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Sexual Orientation Discrimination Under Title VII in the 2nd Circuit: A Work in Progress

Posted on: May 11th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

As the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ponders three petitions asking for en banc consideration of the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be interpreted to ban sexual orientation discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, a federal trial judge in Manhattan has ruled that “in light of the evolving state of the law,” it would be “imprudent” for the court to grant a motion to dismiss a gay plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim.

Senior District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1998, issued his ruling in Philpott v. State University of New York on May 3, the day after the third en banc petition was filed.   An en banc hearing in the 2nd Circuit involves participation by all eleven active judges in the circuit, plus any senior judges who participated in a three-judge panel decision that is being reheard en banc.  Appeals are normally heard by three-judge panels, which are bound to follow existing circuit precedents.  Only an en banc panel (or the Supreme Court) can reconsider and reverse such precedents.

The 2nd Circuit ruled in 2000, in the case of Simonton v. Runyon, that Title VII could not be interpreted to forbid sexual orientation discrimination.  This holding was reiterated by a second panel in 2005, in Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, and yet again this year on March 27 in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group.  However, the 2nd Circuit’s Chief Judge, Robert Katzmann, who was sitting as a member of the panel in Christiansen, wrote a concurring opinion, joined by one of the other judges, arguing that the issue should be considered en banc in “an appropriate case.”  Katzmann’s discussion basically embraced the arguments articulated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its 2015 decision holding that David Baldwin, a gay air traffic controller, could bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII against the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The first of the en banc petitions was filed on April 19 in Cargian v. Breitling USA, Inc., in which another Manhattan trial judge, George B. Daniels, dismissed a gay watch salesman’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claim, finding that 2nd Circuit appellate precedents binding on the court rejected sexual orientation claims as a form of sex discrimination.  Judge Daniels ruled on September 29, 2016, and Frederick Cargian filed an appeal to the 2nd Circuit.  When the Christiansen decision was issued on March 27, it became clear that Cargian’s appeal to a three-judge panel would be a waste of time and judicial resources, and the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Cargian along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and solo plaintiffs’ attorney Janice Goodman, decided to petition the Circuit to take the case up directly en banc.

The second petition was filed on April 28 by Matthew Christiansen’s attorney, Susan Chana Lask.   The three-judge panel in Christiansen’s case had refused to allow the case to continue on a sexual orientation discrimination theory, but had concluded that it was possible that Christiansen would be able to proceed under a gender stereotype theory.  The panel clarified the 2nd Circuit’s approach in such cases, rejecting the trial judge’s conclusion that if the factual allegations suggest that sexual orientation played a role in the discrimination suffered by the plaintiff, he would be not be allowed to proceed under Title VII.  The trial court’s approach overlooked an important element of Title VII, an amendment adopted in 1991 providing that a plaintiff is entitled to judgment if sex is a “motivating factor” in his or her case, even if other factors contributed to the employer’s discriminatory conduct.  The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that discriminating against an employee because the employee fails to conform to gender stereotypes is evidence of discrimination because of sex.  In such a case, the sexual orientation of the plaintiff would be irrelevant, so long as the plaintiff could show that gender stereotyping was a motivating factor in their mistreatment.

At first it appeared that Christiansen would not seek en banc review, despite Judge Katzmann’s concurring opinion, as the panel unanimously voted to send the case back to the district court for consideration as a gender stereotyping case. Attorney Lask was quoted in newspaper reports as preparing to proceed to trial on the stereotyping theory.  The ACLU’s en banc petition changed the game plan, evidently, and Christiansen’s en banc petition was filed on April 28.

Meanwhile, on April 18, a different panel of the 2nd Circuit decided Zarda v. Altitude Express, once again holding that a gay plaintiff could not advance a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  Gregory Antollino, an attorney for an executor of the Estate of Donald Zarda, a gay skydiving instructor who had died in a skydiving accident after the being discharged from his employment, filed a petition for en banc rehearing on May 2, with Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich as co-counsel representing a co-executor.

The very next day Judge Hellerstein issued his ruling, allowing Jeffrey Philpott, the gay former Vice President of Student Affairs at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry to pursue his Title VII sexual orientation discrimination, hostile environment and retaliation claims. Judge Hellerstein rejected the defendant’s alternative argument that even if sexual orientation discrimination is covered by Title VII, Philpott’s factual allegations were insufficient to support his claims.  However, Judge Hellerstein joined with several other district judges within the 2nd Circuit in ruling that an employee of an educational institution may not bring an employment discrimination claim under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1992, which bans sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal money.  Although the plain language of Title IX can be interpreted to cover employment discrimination claims, Hellerstein agreed with other courts that have found that Congress did not intend to supplant Title VII, with its specific time deadlines and administrative exhaustion requirements, for employees of educational institutions who have sex discrimination claims.

After briefly describing the 2nd Circuit precedents, Hellerstein noted defendant’s argument that the court must dismiss the sexual orientation claims, and also Philpott’s request for leave to file an amended complaint focused on gender stereotyping.  “Neither relief is appropriate,” wrote the judge.  “The law with respect to this legal question is clearly in a state of flux, and the Second Circuit, or perhaps the Supreme Court, may return to this question soon.  In light of the evolving state of the law, dismissal of plaintiff’s Title VII claim is improper.”

Hellerstein then provided a summary of Judge Katzmann’s Christiansen concurrence, which he referred to more than once as a “majority concurrence” as it was signed by two of the three panel members. Hellerstein pointed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals en banc decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, issued on April 4, in which “the Seventh Circuit became the first Court of Appeals to unequivocally hold that ‘discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination’ and therefore cognizable under Title VII.”

“Among other reasons,” wrote Hellerstein, “the Seventh Circuit made this ruling ‘to bring our law into conformity with the Supreme Court’s teachings.’ The Seventh Circuit was also compelled by ‘the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without also discriminating on the basis of sex.’”

Hellerstein asserted that because Philpott “has stated a claim for sexual orientation discrimination, ‘common sense’ dictates that he has also stated a claim for gender stereotyping discrimination, which is cognizable under Title VII. The fact that plaintiff has framed his complaint in terms of sexual orientation discrimination and not gender stereotyping discrimination is immaterial.  I decline to embrace an ‘illogical’ and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, and in so doing, I join several other courts throughout the country.”

A few days after Hellerstein’s ruling, another panel of the 2nd Circuit avoided dealing with the same question in Magnusson v. County of Suffolk, an appeal from a May 2016 ruling by District Judge Sandra Feuerstein in the Eastern District of New York (Long Island).  Judge Feuerstein had rejected Arline Magnussen’s sexual orientation harassment Title VII claim on alternative grounds: that 2nd Circuit precedent does not allow sexual orientation claims, and that the employer could not be held liable under Title VII because Magnussen had unreasonably failed to invoke the employer’s internal grievance procedure to deal with her harassment complaint.  In a short memorandum signed by the Clerk of the Court, the 2nd Circuit ruled on May 11 that it need not address the Title VII interpretation issue in light of the district court’s finding that the employer could not held liable for whatever harassment the plaintiff might have suffered.

In terms of en banc review, in both Cargian and Zarda the court would face a case where the only stereotyping claim that would be viable would be that as gay men the plaintiffs did not conform to the stereotype that men should be attracted to women, so it would have to deal directly with the question whether sexual orientation is, as the EEOC stated and the 7th Circuit accepted, “necessarily” sex discrimination.  In Christiansen, the appellate panel found that the plaintiff might invoke other gender stereotype issues to make a viable claim under Title VII under the Circuit’s existing precedents, thus providing a less certain vehicle for getting the Circuit to confront the central legal issue.

If the 2nd Circuit grants the Christiansen or Cargian petitions, the en banc panel would consist of the eleven active members of the court.  If it grants the Zarda petition, those judges could be joined by two senior judges, Robert Sack and Gerard Lynch, who sat on the three-judge panel.  Of the eleven active judges, a majority were appointed by Democratic presidents: three by Clinton and four by Obama.  If the senior judges are added, a thirteen-member panel would include four appointed by Clinton and five appointed by Obama.  It is not clear from the Circuit’s published rules whether the senior judges could participate if the Circuit decides to consolidate the cases for rehearing en banc, but it is possible that they could only participate in deciding the Zarda case.