Category Archives: Supreme Court

Discrimination: Municipal Human-Rights Commissions Another Option for Charges

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When a prospective client calls in with a potential employment discrimination question, one of the questions I always ask is, “What city or town do you work in?” The reason I ask this question is because many larger cities in the states where we practice, such as Omaha, Lincoln and Des Moines, have separate municipal fair-employment acts that cover more employees than are covered under state or federal law.

State and federal fair-employment statutes generally need at least 15 or 20 employees for an employer to be covered by those laws. However, in Des Moines and Lincoln, an employer only needs to have four employees to be covered under those cities’ human-rights ordinances. In Omaha, an employer only needs six employees to be covered by their fair-employment ordinance.

Also, the City of Omaha explicitly covers sexual orientation under the fair-employment ordinance. Sexual-orientation discrimination is not explicitly prohibited by Nebraska or federal law. It is my belief that sexual-orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination that is already covered under Title VII and the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act. However, my opinions as to what I think the law is and what the law is are two different matters. If you are an Omaha resident who feels you were discriminated against because of your sexual orientation, you would be much more certain to have your claim of discrimination heard on the merits by pursuing a claim under the Omaha Human Rights Ordinance. While I would be willing to filing a sexual-orientation discrimination case under Nebraska law, any potential clients need to know that such a case would be a test case, and as such, this case would be under tremendous scrutiny from judges.

The drawback to filing discrimination cases under the Lincoln and Omaha municipal ordinances is that there is less opportunity for monetary award if you are successful in winning your case than you would have under state or federal law. However, some remedy for your discrimination is better than no remedy for your discrimination.

Can I Get Fired For Filing Bankruptcy?

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Low and middle income people are the last people to benefit from any economic recovery. For many economic recovery means a return to work the opportunity to put their household finances in order with steady income provided by a job. Unfortunately unpaid debts often mean that employees get garnished  or even having to file bankruptcy.

Congress intended for bankruptcy to allow for people to get a fresh start so they prohibited discrimination based on bankruptcy and even let employees sue employers for such discrimination. But this law is not as strong as other laws prohibiting discrimination on factors such as race or sex for two reasons.

First of all, your status as a debtor in bankruptcy must by the sole cause of job loss. Discrimination is difficult enough to prove already under either a motivating factor or proximate cause standardsole cause is more exacting than even the difficult proximate cause standard. If your employer has any other legitimate reason to fire you besides your bankruptcy, then a court will likely find the termination was lawful. The only way for an employee to preserve any type of discrimination case is not to give the employee a reason to terminate them because of their poor performance , attendance or poor attitude. But even good employees can get fired legitimate reasons such as restructuring and economic reasons.

Secondly most courts do not believe that bankruptcy discrimination prohibits employers from failing to hire employees based on bankruptcy.

Title VII and most state anti-discrimination laws state that a failure to hire based on certain protected categories is unlawful activity.

Finally in any discrimination claim, the employer needs to be aware of your protected status. In a bankruptcy discrimination case this means that your employer had to have known about your bankruptcy status prior to firing you. Some employees get fired because  employer doesn’t want to deal with a garnishment.  Most people, me included, think that such an action is wrong or unfair. But unless your employer knows that garnishment is linked to your bankruptcy status, then firing you based on that garnishment is legal  – unless the garnishment is a cover or pre-text for another unlawful reason.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to contact their U.S. Senator or Congressperson and ask them to change the bankruptcy discrimination statute to mirror other federal anti-discrimination laws such as Title VII.

Overturning DOMA Will Increase LGBT Rights in the Workplace

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The impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act will be felt in the workplace.

First of all, overturning DOMA will expand anti-discrimination protections and partner benefits to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees who are employed by the federal government.

Overturning DOMA will also probably benefit LGBT employees not working for the federal government. One argument is that banning LGBT discrimination in federal employment will ease acceptance of extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers in the workforce as a whole. Legislation has been introduced that would explicitly extend protections of federal and state fair-employment statutes to LGBT workers.

From a political point of view, explicitly extending fair-employment statutes to cover LGBT workers probably won’t be feasible until at least 2015, depending on the outcome of the 2014 elections. Politicians in “red states” in both parties may be wary of conservative backlash if they support extending fair-employment practices. That same reticence will probably be displayed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who needs to Democrats to win in several conservative states in order to hold on to the majority.

But the recent decision overturning DOMA may further open the door to judicially expanding employment statutes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Justice Anthony Kennedy and the liberal bloc struck down DOMA on Fifth/14th Amendment equal-protection grounds. If states can’t discriminate against gays in marriage on equal-protection grounds, it doesn’t make logical sense that the Fifth/14th Amendment allows employment discrimination against LGBT workers.

It is arguable that LGBT people already have the protections of our fair-employment laws under the theory of sex-plus discrimination that prohibits discrimination based on sexual stereotypes. In Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals extended protections under the sex-plus theory to a male firefighter who started identifying as a woman. In Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, the conservative Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a finding of possible finding of sex discrimination for a woman who was described by her boss as having “an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look.” Though the Eighth Circuit didn’t make any reference to sexual orientation in the decision, it is obvious that “Ellen DeGeneres” is a code word for “lesbian.” It makes sense to me that opposite-sex attraction is a stereotype for each gender and that discrimination against LGBT people should be covered under the theory of sex-plus discrimination. I think courts will be increasingly be forced to rule that way in the wake of the decision on DOMA stating that discrimination against gays and lesbians runs afoul of the Fifth/14th Amendments. Another possible factor working in favor of expanding fair-employment protections to LGBT workers are recent Supreme Court decisions interpreting federal fair-employment law favorably for employers. It’s easy to conceive of a moderately conservative judge in the mode of Justice Kennedy judicially extending fair-employment law to gays and lesbians with the understanding that it will likely be more difficult employees to win fair-employment suits.

Until Congress and/or our state legislatures act, LGBT employees are not guaranteed equal rights at work. But thanks to the decision overturning DOMA, I think courts will be more open to extending workplace rights to the LGBT community, regardless of what is done in the legislative branch.

Why Overturning DOMA Is a Win for Employee Rights

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Regardless of your opinion on the issue of gay rights, Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act is a win for workplace fairness.

The constitutional authorization for most federal fair-employment laws is based on the guarantees of equal protection of the law based on the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the right of Congress to regulate interstate commerce clause. In his opinion overturning DOMA, Justice Anthony Kennedy found that DOMA violated the Fifth and 14th Amendment rights of gays and lesbians. He reaffirmed the role of the Fifth and 14th Amendments in preventing discrimination.

Kennedy’s opinion is important because in last summer’s blockbuster Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, Chief Justice John Roberts undercut the interstate commerce clause as a justification for passing federal legislation. Conceivably, corporate opponents of workplace fairness laws could point to Roberts’ decision in the Affordable Care Act as a way to argue that federal workplace fairness laws are unconstitutional. However Wednesday’s decision in the DOMA case means that workplace fairness laws still have clear and strong constitutional support.

The DOMA decision is a bright spot in a Supreme Court session that has otherwise been pretty bleak for employees. My opinion is that as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions, more and more fair-employment cases will be brought in state court. The decision in DOMA is still relevant to state law discrimination and retaliation claims. Most states have equal protection clauses in their state constitutions. The reasoning supporting the DOMA decision supports state fair-employment statutes. I believe this is true even for fair employment claims based on retaliation. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out in her dissent in Nassar, retaliation is a form of discrimination. In other words, if you have been fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim, your constitutional rights have been violated. If the Supreme Court had decided DOMA differently, employees would have a weaker argument that a retaliatory discharge violated their equal protection rights.

Employee Rights Hurt by Supreme Court Decisions

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United_states_supreme_court_buildingEmployee rights in the workplace took a step backward with the Vance and Nassar decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court. So what does this mean in concrete terms for employees?

Vance: The main takeaway from Vance is that employees must tell upper management and human resources about workplace harassment. This has been federal law in the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island) and the 8th Circuit (Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas). In order to sustain a workplace harassment claim under federal law, employees must now be able to show that management knew about harassment and that management failed to take effective action against the harassment.

Nassar: Nassar made it more difficult to prove retaliation under federal law. In the 5-4 majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court wrote that it was concerned about the increase in retaliation claims filed in the EEOC and the potential for “frivolous litigation.” The effect of this case is that even more retaliation cases will be decided by judges under summary judgment instead of being decided by juries.

However, just because it is harder to bring a discrimination or retaliation case under federal law doesn’t mean that an employee can’t bring a case under state law that could be more favorable to the employee. But employees pursuing wrongful termination cases in state court should be aware that state court judges oftentimes follow federal court judges in interpreting state fair-employment laws.  State court judges might find the Supreme Court’s concerns about “frivolous” retaliation suits to be well founded.

I think Justice Alito was off base in his concerns about “frivolous” retaliation where employees who are about to get fired file complaints in order to preserve their job or set themselves up for a wrongful termination lawsuit. Any competent employee-rights attorney knows that retaliation suits are difficult to win. I turn down about 9 out of 10 people who call my office who claim they were wrongfully terminated. Wrongful termination suits are costly and time consuming. I am not going to invest time and money in a suit where I will likely get dismissed and possibly face financial sanctions under court rules and also possibly be opened up to paying costs to the prevailing employer under federal fair-employment law. I am doubly suspicious of employees who are fired shortly after they file discrimination or other claims. Employers know that if they fire someone after filing some sort of complaint that it appears to look bad. But courts will uphold that reason if they had a legitimate reason to fire the employee. In other words, the employee who knows they are skating on thin ice and then files a complaint is going to lose a wrongful termination case. The decision in Nassar won’t stop disgruntled employees from filing claims with fair-employment agencies, it will just make it more difficult for employees with legitimate wrongful termination claims to obtain justice.

The United States Supreme Court’s  recent decision in Schindler Eleavator Corp. v. United States ex rel Kirk is a terrible decision for taxpayers and employees.

Supreme Court Justices 2011

Supreme Court Justices

A majority of Justices comprising Justices Samual Alito, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that employees could not solely rely on information obtained in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as a basis for whistleblower claims under the False Claims Act.

The whistleblower provision of the False Claims Act (FCA) allows private citizens with evidence of fraud against federal programs or contracts to sue on behalf of the government and collect a percentage of what the government recovers. Continue reading

Ben Nelson was wrong on Goodwin Liu

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Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson was the sole Democrat to side with the GOP in a successful effort to prevent a vote on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nelson’s vote against against cloture on Liu is even more outrageous than his vote against confirming Elena Kagan.

Liu’s nomination was supported by the National Employment Lawyers Association, a group representing plaintiff’s side-employment attorneys. In an e-mail to members, NELA stated it supported Liu “based on his record of commitment to and respect for justice and equality in the workplace.”

As pointed out by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, Nelson voted for cloture on many appeals court nominations made by President George W. Bush. In 2005 Nelson wrote that “the president’s nominees, especially to the Supreme Court, deserve an up-or-down vote” in regards to his vote on Justice Samuel Alito the United States Supreme Court. Apprarently Nelson believes President Obama deserves less deference that President Bush. Nelson’s vote is even more infuriating considering the impeccable credentials possessed by Professor Liu who was a Rhodes Scholar and a clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Nelson’s vote against against cloture on Liu is even more outrageous than his vote against confirming Elena Kagan. As a longtime participant and observer of politics in Nebraska, I think such efforts to mollify conservatives are stupid and futile. Nelson’s vote on Liu will do nothing to calm conservative animosity while it will just dampen further the lack of enthusiasm among progressives in Nebraska for Ben Nelson. While progressives are a minority in Nebraska, their support is the lifeblood of any successful Democratic campaign in this state.