50 years after the Equal Pay Act, women still earn only 80 cents on the dollar 1

50 years after the Equal Pay Act, women still earn only 80 cents on the dollar

By Sharon Vinick

Although it has been 50 years since Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man.  The anniversary is drawing attention.  In “The Startling Facts about the Gender Wage Gap,” lawyer and blogger Marjorie Wallace presents recent data regarding the disparities between the earnings of men and women.  In an effort to understand why the wage gap persists, Rebecca Pontikes explores the effect that unconscious bias has on women’s pay.   At the same time that we ponder the causes of the wage gap,  Noreen Farrell, Executive Director of Equal Rights Advocates, urges governors to take steps to close the gap in “50 Years, 50 Governors:  Are You Listening.”

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

Supreme Court makes proving retaliation harder for employees

Supreme Court makes proving retaliation harder for employees

By Sharon Vinick

The United States Supreme Court turned its back on decades of law when it decided on Monday that an employee cannot win a claim for retaliation unless he could prove that the employer’s decision to take action was driven by the employer’s intent to retaliate.  With this move, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for an employee to win a retaliation claim than to win a claim of discrimination or harassment, where an employee need only prove that a discriminatory motive was one of the reasons for the employer’s action.  The Court’s decision also ignores the realities of workplace decision-making, where decisions are rarely driven by single motives and where managers are trained to develop neutral explanations for their employment actions.

This heightened standard for proving a claim for retaliation was announced by the Court in the case of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. NassarDr. Naiel Nassar, who brought the case, is a physician of Middle Eastern descent, who is a specialist in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.  While employed at the University Medical Center, Dr. Nassar complained that Dr. Levine, one of the physicians supervising him, was discriminating against him on account of his religion and national origin.  In an effort to continue his work, but to avoid being subjected to further acts of discrimination, Dr. Nassar sought and was verbally offered a position at an affiliated hospital.    However, a high-level hospital official voiced his opposition to the hiring, making it clear that he was shocked that Dr. Nassar had made allegations against Dr. Levine.  Subsequently, the hospital withdrew its offer to bring Dr. Nassar on board.

Ignoring a long line of cases holding that claims for discrimination and retaliation are often intertwined and that retaliation “is a type of discrimination,” the Supreme Court ruled that employees bringing a claim of retaliation should be held to a higher standard of proof that those bringing claims of discrimination. Thus, the Court held that to win a claim for retaliation, the employee must prove that an “adverse employment action” – in this case, the withdrawal of an offer of employment – was taken because of an intent to discriminate.  Justice Kennedy, author of the majority opinion, defended the Court’s decision by explaining that “claims of retaliation are being made with ever-increasing frequency” and that a higher standard of causation was necessary to eliminate the filing of “frivolous claims.”

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Ginsburg, who spent her legal career defending civil rights and was a key player in the development of employment discrimination law, criticized the majority for failing to follow precedent, as well as failing to take into account the aims of the legislators who drafted and amended Title VII, the federal law prohibiting discrimination and retaliation.  As Justice Ginsburg correctly noted, the “Court appears to be driven by a zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed against employers.”  While this goal may be lauded by the business community, it simply has no place in Supreme Court precedent, which is undoubtedly the reason that Justice Ginsburg concludes by urging Congress to overturn the Court’s ruling.

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

Marriage cases move nation towards equality

Marriage cases move nation towards equality

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By Guest Blogger:  David Duchrow

The United States Supreme Court issued two landmark civil rights cases which, together, provide the strongest support to date for same-sex marriage.

These cases remind us that the civil rights movement does not travel a linear path.  Historically there have been notable steps forward and back, as well as many missteps.  The United States Supreme Court has issued decisions which, at times, have reflected popular opinion, and at other times it has held contrary to the will of “the people.”

Proponents of civil rights have pressed their cases based on compelling facts and moral imperatives, while those defending against progressive reform seem to utilize every procedural tool available to them (issues of standing, venue, and timeliness to name just a few) to defeat lawsuits against their clients.

This morning’s two marriage equality cases both follow and defy those historic trends.   In United States v. Windsor, the case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), the Court issued a ruling aligned with what polls suggest is an overwhelming “will of the people,” which itself had dramatically changed over the course of the litigation.  Yet, in the case involving California’s Proposition 8, the high court avoided addressing the compelling trial court record that was carefully developed by those challenging Proposition 8.  Instead, the opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry relies on a procedural maneuver to reinstate the trial court’s opinion invalidating Proposition 8.

In the DOMA case, Justice Kennedy wrote: “The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.” Justice Kennedy’s writing tracks language used in an amicus brief signed by 56 pro-civil rights organizations (including the California Employment Lawyers Association, on whose behalf I was honored to sign).  That brief emphasized the stigma for same-sex unmarried couples and their children.  DOMA “undermines” same-sex marriages in visible ways and “tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition.”  With the new decision, the federal government must now honor “dignity” states confer on same-sex couples if they choose to legalize gay marriage.

After the Court announced its DOMA decision, it issued its decision on Proposition 8.  California voters passed Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage in 2008, after 18,000 same-sex couples had already married under a state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.  A married lesbian couple with children, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, sued the state of California when their six-month-old marriage was invalidated by the ballot initiative.  They argued that Proposition 8 discriminated against them and their union based only on their sexual orientation, and that the state had no rational reason for denying them the right to marry.  Two lower courts ruled in their favor, and then-Governor Schwarzenegger announced he would no longer defend Proposition 8 in court, leaving a coalition of Proposition 8 supporters led by a former state legislator to take up its defense.

Chief Justice Roberts joined with Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan to rule that the initiative supporters did not have the standing to defend the ban in court.  The unusual coalition of traditionally liberal and conservative justices held that the Proposition 8 supporters could not prove they were directly injured by the lower court’s decision to overturn the ban and allow gay people to marry.

With the Proposition 8 decision, the Supreme Court refused to wade directly into the constitutional issues surrounding the California gay marriage case, side-stepping the pro-Proposition 8 argument on procedural grounds, meaning that a lower court’s ruling making same-sex marriage legal in California will stand and opening the door to marriage for gays and lesbians, without directly ruling on whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Thus, in DOMA the Supreme Court kept pace as public opinion shifted during the litigation, to the point where same-sex marriage is overwhelmingly supported now, even by those who opposed it initially when the litigation began.  And in the Proposition 8 case, procedure, not substance (alone) decided the outcome.  In any event, it is a proud, historic day for those who believe in equality and those who work to ensure civil rights for all.

 

Charlotte Fishman

About Charlotte Fishman

Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco attorney with over 30 years of experience handling employment discrimination cases on the plaintiff side. In 2005 she launched Pick Up the Pace, dedicated to overcoming barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace through legal advocacy and public education. She has authored amicus curiae briefs in major cases before the United States and California Supreme Court and writes and speaks to a wide audience on cutting edge employment issues affecting women.

Supreme Court’s changing definition of supervisor: What does it mean to employees? 2

By Sharon Vinick

In 1998, the Supreme Court issued two key decisions regarding an employer’s liability for work place harassment — Burlington Industries , Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998) and Farragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998) – which held that if a supervisor harasses an employee, the employer is strictly liable for the harm that is caused by the harassment.

Relying upon the ruling in these two cases, as well as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) guidelines that define a “supervisor” as being anyone with authority to take tangible employment actions or to direct an employee’s daily work activities, Meatta Vance, who worked as a substitute server and a part-time catering assistant, sued her employer, Ball State University (BSU) for racial harassment.

Ms. Vance claimed that another BSU employee, Saundra Davis, had racially harassed her and created a hostile work environment, and that BSU was strictly liable for Ms. Davis’ acts, because Ms. Davis was her supervisor.  The lower courts  rejected Ms. Vance’s claim, finding that Ms. Davis was not Ms. Vance’s supervisor, because Ms. Davis did not have the authority to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline” Ms. Vance.

In Vance v. Ball State University, the Supreme Court rejected the EEOC guidelines regarding the definition of supervisor and the arguments offered by the Government’s attorneys.  Justice Alito, writing for the majority, held that for the purpose of holding an employer strictly liable, the term supervisor is limited to only those individuals who have been “empowered” by the employer to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer of discipline.

As Justice Ginsberg points out in her dissenting opinion, this definition of “supervisor” is blind to the realities of the workplace.  Harassing employees who lack the authority to discharge or demote, are often “responsible for the day-to-day supervision of the workplace” and are authorized to make decisions which result in tangible employment actions against the employees whose work they are directing.  To hold that an employer is not strictly liable for the actions of these managers, is tantamount to giving job site bosses, and line managers, carte blanche to harass employees until such time as the employee actually files a complaint.

The implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Vance will be wide-reaching.

First, many individuals with managerial authority will no longer be considered to be supervisors, leaving employees subjected to harassment by these individuals without a remedy unless they can prove that the employer knew about the harassment and failed to act.  For example, under the definition of supervisor adopted by the majority opinion, a law firm associate who supervises paralegals and gives out plum assignments, but cannot hire or fire the paralegals, is not a supervisor for purpose of imposing liability on the law firm for the associate’s acts of harassment.  Similarly, an employer is not strictly liable for the harassing conduct of a job-site boss, as long as the employer doesn’t invest the boss with the authority to hire and fire.

Second, employers are likely to strip responsibility for hiring, firing and promotion away from managers, in order to limit the company’s liability for acts of harassment by those managers.  This is likely to impact those employees who are most vulnerable to harassment, such as individuals who work at far-flung job sites where harassment can go uncheck and unnoticed (including individuals working in construction or agriculture),  and people who work in the food-industry where there are multiple shifts.

While the impact of the decision in Vance will not be known for some time, the decision is clearly a “win” for employers.  As Justice Ginsberg so eloquently stated, “the Court embraces a position that relieves scores of employers for responsibility for the behavior of the supervisors they employ.”  One can only hope that members of Congress read to the very end of Justice Ginsberg’s dissent, where she invites them to enact legislation to “correct the error to which this Court has fallen, and to restore the robust protections against workplace harassment the Court weakens today.”

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

In two 5-4 decisions, Supreme Court narrows Title VII protection against harassment and retaliation

By Charlotte Fishman

What Senator Warren has labeled “the Corporate Capture of the Federal Courts”  was on full display at the United  States Supreme Court today.  The Court issued Vance v. Ball State University and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, two 5-4 pro-employer decisions authored by Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Anthony Kennedy, respectively.  Justice Ginsburg authored two impassioned dissents that she read from the bench.

To attorneys who represent victims of discrimination of harassment  and retaliation, these decisions illustrate a depressingly familiar scenario of judicial bias:    the majority is far more concerned with protecting employers from lawsuits than vindicating employees’ statutory right to be free from discrimination and retaliation.

In Nassar, Justice Kennedy’s words convey solicitude for the welfare of employers that is in sharp contrast to his disdainful view of employees:  “The fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation system” requires raising the standard for retaliation claims because “[i]t would be inconsistent with the structure and operation of Title VII to so raise the costs, both financial and reputational, on an employer whose actions were not in fact the result of any discriminatory or retaliatory intent.”

The majority’s lack of comparable concern for the “financial and reputational” cost of retaliatory harrassment to the employee is noteworthy, as is its unquestioning acceptance of the hypothetical danger rarely, if ever, encountered by employee-side practitioners:  “Consider…the case of an employee who knows that he or she is about to be fired for poor performance, given a lower pay grade, or even just transferred to a different assignment or location.  To forestall that lawful action, he or she might be tempted to make an unfounded charge of racial, sexual, or religious discrimination: then when the unrelated employment action comes, the employee could allege that this is retaliation.”

In Ball, Justice Alito’s opinion reveals the majority’s staggering ignorance of (or indifference to) the power of low level supervisors to use their employer-delegated authority to harass employees under their control.  The opinion limits employer’s vicarious liability for workplace harassment to the actions of supervisors who have the power to “hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline.”   In so ruling, the Court threw out EEOC Enforcement Guides in effect since 1999, and made it harder for employees to obtain redress for harassment by defining individuals who control day-to-day schedules and assignments as mere “co-workers.”

The tendency of the federal courts to favor corporate interests over that of individuals has become the subject of increasing public concern, and today’s decisions provide additional fuel for the argument that  we need greater experiential diversity on the federal bench.  Hopefully, Congress will accept Justice Ginsburg’s invitation to “correct this Court’s wayward interpretations of Title VII” and  restore the Title VII protections that are weakened by today’s cases.  But in the long run, what is needed to restore balance to our judicial system is the appointment of federal judges who are better attuned to the rights of individuals.

Charlotte Fishman

About Charlotte Fishman

Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco attorney with over 30 years of experience handling employment discrimination cases on the plaintiff side. In 2005 she launched Pick Up the Pace, dedicated to overcoming barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace through legal advocacy and public education. She has authored amicus curiae briefs in major cases before the United States and California Supreme Court and writes and speaks to a wide audience on cutting edge employment issues affecting women.

“Rape in the Fields” documentary chronicles sexual violence against women farmworkers

By Michael Marsh

I was born and raised just a few miles north of our country’s border with Mexico. As a teenager I often wondered what my life would have been like had I been born just a few miles south, which led me to become an attorney who assists low wage, Spanish-speaking employees in California.

Through my work I have learned firsthand that sexual harassment and assault against farmworker women, documented in “Cultivating Fear,” a 2012 Human Rights Watch report,  transcends borders. Every week approximately two women come to our small office in Salinas to complain about sexual harassment. This season we’ve already had three farmworker women report that they were sexually assaulted by their supervisors at work.

The shocking prevalence of sexual abuse against farmworkers is the subject of a new Frontline documentary, “Rape in the Fields.”  It  airs Tuesday June 25 on PBS and June 29 on Univision.

Michael Marsh

About Michael Marsh

Michael Marsh is Directing Attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. His practice focuses on working with farmworkers to improve the quality of their working lives.

Eat healthy, for you and the farmworker who harvested your food 1

By Michael Marsh

Many of us buy organic vegetables and products when they’re available. We seek a healthy diet, and don’t want to expose ourselves or our children to residues from toxic pesticides which have been shown to build-up in our bodies.

But the principal reason that I buy organic vegetables isn’t to protect my family, it’s to protect farmworkers and their families. If I fear that eating minute residues of pesticides will damage my health, imagine what life must be like for a farmworker.

As an attorney for farmworkers, I am aware of the many problems they face–low pay, long work hours, back-breaking work, little respect, fear of deportation, and numerous health risks. Add to that pesticides. And not pesticides in the quantities that we consumers see. I’m talking pesticides in bulk!

In a recent opinion piece I wrote for Salinas’ daily paper, I discussed the dangerous pesticides facing farmworkers and farmworker communities today.  To give you just two examples, in Monterey County where I live, approximately 8 million pounds of pesticides are applied each year. Half of that amount is extremely toxic fumigants like chloropicrin and methyl bromide, which has been banned internationally but is still used in California. But that’s just a beginning. In Tulare county, approximately 25 million pounds of pesticides are used each year. That’s 55 pounds for each person living in the county!

Farmworkers work in fields that have been sprayed with pesticides and they work near fields that are being sprayed with pesticides. Then they go home to houses located near fields that have been treated with pesticides. And they bring pesticide residues home to their children in the form of dust and soil carried on their boots and clothes. Finally, unable to afford organic vegetables, they eat the same commercial foods with pesticide residues that the average consumer eats.

State and federal agencies do little to study, let alone protect farmworkers from the long term impact of these pesticides. There is a ray of hope, however. CHAMACOS, run by the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at U.C. Berkeley, is midway in a long-term study of the impacts of pesticides on farmworker women and their children. CHAMACOS has already shown a correlation between pesticide exposure and low birth weight and slowed child development, and they continue to study changes in practices that could reduce exposure to pesticides in farmworkers and their children.

California law requires that every employer provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace. Farmwork is no exception. For all of us who do not grow the food we eat, we owe it to farmworkers to oppose the use of dangerous pesticides such as chloropicrin.

Michael Marsh

About Michael Marsh

Michael Marsh is Directing Attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. His practice focuses on working with farmworkers to improve the quality of their working lives.

Senate Bill 292 would restore protection for hostile work environment sexual harassment

For victims of sexual harassment,  whether the harasser is motivated by lust or hostility, or a combination of both, makes no difference.  However, one California Appellate Court departed from that traditional wisdom and ruled that in order for conduct to be sexually harassing, it must be motivated by sexual desire.

In his recent article for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, CELA VOICE contributor James DeSimone explains how Senate Bill 292 would restore protection to California employees who experience hostile work environment sexual harassment.

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

Recent Supreme Court ruling on class action waivers in arbitration agreements draws fire

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion with a far-reaching impact on employees and consumers who sign mandatory arbitration agreements.  When those agreements include class action waiver provisions, victims of unfair business practices can no longer band together to seek redress.  In his post — Why Regular People Need to Pay Attention to the Supreme Court’s Arbitration Obsession: American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant Cries for Amending the Federal Arbitration Act – lawyer and blogger Bryan Schwartz covers the history of this issue at our nation’s highest court and sums up the holding like this –

Today, the Supreme Court (as Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent explains) held as follows, with respect to the fact that arbitration agreements with class action waivers effectively deprive victims of all legal recourse: “Too darn bad.”

The Atlantic Wire article — The Problem with the Supreme Court’s AmEx Decision, Class Action, and You —  summarizes the case and offers reaction from the author of an amicus brief arguing against class action waivers on behalf of an association of professional arbitrators.

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

Welcome to the CELA VOICE!

Welcome to the CELA VOICE!

CELA VOICE is a project of the California Employment Lawyers Association.  Our goal is nothing short of changing the discussion about issues of importance to California employees.  Our method is simple.  We will amplify the voice of worker advocates on issues that are vital to our economy, our way of life, even our health.

The contributors to the CELA VOICE bring a unique perspective to understanding what is working and, too often, what isn’t working in California workplaces.  Because we are attorneys who represent employees in lawsuits, we spend our professional time probing how employment practices and management decisions can go so far awry that loyal employees feel they have no recourse short of the courtroom.  Working up our cases often takes us to the top levels of management and always requires us to learn about industry practices.  Over time (and many of us have been practicing for decades), we cannot help but recognize the trends.

Why is this perspective needed when plenty of bloggers are already out there ready to offer their opinion on controversies in the workplace?  After all, almost anyone who blogs or writes opinion pieces is a worker.  The answer is this — very few journalists or bloggers have the depth of access to information and the insider view that we gain every time we take a case on behalf of an employee.  (And, let’s face it, journalists can’t put their sources under oath.)  That being said, we share the journalists’ fealty to facts.  In trial, lawyers are forced to focus on the evidence and drop the speculation.  We have tasked our contributors to do the same, so that our readers can count on solid information and evidence-based opinions that should stand the test of cross-examination.  Indeed, not all of our contributors share the same perspective on all issues, so what you are reading is not any sort of “party line.”

Which are the industries where sexual harassment is commonplace?  How are employers using the “exempt” designation to force their employees regularly to work 80 hours a week without overtime?  What is being done to protect farmworkers from exposure to pesticides?  When whistleblowers step forward to report illegal practices, what really happens to them?  If you want to know the answer to these questions, just ask the lawyers who represented the workers.  Or, better yet, subscribe to the CELA VOICE!

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

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