May 15, 2017 Category: gender discrimination
On May 4, a gender discrimination lawsuit was filed against Independent Sports & Entertainment, a California sports agency, in the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles. Joyce Li, the employee filing the complaint, claimed that her former employer had subjected her to a discriminatory workplace environment and retaliated against her by terminating her employment with the company. Specifically, Li claims that Independent Sports & Entertainment (1) excluded her from company retreats, (2) paid her less than her male counterparts, and (3) subjected her to discriminatory workplace policies, including the dress code.
California Law Prohibits Discrimination on the Basis of Sex
In California, employers – whether public or private – may not engage in discriminatory workplace practices on the basis of an employee’s sex. In her lawsuit, Li makes three distinct claims of employment discrimination. Each of Li’s claims is slightly different, and each may be protected by a different piece of anti-discrimination law. While more information would be necessary for a complete analysis of her claims, we thought it would be interesting to take a broad look at the legal arguments and protections for each.
Excluding Female Employees from Participating in Company Retreats
Li claims that Independent Sports & Entertainment subjected her to a “blatantly discriminatory” workplace environment, which included excluding her from “sports division retreats.” Employers in California are prohibited from treating employees differently solely on the basis of their sex. If it is true that Li was excluded because she is a woman, her former employer could be liable for the damages she is demanding.
The California Constitution, after the passing of Proposition 209, explicitly prohibits the discrimination of employees on the basis of sex. If Li were a public employee she would clearly be covered under this provision. However, Li worked for a private employer who was not subject to the amendment.
However, other laws – both Federal and California state – also protect employees from discriminatory workplace practices. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender. The law, to which employers with 15 or more employees are subject, applies to hiring, firing, and workplace practices.
California’s own Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) also prohibits employers from discriminating against (or favorably treating) employees because of their sex. FEHA is generally more broadly applicable and applies to California employers with at least 5 employees.
Under these laws, it is probable that an employer would be required to provide access to workplace retreats to employees equally. This is not to say that Independent Sports & Entertainment would be prohibited from setting certain criteria for eligibility – such as minimum service with the company or level of employment (full time vs. part time) – so long as these criteria were not influenced by sex or another protected trait.
Paying Female Employees Less Than Male Counterparts
The law is clear when it comes to equal pay. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the California Equal Pay Act both guarantee that employees equal pay for equal work. California employers are also prohibited from paying employees less because they are not the principal wage earner in a household.
Unfortunately, a significant pay gap between men and women still exists, despite these laws. An analysis by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that “women in California would earn $78.6 billion more per year if their mean pay were the same as men’s.”
If Li can provide evidence showing that male employees who held the same or similar positions, or who had similar job duties and responsibilities, were compensated more handsomely than she was, she may have a solid claim for discrimination.
Workplace Dress Code Policies Favoring One Sex
Li indicated that Independent Sports & Entertainment’s workplace dress code was enforced in a discriminatory manner. The Complaint specifically argues that “Human Resources and upper management made issue of Li’s office attire” and that “she was admonished for supposedly violating the office dress code when she wore walking shorts [mid thigh length] to work…[while] all the male employees came to work in casual and beach attire, such as board shorts, flip-flop sandals, T-shirts, and work out gear.” Essentially, the complaint argued that the dress code was not enforced evenly for both female and male employees.
Once again, the law is clear in that employers may not treat men and women differently on the basis of gender. Differences in treatment may very well be sexual discrimination – including uneven enforcement of a dress code.
The permissibility of a workplace dress code – and its enforcement on both sexes – has long been litigated and entrenched in the legal system. In 1994, California passed a law that expressly permitted female employees to wear pants to work, regardless of any existing or future dress code requirements a company may have. Since then, workplace dress codes have evolved to embrace more universal and unisex standards. Dress codes can differ between men and women, but the requirements and enforcement cannot be unduly burdensome on one gender.
If Li’s allegations are true, Independent Sports & Entertainment may be in hot legal water for engaging in sexual discrimination.
Employers Prohibited from Retaliating Against Discriminated Employees
The law not only disallows discriminatory employment practices, but protects employees from retaliatory employment practices, as well. An employer may not engage in retaliation – including terminating, demoting, or suspending an employee – simply because he or she opposes discriminatory practices. Seeking legal reprieve, including filing a lawsuit and claim for damages, is behavior that is protected by law.