Will U.S. Supreme Court hear major Title VII discrimination case? | Katz Melinger PLLC
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Will U.S. Supreme Court hear major Title VII discrimination case?

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An African-American oil platform worker has filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, requesting that the justices determine whether his employer violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it required black employees to work outside in the Louisiana summer without water, while white employees exclusively worked inside in air-conditioned facilities.

The plaintiff, David Peterson, submitted the petition for the matter entitled Peterson v. Linear Controls, Inc. on May 7. The employer's response is not due until Sept. 10, so we will not know whether the court will hear the case until a later date.

Scope of Title VII

Title VII is the main federal anti-discrimination statute in employment law. It forbids discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, religion and sex, with respect to "compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." In Peterson's case, the lower federal courts in the 5th Circuit applied a narrow definition of what protections there are under federal law, concluding that Title VII only prohibits discrimination in "hiring, firing, promotions, compensation, and leave."

Based on this limited definition, which has been adopted only in the 5th and 3rd Circuit Courts of Appeal, it was not discriminatory for Linear Controls, Inc. to require only workers who were members of a particular race to work in harsh conditions because it did not impact the "terms or conditions of employment."

Split in the federal circuits

At our law firm, most of our clients are in New York, which is located in the 2nd Circuit, a circuit that has a more expansive view of Title VII. The 2nd Circuit has "no bright-line rule" and discrimination under Title VII can reach inequality in more areas of work than in the 5th and 3rd circuits. For example, the 2nd Circuit has held that discriminatory distribution of work assignments is illegal under Title VII.

We will continue to monitor this case to see if the Supreme Court grants this petition in order to potentially resolve the split between districts. If certiorari is granted, regardless of the outcome, the decision would impact our New York and New Jersey employer and employee clients differently, since New Jersey is in the more restrictive 3rd Circuit. 

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