Title VII Requires Administrative Exhaustion

Before an employee alleging employment discrimination under Title VII may file a lawsuit in federal court, she must first exhaust administrative remedies by bringing formal charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or an equivalent state agency. This administrative-exhaustion process is designed to allow the EEOC to step in, and also gives the parties an opportunity at early settlement. If the EEOC decides not to take the case, it must issue a “right-to-sue letter,” which is evidence that the administrative exhaustion requirement has been satisfied. The employee then has 90 days to file suit.

There has long been a circuit split on how to treat discrimination claims that were never raised with the EEOC but later find their way into a plaintiff’s lawsuit. Several appeals courts treated this failure as an affirmative defense that could be waived by the employer if not timely asserted. The competing approach was to treat administrative exhaustion as a jurisdictional requirement. Meaning the defense could not be waived, thereby permitting employers (and the court) to raise the issue at any time. Prior to the Supreme Court weighing in the on the matter, the Eleventh Circuit fell into the latter camp. See, e.g., Bloodworth v. Colvin, 17 F. Supp. 3d 1245, 1250 (N.D. Ga. 2014) (“[I]n the Eleventh Circuit, administrative exhaustion is a jurisdictional prerequisite to Title VII actions.”) (citing Crawford v. Babbitt, 186 F.3d 1322, 1326 (11th Cir.1999)).

Background – Fort Bend County v. Davis, No. 18-525


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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employment discrimination based on “sex.” Most federal courts have interpreted Title VII to exclude sexual orientation discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit falls into this camp. Since its predecessor’s 1979 decision in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp., 597 F.2d 936, 937 (5th Cir. 1979), the Eleventh Circuit has steadfastly held to its view that “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited.” Id. The rationale being that Title VII speaks only of a person’s sex and not sexual orientation. Against this textual backdrop, it is the legislature’s job to extend Title VII if it sees fit. See Evans v. Georgia Reg’l Hosp., 850 F.3d 1248, 1256 (11th Cir. 2017) (discussing view that sexual orientation is not a cognizable claim under Title VII.

Circuit Split


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A plaintiff asserting a discrimination claim under Title VII must make a preliminary showing that her claims have merit. She can do so in a variety of ways, one of which is by navigating the familiar burden-shifting framework established by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

Under that framework, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by proving, among other things, that she was treated differently from another “similarly situated” individual. The Eleventh Circuit has long grappled with the question of just how “similarly situated” a plaintiff and her comparators must be – waffling between a standard of  “nearly identical” and “same or similar.”

This confusion came to an end last week in Lewis v. City of Union City, Ga., No. 15-11362 (11th Cir. Mar. 21, 2019), when the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc held that a plaintiff must demonstrate she and the comparators are “similarly situated in all material respects.” Although the nomenclature is new, the court’s analysis of this standard is a win for employers. As the dissenting judges proclaimed,

[t]oday, the Majority Opinion drops an anvil on the employer’s side of the balance.”

The Facts


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Dan Schwartz of the Connecticut Employment Law blog posted yesterday about an interesting medical marijuana case in Connecticut. For the first time, a Connecticut court ruled that an employer could not refuse to hire an applicant simply because she was a medical marijuana user, despite the employer’s drug-free workplace program. This applicant, who used medical marijuana for PTSD, had her offer revoked after she tested positive for marijuana on the pre-employment drug screen. She then sued for discrimination. In ruling for the applicant, the court focused on the anti-discrimination provision in Connecticut’s medical marijuana law:

[U]nless required by federal law or required to obtain funding: . . . (3) No employer may refuse to hire a person or may discharge, penalize or threaten an employee solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient or primary caregiver under sections 21a-408 to 21a-408n, inclusive. Nothing in this subdivision shall restrict an employer’s ability to prohibit the use of intoxicating substances during work hours or restrict an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of intoxicating substances during work hours.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21a-408p(b)(3) (emphasis added).

Does this decision have any impact on Florida employers?


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Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing guest posts from our member firms with the Florida Law Alliance, who will be producing an employment law conference on November 10, 2017, at the Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel.

Today’s post is from Craig Salner, a partner at the Clarke Silverglate law firm in Miami:

Most South Florida practitioners are familiar with the barrage of recent lawsuits against places of public accommodation challenging their equal accessibility for the disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a statute more known for its ban on disability discrimination in the workplace, has a section known as “Title III” which requires places of public accommodation to provide equal access to persons with disabilities. ADA Title III requirements typically have been applied to components of a business’s physical structure – appropriate linking of the parking lot to the adjacent sidewalk, sufficient main floor space for a wheelchair-bound patron to ambulate between and around aisles, bathrooms with sufficient space to maneuver with reachable soap and paper dispensers, etc.

Successful ADA Title III litigants are entitled to injunctive relief (i.e., the accessibility flaws must be remedied) plus attorney’s fees. Despite the lack of monetary damages available to litigants, ADA Title III litigation has spiked in South Florida with the emergence of certain serial “tester” plaintiffs – specific individuals claiming to test places of public accommodation for ADA Title III compliance and suing in instances of alleged non-compliance. Title III ADA lawsuits have nearly tripled nationwide in the last three years, rising from 2,722 in 2013 to 6,601 in 2016, including a 37 percent increase from 2015 to 2016. Florida is second only to California in the number of 2016 filings.

Are Internet websites places of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA?


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Human resource keyboardMake plans now to attend the biggest employment law conference in Southwest Florida, HR Law & Solutions, now in its 25th year! Henderson Franklin’s Employment Law and Workers’ Compensation attorneys will return to Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Myers on Friday, March 10, 2017, for a fun-filled day of education.

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We are so excited to announce that registration is now open for the 2016 HR Law & Solutions Seminar. Now in its 24th year, this full-day seminar is a fantastic opportunity for both new and experience HR professionals and other business executives to learn about important employment laws, network with their peers, and, of

Eeoc_logo2Thanks to Richard Cohen and his Employment Discrimination Report blog and the Washington Post for focusing attention on the recent report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about the rapid increase in retaliation claims in the workplace. For years, employment discrimination complaints (i.e., claims by employees that they were discriminated against on the basis of one or more protected factors like race, gender, national origin, age, etc.) were at the top of the EEOC charts as far as number of claims filed. However, as noted back in January 2013, since 2010 there have been more retaliation claims filed with the EEOC than any type of discrimination claim.

The big increase involves claims filed by eligible employees (those who work for employers with at least 15 employees and most public employers) that they were demoted, fired, transferred, denied a raise or a promotion or similar complaints in retaliation for having complained about race, gender, age or other types of discrimination – sometimes even where the alleged discrimination involved someone else. According to the EEOC, a record 38,539 retaliation charges were filed in fiscal year 2013.

The statistics for Florida are similar. In 2013, a total of 3,095 retaliation claims were filed, representing about 41% of the complaints filed with Florida offices of the EEOC. This compares to 2,533 race discrimination complaints, representing 33% of all charges filed.

What accounts for the increase?


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self driving car by  Steve Jurvetson flickrHere’s a novel question for you: What do so-called “autonomous” cars have in common with class action federal employment discrimination lawsuits?

As an admitted car guy, I am often taken to drawing parallels between the automotive world and the legal profession (and just about everything else in life). So when I recently came across a lawsuit filed by the EEOC, my mind wandered from the courtroom to the road. Let me explain.

First, as you may know, an autonomous car is a car that literally drives itself — a “self-driving” car. If you’ve been reading too many car magazines like me, you’ve probably read about ongoing research and development efforts by various car manufacturers to develop a truly self-driving, pilot-less vehicle. Many automotive experts predict that in a relatively short period of time — say 10 years from now, perhaps sooner — such vehicles will be commonplace on roads in the U.S. and elsewhere.

EEOC v. Bass Pro Outdoor World


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This month, the EEOC issued its controversial Enforcement Guidance: Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues. Of course, we all knew that pregnancy discrimination was unlawful, but did you know that according to the EEOC Guidance:

  • Many short term pregnancy related conditions are considered disabilities under the ADAAA, and thereby implicating a duty to reasonably