December 17, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Case Law Does Not Support EEOC’s Request for Broad Subpoena

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. TriCore Reference Laboratories on February 27, 2017.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is empowered to investigate charges of discrimination and enforce both Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on sex, including pregnancy, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their disability and requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to qualified individuals. When investigating charges of discrimination, the EEOC may obtain evidence that relates to unlawful employment practices covered by Title VII and is relevant to the charge under investigation. If the employer refuses to comply, the EEOC may issue a subpoena compelling production. If the employer does not respond to the subpoena, the EEOC may apply to a federal district court for an order compelling the employer to comply.

Kellie Guadiana worked for TriCore Reference Laboratories as a phlebotomist, which is someone who draws blood. She requested accommodations due to her rheumatoid arthritis, which was exacerbated by her pregnancy. TriCore’s human resource department determined Ms. Guadiana could not perform the essential functions of her position safely. The HR department offered her the opportunity to apply to other positions within the company. When Ms. Guadiana did not apply to a new position, TriCore terminated her.

Ms. Guadiana filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that TriCore discriminated against her due to her disability (rheumatoid arthritis) and sex (pregnancy). TriCore explained to the EEOC that it had provided reasonable accommodations by offering her the chance to apply to a new position within the company. EEOC explained that this was a violation of the ADA because the ADA required TriCore to reassign Ms. Guadiana rather than merely provide her with the opportunity to apply to a new position. TriCore statement led the EEOC to suspect that TriCore had a company policy or practice of refusing to provide reassignment as a reasonable accommodation. Due to this, the EEOC informed TriCore in a letter that it was expanding the scope of its investigation to include the failure to accommodate persons with disabilities and failure to accommodate women with disabilities due to pregnancy.

The EEOC sent TriCore another letter requesting a complete list of TriCore employees who had requested an accommodation for disability and a complete list of TriCore employees who had been pregnant while at TriCore and whether they sought or were granted accommodations. TriCore refused to comply. The EEOC subpoenaed the information. When TriCore refused to comply, the EEOC submitted an application to the US District Court for the District of New Mexico requesting an order to show cause why the subpoena should not be enforced. The district court denied the EEOC’s application noting that the EEOC’s real intent in requesting the information was difficult to pin down.

The issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in declining to enforce the EEOC’s subpoena. The Tenth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision for abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the enforcement of either the disability request, which the EEOC asserted was relevant to its investigation into whether TriCore had a policy of discrimination (i.e., pattern-or-practice evidence), or the pregnancy request, which EEOC asserted was relevant to the investigation whether TriCore treated Ms. Guadiana less favorably than similarly situated employees (i.e., comparator evidence).

Under U.S.C. §2000e, the EEOC is empowered to investigate charges of discrimination. But the EEOC has the burden to demonstrate the relevancy of the information sought in a subpoena. The Tenth Circuit referenced the Supreme Court’s decision in University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, when stating the law that the EEOC does not need to provide a “specific reason” for requesting the information. However, the Tenth Circuit further cites that case for the law that the EEOC still bears the burden of showing the relevancy of the subpoenaed information. To do so, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC must show that it has a realistic expectation that the information requested would advance the investigation. The EEOC must also establish a link between the EEOC’s investigatory power and the charges of discrimination.

The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s intent was difficult to pin down. With regard to the pattern-or-practice evidence, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the EEOC’s request. The Tenth Circuit held that TriCore’s admission that it did not reassign Ms. Guadiana did not justify the EEOC’s expanded investigation beyond its initial investigation into Ms. Guadiana’s individual case. The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s letter informing TriCore of its expanded investigation did not constitute a “charge” of discrimination, which is required under §2000e-8 for the EEOC to seek information about alleged discrimination. The EEOC had not alleged anything suggesting a pattern or practice of discrimination by TriCore. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding TriCore’s alleged violation of the ADA, without more, was insufficient to warrant the EEOC’s expanded investigation. The EEOC did not satisfy its burden to justify its expanded investigation.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC waived the disability request part of its comparator-evidence argument on appeal. This was due to the fact that the EEOC limited its comparator-evidence argument on appeal to the pregnancy request. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit considered only the pregnancy request.

The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s pregnancy request could seek information that was potentially relevant to Ms. Guadiana’s charge, which could tend to prove she was denied an accommodation on the basis of her disability. However, the EEOC did not present those relevance arguments in district court. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC failed to meet its burden of explaining how the pregnancy request would offer information relevant to Ms. Guadiana’s charge. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Did Not Abuse Discretion in Refusing to Enforce Subpoena

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. TriCore Reference Laboratories on February 27, 2017.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is empowered to investigate charges of discrimination and enforce both Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on sex, including pregnancy, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their disability and requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to qualified individuals. When investigating charges of discrimination, the EEOC may obtain evidence that relates to unlawful employment practices covered by Title VII and is relevant to the charge under investigation. If the employer refuses to comply, the EEOC may issue a subpoena compelling production. If the employer does not respond to the subpoena, the EEOC may apply to a federal district court for an order compelling the employer to comply.

Kellie Guadiana worked for TriCore Reference Laboratories as a phlebotomist. She requested accommodations due to her rheumatoid arthritis, which was exacerbated by her pregnancy. TriCore’s human resource department determined Ms. Guadiana could not perform the essential functions of her position safely. The HR department offered her the opportunity to apply to other positions within the company. When Ms. Guadiana did not apply to a new position, TriCore terminated her.

Ms. Guadiana filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that TriCore discriminated against her due to her disability (rheumatoid arthritis) and sex (pregnancy). TriCore explained to the EEOC that it had provided reasonable accommodations by offering her the chance to apply to a new position within the company. EEOC explained that this was a violation of the ADA because the ADA required TriCore to reassign Ms. Guadiana rather than merely provide her with the opportunity to apply to a new position. TriCore statement led the EEOC to suspect that TriCore had a company policy or practice of refusing to provide reassignment as a reasonable accommodation. Due to this, the EEOC informed TriCore in a letter that it was expanding the scope of its investigation to include the failure to accommodate persons with disabilities and failure to accommodate women with disabilities due to pregnancy.

The EEOC sent TriCore another letter requesting a complete list of TriCore employees who had requested an accommodation for disability and a complete list of TriCore employees who had been pregnant while at TriCore and whether they sought or were granted accommodations. TriCore refused to comply. The EEOC subpoenaed the information. When TriCore refused to comply, the EEOC submitted an application to the US District Court for the District of New Mexico requesting an order to show cause why the subpoena should not be enforced. The district court denied the EEOC’s application noting that the EEOC’s real intent in requesting the information was difficult to pin down.

The issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in declining to enforce the EEOC’s subpoena. The Tenth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision for abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the enforcement of either the disability request, which the EEOC asserted was relevant to its investigation into whether TriCore had a policy of discrimination (i.e., pattern-or-practice evidence), or the pregnancy request, which EEOC asserted was relevant to the investigation whether TriCore treated Ms. Guadiana less favorably than similarly situated employees (i.e., comparator evidence).

Under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, the EEOC is empowered to investigate charges of discrimination. But the EEOC has the burden to demonstrate the relevancy of the information sought in a subpoena. The Tenth Circuit referenced the Supreme Court’s decision in University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, when stating the law that the EEOC does not need to provide a “specific reason” for requesting the information. However, the Tenth Circuit further cites that case for the law that the EEOC still bears the burden of showing the relevancy of the subpoenaed information.  To do so, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC must show that it has a realistic expectation that the information requested would advance the investigation. The EEOC must also establish a link between the EEOC’s investigatory power and the charges of discrimination.

The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s intent was difficult to pin down. With regard to the pattern-or-practice evidence, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the EEOC’s request. The Tenth Circuit held that TriCore’s admission that it did not reassign Ms. Guadiana did not justify the EEOC’s expanded investigation beyond its initial investigation into Ms. Guadiana’s individual case. The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s letter informing TriCore of its expanded investigation did not constitute a “charge” of discrimination, which is required under § 2000e-8 for the EEOC to seek information about alleged discrimination.  The EEOC had not alleged anything suggesting a pattern or practice of discrimination by TriCore. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding TriCore’s alleged violation of the ADA, without more, was insufficient to warrant the EEOC’s expanded investigation. The EEOC did not satisfy its burden to justify its expanded investigation.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC waived the disability request part of its comparator-evidence argument on appeal. This was due to the fact that the EEOC limited its comparator-evidence argument on appeal to the pregnancy request.  Therefore, the Tenth Circuit considered only the pregnancy request.

The Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC’s pregnancy request could seek information that was potentially relevant to Ms. Guadiana’s charge, which could tend to prove she was denied an accommodation on the basis of her disability. However, the EEOC did not present those relevance arguments in district court. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the EEOC failed to meet its burden of explaining how the pregnancy request would offer information relevant to Ms. Guadiana’s charge. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding.

Colorado Supreme Court: Appellate Courts May Rely on Comparative Juror Analyses in Reviewing Batson Rulings

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Beauvais on Monday, April 24, 2017.

Juries and Jury Selection—Peremptory Challenges—Batson Challenges.

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether a trial court must make express findings about the credibility of a party’s reasons for exercising a peremptory challenge when the other party has challenged that strike under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The court also considered when two or more jurors are similarly situated for comparison under Batson such that the dismissal of one but not the other indicates impermissible discrimination. The court held that although express credibility findings significantly aid appellate review, they are not strictly necessary if the trial court’s ultimate Batson ruling is otherwise reviewable on the record. The court also held that appellate courts may rely on comparative juror analyses in reviewing Batson rulings, but only where the record facilitates comparison of the jurors in all respects that reportedly motivated the peremptory strike. The court concluded that the record here supports the trial court’s Batson ruling and that the trial court did not clearly err in denying defendant’s Batson challenges. The court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals in its entirety.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 Amended to Prohibit Discrimination

ABAOn Monday, August 8, 2016, the ABA announced that the ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution to amend Model Rule 8.4 in order to bring into the black letter of the rule an express prohibition against discriminatory conduct in the practice of law.

Revised Resolution 109 amended subparagraph (g) of Model Rule 8.4 as follows:

(g) engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination harass or discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This Rule paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

Additionally, the Comment to the Model Rule was amended as follows:

[3] A lawyer who, in the course of representing a client, knowingly manifests by words or conduct,  bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation  or socioeconomic status, violates paragraph (d) when such actions are prejudicial to the  administration of justice. Legitimate advocacy respecting the foregoing factors does not violate  paragraph (d). A trial judge’s finding that peremptory challenges were exercised on a  discriminatory basis does not alone establish a violation of this rule.

[3] Discrimination and harassment by lawyers in violation of paragraph (g) undermines confidence  in the legal profession and the legal system. Such discrimination includes harmful verbal or  physical conduct that manifests bias or prejudice towards others because of their membership or  perceived membership in one or more of the groups listed in paragraph (g). Harassment includes  sexual harassment and derogatory or demeaning verbal or physical conduct towards a person who is, or is perceived to be, a member of one of the groups. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The substantive law of antidiscrimination and anti-harassment statutes and case law may guide application of paragraph (g).

[4] Conduct related to the practice of law includes representing clients; interacting with witnesses, coworkers, court personnel, lawyers and others while engaged in the practice of law; operating or managing a law firm or law practice; and participating in bar association, business or social activities in connection with the practice of law. Paragraph (g) does not prohibit conduct undertaken to promote diversity. Lawyers may engage in conduct undertaken to promote diversity and inclusion without violating this Rule by, for example, implementing initiatives aimed at recruiting, hiring, retaining and advancing diverse employees or sponsoring diverse law student organizations.

[5] Paragraph (g) does not prohibit legitimate advocacy that is material and relevant to factual or legal issues or arguments in a representation. A trial judge’s finding that peremptory challenges were exercised on a discriminatory basis does not alone establish a violation of paragraph (g). A lawyer does not violate paragraph (g) by limiting the scope or subject matter of the lawyer’s practice or by limiting the lawyer’s practice to members of underserved populations in accordance with these Rules and other law. A lawyer may charge and collect reasonable fees and expenses for a representation. Rule 1.5(a). Lawyers also should be mindful of their professional obligations under Rule 6.1 to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay, and their obligation under Rule 6.2 not to avoid appointments from a tribunal except for good cause. See Rule 6.2(a), (b) and (c). A lawyer’s representation of a client does not constitute an endorsement by the lawyer of the client’s views or activities. See Rule 1.2(b).

The remaining comments were renumbered.

The ABA Model Rules Committee considered the changes a “necessary and significant first step to address the issues of bias, prejudice, discrimination and harassment in the Model Rules,” but noted that it is only the first step in a multi-disciplinary effort to provide access to justice.

The chair of the ABA Standing Committee on the Model Rules, Myles V. Lynk of Arizona, noted that 25 jurisdictions across the country have enacted similar language. Over 70 lawyers signed up to speak in support of the changes, while none spoke in opposition. Only a few members of the House of Delegates voted “no” in a voice vote.

For the complete text of the ABA Resolution, click here.

ABA Ethics Committee Recommends Adoption of Model Ethics Rule Prohibiting Discrimination

The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility announced that the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct submitted with the ABA House of Delegates a resolution to amend the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to include a black-letter prohibition against discrimination. The proposed change would add a new subparagraph (g) to Model Rule 8.4, which states:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

. . .

(g) harass or discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This Rule does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline, or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16.

The proposal would also add new comments to Model Rule 8.4 explaining that “Discrimination and harassment by lawyers in violation of paragraph (g) undermines confidence in the legal profession and the legal system,” and clarifying that paragraph (g) is not intended to prohibit legitimate advocacy. The Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility explained that the rule is intended to further the ABA’s goal of eliminating bias and enhancing diversity in the profession.

To read more about the proposal, click here. For a redline of the proposed changes to Model Rule 8.4, click here.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Legally Erred in Evaluating Whether Workplace Harassers had Hostile Animus

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Lounds v. Lincare, Inc. on Tuesday, December 22, 2015.

Shawron Lounds was hired at Lincare’s Wichita facility to be a customer service representative in September 2011. She was the only African-American employee at the office, and was frequently subjected to offensive and racially-motivated comments. When company vice president Greg McCarthy visited the Wichita facility in January 2012, Ms. Lounds reported her concerns to him about the offensive and racially-charged statements. Mr. McCarthy asked Paula Adams, Lincare’s director of employee relations, to follow up with Ms. Lounds.

Later that day, Ms. Adams called the district manager to discuss Ms. Lounds’ concerns, and the district manager held a conference call with Ms. Lounds and her supervisor. Ms. Lounds relayed to the district manager the offensive statements and actions of her coworkers. Ms. Adams and the district manager mutually agreed that the employees who had participated in the offensive behavior would be disciplined, and issued final written warnings to the involved employees.

Ms. Lounds submitted a document to Lincare’s human resources department in February 2012, in which she commented that she felt “bombarded with racial slurs and comments” and detailing several specific instances. She further alleged that “nothing had changed” since her January 2012 meeting with Mr. McCarthy. However, in a conference call with Ms. Adams in March 2012, Ms. Adams inferred that the discipline of the three employees had been effective because Ms. Lounds did not allege any new instances of harassment.

In April 2012, Ms. Lounds filed a complaint with the Kansas Human Rights Commission (KHRC). That same month, she was disciplined for “excessive absenteeism,” specifically 16 unscheduled absences since September 2011. She was also reminded of the company’s policy against reporting absences via text message. Ms. Lounds responded by sending Lincare’s human resources department a “letter of rebuttal” detailing how the discipline was retaliatory. Between April and September 2012, Ms. Lounds continued to miss work, citing the racially charged environment as her reason for absenteeism. She was discharged in September 2012 for “ongoing, excessive absenteeism.” In October 2012, Ms. Lounds sent another letter to HR, alleging she had been the target of racial discrimination and retaliation and citing specific examples. She timely filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC and received a right to sue.

In March 2013, Ms. Lounds filed suit in district court, alleging unlawful discrimination and retaliation. In her deposition testimony in August 2013, Ms. Lounds cited several specific examples of discriminatory conduct and retaliation. After close of discovery and briefing, the district court granted summary judgment to Lincare, finding that no reasonable jury could have found the race discrimination sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim, and further finding that Ms. Lounds’ allegations of retaliation were either not materially adverse or not protected activity. Ms. Lounds timely appealed.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated whether there was sufficient evidence to support a hostile work environment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and found that there was. The Tenth Circuit found that Ms. Lounds had carried her burden to create a jury question regarding whether the harassment was sufficiently pervasive or severe. The Tenth Circuit noted that to support a claim, it is not enough that a plaintiff considers the work environment hostile; it must also be of the character that a reasonable person would view it hostile. Further, the plaintiff must show more than a few isolated incidents of hostility; the plaintiff must show a “steady barrage of opprobrious racial comments.” The Tenth Circuit evaluated the district court’s assertion that none of the offensive remarks were directed at Ms. Lounds and they were not made with scorn or animosity. Ms. Lounds argued the district court incorrectly applied summary judgment standards by failing to construe evidence in the light most favorable to her and by resolving factual disputes in Lincare’s favor. The Tenth Circuit agreed.

The Tenth Circuit found the district court committed reversible error by resolving the merits of the hostile work environment claim in Lincare’s favor at summary judgment. By evaluating whether the subjective intent of the specific remarks was benign, the district court legally erred because it should have instead focused on whether a reasonable jury could find the subjective and objective effect of the conduct was to pollute the work environment with harassing conduct. The Tenth Circuit specifically found that the repeated references to “nigga” and “lynching” were enough to racially charge the work environment. The Tenth Circuit reiterated that the district court committed legal error by focusing on whether the alleged harassers intended to cause harm, rather than whether a reasonable jury could find that the subjective or objective effect of the conduct was to pollute the environment with harassing conduct.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against Ms. Lounds on her Title VII retaliation claim, discerning no reversible error. The Tenth Circuit evaluated the parties’ arguments regarding pretext and discipline, and found that the district court correctly determined that Ms. Lounds’ theory that Lincare’s discipline and termination were pretextual was insufficient as a matter of law.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the discrimination claims and affirmed summary judgment on the retaliation claims, and remanded for further proceedings.

Trait-Based Protection Under the ADAAA

roberto-corrada-fullBy Roberto Corrada, Professor
University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Professor Susan Carle of American University Law School thinks the “regarded as” prong of the ADA may be severely underutilized by plaintiffs seeking to challenge their termination. According to Carle, who delivered a lunch keynote address at the 2016 Colorado Bar CLE annual employment law conference, the ADAAA of 2009 amended the ADA in a way that greatly increased the potential effectiveness of the “regarded as” prong. The ADAAA, first, freed the “regarded as” prong of the requirement that the disability the employer regards an employee as having must significantly impair a major life activity. Employers now only have to “regard” an employee as having some impairment for the employee to be protected by the ADA. To balance this out, Carle emphasizes, the ADAAA did limit the “regarded as” prong a bit. So, the prong does not protect transitory or minor disabilities and the “regarded as” prong does not support requests for accommodation.

Professor Carle explains that it’s fairly clear now what is protected, but there’s a bit of ambiguity around how far the new protection goes. With respect to what is clear, if an employee has an injured back, but has a medical release to go back to work (can perform the essential functions of the job) and the employer says no, the employee is likely protected. Also, if an employee has an anxiety disorder and the employer finds the employee annoying (even though the employee can perform essential functions) and fires the employee, the employee is likely protected. Professor Carle, though, is interested in knowing whether the ADA might extend far enough to protect certain traits. For example, what if an employee has no diagnosed disability or has a disability that has not been disclosed to the employer? If the employer then looks at an employee “trait” that the employee possesses and “regards it as” a disability or impairment, is the employee protected by the ADA? For example, an employee suffers from depression and as a result fails to participate in workplace social gatherings or attends, but just sits in the corner. Is the employee protected from termination by the ADA “regarded as” prong?

Professor Carle believes that the ADA “regarded as” prong “can be of special help to persons with ambiguous or hidden impairments because it may very often be the very perception of ‘something weird/different/not right’ about the person that causes a negative reaction or discrimination rather than any limitation in relevant job-related abilities.” The big question is whether an employer who regards an employee as having a “social disorder” based on a trait is prohibited from acting on that trait in disciplining or terminating the employee? Does the trait have to be an effect of an actual disability or impairment? Professor Carle will attempt to make her case in an upcoming issue of the University of California Davis Law Review. Professor Carle’s argument does have some hope for unleashing the progressive potential of the ADA. After all, a foundational policy of the ADA is to have employers focus on the essential functions of the job in making employment decisions rather than indulging personal biases.

 

CLE Homestudy — Employment Law Conference 2016: Proactively Prepare for What Lies Ahead

This CLE presentation took place Wednesday, April 20, 2016, and Thursday, April 21, 2016. Order the homestudy here: CDMP3 audio.

 

Roberto Corrada, Mulligan Burleson Chair in Modern Learning and Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, has devoted his scholarly attention to three primary areas: the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities; the public/private distinction in labor and employment law; and the scholarship of teaching and learning. A distinguished teacher, Corrada has been recognized for his innovative work in the classroom. He has received several awards, and was named a national Carnegie Scholar in 2000. He is also extensively involved in service work with local and national institutions, including chairing the board of the ACLU of Colorado in 1998 and helping form the Denver Urban Debate League, serving now on the Board of Directors.

Tenth Circuit: Sanctions Award Inappropriate When Trigger was Date Expert Report Exchanged

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Baca v. Berry on Tuesday, December 1, 2015.

Several citizens brought suit in state court against Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry in January 2013 over the city’s redistricting plan enacted after the 2010 caucus. The citizens alleged that the newly adopted redistricting map denied Latinos opportunities to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice. The mayor removed the case to federal court.

In March 2013, a city charter amendment changed the percentage of the vote needed for a candidate to win from 40% to 50%. On June 25, 2013, the mayor produced an expert report that tended to disprove the plaintiffs’ arguments about redistricting. Later, the plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss without prejudice, which the mayor opposed, requesting dismissal with prejudice instead. The district court decided to wait to rule on the motions until after the November elections.

The court held a phone conference with the parties after the November elections and set a status conference in December 2013. However, the court cancelled the December conference due to scheduling conflicts and did not reschedule. In January 2014, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice. The mayor moved for sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927, arguing the plaintiffs vexatiously multiplied the proceedings. The district court granted the mayor’s motion and entered an attorney fee award against plaintiffs beginning on June 25, 2013, the date the mayor’s expert submitted his report. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated the district court’s sanction award for abuse of discretion. The voters argued that the court’s order staying the case identified no legal prejudice to the mayor and was based solely on its convenience, which constitutes an abuse of discretion. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Tenth Circuit first noted that there is a difference between a court staying proceedings and dismissing a case, and there was no abuse of discretion in the court’s stay order. The voters did not appeal the dismissal. The Tenth Circuit also noted that, contrary to the voters’ assertions, the court did not issue the stay merely out of convenience, but because it found the record incomplete and believed that the upcoming mayoral elections would provide direction whether to dismiss the case with or without prejudice.

The Tenth Circuit similarly rejected the voters’ Voting Rights Act and one-person-one-vote claims. The Tenth Circuit found that the plaintiffs’ expert failed to satisfy the second and third prongs of the Gingles test. Because the mayor’s expert exposed the flaws in plaintiffs’ arguments by showing that the preferred candidates actually won all elections in which the plaintiffs’ were arguing Voting Rights Act violations, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s decision. The Tenth Circuit also found no one-person-one-vote violation, finding the population variance well within acceptable limits.

The Tenth Circuit next evaluated the sanctions award and determined that although the district court had discretion to issue sanctions under § 1927, it was an abuse of discretion for the court to base the sanction award on the day plaintiffs received the report from the mayor’s expert. The Tenth Circuit found that it would be unreasonable to expect the plaintiffs to withdraw their complaint on the day that the report was exchanged, since they would likely need time to review it and determine whether it had merit. Because of this, the Tenth Circuit reversed the sanction award. The Tenth Circuit noted that, on remand, the district court was free to revisit fees on remand.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court. Judge Phillips wrote a thoughtful dissent; he would not have allowed a sanction award at all because of the potentially chilling effect on legitimate voter discrimination claims.

Tenth Circuit: Independent Review Process Breaks Causal Chain Between Discrimination Allegations and Termination

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Thomas v. Berry Plastics Corp. on Friday, September 25, 2015.

Karry Thomas, who is African-American, worked for Berry Plastics Corp. in its Kansas facility from 2003 to 2010. Over the course of his employment, eight different Berry supervisors initiated at least 13 different disciplinary actions against him, ranging in severity from verbal coaching and written warning to suspensions and final warnings. In May 2009, Jason Morton became Thomas’s group leader. Morton had limited disciplinary authority and was unable to independently issue high levels of discipline such as suspensions or final warnings.

After conferring with his supervisor, Morton suspended Thomas in July 2010 for a print quality issue. Because of this suspension and a prior suspension issued by a different supervisor two months earlier, Watson, the printing manager who oversaw the entire Kansas operation, issued a Last Chance Agreement to Thomas, providing that he would be subject to disciplinary action for future attendance or rules violations. Morton was not involved in the decision to place Thomas on a Last Chance Agreement. A few weeks later, Morton gave Thomas a Final Warning, acting pursuant to direction from Watson and Human Resources, based on failure to pack product correctly on July 27. Thomas alleged that he did not fail to pack the product properly and stated he felt he was “getting discrimination because of race.” Morton investigated and determined the packing problem was not Thomas’s fault. He rescinded the Final Warning.

Later, Morton submitted a report to Watson that faulted Thomas for a print quality issue on September 10. Watson reviewed the incident and did not consult Morton before deciding to terminate Thomas. Before Human Resources could approve Watson’s termination decision, Morton issued a written warning to Thomas based on a different incident where he failed to complete paperwork. Shortly thereafter, Berry officially terminated Thomas’s employment.

Thomas appealed his termination through Berry’s Termination Review Process two days later, and two independent Berry managers affirmed Watson’s termination decision. Thomas thereafter filed suit for wrongful discharge, alleging he was terminated in retaliation for opposing race discrimination in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Thomas invoked the cat’s paw theory of recovery, arguing it was Morton who possessed the retaliatory animus that infected Watson’s termination decision because of Thomas’s opposition to racial discrimination that he expressed at the Final Warning meeting with Morton. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment to Berry, and Thomas appealed.

On appeal, Thomas argued the district court erroneously granted summary judgment to Berry because he presented sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude the stated reason for his termination was pretextual. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding the district court correctly granted summary judgment for two reasons. The Tenth Circuit first applied the McDonnell Douglas framework to determine whether Thomas’s termination was pretextual and found Thomas failed to meet his burden to show pretext.

Thomas argued that a reasonable jury could infer Morton possessed retaliatory animus because of two pieces of circumstantial evidence. First, Thomas argued that Morton’s report regarding the September 10 print quality issue was dishonest because it failed to include that Thomas had properly inspected the equipment before going on break. However, Thomas did not argue that Berry would not hold a print technician responsible for errors that occurred while the print technician was on break, and the Tenth Circuit noted that record evidence suggested the opposite. The Tenth Circuit found that Morton’s omission on the September 10 report was inconsequential and did not reflect retaliatory animus. Next, Thomas argued that Morton’s report on the September 10 issue was inconsistent with his rescission of the July 27 incident. The Tenth Circuit again disagreed, noting that there is no inference of retaliatory animus in including more information in a rescission than in the original report, and also finding that both the rescission and the September 10 incident occurred after Thomas expressed concern about race discrimination, negating an inference that the timing of the September 10 report supported retaliation.

Although the Tenth Circuit found it could affirm on the lack of evidence alone, it also addressed causation, finding Thomas could not show that Morton’s retaliatory animus was a “but-for” cause of termination. Because Thomas’s termination was independently affirmed by Berry’s Termination Review Panel, the causal chain between Morton’s alleged animus and the retaliatory action was broken. The Tenth Circuit held that, even if it assumed retaliatory animus, Thomas could not show that the animus was a “but-for” cause of his termination.

The district court’s grant of summary judgment was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Within Discretion to Deny Late-Filed Motion to Amend Complaint

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Zisumbo v. Ogden Regional Medical Center on Friday, September 4, 2015.

Raymond Zisumbo worked at Ogden Regional Medical Center (ORMC) as a CT scan technician from March 2005 to October 2009. In 2009, Anthony Rodebush became Zisumbo’s supervisor. About the same time, Zisumbo applied for a promotion to a vacant CT Coordinator position. Rodebush expressed curiosity about why Zisumbo was eager for the promotion, and asked whether he’d ever been fired from other jobs. In response, Zisumbo produced letters from three previous employers to prove he was not fired, which Rodebush filed without reviewing. On September 15, 2009, at a staff pizza party, Rodebush remarked that Zisumbo wanted the CT Coordinator position and invited criticism from Zisumbo’s coworkers about why he was not suited for the job. Later that day, Zisumbo accused Rodebush of treating him differently because Zisumbo is Hispanic. Rodebush informed Zisumbo that he should discuss his concerns with the human resources manager, Chris Bissenden. Zisumbo interpreted this as a threat. Rather than discuss his concerns with Bissenden, Zisumbo filed a complaint with the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division about a week after the pizza party alleging race discrimination, and also contacted ORMC’s ethics line with complaints of race discrimination and unprofessional behavior. ORMC’s record of the call noted only complaints of unprofessional behavior.

Judd Taylor, ORMC’s ethics compliance officer, investigated Zisumbo’s ethics line complaint and met privately with Rodebush during his investigation. He later met with Zisumbo and Rodebush, and the following day issued a written warning to Zisumbo for events that had occurred months earlier. Taylor and Rodebush also reviewed the letters Zisumbo had provided from his previous employers and immediately became suspicious that they were fabricated. On October 8, Rodebush and Taylor gave the letters to Bissenden, who began investigating their authenticity and discovered that at least one letter was falsified. Later that day, Taylor, Bissenden, and Rodebush met with Zisumbo and terminated his employment based on dishonesty because of the falsified letters.

On May 2, 2010, Zisumbo filed this action, alleging a Title VII hostile work environment claim. Six months later, ORMC permitted Zisumbo to amend his complaint to include Title VII claims based on race discrimination, hostile work environment, failure to promote, and discriminatory termination; a Title VII retaliation claim asserting that Zisumbo was fired for complaining about race discrimination; and a state law claim for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. The district court entered a stipulated order setting deadlines for the litigation, including a September 2011 deadline for amending pleadings. However, in January 2012, Zisumbo sought to amend his complaint to add a claim of race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The district court denied his motion. Zisumbo then filed a new lawsuit in the same court alleging the same claims he unsuccessfully sought to add to his previous complaint and moved to consolidate the two actions. The district court dismissed his second complaint, and Zisumbo appealed to the Tenth Circuit. A prior panel of the Tenth Circuit ultimately rejected his “ill-conceived effort to end-run the district court’s decision.”

In the meantime, the district court granted summary judgment to ORMC on Zisumbo’s good faith and fair dealing, hostile work environment, and failure to promote claims. Zisumbo moved for reconsideration and alternatively sought to amend his complaint, which motions the district court denied. Zisumbo’s remaining claims were tried to a jury, which ultimately found against him on his discriminatory termination claim but for him on his retaliatory termination claim. Zisumbo sought back pay up to trial and reinstatement or front pay up to three years, but the district court foreshortened his award based on Zisumbo’s misdemeanor conviction for assaulting his daughter. Both parties sought attorney fees and ORMC moved for judgment as a matter of law on Zisumbo’s retaliatory termination claim. The district court denied ORMC’s motion and awarded attorney fees to Zisumbo, reducing his request based on his limited success in the litigation.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit first addressed Zisumbo’s claim that the district court abused its discretion by not allowing him to amend his complaint after the September 2011 deadline. Although Zisumbo asserted his lawyer did not realize he could assert the § 1981 claim until January 2012, he possessed all the facts forming the basis of the claim by April 2011. The Tenth Circuit attributed the failure to timely amend his complaint to Zisumbo and found it well within the district court’s discretion to deny the proposed amendment. The Tenth Circuit also found no error in the district court’s grant of summary judgment to ORMC on Zisumbo’s good faith and fair dealing claim, finding that Zisumbo was an at will employee and had no contractual relationship with ORMC to necessitate a duty of good faith and fair dealing.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed ORMC’s cross-appeal regarding the district court’s denial of its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on the retaliatory termination claim. ORMC disputed that there was a causal nexus between the employee’s opposition to discrimination and the employer’s adverse action. The Tenth Circuit found ample record support for the nexus, including that Bissenden’s termination decision was made based on more than one of the falsified letters and that she acted together with Taylor and Rodebush in making the termination decision. ORMC also argued that no reasonable jury could have concluded that its decision to terminate Zisumbo was pretextual, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding that the timing of the termination supported an inference that he was terminated because he complained of discrimination.

Zisumbo also argued the district court erred in denying his request for a punitive damages instruction. The Tenth Circuit found Zisumbo’s proffered cases inapposite, and instead noted that he must show that ORMC, not just its employees, failed to make good faith efforts to comply with Title VII. Because ORMC had well established anti-discrimination policies, trained its managers on those policies, and consistently investigated reports of discrimination, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that punitive damages were inappropriate.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit evaluated Zisumbo’s argument that he should have received more in back pay and front pay or reinstatement. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that ORMC would have terminated Zisumbo based on the misdemeanor assault conviction and therefore it was appropriate to cut off the back pay award after the date Zisumbo pleaded guilty to the charge. The Tenth Circuit likewise approved of the method used by the district court to calculate the back pay award. The Tenth Circuit also approved of the district court’s reduction of the attorney fee award based on Zisumbo’s limited success in litigation.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.

Top Ten Employment Law Programs and Homestudies

As the end of the year draws nigh, we are reviewing the Top Ten Programs and Homestudies in several substantive areas of law. Previously, we covered ethics, family law, trust & estate law, real estate law, litigation, and business law. We continue our review with employment law. And now, without further ado, here are the Top Ten Employment Law Programs and Homestudies:

10. Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) Law Institute — Dignity to All Persons. Although not strictly an employment law program, the LGBT Law Institute included topics of interest to employment law attorneys, including a session called “GLBTQ Employment Law Issues, FMLA, Sensitivity Training and Discrimination.” Eleven general credits; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

9. Employment Law Fall Update 2013 — New Cases, New Legislation, and Tools Every Employment Lawyer Needs. Highly experienced employment lawyers discuss what’s new in the field in this informative program. Topics covered include stock options with mergers & acquisitions, arbitration, workplace violence, FLSA, retaliation, and more. Seven general credits; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

8. Independent Contractor or Employee? Softrock‘s and Western Logistics‘ Effect. In 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court issued two important employment law decisions, ICAO v. Softrock and Western Logistics v. ICAO, reversing decades of case law regarding the test for whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. This program discusses the two decisions and their impact on employment law in Colorado. One general credit; available as MP3 audio download and Video OnDemand.

7. Discipline, Documentation, and Discharge of Problem Employees. Performance reviews strike dread into the hearts of employers and employees alike, but the consequences of poor disciplinary practices can be disastrous. This program provides practical tools for navigating the disciplinary process, including coaching, warnings, performance improvement plans, and last chance agreements. Eight general credits; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

6. Non-Compete Agreements, Confidentiality Agreements, and Other Restrictions on Employee Competition. Many employers of entry level workers force their employees to sign non-compete agreements as a condition of employment. Is this legal? In this program, learn about the proper use of non-compete agreements and the law of restrictive employment covenants, as well as the necessity of and limitations on confidentiality agreements, statutory protection of trade secrets, common law rights of employers and employees, and litigation risks and realities. Four general credits; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

5. Workplace Discrimination. Many employment law cases have an element of discrimination, and the important topic is the center of this program. Learn about the intersection of religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws, what really happens during mediations, bias and discrimination within the legal profession, Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, employment testing and the ADA, and much more. Seven general credits, including one ethics credit; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

4. Employment Law 2014. Whether you are interested in state or federal issues, the plaintiff or defense perspective, or whether you are new to employment law or a seasoned professional – the 2014 Employment Law Conference is a must-have. This two-day program offers a litigation track and a counseling track, with sessions on associational discrimination, workplace privacy, premises liability, corporate compliance, and more. Nineteen general credits, including 1.2 ethics credits; available as CD homestudy and MP3 audio download.

3. Whistleblower Litigation, Discrimination, and the First Amendment — Employment Law Fall Update 2014. The hottest topics in employment law are featured in this program, including the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act, free speech, non-compete agreements, ADEA update, labor law for employment lawyers, and more. Eight general credits; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

2. Intellectual Property in the Workplace — Employment Law Fall Update 2015. Regardless of a company’s business model, its IP assets are important in sustaining growth and fostering robust employment. But overly controlling a company’s ownership of the intellectual product of its employees can stifle the creativity of the workforce. This program discusses protection of employer and employee rights in intellectual property, workplace privacy concerns, defending employees against claims of trade secret theft, human capital as intellectual property, and much more. Six general credits; available as CD homestudy, MP3 audio download, and Video OnDemand.

1. 2015 Employment Law. This annual conference discusses everything employment law, regardless of whether you represent plaintiffs or the defense, are a solo or member of a large firm or in-house counsel, or are new to employment law or are a seasoned professional. Topics covered in the 2015 program include the cat’s paw theory, the Affordable Care Act, transgender issues in employment law, common investigation mistakes and how to avoid them, an update from the Division of Labor, and much more. Eighteen general credits, including 1.2 ethics credits; available as CD homestudy and MP3 audio download. NOTE: This program is repeated annually. Click here for the 2014 program and click here for the 2013 program.

Tenth Circuit: Employee’s Onerous Commute Does Not Constitute Discriminatory Intent by Employer

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Bennett v. Windstream Communications, Inc. on Thursday, July 9, 2015.

Susan Bennett was employed for 12 years by Paetec Communications, Inc. as a Fiber Optic Tech III, where she performed work on fiber optic cables in various areas of Oklahoma and Arkansas. In 2011, Windstream acquired Paetec and implemented new policies requiring the Fiber Optic Techs to check in at regional offices every day at 8 a.m. The closest regional office to Ms. Bennett was in Tulsa, which required her to commute more than four hours every day. However, she never requested an accommodation due to her onerous commute. Frequently, Ms. Bennett arrived at the Tulsa office several hours late, and many days she did not check in at all. Ms. Bennett missed cross-training opportunities because of her failure to report to the Tulsa office.

On May 22, 2012, Ms. Bennett was subject to a disciplinary action for her tardiness and absences, and that day she reported chest and shoulder pain due to work-related stress. Windstream completed a workers’ compensation claim and Ms. Bennett initiated a short-term disability claim with MetLife, Windstream’s disability insurance carrier. MetLife paid benefits to Ms. Bennett through June 27, 2012, and Windstream paid out Ms. Bennett’s remaining vacation and paid leave days through July 27, 2012. Windstream retrieved a company vehicle and tools from Ms. Bennett in June 2012. On July 26, 2012, Windstream sent a letter to Ms. Bennett requiring her to elect one of three options by August 3, 2012: (1) return to work, (2) provide medical documentation supporting continued disability leave, or (3) resign, and advising her that a failure to respond would be considered job abandonment. Ms. Bennett emailed her supervisors on the deadline, advising that the discriminatory conditions Windstream placed on her left her no choice but to petition for severance pay. Windstream sent Ms. Bennett a letter on August 8 informing her that her employment was “separated” due to her failure to return from disability leave.

Ms. Bennett filed suit in district court, alleging gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and age discrimination in violation of the ADEA. The district court granted summary judgment to Windstream and Ms. Bennett appealed. The Tenth Circuit applied the McDonnell Douglas test to evaluate Ms. Bennett’s discrimination claims. Ms. Bennett asserted that her termination was the adverse employment action resulting from discrimination. The Tenth Circuit found that Ms. Bennett failed to articulate discriminatory animus. Although Ms. Bennett claims that she was denied training opportunities given to younger, male technicians, the Tenth Circuit found record support that Ms. Bennett’s failure to report to work was the reason she did not receive training. Ms. Bennett also claims that no other techs were required to check in, but Windstream presented evidence that all the techs were required to check in. The Tenth Circuit found Ms. Bennett failed to establish a prima facie case of gender or age discrimination. Further, Windstream articulated several legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the practices about which Ms. Bennett complained.

Ms. Bennett also asserted a Title VII retaliation claim, which the Tenth Circuit quickly dismissed based on its analysis of her gender and age discrimination claims. Similarly, the Tenth Circuit dismissed Ms. Bennett’s claims under the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act. The Tenth Circuit also rejected her constructive discharge claim, finding she neither showed Windstream engaged in any discriminatory conduct, nor that such conduct was so egregious that she had no choice but to resign.

The district court’s grant of summary judgment to Windstream was affirmed.