In an important new decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held that a qualifying patient who has been terminated from employment for testing positive for marijuana as a result of her lawful medical marijuana use may state a claim of disability discrimination under that state’s anti-discrimination statute. As we blogged with respect to a after a similar decision in Rhode Island, this holding has significant implications for employers that drug test for marijuana use because 29 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana use.

Background

The plaintiff received an offer of employment conditioned on her passing a mandatory drug test. Before taking the test, the plaintiff told her would-be supervisor that she would test positive for marijuana because she was a qualifying medical marijuana patient under Massachusetts law and used marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. The supervisor assured her that her medicinal use of marijuana would not be an issue with the company. After submitting a urine sample for the mandatory drug test, the plaintiff completed her first day of work without incident. At the conclusion of that day, however, she was terminated for testing positive for marijuana. She was told that the company did not consider whether the positive test was due to the lawful medicinal use of marijuana because it followed federal, not state, law.

Court’s Holding and Rationale

The Court rejected plaintiff’s claims under the Massachusetts medical marijuana act, finding there to be no private right of action under the statute, which merely decriminalizes medical marijuana use and does not provide express employment protections. Nonetheless, the Court allowed to the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim to proceed. In so holding, the Court rejected the employer’s arguments that the plaintiff could not be a qualified handicapped person under the statute because the only accommodation she sought (possession and use of marijuana) is a federal crime, and that the plaintiff was discharged because she tested positive for an illegal substance, not because of her disability.

Rather, the Court concluded that, at least in some circumstances, an employer may have an obligation to accommodate the off-duty use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Like the Rhode Island trial court in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corporation, the Massachusetts Court determined that the medical marijuana act implicitly recognizes that off-site medical marijuana might be a permissible accommodation of an individual’s disability, and further concluded that the fact that marijuana may be illegal under federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation.

The court rejected arguments that the federal classification of marijuana as a controlled, and thus illegal, substance should preempt the state law classification. First, the court noted that only the plaintiff, and not the employer, risked federal prosecution for using marijuana, and therefore the legality of its use should not impact a determination of its reasonableness as an accommodation. Second, the court concluded that to adopt the federal classification would be to improperly reject the determination of Massachusetts voters to legalize the drug for medical use.

Notably, just because the plaintiff may proceed on her disability discrimination claim does not mean she ultimately will succeed. This decision comes at the motion to dismiss stage, and the employer still has the opportunity to demonstrate on summary judgment or at trial that accommodating the plaintiff’s marijuana use would constitute an undue hardship.

Key Takeaways

This decision is the first in any state in which the applicable medical marijuana act merely decriminalizes to permit a disability discrimination claim to proceed on such facts. The decision calls into question whether, even in these states, employers may maintain zero tolerance marijuana testing policies. Prior to this year, decisions in other jurisdictions have held that employers operating in such jurisdictions may enforce such policies and take adverse action against medical marijuana users simply for testing positive. With claims in Rhode Island and now Massachusetts surviving motions to dismiss, these decisions may indicate a trend by courts to provide greater protections for lawful medical marijuana users.

Wherever employers operate, it is clear that they must take added precautions in administering their drug testing policies. While employers may continue to prohibit the on-duty use of or impairment by marijuana, employers must consider the following when testing for marijuana:

  • Employers should review their drug-testing policies to ensure that they (a) set clear expectations of employees; (b) provide justifications for the need for drug-testing; and (c) expressly allow for adverse action (including termination or refusal to hire) as a consequence of a positive drug test.
  • Employers may consider or be required to adjust or relax certain hiring policies to accommodate lawful medical marijuana users.
  • When an individual tests positive ostensibly because marijuana is used to treat a disability, employers, particularly those in Massachusetts, may be required to engage in the interactive process. First, however, employers should evaluate whether the individual has a qualified disability that warrants an accommodation and whether allowing the individual to use medicinal marijuana would allow rather than hinder the individual’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job.
  • Employers concerned with the application of federal law may, during the interactive process, explore whether another equally effective medical alternatives to marijuana use may enable the individual to perform the essential functions of the job. Note, however, employers in states requiring accommodation of medical marijuana use may be prohibited from exploring these alternatives.
  • Where no such alternative exists or can be agreed upon, employers who cannot accommodate even lawful, off-duty medicinal marijuana use must be prepared to demonstrate that such accommodation would constitute an undue hardship.
  • Any such decision should be well-documented and well-coordinated by the relevant stakeholders.
  • In any case, hiring managers should be trained not to provide assurances as to whether and how marijuana use may be accommodated. If an applicant or employee discloses marijuana use, that disclosure should immediately be referred to Human Resources and addressed by a Human Resources professional in coordination with counsel.

Clearly, employers enforcing zero-tolerance policies should be prepared for future challenges to such policies. In Massachusetts as well as in those states prohibiting discrimination against and/or requiring accommodation of medical marijuana users, such challenges are now more likely to survive a motion to dismiss.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Latest Website Accessibility Decision Further Marginalizes the Viability of Due Process and Primary Jurisdiction Defenses.”

Following is an excerpt:

In the latest of an increasing number of recent website accessibility decisions, in Gorecki v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (Case No.: 2:17-cv-01131-JFW-SK), the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied Hobby Lobby’s motion to dismiss a website accessibility lawsuit on due process and primary jurisdiction grounds.  In doing so, the Hobby Lobby decision further calls into question the precedential value of the Central District of California’s recent outlier holding in Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC (Case No.: 2:16-cv-06599-SJO-FFM) which provided businesses with hope that the tide of recent decisions might turn in their favor. …

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Nation’s First Website Accessibility ADA Trial Verdict Is In and It’s Not Good for Places of Public Accommodation.”

Following is an excerpt:

After years of ongoing and frequent developments on the website accessibility front, we now finally have – what is generally believed to be – the very first post-trial ADA verdict regarding website accessibility. In deciding Juan Carlos Gil vs. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (Civil Action No. 16-23020-Civ-Scola) – a matter in which Winn-Dixie first made an unsuccessful motion to dismiss the case (prompting the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to file a Statement of Interest) – U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. of the Southern District of Florida issued a Verdict and Order ruling in favor of serial Plaintiff, Juan Carlos Gil, holding that Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA (“Title III”) by not providing an accessible public website and, thus, not providing individuals with disabilities with “full and equal enjoyment.”

Judge Scola based his decision on the fact that Winn-Dixie’s website, “is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations” that are clearly places of public accommodation covered by Title III and, “operates as a gateway to the physical store locations” (e.g., by providing coupons and a store locator and allowing customers to refill prescriptions). …

Read the full post here.

shutterstock_633954278In a departure from the recently developing law, a federal court judge from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) may cover gender dysphoria, and other conditions related to gender identity disorder – opening the door to expanding employment protections to some transgender individuals under the ADA.

In Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., a transgender woman filed Title VII and ADA claims against her former employer claiming that she had suffered disability discrimination and retaliation based on her gender dysphoria. The plaintiff alleged that her gender dysphoria was characterized by clinically significant stress and substantially limited one or more of her major life activities, including but not limited to, interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functions. The employer sought dismissal of the ADA claims on the grounds that gender identity disorders are expressly excluded from coverage under Section 12211 of the ADA. In response, the plaintiff argued that the ADA’s exclusion of gender identity disorders violated her equal protection rights under the Constitution.

What makes this case unique, and its holding potentially narrow, is its reliance on the legal “constitutional-avoidance canon” which, if possible, requires the court to interpret a statute in a way that avoids any constitutional questions raised by the plaintiff. Here, the court interpreted the ADA to allow plaintiff to proceed with her disability discrimination claim because “this interpretation allows the Court to avoid the constitutional questions raised” by the plaintiff.

In reaching its holding, the court noted that two categories of conditions are explicitly excluded from protection under the ADA: non-disabling conditions concerning sexual orientation and identity (e.g., homosexuality and bisexuality), and conditions associated with harmful or illegal conduct (e.g., pedophilia and kleptomania). The court narrowly interpreted these exceptions and found that the ADA does not exclude protection of “conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct” – such as the gender dysphoria affecting the plaintiff. This line of reasoning in many ways mimics how the ADA approaches pregnancy: while the ADA does not cover ordinary pregnancies, complications arising from the pregnancy can trigger ADA protection.

The court also noted that this interpretation is consistent with the Third Circuit’s mandate that the ADA is “a remedial statute, designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society. . . [and] must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.” Thus, the judge wrote, any exceptions in the ADA “should be read narrowly in order to permit the statute to achieve a broad reach.” As such, the Court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss.

This is yet another case in a recent wave of litigation concerning protections for LGBT individuals under the federal employment statutes, including Title VII. This ADA challenge represents a different approach to gender equity litigation that will warrant close monitoring to see how it impacts the development of jurisprudence – particularly since it is possible that the court may not have ever engaged in this exercise had the plaintiff had not raised a constitutional argument. In the meantime, employers should be mindful of their duties under the ADA to accommodate disabling impairments, even if the underlying condition is arguably not covered by the ADA.

The intersection of employment and marijuana laws has just gotten cloudier, thanks to a recent decision by the Rhode Island Superior Court interpreting that state’s medical marijuana and discrimination laws. In Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corporation, the court broke with the majority of courts in other states in holding that an employer’s enforcement of its neutral drug testing policy to deny employment to an applicant because she held a medical marijuana card violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the state medical marijuana law.

Background

Plaintiff applied for an internship at Darlington, and during an initial meeting, she signed a statement acknowledging she would be required to take a drug test prior to being hired.  At that meeting, Plaintiff disclosed that she had a medical marijuana card.  Several days later, Plaintiff indicated to Darlington’s human resources representative that she was currently using medical marijuana and that as a result she would test positive on the pre-employment drug test.  Darlington informed Plaintiff that it was unable to hire her because she would fail the drug test and thus could not comply with the company’s drug-free workplace policy.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging Darlington violated the Hawkins-Slater Act (“the Act”), the state’s medical marijuana law, and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (“RICRA”). The Hawkins-Slater Act provides that “[n]o school, employer, or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder.”  After concluding that Act provides for a private right of action, the court held that Darlington’s refusal to hire Plaintiff violated the Act’s prohibition against refusing to employ a cardholder.  Citing another provision that the Act should not be construed to require an employer to accommodate “the medical use of marijuana in any workplace,” Darlington contended that Act does not require employers to accommodate medical marijuana use, and that doing so here would create workplace safety concerns.  The court rejected this argument, concluding:

  • The use of the phrase “in any workplace” suggests that statute does require employers to accommodate medical marijuana use outside the workplace.
  • Darlington’s workplace safety argument ignored the language of the Act, which prohibits “any person to undertake any task under the influence of marijuana, when doing so would constitute negligence or professional malpractice.” In other words, employers can regulate medical marijuana use by prohibiting workers from being under the influence while on duty, rather than refusing to hire medical marijuana users at all.
  • By hiring Plaintiff, Darlington would not be required to make accommodations “as they are defined in the employment discrimination context,” such as restructuring jobs, modifying work schedules, or even modifying the existing drug and alcohol policy (which prohibited the illegal use or possession of drugs on company property, but did not state that a positive drug test would result in the rescission of a job offer or termination of employment).

The court thus granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on her Hawkins-Slater Act claims.

With respect to Plaintiff’s RICRA claim, the court found that Plaintiff’s status as a medical marijuana cardholder was a signal to Darlington that she could not have obtained the card without a debilitating medical condition that would have caused her to be disabled. Therefore, the Court found that Plaintiff is disabled and that she had stated a claim for disability discrimination under RICRA because Darlington refused to hire her due to her status as a cardholder.  Importantly, the court held that the allegations supported a disparate treatment theory.

Finally, while noting that “Plaintiff’s drug use is legal under Rhode Island law, but illegal under federal law [i.e. the Controlled Substances Act (the CSA”)],” the Court found that the CSA did not preempt the Hawkins-Slater Act or RICRA. According to the court, the CSA’s purpose of “illegal importation, manufacture, distribution and possession and improper use of controlled substances” was quite distant from the “realm of employment and anti-discrimination law.”

Key Takeaways

While this decision likely will be appealed, it certainly adds additional confusion for employers in this unsettled area of the law – particularly those who have and enforce zero-tolerance drug policies. The decision departs from cases in other jurisdictions – such as California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington – that have held that employers may take adverse action against medical marijuana users.  The laws in those states, however, merely decriminalize marijuana and, unlike the Rhode Island law, do not provide statutory protections in favor of marijuana users.  In those states in which marijuana use may not form the basis for an adverse employment decision, or in which marijuana use must be accommodated, the Callaghan decision may signal a movement to uphold employment protections for medical marijuana users.

While this issue continues to wend its way through the courts in Rhode Island and elsewhere, employers clearly may continue to prohibit the on-duty use of or impairment by marijuana. Employers operating in states that provide employment protections to marijuana users may consider allowing legal, off-duty use, while taking adverse action against those users that come to work under the influence.

Of course, it remains unclear how employers can determine whether an employee is under the influence of marijuana at work. Unlike with alcohol, current drug tests do not indicate whether and to what extent an employee is impaired by marijuana.  Reliance on observations from employees may be problematic, as witnesses may have differing views as to the level of impairment and, in any event, observation alone does not indicate the source of impairment.  Employers choosing to follow this “impairment standard” are advised to obtain as many data points as possible before making an adverse employment decision.

All employers – and particularly federal contractors required to comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act and those who employ a zero-tolerance policy – should review their drug-testing policy to ensure that it (a) sets clear expectations of employees; (b) provides justifications for the need for drug-testing; (b) expressly allows for adverse action (including termination or refusal to hire) as a consequence of a positive drug test. Additionally, employers enforcing zero-tolerance policies should be prepared for future challenges in those states prohibiting discrimination against and/or requiring accommodation of medical marijuana users.  Those states may require the adjustment or relaxation of a hiring policy to accommodate a medical marijuana user.

The Callaghan decision also serves as a reminder of the intersection of medical marijuana use and disability.  Here, the court allowed a disability discrimination claim to proceed even though Plaintiff never revealed the nature of her underlying disability because cardholder status and disability were so inextricably linked.

Finally, employers should be mindful of their drug policies’ applicability not only to current employees, but to applicants as well. In Callaghan, the court found the employer in violation of state law before the employee was even offered the internship or had taken the drug test.

Dallas, TexasIn a decision impacting the interactive process, the Northern District of Texas held in EEOC v. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, No. 3:2015-cv-03104 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 9, 2017), that employers do not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by requiring individuals with disabilities that need reassignment as a reasonable accommodation to compete for vacant positions.

Plaintiff, a former patient care technician, requested an accommodation after an on-the-job injury precluded her from performing the required duties of lifting and transporting patients. Though she met the minimum qualifications for two vacant positions, she was not chosen for the positions and was terminated. The EEOC alleged that the Hospital maintained an unlawful policy by requiring individuals with disabilities to compete for vacant positions where the individual was qualified for the position. The Hospital argued that the EEOC was attempting to mandate additional affirmative action not required by the ADA by asserting that the employer could not choose the most qualified applicant for a vacant position.

Central to the issue in this case, the ADA lists reassignment to a vacant position as a form of reasonable accommodation. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9). The EEOC guidance on reasonable accommodation also states that an employee does not need to be the best qualified individual for the position in order to be reassigned to a vacant position. However, the circuits have split regarding whether an employer violates the ADA by requiring individuals with disabilities to compete with other candidates for reassignment to a vacant position. Although the Fifth Circuit has not directly addressed this issue, the court reviewed the authority in the Fifth Circuit regarding affirmative action for reassignment and determined that the Fifth Circuit would likely hold, similar to the Eleventh and Eighth Circuits, that the ADA does not require preferential treatment for reassignment and merely requires employers to allow individuals with disabilities to compete equally for vacant positions.  The court declined to follow contrary precedent in the Tenth and D.C. Circuits.

Employers should review their policies regarding reassignment for employees requesting an accommodation due to a disability and, as there is currently a circuit split, review the applicable law in their jurisdiction to ensure their policies are lawful. When an employee seeks reassignment to a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation, employers should work with counsel to determine whether they can require that employee to compete with other applicants for that position.

As part of a flurry of activity in the final days of the Obama Administration, the U.S. the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) has finally announced the release of its Accessibility Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment (the “MDE Standards”).  Published in the Federal Register on Monday, January 9, 2017, the MDE Standards are a set of design criteria intended to provide individuals with disabilities access to medical diagnostic equipment such as examination tables and chairs (including those used for dental or optical exams), weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used by health professionals for diagnostic purposes.  (The Access Board was established in 1973 to develop and maintain standards for accessible design in the built environment, transit vehicles and systems, telecommunications equipment and electronic and information technology. It also functions as a coordinator among federal agencies.).  It is important to note that at this time the MDE Standards are not technically binding on health care providers or medical equipment manufacturers and do not have the force of law until they are formally adopted by government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The MDE Standards were prepared by the Access Board’s 24 member MDE Accessibility Standards Advisory Committee, comprised of representatives from disability groups, equipment manufacturers, heath care providers, and other standard-setting organizations, and incorporates data based on research studies as well as comments received during several public comment periods.

A link to the final MDE Standards is provided here:

Effective Date and Current Enforcement

The final rule is set to become effective Wednesday, February 8, 2017.  However, as noted above, as these Standards have not yet been adopted by any Federal enforcing authorities, the MDE Standards do not currently impose any mandatory requirements on health care providers or medical device manufacturers.  (Moreover, it is worth noting on January 20, 2017, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a memorandum from the White House to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for a sixty (60) day postponement of the effective date of regulations that have been published in the Federal Registry but not yet taken effect.  Therefore, this date may yet be delayed.)

Notwithstanding, during the Access Board’s briefing held on Tuesday, January 10, 2017, the MDE Accessibility Standards Advisory Committee noted that its mission was to develop technical accessibility requirements that would be adopted by Federal enforcing authorities (such as the DOJ, FDA, HHS, and VA), at which point health care providers subject to their jurisdiction will be required to acquire accessible medical diagnostic equipment that complies with the MDE Standards.  Until then, the Access Board strongly recommends that health care providers incorporate the MDE Standards as part of its new equipment procurement policy.  (And plaintiff’s counsel and disability rights advocacy groups bringing lawsuits against health care providers under accessibility laws are likely to rely on the MDE Standards to establish their view of what constitutes appropriate accessible medical equipment.)

Scoping Requirements

It should be noted that the current version of the MDE Standards provide MDE technical requirements only.  As stated in the Scoping section of the MDE Standards (Chapter 2), “The enforcing authority shall specify the number and type of diagnostic equipment that are required to comply with the MDE Standards”.

We will continue to provide updates as enforcing authorities adopt the MDE Standards.

Employers Under the Microscope: Is Change on the Horizon?

When: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Latest Developments from the NLRB
  • Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce
  • ADA Website Compliance
  • Trade Secrets and Non-Competes
  • Managing and Administering Leave Policies
  • New Overtime Rules
  • Workplace Violence and Active-Shooter Situations
  • Recordings in the Workplace
  • Instilling Corporate Ethics

This year, we welcome Marc Freedman and Jim Plunkett from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc and Jim will speak at the first plenary session on the latest developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide.

We are also excited to have Dr. David Weil, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, serve as the guest speaker at the second plenary session. David will discuss the areas on which the Wage and Hour Division is focusing, including the new overtime rules.

In addition to workshop sessions led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! – we are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.

View the full briefing agenda here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

On August 29, 2016, the EEOC issued its final Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues (Guidance) to replace its 1998 Compliance Manual section on retaliation, including tips on ADA interference. The Guidance reflects the Commission’s consideration of feedback received on the proposal from about 60 organizations and individuals following a 30-day public input period that ended February 24, 2016. The changes in the Guidance are in line with the EEOC’s efforts to broaden the conduct that would be deemed retaliatory as well as the concept of causation.

Along with the Guidance, the EEOC has issued two accompanying documents: a question-and-answer publication that summarizes the Guidance, and a short Small Business Fact Sheet that condenses the major points in the Guidance. The Guidance also provides “boxed” examples of actual and perceived retaliation that will be of great help to employers and employees.

The Guidance addresses retaliation under each of the statutes enforced by EEOC, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

Since 1998, the last time the EEOC issued a formal resource document on retaliation, the Supreme Court and the lower courts have issued numerous significant rulings regarding employment-related retaliation. Further, the percentage of EEOC charges alleging retaliation has essentially doubled (now nearly 45% of all charges). Retaliation is now the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in all sectors, including the federal government workforce.

The guidance also addresses the interference provision under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits coercion, threats, or other acts that interfere with the exercise of ADA rights. The EEOC considers the scope of this separate interference provision broader than the anti-retaliation provision under the ADA.

In preparing the Guidance, the Commission analyzed courts’ interpretation and application of the law to specific facts, noting that, regarding many retaliation issues, the lower courts have been uniform in their interpretations of the relevant statutes. Where the Commission agreed with those interpretations, the Guidance explains the law on such issues with concrete examples. The Commission noted that there are cases where the lower courts have not consistently applied the law, or the EEOC’s interpretation of the law differs. In those instances, the Guidance sets forth the EEOC’s position and explains its analysis.

Elements of a Claim. The Guidance does not change the three well-established elements of a retaliation claim and leaves little doubt that the EEOC takes a broad view when defining each element:

  1. An employee’s participation in a protected activity, generally a complaint of discrimination or harassment.
  2. A materially adverse action taken by the employer/manager against the employee.
  3. A causal connection between the protected activity and adverse action.

The small business fact sheet provides a list of actions taken by applicants and employees that are protected from retaliation:

  • taking part in an internal or external investigation of employment discrimination, including harassment;
  • filing or being a witness in a charge, complaint, or lawsuit alleging discrimination;
  • communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment;
  • answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment;
  • refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination;
  • resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others;
  • reporting an instance of harassment to a supervisor;
  • requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice; or
  • asking managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages.

Protected Activity. In the Commission’s view, playing any role in an internal investigation (even in support of the employer) should be deemed to constitute protected participation. For example, an employee can issue a direct complaint (“participation”) or engage in “protected opposition” by communicating explicitly or implicitly opposition to perceived employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, an employee may make a broad or ambiguous complaint of unfair treatment because they may not know the specific requirements of the anti-discrimination laws and such communication would be considered protected opposition if the complaint would reasonably have been interpreted as opposition to employment discrimination.

While the Guidance states that the manner of opposition must be reasonable, the Guidance points out that the scope of the opposition clause is not limited to complaints made to the employer directly, and may include complaints made to coworkers, an attorney, others outside the company, or even publicly. According to the EEOC, employees’ complaints or opposition activities will be protected as long as their actions are based on reasonable, good faith that their assertions are accurate. Nonetheless, opposition to perceive discrimination “does not serve as a license for the employee to neglect job duties.”

Adverse Action. The Guidance seeks to expand the definition of “adverse action” to include activity that could be reasonably likely to deter protected activity even if it has no tangible effect on a person’s employment. According to the EEOC, adverse actions can be activities that are not work-related, or take place outside of work, and may even be taken against a third party who is closely linked to a complaining employee.

Causal Connection. The Guidance also expands what constitutes a causal connection between a protected activity and adverse action. Under the Commission’s interpretation of the “but-for” causation standard articulated in University of Texas Southwest Medical Center v. Nassar, that there can be multiple “but-for” causes, and retaliation need only be one of those but-for causes in order for the employee to prevail. Moreover, citing a Seventh Circuit decision (Ortiz v. Werner Enters., Inc.), the Guidance notes that causal connection may be established by combining different pieces of circumstantial evidence into a “convincing mosaic” showing retaliatory intent. Citing a decision where a termination that occurred five years after an employee filed a discrimination lawsuit defeated summary judgment, the Commission noted that it may go years back into a person’s employment history to find evidence of either a protected activity or an adverse action.

Guidance for Employers. The Commission includes a section in the Guidance on “promising practices” that it suggests may help reduce the risk of retaliation violations. While adhering to these practices is not a safe harbor, employers should take note of the list provided by the EEOC:

  • Including clear anti-retaliation language in written employment policies that provide practical guidance on what retaliation is and how it is avoided, with examples of conduct that managers, supervisors, and decision makers may not realize are actionable;
  • Taking proactive steps for avoiding actual or perceived retaliation, including practical guidance on interactions by managers and supervisors with employees who have lodged discrimination allegations against them;
  • Instituting a reporting mechanism for employee concerns about retaliation, including access to a mechanism for informal resolution; and
  • Providing a clear explanation to employees that retaliation can be subject to discipline, up to and including termination;
  • Providing all parties and witnesses to an alleged act of discrimination with information about how to avoid engaging in retaliation, and how to report alleged retaliation; and
  • Ensuring that someone with special knowledge of EEO guidance reviews proposed employment actions to ensure they are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons.
Nathaniel M. Glasser
Nathaniel M. Glasser

On July 18, 2016, the final rule implementing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) went into effect.   Section 1557 prohibits health care providers and other covered entities from refusing to treat individuals or otherwise discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in any health program or activity that receives federal financial assistance or is administered by an executive agency.

While the rule does not apply to employment, it derives many of its standards from existing federal civil rights laws and the federal government’s current interpretations of those laws.  Covered entities (which include, for example, hospitals, health clinics, health insurance programs, community health practices, physician’s practices, and home health care agencies) should be particularly aware of the protections granted to individuals with these protected characteristics:

  • Sex – Under the rule, prohibited sex discrimination includes differential treatment based upon pregnancy, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, or recovery therefrom, childbirth or related medical conditions, sex stereotyping and gender identity. Covered entities should be particularly aware that they must treat individuals consistent with their gender identity; they cannot deny or limit sex-specific health care just because the individual seeking such services identifies as belonging to another gender; and they cannot categorically exclude coverage for health care services related to gender transition.
  • National Origin – Covered entities must take “reasonable steps” – which may include providing language assistance services such as oral language assistance or written translation – to provide “meaningful access” to individuals with limited English proficiency.
  • Disability – Covered entities must take “appropriate steps” to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others; make all programs provided through electronic and information technology accessible, unless doing so would impose financial or administrative burdens or fundamentally alter the program; and, in most instances, comply with the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design when constructing or altering physical facilities.

Now that the final rule has gone into effect, a covered entity has 90 days to post various notices for beneficiaries, enrollees, applicants, and members of the public.  The primary notice requires the covered entity to state its compliance with Section 1557 and the availability of the various accommodations under the rule.  The Director of the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has made available a sample notice that covers the information required by this notice, but covered entities are advised to work with counsel to ensure they are in compliance with the rule.  In addition, covered entities must post a nondiscrimination statement, and any tagline (i.e., short statement indicating the availability of language assistance services) must be posted in at least the top 15 languages spoken by individuals with limited English proficiency of the relevant state(s) (sample translated resources may be found here).  Again, covered entities are advised to work with counsel to ensure compliance with these notice and posting requirements.