As We Predicted, Challenges to NY Reproductive Health Decision-Making Law Have Begun

Stephen E. Tisman

In a December 17, 2019, Blank Rome Workplace post, we described the law enacted in New York expanding “protected status” to cover employee decision-making regarding reproductive rights matters. (See blankromeworkplace.com/2019/12/17/new-york-expands-discrimination-protection-to-reproductive-health-decision-making/). We concluded with the prediction that:

The law will undoubtedly be challenged by an employer claiming that providing such coverage violates the employer’s religious beliefs (think Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). The ultimate fate of this statute will be resolved under federal First Amendment law.

That challenge has begun. On January 31, 2020, a lawsuit was filed in federal district court seeking a declaration that the statute is unconstitutional and void, and for an injunction to bar enforcing it against the plaintiffs. Christopher T. Slattery, et al. v. Andrew M. Cuomo, et al., U.S.D.C., N.D.N.Y., Case No. 5:00-at-99999.

Stay tuned for developments.

New York Expands Discrimination Protection to Reproductive Health Decision-Making

Stephen E. Tisman

On November 9, Governor Cuomo signed into law an amendment to the New York Labor Law making it illegal to discriminate against employees based upon the reproductive health decisions of employees or their dependents. The law went into effect immediately upon signing.

Specifically, the new law (N.Y. Labor Law § 203-e):

      • Prohibits an employer from accessing an employee’s personal information regarding reproductive health decision-making without the “employee’s prior informed affirmative written consent.”
      • Prohibits an employer from taking “retaliatory personnel action” against an employee with respect to compensation and terms of employment, because of the employee’s (or dependent’s) decision-making, including decisions regarding use of a drug, device, or medical service.
      • Prohibits requiring an employee to waive the right to make particular reproductive healthcare decisions.
      • Requires employee handbooks to include notice of employee rights and remedies under the new law.
      • Prohibits retaliation against an employee for protesting the violation of rights under the new law, filing an action under or related to the new law, or providing information to a public body.

The new law creates a legal right of action that an employee can pursue in any court of competent jurisdiction for damages, injunctive relief, reinstatement, attorneys’ fees, and liquidated damages equal to the damages awarded, with liquidated damages subject to a defense if the employer proves “a good faith basis to believe that its actions… were in compliance with the law.”

Immediate Takeaway

All New York employers must immediately revise employee handbooks to give notice of the law and available enforcement remedies.

Prediction

The Legislative Supporting Memorandum makes explicit the legislature’s intention to protect employees against employer efforts to deny them the benefit of the provision in the federal Affordable Care Act which requires that health insurance plans cover FDA-approved birth control methods, without out-of-pocket costs. The law will undoubtedly be challenged by an employer claiming that providing such coverage violates the employer’s religious beliefs (think Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). The ultimate fate of this statute will be resolved under federal First Amendment law.

Finally! U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh in on Title VII LGBTQ+ Protection

Jason E. Reisman and Mark Blondman

Just this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court finally agreed to hear three cases from the circuit courts that split on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The basic question boils down to whether the word “sex” includes a protection for LGBTQ+ employees.

EEOC Initiative/Trigger. Though there have been efforts over the last 50+ years to seek such protection under Title VII, the true impact came from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) push beginning in 2012, when it issued an administrative ruling holding that gender identity discrimination constitutes sex bias and therefore is protected. As everyone probably knows, in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit jumped into the fray with both feet in 2017, finding that Title VII’s “sex” does indeed include sexual orientation. In fact, before the full Seventh Circuit heard that case, a three-judge panel on that court had stated that it was a “paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act”—a reference to same sex marriage being legal. Continue reading “Finally! U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh in on Title VII LGBTQ+ Protection”

LGBT Protection under Title VII? “No,” Says Fifth Circuit Judge

Alix L. Udelson

Some 40 years ago, in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp. (1979), the Fifth Circuit pronounced that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. Despite the immense shift in the cultural and legal zeitgeists since then, including decisions from several federal appellate courts holding the exact opposite, the Fifth Circuit seized the opportunity in its recent decision in Wittmer v. Phillips 66 Company to reiterate—albeit in dicta—that the Blum decision remains the law of that Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Nicole Wittmer, a transgender female, received a conditional offer of employment from Phillips 66. But Phillips 66 rescinded the offer when Wittmer’s background check revealed that she had been less than candid about her employment history during her job interview.

Wittmer then filed suit against Phillips 66 alleging transgender discrimination under Title VII. Continue reading “LGBT Protection under Title VII? “No,” Says Fifth Circuit Judge”