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Developments in Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claims under Title VII

Posted in Employment Litigation, Litigation Trends, Rhode Island Courts

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Federal circuits are currently split on whether discrimination based on sexual orientation falls within the scope of discrimination based on sex (and therefore within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition). On February 26, 2018, the en banc Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in Zarda v. Altitude Express that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex does in fact cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, overturning its own precedent holding from almost twenty years prior. This result signals increased viability for challenges advocating a broader interpretation of Title VII to remedy sexual orientation discrimination, as well as a potential pushback by the Jeff Sessions-helmed Justice Department as these challenges arise.


Zarda involved a skydiving instructor (Zarda) who alleged that his employer (Altitude Express) fired him in response to a customer telling them of his sexual orientation. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment in favor of Altitude Express on Zarda’s claim, finding that Title VII failed to cover sexual orientation discrimination, and that Zarda failed to establish the type of gender-stereotyping claim covered by the act. The District Court considered itself bound by the Second Circuit’s 17-year-old decision in Simonton v. Runyon, and held that, absent an en banc review by the Second Circuit reversing Simonton, Second Circuit precedent required dismissal. Zarda appealed the summary judgment to the Second Circuit, which granted an en banc review. Writing the majority opinion, Judge Robert Katzmann wrote in the majority opinion that sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves sex discrimination, as it means discrimination against someone based on their own sex in relation to the sex of those to whom they are sexually attracted. Katzmann noted that although Congress had not sought to address sexual orientation discrimination in Title VII, laws like Title VII “often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” which in this case included sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit thus reversed Simonson, vacated the summary judgment, and remanded the Title VII claim to the District Court.


By allowing such a claim to proceed under Title VII, the Second Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit, which found last April that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination in its decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Hively concerned an adjunct professor who alleged that her employer passed her up for full employment because she was openly gay. Hively argued that she faced discriminated for failing to conform to female stereotypes, and because she publicly identified as a lesbian. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the summary judgment in favor of her employer. It found that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination” and that “a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.” According to the Seventh Circuit, Title VII encompassed both her gender non-conformity and sexual orientation discrimination allegations.


The Eleventh Circuit held otherwise in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, decided on March 10, 2017. The case involved a male-identifying security hospital security guard (Evans) allegedly dismissed from employment for failing to present as a woman. Like the plaintiff in Hively, Evans argued that she suffered discrimination due to her gender non-conformity, which she argued fell within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit agreed that Title VII protected against this type of discrimination, but found that she failed to make a prima facie showing of it. The Eleventh Circuit distinguished discrimination based on gender non-conformity from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and found that Title VII did not address the latter.


In Franchina v. City of Providence, decided on January 25, 2018, the First Circuit heard the city’s appeal of a verdict and judgment against it for a female firefighter’s Title VII claim that her employer provided her with a hostile workplace, where she suffered discrimination as both a woman and a lesbian. She proceeded under a “sex-plus” theory, or a gender discrimination claim alleging that an employer classifies employees based on their sex “plus” another characteristic (in this case, sexual orientation). The First Circuit held in denying the city’s challenge that the plaintiff’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination, although not technically redressable under Title VII, did not cause her meritorious sex discrimination claim to fail. In a jurisdiction following Zarda’s reasoning, this “sex-plus” heuristic becomes less meaningful or necessary for the plaintiffs to resort to, where sexual orientation itself becomes a protectable distinction. The difference between two jurisdiction’s analyses in cases like Franchina underscores the stakes in the national push for Circuit reconsideration of narrow judicial applications of Title VII.


After these cases, a pronounced Circuit split exists on the scope of Title VII’s coverage. On December 11, 2017, the Supreme Court refused certiorari for the plaintiff’s appeal in Evans, but more appeals to the Court’s jurisdiction on this issue appear imminent. The Second Circuit’s reversal appears to increase the impetus for the Supreme Court to address this question. In the meantime, state legislatures draft their own provisions aimed at remedying the type of discrimination typified by these suits.

Rhode Island Supreme Court Redefines Requirements for Modifying an Arbitration Award that Exceeds Insurance Policy Limits

Posted in Insurance Litigation, Litigation Trends, Rhode Island Courts

In a recent decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that when an arbitration award exceeds the insurance policy limits, the Superior Court cannot consider the policy limits, or the insurance policy itself, in a motion to modify the award, unless the insurance company asserted a policy limit defense at the arbitration and provided a copy of the policy to the arbitrator.


In Lemerise v. Commerce Ins. Co., the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that trial courts may not supplement the review of a motion to modify an arbitration award pursuant to R.I. General Laws Section 10-3-14 with testimony, other evidence, and even arguments, if those items were not raised during the arbitration.  137 A.3d 692 (R.I. 2016).  This new precedent provides instructions to the trial court when reviewing motions to modify arbitration awards.  Courts are now forbidden to review evidence and arguments that were not presented or raised during the arbitration proceedings, and have been instructed to confirm arbitration awards unless the narrow exceptions outlined in Section 10-3-14 apply.


The underlying matter in Lemerise involved a dispute between the plaintiff, Joseph Lemerise, and the defendant, the Commerce Insurance Company.  In August 2011, Mr. Lemerise was struck by an uninsured motorist while crossing a street in Newport, Rhode Island.  Lemerise, 137 A.3d at 697.  Following the accident, Mr. Lemerise filed a claim for coverage under his automobile insurance policy through Commerce.  Id.  The parties unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate appropriate compensation for Mr. Lemerise’s injuries and a suit was subsequently filed in the Newport County Superior Court.  Id.  After filing the suit, the parties agreed to participate in arbitration pursuant to the terms of Mr. Lemerise’s uninsured motorist policy.  Id. at 705.  The arbitrator sought to determine the extent of Mr. Lemerise’s injuries and award sufficient compensation.  Id. at 698.  The arbitrator assessed Mr. Lemerise’s injuries at $150,000 and added prejudgment interest of $47,550, which brought the total award to $197,550.  Id. This total was well above the policy limit of $100,000.  Id.


At the conclusion of the arbitration, Mr. Lemerise moved in the superior court to confirm the arbitration award, and Commerce filed a motion seeking modification.  Id. at 698.  While reviewing the motions, the superior court supplemented its review of the issues at hand with a copy of Mr. Lemerise’s insurance policy, as well as testimony from the arbitrator.  Id.  The superior court justice granted Commerce’s motion to modify the award to conform with the insurance policy limit of $100,000.  Id. at 699.  The justice stated that he would not “allow [Mr. Lemerise] to take advantage of some technicality to get more than he bargained for in this case.”  Id.  Mr. Lemerise appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, seeking a reversal of the superior court’s holding and a confirmation of the initial arbitration award.  Id.


The sole issue presented before the Supreme Court was whether the trial justice erred in granting the motion to modify the award, when, after supplementing the record with the admission of the insurance policy and the testimony of the arbitrator, he reduced the award to conform to the policy limit of $100,000.  Id. at 700.  Upon review of the lower court’s holding, the Rhode Island Supreme Court expressed concern that litigants might sidestep the binding effect of arbitration awards by moving for modification of the awards.  Id. at 699.  The Court stated that “[p]ublic policy favors the finality of arbitration awards, and such awards enjoy a presumption of finality.” Id.  The Supreme Court further stated that courts reviewing a motion to confirm an arbitration award must limit the scope of their review to the arbitration record.  Id. at 700.


In Lemerise, the Court determined that Commerce effectively waived certain defense arguments regarding awards in excess of the insurance policy limits by not raising those defenses in the arbitration proceedings.  Id. at 704.  Particularly, the Court concluded that Commerce waived a policy limit defense by failing to submit a copy of Mr. Lemerise’s insurance policy during the arbitration proceedings.  Id.  In addition, the Court determined that the arbitrator did not err by awarding prejudgment interest.  Id. 700-04. The Court vacated the superior court’s order and remanded the case to the superior court with instructions to confirm the arbitrator’s award of $197,550.  Id. at 704-05.


In conclusion, the Rhode Island Supreme Court made clear that a trial court considering a motion to modify an arbitration award pursuant to section 10-3-14 may not expand its review beyond the arbitration record.  Therefore, when an insurance policy limit may be a defense, it is imperative that such arguments, and any supporting evidence, are introduced at the arbitration hearing; otherwise there is no remedy for arbitration awards in excess of the policy.

Bristol-Meyers Squibb Standard Helps MG+M Attorneys Secure a Dismissal

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, California Courts, Litigation Trends

Recently, a team of attorneys from MG+M successfully obtained a dismissal of all claims against their client, based on the lack of personal jurisdiction.  The case was Howell v. Asbestos Corporation, pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court before the coordinating asbestos judge, the Honorable Steven J. Kleifield.  In his decision dismissing the claims, Judge Kleifield applied the stringent personal jurisdiction standards recently set forth in Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017).


In Bristol-Meyers, the United States Supreme court examined whether a state court could exercise personal jurisdiction over the claims of non-resident plaintiffs against a non-resident corporate defendant for injuries occurring out of the forum state.  Id. at 1778  Specifically, a group of plaintiffs sued Bristol-Myers Squibb (Bristol) in a California court for injuries sustained after ingesting a drug manufactured and supplied by Bristol.  Many of the plaintiffs were not from California. Bristol was incorporated in Delaware with its principal place of business in New York; however, it did have some connections with California, as it sold its drug within the state.


Ultimately, the Court ruled that California courts could not exercise specific personal jurisdiction over Bristol with respect to any plaintiffs who did not reside in California, because any conduct giving rise to the non-resident plaintiffs’ claims occurred outside of California. The Court noted that specific jurisdiction necessitates “an affiliation between the forum and underlying controversy, principally, [an] activity or an occurrence that takes place in the forum state.”  Id. at 1781.  Thus, because the complaint did not allege any acts or occurrences in California that specifically resulted in injury, the Court ruled that California could not exercise personal jurisdiction over the claims against Bristol.


In the Howell v. Asbestos Corporation case decided last week, the plaintiffs alleged that Mr. Howell developed malignant epithelial mesothelioma as a result of exposure to various asbestos-containing products. Although the plaintiff did reside in California for a short period of time, the vast majority of the plaintiff’s alleged exposure to asbestos occurred in the state of Texas. On behalf of one of the defendants, attorneys from MG+M argued that California courts lacked personal jurisdiction over our client pursuant to the standard set forth in Bristol-Meyers. Specifically, MG+M attorneys argued the plaintiff’s claims did not relate to any contacts that the defendant had with the state of California. For example, the defendant was not incorporated in California, did not have its principal place of business in California, and had less than 1 percent of employees residing in California, meaning there was no general jurisdiction. Additionally, the plaintiff’s alleged injury from the defendant’s product occurred outside of the state of California, meaning there was no specific jurisdiction. Ultimately, Judge Kleifield applied the Bristol-Meyers standard and held that because the plaintiffs’ claims did not bear a substantial connection to the non-resident defendant’s forum contacts, the exercise of personal jurisdiction was not appropriate.



The Future of Bristol-Meyers


Since the decision in Bristol-Meyers, corporate defendants are raising more personal jurisdiction challenges and achieving greater success. The Bristol-Meyers standard for personal jurisdiction has fundamentally changed the rules governing where corporate defendants can be sued, limiting plaintiffs’ lawyers’ ability to select favorable forums in which to file claims (i.e. forum shopping).  To establish specific jurisdiction, plaintiffs’ lawyers now must plead specific facts that show a connection between their client’s claims and the forum in which they seek adjudication.

No More Double-Dipping in Michigan

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, Litigation Trends

The federal Bankruptcy Code allows companies in bankruptcy proceedings to establish asbestos bankruptcy trusts, in which assets are set aside for the benefit of future claimants whose specific identity is unknown at the time of the bankruptcy. So-called “double dipping” can occur when a plaintiff seeks recovery from an asbestos bankruptcy trust without disclosing that recovery in litigation against other defendants.  Recent legislative amendments in Michigan will make it more difficult for individuals to engage in double dipping.

On February 8, 2018, the Michigan State Legislature passed House Bill 5456, which amended the Revised Judicature Act by adding the Asbestos Bankruptcy Trust Claims Transparency Act (the “Transparency Act”).  Currently, a plaintiff seeking compensation for asbestos exposure may seek redress in two ways: by filing a complaint in court, and by filing a claim against an asbestos bankruptcy trust.  To date, there are approximately 60 asbestos bankruptcy trusts in the United States with assets approaching $25 billion, which have been established for the sole purpose of paying asbestos-related personal injury claims.  Although the Transparency Act does not eliminate a plaintiff’s ability to seek compensation from both the trusts rand litigation, it imposes disclosure requirements to prevent a plaintiff from “double-dipping.”  Thus, under the Transparency Act, any compensation received from an asbestos trust will be credited against any judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.

Pursuant to the Transparency Act, a plaintiff in an asbestos action must, within 30 days after filing an action, provide a signed statement, under penalty of perjury, attesting that any and all potential asbestos trust claims that could be filed, have been filed.  In addition, a plaintiff must provide—to all parties—all trust claim materials,[1] including those that relate to conditions other than those that are the basis for the asbestos action.  Finally, if the plaintiff’s asbestos trust claim is based on secondary exposure through another individual, he or she must submit all trust claim materials submitted by the other individual.

The Transparency Act affirmatively requires a plaintiff to provide up-to-date trust claim materials, and it also provides defendants with tools to deter a plaintiff from failing to comply with her disclosure obligations.  A defendant in an asbestos action now has the ability to request a 60-day stay, if the defendant identifies an asbestos trust claim that a plaintiff has failed to disclose to the parties, and the defendant believes the claim should have been identified.  After a motion to stay the matter has been filed, the burden to lift the stay shifts to the plaintiff, who may respond in one of three ways: file the asbestos trust claim; file a response stating that there is insufficient evidence for the plaintiff to file the asbestos trust claim; or request a determination from the court that the costs to file the asbestos trust claim would outweigh the expected recovery.

The Transparency Act also provides safeguards for those scenarios in which a plaintiff first obtains a judgment in an asbestos action and then files an asbestos trust claim that was already in existence at the time of the judgment.  In that scenario, defendants are permitted to file a motion to re-open the case and alter the judgment to reflect any asbestos trust payments obtained by the plaintiff.

Unsurprisingly, attorneys who represent clients with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers are vehemently opposed to this legislation.  One such attorney, Jay Bedortha, stated, “This bill allows the defendants to control whether or not our clients, who are dying of cancer, are going to have a trial date during their lifetime, or whether the trial date has to wait until after they’ve passed away.”[2]  By contrast, proponents of the legislation laud the transparency created between solvent defendants and bankruptcy trusts.

Michigan is not the only state to enact this kind of law.  Since 2011, the following states have enacted similar legislation aimed at preventing plaintiffs from double-dipping when making asbestos claims: Ohio, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, West Virginia, Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Mississippi.  In addition, this trend is not limited to state legislation, and a bill has proceeded through one house of Congress.  On March 9, 2017, the United States House of Representatives passed House Resolution 985, which includes the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (FACT).  In short, FACT would amend the federal bankruptcy code to require asbestos liability trusts to disclose information about plaintiffs’ demands and payments from the trusts.  As of the date of this writing, House Resolution 985 is still awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.



[1] Trust claims materials are defined in the Act as “a final executed proof of claim and all other documents and information related to a claim against an asbestos trust, including claims forms and supplementary materials, affidavits, depositions and trial testimony, work history, and medical and health records, all documents that reflect the status of a claim against an asbestos trust, and, if the trust claim has been settled, all documents that related to the settlement of the trust claim.”  H.R. 5456 § 3011(F).

[2] Sarah Cwiek, Critics Say Bill Would “Delay and Deny” Justice for Asbestos Cancer Victims, Mich. Radio (Feb. 12, 2019)

Tinder No Match for CA’s Second District Court of Appeal in Allegedly Ageist Pricing Case

Posted in California Courts, Class Action Litigation, Litigation Trends

A California appellate court recently ruled that Tinder’s age-based pricing strategy violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which broadly outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, sexual orientation, age, and other classes. California’s Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles reversed the trial court’s dismissal of a class action brought by a putative group of customers over 30 years of age, who claim Tinder improperly charged them more for a premium service than it did users in the 18-29 age range.

This case, which has drawn a great deal of publicity, may appear to signal the beginning of a judicial push against age-based price differences, but the implications outside California are likely limited.


In March 2015, the free dating service switched to a “freemium” pricing model. Users could still join Tinder without cost, but for a fee, they could upgrade their membership to Tinder Plus and receive additional features, including the ability to undo mistaken swipes or expand their geographic filter for potential matches. For this membership upgrade, users over 30 paid a $20 subscription fee, while users under 30 paid only $14.99 (or $9.99, depending on any promotions in effect).


Tinder claimed that before setting the price, it conducted market research that showed that users under 30 were more likely to be “budget constrained” and were less likely to pay an increased fee. The named plaintiffs (one of whom previously sued a women-only networking event to allow the inclusion of men) argued that this stated basis failed to justify what amounted to a surcharge on older customers, some of whom might actually have had less disposable cash than younger users.


The court found that, under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Tinder’s stated basis failed to justify what amounted to age discrimination. The court acknowledged that while this practice might make business sense, it violated the spirit of California’s law, which treats people equally unless the legislature provides an explicit basis to do otherwise (as it has for discounts for elderly persons and minor children). The court found no such legislative basis for young adults generally.


Many other products lend themselves well to different pricing tiers like the one challenged in the Tinder case: software licenses, content subscriptions, club memberships, etc. This scrutiny of Tinder’s pricing suggests that potential plaintiffs may scrutinize any pricing benefitting a non-elderly or minor age group. However, because the age-based claim that will now proceed in California is cutting-edge and largely untested, the full impact of this ruling remains to be seen. In several states (California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), courts have found that ladies’ nights violate state discrimination laws, but have not clearly addressed age-based pricing in a similar context.  Regardless, the case law in California and elsewhere will continue to develop. For example, it remains an open question whether student discounts would pass the Appeal Court’s “legislative-findings” standard as applied in the Tinder case.