The System is Rigged against Sexual Harassment Victims Inside and Outside of Congress

Many folks have expressed outrage that the system set up by the U.S. Congress to handle sexual harassment complains lodged against members of Congress is obviously rigged to protect the harassers.

But Congress’ system, while different, arguably is no worse than the system in place for everyone else. Sexual harassment victims are routinely denied justice by our nation’s court system.

According to a 2017  analysis  by legal research service Lex  Machina, very few employees who file federal job discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims make it to court. From January 2009 through July 2017, Lex Machina found that of 54,810 cases that were filed in federal courts and closed, employees bringing the suits won just 584 times in trial, or about 1% of the total. Employers won 7,518 cases, about 14%. Another 3,883 cases, or 7%, were settled on procedural grounds, mostly dismissing the employee’s claims. What happened to the rest of the cases? According to Lex Machina, no one knows for sure why 78% of cases (42,742 cases) were dismissed by either the employee or both the employee and employer.

VICTIMS OF DISCRIMINATION WON IN COURT JUST ONE PERCENT OF THE TIME

Let’s compare the process in and out of Congress for handling sexual harassment complaints:

CONGRESS: Victims of sexual harassment by members of Congress have 180 days to bring a claim to the U.S. Congress Office of Compliance, the office responsible for handling workplace complaints.

EVERYONE ELSE:   Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Victims of sexual harassment cannot file a lawsuit until they go through the  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s complaint process, which can take years. Victims typically must file a complaint with the EEOC  within 180 days of the complained of harassment. Federal employees have a much shorter time limit and must file discrimination charges within 45 days from the date of the alleged violation.

CONGRESS: Victims of sexual harassment by a member of Congress are subject to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling, where they are informed of  their rights. They then have 15 days to decide whether to submit their claim to mediation. If they reject mediation or no settlement is reached, there is a 30-day cooling off period before they can file a lawsuit or request an administrative hearing. Victims of sexual harassment by members of Congress could potentially file a lawsuit in a couple of months.

EVERYONE ELSE;  Within 10 days of  the filing of a complaint of sexual harassment, the EEOC sends a notice of the charge to the employer. In some cases, the EEOC asks both the complainant and the employer to take part in mediation.  If one party refuses or mediation fails, the EEOC asks the employer to provide a written answer to the sexual harassment charge. The victim then has 20 days to respond to the answer.

The EEOC orders an investigation, which the EEOC says takes an average average of ten months to complete. At the conclusion of the investigation, the EEOC determines whether there is reasonable cause to believe that sexual harassment occurred.

Typically, the EEOC finds no reasonable cause and the complainant is sent a Notice of Right to Sue the harasser.

In the rare circumstance the EEOC finds there is reasonable cause to believe that sexual harassment occurred, the EEOC tries to reach a voluntary settlement with the employer.  If a settlement cannot be reached, the case is referred to EEOC legal staff, who decide whether the EEOC should file a lawsuit. The EEOC rarely files a lawsuit unless there is evidence of systemic sexual harassment involving multiple victims.

If the EEOC decides not to file a lawsuit, the EEOC sends the complainant a Notice of Right to Sue.

The vast majority of sexual harassment victims either can’t afford to file a federal lawsuit or their case is dismissed pre-trial after the employer files a motion for summary judgment.

Some fortunate complainants have the resources to pay a private attorney a retainer of many thousands of dollars and proceed to federal court.  But most of their cases are quickly dismissed.

A 2006 study by the Federal Judicial Center found that federal judges granted requests by the employer for dismissal of civil rights cases on a motion for summary judgment 73 percent of the time. Moreover, the win rate for victims of employment discrimination was 15% compared to 51% for plaintiffs in the non-employment context.

If a case survives an employer’s motion for summary judgment, it will likely languish in the court system for years.

The truth of the matter is there is no justice for the vast majority of victims of sexual harassment because the system is rigged to protect employers and not workers. That’s true both inside and outside of Congress. And federal judges from privileged backgrounds and posh colleges  have mostly worked for corporations. They can’t empathize with workers and feel these cases are trivial disputes that waste of their precious time.

I recommended in my book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, that Congress establish a special court to consider employment discrimination complaints, staffed with specialized judges who really care about and understand the issues.

Double Standard for Older Workers

It is much more difficult for older workers to prevail in federal discrimination lawsuits than for victims of race, sex, national origin, color and religion.

But why?

As Shakespeare said: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA),  29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., makes it  “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age. Id. at § 623(a).”  The ADEA covers employees who are age 40 and older.

To prevail on an ADEA claim, however, the U.S. Supreme Court says a plaintiff must establish that “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009).

In other words, the ADEA plaintiff must show that but for age discrimination, the employer would not have made the adverse job decision (i.e. demotion or dismissal)..

This is a far higher standard than required in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, color and religion.

In Title VII lawsuits, it is sufficient for the plaintiff to show that discrimination was a “motivating factor” in the adverse job action. The Title VII plaintiff is not required to show that age was the determining factor.

Once the Title VII plaintiff shows that the employer’s motivation included unlawful discrimination, the burden of persuasion shifts to the employer to prove that it would have taken the same employment action for a legitimate reason in the absence of discrimination.

The burden does not ever shift from the plaintiff to the employer in an ADEA case.

There has been discussion – but no action – in the U.S. Congress to adopt new legislation to establish the same causation theory for the ADEA that exists with respect to Title VII but so far nothing has happened except that older workers continue to lose lawsuits where they have shown they were victims of gross age discrimination.

By holding ADEA plaintiffs to a much higher standard than other discrimination victims, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court seem to be saying that  age discrimination is somehow less harmful than other types of discrimination. But where is the evidence for that?

Age discrimination is possibly more insidious today than it has been at any other time in history.  When older workers lose their job today, they may never find another job, let alone another job that is comparable to the one they lost. Many hurtle toward their retirement years unprepared, without sufficient funds or even health insurance.

According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 42 percent of unemployed workers older than 55 had been out of work for at least a year in the fourth quarter of 2011 — the highest percentage of any age category. Only 21 percent of people under 25 are long-term unemployed. That number rises to 29 percent for ages 25-34; 36 percent for ages 35-44; and 39 percent for ages 45-54.

It’s no picnic for many older workers who remain employed either. They may be “stuck” in bad jobs. Employers know that older workers will find it difficult – if not impossible – to prevail in age discrimination lawsuits. And they know that older workers can’t afford to quit and face the risk of chronic unemployment.   This situation does not provide any incentive for employers to treat older workers with respect and dignity.

Not surprisingly, the number of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more than doubled in the past decade, to a total of 23,465 in 2011.

The real tragedy in all of this is the sense that many older workers —  who have spent a lifetime paying taxes and being good citizens — are denied equal protection by the very democratic institutions that are charged with  insuring equal protection for all.

Congress to Consider School Anti-Bullying Law

Federal officials are rightly concerned about bullying in school. The problem, of course, is also pervasive in the workplace. It would not be surprising if lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered employees,  or employees who are perceived as thus, also are frequent targets of workplace bullying.  PGB

The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) was reintroduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate last week in an effort to protect to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in federally-funded public elementary and high schools from bullying.

The bill, which was reintroduced by U.S. Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) and Senator Al Franken (D-MN), was prompted by suicides resulting from anti-LGBT bullying of several students in recent years.

According to the bill:

“Public school students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (referred to in this Act as ‘‘LGBT’’), or are perceived to be LGBT, or who associate with LGBT people, have been and are subjected to pervasive discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence, and have been deprived of equal educational opportunities, in schools in every part of the Nation.”

The SNDA is modeled after Title IX [20 USC § 1681 et seq.] of the Education Amendments of 1972 and would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition of discrimination against LGBT students in public schools. The act would also prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as prohibit schools from ignoring harassment. If enacted into law, violations of the SNDA would result in the loss of federal funding and provide a legal cause of action for victims who encounter discrimination in public schools.

The legislation was first introduced in the 111th Congress and currently has 99 co-sponsors in the House and 27 co-sponsors in the Senate.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, lawmakers, students and parents also convened last week to discuss measures to combat bullying. Several state and federal legislators have introduced similar bills aimed at preventing bullying in public schools. In a press release, the White House said:

“Estimates are that nearly one-third of all school-aged children are bullied each year – upwards of 13 million students. Students involved in bullying are more likely to have challenges in school, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to have health and mental health issues. If we fail to address bullying we put ourselves at a disadvantage for increasing academic achievement and making sure all of our students are college and career ready.”

The Massachusetts House of Representatives in March 2010 unanimously passed a bill seeking to prevent bullying in schools and cyberspace.

According to the SNDA, there is a special need for legislation addressing bullying of  LGBT students:

“Numerous social science studies demonstrate that discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence, at school has contributed to high rates of absenteeism, dropping out, adverse health consequences, and academic underachievement, among LGBT youth.

When left unchecked, discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence, in schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity can lead, and has led, to life-threatening violence and to suicide.”