The Sleeping Bear Awakens: The AARP Questions Legal Inequality of Older Workers

Something has poked the sleeping bear.

An attorney for the AARP was quoted in The New York Times recently as stating that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 “may not be up to the task.” This represents a profound shift for the AARP, which has done little in recent years (if anything) to acknowledge the fundamental legal inequality of older workers under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The AARP states on its web site that the ADEA was passed in 1967 with the  “strong backing” of the AARP.

In my 2013 book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I note the ADEA gives older workers far less protection than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides to victims of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, color and national origin. For example, the ADEA permits age discrimination if  it is based on a reasonable factor other than age (i.e., cost savings).  Title VII requires employers to show “business necessity” and to demonstrate there were no alternatives with less discriminatory impact.  Victims of age discrimination can recover only monetary damages and if there are none they get nothing.  Title VII plaintiffs are entitled to monetary damages plus  punitive and compensatory damages (i.e. damages for emotional distress).

Because of legal inequality,  millions of older workers have been forced out of the workplace and into an impoverished retirement since the Great Recession.

Mind you, there has never been any intellectual or moral justification for treating age discrimination differently than other types of discrimination – all discrimination is based on fear, false stereotypes, and animus directed toward a specific group. If workers are not capable of doing a job due to age-related decline, they can be dismissed. That’s not discrimination.

What Prompted The Change?

I contacted the AARP earlier this week to applaud the organization for finally acknowledging the ADEA “may not be up to the task” of preventing older workers from  irrational and harmful discrimination.  I then asked the AARP officials whether their position was influenced by my book, which is the first to challenge the fundamental legal inequality of older workers under the ADEA. I observed the AARP had never acknowledged the book – or a follow up companion work, Overcoming Age Discrimination in Employment –  despite my efforts to bring these works to the attention of the AARP and the readers of its publications. I said that capitalizing on my work without giving me credit is disrespectful and intellectually dishonest. The AARP officials insisted they have been working hard (sometimes behind the scenes) all these years to battle age discrimination in employment. They did not confirm or deny that my work had influenced their change of heart about the ADEA but suggested that “this should not be about who gets credit, but rather, about how best to improve the lives of older workers.”

This is about improving the lives of older workers but it is also about credit.

I care about credit for the same reason the AARP cares about its brand as the advocate for the rights of Americans over the age of 50. The AARP’s brand name establishes its credibility and helps the AARP sell Medi-gap health insurance and European vacations.

I suggested it would be appropriate for the AARP  to give credit where credit is due; that the AARP should do what it should have done in 2014 and acknowledge the publication of Betrayed; The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace  and the important ideas that are contained within the book.  These ideas appear to have been powerful enough to make the AARP question the insufficiency of the ADEA.

The AARP assured me that it has been as active as it can be in fighting age discrimination and wished me good luck in my future endeavors!

Now that the AARP  has acknowledged the ADEA may not be up to the task of protecting older workers, one can only hope the AARP will recognize other areas in which age discrimination has been legalized in the Untied States.  The AARP  was silent when former President Barack Obama in 2010 signed an executive order allowing our nation’s largest employer, the federal government, to blatantly discriminate in hiring on the basis of age and then again in 2015 when Obama’s Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, now chair of the Democratic Party, endorsed a private initiative by Starbucks and other major American corporations to hire only younger workers in clear violation of the ADEA.  I wrote about both of these issues in my employment law blogs, as well as the EEOC’s consistent failure to devote significant resources to prosecute age discrimination.  In the New York Times, it was reported: “Only two of the cases the E.E.O.C. filed in court last year involved the federal age discrimination act, according to a list assembled by AARP, the nonprofit older citizens group.” The reporter said the AARP’s list was assembled in July, about six months after I reported the EEOC had only filed two cases with age discrimination claims in 2016.  But who’s counting?

Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace

  • Note: The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling in March 2017 declined to expand workplace protections to gays and lesbians under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin. That ruling in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, is applicable to Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Harassment on the basis of sexual orientation has been largely ignored in the workplace but this is changing.

Gays, lesbians and transgender workers are not mentioned as a “protected class” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin. And no federal anti-bullying or anti-harassment laws or regulations protect workers who are not members of a protected class. So workers who were targeted for harassment because they were perceived to be gay, lesbian or transgender historically had little recourse against cruel and harmful harassment.

But the  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last year held that Title VII’s “broad prohibition of discrimination” on the basis of sex “will offer coverage to lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals in certain circumstances.”

The EEOC ruling was made in a case filed by Leon Brooker, a  clerk at a U.S. Postal Service distribution service in Atlanta, GA, who has been forced to wage a lonely but important legal battle to be free from sexual orientation harassment. [Read more…]

Donald Sterling, Racism & Federal Courts

The life-time suspension from the National Basketball League of  Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist comments to his girlfriend raises questions about how such conduct is treated in the workplace.

Although Sterling received the equivalent of a death sentence from the NBA, it is  unlikely that a federal court would consider Sterling’s conduct to be severe enough to violate the nation’s leading civil rights law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1994.

It what may be a sad commentary about the federal courts, racist, ageist and sexist comments often are relegated to the category of ordinary workplace incivility.

The  U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned federal judges against changing  Title VII into a “civility code” for the American workplace. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. Reports 75 (1998). As a result, most federal judges require numerous instances of egregious racist or sexist conduct before they hold employers accountable.

Sterling told his girlfriend, in a telephone conversation, that he was bothered that she associated with blacks.

Racist & Sexist Comments

A federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Title VII lawsuit brought by  an African-American clerk for CSX Transportation Company, Inc.  who was allegedly subjected to a racially and sexually hostile work environment.  The  court ruled that “occasional offensive utterances” do not rise to the level required to create a hostile work environment.

When Stephanie Williams declined to watch the Republican National Convention on a television at the plant in 2004, she said a male supervisor  told her that  she was a Democrat “only because she was a black woman; that unmarried women cannot ‘have the love of God in their heart[s]’; and this country should “get rid of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton because without those two ‘monkeys’ the country would be a whole lot better.”  The following day, the supervisor allegedly told Williams that “if she returned to school, she would not have to pay for her education because she was a single black mother. He also allegedly said all blacks should go back to where they came from.

A federal judge granted a pre-trial motion to dismiss Williams’ claim that she was a victim of a sexually hostile environment on the grounds that  her supervisor’s conduct was “neither severe nor pervasive enough to constitute a sexually hostile environment.”  He rejected on technical grounds evidence that pornography was left on tables at the plant for all to see.

The judge permitted Williams to proceed to a trial on the claim that she was subjected  to a racially hostile environment but dismissed the case before it reached the jury after finding that Williams’ evidence of a racially hostile work environment was not sufficiently “severe or pervasive” as a matter of law.

Mere Offensive Utterance

In two different opinions, the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which covers Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky,  upheld the lower court’s dismissal of Williams’ claims.  See Williams v. CSX Transp. Co. Inc., 643 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2011) and Williams V. CSX Transp. Co., No. 12-6197 (6thCir. Sep. 19, 2013).

The appeals court agreed the supervisor’s conduct was “despicable” but said the incident was not sufficiently ‘severe’ or ‘pervasive’ standing alone. “The statements were isolated, not pervasive; all but two occurred over a two-day period,” held the court.

The court said the reference to Jackson and Sharpton and the statement that black people should go back where they came from  “are certainly insensitive, ignorant, and bigoted. But they more closely resemble a ‘mere offensive utterance’ than conduct that is ‘physically threatening or humiliating.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he will try to force Sterling to sell his franchise. Sterling also was fined $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the NBA constitution.  Silver has called upon the NBA’s Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Judge Whacks EEOC With $4.7 in Fees

Case of Female Truck Drivers Crashes and Burns

It’s easy to forget that EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. started with a 2005 sex discrimination complaint by a female truck driver trainee, Monika Starke, who said she was sexually harassed  by her two “Lead Trainers.”

 Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled recently that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport companies,  $4,694,422.14 in attorney fees and costs stemming from the case.

Judge Reade’s decision  is brutally unsympathetic to the EEOC and the  255 female trainees and drivers who alleged sex discrimination and harassment against CRST.  She appears to be much more concerned about the supposedly unfair burden the litigation placed on CRST. 

The case began with a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of Starke and other similarly situated employees.  

 Court records show that Monika Starke alleged that one of the CRST trainers told her “the gear stick is not the penis of my husband, I don’t have to touch the gear stick so often”  and “You got big tits for your size, etc. . . “  She said she told him she was not interested in a sexual relationship with him and called the CRST dispatcher to complain.   “[I] was told that I could not get off the truck until the next day.”  she said.

 Starke’s other “Lead Trainer”  allegedly forced Starke to have sex with him while traveling from July 18, 2005 through August 3, 2005  “in order to get a passing grade.”

 Starke is described as a German who struggles with English. She and her  husband subsequently hired a lawyer and filed for bankruptcy.  They failed  to mention  the CRST lawsuit, prompting CRST to file a motion to prevent Starke from proceeding against CRST on grounds of judicial estoppel –  a doctrine that is meant to protect the integrity of the court.  Judge Reade granted the motion.

 In fact, Judge Reade granted CRST’s pre-trial motions to dismiss all of the complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination filed by the EEOC against CRST. 

  In a dozen cases, Judge Reade said the complaints were not “severe or pervasive” enough.

  In other cases, Judge Reade said CRST did not have legal (as opposed to real)  notice of the harassment and the “Lead Drivers” – who evaluated the performance of the female trainees – did not fall within the court’s technical definition of  supervisor in that they could not fire the trainees.

 Judge Reade dismissed 67 cases because the EEOC did not attempt to conciliate or negotiate with the CRST to settle the cases –  which appears to be a brand  new requirement that could severely limit the  EEOC in the future. Judge Reade conceded that dismissal was a  “severe” sanction for these complainants.

 The EEOC appealed Judge Reade’s dismissal of the case  to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

Appeals Court

In its decision, the  Eigth Circuit agreed that the “Lead Drivers” are not supervisory employees and that CRST was not vicariously liable for sexual harassment/discrimination committed by these employees.  

 The  appellate court generally agreed that claims by female complainants that they were propositioned for sex by male trainers and drivers were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim. The Court said an individual must show “more than a few isolated incidents” to support such a claim.  (It was unclear exactly how many times  a worker must be propositioned for sex to qualify as being harassed.)

 However, the appeals court disagreed with the dismissal of the claims of three female plaintiffs and ordered them reinstated. The court also reversed Judge Reade’s earlier grant of attorney fees to CRST in the amount of $4,560,285.11.

One of the three employees whose case was reinstated was Sherry O’Donnell,  who spent  seven days on the road with a male co-driver who asked her on three to five occasions to drive naked;  refused her request to stop at a truck stop so she could go to the bathroom,  ordering her instead to urinate in the parking lot; and, “in a culminating incident grabbed O’Donnell’s face while she was driving and began screaming that ‘all he wanted was a girlfriend.’ Regarding this third incident, O’Donnell testified that Sears grabbed her face so vigorously that it caused one of her teeth to lacerate her lip.”

Her lead trainer began screaming that ‘all he wanted was a girlfriend.’ He grabbed her face so vigorously that he caused one of her teeth to lacerate her lip.

 The other complainant, Tillie Jones, testified that during a two-week training trip, her Lead Driver, wore only underwear in the cab and on several occasions rubbed the back of her head, despite her repeated requests that he stop. He allegedly referred to Jones as  “his bitch” five or six times and, when Jones’s complained about his slovenly habits, ordered Jones to clean up the truck, declaring “that’s what you’re on the truck for, you’re my bitch. I ain’t your bitch. Shut up and clean it up.”  Like many of CRST’s Lead Drivers, Jones said he routinely urinated in plastic bottles and ziplock bags while in transit, leaving  his urine receptacles about the truck’s cab for her to clean up.  

 The appeals court ruled the EEOC established material issues of fact regarding the harassment that O’Donnell and Jones allegedly suffered. “We hold that the district court erred in concluding, as a matter of law, that the harassment they suffered was insufficiently severe or pervasive,” the court said.

 Finally, the Court rejected Judge Reade’s finding that the EEOC itself was barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel from proceeding on Monika Starke’s behalf, noting the EEOC had not misrepresented any facts to the court.  That brought Ms. Starke case back into the litigation.

 After the appeals court’s decision, CRST agreed to pay Ms. Starke $50,000 to settle Ms. Starke’s case, which most people would interpret as a victory for Ms. Starke. 

 The EEOC decided it could not proceed with respect to O’Donnell complaint, citing the “law of the case.” This presumably refers to Judge Reade’s ruling that the EEOC was required to directly engage in “conciliation” with CRST on each complaint.  

 Which left Ms. Jones as the sole surviving plaintiff.

Even though  the appeals court ruled in the EEOC’s favor with respect to several issues, Judge Reade ruled CRST was the ‘prevailing party” in the case and was entitled to almost $5 million in fees and costs.

 The final award to CRST is actually larger than the earlier award by Judge because Judge Reade included fees and costs expended by CRST related to the appeal.

 Judge Reade was appointed to the federal court in 2002 after being nominated by President George W. Bush.