Is “Poise” a Qualification or a Subjective Assessment Prone to Bias?

Qualifications normally are an  important consideration in discrimination cases.

In recent weeks, however, the EEOC has ruled in two age discrimination cases that subjective assessments  outweigh objective qualifications.

In both cases, Carlton M. Hadden, Jr. director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations, held that federal agencies did not engage in age discrimination when they ignored the superior qualifications of older applicants and hired younger, seemingly far less qualified workers. The EEOC, which has declined to comment, upheld both decisions.

In one of the cases, Hadden ruled that an African-American female in her 20s was more qualified for the position of lead police officer at a veteran’s center in Dallas than a 48-year-old white male who was then serving as lead police detective at the center.  The male had 20 years of high-level experience in policing; the female had served a stint in the Army military police.

Hadden said the female candidate “arguably has more experience in the intangible areas sought by the (hiring panel), such as poise, compassion, leadership, and the ability to cope with stress…” But are “poise” and “compassion” really “qualifications” or are they subjective assessments that are subject to cultural bias? And why doesn’t an officer who is in a leadership position show more leadership potential than an individual who is not? These decisions raise questions about whether the EEOC is implementing its own vision of affirmative action rather than federal law.

In the past, courts have looked skeptically at subjective assessments in hiring  because research shows that hiring managers often harbor subconscious bias.

An older candidate may not seem poised if members of the hiring panel harbor bias that older people are ugly, sickly or lacking in enthusiasm.

The issue is important because today there is rarely direct evidence of  discrimination. Plaintiffs must show that the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for a negative employment action was a pretext for discrimination.  It’s hard to disprove an employer who says the other candidate had more poise and compassion.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 discussed how courts should assess  “plainly superior qualifications”  in the  case of  Ash, et al. v. Tyson Foods, Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court clearly was not talking about  the employer’s subjective assessment of the candidates – that’s what the Court was concerned about.

In the Ash case, the plaintiffs, two African-Americans, argued that Tyson used job qualifications that were not required by company policy to exclude them and justify promoting two white males. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed their complaint, ruling they had ailed to raise an inference of discrimination.

The 11th Circuit ruled that a plaintiff must show the disparity in qualifications was “so apparent as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face.”  The Supreme Court rejected this standard, calling it “”unhelpful” and “ambiguous.”

In the Ash decision, the U.S. Supreme Court referred approvingly to far less stringent standards than the one articulated by the 11th Circuit. The Court noted a federal appeals court in California ruled  that a pretext of discrimination can be found where a candidate was not hired despite  “clearly”superior qualifications.” The Court cited a ruling by a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia that a fact-finder might infer pretext if a “reasonable employer would have found the plaintiff to be significantly better qualified for the job.”

Hadden did not cite any legal authority to justify equating subjective assessments with objective qualifications. The EEOC has declined to comment.

The EEOC routinely rejects subjective assessments in race and sex discrimination cases. Why is there a different standard for age discrimination?

The other age discrimination case dismissed by the EEOC in August condoned hiring workers based on “cultural fit.” This concept is so widely regarded as an invitation for bias that it is now considered taboo even in the business community.

The bottom line is that the EEOC is locked in a time warp, despite the fact that it was designated by Congress to implement the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and should be in the forefront on the issue of equal rights. And, since EEOC cases are secret, we have no way of knowing how many older workers have had their cases dismissed on the basis of reasoning that follows no legal precedent and appears to be the equivalent of a whim.

Why do journalists have more ethics than U.S. Supreme Court Justices?

When I beganUS Supreme Court my career as a newspaper  reporter in Connecticut, I was occasionally offered a junket or an opportunity to get something of value without earning it or paying for it.

Reputable news reporters  (as opposed to lifestyle and travel  reporters) didn’t accept junkets. To do so was widely considered to be unethical because it affected one’s objectivity or the appearance of one’s objectivity. We knew that a reader would not trust a reporter who, for example, accepted a free trip to the Bahamas from the mayor of the city that s/he was covering.

This is one reason that I find it so galling that members of the highest court in our land, the U.S. Supreme Court, have no compunction about accepting junkets. They do it all the time.

Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly last month at  a Texas hunting lodge, where he was staying for free as a guest of a Texas businessman.

According to USA Today,  the nine justices took more than 1,000 reported trips paid for by outside sources from 2004 to 2014.  Scalia was  the most traveled, with more than 23 trips on average a year, followed by Justice Stephen Breyer, with 17. Chief Justice John Roberts took the least, fewer than five per year.  Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at separate Federalist Society events in the Palm Springs area sponsored by Charles Koch,  who has poured millions into conservative causes. Scalia  attended events sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society more than 20 times over about a decade in resort towns that include Park City, Utah, and Napa, Calif. Breyer traveled to London, Luxembourg and Sun Valley in 2014 with groups picking up the tab. Whether or not this is an actual ethics violation, it doesn’t look good.  It undermines trust in the judiciary.

If poorly paid newspaper reporters  pass up freebies for the sake of professionalism, why don’t  highly paid U.S. Supreme Court justices? Even if it’s not required, why don’t they?  Perhaps it’s because federal judges, including U.S. Supreme Court Justices, have lifetime tenure. Maybe it really  doesn’t matter to them whether or not people think they are objective. They can’t be fired.  Which is a very good reason for term limits for federal judges.

The Lack of Equal Justice for All

There was an article in the New York Times recently about the elusiveness of justice for African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

This obviously reflects ingrained racism but it is also a symptom of a wider problem – the lack of equal justice for the poor and the middle class in America.

The leadership of our nation’s civil and criminal justice system, the U.S. Supreme Court, does not serve as a role model for equal justice for all. And the U.S. Congress, which holds the power of the purse-strings over the judicial branch, provides no discernible oversight as to how the court system spends taxpayer money.

An egregious example of the wider problem is  the U.S. Supreme Court‘s refusal to allow its proceedings to be broadcast. This is really an issue about transparency and accountability.  The leadership of the third branch of government in the world’s leading democracy has chosen not to be transparent and or accountable. And if you don’t like it, tough!

The Court’s disdainful attitude toward the American public was not acceptable after television attained broad popularity fifty years ago and it is completely unacceptable in the Internet age. The Court exists to serve the public, not the Court.  This doesn’t mean the Court is subject to the whims of the majority but that the Court must be guided by founding American principles of equality and justice for all.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I focus on the civil justice system, which  has utterly failed to protect older workers from irrational and harmful age discrimination. This is particularly true for vulnerable older workers (i.e. minorities and women).

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has made it almost impossible to win a federal age discrimination lawsuit. Age discrimination has become normalized in American society and is trickling down to ever younger workers (i.e., the youth apartheid state of Silicon Valley).  But younger workers have years to rebound, while older workers often are plunged into a penurious old age of deprivation.

I suggest the judiciary create a special federal court to hear appeals in  discrimination cases. This court could be staffed with federal judges who are both educated in and dedicated to the concept of equal justice. This court would not be limited to age discrimination but would decide appeals in all cases alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and disability, etc.

Age discrimination represents a kind of government subsidy for employers, by allowing them to replace more expensive older workers with cheap young labor. Taxpayers  pick up the tab in the form of higher social welfare costs, including health care and Social Security benefits.  I doubt that most taxpayers would want to pay this subsidy if they knew they were paying it.

National Chamber Lobbies Federal Cts

When people think  of lobbyists, they usually think of groups that work behind the scenes to  influence legislators in the U.S. Congress.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however,  has had tremendous success “lobbying” federal courts  through  “friend of the court” briefs filed in  lawsuits  on behalf of its conservative  corporate clients. For example, the Chamber routinely opposes any perceived expansion of  worker rights and it usually prevails.

The Chamber, and its President Thomas Donahue, who earns a salary of $4.95 million a year, spend far more money to influence decision-makers than any other lobbying group.

The Center for Responsive Politics at  Open Secrets.org  estimated last year that the Chamber spent $1 billion from 1998 to 2013, which is three times the amount spent by the nearest runner up,  General Electric, which spent about  $294 million over the same period.   No union, labor, consumer or environmental group was listed in the top 20 U.S.  lobbying groups.

National Labor Relations Board

At present, the Chamber  is a critical player in a lawsuit opposing President Barack Obama’s 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).   Obama was forced to resort to recess appointments during Congress’s Christmas vacation in 2012 after encountering a wall of Republican resistance to his proposed appointments.

To challenge the recess appointments, the Chamber joined in a  lawsuit filed by Noel Canning  Corp., a small bottling company in Yakima, Washington. Noel Canning was the subject of  an adverse decision issued by the  NLRB in an unfair labor practices dispute. The Chamber argued that  the NLRB lacked the authority to issue the ruling because it was not comprised of constitutionally appointed board members.

The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in the Chamber’s favor last year, holding that  Obama’s  appointments violated the Recess Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  The appeals court said recess  appointments may be made only during the recess that occurs  between each session of Congress and not during  breaks that occur  while Congress is still in session. The Court also said recess appointments can  only be made to fill  positions that become vacant during the recess.

The NLRB filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a strong pro-business majority. The Court  heard the case in January and could, in its ruling, throw the NLRB into chaos and upset more than a thousand NLRB decisions issued during the past two years.

The Chamber also wants to “save” the CFPB by replacing its director with a bipartisan five-member commission and bring the CFPB under Congressional control. This  would castrate the new agency, which was created after massive fraud on Wall Street led to a world-wide economic meltdown from which the world (including the U.S.) has yet to recover.

Other Cases

On another front, the Chamber is opposing a proposed rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to publicize companies’ health and safety records.

Last year, the Chamber  successfully opposed the so-called “poster rule” proposed by the NLRB to require employers to pose notices in the workplace informing workers of their right to work together to improve their working conditions.

The Chamber  does not limit itself to “lobbying”  the courts and the legislature. A Google search shows the Chamber in February inserted itself into a special election in Florida. According to Politico, the Chamber  funded a TV commercial attacking Democratic Congressional candidate Alex Sink for supporting the Affordable Care Act which, the commercial states, will mean that  300,000 Floridians will “lose their current coverage because of Obamacare.”

The  Chamber describes itself  as “the world’s largest business federation representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions, as well as state and local chambers and industry associations.”