Our overly-litigious society: The justice system is out of control 1

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By Craig Byrnes

I’m a trial lawyer.  When people find out what I do for a living, I usually get an earful. Too many lawsuits, they say. The verdicts are too high, they tell me.

The first thing I learned about being a good lawyer is that preparation is key. So I go to parties ready to hear this kind of stuff. Here’s what I say to these folks.

Let’s Play “Who Have You Sued?”

I usually start off with a little party game I like to call, “Who Have You Sued?” It goes like this: I ask the person, “Have you ever sued anyone, or been sued?” The next question is, “Do you know anyone who’s been sued, or who’s sued anyone?”

I feel completely safe asking these questions, because no one’s ever answered yes to either question yet.

Try to imagine the meaning of that: in what so many of us think as a society that sues too much, you probably have never sued anyone or been sued, and you probably don’t even know anyone who has. Within a full degree of separation — which is a lot of people, when you think about it — you have probably had no contact with the court system.

As for our being an “overly litigious society,” did you know that, from 2009 – 2010, lawsuits in California actually *decreased* 11.6%?  As far as California goes, a survey of 29 states and D.C. showed that, per capita, California was 28th out of 30 in lawsuits filed.

In fact, of those lawsuits filed in 17 states surveyed (California was not part of this study), 61% of them were for breach of contract.  You can’t blame those cases on greedy plaintiffs sticking it to the poor companies since breach of contract cases usually involve corporations suing each other. Tort cases, involving personal injury and wrongful death — the sorts of things you hear about people suing for — were about 6% of the courts’ dockets in 2009.

So just to make the point here clear — the number of lawsuits is trending down, not up, and per capita, and California is toward the bottom of the list when it comes to lawsuits being filed.

Your own experience tells you that lawsuits are not out of control, because you’ve never sued anyone and you don’t know anyone who has. The data says that lawsuits are not out of control — they’re actually trending down.

We need to ask ourselves: what kind of power do insurance companies and large corporations have that they can make us believe things that run counter even to our own experience and the facts we know to be true?

But What About the Big “Hot Coffee” Verdict?

But how about all those out-of-control verdicts? How about the lady who spilled hot coffee in her lap and got 150 million dollars?

Litigants who win big verdicts are sort of like people who win the lottery. You’ve heard it happens, but you’ve never met anyone it’s happened to.
There are a lot of reasons for that.

Part of it is that what really happens would never make the news. It’s too boring. Did you know that the median verdict in California personal injury cases is about $115,000? But the average verdict reported by the news is about $3.5 million. That gives everyone listening a false impression about what’s really happening out there.

The other thing the news doesn’t tell you is that there are a lot of protections for corporations and insurance companies built into the system. So everyone has heard of the McDonald’s coffee case, in which the lady spilled coffee on herself and got $2.86 million. We don’t have to talk too much about the facts of the case: the plaintiff received 3rd degree burns on her genitals, had to be hospitalized for eight days, needed skin grafts and two years of medical treatment, and internal memos from McDonald’s showed that they knew the coffee was physically, dangerously hot, but served it that way anyway.

And while you never heard any of those facts on the news, here’s what you also didn’t hear: the judge took away the jury’s verdict, and replaced it with his own: $640,000. Did you know that judges could do that? That they can just take away a jury’s verdict, and replace it with whatever they darn well please? Yes, they can, and it happened here. Then the parties settled, reportedly for something less than $600,000.

Burned genitals, skin grafts, two years of medical treatment, and a company that knew what it was doing and did it anyway. And it took her 2 1/2 years just to get to court.

Sometimes, the facts just don’t make good stories. But they are still the facts. Despite what our own experiences and the facts tell us, the constant drumbeat of “frivolous lawsuits” and “overly litigious society” keeps legislators dancing to the insurance companies’ rhythm.

I know that this blog post’s title was “Our Overly-Litigious Society: The Justice System is Out of Control,” and that’s not at all what the evidence shows. Sometimes, you just can’t believe the headlines.

An earlier version of this blog post was published on the author’s Workplace Law blog.

 

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The Civil Rights Act – looking back, looking ahead

By Marvin Krakow

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal treatment in the workplace, in public facilities, and in public accommodations, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sex.  Equality was not the norm in 1964.  Remembering where we started may provide hope and inspiration for the next fifty years.

This is the first of a two part posting: first, a history we have lived, second, imagining and planning for the future.

Looking Back – Part 1

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/ff/Little_Rock_Desegregation_1957.jpg

Little Rock Desegregation 1957” by Will Counts. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

By beginning with a look at the United States of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we can better appreciate the magnitude of the changes we have experienced.  There and then were the conditions which the Civil Rights Act was meant to address.  The United States Supreme Court struck down segregated schools and the doctrine of “separate but equal” public facilities, only in 1954.  A year later, the Court called for dismantling segregated public schools with “all deliberate speed.”   In practice, communities and states intent on resisting the required changes made much of “deliberate” at the expense of “speed.”

In 1960, as part of the Wilmington, Delaware school district’s long delayed preparation for desegregation, I, with a few classmates, had a chance to visit the black school about six blocks from our own.  The only apparent equal part was the architectural plan.  The two schools had the same floor plans.  Even as an eleven year old, I could see that the black school had almost no books, that the sandstone bricks were crumbling, the toilets broken and foul.  By contrast, my own school had well maintained granite, a fully stocked library, plenty of classroom supplies and materials, clean and functioning lavatories.

Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Courtesy of South Carolina Department of Archives and History

The lack of adequate facilities and the open lie of “separate but equal” were but the tip of the iceberg of de jure segregation.  Our country had opportunities only for a select few.  We did not tolerate differences.  We murdered those who challenged the assigned order.   State sponsored and state enforced racial separation — combined with political disenfranchisement, and an economic and social caste system — was violent, brutal, and unremitting.   In the Summer of 1964, the world witnessed the terrorism supporting American segregation in the murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

Lynchings, counted in the thousands, were carried out over generations, not only in the South, but throughout the country.  “Race riots”, actually pogroms and massacres of entire communities, terrorized people of color.  The ferocity of racial as well as ethnic violence characterized and defined American society in the first half of the twentieth century.

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“Student and Faculty Civil Rights Rally, San Jose State College, February 28, 1964″ by Moore, John. Courtesy of San José State University, Special Collections and Archives

Pervasive discrimination was not limited to African Americans.  Universities had quotas for Jews, Catholics, and other minorities.  Large corporations, law firms, hospitals would not consider ethnic minorities for hire.  Women had limited rights to own property.   Gays were invisible. In quantitative terms, almost two-thirds of our country’s people suffered discrimination.  Freedom and opportunity were reserved for members of a small and privileged class consisting almost exclusively of economically fortunate, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men.    The norm, the life experienced by most people, included closed doors, hatred, persecution, and violence.

When we hear the stories of individuals we can begin to understand the extent and severity of discrimination in the mid-twentieth century United States.  From my own family stories: a young woman limited to secretarial work for men who were far less talented than she, a high school girl learning from her admired father that his field of work was closed to all women, a man who died unable to tell his family of his love for another human being, a woman hospitalized for “hysteria” as she came to terms with her love of another woman, an entire family whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were slaughtered after the United States refused them safe haven from Nazi genocide.

There are few in my generation, coming of age in the 1960’s, who do not know such stories.  The details may vary. The story tellers may be Asian, Hispanic, African American, Irish, Native American. Regardless of one’s origins, America of the early and middle twentieth century held up the torch of liberty and opportunity while unapologetically shutting doors and crushing hopes.

Discrimination and violence strike deeply.  At its core, discrimination is a disregard and disrespect of another person’s humanity.  It is an expression of contempt and hatred.  When we suffer discrimination, the pain stays with us for years.  It is felt for generations.  When we engage in discrimination, when we tolerate contempt and hatred, and when we acquiesce in violence, we rend the fabric of our communities.  We corrupt our souls.

O’Connor, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan” by Steve Petteway. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, at the time of its passage, represented our country’s highest aspirations in the face of social and political realities far different than our Constitution’s promises.  The ongoing success of that legislation is all around us. Women and minorities have entered the workplace.  Many have risen to positions of prominence.  People with physical and emotional challenges are emerging from the shadows of dependence and isolation.  We are beginning to understand the waste of human potential and the pain we inflict in denying and demonizing love and sexuality.  We have made room for a true diversity of spiritual beliefs and practices.

But we can’t take our progress for granted.  As we try to imagine the challenges and opportunities of the next fifty years, an appreciation of how far we have come may help us choose compassion over misplaced caution and progress over the next iteration of “all deliberate speed.”

We now have a chance to be on the right side of history.  In my next post, I will discuss how we might get there.

 

 

Marvin Krakow

About Marvin Krakow

Marvin Krakow (B.A., Yale, 1970, J.D. Yale, 1974), a founding partner of Alexander Krakow + Glick LLP, focuses on discrimination based on race, age, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and ethnicity, wrongful termination of employment, civil rights, and class actions. He has won seven, and eight figure results. He helps victims of sexual harassment and rape, and represents whistle blowers. He argued landmark cases before the California Supreme Court, Loder v. City of Glendale and Superior Court v. Department of Health Services (McGinnis).

No free pass to discriminate against immigrant workers:  Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.

By Megan Beaman and Kevin Kish

Low-wage workers—regardless of immigration status—shoulder more than their fair share of workplace violations, including unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination and harassment.  Immigrant low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable—working under constant fear that if they exercise basic workplace rights, they will suffer retaliation that could result in the separation of their families; loss of homes and property; or return to violence or extreme poverty in their home countries.

New Image93 blurredThis fear of retaliation is based in fact.  We as advocates have seen it happen time and time again—and it overwhelmingly leads to workers staying silent, leaving employers without even a slap on the wrist when they break the law.

Scofflaw employers do not and will not stop violating the law if they are not held accountable for their violations to all workers.  Any other type of piecemeal enforcement, or lack of enforcement, encourages employers to hire vulnerable undocumented workers, disregard labor laws as basic as the minimum wage, and then fire them when they complain – all to the economic disadvantage of employers who do follow the law.

Earlier this summer, the California Supreme Court in the Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company case agreed, deciding that companies that hire undocumented workers (knowingly or not) do not get a free pass to discriminate against them.

In that case, Mr. Salas sued his former employer, Sierra Chemical Company, for failing to bring him back to work after he injured himself and claimed workers’ compensation benefits. Mr. Salas alleged the company retaliated against him for filing his claim and discriminated against him because of his injury. But a jury never got the chance to decide whether he was right. The company claimed that because Mr. Salas was not authorized to work in the U.S. in the first place, the company shouldn’t be liable for failing to hire him back. A lower court agreed and dismissed the case (giving the company a free pass to discriminate in the bargain).

The California Supreme Court said not so fast. On the one hand, the law says that people without work authorization shouldn’t be working. But on the other hand, the law says that all workers should be protected from discrimination.

In a careful decision, the California Supreme court balanced these two concerns.  It allowed Mr. Salas to take his case to a jury, finding that a company can be liable for discrimination even against undocumented employees.  At the same time, the court held that undocumented employees cannot seek a court to be hired back by the company that has discriminated against them.

This decision demonstrates an understanding of the reality of the California workplace, which is  increasingly made up of workers of all immigration statuses, including green card holders and naturalized U.S. citizens.  It also includes 1.85 million undocumented workers, who constitute nearly 10% of the total workforce.

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court confirmed that employers cannot violate the law—by discriminating or otherwise—and then later be immunized from liability for those violations. The court recognized that leaving undocumented workers without the protection of the law would actually give employers a strong incentive to “look the other way” when hiring and then turn around and use their immigration status to ultimately exploit them.  That would be bad news for employers who actually honor their obligations to treat workers fairly and legally when it comes to hiring, pay, and non-discrimination in the workforce.

Mr. Salas will now have the chance to take his case to a jury, who will decide whether he wins or loses.  But the Salas decision is a solid win for all law-abiding Californians – employees and employers alike.

 

Megan Beaman

About Megan Beaman

Megan Beaman is a community-based attorney who roots her work in the notion that all people deserve access to justice, and who understands the larger struggles for immigrant and worker justice in California and nationwide. Beaman’s practice is founded on her years of advocacy and activism in working class and immigrant communities, and tends to reflect the predominate needs of those communities, including many cases of discrimination, harassment, unpaid wages, immigration, substandard housing, and other civil rights violations. The client communities Beaman most often represents are overwhelmingly Latino and Spanish-speaking. Beaman also works and volunteers in a number of other community capacities, including as a coordinator for the Eastern Coachella Valley Neighborhoods Action Team.

California has collected $31 million under the Private Attorneys General Act

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By Christian Schreiber

Last week, I posted that the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) had collected more than $24 million in penalties from lawsuits brought under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA) through April 10, 2013.

Though the data is not quite complete (collection numbers are missing for three-plus months since April 2013), it does show that the LWDA has collected another $6,343,884 in penalties (approximately $488,000/month).  Thus, the total number of penalties collected since PAGA was enacted is just shy of $31 million.  That works out to an average of about $17,000 for each of the approximately 1,800 cases allocating PAGA penalties to the LWDA.

There are any number of ways to interpret this data. Among the most interesting aspects of the data is the sharp increase in PAGA penalties collected in the last year or so.  Almost half (45%) of all of the reported “PAGA cases” since 2004 are paid out from July 2013 to this August, as well as a quarter of all penalties (26%). No doubt this corresponds to an increase in the use of PAGA allegations in wage-and-hour class and collective actions, as practitioners have become more familiar with how to use PAGA in their cases.

Still, many important aspects of the law remain unsettled, and guidance from the Court of Appeal has been sparse. If the trend demonstrated by this data continues, however, the courts will not remain on the sidelines for very much longer.

Christian Schreiber

About Christian Schreiber

Christian Schreiber is a partner at Chavez & Gertler, where he works primarily on class actions involving employment and consumer rights, civil rights, and financial services matters.

If you’ve ever wondered how much California has received from PAGA settlements…wonder no more!

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The California Supreme Court’s June decision in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation has thrust the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) back into the foreground of wage-and-hour class actions.  The court held that despite a murderers’ row of anti-consumer, anti-employee/pro-business, pro-forced-arbitration decisions by the United States Supreme Court, the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) does not preempt California law that prohibits waiver of PAGA claims.  In other words, PAGA lawsuits can still be brought on behalf of large groups of workers, despite the fact that they have signed a class action waiver.

PAGA was passed in 2004 in the face of blistering opposition from the Chamber of Commerce, which spun the legislation as the “sue your boss bill.”  Before suing your boss, however, PAGA requires a plaintiff to exhaust administrative remedies by notifying the employer of the alleged violations of the Labor Code.  Notably, PAGA also mandates that 75% of any recovery of penalties goes back into the state’s coffers through the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).  Essentially, PAGA deputizes private attorneys to collect the state’s money for it from employers that have violated the law.

In the years immediately following the bill’s passage, many lawyers did not even allege PAGA claims and questioned the value of adding them to their case.  Government involvement in the case might be complicated, especially for just a 25% share of the recovery.  Much has changed in the ten years since the bill’s enactment.  With class claims vanishing, PAGA claims may well provide the most potent (or only) leverage for workers pursing impact litigation.

With a decade of experience behind us, perhaps it’s time we begin studying PAGA’s impact.  To this end, I sent a Public Records Act request to the LWDA for information about PAGA payments made to the State.  What came back was interesting.

Through April 2013, the LWDA had collected $24,532,690.57 in PAGA penalties from 1,255 cases.  The payments range from small ($4.15) to large ($614,280).

I’m certain there are others out there with the skill and inclination to analyze this data in ways I have not imagined, and my hope is that this will begin a meaningful dialogue about PAGA and its future.

Next week I will post the updated numbers I have received from April 2013-August 2014.

Christian Schreiber

About Christian Schreiber

Christian Schreiber is a partner at Chavez & Gertler, where he works primarily on class actions involving employment and consumer rights, civil rights, and financial services matters.

When merely considering your rights can get you fired!

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By Afshin Mozaffari

Employers may be reluctant to admit that their policies are designed to shut workers out of our civil justice system.  But there is no denying their intent.

Consider this example.  Elizabeth is a widow with five children who came into my office this spring.  Since the death of her husband a few years ago, she immersed herself in her work to provide for her family. Elizabeth didn’t earn much at her job, but her work as a waitress was enough to support her children.  She had been working for a California-based restaurant chain for nine years.

During a Friday shift last year, Elizabeth was informed about a new kind of company policy – an arbitration agreement that she was told she had to sign and return by Monday.  Elizabeth tried to find an attorney over the weekend to explain the document to her, and when she couldn’t, she asked her employer for more time to review the agreement.  She was fired a few days later for missing the 72-hour deadline.  The company also fired several other employees for either declining to sign the arbitration agreement or not doing so by the company-imposed deadline.

Elizabeth’s case is not uncommon, but it underscores just how much “free choice” goes into these “agreements.” Remarkably, courts have held that terminating employees for not signing employer-mandated arbitration agreements is not illegal.  These and other decisions are beginning to reach their absurd conclusions, where courts enforce arbitration agreements without regard to the rights of the affected individuals, enforcement of our laws, or the administration of justice. As Judge Jack Zouhary (a George W. Bush appointee) recently wrote in an order compelling arbitration of an antitrust claim, “This Court is bound by case law’s pro arbitration bent … common sense plays no role.”

Compulsory private arbitration has been the favored corporate practice for years.  It is easy to understand why.  Highly-paid private arbitrators, whose livelihood often depends on the repeat business from the same large corporations, render “justice” to an aggrieved employee who almost certainly will never appear before them again.  The inherent disadvantage for low wage workers facing off against multi-million dollar corporate employers in any setting is obvious, but the disadvantage is compounded in an arbitral forum.  Despite this, our courts have generally enforced these “agreements.”

I often see aggrieved employees who have signed arbitration agreements without understanding the content or the significance of the document. They sign the documents that their employers put in front of them, in order to continue working and to feed their families.  In fact, most workers don’t learn what the term “arbitration” means until they consult with an attorney and learn that they have already signed away their right to seek justice in a court.

But the compulsory nature of these arbitration agreements is undeniable when we look at the employees that don’t blindly “agree” to an employer’s mandatory arbitration policy, or those like Elizabeth who merely ask for time to conduct a careful review and to consider their rights before agreeing to sign them away.  If there was any question whether such “agreements” are a condition of employment, Elizabeth’s experience offers the answer.

Are we beginning to see the end to these extreme practices? On July 31, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting certain federal contractors from forcing their employees out of court and into arbitration in workplace discrimination cases.

Although this executive action is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. Congress continues to ignore this systematic denial of justice to our workers by failing to move forward on the Arbitration Fairness Act, which has been pending since last year.  The Act would ban forced arbitrations in employment and consumer settings. Until workers have a real choice in deciding where to claim their rights, the scales of justice will remain unbalanced.

NLRB decision – McDonald’s and other corporations, not lovin’ it

 

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By Alexis S. McKenna

For decades now, corporate franchisors have been able to have the best of both worlds with the franchise business model — exerting increasing control over their franchises’ operations in order to increase their own profits, while distancing themselves from the unlawful employment practices of the franchisees.

Take McDonald’s Corp. for example.  McDonald’s exercises a great deal of control over its franchisees and their employees through their franchise contracts.  This control includes partly setting wage levels, work rules and scheduling, requiring franchisees to use proprietary labor management software, and providing labor guidance to increase profitability. In fact, modern technology has made it easier over the years for corporations to increase its control and monitoring of the franchises, which in turn has increased profitability for the franchisees and the corporate franchisors.  But, increasingly, corporate franchisors wish to reap the benefits of the franchise industry while disavowing any responsibility for labor practices inside the restaurants.

That may be about to change.  Through a brief administrative decision on July 29, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)’s General Counsel, Richard Griffin, announced that McDonald’s could be treated as a “joint employer” (along with the franchisees) in labor cases.  In other words, McDonald’s could be legally responsible if its franchisees engage in unlawful employment actions, such as improperly paying workers or terminating them for union organizing.  In addition, treating McDonalds and its franchisees as “joint employers” would make it easier for fast food workers to unionize.  Instead of the time-consuming and expensive process of unionizing workers at each franchise location, company-wide organization may be feasible.  Perhaps more importantly, this decision could set a precedent not only for other franchisors, but for businesses that use temporary workers, subcontractors or so-called independent contractors as part of their business model.

The decision set off a firestorm in the industry, prompting a chicken-little-the-sky-is-falling response from franchisors and their proponents.  For example, in a quote in the Wall Street Journal, the chief executive for the International Franchises association said this opinion will “threaten the sanctity of hundreds of thousands of contracts between franchisees and franchisors.”  An editorial in the Chicago Tribune opined that “the new liability would invite a plague of lawsuits, while forcing corporations to drastically alter their operations.”  Numerous corporate leaders, such as the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which includes Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., claim this change to the system will “destroy” it.

The industry’s reaction is totally out of proportion to the potential impact of the decision.  Virtually no one wants the franchise system to shut down.  Yet, business proponents bombard us with rhetoric that contracts are downright holy and lawsuits are a disease.  They lament that forcing corporations to take responsibility for the franchisees will kill the entire system.

We’ve heard this sort of fear-mongering from the business community before.  Take, for example, the 40 hour work week, which union leaders pushed for and business owners fought against in the early 19th Century.  Study after study has since shown that a 40 hour work week has not destroyed our economy, but in fact made businesses more productive and profitable.

It is good to have corporations on the line for all it its franchise workers – it creates incentives for the corporations to keep the franchisees in line and treat their workers better.  While corporate leaders fight to protect the status quo, joint responsibility will help ensure that workers in these jobs have their rights protected, and can collectively bargain for fair wages.  A study by the National Employment Law Project shows that post-recession job market is weighted heavily toward work in the fast food industry.  Over 8 million people work at fast food restaurants, amounting to 15 percent of all private sector jobs in the United States.  Given the increase in these kinds of job in the modern economy, we must make sure these jobs can support the economy.

In the end, corporate liability for franchise misconduct will force corporations, who benefit significantly from their franchises, to take responsibility for working conditions that really are under their control.  And that is a system that benefits everybody.

 

Alexis McKenna

About Alexis McKenna

Alexis McKenna is a partner at Winer, McKenna & Burritt, LLP, where she specializes in harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination and other employment claims on behalf of plaintiffs. Alexis is the immediate Past President of the Alameda/Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association (ACCTLA), is on the Board of Governors of Consumer Attorneys of California, and is also a member of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association and American Association for Justice. A former editor of The Verdict for ACCTLA, Alexis has also published several articles and been a frequent lecturer in the area of employment litigation.

The myth of the disgruntled employee 1

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By Marvin Krakow

Removed from the distant wars currently in the news, it is easy to see how neighbors alike in so many ways must dehumanize one another in the midst of conflict. It’s a form of blindness that is common not just to war, but to all conflict – and one that I see all too often in my practice.

Let me introduce you to the people who come to our law office for help.   Many have worked for the same employer for long years, often for decades.  Most feel strong and warm connections to their employers and co-workers.  They struggle, as we all do, with the challenges of life, with their health, with family responsibilities, with financial reversals, and with their careers.  They come to see us, because their bosses have disrupted their work, their source of income, their identity. They are not irrational.  They are not trying to game the system.  They work with a seriousness of purpose.

Who are they?  They do every kind of work: executives, janitors, public servants, truck drivers, waiters, teachers, and artists. They come from every imaginable background.  They have advanced degrees; they did not learn to read.  Their families are established; they are recent immigrants, accompanied by their children who translate. Some are old, some young, some rich, some poor.  They are straight. They are gay.   They have strong religious beliefs.  They have no religious beliefs. They are breadwinners with obligations to pay college tuition or to support an elderly parent.  They are men and women near the ends of long careers who need another few years of work, because they cannot afford to retire.   They are from every racial and ethnic background.

If they share anything in common, it is that they are not happy to find themselves in a lawyer’s office.  When I ask potential clients about their previous dealings with lawyers, the most common response is that they have never hired a lawyer, and have never been involved in a lawsuit.  Most of them come to us reluctantly, and they apologize for doing so.  They will explain that they would prefer to consider all other options instead of filing suit.  They come, despite that reticence, because they feel they have been seriously hurt and profoundly disrespected by their employers.

Who brings a lawsuit?  Here are a few examples from my own recent experience: a store manager falsely accuses a 60-year old retail assistant of failing a drug test, and fires him.  New owners replace a worker who successfully led a computer software development department for over thirty years and replace her with a less qualified, younger man.  An executive needs time off to care for his dying wife; the owner fires him a week after she dies.

In each of these cases, the prevailing myth of the “disgruntled employee” hides the reality of our common humanity. It is impossible to hear the adjective “disgruntled” without filling in the noun “worker,” and conjuring an image of a madman spraying bullets from an automatic rifle.

The myth serves intertwining legal and psychological purposes for employers and their counsel.   A long term, productive employee is viewed as damaged.  He or she suddenly becomes a “complainer,” “a trouble maker,” “not a team player,” “unable to communicate,” “uncooperative,” “unresponsive to constructive criticism,” “an alarmist,” someone who “games the system,” “insubordinate.”  Managers targeting these employees sometimes send lengthy and detailed emails documenting “deficiencies” which were neither observed nor noted before the employee raised questions of discrimination or harassment on the job.  As part of this management mythology, employers assume that an employee who complains does so out of a failure of character: the employee must be permanently and irrationally dissatisfied by his or her lot in life, and with his or her workplace in particular.  They believe, or claim to believe, that the employee is dangerous.

Management’s goal is to cast the person as fundamentally unlikeable, less worthy of respect, “less human.”  Ultimately, management lawyers who demonize the worker who reports a problem by treating them as quasi-criminals, put the entire workforce at risk.  When the starting point is that complaints come mainly or exclusively from defective personalities, employers fail to take reports seriously.  They fail to remedy problems before they grow more serious.  They ignore warning signs of sexual predators.  They fail to correct safety hazards.  They allow mistreatment of older workers.  They make it harder for a parent to care for his or her children.

There is a better way.  When a manager puts aside defensiveness and character assassination, and  sees the care and loyalty driving an employee complaint,  he or she is likely to recognize issues that are critical to the well-being of the employer’s enterprise. Unfortunately,  conflict feels less troubling when the enemy isn’t quite so human.  I sometimes think these employers missed a chance to get to know my clients in all their humanity.  But perhaps it is simply easier for them to forget the people they once knew.

Marvin Krakow

About Marvin Krakow

Marvin Krakow (B.A., Yale, 1970, J.D. Yale, 1974), a founding partner of Alexander Krakow + Glick LLP, focuses on discrimination based on race, age, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and ethnicity, wrongful termination of employment, civil rights, and class actions. He has won seven, and eight figure results. He helps victims of sexual harassment and rape, and represents whistle blowers. He argued landmark cases before the California Supreme Court, Loder v. City of Glendale and Superior Court v. Department of Health Services (McGinnis).

Corporate clones no more: Religious diversity is coming to a store near you

By Alan Reinach

Ever since the Civil Rights Act championed the rights of a diverse workforce, many American corporations have fought to hold on to their homogeneous corporate image.  Some industries, like airlines and retail stores, have elevated corporate cloning to an artform, insisting that their employees embody their brand.

But the rise of the clones has met with resistance in the courts.  In an early case, an airline lost a legal challenge to its requirement that “stewardesses” (they were not called “flight attendants” back then) all be female, young, slender, sexy, and clad in tight fitting clothing.  No matter that such corporate branding was designed to appeal to the male business traveler.  The courts rejected these requirements as gender discrimination.

In more recent years, the most notorious American company to pursue a similar strategy is the clothing retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch.  A&F began as a purveyor of luxury sporting goods in 1892.  After bankruptcy in the mid 1970’s, the brand was resurrected as a youth-oriented clothing retailer.  Today, it is a thriving fixture of the American shopping mall.  Don’t expect to find salespeople in an A&F store – the company doesn’t hire any!  The people who staff A&F’s retail outlets are called “models.”

By hiring “models,” A & F seeks to preserve the right to make its “look”policy a key part of its marketing strategy. Those who work in retail are expected to be living ads for the brand, its image, and its product.

Enter a Muslim woman, wearing a head covering, and you can predict the unfolding drama. In 2009, 19-year-old Umme-Hani Khan was working at an A&F store for several months before the regional sales manager spotted her, and quickly fired her for violating the company’s “Look Policy” – specifically, its prohibition of hats.  The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit, and the judge heard arguments whether the “Look Policy” justified what amounted to religious discrimination.  The company vainly tried to prove that its marketing success depended on strict compliance with its “Look Policy.”  But as the judge wanted to see more than opinion – she wanted to see how having this woman and her head covering in the store for four months had an adverse impact on the store’s business.  Without such evidence, the judge ruled that A&F had no defense to this act of religious discrimination.

The protection for religious expression exemplified by the outcome in the Abercrombie & Fitch case has enormous significance for all Americans, and for the look of the American workforce. Many religions express themselves through individual dress and appearance:  Muslim women may cover their heads, but so do others.  Sikh men wear turbans, observant Jewish men wear yarmulkes.  Men in several religious traditions wear beards. Christians may wear a cross necklace, and the list goes on.

California now leads the way in outlawing such conduct, with passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which explicitly prohibits segregating workers form the public on account of religious appearance. As a result of the new California law, and decisions like that in the A&F case, expect to see more religious diversity in corporate America, especially in retail.

The momentum in favor of diversity of both religion and appearance is long overdue. Homogeneous corporate appearance standards are part of a culture that breeds conformity and mediocrity at the expense of individuality and freedom of religious expression.  So don’t be shocked the next time you see a turban, a hijab or a beard at one of the country’s giant chains. Corporate clones be gone: individuality is coming back to a workplace near you.

Editor’s Note:  For more about what the Abercrombie & Fitch decision means for workers, read CELA VOICE Co-Chair Charlotte Fishman’s op-ed in the Sacramento Bee.

Alan Reinach

About Alan Reinach

Alan J. Reinach, Esq., is the Executive Director of the Church State Council, the oldest public policy organization in the west devoted exclusively to issues of religious discrimination and the separation of church and state.

At-will employment: What would Midas do? 1

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By Marvin Krakow

In California, as in most of the United States, the default rule about job security is that there is none.  Employers call the default job security rule “at-will employment.”  What at-will employment means is that the boss is free to say “you’re fired,” at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.   A new boss who wants to clean house can show the door to a man or woman who devoted twenty or thirty years to the company, without a penny of severance.  Sometimes, business owners and managers use the at-will rule to hide illegal reasons for firing.  They get rid of whistleblowers.  They force out older workers.  They pick on those too sick to fight back.  As our economy goes through turmoil or as an individual business goes through hard times, loyal employees learn to their dismay that they have no job security at all.

A wise woman once explained to me her approach to difficult problems.  She called it the “what would Midas do?” method.  You may remember the fable of King Midas, a man with great wealth, and, as it turned out, excessive greed.  But for our purposes the critical fact is great wealth.  The method is simple: For any given problem, consider how a person of unlimited wealth might solve the problem.  What could he or she buy that would fix it?  Then, having identified the expensive method, figure out how to duplicate the result with amounts of money or resources more readily available to ordinary mortals.  The “what would Midas do” method can shine a bright light on the related problems of job security and workplace fairness.

We don’t have to guess what our mythological Midas might do.  We actually know.  Our modern day Midases are the One Percent.  They are the managers of multinational corporations, the highly compensated professionals, the academic superstars.  What they do is surprisingly simple.  They use their privilege and bargaining power to insist on written employment contracts that modify the default rule of at-will employment.  Almost without exception, the One Percent, our modern oligarchs, insist on contract terms which prevent firing without cause and which provide generous severance payments when they are fired.  We see this in news reports of CEO’s who walk away from their jobs with multi-million dollar “golden parachuteswhen the company changes hands or the board of directors decides it’s time for a new king or queen.

And we also have seen the Midas approach adapted by the less wealthy.  Working men and women, when they have the power of a good union behind them, bargain for security in much the same way as the far wealthier business owners.  I learned that lesson on my father’s knee.  I had the good fortune to grow up in a home where unions were valued for bringing security to the workplace.  As a young boy, I asked my father what a union was and what a union did.  His answer – which I remember to this day – was that a union keeps the boss from saying “Off with your head!”  Seeing what Midas does, union members and their representatives, as their first order of business, negotiate contracts which prevent termination without just cause.  Next, union bargainers seek earned severance benefits to provide loyal employees the resources to support themselves and their families during the long search for a new a job.

In recent decades, unions have fallen on hard times.  For most of us, there is no union to bargain for job security.  Even for working people who have a union, the rich and the powerful have mounted persistent and effective assaults on job security.  We need to ask the question again: how can we have the job security which the wealthy take for granted?  The answer is simple.  We can change the default rule to the rule which the wealthy claim for themselves.  Revoke the at-will rule for firing employees after their first year.  Change the default rule to permit termination only for just cause.  Require employers to fund and to pay meaningful severance benefits for economic layoffs.  Those simple changes would create a better and fairer workplace.

We can’t expect those with the Midas touch in this economy to eliminate at will employment voluntarily.  But, no matter how long it may take, instituting a just cause requirement is the real answer to this Midas question.

Marvin Krakow

About Marvin Krakow

Marvin Krakow (B.A., Yale, 1970, J.D. Yale, 1974), a founding partner of Alexander Krakow + Glick LLP, focuses on discrimination based on race, age, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and ethnicity, wrongful termination of employment, civil rights, and class actions. He has won seven, and eight figure results. He helps victims of sexual harassment and rape, and represents whistle blowers. He argued landmark cases before the California Supreme Court, Loder v. City of Glendale and Superior Court v. Department of Health Services (McGinnis).

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