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Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law

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

Arthur S. Leonard, Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law, New York Law School, April 26, 2017

A Battle Over Statutory Interpretation: Title VII and Claims of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

I feel particularly honored to have my name associated with that of United States Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr., NYLS Class of 1900, a hero of the New Deal whose legislative leadership gave us such important achievements as the National Labor Relations Act – commonly known among labor law practitioners as the Wagner Act – and the Social Security Act — laws that have shaped our nation for generations.   Senator Wagner was an immigrant who made an indelible mark on the United States. I hope that in some small way I have made a contribution that makes this named chair fitting.

I decided to select a topic for this talk that would bring together the two major areas of my teaching and scholarship: labor and employment law, and sexuality law. These intersect in the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination against an individual because of his or her sex, will be open to claims by job applicants and workers that they have suffered discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are at a decisive point in the judicial battle over that question, having achieved just weeks ago the breakthrough of our first affirmative appellate ruling on the sexual orientation question, following several years of encouraging developments on the gender identity question.

To understand the significance of this, we have to go back more than half a century, to the period after World War II when the modern American gay rights movement began stirring with the protests of recent military veterans against unequal benefits treatment, with the formation of pioneering organizations like the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and New York and The Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco, and with the vital behind-the-scenes work undertaken by gay scholars as the great law reform effort of the Model Penal Code was being launched by the American Law Institute. That postwar period of the late 1940s and 1950s played out alongside the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, for which the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a signal achievement.

The early gay rights advocacy groups had their lists of goals, and some kind of protection against discrimination was prominent among them, but that task seemed monumental, at a time when there was no federal statute prohibiting employment discrimination of any kind. Until Illinois adopted the Model Penal Code in 1960, which effectively repealed criminal sanctions for private consensual gay sex, it was a crime in every state; a serious felony with long prison sentences in many. President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order shortly after taking office banning the employment of “homosexuals” and “sexual perverts” in the federal civil service. A major immigration law passed during the 1950s for the first time barred homosexuals from immigrating to the U.S. and qualifying for citizenship by labeling us as being “afflicted by psychopathic personality,” making us excludable on medical grounds. The military barred gay people from serving on similar grounds, and many lines of work that required state licensing and determinations of moral fitness systematically excluded LGBT people. To be an ‘openly gay’ lawyer or doctor was virtually unthinkable in the 1950s and on into the 1960s.

When Congress was considering the landmark civil rights bill, first introduced during the Kennedy Administration and shepherded into law by Lyndon Johnson, the idea that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people might seek or obtain assistance rather than condemnation from Congress seemed a pipe dream. None of the legislators involved with the bill proposed protecting members of these groups from discrimination. Title VII, the provision of the bill dealing with employment discrimination, was limited in its original form to discrimination because of race or color, religion, or national origin. A floor amendment, introduced by Howard Smith of Virginia, a conservative Southern Democrat who was opposed to the bill, proposed to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds for discrimination. The amendment carried, the bill passed, and it went to the Senate where it was held up by one of the longest filibusters in history – at a time when filibusters involved unbroken floor debate by the opponents of a pending measure, with no vote on the merits until the Chamber was thoroughly exhausted and no opponent could be found to continue speaking. The leadership of the Senate, trying to avoid having the bill bottled up in committees headed by conservative senior Southern senators, had sent the bill direct to the floor with a tight limit on amendments. Thus committee reports that would have provided a source of legislative history on the meaning of “sex” in the bill are missing. The only floor amendment relating to the addition of “sex” to Title VII was to clarify that pay practices that were authorized under the Equal Pay Act, which had been passed the year before, would not be held to violate Title VII. The statute contained no definition of “sex,” and in the early years after its passage, the general view, held by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was that the ban on sex discrimination simply prohibited employers from treating women worse than men – with little agreement about what that meant. In fact, in an early interpretive foray, the Supreme Court decided that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination against women because they became pregnant. The resulting public outcry inspired Congress to amend the statute to make clear that discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy or childbirth was considered to be discrimination because of sex.

Early attempts by gay or transgender people to pursue discrimination claims under Title VII all failed. The EEOC and the courts agreed that protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or transgender status was not intended by Congress. They embraced a literalistic “plain language” interpretation of Title VII, including a narrow biological understanding of sex.

But something began to happen as the courts considered a wider variety of sex discrimination claims. It became clear that a simplistic concept of sex would not be adequate to achieve the goal of equality of opportunity in the workplace. Legal theorists had been advancing the concept of a “hostile environment” as a form of discrimination, first focusing on the open hostility that many white workers showed to black, Latino and Asian workers in newly-integrated workplaces. During the 1970s the courts began to expand that concept to women who experienced hostility in formerly all-male workplaces as well. Lower federal courts were divided about whether such “atmospherics” of the workplace could be considered terms or conditions of employment when they didn’t directly involve refusals to hire or differences in pay or work assignments. Finally the Supreme Court broke that deadlock in 1986, holding in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that a woman who experienced workplace hostility so severe that it could be said to affect her terms and conditions of employment would have a sex discrimination claim under Title VII, and subsequent cases clarified that the plaintiff did not have to show a tangible injury, although a finding that working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit would clearly meet the test of a hostile environment. Some courts began to extend this reasoning to complaints by men, in situations where male co-workers subjected them to verbal and even physical harassment.

The Court also began to grapple with the problem of sex stereotypes, and how easily employers and co-workers could fall into stereotyped thinking to the disadvantage of minorities and women. Stereotypes about young mothers’ ability to balance work and home obligations, stereotypes about the ability of women to do physically challenging working, stereotypes about female longevity and the costs of retirement plans – all of these issues came before the Court and ultimately led it to expand the concept of sex discrimination more broadly than legislators of the mid-1960s might have imagined.

The key stereotyping case for building a theory of protection for sexual minorities was decided in 1989 – Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins’ bid for partnership was denied because some partners of the firm considered her inadequately feminine. They embraced a stereotype about how a woman partner was supposed to look and behave. Hopkins, with her loud and abrasive manner and appearance, failed to conform to that stereotype. Communicating the firm’s decision to pass over her partnership application, the head of her office told her she could improve her chances for the next round by dressing more femininely, walking more femininely, toning down her speech, wearing make-up and jewelry, having her hair styled. Her substantial contributions to the firm and her leadership in generating new business counted for little, when decision-makers decided she was inadequately feminine to meet their expectations. In an opinion by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., the Court accepted Hopkins’ argument that allowing such considerations to affect the partnership decision could be evidence of a prohibited discriminatory motivation under Title VII. The Court’s opinion embraced the idea that discrimination because of “gender,” not just discrimination because of biological sex, came within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition. The statutory policy included wiping away gender stereotypes that created barriers to equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

Although Ann Hopkins was not a lesbian and nothing was said about homosexuality in her case, the implications of the ruling became obvious over time as federal courts dealt with a variety of stereotyping claims. A person who suffered discrimination because she did not appear or act the way people expected a woman to appear or act was protected, and that sounded to lots of people like a description of discrimination against transgender people and some – but perhaps not all – lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The argument seemed particularly strong when an employer discriminated against a person who was hired appearing and acting as a man and then began to transition to living life as a woman.

At the same time, legal academics had begun to publish theoretical arguments supporting the idea that discrimination against gay people was a form of sex discrimination. Among the earliest were Professor Sylvia Law of New York University, whose 1988 article in the Wisconsin Law Review, titled “Homosexuality and the Social Meaning of Gender,” suggested that anti-gay discrimination was about “preserving traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Law’s pioneering work was quickly followed by the first of many articles by Andrew Koppelman, first in a student note he published in the Yale Law Journal in 1988 titled “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination,” later in his 1994 article in the New York University Law Review titled “Why Discrimination Against Lesbians and Gay Men is Sex Discrimination.” Both Koppelman, now a professor at Northwestern University, and Law proposed theoretical arguments for treating anti-gay discrimination as sex discrimination.

Seizing upon the Price Waterhouse precedent, transgender people and gay people began to succeed in court during the 1990s by arguing that their failure to conform to gender stereotypes was the reason they were denied hiring or continued employment, desirable assignments or promotions. A strange dynamic began to grow in the courts, as judges repeated, over and over again, that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as such, but that it did prohibit discrimination against a person because of his or her failure to conform to gender stereotypes and expectations, regardless of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation. Many of the courts insisted, however, that there was one gender stereotype that could not be the basis of a Title VII claim – that men should be attracted only to women, and women should be attracted only to men. To allow a plaintiff to assert such a claim would dissolve the line that courts were trying to preserve between sex stereotyping claims and sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims. Decades of past precedents stood in the way of acknowledging the unworkability of that line.

Ten years after the Price Waterhouse decision, the Supreme Court decided another sex discrimination case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, with an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia that helped to fuel the broadening interpretation of Title VII. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a man who is subjected to workplace harassment of a sexual nature by other men could not bring a hostile environment sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The court of appeals reasoned that Congress intended in 1964 to prohibit discrimination against women because they were women or men because they were men, and that such a limited intent could not encompass claims of same-sex harassment, which would be beyond the expectations of the legislators who passed that law. In reversing this ruling, Justice Scalia, who was generally skeptical about the use of legislative history to interpret statutes, wrote for the Court that the interpretation of Title VII was not restricted to the intentions of the 1964 Congress. While conceding that same-sex harassment was not one of the “evils” that Congress intended to attack by passing Title VII, he wrote:

“Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed. Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex in employment. This must extend to sex-based discrimination of any kind that meets the statutory requirements.”

Thus, as our collective, societal understanding of sex, gender, sexuality, identity and orientation broadens, our concept of sex discrimination as prohibited by Title VII also broadens. With the combined force of Price Waterhouse and Oncale, some federal courts began to push the boundaries even further during the first decade of the 21st century.

By the time the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2012 in Macy v. Holder, a federal sector sex discrimination case, that a transgender plaintiff could pursue a Title VII claim against a division of the Justice Department, its opinion could cite a multitude of federal court decisions in support of that conclusion, including two Title VII decisions by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals involving public safety workers who were transitioning, and a 2011 ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that a Georgia state agency’s discrimination against an employee because she was transitioning violated the Equal Protection Clause as sex discrimination. There were also federal appellate rulings to similar effect under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Violence against Women Act, as well as numerous trial court rulings under Title VII. So the EEOC was following the trend, not necessarily leading the parade, when it found that discrimination against a person because of their gender identity was a form of sex discrimination.

After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, striking down a state sodomy law under the 14th Amendment, and further rulings in 2013 and 2015 in the Windsor and Obergefell cases, leading to a national right to marry for same-sex couples, the persistence by many courts in asserting that Title VII did not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination appeared increasingly archaic. Just weeks after the Obergefell decision, the EEOC issued another landmark ruling in July 2015, David Baldwin v. Anthony Foxx, reversing half a century of EEOC precedent and holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims were “necessarily” sex discrimination claims covered by Title VII. The Commission ruled that a gay air traffic controller could bring a Title VII claim against the Department of Transportation, challenging its refusal to hire him for a full-time position at the Miami air traffic control center because of his sexual orientation.

Building on the Price Waterhouse, Oncale and Macy decisions, the EEOC embraced several alternative theories to support this ruling. One was the now well-established proposition that an employer may not rely on “sex-based considerations” or “take gender into account” when making employment decisions, unless sex was a bona fide occupational qualification – a narrow statutory exception that is rarely relevant to a sexual orientation or gender identity case.

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms,” wrote the EEOC. “Sexual orientation as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex. Sexual orientation is inseparable from and inescapably linked to sex and, therefore, allegations of sexual orientation discrimination involve sex-based considerations.” By the summer of 2015, the agency was able to cite several federal trial court decisions applying these concepts in particular cases.

Another theory was based on the associational discrimination theory. Courts had increasingly accepted the argument that discrimination against a person because he or she was in an interracial relationship was discrimination because of race. The analogy was irresistible: Discriminating against somebody because they are in a same-sex relationship must be sex discrimination, because it involved taking the employee’s sex into account. Denying a job because a man is partnered with a man rather than with a woman means that his sex, as well as his partner’s sex, was taken into account by the employer in making the decision.

Finally, the Commission embraced the stereotyping theory that some courts had refused to fully embrace: that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily involves discrimination based on gender stereotypes, not just those involving appearance, mannerisms, grooming, or speech, but also stereotypes about appropriate sexual attractions. Quoting a Massachusetts federal trial court ruling, the agency wrote, “Sexual orientation discrimination and harassment are often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms. . . The harasser may discriminate against an openly gay co-worker, or a co-worker that he perceives to be gay, whether effeminate or not, because he thinks, ‘real’ men should date women, and not other men.” Professor Law’s theoretical proposition of 1988 was now surfacing in court and agency rulings a quarter century later.

The EEOC also rejected the view that adopting this expanded definition of sex discrimination required new congressional action, pointing out that the courts had been expanding the definition of sex discrimination under Title VII continually since the 1970s, with minimal intervention or assistance from Congress.

Since 2015 the issue of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII has risen to the level of the circuit courts of appeals. In most of the circuits, there are precedents dating back decades holding that sexual orientation claims may not be litigated under Title VII. These precedents are softened in some circuits that have accept discrimination claims from gay men or lesbians who plausibly asserted that their visible departure from gender stereotypes provoked discrimination against them. But many of these appeals courts have strained to draw a line between the former and the latter, and have rejected stereotyping claims where they perceived them as attempts to “bootstrap” a sexual orientation claim into Title VII territory.

Ironically, one judge who emphatically rejected such a case several years ago with the bootstrapping objection, Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit, is the author of a concurring opinion in this new round of circuit court rulings in which he argues that it is legitimate for federal courts to “update” statutes without waiting for Congress in order to bring them into line with current social trends. This was part of the 7th Circuit’s en banc ruling in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, the April 4, 2017, decision that is the first by a federal appeals court to embrace all aspects of the EEOC’s Baldwin decision and hold that a lesbian could pursue a sexual orientation claim under Title VII. Posner’s argument echoes one made decades ago by Guido Calabresi, then a professor at Yale, now a judge on the 2nd Circuit, in a series of lectures published as a book titled “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” in which he argued that legislative inertia would justify courts in updating old statutes to meet contemporary needs. Although Posner did not cite Calabresi’s book, his argument is much the same. He quoted both Justice Scalia’s statement from Oncale and an earlier iteration of similar sentiments in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from 1920, in which Holmes wrote: “The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago.”

The federal circuit courts follow the rule that when a three-judge panel of the circuit interprets a statute, it creates a binding circuit precedent which can be reversed only by the full bench of the court in an en banc ruling, or by the Supreme Court, or by Congress changing the statute. The Hively ruling reversed a three-judge panel decision that had rejected the plaintiff’s Title VII claim based on prior circuit precedents. The vote was 8-3. Incidentally, 5 of the judges in the 8-member majority were appointees of Republican presidents. The employer in that case quickly announced that it would not seek Supreme Court review, but this ruling creates a split among the circuit courts, so it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court receives a petition asking for a definitive interpretation of Title VII on this question.

The 7th Circuit opinion by Chief Judge Diane Wood accepted all of the EEOC’s theories from the Baldwin decision. Judge Wood concluded that “it would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’” “We hold that a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.”

Dissenting Judge Diane Sykes criticized the majority for deploying “a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.” Here the battle is joined. For the majority, it is appropriate to trace the development of case law over decades, treating the concept of sex discrimination as evolving. For Judge Posner, concurring, it is legitimate for the court to set aside the pretense of ordinary interpretation and to “update” an old statute to reflect contemporary understandings. And for Judge Sykes, these are both illegitimate because it violates the division of authority between the legislature and the courts to adopt an “interpretation” that would be outside the understanding of the legislators who enacted the statute.

Now the scenario is playing out in other circuits. In recent weeks, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit and the New York-based 2nd Circuit have issued panel rulings refusing to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII. The panels did not consider the issue afresh and decided to reaffirm the old rulings on the merits, but rather asserted that they were powerless to do so because of the existing circuit precedents. In both of the cases decided in March, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital and Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, the panels sent the cases back to the trial court to see whether they could be litigated as sex stereotyping cases instead of sexual orientation cases. But one judge dissented in the 11th Circuit, arguing that an old pre-Price Waterhouse precedent should not longer be treated as binding. The 2nd Circuit panel rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that because the gay plaintiff’s complaint included evidence that his treatment was tainted by homophobia he could not assert a sex stereotyping claim, and two members of the panel wrote a concurring opinion virtually accepting the EEOC’s view of the matter and suggesting that the circuit should reconsider the issue en banc.. In both cases, the panels took the position that sex stereotyping claims could be evaluated without reference to the sexual orientation of the plaintiff. And, in both of these cases, lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking the circuits to convene en banc benches to reconsider the issue, as a preliminary to seeking possible review in the Supreme Court. A different 2nd Circuit panel has also issued a ruling where sex stereotyping of the sort that is actionable in the 2nd Circuit is not part of the case, and counsel in that case is also filing a petition for en banc review.

One or more of these petitions is likely to be granted. While we may see more en banc rulings in favor of allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims, at some point a new circuit split may develop, leading inevitably to the Supreme Court. Or the issue could get to the Supreme Court by an employer seeking further review, since older rulings in other circuits still present the kind of circuit splits that the Supreme Court tries to resolve.

That leads to the highly speculative game of handicapping potential Supreme Court rulings. Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation restores the ideological balance that existed before Justice Scalia’s death. The Court as then constituted decided the historic same-sex marriage cases, Windsor and Obergefell, with Justice Kennedy, a Republican appointee, writing for the Court in both cases, as well as in earlier gay rights victories, Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. These opinions suggest a degree of empathy for gay litigants that might lead Kennedy to embrace an expansive interpretation of Title VII. He is part of a generation of appellate judges appointed by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s who made up half of the majority in the recent 7th Circuit ruling: Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Joel Flaum, and Kenneth Ripple. Another member of that majority, Ilana Rovner, was appointed by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. This line-up underlies optimism that Kennedy might join with the Clinton and Obama appointees on the Supreme Court to produce a five-judge majority to embrace the EEOC’s interpretation. Such optimism may also draw on Kennedy’s decisive rejection of the argument that legal rules are frozen at the time of their adoption and not susceptible to new interpretations in response to evolving social understandings. This was the underlying theme of his opinions in the four major gay rights decisions.

Since the 1970s supporters of gay rights have introduced bills in Congress to amend the federal civil rights laws to provide explicit protection for LGBT people. None of those attempts has succeeded to date. If the judicial battle reaches a happy conclusion, those efforts might be rendered unnecessary, although there is always a danger in statutory law of Congress overruling through amendment, but that seems unlikely unless the Republicans attain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

On that optimistic note, I conclude with thanks for your attention, and I am happy to answer questions now.

 

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.

Gay and Trans Plaintiffs Advance Title VII Discrimination Claims Using Sex Stereotyping Theory

Posted on: October 10th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Two federal trial courts have allowed Title VII claims by law enforcement officers, one gay and the other transgender, to proceed over employer protests early in October. On October 4, U.S. District Judge Jennifer A. Dorsey granted summary judgment to Bradley Roberts, a transgender man employed as a police officer by the Clark County School District in Nevada, on his claim of gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and the Nevada Equal Rights Law, while referring claims of harassment and retaliation to a magistrate judge for trial.    Roberts v. Clark County School District, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138329, 2016 WL 5843046 (D. Nevada).  On October 7, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge John E. Ott of the Northern District of Alabama denied the City of Pleasant Grove’s motion to dismiss a Title VII claim by an openly gay man, Lance Smith, who had been discharged from the city’s Police Department.  Smith v. City of Pleasant Grove, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139575, 2016 WL 5868510 (N.D. Alabama).  In both cases, the judges referred to the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, which endorsed the view that employees who suffered adverse consequences because of their failure to comply with the employer’s sex-stereotypical views could sue for sex discrimination under Title VII.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title VII, issued an administrative decision finding that the statute forbids gender identity discrimination, and the EEOC issued a similar ruling regarding sexual orientation discrimination in 2015. The EEOC rulings relied upon and extended the sex-stereotyping theory.  The agency’s rulings are not binding on the federal courts, but federal trial judges have begun over the past year to acknowledge them and, in some cases, to follow their reasoning.

The Clark County School District first hired Bradley Roberts as a campus monitor in 1992. At that time Roberts was known by a female name and hoped to become a police officer. Roberts graduated from a law enforcement academy in 1994 and was then hired by the District to be a police officer, a position Roberts held without incident for seventeen years until he began to transition.

In 2011, Roberts began dressing as a man, grooming as a man, and identifying himself as a man. He started using the men’s bathroom at work, leading to complaints from some of the other officers.  His commanding officers confronted him for an explanation, which he gave, explaining that he was transgender and in the process of transitioning.  He said he wanted to be known henceforth as Bradley Roberts and to use the men’s bathrooms.  They told him he could not do so, but that because he now appeared as a man, he should also refrain from using the women’s bathrooms.  There were some gender-neutral bathrooms in the District schools, and he was instructed to use them “to avoid any future complaints.”  Roberts followed up by sending  a letter to his superiors summarizing what he had told them and again expressing his desire to be called Bradley Roberts, for co-workers to use male pronouns in referring to him, and he promised to comply with the men’s grooming code for the District police force.

Roberts’ letter prompted another meeting with his superiors and his union representative. His request to use men’s bathrooms was again denied, and he was told he would not be referred to as a man or allowed to use the men’s bathrooms until he could provide official documentation of a name and sex change.  However, two days later, at yet another such meeting, he was told that the District would allow him to use a man’s name informally, but all “official and formal documents” would continue to use his female name until he got a court-ordered name change and processed it through the Human Resources department.  He would still be required to use only the gender-neutral bathrooms.

 

Roberts then received a proposed memo summarizing these arrangements, including his concern that co-workers and commanding officers be cautioned that asking “below the belt” questions about his anatomy “may constitute sexual harassment.” Roberts thought this memo was only going to be distributed among supervisors and managers, and claims he was “blindsided” when it went by email to everybody in the Department, generating questions and what he considered to be harassing conduct from some co-workers.

In December 2011, a court granted his name change petition, he updated his driver’s license to reflect his name and gender, and he submitted paperwork to Human Resources, which resulted in yet another email going out to the entire department explaining his name change and stating that it would take effect for purposes of his official records. However, he subsequently discovered that he was still listed as “female” on the new insurance card he was issued for 2012.

Roberts then filed a discrimination complaint with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, alleging gender identity discrimination in violation of state law. (Nevada’s statute specifically includes gender identity.)  He cited the bathroom ban as discriminatory, and described several incidents, including the meetings with supervisors as harassment.  The District claimed that the steps it had taken had resolved any problem and refused to participate in mediation with the NERC, but in the face of a scheduled hearing the District issued a new bathroom policy, allowing Roberts to use the men’s bathrooms.  NERC then closed Roberts’ discrimination case as “moot,” but he filed a second charge, citing the bathroom ban, offensve comments from co-workers, and the department-wide emails that had essentially “outed” him to the Department without his permission.  He also alleged retaliation for filing the earlier charges and improper questions, comments and gestures by co-workers.  Ultimately he received a “right-to-sue” letter from the EEOC and sued the District in federal court.

In response to motions for summary judgment, Judge Dorsey undertook a thorough historical review of the treatment of gender identity under Title VII, emphasizing how the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over the federal trial courts in Nevada, has embraced a broad understanding of sex discrimination under Title VII and other federal laws, such as the Violence Against Women Act.  She explained how the Price Waterhouse case had generated a growing body of decisions in other circuits allowing gender identity claims under Title VII in reliance on the sex stereotyping theory, and she noted the EEOC’s decisions in 2012 and 2015 extending this to bathroom access for transgender employees.

“I join the weight of authority and hold that discrimination against a person based on transgender status is discrimination ‘because of sex’ under Title VII,” she wrote, continuing that “because it appears that the Ninth Circuit would hold that gender-identity discrimination is actionable under Title VII, I see no reason to depart from the heavy weight of this authority. Nothing in the few contrary decisions cited by the school district persuades me otherwise.  The contrary Seventh and Tenth Circuit decisions provide no cogent analysis of Title VII’s language or the Supreme Court case law,” as they relied heavily on outdated precedents.  Further, she concluded that Roberts was entitled to summary judgment on his sex discrimination claims, because it was clear that he had suffered discrimination on that basis at the hands of the District.

“Direct evidence established the department’s discriminatory intent here,” wrote Judge Dorsey. “It banned Roberts from the women’s bathroom because he no longer behaved like a woman.  This alone shows that the school district discriminated against Roberts based on his gender and sex stereotypes.  And the department also admits that it banned Roberts from the men’s bathroom because he is biologically female.  Although CCSD contends that it discriminated against Roberts based on his genitalia, not his status as a transgender person, this is a distinction without a difference here.  Roberts was clearly treated differently than persons of both his biological sex and the gender he identifies as – in sum, because of his transgender status.”

Dorsey found that the bathroom ban was “an adverse employment action,” that Roberts was treated differently than similarly situated employees, and that the District failed to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for restricting his bathroom use.

However, she found that factual disputes precluded granting summary judgement on the harassment and retaliation claims, since there was a dispute about whether the conduct experienced by Roberts was sufficiently severe to meet the harassment standard or whether any adverse treatment he experienced was actually a response to his complaining about his treatment. Thus, summary judgment was denied as to those charges, and the judge referred them to a magistrate judge for further proceedings to resolve those factual disputes.

The Smith case involves straightforward sexual orientation discrimination by a local Alabama police department. Lance Smith interviewed with Lt. Jennifer Fredrick for an available position in the Pleasant Grove Police Department (PGPD) in 2014.  She told him he would be offered a position at a specific salary.  At the end of the interview, Smith told Fredrick that he is gay and has a same-sex partner.  Smith says that Fredrick’s demeanor immediately changed and she advised him to “reconsider” his desire to work in the PGPD.  However, after the interview Smith received an email from Fredrick informing him that “his homosexuality would not be an issue,” wrote Judge Ott.  This was evidently untrue, to judge by subsequent events related by Smith in his Title VII complaint.

After Smith completed the required physical exam, he was directed to meet with the Chief of Police, Robert Knight, who told him he would receive a lower salary than he had been promised by Lt. Fredrick. In his complaint, he claims he was paid $5,000 less than other new recruits.  Smith claims that he received only two weeks of field training instead of the three normally provided to new recruits, and then was assigned to a night shift patrol on his own rather than the usual assignment for new officers to patrol with a partner.  Smith claims that he was informed by the night shift sergeant that “Lt. Fredrick had instructed the sergeant to write down everything Smith did wrong so Lt. Fredrick could fire him.”  Smith says another officer warned him to be “careful” because a police corporal was a “homophobe.”

After a few months, Lt. Fredrick told Smith he was “not going to work out” and needed to resign, but refused to tell him what he had done wrong. In fact, he claims, she told him he was a good officer and would find another department that would “fit” him better.  Fredrick gave him a previously-prepared resignation letter and told him he would be grounded, suspended, and then fired if he did not resign.  Smith signed the letter and attempted to find police work elsewhere in the county, relying on Fredrick’s statement that she would advise prospective employers and the Jefferson County Personnel Board that he resigned in good standing, but he claims he was unable to find employment because Knight and Fredrick had “falsely reported that he was an unsatisfactory employee.”

Smith filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC, which issued him a right to sue letter. He filed his suit on March 1, 2016, claiming he was subjected to “discriminatory terms and conditions of employment because of his sexual orientation, and stereotypes associated with his sex and his gender,” in violation of Title VII.  He also alleged a violation of his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and asserted a state tort claim that the City, Knight and Fredrick had interfered with his “contractual or business relationship with prospective employers” by giving him a bad employment report.  The defendants moved to dismiss on various grounds, including the claim that Title VII does not apply to his case.

“Traditionally, court in this circuit have held that Title VII does not provide a remedy for discrimination based on sexual orientation,” wrote Judge Ott, citing a long list of cases, and adding a list of cases from other circuits with similar holdings. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, recently concluded that ‘an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII,’” he wrote, and “at least one court in this circuit, noting that the question is an ‘open one,’ has agreed with the EEOC and has found that ‘claims of sexual orientation-based discrimination are cognizable under Title VII.’”

More importantly, wrote Ott, “Smith has also alleged discrimination based on his failure to conform to sex and gender stereotypes.” While Ott rejected Smith’s argument that discrimination based on his association with his male partner is prohibited sex discrimination, he found that the 11th Circuit, which has appellate authority over federal courts in Alabama, had accepted a broad view of sex discrimination in the Brumby case in 2011, involving a transgender state employee asserting an equal protection claim.  In that case, the 11th Circuit relied on sex-stereotype theory to conclude that Brumby had a valid equal protection claim, finding that his claim should be analyzed under the same “heightened scrutiny” standard used for sex discrimination claims.

“In his amended complaint,” wrote Ott, “Smith alleges that ‘sexual and gender-stereotyping comments’ were made to him during his employment with the Pleasant Grove Police Department, including the comment that ‘men should be men,’ which led him to conclude that other members of the department did not feel that he was ‘manly’ enough to be a police officer. He also alleges that other officers made jokes about his attire and mannerisms.  These factual allegations are ‘enough to raise a right to relief [under Title VII] above the speculative level,’” Ott continued, citing a Supreme Court ruling on the required factual allegations to ground a civil complaint.  “They are sufficient to allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the City of Pleasant Grove could be liable for discriminating against Smith because of his failure to conform to sex and gender stereotypes.”  Thus, Ott refused to dismiss the Title VII claim, which will next proceed to discovery.

However, Ott dismissed the Equal Protection claim, asserting that Smith had failed to allege facts that would support an inference that he was denied equal protection of the laws because he failed “to adequately allege the existence of a similarly situated comparator, an essential component of an equal protection claim. To prevail on his equal protection claim, Smith must show ‘a satisfactory comparator who was in fact similarly situation and yet treated differently.’”  Ott found two relevant allegations in Smith’s complaint: that he was paid less than “similarly situated employees” and that he was “singled out because of his association with his male partner while similarly situated employees were not.” But Ott found that Smith had failed to identify particular specific “similarly situated employees” to illustrate these claims.  “He does not identify a single comparator who was allegedly treated more favorably than he was,” concluded Ott.

However, Judge Ott refused to dismiss Smith’s claim against Chief Knight and Lt. Fredrick in their individual capacities for “interference with a contractual or business relationship,” rejecting their argument that any adverse comments they made were privileged due to the city’s relationship with the county personnel board. “In their individual capacities,” wrote Ott, “Chief Knight and Lt. Fredrick did not have a ‘legitimate economic interest in and a legitimate relationship to’ any contract of business relationship Smith might secure through the Jefferson County Personnel Board.”  On the other hand, Ott rejected Smith’s claim that the City could be held liable for maintaining an “official custom or policy” of discrimination, finding insufficient factual allegations to support such a claim.

Bradley Roberts is represented by a team of lawyers led by Jason Maier of Las Vegas, with amicus assistance from Lambda Legal staff lawyers and cooperating attorneys. Lance Smith is represented by Cynthia Wilkinson of Birmingham, Alabama.

Judge Dorsey was appointed by President Barack Obama. Judge Ott was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

7th Circuit Panel Rejects Lesbian Professor’s Title VII Claim

Posted on: July 29th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on July 28 that a lesbian professor could not sue the local community college in South Bend, Indiana, for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, rejecting her argument that anti-gay discrimination is a form of sex discrimination in violation of that law.  Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 13746, 2016 Westlaw 4039703.

 

Weighing in on a question that has taken on renewed vitality since last July, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces Title VII, ruled that David Baldwin, a gay air traffic controller, could bring an employment discrimination claim against the U.S. Transportation Department, the court, while describing the existing precedents in the 7th Circuit as “illogical,” nonetheless concluded that it was bound by those precedents.

 

Kimberly Hively began teaching part-time at Ivy Tech Community College in 2000. She applied six times for full-time positions for which she claimed to be qualified, but she was always turned down and her part-time contract was not renewed in July 2014.  By then, she had already filed a complaint with the EEOC on December 13, 2013, representing herself.  This was about 18 months before that agency changed its long-standing position and began to approve gay Title VII claims in the air traffic controller case.   The EEOC’s position, however, is not binding on federal courts.

 

Hively did not file a complaint with the South Bend human rights agency. Although that city’s anti-discrimination law was amended in 2012 to include sexual orientation, the city does not have jurisdiction to legislate about personnel practices at state-operated educational institutions, and they are explicitly exempted from coverage by the local law.  There is no Indiana state law forbidding sexual orientation discrimination.

 

After the EEOC concluded that it did not have jurisdiction, it sent Hively a “right to sue” letter. She filed her claim in federal court on August 15, 2014.  The college filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not covered under Title VII.  Hively, citing the advances of gay rights in the courts, urged that the college should not be allowed to discriminate based on sexual orientation.  On March 3, 2015, U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano granted the college’s motion.   Citing a 7th Circuit decision from 2000 and a 2010 decision by the federal district court in Indiana, Judge Lozano wrote, “While this Court is sympathetic to the arguments made by Hively in her response brief, this Court is bound by Seventh Circuit precedent.  Because sexual orientation is not recognized as a protected class [sic] under Title VII, that claim must be dismissed.”

 

Hively also alleged a violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, which Judge Lozano had to dismiss as well, because the Supreme Court interprets that 19th-century statute to apply only to race discrimination claims.  HiverlyivelyHi also asked to amend her complaint to push a claim for breach of contract, seeking enforcement of the college’s published non-discrimination policy, but that claim would arise under Indiana state contract law, and federal courts usually refuse to address state law claims when they have determined that the plaintiff has no federal law claim.

 

The fate Hively suffered in the district court shows the perils of individuals trying to navigate the complexities of federal employment law without legal representation. A well-versed lawyer might have found a way to construct a 14th Amendment Equal Protection claim on her behalf, which could be directed against individual school officials if she could allege sufficient facts to suggest that they refused to consider her applications because she is a lesbian, although there would be no guarantee of success because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether sexual orientation discrimination claims against public officials are entitled to heightened or strict scrutiny.

 

Attorney Gregory Nevins from Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office represented her on appeal to the 7th Circuit, where oral argument took place on September 30 and a long wait began for the court’s opinion.  The wait seemed surprising, because the three-judge panel would most likely easily conclude, as had Judge Lozano, that circuit precedent would dictate affirmance.  But the court took nine months to release its decision.  (By contrast, the 7th Circuit issued its marriage equality decision in 2014 less than two weeks after oral argument.)

 

Judge Ilana Rovner’s opinion obviously took so long because the majority of the panel was not content just to issue a pro forma dismissal in reliance on circuit precedent. The first, shorter, part of Rovner’s opinion, performing that function, was joined by Senior Judges William Bauer and Kenneth Ripple.  But the second, much longer, part, joined by Judge Ripple, provides a lengthy and detailed discussion of how the  EEOC’s Baldwin decision has led to an intense debate in the district courts around the country about how those old precedents are clearly out-of-step with where the country has moved on LGBT rights.

 

Judge Rovner (or, more likely, Lambda Legal in its appellate brief) collected district court decisions from all over the country – particularly from circuits where there were no adverse appeals court rulings – in which judges have decided to follow the EEOC’s reasoning and find that discrimination because of sexual orientation is “necessarily” sex discrimination.

 

The logical pathway to that conclusion runs through the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which accepted the argument that discrimination against an employee because that employee fails to meet their employer’s sex-stereotypical views about how employees present themselves, is evidence of sex discrimination. That case involved a woman who was denied a partnership because she was perceived as inadequately feminine in her dress and conduct by partners who voted on the partnership decision.

 

Since 1989 some district courts have extended protection under Title VII to LGBT plaintiffs who could plausibly allege that they encountered discrimination because of sex stereotypes, but other courts have refused to take such cases, criticizing them as attempting to “bootstrap” coverage for sexual orientation into Title VII against the intent of Congress. What has emerged is a hodgepodge of decisions, resulting in the odd situation that, at least in some circuits, a gay plaintiff who is also obviously gender-nonconforming in terms of dress and speech may be protected under Title VII using the stereotyping theory, but a “straight-acting” gay plaintiff would have no protection.  Judge Rovner pointed out the irrationality of this, but, unfortunately, the 7th Circuit precedents seemed inescapable to this panel.

 

After discussing how various courts have pointed out the difficulties of distinguishing between a sex-stereotyping case and a sexual orientation case, she observed that the difficult is not necessarily impossible. “There may indeed be some aspects of a worker’s sexual orientation that create a target for discrimination apart from any issues related to gender,” she wrote.  “Harassment may be based on prejudicial or stereotypical ideas about particular aspects of the gay and lesbian ‘lifestyle,’ including ideas about promiscuity, religious beliefs, spending habits, child-rearing, sexual practices, or politics.  Although it seems likely that most of the causes of discrimination based on sexual orientation ultimately stem from employers’ and co-workers’ discomfort with a lesbian woman’s or a gay man’s failure to abide by gender norms, we cannot say that it must be so in all cases.  Therefore we cannot conclude that the two must necessarily be coextensive unless or until either the legislature or the Supreme Court says it is so.”

 

In this case, she pointed out, Kimberly Hively had not made any specific allegations of gender non-conformity, other than the implicit contention that being a lesbian, as such, was gender non-conforming in that she was attracted to women rather than men. Although a few district courts, especially after the Baldwin ruling, have found that to be enough to squeeze into coverage under the sex stereotype theory, the 7th Circuit hasn’t gotten there yet, and this panel did not feel empowered to extend circuit precedent to accept that argument.

 

While noting the significant advances in LGBT rights at the Supreme Court from Romer v. Evans (1996) through Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Judge Rovner pointed out that in none of those cases has the Supreme Court said anything that would deal directly with the question whether anti-gay discrimination must be treated as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. But she did observe the stark legal anomaly created by last year’s marriage equality decision.

 

“The cases as they do stand, however, create a paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act,” she wrote. “For although federal law now guarantees anyone the right to marry another person of the same gender, Title VII, to the extent it does not reach sexual orientation discrimination, also allows employers to fire that employee for doing so.  From an employee’s perspective, that right to marriage might not feel like a real right if she can be fired for exercising it.  Many citizens would be surprised to learn that under federal law any private employer can summon an employee into his office and state, ‘You are a hard-working employee and have added much value to my company, but I am firing you because you are gay.’  And the employee would have no recourse whatsoever – unless she happens to live in a state or locality with an anti-discrimination statute that includes sexual orientation.  More than half of the United States, however, do not have such protections.”

 

She pointed out the additional oddity that even a “straight” employee who was discharged because her employer mistakenly thought she was a lesbian would have no protection, unless she could show her overt violation of gender stereotypes aws the reason for the discrimination. Straight people are not protected from “mistaken” sexual orientation discrimination!

 

Judge Rovner observed that this state of the law “leads to unsatisfying results.” It also is inconsistent with Title VII race discrimination cases that impose liability when an employer fires a white employee because he or she is dating or marrying a person of a different race.  It is now well-established that it is race discrimination to single out somebody because of their interracial social life.  Why not, as a logical matter, prohibit discriminating against somebody because of their same-sex social life?  The logic seems irrefutable.  “It is true that Hively has not made the express claim that she was discriminated against based on her relationship with a woman,” wrote Judge Rovner, “but that is, after all, the very essence of sexual orientation discrimination.  It is discrimination based on the nature of an associational relationship – in this case, one based on gender.”

 

Rover found it “curious” that “the Supreme Court has opted not to weigh in on the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based discrimination would extend to protect against sexual orientation discrimination” and that even in “the watershed case of Obergefell” the court “made no mention of the stigma and injury that comes from excluding lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons from the workforce or subjecting them to un-remediable harassment and discrimination.” But, frustratingly, the Supreme Court has yet to tackle head-on the direct issue of anti-gay discrimination in a way that would provide guidance to lower federal courts and state courts, and has so far consistently denied review in cases presenting this question.  “In addition to the Supreme Court’s silence,” she observed, “Congress has time and time against said ‘no’ to every attempt to add sexual orientation to the list of categories protected from discrimination by Title VII.”

 

Ultimately the judge was very critical of the 7th Circuit’s precedent.  “It may be that the rationale appellate courts, including this one, have used to distinguish between gender non-conformity discrimination claims and sexual orientation discrimination claims will not hold up under future rigorous analysis,” she wrote.  “It seems illogical to entertain gender non-conformity claims under Title VII where the non-conformity involves style of dress or manner of speaking, but not when the gender non-conformity involves the sine qua non of gender stereotypes – with whom a person engages in sexual relationships.  And we can see no rational reason to entertain sex discrimination claims for those who defy gender norms by looking or acting stereotypically gay or lesbian (even if they are not), but not for those who are openly gay but otherwise comply with gender norms.  We allow two women or two men to marry, but allow employers to terminate them for doing so.  Perchance, in time, these inconsistencies will come to be seen as denying practical workability and will lead us to reconsider our precedent.”  She then quoted Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell decision, pointing out how “new insights and societal understandings” could lead to changes in the law.

 

Rovner concluded that it was “unlikely” that society would tolerate this anomalous situation for long. “Perhaps the writing is on the wall,” she wrote.  “But writing on the wall is not enough.  Until the writing comes in the form of a Supreme Court opinion or new legislation, we must adhere to the writing of our prior precedent, and therefore, the decision of the district court is affirmed.”

 

This conclusion is not totally accurate.  The full 7th Circuit, considering this issue en banc, could decide to overrule the prior precedent within the circuit without waiting for passage of the Equality Act (which would amend Title VII to add sexual orientation and gender identity) or for a Supreme Court ruling.  Judge Rovner’s extended critique implies receptivity to rethinking the precedent, so perhaps a motion for rehearing en banc could find favor with a majority of the judges of the circuit.

 

A little “circuit math” suggests the possibility: There are nine active judges on the 7th Circuit, with two vacancies for which President Obama has made nominations that are stalled in the Senate.  Only one of the active judges was appointed by President Obama, David Hamilton, and two were appointed by President Clinton, Chief Judge Diane Wood and Ann Williams.  All the other judges are appointees of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.  (There is no appointee of George W. Bush sitting on the 7th Circuit.)

 

The three-judge panel in this case consisted entirely of Republican appointees: Judge Rovner by the first President Bush, Senior Judges Bauer and Ripple by Presidents Ford and Reagan. Interestingly, Ripple and Rovner, both Republican appointees with long service on the court, agree that the precedent is “illogical” and not “rational.”  Unfortunately, Judge Ripple, as a Senior Judge, would not participate in an en banc rehearing.  But perhaps despite the strong 6-3 overall Republican tilt of this circuit, a full nine-member bench might find a majority for granting en banc rehearing and changing the circuit precedent.  That would require at least one more Republican appointee to join Rovner and the three Democratic appointees to make a 5-4 majority.

 

One of the other Republican appointees, Richard Posner, could be the prime candidate for that. He wrote the 7th Circuit’s magnificent marriage equality decision, which reflected his strong receptivity to reconsidering his views on LGBT issues, a point he has subsequently reiterated in a law review article musing about his changing understanding of LGBT issues since he was appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

 

On the other hand, it is possible that this opinion took so long to get out because some attempt was made within the judges’ chambers to provoke a spontaneous en banc reconsideration , but it was unsuccessful.  Who knows?  Mysterious are the inner workings of our courts.