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Entries in religious discrimination (2)

Tuesday
Sep152015

Can Kim Davis Be Fired? What CA Employers Should Know About Religious Accommodations

Wage and Hour DefenseAttorney for Employers

by Sue M. Bendavid

818.907.3220

 

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that same-sex marriages are a fundamental liberty protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – and that states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky disagreed, citing religious reasons for refusing to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. Davis even spent time in jail for her continual refusal to do so, which promptly led many to wonder, "Can Kim Davis be fired?"

The short answer is no. Davis was elected – she can either resign, be impeached, or finish her term. But if she were NOT a public official chosen via election, merely an at-will employee for a private company…could she be fired then? What if she worked to sell gowns in a bridal shop here in California?

The answer then becomes a little more complicated.

Federal Laws & Religious Discrimination

Many employers know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace. But some employers will not know that the same federal law also prohibits job segregation – an employee like Davis refusing to perform duties because of religious beliefs might be protected from being forced to take another position, such as one with no customer contact, for instance.

Also, Title VII mandates accommodations when reasonable. Workers citing religious reasons for refusing to perform a task or conform to workplace rules (e.g. a bartender refusing to wear a revealing uniform, a healthcare worker refusing to be vaccinated, or a floral designer refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding) may suggest or be offered workaround solutions.

If the requested accommodation does not result in undue hardships such as: additional excessive costs, safety concerns, decreased efficiency, or infringement on someone else's rights – the accommodation should be implemented by the employer.

State Protections for Employees

California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) is similar to Title VII in principle – it also prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees because of religious beliefs and requires reasonable accommodations to be made.

Under FEHA, an employer would have to show that there will be significant difficulty or expense should the employer make a religious accommodation.

Keep in mind, there may be reasons to terminate an employee, but employers should be sure those reasons are valid and not in violation of state or federal protections.

In Nava v. Safeway Inc., for example, employee Juan Nava was terminated for destruction of  company property one week after he admitted to being offended by and subsequently removing, a gay pride poster from an employee break room. Nava sued for wrongful termination.  Safeway responded with an anti-SLAPP motion moving to dismiss the case.  Safeway argued that the lawsuit sought to censor and interfere with Safeway’s right to freedom of expression.

The trial court decided for Safeway, but a Fifth Appellate District Court reversed – finding that (although it was a close call and Safeway might later prevail) Nava could also potentially prevail with his wrongful termination suit. Therefore, the Court allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

Employer Takeaway

So back to the question: What do you do with an employee like Kim Davis?

In California, you accommodate when you can because both state and federal laws protect the religious beliefs and practices of the employee.  Absent undue hardship, you cannot take adverse action, like cutting back her hours or denying her training opportunities.  Nor should you let other employees mock her for her beliefs or anything else.  

Accommodations may cost you time or money. But in the long run, it will be less expensive than a discrimination suit.

Sue M. Bendavid is the Chair of the Employment Practice Group at our firm. Contact her via email: sbendavid@lewitthackman.com; or by phone: 818-907-3220 for more information.

Tuesday
Jul212015

Wacky Employee Claims: What Employers Can Learn From Outlandish Situations

Lawyer for EmployerWage and Hour Defense

 

 

by Nicole Kamm
818.907.3235

 

Think you've heard every cautionary workplace tale? Believe it or not, you probably haven't – the real question is, how prepared are you to handle wildly unusual complaints, extreme accommodation requests, and highly awkward situations?

We compiled some of the most interesting recent, real-life scenarios below. Sometimes, the employer acted reasonably, and in other situations, failed miserably. But each case serves as a reminder to employers: When making employment decisions, proceed with caution and advice from counsel. 

 

#4. Religious Discrimination Reeks

Religious discriminationThe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against a New York company that forced employees to participate in a religion called "Onionhead." Employees were made to wear Onionhead buttons, dim the lights, join prayer groups and participate in other Onionhead-related activities. Employee resistance was futile, and in three cases led to humiliating treatment and eventual termination.

Employers: Avoid imposing your religious (or non-religious) beliefs on your employees. 

 

#3. Displeasing Prosthetics

An employee who worked for a snack food maker in Pennsylvania was considering gender reassignment surgery. She told a few coworkers about her potential surgery, and also confided that she was wearing a prosthetic penis at work to help her make a decision. The prosthetic was not visible, but one of her coworkers informed management, and the employee was soon fired.

The employee filed a federal civil rights complaint seeking back pay, compensation for suffering and humiliation, and punitive damages.  She claimed a male coworker who underwent hormone treatments and cross-dressed was treated more fairly, and her complaint alleged disparate and discriminatory treatment for being a female, and for being a female who identified as male.

Employers: The EEOC has determined that discrimination based on gender identity is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. California also makes it unlawful to discriminate based on gender identity or expression, under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. 

 

#2. Quid Pro Quo Grooming

An employee claimed that her supervisor made several sexual advances to her, and became "biased and angry" when the employee rebuffed those advances. She complained to her supervisor’s supervisor– but during this period the employee herself was written up several times for tardiness and inappropriate dress. Management decided to implement a work performance improvement plan for the employee, and the employee claimed no further discussions regarding her supervisor’s inappropriate behavior took place with upper management.

Then this happened: The supervisor called the employee to his office – the employee assumed it was to have a performance evaluation discussion. However, the supervisor asked the employee to extract an ingrown hair from his chin.  The employee refused. The supervisor then informed the employee that he could have her fired.

Shortly after this incident, the supervisor was instructed to terminate the employee, citing work performance issues observed by members of management.

The employee alleged age discrimination and sexual harassment in her claim brought to a federal court. The district court found that the ingrown hair request was not severe enough to be considered sexual harassment, though an Appellate court disagreed. The case was remanded back to district court.

Employers: Asking employees to perform personal grooming tasks is not appropriate; termination decisions should be based on legitimate business reasons and thoroughly documented. 

 

#1. Popping Positive for GINA Violations

This employer may have flushed over $2M down the sewer.

When management at a grocer's warehouse discovered that someone was defecating in the aisles and on top of canned goods, they immediately became concerned of potential health risks and took drastic action. The company ordered certain employees to submit to cheek swabs so they could identify the DNA of what a district court in Georgia called "The Devious Defecator."

Two employees submitted to the DNA test and were found to not have matching DNA of the defecator.

The employees later filed suit for violations of GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The employer contended the cheek swab testing did not provide medical information about the employees, and filed a motion for summary judgment. After losing on summary judgment, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $2.25M ($1.75M in punitive damages).

Employers: GINA clearly states it is "illegal for an employer to request, require, or purchase genetic information" of an employee, even if obtained for arguably reasonable business reasons.

 

What are the lessons learned from the bizarre claims made above? First, employers must be aware of the myriad laws governing the workplace. But more importantly, when these odd situations do come up, know to spot the issue, take proper action, and consult counsel with any questions. You can read more strange employee situations in a previous blog: Wacky Employee Claims.

 

Nicole Kamm is an Employment Defense Attorney. Contact her via email: nkamm@lewitthackman.com or directly by phone: 818-907-3235.

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