Summaries of judgments

 

Summaries of judgments made in collaboration with the Portuguese judge and référendaires of the CJEU (Nuno Piçarra, Mariana Tavares and Sophie Perez)
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Judgment of the Court (Grand Chamber) of 23 April 2020,Associazione Avvocatura per i diritti LGBTI, Case C-507/18, EU:C:2020:289

Reference for a preliminary ruling – Equal treatment in employment and occupation –Directive 2000/78/EC – Article 3(1)(a), Article 8(1) and Article 9(2) – Prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation – Conditions for access to employment or to occupation – Concept – Public statements ruling out recruitment of homosexual persons – Article 11(1), Article 15(1) and Article 21(1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union – Defence of rights – Sanctions – Legal entity representing a collective interest – Standing to bring proceedings without acting in the name of a specific complainant or in the absence of an injured party – Right to damages

Facts

In the case, a lawyer had stated, in an interview given during a radio programme, that he would not wish to recruit homosexual persons to his firm nor to use the services of such persons in his firm. Having taken the view that that lawyer had made remarks constituting discrimination on the ground of the sexual orientation of workers, an association of lawyers that defends the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) persons in court proceedings brought proceedings against him for damages. The action having been successful at first instance and that ruling having been upheld on appeal, the lawyer appealed in cassation, against the judgment delivered in the appeal, before the Corte suprema di cassazione (Supreme Court of Cassation, Italy), which then sought a preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice on, inter alia, the interpretation of the concept of “conditions for access to employment … and to occupation”, within the meaning of Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (OJ 2000 L 303, p. 16).

Decision

After recalling that that concept must be given an autonomous and uniform interpretation throughout the EU and cannot be interpreted restrictively, the Court interpreted that concept by reference to its judgment of 25 April 2013, Asociația Accept, C‑81/12, EU:C:2013:275. The Court held that statements made by a person during an audiovisual programme, according to which that person would never recruit persons of a certain sexual orientation to that person’s undertaking or wish to use the services of such persons, fall within the material scope of Directive 2000/78 and, more particularly, within the concept of “conditions for access to employment …or to occupation” within the meaning of Article 3(1)(a) of that directive, even if no recruitment procedure had been opened, nor was planned, at the time when those statements were made, provided, however, that the link between those statements and the conditions for access to employment or to occupation within the undertaking is not hypothetical.

Whether such a link exists must be assessed by the national courts on the basis of all the circumstances characterising those statements. Relevant criteria in that regard are the status of the person making the statements and the capacity in which he or she made them, which must establish either that he or she is a potential employer or is, in law or in fact, capable of exerting a decisive influence on the recruitment policy or a recruitment decision of a potential employer, or, at the very least, may be perceived by the public or the social groups concerned as being capable of exerting such influence. The national courts must also take into account the nature and content of the statements concerned, that must relate to the conditions for access to employment or to occupation with the employer concerned and establish the employer’s intention to discriminate on the basis of one of the criteria laid down by Directive 2000/78, and the context in which they were made, in particular their public or private character.

According to the Court, the fact that that interpretation of “conditions for access to employment … or to occupation” may entail a possible limitation to the exercise of freedom of expression does not call that interpretation into question. Indeed, the limitations result directly from Directive 2000/78 and are applied only for the purpose of attaining its objectives, namely to safeguard the principle of equal treatment in employment and occupation and the attainment of a high level of employment and social protection. In addition, the limitations arising from Directive 2000/78 to the exercise of freedom of expression are necessary to guarantee the rights in matters of employment and occupation of the persons covered by that directive, and do not go beyond what is necessary to attain the objectives of that directive, in that only statements that constitute discrimination in employment and occupation are prohibited.

Last, the Court ruled that Directive 2000/78 does not preclude national legislation under which an association of lawyers whose objective, according to its statutes, is the judicial protection of persons having in particular a certain sexual orientation and the promotion of the culture and respect for the rights of that category of persons, automatically, on account of that objective and irrespective of whether it is a for-profit association, has standing to bring legal proceedings for the enforcement of obligations under that directive and, where appropriate, to obtain damages, in circumstances that are capable of constituting discrimination, within the meaning of that directive, against that category of persons and it is not possible to identify an injured party. The Court made clear in that regard that although the directive does not require an association such as that at issue in the main proceedings to be given such standing where no injured party can be identified, it does give the Member States the option of introducing or maintaining provisions which are more favourable to the protection of the principle of equal treatment. It is therefore for the Member States which have chosen that option to decide under which conditions an association may bring legal proceedings for a finding of discrimination prohibited by Directive 2000/78 and for a sanction to be imposed in respect of such discrimination. It is in particular for the Member State to determine whether the for-profit or non-profit status of the association is to have a bearing on the assessment of its standing to bring such proceedings, and to specify the scope of such an action, in particular the sanctions that may be imposed, such sanctions being required, in accordance with Article 17 of Directive 2000/78, to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive, regardless of whether there is any identifiable injured party.

 

Editorial of November 2016

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by Alessandra Silveira, Editor
and Sophie Perez Fernandes, Junior Editor

Unveiling the meaning of freedom of religion in the workplace

Two preliminary proceedings are currently pending before the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) concerning the question of religious expression at work. In both cases, Achbita (C-157/15), originated in Belgium, and Bougnaoui (C-188/15), originated in France, the ECJ is called upon to rule on a highly sensitive issue – the wearing of Islamic headscarves (and not the full veil) in the workplace. The questions are fundamentally the following: is a private employer allowed to prohibit a female employee of Muslim faith from wearing a headscarf in the workplace?; is the dismissal of an employee who refuses to comply with such rules restricting the wearing of religious symbols at work unlawful?

It is the first time that the ECJ is called upon to address such questions. In the meantime, both AG Kokott (in Achbita) and AG Sharpston (in Bougnaoui) have rendered their opinions. The issues raised in both cases require the interpretation of the concept of ‘discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief’ within the meaning of the Anti-Discrimination Directive – the Directive 2000/78[i]. Both Advocates General concluded that a ban, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, could be regarded as indirect discrimination: the rules in question, although apparently neutral, were likely to put individuals of certain religions or beliefs at a particular disadvantage by comparison with other employees. Such discrimination may nevertheless be permitted if i) objectively justified by a legitimate aim, such as the interest of the employer’s business to enforce a policy of religious and ideological neutrality, and ii) so far as the principle of proportionality is observed (Article 2/2/b of Directive 2000/78).

However, the Advocates General disagree as to whether such a ban could be found as constituting direct discrimination (Article 2/2/a of Directive 2000/78). According to AG Kokott, a ban such as that at issue in Achbita could not be regarded as direct discrimination based on religion: a company rule prohibiting the wearing of visible signs of religious, political or philosophical beliefs, only creates a difference of treatment between employees who wish to give active expression to a particular belief and their colleagues who do not feel the same need. Thus, Ms Achbita had not been treated less favourably than another person on account of religion directly and specifically. On the contrary, AG Sharpston firstly concluded that Ms Bougnaoui’s dismissal amounted to direct discrimination against her on the basis of her religion as the right to manifest one’s religion is to be understood as an intrinsic part of the right to freedom of religion enshrined in both Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFREU). The distinction between direct and indirect discrimination is relevant as their possible justifications are different. In her analysis, AG Sharpston concluded that neither Article 4(1) of Directive 2000/78, nor any of the other derogations from the prohibition of direct discrimination on grounds of religion which that directive lays down, applied.

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