Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Film Recommendation AND A Title VII/ADEA Question

That's right. 2 for the price of 1. First the film rec: El Método (imdb page here) is a wicked little Spanish film (originally a play) that was released in Spain in 2005 but only now is hitting the U.S. arthouse circuit (with English subtitles). The plot outline is simple enough: 7 finalists for an exec job with a Madrid firm in an unspecified industry, with the winner to be determined by an unspecified tournament that is a cross between an episode of Survivor and the Milgram experiment.

And now the Title VII question (modest spoiler alert): At one point the 6 then-remaining applicants are asked to imagine themselves in a post-nuclear holocaust bomb shelter that can accommodate 5 people for 20 years. Whom do they exile? They are further told that each applicant must make an argument for staying in the shelter based on his or her "demonstrable" skills. Their c.v.'s are then shared. The group quickly allocates 3 slots, leaving a competition for the remaining 2. A woman who appears to be in her twenties says that her demonstrable skill will be mothering their children. (Nobody seems to notice that this will violate the only-room-for-5 rule as the kid grows up but it would be churlish to make much of that point.) At that point, the other woman in the group says that she can provide the same service (she had earlier said she could cook, but as this skill was not on her c.v., it was discounted). She is challenged on this point in light of the fact that she is over 40, and she is eventually voted off the island.

While packing up her briefcase, the forty-something woman makes clear that she resents having been rejected for the job by her fellow applicants because of her sex and age. One of the other applicants denies that this is true, claiming that she was booted out of the bomb shelter because she failed to make persuasive arguments. So now the question: Suppose this occurred in the U.S. Title VII and/or Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) violation?

My instinct is pretty clearly yes. Even though the company itself did not employ a sex-based selection device, it delegated power to the applicants, who proceeded to do just that. The idea that she lost because she couldn't make a persuasive argument completely overlooks what she was asked to make an argument about: her worth as a human being notwithstanding her at-best-limited capacity for pregnancy. Note that while the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against pregnant women rather than discrimination on the basis of pregnant/non-pregnant status, it does so because of the link between pregnancy discrimination and sex discrimination. I'm quite comfortable saying that discrimination against infertile women but not infertile men is sex discrimination and thus illegal (unless fertility is a BFOQ, as it would be if the job were, say, gestational surrogate but little else). This is also pretty clearly age discrimination prohibited by the ADEA.

But who knows? If people complaining that they may have been subject to illegal secret wiretapping lack standing to complain because they can't show that they were in fact wiretapped--because the wiretapping is SECRET -- then one can't rule out the possibility of our beloved federal courts reaching all sorts of other counterintuitive conclusions.