Court Report: No-Harassment Policy Trumps Religious Expression

Apr 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, June 2004 Also: stress does not equal duress in signing a release; more.

[Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 9th Cir., No. 01-35795, Jan. 6, 2004]

An employer did not violate Title VII when it fired an employee for refusing to remove anti-homosexual Bible verses from his workstation, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently found.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee because of the individual’s religion. An employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance and practice unless it is unable to do so without undue hardship.

Richard Peterson, a devout Christian who believed that homosexual activities violate Bible commandments, had been employed by Hewlett-Packard in Idaho for nearly 21 years before his termination. When the company began to display diversity posters referring to gay employees, Peterson posted biblical quotations critical of a homosexual lifestyle in his cubicle. The signs were visible to passing co-workers.

Peterson’s supervisor removed the quotations because they might offend certain employees and because they violated the company’s anti-harassment policy. Management asked Peterson to refrain from additional postings, but he refused.

Peterson was given time off with pay to reconsider. When he returned, he reposted the quotations and refused to remove them. Ultimately, he was terminated for insubordination.

Peterson sued the employer for religious discrimination. The lower court dismissed his case and, on appeal, the 9th Circuit upheld the dismissal. The court determined that Peterson had been discharged not because of his religious beliefs, but because he violated company policy by attempting to generate a hostile and intolerant work environment, and because he was insubordinate.

Further, the court found that the only accommodation acceptable to Peterson would have imposed an undue hardship on the company’s efforts to attract and retain a qualified, diverse workforce. Title VII does not require an employer to accommodate an employee’s desire to impose his religious beliefs on his co-workers, nor does it obligate an employer to accommodate such beliefs if doing so would result in discrimination or harassment against co-workers, the court said.

However, accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs does not create undue hardship merely because co-workers find the conduct irritating or unwelcome. “Complete harmony in the workplace is not an objective of Title VII,” the court said.

By Maria Greco Danaher, an attorney with the law firm of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Pittsburgh.

‘Stress’ Does Not Equal ‘Duress’​

[Clark v. Riverview Fire Protection District, 8th Cir., No. 03-1823, Jan. 5, 2004.]

A firefighter waived his right to sue his employer under Title VII when he signed a release of all employment-related claims in exchange for a suspension instead of termination, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled.

Elijah Clark worked as a firefighter for the Riverview Fire Protection District in St. Louis. Clark was terminated from employment on July 20, 2000, after he slept through a fire call. He appealed that decision to the Fire Protection District Board of Directors, which upheld the termination.

The district then proposed to convert Clark’s termination to a one-year, unpaid disciplinary suspension in exchange for a release of all claims. Clark’s union president advised him that if he did not accept the agreement, he would remain terminated but could sue the employer.

In a meeting, the board advised Clark that if he did not accept the agreement, he would remain terminated, and insisted that Clark make a decision before the board adjourned that evening. The union president told Clark he was concerned that the board would reject the proposed suspension if Clark asked for a shorter suspension. Clark decided to accept the agreement.

After signing, Clark sued the district for race discrimination. Clark argued he had signed the agreement under duress, and so it did not constitute a valid waiver and release of his Title VII claim. Affirming the trial court’s finding of no duress, the 8th Circuit said, “Likely this was a stressful situation for Clark, and under pressure he made a decision he later regretted....The fact that the choice was difficult does not mean that he lacked the requisite free will to make the decision.”

The court concluded that Clark had been given ample time to consider the agreement both before the meeting and during the meeting’s recess. The board’s request for Clark to make a decision prior to its evening adjournment did not preclude him from exercising his free will.

By Gina Gupta Srivastava, an attorney with the law firm of Spencer Fane Britt & Browne LLP in Kansas City, Mo.

Employer Not Liable for Nondecision-Maker’s Bias

[Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Management, Inc., 4th Cir., No. 01-1359, Jan. 5, 2004 (en banc).]

The full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided that an employer is not liable for employment decisions that were influenced by an employee with discriminatory motives who was neither a supervisor or manager nor principally responsible for the adverse employment decision.

Ethel Hill was an aircraft sheet metal mechanic for Lockheed Martin Logistics Management. As a consequence of several reprimands for poor performance, Lockheed Martin terminated Hill’s employment.

A Lockheed safety inspector who was not in Hill’s supervisory chain had recommended two of the three reprimands. Although the inspector allegedly had made derogatory comments about Hill’s age and sex, supervisors who were not motivated by age or sex bias made the ultimate decisions to issue the reprimands and to terminate Hill.

In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of Hill’s Title VII lawsuit, the court noted that the safety inspector’s derogatory comments would be relevant only if he had been the decision-maker. The court determined that the supervisor had made an independent, non-biased decision to issue the reprimands and that the next-higher level of management made the final decision to fire Hill. Hill failed to demonstrate that the decision-makers acted with any discriminatory motive.

The ruling overturns the previous ruling of a three-judge panel in this case, which had held that an employee could establish discrimination through the statements of an employee who lacked formal decision-making authority but who had influenced the adverse employment decision.

By Angela H. France, an attorney with the law firm of Albo & Oblon in Arlington, Va.

No Compensatory Damages in ADA Retaliation Claim

[Kramer v. Banc of America, 7th Cir., No. 02-3662, Jan. 20, 2004.]

Compensatory and punitive damages are not available in a retaliation claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held recently.

The ADA protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment. An employee who successfully pursues an ADA disability discrimination claim is entitled to compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to certain equitable relief.

In addition to disability discrimination, the ADA also prohibits retaliation against an employee for taking any ADA-protected action. To establish a retaliation claim, an employee must show that he or she was engaged in a legally protected activity, that an adverse employment action occurred and that there was a causal connection between the two.

Colleen Kramer worked in Banc of America’s Chicago office from October 1995 until her employment was terminated in October 1999. Kramer, who had multiple sclerosis, sued, claiming that her employer discriminated and retaliated against her under the ADA. The court dismissed Kramer’s disability discrimination claim but allowed the retaliation claim to go to trial.

Banc of America filed, and the trial court granted, a motion to exclude Kramer’s claim for compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, Kramer argued that the district court erred.

The first federal appeals court to rule on the issue, the 7th Circuit upheld the district court’s decision. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 expanded recovery of compensatory and punitive damages for certain claims listed expressly in that statute, but ADA retaliation claims are not among them. Accordingly, remedies for such claims are limited to those in the original 1964 Civil Rights Act, which provides only for certain equitable relief, including back pay, the court found.

By Maria Greco Danaher, an attorney with the law firm of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Pittsburgh.

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