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11th Circuit Panel Splinters Over Lesbian’s Appeal of Title VII Dismissal

Posted on: March 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a divided ruling on March 10 holding that a lesbian plaintiff suing for discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could file an amended complaint alleging that she suffered discrimination because of sex stereotyping, but upholding the district court’s dismissal of her claim that sexual orientation discrimination violates the statute.  A dissenting judge, agreeing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which submitted an amicus brief in the case, and Lambda Legal, which was appointed to represent the plaintiff on appeal, argued that the plaintiff should be allowed to pursue her sexual orientation discrimination claim as well.  Lambda Legal, representing the appellant, immediately announced that it would petition for rehearing “en banc” before the entire 11th Circuit bench.

Unsurprisingly, the judges rejecting the sexual orientation claim, Circuit Judge William Pryor and Florida District Judge Jose Martinez, were appointed by President George W. Bush.  The dissenter, Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum, was appointed by President Barack Obama.

This case is one of appeals recently argued in three different federal circuits presenting the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are covered as “discrimination because of sex” under Title VII.  The Chicago-based 7th Circuit heard argument “en banc” on November 30, and the New York-based 2nd Circuit heard three-judge panel argument in two different appeals in January. So far, no federal circuit court has ruled favorably on such a claim, although many have ruled that gay plaintiffs can sue under Title VII on gender-based sex stereotyping claims, depending on their factual allegations.  There are older court of appeals precedents in most circuits rejecting sexual orientation discrimination claims, as such, under Title VII.  The Supreme Court has never directly ruled on the question.

In this case, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, plaintiff Jameka Evans claimed that she was discriminated against in her position as a security officer at the hospital because of both gender non-conformity and sexual orientation.  Evans is a “butch” lesbian who claims she was discriminated against because she failed to carry herself in a “traditional womanly manner” and that “it was ‘evident’ that she identified with the male gender, because of how she presented herself – ‘(male uniform, low male haircut, shoes, etc.’),” wrote Judge Martinez.

She filed her case in federal district court in Savanah, Georgia, without a lawyer (“pro se”). The district judge, J. Randal Hall, referred her case to a magistrate judge to rule on procedural issues and “screen” the claim, as is usually done with “pro se” cases.  Magistrate Judge George R. Smith found procedural problems and, applying old circuit precedent, held that the claim of sexual orientation discrimination could not be brought under Title VII.  Smith recommended dismissal of the case. Lambda Legal submitted an amicus brief, urging Judge Hall to reject the Magistrate’s recommendation, but Hall dismissed without reference to Lambda’s arguments.  However, Hall then appointed Lambda to represent Evans on appeal to the 11th Circuit, and Gregory Nevins from Lambda’s Atlanta office argued the appeal.  The hospital never responded to the complaint and was not represented at the one-sided argument before the court of appeals.

At the heart of this appeal and of the other pending cases on the same question is the effect of two Supreme Court rulings, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. In the first of these, the Court ruled that an employer’s denial of a partnership to a woman because of her failure to conform to the employer’s stereotyped view of how women should behave and present themselves was evidence of discrimination “because of sex” in violation of Title VII.  In the second, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s dismissal of a same-sex harassment case in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia holding that the interpretation of discrimination “because of sex” was not limited based on the intentions of Congress when it enacted the statute in 1964.  Scalia commented that “comparable evils” to those that Congress sought to address might be covered by the statute, and that we are governed by the language of our statutes as adopted by Congress, not by the presumed intentions expressed by individual legislators or committees as reflected in the legislative history.  Thus, a claim by a man that he was subjected to sexual harassment by male co-workers could be dealt with under Title VII, even if members of Congress did not anticipate or intend that such cases could be brought under Title VII.

LGBT rights advocates have used these two Supreme Court cases to argue that gay and transgender plaintiffs who suffer discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to bring sex discrimination claims under Title VII. Sex stereotyping is arguably present to some extent in all such cases and, at a more fundamental level, anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination is “necessarily” because of sex.  These arguments persuaded the EEOC during the Obama Administration, resulting in administrative rulings in cases raised by LGBT federal employees, and have also persuaded some federal district judges.  Several federal courts of appeals have accepted the sex stereotyping argument, but only to a limited extent, according to the extensive concurring opinion in Evans’s case by Judge Pryor.  So far, no federal circuit court has accepted the argument that an otherwise gender-conforming gay person can bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.

Judge Martinez premised his vote to reject the sexual orientation discrimination claim on a 1979 decision by the 5th Circuit, Blum v. Gulf Oil Corporation, 597 F.2d 936, in which that court said that “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII” as an alternative basis for its ruling.  Effective on September 30, 1981, a statute divided the old 5th Circuit in half, assigning Georgia to the newly-created 11th Circuit. At that time, the 11th Circuit ruled that former 5th Circuit cases would be treated as precedent in the new 11th Circuit, so this case counts as a binding circuit precedent.  Lambda argued that the 1979 ruling is no longer valid in light of the 1989 Price Waterhouse decision and the 1999 Oncale decision.  Martinez and Pryor both rejected that argument, but dissenting Judge Rosenbaum embraced it.  At the oral argument, Judge Pryor had observed that in light of the Blum precedent, the three judge panel most likely could not rule in favor of Evans on this point, as only an en banc panel could reverse circuit precedents.

As to the sex stereotyping claim, Martinez asserted that Evans’ pro se complaint “failed to plead facts sufficient to create a plausible inference that she suffered discrimination. In other words, Evans did not provide enough factual matter to plausibly suggest that her decision to present herself in a masculine manner led to the alleged adverse employment actions.”  However, he wrote, it was inappropriate for the district judge to dismiss her case outright rather than allowing her to file an amended complaint, since her theory of sex stereotyping discrimination was a theory accepted in the 11th Circuit and it was possible that, in light of the court’s discussion of her claim, she might be able to meet these pleading deficiencies in an amended complaint.  It is customary in pro se cases to allow the plaintiff to file an amended complaint if she is asserting a claim under a valid legal theory and there is a possibility that a better framed complaint could survive screening.

Pryor’s concurring opinion agreed that the magistrate erred in asserting that a sex stereotyping argument by a lesbian plaintiff was just “another way to claim discrimination based on sexual orientation,” and thus Evans should get a second chance to frame a complaint that might survive review. However, he argued at length to refute the arguments by the EEOC and Judge Rosenbaum that sexual orientation discrimination claims were “necessarily” sex discrimination claims.  Pryor insisted on a strict distinction between “status” and “conduct,” arguing that sex stereotyping claims were tied to the plaintiff’s conduct in failing to conform to gender stereotypes.  Thus, a claim of sexual orientation discrimination not accompanied by factual allegations about the plaintiff’s gender non-conformity fell short, in his view, of coming within the compass of discrimination “because of sex.”  He was not willing to accept the argument that being sexually attracted to members of the same-sex would suffice to constitute non-conformity with sexual stereotypes.

Judge Rosenbaum took a diametrically opposite approach, embracing a theoretical description of how Price Waterhouse had changed Title VII law by extending prior sex stereotyping cases to adopt a “prescriptive stereotyping” model. In prior cases, the Supreme Court had condemned “ascriptive stereotyping,” situations where an employer discriminated against a class of employees because of a stereotype about the class.  For example, an employer required women to contribute more to its pension plan than men in order to get the same monthly benefits upon retirement, based on the stereotype that women live longer than men so it would all “even out” in the end.  The Supreme Court condemned this practice as sex discrimination, finding that the statute protects individuals from being treated based on class-based stereotypes.  In Price Waterhouse, the Court for the first time condemned “prescriptive stereotyping,” where an employer discriminated against an employee because she failed to conform to a sexual stereotype, presenting a demeanor which was not traditionally feminine.

Applying this to the sexual orientation case, Rosenbaum accepted the argument that in such cases the employer was discriminating because the employee violated the stereotypical view that men are supposed to be attracted to women, not to men, and vice versa. Furthermore, she found that it was clearly sex discrimination to treat a woman differently based on whether she was attracted to men or women.

Judge Rosenbaum argued that Pryor’s opinion was “at war” with his vote a decade ago that allowed a sex discrimination claim under the Equal Protection Clause by a transgender employee of the Georgia legislature. Indeed, Pryor’s vote in the former case, Glenn v. Brumby, had given the plaintiff hope in this case that the panel might rule in her favor.  Pryor devoted considerable effort in his concurring opinion to explaining why he found this case to be different, once again relying on the “status” and “conduct” distinction.  Cross-dressing and announcing plans to transition were “conduct,” in his view, while having a sexual orientation was “status.”  He argued that sex stereotyping theory was concerned with conduct, not status, in its focus on gender non-conformity.

The sharp division among the judges may lead the 11th Circuit to agree to hear the case en banc, especially noting that one member of the panel was a district judge.  The federal judiciary is so short-handed as a result of the Republican-controlled Senate’s stonewalling of President Obama’s court of appeals nominees during his second term that it has become increasingly common for some particularly short-staffed circuits to fill-out three-judge panels by “designating” district court judges to provide the third member to make up a panel.  These district judges do not participate if the case is reargued en banc.  Furthermore, with the 7th Circuit having held en banc argument on this question recently, it seems clear that many federal judges believe it is time to reconsider the issue.  Meanwhile, decisions from the 7th and 2nd Circuits are eagerly awaited, especially if they create a “circuit split” that would entice the Supreme Court to agree to take up the issue.