Fairness in the Workplace: Two Perspectives
Most people who are terminated believe their termination is wrongful, and indeed that might be the case. However, before investing time, money and emotions to pursue damages against an employer, a terminated employee should be aware of both state and federal law that applies to terminated employees and employees who claim unfairness in the workplace. Employers should also be aware of general employment law in order to protect against frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled employees who merely have an ax to grind.
At the state level, Alabama is an “at will” employment state. This means that without an employment agreement, a union collective bargaining agreement or certain government employment, an employee in Alabama is employed at the will of the employer and can be fired without notice, good cause or for any reason whatsoever. Unlike most other states, Alabama does not have a general state anti-discrimination statute, although there is a statute that covers age discrimination claims against employers with twenty or more employees. Therefore, unless there is a potential claim of age discrimination against an employer who meets the statutory requirements, a terminated employee must look to federal law for protection unless the employee has an employment agreement or fits within one of the other exceptions. If there is an employment agreement, general contract principles will apply to the employment provisions.
In order to bring a valid claim of job discrimination at the federal level, a terminated employee must be a member of a “protected class”. There are a number of federal acts and statutes that apply to protect victims of job discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older. Title I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector and in state and local governments. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who work in the federal government.
Victims who fall into one of the protected classes and can prove intentional (or in some limited cases unintentional) job discrimination are entitled to, among other remedies, monetary damages pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The specific practices that are considered discriminatory under federal laws are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say, however, that protections extend not only to termination of employment, but also to any aspect of employment, including but not limited to hiring, compensation, assignment or classification of employees, transfer, promotion, layoff and recall, harassment, retaliation and denial of opportunities. Title VII prohibits not only intentional discrimination, but also protects against practices that have the effect of discriminating against individuals because of their race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Common examples of claims brought under this “effect of discrimination” Section of Title VII include national origin discrimination, failure or refusal of an employer to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and sex discrimination.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces all of the employment laws, except the Equal Pay Act. Strict time deadlines must be adhered to in order to bring a charge of employment discrimination. To preserve most employment discrimination claims, you must first file a complaint with the local office of the EEOC before the EEOC will issue a “right to sue” letter, which allows a plaintiff to file suit in court. The EEOC complaint must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. Claims under the Equal Pay Act are filed directly in court without the need to first file with the EEOC. Employees should also be aware that there is a rapidly growing trend among companies to force employees to waive their civil rights to a civil trial through the use of mandatory arbitration agreements. Employees should understand the legal implications of agreeing to mandatory arbitration agreements since arbitration decisions are generally legally binding.
How can employers protect against a claim of discrimination? In my practice I have always been surprised by the number of employers who do not have non-discrimination policies and procedures in effect, since this is the best way to quickly defeat or settle a frivolous claim. A properly drafted and updated employee handbook containing these policies and procedures and proper implementation and oversight of the Company’s policies and procedures will provide the critical evidence, and many times allow the Company to prevail on Motion for Summary Judgment without ever going to trial.
Since the 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Faragher v. Boca Raton, if the employer has a discrimination policy, distributed it properly, provided procedures to complain about discrimination, properly investigated the complaint, took the proper actions and otherwise behaved properly, it is difficult for a plaintiff, who carries the burden to prove discrimination, to prevail. With these safeguards in place, an employer’s responsibility is to merely articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.