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Exxon Mobil faces lawsuit over alleged anti-gay bias

Advocacy group sends fake resumes to shed light on hiring practices

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Exxon, Mobil, gay news, Washington Blade

Exxon Mobil is facing an employment discrimination lawsuit over alleged anti-gay hiring practices (photo courtesy wikimedai)

Exxon Mobil is facing an employment discrimination lawsuit based on a legal strategy of resume audit testing that revealed an apparent anti-gay bias in hiring practices.

On Wednesday, the LGBT group Freedom to Work filed a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission contending Exxon Mobil violated a 2005 law in the state prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people.

The case, Freedom to Work v. Exxon Mobil Corp., is novel because the employment discrimination alleged is the result of resume audit testing. Under the strategy, fictitious resumes are sent for the same job opening in an attempt to reveal a candidate belonging to a minority group is unable to land a position.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said black and disability civil rights groups have employed the strategy with great success for decades, but his group’s lawsuit marks the first time an LGBT group has tried it.

“Although they went to the same high school, the LGBT candidate has a higher GPA,” Almeida said. “Although they went to the same college, the LGBT candidate has a higher GPA. Although they do the same kind of work, the LGBT person has longer work experience and better work experience. And then you see who they call back.”

In the test for anti-LGBT bias at Exxon Mobil — which has no non-discrimination policy protecting LGBT workers and has long been criticized by LGBT groups for alleged discrimination in hiring — Freedom to Work sent two applications in December from applicants for an administrative assistant position in Pataka, Ill.

One resume, written for “Jennifer Priston,” demonstrated a candidate who was well-qualified for the position, but outed her as LGBT because she had volunteer experience working for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. The other resume, written for “Michelle Caland” was less qualified in terms of work experience and education, but offered no indication she was LGBT.

Even though Caland was less qualified, she received multiple call backs in response to her application. Priston never received a call back in response to her application even after Caland didn’t respond.

The results of the testing and the pending lawsuit, Almeida said, will force Exxon Mobil to  explain why the company “so desperately” wanted the less qualified non-LGBT candidate over the more qualified LGBT applicant.

“We know that they cannot credibly claim that they didn’t receive the LGBT resume and application because when they were submitted, they sent back to both applicants a receipt acknowledgement saying, ‘Thank you for your application from Exxon Mobil,'” Almeida said. “They can’t claim they didn’t see it.”

Further, Almeida said Exxon Mobil can’t say it didn’t want an employee who had activist experience because the non-LGBT candidate said she worked for a local feminist organization, nor can the organization purport to have engaged in political bias because the candidates have left-leaning resumes.

The result of the testing uncovering apparent anti-gay basis is consistent with a 2011 study at Harvard University that found LGBT applicants were 40 percent less likely to be granted an interview than a straight applicant.

The lawsuit was filed a week before the shareholders at Exxon Mobil are set to consider a resolution from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose state owns considerable shares in the company, to put in place an LGBT non-discrimination policy. The resolution has come up repeatedly over the years and each time has failed, including last year, when it won support from only 20.6 percent of shareholders.

To reach a settlement in the case, Almeida said he’s asking Exxon Mobil to adopt a company-wide LGBT non-discrimination policy and train its workers across the country on implementation.

“We hope that we will shame them into settling this very quickly,” Almeida said. “If they agree to adopting and training HR people on it, we will settle the case as quickly as we can.”

But if Exxon Mobil chooses to fight the lawsuit, Almeida said the case will go into discovery, which means Freedom to Work will subpoena internal documents from the company and depose staffers to expose anti-gay bias in hiring practices.

“No one has ever gotten an inside look as to what their HR professionals think and why they were taught these policies and why they’re existing,” Almeida said. “As the litigation proceeds, we will get to subpoena those internal documents, and we will get to depose the HR professionals and ask them all these questions.”

Charlie Engelmann, an Exxon Mobil spokesperson, said in response to the complaint from Freedom to Work that the company already has policies protecting LGBT workers.

“Exxon Mobil’s global policies and processes prohibit all forms of discrimination, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in any company workplace, anywhere in the world,” Engelmann said. “In fact, our policies go well beyond the law and prohibit any form of discrimination. We are reviewing the complaint filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights by Freedom to Work, a non-profit organization.”

Despite the response, Almeida pointed out the company made the same assertion last year prior to the failed vote on the non-discrimination policy — only to have it rejected by the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.

“Prior to the vote on the resolution, Exxon asked the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission for permission to stop shareholders from voting on the resolution, based on Exxon’s view that it had already complied with the proposal,” Almeida said. “However, the SEC rejected Exxon’s request, explaining that ‘it appears that ExxonMobil’s policies, practices, and procedures do not compare favorably with the guidelines of the proposal and that ExxonMobil has not, therefore, substantially implemented the proposal.'”

Illinois was one of two states in which Freedom to Work uncovered apparent anti-gay bias in hiring practices. Almeida did the same paired resume testing in Texas and uncovered similar results at Exxon Mobil.

But Texas doesn’t have a statewide LGBT workplace non-discrimination law on which to base a lawsuit, and no federal non-discrimination protections are in place to help LGBT people. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act isn’t law, nor is an executive order in place prohibiting anti-LGBT bias among federal contractors.

Over the past 10 years, Exxon Mobil received more than $1 billion in federal contracts. If President Obama issued a much-sought executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT job bias among federal contractors, Freedom of Work could have asked the Labor Department to take action against the company.

Almeida emphasized that executive order would have provided Freedom to Work the opportunity to take action against the oil company in Texas as well as Illinois.

“If the president had signed the order, we would have filed the testing results from Texas with the Department of Labor and asked them to do an investigation, and asked them to order Exxon-Mobil to adopt an LGBT non-discrimination policy,” Almeida said. “This is an example of how the president’s delay is slowing down civil rights.”

The White House has said it prefers a legislative approach to addressing LGBT workplace discrimination. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, reiterated in response to the lawsuit on Wednesday that he has nothing to say about the executive order.

“Regarding a hypothetical Executive Order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors, I have no updates for you on that issue,” Inouye said.

The lawsuit is novel in another way because with no real persons suffering discrimination, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit is Freedom to Work itself. Most LGBT legal groups, like Lambda Legal, file complaints that name LGBT people who’ve faced discrimination as the plaintiff.

Almeida said organizational plaintiffs are acceptable under Illinois state law as well as alleged discrimination in response to paired resume testing. In the 2000 decision of Kyles v. J.K. Guardian Security Services, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois upheld the right of testers to bring these claims after two black testers brought a race discrimination action to federal court. They were allowed to proceed to a trial and later settled their claims with the employer.

Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has previously validated lawsuits on the basis of paired resume audit testing in its decisions on earlier litigation. In the 1982 case of Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, the court held testers can sue to challenge housing discrimination and that groups conducting the testing can also file a lawsuit to remedy discrimination.

Also working with Freedom to Work on the testing was the Equal Rights Center, a D.C.-based advocacy organization, which has experience with resume testing for minority groups.

Donald Kahl, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, explained in a statement the validity of filing employment discrimination lawsuits based on testing and their applicability to LGBT people.

“Based on the Equal Rights Center’s 30 years of testing experience, and nearly 2,000 tests conducted in the last year, our testing methodologies are recognized and accepted by the civil rights community, government agencies, and the courts,” Kahl said. “The type of testing we conducted with Freedom to Work is a critical part of objectively demonstrating why our LGBT community needs and deserves anti-discrimination protections.”

The legal team representing Freedom to Work in the lawsuit is Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, a group that has experience representing women who alleged gender discrimination in employment at the retail giant Walmart Stores, Inc.

As the lawsuit proceeds, Almeida said Freedom to Work will continue testing for anti-LGBT workplace bias at other companies and take action as necessary.

“Our work is not completed,” Almeida said. “We’re going to test other companies, and if we find out about discrimination, we’re going to file additional lawsuits.”

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said the nation’s largest LGBT group also supports the lawsuit.

“HRC supports efforts to ensure that all LGBT Americans are judged at work based on how they perform, not on who they are,” Sainz said. “Those efforts include advocating for corporate policies, seeking recourse under state and local laws, and of course working to pass ENDA and a federal executive order.”

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State Department

State Department spokesperson criticizes new Russia propaganda law

Statute ‘pushes LGBTQI+ persons further to the margins of Russian society’

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State Department spokesperson Ned Price, center, speaks at the LGBTQ Victory Fund's International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. on Dec. 3, 2022. Price, who is openly gay, has criticized an anti-LGBTQ propaganda law that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed this week. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Tuesday sharply criticized the anti-LGBTQ propaganda law that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the day before.

Price, who is openly gay, noted to reporters during a press briefing the law “further criminalizes the sharing of information about LGBTQI+ persons.”

“The law is another serious blow to freedom of expression in Russia, and a continuation of the Kremlin’s broader, long-running crackdown against marginalized persons, dissenting voices, civil society and independent media that it has intensified, as it has failed to achieve its objectives in its unconscionable war against Ukraine,” said Price. 

“The law pushes LGBTQI+ persons further to the margins of Russian society, fueling and amplifying the prejudice, discrimination, violence and stigma they face. The legislation is a clear attempt by the Kremlin to distract from its own failures by scapegoating vulnerable communities and creating phantom enemies,” he added. “We stand in solidarity with LGBTQI+ persons in Russia and around the world who seek to exercise the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes that all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The law that Putin signed on Monday expands the existing “Protecting Children from Information Advocating a Denial of Traditional Family Values” statute that took effect in Russia in 2013. 

The new law will ban so-called LGBTQ propaganda and materials that discuss gender reassignment surgery and LGBTQ and intersex issues to minors, which it categorizes as the promotion of pedophilia. Russian media reports indicate the new law will apply to films, books, commercials, media outlets and computer games.

Anyone who violates the law could face a fine of up to 10 million rubles ($165,152.80.) Authorities could also force businesses and organizations to temporarily close, and foreigners who violate the law could face arrest, incarceration for up to 15 days, a fine of up to 5,000 rubles and deportation.

Putin signed the law against the backdrop of Russia’s continued war against Ukraine.

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National

Club Q suspect indicted on 305 charges

22-year-old charged with first-degree murder, bias-motivated crime

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(Photo courtesy of Club Q Facebook page)

El Paso County (Colo.) District Attorney Michael Allen announced in the first in-person hearing on Tuesday that the 22-year-old suspect in the mass shooting at the LGBTQ nightclub Club Q, which killed five and wounded dozens of others, will face 305 charges including first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and bias-motivated crime.

The Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper reported Anderson Aldrich appeared in a Colorado Springs courtroom wearing a green jumpsuit and handcuffs. Aldrich’s facial bruising had significantly healed since a video hearing two weeks ago. 

The total list of charges according to the Gazette is as follows: 

• 10 counts of first-degree murder.

• 86 counts of attempted first-degree murder.

• 86 counts of first-degree assault.

• Four counts of second-degree assault.

• 48 counts of bias-motivated crime. 

• 71 counts of violent crime causing death and using a weapon.

Allen said the prosecution may request to amend the charges in the future.

“We are not going to tolerate actions against community members based on their sexual identity,” Allen said at a news conference after the hearing. “Members of that community have been harassed and intimated and abused for too long. And that’s not going to occur in the 4th Judicial District.”

During the hearing Judge Michael McHenry, following the filing of formal charges, granted a request from Allen for the suspect’s arrest affidavit to be unsealed. The court papers should be available to the public by the end of the day Wednesday, the judge noted according to the Gazette.

Allen said that while he couldn’t talk about what is in the affidavit, he told reporters that it might contain “much less information than you might expect.”

Suspect in Club Q shooting appears in court:

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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court hears oral arguments in 303 Creative case

Dangerous implications for LGBTQ consumers

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, a case that could carry broad implications for whether and in which circumstances states may enforce certain nondiscrimination rules against purveyors of goods and services.

The case was brought by website designer Lorie Smith, who sought to include a disclaimer that her company 303 Creative would not develop wedding announcement websites for LGBTQ couples, but discovered that such a notice would violate Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, which include sexual orientation as a protected class.

Her lawsuit against the state of Colorado, argued by counsel from the anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), reaches the Supreme Court following the ruling against Smith from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which created a circuit split with decisions from the 8th Circuit and Arizona Supreme Court. A ruling is expected to come in June.

The fact pattern in 303 Creative closely mirrors the 2018 case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the Supreme Court declined to rule on the broader legal questions because it found the Commission exhibited hostility toward the religious views of the bakery that refused to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

The high court has since moved substantially to the right, with a 6-3 conservative supermajority. Colorado is one of 20 states that enforces laws prohibiting businesses from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a ruling that would allow for broadly construed exemptions to be carved out for firms based on their First Amendment protections would carry implications well beyond the context of same-sex marriage.

Monday’s oral arguments focused on preexisting and hypothetical cases that were presented by counsel from both parties as well as by the justices, examples whose scope and fact patterns reinforced the breadth of the legal issues at play in 303 Creative.  

Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson and U.S. Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher pointed to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, 2006, which found that the federal government may withhold funding from universities that, based on their objections to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” refuse to grant military recruiters access to their resources.

ADF CEO, President and General Counsel Kristen Waggoner cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 1995, which upheld the right of private organizations to exclude participation by certain groups without interference by the state, even if that intervention by the government was for the purpose of preventing discrimination.

Much of the discussion during Monday’s oral arguments centered on what kinds of goods and services may be considered public accommodations and which constitute artistic speech or expression by the business provider. Also at issue were questions such as whether their refusal to accommodate certain events – i.e., same-sex weddings – are tantamount to refusing goods and services to members of a protected class of people under the state’s non-discrimination laws.

LGBTQ rights groups fear the implications of a ruling in favor of 303 Creative  

ADF is designated an anti-LGBTQ extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. An amicus brief was filed in support of the government by the corporate law firm White & Case along with a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups and legal advocacy groups: the National LGBTQ Task Force, GLAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Just two weeks after a shooter killed 5 people, injured 18, and traumatized so many others at Club Q in Colorado Springs, the United States Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in an anti-LGBTQ public accommodations discrimination case from Colorado,” wrote the National LGBTQ Task Force in a statement addressing Monday’s oral arguments.

Liz Seaton, the group’s policy director, highlighted the importance of public accommodations laws and condemned efforts by the opposition to legalize discrimination and segregation in the marketplace. “The brief’s most important argument lifts up the powerful amicus briefs of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,” Seaton said. “Those two briefs by venerable civil rights organizations provide a detailed history of public accommodations discrimination against Black and Brown people in this country.”

HRC’s statement on Monday touched on similar themes:

“Granting the unprecedented ‘free speech exemption’ sought by petitioners in 303 Creative v. Elenis would be a dangerous change to long standing constitutional and civil rights law. It would inevitably lead to increased discrimination not only related to LGBTQ+ people or weddings, but also for other vulnerable populations including women, people with disabilities, and people of minority faiths. It’s crucial that justices of the Supreme Court reject discrimination and affirm the equal dignity of every American.”

Likewise, the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus released a statement exploring the broad implications that could result from the Court’s ruling on 303 Creative:

“…the Supreme Court could issue a broad ruling that not only implicates nondiscrimination laws’ applications to graphic designers but to a wide range of businesses providing goods and services that have an artistic component. A broad ruling for the graphic designer could not only provide a constitutional basis for discriminating against same-sex couples, but also for discriminating against all marginalized people currently protected by public accommodations nondiscrimination laws.”

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