The U.S. Justice Department announced this week that it has agreed to settle a sex discrimination case against the Summit County Sheriff’s office brought on behalf of 21 female deputy sheriffs. Aside from the very fine result achieved for the plaintiffs, the case is noteworthy for a few reasons.
The majority of employment discrimination cases focus on whether an employer discriminated against one particular employee. The Summit County case, however, was a more rare type of case. According to the lawsuit, the Sheriff’s office used job assignment procedures that systemically deprived women of desirable assignments, shifts, and overtime opportunities. Absent a very limited exception, employers may not use policies or procedures that systemically treat a protected group of employees (such as women) less favorably than other groups of employees. Although sex-based job classifications can sometimes be permissible in a law enforcement setting, in this case, they appear to have been broader than necessary.
The case is also noteworthy because it was initially filed as a private lawsuit, with the Department of Justice later intervening. It is somewhat rare for the government to intervene in an employment case brought by a private plaintiff. And when the federal government does get involved, it is typically the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, not the DOJ. In this case, the DOJ’s involvement most certainly arose based on the fact that the employer was a public agency and the policies and practices involved affected numerous female law enforcement employees.
Women in the workplace should be aware that illegal sex discrimination does not always arise out of overt disdain for a particular employee. Sometimes, illegal sex discrimination stems from an employer’s policies or practices — written and unwritten alike — that deprive women of favorable job opportunities or equal terms and conditions of employment. The Summit County Sheriff’s sex discrimination case is a prime example.