Teamsters v. Washington Dept of Corrections

The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) sex-based staffing assignment process did not violate Title VIII where there was a “bona-fide occupational qualification” deemed reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the prison guard position.

The Factual Background

This case involves Title VIII claims asserted by by a prison guard Union that sought to challenge the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC)’s designation of approximately 110 prison guard positions as female-only, asserting that such designation violated Title VIII gender based discrimination policies and and regulations. According to the facts of the case, the basis by which the WDOC designated such guard positions as female-only was based in pertinent part upon various allegations of sexual misconduct by male correctional officers against female inmates. The U.S. District Court upheld the WDOC’s use of such female-only designations, stating in pertinent part that the WDOC has demonstrated a bona-fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) and reasonable basis for such gender based designations, in particular that there were public policy, security, health and safety basis for imposing such designations and restricting by way of gender, males from having an opportunity to apply or obtain employment in such prison guard positions.

The Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, affirmed, reasoning in pertinent part that there was a sound basis by which the U.S. District Court could determine that the female only based prison guard positions were in fact bona-fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ), and therefore, there was no basis in law or fact by which the prison union could adequately allege claims for Title VIII gender based discrimination. To the contrary, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited to well established jurisprudence which recognizes that an employer such as the WDOC may appropriately assert the bona-fide occupational qualification defense against Title VIIl gender based claims when business operations, including but not limited to the health, safety and welfare based policy considerations, would be compromised if and when there was hiring of both sexes.

Given the history of sexual misconduct by male correctional officers against female inmates at the WDOC, the Court appropriately found there was more than sufficient basis by which to determine that the very business operations of the prison would be undermined if they allowed for the hiring of male prison guards for these prospective and available prison guard positions. Additionally, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit established that a two part legal test in determining whether or not there is a bona-fide occupational qualifications based defense, including that 1) the job qualification justifying discrimination is reasonably necessary to the essence of its business; and 2) that sex is a legitimate proxy for determining whether a correctional officer has the necessary job qualifications. Such test is extremely relevant and helpful to employers seeking to make gender based assignments and in determining whether such meets the requisite standards for bona-fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ).

The Court of Appeals provides a very substantive road map by which employers can obtain clarity as to what specific employment and gender specific employment assignments are consistent with Title VIII, and those that may in fact invoke Title VIII and therefore be discriminatory and otherwise prohibited. Many employers may not even consider gender based qualifications or designations under the false assumption that such are automatically prohibited, needless to say, this Court case demonstrates there may in fact be a certain range of gender specific employment designations that are lawful and otherwise pass muster under employment discrimination laws.

Employment based claims involving a large employer requires a law firm that is experienced, competent, and knowledgeable concerning the complexities of employment based classifications including bona-fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ). If you have any employment-related dispute and are considering suing your employer for discriminatory conduct contact the Orange County Employment Lawyers at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.