SCA Pharmaceuticals has filed a motion to compel arbitration in Plaintiff H. Dragon’s sexual harassment and retaliation case—and while the motion fails for several other reasons, this case is among the first to present an interesting legal question about the applicability of the Ending Forced Arbitration Act in sexual harassment cases.
In its motion, SCA claims that Plaintiff Dragon signed an acknowledgement that he had received the company’s employee handbook, and that the handbook contained language requiring that employment disputes be arbitrated. Plaintiff opposed the motion, pointing out the obvious: the handbook and acknowledgement explicitly disclaimed creating contractual obligations “of any type”—meaning that by SCA’s own choice, no agreement to arbitrate could have been created. Plaintiff also pointed out that any agreement to arbitrate based on those documents would have been illusory, if it had actually existed, since the acknowledgement retains SCA’s authority to alter the policies in its handbook—including any purported arbitration agreement—unilaterally at any time.
But even though these facts are enough to dispose of the motion, the motion also presented a separate and novel legal issue: does The Ending Forced Arbitration Act (“EFAA”) apply to a hostile work environment claim like this one, where the harassment started before the law came into effect, and continued after it was already effective?
Encompass Health runs a chain of rehabilitation hospitals across the United States. It is enjoying record revenues. However, Charges of Discrimination and Retaliation filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by nine current or former women employees of the Encompass Colorado Springs hospital threaten its success.
For revenue growth, Encompass depends on expansion and keeping its facilities at maximum capacity, which in turn depends on growing its referrals. Rehabilitation hospitals receive most of their referrals from discharge planners—social workers and case managers—at acute care hospitals or other health care facilities. Case Management and Social Work is a woman-dominated field. Encompass competes with other rehabilitation hospitals for referrals from these women. Encompass’s women employees rated it fifth among six major competitors according to a Comparably study done in 2022.
A North Carolina woman alleges in Charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that AutoZone managers ignored her requests for help to stop a customer from repeatedly sexually harassing her—and then retaliated against her when she refused to keep serving her harasser.
As explained in her EEOC Charges of Discrimination, Jade Mack worked for AutoZone store 3909 in Concord, North Carolina. Her immediate supervisor was Store Manager Charlie Seabright, and her District Manager was Kevin Murphy. As stated in her EEOC Charges, on December 7, 2021, Ms. Mack alleges that regular AutoZone commercial customer Mr. W. J. [name withheld] walked toward her, forcing her to walk backwards to escape him, while saying “tell your man you’re in love with someone else.” Finding a wall behind her, Ms. Mack tried to sidestep W.J., and said “I don’t think he would like that very much.” The customer insisted, “he will get over it,” and repeated himself. Ms. Mack, increasingly panicked, told W.J. “I don’t think he would like that very much and I don’t like it either.” W.J. was close and directly in front of her. She was finally able to sidestep and escape him. Ms. Mack immediately texted Store Manager Seabright with a complaint and a full description of what had happened:
Mack: So W[.J.]just back me into a corner in the office saying tel [sic] your man your in love with someone else I kept trying to side step him & said I don’t think he would like that he said he will get over it but he was persistent and said it again so I said I don’t like it either fucking creepy I don’t ever want to be alone with him again where I have no exit to get out around him I don’t get creeped out or scared by much but that had me scared as shit & my adrenaline going now I feel like I’m gonna puke[.]
Hunter Dragon worked as a cleaner, and later an expeditor, at SCA in Windsor, Connecticut. Not long after Dragon started working at SCA, as alleged in his Amended Complaint , his coworker F.M. (who was not identified in the Complaint by name) asked Dragon, in front of several coworkers, whether he had a girlfriend. Dragon forthrightly told F.M. that he was gay. F.M. and his friends thereafter began a campaign of near-daily harassing “jokes,” gestures and comments directed at Dragon based on his sexual orientation—for instance, frequently asking Dragon how his girlfriend was doing, who he was having sex with, or who he would “chaga-chaga” with—while thrusting their hips or making other gestures referring to sex.
Even as he publicly mocked Dragon with his friends, F.M. sent Dragon messages coming on to him sexually—telling Dragon he was cute, and saying he wanted to “hook up.” The two did hook up—but afterward, F.M.’s behavior became menacing: he threatened to kill Dragon if he told anyone about their encounter. Dragon was terrified that F.M. would follow through on his threat.
The Complaint alleges that F.M’s harassment only intensified after these events. The very next day at work, F.M. asked Dragon if he was pregnant in front of several coworkers in the locker room where employees were required to gown up for their work. Over the following months, he repeatedly called Dragon homophobic slurs, including “fag,” “queer,” and “gay,” for example, “here comes the fag.” F.M. and his friends regularly asked Dragon if he was pregnant, and mocked his mannerisms by imitating him in an exaggerated, gay-stereotyped way. F.M.’s ongoing harassment of Dragon also became explicitly sexual—for instance, on more than one occasion F.M. rubbed his genitalia over his pants while staring at Dragon, including through a workstation window. He often stared at Dragon while Dragon was changing clothes in the locker room, even though F.M.’s own locker was on the other side of the locker room, away from Dragon’s. On one occasion, F.M. approached Dragon’s workstation and told him, “look down,” gesturing to his groin. Dragon couldn’t avoid seeing that F.M. was pointing to F.M.’s erect genitals in his pants. Dragon told him “no, please go away.” F.M. continued to tell Dragon to “look at it.”
Friedman & Houlding LLP represents Weldon Moore an African American truck driver who worked at EXCEL USA in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Moore claims, among other things, that he was subjected to a retaliatory termination for filing the racial discrimination claims against EXCEL in federal court. Vice President of Operations over the Lake Charles division of EXCEL, Shaun Dunn, admitted in sworn testimony that days after EXCEL was served with the Summons and Complaint filed in court, he called Mr. Moore and advised, “don’t return to work until you hear back.”
Mr. Moore did not hear back from EXCEL for a full month, and did so only after he filed an Amended Complaint in Court alleging retaliatory termination. Upon filing the Amended Complaint, Mr. Moore received a text message from Dunn stating that Mr. Moore would be suspended for three weeks. Dunn testified that he alone made the decision to suspend Mr. Moore for three weeks, and that the “main” cause for suspension was Mr. Moore’s use of Louisiana Pigment’s equipment without prior authorization, a claim that is not supported in the record. Indeed, Dunn admits that no one from Louisiana Pigment complained about or commenced investigation into Mr. Moore’s use of Louisiana Pigment’s equipment. Dunn testified that the reason for allowing a month to pass before notifying Mr. Moore of the suspension was that he sought Louisiana Pigment’s approval for Mr. Moore to return to the job site and spoke with Louisiana Pigment manager Chris Jennings for such approval. However, Chris Jennings testified that no such conversation took place. Former EXCEL Safety Manager Doug Stephson testified that he had never heard of an EXCEL employee being suspended—let alone, suspended for three weeks—for unauthorized use of Louisiana Pigment equipment.
The testimony to date points to EXCEL’s pretext for its termination of Mr. Moore in retaliation for Mr. Moore’s protected activity of filing claims of racial discrimination against EXCEL. Deposition testimony from several witnesses, both former employees of EXCEL and other non-EXCEL employed witnesses corroborate Mr. Moore’s claims of regularly recurring racial harassment by Mr. Moore’s former supervisor at the Louisiana Pigment facility in Lake Charles, Jeff Addison. Addison resigned from EXCEL after Mr. Moore made several complaints to management and Human Resources concerning his racial harassment, but was never the subject of an investigation by EXCEL. Addison himself admitted in sworn testimony that the term “Black mother****er”—a term Mr. Moore was regularly subjected to while employed at EXCEL—was in use at the EXCEL project site at Louisiana Pigment, as were racist jokes. Witnesses testified that Addison regularly referred to Mr. Moore as “Black mother****er” at the job site.
Friedman & Houlding LLP represent an account executive for iHeart Media in Harrisonburg, Virginia alleges he was subjected to racial harassment and stereotyping by his supervisor the Market President, followed by retaliation when he complained.
iHeart Media is a mass media corporation, and is the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, including several in the Harrisonburg area. Leon Bowen, an African-American man, worked at iHeart’s Harrisonburg location selling radio advertising to local businesses. Bowen was the only African-American staff member. Right away, Bowen noticed that iHeart’s local client base was almost entirely white, even though the local community was racially diverse. Bowen’s successful efforts to bring black-owned businesses on as clients appeared to anger his supervisor, the Market President. And Bowen saw that the office highlighted numerous holidays throughout the year, but did nothing to celebrate Juneteenth. During the Olympics, when staff members were given countries to represent, Bowen’s coworkers were all assigned “non-black” countries – while he was assigned Jamaica.
As reported in local media, during a team meeting video call, the Market President looked at Bowen, who was wearing a hoodie, and told him “oh, you look cozy.” There was no dress code for team meetings. By way of explaining his hoodie, Bowen simply responded that it was cold that day. In front of his coworkers, the Market President responded: “Well, I hope you’re not going to see clients like that.” Bowen told her he did not plan to. Following the call, she kept Bowen on the line, asking him if she was “sensing some attitude.” Bowen politely but firmly defended himself as a good employee. Bowen immediately reached out to the Area and Regional Presidents to report his supervisor’s mistreatment. In response, the Market President falsely claimed that Bowen had called her a “bitch”—employing stereotypes of black men as aggressive or angry. The Area President directed Bowen to work from home until after the holidays. Bowen complained again to an Employee Advisor for iHeart, who claimed the company would conduct an investigation.
As reported in Local Press, a Redmond, Washington-area carpenter for BNBuilders was threatened with a noose bearing his name at a Meta (formerly Facebook) worksite, after being subjected to the n-word, “jokes” about picking cotton, and other racially derogatory remarks and conduct from his supervisor and coworkers. Friedman & Houlding LLP represents the carpenter, James Myers. Two men have since been charged criminally in connection with the noose.
Employer BNBuilders was the general contractor on Meta’s Building X construction site in Redmond, Washington. Press reports that carpenter James Myers, an African-American man, endured racially offensive comments from early in his employment with BNBuilders. Multiple times employees called him “black boy” when asking him to complete tasks. His supervisors made extremely racially offensive “jokes”: an Assistant Superintendent repeatedly told Myers “I’m woke” in a derisive manner, then asked Myers’s Lead, “are you woke?” His lead replied, “I ain’t racist– n***** n***** n*****!”–repeating the N-word several times. The Assistant Superintendent and Lead then laughed, while Myers watched in shock.
More than once, his Assistant Superintendent racially harassed Myers using “cotton”: in front of multiple employees in the field. His AS walked up to Myers and told him: “James, I got something for you.” Myers saw that something was clasped in his AS’ hand. Conscious of all the tradesworkers watching, Myers told him “no,” and tried to deflect him. His AS insisted, “open it!” He then took and opened Myers’s hand, and handed him a ball of “cotton”–the white fiber from cottonwood trees, resembling that of agricultural cotton plants. His AS told Myers, “I picked it for you!” and laughed uproariously.
Passed 50 years ago in June, Title IX has had a profound and widely-recognized impact on girls’ and women’s sports. But Title IX did not only offer parity in sports. It has been instrumental in compensating victims of discrimination and harassment by teachers, coaches, professors and other students. Until now. The Supreme Court quietly eviscerated this right just before Title IX’s anniversary, with little fanfare or public outrage. In a decision superficially limited to the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act, the Court eliminated damages under Title IX – and Title VI — for emotional distress.
Victims of sex and gender-based discrimination and harassment have successfully used Title IX to obtain relief when recipients of federal funds have failed to enforce the law. In Hawaii, for example, a jury awarded $810,000 after a ninth-grade girl with the intellectual ability of a second grader was raped by an older boy from her class. The girl’s mother previously had expressed concerns to the school about this student. In California, a male student was alleged to have pressured a middle school girl into sending nude pictures and used those pictures to blackmail her into performing oral sex; students then posted pictures on social media of the female student performing oral sex. She obtained a $2 million dollar settlement. In Florida, a jury awarded a single plaintiff $6 million dollars after a teacher sexually abused her during her junior and senior years in school. The abuse included child pornography and forcible kissing and touching. The school had previously received reports of sexual abuse but failed to investigate. In Colorado, a school district settled a claim for $5 million dollars. A teacher was alleged to have sexually abused a student when she was nine years old. The school knew the teacher had a history of inappropriate conduct but failed to act to prevent the abuse. Based on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Cummings v. Keller Premier Rehab, were claims like those brought today under Title IX, there could be no award for their depression, their suicide attempts, their eating disorders, their missed classes, their trauma.
In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX so that federal funds would not support discriminatory practices. The law bars educational programs or activities that accept federal funds from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sex. In other words, schools must take action to prevent and address sexual harassment and discrimination. Failing to do so could lead to the loss of important federal dollars (although in reality, that rarely if ever happens). Title IX was patterned after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by funding recipients with respect to race, color and national origin. Although neither statute expressly provides victims of discrimination with the right to sue in court, in 1979, after a female student alleged she was denied admission to medical school because of her sex, the Supreme Court held in Cannon v. University of Chicago, that Title IX (and Title VI) allowed her to sue in court. Over a decade later, in 1992, when a high school student sued alleging her teacher had sexually harassed and abused her, the Court confirmed that the right to bring suit included the ability to obtain money damages. This apparent expansion of rights may have peaked in the mid-90s: soon after, in its 1998 decision Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District,, the Court restricted when schools could be held liable for harassment.
University Systematically Whitewashed Valid Harassment Complaints by Black Employees
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign employees Derick Brown, Atiba Flemons, and Jeffrey Taylor are suing the University for racial discrimination and racial harassment. Central District of Illinois, 2:19-cv-02020. They have filed a motion to certify a class of thousands of Black employees seeking a Court Order ending illegal racial harassment. The motion shows, based on records produced by the University, that over the class period of six years the University has corroborated exactly zero complaints of discrimination against Black employees.
Mr. Brown, a machinist at the University’s Facilities & Services department, whose initial complaint in 2017 concerned a coworker’s donning a KKK-style hood while other coworkers, including Mr. Brown’s supervisor, looked on and laughed, testified to the University’s indifference: “How can you not say that’s racial when the KKK hood over a guy’s face that are all white? And that’s not racial to a black man? And they find it not racial?”