Monthly Archives: April 2012

EEOC: Sex Discrimination Includes Gender Identity and Transgender Status

In a landmark decision, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination is broad enough to encompass discrimination based on gender identity and transgender status. The Commission held that Mia Macy, the complainant, was entitled to have her discrimination claims investigated by the federal agency that denied her a job, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (still referred to as the ATF, despite that final E).

According to the EEOC’s decision, Macy was living as a man and working as a police detective in Phoenix, Arizona, when she heard that the ATF has an open position at its crime laboratory in Walnut Creek, California. Macy was planning to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, and contacted the agency about the position in late 2010 or early 2011. Macy was told twice that the job was hers pending completion of a background check. Macy was also told that she would be working as an outside contractor through a company called Aspen of DC. In March of 2011, Macy contacted Aspen and asked them to inform the Walnut Creek lab that she was transitioning from male to female. Five days later, Aspen informed Macy that it had passed the information on. Five days after that, Macy was told that the job was no longer available due to budget cuts.

Finding the timing of the decision questionable, Macy contacted an EEO counselor at the ATF to ask about the situation. (This is how federal agencies handle discrimination issues: The employee or applicant must first complain to the very agency he or she believes committed discrimination. The agency then decides how to handle the charge; typically, the agency investigates and makes a decision, which the employee can appeal to the EEOC.) Macy was then told that the position had actually been filled by someone else who was farther along in the background investigation process. Finding this even more questionable, Macy filed a discrimination complaint with the ATF, stating that she was discriminated against based on sex, sex stereotyping, and gender identity.

The ATF said it would process her claim of sex discrimination, but would defer her claim of gender identity discrimination to a separate procedure, as that claim was not cognizable under Title VII. Macy appealed, claiming that by dividing her complaint up like this, the ATF was effectively denying her basic allegation that she was not hired because she revealed her transgender status. And, the EEOC agreed, finding that claims of discrimination based on gender identity and transgender status are claims of sex discrimination, and fall under Title VII’s prohibitions. The Commission pointed out what previous cases made clear: Discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on gender — and gender encompasses not just a person’s biological sex at birth, but also “the cultural and social aspects associated with masculinity and femininity.”

The Supreme Court had already held that refusing to promote a woman because she did not act or dress in stereotypically feminine ways was a form of sex discrimination. In Macy’s case, the Commission held that discrimination based on gender identity or gender nonconformity was, inescapably, a form of gender discrimination: The employer is making a decision based on perceptions of how a person who is “male” or “female” should look, dress, and act. In an interesting comparison, the EEOC pointed out that Title VII’s prohibition on religious discrimination would protect an employee whose employer fired her because she converted from one religion to another. Even if the employer claimed to be biased only against “converts,” this would still constitute religious discrimination — and it would not create a “new” protected class.┬áThe Commission sent the case back to the ATF for proper processing as a cognizable complaint.

As the Commission’s decision notes, other courts have reached similar conclusions, so in some ways this case is merely the next step in that evolution of the law. At the same time, this is a huge development — and a huge victory for the LGBT community. The EEOC is the enforcer of the nation’s civil rights, and its decisions are tremendously influential. What makes this case even more interesting is that the sex stereotyping claim is potentially quite strong (I say potentially because the only known fact at this point is the timing of the decision which, while suspicious, isn’t dispositive). Macy’s skills and experience were all in traditionally male endeavors. She was a police detective, applied for a job as a ballistics technician, and according to news reports, is also a veteran. As the EEOC pointed out, the gender identity claim may not even be necessary for her to win. If the ATF simply wanted to hire a man for the job, and disqualified her once she transitioned to living as a woman, it’s a plain old sex discrimination case.

Meal and Rest Break Guidance from California Supreme Court

Last week, the California Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, a huge class action lawsuit alleging that employees were denied meal and rest breaks and required to work off the clock. Brinker owns a number of restaurant chains, including Chili’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. The lawsuit, initially filed by five employees, turned into a class action on behalf of almost 60,000 Brinker employees statewide. That group was divided into three subclasses: employees who were required to work more than five hours without a meal break; employees who were required to work more than three-and-a-half hours without a rest break; and employees who were forced to work off the clock (that is, to do work for which they were not paid).

California law requires employers to provide a ten-minute paid rest break for every four hours “or major fraction thereof” an employee works. However, no rest break need be provided to employees who work less than three-and-a-half hours total. As for meals, California law prohibits employers from requiring employees to work more than five hours without giving them a 30-minute meal break; this time is unpaid. In the Brinker case, the parties argued about when (that is, in what part of an employee’s shift) these breaks must be provided and what obligation the employer had to make sure the employee didn’t work through breaks. They also disputed whether these issues could properly be decided for the whole class or whether they should instead be decided on a case by case basis.

The Court issued a broad opinion, deciding not only the issues directly before it but a few more that are sure to come up as the lawsuit proceeds. Here’s the upshot:

Rest breaks: The Court had a math fight with the Court of Appeals on the “major fraction” language. (The Court of Appeals found that an employer could provide only one break in a seven-and-a-half hour shift.) The Supreme Court concluded that employees who work at least three-and-a-half hours but no more than six hours are entitled to one rest break; employees who work at least six hours but no more than ten are entitled to a second rest break; and so on. The Court also rejected the employees’ argument that one rest break must be provided before the meal period and one after in an eight-hour shift. Although the Court agreed that this made sense “as a general matter,” it declined to state a rigid rule regarding the timing of meals and breaks.

Meal breaks: There were a couple of big questions here. First, what is the employer’s duty during meal breaks? The Court found that the employer must provide a 30-minute meal break, during which the employee is entirely relieved of duties and is free to leave the work site. The employees wanted to impose an additional requirement that employers ensure employees do no work during their lunch, but the Court refused. If the employer pressures employees to work through their breaks, however, it violates this provision, and is liable not only to pay the employee for the break time, but also to pay a penalty. Second, the employees wanted the Court to require a meal break every five hours, so that if the first one was taken toward the start of a shift, the employee would be entitled to a second break five hours later. The Court disagreed: Employees are entitled to a meal break before they finish five hours of work; if an employee works ten hours, the employee is entitled to a second break. There is no requirement that the meal breaks be no more than five hours apart.

Class claims: The Court decided that the rest break claims could proceed as a class action, because they were based on the employer’s policies and procedures. The Court sent back the meal break claim so the trial court could decide whether a class should be certified under the Court’s interpretation of the five-hour rule. The Court rejected the idea of class certification on the employees’ claim that they were required to work off the clock, finding that it was based not on a company-wide policy, but on the actions of individual employees and managers.

This case has been touted as a win for employers, and it is — but mostly in the sense that adopting the employees’ arguments would have greatly expanded their rights as previously understood under California law. The Court didn’t take away any established employee rights with this opinion. While it’s not fun to have to take your “lunch” shortly after starting an eight-hour shift, then work on without a substantial break for many hours (and trust me, I’ve been there), it’s also a fairly common practice, especially in service industries where employees can’t all take their breaks at the same time. In this case, the trial court found entirely for the employees, then the Court of Appeal reversed and went entirely for the employer. The Supreme Court’s opinion seems to just rebalance the scales to where most people thought they were in the first place.

Employee Photos on the Company’s Social Media Page?

This week, we got an interesting question via our Facebook page: A company that has recently established a social media presence wants to know whether it’s legal to post pictures of employees at company functions. As usual, the answer is “it depends.”

A number of states have laws that prohibit the use of someone’s likeness without that person’s consent for commercial purposes. The whole point of a company’s social media pages is ultimately to boost the bottom line, whether that goal is achieved through selling more products, attracting outstanding employees, building a reputation for humor, intelligence, and trustworthiness, or other means. Companies that post candid employee photos or photos of employees doing their jobs, serving the community, and so on, do so to make a good impression on potential employees and customers. So I think it’s pretty clear that this is a commercial purpose.

Employers who want to use employee photos can simply ask for the employee’s consent. Like all other employment agreements, this one would best be put in writing, and should spell out what the employer intends to do. Is the company going to post an occasional photo of employees doing their jobs? What about employees enjoying themselves at after-hours company functions? Is the company going to use the employee’s image in actual advertising materials, such as brochures or a commercial? Will the employee have the opportunity to see the photo first? Clearly, an employee might be more comfortable with some photos than others: A smiling photo of an employee helping a customer might be more welcome than a candid photo of the employee’s bathing suit riding up at the company’s Fourth of July picnic at the lake.

Most companies that ask employees to consent to use of their image find that a few are unwilling to agree. I’ve been asked about this a couple of times by folks who assume that the employee who wants to opt out is camera shy, doesn’t like how he or she looks in pictures, or has some sensitivity about appearance. That may be the case, but often the real objection is more serious: The employee has been a victim of stalking or violence, or fears becoming one. This is not information the employee should have to share with the employer in order to get out of the company’s Facebook photo album.

And some employees have a philosophical objection that goes to the very nature of the employment relationship. That argument goes like this: The employer pays employees for their labor; it does not own their image. When you look at it this way, throwing a reluctant employee’s actual personal appearance into the pile of things that paycheck is supposed to cover does seem like an overreach.

The best solution to this dilemma is to ask for consent before using employee photos and to allow employees to withhold their consent, if they wish. Don’t require employees to explain their reasons. Simply find another photo, of employees who are more than happy to show up on the company’s social media page or in its other marketing materials, and move on.