Articles Posted in Race Discrimination

A recent decision by the District of New Jersey allows an employee’s reverse race discrimination claim to proceed to a trial.

Discrimination claim against StarbucksShannon Phillips worked for Starbucks Corporation for 13 years, most recently as a Regional Director of Operations.  In April 2018, a Caucasian store manager within Ms. Phillips’ district called the police to a Starbucks store where two African American men were in the store, but had not made a purchase.  The two men were arrested.

This racial profiling incident received national media attention, and resulted in protests outside the store where it occurred.  In response, Starbucks publicly vowed to take actions “to repair and reaffirm our values and vision for the kind of company that we want to be.”

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently recognized that a supervisor’s single use of a racial epithet can be enough, on its own, to create a hostile work environment under federal law.  This is consistent with longstanding president under both the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Racial Harassment Based on Single Discriminatory RemarkThe case was brought by Atron Castleberry and John Brown, both of whom worked as laborers for Chesapeake Energy Corporation through a staffing-placement agency, STI Group.  Mr. Castleberry and Mr. Brown are African American.

Mr. Castleberry and Mr. Brown allege they were exposed to racist behavior at their job.  For example, they claim that someone wrote “don’t be black on the right of way” on the sign-in sheet several different times. They also indicate that, despite having more experience working on pipelines, Chesapeake did not permit them to work on pipelines other than to clean them.

Earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently recognized that “Hispanic” is a race for purposes of two federal anti-discrimination laws.

The case involved Police Lieutenant Christopher Barrella, a white Italian-American. Lt. Barrella works for the Village of Freeport, New York. When there was a vacancy for chief of police, Lt. Barrella and 5 other lieutenants took the relevant civil service test. Although Lt. Barrella scored highest on the test, Mayor Andrew Hardwick chose to promote another candidate, Lieutenant Miguel Bermudez.

Lt. Barrella sued Freeport and Mayor Hardwick, claiming they discriminated against him because of his race (non-Hispanic) in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) and two federal laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. He claims Mayor Hardwick, who is African American, promoted Lt. Bermudez, who was born in Cuba, because he is Hispanic.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently recognized that an employee can bring a lawsuit under Title VII against the company where he works, even though he was hired and paid through a staffing firm. Title VII is a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits employment discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, and religion.

Retail employee experiences race discriminationMatthew Faush was an employee of Labor Ready, a staffing firm. Labor Ready assigned Mr. Faush to work at Tuesday Morning, Inc., a retail business, at one of its stores. His job was to set up display shelves, unload and stock merchandise, remove garbage, and perform other similar tasks. Mr. Faush, who is African-American, claims Tuesday Morning made a racially-motivated accusation that he stole merchandise, subjected him to racial slurs, and fired him because of his race.

Mr. Faush filed a lawsuit against Tuesday Morning, claiming it discriminated against him because of his race in violation of Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment to Tuesday Morning, finding Mr. Faush was not an employee of the store. Unlike the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, Title VII protects only employees and not independent contractors.

A recent ruling from New Jersey’s Appellate Division upheld a $1.4 million emotional distress damages award to two employees in a race discrimination case.

Brothers Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas worked for The Wentworth Group. Ramon was the company’s only Hispanic regional vice president. Jeffrey Cuevas was hired as a portfolio manager, and subsequently promoted to executive director.

Ramon claims the company subjected him to a variety of racially-motivated derogatory comments including members of management:

While minorities are most frequently the victims of discrimination, it is well-established that reverse discrimination also violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). For example, it is unlawful for a company to discriminate against an employee because he is male, white, or under 40 years old. However, since reverse discrimination is less common, New Jersey courts have established a higher standard for employees who bring reverse discrimination or harassment claims by requiring them to present evidence that they work for the unusual employer that discriminates against the majority.

WarehouseA recent decision out of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey denied an employer’s motion to dismiss a claim of reverse race discrimination, finding the employee had enough evidence to meet this heightened standard. The court explained there are two categories of evidence that employees can use to help meet this standard: (1) evidence that the specific employer has a reason to want to discriminate against the majority, and (2) evidence there is “something ‘fishy’” about the facts of the case that suggests the employer is discriminating.

The case was brought by Frank McQuillan, who worked for Petco Animal Supplies Stores, Inc., as an order picker at a distribution center in Monroe, New Jersey. Mr. McQuillan claims Petco harassed him because he is Caucasian.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court adopted a narrow definition of who is a “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion. The Court ruled that an employee has to have the authority to take tangible employment actions against another employee to be considered his or her supervisor. A tangible employment action is a significant job action such as hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, transferring or suspending an employee.

It is important to note that this narrower definition of supervisor probably does not apply under New Jersey or New York City law, and may not apply under New York law.

Supreme Court Defines Supervisor Narrowly.jpgThe definition of who is a supervisor under Title VII is significant because the Supreme Court has previously ruled that a different standard applies to determine when a company is liable for harassment committed by a supervisor than a coworker. Specifically, companies are strictly (directly) liable for a hostile work environment created by a supervisor if it results in an adverse employment action that has negative economic consequences, such as the employee being fired, demoted, or forced to quit. Alternatively, a company is vicariously (indirectly) liable for a supervisor’s harassment unless the company can prove (1) it made reasonable efforts to prevent and correct the harassment, such as having and enforcing an effective anti-harassment policy, and (2) the victim of the harassment unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities to prevent or correct the hostile work environment.

In contrast, an employer can be held liable for harassment by a coworker or subordinate under Title VII only if it was negligent in preventing the creation or continuation of a hostile work environment. In other words, the victim must prove the company “knew or reasonably should have known about the harassment but failed to take remedial action.” The Supreme Court explained that evidence of negligence can include the fact that an employer “did not monitor the workplace, failed to respond to complaints, failed to provide a system for registering complaints, or effectively discouraged complaints from being filed would be relevant.”

Maetta Vance, the employee in the case the Supreme Court decided, brought a claim of racial harassment and discrimination against her former employer, Ball State University. The University sought to dismiss the case, arguing it was not legally responsible for the alleged harassment because the person who committed it was not Ms. Vance’s supervisor. The lower courts both agreed.

Ms. Vance asked the Supreme Court to adopt the United States Equal Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)’s broader definition of “supervisor,” which includes anyone who exercises significant control over the employee’s daily work. But, in Vance v. Ball State University, the Court rejected her position and ruled that generally only someone who has the authority to take an adverse employment action that has a negative economic consequence toward an employee can be considered a supervisor under Title VII. The Court also indicated that, under certain circumstances, an individual who does not officially have the authority to take an adverse employment action can be considered a supervisor if he/she has “substantial input” into those types of decisions in a way that indicates the employer delegated that power to him/her.

Since Ms. Vance admitted her harasser did not have the authority to fire, demote, or discipline her, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of her case.

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In a noteworthy unpublished employment law decision, earlier this month New Jersey’s Appellate Division upheld a jury award to an employee on a retaliation claim where the primary evidence of retaliation was the fact that the employee’s supervisors were unfriendly to him after he complained about discrimination.

Anthony Onuoha, who is African American, worked for Roche Molecular Systems. In 2006, he complained to Roche’s management because he believed the company discriminated against him by giving him unfair performance reviews and raises. The company’s human resources department investigated his claim, but concluded that his performance reviews and salary were fair.

Worried black businessman.jpgAfter Mr. Onuoha complained about discrimination, his supervisors became unfriendly toward him. For example, one supervisor stopped speaking to him. Mr. Onuoha also received an even worse performance review in 2007. Further, the company denied Mr. Onuoha’s request to take a two-week vacation after he took a 6-week medical leave, claiming there was too much work.

A few years later, in 2009, Roche chose to include Mr. Onuoha in a reduction-in-force and terminated his employment. He then sued, claiming the company discriminated against him because he is an African American, and fired him in retaliation for his complaint about race discrimination, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

After a trial, a jury found that Roche had not discriminated against Mr. Onuoha based on his race. However, it found the company fired Mr. Onuoha in retaliation for the complaint he made about discrimination in 2006. He was awarded $512,000 in economic damages, $250,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $305,653.07 for his attorney’s fees and legal costs, for a total judgment of more than a million dollars.

On appeal, Roche argued it was improper for the jury to find Roche retaliated against Mr. Onuoha because of his complaint about discrimination since the jury found the company did not discriminate against him. In Onuoha v. Roche Molecular Systems, the Appellate Division rejected that argument since an employee does not have to win his discrimination claim to prove his employer fired him in retaliation for complaining about discrimination. Rather, an employee only has to prove he reasonably believed in his discrimination complaint, and the employer retaliated against him because he made the complaint.

The appellate court also found there was enough evidence of retaliation to support the jury’s verdict, despite the fact that there was a two year gap between his discrimination complaint and the company’s decision to fire Mr. Onuoha. It primarily focused on the evidence that Mr. Onuoha’s supervisors became unfriendly toward him after he complained about discrimination. The Court also relied on the fact that, although the company could have considered a broader group of employees for potential layoff, it insisted on firing someone from Mr. Onuoha’s group. Accordingly, the court affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of Mr. Onuoha.

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Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that statistical evidence could be enough to prove that Newark’s residency requirement for its non-uniformed employees has a disparate impact based on race. A disparate impact claim is when someone claims that a seemingly neutral policy has a disproportionately negative impact on a particular legally protected group.

Specifically, in Meditz v. City of Newark, Gregory Meditz sued Newark after it refused to hire him as its Housing Development Analyst because he lives in Rutherford, rather than in Newark, New Jersey. He claims the Newark’s residency requirement for its non-uniformed employees is illegal because it has a disparate impact on non-Hispanic whites, since the population of Newark does not reflect the racial mix of the relevant job market. He alleges that fewer non-Hispanic white employees work for Newark as non-uniformed employees because of the residency requirement.

To support his claim, Mr. Meditz used statistics showing there is a much lower percentage of non-Hispanic white employees who work for Newark in non-uniformed positions (1) than there are in the general population of Newark, (2) than work for Newark in uniformed positions than non-uniformed positions, (3) than work for the government and private companies in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Morris, Passaic, and Union Counties, and (4) than work for the Essex County government in Newark.

Newark, New Jersey.pngDespite this evidence, the District Court dismissed Mr. Meditz’s employment discrimination lawsuit, finding his statistical evidence was not enough to prove that Newark’s residency requirement has a disparate impact based on race. The lower court relied on the fact that “Newark is New Jersey’s largest city with over 270,000 residents, 38,950 of whom are White.” It concluded that “[g]iven its diversity and large population, there is no need to redefine the relevant labor market past city limits for purposes of Title VII analysis.” Title VII is a federal employment law that prohibits employers from discriminating based on an employee’s race, color, national origin, or gender.

However, the Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed Mr. Meditz to proceed with his case. It found his statistical evidence might be enough to prove that Newark’s residency requirement has a disparate impact based on race. However, it ruled that the District Court has to determine the relevant labor market before it can determine whether Mr. Meditz’s statistics prove his claim. The Third Circuit concluded that the District Court must consider factors including geographic location, available transportation to Newark, commuting patterns, and where employees working for private companies in Newark live.

If Mr. Meditz can prove that Newark’s residency requirement has a disparate impact based on race, then Newark’s only defense would be that it has a “business necessity” for having a residency policy. That means Newark would have to prove that the hiring criteria “must effectively measure the minimum qualifications for successful performance of the job in question.” Otherwise, its residency requirement would have an illegal disparate impact based on race, in violation of Title VII.

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On August 29, 2011, in Bowers v. New Jersey Judiciary, Superior Court of New Jersey, Monmouth Vicinage, New Jersey’s Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s decision dismissing Thomas Bower’s lawsuit against his former employer, the New Jersey Judiciary. Thomas Bowers, an African-American, worked for the New Jersey Judiciary as an Information Technology Analyst. He claimed the Judiciary failed to promote him to Acting IT Manager and subjected him to a hostile work environment because of his race. Mr. Bowers was the only African-American in Monmouth County’s IT Division. In fact, there were no other African-American IT managers in the entire New Jersey Judiciary, and only one other racial minority, an Asian Indian.

Beginning in July 2005, Mr. Bowers’ supervisor took an extended medical leave. Shortly after, the Judiciary asked Mr. Bowers to take over the duties of IT Manager. This decision was subsequently recommended by Monmouth County’s Assignment Judge. Mr. Bowers performed the duties of the IT supervisor for approximately 8 months.

Professional Male Race Discrimination.jpgBut when the Judiciary sought to formally appoint him as its Acting IT Manager, the Assistant Director of Technical Services and Operations, Jonathon Massey, gave a very negative opinion of Mr. Bowers, including claiming he “doesn’t understand simple technical things,” he “is lazy and stands around and watches others do the work,” and that another supervisor described him as a “cocky, arrogant, lazy, weasel, creep” who “does what he wants, doesn’t tell the truth” and has a “chip on his shoulder.” Not surprisingly, Mr. Bowers was not formally named the Acting IT Manager. However, informally he continued to perform the responsibilities of the IT Manager until April 2006, when the Judiciary named Troy Fitzpatrick its new permanent IT Manager.

After Mr. Fitzpatrick became the IT Manager, he gave Mr. Bowers assignments that were normally given to lower level and less senior IT employees, like answering Help Desk calls and creating a Help Desk manual. Mr. Fitzpatrick told Mr. Bowers that he could not assign work to anyone else, and also told him he could not leave his desk for any reason unless he found someone else to cover the Help Desk. Mr. Fitzpatrick also sought information from other employees about Mr. Bowers’ work ethic, and was always short and curt when he spoke to Mr. Bowers, as if he did not want to speak to him. In comparison, Mr. Fitzpatrick treated a newly hired white male employee much better than Mr. Bowers, such as giving him less work and not limiting his ability to leave his desk.

The trial court dismissed Mr. Bowers’ race discrimination and harassment claims because he was not subject to racial epithets and there was no direct evidence of race discrimination, he did not have enough evidence to prove either of those claims. But the Appellate Division disagreed. It explained that “discrimination rarely rears its ugly head directly. Rather, it typically manifests itself in subtle ways.” In particular, it found that a jury could find that Mr. Massey’s extremely negative recommendation was false and discriminatory. It noted that Mr. Massey admitted he knew very little about Mr. Bowers. Instead, it ruled that only a jury can decide whether the Judiciary’s decision not to make Mr. Bowers its Acting IT Manager was discriminatory.
Next week, I will discuss Mr. Bowers’ retaliation claim. In a subsequent article, I will discuss his claim that the judiciary failed to accommodate his disability.

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