Retailers have been the predominant targets of a recent wave of demand letters claiming that their websites and mobile applications unlawfully discriminate against disabled customers. These demands come on the heels of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) confirmation that, in 2018, it will propose accessibility standards for private businesses, based on the accessibility standards it has already proposed for public entities. Even with two months left in the year, 2016 has already seen more single-plaintiff and class action lawsuits actually filed against retailers on this issue than ever before. In the face of an increasingly active plaintiffs’ bar, any retailer with a commercial website or mobile application—especially those operating in California, New York, or Pennsylvania, where the majority of these suits have been filed—should take notice and prepare accordingly.
On September 14, 2016, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D – D.C. At Large) introduced the Pay Equity for All Act of 2016 (the “PEAA”) in the U.S. House of Representatives. In relevant part, the PEAA would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq., to prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their previous wages or salary histories, including benefits or other compensation. In addition to prohibiting these pre-hire inquiries, the PEAA prohibits employers from seeking out the information on their own. The PEAA prohibits employers from retaliating against any employee or applicant because the employee opposed any practice unlawful under the law or for testifying or participating in any investigation or proceeding relating to any act or practice made unlawful by the PEAA. Any “person” who violates the PEAA is subject to a civil penalty of $5,000 for the first “offense,” which increases by $1,000 for each subsequent offense, up to $10,000. In addition, any person violating the PEAA is liable to each employee or prospective employee who is subject to a violation for special damages not to exceed $10,000 plus attorneys’ fees, as well as potential injunctive relief.
In her introductory remarks, Representative Norton explained that the purpose of the PEAA was to “help eliminate the gender and racial pay gap” and to “ensure that applicants’ salaries are based on their skills and merit, not on a potentially problematic salary history.” The bill initially was co-sponsored by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D – CT), Jerrold Nadler (D – NY), and Jackie Speier (D – CA); subsequent co-sponsors include Representatives Gwen Moore (D – WI), John Conyers, Jr. (D – MI), Barbara Lee (D – CA), and Frederica S. Wilson (D – FL). The PEAA was immediately referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Maryland joins California, New York and Massachusetts by passing legislation aimed at combating wage disparity based on gender. (For a discussion on California, New York and Massachusetts’s Equal Pay Laws, click on our previous posts.)
Expanding Equal Pay for Equal Work
The new law, which goes into effect October 1, 2016, amends Maryland’s existing Equal Pay for Equal Work Act by expanding the prohibition on wage discrimination based on “sex” to also include “gender identity.” The protection against pay discrimination for work performed in the same establishment and of comparable character or on the same operation encompasses more than just unequal payment of wages. The new law also bars discrimination for “providing less favorable employment opportunities,” which includes: (1) assigning or directing an employee into a less favorable career track or position; (2) failing to provide information about promotions or advancement opportunities in the full range of career tracks offered by the employer; or (3) limiting or depriving an employee of employment opportunities that would otherwise be available but for the employee’s sex or gender identity.
Traci Ribeiro’s class action lawsuit against her employer Sedgwick LLP is the latest in a string of lawsuits in the pay equity battle, which has been highlighted in this year’s Presidential election and through the recent EEOC claim filed by the U.S. womens’ soccer team. Ribeiro is a non equity partner who claims that, as one of the firm’s three highest revenue generating partners, she has been denied equity partnership and was subjected to retaliation for filing an EEOC complaint claiming gender discrimination. She seeks to represent a class of past and present female attorneys in partnership track positions at the firm; her complaint alleges violations of the California Fair Pay Act, Illinois Fair Pay Act, and Federal Equal Pay, as well as gender discrimination and retaliation under the California FEHA, Illinois Human Rights Act, and Title VII. Ribeiro claims, in addition to routinely paying women lawyers less than their male counterparts, Sedgwick has denied women equity partnership and membership on its Executive Committee (until 2016, when Ribeiro made a formal complaint about gender discrimination). She asserts discrimination under both a disparate treatment and disparate impact theory.