A Los Angeles jury awarded a black former UCLA phlebotomist nearly $1.6 million in damages for being subjected to racial harassment by co-workers. Birden v. The Regents of the University of California, No. BC6681389 (Los Angeles Superior Court May 30, 2017).

Birden, who worked at UCLA as a per diem phlebotomist for approximately one year, alleged that she was subjected to racial slurs and disparaging remarks by Latino co-workers who referred to her as “lazy,” a “dark woman,” and used the “N” word in her presence. Birden claims that she reported the harassment to her supervisors but the school did not take action.

In his opening statement at trial, the attorney for the UC Board of Regents described one of Birden’s co-workers as a “good guy,” claimed “[h]e wasn’t doing it to try to offend somebody” with the use of the “N” word and argued that Birden was fired because of a clear pattern of performance issues. Birden’s counsel argued that Birden had no disciplinary history and offered testimony of Birden’s strong work ethic.

Ultimately, the jury agreed that Birden was subjected to severe and pervasive harassment by her co-workers due to her race and awarded Birden (1) $500,000 for past emotional distress and mental harm, (2) $800,000 for future emotional distress and mental harm, (3) more than $190,000 for past economic loss and (4) more than $86,000 for future economic loss. However, the jury did reject Birden’s claim that she was terminated because of her race.


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Governor Cuomo signed the groundbreaking harassment legislation that we previously covered here on August 12, 2019. The law profoundly alters the landscape of harassment claims in New York and how employers should be prepared to handle them. Key provisions include eliminating the “severe or pervasive” standard for discriminatory and retaliatory harassment cases, prohibiting mandatory arbitration for all discrimination claims (not just sexual harassment), and banning non-disclosure agreements for all discrimination claims.

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With the crowd’s chant of “equal pay” echoing at the Women’s World Cup soccer match and again as the champions float down the Canyon of Heroes, the issue of pay equality continues to be in the spotlight, and the New York legislature has jumped onto this moving train.

In addition to passing a powerhouse bill that strengthens protections for workers who claim workplace harassment, New York recently passed two pay equity bills that expand protections for current employees and job applicants.

Now, more than ever, employers in New York State should pay close attention to this rapidly changing legal landscape.


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Please join Kelley Drye’s Labor and Employment team for a virtual WORKing Lunch, a webinar series focused on bringing you the latest trends and developments in workplace law. If you or a colleague are interested in receiving an invitation to any of the webinars, please contact marketing@kelleydrye.com.

This webinar series is designed to provide in-house counsel, management and HR professionals with trends and developments related to workplace law. We can provide CLE, SHRM and HRCI credit if desired.

The “Year of the Woman” – Pay Equity and Gender Equality Legislation and Litigation
Date: Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Time: 12:30 pm ET | 11:30 am CT

With agency and legislative support, female employees are demanding pay equity, opportunity equality, and fair treatment for pregnant workers and new parents. New York is just the latest state to pass new pay equity legislation, and this trend will continue. We will discuss compliance with ever-changing legal requirements, as well as how to audit your business to identify and eliminate risk.


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As we reported on June 21, New York blew the lid off 30 years of sexual harassment and discrimination law by passing legislation that, among other things, bars mandatory arbitration of all claims of discrimination. That earthquake was followed by a substantial aftershock: according to a federal court, that provision of the state law doesn’t square with federal law, which specifically permits arbitration of these claims.

This latest monkey-wrench was thrown into the gears just last week by federal district court Judge Denise Cote when she held that New York’s arbitration law prohibiting arbitration of sexual harassment claims (effective as of July 2018 and reported on by this blog last year) is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), and is therefore invalid. This is the first case deciding the merits of this arbitration exclusion. And although Judge Cote didn’t formally rule on the more general, brand-new bar on arbitration of all discrimination claims (harassment or not), she observed in a footnote that the more general bar suffers from the same problem and is probably preempted by federal law, too.

This decision will likely result in a failure-to-launch of the arbitration prohibitions in this latest round of legislation. But for now, here’s the unsettling message for employers navigating the ever-shifting landscape of discrimination law obligations: the new provisions of New York law barring mandatory arbitration of all employment discrimination claims will be struck down, but for the time being, you can’t count on it.


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Clichés like “seismic shift” and “paradigm change” do not begin to describe just how profoundly the New York legislature changed the standards for harassment claims in a bill passed June 19. HR professionals and employers beware: the sexual harassment foundation you have known for 30 years—and upon which all your in-house training, HR policies, and legal and HR instincts are built—has just been neatly demolished. Here’s why:

A Critical Bit of History

Boring history lesson now ensues (but will make you sound smart when you tell your HR and management colleagues about it):

Everybody knows that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the basic model for all state employment discrimination statutes—makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees on the basis of a number of protected characteristics, including “sex.” In 1964, and for a couple of decades after that, “discrimination” meant the big employment decisions: you couldn’t refuse to hire, fail to promote, or fire somebody because she was, say, a woman, or black, or a Baptist. Under the original conception of Title VII, those were the tangible, serious “adverse employment actions” that violated the law—that is, anything that involved getting a job, losing a job, getting promoted or paid on that job, etc. The big stuff only.


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Harassment claims continue to dominate the legal news, but the Second Circuit recently reminded us that workplace harassment extends far beyond sex and gender.

The Circuit recently joined several sister circuits recognizing that a plaintiff can pursue a claim for harassment based on disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), clearing up any doubt regarding the Circuit’s position on the matter.  Fox v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 17-0936-cv (2nd Cir. March 6, 2019).  The Circuit also made such claim easier to prove, finding that a plaintiff is not required to set forth the exact number of times actionable comments or conduct occur to demonstrate that the alleged harassment was “severe and pervasive.” 
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In a decision that could have wide-ranging implications for all employers, the Fourth Circuit recently held that an employer’s failure to stop a false rumor that a female employee slept with her male boss to obtain a promotion, could give rise to employer liability under Title VII for gender discrimination. Parker v. Reema Consulting Services Inc., No. 18-1206 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019).

So now employers must police the rumor mill? This decision is confusing to say the least, as employers now have dueling obligations—to quash rumors while not infringing upon an employee’s Section 7 rights to discuss the terms and conditions of employment.
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As we enter the 3rd year of the #MeToo movement, all signs point towards another year of heightened legal activities in the area of gender discrimination and gender equality. Sexual harassment claims will continue to garner news headlines, but there are bigger threats for employers. For many employers, 2019 will be less about whether their female employees are being harassed, and more about whether they are being treated fairly and equally.

What’s the difference you ask? The answer is everything else outside of harassment, including pay equity, opportunity equality, and fair treatment for employees who are pregnant and new parents.

There is no greater indication of this heightened focus on equality than the 116th Congress, which has a record number of women serving. Naturally, legislation aimed to combat gender inequality will be at the forefront. In this post, we identify the legislative and legal trends employers should pay attention to in 2019 as we declare it “The Year of the Woman.”
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