Trick or Treat? Employee Claims Discrimination After Attending Office Halloween Party

by Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP
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Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

Before you send out that next office-wide invite to a “holiday” party, think twice. Carmelite Lofton has sued her employer, BSN Sports, LLC—a Texas uniform and equipment retailer—when things turned sour after she was forced to attend an office Halloween party. Lofton—an African American and a Christian, says the party was contrary to her religious beliefs and afterward she endured verbal and professional slights due to her race, religion, and disability.

The Legal Issues

The complaint contains claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.  She argues that for the entirety of her employment she was subject to a hostile work environment, discriminated against on the basis of her disability (osteoarthritis), and paid less than her colleagues because of her race and religion. She argues that her termination in March 2017 was unlawful and motivated by discriminatory factors.

          Disability Discrimination Claims. Regarding her disability claim, Lofton alleges that she told BSN about her osteoarthritis at the start of her employment, but was still made to perform strenuous physical activities in direct contravention of her doctor’s orders. Under the ADA, employers are charged with providing reasonable accommodations to workers with known disabilities. Reasonable accommodations can include things such as time off, modified duties, or even a special work area if it will aid the disabled employee in carrying out their job responsibilities.

Here though, Lofton argues that BSN refused to accommodate her and terminated her employment under false pretext. Specifically, Lofton points to being made to stand for over an hour while in “excruciating pain” at the Halloween party and having to clean and pack the BSN office building after it had been damaged in a flood.

          Religious Discrimination Claims. Beyond experiencing discrimination and a hostile work environment because of her disability, Lofton also asserts that her religion was a cause of conflict during her time at BSN. Specifically, Lofton alleges (1) her superiors told her she was “going to hell” for bringing in tootsie rolls, (2) she was told she “didn’t have a choice” of whether she participated in the office Halloween party, and (3) she was intentionally asked to accompany her manager to “Condom Sense” despite the knowledge that it was opposite to her religious ideals.

Lofton recites a series of alleged cringe-worthy incidents ranging from management’s off-handed comments against the Bible to being continually interrupted during private prayer meetings held during her lunch break to being told she should “just have Kool-Aid” when she refused to drink alcohol with her colleagues. Regardless, Lofton’s complaint is chock full of alleged derogatory exchanges in support of her religiously hostile work environment claim.

          Race Discrimination Claims. Lofton claims she was treated differently because of her race. To argue a disparate treatment claim, Lofton must show that her employer intentionally discriminated against her or treated her less favorably because of her race.

Here, Lofton argues that her non-African American colleagues were paid more for doing the same job and/or for doing a job with lesser duties and responsibilities. Further, she asserts that her non-African American colleagues did not have to use PTO when out for injuries or illnesses, whereas she was forced to use PTO for her osteoarthritis surgery. To strengthen her claim, Lofton includes that her superior has previously been accused of racial discrimination, citing a 2015 incident where an email with “a stick figure being hung on a noose” was distributed company-wide.

So What Does This Mean for Employers?

All we know is what Ms. Lofton says in her complaint and we all know that BSN’s version of events is likely to tell a different story. The question now becomes, as employers, what can we learn from this complaint?

  1. Check your policies. For starters, this is an excellent time to re-evaluate your company’s policies and to focus on maintaining a workplace that is welcoming to all, regardless of race, religion, gender, disability, etc. Recognize that an employee’s religious beliefs are protected and make sure they are not the subject of jokes or potentially disparaging comments.
  2. Rethink mandatory holiday celebration. Refrain from forcing any employee, regardless of religious belief, to attend company holiday functions. It is far too easy to blur the line between optional and compelled attendance, but once blurred, you run the risk of facing the same type of problem now facing BSN.
  3. Keep your management and staff up-to-date on non-discrimination policies, have routine sensitivity training, and take the position that discriminatory behaviors will not be tolerated in any form or fashion. Encourage your staff to speak with HR or to use other resources to report instances of what they believe is discrimination.
  4. Do a quick audit. Look around to make sure people who have disclosed potential disabilities are being appropriately accommodated. For employees with obvious disabilities, check to see if they have requested accommodations and haven’t yet gotten them. Check their files to see if they have submitted anything in writing. If you find someone who has been overlooked, find a way to do it…quickly.

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