Political affiliation discrimination occurs when an adverse action is taken against a person based on the person’s political affiliation or beliefs. Political affiliation discrimination may arise in federally-assisted programs and activities as well as in the workplace. As the equal opportunity professional for your agency or organization, you must know the federal civil rights laws that apply to your agency or organization, and whether those laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of political affiliation.

We are going to explore two areas where political affiliation discrimination is prohibited by federal civil rights laws—one example involves federally-assisted programs and activities under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and the second example involves employment decisions of public employers.

Federally-assisted programs and activities

Starting with federally-assisted programs and activities, Section 188 of WIOA prohibits discrimination in certain workforce development programs on a variety of bases, including political affiliation or belief. Unemployment insurance benefits, employment referral services, on-the-job training, resume writing, and interview skill development are some examples of the aid, training, services, and benefits funded by the federal government through WIOA. American Job Network centers, Job Corps centers, and certain community colleges are prime examples of WIOA-Title I funded recipients and sub-recipients that are prohibited from engaging in political affiliation discrimination in delivering aid, benefits, services, and training to the public. And, any state, U.S. territory, or other recipient receiving WIOA-Title I funds also must comply with WIOA’s prohibition on political affiliation discrimination.

To provide an example of political affiliation discrimination prohibited by WIOA Section 188, let’s say that a new political party received the majority of votes in your state or U.S. territory. Members of the new party take office and they issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for organizations and companies to apply for WIOA grant monies to deliver training to unemployed persons. Reviewers of the 100 proposals select 25 organizations and companies for the WIOA grants. Of these 25 entities, a total of 24 entities are owned by persons whose known political affiliations are aligned with those of the new party in office. Only one entity has a known political affiliation with the former party in power. Of the 75 entities not selected for the grants, 55 have known political affiliations with the former party, 5 have unknown political affiliations, and 15 have known affiliations with the new party. If the new party has, in fact, considered an entity’s political affiliation in determining whether the entity would receive a WIOA-funded grant, then the new party has engaged in political affiliation-based discrimination in violation of the nondiscrimination mandates of WIOA Section 188. As a result, the RFP process would be null and void.

So, if you administer or operate WIOA-Title I programs or activities, you are prohibited from basing your decisions regarding delivery of aid, benefits, services, or training on an applicant’s, participant’s, or beneficiary’s political affiliation or belief. As the equal professional for an agency or organization operating these programs, you must train staff and decision-makers that aid, benefits, training, and services cannot be doled out based on political affiliation. Monitor your systems of delivery to ensure continued adherence to this nondiscrimination mandate.

Public employers

Turning to the workplace, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which applies to public employers and is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983, prohibits political affiliation discrimination. Public employers include state and local governments as well as other entities like publicly-funded colleges and universities, the police, and so on. This federal civil rights law requires that employment decisions, such as selection, promotion, and termination cannot be based on consideration of the employee’s or potential employee’s political affiliation or belief.

Take, for example, the case of Wagner v. Jones, 664 F.3d 259 (8th Cir. 2011), where the Dean of a publicly-funded college of law denied a legal writing teaching position to an applicant because of the applicant’s political affiliation. Notably, the applicant’s conservative political affiliations and beliefs were apparent from her resume, which reflected a background with certain conservative educational institutions and employers. Evidence of record demonstrated that one out of 50 law school faculty members at the college was a registered Republican. And, the court noted that two, less experienced applicants were later hired for the position at issue. In the end, the court concluded that the Dean presented insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the applicant’s political affiliation was not a factor in the employment decision.

So, if you are the HR/EEO professional for a public employer, engage in training and outreach to managers and supervisors, including political appointees at the highest levels of your agency or organization, and inform them of them of their obligations and responsibilities of nondiscrimination based on political affiliation. Help them understand that political affiliation discrimination can take many forms from the more commonplace acts of non-selection, non-promotion, and termination to other acts such as engaging in hostile environment based on political affiliation, providing an adverse performance appraisal, relocating a worker to a less desirable office, and so on. Managers and supervisors should base employment-related decisions on the knowledge, skills, and abilities evident from an applicant’s educational background and experience, not the applicant’s political affiliation or belief.

However, for public employers, there is an exception to this rule that merits comment. Notably, employment decisions related to “confidential” employees and senior “policy-makers” may be based on the employee’s or potential employee’s political affiliation or belief without running afoul of federal civil rights laws. Keep in mind that this exception will apply to a very narrow category of folks working for, or seeking to work for, a public employer.

Here, we’ll take a look at another circuit court case that is illustrative. In Soderbeck v. Burnett County, Wisconsin, 752 F.2d 285 (7th Cir. 1985), the circuit court was confronted with a newly-elected sheriff’s decision to terminate an office employee because the employee was the wife of the former sheriff who lost the election. The Seventh Circuit provides a helpful discussion on the issue of “confidential” employees and “policy-makers” in the context of political affiliation discrimination:

A public agency that fires an employee because of his political beliefs or political affiliations infringes his freedom of speech, see Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574 (1980); Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), but there are exceptions to this principle, carved out to minimize its adverse impact on the effective functioning of government. For example, employees at the policy-making level of government can be fired on political grounds. Id. at 367-68 (plurality opinion); Shakman v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, 722 F.2d 1307, 1309-10 (7th Cir.1983) (per curiam). Mrs. Soderbeck was not a policy maker; but if, as the defendants argue, she was the sheriff’s confidential secretary, then Kellberg could fire her without violating the Constitution. See Stegmaier v. Trammell, 597 F.2d 1027, 1038 (5th Cir.1979) (dictum). You cannot run a government with officials who are forced to keep political enemies as their confidential secretaries, and Mrs. Soderbeck was the political enemy of her husband’s political enemy, Kellberg. Any implication of the plurality opinion in Elrod v. Burns that only a policy maker is unprotected by the principle announced in that case was superseded by the broader formulation in the majority opinion in Branti v. Finkel, which allows an employee to be fired if ‘the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.’ 445 U.S. at 518, 100 S.Ct. at 1294. See also Livas v. Petka, 711 F.2d 798, 800-01 (7th Cir.1983). It need not be a policy-making office. If Rosalynn Carter had been President Carter’s secretary, President Reagan would not have had to keep her on as his secretary.

Mrs. Soderbeck, however, had been trained as a bookkeeper and her title was bookkeeper, not secretary or confidential secretary; and though she did do most of the typing in the sheriff’s office, there was evidence that if the sheriff needed something typed he would hand his handwritten draft to whoever in the office was handy. Burnett County has a population of only 12,000 and a tiny sheriff’s office whose six employees at the time of Mrs. Soderbeck’s termination did not have sharply differentiated tasks; it was only after she was fired that a position of “confidential secretary” was created with a different job description from that of the bookkeeper’s position that Mrs. Soderbeck had occupied. So while she did typing and handled legal papers, such as summonses and warrants, the other employees did these things too. She also did janitorial work, and performed domestic chores for the prisoners in the county jail (which is in the same building as the sheriff’s office and home) as jail matron and laundress–not the usual functions of a confidential secretary. And she did not take dictation–no one in the office did. If she could be fired as a confidential employee, so could anyone else employed in the office, on the theory that if an office is small enough the tasks usually performed by the boss’s personal secretary may be parceled out among all the employees.

This is not to say that Mrs. Soderbeck was, as a matter of law, an employee who could not be fired because of her political affiliation. It is to say merely that the question was sufficiently uncertain to be one for the jury to decide. The defendants argue that whether or not an employee exercises a policy-making role or is a repository of confidences that make loyalty an essential part of his job description should always be a question of law, but we cannot agree with this point, for which no authority is offered, and which has been rejected in previous cases in this and other circuits. See, e.g., Nekolny v. Painter, 653 F.2d 1164, 1169 (7th Cir.1981); Stegmaier v. Trammell, supra, 597 F.2d at 1034 n. 8, and cases cited there.

If you are the HR/EEO professional for a public employer seeking to terminate, or take some other adverse action, against an employee because of the employee’s political affiliation, make sure the employee falls in the category of a “policy-maker” or “confidential employee.” While job titles and job descriptions may assist in this determination but, standing alone, job titles do not determine the outcome. You’ll need to get into the weeds of the employee’s actual day-to-day job duties and functions. Concluding that an employee is, or is not, a “policy-maker” or a “confidential employee” involves very fact specific findings that must be made on a case-by-case basis.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Human Rights Institute and Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.