Seldom do employee-side lawyers cheer a ruling for the employer, but the Ninth Circuit decision holding that homophobic behavior in the workplace is not justified by an employee’s right to religious freedom was correctly decided and is good for employees.

In Flanagan v. City of Richmond (Ninth Circuit June 19, 2017) No. 15-17258, Ms. Flanagan claimed she was fired for her religious disapproval of homosexuality.  The record reflected that she manifested this intolerance by, for example, forbidding a lesbian intern from entering the workplace, leaving her stranded in the waiting room and declaring that she wouldn’t be going to heaven.

The court observed that although Flanagan’s religious speech may have touched on a matter of public concern her free speech, when balanced against the “… interest in maintaining a discrimination – and harassment – free environment” must fail.

In a good day for fair jury selection in the State of California, the California Supreme Court reversed a conviction in a criminal case where a prosecutor used 10 out of 16 peremptory challenges to bump Hispanics off of the jury pool.  People v. Gutierrez (June 1, 2017)  17 C.D.O.S. 5040.

This case is equally important to employment cases, where we often find that defense attorneys challenge perfectly fair jurors based on their race/national origin/gender/age and other identifying information that is similar to that of the plaintiff, and thereby deny the plaintiff in employment cases a jury of their peers.

The California Supreme Court sent a message that under People v. Wheeler (1978) 22 Cal.3d 258 (Wheeler) and Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79 (Batson) a trial court must seriously scrutinize the rationale and motivation presented by any side using its jury challenges to challenge a legally protected and cognizable group.  Here the court noted that 10 out of 16 challenges were used against Hispanics and 10 out of 12 Hispanics who took a seat in the jury box were challenged by the prosecutor.  The Supreme Court warned that, “excluding by peremptory challenge even a single juror on the basis of race or ethnicity is an error of Constitutional magnate”.  The Supreme Court made clear to the lower courts that it is their duty to make sure the parties do not use their peremptory challenges in a discriminatory manner, and that the court must make a “sincere and reasoned attempt to evaluate” the explanations proffered by the party bumping the jurors.

For 32 years, Mr. Santillan worked for USA Waste of California, Inc. becoming perhaps the world’s most beloved garbage truck driver. The customers whose homes he serviced came out in droves to commend his work and he worked for 30 years receiving hardly any discipline. However, that changed when Mr. Santillan was assigned a new supervisor. After the new supervisor took over, suddenly, Mr. Santillan couldn’t do anything right and he was disciplined six times in a year and half. Nearly three years after the new supervisor took over, Mr. Santillan was fired. His employer claimed that their reason for firing him was because he had too many accidents in a year – which Mr. Santillan disputed. Then, USA Waste replaced Mr. Santillan with a driver who had much less experience and was thirteen years younger than Mr. Santillan. Mr. Santillan’s customers were outraged and came out in droves to demand that Mr. Santillan be reinstated. One family even described that their son dressed up as Mr. Santillan for Halloween because he considered Mr. Santillan “a hero.”

Mr. Santillan filed a grievance which ultimately settled. The terms of the settlement provided that Mr. Santillan would withdraw his grievance and in exchange, he would be reinstated provided that she could pass a drug test, a physical exam, a criminal background check and “e-Verify.” E-Verify is a controversial voluntary system under federal law used to check the work authorization status of employees through federal records. Mr. Santillan passed the drug test, the physical exam and the criminal background checks. He was told to report to work with documentation showing his right to work in the United States. Mr. Santillan returned to work with his driver’s license and social security card. Nonetheless, USA Waste insisted it needed a work authorization number and the expiration date. Mr. Santillan provided his identification number, but according to his employer, could not provide the expiration date. USA Waste terminated Mr. Santillan for a second time.

Mr. Santillan filed a lawsuit based on several claims including age discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The trial court dismissed his case holding that Mr. Santillan could not state a prima facie case for discrimination and dismissed his wrongful termination claim holding that Mr. Santillan’s failure to provide the work authorization information that USA Waste demanded within three days was a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the termination. Mr. Santillan appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently published a decision, providing guidance to courts on when hugs and other forms of unwanted touching cross the line and become sexual harassment. Victoria Zetwick began working for Yolo County as a correctional officer in 1988. In 1999, Edward Prieto was elected as the county sheriff and became Ms. Zetwick’s supervisor. Ms. Zetwick alleged that between 1999 and 2002, Mr. Prieto subjected her to over a hundred unwelcome hugs. On one occasion, Ms. Zetwick says that Mr. Prieto, apparently in an effort to congratulate her on her recent marriage, kissed her partially on the lips. She complained about the incident but her supervisors did not forward her complaints for investigation. Ms. Zewick claimed that in 2010, she was working with another female employee and Mr. Prieto reached out to hug her. He then stopped himself and said that people had complained so he would not hug her. But then he proceeded to hug her and the other female officer anyway.

Ms. Zetwick claimed that Mr. Prieto didn’t reserve his hugs just for her. She claimed that over the years she saw Mr. Prieto hug and kiss dozens of female employees but never saw him hug male employees – instead, he would shake hands with male employees. On another occasion, Ms. Zetwick claimed that Mr. Prieto repeatedly asked another female employee how much she weighed until she answered and looked at the employee in a sexually suggestive manner. Mr. Prieto claimed that he did in fact hug male employees and that all of his hugs were just friendly hugs. The County also claimed that Ms. Zetwick hugged other male co-workers and joked about Mr. Prieto’s hugs.

Several courts have determined that hugs and kisses on the cheek do not always create a sexually hostile work environment. However, in determining whether such conduct does crease a hostile work environment courts must look at who engaged in the conduct, the conduct itself, the number of times the conduct occurs, and the period of time over which the conduct occurs. Importantly, the conduct must be severe or pervasive- it does not have to be both.

Recently, it has been reported that campaign staffers were encouraged to “dress like women” while on duty. So what can an employer require of an employee with respect to his or her appearance?

Employers are permitted to set grooming standards for their employees and those standards may differ for male and female employees. Over ten years ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that: “Grooming standards that appropriately differentiate between the genders are not facially discriminatory.” Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., Inc. (9th Cir. 2006) 444 F.3d 1104. In that case, Harrah’s casino had a “personal best” grooming policy that required all of its bartenders to wear the same uniform but had differing policies for men and women with respect to their hair, hands and face. Men were not permitted to wear make-up and were required to have short hair and women were required to wear eye and face make up. A female employee objected to the requirement that she wear make-up and brought a claim under Title VII for sex stereotyping. In a controversial opinion, the Court determined that the differences in the grooming policy for men and women did not give rise to a sex stereotyping claim.

However, Courts have found violations of Title VII where there is an “undue burden” placed on female employees that is not placed on male employees. In Frank v. United Airlines (9th Cir. 2000) 216 F.3d 845, female flight attendants were required to stay under a certain weight in order to keep their jobs. Many of the female flight attendants went on extreme diets to try to make the cut but were unsuccessful in losing enough weight. As a result, they were disciplined and/or terminated. The Court held that United’s policy had a disparate impact on women and was facially discriminatory because it applied less favorably to women than to men.

In 2012, the Supreme Court gave employers and employees alike clear rules about meal and rest breaks in California. The Court held that employers were required to provide employees with a full, thirty minute, uninterrupted meal period if an employee works five or more hours in a shift. In the alternative, employees may agree – in writing – to waive their meal period. If the employer does not abide by those rules, it is liable to the employees for premium pay. The Court also warned employers that they were not allowed to pressure employees into working through their meal break.

But what about rest breaks? In California, employees who work a typical eight-hour shift are entitled to two paid ten minute breaks. The California Supreme Court just clarified that the rest breaks must be duty free and employers cannot require their employees to remain “on-call” during their rest breaks.

In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. (2016), 2 Cal.5th 257, the plaintiffs were security guards who worked for a security company. The employer required its employees to keep their pagers and radio phones on at all times, including during rest breaks. The employees were also required to remain vigilant and respond to calls when needs arose. The Court held that the employees were entitled to duty-free rest breaks – that employers “must relieve employees of all duties and relinquish control over how employees spend their time.” The Court also held that employers could not require their employees to remain “on-call” during their rest breaks because if an employee is on call, they do not have the freedom to use their rest break for their own purposes.

Applicants for employment who are over forty years old often face numerous hurdles to finding new employment. In addition to facing stereotypes about their longevity and energy levels, applicants may find themselves searching for a job in a market that has completely changed since the last time they looked for a new job. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit created yet another obstacle for older job applicants, holding that older job applicants cannot bring a discrimination suit for failure to hire based on a theory of disparate impact under the federal age discrimination law. Villareal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Pinstripe, Inc. No. 15-10602 (11th Cir. Oct. 5, 2016)  Disparate impact cases challenge practices, rules or policies that result in a disproportionate negative impact on a protect group- here, employees over 40.

The court ruled that only employees, not applicants could bring a disparate impact claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The court rejected a class action lawsuit against the company that had a hiring policy targeting applicants who were “2-3 years out of college”, “adjusts easily to changes.” In screening applicants, the policy was to “stay away from” applicants who had been “in sales for 8-10 years.” While this decision was a hard blow to applicants in the Eleventh Circuit, it does not apply once and employee is hired and becomes an employee.

Fortunately, this bad decision does not affect California employees. The Ninth Circuit, which covers California, and California state courts have a much more employee (and applicant)-friendly approach. In California, applicants may still bring an ADEA claim by alleging that a hiring practice disparately affects a protected class. In fact, there is a similar class action case for age discrimination in hiring currently pending in the Northern District Court of California. So far, two attempts by Google to defeat class certification for those claims have not been successful. Robert Heath, et al. v. Google Inc., Case No. 5:15-cv-01824.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ____ (2015), the United States Supreme Court delivered the straight-forward rule that employers “may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.”

In this case, Abercrombie refused to hire a young Muslim woman named Samantha Elauf to work in one of its retail clothing stores because Ms. Elauf wore a headscarf. Abercrombie suspected that Ms. Elauf wore the headscarf in observance of her Muslim faith and simply did not want to accommodate the headscarf, claiming that it would violate the company’s “look policy” (which forbade employees from wearing “caps”). When the EEOC sued Abercrombie on behalf of Ms. Elauf for failing to make a reasonable accommodation for her religion, the company defended its actions by arguing that it did not “actually know” that the headscarf was a religious practice – it merely suspected that it was a religious practice. In other words, Abercrombie made the absurd argument that even though it actually believed the headscarf was a religious practice and the headscarf was indeed a religious practice, the company should nevertheless be allowed to discriminate against Ms. Elauf because Ms. Elauf did not specifically tell the company that the headscarf was a religious practice.

Luckily, the U.S. Supreme Court did not buy Abercrombie’s argument. The Court’s decision makes it clear that employers may not make employment decisions that are “motivated” by someone’s actual religious beliefs or practices, nor can it refuse to make reasonable accommodations for such religious practices, by simply claiming that the employee (or job applicant) never explicitly confirmed the company’s suspicions regarding their religious beliefs or practices.

In a blow to those employees who suffer from stress and anxiety caused by abusive employers, a California Court of Appeals has determined that “an employee’s inability to work under a particular supervisor because of anxiety and stress related to the supervisor’s standard oversight of the employee’s job performance does not constitute a mental disability” under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

In Higgins-Williams v. Sutter Medical Foundation 14 C.D.O.S. 5245 (2015), the Plaintiff worked as a clinical assistant for Sutter Medical Foundation for nearly three years when her doctor diagnosed her as having “adjustment disorder with anxiety” and further reported that her disabling condition was “stress when dealing with her Human Resources and manager.” Plaintiff took a medical leave and as soon as she returned, her manager gave her a negative performance review (the first negative review she received at Sutter). On her second day back at work, Plaintiff’s manager grabbed her arm and yelled at her and Plaintiff suffered a panic attack as a result. Plaintiff’s doctor put her on another medical leave.

Plaintiff then requested, as a reasonable accommodation for her disability, to transfer to a different department so that she could work under a different supervisor and manager. Although Plaintiff and her doctor repeatedly reported to Sutter that she could return to work in a different department under a different manager, Sutter instead chose to extend her medical leave and eventually terminated her employment rather than accommodate her with a transfer.

Weaving v. City of Hillsboro, 763 F.3d 1106 (2014), involved an Oregon police officer who claimed he was terminated because of his disability, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The jury found for Officer Weaving, however the Ninth Circuit took his verdict away, claiming that ADHD may have limited his life functions of working and/or interacting with others, but it did not “substantially” limit those life functions.

It is a pity for Officer Weaving that he didn’t work in the State of California, where a disability is defined by statute as “limiting” rather than “substantially limiting” a life function. California employees can certainly argue that ADHD is a disability because of this difference. California employees should always file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (the DFEH, the California state agency governing employment discrimination and/or have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency) cross-file the claim with the DFEH.

December 9, 2014 Jody I. LeWitter