For the first time, a court used a civil rights law to hold a school district financially accountable in a case of student bullying.
Although sex discrimination claims are often met with explanations that the alleged offender didn’t realize what they said or did was offensive, or that the recipient misinterpreted the words or actions of the alleged offender, these types of dismissive explanations are becoming more carefully scrutinized the world of workplace discrimination lawsuits. In dicta, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania found that an employer’s “subtle” discriminatory comments could support an inference of discrimination based on a plaintiff’s protected class. The “subtle” comments presented to the court as part of a recent lawsuit included: reference to a woman’s “new husband” being able to support her if she was fired; commenting on the distance the woman lived from her job while not knowing if this factor would matter with respect to a male employee; and commenting on a woman’s ability to be single and raise four children, again, while admitting to not knowing if this factor would matter with respect to a male employee. See Rosencrans v. Quixote Enterprises, Inc., et al., Case No. 17-CV-00055 (M.D. Pa. January 19, 2018) (J. Conaboy).
Despite the court’s dicta with respect to these types of harmful remarks, the plaintiff nonetheless failed to support her discrimination claims because these statements were made by the company owner – who was not involved in the decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. Rather, the decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment was made by two of the plaintiff’s supervisors who did not seek or need the approval of the company owner to make firing decisions. This finding highlights the other critical takeaway from this case – it is important to define who the decision-makers are and to define what exactly each of those decision-makers knew, didn’t know, said, or didn’t say. Even though the plaintiff in this instance failed to prove her claims, the importance of the court’s language with respect to “subtle” discriminatory comments is not lessened.
For those interested in more of the factual and legal underpinnings of the case, the defendant company terminated the plaintiff’s employment based on her lateness, playing on her personal computer during work hours, and general poor attitude. The plaintiff brought a Title VII discrimination suit against the defendant company claiming that she was held to a different standard than male employees and that she was fired because she got married. This type of legal theory is known as a “sex-plus” theory – which is a claim of sex discrimination premised on an additional factor such as marital status. To prove a “sex-plus” claim of sex discrimination, a female employee usually must demonstrate that she was treated less favorably than a married male employee. Absent this type of evidence – which was absent in the Rosencrans case – a plaintiff must raise an inference of sex discrimination by presenting evidence such as “subtle” discriminatory comments or impermissible sexual stereotyping. The plaintiff was indeed able to prove the existence of these types of factors, however, as noted above, the bad behavior was not attributable to the decision-makers nor did the decision-makers know about it.
Rosencrans is a decision that will be kept on our watch-list. If you have any questions please consult your Fisher Phillips attorney with any questions.
With the recent buzz about President Donald Trump’s removal of federal protections for transgender students that were implemented under the Obama Administration, the states and school systems have been left to determine if and how to implement protections for transgender students.
On January 23, 2017, a noteworthy and interesting bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. House Bill 38, which was introduced and sponsored by fifteen (15) State Representatives, is aimed at expanding the scope of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”) to preclude and protect individuals from workplace discrimination stemming from the lawful ownership, use, possession, transportation and storage of a firearm. In substances, the PHRA is a Pennsylvania state law that bars workplace discrimination based on various protected classifications such as race, color, gender, national origin, age and a physical or mental disability. Under the PHRA, an individual who has been subject to workplace discrimination due to one of the enumerated protected classification has the right to file a lawsuit against his or her current or former employer seeking to recover various damages including back wages, emotional distress and attorneys’ fees. Like employers in many states, Pennsylvania employers, regardless of merit, have seen an ever increasing number of employment discrimination lawsuit filed by current and former employees.
On July 9, 2012, David Moore filed a Charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) (Charge No. 530-2012-02470) alleging that the City of Philadelphia failed to reassign him to a new job as a reasonable accommodation when a heart condition left him unable to perform his current job. Instead, the City of Philadelphia terminated his employment.
Pennsylvania government employees and contractors are now protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity.
On April 7, 2016, Governor Tom Wolf signed a pair of executive orders prohibiting discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity. The pair of orders come on the heels of a recent slate of controversial so-called “religious freedom” laws in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi.