Blunder on Religious Accommodation Costs Employer $38K to Settle EEOC Title VII Lawsuit

Sometimes all it takes is a new supervisor to come on board and gum up the works to put the employer in trouble with the law.

Decostar Industries, Inc., a manufacturer and supplier of automotive parts based in Carrollton, Ga., will pay $38,500 and provide other relief to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced Feb. 9.

The EEOC charged in its suit that Dina Lucas Velasquez made numerous requests to be excused from Decostar’s requirement that all employees work overtime hours on designated Saturdays because her religious beliefs prohibited her from working during the Sabbath, which she observed from sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday. The EEOC claims that Decostar initially approved Velasquez’s request for accommodation until January 2014, when a new supervisor took over her department and repeatedly denied her ongoing request for a religious accommodation. Decostar eventually discharged Velasquez on Oct. 27, 2014, after she refused to violate her religious beliefs.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Newnan Division after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

In addition to providing monetary damages to Velasquez, the consent decree settling the lawsuit requires Decostar to adopt and implement a new policy for employees to request a religious accommodation for their bone fide religious beliefs. The decree also requires that the company provide annual equal employment opportunity training to its managers. The two-year decree further requires the company to post a notice to its employees about the lawsuit and to provide periodic reporting to EEOC about disability discrimination complaints.

“It is unconscionable and unlawful for employers to force members of their workforce to choose between their livelihood and their religion,” said Antonette Sewell, regional attorney for the agency’s Atlanta District Office. “This settlement shows the EEOC’s dedication to the protection of religious freedom in the workplace as well as the company’s commitment to prevent similar circumstances from arising in the future.”

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Employer to Tone Down Severance Agreements

An employer in Colorado has agreed to revise severance agreements so they don’t impede employees’ ability to seek redress for employment discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and The Coleman Company, Inc. have reached a voluntary conciliation agreement to resolve allegations of disability discrimination raised by a former employee, the federal agency said Feb. 6.

Following an investigation, the EEOC found that it was probable that Coleman violated Section 503 of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 704 and 706 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of the 1964, by conditioning employees’ receipt of severance pay on an overly broad severance agreement that interfered with employees’ rights to file charges and communicate with the EEOC, and which precluded employees from accepting any relief obtained by the EEOC, should the agency take further action.

Without admitting liability, Coleman agreed to enter into a conciliation agreement with the EEOC. As part of that agreement, the company agreed to hire an outside equal employment opportunity consultant to review its separation agreements and make sure they comply with law. Coleman also agreed to revise past agreements and notify signatories who signed a prior version between 2013 and 2015 that they could file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and the company will not raise the time limits on charge filing as a defense. The EEOC will monitor compliance with this agreement.

“We applaud the Coleman Company for proactively tackling this issue once it was brought to its attention,” said EEOC Phoenix Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill. “Increasingly, we are seeing employers, whether intentionally or not, including overbroad language in their separation agreements that interferes with signatories’ rights to participate in EEOC processes or that impedes the EEOC’s ability to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws as it deems necessary.”

Phoenix District Director Elizabeth Cadle added, “We hope other employers learn from Coleman’s model behavior and pay closer attention to their separation agreements. No matter what the intent, whether intentionally misleading or inadvertent, employers cannot insist on agreement provisions that are void against public policy.”

Preserving access to the legal system, including addressing overbroad separation agreements, is one of the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan priorities. For more information about the EEOC’s priorities for 2017 – 2021, visit https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/plan/sep-2017.cfm.

Courts generally deem contract provisions that preclude employees from filing charges with the EEOC or cooperating with the EEOC during an investigation to be void as against public policy. See EEOC v. Astra USA, 94 F.3d 738, 744 (1st Cir. 1996) and EEOC v. Cosmair, Inc., L’Oreal Hair Care Div., 821 F.2d 1085, 1090 (5th Cir. 1987). Recently, the district court of Colorado, in the case EEOC v. Montrose Memorial Hospital, Civ. No. 16-cv-02277 (D. Colo., April 12, 2017), voided settlement agreement provisions that limited

an employee’s right to participate in the EEOC’s lawsuit and accept a share of any financial or other relief obtained by the EEOC.

The EEOC’s Phoenix District Office has jurisdiction for Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and part of New Mexico (including Albuquerque).

Exposed: EEOC Says Staffing Co. Tolerated Male Supervisor’s Harassment of Female Employees

A staffing firm’s failure to move against a male supervisor who was harassing women has landed the firm in court opposite the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

An international staffing company violated federal law when it allowed a manager at a Kansas City, Kan., worksite to repeatedly sexually harass female workers on a manufacturing line, the EEOC charged in a lawsuit filed Feb. 2 in federal court.

According to the EEOC’s suit, a male account manager for Staff Management | SMX repeatedly made explicit sexual comments to female employees and demanded sexual favors. The harassment occurred at a Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant in Kansas City, Kan., where Staff Management | SMX hired and supervised employees who boxed soap for shipping.

One female employee, Jaurdai Walker, reported that the manager repeatedly called her “baby,” told her she was “sexy,” and asked her for oral sex in exchange for paid time off. She refused and reported the harassment to another supervisor, who told her she should “screw him” and take the extra pay. The harassment continued, and on one occasion the account manager exposed his genitals to Walker, according to the suit. After she reported the harassment again to a different supervisor, Staff Management | SMX conducted an investigation, but the company allowed the manager to return to work. The manager later threatened Walker and demanded to know why she reported his misconduct, the suit alleged. Other male employees also intimidated Walker because she reported the harassment. Walker was so traumatized by these actions and Staff Management | SMX’s failure to protect her that she was forced to quit her job.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from sexual harassment. The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, Case No. 2:18-cv-02058, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation resolution through the agency’s conciliation process.

“As the #MeToo movement has made all too clear, sexual harassment in the workplace is not limited to one industry, certain types of workers, by geographic area,” said Andrea G. Baran, regional attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis District. “But there is one thing every case of sexual harassment has in common – that it can only be stopped when victims and bystanders speak up and break the silence.”

James R. Neely, Jr., director of the EEOC’s St. Louis District, said, “Employers – including staffing firms – are responsible for ensuring their workplaces are free from any type of sexual harassment. Companies that tolerate sexual harassment – or fail to adequately punish harassers – do so with blatant disregard for the law.”

Staff Management | SMX is a subsidiary of Tacoma, Wash.-based True Blue, Inc., which, according to its website, is the largest industrial staffing company in the United States. Staff Management | SMX provides temporary and seasonal workers to other companies throughout North America.

Indigestion: Firing Employee for Taking Medication Costs KFC Franchise $30K

You can’t make an employee choose between taking her prescribed medication and keeping her job. You’ve got to make a reasonable accommodation for the employee.

Hester Foods, Inc., the operator of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Dublin, Ga., will pay $30,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced Feb 1.

The EEOC filed suit in 2017, charging that Hester Foods’ owner violated federal law by firing restaurant manager Cynthia Dunson in July 2015 when he found out that she was taking medications prescribed by her doctor for her bipolar disorder. The restaurant owner referred to Dunson’s medications in obscene terms, the EEOC said, and made her destroy her medications by flushing them down a toilet at the restaurant. When Dunson later told the owner that she planned to continue taking the medications per her doctor’s orders, the owner told her not to return to work and fired her.

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC filed suit (Civil Action No. 3:17-cv-000340-DHB-BKE) in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

In addition to providing monetary damages to Dunson, the consent decree settling the lawsuit requires Hester Foods to create and disseminate a handbook containing policies that prohibit discrimination. The decree also requires that the company provide annual equal employment opportunity training to its managers, supervisors, and employees. The two-year decree further requires the company to post a notice to its employees about the lawsuit and to provide periodic reporting to EEOC about disability discrimination complaints.

“Federal laws protect employees whose disabilities require them to take medications and employers must make accommodation for those requirements,” said Bernice Williams-Kimbrough, director of the EEOC’s Atlanta District Office.

Antonette Sewell, regional attorney for the Atlanta District Office, added, “Employers are not allowed to force workers with disabilities to choose between their jobs and their health. Reasonable accommodation includes allowing workers to rely on their physicians, not on the opinions of the company managers.

Wastewater Company 0ut $150K in Settlement of “Textbook” Case of Mishandled Harassment

Here’s how not to handle a case of harassment on the job.

Aqua Resources Inc., a Delaware-based water and wastewater service company, will pay $150,000 and provide significant equitable relief to settle a federal racial harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency announced Feb. 1.

The EEOC said that a white superintendent and white foremen at Aqua Resources’ Bear, Del., facility repeatedly made derogatory and offensive comments to and about an African-American foreman and black employees, including calling them racial epithets such as “n—-r,” “monkey,” and “boy.”

The African-American foreman complained to company management officials about the racially hostile work environment. Aqua Resources not only failed to stop the harassment, it instead promoted one of the harassers and even assigned him to supervise the African-American foreman, according to the suit. The company fired the black foreman in retaliation for complaining about the racially hostile work environment, the EEOC charged.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to harass employees on the basis of race or to retaliate against employees who complain about discrimination. The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Aqua Resources, Inc., Civil Action No. 2:17-cv-04346) in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

In addition to the $150,000 in monetary relief to the African-American foreman and class members, the two-year consent decree resolving the suit enjoins Aqua Resources from engaging in discrimination based on race or unlawful retaliation in the future. The company will provide training on federal anti-discrimination laws, including preventing harassment. Aqua Resources will implement and disseminate to all employees a revised anti-harassment policy, and will also post a notice regarding the settlement. The company will also provide the black foreman with a neutral reference letter.

“This is almost a textbook case on how not to handle a harassment complaint,” said EEOC Philadelphia District Office Director Jamie R. Williamson. “Employers must take prompt action to stop harassment — not reward a wrongdoer by promoting him and punish the victim by firing him.”

Employee Unlawfully Fired While on Disability Leave for Heart Attack, EEOC Charges in Suit

A heart attack proved painful for the sufferer–and maybe more so for the employer that ousted him.

Vantage, a Houston-based group of interrelated energy, drilling and management companies, violated federal law by firing an employee because he had heart attack on board one of Vantage’s drilling rigs, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit says it filed on January 26, 2018.

The EEOC’s lawsuit charges that Vantage employee David Poston was terminated after he suffered a heart attack while working on the “Titanium Explorer,” one of Vantage’s drilling rigs. The heart attack resulted in an impairment to Poston’s cardiovascular system which necessitated that he take short-term disability leave. Poston was targeted for termination while he was on leave, the EEOC said, and then discharged immediately upon being released to return to work.

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC filed suit (Civil Action No. 4:18-cv-00254) against Vantage Drilling Company, Vantage Energy Services, Inc., Vantage Drilling International, f/k/a Offshore Group Investment Ltd., and Vantage International Management Company Pte. Ltd. in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC seeks an injunction prohibiting such actions in the future, as well as back pay with pre-judgment interest, compensatory damages and punitive damages, in amounts to be determined at trial.

“Targeting an employee for an adverse action because he has been forced to take disability leave due to a debilitating medical condition violates the ADA,” said Rayford O. Irvin, district director of the EEOC’s Houston District Office. “This sort of illegal treatment deprives such people of the equal opportunities in the workplace that every American should enjoy.”

Rudy Sustaita, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Houston, explained, “An employee who has suffered a heart attack has enough to deal with without having to face unlawful discrimination and unemployment. The EEOC is here to fight for the rights of people like David Poston.”

The EEOC’s senior trial attorney in charge of the case, Connie Gatlin, added, “Vantage’s thoughtless actions in this case violate both the letter and the spirit of the ADA, which is intended to increase job opportunities and protections for people with disabilities.”

According to the company’s website, Vantage Drilling International, a Houston-based company, is an offshore drilling contractor formed in 2007 that operates and manages a fleet of modern, high-specification drilling rigs. It provides personnel from around the globe to support its worldwide drilling operations. The EEOC alleges that the four Vantage entities named in the lawsuit, including Vantage Drilling International, operate as an integrated enterprise and single employer.

EEOC: Employer Violated ADA in Refusing Employee More Time Off for Medical Recovery

Employers that take a my-way-or-the-highway stance toward employees who need a little more time off to recover from illness or surgery stand a good chance of being sued over their decisionmaking. A North Carolina company now faces a summons from the federal government to appear in court and answer for its behavior.

Heritage Home Group, LLC (Heritage Home), a North Carolina corporation that designs, manufactures, sources and retails home furnishings, violated federal law when it denied a reasonable accommodation to one of its employees and then fired him, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed Jan. 31.

According to the EEOC’s complaint, Heritage Home hired Michael Woods to work as a machine operator at its Hickory Chair Company manufacturing plant in Hickory, N.C., in October 2015. Woods, a diabetic, developed an infection in one of his toes in March 2016. Woods underwent an operation to have the toe amputated, and was subsequently diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in both feet. The EEOC said that around April 8, 2016, Woods, who was out of work on short-term disability leave, informed Heritage Home of his anticipated return to work the first week of June, since he needed the additional leave to recover fully. In a letter dated April 29, 2016, Heritage Home informed Woods that it was terminating his employment because he would not be able to return to work until then.

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with a disability unless doing so would be an undue hardship. The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Statesville Division (EEOC v. Heritage Home Group, LLC, Civil Action No. 5:18-cv-00018) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC seeks back pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief.

“The obligation to accommodate an employee with a disability so that he or she can retain the job is a fundamental aspect of the ADA,” said Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District Office. “Employers must be careful to give employees a fair chance to make a full recovery from disability-related conditions and return to productive work when the company can do so without undue hardship.”