In Integrity Staffing Sols., Inc. v. Busk, 574 U.S. 27 (2014), the Supreme Court held that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, time warehouse workers spent waiting for and undergoing security screenings was not compensable time. More broadly, the decision clarified the proper analysis of “principal activities” verses preliminary and postliminary activities. Principal activities are compensable under the FLSA. Purely preliminary or postliminary activities (like a commute) are not, but some activities before or after a shift might still be compensable principal activities. The term “principal activities” includes all activities which are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities.” An activity is “integral and indispensable to the principal activities” if it is an “intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.” 574 U.S at 33.
Busk worked for Integrity Staffing Solutions as an hourly warehouse worker. Integrity Staffing provided warehouse staffing to Amazon. Integrity Staffing’s warehouse workers retrieved and packaged products for delivery to Amazon.com customers. Integrity Staffing required these employees to undergo a security screening before leaving the warehouse each day, but did not pay them for the time (roughly 25 minutes each day) they spent waiting for and undergoing the screening. Busk and his co-workers filed suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act. They asserted, inter alia, they were entitled to compensation for the time they spent waiting to undergo and undergoing the screenings. They also argued the screenings were compensable because the company could have reduced the time involved to a negligible de minimis amount by adding screeners or staggering shifts, and because the screenings were conducted to prevent employee theft and, thus, for the sole benefit of the employers and their customers.
The District Court dismissed this claim. It held the screenings were not integral and indispensable to the employees’ principal activities but were instead postliminary and noncompensable under the Portal–to–Portal Act. The Ninth Circuit reversed that decision in part, holding that the postshift screening would be compensable as integral and indispensable to the employees’ principal activities if the screenings were necessary to the principal work and performed for the employer’s benefit. Integrity Staffing appealed.
The Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed. It held the time the warehouse workers spent waiting to undergo and undergoing security screenings was not compensable under the FLSA.
First, the Court explained Congress passed the Portal–to–Portal Act in response to the “unexpected liabilities” created by a broad judicial interpretation of the FLSA’s undefined terms “work” and “workweek.” See 29 U.S.C. § 251(a). The Portal–to–Portal Act therefore exempted employers from FLSA liability for claims based on “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to” the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform. 29 U.S.C. § 254(a)(2).
The Court had long held that the term “principal activities” includes all activities which are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities.” Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 252–253 (1956). In Integrity Staffing, the Court further explained that an activity is “integral and indispensable to the principal activities” if it is an “intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.” 574 U.S at 33.
For example, in Steiner, the Court held the time battery-plant employees spent showering and changing clothes was compensable because the chemicals in the plant were “toxic to human beings” and the employer conceded that “the clothes-changing and showering activities of the employees [were] indispensable to the performance of their productive work and integrally related thereto.” Id. at 34 (quoting Steiner at 249, 251). Similarly, in Mitchell v. King Packing Co., 350 U.S. 260, 262 (1956), the Court held compensable the time meatpacker employees spent sharpening their knives because dull knives would “slow down production” on the assembly line, “affect the appearance of the meat as well as the quality of the hides,” “cause waste,” and lead to “accidents.” 574 U.S. at 34 (quoting Mitchell at 262). By contrast, in IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. 21 (2005), the Court held noncompensable the time poultry-plant employees spent waiting to don protective gear because such waiting was “two steps removed from the productive activity on the assembly line.” 574 U.S. at 34 (quoting IBP at 42). The Court further noted Department of Labor regulations were consistent with this approach. See 29 CFR § 790.8(b) (“The term ‘principal activities’ includes all activities which are an integral part of a principal activity.”); 29 CFR § 790.8(c) (“Among the activities included as an integral part of a principal activity are those closely related activities which are indispensable to its performance.”); 29 CFR 790.7(g) (examples of preliminary and postliminary activities). 574 U.S. at 30-35.
The Court then held the security screenings at issue in Integrity Staffing were noncompensable postliminary activities. First, the Court determined the screenings were not the principal activities the employees were employed to perform. The workers were not employed to undergo security screenings. They were employed to retrieve goods from the warehouse and package them for shipment. Nor were the security screenings “integral and indispensable” to those activities. In support of this conclusion, the Court cited a 1951 Department of Labor opinion letter, which found noncompensable under the Portal–to–Portal Act both a preshift screening conducted for employee safety and a postshift search conducted to prevent employee theft.
The employees in Integrity Staffing, like the Ninth Circuit, essentially took the position that if an activity was required by an employer it was compensable under the FLSA. The Court disagreed with this approach, noting that it would sweep into “principal activities” the very activities that the Portal–to–Portal Act was designed to exclude from compensation (like the time waiting to don protective gear held noncompensable in IBP). Finally, the Court rejected the employees’ argument that the screenings were compensable because Integrity Staffing could have reduced the time to a de minimis amount. Whether an employer could conceivably reduce the time employees spent on a preliminary or postliminary activity did not change the nature of the activity or its relationship to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform. Therefore, that concern was properly addressed through bargaining, rather than in a suit under the FLSA. 574 U.S. at 35-37.
In sum, Integrity Staffing clarified the analysis of “principal activities” verses preliminary and postliminary activities. Principal activities are compensable. The term “principal activities” includes all activities which are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities.” An activity is “integral and indispensable to the principal activities” if it is an “intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.” 574 U.S at 33. More specifically, Integrity Staffing stands for the proposition that time spent waiting for and undergoing security screenings was not a principal activity and therefore not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
This blog was also published to TimCoffieldAttorney.com.
The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay minimum wages and overtime wages based on time worked by covered employees. Oftentimes, an employee has to spend time waiting to put equipment, walking to a worksite, or doing other preshift tasks necessary to perform her job. Is the employee entitled to compensation under the FLSA for that time? Trial courts routinely address various iterations of this question. In IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. 21 (2005), the Supreme Court answered one of them. It held that the FLSA requires employers to pay employees for time spent walking to and from stations that distributed employer-mandated safety equipment.
Alvarez involved two separate but similar cases. Employees of IBP filed suit under the FLSA seeking compensation for time they spent putting on and taking off (“donning and doffing”) required protective gear and walking between the locker rooms and the production floor of IBP’s meat processing facility. The trial court decided these activities were compensable. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. IBP appealed.
In the companion case, employees of Barber Foods sought compensation under the FLSA for time they spent donning and doffing required protective gear at Barber’s poultry processing plant, as well as time they spent walking and waiting associated with picking up and returning the gear. The trial court found in favor of Barber on the walking and waiting claims, finding those activities were not compensable. The First Circuit affirmed, finding that the walking and waiting times were preliminary and postliminary activities excluded from FLSA coverage by §§4(a)(1) and (2) of the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947. The employees appealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court consolidated the cases to address the question of whether the FLSA requires employers to pay employees for time spent walking to and from stations that distributed required safety equipment.
In Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680, 691–692 (1946), the Supreme Court held that a “workweek” under the FLSA included the time employees spent walking from time clocks near a factory entrance to their workstations. In response to that decision, Congress passed the Portal-to-Portal Act. The Portal-to-Portal Act excepted from FLSA coverage walking on the employer’s premises to and from the location of the employee’s “principal activity or activities,” §4(a)(1), and activities that are “preliminary or postliminary” to “said principal activity or activities,” §4(a)(2).
The Department of Labor subsequently issued regulations which interpreted the Portal-to-Portal Act as not affecting the computation of hours within a “workday,” 29 CFR §790.6(a), which includes “the period between the commencement and completion” of the “principal activity or activities,” §790.6(b).
In a subsequent Supreme Court decision, Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 256 (1956), the Court explained that the “term ‘principal activity or activities’ … embraces all activities which are ‘an integral and indispensable part of the principal activities,’ ” including the donning and doffing of specialized protective gear “before or after the regular work shift, on or off the production line.”
The Court’s Decision
In the 2005 Alvarez decision, the Court held that an employee putting on employer-required safety equipment qualified as a “principal activity” under the FLSA. The continuous “workday” for purposes of calculating compensable time began when employees started that activity. Therefore, compensable time included the subsequent time employees spent walking to and from the worksite after donning their protective gear, and time spent waiting to doff the gear. The Court further held that the previous time spent waiting to put on the safety equipment, however, was not included in the workday, and not compensable time, because it was a “preliminary” activity under the Portal-to-Portal Act. 546 U.S. at 28-38.
Time spent walking to and from the worksite after donning and before doffing protective gear is compensable time
First, the Alvarez held that the time the IBP employees spent walking after changing into protective gear from the locker room to the production floor was compensable under the FLSA. 546 U.S. at 33-37.
The Court explained that Section 4(a)(1) of the Portal-to-Portal Act text does not exclude this time from the FLSA. IBP had argued that, because donning is not the “principal activity” that starts the workday, walking occurring immediately after donning and immediately before doffing is not compensable. That argument, the Court pointed out, was foreclosed by its decision in Steiner, which clarified that §4 does not remove activities that are “integral and indispensable” to “principal activities” from FLSA coverage because those activities are themselves “principal activities.” 350 U. S. at 253. The Court went on to explain that that these identical terms cannot mean different things within the same law (§4(a)(2) and in §4(a)(1)). According to the normal rules of statutory interpretation, identical words used in different parts of the same statute are generally presumed to have the same meaning. Further, with respect to §4(a)(2)’s reference to “said principal activity or activities,” “said” is an explicit reference to the use of the identical term in §4(a)(1). Alvarez, 546 U.S. at 33-35.
The Court also rejected IBP’s argument that Congress’s repudiation of the Anderson decision (by passing the Portal-to-Portal Act) reflected a legislative purpose to exclude the walking time at issue from the FLSA. The Court found this argument unpersuasive because it observed the time at issue in Alvarez, which occurred after the workday begins (by donning) and before it ends (by doffing), was more comparable to time spent walking between two different positions on an assembly line than to the walking in Anderson, which occurred before the workday began. Id. at 34-35.
The Court also pointed out the DOL regulations supported the compensable nature of the IBP employees’ walking time. For example, 29 CFR §790.6 did not strictly define the workday’s limits as the period from “whistle to whistle.” And 29 CFR §790.7(g), n. 49, which provides that postdonning walking time is not “necessarily” excluded from §4(a)(1) of the Portal-to-Portal Act, does not mean that such time is always excluded. Therefore, the Court determined those regulations could not overcome clear statements elsewhere in the regulations that supported the compensable nature of postdonning walking time. 546 U.S. at 35-37.
Time spent waiting to doff is compensable time
With respect to the Barber Foods employees, the Court similarly held that because donning and doffing gear that is “integral and indispensable” to employees’ work is a “principal activity” under the FLSA, the continuous workday rule required that the time the Barber Foods employees spent walking to and from the production floor after donning and before doffing, as well as the time spent waiting to doff at the end of the day, are not affected by the Portal-to-Portal Act. Therefore, this time was compensable under the FLSA. 546 U.S. at 37-39.
Time spent waiting to don is not compensable time
Finally, however, the Court held that time spent waiting to don protective gear before work is not compensable time. The Court’s reasoned that §4(a)(2) of the Portal-to-Portal Act excluded from the FLSA the time employees spend waiting to don the first piece of gear that marks the beginning of the continuous workday. The Court determined that this qualifies as a “preliminary” activity because it was “two steps removed” from the productive activity on the assembly line. While certain preshift activities were necessary for employees to engage in their principal activities, the Court found that this does not mean that those preshift activities are “integral and indispensable” to a “principal activity” under Steiner. The Court expressed a concern that it could not conclude that Barber employees predonning waiting time was a compensable “principle activity” without also reaching the necessary (but untenable) conclusion that the walking time in Anderson would also be a “principal activity” unaffected by the Portal-to-Portal Act. The Court observed that 29 CFR §790.7(h) (differentiating between being “engaged to wait,” which is compensable, and “wait[ing] to be engaged, which is not compensable) did not support a finding that time spent waiting to don protective gear was compensable. 546 U.S. at 39-42.
In short, Alvarez held that an employee putting on employer-required safety equipment qualified as a “principal activity” under the FLSA. The continuous “workday” for purposes of calculating compensable time began when employees started that activity.
This determination, that the workday begins with donning, has two important implications. First, FLSA compensable time included the subsequent time employees spent walking to and from the worksite after donning their protective gear, and time waiting to doff their gear. Second, however, the previous time employees spent waiting to don the protective equipment was not included in the workday, and not compensable time, because it was a “preliminary” activity under the Portal-to-Portal Act.
This blog was also published at TimCoffieldAttorney.com.
This site is intended to provide general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and attorney Tim Coffield or Coffield PLC. Parts of this site may be considered attorney advertising. If you have questions about any particular issue or problem, you should contact your attorney. Please view the full disclaimer. If you would like to request a consultation with attorney Tim Coffield, you may call (434) 218-3133 or send an email to email@example.com.
Law of Joint Employment
A worker’s joint employers are jointly and severally liable for any violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d 125, 134 (4th Cir. 2017). This means that for purposes of the FLSA’s requirements that an employer pay minimum wages and overtime wages to non-exempt employees, a worker may have more “employers” than just the company who issues her paychecks. In short, if more than one entity has the ability to help determine the conditions of a workers’ employment, more than one entity may be liable if the worker is not paid the minimum wages or overtime compensation required by federal law.
DOL Joint Employment Regulations
The Department of Labor regulation implementing the FLSA distinguishes “separate and distinct employment” from “joint employment.” 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a). “Separate employment” exists when “all the relevant facts establish that two or more employers are acting entirely independently of each other and are completely disassociated with respect to the” individual’s employment. Id. By contrast, “joint employment” exists when “employment by one employer is not completely disassociated from employment by the other employer(s).” Id. When two or more entities are found to jointly employ a particular worker, “all of the employee’s work for all of the joint employers during the workweek is considered as one employment for purposes of the [FLSA].” Id. (emphasis added). Thus, for example, all hours worked by the employee on behalf of each joint employer are counted together to determine whether the employee is entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA. Id; Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757, 766 (4th Cir. 2017).
Fourth Circuit Factors
In Salinas, the Fourth Circuit observed that the joint employment regulations speak to “one fundamental question: whether two or more persons or entities are ‘not completely disassociated’ with respect to a worker such that the persons or entities share, agree to allocate responsibility for, or otherwise codetermine — formally or informally, directly or indirectly — the essential terms and conditions of the worker’s employment.” 848 F.3d at 141 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a) and citing In re Enter. Rent-A-Car Wage & Hour Employment Practices Litig., 683 F.3d 462, 468 (3d Cir. 2012) (“[W]here two or more employers … share or co-determine those matters governing essential terms and conditions of employment — they constitute ‘joint employers’ under the FLSA.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
With these principles in mind, courts in the Fourth Circuit consider six factors in determining whether entities constitute joint employers:
(1) whether, formally or as a matter of practice, the putative joint employers jointly determine, share, or allocate the power to direct, control, or supervise the worker, whether by direct or indirect means;
(2) whether, formally or as a matter of practice, the putative joint employers jointly determine, share, or allocate the power to, directly or indirectly, hire or fire the worker or modify the terms or conditions of the worker’s employment;
(3) the degree of permanency and duration of the relationship between the putative joint employers;
(4) whether, through shared management or a direct or indirect ownership interest, one putative joint employer controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with the other putative joint employer;
(5) whether the work is performed on a premises owned or controlled by one or more of the putative joint employers, independently or in connection with one another; and
(6) whether, formally or as a matter of practice, the putative joint employers jointly determine, share, or allocate responsibility over functions ordinarily carried out by an employer, such as handling payroll, providing workers’ compensation insurance, paying payroll taxes, or providing the facilities, equipment, tools, or materials necessary to complete the work. Id. at 141.
Salinas at 141.
The Fourth Circuit in Salinas observed that these six factors may not constitute an exhaustive list of all potentially relevant considerations. Id. at 142. “To the extent that facts not captured by these factors speak to the fundamental threshold question that must be resolved in every joint employment case — whether a purported joint employer shares or codetermines the essential terms and conditions of a worker’s employment — courts must consider those facts as well.” Id.
As these factors illustrate, the Fourth Circuit’s joint employer test turns on whether the entities in question codetermine the essential conditions of a worker’s employment. Salinas at 143. Thus, the existence of a general contractor-subcontractor relationship “has no bearing on whether entities … constitute joint employers for purposes of the FLSA.” Id. 143–44.
Application of Salinas Factors
For example, in Salinas, the Fourth Circuit held that a drywall installation subcontractor and general contractor were joint employers under the FLSA because, inter alia, the subcontractor provided staffing for the contractor based on the contractor’s needs; the employees performed the work for the contractor’s benefit; the contractor supervised the employees’ progress daily and provided feedback; and the employees wore uniforms bearing the contractor’s logo. 848 F.3d at 146.
For another Fourth Circuit case on the joint employer issue, see Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757, 762 (4th Cir. 2017). In that case, the plaintiff technicians sufficiently alleged DIRECTV as a joint employer, even though the technicians were nominally employed by a subcontractor. The court held that DIRECTV could be liable as a joint employer along with the subcontractor because, inter alia, the technicians were required to “obtain their work schedules and job assignments through DIRECTV’s centralized system,” to check in with DIRECTV after completing assigned jobs, and to “wear DIRECTV uniforms…when performing work for the company.” Similarly, in Young v. Act Fast Delivery of W. Virginia, Inc., 2018 WL 279996, *8 (S.D. W.Va. Jan. 3, 2018), the court held that under Salinas, a pharmaceutical delivery company was a joint employer of the plaintiff couriers, even though the couriers were nominally employed by a third party subcontractor.
As the Fourth Circuit emphasized in Salinas, “Separate employment exists when … ‘two or more employers are acting entirely independently of each other and are completely disassociated with respect to’ the individual’s employment.” 848 F.3d at 133-34 (emphasis in original) (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a)). “By contrast, joint employment exists when ‘the facts establish … that employment by one employer is not completely disassociated from employment by the other employer.’” Salinas at 134 (emphasis in original).
Therefore, under the Fourth Circuit’s framework, the “fundamental question” guiding the joint employment analysis is “whether two or more persons or entities are ‘not completely disassociated’ with respect to a worker such that the persons or entities share, agree to allocate responsibility for, or otherwise codetermine — formally or informally, directly or indirectly — the essential terms and conditions of the worker’s employment.” Id. at 140. If the facts show that two related companies were not “completely disassociated” or “acting entirely independently” with respect to a worker’s employment, they may be joint employers. If the entities shared control over the conditions of employment, they may both be potentially jointly and severally liable for FLSA violations as joint employers.
McKennon v. Nashville Banner: Law of After-Acquired Evidence
What happens when an employer, having wrongfully terminated an employee (in violation of federal employment law), discovers in litigation that the employee did something that would have legitimately and lawfully lead to termination, had the employer known about it before wrongfully firing the employee? Does the employer still have to pay lost wages for the wrongful termination, or does this “after-acquired evidence” excuse the violation?
The Supreme Court addressed these questions in McKennon v. Nashville Banner Pub. Co., 513 U.S. 352 (1995). The Court rejected the argument that a legitimate reason for termination, discovered after an unlawful discharge, excuses the unlawful action or bars the employee from recovery. However, the Court also indicated that such after-acquired evidence may limit the employee’s ability to obtain reinstatement or recover all lost wages associated with the termination.
McKennon worked thirty years for Nashville Banner Publishing Company until she was terminated at age sixty-two. McKennon filed suit, alleging that her discharge violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). McKennon’s suit sought a variety of legal and equitable remedies available under the ADEA, including backpay. In her deposition, McKennon admitted that during her final year of employment she had copied and taken home several of the Banner’s confidential financial documents. 513 U.S. 354-56.
For the purposes of summary judgment, the Banner conceded that it had discriminated against McKennon because of her age. Id. The District Court, however, granted summary judgment for the company, holding that McKennon’s misconduct in taking the confidential documents was grounds for termination and that neither back pay nor any other remedy was available to her under the ADEA. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the same reasoning. McKennon appealed. Id. at 355-56.
The Court’s Decision
The Court reversed. It held that an employee who is fired in violation of federal employment law is not barred from all relief when, after her discharge, her employer discovers evidence of wrongdoing that would have led to her termination on lawful and legitimate grounds had the employer known of it. 513 U.S. 356-360.
After-Acquired Evidence Not a Complete Bar
First, the Court held that this kind of “after-acquired evidence” is not a complete bar to recovery. The Court reasoned that even if the employee engaged in misconduct that would have prompted a termination, the employer’s discrimination that actually prompted the discharge cannot be disregarded. The Court assessed the purposes of the ADEA’s remedial provisions, 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), which (like the remedial provisions of other employment laws) were designed both to compensate employees for injuries caused by unlawful discrimination and to deter employers from discriminating in the first place. The Court concluded that allowing after-acquired evidence to bar all relief would frustrate both of these important objectives. Therefore, the Court held that after-acquired evidence did not bar all relief for unlawful discrimination. Id. at 358-360.
Relevance to Crafting an Appropriate Remedy
Second, however, the Court observed that trial courts should take into account after-acquired evidence of an employee’s wrongdoing in determining the specific remedy for the employer’s discrimination. To hold otherwise, and bar any consideration of employee misbehavior in the relief analysis, would be to ignore the employer’s legitimate concerns about employee misconduct. The ADEA, like other employment laws, just prohibits discrimination. It does not limit employers from having legitimate rules and exercising appropriate lawful discretion in hiring, promoting, and firing employees. Therefore, the Court noted, employee wrongdoing is relevant in taking due account of such lawful prerogatives and the employer’s corresponding equities arising from the wrongdoing. Id. at 360-61.
General Rule: No Reinstatement or Front Pay
Third, the Court discussed how trial courts might balance these competing concerns — on one hand, the prohibition against unlawful discrimination, and on the other, the employer’s right to address legitimate employee misconduct in an appropriate manner. The Court decided that remedial relief in such cases should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. However, the Court stated that as a general rule, if the employer proves the employee engaged in misconduct that would have prompted a lawful termination had the employer known about it, neither reinstatement nor front pay is an appropriate remedy. Id. at 362. This is because “it would be both inequitable and pointless to order the reinstatement of someone the employer would have terminated, and will terminate, in any event and upon lawful grounds.” Id.
Possible Limitations on Back Pay
The Court indicated that the more difficult issue, in after-acquired evidence cases, is the proper measure of back pay. This is because even a guilty employer cannot be required to ignore information it learns about employee wrongdoing that would lead to a legitimate discharge, even if it is acquired during the course of a discrimination lawsuit and might have gone undiscovered in the absence of the discrimination that led to the lawsuit. Id. at 362. The Court stated that the “beginning point in formulating a remedy should therefore be calculation of backpay from the date of the unlawful discharge to the date the new information was discovered.” Id. In determining the appropriate relief, the court can consider extraordinary equitable circumstances that affect the legitimate interests of either party. But an “absolute rule barring any recovery of backpay, however, would undermine the [federal employment law’s] objective of forcing employers to consider and examine their motivations, and of penalizing them for employment decisions that spring from … discrimination.” Id. Thus, as a general rule, after-acquired evidence does not bar back pay, but it might limit the amount of back pay an employee can recover.
No Bar to General Compensatory, Punitive, or Liquidated Damages
It is also worth noting that McKennon did not state or suggest that compensatory damages for past or future emotional harm should be time-limited. The decision only addressed possible limitations on lost wages and reinstatement. Allowing full emotional distress damages even if the defendant prevails on an after-acquired evidence defense makes good sense in light of McKennon’s reasoning. This is because no legitimate business prerogative would be served by allowing a proven discriminator to avoid paying the full cost of the emotional damage caused by the discrimination. The same reasoning supports the conclusion that after-acquired evidence does not bar punitive damages or liquidated damages, in cases where the usual standards for awarding punitive or liquidated damages are met. Here is a link to EEOC’s guidance on this issue.
Employer’s Burden of Proof
Finally, the Court discussed the employer’s burden in attempting to prove an “after-acquired evidence” defense. When an employer seeks to use this defense, it must first establish that the wrongdoing was of “such severity that the employee in fact would have been terminated on those grounds alone had the employer known of it at the time of the discharge.” Id. at 362-63. The Court also expressed concern that, due to the possibility of uncovering after-acquired evidence, employers might routinely undertake extensive discovery into an employee’s background or job performance to resist employment discrimination claims. Id. at 363. However, the Court concluded the trial courts’ authority to award attorney’s fees under §§ 216(b) and 626(b) and to invoke the appropriate provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would likely deter most abuses of the discovery rules. Id.
The Court in McKennon rejected the notion that a legitimate reason for termination, discovered after an unlawful discharge, excuses the unlawful action or bars the employee from recovery. However, such after-acquired evidence may limit the employee’s ability to obtain reinstatement or recover all lost wages associated with the termination. To use this defense, an employer must prove that the employee engaged in misconduct of such severity that the employee would have been terminated on those grounds alone had the employer learned of it during her employment. As a general rule, if the employer meets this burden, reinstatement is not an appropriate remedy and back pay may be limited.
In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), the Supreme Court recognized for the first time that sexual harassment is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964..
Meritor Savings Bank addressed the question of whether Title VII prohibits employers from creating a sexually “hostile environment” or only prohibited tangible economic discrimination, like terminations and demotions.
The Court held, inter alia, that “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII. Id. at 63-69. This is because the language of Title VII is not limited to “economic” or “tangible” discrimination, like a termination resulting in wage loss. Therefore, sexual harassment leading to purely non-economic injury (like emotional distress) can violate Title VII.
In 1974, Meritor Savings Bank hired Vinson as a teller. Her supervisor was a man named Sidney Taylor. Vinson testified that Taylor subsequently invited her out to dinner and, during the course of the meal, suggested that they go to a motel to have sex. At first, she refused, but out of what she described as fear of losing her job she eventually agreed. According to Vinson, Taylor thereafter repeatedly demanded sexual favors from her, usually at the branch, both during and after business hours. She estimated that over the next several years she had intercourse with him some 40 or 50 times. In addition, Vinson testified that Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, followed her into the women’s restroom when she went there alone, exposed himself to her, and forcibly raped her on several occasions. Taylor denied all this. The District Court found that any sexual relationship between Vinson and Taylor was a voluntary one.
In her suit against Taylor and the bank, Vinsom claimed that during her four years at the bank she had constantly been subjected to “sexual harassment” by Taylor in violation of Title VII. She sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages against Taylor and the bank, and attorney’s fees.
The Court’s Decision
Meritor Savings Bank raised the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based “discrimination” prohibits employers from creating a sexually “hostile environment” or was limited to a prohibition on tangible economic discrimination, like terminations and demotions.
The Court held that “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII. Id. at 63-69. This is because the language of Title VII is not limited to “economic” or “tangible” discrimination, like a termination resulting in wage loss. Therefore, consistent with EEOC’s interpretation of Title VII, sexual harassment leading to purely non-economic injury (like emotional distress) can violate Title VII.
In so holding, the Court emphasized the purpose of Title VII: “Title VII affords employees the right to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult whether based on sex, race, religion, or national origin. 477 U.S. at 65. Citing the EEOC’s guidelines on sex discrimination, the Court held that an employee may establish a violation of Title VII “by proving that discrimination based on sex has created a hostile or abusive work environment.” Id.
The Court quoted the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Henson v. City of Dundee, 682 F.2d 897, 902 (11th Cir. 1982), which compared sex-based harassment to racial harassment:
Sexual harassment which creates a hostile or offensive environment for members of one sex is every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality. Surely, a requirement that a man or woman run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and made a living can be as demeaning and disconcerting as the harshest of racial epithets.
477 U.S. at 67. The Court went on to hold that for harassment to violate Title VII, it must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive ‘to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.'” Id. (quoting Henson at 904).
The Court further held that “voluntariness” in the sense that an employee was not forced to participate in sexual conduct against her will, is no defense to a sexual harassment claim. The District Court had therefore erroneously focused on the “voluntariness” of Vinson’s participation in the claimed sexual episodes. In a sexual harassment case, the correct inquiry is whether the employee by her conduct indicated that the alleged sexual advances were unwelcome, not whether her participation in them was voluntary. 477 U.S. at 67-68. The Court further held that while evidence of an employee’s sexually provocative speech or dress may be relevant in determining whether she found particular advances unwelcome, such evidence should be admitted with caution in light of the potential for unfair prejudice. Id. at 69.
Meritor Savings Bank marked the first time the Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for sexual harassment. The decision also clarified that sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VI. The case is also notable for questioning whether sexual conduct between a supervisor and a subordinate could truly be voluntary due to the power dynamics and hierarchical relationship between supervisors and subordinates.
Here’s a link to a contemporaneous 1986 New York Times article about the case and its significance.
Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services is an important case in the development of employee protections from sexual harassment, same-sex discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, and sexual identity discrimination. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the primary federal law barring sex-based discrimination in employment — prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment that is “because of … sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). This language plainly bars an employer from treating male employees better than female employees, or vice versa, and plainly bars employers from making sexual activities a condition of employment. But the text of Title VII does not specifically explain whether this “because of … sex” language also bars sexualized harassment by a straight employee against another straight employee of the same sex, or whether it bars discrimination against an employee because of his/her/their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Oncale specifically concerns the meaning of the phrase “because of…sex” in the context of same-sex harassment among straight male employees. The central decision in Oncale was that Title VII’s rule against discrimination “because of… sex” applied to sexualized harassment in the workplace between members of the same sex, even when the conduct at issue is not motivated by sexual desire. This decision was a precursor to later cases applying that same “because of … sex” language in the context of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Facts and Procedural Background
Oncale worked for Sundowner on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He was part of a crew of eight men. On several occasions, certain crew members subjected Oncale to “sex-related, humiliating actions … in the presence of the rest of the crew … physically assaulted Oncale in a sexual manner, and … threatened him with rape.” 523 U.S. at 77. Oncale complained to his supervisors about the behavior, but they allowed it to continue. Oncale eventually quit, and requested that his personnel file reflect that he left “due to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.” Id. Apparently all the crew members were straight, so presumably their actions were not motivated by sexual desire. Id. at 79.
Oncale sued Sundowner, claimed that the harassing behaviors directed against him by his straight male co-workers constituted discrimination “because of … sex” under Title VII. The District Court granted summary judgment for Sundowner, dismissing the case on the grounds that Oncale, being male, had no cause of action under Title VII for harassment by male co-workers. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. 83 F.3d 118 (1996).
Supreme Court Decision: Same-Sex Discrimination is Action Under Title VII
In a 9-0 decision written by Scalia, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that sex discrimination consisting of same-sex sexual harassment is actionable under Title VII. The Court’s reasoning here was that (1) under Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. v. EEOC, 462 U. S. 669, 682 (1983), Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination “because of … sex” protects men as well as women, and (2) under Castaneda v. Partida, 430 U. S. 482, 499 (1977), in the related context of racial discrimination in the workplace, the Court had rejected any conclusive presumption that an employer will not discriminate against members of his own race. “Because of the many facets of human motivation, it would be unwise to presume as a matter of law that human beings of one definable group will not discriminate against other members of their group.” Castaneda, 430 U.S. at 499. It therefore follows that males might discriminate against other males.
The Court’s Rationale
The Court further explained there was no justification in Title VII’s language or the Court’s precedents for a categorical rule barring a claim of discrimination “because of … sex” just because the victim and the harasser are of the same sex. Scalia explained that while male-on-male sexual harassment “was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII … Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.” Oncale, 523 U.S. at 79.
The Court therefore held that same-sex harassment is actionable under Title VII, so long as the conduct meets the well-established elements of a sexual harassment claim: (1) that the conduct at issue was “not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations, but actually constituted ‘discrimina[tion] … because of … sex’ and (2) that the conduct “severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment[.]” Id. at 81.
The objective severity of harassment should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position, considering “all the circumstances.” Id. (citing Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993)); see also Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986). Scalia further pointed out that in all harassment cases, including same-sex cases, the “severe or pervasive” inquiry requires “careful consideration of the social context in which particular behavior occurs and is experienced by its target.” Oncale at 81. For example, “[a] professional football player’s working environment is not severely or pervasively abusive, for example, if the coach smacks him on the buttocks as he heads onto the field – even if the same behavior would reasonably be experienced as abusive by the coach’s secretary (male or female) back at the office.” Id. “The real social impact of workplace behavior often depends on a constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships which are not fully captured by a simple recitation of the words used or the physical acts performed.” Id. at 81-82.
The Court therefore rejected Sundowner’s argument that recognizing liability for same-sex harassment would transform Title VII into a “general civility code” for the American workplace. Scalia explained that Title VII is directed at discrimination “because of” sex, not merely “conduct tinged with offensive sexual connotations.” Id. at 81. The Court also pointed out that Title VII does not reach “genuine but innocuous differences” in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same, and the opposite, sex. Id.
Analysis and Significance
In short, Oncale is important because it held that Title VII’s protection against workplace discrimination “because of… sex” applies to sex-based conduct between members of the same sex, even in the absence of sexual desire. This was an important early decision in the development of the rights of employees to be free from workplace discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, in 2015 the EEOC cited Oncale as part of its rationale for issuing an agency decision that Title VII bars sexual orientation-based employment discrimination. Oncale therefore laid the foundation for analyzing same-sex harassment and sex-based harassment without “sexual desire” by indicating that any discrimination based on sex is actionable if it places the victim in an objectively hostile or abusive work environment, regardless of the victim’s or harasser’s gender or sexual preference.