Employment Overwatch: The EEOC

Employment Overwatch: The EEOC by James Vagnini{Read in 5 minutes} In my previous post, I wrote about the impact an impending Supreme Court decision may have on employee protections — particularly LGBT employees. The issue is whether or not sex discrimination as prohibited by Title VII includes sexual orientation or gender identity protections for employees. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has consistently found that it does, District and Circuit Courts have differed on the matter, and the Supreme Court will rule on the issue in their next term. Continue reading

Interpreting Title VII

Interpreting Title VII by James Vagnini {Read in 4 minutes}  When I was in law school 20 years ago, I wrote an article on legislation before Congress referred to as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or “ENDA.” This legislation was aimed at expanding Title VII’s coverage to specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories not specifically provided by Title VII.  
Title VII is part of the original Civil Rights Act federal law enacted in 1964 which provides employees protection from discrimination because of race, national origin, and gender. Over the years, the law was expanded to include some protections for those over the age of 40 and the disabled, and is the bedrock of civil rights law in the employment environment.
To this day, the ENDA legislation has not been passed and there are no specific federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Moreover, Title VII has not been amended to include these additional specific categories (despite other expansions). It is a sad commentary on our country, and our politics, that in 20+ years, we could not get our act together to provide the specific protections many working citizens require.
Despite this hurdle, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the watchdog agency empowered to enforce Title VII, has interpreted Title VII to protect against discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity.  
In fact, the EEOC has consistently interpreted any act of discrimination on account of these factors to be something that is covered by sex/gender discrimination. This means you are protected if:

  • You don’t conform to sexual or gender stereotypes
  • You identify as a different gender than the gender you may appear to be or were born
  • You have a different sexual orientation or prefer sex that doesn’t conform with the popular notion of what a man or a woman should be
  • Trans workers who don’t fit the form of what is considered to be the gender norms of society

The EEOC has been granted broad discretion to resolve disputes but unsettled legal issues still have to be resolved, by and large, in court — and federal courts have differed. Some circuits agree with the EEOC’s interpretation that sexual orientation falls under Title VII sex discrimination,while others have found that it does not.
Whenever you have circuit court splits like this, the issues become ripe for the Supreme Court — which can either agree to take up the issue or decline to take up the case(s) that address the conflict between the circuits. Recently, it was announced that the Supreme Court will take up this issue in the next term.
This is going to be a big, big decision. Obviously, we have a different Supreme Court makeup today than we did a few years ago, but this is an issue that has gained a lot of popularity and a lot of momentum legally, politically and socially.
The decision will have a huge impact on the landscape of workplace discrimination.  The Supreme Court will determine whether Title VII is essentially expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes thereby making it the law of the land.  If they find that Title VII does not provide such protection, it will permit employers, to a degree, to discriminate on account of sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBT workers would have to turn to state and local laws for protection should the Supreme Court limit the law.  Many states, such as New York, have laws that protect the LGBT community working in the state. Many states, sadly, have not extended such protections to members of the LGBT workforce.   
Things take time, but this decision will be here before we know it.  It is something that will have a huge impact on employee protections in the workplace — and could set back a lot of work and progress that has been made so far by the EEOC and the lower district courts who have upheld the EEOC’s interpretation of the law.
James A. Vagnini
Partner
email: jvagnini@vkvlawyers.com
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$4 Million Victory Against Turner Industries

Jury returns verdict of over $4 million for two East Texas employees of Turner Industries subjected to racial steering, denial of advancement and racial harassment. These are two plaintiffs in a wave of hundreds to be tried.
Since early 2009, Valli Kane & Vagnini and DiNovo Price & Ellwanger have jointly represented their clients in a historic Title VII Civil Rights battle against Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Turner Industries Group.  The firms became involved when they responded to requests for representation from a small number of African-American laborers working for Turner Industries in their pipe fabrication plant in Paris, Texas.   Evidence supported allegations of a widespread hostile work environment for African-Americans; nooses were displayed in the workplace, along with repeated racial graffiti and the use of racial epithets by white co-workers and supervisors.  Rather than respond to workers’ request for help, a high level decision was made by Turner Industries to deny these allegations and fight the workers who had complained to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
Following a year-long investigation by the EEOC, during which Turner Industries permitted this environment to continue, African-American workers received their first victory when the EEOC issued its determination that a class of African-American workers were subjected to unlawful racial harassment, discrimination, and retaliation at the hands of Turner Industries.  Turner retreated and chose to once again turn their backs on their remaining African-American employees who were subjected to similar treatment for years.  As a result, over 275 current and former African-American men and women came forward with evidence of racial harassment in other Turner locations such as their Port Allen, Louisiana and Pasadena, Texas,  as well as Turner’s third-party work locations throughout the Gulf South.  These work sites were owned and operated by large companies (and Turner customers) such as ExxonMobil, Sasol, Marathon, and Westlake, among others.
Given Turner’s refusal to address these widespread problems, these employees brought their claims to Federal Court.  The claims of the Texas employees are filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and the claims of Louisiana employees are filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.  The first wave of 10 plaintiffs went to trial on October 15, 2012.  After a four day trial, African-American workers at Turner were handed another monumental victory: the jury awarded over $4 million in damages to two of the Plaintiffs.  The two cases were vastly different from one another.  One Plaintiff worked for Turner Industries for several years up until he was fired in 2008.  He was subjected to an extensive hostile work environment where he was exposed to numerous racial epithets by his co-workers and supervisors, including the “N” word.   The second Plaintiff did not allege a hostile work environment.  Instead, upon hiring, he was steered into a Painting and Blasting department where African-American employees were segregated from White workers.  This was and still is a dangerous environment where employees were not provided proper safety gear and where they were paid significantly less than the White workers who were steered to the better paying positions.  This Plaintiff made repeated attempts to obtain transfers and promotions out of this department based on his qualifications, but he was repeatedly denied.
While not all Plaintiffs were victorious in their fight, this is the first of many trials to come for Turner Industries with respect to these claims.  This is a solid victory, especially considering that a jury from a historically-conservative area awarded far in excess of what these two Plaintiffs even requested in damages.  The jury sent a very loud message to Turner Industries with its verdict.  With over 260 cases remaining to be tried, the business of discriminating against hard working African-Americans may cost Turner Industries far more than they expected.  The battle continues.

A Small Town with a Rich Civil Rights History

st. augustine gay rightsWhen you drive through the small town of St. Augustine, Florida, your only thought is likely to be how nice of a vacation spot you’re in. Its architecture is gorgeous. The setting is idyllic. The city’s atmosphere is laid back. It is a city that is proud of its storied history, the first European settlement of the New World, one of the most contested cities in America before the nation was unified. What you may not know, however, is that St. Augustine has also been a focal point in America’s struggle for civil rights, and that it recently took a symbolic step in progressing gay rights in Florida. The small town’s struggles are a microcosm of racial and sexual discrimination in America.

Remarkable History

When Ponce de Leon sailed from Spain in the early 1500s, his supposed quest for a literal fountain of youth (it’s likely that de Leon wasn’t looking for the fountain of youth; most historians now state he was in it for the money) led him to a land he called La Florida, or “flowery.” Though unproven, many hold that Ponce de Leon’s feet first trod upon Saint Augustine when he landed. St. Augustine was nonetheless claimed by the Spaniards, then the British, then the Spaniards again before being folded into the United States. In the late 1800s, St. Augustine was discovered and then established as a vacation town, where rich tycoons financed the opulent architecture that now characterizes the city.

Desegregation

In the 1960s, efforts to desegregate elementary schools exploded in contentious, often violent protest. Martin Luther King, Jr. made St. Augustine a focal point of the desegregationist movement. It is said by some that, because of this tumultuous time in the city’s history, the nation as a whole finally understood the villainy of the Klu Klux Klan, an organization instrumental in the violence of the time, and the need for civil rights. It was the events of St. Augustine that tipped the national consciousness toward true racial progress.

Gay Rights

Over the years, St. Augustine’s reputation has gone back into the shadows, the town once again enjoying annual vacationers from all over the U.S. However, the city recently, quietly tacked on a footnote to its storied history. St. Augustine recently made it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation when deciding if an individual can rent or own a home.
Currently, sexual orientation in terms of housing is not prohibited on a federal level. However, the states of California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin prohibit such discrimination, as well as many cities throughout the U.S.
It is clear that not all areas of the United States are as progressive in the arena of civil rights as the small town of St. Augustine, Florida. The city’s struggles, however, may mirror struggles of your own. If you feel you’ve been discriminated against in any manner, please call the Law Offices of Valli, Kane & Vagnini for a free consultation.

South Florida Fire Department Under EEOC Investigation


Snug in Florida’s deep south, Davie, Florida is a town known for its Western roots, featuring a western-themed amusement park, and more citizens with horses than you can shake a stick at. Davie’s population of about 92,000 is supported by five fire stations, nos. 38, 65, 68, 91 and 104. The hundred year old town, once an out of the way western paradise, is now hitting the news as the subject of allegations of Title VII discrimination at its fire department.
A Host of Discrimination Complaints
The discrimination claims appear not to be an isolated incident: 18 Title VII claims in total are allegedly under investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC (the EEOC does not publicly discuss or confirm whether complaints are being investigated). Ten of the 18 charging parties are being represented by two attorneys. The most damning complaint comes from a female firefighter who claims she was unfairly subjected to full duty during the first trimester of her pregnancy. This charging party is alleging that eight (8) days after fighting a fire with her colleagues, she miscarried.
An Alleged Culture of Sexism and Bigotry
The charges center on complaints of sexism and bigotry. The most publicized involve the above case of miscarriage, as well as the story of Linda Stokoe. Stokoe was a fire inspector for the city, but was allegedly fired due to sex discrimination. The former inspector claims she was ordered to keep records of her bathroom visits, and that women were generally believed by her peers to be unfit for firefighting. Another charge alleges discrimination against a Jewish American, who claims derogatory terms and slurs were used against him.
How Does Title VII Apply?
Title VII, as amended, directly prohibits discrimination in the workplace on account of gender, race and religion, among other protected categories. The complaints described against the Davie, Florida Fire Department include racial and gender slurs, preferential treatment, and statements (direct, not implied statements) that women and some minorities are unfit to serve in the Fire Department. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was instituted, nearly every generation of EEOC leadership interpreting the Act has prohibited such treatment.
Is This Your Story?
If you feel that your race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or age have played an unnecessary role at your job, or even in your attempts to find work, then you may have a claim of discrimination. For further information and a free consultation, call the law offices of Valli, Kane & Vagnini today.

The Job Search and Discrimination by Age

justice, discrimination, law, lawyer, new york
When employers shut you out because you exceed some arbitrary age limit, this can be exceedingly frustrating. Not only is the employer perpetrating an obvious injustice, in many cases, it may be clear that you are best candidate for the position. There are laws prohibiting many types of discrimination. U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces these laws. It behooves an employer to know the relevant laws and regulations. Age is one of the areas of discrimination covered by laws.
Employers are not to treat job applicants or existing employees less favorably because of their age. Current law, covered by Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), applies to employees and job candidates equally. The law applies to people age forty and over. Employers can favor an older employee over a younger employee but not the other way around. The law applies even if both employees are over forty. In other words you cannot hire a 45 year old worker over a 55 year old employee due to age.
Work Contexts and Age Discrimination
age discrimination, age, workplaceThe law covers discrimination in many aspects including hiring, termination, pay level and pay raises, work assignments, promotions, layoffs, benefits, training and general working conditions.
 
Harassment and Age Discrimination

Law forbids harassment due to age. Examples of such harassment could include offensive remarks about a workers age. Harassment is not everyday good-humored banter or an isolated remark. However, if the banter and remarks become so severe and frequent that it creates a work environment that is hostile or offensive, that is harassment and prohibited by law. If the adverse treatment due to age results in negative employment decisions, such as termination, that is considered harassment and prohibited by law. It will be considered harassment if it is the victim’s manager or supervisor, a coworker or even someone who is not an employee such as client or vendor.
Policies, Practices and Age Discrimination
 Policies and practices implemented by an employer need to be applied to everyone without regard to age. When applied, policies and practices can be illegal if they can be shown to have harmed or impacted negatively employees forty year old or older due to their age. Areas commonly effected include:
work, policy

  • Training and apprenticeship programs.
  • Want ads and job notices.
  • Employment inquiries.
  • Benefits and retirement policies.

Any employer with more than twenty employees is subject to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. It also applies to all government agencies, federal, state and local.

Nooses in the Workplace: A Disturbing Trend

Noose, workplace, eeoc, discriminationA noose is placed on a desk or a chair, or on a door or in a locker. The symbolism is clear. Nooses in the workplace are meant to intimidate because of race. The noose of the hangman is meant to be a frightening visual representation of the harassment that included thousands of black people who died at the hands of lynch mobs following the civil war and on into the twentieth century. This history has led to symbolic use of a noose. It has long been a tool of various hate groups. The turning up of nooses in the workplace has been having an affect on black employees, and that affect has been spilling over to affect other minorities.
 
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) officials and law enforcement officials report on this trend. While companies routinely try to settle nooses in the workplace cases out of court, the EEOC are always pursuing dozens of such cases. The EEOC point out that, when in seen light of their overall caseload, these cases are disproportionally high.  The EEOC maintains that nooses in the workplace is a growing trend.
 
Every case of nooses in the workplace has its own distinctive characteristics, but there seem to be elements common to most of the cases brought forward. The noose is almost never the only method of intimidation. Racist slurs, racial epithets, racist jokes, racist graffiti and other ongoing intimidation and harassment usually accompany the noose.
discrimination suit, rascism, workplace
No one knows for sure why these racist incidents have risen lately. Some discrimination attorneys have speculated that there may be a growing intolerance by younger workers not familiar with the civil rights movement and struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The incident may grow out of resentment of some whites over the implementation of affirmative action resulting in diverse workplaces where blacks and minorities were previously excluded.
 
Another reason cited for the rise in such incidents reported to EEOC is a growing number of employers fighting it in court. Some employers are referring to the incidents as banter and horseplay between employees without harmful intentions.Diversity, discrimination, equality, workplace
 
There have been some accusations of minority workers filing false claims for purpose of collecting money. Employment and discrimination attorneys generally agree that a false claim of racially related harassment, violence and misconduct in the workplace is extremely rare. History has borne out that out; there have been only a handful of false claims involving nooses in the workplace. Employment and discrimination attorneys also point out that, when subjected to scrutiny, the false claims are easily brought to light.