Employment Discrimination and Domestic Violence

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn October 30, 2012In: Disabilities (ADA), Discrimination, Discrimination & Harassment, Gender (Title VII)

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Northern Delaware managed to escape Sandy largely unscathed, I feel very lucky to say. Our thoughts are with those who are still without power and, especially, with those whose homes were damaged by the storm. I am grateful to be able to return to work, though. In the spirit of maintaining normalcy, today's post is not going to focus on hurricanes, floods, or other natural disasters. Just employment law. Stay safe, everyone.

No federal employment law expressly prohibits discrimination against an employee because of the employee's involvement in domestic violence. For many employers, the idea of intentionally discriminating against a victim of domestic violence may be difficult to envision, even. I have seen this issue manifested in a few different contexts.

First, there's the employee who is chronically absent from work as a result of domestic violence at home. In that case, the employer wants to know whether it is lawful to discipline the employee for her absenteeism, or whether it must permit her some type of leeway because the absences are not merely a result of the employee playing "hooky." This question is particularly difficult when the employer's attendance policy distinguishes between "excused" and "unexcused" absences.

Second, there's the employer who wants to terminate an employee who is involved with a violent domestic partner for fear that the partner will carry out a violent act in the workplace. This usually arises when the employer learns that the partner has been stalking the employee, often on or just outside the employer's property. In that case, the employer is concerned about protecting its employees and wants to prevent a workplace shooting or similarly tragic event. This issue is as complicated as the first scenario, above, because it proposes that it is better to save the flock than a single sheep.

But where does Title VII and the ADA come into play in these and other situations involving domestic violence? The EEOC's most recent fact sheet addresses this question and offers some thought-provoking answers. The fact sheet offers some examples of how the federal anti-discrimination laws may apply to employment situations involving applicants and employees who experience domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking. Many of the examples are not as much about domestic violence as they are about anti-retaliation and anti-harassment. For instance, the fact sheet explains that an employee who is given less favorable assignments after reporting that she was raped by a manager during a business trip. This example is, in my opinion, a bit obvious and not precisely within the framework of domestic-violence discrimination.

But a more provocative item on the fact sheet is the "Answer" that concludes that an employer who terminates an employee after learning she has been subjected to domestic violence, saying that he fears the potential 'drama battered women bring to the workplace.' On the whole, I would agree that this sort of gender-based stereotype likely violates Title VII. The trouble that I have with it, though, is that it's a bit conclusory on the question of intent.

I can easily imagine a scenario like the one I described above, when an employer decides to terminate a female employee whose husband has appeared at the workplace and threatened the employee or even her coworkers. Worried about the likelihood of future disruptions and potential violence, the employer considers whether it owes a duty to its other employees to prevent such incidents by terminating the victim. Although it would be easy to assume the worst by concluding that the employer just wanted to avoid the "drama" associated with battered women, it may be a more legitimate fear that drives the employer's decision.

Employment decisions are never easy. Employers often have to make tough calls and, rightfully so, worry that their choices will be later challenged as unlawful. The best starting point for these tough choices is to ask, "what's fair?" It's no coincidence that an honest answer to that question also is usually the most legally defensible position.

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