When Workplace Bullying is Illegal

blackandwhiteWhat is the  difference  between workplace bullying and illegal harassment?

The major difference is that no law at present prohibits workplace bullying –  despite the fact that workplace bullying can severely impact an employee’s emotional and physical well-being.  And most other industrialized countries have enacted laws or regulations that address workplace bullying.

However, bullying  can become illegal when it creates a hostile or abusive work environment in violation of  federal or state civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 Generally, two factors must exist:

  •  The harassing conduct must create a “hostile work environment.”
  •  The harassing conduct must be directed toward a characteristic that is protected under  federal and state  civil rights laws.  Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Therefore, workplace bullying may be illegal if it creates a hostile or abusive work environment and it is directed toward an individual who has protection under federal and state civil rights laws on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, etc.

What is a hostile work environment?  The U.S. Supreme Court says a hostile work environment  is a workplace that is permeated by discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of a victim’s employment and to create an abusive working environment.  Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17 (U.S. 1993).  The Court has repeatedly said that Title VII  does not prohibit simple teasing or a merely offensive utterance.

NOTE:  A  target of illegal harassment does not have to suffer a nervous breakdown to gain the protection of Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court says that as long as the environment would reasonably be perceived and was perceived as hostile or abusive, there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious. The court says psychological harm could be taken into account but is not required by the statute.

To sum up,  there may be no substantive difference between  the conduct that constitutes serious workplace bullying and the conduct that is acknowledged under the law to create an illegal hostile or abusive work environment.  The harassing conduct can be identical, with the exact same devestating  result.

The significant difference between serious workplace bullying and illegal harassment  is a legal distinction pertaining to  the characteristics of the  target of the conduct.

Nevada State Sen. Richard Segerblom has proposed making Title VII “status blind” so that the law provides a remedy for  all targets of a hostile or abusive workplace, whether or not they fall within a category that is now  protected under the law.

 As Shakespeare once observed: “If you prick us, do we not bleed.”

Individuals who are targets of workplace bullying may have other legal recourse, in addition to federal and state civil rights laws.  All targets of workplace bullying  are  encouraged to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law for employees (not companies) to discuss the specific facts of their case and any potential legal remedies within their jurisdiction.

OK for Dentist to Fire Object of Desire

flossIn a small office, an employee often has no where to go  when she is mistreated by an employer.

The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The all-male Court  ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.

The  Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment  in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded  there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson.  Therefore, the case was dismissed before  trial.

Knight said he fired  Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years,  after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.

 Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”  Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.

 Nelson also recalls that  Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that  Nelson did  not remember ever telling  Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

 When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been  texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.  The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife  consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.

 The Court states in its decision that the question  to be decided was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”   In this case, the Court held that  Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.

The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

 The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.

 So if  Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them,  presumably a Court could find discrimination  on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.

This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.  Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.

Crime & Sexual Harassment

_41030565_mugging_203_bbcWhy isn’t sexual harassment a crime in the United States?

 It is in France.

 France’s General Assembly enacted a new sexual harassment law on July 31, 2012 that includes criminal penalties of up to three years in prison and a fine of approximately $56,000 for serious cases.

 The new French law defines harassment as imposing on someone, in a repeated way, words or actions that have a sexual nature and either undermine the person’s dignity because of their degrading or humiliating nature or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.

 In the United States, sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The remedy is civil, which means it is up to the victim to sue and the damages are monetary and/or  injunctive relief.  In criminal cases, a prosecutor sues on behalf of the state and may seek  fines and imprisonment.

It can be very difficult to win a sexual harassment case in the United States. The  U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  This leaves a lot of room for interpretation by judges, especially with respect to whether sexually harassing conduct  is frequent enough  and severe enough to be actionable.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that WirelessComm, a Northern California distributor for the Metro PCS cell phone service provider, had agreed to pay $97,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the agency.

 According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the store manager of WirelessComm in Watsonville, CA,    subjected then-19-year-old Deisy Mora to abuse throughout her seven months of employment at the store

He frequently commented about her physical  appearance, texted her photos of himself and the words “Te quiero” (‘I love  you’ in Spanish), and referred to women in general with slurs and epithets.

In addition, the EEOC said, the store owner  contributed  to the harassmen by inviting Ms. Mora to travel with him, asking her and others if  they were pregnant and, on one occasion, asking her to text photos of herself  and other female staff members.

The EEOC says Ms. Mora’s complaints were not addressed and she eventually quit her job  when she could no longer endure the harassment.

 What happened to the store manager and the store owner?

Under the consent decree, WirelessComm agreed to train the store owner and staff regarding anti-discrimination laws.  But there is no indication the WirelssComm store owner and store manager didn’t understand anti-discrimination laws in the first place, only that they didn’t place any importance on these laws and didn’t follow them.

The EEOC said  WirelessComm also  agreed to hire an equal employment opportunity consultant and a human resources consultant to revise its EEO policies; monitor the workplace; respond to any allegations of harassment arising during the three-year  pendency of the decree; and report harassment complaints to the EEOC.

In other words, WirelessComm will start following the law.

In  the final analysis, it seems like a small price  to pay for a campaign of a harassment waged by two adult men in positions of authority against a  vulnerable teenager.  If the store owner and store manager had mugged Ms. Dora while she was walking down a street, they’d probably spend at least some time in jail.  Here  they stole  her peace of mind and robbed her of  financial security in a time of high un employment.

 The United States recognizes two types of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo and (2) hostile environment.

 Quid pro quo is Latin for “this for that.” This type of harassment occurs when a  boss or supervisor asks for a sexual favor in return for a job benefit.

 Hostile environment sexual harassment occurs when the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it creates a sexually intimidating or abusive work environment. Hostile environment sexual harassment must be:

  • based on sex (sexual conduct, sexual comments, or nonsexual conduct that is based on your gender);
  • unwelcome (you must show that you do not enjoy the harasser’s attention and that you are not encouraging it); and either
  • severe (one or more serious incidents that affect your job) or pervasive (a pattern or series of smaller incidents that are so widespread that you have trouble doing your job as a result).

SEXUAL HARASSMENT, DINE EQUITY & PEANUTS

peanutsThe EEOC has been settling lawsuits at a frenzied pace of late, some for the monetary equivalent of peanuts.

This week, the EEOC settled for $1 million a sexual harassment case filed against IHOP restaurants in New Mexico that are owned and operated by Fahim Adi.  The EEOC says the case is the second-largest litigation settlement ever reached by the EEOC’s Albuquerque Area Office.  An EEOC press release says:  “At least 22 women are expected to receive relief through the decree.”

If it  is only  22 women and they split full amount of the award equally among themselves  – without any deductions by the EEOC for fees and costs – they will each get about $45,454.

I submit that this is not a large amount of money for women – some were teenage girls – whom the EEOC says were subjected to sexually offensive conduct by Lee Broadnax, then manager of the defendant’s IHOP restaurant. The EEOC doesn’t go into details but says Broadnax’ illegal conduct included sexual comments, innuendo and unwanted touching (i.e., otherwise known as battery).

Some of the women were forced to quit their jobs because IHOP did nothing when they complained.  People who work as servers at a pancake house generally are not well-to–do and this is not an economy where jobs are easy to find.  Some of the victims were pretty college girls en route to a better future but others were mature women (including several members of a minority group).

One wonders how many IHOP  employees were forced to tolerate abuse because they had children to feed at home and no other options?

The figure of $1 million particularly pales when one considers the IHOP brand is owned by Dine Equity, Inc., which is based in Glendale, California and also owns the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar brand.

According to Nation’s Restaurant News  magazine, Dine Equity had $7.9 billion in food service sales in 2011, making it  the ninth rranked in the United States for  “systemwide foodservice sale.”  For the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2012, DineEquity’s net income almost quadrupled to $58.7 million.  DineEquity operates almost entirely through subsidiaries and over 400 franchisees, which operate 1,842 Applebee restaurants and 1,535 IHOPs  around the world.

Dine Equity  vigorously enforces any encroachment upon the the IHOP brand.   One wuld hope that Dine Equity also would vigorously enforce the human rights of employees in IHOP and Applebee restaurants.  What could Dine Equity do?  For one thing, Dine Equity could train franchisors to follow  discrimination laws and respond appropriately to complaints. Dine Equity also could get rid of franchisors that tolerate hostile work environments and fail to respond to discrimination complaints.  Now that would get their attention!

Don’t get me wrong. If the EEOC had not taken on this case, it is quite possible that some of these victims would not have gotten anything at all (except, possibly Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).  Courts seem to be utterly unsympathetic to victims of employment-related discrimination these days, which is probably why it is so prevalent in society. Poor people can’t afford to hire lawyers and pay court costs.  But lets get real – $1 million is  not exactly a windfall for people who likely suffered emotional trauma and stress and whose lives were completley upended by an IHOP franchisor.

In addition to the monetary relief, the decree prohibits the defendants’ IHOP restaurants from further discriminating or retaliating against its employees and requires IHOP to implement policies and practices that will provide its employees a work environment free of sex discrimination and retaliation. The defendants must also provide its employees in Bernalillo and Sandoval County IHOPs with anti-discrimination training and notice of the settlement.

In this case, the IHOP franchisor ignored the women’s sexual harassment complaints. Training cannot solve an employer’s lack of motivation to protect its workers from sex discrimination.