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Training Programs May Conflict with Title VII’s Religious Nondiscrimination Provisions

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Thu, Oct 20, 2016 @ 10:10 AM

     Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on their religion (or lack of religious belief). A U.S. District court recently clarified that for the purposes of discrimination, a belief system called “Onionhead” is a religion. The defendant in the case is a small company that decided its corporate culture was deteriorating. The company hired a relative of the CEO to assist with morale and she brought Onionhead, a program she had developed, to the workplace. The company asserted that Onionhead is a conflict resolution tool. The plaintiffs asserted that it is a system of religious beliefs and practices. There were a series of Onionhead workshops, prayers, and meetings in the workplace, which the defendant said were voluntary but plaintiffs characterized as mandatory. Some plaintiffs described being told not to use overhead lighting "to prevent demons from entering the workplace through the lights." Plaintiffs also cited many other instances where spiritual language was used in Onionhead training. Plaintiffs contended that they were fired for either rejecting Onionhead beliefs or for having their own, non-Onionhead religious beliefs. The court found that the Onionhead set of beliefs did constitute a religion, based on a two-factors analysis: (1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held and (2) whether they are, in the believer’s own scheme of things, religious. The court stated that as a matter of law, the Onionhead beliefs are religious. On the issue of sincerity, the court found that there was a factual dispute and that a reasonable factfinder could find that the beliefs were sincerely held. For background on this case, see the EEOC’s new release: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/6-11-14.cfm    

     There have been similar cases in the past in this same vein. For example, in one case, the Eighth Circuit upheld a jury verdict that an employer that used Mind Body Energy (MBE) training sessions had discriminated against an employee on the basis of religion. The employer, a home builder and seller, required employees to participate in MBE sessions to "cleanse negative energy." The sessions included reading Hindu and Buddhist literature and affirming the belief in past lives. The employee complained that the sessions conflicts with his religious beliefs and he declined to participate in them. He was subsequently terminated. The Eighth Circuit noted that although there was some conflicting testimony as to the reasons for the employee’s termination, the fact that the employer kept attendance records for the sessions and the fact that the sessions were reasonably perceived by employees as required, was sufficient basis for a jury to find in the employee’s favor. Ollis v. HearthStone Homes, Inc., 495 F.3d 570 (8th Cir. 2007).     

     As these cases show, employers must take care to screen any training programs and accommodate any employees who give notice that these programs are inconsistent with the employees’ religious beliefs, whether or not the employer believes there is a religious basis for the employee’s objection.

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Topics: employment law, Title VII, religion, training program screening

Employment Law Legal Research Casino Sued by EEOC for Disability Discrimination

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Tue, Oct 11, 2016 @ 15:10 PM

      The EEOC announced that it has charged Detroit’s Greektown Casino with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The casino allegedly fired a pit manager who was on leave for a stress-anxiety disorder and requested several more weeks of leave. The casino denied the leave and fired him. For more information, see the EEOC’s press release:


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Topics: ADA, EEOC

EEOC Releases New Digest of EEO Law

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Wed, Oct 5, 2016 @ 17:10 PM

    The EEOC announced that it has released the latest edition of the Digest of Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEO Digest), featuring an article on “Discrimination on the Basis of Mental Health Conditions Under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.” The article discusses some cases specifically dealing with how to accommodate employees with mental health conditions, including modified work environments, use of leave, and reassignment. The digest is available at:


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Topics: disability discrimination, EEOC

Court Supports EEOC’s Position on Wellness Programs; Finds Them Subject to ADA

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 @ 15:09 PM

     In a Wisconsin case involving a wellness program, Orion Energy Systems argued that its program was not subject to scrutiny under the ADA because of the ADA’s insurance safe harbor provision. The plan required employees to undergo medical tests for the wellness program or pay 100% of the health insurance premium. Orion also argued that the wellness plan was voluntary and therefore lawful under the ADA. The court rejected Orion’s argument that the plan was not subject to scrutiny under the ADA but did find that the plan was lawful under the ADA because it was voluntary. However, the case will go forward because the court also found that there were issues of facts regarding whether the employee was fired in retaliation for her opposition to the plan. For additional information, see EEOC’s press release: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-23-16b.cfm.

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Topics: ADA, retaliation

EEOC Sues M&T Bank, Alleging Disability Discrimination

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Tue, Sep 27, 2016 @ 11:09 AM

     The EEOC alleges that M&T Bank failed to provide a reasonable accommodation and fired a bank manager after she returned from pregnancy leave. The woman had worked as a branch manager in Baltimore for several years when she became pregnant and informed upper management that she would need surgery to prevent a miscarriage. She then went on FMLA leave. While she was on leave, M&T told her that the bank would fill her position unless she returned to work within 10 days. She was unable to return to work until after the birth, at which time she applied for vacant positions. M&T failed to reassign her to a vacant position, including 24 vacant branch manager or assistant branch manager jobs for which she was qualified. For additional information, see EEOC’s press release: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-23-16.cfm.


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Topics: disability discrimination, EEOC, FMLA

EEOC Sues Wynn Las Vegas for Disability Discrimination

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Tue, Sep 20, 2016 @ 16:09 PM

     EEOC has announced a lawsuit filed against the Wynn Las Vegas for disability discrimination. The charge alleges that the Wynn failed to engage in the interactive process required to identify a reasonable accommodation. The accommodation was requested by one of its security guards, a veteran who was disabled with PTSD. EEOC also alleges that in addition to denying the employee a reasonable accommodation, the Wynn retaliated against him by suspending him after he filed a complaint with the EEOC. For additional details, see EEOC’s press release: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-16-16.cfm

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Topics: disability discrimination, retaliation, EEOC

School District Resolves Equal Pay Act Claim

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Tue, Sep 13, 2016 @ 12:09 PM

     The Montevideo School District in Minnesota has signed a conciliation agreement under which it agrees to pay $50,000 to a female employee who was classified as a custodial aid but performed the duties of a custodian. Her male co-worker was classified as a custodian and received pay at almost double the female’s hourly rate. For additional details of the agreement, see the EEOC news release at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-7-16b.cfm.

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Topics: employment, EEOC, equal pay

Final EEOC Guidance on Retaliation

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Thu, Sep 1, 2016 @ 09:09 AM

     On August 29, the EEOC issued final Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues. The new guidance is part of the EEOC Compliance Manual and is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/retaliation-guidance.cfm. The guidance provides detailed examples to help employers understand what types of actions may constitute retaliation. Retaliation is now the most frequently alleged form of discrimination and in FY2015, accounted for almost 40,000 filings, or approximately 45% of discrimination charges filed.

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Topics: employment law, retaliation, EEOC

State Equal Pay Act Changes

Posted by Nicole Prysby on Tue, Aug 30, 2016 @ 14:08 PM

    Several states have recently modified their Equal Pay Acts, increasing the scope of those laws. For example, California eliminated its requirements that to be actionable, the wage differential must be within the “same establishment” and the work must be “equal.” Rather than being “equal” the work must now be “substantially similar” and the modified establishment language means that the prohibition could potentially apply across an entire business, not merely to a single physical location.  (Cal. Laws 2015, Ch. 546). Similarly, New York modified its law so that the term “same establishment” is now defined as workplaces in the same geographic region no larger than a county. (N.Y. Laws 2016, Ch. 362). In Massachusetts, a recent change to the law (effective 1/1/2018) will prohibit employers from requesting salary history during the job interview process. The new legislation also updates the definition of “comparable work” to clarify that it means work that is substantially similar in skill, effort, and responsibility. (Mass. Laws 2016, Ch. 177).

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Topics: employment law, equal pay, Equal Pay Act

PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT: "A Law" Does Not Include an Agency Regulation

Posted by John M. Stone on Thu, Aug 18, 2016 @ 10:08 AM

John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     It is commonly understood that substantive agency regulations that are promulgated pursuant to statutory authority typically have the "force and effect of law." See Perez v. Mortg. Bankers Ass'n, 135 S. Ct. 1199, 1204 (2015). That does not mean, however, that for all purposes and in all contexts, a law is the same as a statute, and vice versa.  The point is illustrated by a recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where the presence of a one-letter word, "a," was a part of the court's reasoning. Rainey v. Merit Sys. Prot. Bd., No. 2015-3234, 2016 WL 3165617 (Fed. Cir. June 7, 2016).

     A Foreign Affairs Officer in the Department of State was relieved of his duties as a contracting officer representative. The officer filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, alleging that his duties had been taken away because he had refused his supervisor's order to tell a contractor to rehire a terminated subcontractor. He argued that his refusal was based on his view that carrying out the order would have required him to violate a federal regulation, by improperly interfering with personnel decisions of a prime contractor and requiring the prime contractor to operate in conflict with the terms of the contract.

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Topics: public employment, John M Stone, Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, agency regulations, right-to-disobey provision

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