Change Is in the Air: Ohio Adopts Major Reforms To the Civil Rights Law With H.B. 352

House Bill 352 (H.B. 352) is Ohio’s newest reform to its existing civil rights law. On Jan. 12, 2021, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed the Employment Law Uniformity Act (ELUA), which becomes effective 90 days after signature. This new legislation provides Ohio employers with some much-needed protection from its overly broad and often confusing statutory scheme. The most notable changes address the statute of limitations, affirmative defenses, filing requirements for claimants, personal liability, and age discrimination. Many parts of the new law mirror existing federal discrimination laws. Here’s what employers need to know about the ELUA.

Statute of Limitations

  • Current Law: Ohio currently has a six-year statute of limitations on civil actions for employment discrimination claims, which is the longest of any state in the nation.
  • ELUA: The new legislation features a reduced statute of limitations of two years for employment discrimination claims. ELUA also increases the statute of limitations to file a charge of discrimination with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) from 180 days to two years.

Affirmative Defense

  • Current Law: Ohio’s statutory law provided no affirmative defense to hostile environment sexual harassment claims.
  • ELUA: Under the ELUA, employers now have an affirmative defense for hostile work environment sexual harassment claims that do not result in an adverse “tangible employment action” as defined by the statute. The defense is available to employers who can show: (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent or promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior, and (2) the claimant unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to otherwise avoid harm. The new law encourages employers to enforce strong anti-discrimination policies and ensure that employees are aware of and understand such policies.

New Filing Requirement for Claimants

  • Current Law: An individual may file a civil lawsuit alleging employment discrimination directly in court, without first having filed a charge with the OCRC.
  • ELUA: The ELUA’s filing requirement mirrors federal requirements. A discrimination claimant must first exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a civil suit. In other words, an individual must first file a discrimination charge with the OCRC before filing a civil suit in court. This additional administrative step may significantly reduce litigation for employers.

Elimination of Supervisor Liability

  • Current Law: In Genaro v. Central Transport, the Ohio Supreme Court held that individual managers and supervisors could be personally liable for employment discrimination under the Ohio Civil Rights Law.
  • ELUA: Supervisors, managers, and employees have greater protection from discrimination liability under the ELUA. The new law states that individual supervisors or managers cannot be held personally liable for employment discrimination. However, ELUA does not shield from liability supervisors or managers who are also the employer. Generally, members of management can now exercise reasonable business judgment regarding employee discipline and termination without the threat of being sued.

Age Discrimination

  • Current Law: Ohio has multiple statutory remedies for workers that allege age discrimination. The various remedies add unnecessary confusion for courts deciding cases with age discrimination claims.
  • ELUA: There is a single cause of action for age discrimination under the ELUA. Suits for age discrimination will now include the same procedures and remedies as all other protected classes. The complications that existed before are eliminated under the new law.

The ELUA also officially includes discrimination claims as tort actions, meaning such claims are now subject to the damage caps specific under Ohio tort law. The distinct nature of Ohio’s current employment discrimination statute places Ohio employers at a significant disadvantage. By contrast, H.B. 352 provides uniformity and clarity for Ohio employers while maintaining employees’ rights to be free from workplace discrimination. Thus, the new law will benefit employees and employers alike when it takes effect in April 2021.

For more specific information about the effect of the ELUA on employers, or for any other employment-related questions, contact a member of Taft’s Employment and Labor Relations group.

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