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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Lessons on Sexual Harassment and Retaliation After Beavis and Butthead Attend a Conference

Though I have not seen Beavis and Butthead in nearly 20 years, I am familiar with their middle school humor.  Over the last week a situation played out that illustrated what would happen if Beavis and Butthead attended a Tech Conference.

Last week a woman by the name of Adria Richards, employed by a company called SendGrid, attended a conference called PyCon.  From the photos, it looked like the conference had a few hundred (if not more than a thousand) attendees.  Beavis and Butthead (not their real names – huh huh) happened to be sitting behind Ms. Richards.  As the speaker started making technical references that I admit I know nothing about, Beavis and Butthead started cracking jokes.

Ms. Richards became annoyed and decided to alert the organizers of their conduct.  Ms. Richards snapped a photo of the two men and attached the photo to a tweet of the jokes with the #pycon hashtag.

Soon thereafter the organizers removed the men from the conference.  Upon returning to work, one of the men learned that he was losing his job.  Right decision by employer? Probably not. But see my other posts on the at-will doctrine.

Now things really started to get weird.  The Tech World did not take too kindly to the employment decision.  Instead of going after Beavis’ employer, they went after Ms. Richards.  She received death threats, rape threats, racial slurs including the N-bomb, and anti-semitic remarks.  A few even publicized her personal information. 

Ms. Richards’ employer was not oblivious to the firestorm, having received their own hate mail.  So in the middle of last week, SendGrid published a message on their blog and Twitter stream announcing the termination of Ms. Richards’ employment. (??!!).  While many in the Tech World celebrated her termination, others are left scratching their heads.

Having read this story from a number of sources, I could not help but think about its legal implications. 

Although Beavis and Butthead’s conduct falls in the realm of harassment, it is doubtful that she would prevail if she pursued a harassment claim.  Not only is an employee required to show unwelcome sexual conduct, he or she must also show that the conduct was so severe or pervasive as to create a hostile environment.   Putting up with Beavis and Buthead jokes 8 hours a day, 5 days a week may create a hostile environment.  However a few jokes here and there – huh huh – or isolated sexual remarks are not enough to get your case before a jury.  It is also worth noting that the conference organizers took prompt, remedial action upon learning of the harassment.

Retaliation law presents a more difficult question.  Retaliation occurs when someone asserts his or her rights under harassment law – i.e. complaining about harassment – and the employer takes adverse action for engaging in the protected activity.  With respect to Ms. Richards’ case reasonable minds or a room full of highly talented employment attorneys could differ.

Notwithstanding the viability of any employment claim, it looks like SendGrid created more problems than expected by firing Ms. Richards. It did not take long for this story to go viral with it getting picked up by USA Today, Forbes, Ebony, and the first page/first story of Yahoo.

For whatever it is worth, the HR and legal teams in the Tech World need to engage in a massive mobilization effort to train employees and management on harassment law.  As for Ms. Richards and Beavis, I am sure both have impressive backgrounds and it should not take them long to secure employment elsewhere.

 

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Wrongful Termination, At-Will Employment and Girl Scout Cookies

A month ago, I was at my mechanic’s garage to have some work done on my car.  He happened to have Girl Scout Cookies on display.  He asked if I wanted to by some.  I told him that I already bought some from a neighbor.  He said, I can get to your car faster if you buy some cookies.  Ha! Ha! Good one Joe.  I should have taken him up on the offer, because in less than a day the two boxes of cookies were gone.  I have a preteen son who eats like a teenager.

This morning I came across this article about a woman who was fired (or as my British friends would say “got the sack”) because she was selling Girl Scout Cookies at work.  It appears that she worked at American University’s Campus for a company called Bon Appétit.  The employee worked on the campus for 28 years and for Bon Appétit for 12 years.  Over the last three years, she displayed the Girl Scout Cookies to help her daughter.  This year, Bon Appétit decided to fire her.  The manager accused her of “gross misconduct by soliciting and operating a personal cash business selling girl scout cookies over the counter which violates company policy.”

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I am not sure about you, but I feel bad for the employee.  She was not doing this for profit.  She was helping the Girl Scout, and her daughter by selling cookies.  Was the sale of Girl Scout Cookies really a conflict of interest?  Would a boxes send Bon Appétit  into bankruptcy court?  To be clear, how many times have you seen parents bring fundraiser items for their children to work – cookies, popcorn, candles, etc.  Too bad there is no avenue by which she could sue.

Unfortunately, the at-will doctrine favors the employer.  Paraphrased the doctrine says, an employer can terminate an employee for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all.  I understand there are some that say she should have been fired, and only kids, not their parents should be selling Girl Scout Cookies.  Realistically, in virtually every city across the country there is little doubt that these sales are going on in the workplace.  Perhaps today many will say bad things about Bon Appétit.  Months from now, however, Bon Appetite’s arguably unfair position will be forgotten and the employee will still be out of work.

If you have questions about the at-will doctrine, wrongful termination or other employment law issues, call Rich Bradford at (813) 413-2402.

 

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Lioness of Social Media Marketing

 

 

PRESS RELEASE

 

For Immediate Release

 

 

 

March 12, 2013

 

 

 

Ninth Circuit Affirms Right of Disabled American to Sue United Airlines for Negligence

 

 

 

San Francisco, CA — In an important, published opinion, the Ninth Circuit reinstated Michelle Gilstrap’s case against United Airlines for failing to accommodate her disabilities as required by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). In a case of first impression, the Court agreed with Ms. Gilstrap that disabled Americans can bring state law based negligence claims against airlines, so long as the standard of care with which the carriers must comply is the federal ACAA. The ACAA includes a set of rules establishing how the airlines must accommodate disabled passengers. Michelle Gilstrap is a disabled American who traveled on United Airlines in August 2008. During this trip Michelle Gilstrap alleges that United Air Lines failed…

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