What is Discrimination?

What is Discrimination?

The EEOC recently sued Autos of Dallas, a luxury auto retailer in Plano, for race discrimination.

At a holiday party, Autos of Dallas awarded its African American salesman a trophy that labeled him the employee “Least Likely to Be Seen in the Dark.”  The employee (and others) found the trophy to be very offensive. 

After the employee complained to the General Manager, he was told it “was a joke.”  Autos of Dallas took no action on the employee’s complaint.

The employee ultimately resigned after he continued to be subjected to a hostile environment that included other employees telling he that he needed to smile to be seen in the poorly lit section of the dealership.

When the EEOC sued, the Dallas Morning News quoted Autos of Dallas’s attorney as saying the company had investigated the claim and “found no evidence of discrimination.”

So that begs the question:  what is discrimination?

One of the best definitions of both prejudice and discrimination that I’ve seen come from Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility. As Diangelo describes it, to understand racism, we need to under the difference between “prejudice” and “discrimination.”

Prejudice, as defined by Diangelo, is “pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs.”  Prejudice consists of thoughts and feeling—which can include stereotypes, attitudes and generalizations—based on little or no experience then projected on to everyone from that group.“Discrimination” is action based on prejudice.  This action can include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander and violence.

Diangelo’s simple definitions make it very clear to see that what happened to this auto salesman is discrimination.  He was ridiculed and made fun of by his coworkers simply because of the color of his skin. 

Instead of acknowledging a grave error in judgement, Autos of Dallas doubled down on its prejudice by describing it “as a joke.”

Whether this employee will win his lawsuit remains to be seen.  A court might find he was not subjected to a hostile work environment because what happened might not have been “severe” enough or “pervasive” enough to meet the tough legal standard.  Because the employee was not fired, but quit, a court might find he was not constructively discharged under the tough legal standard. 

However, that this happened at all demonstrates the need for continued discussion and education about what is discriminatory behavior.  When whether to discuss “critical race theory” is such a hot button issue, this case demonstrates why discussions need to continue.

At least one Autos of Dallas employee thought it would be an acceptable “joke” to (1) create this award, (2) actually purchase a trophy with which to make this award, and (3) call this African American employee to the front of the room at the company holiday party and to award him this trophy for being Least Likely to Be Seen in the Dark. The employee was told that it “was a joke” after he complained.  This demonstrates exactly why we need to continue to teach people about racism and discrimination. 

The people in the world who did not know that awarding this trophy is wrong on many levels have much more to learn. This was no joke.  This was discrimination—it was action (ridicule) based on prejudice.  Kudos for the EEOC for suing. 

Discrimination: Let’s Get Real About Damages

Discrimination: Let’s Get Real About Damages

Let’s Get Real about Damages

For employees discriminated against at work, it can be hard to focus on anything except how disrespected that makes them feel and on all of the things their employer has done wrong. When those employees come to me, they are often angry, emotional and anxious for justice. This naturally brings up for the question – what kind of monetary damages are potentially avaiblable?

The short answer is that it varies and the potential recovery sometimes might not be as much as many have been lead to believe.

Types of Damages

In an employment discrimination case, employees can ask for a variety of different types of damages to “make them whole”:

  • Back Pay. It is the amount of money an employee would have earned from the date of the adverse action until the date of trial (less any money earned in the meantime).
  • Front Pay. If an employee accepts new employment at a lower salary, he or she can sometimes get the court to award the difference between the old salary and the new salary for some period of time going forward from the trial date.
  • Compensatory damages. An amount awarded for mental anguish and emotional distress and other intangible harms and losses caused by the termination.
  • Punitive damages. If the company’s actions are extraordinarily egregious, an employee may be able to ask for some amount of money to punish the company and to deter future conduct.
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs. Sometimes available, as discussed below.

Damage Caps

Some of the damages available for recovery in these categories are capped by law. While some anti-discrimination statutes do not have damage caps, most do.

Compensatory and punitive damages are both subject to caps based on the number of employees at the company. So, if an employee works for a small company, the maximum damage recovery for compensatory and punitive damages is $50,000–no matter how egregious the company’s conduct was. The largest cap is for companies with 500 or more employees—and that amount is $300,000. 

So, when you see a jury verdict reported in the newspaper that awards millions of dollars for compensatory damages or punitive damages in a discrimination case, know that those amounts will usually get reduced by the court. 

Attorneys Fees

While employees can seek to recover attorney’s fees if they win a lawsuit, that street runs both ways. If the the employer wins, they can likewise ask the court to award it attorney’s fees. Generally, the court is not going to award attorney’s fees to a company when an individual loses a lawsuit unless the claims were frivolous or baseless or the employee kept pursuing them after the point in time when the employee should have known that the claims were frivolous or baseless.  However, the court will award the company its hard “out of pocket” costs of court.  So, there is always some risk in pursuing a claim.

Calculating Damages

One of the hardest things to determine is what an employee’s damages are right after the employee has been fired. It frequently depends on how quickly the employee can replace the job. Often, when we are negotiating a severance or early settlement of a claim, we make an educated guess as to what it takes to make someone whole. If the employee can get a new job quickly that replaces the salary, the damages are quite small. However, if it takes a year or so for the employee to find a new job, the damages can be much higher.

“It Depends”

So, just know that if you ask a lawyer what you can get in an employment discrimination lawsuit, the answer is going to be “it depends.”  Be prepared to walk through all of these categories with your lawyer to figure out how to evaluate your potential claims.

Cases to Watch in 2020

Cases to Watch in 2020

Cases to Watch in 2020 

Get prepared for some big developments in employment law in 2020.  One key case should answer a longstanding  question about whether Title VII protects a person from discrimination because of sexual orientation.  The other key case may lead to real and systemic change in equal pay.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination 

A trio of cases pending at the United State Supreme Court considers the issue of whether sexual orientation is a protected category under Title VII.  

Title VII outlawed discrimination “because of” sex.  What does that mean?  If a person is gay or lesbian and is discriminated against at work, is that “because of” sex?  In the past, most courts said no— sexual orientation was not protected under Title VII.  So, an employee fired for being gay or lesbian had no legal claim he or she could pursue. 

In recent years, some cases eroded those legal holdings. And, last year, 3 of those cases went to the Supreme Court.  Now, the Supreme Court will make the final decision on this issue.  We should get an opinion out of the Supreme Court on this issue before the end of June.

Right now, there really is no way to predict which way the court will go on this issue.  However, if the Court finds that sexual orientation is not protected under Title VII, the next stop in this legal battle will likely be Congress. If the Supreme Court finds that sexual orientation is not covered by the law, it is likely that Congress will be lobbied to change the law.

Equal Pay  

In 2019, the USA women’s soccer team cleaned up at the World Cup.  Notwithstanding their stellar success, the women were still paid significantly less than the far less successful male soccer team.  In a case that has gotten much publicity, the women sued for pay discrimination.  The women brought claims under both Title VII and the Equal Pay Act for the pay difference. 

In November, the women got a big victory when the court certified the lawsuit as a class action for the Title VII claim.  The lawsuit also got certified as a “collective action” on the Equal Pay Claim.  This was vigorously opposed, so getting this relief from the court is a big win for the women’s team members. 

And, the court set this case for trial in May 2020.  That means that we do not have to wait too long to see whether this case will actually go to trial or whether the parties reach some agreement. 

This case has been so important because the publicity it received has really stirred a dialog about equal pay issues and caused many people to start actively thinking about pay discrimination.  No matter what happens with the women’s soccer team, that conversation is certainly going to continue.

Stay Tuned!