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Supreme Court Receives Two New Certiorari Petitions on Title VII Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claims

Posted on: May 31st, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

At the end of May the Supreme Court had received two new petitions asking it to address the question whether the ban on employment discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be interpreted to apply to claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation.

Altitude Express, the former employer of the late Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who claimed he was dismissed because of his sexual orientation in violation of Title VII, has asked the Court to reverse a February 26 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.  The 2nd Circuit ruled in Zarda v. Altitude Express, 883 F.3d 100 (en banc), that the district court erred in dismissing Zarda’s Title VII claim as not covered under the statute, and sent the case back to the U.S. District Court, holding that sexual orientation discrimination is a “subset” of sex discrimination.

Gerald Lynn Bostock, a gay man who claims he was fired from his job as the Child Welfare Services Coordinator for the Clayton County, Georgia, Juvenile Court System because of his sexual orientation, is asking the Court to overturn a ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reiterated in his case its recent ruling in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, 850 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2017), cert. denied, 138 S. Ct. 557 (2017), that an old precedent requires three-judge panels within the 11th Circuit to dismiss sexual orientation claims under Title VII.  As in the Evans case, the 11th Circuit refused Bostock’s request to consider the question en banc. See Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 12405, 2018 WL 2149179 (11th Cir., May 10, 2018).

The question whether Title VII can be used to challenge adverse employment decisions motivated by the worker’s actual or perceived sexual orientation is important as a matter of federal law, and even more important nationally because a majority of states do not forbid such discrimination by state statute. Although Title VII applies only to employers with at least 15 employees, thus leaving regulation of small businesses to the states and localities, its applicability to sexual orientation discrimination claims would make a big difference for many lesbian, gay and bisexual workers in substantial portions of the country where such protection is otherwise unavailable outside those municipalities and counties that have local ordinances that cover sexual orientation claims. It would give them both a federal forum to litigate their employment discrimination claims and substantive protection under Title VII.  For example, not one state in the southeastern United States forbids sexual orientation discrimination by statute.  In Georgia, individuals employed outside of a handful of municipalities are, like Gerald Bostock in Clayton County, out of luck unless the federal law can be construed to protect them.  Thus, an affirmative ruling by the Supreme Court would be especially valuable for rural employees who are unlikely to have any state or local protection.  (The question whether a county or city ordinance provides protection depends on where the employer does business, not where the employee lives, so somebody living in Birmingham, Alabama, but working in a factory or a retail business outside the city limits, would not be protected by the city’s ordinance.)

During the first several decades after Title VII went into effect on July 2, 1965, every attempt by LGBT plaintiffs to assert sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims was rejected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the federal courts. Two Supreme Court decisions adopting broad interpretations of the meaning of discrimination “because of sex” have led to a movement to reconsider that old position.  In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the Court accepted the argument that an employer who discriminates against a worker because of the worker’s failure to comport with stereotypes the employer holds about sex and gender may have acted out of a forbidden motivation under Title VII.  And in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1998), holding that the interpretation of “because of sex” was not limited to the factual scenarios envisioned by Congress in 1964, the Court rejected the 5th Circuit’s holding that Title VII could not apply to a case where a man was being subjected to hostile environment harassment of a sexual nature by male co-workers.  In that case, the Court (speaking unanimously through Justice Antonin Scalia) said that Title VII could be applied to “comparable evils” to those envisioned by Congress.  Taking these two cases together as precedents, lower federal courts began to interpret federal laws forbidding sex discrimination to be susceptible to broader interpretations, first in cases involving transgender plaintiffs, and then more recently in cases involving lesbian, gay or bisexual plaintiffs.

The EEOC embraced this movement in the lower federal courts during the Obama Administration in rulings reversing half a century of agency precedent to extend jurisdiction to gender identity and sexual orientation claims. The key sexual orientation ruling is Baldwin v. Foxx, EEOC Decision No. 0120133080, 2015 WL 4397641 (July 15, 2015), issued just weeks after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.  The EEOC’s rulings are not binding on the federal courts, however, and the agency does not have the power to enforce its rulings without the courts’ assistance.  It does have power to investigate charges of discrimination and to attempt to persuade employers to agree to settle cases that the agency finds to be meritorious. The decision that the statute covers sexual orientation also provides a basis to ground retaliation claims under Title VII when employees suffer adverse employment actions because they oppose discrimination or participate in enforcement proceedings.

Plaintiffs bringing these sexual orientation cases in federal courts have had an uphill battle because of the weight of older circuit court decisions rejecting such claims. Under circuit court rules, old appellate decisions remain binding not only on the district courts in each circuit but also on the three-judge circuit court panels that normally hear appeals.  Only a ruling en banc by an expanded (eleven judges in the huge 9th Circuit) or full bench of the circuit court can overrule a prior circuit precedent, in addition, of course, to the Supreme Court, which can overrule circuit court decisions.  Some have argued, as the petition recently filed in Bostock argues, that Price Waterhouse and Oncale implicitly overrule those older precedents, including the case that the 11th Circuit cites as binding, Blum v. Golf Oil Corporation, 597 F.2d 936 (5th Cir. 1979), a case from the old 5th Circuit.  (Congress subsequently split the 5th Circuit, separating off its eastern half to create a new 11th Circuit, which treats as binding old 5th Circuit precedents that have not been overruled en banc by the 11th Circuit.)  The 2nd Circuit ruling in Zarda specifically looked to Price Waterhouse and Oncale as well as the EEOC’s Baldwin decision to overrule several earlier panel decisions and establish a new interpretation of Title VII for the federal courts in Vermont, New York, and Connecticut.

Before the Zarda decision, the only circuit court to issue a similar ruling as a result of en banc review was the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017).  At the time of Hively, two out of the three states in the 7th Circuit – Wisconsin and Illinois – already had state laws banning sexual orientation discrimination, so the ruling was most important for people working in Indiana.  A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit, covering seven Midwestern states, most of which do not have state laws banning sexual orientation discrimination, will be hearing argument on this issue soon in Horton v. Midwest Geriatric Management, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209996, 2017 WL 6536576 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 21, 2017), in which the U.S. District Court dismissed a sexual orientation discrimination claim in reliance on a 1989 decision by an 8th Circuit panel.

Bostock’s petition argues that circuit courts should not be treating as binding pre-Price Waterhouse rulings on this issue.  Under this logic, the 8th Circuit panel in Horton should be able to disclaim that circuit’s 1989 ruling, although it is more likely that an overruling would require an en banc hearing, unless, of course, the Supreme Court grants one of the new petitions and sides with the plaintiffs in these cases.

Altitude Express’s petition, by contrast, relies on the Supreme Court’s general disposition against recognizing “implied” overruling, arguing that the 2nd and 7th Circuits have erred in interpreting Title VII to apply to claims that Congress did not intend to address when it passed Title VII in 1964, and that neither Price Waterhouse nor Oncale has directly overruled the old circuit court precedents.  While the Altitude Express petition states sympathy, even support, for the contention that sexual orientation discrimination should be illegal, it lines up with the dissenters in the 2nd and 7th Circuits who argued that it is up to Congress, not the courts, to add “sexual orientation” through the legislative process.

A similar interpretation battle is playing out in the circuit courts of appeals concerning gender identity discrimination claims. However, plaintiffs are having more success with these claims than with sexual orientation claims because it is easier for the courts to conceptualize gender identity – especially in the context of transition – as non-conformity with gender stereotypes, and thus encompassed directly within the scope of Price Waterhouse.  Although only one circuit court – again the 7th – has gone so far as to embrace the EEOC’s determination that gender identity discrimination claims can be considered discrimination “because of sex” without resorting to a stereotyping theory, most of the courts of appeals that have considered the question have agreed that the stereotyping theory can be put to work under Title VII to allow transgender plaintiffs to pursue their claims in federal court, and many have also applied it under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 to find protection for transgender students. If the Supreme Court were to take up the sexual orientation issue, a resulting decision could have significance for gender identity claims as well, depending on the Court’s rationale in deciding the case.

The timing of these two petitions, filed late in the Term and after all oral arguments have been concluded, means that if the Court wants to take up this issue, the earliest it could be argued would be after the new Term begins on October 1, 2018. As of now, nobody knows for certain what the composition of the Court will be when the new term begins.  Rumors of the possible retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy (who will turn 82 in July), likely to be the “swing” voter on this as on all LGBT rights cases, are rife, and although Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg (recently turned 85) and Stephen Breyer (turning 80 in August) have expressed no intentions of stepping down, they are – together with Kennedy – the oldest members of the Court.  Justice Clarence Thomas, a decisive vote against LGBT rights at all times, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1991, is the second-longest serving member of the Court after Kennedy (a Reagan appointee in 1987), but Thomas, who was relatively young at his appointment, will turn 70 on June 23, and most justices have continued to serve well past that age, so occasional speculation about his retirement is probably premature.  With the exception of Jimmy Carter, who did not get to appoint any Supreme Court justices during his single term, every president in modern times has gotten to appoint at least two justices to the Court during their first (or only) term.  So there is considerable suspense as to the composition of the Court for its 2018-2019 Term.  If the Justices are thinking strategically about their certiorari votes on controversial issues, they might well hold back from deciding whether to grant these petitions until they see the lay of the land after the Court’s summer recess.

The Altitude Express petition was filed by Saul D. Zabell and Ryan T. Biesenbach, Zabell & Associates, P.C., of Bohemia, N.Y. The Zarda Estate is represented by Gregory Antollino and Stephen Bergstein, of Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP.  The Bostock petition was filed by Brian J. Sutherland and Thomas J. Mew IV of Buckley Beal LLP, Atlanta, Georgia.  The Trump Administration Justice Department sided with Altitude Express in the en banc argument before the 2nd Circuit in Zarda, while the EEOC sided with the Estate of Zarda.  The Bostock petition seizes on this divided view from the government representatives in the Zarda argument as yet another reason why the Supreme Court should take up the issue and resolve it once and for all.  Numerous amicus briefs were filed for the 2nd Circuit en banc argument.  The Bostock 11th Circuit appeal attracted little notice and no amicus briefs.