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Archive for the ‘Civil Rights’ Category

In September 2005, Tanisha Matthews, an overnight stocker at Wal-Mart for nine years, became involved in an impassioned discussion about God and homosexuality with a lesbian co-worker named Amy during a break. When Wal-Mart officials investigated the incident, they learned that Matthews screamed at Amy that God does not accept gays, that gays should not "be on earth," and that they will "go to hell" because they are not "right in the head." After the three-month investigation, Matthews was fired for violating Wal-Mart’s Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy, which prohibits employees from harassment based on an individual’s status, including sexual orientation.

Matthews sued Wal-Mart, arguing that Wal-Mart fired her for stating her religious belief that gays will go to hell, which she maintains is central to her Apostolic-Christian faith. If perceived harassment had really spurred Wal-Mart’s action, Matthews said the company would not have let her continue working with Amy for the next three months during the company’s investigation. The trial court granted summary judgment to Wal-Mart, finding no evidence that similarly situated employees had received different treatment.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, noting the following:

Wal-Mart fired [Matthews] because she violated the company policy when she harassed a coworker, not because of her beliefs, and employers need not relieve workers from complying with neutral workplace rules as a religious accommodation if it would create an undue hardship.               

For the full story, click here.

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At nineteen, Russell Bishop spent about a month in the Macomb County, Michigan jail on charges of assault with intent to murder. Bishop had a history of mental illness, and his temporary cell assignment form noted that he (1) was of small build, (2) was unable to understand questions, (3) exhibited angry or hostile and bizarre behavior, and (4) appeared anxious or afraid, depressed, confused, and unusually embarrassed. Bishop was housed in the jail’s mental health unit with another inmate, Charlie Floyd, a forty-four-year-old who had been charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct. Nearly three years after his confinement, Bishop sued several jail employees, claiming they did nothing to stop Floyd from sexually abusing him even after he reported repeated assaults. Defendants sought summary judgment for qualified immunity, but the trial judge denied the motion as to four jail deputies, finding that they did not qualify for immunity because they purposefully ignored Bishop’s pleas for help.

The four deputies appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the court granted immunity only to three of the deputies, noting:

We have recognized that a prison official may be held to be deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk to inmate safety if he is aware that an inmate is vulnerable to assault and fails to protect him.

The court stated that Bishop failed to specifically identify any deputy to whom he reported Floyd’s abuse or to prove that any deputy other than Deputy James Stanley had enough personal contact with him to be subjectively aware of his vulnerability to attacks or the abuse that he alleges he was suffering. The court found that "Stanley was aware of Bishop’s personal characteristics because he testified that he talked to Bishop quite often on his rounds." The court then found that Stanley could have been aware that Bishop belonged to a class of prisoners particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s denial of qualified immunity to three of the deputies, but upheld the decision against Stanley.

For the full story, click here.

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Elliot Spiegel sued Daniel “Tiger” Schulmann and UAK Management Co., claiming his weight got him fired as a karate instructor at the Tiger Schulmann Karate School in Stamford, Connecticut. Spiegel stated he has a medical condition called hypogonadism that prevents him from losing weight. He alleged invasion of privacy (based on Spiegel’s photos in a weight-loss advertisement), retaliation, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and state and city human rights laws.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit entirely. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that most of the case was meritless, including Spiegel’s bid for a different judge on remand. He argued that U.S. District Judge Sandra Townes was biased and “had undertaken to scour the record to find a basis for knocking out plaintiffs’ claims.”

However, the Second Circuit revived Spiegel’s claim that the karate school violated the New York City Human Rights Law barring employers from firing workers “because of an actual or perceived . . . disability” because no New York appellate court had yet addressed whether obesity alone could constitutes a disability the law.

For the full story, click here.

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After working as a sales representative for three years at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Ingrid Reeves sued the company for allegedly subjecting her to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. Reeves alleged she was subjected daily to gender-specific vulgarities (“bitch,” “fucking bitch,” “fucking whore,” “crack whore,” and “cunt”) from her male co-workers. She stated they also talked within ear-shot about masturbation and bestiality and often listened to a Howard Stern-like radio show loaded with sexual references. The trial court dismissed Reeves’s claims. The trial court found that the language and sexual comments were not directed at her specifically. Because the offensive behavior was not motivated by her gender, the trial court held that Reeves had no Title VII claims.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals initially reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding that Reeves had presented a jury question about whether the offensive conduct was based on her sex. In 2009, the court vacated that ruling and agreed to rehear the case en banc. In a unanimous ruling, the court held that a jury could reasonably find that the offensive conduct was “humiliating and degrading” to women specifically, stating as follows:

Instead, a jury reasonably could find that it was a workplace that exposed Reeves to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex were not exposed. Title VII was plainly designed to protect members of a protected group from adverse conditions of employment like those Reeves alleges were endemic to C.H. Robinson.

The court further noted that referring to a female as a “bitch” is “firmly rooted in gender” and that such language “is humiliating and degrading based on sex” regardless of the intended target.

For the full story, click here.

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Breanna Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., No. 08-3860.

Facts

Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C. (“Heartland Inns”), operates a group of hotels in Iowa. In July 2005, Breanna Lewis began working for Heartland Inns. Over the next year and a half, Lewis successfully filled several positions related to guest services. Lewis received multiple commendations from her direct supervisors and two merit based pay raises. On December 14, 2006, Lewis was hired to work a full-time position at the front desk of the Ankeny hotel from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., after her supervisor at Ankeny, Lori Stifel, received permission from Barbara Cullinan, Director of Operations for Heartland Inns.

After seeing Lewis, Cullinan told Stifel that Lewis was not a “good fit” for the front desk because of her lack of “prettiness” and the “Midwestern girl look.” Lewis describes her appearance as “slightly more masculine” and notes she prefers to wear loose fitting clothing and avoid makeup. Stifel refused to move Lewis to a night-time position because Lewis had been doing “a phenomenal job at the front desk.” Stifel was asked to resign, and she informed Lewis of Cullinan’s comments regarding her appearance.

Cullinan required Lewis to attend a second interview, and Lewis told Cullinan that she believed her interview was being required only because she did not have the “Midwestern girl look.” Cullinan and Lewis discussed some of the recent policy changes made by Heartland Inns, such as banning smoking and pets, and how such changes might affect revenue. Cullinan encouraged Lewis to share more of her views on the policies and took notes. Three days later, Lewis was fired. The termination letter she received stated that she had “thwart[ed] the proposed interview procedure” and shown “host[ility] toward Heartland’s most recent policies.”

Lewis filed suit against Heartland Inns, asserting she was terminated for not conforming to sex stereotypes in violation of Title VII and Iowa Civil Rights laws. Heartland Inns moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted because Lewis had failed to produce evidence that she was treated differently than similarly situated males.

Appeal

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that, to survive summary judgment, Lewis must present evidence that (1) she was a member of a protected group, (2) she was qualified to perform the job, (3) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) circumstances permit an inference of discrimination. Once she has presented a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII, Heartland Inns must produce a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action. Then Lewis must prove that Heartland Inn’s proffered reason is pretextual.

The court noted that the prima facie requirement under Title VII is a “flexible evidentiary standard” that was “never intended to be rigid, mechanized, or ritualistic.” Quoting the Supreme Court, the court wrote, “The principal focus of [Title VII] is the protection of the individual employee, rather than the protection of the minority group as a whole.” The court overruled the trial court’s holding that Lewis must produce evidence that she was treated differently than men, noting that a reasonable factfinder could find that (1) Lewis was fired because she lacked the “Midwestern girl look” and (2) Heartland Inns’ reason for termination was pretextual. Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded.

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Dr. Abdel Moniem Ali El-Ganayni, an Egyptian native, has lived in the United States since the 1980s and worked as a nuclear physicist for Bettis Laboratory. In 2007, El-Ganayni passed out copies of a Muslim religious tract called "The Miracle in the Ant" at a prison. He was grilled by the Bettis Laboratory security manager and then the FBI. Investigators suggested that some of the scientific information contained in the work, specifically that some ants can burst their bodies open and secrete a deadly substance as a defense mechanism, could be construed as an apology for suicide bombing. Soon after the interviews, the Department of Energy (“DOE”) revoked El-Ganayni’s clearance and fired him without providing specifics, saying in a letter that it believed he "may be subject to pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress which may cause [him] to act contrary to the best interests of national security. Specifically, the circumstances or conduct involve conflicting allegiances."

El-Ganayni filed suit against the DOE to obtain a hearing to contest the decision and alleged that he was fired because he (1) spoke out against the FBI, the war in Iraq, and U.S. foreign policy in Pittsburgh-area mosques and (2) worked as an Imam at a prison where he ran afoul of officials for distributing Muslim literature. The trial court dismissed El-Ganayni’s petition, and he appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Third Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision, noting that El-Ganayni’s claim "could never be meaningfully litigated" and that the "outcome is pre-ordained" due to the broad national security powers given to the Executive Branch. The court based its decision on the 1988 case Department of the Navy v. Egan, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that while agency action is presumptively reviewable, that presumption is limited when it comes to national security issues. The court explained as follows:

The legal framework applicable to that claim would demand from the DOE an explanation of its decision to revoke El-Ganayni’s clearance, and allow a factfinder to weigh the DOE’s arguments in support of that decision. Egan forbids both.

For the full story, click here.

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After serving fourteen years in prison for a 1988 kidnapping and rape he did not commit time against a six-year-old girl, Leonard McSherry’s name was cleared by forensic evidence and the confession of the actual perpetrator. McSherry filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Long Beach, California, its police department, and two officers, alleging police made up the victim’s descriptions of the crime scene, coerced her to identify him as her kidnapper, ignored exculpatory evidence, and arrested him without probable cause. The trial court dismissed the case, noting that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit noted that McSherry could not produce evidence that officers’ fabricated evidence or that leading interview tactics influenced the prosecutor’s decision to file charges against him and pursue a conviction. Because he “failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the alleged fabrication or any misconduct by Defendants caused his arrest, prosecution, and conviction,” the court affirmed dismissal. For the full story, click here.

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