Ever wonder why the severance agreement that I (or your other favorite employment lawyer) send you says “nothing in this Agreement prevents Employee from filing a charge with the EEOC” (or words to that effect)? I mean, isn’t that the point of the agreement? You pay the employee money, and he or she can’t file a charge or lawsuit against you? Well, a recently announced settlement from the EEOC provides some insight.

Background

An employee with the Coleman Company filed an EEOC charge alleging that the company discriminated against the employee based on a disability. After investigating, the EEOC found that it was probable that the company violated Section 503 of Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 704 and 706 of Title VII—the retaliation provisions. How, you may ask? According to the EEOC’s announcement,

the company conditioned “employees’ receipt of severance pay on an overly broad severance agreement that interfered with employees’ rights to file charges and communicate with the EEOC, and which precluded employees from accepting any relief obtained by the EEOC, should the agency take further action.”

Coleman has agreed to hire a consultant to review its severance agreements and make changes if necessary. The company will also notify employees who signed agreements in the last few years about their rights.

Now What?

Keep in mind that the EEOC’s announcement does not indicate that Coleman discriminated against the former employee based on a disability. This conciliation was all about a provision in the severance agreement. So, it appears that the company did what it was supposed to do under the ADA but is being chastised only for its form agreement.

The EEOC has made clear that it is concerned about the breadth of severance agreements. In fact, preserving access to the legal system, including addressing overbroad separation agreements, is part of its Strategic Enforcement Plan.

Note that the EEOC’s agreement with Coleman goes well beyond the current charging party. Not only must Coleman review and perhaps revise its current agreement, it must notify any employees who signed similar agreements in recent years. Once the EEOC is looking at an issue in your workplace, it can expand beyond the current employee.

So what’s the moral of the story? When your labor lawyer includes language that carves out someone’s ability to talk to the EEOC (or any other government agency), listen.

University Learns a New Lesson: Transgender Discrimination Landmark Verdict in OklahomaIn a landmark case, an eight-person jury (six women and two men) awarded a transgender professor, Rachel Tudor, more than $1.1 million in her claim that her former employer discriminated against her on the basis of her sex.

The Facts

Tudor was hired by Southeastern Oklahoma State University (part of the Regional University System of Oklahoma) in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English Department. In 2007, she began transitioning from male to female, becoming the university’s first openly transgender professor.

Tudor notified the university that she would be presenting as a woman for the 2007-2008 school year. According to Tudor, she then received a call from human resources informing her she would not be fired provided she follow certain rules, including that she not use the women’s restroom, wear short skirts, or wear makeup that would be deemed harassing to male colleagues. She testified that another individual told her that she should take safety precautions, because some people were openly hostile to transgender people.

Two years later, in October 2009, Tudor applied for tenure. The university’s tenure committee voted in favor of extending tenure to Tudor; however, university administrators rejected the recommendation, telling Tudor she should withdraw her application for tenure and take more time to strengthen her tenure portfolio. Tudor did not withdraw her application, and the university did not grant her tenure. Later, the university denied her an opportunity to reapply for tenure, and, in 2011, terminated her for failure to attain tenure prior to the end of her seventh year at the university.

The jury hearing the case found that the university and Regional University System of Oklahoma discriminated against Tudor based on her gender when they denied her both tenure and the opportunity to reapply for tenure. The jury also found that the defendants retaliated against Tudor by denying her the opportunity to reapply for tenure.

Takeaways

The case is important to the ever evolving anti-discrimination case law. It is one of the first cases in which a court has determined that transgender status is protected under Title VII. Not surprisingly, not all courts who have considered this issue agree. The Supreme Court has not considered the issue, but it will certainly be confronted with the issue sooner rather than later. It is also the first jury verdict we have heard about regarding a transgender person’s discrimination claims.

Cautious employers will handle concerns regarding transgender status like it is covered under Title VII—assuming that discrimination based on transgender status is sex discrimination. Given this verdict (and a big one at that), we are likely to start seeing more sex discrimination claims from transgender employees.

Trick or Treat? Employee Claims Discrimination After Attending Office Halloween PartyBefore you send out that next office-wide invite to a “holiday” party, think twice. Carmelite Lofton has sued her employer, BSN Sports, LLC—a Texas uniform and equipment retailer—when things turned sour after she was forced to attend an office Halloween party. Lofton—an African American and a Christian, says the party was contrary to her religious beliefs and afterward she endured verbal and professional slights due to her race, religion, and disability.

The Legal Issues

The complaint contains claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.  She argues that for the entirety of her employment she was subject to a hostile work environment, discriminated against on the basis of her disability (osteoarthritis), and paid less than her colleagues because of her race and religion. She argues that her termination in March 2017 was unlawful and motivated by discriminatory factors.

          Disability Discrimination Claims. Regarding her disability claim, Lofton alleges that she told BSN about her osteoarthritis at the start of her employment, but was still made to perform strenuous physical activities in direct contravention of her doctor’s orders. Under the ADA, employers are charged with providing reasonable accommodations to workers with known disabilities. Reasonable accommodations can include things such as time off, modified duties, or even a special work area if it will aid the disabled employee in carrying out their job responsibilities.

Here though, Lofton argues that BSN refused to accommodate her and terminated her employment under false pretext. Specifically, Lofton points to being made to stand for over an hour while in “excruciating pain” at the Halloween party and having to clean and pack the BSN office building after it had been damaged in a flood.

          Religious Discrimination Claims. Beyond experiencing discrimination and a hostile work environment because of her disability, Lofton also asserts that her religion was a cause of conflict during her time at BSN. Specifically, Lofton alleges (1) her superiors told her she was “going to hell” for bringing in tootsie rolls, (2) she was told she “didn’t have a choice” of whether she participated in the office Halloween party, and (3) she was intentionally asked to accompany her manager to “Condom Sense” despite the knowledge that it was opposite to her religious ideals.

Lofton recites a series of alleged cringe-worthy incidents ranging from management’s off-handed comments against the Bible to being continually interrupted during private prayer meetings held during her lunch break to being told she should “just have Kool-Aid” when she refused to drink alcohol with her colleagues. Regardless, Lofton’s complaint is chock full of alleged derogatory exchanges in support of her religiously hostile work environment claim.

          Race Discrimination Claims. Lofton claims she was treated differently because of her race. To argue a disparate treatment claim, Lofton must show that her employer intentionally discriminated against her or treated her less favorably because of her race.

Here, Lofton argues that her non-African American colleagues were paid more for doing the same job and/or for doing a job with lesser duties and responsibilities. Further, she asserts that her non-African American colleagues did not have to use PTO when out for injuries or illnesses, whereas she was forced to use PTO for her osteoarthritis surgery. To strengthen her claim, Lofton includes that her superior has previously been accused of racial discrimination, citing a 2015 incident where an email with “a stick figure being hung on a noose” was distributed company-wide.

So What Does This Mean for Employers?

All we know is what Ms. Lofton says in her complaint and we all know that BSN’s version of events is likely to tell a different story. The question now becomes, as employers, what can we learn from this complaint?

  1. Check your policies. For starters, this is an excellent time to re-evaluate your company’s policies and to focus on maintaining a workplace that is welcoming to all, regardless of race, religion, gender, disability, etc. Recognize that an employee’s religious beliefs are protected and make sure they are not the subject of jokes or potentially disparaging comments.
  2. Rethink mandatory holiday celebration. Refrain from forcing any employee, regardless of religious belief, to attend company holiday functions. It is far too easy to blur the line between optional and compelled attendance, but once blurred, you run the risk of facing the same type of problem now facing BSN.
  3. Keep your management and staff up-to-date on non-discrimination policies, have routine sensitivity training, and take the position that discriminatory behaviors will not be tolerated in any form or fashion. Encourage your staff to speak with HR or to use other resources to report instances of what they believe is discrimination.
  4. Do a quick audit. Look around to make sure people who have disclosed potential disabilities are being appropriately accommodated. For employees with obvious disabilities, check to see if they have requested accommodations and haven’t yet gotten them. Check their files to see if they have submitted anything in writing. If you find someone who has been overlooked, find a way to do it…quickly.