Illinois Expands State Human Rights Act to Include Employers with One or More Employees

Like other States (including New York) and many cities, Illinois has expanded the reach of its anti-discrimination statute to bring smaller employers within coverage of the Human Rights Act.  Even though such small employers may lack the in-house expertise to understand the nuances of complex laws, they must find a way to do so.  Our Firm’s recent article addressing this issue is available here.


Fired University Tennis Director Accused of Sexual Misconduct of Student-Athlete Allowed to Pursue his Gender Discrimination claims against the University

The obligations of educational institutions were elevated even higher in a recent ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which held “When universities design and implement polices to ensure the security of their students, they facilitate their sacred mission of educating the next generation.  But when they distort and deviate from those policies, fearfully deferring to invidious stereotypes and crediting malicious accusations, they may violate the law….” In this particular case, a discharged tennis director, whose employment was terminated following allegations of sexual harassment, was allowed to proceed with his own claims of discrimination.

Citing a recent Title IX ruling, the Court held that when universities do not follow established investigative procedures in favor of one gender over another, that conduct may constitute discrimination. Relying on the Doe decision, the Court held that “once a university has promised procedural protections to employees, the disregard or abuse of those procedures may raise an inference of bias”.

This decision serves as a dramatic reminder that educational institutions should follow the proscriptions in their anti-harassment policies in a thorough and unbiased way. In effect, once procedural protections are announced, they should be followed.

New York’s Highest Court Finds College Abused Its Discretion By Failing To Grant Adjournment of Administrative Hearing

In a recent ruling, New York’s highest court recognized the right to counsel when a student is accused of serious misconduct. Matter of Bursch v. Purchase Coll. of the State Univ. of N.Y. In this instance, a college student was accused of multiple violations of the College’s code of conduct, including sexual assault. At the hearing addressing the complaints, the accused was given the right to representation by an “advisor” of his choice, which could be an attorney or parent. After unsuccessful attempts to contact the College to seek a brief adjournment, counsel for the alleged harasser requested a three-hour delay of the hearing due to a scheduling conflict. The College denied the request and proceeded with the hearing. Following the hearing, the disciplinary charges were upheld, and expulsion resulted.

To challenge the result, the expelled student sought judicial review. While unsuccessful at the first and second stages of appeal, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, found the College abused its discretion as a matter of law and reversed and directed that the College hold a new disciplinary hearing at which representation by counsel is available. Simply stated, when such serious allegations are being adjudicated and grave penalties can result, there is a right to counsel at the hearing.

This case, coupled with the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX regulations and recent Circuit Courts’ split on student’s due process rights to cross-examination in Title IX matters, highlight the increasing scrutiny of the rights afforded those accused of sexual misconduct on college campuses.


Manager’s Observation of Harassment Places Liability on Employer

Under generally accepted Title VII principles, an employer can be held liable when a co-worker harasses a co-worker if a supervisor is aware of the harassment, but fails to take prompt corrective action. This principle was reiterated in EEOC v. Driven Fence, Inc., where an African American Plaintiff quit his job after being subjected to various racially derogatory remarks and being asked to put his head in a noose hanging from the ceiling. Although the misconduct was the acts of non-supervisory staff, the Court ruled the manager, who saw the noose, had “a duty to pass on the information to someone within the company who ha[d] the power to do something about it….”  Because the manager failed to report the conduct as required by the employer’s policies and case law, the Court denied summary judgment.

This decision serves as a significant reminder that employers must train their managers regarding their obligations to report potentially discriminatory/harassing conduct under both the employer’s policies, as well as applicable law.  Managers, in turn, must be mindful to be vigilant and observe and report any potential discriminatory or harassing conduct. Failure to do so can create liability to the employer simply because the manager failed to report.

Seventh Circuit Weighs in on Obesity as a Disability under the ADA

In an issue of first impression in the Seventh Circuit, the Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment in favor of the employer dismissing the Plaintiff’s claim that obesity qualified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Richardson v. Chicago Transit Authority. Plaintiff, a former Chicago Transit Authority (“CTA”) bus operator, alleged that CTA violated the ADA when it refused to allow Plaintiff to return to work after a flu-related absence because it regarded him as too obese to operate a bus. Plaintiff, who weighed over 400 pounds, was transferred to a Temporary Medical Disability Area designated for employees found medically unfit to work. Following a driving performance test, CTA concluded it would be unsafe for Plaintiff to operate a CTA bus. He remained in the temporary area for two years and was discharged after he failed to submit medical documentation to extend his time in the temporary area.

Plaintiff alleged that his extreme obesity met the definition of a “physical impairment” thereby constituting a disability under the ADA. However, the appellate court sided with several other Circuit and District courts, finding that “obesity is an ADA impairment only if it is the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition.” Plaintiff failed to present any evidence proving an underlying physiological disorder or condition caused his extreme obesity. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit grant Defendant’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.

Although the Seventh Circuit joins three other federal appeals courts in holding that obesity alone does not constitute a physical impairment under the ADA, the issue remains unsettled in other jurisdictions and under state and local laws.

EEOC Subpoena of Pattern-Or-Practice Information Based On Individual Charges Upheld

Contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s restriction of class actions in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), courts have granted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) broad power to issue nationwide pattern-or-practice subpoenas even though only individual charges were filed against the employer. For example, eleven current and former employees, working among multiple locations, filed disability discrimination charges against their employer alleging wrongful termination by refusing to allow them to return to work after medical leave. Rather than focusing upon those eleven workers and their own grievances, the EEOC issued an administrative subpoena seeking extensive information about other workers who were employed at those eleven sites if such employees, between August 2009 and August 2014, requested an accommodation due to a medical condition or were identified as disabled. Rejecting defenses of relevance, timeliness and undue burden, the federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the subpoena and granted broad pattern-or-practice level investigative authority. EEOC v. Centura Health.

Among the lessons are: (1) be certain that accommodation and compliance policies are lawfully drafted and fairly enforced; (2) ensure that managers and HR understand obligations imposed by the ADA as well as state or local disability discrimination laws; and, (3) do not expect that claims will remain local if works from multiple sites raise similar allegations.

New York State Broadens Its Pay Equity Law

On July 10, 2019, the Governor of New York State signed into law a bill extending New York’s pay equity protections to pay differentials based not only on gender, but also those caused by discrimination on the basis of age, race, sexual orientation, disability, and domestic violence victim status.  The bill lowers the burden of proof by eliminating the necessity of proving that claimant and the comparator performed truly “equal” work.  In short, the bill makes it easier for potential plaintiffs to establish liability by allowing them to compare themselves to workers who do not necessarily perform the same job as they do – it broadens their potential pool of comparators.

Pay differentials still are permitted when they are based on a bona-fide seniority system, a methodology measuring earnings by quantity or quality, or a bona fide reason other than the individual’s membership in a protected class. The pay differential must be job-related and due to business necessity, such as geography, education, or experience. The law allows a successful plaintiff to recover treble damages.  Additionally, the law bans employers from inquiring into a job applicant’s prior salary history.

The law takes effect on October 8, 2019. Insureds should review job applications to confirm compliance with the new law and should consider undertaking a review/audit of pay practices.  A pay equity analysis now should be run across all employees and protected categories, not just comparisons of male and female employees.  Since employers’ pay policies tend to impact multiple employees, claims likely will take the form of class actions and could expose insureds to significant liability.

Federal Court: Federal Arbitration Act Preempts New York Law Banning Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Claims

According to the Southern District of New York, the Federal Arbitration Act preempts the recently enacted New York State law that bars arbitration agreements of sexual harassment cases.   To read a complete analysis of one of the first decisions to rule on this issue, click here.

New York State Further Expands Anti-Discrimination Laws

In addition to the laws expanding sexual harassment liability, the New York State Legislature also passed last week three laws that will bar employers from inquiring about applicants’ salary history, prohibit wage differentials based on protected class status, and ban race discrimination based on hairstyle.  For a complete review, see our article by clicking here.