Key Issues Targeted by EEOC in Recent Lawsuits Filed Against Employers

Periodically reviewing the most recent cases filed by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) against various companies can help remind your office of the federal employment rights that must be regularly extended to all job applicants and current employees.

Far too often, employers fail to protect workers against hostile work environments and many different forms of harassment and discrimination.  Employees being sexually or racially harassed can never do their best work. This also holds true for people mistreated due to physical disabilities, religious beliefs – or their national origin. These types of illegal activities are constantly monitored by the EEOC so that equal employment rights can be guaranteed to everyone trying to get hired or hold down a job.

What follows is a brief review of some recent cases filed by the EEOC against companies they believe have violated federal employment laws. While some of these actions have been resolved, others are still awaiting a final ruling.

New EEOC cases reveal the broad spectrum of employment rights regularly enforced

  • A Dallas pregnancy discrimination case was decided against the employer. A receptionist working for Smiley Dental Walnut spoke to human resources to inform them that she was pregnant. After being ordered to tell her supervisor this news, the young woman complied. During the conversation with her supervisor – who noted that she did not wish to keep training the young woman since she might leave relatively soon — the pregnant employee was fired.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, ruled against the employer. Attempts to settle prior to litigation failed. Injunctive relief (sought to make sure the company never repeated this same type of illegal behavior in the future) was sought and awarded – along with back pay and other damages. The company was ordered to pay $20,000 to the wronged employee;

  • Walmart was ordered to pay $5.2 million for intentional discrimination against a disabled employee. The mistreated worker had dutifully worked around his developmental disability, deafness, and visual difficulties for 16 years. However, a new store manager came in and demanded that new medical paperwork be submitted to document all the employee’s disabilities. The disabled employee was then suspended temporarily from his job.     

However, once the requested paperwork was produced, Walmart cut off further communications with the disabled man — basically resulting in his termination. The EEOC prevailed in this case in which $5 million of the award was for punitive damages;

  • Two female nurses filed an EEOC complaint about unequal pay. The women had job experience equal to that of a male nurse – yet the women were paid less. All three nurses complained about this issue. The EEOC won the case on behalf of the female nurses, noting the importance of closing the pay gap that often works against women in this country;
  • A case was filed involving discrimination based on national origin and religion. Three Pennsylvania employees from Puerto Rico were working for a caster and wheel company when they were subjected to workplace harassment based on their national origin and their religious (Pentecostal) beliefs. Oddly enough, it was the plant manager who was making the derogatory remarks when the harassed employees decided to report his illegal and upsetting behavior. The three employees were then subjected to retaliation (in the form of lesser work assignments) for complaining about the way they were being treated.

The EEOC stated in its pleadings that company managers should always act respectfully as role models—and never be the ones who harass their own employees;                                          

  • A sexual harassment lawsuit was filed on behalf of two female employees. The EEOC alleged in its lawsuit that the defendant hospitality companies created an abusive and hostile working environment for two of its female employees. The women complained about sexually rude comments and behavior directed toward them by their manager.

When the employees complained to their supervisors and others, nothing was done to improve their situation. In this case, a request was made for both compensatory and punitive damages – along with back pay for the two women. This suit is still pending;

  • A disability discrimination case was filed based on the way a hearing impaired job applicant was treated. When a problem arose during the hiring process related to the applicant’s hearing disability, the employer failed to accommodate her reasonable request to simply be interviewed in person and not over the phone. The company never responded to the job applicant’s email proposing this simple alternative.

Instead, four other applicants (who didn’t require any type of accommodation) were then interviewed and one of them was chosen for the job opening. The EEOC lawsuit requests lost wages, punitive and compensatory damages – and injunctive relief to prevent the employer from repeating this type of discrimination against other job applicants (or employees) who have disabilities in the future;

  • A racial slurs and harassment case. A man hired as a deckhand by a New Orleans transportation company was subjected to offensive racial epithets and conduct. When the man asked for help in stopping this behavior, the situation did not improve. Soon thereafter, a rope tied in the form of a noose was dropped near this harassed man on the deck where he was working.

The EEOC described these wrongful acts as “deeply offensive.” The government is seeking injunctive relief against the transportation company – along with compensatory and punitive damages — and any other relief the court decides is necessary.

Each of these new cases and decisions document how common intentional acts of workplace discrimination still are in this country. All employers should consider requiring annual training for every employee in hopes of seriously discouraging all forms of workplace discrimination and harassment.

Should you need help interpreting any of the federal (state or local) laws that are designed to protect employee rights, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ll be glad to help you analyze any problems that you may have — or help you draft any new workplace contracts or employee handbook sections related to this (or any other employment law) topic.

EEOC Guidelines: Training Employees About Workplace Discrimination

To create and maintain a professional work environment, employers must make sure everyone interacts in a respectful manner. The best way to promote respect is to provide proper employee training that carefully defines discriminatory behavior and clearly states what won’t be tolerated.

Newly hired employees should always be trained, even if this must be done individually. They must learn how to recognize forbidden forms of discrimination. Periodic retraining on sexual harassment and other common forms of discrimination should also be mandatory. If you don’t already have a hard copy or online employee handbook that clearly sets forth your workplace standards on discrimination, you can ask your Houston employment law attorney to help you draft one.

Here’s a review of the types of workplace discrimination and harassment that should be clearly forbidden in writing and during oral training sessions. After presenting information on these topics to all your employees, it’s best to also provide a bit more in-depth training to your supervisors and managers who will need to handle the discipline, complaints and investigations usually involved with reported acts of alleged discrimination.

What types of workplace discrimination are most common today?

  • Treating others differently due to their race, skin color, ethnic background or country of natural origin. No job applicant or employee should ever be treated unfairly due to any of these facts or traits. When investigating this type of claim, you may need to privately admonish and inform the wrongdoer that such behavior is legally forbidden and can lead to dismissal. (In egregious cases, immediate firing may be required.) Employers should keep detailed notes about all such complaints and formal reprimands. It’s wise to always have disciplined employees sign and date forms indicating that they’ve been warned that additional acts of discrimination may lead to dismissal. All employee files and complaints must be kept safely locked up and only accessed by a few managers;
  • Discrimination based upon a person’s sex including sexual harassment or current pregnancy status. All workers must learn to respect their coworkers, regardless of another employee’s sex. Stay open to questions and provide answers that are clearly supported by your company’s anti-discrimination policies;
  • Disability status. Regardless of whether someone was born with a physical disability or acquired one later in life, every effort must be made to help that person handle his/her job, unless doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. (Requests may often involve making facilities more accessible or changing an employee’s work schedule so it will interfere less with a medical disability);
  • Age. When workers are young, it’s hard for them to believe that age discrimination is real. However, as they grow older, they’ll start noticing how the most desirable promotions are often given to younger staff members – and not to older workers. And older workers often find themselves in the groups being laid off when a company claims it’s going through hard times. This type of discrimination is often self-defeating since older workers often: (1) have excellent problem-solving skills due to all their experience, (2) usually enjoy learning new skills and helping to train newcomers – and (3) often have the lowest rates of absenteeism due to their dedication to their employers;
  • Religion. Sadly, although most American adults know that one main reason this country was founded was to extend religious freedom to all citizens, too many people today treat coworkers with disrespect when they appear to follow faith practices different than their own;
  • Discrimination related to an employee’s genetic information (or family medical history). Both state and federal laws forbid this type of discrimination. One of the federal laws is named the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Title II of GINA specifically prohibits workplace discrimination based upon an employee’s genetic information. Employers must exercise great care when hiring the employees who must handle all company medical insurance and claim forms. These workers must understand that any knowledge they accidentally gain about an employee’s medical condition(s) or family history must be held in the strictest confidence.

Special training for company managers and supervisors

An additional, separate training should be periodically presented to these employees to be sure they fully understand how to handle every discrimination complaint they receive. After all, they will be playing a key role in investigating these complaints and making sure they handle their responsibilities in strict compliance with all state and federal laws.

Be sure that these higher-level employees have made the complaint process both easy and transparent for workers. It’s their job to remind employees that they will not be punished for coming forward with claims – or acting as witnesses for those who are filing claims.

In your special training program for these workers, be sure to also address the following topics.

  • Managers must understand that detailed, investigative notes must be kept. When an employee files a complaint based on alleged acts of discrimination or harassment, you need to obtain information about each time such acts were committed and get the names of all possible witnesses. Dates and times are crucial bits of information. If more than one person was involved in the illegal behavior, be sure to write down all names – and speak with each of these individuals separately;
  • All managers and supervisors need clear definitions of what can constitute a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee. It’s a good idea to review the content of your training with your attorney prior to making this type of presentation;
  • Retaliation. Inform higher-level employees that all forms of retaliation for reporting alleged acts of discrimination or harassment are strictly forbidden – and can result in liability for those involved;
  • Acceptable religious attire, hairstyles and practices. Explain to your managers what type of religious clothing is fully acceptable in the workplace. You should also tell them which hair or beard styles should be allowed, based upon an employee’s stated religious beliefs. When possible, managers should try to accommodate time off from work to attend special worship services – if doing so won’t cause an undue burden on co-workers or the company;
  • Sexual harassment. Supervisors and managers must be fully acquainted with all the types of language and behavior that can constitute sexual harassment. Remind them that offensive cartoons or signs related to sex should never be posted or circulated at work;
  • Privacy is crucial to all investigations. Remind all of those involved with investigating any claims of discrimination or harassment that they must never share any information they gain with non-investigative employees – or anyone outside of the company – since confidentiality is critical for everyone.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any questions about how you’ve drafted portions of your employee handbook, especially sections addressing discrimination and sexual harassment. We can provide you with useful advice and are always available to help should an employee file a claim with you or the EEOC alleging any form of workplace discrimination.

Most Common Hiring Discrimination Complaints

In a work world where the average tenure with any given employer is declining, many companies must routinely advertise and fill both new and established jobs. Yet as common as this process has become, every employer must periodically stop and re-evaluate how all job applications are being reviewed, skills tests are being administered and interviews are being granted and conducted.

After all, implicit bias (discriminatory hiring) remains a constant threat to maintaining an even playing field for all job applicants. And though most Texas employees are hired on an “at-will” basis, (allowing them to leave when they choose – and be fired without notice or cause), certain federal, state and local laws forbidding hiring discrimination must still be obeyed.

The most critical laws protecting employees against discrimination are set forth below, followed by examples of the types of hiring questions employers should avoid. Finally, the roles played by the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) regarding employee complaints are also briefly noted.

Federal, state and local laws provide many anti-discrimination protections to Texas workers

Both federal laws and Texas statutes have been passed providing job applicants and employees with protections against discrimination on the following grounds.

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including various medical conditions directly related to pregnancy)
  • Age (40 and older)
  • Genetic testing information
  • Disability

Federal law also provides specific employment discrimination protection to applicants who may not be actual U. S. citizens.

Federal laws and related regulations designed to protect workers against discrimination

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). This law was later amended to include The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  • Sections 102 and 103 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • GINA – The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

Many of the legal rights guaranteed to Texas workers under the federal laws referenced above are also protected (and set forth) in Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code. Various Texas cities, including both Houston and Austin, have passed additional anti-discrimination laws to protect their residents with unique sexual orientation and gender identity issues. (Additional information about protecting employee rights is set forth on our Texas Governor’s website.)

Here’s some additional, pragmatic information for handling the job application process.

Company interviewers must carefully avoid asking job applicants these types of questions

While the following list is not intended to be comprehensive, it should heighten your awareness of how careful you must be when trying to learn more about applicants who may have certain special needs or limitations that are not directly related to legitimate job requirements.

  • Do you have any disability? (However, if the applicant has a visually obvious disability — or has voluntarily disclosed one – you can normally ask if any special job accommodations are necessary or required);
  • Are you currently taking any medications that might impair your ability to perform the assigned tasks as described?
  • Have you needed to file any workers compensation claims in the past?
  • Are you pregnant – or planning to have a child during the coming year?
  • Have you obtained the results from any genetic tests during the past 10 years that indicate your likelihood of developing cancer (or another debilitating condition)?
  • Have you ever suffered a heart attack or stroke? Do you have any close blood relatives who have suffered from either of these medical problems?
  • Do you currently suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – or do any immediate family members have these medical conditions?

Under some circumstances, once you’ve hired a new employee, you may be able to inquire about certain disability-related medical conditions. However, you should discuss all the specific conditions that must exist before asking these questions with your employment law attorneys to avoid violating any of the employee’s legal rights.

The TWC and EEOC help current (and prospective) employees with discrimination concerns

When individuals believe that they’ve endured discrimination while applying for work with your company – or while employed by you, they usually contact the Texas Workforce Commission and the EEOC while deciding whether to file a formal complaint.

Should you learn that such a complaint has been filed, be sure to immediately contact our law firm so we can help you prepare a thorough response, detailing all that your company did to fully respect all employee (or job applicant) rights. We can also discuss with you various proactive steps your company can take to try and decrease the chances of having any further complaints filed against you.