Comments on Social Media about an Employee’s National Origin Could Lead to Allegations of Discrimination

Q: Over the summer, I saw that President Trump tweeted that four minority Democrat congresswomen should “go back” to where they came from. What Human Resources lessons can be learned from the President’s tweet?

A: In July 2019, President Trump tweeted that certain Democrat congresswomen “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world” should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The President affirmed that he was referring to Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).  All are U.S. citizens, all are minorities, and only one was actually born outside the United States.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. As many commentators have noted, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance specifically provides that the following types of conduct are examples of harassment based on national origin: “insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘go back to where you came from,’ whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.”  If particularly severe or pervasive, such conduct could rise to the level of unlawful harassment. However, a company does not need to wait for an employee’s conduct to become illegal before taking action.

While we do not take a position on the politics of the current administration, the President’s tweets, if made by a manager or coworker, could be considered a Title VII violation or a violation of a company’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies. In fact, there are numerous cases where companies faced significant liability as a result of employee comments similar to those made by the President.  In just one example from 2012, a California medical center paid nearly $1 million to settle a national origin discrimination suit where Filipino-American hospital workers alleged that they were told to “go back to the Philippines.” See also Cerezo-Martin v. Agroman, 213 F. Supp. 3d 318 (D.P.R. 2016) (denying defendant’s summary judgment motion as to plaintiff’s hostile environment claim where there was evidence that plaintiff was repeatedly told “to ‘go back to [his] country’ and to stop taking jobs away from Puerto Ricans.”); Brewster v. City of Poughkeepsie, 447 F. Supp. 2d 342 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (trial court refusing to overturn jury verdict for plaintiff on a national-origin based hostile environment claim where there was testimony that defendant’s employees said to plaintiff “Speak English. Go back to your own country if you want to speak Spanish. You’re in our country.”

In addition, the fact that discriminatory comments may be made outside of the workplace on social media neither insulates an employer from liability nor protects an employee who may have violated company policies.

But wait—what about free speech?

Despite what many employees may think, in nearly all instances, the First Amendment does not apply in the private sector workplace and workers are afforded no protection for their speech—especially speech that is harassing or discriminatory.

If an employee or supervisor in your workplace makes comments similar to those made by the President, your Human Resources Department should conduct a thorough investigation and then take prompt remedial action—up to and including termination—if it is determined that company policies were violated. Failure to act could result in your company facing an EEOC charge or lawsuit for national origin-based discrimination or harassment. One of the best ways to prevent discriminatory comments and behavior from occurring in the workplace is through preparation and training. The attorneys in Pepper Hamilton’s Labor and Employment Practice Group are here to help you update non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, provide training to employees and managers, assist with investigations, and provide advice when employees make insensitive remarks.

Lee Tankle

New York Human Rights Law Amendments Effective October 12, 2019

Q: I am a New York employer. What are the key parts of the new amendments to the New York Human Rights law and when do they go into effect?

A.  As we detailed in an earlier post, New York state recently passed a bill that makes numerous changes to the New York Human Rights Act (“NYHRL”). Governor Cuomo signed the bill on August 12, 2019, and most of the amendments go into effect on October 11, 2019.

Among the amendments that go into effect on October 11, 2019 are the significant expansion of protected categories under the NYHRL to include age, creed, color, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status, domestic violence, victim status or because an individual has opposed any practices prohibited by the NYHRL or participated in any proceeding under the NYHRL. The amendments also make it much easier for a plaintiff to demonstrate harassment, changing the standard of liability from “severe and pervasive” to whether the alleged harasser subjected the victim to “inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

Also effective October 11, 2019, New York employers are prohibited from including non-disclosure provisions in a settlement agreement of any discrimination claim (not just claims for sexual harassment), unless the complainant prefers to include the provision, has 21 days to consider it, and seven days to revoke it.

Other aspects of the new law have later effective dates. Specifically, effective February 8, 2020, the NYHRL will apply to all employers, rather than those with four or more employees. Also, effective August 11, 2020, the statute of limitations for filing a sexual harassment claim with the New York State Division on Human Rights will increase from one to three years.

Jessica Rothenberg

New York Enacts Broad Changes to New York Human Rights Law

Q: I am a New York employer. What should I know about the recent amendments to the New York Human Rights Law?

A: In June 2019, New York State approved a bill that makes numerous changes to the New York Human Rights Law (“NYHRL”), governing discrimination and harassment.  Governor Cuomo has not yet signed the bill, but is expected to shortly.

As explained in more detail below, the legislation significantly increases the NYHRL’s coverage by expanding the definitions of “harassment” and “employer.” The legislation also prohibits non-disclosure clauses in any settlement agreement involving discrimination allegations. Finally, the legislation expands employers’ sexual harassment training obligations, and extends the statute of limitations for filing sexual harassment claims with the New York State Division on Human Rights to three years.

Definition of Harassment

The NYHRL currently prohibits harassment based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or national origin. The amendments expand these protected categories to include age, creed, color, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status, domestic violence victim status, or because an individual has opposed any practices prohibited by the NYHRL or participated in any proceeding under the NYHRL.

The amendments also significantly expand the definition of harassment. Currently, to prove harassment under the NYHRL, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the harassment was “severe and pervasive.”  Under the amendments, a plaintiff need only show that the harassment “subjects an individual to inferior terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”  Employers will no longer be permitted to rely on the affirmative defense that the employer had an effective complaint procedure, the individual did not take advantage of it, and there was no adverse employment action.  Rather, the employer’s only affirmative defense is if the harassing conduct “does not rise above the level of what a reasonable victim of discrimination with the same protected characteristic would consider petty slights or trivial inconveniences.”  Lowering the standard from “severe or pervasive” harassment to harassment that rises above “petty slights or trial inconveniences” greatly expands the universe of potential harassment claims and aligns the New York state law with the standards set forth in the New York City Human Rights Law.

The new definitions will be effective 60 days after the bill become law.

Definition of Employer

The amendments remove the NYHRL’s current carve-out for employers with fewer than four employees. Beginning 180 days after the bill become law, the NYHRL will apply to all employers regardless of size

Inclusion of Non-Disclosure Clauses in Settlement Agreements

New York employers may recall that, in 2018, the state passed a new law prohibiting non-disclosure provisions in any settlement agreement of a sexual harassment claim unless the complainant prefers to include the provision, has 21 days to consider it, and has a seven-day revocation period. The amendments expand these prohibitions to settlement agreements of any discrimination claim, rather than just claims of sexual harassment.  In addition, non-disclosure provisions are void to the extent that they prohibit or restrict the complainant from participating in an investigation by a government agency or disclosing any facts necessary to receive unemployment insurance or other public benefits.

These changes will be effective 60 days after the bill becomes law.

Sexual Harassment Training

The amendments expand upon last year’s new law requiring employers to give annual sexual harassment training. Employers will be required to train employees and distribute policies in the employees’ primary language.  The New York Commissioner of Labor will create versions of the template sexual harassment training and policy in other languages.  If there is not a template available from the Commissioner in an employee’s primary language, the employer can provide the policy and training in English.

Statute of Limitations

Effective one year after the bill becomes law, the statute of limitations for filing sexual harassment claims with the New York State Division on Human Rights will be increased to three years, as compared to the current one year statute of limitations.

Steps for Compliance

To prepare for the amendments, employers should review and update all relevant policies and training materials. While anti-harassment should always be an area of focus for employers, employers should be especially aware of any potentially harassing situation given the forthcoming lower standard for harassment under New York State law.

Jessica Rothenberg

Second Circuit Court of Appeals Recognizes Hostile Work Environment Claim Under the ADA

Q.  An employee at one of my company’s facilities in New York recently complained to his supervisor that his coworkers made fun of his disability. Can an employee with a disability file a “hostile work environment” claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

A.  On March 6, 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the first time that hostile work environment claims are available to plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). With its decision in Fox v. Costco Wholesale Corporation, the Second Circuit joins the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits, which likewise have found that hostile work environment claims are cognizable under the ADA.

In Fox v. Costco, the plaintiff suffered from Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, conditions which manifested in verbal tics and other behavioral issues.  He alleged that, following a change in management, he was subjected to a hostile work environment by a new manager, who reprimanded the plaintiff for his work on certain tasks that non-disabled individuals performed in the same way but were not reprimanded for.  Later, the employer disciplined the plaintiff following complaints from customers regarding his behavior, which included an incident where he told a customer that she was “the love of his life.”  After investigating these incidents, the employer suspended the plaintiff for several days and transferred him to another job with the same pay and benefits.

Even after the transfer, however, the plaintiff alleged that his new supervisor made harassing comments to him. In addition, his coworkers began mimicking his behavioral tics, allegedly taunting him with comments such as “hut-hut-hike,” a mocking reference to a behavioral tic in which plaintiff sometimes crouched like a football player to touch the floor before moving forward.  The plaintiff alleged that the employer’s managers witnessed these comments over a period of “months and months,” but failed to act.  After plaintiff had a panic attack at work one day, he went out on indefinite medical leave and did not return to work.

The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the plaintiff’s claims for hostile work environment, disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the ADA and New York State Human Rights Law. Regarding the hostile work environment claim, the district court found that the plaintiff failed to prove that the alleged conduct was sufficiently “severe and pervasive” because he offered no details regarding the persistence of the “hut-hut-hike” comments, such as how many times the comments were made per shift, week and/or month.  The district court also ruled that the conduct and comments at issue were not objectively hostile and abusive.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s claims for disparate treatment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate. However, the Second Circuit also found that the plaintiff offered enough evidence to present the claim to a jury to decide “whether the frequency and severity of the mockery rose to the level of an objectively hostile work environment.”  Specifically, the plaintiff’s testimony that his coworkers mocked his disability for months—in the presence of managers who did nothing to prevent the comments—was sufficient to defeat summary judgment.

The court based its decision on the plain language of the ADA, which prohibits employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” As the court explained, this language was borrowed from Title VII, and since the ADA “echoes and expressly refers to Title VII” and Title VII allows for a hostile work environment claim, the same standard should be applied to a hostile work environment claim under the ADA.

Having found that the ADA can serve as a basis for a hostile work environment claim, the court proceeded to analyze whether the plaintiff presented evidence that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to meet the standard. The appeals court rejected the district court’s finding that the plaintiff was required to present specific evidence “regarding the number of times the comments were made per shift, week and/or month” in order to show that the harassment was pervasive.  In this respect, the Second Circuit explained, “[t]he district court demanded too much of [plaintiff].”  Instead, the plaintiff was required to demonstrate only that the conduct he complained about was “objectively abusive.”

In light of this decision, now may be a good time to emphasize to managers and supervisors that they must take action if they become aware of employees making inappropriate remarks in the workplace based on an individual’s protected status, including disability.

Rogers Stevens

#MeToo: Is Your Company Covered?

Q.  Are there any steps we should take to protect our company from liability in the #MeToo era?

A.  A year ago, sexual assault allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein rocked the entertainment industry and quickly led to the rise of the #MeToo movement, sparking an upsurge of reports and claims of sexual harassment in workplaces across America. In many cases, the alleged misconduct is not new. But the intensity, tone, and tenor of the claims — and the sheer volume of allegations — has been dramatically different and has had significant effects on businesses caught in the cross-hairs.

Public sentiment has also shifted: A CNN poll conducted in December 2017 found that nearly 70 percent of Americans described sexual harassment as a “very serious problem.” That’s almost double the 36% of Americans who expressed similar views in a CNN/Time poll conducted in 1998. As high-profile, credible women have come forward in virtually every industry, more women have been emboldened to share their stories.

Alleged perpetrators are not the only ones being called to account; so are other corporate actors who allegedly enabled, covered up, or failed to prevent the wrongdoing. Sexual harassment claims against high-ranking corporate actors can expose companies to enormous costs, including reputational harm, consumer boycotts, drops in market capitalization, loss of corporate opportunities, and legal expenses for internal investigations, government proceedings, employment lawsuits, securities class actions, and shareholder derivative suits.

It’s vital that businesses and individual directors and officers understand their potential exposure to loss arising out of sexual misconduct claims and the availability and limitations of their insurance coverage.

Read Full Article Here.

Pamela S. Palmer and Susan K. Lessack*

* This publication was prepared by Marsh in conjunction with Pepper Hamilton LLP. Copyright © 2018 Marsh LLC. All rights reserved. It is reprinted here with permission.