Sarah Crawford

  • November 19, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness, National Partnership for Women & Families

    Later this term, the Supreme Court will decide the case of Vance v. Ball State, a case that will have critical implications for the ability of our nation’s civil rights laws to root out unlawful workplace harassment. At issue in the case is the meaning of “supervisor” and whether employers may be held vicariously liable for harassment committed by supervisors who have the authority to direct and oversee employees’ work, as compared to those who have the authority to hire or fire.  The Court’s decision will have important ramifications for the ability of victims of supervisor harassment to hold their employers accountable. 

    With so much at stake, the National Partnership for Women & Families led a group of ten top civil and workers’ rights organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in Vance that calls on the Court to reject an overly restrictive definition of supervisor that is limited to those with the authority to make “tangible” employment decisions like hiring and firing. Quite simply, this definition does not reflect the realities of the workplace or the Court’s previously demonstrated understanding of what it means to be a supervisor. 

    Petitioner Maetta Vance worked at Ball State University as a catering assistant for the university’s dining services department when she was harassed by an employee that she considered to be a supervisor with the authority to direct and oversee her work. Vance alleges that, as a result of the harassment and physical intimidation she suffered, she lived and worked in a constant state of fear. Despite her complaints to the university, the harassment persisted.

  • June 20, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness, National Partnership for Women & Families

    Fairness and equal opportunity are among our nation’s most basic values. They are especially critical in the workplace due to families’ increasing dependence on the wages of both men and women. That’s why Congress has passed landmark civil rights laws designed to protect workers’ right to hold jobs and provide for their families free from harmful discrimination. Yet, just last year, the United States Supreme Court eroded that right with its decision to deny more than one million women the ability to join together to challenge the discriminatory practices of the nation’s largest private employer. Fortunately, Congress now has the chance to undo the damage. 

    The Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes was a devastating blow to the right of all workers to combat systemic discrimination in the workplace. In short, the Court said that Betty Dukes – a female greeter at Wal-Mart who received lower pay and fewer promotion opportunities than her male co-workers – could not join with other female Wal-Mart workers to hold the company accountable for unlawful widespread discrimination through a class action lawsuit. In doing so, the decision created significant barriers to justice for future victims of discrimination.

    Now, workers who seek to challenge the widespread discriminatory practices of their employers must meet stringent new standards to show that their claims are similar enough to be joined together. This makes it more difficult for workers to challenge discrimination that occurs through the subjective judgments that often factor into personnel decisions. And it opens the door for companies to hide behind the existence of written nondiscrimination policies, despite evidence that discrimination exists in practice.

    It should not be so difficult for workers who suffer discrimination to combat unlawful employer practices and have their day in court. The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2012, which was introduced today, would reverse the damage done by the Wal-Mart decision and restore the right of workers to join together to challenge systemic discrimination. It is critical legislation that would give workers who suffer from unlawful practices a fighting chance.

  • March 21, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness, National Partnership for Women & Families

    “This grading of Congress’s homework is a task we are ill suited to perform and ill advised to undertake.” 

    -- Justice Scalia’s concurring opinion in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals

    By a narrow majority, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals – has eroded the right of millions of state workers to take job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) when faced with a serious illness, injury, or pregnancy. In these tough economic times of high unemployment, the Supreme Court has dealt another devastating blow to millions of workers – making them vulnerable to losing their jobs if they need time off for medical leave. The Court ruled that states cannot be sued for monetary damages for violating the FMLA’s medical leave provision, leaving state workers with little meaningful recourse if their employers deny the self-care leave guaranteed by the plain language of the FMLA.

    The FMLA set an important family and medical leave standard that guarantees eligible workers – both women and men – up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to recover from a serious illness or medical condition, including pregnancy or childbirth, or to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member.

    Since its enactment 19 years ago, workers have used the FMLA more than 100 million times. The law has helped workers disabled by pregnancy or recovering from childbirth, workers with new babies and dying parents, workers who have had heart attacks and hysterectomies – in short, workers for whom job-protected leave is of critical importance.

    Petitioner Daniel Coleman was one such worker facing a serious illness who sought to exercise his rights to medical leave. He was working for a Maryland court when his doctor ordered bed rest. After requesting medical leave, Coleman was fired the next day. He then filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of the FMLA.

  • March 1, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness, National Partnership for Women & Families.
    Too often, the interests of workers and businesses are assumed to be at odds. According to a friend-of-the-court brief filed today, in the largest employment discrimination case in our nation's history, this doesn't have to be true.

    The National Partnership for Women & Families joined with women's business groups to file the brief, which calls on the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the benefits of fair, inclusive policies for businesses, and the importance of class action lawsuits in reforming discriminatory practices, as it considers whether the case of Dukes v. Wal-Mart can continue as a class action.

    Dukes v. Wal-Mart has been making headlines since it began. In 2000, Betty Dukes, a female greeter at a Wal-Mart store in California suffered an unfair pay cut and demotion. Soon after, she learned that female Wal-Mart employees across the country had experienced similar injustices. In 2001, Dukes and 1.6 million women like her, who had or currently were working for Wal-Mart, sought to hold the company responsible for the company's discriminatory pay and promotion practices.

    Despite evidence that the practices in question were widespread and systemic, Wal-Mart has tried to avoid liability in the case by claiming that it is too big to handle. The argument has failed in the lower courts, but the company has appealed the issue to the Supreme Court. It will hear argument on whether or not the women should be able to proceed as one class on March 29th.

    The future of the case currently rests on the claim by Wal-Mart - the nation's largest private sector employer - that its employees cannot collectively charge it with wrongdoing because the group is too large. Can a company really be too big to be held accountable when it breaks the law? According to the brief filed on behalf of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, California Women Lawyers and the National Partnership, the answer is no-and, notably, fair policies and the reforms achieved through class actions are not necessarily bad for business.

    As the brief details, compelling research demonstrates the benefits of fair pay and promotion policies for businesses. By paying their workers fairly, employers boost employee retention and productivity while enhancing their own image.

    Contrary to common objections by employers, fairness in the workplace can actually boost business bottom lines. And of course, discrimination is against the law. Therefore, by following the law and treating their workers fairly, businesses protect themselves against costly litigation and liability.

  • June 30, 2009
    Guest Post

    By Sarah C. Crawford, Senior Counsel for the Employment Discrimination Project, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Ms. Crawford previewed oral arguments in
    Ricci v. DeStefano on ACSblog here. This analysis is part of an ACS online symposium, "Experts on Ricci," being published here.

    "The . . . standard [announced by the majority], as barely described in general, and cavalierly applied in this case, makes voluntary compliance a hazardous venture."
    --Justice Ginsburg, writing for the dissent

    In the 5-4 decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, a narrow majority of justices on the Supreme Court concluded that the city of New Haven, Conn. violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when it declined to make promotions in the fire department on the basis of a test that screened out almost all of the minority test-takers. With this decision, the Court has endangered critical equal employment opportunity safeguards that have been in place for decades to encourage employers to utilize tests that are both fair and effective.

    Despite the rulings below for the city and fervent arguments on appeal from both civil rights groups and employer groups in defense of the city's actions, most expected the majority to rule along ideological grounds for the Ricci plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the decision offered a number of surprises, particularly in terms of how far the Court was willing to go to rule for these plaintiffs.

    Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the decision is the disregard for the fundamental rule of statutory construction to look to the plain language of a statute and the underlying congressional intent. Looking to the plain language of Title VII, Congress clearly intended for employers to ensure that tests are "job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity" and to adopt "alternative employment practice[s]" that would lessen a disparate impact. This decision contravenes the clear legislative language and intent of Title VII.