Tuesday, December 1, 2015
In cases where workers have quit their jobs because of intolerable workplace bullying and thus wish to assert illegal discrimination, the United States Supreme Court seems inclined to start the statute of limitations “clock” when the employee resigns rather than when the last discriminatory action takes place. Private sector workers typically have 180 days to report job discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) whereas public sector employees must do so within 45 days.
The case is Green v. Brennan, No. 14-613. In it, a postal worker claims that he was passed over for a promotion because he is black. When he complained to his employer, the United States Postal Service, he was allegedly forced to choose between retirement or a lower-paying job 300 miles away. He resigned and filed suit for constructive discharge, but missed the EEOC deadline. The trial and appellate courts disagreed as to when the statute of limitations should start to run, which would have made a difference in the case.
As the law currently stands, employees only enjoy legal protection against discrimination based on a relatively narrow range of underlying issues such as age, gender, national origin, race, religion or disability under, most relevantly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But luckily, times are changing. Although employees in this country enjoy notoriously few of the rights and work norms that are taken for granted in so many other parts of the industrialized world, some states are doing something to change this situation, at long last. In California, for example, AB 2053 now requires California employers with 50 or more employees to include training in the prevention of “abusive conduct” to already existing requirements regarding sexual harassment.
“Abusive conduct” is that which a “reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.” “It may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse … that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.” The conduct must be undertaken with malice. In other words, AB 2053 targets a wide range of workplace bullying that is not linked to “traditional” discrimination. Such conduct is surprisingly common and accepted by management to a surprisingly great extent in more places than you might think and in places that may or may not surprise you, including our very own field, legal academia.
Unfortunately, AB 2053 does not yet have sufficient legal “teeth” as defining “malice” and the bullying targeted by the law is difficult. Thus, in spite of the extent of the problem and its many recognized and severe consequences on both employers’ productivity and success levels as well as, of course, the employees’ varied interests, if an employee thinks she or he has an issue with his or her employer, the “resolution is likely [to come from] human resources, and not the courts.”
What happens if a human resources department is disinterested in or for other reasons - corporate acceptance of workplace bullying, perhaps - unwilling to assist the employee? Perhaps not much, as the situation stands. But just as the Civil Rights movement started some place and built up at least some protections against some types of discrimination, modern notions of what constitutes workplace discrimination and its negative effects are, luckily, spreading. In spite of the usual initial criticism, AB2053 is a very good start. Undoubtedly, the common law will be able to shed further light on what modernly constitutes acceptable workplace behavior and what does not. That way, the law can get the required legal “teeth.” In the meantime, it is a sad observation about the modern American workplace that so many managers effectively tolerate or even undertake workplace harassment and that so few counterbalancing institutions in place in other cultures exist here, for instance trade unions. In contracts law, it’s all about the bargaining power. Most American workers have too little in today’s workplace.