Donald Sterling, Racism & Federal Courts

Sterling

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

CRST

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.

 

Mediation Goes Awry for Worker

After Outburst, He Won’t See Employer in Court

There is a new way for a worker to lose a lawsuit in federal court.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, IL, ruled recently that a worker could be fired for misbehaving during a mediation session called to resolve his complaint of sex discrimination.

Michael Benes had charged his Wisconsin employer, A.B. Data, Ltd. with sexgaveldiscrimination after working for the company for four months.

 The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arranged for mediation in which, after an initial joint session, the parties separated into different rooms and a go-between relayed offers.

Upon receiving a settlement proposal that he thought too low, court papers say Benes “stormed” into the room used by A.B. Data Ltd. representatives, and said loudly: “You can take your proposal and shove it up your ass and fire me and I’ll see you in court.”

The company accepted Benes’ counterproposal but then fired him.

Retaliation

Benes filed suit under the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000e–3(a), which bans retaliation because a person “has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” [Emphasis supplied].

A magistrate judge upheld Benes’ dismissal, finding that Benes was fired for misconduct during the mediation, not for making or supporting a charge of discrimination.

The appeals court agreed and upheld Benes termination.

In the past, Benes’ misbehavior might have resulted in a sanction by the court or his employer.

Ignores the Employer’s Behavior

An opinion written by Chief Judge Frank A. Easterbrook states – without explanation – that Benes “abandoned” his claim of sex discrimination upon filing the retaliation complaint. This is somewhat baffling in that the original complaint of sex discrimination obviously was the underlying basis for the retaliation complaint.  Benes would never have been engaged in mediation if he had not filed the discrimination complaint. And Benes would not have been fired if he had not engaged in mediation.

The appellate panel proceeded to completely ignore A.B. Data’s  behavior and to focus only upon Benes’ conduct. 

Judge Easterbrook said Benes’ actions constituted a “serious breach” of the mediation protocol, adding, “If A.B. Data would have fired a person who barged into his superior’s office in violation of instructions, and said what Benes did, then it was entitled to fire someone who did the same thing during a mediation.”

The appellate panel said that Title VII does not establish a “privilege to misbehave” in mediation.

Chief Judge Easterbrook writes that the prospect of being fired for an egregious violation of a mediator’s protocols would not discourage a reasonable worker from making a charge of discrimination or from participating in the EEOC’s investigation.

Impact of Harassment

The details of the alleged discrimination suffered by Benes were not included in the appellate decision, nor are the details of the offer submitted by A.B. Data to resolve Benes’ complaint.

Those of us who work in the area of workplace bullying and abuse are familiar with the well-documented mental and physical stress suffered by targets over time, which occasionally results in erratic or self-defeating behavior. For these and other reasons,  mediation is not ideal in these cases.

Benes clearly did himself no favors with his hotheaded behavior. Still, this decision appears to be yet another indicator of the lack of sympathy for the problem of workplace abuse in the federal courts, where, coincidentally,  judges have lifetime tenure.

Research shows that employment discrimination cases are dismissed at a far higher rate than other types of cases in federal courts before they ever reach a jury.

Workers beware – any breach of civility on your part at any point in the proceedings can have severe consequences. 

Stopping Sexual Harassment

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In the past, this blog has questioned why sexual harassment is not a criminal offense in the United States as it is in France.

Now the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a second complaint against a business owner who is  characterized as a “serial” sexual harasser because he paid  $780,000 to five women in 2003 to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

The EEOC alleges that Fred Fuller Oil Company, a Hudson, N.H.-based oil company, violated federal law when  owner Fred Fuller sexually harassed two women, caused the constructive discharge of one, and fired the other.

Fuller allegedly forced Nichole Wilkins to quit in July 2011 after he sexually assaulted her by grabbing and squeezing both her breasts from behind while pinning her against her desk.  The EEOC says this assault was the culmination of a growing number of unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments and incidents of touching by Fuller. 

 Fuller then allegedly created a sexually hostile work environment for Wilkin’s friend and co-worker, Beverly Mulcahey. Shortly after Wilkins notified Fuller in October 2011 that she intended to file an EEOC charge of discrimination, Fuller fired Mulcahey for poor performance.

Déjà Vu

The EEOC sued Fred Fuller Oil Company in 2003 and settled that case in July 2005, winning  $780,000 in relief for five women.  As part of the settlement, the company agreed to undergo training aimed at conforming to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment.

Markus L. Penzel, trial attorney in the EEOC’s Boston Area Office, said in a press release last month, “The Commission characterized Fred Fuller as a ‘serial sexual harasser’ in its first lawsuit.  Unfortunately, that still seems to be true.”

With sincere respect to Mr. Penzel, it is more than unfortunate that additional women were allegedly targeted by Fuller.  If the EEOC’s complaint is true, these women not only suffered emotional distress but were hounded out of their jobs, resulting in a loss of their financial well-being.

The women who worked for Fred Fuller Oil Co. probably have little in common with  Sherly Sanburg, the billionaire Harvard University graduate and  chief financial officer of Google. She implies in a recent bestselling book that women are partly responsible for their own lack of equality in the workplace. 

The reality is that victims of sexual harassment often are single mothers living paycheck-to-paycheck, with few other employment options, and college students who are trying to earn money to pay their tuition. These women are vulnerable, often not believed, sometimes blamed, almost always powerless and utterly disposable.   

Get Serious!

There’s been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment in the military as a result of publicity surrounding alleged improper sexual conduct of military officers who are responsible for protecting  women from sexual harassment. Surveys show that a third of American women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers have done far too little to halt sexual harassment and the EEOC lacks the resources to effectively address this problem. 

It appears that Fred Fuller  was not deterred by a monetary fine. He  also did not appear to  benefit from education about what constitutes improper sexual conduct in the workplace or training on  how to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. What might have deterred Mr. Fuller?

 France’s  Law

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.

New articles in the French Labor Code and the Penal Code state:

“Harassment is the fact of imposing on a person, in a repetitive fashion, statement or behavior of a sexual connation which violate a person’s dignity by virtue of their degrading or humiliating character or create as concerns such person an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.”

Under the French law, it is considered an “aggravating circumstance” if a perpetrator of workplace sexual harassment is abusing his or her authority.

If Fred Fuller had snatched the purse of his first victim, he would have been lucky to get just a warning.  If he had continued this behavior, he would  have spent time in jail. That’s because stealing a  purse is a crime. 

Shouldn’t it be a crime to steal someone’s peace of mind and financial livelihood?