Articles Posted in Sex Discrimination

On October 4, 2018 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released the preliminary report of the sexual harassment data they collected for fiscal year 2018 (ending September 30, 2018).  This report shows that the #MeToo movement has had a widespread impact on reporting of sexual harassment and related workplace abuses.

The EEOC is the federal agency of the United States charged with administering and enforcing civil right laws against workplace discrimination including claims of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination and retaliation.  Individuals who have suffered wrongful termination or discrimination at the workplace can file a charge with the EEOC by themselves or through the assistance of a private employment lawyer.  The EEOC was formed in 1965 and maintains its headquarters in Washington, DC with offices throughout the United States, including New Jersey.

Over the course of the past year, there has been a seismic shift in the way that sexual harassment has been viewed and addressed across all aspects of our society in large part due to the #MeToo movement.  Nowhere has this change been seen more drastically than in the incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace.  In the past year there has been a reckoning across the United States, with a clear message being sent to harassers that discriminatory and harassing behavior and conduct will no longer be tolerated at the workplace, our schools or in any other circumstances.

A federal Court of Appeals has affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a former Costco employee in connection with her claim of a hostile work environment based upon sexual harassment by a customer.  This case reaffirms that an employer can be held legally responsible for allowing a hostile work environment created by non-employees if the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to render the employee’s work environment hostile.

In the matter of EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corp., the EEOC sued on behalf of a former Costco employee, Dawn Suppo.  Ms. Suppo was initially employed as a seasonal, part-time employee in 2009 and then became a regular, part-time employee in May, 2010.  Around the time she became a regular employee, a customer named Thad Thompson began approaching Ms. Suppo and asking her personal questions that her uncomfortable.  Initially, Ms. Suppo did not report the interactions to her supervisor or other management.  However, in or about July/August, 2010, the conduct did not stop and Ms. Suppo informed her supervisor of Mr. Thompson’s harassing conduct and the fact that she was scared of him.  Her supervisor instructed her to notify him if she sees Mr. Thompson again.

Soon thereafter, Ms. Suppo noticed Mr. Thompson in the store again watching her through the store aisles. Ms. Suppo reported to her supervisor that Mr. Thompson was back in the store stalking her and that she was scared of him.  As a result, Ms. Suppo’s supervisor and other management brought Mr. Thompson into the warehouse office and instructed him to leave Ms. Suppo alone.  Mr. Thompson responded with anger and loudly yelled that it is a “free country” and that he had “freedom of speech.”  Ms. Suppo was extremely scared at this point and decided to call the police and file a report.  Later that day, the one of the Costco Assistant Managers yelled at Ms. Suppo for calling the police and instructed her to be nice to Mr. Thompson.

The Third Circuit has reversed a trial court’s decision that dismissed a sexual harassment lawsuit because the plaintiff employee never complained directly to her employer. The decision is causing employment attorneys across the country to question the continued viability of the Faragher-Ellerth defense, which permits employers to avoid liability for sexual harassment where an employee fails to make a formal complaint about sexual harassment directly to the employer.

In the case of Sheri Minarsky v. Susquehanna County and Thomas Yadlosky, Jr., the employee began her employment as a part-time secretary with the Susquehanna County Department of Veterans Affairs from September, 2009. The employee claimed that she had been sexually harassed by her supervisor throughout her employment starting from the very beginning. The sexual harassment included her supervisor attempting to kiss her on the lips, massaging her shoulders while she was at her computer and approaching her from behind and pulling her against him. The employee also claimed that the supervisor would often question her whereabouts during her lunch hour and would also call her at home under the pretense of a work-related inquiry only to then ask personal questions unrelated to work.  The supervisor also sent sexually explicit messages through email to the employee.

While the employee never complained to her employer about her claims of sexual harassment in fear of retaliation, the employer was aware of the supervisor’s inappropriate behavior toward other women, which resulted in two verbal reprimands. Other employees also raised concerns that the supervisor would attempt to kiss employees under the mistletoe during Christmas time.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled against a gay couple in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for their wedding in the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  But lest people think that the Supreme Court was ruling on whether a business can refuse to provide goods or services to an individual based upon their sexual orientation, or based on religious objections, it was not.  That decision will surely have its day.

The Supreme Court ‘s ruling was limited to the actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in which it ruled against baker Jack Phillips. This case was brought by same sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who had gone to the suburban Denver Colorado Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a custom wedding cake for their upcoming wedding.   Baker Jack Phillips told the couple he would not create a cake for their same sex wedding because of his religious belief but told the couple that they could purchase pre-made products.   According to Mr. Phillips, baking a custom-made cake for a same sex couple interfered with his Christian beliefs.

The couple complained to the Colorado Commission in 2012 arguing that the baker had violated public accommodation law by discriminating against them on the basis of their sexual orientation under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.  The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation discrimination in a place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services to the public.  After holding formal hearings, the state administrative law judge rejected the baker’s First Amendment claim that it was a violation of his right to the free exercise of religion. Mr. Phillips felt that he would be compelled to create a cake that would require him to utilize his artistic talents to express a message that he disagreed with, on the basis of his religion.  The Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

The New Jersey Legislature passed legislation this week that mandates equal pay to all New Jersey employees and penalizes New Jersey employers who discriminate against women and other protected classes in their paychecks. The bill has now been sent to Governor Murphy, who has made clear that he will imminently sign the bill into law.

The bill, entitled the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, is named after state senator Diane B. Allen who left her broadcasting job in 1994 after filing gender and age discrimination complaints with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.   The New Jersey Equal Pay Act will modify the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by strengthening the protections already provided by the current anti-discrimination law against employment discrimination by making it unlawful to discriminate against employees in their compensation.

Specifically, the New Jersey Equal Pay Act makes it an unlawful for an employer to pay a rate of compensation and benefits to employees of a protected class which is less than the rate paid to employees not in the same class for substantially the same work. Protected classes include such traits as sex, race, ethnicity, military status or national origin of the employee.  Once it is signed into law, the New Jersey Equal Pay Act will prohibit an employer from reducing the rate of compensation of any employee to comply with the new law.  This means that an employer who has been and continues to be in violation of the law cannot then decrease the compensation of any employee to the compensation of another employee who is being discriminated against in their compensation.