwalle's discrimination complaints at such a critical moment raises questions about Haag-Streit's true motivation for firing Imwalle.

On the one hand, the statement can be taken at face value, made solely for the purpose of assuring Imwalle that his firing had nothing to do with the alleged discrimination on the part of Haag-Streit because such discrimination purportedly did not exist. But another plausible explanation for Ott's statement is that Imwalle's discrimination claim had caused both frustration and resentment on the part of Haag-Streit, and that Ott's statement was designed to mislead Imwalle and discourage him from suing. Ott obviously felt strongly enough about the accusations of discrimination to prepare a written statement and read it as the first order of business at the meeting he called to let Imwalle go.

Furthermore, the timing of the statement, literally moments before Imwalle was notified that he was no longer President of Reliance or of HSH US and that his employment agreement was being terminated, clearly shows that Imwalle’s complaint of discrimination was at the forefront of Ott's mind.

While it's difficult to know what the COO's true motivation was, it's easy to understand how a jury could interpret the phrase, "I cannot understand why you raise such a claim," uttered while terminating Imwalle, as retaliatory. If the COO's intent was retaliation, then he did an awful job of hiding it. If, however, his intent was innocent, he should have chosen his words much more carefully. Use his mistake as a valuable lesson -- be careful what you say in a termination meeting, and even more careful what is written down. The words can, and will, be used, twisted, and construed against you.

Monday, January 28, 2008

English-only debate is not going away

Since I last wrote on English-only workplace rules and Congress's attempt to prohibit legal challenges of them (Congress debates legality of English-only rules) the debate has continued. Yesterday, the New York Times gave its 2 cents:

Politicians like Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, have jumped into the fray. Last year, Mr. Alexander introduced legislation to prevent the [EEOC] from suing over English-only rules. After that measure died in conference committee, he introduced a similar one in December.

"This bill’s not about affecting people's lunch hour or coffee break — it's about protecting the rights of employers to ensure their employees can communicate with each other and their customers during the working hours,” he said in a recent statement. "In America, requiring English in the workplace is not discrimination; it’s common sense."

Time out, everyone. Let’s think about what really makes sense here.

Certainly, safety issues arise in some workplaces. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, requires air traffic controllers to "be able to speak English clearly enough to be understood over radios, intercoms, and similar communications equipment."

Managers may also need employees who can speak English to English-speaking customers. And they may hear complaints if English-speaking employees say they feel excluded or gossiped about when colleagues converse in another language. Such situations, in fact, gave rise to English-only rules in the first place.

The bottom line on this issue remains unchanged, and is largely grounded in common sense. English-only rules have their time and place. If you have a legitimate problem – such as safety, communication with customers, or communication among employee – such a rule will probably pass muster. If, however, you are enacting such a rule to discourage non-Americans from working at your place of business, or if the rule overreaches by banning foreign languages in non-work spaces (lunch rooms, etc.), you should prepare yourself to unsuccessfully defend a lawsuit. As long as immigration remains a hot political topic, this issue is not going away. Being smart about these rules, though, will help you from being stung by their legal traps.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Congress debates legality of English-only rules

In June, I wrote that under the EEOC's regulations, English-only workplace rules are presumptively illegal unless required by business necessity. See English-only workplaces spark lawsuits. The debate over the appropriateness of these regulations has now reached the floors of both houses of Congress. Conservative lawmakers were spurred to action after the EEOC sued the Salvation Army over the termination of two Hispanic employees for speaking Spanish while sorting clothes. In April, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, with the support of three Democrats, attached an English-in-the-workplace provision to the EEOC budget bill. That bill, which passed the Senate in June, would make it unlawful for the EEOC to bring lawsuits challenging English-only workplace rules. In the House, meanwhile, Hispanic members narrowly won a vote in July to reject a similar provision. Last week, however, the House took a non-binding vote of 218-186 urging House negotiators on the underlying budget bill to accept Alexander's language. Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised that Alexander's English-only provision will be killed, and House-Senate negotiations on the underlying bill have been put off indefinitely. Fox News quotes Senator Alexander: "One way to make sure that we have ... a little more unity that is our country's greatest accomplishment is to make certain that we value our common language.... And that we not devalue it by allowing a federal agency to say that it is a violation of federal law for an employer in America to require an employee to speak English on the job."

While Congress and the EEOC hash out these issues, employers should tread lightly if considering implementing an English-only rule. Such policies should only extend as far as necessary to reach the articulated business reason, and employment counsel should be consulted to evaluate whether the policy is not discriminatory as written or as applied.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Document, document, document!

As the record reflects, there was a myriad of problems with Plaintiff's job performance and treatment of his subordinates that justified Defendants' decision to fire Plaintiff. This, however, is not what Defendants told Plaintiff during their final meeting. Defendants did not tell Plaintiff he was being fired for poor performance, but rather because of an unspecified "personality conflict." While the law does not specifically require an employer to list every reason or incident that motivates its decision to terminate an employee, we are skeptical of undocumented accounts of employee conduct that may have been created post-termination. Under the facts of this case, however, ample evidence exists that indicates that Plaintiff's performance was inadequate to meet his job requirements. In sum, Plaintiff has not put forth sufficient evidence for a jury reasonably to conclude that Defendants did not have an honest belief that Plaintiff performed his job duties poorly.

So said the Sixth Circuit last week in Abdulnour v. Campbell Soup Supply Company, a national origin discrimination case brought by an Iraqi national fired by Campbell Soup for job performance that was less than "M'm M'm Good". The Sixth Circuit upheld the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit on summary judgment because Abdulnour could not come forward with any evidence, other than his own subjective disagreement, that Campbell Soup did not honestly believe in the reasons proffered for his termination. Clearly, however, as the quote above demonstrates, the appellate court was troubled by the lack of documentation in Abdulnour's personnel file for the alleged performance deficiencies. It is safe to assume that if Abdulnour could have come forward with any evidence at all to support his allegation of pretext, the court would not have hesitated to ding the company for its poor documentation.

The lesson to be learned is basic, but one that cannot be repeated enough. Any employer's greatest defense against a claim of discrimination is a well-documented history of performance problems to support the termination, coupled with comparable treatment of similarly situated employees. When in doubt, document all performance problems with all employees. If the discipline or counseling is oral only, document that fact also. Have all employees sign off on all such records, and if the employee refuses to signify the receipt of the discipline, document that failure as well. The Sixth Circuit in the Abdulnour case cannot be any clearer that when an employer relies on undocumented accounts of misconduct to support a termination, it is fair for the court and a jury to draw the inference that those accounts were created post-termination. The Abdulnour decision is the anomaly, and almost universally cases with poorly documented personnel files will not end well for the employer. Campbell Soup dodged a bullet; do not put your company in similar risk.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Foreign accents as direct evidence of national origin discrimination

According to the EEOC:
An employment decision based on foreign accent does not violate Title VII if an individual's accent materially interferes with the ability to perform job duties. This assessment depends upon the specific duties of the position in question and the extent to which the individual's accent affects his or her ability to perform job duties. Employers should distinguish between a merely discernible foreign accent and one that interferes with communication skills necessary to perform job duties. Generally, an employer may only base an employment decision on accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual's foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English. Positions for which effective oral communication in English may be required include teaching, customer service, and telemarketing. Even for these positions, an employer must still determine whether the particular individual's accent interferes with the ability to perform job duties.

In re Rodriguez demonstrates these principles. Jose Rodriguez applied and was rejected for two vacant supervisory positions at FedEx, despite the hiring manager believing him to be qualified for the positions. The Human Resource Manager, Adkinson, however, expressed concern that Rodriguez was difficult to understand and that his Hispanic accept and speech pattern would adversely affect his ability to rise through the company's ranks. Witnesses also attributed to Adkinson disparaging comments about Rodriguez's "language" and "how he speaks." After trying to be promoted for nearly a year, Rodriguez ultimately gave up, resigned, and sued FedEx for national origin discrimination. The Sixth Circuit held that Adkinson's comments concerning Rodriguez's accent was direct evidence of national origin discrimination, and sent the case back to the district court to determine FedEx would have refused to promote Rodriguez even without a discriminatory motive. In reaching that conclusion, the Court reinforced that "accent and national origin are inextricably intertwined," and that the EEOC "recognizes linguistic discrimination as national origin discrimination." It is probably little solace for FedEx that the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the hostile environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation claims. Now it will have to prove to a jury the legitimacy of its termination in the face of the HR Manager's comments.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

English-only workplaces spark lawsuits

White Americans, what?
Nothing better to do?
Why don’t you kick yourself out?
You’re an immigrant too!

Jack White, Icky Thump (2007).

Immigration reform continues to be a hot button issue, and a recent rash of lawsuits continues to fuel the debate over whether an “English-only” rule constitutes national origin discrimination. The EEOC’s position is that a “rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment” and presumptively “violates Title VII.” According to the EEOC, an “employer may have a rule requiring that employees speak only in English at certain times where the employer can show that the rule is justified by business necessity.” The majority of federal courts, however, have shown some tolerance of “English-only” rules. Generally, Courts will uphold an English-only rule if the employer can show a legitimate business justification for the requirement. Examples of legitimate business justifications that have been found to justify an English-only requirement are:
  • Stemming hostility among employees.
  • Fostering politeness to customers.
  • Promoting communication with customers, coworkers, or supervisors who only speak English.
  • Enabling employees to speak a common language to promote safety or enable cooperative work assignments.
  • Facilitating a supervisor’s ability monitor the performance of an employee.
  • Furthering interpersonal relations among employees.
Employers should be careful, however, to limit the reach of an English-only requirement only as far as it necessary to reach the articulated business rationale for the policy. For example, English-only requirements have been struck down as discriminatory where the policy included lunch hours, breaks, and even private telephone conversations. You should consult with employment counsel before implementing any English-language requirements in your workplace to ensure that the policy is not discriminatory as written or as applied.