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2nd Circuit Panel Rejects Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim Under Title VII, but Revives Sex-Stereotyping Claim by Gay Man

Posted on: March 27th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in Manhattan, has issued a mixed ruling concerning a gay man’s claim that he was sexually harassed in his workplace in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In a per curiam opinion in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 5278, 2017 WL 1130183, the court ruled on March 27 that plaintiff Matthew Christiansen could not sue under Title VII on a claim of sexual orientation discrimination because of existing circuit precedents, but that he  could maintain his lawsuit on a claim that he was the victim of unlawful sex stereotyping by his employer.  Thus, the case was sent back to U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla (S.D.N.Y.), who last year had granted the employer’s motion to dismiss all federal claims in the case and to decline to exercise jurisdiction over state law claims; see 167 F. Supp. 3d 598.

The ruling on this appeal, which was argued on January 20, was much awaited because it was the first time for the 2nd Circuit to address the sexual orientation issue since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reversed its position, held for half a century, and ruled in 2015 that sexual orientation discrimination claims should be treated as sex discrimination claims subject to Title VII, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, joined by U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie, suggested that if the full 2nd Circuit bench, which can change a circuit precedent, were to consider the question, Katzmann and Brodie would find that sexual orientation discrimination claims can be litigated under Title VII.  The other member of the panel, Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston, did not join the concurring opinion.

Christiansen, described in the opinion as “an openly gay man who is HIV-positive,” worked at DDB Worldwide Communications Group, an advertising agency based in New York that is a subsidiary of Omnicom Group. He alleged that his direct supervisor subjected him to humiliating harassment “targeting his effeminacy and sexual orientation.”  This began in the spring and summer of 2011, a time when marriage equality in New York was much in the news as the legislature prepared to vote upon and pass the marriage equality bill.  The supervisor, who is not named in the opinion, “drew multiple sexually suggestive and explicit drawings of Christiansen on an office whiteboard.”  These graphic drawings “depicted a naked, muscular Christiansen with an erect penis, holding a manual air pump and accompanied by a text bubble reading, ‘I’m so pumped for marriage equality.’”

There was another picture that “depicted Christiansen in tights and a low-cut shirt ‘prancing around.’” Yet another showed his “torso on the body of ‘a four legged animal with a tail and penis, urinating and defecating.’” Later in 2011, the same supervisor “circulated at work and posted to Facebook a ‘Muscle Beach Party” poster that depicted various employees’ heads on the bodies of people in beach attire,” including Christiansen’s head “attached to a female body clad in a bikini, lying on the ground with her legs upright in the air in a manner that one coworker thought depicted Christiansen as ‘a submissive sissy.’”

The supervisor also made remarks about “the connection between effeminacy, sexual orientation, and HIV status,” and allegedly told other employees that Christiansen “was effeminate and gay so he must have AIDS.”  The supervisor made other references to AIDS in connection with Christiansen, although at the time Christiansen was keeping his HIV-status private.  Christiansen included a disability discrimination claim in his complaint, but the district court found that his factual allegations were not sufficient to maintain a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a conclusion that Christiansen did not appeal.

Christiansen filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2014, describing the harassment in detail, and upon receiving the agency’s notice of right to sue, filed his lawsuit in the federal court in Manhattan, which the defendants quickly moved to dismiss. Christiansen alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII for his federal claims, and also alleged violations of New York State and city anti-discrimination laws. The employer argued that his claim under Title VII was really a sexual orientation discrimination claim rather than a gender stereotyping claim, and the district judge agreed.

The state of precedent in the 2nd Circuit has frequently been questioned by federal trial courts in the circuit as confusing and difficult to apply.  The Circuit has ruled that under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), an employee, including a gay or lesbian employee, can bring a sex discrimination claim involving sex stereotyping, but if the court perceives that the employer’s mistreatment of the employee was really due to the employee’s sexual orientation, the claim will be rejected.  These precedents date from 2000 (Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33) and 2005 (Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, 398 F.3d 211).  They predate the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675) and state bans on same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Windsor, 135 S. Ct. 2584), as well as the EEOC’s 2015 ruling recognizing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  While none of these later rulings produced a precedent binding on the 2nd Circuit that sexual orientation claims are covered under Title VII, they have “changed the landscape,” as Judge Katzmann wrote in his concurring opinion.

The per curiam opinion premised its holding squarely on the rule that circuit precedents can only be revised or reversed by the Supreme Court or the full circuit bench sitting en banc. Thus, the panel ruled that it was precluded from reconsidering Simonton and Dawson.

However, the panel disagreed with Judge Failla’s conclusion that there was too much about sexual orientation in Christiansen’s complaint to allow him to proceed with a gender stereotyping sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The panel pointed out that the 2nd Circuit has never ruled that gay people may not sue under Title VII when they have substantial evidence of gender stereotyping to present, provided that such evidence is not limited to the argument that sexual orientation discrimination is itself a form of sex stereotyping.  That is, the Title VII claim may not based, under current circuit precedent, on the argument that men loving men and women loving men is a violation of gender stereotypes in and of itself.  In this case, the panel wrote that there were enough allegations of gender stereotyping as such to survive the employer’s motion to dismiss.

“The district court commented that much more of the complaint was devoted to sexual orientation discrimination allegations than gender stereotyping discrimination allegations and that it thus might be difficult for Christiansen to withstand summary judgment or prove at trial that he was harassed because of his perceived effeminacy and flouting of gender stereotypes rather than because of his sexual orientation.” But the court pointed out that Christiansen’s burden at this initial stage of the litigation was not to show that he would prevail at later stages. Rather, it was enough for him to “state a claim that is plausible on its face” that he was subjected to harassment because of non-conformity to male gender stereotypes.

Judge Katzmann noted in his concurrence that because Christiansen was also alleging violations of state and local laws forbidding sexual orientation discrimination as well as a violation of Title VII, it was to be expected that his factual allegations would cover both kinds of claims. While joining in the per curiam opinion, Judge Katzmann wrote separately to express his view “that when the appropriate occasion presents itself, it would make sense for the Court to revisit the central legal issue confronted in Simonton and Dawson, especially in light of the changing legal landscape that has taken shape in the nearly two decades since Simonton issued.”

He went on to identify three theories under which sexual orientation discrimination claims should be treated as sex discrimination claims under Title VII, drawing heavily on the EEOC’s 2015 decision. First, he wrote, “sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination for the simple reason that such discrimination treats otherwise similarly-situated people differently solely because of their sex.”  The EEOC has observed, he wrote, that “sexual orientation ‘cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex,’ because sexual orientation is defined by whether a person is attracted to people of the same sex or opposite sex (or both, or neither).”  Thus, according to the EEOC, “sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex.”

The second theory follows a 2nd Circuit ruling from 2008, Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2008), where the circuit formally embraced the associational discrimination theory that other courts have applied in race discrimination cases.  If an employee suffers discrimination because he is involved in an interracial relationship, the courts will recognize his claim of race discrimination in violation of Title VII.  By analogy, discriminating against an employee because of a same-sex relationship is quite simply sex discrimination.  In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court had commented that Title VII “on its face treats each of the enumerated categories exactly the same.”  Thus, if employees in interracial relationships are protected from race discrimination, then employees in same-sex relationships should be protected from sex discrimination.

Finally, of course, there is gender stereotyping, including the kind of stereotyping that the 2nd Circuit has not yet accepted as violating Title VII, the stereotype that men should be attracted only to women and women only to men.  “Relying on common sense and intuition rather than any ‘special training,’” wrote Katzmann, “courts have explained that sexual orientation discrimination ‘is often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms.  In fact, stereotypes about homosexuality are directly related to our stereotypes about the proper roles of men and women.’”  Katzmann noted that the circuit in Dawson had pointed out that “stereotypical notions about how men and women should behave will often necessarily blur into ideas about heterosexuality and homosexuality.”  He continued, “Having conceded this, it is logically untenable for us to insist that this particular gender stereotype is outside of the gender stereotype discrimination prohibition articulated in Price Waterhouse,” and concluded that this particular stereotype about sexual attraction is “as clear a gender stereotype as any.”

At the same time, he rejected the argument, raised by some courts, that because Congress has been considering unsuccessful efforts to pass a federal ban on sexual orientation discrimination since the 1970s, the courts are precluded through interpreting Title VII to ban such discrimination. When the circuit decided Simonton in 2000, it reached the same conclusion that all other federal circuit courts had then reached on this issue.  “But in the years since,” he wrote, “the legal landscape has substantially changed,” citing Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (the sodomy law case) and Obergefell v. Hodges (the marriage equality case), “affording greater legal protection to gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.  During the same period,” he observed, “societal understanding of same-sex relationships has evolved considerably.”  Thus, he wrote, despite the failed legislative proposals, there is “no justification in the statutory language for a categorical rule” excluding sexual orientation claims.

“I respectfully think that in the context of an appropriate case our Court should consider reexamining the holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not cognizable under Title VII. Other federal courts are also grappling with this question, and it well may be that the Supreme Court will ultimately address it.”

The other cases are in the 7th Circuit, where the full bench heard argument on November 30 on this question, and the 11th Circuit, where a petition for en banc review is being filed by Lambda seeking reversal of a 2-1 adverse panel decision issued a few weeks ago.  There is also another panel case argued in January in the 2nd Circuit, although the circuit rule on precedent will likely produce the same result in that case, which does not include a separate gender non-conformity allegation.

Christiansen is represented by Susan Chana Lask, a New York attorney whose Complaint in this case originally cast the federal claim as a sex stereotyping claim. Now that the case is being sent back to the district court to be litigated on the stereotyping theory, the plaintiff need not seek full circuit en banc review to proceed and seek discovery to produce evidence in support of his claim.

The case attracted widespread amicus participation, including a brief filed by the EEOC, another from a long list of civil rights organizations led by the ACLU, and briefs on behalf of 128 members of Congress, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Lambda Legal, all arguing that the court should allow the case to proceed as a sexual orientation discrimination case.

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