Is “Poise” a Qualification or a Subjective Assessment Prone to Bias?

Qualifications normally are an  important consideration in discrimination cases.

In recent weeks, however, the EEOC has ruled in two age discrimination cases that subjective assessments  outweigh objective qualifications.

In both cases, Carlton M. Hadden, Jr. director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations, held that federal agencies did not engage in age discrimination when they ignored the superior qualifications of older applicants and hired younger, seemingly far less qualified workers. The EEOC, which has declined to comment, upheld both decisions.

In one of the cases, Hadden ruled that an African-American female in her 20s was more qualified for the position of lead police officer at a veteran’s center in Dallas than a 48-year-old white male who was then serving as lead police detective at the center.  The male had 20 years of high-level experience in policing; the female had served a stint in the Army military police.

Hadden said the female candidate “arguably has more experience in the intangible areas sought by the (hiring panel), such as poise, compassion, leadership, and the ability to cope with stress…” But are “poise” and “compassion” really “qualifications” or are they subjective assessments that are subject to cultural bias? And why doesn’t an officer who is in a leadership position show more leadership potential than an individual who is not? These decisions raise questions about whether the EEOC is implementing its own vision of affirmative action rather than federal law.

In the past, courts have looked skeptically at subjective assessments in hiring  because research shows that hiring managers often harbor subconscious bias.

An older candidate may not seem poised if members of the hiring panel harbor bias that older people are ugly, sickly or lacking in enthusiasm.

The issue is important because today there is rarely direct evidence of  discrimination. Plaintiffs must show that the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for a negative employment action was a pretext for discrimination.  It’s hard to disprove an employer who says the other candidate had more poise and compassion.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 discussed how courts should assess  “plainly superior qualifications”  in the  case of  Ash, et al. v. Tyson Foods, Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court clearly was not talking about  the employer’s subjective assessment of the candidates – that’s what the Court was concerned about.

In the Ash case, the plaintiffs, two African-Americans, argued that Tyson used job qualifications that were not required by company policy to exclude them and justify promoting two white males. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed their complaint, ruling they had ailed to raise an inference of discrimination.

The 11th Circuit ruled that a plaintiff must show the disparity in qualifications was “so apparent as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face.”  The Supreme Court rejected this standard, calling it “”unhelpful” and “ambiguous.”

In the Ash decision, the U.S. Supreme Court referred approvingly to far less stringent standards than the one articulated by the 11th Circuit. The Court noted a federal appeals court in California ruled  that a pretext of discrimination can be found where a candidate was not hired despite  “clearly”superior qualifications.” The Court cited a ruling by a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia that a fact-finder might infer pretext if a “reasonable employer would have found the plaintiff to be significantly better qualified for the job.”

Hadden did not cite any legal authority to justify equating subjective assessments with objective qualifications. The EEOC has declined to comment.

The EEOC routinely rejects subjective assessments in race and sex discrimination cases. Why is there a different standard for age discrimination?

The other age discrimination case dismissed by the EEOC in August condoned hiring workers based on “cultural fit.” This concept is so widely regarded as an invitation for bias that it is now considered taboo even in the business community.

The bottom line is that the EEOC is locked in a time warp, despite the fact that it was designated by Congress to implement the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and should be in the forefront on the issue of equal rights. And, since EEOC cases are secret, we have no way of knowing how many older workers have had their cases dismissed on the basis of reasoning that follows no legal precedent and appears to be the equivalent of a whim.

Federal Courts Criticized for Dismissive Treatment of Employment Discrimination Victims

There is overwhelming evidence that federal courts for years have ignored and marginalized plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases.

Judge Richard A. Posner, one of the nation’s leading appellate judges, recently resigned from the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals citing his disgust for the dismissive treatment that his fellow jurists accorded to pro se litigants. The vast majority of pro se litigants are victims of a justice system that is too expensive for all but a privileged few. Most Americans cannot afford to hire an attorney and either must proceed on their own or passively suffer gross injustice. Posner told abovethelaw.com that pro se litigants “deserve a better shake.”

Posner says judges divert the cases of pro se litigants to staff attorneys and then routinely dismiss the case after the employer files a motion for summary judgment.

In addition to Posner, attorneys for the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University School of Law are questioning the high rate of dismissals in lawsuits involving employment discrimination. They filed an amicus brief last month that points to research showing that from 1979 to 2006, the plaintiff win-rate in federal employment cases was only 15%, compared to the 51% success for plaintiffs (a.k.a. businesses) in the non-employment context.

The win rate for victims of employment discrimination was 15% compared to 51% for plaintiffs in the non-employment context.

[Read more…]

Sexual Harassment Victims Forgotten in U.S. Supreme Court Appeal

CRSTOne of the most outrageous court rulings in modern history may be the dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by hundreds of female truck driver trainees against CRST Van Expedited Inc., which was then awarded  $4.7 million in attorneys’ fees.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Missouri upheld the lower court’s dismissal of all but two of the plaintiffs but vacated the attorneys’ fee award. One  of the surviving plaintiffs dropped out of the litigation and the other secured an out of court settlement of $50,000.

This week, CRST asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the attorneys’ fee award.

The case was a complete train wreck for the EEOC, which initially represented a class of 270 women. Some of the plaintiffs were subject to shocking and violent incidents of  sexual harassment during training runs with CRST male drivers. When they called CRST to complain about the harassment, they were told they had to remain on the truck overnight with the harasser.

After almost six years of litigation, Iowa Chief Judge Linda R. Reade abruptly dismissed the case in its entirety and awarded $4.7 million in attorney fees to CRST.

The 67 alleged sexual harassment victims were denied justice because the EEOC or the U.S. District Court of Iowa (or both) screwed up. Will taxpayers now be forced to pay CRST’s legal bills?

[Read more…]

The Big Short in the Federal Courts

I recently saw an unsettling movie, The Big Short, about the blatant fraud and corruption on Wall Street  that led to the  global economic collapse and the.Great Recession.

Like many film goers, I felt deeply troubled about the Titanic-sized failure of the American government to protect ordinary Americans from predatory behavior and  criminality by Wall Street bankers and brokers.  But later my thoughts turned to another failure that  is currently being ignored by American government and the press, one that I see as an attorney who writes about  the law and workers who are victims of abuse and discrimination in employment.

There has been undisputed and powerful evidence for years that the federal court system, like America’s  financial system, operates to benefit powerful moneyed interests at the expense of ordinary American workers.  A major indicator of this trend is that federal courts routinely dismiss employment discrimination lawsuits at a far higher rate than other types of business lawsuits.

My book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, painstakingly documents how the U.S. Congress and  Supreme Court have made it inordinately difficult for workers to prevail in an age discrimination lawsuit.  The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ia weak and riddled with loopholes compared to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin and color. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a completely unnecessary ruling in 2009 requiring that age discrimination victims  prove a far higher level of causation than is required under Title VII.  A proposed federal law that would fix the Court’s disastrous ruling has languished in a Congressional committee for six years.  Congress and the Court have legalized discrimination in employment based on age that would be illegal if the victim wore a hijab or hailed from Zimbabwe or Yemen.

At one point last spring, I attempted to contact the Judicial Conference of the United States, a 16-member body (with no citizen representative) that ostensibly runs the federal court system. I wanted to point out that discriminating against employment discrimination victims is tantamount to actual discrimination. I found the Conference’s web site but it contained no contact information. A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOC)  suggested that I send my correspondence to the federal circuit court in my jurisdiction, which has a seat on the Conference body.  In exasperation, I submitted  an “open letter” to whom it might concern requesting legal reform via a web form on the AOC web site. I have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the “leadership” of our federal court system is unapproachable.

In the movie, The Big Short, some savvy observers figured out the housing market was about to collapse and they found a way to make money on the collapse.  It seems likely to me that one day the “bubble” surrounding the federal court system will burst.  Just as there was almost universal faith in the housing market, Americans historically  have shown a high degree of trust in the courts.  That trust is eroded every time the court permits  unscrupulous employers to use the legal system to deny workers respect, dignity and fundamental fairness.

Trust is lost when courts permit employers to use the legal system as a weapon against American workers.

Meanwhile,  President Barack Obama  encouraged age discrimination in hiring when he signed an executive order in 2010 that permits federal agencies to bypass older workers and hire “recent” graduates and  U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez earlier this year endorsed a private initiative by America’s largest corporations that openly discriminates against older workers. The federal government is the nation’s largest employer.

All of this  is happening in plain sight but it has gone largely unreported by the tattered shreds of what remains of America’s once vigorous media.  (I may sound a bit cynical on this score because the 18th richest man in the world, Sheldon Adelson,  a casino operator and major Republican donor who owns a free newspaper in Israel, recently secretly purchased  Nevada’s largest newspaper and immediately began testing the limits of journalism ethics.)

Like the housing market bubble, the bubble in the federal court system is attributable in large part to inattention, neglect and failure of accountability. [Read more…]