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4.2: Federal Employment Discrimination Laws

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Know the various federal discrimination laws and how they are applied in various cases.
    • Distinguish between disparate impact and disparate treatment cases.
    • Understand the concept of affirmative action and its limits in employment law.

    As we look at federal employment discrimination laws, bear in mind that most states also have laws that prohibit various kinds of discriminatory practices in employment. Until the 1960s, Congress had intruded but little in the affairs of employers except in union relationships. A company could refuse to hire members of racial minorities, exclude women from promotions, or pay men more than women for the same work. But with the rise of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Congress (and many states) began to legislate away the employer’s frequently exercised power to discriminate. The most important statutes are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

    The most basic antidiscrimination law in employment is in Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The key prohibited discrimination is that based on race, but Congress also included sex, religion, national origin, and color as prohibited bases for hiring, promotion, layoff, and discharge decisions. To put the Civil Rights Act in its proper context, a short history of racial discrimination in the United States follows.

    The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the culmination of a long history that dated back to slavery, the founding of the US legal system, the Civil War, and many historical and political developments over the ninety-nine years from the end of the Civil War to the passage of the act. The years prior to 1964 had seen a remarkable rise of civil disobedience, led by many in the civil rights movement but most prominently by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peaceful civil disobedience was sometimes met with violence, and television cameras were there to record most of it.

    While the Civil War had addressed slavery and the secession of Southern states, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, ratified just after the war, provided for equal protection under the law, guaranteed citizenship, and protected the right to vote for African Americans. The amendments also allowed Congress to enforce these provisions by enacting appropriate, specific legislation.

    But during the Reconstruction Era, many of the Southern states resisted the laws that were passed in Washington, DC, to bolster civil rights. To a significant extent, decisions rendered by the US Supreme Court in this era—such as Plessy v. Ferguson, condoning “separate but equal” facilities for different races—restricted the utility of these new federal laws. The states effectively controlled the public treatment of African Americans, and a period of neglect set in that lasted until after World War II. The state laws essentially mandated segregated facilities (restaurants, hotels, schools, water fountains, public bathrooms) that were usually inferior for blacks.

    Along with these Jim Crow laws in the South, the Ku Klux Klan was very strong, and lynchings (hangings without any sort of public due process) by the Klan and others were designed to limit the civil and economic rights of the former slaves. The hatred of blacks from that era by many whites in America has only gradually softened since 1964. Even as the civil rights bill was being debated in Congress in 1964, some Young Americans for Freedom in the right wing of the GOP would clandestinely chant “Be a man, join the Klan” and sing “We will hang Earl Warren from a sour apple tree,” to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in anger over the Chief Justice’s presiding over Brown v. Board of Education, which reversed Plessy v. Ferguson.

    But just a few years earlier, the public service and heroism of many black military units and individuals in World War II had created a perceptual shift in US society; men of many races who had served together in the war against the Axis powers (fascism in Europe and the Japanese emperor’s rule in the Pacific) began to understand their common humanity. Major migrations of blacks from the South to industrial cities of the North also gave impetus to the civil rights movement.

    Bills introduced in Congress regarding employment policy brought the issue of civil rights to the attention of representatives and senators. In 1945, 1947, and 1949, the House of Representatives voted to abolish the poll tax. The poll tax was a method used in many states to confine voting rights to those who could pay a tax, and often, blacks could not. The Senate did not go along, but these bills signaled a growing interest in protecting civil rights through federal action. The executive branch of government, by presidential order, likewise became active by ending discrimination in the nation’s military forces and in federal employment and work done under government contract.

    The Supreme Court gave impetus to the civil rights movement in its reversal of the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In its 1954 decision, the Court said, “To separate black children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way never to be undone.…We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

    This decision meant that white and black children could not be forced to attend separate public schools. By itself, however, this decision did not create immediate gains, either in public school desegregation or in the desegregation of other public facilities. There were memorable standoffs between federal agents and state officials in Little Rock, Arkansas, for example; the Democratic governor of Arkansas personally blocked young black students from entering Little Rock’s Central High School, and it was only President Eisenhower’s order to have federal marshals accompany the students that forced integration. The year was 1957.

    But resistance to public school integration was widespread, and other public facilities were not governed by the Brown ruling. Restaurants, hotels, and other public facilities were still largely segregated. Segregation kept blacks from using public city buses, park facilities, and restrooms on an equal basis with whites. Along with inferior schools, workplace practices throughout the South and also in many Northern cities sharply limited African Americans’ ability to advance economically. Civil disobedience began to grow.

    The bus protests in Montgomery, Alabama, were particularly effective. Planned by civil rights leaders, Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person and sit at the back of the public bus led to a boycott of the Montgomery bus system by blacks and, later, a boycott of white businesses in Montgomery. There were months of confrontation and some violence; finally, the city agreed to end its long-standing rules on segregated seating on buses.

    There were also protests at lunch counters and other protests on public buses, where groups of Northern protesters—Freedom Riders—sometimes met with violence. In 1962, James Meredith’s attempt to enroll as the first African American at the University of Mississippi generated extreme hostility; two people were killed and 375 were injured as the state resisted Meredith’s admission. The murders of civil rights workers Medgar Evers and William L. Moore added to the inflamed sentiments, and whites in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four young black girls who were attending Sunday school when their church was bombed.

    These events were all covered by the nation’s news media, whose photos showed beatings of protesters and the use of fire hoses on peaceful protesters. Social tensions were reaching a postwar high by 1964. According to the government, there were nearly one thousand civil rights demonstrations in 209 cities in a three-month period beginning May 1963. Representatives and senators could not ignore the impact of social protest. But the complicated political history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also tells us that the legislative result was anything but a foregone conclusion.See CongressLink, “Major Features of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” at

    In Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress for the first time outlawed discrimination in employment based on race, religion, sex, or national origin:. Title VII declares: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Title VII applies to (1) employers with fifteen or more employees whose business affects interstate commerce, (2) all employment agencies, (3) labor unions with fifteen or more members, (4) state and local governments and their agencies, and (5) most federal government employment.

    In 1984, the Supreme Court said that Title VII applies to partnerships as well as corporations when ruling that it is illegal to discriminatorily refuse to promote a female lawyer to partnership status in a law firm. This applies, by implication, to other fields, such as accounting.Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69 (1984). The remedy for unlawful discrimination is back pay and hiring, reinstatement, or promotion.

    Title VII established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate violations of the act. A victim of discrimination who wishes to file suit must first file a complaint with the EEOC to permit that agency to attempt conciliation of the dispute. The EEOC has filed a number of lawsuits to prove statistically that a company has systematically discriminated on one of the forbidden bases. The EEOC has received perennial criticism for its extreme slowness in filing suits and for failure to handle the huge backlog of complaints with which it has had to wrestle.

    The courts have come to recognize two major types of Title VII cases:

    1. Cases of disparate treatment
      • In this type of lawsuit, the plaintiff asserts that because of race, sex, religion, or national origin, he or she has been treated less favorably than others within the organization. To prevail in a disparate treatment suit, the plaintiff must show that the company intended to discriminate because of one of the factors the law forbids to be considered. Thus in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff had shown that the company intended to discriminate by refusing to rehire him because of his race.McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). In general, there are two types of disparate treatment cases: (1) pattern-and-practice cases, in which the employee asserts that the employer systematically discriminates on the grounds of race, religion, sex, or national origin; and (2) reprisal or retaliation cases, in which the employee must show that the employer discriminated against him or her because that employee asserted his or her Title VII rights.
    2. Cases of disparate impact
      • In this second type of Title VII case, the employee need not show that the employer intended to discriminate but only that the effect, or impact, of the employer’s action was discriminatory. Usually, this impact will be upon an entire class of employees. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the reason for the employer’s conduct (such as refusal to promote) was not job related. Disparate impact cases often arise out of practices that appear to be neutral or nondiscriminatory on the surface, such as educational requirements and tests administered to help the employer choose the most qualified candidate. In the seminal case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court held that under Title VII, an employer is not free to use any test it pleases; the test must bear a genuine relationship to job performance.Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971).Griggs stands for the proposition that Title VII “prohibits employment practices that have discriminatory effects as well as those that are intended to discriminate.”
    Figure 16.1 A Checklist of Employment Law

    Discrimination Based on Religion

    An employer who systematically refuses to hire Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, or members of any other religious group engages in unlawful disparate treatment under Title VII. But refusal to deal with someone because of his or her religion is not the only type of violation under the law. Title VII defines religion as including religious observances and practices as well as belief and requires the employer to “reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice” unless the employer can demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation would work an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” Thus a company that refused even to consider permitting a devout Sikh to wear his religiously prescribed turban on the job would violate Title VII.

    But the company need not make an accommodation that would impose more than a minimal cost. For example, an employee in an airline maintenance department, open twenty-four hours a day, wished to avoid working on his Sabbath. The employee belonged to a union, and under the collective bargaining agreement, a rotation system determined by seniority would have put the worker into a work shift that fell on his Sabbath. The Supreme Court held that the employer was not required to pay premium wages to someone whom the seniority system would not require to work on that day and could discharge the employee if he refused the assignment.Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).

    Title VII permits religious organizations to give preference in employment to individuals of the same religion. Obviously, a synagogue looking for a spiritual leader would hire a rabbi and not a priest.

    Sex Discrimination

    A refusal to hire or promote a woman simply because she is female is a clear violation of Title VII. Under the Pregnancy Act of 1978, Congress declared that discrimination because of pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination. Equal pay for equal or comparable work has also been an issue in sex (or gender) discrimination. Barbano v. Madison County (see Section 16.4.1 “Disparate Treatment: Burdens of Proof”), presents a straightforward case of sex discrimination. In that case, notice how the plaintiff has the initial burden of proving discriminatory intent and how the burden then shifts to the defendant to show a plausible, nondiscriminatory reason for its hiring decision.

    The late 1970s brought another problem of sex discrimination to the fore: sexual harassment. There is much fear and ignorance about sexual harassment among both employers and employees. Many men think they cannot compliment a woman on her appearance without risking at least a warning by the human resources department. Many employers have spent significant time and money trying to train employees about sexual harassment, so as to avoid lawsuits. Put simply, sexual harassment involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

    There are two major categories of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo and (2) hostile work environment.

    Quid pro quo comes from the Latin phrase “one thing in return for another.” If any part of a job is made conditional on sexual activity, there is quid pro quo sexual harassment. Here, one person’s power over another is essential; a coworker, for example, is not usually in a position to make sexual demands on someone at his same level, unless he has special influence with a supervisor who has power to hire, fire, promote, or change work assignments. A supervisor, on the other hand, typically has those powers or the power to influence those kinds of changes. For example, when the male foreman says to the female line worker, “I can get you off of the night shift if you’ll sleep with me,” there is quid pro quo sexual harassment.

    In Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc.Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17 (1993). and in Meritor v. Vinson,Meritor v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). we see examples of hostile work environment. Hostile work environment claims are more frequent than quid pro quo claims and so are more worrisome to management. An employee has a valid claim of sexual harassment if sexual talk, imagery, or behavior becomes so pervasive that it interferes with the employee’s ability to work to her best capacity. On occasion, courts have found that offensive jokes, if sufficiently frequent and pervasive in the workplace, can create a hostile work environment. Likewise, comments about body parts or public displays of pornographic pictures can also create a hostile work environment. In short, the plaintiff can be detrimentally offended and hindered in the workplace even if there are no measurable psychological injuries.

    In the landmark hostile work environment case of Meritor v. Vinson, the Supreme Court held that Title VII’s ban on sexual harassment encompasses more than the trading of sexual favors for employment benefits. Unlawful sexual harassment also includes the creation of a hostile or offensive working environment, subjecting both the offending employee and the company to damage suits even if the victim was in no danger of being fired or of losing a promotion or raise.

    In recalling Harris v. Forklift Systems (Chapter 1, Section 1.6), we see that the “reasonable person” standard is declared by the court as follows: “So long as the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious.” In Duncan v. General Motors Corporation (see Section 16.4.2 “Title VII and Hostile Work Environment”), Harris is used as a precedent to deny relief to a woman who was sexually harassed, because the court believed the conditions were not severe or pervasive enough to unreasonably interfere with her work.

    Sex discrimination in terms of wages and benefits is common enough that a number of sizeable class action lawsuits have been brought. A class action lawsuit is generally initiated by one or more people who believe that they, along with a group of other people, have been wronged in similar ways. Class actions for sexual harassment have been successful in the past. On June 11, 1998, the EEOC reached a $34 million settlement with Mitsubishi over allegations of widespread sexual harassment at the Normal, Illinois, auto plant. The settlement involved about five hundred women who split the $34 million, although only seven received the maximum $300,000 allowed by law. The others received amounts ranging from $8,000 to $225,000.

    Class action lawsuits involve specific plaintiffs (called class plaintiffs or class representatives) who are named in the class action lawsuit to assert the claims of the unnamed or absent members of the class; thus all those with a common complaint need not file their own separate lawsuit. From the point of view of plaintiffs who may have lost only a few thousand dollars annually as a result of the discrimination, a class action is advantageous: almost no lawyer would take a complicated civil case that had a potential gain of only a few thousand dollars. But if there are thousands of plaintiffs with very similar claims, the judgment could be well into the millions. Defendants can win the procedural battle by convincing a court that the proposed class of plaintiffs does not present common questions of law or of fact.

    In the Wal-Mart class action case decided by the Supreme Court in 2011, three named plaintiffs (Dukes, Arana, and Kwapnoski) represented a proposed class of 1.5 million current or former Wal-Mart employees. The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked the trial court in 2001 to certify as a class all women employed at any Wal-Mart domestic retail store at any time since December of 1998. As the case progressed through the judicial system, the class grew in size. If the class was certified, and discrimination proven, Wal-Mart could have been liable for over $1 billion in back pay. So Wal-Mart argued that as plaintiffs, the cases of the 1.5 million women did not present common questions of law or of fact—that is, that the claims were different enough that the Court should not allow a single class action lawsuit to present such differing kinds of claims. Initially, a federal judge disagreed, finding the class sufficiently coherent for purposes of federal civil procedure. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the trial judge on two occasions.

    But the US Supreme Court agreed with Wal-Mart. In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia discussed the commonality condition for class actions.

    Quite obviously, the mere claim by employees of the same company that they have suffered a Title VII injury, or even a disparate impact Title VII injury, gives no cause to believe that all their claims can productively be litigated at once. Their claims must depend upon a common contention—for example, the assertion of discriminatory bias on the part of the same supervisor. That common contention, moreover, must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.564 U.S. ___ (2011).

    Finding that there was no common contention, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts. Many commentators, and four dissenting Justices, believed that the majority opinion has created an unnecessarily high hurdle for class action plaintiffs in Title VII cases.

    Discrimination Based on Race, Color, and National Origin

    Title VII was primarily enacted to prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, and national origin. Race refers to broad categories such as black, Caucasian, Asian, and Native American. Color simply refers to the color of a person’s skin, and national origin refers to the country of the person’s ancestry.

    Exceptions to Title VII


    Employers are allowed to select on merit and promote on merit without offending title VII’s requirements. Merit decisions are usually based on work, educational experience, and ability tests. All requirements, however, must be job related. For example, the ability to lift heavy cartons of sixty pounds or more is appropriate for certain warehouse jobs but is not appropriate for all office workers. The ability to do routine maintenance (electrical, plumbing, construction) is an appropriate requirement for maintenance work but not for a teaching position. Requiring someone to have a high school degree, as in Griggs vs. Duke Power Co., is not appropriate as a qualification for common labor.


    Employers may also maintain seniority systems that reward workers who have been with the company for a long time. Higher wages, benefits, and choice of working hours or vacation schedules are examples of rewards that provide employees with an incentive to stay with the company. If they are not the result of intentional discrimination, they are lawful. Where an employer is dealing with a union, it is typical to see seniority systems in place.

    Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ)

    For certain kinds of jobs, employers may impose bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs). Under the express terms of Title VII, however, a bona fide (good faith) occupational qualification of race or color is never allowed. In the area of religion, as noted earlier, a group of a certain religious faith that is searching for a new spiritual leader can certainly limit its search to those of the same religion. With regard to sex (gender), allowing women to be locker-room attendants only in a women’s gym is a valid BFOQ. One important test that the courts employ in evaluating an employer’s BFOQ claims is the “essence of the business” test.

    In Diaz v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., the airline maintained a policy of exclusively hiring females for its flight attendant positions.Diaz v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 442 F.2d 385 (5th Cir. 1971). The essence of the business test was established with the court’s finding that “discrimination based on sex is valid only when the essence of the business operation would be undermined by not hiring members of one sex exclusively.” Although the court acknowledged that females might be better suited to fulfill the required duties of the position, this was not enough to fulfill the essence of the business test:

    The primary function of an airline is to transport passengers safely from one point to another. While a pleasant environment, enhanced by the obvious cosmetic effect that female stewardesses provide as well as…their apparent ability to perform the non-mechanical functions of the job in a more effective manner than most men, may all be important, they are tangential to the essence of the business involved. No one has suggested that having male stewards will so seriously affect the operation of an airline as to jeopardize or even minimize its ability to provide safe transportation from one place to another.Diaz v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 442 F.2d 385 (5th Cir. 1971).

    The reason that airlines now use the gender-neutral term flight attendant is a direct result of Title VII. In the 1990s, Hooters had some difficulty convincing the EEOC and certain male plaintiffs that only women could be hired as waitstaff in its restaurants. With regard to national origin, directors of movies and theatrical productions would be within their Title VII BFOQ rights to restrict the roles of fictional Asians to those actors whose national origin was Asian, but could also permissibly hire Caucasian actors made up in “yellow face.”

    Defenses in Sexual Harassment Cases

    In the 1977 term, the US Supreme Court issued two decisions that provide an affirmative defense in some sexual harassment cases. In Faragher v. City of Boca RatonFaragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998). and in Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth,Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1988). female employees sued for sexual harassment. In each case, they proved that their supervisors had engaged in unconsented-to touching as well as verbal sexual harassment. In both cases, the plaintiff quit her job and, after going through the EEOC process, got a right-to-sue letter and in fact sued for sexual harassment. In Faragher, the employer had never disseminated the policy against sexual harassment to its employees. But in the second case, Burlington Industries, the employer had a policy that was made known to employees. Moreover, a complaints system had been established that was not used by the female employee.

    Both opinions rejected the notion of strict or automatic liability for employers when agents (employees) engage in sexual harassment. But the employer can have a valid defense to liability if it can prove (1) that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any sexual harassment behaviors and (2) that the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to otherwise avoid harm. As with all affirmative defenses, the employer has the burden of proving this defense.

    Affirmative Action

    Affirmative action is mentioned in the statutory language of Title VII, as courts have the power to order affirmative action as a remedy for the effects of past discriminatory actions. In addition to court-ordered affirmative action, employers may voluntarily use an affirmative action plan to remedy the effects of past practices or to achieve diversity within the workforce to reflect the diversity in their community. In Johnson v. Santa Clara County Transportation Agency,Johnson v. Santa Clara County Transportation Agency, 480 U.S. 616 (1987). the agency had an affirmative action plan. A woman was promoted from within to the position of dispatcher, even though a male candidate had a slightly higher score on a test that was designed to measure aptitude for the job. The man brought a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination. The Court found that voluntary affirmative action was not reverse discrimination in this case, but employers should be careful in hiring and firing and layoff decisions versus promotion decisions. It is in the area of promotions that affirmative action is more likely to be upheld.

    In government contracts, President Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 prohibits private discrimination by federal contractors. This is important, because one-third of all US workers are employed by companies that do business with the federal government. Because of this executive order, many companies that do business with the government have adopted voluntary affirmative action programs. In 1995, the Supreme Court limited the extent to which the government could require contractors to establish affirmative action programs. The Court said that such programs are permissible only if they serve a “compelling national interest” and are “narrowly tailored” so that they minimize the harm to white males. To make a requirement for contractors, the government must show that the programs are needed to remedy past discrimination, that the programs have time limits, and that nondiscriminatory alternatives are not available.Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200 (1995).

    The Age Discrimination in Employment Act

    The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 (amended in 1978 and again in 1986) prohibits discrimination based on age, and recourse to this law has been growing at a faster rate than any other federal antibias employment law. In particular, the act protects workers over forty years of age and prohibits forced retirement in most jobs because of age. Until 1987, federal law had permitted mandatory retirement at age seventy, but the 1986 amendments that took effect January 1, 1987, abolished the age ceiling except for a few jobs, such as firefighters, police officers, tenured university professors, and executives with annual pensions exceeding $44,000. Like Title VII, the law has a BFOQ exception—for example, employers may set reasonable age limitations on certain high-stress jobs requiring peak physical condition.

    There are important differences between the ADEA and Title VII, as Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. (Section 16.4.3 “Age Discrimination: Burden of Persuasion”) makes clear. It is now more difficult to prove an age discrimination claim than a claim under Title VII.

    Disabilities: Discrimination against the Handicapped

    The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of disability. A disabled person is someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or someone who is regarded as having such an impairment. This definition includes people with mental illness, epilepsy, visual impairment, dyslexia, and AIDS. It also covers anyone who has recovered from alcoholism or drug addiction. It specifically does not cover people with sexual disorders, pyromania, kleptomania, exhibitionism, or compulsive gambling.

    Employers cannot disqualify an employee or job applicant because of disability as long as he or she can perform the essential functions of the job, with reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation might include installing ramps for a wheelchair, establishing more flexible working hours, creating or modifying job assignments, and the like.

    Reasonable accommodation means that there is no undue hardship for the employer. The law does not offer uniform standards for identifying what may be an undue hardship other than the imposition on the employer of a “significant difficulty or expense.” Cases will differ: the resources and situation of each particular employer relative to the cost or difficulty of providing the accommodation will be considered; relative cost, rather than some definite dollar amount, will be the issue.

    As with other areas of employment discrimination, job interviewers cannot ask questions about an applicant’s disabilities before making a job offer; the interviewer may only ask whether the applicant can perform the work. Requirements for a medical exam are a violation of the ADA unless the exam is job related and required of all applicants for similar jobs. Employers may, however, use drug testing, although public employers are to some extent limited by the Fourth Amendment requirements of reasonableness.

    The ADA’s definition of disability is very broad. However, the Supreme Court has issued several important decisions that narrow the definition of what constitutes a disability under the act.

    Two kinds of narrowing decisions stand out: one deals with “correctable conditions,” and the other deals with repetitive stress injuries. In 1999, the Supreme Court reviewed a case that raised an issue of whether severe nearsightedness (which can be corrected with lenses) qualifies as a disability under the ADA.Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999). The Supreme Court ruled that disability under the ADA will be measured according to how a person functions with corrective drugs or devices and not how the person functions without them. In Orr v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a federal appellate court held that a pharmacist who suffered from diabetes did not have a cause of action against Wal-Mart under the ADA as long as the condition could be corrected by insulin.Orr v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 297 F.3d 720 (8th Cir. 2002).

    The other narrowing decision deals with repetitive stress injuries. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome—or any other repetitive stress injury—could constitute a disability under the ADA. By compressing a nerve in the wrist through repetitive use, carpal tunnel syndrome causes pain and weakness in the hand. In 2002, the Supreme Court determined that while an employee with carpal tunnel syndrome could not perform all the manual tasks assigned to her, her condition did not constitute a disability under the ADA because it did not “extensively limit” her major life activities. (See Section 16.4.4 “Disability Discrimination”.)

    Equal Pay Act

    The Equal Pay Act of 1963 protects both men and women from pay discrimination based on sex. The act covers all levels of private sector employees and state and local government employees but not federal workers. The act prohibits disparity in pay for jobs that require equal skill and equal effort. Equal skill means equal experience, and equal effort means comparable mental and/or physical exertion. The act prohibits disparity in pay for jobs that require equal responsibility, such as equal supervision and accountability, or similar working conditions.

    In making their determinations, courts will look at the stated requirements of a job as well as the actual requirements of the job. If two jobs are judged to be equal and similar, the employer cannot pay disparate wages to members of different sexes. Along with the EEOC enforcement, employees can also bring private causes of action against an employer for violating this act. There are four criteria that can be used as defenses in justifying differentials in wages: seniority, merit, quantity or quality of product, and any factor other than sex. The employer will bear the burden of proving any of these defenses.

    A defense based on merit will require that there is some clearly measurable standard that justifies the differential. In terms of quantity or quality of product, there may be a commission structure, piecework structure, or quality-control-based payment system that will be permitted. Factors “other than sex” do not include so-called market forces. In Glenn v. General Motors Corp., the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected General Motor’s argument that it was justified in paying three women less than their male counterparts on the basis of “the market force theory” that women will work for less than a man.Glenn v. General Motors Corp., 841 F.2d 1567 (1988).

    Key Takeaway

    Starting with employment at will as a common-law doctrine, we see many modifications by statute, particularly after 1960. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most significant, for it prohibits employers engaged in interstate commerce from discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.

    Sex discrimination, especially sexual harassment, has been a particularly fertile source of litigation. There are many defenses to Title VII claims: the employer may have a merit system or a seniority system in place, or there may be bona fide occupational qualifications in religion, gender, or national origin. In addition to Title VII, federal statutes limiting employment discrimination are the ADEA, the ADA, and the Equal Pay Act.


    1. Go to the EEOC website. Describe the process by which an employee or ex-employee who wants to make a Title VII claim obtains a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC.
    2. Again, looking at the EEOC website, find the statistical analysis of Title VII claims brought to the EEOC. What kind of discrimination is most frequent?
    3. According to the EEOC website, what is “retaliation”? How frequent are retaliation claims relative to other kinds of claims?
    4. Greg Connolly is a member of the Church of God and believes that premarital sex and abortion are sinful. He works as a pharmacist for Wal-Mart, and at many times during the week, he is the only pharmacist available to fill prescriptions. One product sold at his Wal-Mart is the morning-after pill (RU 468). Based on his religious beliefs, he tells his employer that he will refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill. Must Wal-Mart make a reasonable accommodation to his religious beliefs?

    This page titled 4.2: Federal Employment Discrimination Laws is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.

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