Civil Rights and the Supreme Court

Depending on how you define a civil rights case, this past term was, at least, on the surface a very good year for civil rights groups.  I say on the surface because some of the “wins” were only partial wins.  Of the cases most viewed as “civil rights” cases, the side seeking to protect/expand civil rights won 4-6 cases and the only loss was on a procedural issue.

It was a particularly good year if your claim involved religious discrimination.  In Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court found (in a rare win for an inmate) that Arkansas had to permit an inmate to have a half-inch beard under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  In E.E.O.C. v. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Supreme Court held that a person suing an employer for religious discrimination need only show that the employer’s perception of the possibility that the prospective employee would need a religious accommodation was one of the factors behind the decision to not hire that person.  (In this case, the applicant was a female Muslim who wore a hijab to the interview.  While the applicant’s religious beliefs were not expressly discussed during the interview, the store declined to hire her based on the belief that she would want an exemption from the company’s policy that employees could not wear any head covering.)

In a very technical decision, in two companion cases out of Alabama, the Supreme Court indicated that — even though preclearance is no longer required — the rules against a racial gerrymander of legislative districts will still have bite.  This case has already had a cascading effect on other reviews of the lines drawn for the 2012-20 elections.  Of course,  the fact that we are on the eve of the third round of elections under these lines is one of the reason why pre-clearance was such a big deal.

The last big win was the same sex marriage cases.  As noted in an earlier post on that decision. the only disappointment in those cases was the lack of a clear standard of review for cases involving state laws discriminating based on sexual orientation.

The remaining two wins were only partial wins.  In Young v, United Parcel Service, the Supreme Court held that a pregnant worker did have a potential claim for discrimination if the company refused to provide pregnant workers with the same accommodations (here light duty) that it provided to other workers who had similar difficulties in performing the full duties of the job.  However, the Supreme Court found that the employer still could offer evidence supporting its decision not to offer a similar accommodation to pregnant workers.  In other words, there may be cases when an employer does not have to offer pregnant workers the same-type of accommodation that it offers to employees with injuries.  In a long-awaited (two earlier cases had been settled by the parties before the Supreme Court could review the issue) fair housing case, the Supreme Court held that victims of housing discrimination could pursue a case based on a disparate impact theory (that a facially-neutral practice actually had the effect of discriminating against minorities seeking housing).  However, the Supreme Court used this case to emphasize that disparate impact claims require something more than merely showing a statistical disparity (i.e. disparate impact claims are not meant to establish quotas).

The only loss was on a procedural case, Mach Mining v. E.E.O.C.  Employment discrimination laws require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to attempt to resolve disputes with employers by negotiation before filing law suits.  The Supreme Court held that, to assure compliance with the requirements, courts could conduct a minimal review of the EEOC’s efforts to negotiate a settlement.  This review consists of determining if the EEOC sent an appropriate notice fully detailing the allegations and offered to meet to discuss how to resolve the alleged violations.   If courts stick to the standard set forth by the Supreme Court, this loss should only impose a minor procedural burden on the EEOC.  However, the fear going into this case is the potential for employers and courts to decide that the offer to meet to discuss a resolution was not a “real” offer as the EEOC was unwilling to negotiate in “good faith.”  The decision establishes a much more limited review of the efforts to negotiate, but how faithfully lower courts will comply with these limits remains to be seen.

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