Articles Posted in Discrimination

In addition to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the Act) protects employees who work for the federal government, a program conducted by a federal agency, a program receiving federal financial assistance, or a federal contractor. This Act protects the rights of people with disabilities from discrimination regardless of the number of employees. Legislators designed the Rehabilitation Act in response to the large number of individuals with disabilities who were either unemployed or underemployed based on employers’ reluctance to hire them. Additionally, the Rehabilitation Act requires employers to hire and retain individuals with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Act prohibits employers who receive federal funds from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability. The Act provides that employers cannot deny benefits, exclude, or discriminate against prospective, current, or former employees based on their disability. Additionally, the Act requires Texas agencies or contract service providers who receive federal funds to recruit actively, employ, and advance qualified disabled individuals.

If a Texas employee believes their employer is discriminating against them, but the ADA does not cover them, they may still be able to pursue a claim based on the Rehabilitation Act. However, the Rehabilitation Act and ADA use the same standards when determining if an employer is engaging in employment discrimination.

Last week we discussed Texas employers’ responsibilities after an employee reports discrimination, including instances involving hostile work environments. Here, we take a closer look at what constitutes a hostile work environment.

Under state and federal civil rights laws, Texas employers are prohibited from engaging in discrimination based on an employee’s sex, race, religion, national origin, age, disability, or pregnancy. Harassment is among the conduct that is prohibited under the anti-discrimination laws. Further, sexual harassment can include a wide range of offensive conduct. A few common examples of harassment are:

  • offensive jokes

In the event a Texas employee experiences harassment or discrimination in the workplace, they should notify their employer of the unwanted or offensive conduct immediately. In response to such a report, an employer is required to take prompt remedial measures to rectify the situation. Under Texas law, employment discrimination and harassment occur when an individual or group of individuals are treated differently because of their race, religion, sex, color, national origin, age, pregnancy, or disability.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) records and manages data on employment discrimination and harassment across the United States. According to the EEOC, although workplace harassment and discrimination can take many forms, the reports they receive often follow one of several commonly occurring situations. Generally, most complaints occur when an employee has suffered discriminatory harassment based on their protected class. While discrimination may be obvious in some case, more often discrimination based on a protected class is masked behind seemingly innocuous statements and behaviors. This may lead employees to delay reporting the situation for fear of retaliation or ridicule.

Employers have the responsibility to listen to their employee and follow the employer’s own policies and procedures for handling these sorts of complaints. Employers should also interview the parties involved, conduct a thorough investigation, cooperate with authorities, and take prompt remedial action. This action may include coaching, counseling, suspension, or even termination of the offending party. Of course, employers cannot retaliate against their employees for making a discrimination claim. Further, if the harasser is a supervisor, employers are automatically liable for any discrimination.

Under both state and federal law, Texas employees are protected from discrimination based on pregnancy and pregnancy-related illnesses; however, that was not always the case.

Originally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin was not interpreted by the courts to include protection for pregnancy and related medical conditions. During this time, employers were able to make decisions based on the fact an employee was pregnant. It was not until over a decade later, with the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) that pregnancy was covered. Since the passage of the PDA, discrimination based “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” has been prohibited because it is considered to be discrimination based on a person’s sex.

Under the PDA, women who are pregnant or are suffering from pregnancy-related illnesses cannot be discriminated against. Common pregnancy-related illnesses include:

In this blog, we often talk about the various types of Texas employment discrimination claim an employee can bring against their employer. For the most part, discrimination claims come up when an employer takes some type of adverse employment action against an employee based on their protected status. Adverse employment actions include firing, failing to promote, transferring, or failing to hire a prospective employee. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the protected classes are race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability, and genetic information.

It is important for Texas employees to realize federal law protects them from discrimination based on their own membership in a protected class as well as based on their association with members of a protected class. This is called associational discrimination. An example of associational discrimination would be an employer deciding not to hire a prospective employee because that person’s spouse suffers from a serious illness, out of fear the prospective employee would require a lot of unexpected sick days to care for their spouse.

While trial and intermediate appellate courts across the country agree associational discrimination is a legitimate claim of discrimination, the United States Supreme Court has not defined the standard. Neither has the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the Fifth Circuit has implicitly recognized associational discrimination claims. Additionally, Texas federal courts have explicitly adopted a standard for associational discrimination claims. Unless the Fifth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court takes a different position, an employee making an associational discrimination claim must establish:

Texas isn’t exactly known as a progressive state, and the state’s discrimination laws are no exception. While some state legislatures have passed broad discrimination laws prohibiting the disparate treatment of employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, there is not yet a Texas discrimination law unequivocally protecting individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Earlier this week, however, the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider a case that may significantly limit an employer’s ability to treat employees differently based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda involve the question of sexual orientation discrimination, while R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC concerns discrimination based upon gender identity and sex stereotyping.

The cases present the U.S. Supreme Court with the opportunity to provide LGBTQ employees the protection they have too long been denied. The Court will soon announce when the oral argument will be heard. After the argument, the Court will eventually issue a decision, which will likely be sometime before June of 2020.

In some cases, an employer may ask a returning employee to take a fitness-for-duty examination to ensure that the employee is mentally and physically able to perform the tasks of their job. However, these fitness-for-duty exams can be intrusive and may reveal confidential information about an employee’s disability. Generally speaking, an employer’s ability to request a fitness-for-duty examination depends both on the nature of the injury that necessitated the employee’s leave as well as the specific functions of the employee’s job. When the employee’s underlying condition is one that qualifies as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are limited in their ability to require fitness-for-duty examinations.

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” If the reason for the employee’s leave was not considered a disability under the ADA, and the employee’s condition is one that could reasonably affect their ability to perform their job, then employers generally will have broad discretion in requiring a fitness-for-duty examination. However, even when an employer is able to require a fitness-for-duty examination, the employer must follow the procedural requirements outlined in 29 CFR § 825.310. This includes providing adequate notice to the employee as well as a list of the “essential functions” of the employee’s position. Of course, a fitness-for-duty exam can only be required as it relates to the specific health condition that caused the employee’s absence.

When an employee suffers from a disability as classified by the ADA that necessitates they take FMLA leave, an employer can only request a fitness-for-duty examination if the examination is related to the employee’s job and is required by business necessity. Typically, this requires that an employer be able to show that the employee’s condition either prevents them from performing the necessary functions of their job or that the employee poses a direct threat to their own safety of the safety of others. Importantly, an employer’s belief must be based on concrete facts, rather than stereotypes or assumptions about an employee’s condition. For example, an employer could not require a fitness-for-duty examination for a returning employee who suffered from debilitating depression based on the belief that all people who suffer from depression present a potential risk in the workplace.

According to federal law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their race, age, disability, or other protected characteristics. Employers also cannot retaliate against employees for complaining of discrimination.

An employee who has been discriminated against must first present a prima facie case of discrimination. To fulfill this burden, an employee must establish that they were a member of a protected class, that they were qualified for the job, and that they suffered some kind of adverse employment action based on their class status.

Although these steps may seem straight forward, employees often face difficulties proving that the adverse action was based on their protected class status because employers are frequently able to conceal their true discriminatory motives. In many cases, employers will obscure their motives behind neutral reasons such as “business interests” or an employee’s performance. In these cases, direct evidence of discrimination is often very difficult to obtain. However, employees can still succeed in a Texas employment discrimination lawsuit even if their employer cites a nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. Of course, this includes an employer that makes hiring, firing, promotion, or compensation decisions based on a person’s faith. However, Title VII also more broadly protects employees from having the “terms and conditions” of their employment affected because of their religious beliefs. This means that Texas employers should reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs or practices if an employee’s beliefs conflict with the employer’s work requirements.

Common accommodations include an employer allowing for an employee to maintain a flexible schedule, allowing employees to swap shifts when necessary, and also potentially allowing for an employee’s reassignment. A reasonable accommodation may also relate to an employer’s dress or grooming policies. For example, by allowing an employee to wear a head covering or allowing employees to maintain facial hair. In addition, an employee’s request not to wear a specific article of clothing, such as pants or a skirt, may also be the basis for a religious accommodation. Only requests that are based on sincerely held religious beliefs will require an accommodation. However, the term “religion” is broadly defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and includes strongly held moral and ethical beliefs.

To obtain a religious accommodation, a Texas employee must first notify their employer of their request. Typically, this should be done in writing and should explain that the employee’s request is based on a sincerely held religious belief. In some cases, an employer will need more time to determine what would need to be done to provide the accommodation. This is supposed to be an interactive process between employee and employer, as the employer attempts to determine how it could implement a satisfactory accommodation. An employer must make a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would cause the employer to suffer an undue hardship.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, federal discrimination laws prohibit employers from engaging in discriminatory conduct during employment. This also includes the pre-employment interview process. Employers cannot make a hiring decision based on a person’s age, race, religion, sex, national origin, or disability.

Sometimes, employers trying to gather as much information as possible about an applicant will rely on preconceived notions and stereotypes in doing so.

A few of the problematic questions employers routinely ask are:

  • whether an applicant is married, engaged, single, or divorced;
  • whether an applicant has any children and, if so, how old they are;
  • whether an applicant plans on becoming pregnant;
  • what an applicant’s spouse or boyfriend does for a living;
  • whether an applicant attends religious services and, if so, what days; and
  • the origins of an applicant’s last name.

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