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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.

Federal Court in NYC Dismisses Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim under Title VII

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

In 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over cases in the federal trial courts in New York, rejected the argument that sexual orientation discrimination claims could be dealt with as sex discrimination claims under federal law, but was open to the possibility that a gay litigant who had suffered discrimination because of failure to conform with the employer’s stereotypical views of appropriate gender behavior could pursue such a claim.  On March 9, a gay litigant informed the 2nd Circuit that he will appeal a Manhattan trial court’s dismissal of his federal sexual orientation claim, joining the trial judge in urging the appeals court to reconsider its 2000 decision.

Since the 2nd Circuit decided Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33 (2000), the law affecting LGBT rights has drastically changed.  In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that gay sex between consenting adults could no longer be outlawed.  In 2002, New York State joined New York City in outlawing sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, and the next year New York City extended the local law to gender identity discrimination claims.  In 2009 the federal government added sexual orientation and gender identity to the national Hate Crimes Law, and subsequently repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” anti-gay military policy.   In 2011 New York passed a Marriage Equality Act, in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages formed under state law, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to marry and have their marriages recognized by state governments everywhere in the country.

Through all this change, however, the principal federal anti-discrimination law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has never been amended to extend explicit protection against discrimination to LGBT people. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII, the employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act, has interpreted the federal ban on sex discrimination as extending to gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, but federal courts are not bound by that interpretation, and federal trial judges have differed about how to handle sexual orientation discrimination claims.  So far, no federal appeals court has ruled on the question since the EEOC issued its decision last summer, but cases are pending on appeal in several circuits.

On March 9, U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla, ruling on an employer’s motion to dismiss a Title VII claim filed by a gay man in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29972, found that his attempt to squeeze the case into the sex stereotype theory was unsuccessful and dismissed his claim, concluding that she was bound by the 2nd Circuit precedent to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  Reviewing the facts alleged by Matthew Christiansen against Omnicom Group (the parent company) and DDB Worldwide Communications (the business by which he is employed in New York), the judge found that all but one of the incidents he described in his complaint related to sexual orientation.

Indeed, Christiansen’s allegations clearly state that his supervisor, Joe Cianciotto, was “openly resentful and hostile toward Plaintiff because of his sexual orientation.” The various incidents of harassment that Christiansen described in his complaint all involved Cianciotto’s expression of such hostility in some form.  Only once did he refer to Christiansen as “effeminate,” which might have supported a sex stereotype claim, but most of the time Cianciotto’s razzing focused on Christiansen’s “big muscles” (as described by Cianciotto), pictorial invocations of exaggerated masculinity, and references to gay stereotypes.

Judge Failla focused on the difficulty of distinguishing between sexual orientation and sex stereotyping claims, quoting from several other court decisions illustrating that difficulty, and warning against using passing stereotypical references by a supervisor to “shoehorn” a sexual orientation claim into Title VII coverage.

“The lesson imparted by the body of Title VII litigation concerning sexual orientation discrimination and sexual stereotyping seems to be that no coherent line can be drawn between these two sorts of claims,” she wrote. “Yet the prevailing law in this Circuit – and, indeed, every Circuit to consider the question – is that such a line must be drawn.  Simonton is still good law, and, as such, this Court is bound by its dictates.  Consequently, the Court must consider whether the Plaintiff has pleaded a claim based on sexual stereotyping, separate and apart from the stereotyping inherent in his claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The Court finds that he has not.”

Christiansen’s complaint alleges that Ciancotto told a coworker that Christiansen was “effeminate and gay so he must have AIDS,” but this was not enough for Judge Failla. “This is the sole mention of Plaintiff as effeminate or otherwise non-conforming to traditional gender norms in the whole of the [first amended complaint],” she wrote.  “It alone cannot serve to transform a claim for discrimination that Plaintiff plainly interpreted – and the facts support – as stemming from sexual orientation animus into one for sexual stereotyping.  While Plaintiff provides virtually no support in his [complaint] for an allegation of discrimination based on sexual stereotyping, he provides multiple illustrations of Cianciotto’s animus toward gay individuals.  The [complaint] notes, for instance, the fact that ‘most of the pictures Cianciotto drew were of men fornicating, and they always involved a gay employee’; that he repeatedly expressed a belief that gay men were reckless and disease-prone; and that he commented at a meeting that he did not want an advertisement to be ‘too gay.’  All of these examples lend further support to the inference that Cianciotto’s harassment was motivated by sexual-orientation-based discriminatory animus, not sexual stereotyping.”

Failla conceded that she might be able to “latch onto the single use of the word ‘effeminate’ and the depiction of Plaintiff’s head on a woman’s body, strip these facts of the context provided by the rest of the [complaint], and conjure up a claim for ‘sexual stereotyping.’ But while the ends might be commendable, the means would be intellectually dishonest; the Court would obliterate the line the Second Circuit has drawn, rightly or wrongly, between sexual orientation and sex-based claims.  In light of the EEOC’s recent decision on Title VII’s scope, and the demonstrated impracticability of considering sexual orientation discrimination as categorically different from sexual stereotyping, one might reasonably ask – and, lest there by any doubt, this Court is asking – whether that line should be erased.  Until it is, however, discrimination based on sexual orientation will not support a claim under Title VII; Plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim must therefore be dismissed.”

Reading Christiansen’s factual allegations, one would have to be amazed that a supervisor behaving the way Joe Cianciotto is alleged to have behaved would be tolerated by a socially conscious employer in New York, much less a large advertising agency. As far as society has advanced over the past few decades in treating gay people with simple human dignity, the facts one reads in employment discrimination complaints filed by LGBT suggest that there is still a long way to go.

Christiansen, who is HIV-positive, also asserted an Americans With Disabilities Act claim, but Judge Failla found it was not timely, since the only incident on point occurred more than 300 days before Christiansen filed his charge with the EEOC, and in that charge he didn’t even mention the ADA. She also found that his factual allegations would not support a claim under the ADA in any event, since there was scant evidence that he was mistreated by the company because of his HIV status, and that the facts also did not support his claim to have suffered retaliation for filing his discrimination charges.  His complaint asserted a “constructive discharge” claim, which he had to withdraw since he was still working for the company when the complaint was filed

However, it is a fair inference from Judge Failla’s characterization of the evidence that if she felt Title VII could be construed to cover sexual orientation discrimination, she would not have granted the motion to dismiss. She also granted a motion to dismiss filed on behalf of various supervisory and managerial officials of the employer, as the federal anti-discrimination laws do not pose personal liability on company officials.  Having dismissed all the federal statutory claims that Christiansen made, the judge declined to extend jurisdiction over his state law claims, so he should be able to pursue his case further in state court, where the statutes do expressly forbid sexual orientation discrimination.

In the meantime, however, Christiansen’s reaction to the March 9 dismissal was immediate, as his attorney filed a notice of appeal with the 2nd Circuit the same day.  Little more than a week earlier, the EEOC had advanced its campaign to win judicial acceptance of the agency’s interpretation of Title VII by filing its first affirmative sexual orientation discrimination claims against employers in other parts of the country.  The EEOC had already intervened as a co-plaintiff in several other pending cases since last year’s administrative ruling.

Christiansen is represented by Susan Chana Lask, a New York City trial lawyer.