Discrimination doesn’t just include refusing to hire someone based on a protected characteristic, such as race or gender. Harassment based on a protected characteristic can also give rise to a discrimination claim, if the harassment is “severe or pervasive enough” to create a hostile work environment.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of employees working from home was skyrocketing. But now, that trend has accelerated even faster. This raises the question: can an employee suffer from a hostile work environment—while working from home?
Last week, President Trump made headlines when he tweeted that “‘progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen … originally came from countries” that were “totally broken and crime infested,” and that they should “go back” to the “places from which they came.” (Three of the Members he was referencing were born in the U.S., and one is a naturalized U.S. citizen. All are women of color.)
This is an employment law blog, so naturally, President Trump’s tweet raised our antenna on an employment law issue: can telling someone to go back to the country they came from constitute prohibited discrimination or harassment?
Companies want to attract talented leadership, and protections for officers and directors against lawsuits can be part of the total package.
This is one reason why many businesses incorporate in Delaware—Delaware law provides significant assistance to officers and directors who are named in legal proceedings connected to their corporate role. Delaware courts don’t hesitate to uphold this protection when circumstances warrant. And in Horne v. OptimisCorp, the Delaware courts again vindicated an officer’s broad rights to indemnification under Delaware law.
An employer isn’t immune from a discrimination claim when an employee quits instead of being fired. An employee who quits can still bring a “constructive discharge” claim, arguing that his working conditions were intolerable and that he had no other option but to quit.
This is a high bar to clear. For example, in the recent case of Coleman v. City of Irondale, the employer won summary judgment on a constructive discharge claim, despite racial slurs, inappropriate screensavers, and—yes—a pro wrestling photo.
Federal employment law protects against a number of different types of discrimination, including treating employees differently because of age, gender, or race.
More and more often, employees bring discrimination claims based on harassment, rather than (or in addition to) claims based on employer decisions that appear to be discriminatory.
However, an employee can only bring a harassment claim under federal law if the employer has engaged in "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" that was "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." See Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993).
In our last post, we discussed the case of Wiest v. Tyco, in which the Third Circuit held that an employer’s investigation of unrelated wrongdoing by an employee insulated it against the employee’s Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower retaliation claim. Now, we tackle another piece of the Wiest decision: the court’s holding that Wiest’s protected activity did not contribute to the adverse action against him.
To establish a Sarbanes-Oxley claim, an employee must show that there was a causal connection between his or her whistleblowing and an adverse employment action. If the employee can’t show that link, then he or she can’t prevail. In the Wiest case, the court assumed that Wiest did in fact engage in protected whistleblowing activity. But it held that Wiest didn’t have evidence to show that the whistleblowing caused the employer to take action against him.
An employee who has blown the whistle on wrongdoing is not immune from discipline or termination simply because she has engaged in protected activity.
The Third Circuit’s recent decision in Wiest v. Tyco Electronics provides a good example of how an employer can terminate an employee without legal repercussions, even when it is undisputed that the employee was protected against whistleblower retaliation.
The Justice Department issued a memo to United States attorneys nationwide that might have Wall Street executives shifting nervously in their seats. The memo signifies a new focus as it instructs both civil and criminal prosecutors to pursue individuals, not just their companies, when conducting white collar investigations. According to The New York Times, the memo is a “tacit acknowledgement” that very few executives who played a role in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown, and other corporate scandals have been punished by the Justice Department in recent years. Typically when a company is suspected of wrongdoing, the company settles with the government after supplying the authorities with the results of its own internal investigation. This paradigm has led to corporations paying record penalties, while individuals usually escape criminal prosecution. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates authored the memo and articulated the Justice Department’s new resolve. “Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people. It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable.” To achieve this end, U.S. attorneys are directed to focus on individuals from the beginning, and will refuse “cooperation credit” to the company if they refuse to provide names and evidence against culpable employees. And don’t think about naming a fall guy to take the blame. Ms. Yates said the Justice Department wants big names in senior positions. “We’re not going to be accepting a company’s cooperation when they just offer up the vice president in charge of going to jail.” We’ll have more on the Yates Memo and its potential implications in weeks to come.
Benjamin Wey immigrated to Oklahoma from China as a teenager with scant dollars in his pocket. He parlayed ambition and ties to Chinese businesses into a lucrative investment firm engaged in the controversial practice of reverse mergers. According to the Washington Post, this so-called “Wolf of Wall Street” hired a beautiful Swedish model, Hanna Bouveng, to serve as his assistant, and used her Swedish contacts to further his business interests while heaping monetary rewards on her to seemingly win her affections. According to Bouveng, Wey pressured her into a sexual relationship, and when she refused his advances, he allegedly terminated her employment, waged war on her reputation through social media, stalked her, and threatened her with further ruin. Ms. Bouveng fought back in Manhattan federal court where she sued Wey for sexual harassment, retaliation and defamation. The jury returned an $18 million verdict in favor of Ms. Bouveng. While Ms. Bouveng likely feels vindicated, Wey is claiming victory on his twitter account.
As the regulatory and business environments in which our clients operate grow increasingly complex, we identify and offer perspectives on significant legal developments affecting businesses, organizations, and individuals. Each post aims to address timely issues and trends by evaluating impactful decisions, sharing observations of key enforcement changes, or distilling best practices drawn from experience. InsightZS also features personal interest pieces about the impact of our legal work in our communities and about associate life at Zuckerman Spaeder.
Information provided on InsightZS should not be considered legal advice and expressed views are those of the authors alone. Readers should seek specific legal guidance before acting in any particular circumstance.