Gender Discrimination Suits Continue Against Wal-Mart

Betty Dukes worked for years at the Wal-Mart in Pittsburg, California, hoping for advancement. She found herself frustrated at the lack of promotion and poor treatment by managers. She believed their denial of opportunities to her was based on both her gender and her race. When her complaints to the corporation’s chain of command went unheard, she sought legal help. She became the face of the largest gender discrimination class action suit in United States history, Dukes v. Wal-Mart, first filed in a San Francisco federal court in 2001 and eventually including female Wal-Mart employees from all over the country. In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge’s order allowing the case to proceed as a class action with nearly a million class members. The lawsuit has not gone well for the plaintiffs since then.

Wal-Mart appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and it went to the United States Supreme Court. On June 20, 2011,the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit, denying the plaintiffs the right to go forward as a class. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, held that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that Wal-Mart had a “general policy of discrimination” that impacted all class members. In denying class certification, the Court noted that the plaintiffs worked in different stores in different regions and that they suffered different types of discrimination under different managers for different reasons.

The employees and their advocates, however, have not given up. New efforts to hold Wal-Mart accountable for alleged discrimination target smaller areas, rather than the entire country. New suits have been filed in California and Texas on behalf of plaintiffs from the original suit, and more regional suits may follow. These lawsuits tend to focus on the corporation’s stores within a single state, thus narrowing the scope of the alleged discrimination.

A Brief History of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment has been at the forefront of the news in recent weeks thanks to two major stories. One involves the allegations of sexual harassment against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. The other is the twentieth anniversary this year of the sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation process. The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article examining the history of sexual harassment as both a legal and social concept over the past 30 to 40 years, identifying six high profile cases that have raised public awareness of the issue. While sexual harassment is undoubtedly still a widespread problem across the country (and the world), it is worthwhile to occasionally review how far we have come.

1. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson: Originally, quid pro quo was the only type of legally actionable sexual harassment. This type of sexual harassment occurs when an employee is required to submit to a supervisor’s sexual advances as a condition of employment (e.g., “sleep with me or you’re fired”). The Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson expanded the definition of sexual harassment to include hostile work environment:

In sum, we hold that a claim of “hostile environment” sex discrimination is actionable under Title VII … and that the District Court did not err in admitting testimony about respondent’s sexually provocative speech and dress.

For more information on the differences between quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment, please visit our website here.

2. Jensen v. Eveleth Tavonite Co.: The first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit was filed in 1988 on behalf of Minnesota mining company employee Lois Jensen, who described a pattern of harassment and abuse beginning when she went to work there in 1975. The lawsuit continued until a settlement was reached in 1998. Jensen’s story was the subject of the 2005 Charlize Theron film “North Country”.

3. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: While Clarence Thomas awaited confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, Hill went public with allegations of sexually suggestive remarks when she worked as his assistant years earlier. The Supreme Court confirmed Thomas, but the controversy served to make the whole country aware of the topic of sexual harassment, sparking a dialogue on what is and is not appropriate in the workplace.

4. General Larry Smith and Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy: In 1999, Lt. Gen. Kennedy was the highest-ranking female officer in the Army and was nearing retirement. When she learned that General Smith was being considered for an inspector general position, which would involve investigating sexual harassment claims, she went public with allegations that he had touched her in an inappropriate and unwanted manner in 1996. An inquiry found that Smith had behaved inappropriately and his nomination was withdrawn.

5. Senator Bob Packwood: The Oregon senator resigned in 1995 when at least 29 women, including aides, interns, and campaign workers, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and even possible assault. After several years of scrutiny and calls for ethics investigations by fellow senators, the Senate Ethics Committee recommended his expulsion from the Senate.

6. President Bill Clinton and Paula Jones: Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed suit against then-President Clinton in 1994, alleging incidents of harassment and inappropriate behavior. Although a judge dismissed the suit for lack of evidence of damages, the case brought the Monica Lewinski scandal to light and led to the president’s impeachment. He settled with Jones in 1998 and paid her $850,000.

One key case not mentioned in the article is Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyard, which established that nude pin-ups in the workplace constitute sexual harassment, even if not directly targeted at the employee who found this offensive.

The Boston sexual harassment attorneys at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. specialize in employment law and solely represent employees. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, please contact The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C. through our website or at (617)973-6434 to schedule a confidential consultation.

More Sexual Harassment Blog Posts byThe Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.:

Sexual Harassment Disproportionately Affects Restaurant Workers, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog (November 14, 2011)
Sexual Harassment Claims Against Herman Cain, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog (November 3, 2011)
Sexual Harassment Claims in Federal Court: Overcoming the Farragher/Ellerth Defense, Boston Employment Lawyer Blog (October 5, 2008)

Retaliation Verdict Upheld Where Employee Was Fired For Using Company Records To Prove Discrimination Claim

Based on a recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, an employee engages in protected activity under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination where she or he copies and takes company documents for the purpose of aiding the prosecution of a discrimination claim.

In Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corporation, the plaintiff-employee, Joyce Quinlan, was an experienced human resources professional who had joined the defendant-employer, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, in 1980. By 1999, she had become the Executive Director of Human Resources. In 2003, the employer re-organized its HR department and, in doing so, promoted a male employee, Kenneth Lewis, with allegedly less experience to the position of Vice President. As a result, the plaintiff-employee became this particular male employee’s subordinate.

The plaintiff believed that she had been passed over for the Vice President position because she is a woman. At trial, for instance, Quinlan presented evidence that few women held senior managerial positions within the company; that women (including Quinlan herself) were commonly excluded from certain company events, even when the discussions related to the HR department; and that the CEO often golfed with Lewis.

Quinlan provided her attorneys with more than 1,800 pages of company documents, which she believed bolstered her case. In November 2003, counsel filed a complaint on plaintiff’s behalf alleging, among other claims, gender discrimination. Plaintiff’s counsel later produced to opposing counsel the company documents his client had assembled.

Several weeks after making this production, the plaintiff’s attorneys deposed Lewis and, during the course of that deposition, questioned him about his most recent performance appraisal, which allegedly rated him as needing improvement in several areas. Lewis claimed that he had never before seen the appraisal. Following this deposition, the company terminated Quinlan for allegedly continuing to copy confidential information.

In charging the jury, the trial court noted that there was a significant difference between the taking of the document and its use at the deposition:

[W]hile Joyce Quinlan’s conduct in copying and removing copies of documents is not protected and is conduct for which she could have been justifiably terminated, the conduct of her attorneys in using those documents in the process of prosecuting this lawsuit is protected activity and could not properly have been a determinative factor in terminating her. In other words, if you find that a determinative factor in Curtiss-Wright’s decision to terminate Joyce Quinlan was her attorneys’ use of any of the documents, including but not limited to [Mr. Lewis’s performance appraisal], such a finding would be the basis of finding for Joyce Quinlan. On the other hand, if the real reason for her termination was her copying and removing the documents, including but not limited to [the performance appraisal], such a motive by Curtiss-Wright would not be actionable.

The jury ultimately found for the plaintiff-employee, awarding her approximately $4.2 million in back pay and front pay economic damages for her retaliation claim. The jury also found, by clear and convincing evidence, that the employer had intentionally engaged in unlawful conduct and, as a result, awarded approximately $4.5 million in punitive damages.

The Appellate Division found that the trial court had erred in its jury instruction and vacated the retaliation verdict. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Division and reinstated the retaliation verdict. In so doing, the Court adopted a flexible, totality of the circumstances approach to decide whether an employee is privileged to take or to use documents belonging to the employer. The Court set forth seven factors:

1.How the employee obtained the document
2.With whom the employee shared the document
3.The nature and content of the document
4.Whether the taking of the document violated a company policy that is routinely enforced
5.The relevance of the document to the employee’s claim vs. whether its disclosure was unduly disruptive to the employer
6.The relevance of the document to the employee’s claim vs. whether the document was likely to be destroyed or lost
7.The broad remedial purpose of anti-discrimination laws and how permitting or precluding the use of the document will affect the legitimate rights of both employers and employees

Overall, given the nuances in cases like this, employees are well-advised to first meet with an attorney before deciding to take company documents.

Pregnancy Leave in Massachusetts: Understanding the Maternity Act

The Massachusetts Maternity Leave (MMLA) experienced a set back with the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Global NAPs v. Awiszus. I had the opportunity to provide my thoughts about the decision to WBZ’s Diane Stern.

As background, the MMLA, which is codified under M.G.L. c. 149, §105D, guarantees “eligible” employees 8 weeks of unpaid leave for: (1) giving birth, (2) adopting a child under the age of 18, or (3) adopting a child under the age of 23, if the child is mentally or physically disabled. To learn more about the MMLA’s eligibility requirements and for a summary of the key differences between the MMLA and the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), please visit our previous post, Medical Leave Eligibility and Handicap Status in the Workplace Explored.

In Stephens v. Global NAPs, Sandy Stephens worked for Global’s president as a housekeeper. In late 1999, she informed her supervisor of her pregnancy and that her last day of work before maternity leave would be July 14, 2000. Under the MMLA, Ms. Stephens was guaranteed 8 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Her employer, however, promised her an additional 3 weeks of unpaid leave if she required a Cesarean section, which she did. Unfortunately, when Ms. Stephens tried to return after 11 weeks, Global reneged on its promise and informed her that she no longer had a job. Ms. Stephens brought suit under the MMLA and a jury found against Global for compensatory damages in the amount of $1,366,165 and punitive damages in the amount of $1,000,000.

The question before the SJC was whether Ms. Stephens could properly state a claim under the MMLA. According to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), the Commonwealth’s chief civil rights agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the law in question, the answer is “yes.” In fact, the MCAD’s Maternity Leave Act Guidelines explicitly address this issue:

An employer may grant a longer maternity leave than required under the MMLA. If the employer does not intend for full MMLA rights to apply to the period beyond eight weeks, however, it must clearly so inform the employee in writing prior to the commencement of the leave.

Although the SJC has previously acknowledged that such guidelines “represent the MCAD’s interpretation … and are entitled to substantial deference,” it abandoned the MCAD’s interpretation of the MMLA. Specifically, despite the employer’s promise that Ms. Stephens could take an extra 3 weeks off, the SJC held that she “was not entitled to the protections afforded by the MMLA, given that she was absent from employment for more than eight weeks.” As the SJC noted, however, the employer’s broken promise may give rise to a claim “for breach of contract, breach of oral representations, detrimental reliance, or the like.” For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, such claims may be more difficult for an employee to pursue.

In light of the Awiszus decision, employees are well-advised to understand their rights under the MMLA. As the SJC has made clear, relying solely on the word of an employer that promises more maternity leave than the MMLA contemplates may leave you unemployed.

Proving Workplace Discrimination Through Circumstantial Evidence: A Review Of Thermo King

Claims for unlawful workplace discrimination are typically proven through two types of evidence: direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence is often referred to as “smoking gun” evidence where, for example, a company informs an employee that he or she is being terminated because of his or her age. Circumstantial evidence is much more subtle. As a great trial lawyer once said, “We better know there is a fire whence we see much smoke rising than we could know it by one or two witnesses swearing to it. The witnesses may commit perjury, but the smoke cannot.” Abraham Lincoln, Unsent Letter to J.R. Underwood and Henry Grider, October 26, 1864. Thus, in an age discrimination case, circumstantial evidence may take the form of an older employee (who is at least 40 years old) who is terminated without explanation.

This brings us to the case of Vélez v. Thermo King de Puerto Rico. There, the employer terminated a 56 year old employee without explanation. The company finally provided a reason for the termination after the employee filed a claim for age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employer changed its reason thereafter. The First Circuit found the employer’s initial silence to constitute circumstantial evidence of discrimination:

Thermo King did not initially provide Vélez with any reason for firing him. One month later, Soto told the ADU and the EEOC that Vélez had been fired for violating the company’s policy on receiving gifts from suppliers. It was not until over a year later that Thermo King, responding to this lawsuit, first said that Vélez had been fired for stealing and selling company property. The fact that the employer gave different reasons at different times for its action surely supports a finding that the reason it ultimately settled on was fabricated.

In my interview with Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, I discussed the significance of the Thermo King decision:

It appears to be the first time the 1st Circuit has held that an employer’s failure to articulate the reasons for a termination before litigation equals pretext for discrimination.

Our prediction is that the Thermo King decision will encourage more transparency. Employers are now incentivized to articulate a clear reason as to why an employee is being terminated from the outset or risk an inference of discriminatory motive.

Employeees Who Suffer Workplace Discrimination Gain Clarification On Obtaining Punitive Damages

Employees who suffer workplace discrimination in violation of the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act are entitled to recover four types of damages: front pay (the amount by which someone’s future earnings are reduced by discrimination), back pay (the plaintiff’s lost income from the time of the discrimination up to a jury verdict), emotional distress damages, and attorney’s fees. These damages are compensatory damages, designed to compensate the victim of discrimination for the actual harm s/he suffered and no more.

Punitive damages are another category of damages provided by the Fair Employment Practices Act for the victims of unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or handicap. However, not all victims of unlawful workplace discrimination are entitled to punitive damages. Recently, in the case of Haddad v. Walmart Stores, Inc. , the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clarified the standard for the award of punitive damages.

In Haddad, a jury awarded punitive damages to the plaintiff for the gender discrimination that she had suffered. The trial judge, however, took away the punitive damages. The parties then filed cross-appeals, raising numerous questions of law.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial judge’s decision to take away the punitive damages was error. Simplifying a bit here, the plaintiff went on to argue that Massachusetts law permits punitive damages for intentional acts and, since discrimination is the result of intentional acts, any finding of discrimination is sufficient to support an award of punitive damages.

The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) agreed with the plaintiff that the trial court’s decision to take away the jury’s award of punitive damages was a mistake. The SJC found that the the trial court judge may have based his decision on a belief that, in order to recover punitive damages, an employee must show that his/her employer acted with the knowledge that its actions violated applicable civil rights laws. The SJC said that, to the extent the judge’s order relied upon that reasoning, it was in error.

The Supreme Judicial Court went on to clarify the circumstances under which a victim of unlawful discrimination may recover punitive damages. The SJC held that punitive damages in a discrimination case may be awarded only where the defendant’s conduct is outrageous or egregious. In determining whether the defendant’s conduct is outrageous or egregious, a judge or jury should consider several factors, including but not limited to:

(1) whether there was a conscious or purposeful effort to demean or diminish a class of which the plaintiff is a member (or the plaintiff because he or she is a member of a class);
(2) whether the defendant was aware that the discriminatory conduct would likely cause serious harm or recklessly disregarded the likelihood that serious harm would arise;
(3) the actual harm to the plaintiff;
(4) the defendant’s conduct after learning that the initial conduct would likely cause harm; and
(5) the duration of the wrongful conduct and any concealment of that conduct by the defendant.

The Supreme Judicial Court suggested these five factors do not exhaust the list of considerations that may be relevant to an award of punitive damages in a discrimination case, but they do help clarify what an employee who is the victim of workplace discrimination should show if she hopes to recover punitive damages against her employer.
You can watch a video of the oral arguments in the Haddad case on Suffolk Law’s website.

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Gains Traction Quickly

Unequal pay victims are quickly realizing the benefits of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (FPA). The District Court of New Jersey’s recent decision in Gilmore v. Macy’s Retail Holdings is believed to be the first case in the country to recognize the applicability of the Fair Pay Act in unequal pay act cases under Title VII. In that case, the plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on July 7, 2005 on the basis of alleged race discrimination. The court noted the FPA’s retroactive application:

The FPA takes effect as if enacted on May 28, 2008 and applies to all claims of discrimination in compensation under Title VII and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. et seq.) … that are pending on or after that date. The FPA therefore applies to this case. (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis added)

The court further noted that the FPA allows victims of unequal pay to recover back pay for up to 2 years preceding the filing of the charge.

Unequal Pay Victims Gain Protection through the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Gender discrimination just became more expensive. On January 29, 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. After approximately 19 years as an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Lilly Ledbetter learned that she earned less than her male colleagues. A jury found Goodyear liable for gender discrimination. In a controversial decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed, ruling that Ms. Ledbetter should have filed her claim within 180 days of the date that Goodyear first paid her less than her male counterparts. (For more information about the Supreme Court’s decision, please visit our blog post entitled, Supreme Court Routs Title VII in 2007: Goodyear Wins Right to Discriminate Based on Gender.)

The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 has three key features. First, the statute not only applies to gender discrimination, but also to unequal pay based on the following types of discrimination: (a) race, color, religion, and national origin under Title VII; (b) age under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); and (c) handicap discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Second, the statute allows employees who have suffered these types of unequal pay discrimination to recover back pay for up to two years preceding the filing of a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Third, the Act takes effect retroactively as if enacted on May 28, 2007.

The Fair Pay Act is a welcome change for employees who suffer pay discrimination. For more information on this issue please visit the New York Times article entitled,Obama Signs Equal Pay Legislation.

Sexual Harassment Claims in Federal Court: Overcoming the Farragher/Ellerth Defense

Employees who are victims of sexual harassment must take great care to protect their rights. The First Circuit’s decision in Chaloult v. Interstate Brands represents a broadening of the Farragher/Ellerth defense, which allows employers to escape liability even when an employee has clearly suffered inappropriate and demeaning conduct over a prolonged period of time.

The Farragher/Ellerth defense is an affirmative defense arising out of two 1998 Supreme Court decisions: Farragher v. City of Boca Raton, and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth. For the Farragher/Ellerth defense to be apply, an employer must satisfy two elements: (1) reasonable care was taken to prevent and promptly correct the harassing or discriminatory behavior, and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided.

In June 1999, Bonnie Chaloult began working at Interstate Brands in Biddeford, Maine. In August 2005, Chaloult resigned after a enduring a series of debasing remarks from her supervisor, Kevin Francoeur. Such remarks included:

Accusing Chaloult of having sexual relations with her direct supervisor
Complaining about his wife, his lack of sexual relations with her, and voicing his desire murder his wife
Asking about the distance between her nipples and telling her to go home and measure this distance
Asking her if her nipples chafed or stood out like headlights
Stating that her breasts were “melons” and “big hooters”
Asking her to hold her breath and push her chest out
Offering to go to her house and have sex with her
Stating that he wanted to see how far she could stick an eclair down her throat, stating “[i]f there isn’t enough cream in there, . . . I have plenty”
Asking Chalout’s manager, “How long have you [two] been fucking?”

Francoeur made many of these disparaging remarks both in front of Chalout’s co-workers as well as her manager. Ironically, the employer had a policy requiring all managers to all report sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct to Human Resources. Chalout’s manager failed to abide by this policy. Although Chalout’s letter of resignation did not detail specific instances of misconduct, it made clear that she no longer felt comfortable working at Interstate Brands because of statements made by Francoeur.

Approximately one year later, Chaloult filed a lawsuit based on, among other things, the sexual harassment she suffered from Francoeur. Surprisingly, the federal District Court of Maine accepted the Farragher/Ellerth defense on the basis that Chaloult failed to report specific instances of misconduct. The First Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. In doing so, both courts failed to acknowledge the reality of workplace. If your manager knows that your supervisor is subjecting you to such demeaning conduct, and fails to take remedial measures, how confident would you feel in voicing such concerns. Would you keep quiet to ensure to avoid possible retaliaton?

Workplace Discrimination Claims in Federal Court: A Word of Caution

If you’ve been discriminated against in the workplace, you should think twice before bringing your claims in federal court. In 2009, the Harvard Law & Policy Review will publish, Employment Discrimination Plaintiffs in Federal Court: From Bad to Worse?. The study, conducted by Cornell Law School Dean Stewart J. Schwab and Cornell Law Professor Kevin M. Clermont, examines official data from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The article reveals that plaintiffs who bring employment discrimination claims in the federal courts fare less favorably when compared to plaintiffs in other types of cases. As an example, the authors discovered that employers found liable for workplace discrimination at trial enjoy more than a 40% chance of reversal on appeal. In stark contrast, plaintiffs who lose at the trial court level have only an 8% chance of receiving a favorable appellate decision.