three discrimination cases

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Young v. UPS, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, and Texas Dept. of Housing & Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project

The Court also issued new guidance on an older law in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. [Read our Preview here.] The Court examined the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and requires companies to treat pregnant workers the same as others who do the same job. This case required the Court to determine the circumstances in which a plaintiff claiming discrimination based on pregnancy has made a strong enough initial showing to put the burden of proof on her employer to prove that discrimination did not occur. It ruled that once a worker alleges that she requested a workplace accommodation based on her pregnancy; but, that her employer denied that request while granting similar accommodations to other workers due to other disabilities such as injury, then it is the employer who must prove that it was motivated by a business purpose and did not intend to discriminate. Even then, the pregnant worker can still prevail by showing that the policy, despite its intent, places a burden on female employees that outweighs the benefit the company gains from enforcing it.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., also an employment discrimination case, addressed when employers could enforce workplace policies against employees for whom following the policy would constitute a violation of their religious beliefs or practices. [Read our Preview here.] The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Abercrombie & Fitch (A & F) for its failure to hire a young Muslim woman who wore a black headscarf in violation of the chain’s internal “Look Policy.” Justice Antonin Scalia’s eight-member majority opinion stated that Title VII only requires that the employee show that she suffered a disparate impact based on the practice of her religious beliefs through the employer’s failure to hire her, at least where the company had some notion that the practice was motivated by a religious belief. In other words, an employee does not need to show that the employer actually knew of the religious belief or took action motivated by an animus toward that belief. The majority appears to have left open in a footnote the possibility that an employer may still be liable for discrimination of this type even when that employer is completely unaware that the practice in question is religious in nature. Justice Alito, while joining the majority, dissented from that footnote, writing that it “reserves decision on the question whether it is a condition of liability that the employer know or suspect that the practice he refuses to accommodate is a religious practice.” He explained that he “would hold that an employer cannot be held liable for taking an adverse action because of an employee’s religious practice unless the employer knows that the employee engages in the practice for a religious reason.”

In Texas Dept. of Housing & Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Court tackled another kind of discrimination also addressed by a federal statute: housing discrimination. [Read our Preview here.] Justice Kennedy, writing for a majority that included Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, allowed for housing discrimination lawsuits under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) to proceed on a disparate impact claim even where the alleged misconduct is unintentional. To proceed on such a claim, the plaintiff needs only to allege that that the conduct in question affects an already disadvantaged group and does not need to allege discriminatory intent on anyone’s part. The Court compared the FHA to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) and noted that both Title VII and the ADEA recognize disparate impact claims, adding that Title VII and the ADEA protect similar rights and have similar policies to the FHA. By allowing disparate impact claims under the FHA, the Supreme Court validated the rulings of every federal appellate court that had confronted the issue, since all of them had allowed such claims to proceed.