Oregon Interns Get Harrassment/Discrimination Protection

InternsUnpaid interns are especially vulnerable to predatory behavior in the workplace because they are young and inexperienced.

However, many courts have ruled that unpaid interns are not protected by state and federal harassment and discrimination laws.

This week the Oregon legislature agreed to extend workplace protections against harassment and discrimination to unpaid interns.  These protections formerly were reserved only for employees.

The Oregon Senate unanimously passed HB 2669, sending it to Gov. John Kitzhaber for signature. The Oregon house unanimously passed the bill last month. Kitzhaber has indicated that he will sign the bill. 

The new law will give unpaid interns legal recourse against employers for workplace violations including sexual harassment; discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age; and retaliation for whistleblowing, among other things.

With no protection in state law, you might think that unpaid interns could turn to federal law. You’d be wrong.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued  guidelines that provide coverage to volunteers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “if the volunteer work is required for regular employment or regularly leads to employment with the same entity.”  However, unpaid interns have been unable to bring sexual harassment or civil rights complaints under Title VII  because judges have not found them to be “employees”  to whom protections are explicitly afforded.

According to a  2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), federal courts have consistently found that the question of whether an individual is compensated for his or her work by an employer is the first test for determining employee status. Accordingly, unpaid interns, or even interns paid by an entity other than an employer, do not receive workplace discrimination protection.

The EPI study reports that the leading precedent for the failure to protect unpaid interns is the case of O’Connor v. Davis,  126 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 1997).  Bridget O’Connor was required to complete an internship for her college degree and chose to work at a local psychiatric center. There, O’Connor allegedly was subject to repeated sexual harassment by one of her supervisors, Dr. James Davis. The district court summarily dismissed O’Connor’s complaint because the plaintiff, as an unpaid intern, did not receive compensation from the center, and thus did not qualify as an employee protected under Title VII. The decision was upheld on appeal.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told the Associated Press that interns had contacted his office looking for help in the past and “we had to tell them that the law did not protect them.”

Under the measure, an intern who alleges workplace harassment or discrimination, among other violations, can bring a lawsuit against the employer or file a formal complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Avakian said the idea for the bill came from a legislative intern at the Bureau of Labor and Industries. He said the intern discovered the loophole and brought it to his attention.  In 2011, a similar bill failed to gain traction. This year, however, the bill passed with broad support from civil rights groups and a student advocacy group.

The Oregon law  does not create an employment relationship and does not affect wage or workers’ compensation laws.

 Photo by: John Amis

 

 

Few Consequences for Sexual Harassment

sexual-harassmentUPDATE:  Shortly after this story was written, the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult to win a sexual harassment lawsuit by raising the bar for who constitutes a “supervisor” in the workplace – a designation that has important consequences with respect to the employer’s liability. See Vance v. Ball State University.

Sexual harassment in the military underscores a much bigger problem in American society.

 Sexual harassment is a major problem in all workplaces but it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for victims  to hold abusers accountable for their illegal conduct. Surveys show that third of American women say they have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

For years, women in the military complained that the military did little or nothing about complaints of sexual abuse.  Then two military officers whose duties include preventing sexual harassment and assault were arrested for alleged sexual assaults and the military was forced to confront the issue.

 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel  recently offered a solution that seems oddly misdirected.  Hagel said that  all of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention coordinators and military recruiters will be retrained, re-credentialed and rescreened. But there is no evidence that this is a problem of training; the evidence points to a problem of lack of consequences.

Members of the military who commit sexual harassment and assault have not been held to account by the “employer”  and so it continues. And this is also the problem in the wider society. There is a yawning lack of accountability for perpetrators of sexual abuse and the employers who tolerate this behavior.

Victims in non-military workplaces also complain to supervisors and human resource officers who often do little or nothing to hold the perpetrator accountable.

At that point, the victim’s only  recourse is to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – which is a necessary precursor to filing lawsuit alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The  EEOC receives about  30,000 sex discrimination complaints a year and, of these,  the agency targets systemic cases involving numerous victims. If the victim’s case doesn’t fit its parameters, the EEOC likely will do nothing but issue a “Right to Sue” letter.  That can take 180 days.  

 Now the victim’s only recourse is to file a lawsuit.  The first hurdle is finding a private attorney willing to take the case.  This can be very difficult for mid- to –low wage earners because there are more than enough high-earner victims with potentially higher damages. The victim also must pay the attorney’s up-front retainer – which in some areas is $25,000 or more.. People like to blame money-grubbing lawyers but legislatures and judges have made these cases very difficult to win and very costly.

 If the case ever gets to court it may be there for only a short time. Federal judges dismiss discrimination cases in the early stages at a much higher rate than other types of cases. If that happens, the victim’s only option is to file a costly appeal.  But if the case is not dismissed, it will take years to wind it way through the system. 

Occasionally one hears of a particularly egregious case of sexual assault that results in a spectacular jury verdict. These are rare.

In short, it is extremely difficult for victims of sexual abuse in the workplace to hold perpetrators accountable for  sexual abuse, not to mention the employers that tolerate abusive work environments. The system screens out all but the most dedicated victims and the most egregious cases. It’s like a lottery that few will win. And that’s a huge part of the problem.

It could get worse
If that’s not bad enough – the situation could get worse.

The  U.S. Supreme Court, the most pro-business Court since WWII,  heard arguments last year on a case that involves who qualifies as a “supervisor” under a federal employment discrimination law. This  question is important because it goes to the issue of damages and whether the employer – rather than the individual abuser –  is liable for the conduct of the abuser.

 The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that only a person with the ability to fire or hire employees can be considered a supervisor,  not managers who supervise workers but cannot fire them. Other federal appeals courts and the EEOC  define a supervisor as a person with authority to direct daily work activities and can undertake or recommend “tangible employment decision affecting employees.”

 The case was brought by Maetta Vance, an African-American catering specialist at Ball State University, who accused a co-worker, Shaundra Davis, of racial harassment and retaliation in 2005. She  claimed the university was liable because Davis was her supervisor. A federal judge dismissed her lawsuit, saying that Davis was not her supervisor because she could not fire Vance. The judge also ruled the university was not liable because it  took corrective action. The 7th Circuit of Appeals upheld that decision, and Vance appealed to the Supreme Court.

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.

Band-Aid Not Enough in Sexual Harassment Case

NOTE:  On 1/23/13, a federal judge  denied a request from a lawyer for Paul’s Big M Grocer to reduce the $467,269 punitive damages portion of the jury verdict against the store, former manager Allen Manwaring and the store’s owner, Karen Connors.

A federal appellate court panel has issued an important ruling that it is not enough for employers to pay off victims of sexual harassment. They also must fix the underlying problem that led to the harassment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled on Oct. 19, 2012 that a lower court abused its discretion in denying any injunctive relief in a sexual harassment case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Injunctive relief is essentially a court order that requires the employer to stop the practices that led to the discriminatory conditions.

“At minimum, the district court was obliged to craft injunctive relief sufficient to prevent further violations of Title VII by the individual who directly perpetrated the egregious sexual harassment at issue in this case,” ruled a three-judge panel of the appeal courts.

The case, EEOC v. Karenkim, Inc., 11-3309 (2nd Cir. 2012), involved  Paul’s Big M Grocer, which is owned by Karenkim, Inc.,  in Oswego, New York. Karenkim  was found liable for sexual harassment and fostering a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The jury awarded the ten members of the class of defendants a total of $10,080 in compensatory damages and $1,250,000 in punitive damages. The  award was subsequently reduced pursuant to a statutory cap to a total of $467,269.

The store is owned and managed by Karen Connors, who hired the store manager, Allen Manwaring, in 2001.  Connors and Manwaring almost immediately began a romantic relationship and now are engaged and have a son together. Women who worked at the store, some as young as 16, complained to no avail that they were being sexually harassed by Manwaring. Some were  terminated after filing a complaint.

At one point, Manwaring was actually arrested and pled guilty to second degree harassment after he approached an employee, a  high school student, who was talking on the phone, stuck his tongue in her mouth as she was talking and then walked away “with a smirk on his face.”    In deposition testimony, Connors said she did not believe Manwaring had done anything wrong and accepted his explanation that he had “falleninto” the girl.

The store had no anti-harassment policy until 2007 and no formal complaint procedure until after the trial.

 The EEOC asked the court for an injunction because the store had “not adopted adequate measures to ensure that harassment of the kind at issue in this action does not recur.”  Specifically, the EEOC noted that Connors and Manwaring remained in a romantic relationship, that Manwaring still worked at the store as a produce contractor, and that following the verdict Manwaring continued to deny he had engaged in sexual harassment.

The district court denied the EEOC’s request for injunctive relief, ruling it was unnecessary and overly burdensome in that it would require the defendant to “alter drastically its employment practices …”

The appeals court said that ordinarily terminating a lone sexual harasser might be sufficient to eliminate the danger that the employer will engage in subsequent violations of Title VII. In this case, however, the Appeals Court noted that Manwaring,  the store manager, engaged in harassing conduct that was “unchecked for years” because he was involved in a romantic relationship with the owner – a relationship that continues.

The appeals court panel said the EEOC’s requested ten-year proposed injunction was overly broad but that the lower court at least should have prohibited the store  from directly employing Manwaring in the future and from entering the store premises. In addition to those provisions the EEOC had asked the court to order KarenKim to hire an independent monitor for the store.

The appeals court concluded that under Title VII, “[i]f the court finds that the respondent has intentionally engaged in or is intentionally engaging in an unlawful employment practice charged in the complaint, the court may enjoin the respondent from engaging in such unlawful employment practice, and order such affirmative action as may be appropriate. … Once a violation of Title VII has been established, the district court has broad, albeit not unlimited, power to fashion the relief it believes appropriate.”