What Does At-Will Employment Really Mean?

At-will employment is something most U.S.-based employers are familiar with. But what does this term really mean? Can an employer actually terminate an employee without any reason at all? What are the exceptions?

Defining At-Will Employment

First, let’s start with the definition of “at-will employment.” It does in fact mean that an employer has the right to terminate an employee at any time and for any (or no) reason. It also means that the employee has the right to terminate his or her own employment at any time and for any (or no) reason. There are no predefined legal requirements in terms of notice periods either. This means the termination can be done without any prior notice.

If an employer/employee who is in an at-will employment situation decides to terminate the employment relationship, the other party has no recourse. In the United States, in almost every state (Montana is the exception), an employee is considered to be an at-will employee unless there is proof otherwise, such as an employment contract.

Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Doctrine

Employers need to understand that there are caveats to the above definition. This is because other laws may be broken if a termination is made for an otherwise illegal reason, such as discrimination. Here are some of the exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine:

      • An employee cannot be fired for a discriminatory reason. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for example, protects employees from discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, or sex. For another example, the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because of a disability.
      • An employee cannot be fired out of retaliation for performing a legally protected action. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Other retaliation-protected actions include:
        • Filing a discrimination or harassment suit
        • Being a whistleblower regarding illegal or unsafe practices
        • Refusing to perform illegal activities
        • Participating in a workplace investigation
        • Requesting reasonable accommodation for a disability
        • Taking legally protected leave from work, such as FMLA  leave
        • Discussing (or complaining about) the working environment or wage and overtime practices

        An employee with a contract that outlines the terms of employment cannot be fired outside of those terms. In other words, contracts supersede at-will employment assumptions. Some states also provide protections for implied (unwritten) contracts. Check your local laws.

    • An employer who provides some protections in employment policies, such as firing only for just cause, must abide by those protections. In this case, the employer has opted to forgo the at-will option by providing other protections.

As we’ve shown here, terminating an at-will employee is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Employers should also remember that some states have more stringent requirements. Be sure to check state and local laws before making any termination decision.

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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EEOC IS A STRAW MAN

By Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

Millions of American workers rely on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to protect them against workplace discrimination.  Unfortunately, that reliance is misguided.

Less than 5 percent of workers who filed job discrimination complaints against their employer with EEOC receive a favorable decision from the agency.  With the number of discrimination complaints growing each year, EEOC does not have the funding to conduct investigations.  In order to reduce its backlog, EEOC dismisses a growing number of complaints without even investigating them.  When EEOC dismisses a complaint, it sends the employee a “right-to-sue” letter which instructs them to file a discrimination lawsuit in federal court within 90 days.  For most people, a “right-to-sue” letter marks the end of the road.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred in August 1963, it was the highlight of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.  Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 250,000 people.

That year, President John F. Kennedy meet with civil rights leaders and introduced a bill in Congress to address discrimination against black people.  In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made job discrimination illegal based on race, sex, national origin, and religion.   The Civil Rights Act marked the official end of the Jim Crow era that terrorized black people for 100 years.  The Act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) whose mandate is to protect workers from job discrimination.

Almost sixty years later, the EEOC is out of favor in Congress; ending job discrimination is not a priority.  For all practical purposes, due to a lack of funding from Congress, the EEOC can no longer fulfill its stated purpose of protecting workers from job discrimination.

Today, black people are not the only victims of job discrimination.  Because of the #metoo era, women have filed a flood of sexual harassment complaints with EEOC.  There are also more age and disability discrimination complaints being filed with the agency.

Since EEOC lacks the funding to enforcing workplace discrimination laws, employers know that there is little or no penalty for allowing workplace discrimination to continue.  It is no wonder that the vast majority of workers who are experiencing discrimination in the workplace never file a complaint with EEOC.  Most of these workers fear retaliation by their employers.

Nonetheless, filing a complaint with EEOC offers important benefits: 1) filing a complaint with EEOC is a prerequisite to filing a discrimination lawsuit in federal court; and, 2) EEOC offers mediation which can lead to a settlement.  While most workers do not have the means or the desire to file a discrimination lawsuit in federal court, many workers expect to resolve their complaint through mediation.

In conclusion, EEOC’s mediation service can be very beneficial to workers.  However, no worker should expect EEOC to advocate for them.  To the contrary, many feel that EEOC is working to the benefit of employers.  Anyone who is contemplating filing a complaint with EEOC should seek advice from an experienced civil rights attorney.

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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Do I Have A Case?

By Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

When a potential client contacts me, they usually want to know whether or not they have a case.  Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question because the laws governing job discrimination are complicated and the facts of any case are subject to interpretation and change.  Employers routinely deny allegations of job discrimination.

The typical employee works at the pleasure of their employer.  The doctrine is called “employment-at-will” and it means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, good or bad, provided it is not for a discriminatory purpose.

It means that being terminated, in and of itself, is not proof of discrimination, even if the employee has a good job performance record.  This doctrine also applies to promotions, demotions, and transfers.  Employment-at-will is too steep a hurdle for most discrimination claims.

If an employee claims that his or her termination was discriminatory, then evidence is needed that specifically establishes a discriminatory motive on the part of the employer.  Direct evidence of an employer’s discriminatory motive is rarely available.  Most employers are not going to: 1) admit that employees are being terminated for discriminatory reasons or 2) engage in blatantly discriminatory behavior.  However, from time to time, there are exceptions.

A discriminatory motive typically has to be proven by means of circumstantial evidence.  For instance, an employee and/or group of employees are treated more harshly than similarly situated employees of a different race, sex, national origin, etc.  These cases are strongest when a group of employees are alleging the same type of discrimination.

Furthermore, the employee must demonstrate that his or her job performance was not an issue.  Employers typically claim that an employee’s termination was due to a non-discriminatory reason, such as, deficient job performance.

A hostile work environment claim is different from the typical job discrimination claim.  These claims involve overt discriminatory behavior, such as, name-calling, slurs, jokes, innuendos, and inappropriate touching and advances that make the workplace abusive and intimidating.  If an employer has notice and fails to take prompt and effective corrective action, the employer can be held liable.  A hostile work environment claim can be based on race, sex, national origin, etc.  These cases are strongest when a group of employees are alleging the same hostile work environment.

If a female employee complaints that a male manager or co-worker is engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and the employer fails to take corrective action that stops the harassment, the employer could be found liable for compensatory damages, such as, emotional pain and suffering.  In their defense, employers will claim that: 1) they did not have notice of the sexual harassment; 2) the sexual behavior was not severe or was consensual; or, 3) corrective action was taken.

Retaliation involves employers who punish employees for complaining about discriminatory behavior.  To establish a claim of retaliation, the employee has to demonstrate that: 1) they engaged in protected activity, such as, complaining about discrimination; 2) the punishment was severe enough to deter a typical employee from continuing to complain about discrimination; and, 3) the punishment began shortly after the complaint.  Today, the most popular type of job discrimination claim is retaliation.

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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Prevent Employment Discrimination and Lawsuits

In employment discrimination lawsuits, the business always loses, even if that loss is a diminished public reputation. Consequently, creating a work culture and environment for employees that encourages diversity and discourages employment discrimination in any form is critical for your success.

Retaliation Discrimination Lawsuits Are Most Common

Statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) show claims regarding retaliation discrimination topped the list again in 2018. Illegal retaliation occurs when someone complains about discrimination (or other illegal behavior), and the company punishes the complainer.

Here’s the complete breakdown from EEOC from 2018 complaints:

  • Retaliation: 39,469 (51.6% of all charges filed). Historically, retaliation complaints are the most common ones filed with the EEOC.
  • Sex: 24,655 (32.3%). Employment discrimination by gender rose to the second most commonly filed complaint.
  • Disability: 24,605 (32.2%)
  • Race: 24,600 (32.2%)
  • Age: 16,911 (22.1%)
  • National Origin: 7,106 (9.3%)
  • Color: 3,166 (4.1%)
  • Religion: 2,859 (3.7%)
  • Equal Pay Act: 1,066 (1.4%)
  • Genetic Information: 220 (.3%)

Sexual Harassment Charges Increase

The agency also received 7,609 sexual harassment charges—a 13.6% increase from 2017 and it attributes the increase to the #metoo movement pushing harassment into the spotlight. The EEOC reports obtaining $56.6 million in monetary benefits for victims of sexual harassment in 2017.

Rising Costs of EEOC Suits Expensive for Employers

From an employer’s perspective, settlement costs to resolve an EEOC claim fade in the face of additional, often unrecorded, costs to the employer’s organization, says Shanti Atkins, an ethics and compliance specialist. These include the costs of:

    • Distraction: The organization’s staff will spend months gathering and preparing documents while an internal investigation is conducted, and time is invested in fighting the claim.
    • DepressionEmployee morale will suffer under the constant pressure of a lawsuit.
    • Blemished reputation: An employer known as an employer of choice for recruiting and retaining desirable employees—whether found guilty or innocent—may be under a cloud.
    • Actual attorneys’ fees: These can cost as much or more than an eventual settlement, if the employer is found guilty.
Jury awards are expensive for employers. Class action lawsuits, which are also increasing, generally result in lower per-claimant awards but can cost an employer millions of dollars in cash and untold millions in unattributed fallout.

Employees who do not believe their complaint was adequately addressed by their employer during a normal internal complaint process—or in situations where the harassment or discrimination behavior continues—may file a claim with the EEOC. Only a tiny fraction of charges filed with the EEOC result in a lawsuit, says diversity communications consultant Gail Zoppo. So, even if the EEOC issues a “right to sue,” to an employee, the individual may have to invest significant resources in legal counsel, and only 1% of employees win their case.

How Employers Can Prevent Employment Discrimination

Employers need to adopt several serious guidelines for the prevention of discrimination in the workplace. Don’t wait until you are the target of a lawsuit before taking a few simple steps that could have prevented years of pain.

Employers who put strong measures in place to prevent and address employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation may avoid EEOC charges and lawsuits.

Further, their employment discrimination policies, preventative measures, and practices to create a healthy workplace culture, can work in their favor. The employer may escape significant damage if they demonstrate these actions:

  • Implement and integrate a strict policy that makes employment discrimination of any type unacceptable in your workplace. The policy needs to cover employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The policy should include a process for reporting any incidents of employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation to the company. Preferably, employees are given several methods for reporting incidents in case their supervisor is involved in the employment discrimination matter.
  • The policy should communicate how an employee complaint will be handled with an outline of steps. The employment discrimination policy should spell out disciplinary action that will be taken with offenders.
  • The policy should discuss the nature of retaliation, and stress that retaliation is also a form of discrimination. Finally, the employment discrimination policy should contain an appeal process for employees who are dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint.
  • Train your managers in the implementation of the anti-discrimination policy with the expectation that prevention is their responsibility. A manager’s role is to create a work environment and culture in which employment discrimination, harassment, and retaliation do not occur.
  • Managers must recognize signs and symptoms that discrimination, harassment, or retaliation is occurring and know how to address these illegal actions. Managers must thoroughly understand the company’s policy and know how to recognize work situations that might escalate into employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation situations.
  • Employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, bullying, anger, and potential violence should all be addressed together as unacceptable in your workplace. Effective training must teach that all of these concepts and behaviors integrate, intersect, and are woven together to create a supportive, nondiscriminatory, employee-friendly work environment.
  • Mandatory employee training should address many of the same issues as the managers’ training relative to employment discrimination. Cost-effective online training solutions are available for portions of this employee training. All employees must sign off on a training record to indicate they are aware of and understand the employer’s policy and complaint process.
  • Establish cultural expectations and norms. Creating a work environment that is free of employment discrimination—and all forms of harassment and retaliation—should be integral in employee job descriptions, the goals in the performance development planning process, and in employee review and evaluation.
  • Act in a timely manner. Respond to an employee complaint about employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in a timely, professional, confidential, policy-adhering manner. Address the employee complaint all the way through to appeal, when necessary.

As with any employment situation that could result in litigation, document all aspects of policy training, complaint investigation, hiring and promotion practices, management development, and employee preventative training. Your good faith efforts to prevent employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation may serve you well—increasingly important in the litigious future.



Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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Why Are Employment Discrimination Lawsuits Rising So Rapidly?

4 Reasons Why Employment Discrimination Cases Are on the Rise

Employment discrimination lawsuits are rapidly rising. Here is why.

Employment discrimination isn’t always illegal. In fact, you are free to discriminate against people who come in late, people who are unqualified, and people who insist on wearing socks with sandals. Illegal employment discrimination is limited to just a handful of things.

The Federal Civil Rights Law (known as Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, national origin, and religion. You’ll note that sexual orientation is not explicitly listed.

However, the courts are divided as to whether or not sexual orientation falls under gender discrimination, and some states and cities it clear that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal. Regardless, you should consider discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal.

In addition to Title VII discrimination, pregnancy, disability, association with someone who has a disability, and genetic information are all protected under federal law.

 

Employment Discrimination Lawsuits Are Rising Rapidly

The EEOC reported that employment discrimination lawsuits are on the rise and have been for several years. While the figures for 2017 are not yet available, it would be surprising if they dropped off. Here are the figures for 2016:

 
  • Retaliation: 42,018 (45.9 percent of all charges filed)
  • Race: 32,309 (35.3 percent)
  • Disability: 28,073 (30.7 percent)
  • Sex: 26,934 (29.4 percent)
  • Age: 20,857 (22.8 percent)
  • National Origin: 9,840 (10.8 percent)
  • Religion: 3,825 (4.2 percent)
  • Color: 3,102 (3.4 percent)
  • Equal Pay Act: 1,075 (1.2 percent)
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act: 238 (.3 percent)
 

1. Increased Awareness

If you don’t know something is illegal, you won’t file a legal complaint about it. The original discrimination laws were passed more than 50 years ago, and yet not everyone knows their rights. As more people learn, they can recognize when a boss or coworker behaves illegally.

Additionally, as employers increase training programs designed to prevent discrimination and harassment, people recognize harassment they faced in the past.

 

Increased awareness doesn’t indicate an increase in actual bad behavior. It merely indicates that more people are aware of their rights. Hopefully, as awareness increases, more people will understand their responsibilities as well, and actual cases will decrease over time.

 

2. Increased Coverage

This goes along with increased awareness. As people see reports of discrimination in the news, they realize they are not alone, and there is something they can do about it. In 2017, the “New York Times” had over 1600 articles where the word “discrimination” appears. Not all of these, of course, are employment cases, but it brings the ideas to the forefront. The “Washington Post” had over 2000 articles in the same time period, including the following headlines:

 
 

If you are reading these headlines every day, even if you don’t read the articles, you can infer that discrimination is everywhere, and it brings up questions. For instance, if it’s racial discrimination to have a certain dress code at a restaurant, is it also racial discrimination to have a certain dress code at your office? You may not have considered that as a possibility before.

 

The other thoughts these headlines spark is the idea of a big financial gain. The Missouri prison worker who won $1.5 million is not a usual case. Most discrimination cases don’t result in big payouts, but if you think that you might have a big winner of a case, you may be more willing to file a lawsuit.

 

3. Social Media

In the past, you could complain to a few friends, complain to HR and maybe hire a lawyer, and that was it. Today, if you can get a tweet or a Facebook post to go viral. Everyone can become their own public relations firm today.

 

You can find out about harassment and discrimination cases that happened across the country (or the world) to people you have never met and knew nothing about until a viral post landed in your social media feeds. This can encourage people to feel like they are not alone. It can also put pressure on companies and organizations to change their behavior.

 

4. Employer Panic

Employers are reading the same headlines and attending the same training classes that employees do. The number one reason for a discrimination lawsuit in 2016 was “retaliation.” Illegal retaliation occurs when someone complains about discrimination (or other illegal behavior), and the company punishes the complainer.

 

Employers know that they can face serious consequences for violating discrimination laws. In an attempt to make the problem “go away” they can retaliate against employees by punishing them for complaining.

 

For instance, Karen complains that her boss, Bob, is harassing her, and the company moves her to a new position with less prestige. Or, Javier’s boss tells him to stop speaking Spanish on break. When Javier refuses, his boss gives him a lower performance rating. Heather goes on maternity leave, and when she comes back, she found that her boss gave all of her best clients to other employees.

 

All of these are examples of retaliation, and companies often retaliate in panic or denial. The idea is, that if you can just shut up the complainer, the problem will go away. Sometimes this works, as people would rather find a new job and leave than fight it out with a lousy employer, but if they decide to sue, the employer gets hit with a retaliation charge.

 

Does This Increase in Employment Discrimination Cases Mean You Should Sue?

If you’ve been illegally discriminated against, you certainly have the right to your day in court. You can file a complaint with the EEOC, or you can hire an employment attorney. But, keep in mind that winning an employment discrimination lawsuit is difficult and expensive.

 

Of those cases that make it to court, the employee wins in only 1 percent of the cases. While that sounds dreadful and hopeless, keep in mind that most cases settle out of court. Many are sealed, so you have no idea how much money, if any, the employee received. But, huge sums are not common, and you have to pay your lawyer as well unless the EEOC takes your case.

 

Cases can also take years to work their way through the courts, during which time you are under stress. It’s often logical to just walk away. However, this does not mean you should let harassment and discrimination go.

 

Everyone needs to make his or her own choice. But it does mean that you need to be careful how you act in the workplace. People won’t stand for illegal discriminatory behavior anymore. And that’s a good thing.

 

————————————————

 

Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne’s work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insideand Yahoo.

 



Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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Filing a Discrimination Claim – District of Columbia

Source: Workplace Fairness

 


1. What kinds of discrimination are against the law in Washington, D.C.?

The D.C. Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibilities, genetic information, disability, matriculation, or political affiliation.

The D.C. Human Rights Law is also broader than federal law because you may prove your case by showing that your employer acted wholly or partially for discriminatory reasons, and because you can bring an individual claim against your supervisor for “aiding and abetting” discrimination.

2. How do I file a discrimination claim in Washington, D.C.?

You can file a discrimination claim with the district’s administrative agency, the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) or the federal administrative agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The two agencies have what is called a “work-sharing agreement,” which means that the agencies cooperate with each other to process claims. Filing a claim with both agencies is unnecessary, as long as you indicate to one of the agencies that you want it to “cross-file” the claim with the other agency.

If your workplace has between 1 and 14 employees, you should file with the OHR since only the local anti-discrimination law covers DC employers of this size. Otherwise, some attorneys recommend that you file with the EEOC. Filing with the OHR is not required to pursue a discrimination claim directly in court under the D.C. Human Rights Law. If you do not have an attorney, you may wish to see whether the OHR can assist you in resolving your claim without filing in court. OHR complaints must be filed within one year of the date you believe you were discriminated against.

To file a claim with the OHR, consult its office below. More information about filing a claim with the OHR can be found at the OHR website.

Office of Human Rights
441 4th Street, NW
Suite 570 North
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 727-4559
Fax: (202) 727-9589

To file a claim with the EEOC, contact your local EEOC office below. More information about filing a claim with the EEOC can be found at the EEOC How to File page.

EEOC’s Washington Field Office
131 M Street, NE
Forth Floor, Suite 4NWO2F
Washington, D.C. 20507
Phone: (800) 669-4000
TTY: (800) 669-6820

EEOC has launched an online service that enables individuals who have filed a discrimination charge to check the status of their charge online.  This service provides a portal to upload and receive documents and communicate with the EEOC, allowing for a faster transmitting period.  Those who have filed a charge can access information about their charge at their convenience, and allow entities that have been charged to receive the same information on the status of the charge.  All of the EEOC offices now use the Digital Charge System.  If you file on or after September 2, 2016, the Online Charge Status System is available for use.  The system is not available for charges filed prior to this date or for charges filed with EEOC’s state and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies. The system can be accessed at the EEOC website. If you do not have internet or need language assistance, you may call the toll-free number at 1-800-669-4000. For additional help, you may also call the toll free number to retrieve the same information provided in the Online Charge Status System.

3. What are my time deadlines?

Do not delay in contacting the OHR or EEOC to file a claim. There are strict time limits in which charges of employment discrimination must be filed. In order for these agencies to act on your behalf, you must file with the OHR (or cross-file with the EEOC) within one year or with the EEOC (or cross-file with OHR) within 300 days of the date you believe you were discriminated against. However, since you might have other legal claims with shorter deadlines, do not wait to file your claim until your time limit is close to expiring. You may wish to consult with an attorney prior to filing your claim, if possible. If you are unable to find an attorney who will assist you, it is not necessary to have an attorney to file your claim with the district and federal administrative agencies.

4. What happens after I file a charge with the EEOC?

When your charge is filed, the EEOC will give you a copy of your charge with your charge number. Within 10 days, the EEOC will also send a notice and a copy of the charge to the employer. At that point, the EEOC may decide to do one of the following:

  • Ask both you and the employer to take part in a mediation program
  • Ask the employer to provide a written answer to your charge and answer questions related to your claim, then your charge will be given to an investigator
  • Dismiss the claim if your charge was not filed in time or if the EEOC does not have jurisdiction

If the EEOC decides to investigate your charge, they may interview witnesses and gather documents.  Once the investigation is complete, they will let you and the employer know the result. If the EEOC decides that discrimination did not occur then they will send you a “Notice of Right to Sue.” This notice gives you permission to file a lawsuit in a court of law. If the EEOC determines that discrimination occurred then they will try to reach a voluntary settlement with the employer. If a settlement cannot reached, your case will be referred to the EEOC’s legal staff (or the Department of Justice in certain cases), who will decide whether or not the agency should file a lawsuit. If the EEOC decides not to file a lawsuit then they will give you a “Notice of Right to Sue.”

How long the investigation takes depends on a lot of different things, including the amount of information that needs to be gathered and analyzed. On average, it takes the EEOC nearly 6 months to investigate a charge. A charge is often able to settle faster through mediation (usually in less than 3 months).

5. How can I or my attorney pursue a claim in court in Washington, D.C.?

If your case is successfully resolved by an administrative agency, it may not be necessary to hire an attorney or file a lawsuit. You probably will be required as to sign a release of your legal claims to resolve your case. If your case is not resolved by the OHR or EEOC and you want to continue to pursue the matter, you will need to pursue your claim in court. A federal employment discrimination case cannot be filed in court without first going to the EEOC, as discussed above, and having the EEOC dismiss your case. This process is called “exhaustion” of your administrative remedy. Exhaustion is not required to file a discrimination claim in court based on D.C. law.

Because D.C. law does not limit the damages recoverable for a discrimination claim, many D.C. attorneys choose to file employment discrimination cases in D.C. Superior Court. However, most cases may be brought in either D.C. or federal court.

Once the EEOC issues the document known as “Dismissal and Notice of Rights” or “Notice of Right to Sue” before you can file a case based upon your federal claim. A lawsuit based on your federal discrimination claim must be filed in federal or D.C. court within 90 days after the date you receive the notice. Be sure to mark down that date when you receive the notice. A lawsuit based on your D.C. discrimination claim must be filed within one year of the date you believe you were discriminated against.

These deadlines are called the “statute of limitations.” If you have received one of these EEOC notices, do not delay consulting with an attorney. If your lawsuit is not filed by the deadline, you may lose your ability to pursue a discrimination case in court.



Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

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Hostile Work Environment: Making a Prima Facie Case

Employment discrimination can take the form of workplace harassment.  To be actionable in federal court, the level of harassment has to be severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.  For instance, a workplace that is saturated with sexual jokes, slurs, or innuendo could constitute a sexually hostile work environment.  A workplace that is saturated with racial jokes, slurs, or innuendo could constitute a racially hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment can be actionable if an employer is aware of the harassment but fails to take prompt and effective corrective action.  The employee generally has a duty to complain to the employer about the harassment.

In order to establish a prima facie hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the alleged conduct:

1) was unwelcome;

2) resulted because of [race, sex, national origin, religion, etc.];

3) was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of [his or her] employment; and,

4) was imputable to [his or her] employer.

Ocheltree v. Scollon Prods., Inc., 335 F.3d 325, 338 (4th Cir. 2003).

First, a plaintiff can demonstrate that the harassment is unwelcome by complaining about it.

Second, if a female employee is the victim of sexual jokes, slurs, or innuendo from a male co-worker or supervisor, the harassment is assumed to be because of her sex.  The same can be said about harassment that targets an employee’s race, national origin, or religion.

Third, the offensive conduct must be sufficiently severe or pervasive.  Generally, the offensive conduct must be more than incidental.  For example, a few instances of racial or sexual name-calling may not be actionable.  However, a workplace where racial or sexual name-calling is a daily occurrence could be actionable. Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179 (4th Cir. 2001); Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 22 (1993) (”A discriminatorily abusive work environment…can and often will detract from employees’ job performance…”)

Fourth, an employer can generally be found liable for a hostile work environment when the employer: 1) has knowledge of the harassment, and, 2) fails to take prompt and effective corrective action. Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998); Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S.775 (1998).

If you are a victim of a hostile work environment, seek the advice of an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

 

Retaliation: Surviving the Employer’s Accusation of Poor Performance or Misconduct.

In a workplace, retaliation occurs when an employee complains about or opposes discrimination and is then subject to harsh treatment, such as, harassment or termination.  The harsh treatment must be a direct result of the employee’s complaint about or opposition to discrimination.  In other words, “but for” his or her complaint or opposition, the employee would not have been subject to harsh treatment.

The Supreme Court expanded the scope of retaliation in Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).  To establish a prima facie claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must show:

1)       they engaged in protected activity;

2)       the defendant took action that would be “materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant”; and,

3)       there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action.

Materially adverse means harmful enough to “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  Burlington, 548 U.S. 68.

To protect itself against a retaliation claim, an employer may accuse an employee, who has a long history of satisfactory job performance, of being a bad employee.  By accusing the employee of poor job performance or misconduct, the employer creates a non-retaliatory excuse for its retaliatory conduct.  If the employer can advance a non-retaliatory explanation for its action, the employee’s retaliation claim may not meet the “but for” standard and be subject to dismissal by an administrative agency or court.  To counter this, an employee must demonstrate that the employer’s excuse is not believable or mere pretext for retaliatory conduct.

An opportunistic employer may simply wait for an opportunity to accuse the employee of poor performance or misconduct.  However, this ploy may not always succeed. Hamilton v. General Electric, 556 F.3d 428 (6th Cir. 2009) (We have held that when an “employer . . . waits for a legal, legitimate reason to fortuitously materialize, and then uses it to cover up his true, longstanding motivations for firing the employee,” the employer’s actions constitute “the very definition of pretext.”)  An employee who complains about or opposes discrimination should not let their guard down.

Management may conspire against the employee or solicit complaints from the employee’s co-workers.  Under these circumstances, new accusations of poor performance or misconduct may seem contrived. Brady v. Office of Sergeant at Arms, 520 F.3d 490, 496 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (“[t]he question is not whether the underlying…incident occurred; rather, the issue is whether the employer honestly and reasonably believed that the underlying…incident occurred”)  An employee should document his or her experience in the workplace and identify potential witnesses.

If you believe your employer is retaliating against you, seek the advice of an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com