State Bar President and California Bar Associations Call on President and Senate to Heed the Constitution and Fill SCOTUS Vacancy

State Bar President and California Bar Associations Call on President and Senate to Heed the Constitution and Fill SCOTUS Vacancy

 

Today, bar associations from across the state of California sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate leaders urging them to heed their constitutional duty to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. The bar associations, representing more than 30,000 lawyers throughout the state, called on the president to quickly nominate a qualified candidate to the Supreme Court, and for the Senate to consider that nominee without delay. The effort, spearheaded by the California Employment Lawyers Association, brings together the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the Alameda County Bar Association, the Lake County Bar Association, the Yolo County Bar Association and more than a dozen other statewide and local bar associations.  California State Bar President David Pasternak also signed on to the letter in his individual capacity.

Within hours of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, Senate Republican leaders stated that they would refuse to even consider the president’s nominee. Nearly a month later, Senate Republican leaders have held firm to the position that they will refuse to hold hearings or a floor vote for any nominee put forward by this president. With few exceptions, Senate Republicans support this position.

“The implications of this course of action would be significant, subjecting people in different regions of the country to different legal standards on matters of constitutional importance and leaving open the specter of an unresolved constitutional crisis,” the letter warns.

“[T]he framers placed in the hands of the executive and legislative branches of our government a duty to ensure that the third pillar of our democracy, our courts, would be protected from entanglement in partisan politics,” the letter explains.  “While careful evaluation and reasoned debate regarding the qualifications of the nominee are central to the Senate’s role to advise and consent, it would undermine the rule of law and risk nullifying the Supreme Court’s power to serve its constitutional role as arbiter of disputes, were the confirmation process to be delayed until a new president is inaugurated.”

Bar associations representing the two most populous cities in the United States have now called on the Senate to consider a nominee to the Supreme Court without delay. The letter, sent today, comes on the heels of similar calls by the New York State and New York City Bars respectfully requesting the Senate to reconsider its refusal to consider a nominee put forward by the president.  Constitutional law scholars at universities around the country have also weighed in via a joint statement, pointing out that the Constitution “has no exception for election years.”

The letter signed by the California bar associations does not mince words. “We ask that you carry out your constitutionally prescribed roles with full fealty to the oaths you have taken so that our Supreme Court is returned to its full membership,” the signers write.

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.

On to the next battle — employment equality for LGBT workers

On to the next battle -- employment equality for LGBT workers

By Lisa Mak

 


Last Friday, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across America.  This historic decision was a momentous step forward in advancing equality for the LGBT community, but the fight for equality is far from over.  What’s next?

The first battleground is to achieve recognition on a national level that the right to work free from discrimination is a fundamental civil right.  According to a report published last month by the Movement Advancement Project, 61 percent of the LGBT population live in states with medium or low legal protections, or that have hostile laws that restrict their rights.  This includes insufficient to non-existent protections in the employment area, as the report specified that 52 percent of the LGBT population live in states that do not prevent employers from firing them based on their sexual orientation.  Imagine: an employee exercises her Constitutional right to marry on a Saturday, and then on Monday gets fired for doing so.  Or for placing a wedding picture on her desk, talking about her spouse, or expressing her sexual identity in any way.  Outrageously, this could be the reality for the majority of LGBT employees in this country.

Employment discrimination against LGBT workers is undeniably still a prevalent problem.  A 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of people surveyed said they had been treated unfairly by an employer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The percentages were markedly higher for transgender employees and LGBT people of color.  A 2013 report authored by various organizations found that nearly 50 percent of black LGBT employees reported experiencing discrimination at work due to their sexual orientation.  Between 75 and 82 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT employees reported workplace discrimination as well.  Such discrimination can include the failure to hire or promote LGBT workers, workplace harassment, unequal wages, and the lack of on-the-job support – the same kinds of employment rights that other minority groups have been advocating for in the workplace for decades.

Despite these realities, according to data from the Human Rights Campaign, only 19 states currently have laws that prohibit workplace discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.  Another three states prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity.  Ten states have employment protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity only for public employees, which does nothing for private sector workers.  And in 18 states, LGBT employees still have no employment protections at all.  That lack of protection is just another form of denying equality for employees.

The situation is even bleaker at the federal level, although progress is being made. Yet there is still no federal statute that protects employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would prohibit such discrimination has been introduced in Congress each year since 1994, but has never mustered enough Republican support to make it to the President’s desk.  Last year, House Speaker John Boehner openly expressed his disapproval of ENDA, telling the LGBT Equality Caucus that there was “no way” the legislation would pass that year.  Boehner stated that the bill was “unnecessary” because “people are already protected in the workplace.” Boehner’s statement and others like it demonstrate just how out of touch key members of Congress are with the kind of discrimination LGBT workers face.

Gainful employment instills a sense of purpose and dignity, and increases meaningful contributions to our communities.  Our anti-discrimination laws are in place to correct the traditional exclusion of marginalized groups – such as women, older workers, and racial minorities – and to ensure equal employment opportunities.  It is time to fully add LGBT employees to that list.  Whether single or married, they should not be penalized in their careers or livelihood for exercising their right to work.

It’s time for Congress to pass ENDA at the federal level and for State legislatures to implement or expand laws to protect LGBT employees.  Work must continue in every arena, including in those States where there are already such laws, such as California, where agencies and attorneys should bring critical cases to strengthen enforcement.  Finally, businesses should work to create an inclusive workplace for LGBT employees through policies, practices, and training.  Many companies have already done so, but others continue to flaunt their willingness to discriminate.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in the Obergefell decision, in seeking the right to marriage, same-sex individuals asked “for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”  We should continue to recognize this dignity by continuing to address the gap in legal employment protections for the LGBT community.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Religious freedom comes of age in corporate America

Religious freedom comes of age in corporate America

Abercrombie

By Alan Reinach

Religious minorities have always been at the forefront of pushing religious freedom in American law. This year is no different, as Samantha Elauf, a young Muslim woman, won a critical case on behalf of all who seek workplace accommodations for their religious beliefs and practices. Ms. Elauf was denied a job at popular retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, not because she was unqualified, but because she wore a head scarf. Although she was never asked why she wore the scarf to her interview, managers assumed it was for religious reasons, and for that reason, didn’t hire her. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up Ms. Elauf’s religious discrimination case, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision rejected A & F’s argument that its “look” policy is religion neutral, and therefore, not discriminatory. The Court held that employers must treat religious beliefs and practices favorably, and cannot hide behind “religion-neutral” policies.

This decision is a stunning reversal of a decades-long trend treating religious accommodation claims with suspicion. Some fifty years ago, in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Johnson arm twisted and cajoled Congress into enacting the Civil Rights Act, in honor of Kennedy’s legacy. While the act outlawed employment discrimination on the all the usual bases, religion has always been a poor stepchild.

Almost immediately, the question arose whether the Act’s prohibition of religious discrimination required employers to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of its employees. Typically, such accommodations involve making exceptions from dress codes for religious expressions such as beards or yarmulkes. Or, even more commonly, employers are asked to permit workers time off to observe the Sabbath, a religious holiday, or to attend church.

When courts were divided on how to answer this question, Congress amended the Civil Rights Act in 1972 to clarify the employers must provide “reasonable accommodation,” but only if it does not result in an “undue hardship.” Still, employers did not know what these vague terms meant in practice. In a 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court appeared to view religious accommodation with suspicion, holding that even a minimal amount of hardship was “undue.” The back story on this case is that the court was asked to invalidate religious accommodation altogether as a violation of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” separating church and state. Although the Court’s decision avoided the establishment clause argument, it greatly weakened the law instead.

The next time religious accommodation went to the Supreme Court was in 1986, when the Supreme Court held, in Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, that employers get to choose among alternative accommodations. Often, employers choose accommodations that disadvantage employees.  This decision also weakened the position of workers seeking religious accommodation.

In 1990, when Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, Congress used the same legal standard for the disabled:  reasonable accommodation short of an undue hardship, but defined undue hardship as one causing “significant difficulty or expense.” Advocates for religious freedom began to draft comparable language, and have been asking Congress for nearly twenty years to toughen the religious accommodation law, to no avail.

But 1990 also saw a Supreme Court decision in a religious freedom case, Employment Division v. Smith, which has had an enormous impact on workplace discrimination. In the now infamous “peyote” case, Justice Scalia wrote that religion neutral laws did not raise First Amendment free exercise of religion concerns. Employers have often assumed the same logic applies to their own religion neutral policies – that they need make no exception for religious beliefs and practices. In practice, many Americans have lost their jobs because employers refused to make any exceptions for their religious observances, even when they could do so easily.

Justice Scalia’s opinion for an 8-1 majority in the Elauf case now buries the notion that company policies “trump” religious accommodation requests. The impact on companies will be modest, since such requests are typically quite few in number. But for those Americans of all faiths who can’t just park their religion at home when they go to work, the implications are huge. The issue in Samantha Elauf’s case concerned appearance: wearing of a head scarf. Clearly, the case signals a shift away from conformity to corporate appearance standards. California has gone even further, forbidding employers from segregating workers from the public on account of their religious appearance.

But the decision also implicates many other corporate policies, especially scheduling and discipline. Companies will have to become more flexible in scheduling those who need time to observe the Sabbath or attend church. They will also have to refrain from disciplining workers who would otherwise accumulate attendance points on account of religious observances.

Religious freedom has finally come of age in corporate America.

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.

The Civil Rights Act – looking ahead

The Civil Rights Act – looking ahead

By Marvin Krakow

When we look back, few of us would want to be associated with opposition to our country’s efforts to end discrimination.  Yet, today, as we did then, we all too quickly close our eyes to the mistreatment of others, and all too readily harden our hearts against the suffering of those we call “other”.  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 progress and compassion over misplaced caution and over “all deliberate speed”.   We have a chance to think big.

Looking Ahead — Part 2

We can draw a two part lesson from the changes which followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

First, we have learned to appreciate diversity and inclusion.  People once excluded by law and by custom, when given a chance, contribute to our communities.  They become our co-workers, our business partners, our friends, our loved ones. We share celebrations, food, holidays, life’s passages.

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Our work becomes more productive.  Our art, our writing, our music, the entirety of human expressive effort becomes more creative.  Our lives are enriched beyond measure.

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Second, we have learned that we often fail to see or to appreciate discrimination inherent in our daily lives.  In the mid-twentieth century, we failed to appreciate the extent to which our laws and customs abused and marginalized women, minorities, members of the LGBT community, immigrants, people with physical and mental challenges, and older people.

Occupy_Wall_Street_spreads_to_PortlandToday, we fail to recognize the ways in which we abuse and marginalize people without money, people with limited education, and people whose religions we do not understand.  We fail to recognize the ways in which we deny the humanity of working men and women  and degrade their lives.  What we don’t see, we can’t acknowledge: the more subtle and hidden forms that traditional discrimination now takes.

Our work is not done.  Imagine how our communities might look fifty years from now at the one hundredth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.  Imagining the future gives us a sense of the struggles ahead, but at the same time, it acknowledges changes already underway, and it provides hope to sustain our efforts.  Here is my personal wish list for 2064:

  1. Employers must have good cause before firing a worker.  Job security will be a fundamental right for all.
  2. Countries participating in the global economy will develop and enforce international standards for treatment of working men and women.  Participating countries will require that goods and services sold in their domestic markets be produced in safe facilities, by workers who are paid a living wage,  enough to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education for their families.
  3. The countries of the world will develop and enforce international standards for environmentally sustainable production.  No business will be allowed to operate without systems and processes to prevent environmental damage.  Participating countries will no longer permit the degradation of land, water, and air as a part of doing business.
  4. The right to free movement of all people among the countries of the world will be guaranteed in the same way that the right to free movement of all people among the states of the United States is guaranteed by our Constitution. How we treat a person will not depend on where he or she was born.  We will recognize that laws which restrict immigrants are fundamentally unfair.  We will provide sufficient support and services to fully integrate newcomers into our communities.
  5. In the United States, we will expand Social Security to develop an effective and financially sound workplace benefit system, including unemployment stipends, paid medical and family leave, disability insurance and retirement pensions which support a decent life.
  6. Both here and abroad, we will find ways to reduce inequality of income and wealth, making sure that all people can earn enough to provide a decent life for themselves and for their families.
  7. Workplaces will follow the model of union grievances, and will provide informal, effective, and speedy dispute resolution mechanisms to address claims of unfair treatment, and to serve as a check on unilateral management actions.
  8. We will reaffirm and guarantee the rights of working people and consumers to present discrimination and workplace fairness claims to juries.
  9. Workplaces will provide support for family obligations, including decent childcare, and paid leave for medical and newborn care.
  10. Successful businesses will develop mechanisms to involve workers in decisions affecting the operation of the workplace.  In the unionized sector of the economy, an expansion of the mandatory subjects of collective bargaining may support that change.  In every workplace, we will protect working men and women who speak out about issues at work, safety, pay, discrimination, illegal conduct.   Even in the absence of legal requirements, the economic advantages realized by fully engaging working men and women will provide a competitive advantage to businesses which seize the initiative.
  11. We will surrender the illusion of superiority.  The mistreatment of others, including all forms of discrimination and retaliation, rests on the often unacknowledged assumption that the person in power is better than the person oppressed.  It is possible, however, to affirm our own needs and desires without denigrating the humanity of others.
  12. This item left blank.  It will be filled in by the struggles of ordinary people.  It will amaze us!
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).

The Civil Rights Act – looking back

The Civil Rights Act – looking back

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).

What you need to know before you blow the whistle 2

What you need to know before you blow the whistle

By Anne Richardson

Can a public employee be terminated because he testified truthfully that another government employee was defrauding the government?   That is the question in the case of Lane v. Franks, argued in front of the United States Supreme Court earlier this week.

Edward Lane was hired as interim director of an at-risk youth program for Central Alabama Community College.  Shortly after he started working, he audited the program’s finances, and found that Sue Schmitz, an employee who was also a  member of the State Legislature, appeared not to be performing her community relations job, even though she was collecting a paycheck.

Representative Schmitz’ “no show” job performance was investigated by the FBI, and eventually she became the subject of a federal prosecution by the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Lane was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney to testify before a grand jury and in two criminal trials.

Lane testified truthfully that Representative Schmitz was on the payroll for his program –  one of its highest paid employees — but had never reported for work.  When he attempted to get her to carry out her job duties Schmitz refused, and  warned him not to mess with her.  He fired her despite the threat because he believed that allowing her to continue taking money for a “no show” job would make him complicit in her dishonesty.

Schmitz was convicted in federal court of taking $177,000 in public funds.  The Alabama Attorney General called the case “one of the most egregious public corruption situations in Alabama’s history.” It led to a total rewrite of its public corruption laws and ethics laws. But instead of being rewarded for his part in bringing her to justice, Mr. Lane was fired from his job.

Hey wait a minute, how could this happen?  Government whistleblowers are protected by the First Amendment, aren’t they?  Well, not always.  The Supreme Court has long held that government employers have greater latitude to discipline whistleblowers than employers in the private sector.  It created a balancing test to ensure that public employees cannot simply say whatever they want, to whomever they want.

In Pickering v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that the subject of the employee’s speech must be of public concern; the employee’s comments cannot be false; and the employee’s conduct must not interfere with the regular operations of the employer.  In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Court ruled that if the employee’s speech is part of her official responsibilities, she is not protected from retaliation by the First Amendment.

The Lane case gives the Supreme Court its first opportunity to clarify what it meant in Garcetti.   The attorney representing Lane’s employer argued that since Lane’s testimony was based on information that Lane learned in carrying out his job duties, he is not protected by the First Amendment. Lane’s attorney responded that since testifying in response to a federal subpoena in a corruption investigation was not part of his job duties, he is protected.  Lane is supported by numerous groups, including the National Association of Police Organizations, whose “friend of the court” brief argued that permitting retaliation against officers who testify would “promote obstruction of justice.”

California law provides more protection to whistleblowers, both public and private. In 2013,the Legislature amended the California Labor Code to make it clear that employees are protected against retaliation “regardless of whether disclosing the information is part of the employee’s job duties.”

California’s approach is better because whether or not reporting misconduct is a whistleblower’s job, society loses if he is not protected. If you can terminate someone who fulfills his responsibility by testifying truthfully, you are creating a perverse incentive to lie under oath.  As a society, we should encourage whistleblowers who bring corruption to light, not punish them.  A decision from the high court should be announced this summer.

Anne Richardson

About Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the Associate Director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a project aimed at eliminating economic injustice on behalf of underrepresented workers, students, and families throughout California and nationwide. Previously she was a partner at Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick representing plaintiffs in all varieties of employment discrimination and civil rights matters for over twenty years. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has been named to the Top 100 Lawyers in Southern California and has received numerous honors for her work.

U.S. Supreme Court defines the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes”

U.S. Supreme Court defines the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes”

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By Sharon Vinick

Earlier this week, U.S. Steel and employers across the nation rejoiced as the United States Supreme Court issued a decision regarding the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes” within the context of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  To understand why this ordinary phrase received such extraordinary attention requires some understanding of the Act itself, and the right of labor unions to negotiate over what type of work is compensable.

In 1938, when Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs the minimum wages and maximum hours for individuals working in non-exempt positions, it failed to include definitions of key terms, such as “work” and “workweek.”  The Supreme Court addressed the meaning of these terms in the 1946 case of Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., concluding that the term “workweek” includes all time during which an employee is required to be on the employer’s premises and includes time spent engaged in “preliminary activities . . such as putting on aprons and overalls [and] removing shirts.”  The Court held that these activities – which came to be referred to as “donning and doffing” — are “work” for which employees should be compensated.

Just three years later, in 1949, Congress amended the FLSA in order to provide that the compensability of time spent donning and doffing clothing, as well as washing, was an appropriate subject for collective bargaining.  Thereafter, unions were free to negotiate with employers with respect to whether employees would be paid for “time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning and end of each workday.”  And, not too surprisingly, in the rough and tumble of union negotiations, many employees ended up working under contracts which provided that they did not get paid for changing clothes, even if the clothing was required and took significant time to get in and out of.

In Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, decided earlier this week, steelworkers asked to be paid for time that they spent putting on and taking off fifteen items of “personal protective gear,” including flame-retardant outerwear, gloves, steel tipped boots, hard hats, and snoods. (For the uninitiated, a “snood” is basically a hood that covers the neck and shoulder area, rather like a balaclava.) Attorneys for the steelworkers argued that these items were “protective gear” and not “clothes” within the meaning of the FLSA.  In contrast, the employer, US Steel, argued that these items were encompassed within the meaning of the phrase “changing clothes” and were appropriately covered under the union contract.

The Supreme Court relied on 1940s dictionary definitions of the words “changing” and “clothes” to decide the case, holding that “changing clothes” encompassed both changing from street clothes to work clothes and layering protective gear over work clothes.  Thus, the court concluded, if a collective bargaining agreement provided that employees would not be paid for “changing clothes,” they would not be entitled to pay for time spent donning and doffing protective gear.

The opinion has been widely hailed as a victory for employers, but its “gotcha” effect is likely to be short lived. The next time the parties sit down at the bargaining table it’s unlikely that the putting on and taking off of protective gear will fly under the radar.

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.

Italian Colors decision shows Supreme Court’s true colors on arbitration agreements

By Anne Richardson

Many people don’t realize that when they start working at a new company the papers they sign often contain agreements to give up their right to go to court if their rights are violated.  Too often, it is only when a company has fired that worker, refused to pay her overtime, or subjected her to harassment that a person turns to a lawyer and discovers that the employment dispute will be decided by an arbitrator, not a judge or a jury.

Even if the prospective employee reads and understands that what they are signing requires them to arbitrate, their “agreement” is hardly a voluntary one — most employees are powerless to alter the terms of an employment agreement.  For many, the need to pay bills outweighs the concern that someday that employee may have a dispute with the employer.

The downsides of arbitration to employees and consumers are many.  Employers and large corporations are more likely to be “repeat players” in arbitration, and it is well known that arbitrators tend over time to become partial to those that employ them regularly.  In addition, an arbitrator who does provide a large judgment to an employee is subject to being blackballed by the employers who may refuse to agree to use that arbitrator in the future.  According to a 2007 survey conducted by the non-profit Public Citizen, consumers had lost more than 94 percent of cases handled by the debt collection arbitrator National Arbitration Forum.  The Supreme Court’s June 20 decision in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant continues an aggressive run of cases by this Court that take the side of big business against the little guy.  In Italian Colors, owners of a small restaurant tried to challenge an arbitration agreement that was forced upon them by American Express.  The restaurant owners claimed that American Express violated federal antitrust laws that affected small businesses as a class, but the arbitration agreement prohibited any class action claims.

Unfortunately, the restaurant’s individual claim was only worth $38,549.  The cost of arbitrating the case was estimated to be between $100,000 and $1,000,000.  Unless the restaurant could bring a class action, there was no way it could recover its loss.  The restaurants argued that the class action prohibition in the arbitration agreement prevented the enforcement of federal antitrust laws.

Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, upheld the class action prohibition in the arbitration agreement.  In her sharply worded dissent, Justice Kagan called the decision a “betrayal of our precedents,” wherein “[t]he monopolist gets to use its monopoly power to insist on a contract effectively depriving its victims of all legal recourse.”

Employee arbitration agreements may still be challenged on grounds that they are unconscionable if the employee was forced to accept the agreement and the terms of the agreement are overly harsh or one-sided in some respect, then the arbitration agreement will not be upheld.

But the Italian Colors case demonstrates that the Federal Arbitration Act, which was passed in 1925, needs to be amended.  Congress must respond to the Supreme Court’s extreme interpretation, which threatens to undermine important legislation protecting consumers, employees and other vulnerable citizens.

Anne Richardson

About Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the Associate Director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a project aimed at eliminating economic injustice on behalf of underrepresented workers, students, and families throughout California and nationwide. Previously she was a partner at Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick representing plaintiffs in all varieties of employment discrimination and civil rights matters for over twenty years. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has been named to the Top 100 Lawyers in Southern California and has received numerous honors for her work.

“The Pursuit of Happiness” – an Independence Day reflection on San Francisco’s LGBT Pride Parade

“The Pursuit of Happiness” – an Independence Day reflection on San Francisco’s LGBT Pride Parade

By Charlotte Fishman

Over one million people attended the San Francisco Pride Parade last Sunday, and I was one of them.  Having just returned from attending the National Employment Lawyers Association Summit for Worker’s Rights in Denver, I got caught up in the excitement of my daughter and her high school friends as they prepared to leave for their trip to the City.

Four days earlier, the United States Supreme Court had announced two long-awaited decisions affecting same sex marriage – Hollingsworth v. Perry leaving intact the California Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Proposition 8, and United States v. Windsor,  declaring Section 3 of the Orwellian-titled Defense of Marriage Act [“DOMA”]  an unconstitutional denial of equal protection of more than one thousand federal laws affecting marital or spousal status.  Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Windsor did not mince words:  “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

After waving goodbye to the kids, we parents rapidly made a decision:  a beautiful day, a historic occasion—how could we miss it?!  As soon as we reached the BART platform, we were surrounded by riders in rainbow-hued tights, tutus, face paint, headgear, and jewelry.  As we rode from station to station, the train filled to bursting with riders of every age, race, and family circumstance – gaggles of glittery teenage girls, two-mom families with preschoolers, heterosexual couples with costumed babies, pierced bike riders, and elderly same-sex couples sporting rainbow beads. It felt like half the population of the East Bay was traveling to the Pride celebration.

Despite my understanding the legal and historical importance of the Windsor decision, I was still unprepared for its emotional impact on the crowd.  Parade participants weren’t just celebrating California’s legal right to marry – they were bearing witness to society’s validation of individual choices and family ties.  Float after float, sponsored by Google, Kaiser and other large mainstream institutions, rode down Market Street accompanied by waving employees who were embraced by the cheering crowd. “All love is equal!” chanted marchers bearing equality signs in all the colors of the rainbow.  Market Street was vibrating with a palpable sense of pride, joy, gratitude – and relief.

The founders of this country wisely named “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the inalienable rights of mankind. My experience at the Pride Parade last Sunday brought me a deeper appreciation for that foundational principle, and for the efforts of those who work every day to extend the blessing of this social contract to the hopes, dreams and pursuits of all our citizens.

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 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.

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