The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Clark v. Alamo Heights Independent School District case. The San Antonio Court of Appeals recognized same sex harassment in that case. The school district has now appealed the matter to the Texas Supreme Court. The lawyer for the district appears to be trying to un-do that decision. He argued that there was no evidence that the harassing coach, Anne Monterrubio, was gay or that she felt sexual attraction toward Coach Clark. I previously white about that Fourth Court decision here.

The Supreme Court is notoriously pro-employer. During the oral arguments, Justice Eva Guzman, asked as crude as Coach Monterrubio’s comments were, is there evidence that her comments were, is there evidence to indicate the comments were based on Coach Clark being female? That question suggests Justice Guzman is not ready to recognize same sex harassment. The comments were very crude, and clearly based on sex. The two female coaches discussed Coach Clark’s buttocks and breasts almost daily. If the justice has to ask whether those remarks were focused on the coach’s gender, then she will likely side with the employer.

See San Antonio Express News report here.

In Whitley v. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc., 2017 LEXIS 68040 (E.D. Tex. 2017), the Plaintiff’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in September, 2015. Amy Whitley claimed Dr. Pepper discriminated against her because it denied coverage for Applied Behavior Analysis treatment, a form of therapy for autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Pepper’s Summary Plan Description initially made no reference to ABA treatment. The Plan did not list ABA treatment as excluded from coverage. In September, 2015, Amy Whitley met with an HR person for Dr. Pepper. The HR person said the Plan did not cover vocational rehabilitation training.

On Jan. 29, 2016, Dr. Pepper amended the Summary Plan Description to specifically exclude ABA treatment. The new Summary Plan Description was posted in May, 2016. Plaintiff Whitley filed an EEOC charge and later filed suit.

The employer moved for summary judgment and argued the amendment was intended to clarify the Plan. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits a denial of benefits due to a disability. The court found the plaintiff had an association with a person with a disability, her son. Dr. Pepper became aware of her son’s diagnosis in September, 2015. The court found the denial of coverage amounted to a denial of benefits, which is prohibited by the ADA. A term or provision of a health benefit plan may violate the ADA if it singles out a particular disability. The 2016 Amended Plan did single out and exclude from coverage ABA treatment.

The burden then shifted to the employer to provide a non-discriminatory reason for the exclusion. The court was not satisfied with the reason offered by the employer. The court found there was substantial issue of material fact regarding why the treatment was excluded. The court denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that the employee showed mgenuine issue of fact regarding whether the employer’s actions amounted to retaliation. See the decision here.

So, Eric Bolling is out at Fox News. Yet another Fox News personality is gone due to allegations of sex harassment. See CNN news report. I previously wrote about Mr. Boling’s troubles here. Mr. Bolling was accused of sending lewd text messages to several female co-workers.

The Fox News boys club may be nearing its end.

In a recent decision, the Fifth Circuit addressed the difficult question regarding what level of reprisal is enough to constitute retaliation? In Cabral v. Brennan, 853 F.3d 763 (5th Cir. 2017), Javier Cabral worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He complained about discrimination several times. He was then placed on a two day suspension after he allegedly struck a supervisor with a postal vehicle. The employee accused the supervisor of badgering him with questions The supervisor asked him for his driver’s license and Mr. Cabral refused to provide it. Mr. Cabral was placed on suspension for two days.

The employee claimed the two day suspension without pay was in retaliation for his previous complaints of discrimination. The U.S. Postal Service, however, claimed the employee was placed on suspension because he was using a suspended driver’s license. He may have had an occupational driver’s license. But, if so, he failed to produce it when asked. USPS moved for summary judgment. It relied on the decision in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) which held that acts other than straight suspension, demotion and termination could constitute retaliation. If the employer’s action was materially adverse, then the action could constitute retaliation under Title VII. The employer claimed the two day suspension was not materially adverse. The lower court agreed with the Postal Service and granted summary judgment.

Indeed, the defendant argued that the plaintiff had several DWI convictions on his record. The plaintiff was required to tell his supervisors about any driver’s license suspensions, but he had failed to do so. The plaintiff argued the suspension was retaliation for his prior activity opposing discrimination.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with the lower court. The higher court noted that the plaintiff in Burlington Northern was placed on unpaid leave for 37 days, causing her to fall into a deep depression. The plaintiff here, said the Fifth Circuit, had not shown that the suspension exacted a physical, emotional, or economic toll on him. Therefore, the employer’s action was not materially adverse. See the decision here.

One has to wonder about the facts of this case. Anytime an employee is accused of striking a supervisor, that is a case that is looking to be dismissed. The employee deemed the allegation. But, that sort of allegation forces the plaintiff to start out at a deficit. Perceptions do matter. The record from the lower court indicates Mr. Cabral was eventually paid for those two days of suspension.

Too, that the employer has filed several prior EEO complaints undermines his credibility. Within six months, he filed one EEO complaint and three grievances which alleged harassment and retaliation. Before that six month period, he had already filed two other EEO complaints. Some federal employees, fearing they will suffer some technical issue, think they must file a complaint for each and  every act of harassment. But, in reality, such employees appear to be “frequent filers.” Some lawsuits simply should not be filed.

T-Mobile has work rules including: 1) Maintain a positive work environment, 2) No arguing or fighting; respect co-workers, 3) no photography, or video or audio recording, and 4) no access to electronic information by non-approved persons. The National Labor Relations Board found these four rules to violate the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA allows persons to organize a union. Precursors to organizing activity includes simple discussions between employees. So, rules that hinder employees communicating with each other are sometimes viewed as anti-union. The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the NLRB. It found that only the third rule about violated the NLRA. Applying a test that asks would this rule hinder the efforts of a “reasonable employee” to organize, the court found the rule regarding recording would chill organizing activity.

The court found that the very broadly stated rule would be interpreted by a reasonable employee to prohibit even mundane organizing activities such a photographing a wage schedule posted on a company bulletin board. T-Mobile defended the rule, saying it would protect the privacy of workers. But, said the court, the good intentions of a rule do not remove its harmful effects. The court did note in a foot note that certain photographs or recordings might not relate to organizing activity. But, as the rule is stated, the rule against all recording and photography would apply to activity which would clearly involve organizing activity.. See the decision in T-Mobile v. NLRB, No. 16-60497 *5th Cir. 7/25/2017) here.

So, in essence, the court might approve a rule that was more carefully worded. But, crafting a rule that protects privacy without involving possible forms of organizing activity would be very challenging. The court did not say it, but I think the judges must have wondered why not just have a rule that explicitly protects privacy? Why go though the mental gymnastics of a rule that tries to restrict photographs and recordings but dos not restrict forming a union? It sounds like the employer was possibly trying to squeeze in some anti-employee communication rules under the guise of protecting privacy of workers. After all, we all know employers would never try to hide harmful effects behind good intentions…..

“Direct” evidence of discrimination generally means a statement that clearly indicates discriminatory intent. In one of my early cases, a San Antonio manager said “we need to get rid of all the lazy ass niggers here.” That statement clearly evinces discriminatory intent.The bias is clear with no need for additional explanation. In Okpere v. National Oilwell Varco, LLP, No. 14-15-00694, 2017 WL 1086340 (Tex.App. Hou. 3/25/2017), the Houston Court of Appeals discusses direct evidence regarding a man with a disability. Ehimarey H. Okpere worked for NOV for four months. He suffered a stroke and returned to work within days. He was terminated 13 days later. Mr. Okpere testified that his team leader said the supervisor said upper management let him go because of his condition, the stroke. The team leader, however, denied the statement. A statement against interest is not considered hearsay. A statement against interest by management would be admissible. So, a statement by management that upper management took an action which violates the ADA would normally be admissible. The problem here is that the team leader is not offering his opinion about why Mr. Okpere was fired. He is quoting his boss. The team leader was not offering his own opinion, but the opinion of the supervisor. So, his statement is hearsay within hearsay.

The Houston Court of Appeals felt that was too large a jump from the person uttering the statement to the person who heard it. The result likely would have been different if the employee was told this by the supervisor directly. But, this statement was uttered by someone who merely heard the supervisor utter the statement. The court found that even direct evidence is subject to the hearsay rules. That is, hearsay within hearsay is hearsay.

The employer otherwise defended against the lawsuit by claiming the Human Resources person who fired the worker did not know he had suffered a stroke. He did not know that Mr. Okpere had a disability. But, the timing was remarkable. The plaintiff was fired just 13 days after returning to work. NOV said it fired the employee because he was late for work that morning. The company claimed it would not normally fire a worker for being late one time. It pointed to an ambiguous comment on Mr. Okpere’s prior time card indicating he had been late before. The court then parses the evidence to find that Mr. Okpere’s testimony that he had never been late was not consistent with other parts of his testimony.

Anytime a court has to parse and get into exacting detail about a person’s testimony, then summary judgment is not appropriate. But, the Houston court of appeals appeared to be more interested in affirming summary judgment. See the decision here.

Some folks refer to the President as the Twitter-in-Chief. Well, he should also be considered as the Litigator-in-Chief. He tossed out provocative statements at campaign rallies like they were candy. At one rally in Louisville, he exhorted his supporters to rough up a couple of protesters. He also added, as the protesters were being forced to leave, “Don’t hurt ’em. Don’t hurt ’em.” Now, those protesters have sued the President and his campaign for encouraging violence. The U.S. District Judge hearing the matter denied a motion to dismiss a few months ago. I previously wrote about this lawsuit here.

Pres. Trump’s attorneys offered creative, if weak arguments, as his lawyers often do. They argued then Candidate Trump was engaging in his First Amendment rights. It was free speech, they argued. The lawyers also argued that Mr. Trump did not encourage violence. He did, after all, encourage the supporters not to harm the protesters. The judge rejected those arguments when he denied the motion to dismiss.

Now, the issue before the court is whether Mr. Trump should appear for a deposition. The President’s lawyers claim his words are clear and do not need explanation. But, in arguing his words have clear meaning, they make a deposition very likely. His words do not have clear meaning. In one passage, he exhorted violence. In a separate set of words he asked them not to harm the protesters. No, his meaning was not clear. In any normal lawsuit, absolutely, Mr. Trump would be deposed. The Litigator-in-Chief has dug his hole. He said things he should not have said, at a time when he should not have said them. People like that often end up in a lawsuit. That is partly why he spent over $500,000 in legal fees in the second quarter of 2017 and almost $200,000 in the first quarter of the year. See Politico news report.

When you ask for an accommodation, you need to be careful what you ask for. Because, you just might get it. That is an old saying and it applies to the decision in Dillard v. City of Austin, 837 F.3d 557 (5th Cir. 2016). Derrick Dillard worked for the City of Austin. He was a laborer and field supervisor until he sustained injuries in a car wreck. He could not perform physical labor any longer. After extended leave, he was offered a position as an Administrative Assistant. He was stunned at first, because he did not know how to do “no administrative work.” He did not meet the stated qualifications for the job, three years experience as an Administrative Assistant. So, the city provided him with on-the-job training and let him shadow another Administrative Assistant. He was encouraged to complete additional training, but he never did. His typing skills did not improve. Instead of training on the computer, he was observed to be surfing the internet and playing games. He arrived at work late and left early. He spent some of his time looking for a new job.

The employee started the Administrative Assistant job in April, 2012. By September, he was given a bad performance evaluation. His supervisor testified that he lacked skills, but he also seemed unwilling to improve his skills. Mr. Dillard asked to be moved to a different job and claimed he was not given enough work to do. He admitted he could not complete his one typing assignment because he could not type fast enough. His physical abilities were improving. But, the process toward termination proceeded. At a pre-termination meeting, he admitted the allegations against him were accurate. He was not apologetic for his behavior. He said he was trying to find a new job within the City.

In late October, he was fired. Plaintiff Dillard filed suit saying the city failed to accommodate him. The district court granted summary judgment. The higher court noted that if an accommodation is not working, then the employee may ask for a new accommodation. That is part of the interactive process. The plaintiff argued that the City failed to cooperate when it became clear the new job was not working out. He argued that as his capacity improved, the City should have considered him for jobs that were open. But, the Fifth Circuit was not impressed. The interactive process is a two-way street. It requires that both parties work together in good faith. When they gave him the new job, the ball was in his court. He should have worked in good faith to make it work. The misconduct indicated the was not trying in good faith to succeed in this new position. There was also evidence of making personal phone calls, napping at work, lying about his attendance, etc. This case was now less about the interactive process and more about mis-conduct.

The higher court found no evidence that the City failed to act in good faith, since the employee did not show a desire to try and make the new position work. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment. Yes, be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. See the decision here.

Success rates for plaintiffs in federal court have dropped dramatically from the 1980’s. In a study by two University of Connecticut law professors, they reported a success rate of 70% for plaintiffs in federal court in the mid 1980’s. The study looked at adjudicated civil cases of all types. That rate dropped to about 35% by 1995 and stayed in that range through 2009. The professors cannot explain the large drop. They did note that federal government suits for overpayment of veterans benefits mostly disappeared from the docket by 2009 and those suits were generally sure wins for the plaintiff. Otherwise, they could discern no pattern that might explain the large drop. The researchers discounted some possible theories, that poorer cases were being filed for the time period; that more weak sorts of lawsuits were being filed, such as prisoner cases; and that rise in dispositive motions caused more losses for the plaintiffs. The professors explained that if the dispositive motion theory caused this effect, then the plaintiff success rate should increase. Since, winning at summary judgment would be considered an adjudicated victory for the plaintiff.

The professors theorize that the success rate might relate to certain federal judges. That theory is problematical itself. It would be hard to envision a scenario in which federal judges become hostile to plaintiffs for ten years and then relent. But, even so, there is no way at present to determine if what might have caused such a large drop. See ABA Bar Journal report here. The paper, “The Curious Incident of the Falling Win Rate,” is available here.

It is a strange ruling in Alkhwaldeh v. Dow Chemical Company, 851 F.3d 422 (5th Cir. 2017). The three judge panel consistently refers to Mr. Alkhwaldeh by his first name, Ammar, not by his last name. The opinion also recognizes  that the employer provided inconsistent explanations for the termination, but disregards those inconsistencies. Dow Chemical claimed it fired Mr. Alkhwaldeh because of poor performance in 2009 and because he failed to complete a Performance Improvement Plan in 2010. But, as Dow employees pointed out, Mr. Alkhwaldeh would not still be employed if he did not successfully complete his PIP. The court disregarded that inconsistency by pointing to “numerous” other factors, such as the strength of his prima facie case, the probative value of the proof that the employer’s claim was false and “any other” evidence that supports the employer’s case.

The court then explains that the ultimate question is not about pretext but whether a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the employer would have fired the employee “but for” his opposition to discrimination. Mr. Alkhwaldeh had expressed that he believed he was the victim of discrimination back in November, 2009. The plaintiff is Moslem, so doubtless he was subject to many anti-Moslem jokes.

But, the decision is simply wrong. Pretext alone is sufficient basis upon which a jury can conclude that an improper motive played a role. We have known that since the decision in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 147 (2000) (Even if a plaintiff offers only indirect evidence, that may be sufficient basis on which a jury may infer discriminatory motive. Proof that the employer’s explanation is unworthy of credence is one form of of circumstantial evidence that is probative of intentional discrimination, and it is one form that can be quite persuasive). It is also unfortunate that the court essentially engaged in fact-finding when it concluded that the plaintiff’s evidence of pretext was not sufficient to overcome the alleged “other evidence” in the employer’s case. Weighing evidence is not appropriate for summary judgment.

But, it appears the employee received his low performance rating in October, 2009, just a month before he was subjected to overt comments about his religion. So, his complaint about discrimination came after the poor rating. That timing issue may have affected the rest of the court’s analysis. This decision reminds us that some courts are reticent about relying too heavily on inconsistent explanations for a firing. Ito seems to me that some courts sympathize with HR departments in responding to EEOC charges. Perhaps, some judges see those departments as over-worked. I think any such sympathy would be discounted if those judges had met with terrified victims of those HR departments and managers who acted with illicit motives. And, one has to wonder how careful the panel was if the court did not understand which name was the employee’s last name. This was also one of those very rare cases in which the EEOC found in favor of the employee. Such a finding is almost as rare as snow in July. One would think such a case would be impervious to a motion for summary judgment. See the decision here.