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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Landmark Federal Appeals Ruling Holds Sexual Orientation Discrimination Violates Title VII

Posted on: April 5th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The full bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, substantially advanced the cause of gay rights on April 4, releasing an unprecedented decision in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 2017 WL 1230393, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies generally to all employers with fifteen or more employees as well as many federal, state and local government operations, prohibits discriminating against a person because of their sexual orientation.  The text of the statute does not mention sexual orientation, so the interpretive question for the court was whether discriminating against somebody because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual can be considered a form of sex discrimination.

What was particularly amazing about the affirmative decision, the first to rule this way by a federal appeals court, was that the 7th Circuit is composed overwhelmingly of Republican appointees, many of whom were appointed as long ago as the Reagan Administration.  Although the lead opinion for the Circuit was written by Chief Judge Diane Pamela Wood, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, the 8-member majority of the 11-judge bench included more Republicans than Democrats.  Many of the judges in the majority could be generally characterized as judicial conservatives.

Wood’s opinion was joined by Frank Easterbrook (Reagan appointee), Ilana Rovner (George H. W. Bush appointee), Ann Claire Williams (Clinton appointee), and David F. Hamilton (the only Obama appointee on the Circuit). Richard Posner (Reagan appointee) wrote a concurring opinion.  Joel Martin Flaum (Reagan appointee) wrote a concurring opinion which was joined by Kenneth Francis Ripple (Reagan appointee).  The dissent by Diane S. Sykes (George W. Bush appointee) was joined by Michael Stephen Kanne (Reagan appointee) and William Joseph Bauer (Ford appointee).  Ripple and Bauer are senior judges who were sitting on the en banc hearing because they were part of the three-judge panel (with Judge Rovner) that ruled on the case last year.  The Circuit has 11 authorized positions, but there are two vacancies among the active judges, part of the Republican Senate’s legacy of refusing to confirm most of President Obama’s judicial appointees during his second term.

The Circuit’s decision to grant en banc review clearly signaled a desire to reconsider the issue, which Judge Rovner had called for doing in her panel opinion. Rovner then made a persuasive case that changes in the law since the 7th Circuit had previously ruled negatively on the question called out for reconsideration.  Those who attended the oral argument on November 30 or listened to the recording on the court’s website generally agreed that the circuit was likely to overrule its old precedents, the only mystery being who would write the opinion, what theories they would use, and who would dissent.

The lawsuit was filed by Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who was working as an adjunct professor at the college, which is located in South Bend, Indiana. Despite years of successful teaching, her attempts to secure a full-time tenure-track position were continually frustrated and finally her contract was not renewed under circumstances that led her to believe it was because of her sexual orientation.  Since Indiana’s state law does not forbid sexual orientation discrimination, and South Bend’s ordinance (which does forbid sexual orientation discrimination) would not apply to the state college, she filed suit in federal court under Title VII.  She represented herself at that stage.  The trial judge, Rudy Lozano, granted the college’s motion to dismiss the case on the ground that 7th Circuit precedents exclude sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.

Hively obtained representation from Lambda Legal on appeal. The three-judge panel rejected her appeal, while two of the judges urged that the precedents be reconsidered.

Judge Wood found that several key Supreme Court decisions have broadened the meaning of “because of sex” in Title VII, to the extent that she could write that “in the years since 1964, Title VII has been understood to cover far more than the simple decision of an employer not to hire a woman for Job A, or a man for Job B.” The broadening includes launching a complex law of sexual harassment, including same-sex sexual harassment, and discrimination against a person who fails to conform to “a certain set of gender stereotypes.”

As have many of the other judges who have written on this issue, Wood quoted from Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion for the unanimous court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), the same-sex harassment case, in which, after noting that “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII,” this did not mean that the statute could not be interpreted to apply to such a situation. “But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” Scalia wrote, “and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

Woods found convincing Hively’s contention, argued to the court by Lambda Legal’s Greg Nevins, that two alternative theories would support her claim. The first follows a “comparative method in which we attempt to isolate the significance of the plaintiff’s sex to the employer’s decision: has she described a situation in which, holding all other things constant and changing only her sex, she would have been treated the same way?”  The second rests on an intimate association claim, relying on the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling striking down state laws barring interracial marriages, Loving v. Virginia.  The Supreme Court held that a ban on interracial marriage was a form of race discrimination, because the state was taking race in account in deciding whom somebody could marry.  Similarly here, an employer is taking sex into account when discriminating against somebody because they associate intimately with members of the same sex.  After briefly describing these two theories, Wood wrote, “Although the analysis differs somewhat, both avenues end up in the same place: sex discrimination.”

Woods noted at least two rulings by other circuits under Title VII that had adapted Loving’s interracial marriage analysis to an employment setting, finding race discrimination where an employer discriminated against persons who were in interracial relationships, Parr v. Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co., 791 F.2 888 (11th Cir. 1986), and Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2nd Cir. 2008).  These citations were a bit ironic, since the 11th and 2nd Circuits have in recent weeks rejected sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, in which the plaintiffs advanced the same analogy to support their Title VII claims.  These recent opinions were by three-judge panels that held themselves to be bound by prior circuit rulings.  Lambda Legal has already filed a petition for en banc review in the 11th Circuit case, and counsel for plaintiff in the 2nd Circuit case is thinking about doing the same.

Ultimately, Wood acknowledged, “It would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’ The effort to do so has led to confusing and contradictory results, as our panel opinion illustrated so well.  The EEOC concluded, in its Baldwin decision, that such an effort cannot be reconciled with the straightforward language of Title VII.  Many district courts have come to the same conclusion.  Many other courts have found that gender identity claims are cognizable under Title VII.”

Woods recited the now well-worn argument about how it is a basic inconsistency in the law that a person can enter into a same-sex marriage on Saturday and then be fired without legal recourse for having done so when they show up at the workplace on Monday. That is still the state of the law in a majority of the states.

Wood acknowledged that this decision does not end the case. Because Hively’s original complaint was dismissed by the district court without a trial, she has not yet been put to the test of proving that her sexual orientation was a motivating factor in the college’s decision not to hire her or renew her adjunct contract.  And, what passed unspoken, the college might decide to petition the Supreme Court to review this ruling, although the immediate reaction of a college spokesperson was that the school – which has its own sexual orientation non-discrimination policy – denies that it discriminated against Hively, and is ready to take its chances at trial.

Judge Posner submitted a rather odd concurring opinion, perhaps reflecting the oddity of some of his comments during oral argument, including the stunning question posed to the college’s lawyer: “Why are there lesbians?” Posner, appointed by Reagan as an economic conservative and social libertarian, has evolved into a forceful advocate for LGBT rights, having satisfied himself that genetics and biology play a large part in determining sexual identity and that it is basically unfair to discriminate against LGBT people without justification.  He wrote the Circuit’s decision striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin in 2014.

In this opinion, he takes on the contention that it is improper for the court to purport to “interpret” the language adopted by Congress in 1964 to cover sexual orientation discrimination. After reviewing various models of statutory interpretation, he insisted that “interpretation can mean giving a fresh meaning to a statement (which can be a statement found in a constitutional or statutory text) – a meaning that infuses the statement with vitality and significance today.”  He used as his prime example judicial interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, adopted “long before there was a sophisticated understanding of the economics of monopoly and competition.”  As a result of changing times and new knowledge, he observed, “for more than thirty years the Act has been interpreted in conformity to the modern, not the nineteenth-century, understanding of the relevant economics.” Basically, the courts have “updated” the Act in order to keep it relevant to the present.

He argued that the same approach should be brought to interpreting Title VII, adopted more than half a century ago. This old law “invites an interpretation that will update it to the present, a present that differs markedly from the era in which the Act was enacted.”  And, after reviewing the revolution in understanding of human sexuality and public opinion about it, he concluded it was time to update Title VII to cover sexual orientation claims, even though “it is well-nigh certain that homosexuality, male or female, did not figure in the minds of the legislators who enacted Title VII.”  Although some of the history he then recites might arouse some quibbles, he was able to summon some pointed examples of Justice Scalia employing this method in his interpretation of the Constitution regarding, for example, flag-burning and an individual right to bear arms.

“Nothing has changed more in the decades since the enactment of the statute than attitudes toward sex,” wrote Posner, going on to recite the litigation history of the struggle for marriage equality that culminated in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Although it might sound odd at times as a judicial opinion, Posner’s concurrence is eminently readable and packed full of interesting information, including his list of “homosexual men and women (and also bisexuals, defined as having both homosexual and heterosexual orientations)” who have made “many outstanding intellectual and cultural contributions to society (think for example of Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Jane Addams, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich, Bayard Rustin, Alan Turing, Alec Guinness, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, and James Baldwin – a very partial list).”

This brought to the writer’s mind a famous paragraph in Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion rejecting a challenge to the traditional anti-trust exemption for professional baseball, in which Blackmun included his own list of the greatest professional baseball players in history (compiled through a survey of the Supreme Court’s members and their young legal clerks).

Instead of pursuing Judge Wood’s line of reasoning, Posner was ready to declare that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination without such detailed analysis. “The most tenable and straightforward ground for deciding in favor of Hively is that while in 1964 sex discrimination meant discrimination against men or women as such and not against subsets of men or women such as effeminate men or mannish women, the concept of sex discrimination has since broadened in light of the recognition, which barely existed in 1964, that there are significant numbers of both men and women who have a sexual orientation that sets them apart from the heterosexual members of their genetic sex (male or female), and that while they constitute a minority their sexual orientation is not evil and does not threaten society.  Title VII in terms forbids only sex discrimination, but we now understand discrimination against homosexual men and women to be a form of sex discrimination; and to paraphrase [Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.], ‘We must consider what this country has become in deciding what that [statute] has reserved.’”

In his concurring opinion Judge Flaum took a narrower approach, noting that Title VII was amended in 1991 to provide that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that … sex … was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” In other words, discrimination does not have to be “solely” because of sex to violate Title VII.  It is enough if the individual’s sex was part of the reason for the discrimination.  In light of this, Flaum (and Ripple, who joined his opinion) would look to the analogy with discrimination against employees in interracial relationships.  In addition, he noted, “One cannot consider a person’s homosexuality without also accounting for their sex: doing so would render ‘same’ and ‘own’ meaningless” in dictionary definitions that define homosexuality in terms of  whether somebody is attracted to persons of “the same” or “their own” sex.  Clearly, “sex” is involved when people are discriminated against because they are gay.

Judge Sykes’s dissent channeled scores of cases going back to the early years of Title VII and argued against the method of statutory interpretation used by the various opinions making up the majority. “The question before the en banc court is one of statutory interpretation,” she wrote.  “The majority deploys a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.  So does Judge Posner in his concurrence.  Neither is faithful to the statutory text, read fairly, as a reasonable person would have understood it when it was adopted.  The result is a statutory amendment courtesy of unelected judges.  Judge Posner admits this; he embraces and argues for this conception of judicial power.  The majority does not, preferring instead to smuggle in the statutory amendment under cover of an aggressive reading of loosely related Supreme Court precedents.  Either way, the result is the same: the circumvention of the legislative process by which the people govern themselves.”

Although Sykes conceded that sexual orientation discrimination is wrong, she was not ready to concede that one could find it illegal by interpretation of a 1964 statute prohibiting sex discrimination at a time when the legislature could not possibly have been intending to ban discrimination against LGBT people. As Posner pointed out, that issue wasn’t on the radar in 1964.  Thus, to Sykes, Bauer and Kanne, it was not legitimate for a court to read this into the statute under the guise of “interpretation.”

Speculating about the ultimate fate of this decision could go endlessly on. There are fierce debates within the judiciary about acceptable methods of interpreting statutes, and various theories about how to deal with aging statutes that are out of sync with modern understandings.

Posner’s argument for judicial updating allows for the possibility that if Congress disagrees with what a court has done, it can step in and amend the statute, as Congress has frequently amended Title VII to overrule Supreme Court interpretations with which it disagreed. (For example, Congress overruled the Supreme Court’s decision that discrimination against pregnant women was not sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.)  Posner’s approach will be familiar to those who have read the influential 1982 book by then-Professor (now 2nd Circuit Judge) Guido Calabresi, “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” suggesting that courts deal with the problem of ancient statutes and legislative inertia by “updating” statutes through interpretation to deal with contemporary problems, leaving it to the legislature to overrule the courts if they disagree.  This method is more generally accepted in other common law countries (British Commonwealth nations), such as Australia, South Africa, India and Canada, than in the United States, but it clearly appeals to Posner as eminently practical.

So far the Republican majorities in Congress have not been motivated to address this issue through amendments to Title VII, or to advance the Equality Act, introduced during Obama’s second term, which would amend all federal sex discrimination laws to address sexual orientation and gender identity explicitly. Perhaps they will be provoked to act, however, if the question gets up to the Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit’s view prevails.

With the possibility of appeals now arising from three different circuits with different views of the issue, Supreme Court consideration of this question is highly likely. Public opinion polls generally show overwhelming support for prohibiting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace, which might serve as a brake on conservative legislators who would otherwise respond adversely to a Supreme Court ruling approving the 7th Circuit’s holding.

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.

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 Lets Transgender Employee Sue Employer for Transition Benefits Denial Under Title VII

Posted on: January 17th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Does a transgender employee who seeks coverage under her employer’s benefits plans for breast augmentation surgery have a legal remedy if her claims are denied? U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater ruled on January 13 that a transgender woman employed by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (L-3) may pursue a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, having alleged that she was denied such benefits because of her gender, but not under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Baker v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5665, 2017 WL 131658 (N.D. Tex.).

Judge Fitzwater rejected discrimination claims against the insurance company that provides the coverage and administers the plans on behalf of the employer, finding that the ACA and President Obama’s Executive Order governing gender identity discrimination by federal contractors do not apply to this situation, and that the insurance company cannot be sued under Title VII because it is not the plaintiff’s employer. Judge Fitzwater declined to grant motions for summary judgment by either the employee or by the insurer of her claim that denial of health and short-term disability benefits violates her rights under the terms of the employee benefits plan, setting that claim down for further proceedings.

According to her Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, Charlize Marie Baker is an employee of L-3 and a participant in the company’s Health Plan and its Short-Term-Disability (STD) Plan, both of which are administered by Aetna Life Insurance Company. She began the process of transitioning in 2011, obtained a legal name change, and had her gender designation changed from male to female on all government-issued documents.  She scheduled breast implant surgery in 2015 after her doctor determined that it was medically necessary to treat her gender dysphoria.

Baker filed claims for coverage of the surgery under the Health Plan and coverage of her recovery period under the STD Plan.  She alleges that the Health Plan denied her claim to cover the surgery, because “the plan does not cover breast implants for individuals with a male birth gender designation who are transitioning to the female gender, although the plan covers individuals with a female birth designation who are transitioning to the male gender and seeking a mastectomy.”  Presumably the mastectomy would be routinely covered because the Health Plan is accustomed to covering mastectomies for female employees when their doctors state that the procedure is medically necessary.   Baker was denied STD benefits because the Plan administrator decided that surgery to treat Gender Dysphoria does not qualify as “treatment of an illness.”

In his January 13 ruling, Judge Fitzwater focused on motions by L-3 and Aetna to dismiss discrimination claims brought under Section 1557 of the ACA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Section 1557 of the ACA incorporates by reference Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”  ERISA has its own non-discrimination provision, but does not specifically ban discrimination “because of sex.”  The ERISA provision broadly prohibits discriminating against an employee to prevent them from getting benefits to which they are entitled under an employee benefit plan.  ERISA provides a vehicle for employees to sue plan administrators for the wrongful denial of benefits to which they are entitled under employee benefit plans.

None of the statutes under which Baker filed her claims explicitly prohibits discrimination because of gender identity. In resisting the motions to dismiss, she relied heavily on a regulation published by the Department of Health and Human Services last spring, providing that Section 1557 of the ACA bans discrimination because of gender identity by insurers and health care providers, tracking interpretations of Title IX by the Department of Education and the Justice Department, which in turn relied on interpretations of Title VII by some federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Baker also relied on President Obama’s Executive Order 13672, which bans gender identity discrimination by federal contractors. Noting that L-3 is a federal contractor, Baker’s attorneys, Michael J. Hindman and Kasey Cathryn Krummel of Hindman/Bynum PC, urged the court to make “a good faith extension of existing law that the discrimination by Defendants based on her Gender Identity is also discrimination in violation of ERISA in this context and that ERISA must be read to include the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity.”

“Baker is unable to point to any controlling precedent that recognizes a cause of action under Section 1557 [of the ACA] for discrimination based on gender identity,” wrote the judge. For one thing, he pointed out, the HHS regulation on point was to become effective on January 1, 2017, long after Baker was denied benefits, and thus was not applicable at the time of Aetna’s decision to deny the claims, and furthermore, one of Judge Fitzwater’s colleagues on the Northern District of Texas bench, Judge Reed O’Connor, has issued two rulings rejecting the argument that Title IX, which is the source of the ACA non-discrimination policy regarding sex, should be “construed broadly to protect any person, including transgendered persons, from discrimination.”

On August 21, 2016, Judge O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of Title IX by the federal government in gender identity cases, and he issued a similar preliminary injunction on December 31, 2016, against the enforcement of the HHS regulation in gender identity cases under the ACA. The government appealed the August 21 ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, and announced it would similarly appeal the December 31 ruling.  Whether those appeals will be pursued or dropped after the change of administration on January 20 is a decision for the new attorney general and secretaries of education and health.  In both of those cases, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that Title IX (and by extension the ACA) does not ban gender identity discrimination.

Many federal courts are grappling with the question whether federal laws and regulations banning discrimination “because of sex” should apply to gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination, but there is no consensus yet among the appellate courts. The Supreme Court has a case pending on the gender identity issue under Title IX, but it has yet to be scheduled for argument.  The closest the appeals courts have come are decisions finding that “sex stereotyping” violates Title VII and perhaps by extension other sex discrimination laws, based on a 1989 ruling by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  Some courts have used the “sex stereotyping” theory to protect transgender employees in Title VII cases.  However, Judge Fitzwater was correct in observing that as of now there is no “controlling precedent” supporting Baker’s claim that gender identity discrimination, as such, violates Section 1557 of the ACA.  For this judge, a “controlling precedent” would be one coming from the 5th Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Texas, or the Supreme Court, and expressly addressing the issue.

Baker sought to argue that “the ‘effect’ of E.O. 13672 seems to be little more than to clarify the issue left somewhat ambiguous in Section 1557 that discrimination against transgender persons under this law is prohibited.” She argued that when the ACA was enacted in 2010, some courts had already relied on Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins to find gender identity discrimination covered by Title VII.

Fitzwater found “two fallacies” in this argument. “First,” he wrote, “the Fifth Circuit has not extended Hopkins’ Title VII reasoning to apply to any statute referenced in Section 1557,” and cited Judge O’Connor’s August 21 ruling in support of this point.  “Second, Baker is relying on an Executive Order to clarify what she characterizes as a ‘somewhat ambiguous’ legislative act.”  This was not enough to satisfy Fitzwater, who granted the motions to dismiss the ACA discrimination claim.

Aetna also moved to dismiss Baker’s ERISA claim, contending that ERISA does not ban gender identity discrimination in the administration of employee benefit plans. Fitzwater agreed with Aetna, finding that “as Baker acknowledges, this claim is not currently recognized.  It is for the Congress, not this court, to decide whether to create in ERISA a protection that the statute does not already provide.”  And because the court had already rejected her argument under Section 1557, it would not rely on that ACA provision as a basis for finding a right under ERISA.

Turning finally to the motions to dismiss the Title VII claim, Judge Fitzwater rejected Baker’s argument that Aetna should be liable to suit for sex discrimination under Title VII as an “agent” of L-3 in administering the benefits plans. Fitzwater pointed to 5th Circuit precedents holding that Title VII does not apply in the absence of an employer-employee relationship.  Baker argued that in the EEOC Compliance Manual there is a suggestion that an insurance company administering an employer’s benefit plans is acting as the employer’s agent, “but the EEOC Compliance Manual does not have the force of law,” wrote Fitzwater.  “And this circuit recognizes an agency theory of employer liability only if the alleged agent had authority ‘with respect to employment practices,’” which Baker did not allege.

However, at long last Fitzwater reached the only claim that he refused to dismiss in this opinion: Baker’s allegation that the denial of coverage for her surgery and recovery period under the benefits plans provided by her employer constituted sex discrimination by the employer in violation of Title VII. L-3 argued that Baker had failed to allege that she suffered an adverse employment action based on her gender, but, wrote Fitzwater, “The Court disagrees.”

“Baker plausibly alleges that she was denied employment benefits based on her sex,” he wrote. “She asserts that L-3 ‘engaged in intentional gender discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment by denying her a medically necessary procedure based solely on her gender,’” that the company’s “conduct constitutes a deliberate and intentional violation of Title VII,” and that this conduct “has cause [her] to suffer the loss of pay, benefits, and prestige.”  This was enough, concluded Fitzwater, to allow her Title VII claim against her employer to continue.  Interestingly, his opinion does not explore explicitly whether Title VII applies to gender identity discrimination claims as such, and makes no mention of the EEOC’s 2012 decision to that effect, choosing to treat this as purely a sex discrimination, presumably on the basis that Baker would have been covered for the procedure had she been identified female at birth, so clearly in that sense the denial was because of her sex.

Thus, at this point Baker continues to have a claim under ERISA against Aetna, based on her allegation that Aetna’s refusal to cover her procedure and recovery period violated the terms of the benefits plans, and a sex discrimination claim under Title VII against her employer, based on her allegation that the employer’s benefit plan discriminated against her because of her sex.

Federal Judge Issues National Preliminary Injunction against ACA Regulation Banning Gender Identity Discrimination

Posted on: January 1st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an eleventh-hour action, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor (N.D. Texas, Wichita Div.) issued a nationwide preliminary injunction on December 31, barring the federal government from enforcing part of a new regulation that was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2017, which interpreted the prohibition on discrimination because of sex under the Affordable Care Act to extend to discrimination because of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy.” Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, Civ. Action No. 7:16-cv-00108-O.  Judge O’Connor’s action echoed his earlier issuance, on August 21, 2016, of a nationwide preliminary injunction against the enforcement by the federal government of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect transgender schoolchildren from discrimination, in State of Texas v. United States of America, 2016 WL 4426495 (N.D. Texas, August 21, 2016).  In both opinions, O’Connor rejected the Obama Administration’s position that discrimination because of gender identity or expression is a form of “sex discrimination” that is illegal under federal laws, a question that the U.S. Supreme Court may address if it gets to the merits in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709 (4th Cir.), cert. granted, 136 S. Ct. 2442 (No. 16A52)(2016).  Judge O’Connor’s analytical task was “simplified” because the ACA anti-discrimination provision, Section 1557, incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX that was the subject of the judge’s prior preliminary injunction ruling.

The ACA authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adopt regulations through the procedures of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to give detailed substance to the broad terms of the statute. The ACA provides in Section 1557 that health programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance not discriminate on grounds prohibited by four federal statutes.  Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal money, was one of the listed statutes and thus incorporated by reference into the ACA.  (Others deal with discrimination because of race, national origin or disability.)  The Title IX regulations adopted by the Education Department in the 1970s include an express religious exemption provision, so that religiously-controlled educational institutions are exempt from Title IX compliance to the extent that compliance would violate their religious tenets.  After the ACA was enacted in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services began the APA process, drafting proposed regulations, publishing them for comment, and publishing a final regulation that, with respect to the provisions in dispute in this case, was to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  During the Obama Administration, several different federal agencies responsible for interpreting and enforcing sex discrimination bans have been working through the issue of how these relate to gender identity.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was the first to issue a ruling, in the context of adjudicating a federal job applicant’s complaint, that gender identity discrimination was actionable under Title VII’s sex discrimination ban, but in so doing it was actually following earlier case law, most specifically from the 6th Circuit, which used sex stereotyping analysis first accepted by the Supreme Court in 1989 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a Title VII case.  The HHS regulation drafters adopted similar reasoning to include “gender identity” in their proposed regulation, and included gender identity in the final Rule published in the federal register on May 18, 2016.  81 Fed. Reg. 31376-31473 (codified at 45 CFR Sec. 92).  By the time of that publication, the Education Department had taken the position that Title IX bans gender identity discrimination, in the context of a restroom access dispute in the %Gloucester County School District% case and a subsequent “Dear Colleague” letter published on its website and distributed to school districts nationwide.  However, HHS did not include in its proposed or final rule the religious exemption language from Title IX.

Several states and some religious health care providers joined together to challenge the new HHS Rule, not in its entirety but in a focused attack on the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” in the non-discrimination provisions. Blatantly forum shopping, they filed their suit in the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, an outpost of the Northern District of Texas where Judge O’Connor, the only judge assigned to that courthouse, sits a few days every month. (O’Connor’s chambers are in Fort Worth, the location of his home courtroom.)  Filing in a major city would subject the plaintiffs to a random assignment of a judge; filing in Wichita Falls guaranteed that their case would be heard by Judge O’Connor. O’Connor, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has a propensity to issue nationwide injunctions against regulatory actions of the Obama Administration on grounds that they exceed executive branch authority.  His August 21 preliminary injunction in the Title IX case was not his first.  There is no logical reason why this case should have been filed in the Wichita Falls court, but plaintiffs can claim proper venue there by pointing to local members of the co-plaintiff Christian Medical & Dental Association (CMDA), a national organization, who may reside within the geographical confines of the Wichita Falls court, or to local Texas state agencies whose operation in that area would be affected.  (The court does not engage in a venue analysis, despite the obvious forum-shopping.)  Other private plaintiffs are Franciscan Alliance, Inc. and its wholly owned entity Specialty Physicians of Illinois LLC.  The public plaintiffs are the states of Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Arizona, Kentucky and Mississippi.  The heavy hand of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton looms over the litigation, since Paxton has said, in effect, that his job is to sue the federal government every day on behalf of the right of Texas to operate free of federal regulatory constraints. Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment or, in the alternative, a preliminary injunction, on October 21, 2016, and the court agreed to expedite briefing and hearing so as to be able to rule, at least on the preliminary injunction, before the Rule could go into effect on January 1.

There is a basic argument between the parties as to the requirements imposed by the Rule. The plaintiffs argue that under the rule they would be required to provide gender transition surgery and abortions or suffer liability to patients and potential loss of federal funding eligibility.  They claim that this would violate their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that the government’s interpretation of the ban on sex discrimination to cover “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” went beyond regulatory authority.  HHS argues that the rule does not compel either procedure in every case, merely banning discrimination on these bases.  Thus, for example, it could be argued, if a health care provider/institution performs mastectomies, it may not take the position that it will perform a mastectomy for a woman as a treatment for breast cancer but will not perform a mastectomy for a transgender man as part of his transition process, as this would be sex discrimination. Both women and transgender men are entitled to mastectomies.  Similar arguments are made for a variety of the component parts of procedures, including, for example, hormone therapy, sterilization procedures and the like.  A woman suffering an estrogen deficiency can receive hormone therapy, and so can a transgender woman; depriving the transgender woman of estrogen therapy because she was identified male at birth is sex discrimination.  In effect, argue the private plaintiffs, the non-discrimination requirement would inevitably require them to perform procedures that violate their religious views, and, argue the public plaintiffs, would require them to violate various state laws and regulations, such as banning the termination of pregnancies in state facilities or the use of state Medicaid funds for gender transition or pregnancy termination procedures.  Judge O’Connor agreed with the private plaintiffs that however the dispute over interpretation is resolved, there is a likelihood that their exercise of religion would be substantially burdened.

A portion of the decision, not detailed here, goes through the analysis of jurisdiction, ripeness and administrative exhaustion, finding that none of those doctrines would require a finding against the court’s jurisdiction to grant the requested relief on this motion. Proceeding to the merits, Judge O’Connor provided a detailed discussion of the tests for issuing a preliminary injunction.

First, as to likelihood of success on the merits, he found that Title IX does not on its face ban discrimination because of “gender identity” or “termination of pregnancy.” Most of the discussion focuses on the “gender identity” issue, and channels the discussion accompanying his August 21 preliminary injunction against Title IX enforcement in gender identity cases.  The discussion regarding the abortion issue focuses on the failure of HHS to incorporate in its new regulation the religious and abortion exemptions in existing Title IX regulations, arguing that Congress’s wording of the Section 1557 non-discrimination provision led to the conclusion that such incorporation was intended by Congress.

“The precise question at issue in this case is: What constitutes Title IX sex discrimination?” he wrote. “The text of Section 1557 is neither silent nor ambiguous as to its interpretation of sex discrimination.  Section 1557 clearly adopted Title IX’s existing legal structure for prohibited sex discrimination.  42 U.S.C. sec. 18116(a).  For the reasons set out more fully below, this Court has previously concluded: the meaning of sex in Title IX unambiguously refers to ‘the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.’  Texas v. United States, No. 7:16-cv-00054, 2016 WL 4426495, at *14 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 21, 2016).”  Judge O’Connor reinforced this reference with a citation to the federal district court ruling in %Johnston v. Univ. of Pittsburgh of Com. Sys. of Higher Educ.%, 97 F. Supp. 3d 657, 674 (W.D. Pa. 2015), %appeal dismissed% (Mar. 30, 2016), rejecting a Title IX gender identity discrimination claim by a transgender college student with restroom access issues, but omits reference at this point to the contrary ruling the 4th Circuit in the Gloucester County case.  Because he finds Title IX unambiguous on this point, he concludes that the HHS Rule is not entitled to Chevron deference that would normally be accorded a regulation adopted under the APA, and proceeds to apply his own interpretation of the statute, in which he finds Congress’s “binary definition of sex” to be shown by references in the statute to “students of one sex,” “both sexes,” and “students of the other sex.”  He also appeals to “ordinary meaning,” to the failure of Congress to spell out any intent to cover “gender identity,” and to the fact that as of the time the ACA was enacted, federal agencies had not yet begun to treat “gender identity” discrimination as cognizable under sex discrimination statutes.

He wrote that “even if, as Defendants argue, the definition of sex discrimination was determined in 2010 when the ACA incorporated Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination, the Court is not persuaded it was passed with the Rule’s expansive scope in mind because: (1) Congress knew how but did not use language indicating as much, and (2) in 2010 no federal court or agency had interpreted Title IX sex discrimination to include gender identity.” (To this point he quoted a Washington Post article from 2015 stating that the new HHS Rule “for the first time includes bans on gender identity discrimination as a form of sexual discrimination, language that advocacy groups have pushed for and immediately hailed as groundbreaking.”)  And, of course, he notes that before the ACA was passed and “for more than forty years after the passage of Title IX in 1972, no federal court or agency had concluded sex should be defined to include gender identity” in a Title IX case.  In a footnote, he rejected the government’s attempt to bolster its case by reference to Price Waterhouse, pointing out that it was Title IX, not Title VII, which was incorporated by reference into the ACA.

As to the failure of the Rule to incorporate Title IX’s religious exemption language, he wrote, “The text of Section 1557 prohibits discrimination ‘on the ground prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (20 U.S.C. 1681 et seq.).’ . . . That Congress included the signal ‘et seq.’, which means ‘and the following,’ after the citation to Title IX can only mean Congress intended to incorporate the entire statutory structure, including the abortion and religious exemptions.  Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, but exempts from this prohibition entities controlled by religious organizations when the proscription would be inconsistent with religious tenets.  20 U.S.C. sec. 1681(a)(3).  Title IX also categorically exempts any application that would require a covered entity to provide abortion or abortion-related services. 20 U.S.C. sec. 1688.  Therefore, a religious organization refusing to act inconsistent with its religious tenets on the basis of sex does not discriminate on the ground prohibited by Title IX,” and any attempt by HHS to impose the non-discrimination requirement without including the religious exemption violates Congressional intent.  O’Connor bolstered this point by invoking the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, finding that the Rule “places substantial pressure on Plaintiffs to abstain from religious exercise” by forcing them to provide services contrary to their religious tenets, and that the government’s desire to expand access to “transition and abortion procedures,” even if deemed a “compelling interest” for purposes of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was not the least restrictive alternative for providing such access, and thus failed under Hobby Lobby.  Taking his cue from Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in that case, O’Connor pointed out that the government could offer to pay for transition and abortion services to be provided by those who did not have religious objections to them in order to avoid burdening the Plaintiff’s religious rights.

In another point worth noting, O’Connor cited to an HHS study showing that the medical community is not unanimous on the value and necessity of performing transition procedures, particularly on minors, undermining the “compelling interest” that the government must show under RFRA to justify substantially burdening health care providers with sincere religious objections to performing such procedures.

Having concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their attack, O’Connor found that they easily satisfied the other requirements for preliminary injunctive relief, noting in particular that an ongoing investigation of the state of Texas’s practices made the potential of harm to the Plaintiffs more than hypothetical, as did the looming requirement for the private Plaintiffs to change the range of services they offer or risk loss of federal funding. More significantly, as to the scope of the injunction, he cited authority that “the scope of injunctive relief is dictated by the extent of the violation established, not by the geographical extent of the plaintiff class,” and that “a nationwide injunction is appropriate when a party brings a facial challenge to agency action under the APA.”  In this case, he pointed out, “CMDA’s membership extends across the country and the Rule applies broadly to ‘almost all licensed physicians,’” quoting the HHS description published in the Federal Register.  “Accordingly, the Rule’s harm is felt by healthcare providers and states across the country, including all of CMDA’s members, and the Court finds a nationwide injunction appropriate.”  Noting a severability provision in the Rule, he observed that the injunction only applied to the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” under the definition of sex discrimination, and did not bar enforcement of any other part of the Rule.  A preliminary injunction stays in effect until the court issues a ruling on the merits, unless it is reversed on appeal.  As of December 31, the Obama Administration had barely three weeks left in office, to be succeeded by an administration much less likely to defend the Rule, so while this is merely preliminary relief for the Plaintiffs, it signals a major and probably long-term setback to efforts by transgender people to obtain non-discriminatory health care, including coverage for medically-necessary transition procedures.

Another Federal Judge Lets Gay Plaintiff Pursue Discrimination Claim under Title VII

Posted on: November 22nd, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

One of the nation’s most senior federal trial judges, Warren W. Eginton (age 92) of Connecticut, rejected an employer’s motion to dismiss a Title VII sex discrimination claim brought by an openly gay employee in a November 17 ruling.  Boutillier v. Hartford Public Schools, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159093, 2016 WL 6818348 (D. Conn.).  Eginton, who was appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1979 and has been a senior judge (semi-retired) since 1992, accepted the argument that Title VII can be interpreted to ban sexual orientation discrimination, despite prior contrary rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, to which his decision can be appealed.

 

Eginton’s ruling came less than two weeks after a federal district judge in Pennsylvania, Cathy Bissoon, appointed by Barack Obama, issued a similar ruling in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, bucking contrary appellate precedent in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.  Could this be the beginning of a trend?

 

Lisa Boutillier, a lesbian who formerly taught in the Hartford Public School system, claimed that she had suffered discrimination and retaliation because of her sexual orientation and physical disability in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Because Connecticut law explicitly bans sexual orientation and disability discrimination, she could have brought her case in state court and, by confining her claims to state law, she could have avoided ending up in federal court where adverse circuit precedent might have doomed her Title VII claim.  Instead, however, her attorney, Margaret M. Doherty, included the federal claims and filed in the U.S. District Court, prompting the school district to file a motion arguing that Title VII does not cover this case.  The case could remain in Judge Eginton’s court only if he found that Boutillier could assert a potentially valid claim under either or both of the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Eginton concluded that Boutillier failed to allege facts sufficient to qualify as a person with a disability under the ADA, so her ability to maintain the action in federal court turned entirely on whether she could allege a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.       There is little doubt from her factual allegations that if Title VII covers this case, Boutillier will have stated a potentially valid claim and avoid summary judgment against her.

 

Judge Eginton devoted most of his opinion to the Title VII question.  He sharply disputed the Second Circuit’s prior rulings refusing to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  “Early interpretations of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions reached illogical conclusions based on a supposed traditional concept of discrimination, which, for example, determined that discrimination based on pregnancy was not discrimination based on sex,” he began his analysis, noting that Congress had overruled that mistaken early Supreme Court decision by amending Title VII.  He said that the pregnancy case “and other similar decisions that imposed incongruous traditional norms were misguided in their interpretations regardless of whether Congress had been able to overrule them.”  He charged that these early cases were mistaken because “they failed to take the ordinary meaning of the Act’s text to its logical conclusions . . . .  The converse of the majority’s decision,” wrote Eginton, “and equally absurd, would be to hold that an exclusion in coverage for prostate cancer does not discriminate against men based on sex.  Such conclusion represent a fundamental failure of ordinary interpretation.”

 

He found a similar error of reasoning in the Second Circuit’s approach to sexual orientation claims.  He noted that when Congress overruled the pregnancy case, the House Report stated: “It is the Committee’s view that the dissenting Justices correctly interpreted the Act.”  The 2nd Circuit has premised its view on lack of legislative history showing that Congress intended to protect gay people from discrimination when it included “sex” in Title VII in 1964.  “Acknowledging that the legislative history on whether sexual orientation should be included in the category of sex under Title VII is slight,” wrote Eginton, “it is difficult to glean the absence of prior intention merely from subsequent efforts by Congress to reinforce statutory civil rights protections” by adding “sexual orientation” to federal law, as the 2nd Circuit has repeatedly done.  He pointed out that the Supreme Court has cautioned against relying on legislative inaction as an indication of legislative intent.

 

More importantly, however, he wrote, “straightforward statutory interpretation and logic dictate that sexual orientation cannot be extricated from sex: the two are necessarily intertwined in a manner that, when viewed under the Title VII paradigm set forth by the Supreme Court, place sexual orientation discrimination within the penumbra of sex discrimination.”

 

The judge pointed out the inconsistency between the 2nd Circuit’s approach to sexual orientation and its cases about race discrimination.  The 2nd Circuit has accepted the argument that it is race discrimination when an employer discriminates against an employee for engaging in an interracial relationship.  “The logic is inescapable,” wrote Eginton: “If interracial association discrimination is held to be ‘because of the employee’s own race,’ so ought sexual orientation discrimination be held to be because of the employee’s own sex.”  The 2nd Circuit’s cases are “not legitimately distinguishable,” he argued.  “If Title VII protects individuals who are discriminated against on the basis of race because of interracial association (it does), it should similarly protect individuals who are discriminated against on the basis of sex because of sexual orientation – which could otherwise be named ‘intrasexual association.’”

 

He pointed out that the Supreme Court’s key decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins “bolsters” his conclusion, in holding that “sex stereotyping could constitute discrimination because of sex. . .  Indeed, stereotypes concerning sexual orientation are probably the most prominent of all sex related stereotypes, which can lead to discrimination based on what the Second Circuit refers to interchangeably as gender non-conformity.”  The 2nd Circuit has refused to extend this reasoning to sexual orientation cases, however, using an analysis that Eginton maintains is “inherently unmanageable, as homosexuality is the ultimate gender non-conformity, the prototypical sex stereotyping animus.”

 

He quoted extensively from a recent 7th Circuit decision, Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, where a 3-judge panel of that court dismissed a sexual orientation discrimination claim because of circuit precedent, but two members of the panel submitted an opinion suggesting that the circuit should be reconsidering its position.  Since then, the 7th Circuit has voted to grant “en banc” review in the case, with reargument scheduled for November 30.

 

Eginton pointed out the paradox stemming from the 2nd Circuit’s position.  “Essentially, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees for exhibiting stereotypical gay behavior, yet, at the same time, employers are free to discriminate against employees for actually being gay.”  Thus, Eginton, concluded, he would follow the lead of the 2nd Circuit’s interracial discrimination case instead of its past dismissal of sexual orientation discrimination claims “by interpreting the ordinary meaning of sex under Title VII to include sexual orientation, thereby obviating the need to parse sexuality from gender norms.”  Eginton pointed out that the EEOC adopted this view in 2015, the 7th Circuit agreed to a full rehearing in Hively, and a 2nd Circuit panel will soon rule on appeals from trial court dismissals of sexual orientation claims in several cases from New York.  While the 2nd Circuit’s expected ruling on those appeals “may ultimately decide the fate of plaintiff’s Title VII claims,” he wrote, “in the meantime, summary judgment will be denied.  Plaintiff has adequately established a right to protection under Title VII.”

New Court Ruling Shows What May Be Lost Due to Trump/Pence Election

Posted on: November 17th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A November 4 ruling in a sexual orientation discrimination case that was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows that progress on LGBTS rights may be lost as a result of the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. The ruling in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153744, 2016 WL 6569233 (W.D. Pa.), was issued by U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, who was nominated to the federal district court in Pittsburgh by President Obama in 2010 and confirmed by the Senate in October 2011 by a vote of 82-3.  The judge, a Brooklyn native, was reportedly the first woman of Indian descent to sit as a federal judge when she took her previous position as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in 2008. In this ruling, the judge held that Title VII may be used to protect gay people from sexual orientation discrimination.

In this case, Dale Baxley was hired in mid-July 2013 by Scott Medical Health Center in a telemarketing position. He claims that he was subjected by his manager, Robert McClendon, to “a continuing course of unwelcome and offensive harassment because of his sex” that created a hostile work environment.  According to the Complaint filed in the district court, McClendon “routinely made unwelcome and offensive comments about Baxley, including but not limited to regularly calling him ‘fag,’ ‘faggot,’ ‘fucking faggot,’ and ‘queer,’ and making statements such as ‘fucking queer can’t do your job.’”  The Complaint also alleges that after McClendon found out that Baxley is gay and had a same-sex partner, he “made highly offensive statements to Baxley about Baxley’s relationship with the partner such as saying, ‘I always wondered how you fags have sex,’ ‘I don’t understand how you fucking fags have sex,’ and ‘Who’s the butch and who is the bitch?’”  Baxley was gone from the job after about a month of McClendon’s verbal abuse, a victim – he claims – of “constructive discharge.”  That is, his working conditions were so miserable that he was compelled to quit.

Ironically, the EEOC’s lawsuit on behalf of Baxley resulted not from a charge he filed but from the agency’s investigation of discrimination charges filed with the Pittsburgh office by five of Baxley’s former female co-workers. These women alleged that they were subjected to sexual harassment by McClendon, including “unwanted touching so frequently and severely that it created a hostile and offensive work environment and resulted in adverse employment decisions being taken against them.”  While investigating these charges, the agency learned about McClendon’s treatment of Baxley and Baxley’s claim that he had been constructively discharged.

At the end of the investigation, the EEOC issued a “Letter of Determination” to Scott Medical Health Center stating that the investigation “also revealed that McClendon harassed a male employee because of sex, specifically and repeatedly referring to the male employee as a ‘faggot,’ and repeatedly asking about the employee’s sexual experiences and preferences. The investigation revealed that McClendon targeted this male employee because he did not conform to what McClendon believed was acceptable or expected behavior for a male because of his association with members of the same sex rather than the opposite sex.”  The letter concluded that McClendon’s conduct created a hostile environment resulting in the constructive discharge of Baxley.  The EEOC attempted unsuccessfully to achieve a conciliation agreement with the employer, then filed this lawsuit.

This was the first lawsuit that the EEOC filed on behalf of a gay former employee alleging that his discharge was “because of sex” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In July 2015, the agency had reversed its position of half a century when it ruled in Baldwin v. Foxx that the U.S. Transportation Department may have violated Title VII when it denied a promotion to a gay air traffic controller.  After accepting the view that sexual orientation claims can be asserted under Title VII, the agency was on the lookout for appropriate private sector cases to bring, in order to vindicate a public policy against such discrimination as well as seeking a remedy for the employee involved.  The agency was seeking to establish court precedents that would lock its interpretation into the case law.  Prior to this case filing, all of the Title VII sexual orientation claims presented to federal courts had been lawsuits filed by individual discrimination victims, not by the federal agency.

The Health Center asked the court to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint, arguing that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, citing two precedents from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Bibby v. Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 260 F.3d 257 (3rd Cir. 2001), and Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc., 579 F.3d 285 (3rd Cir. 2009), in support of that argument.  But Judge Bissoon found that in those prior decisions, the court of appeals had not been presented with all the arguments that the EEOC has developed in support of its 2015 change of position on this issue, and more recent events have undermined the earlier rulings, so she concluded that those rulings – by the court with direct appellate authority over district court decisions from Pennsylvania – did not compel dismissal of this complaint.

The EEOC advanced three lines of argument in support of its position. First, that Baxley was “targeted because he is a male, for had he been female instead of a male, he would not have been subjected to discrimination for his intimate relationships with men.”  Second, the he was “targeted and harassed because of his intimate association with someone of the same sex, which necessarily takes Baxley’s sex into account.”  And, third, that he was “targeted because he did not conform to his harasser’s concepts of what a man should be or do.”  This last argument is a version of the “sex stereotype” theory that the Supreme Court approved in 1989 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.

Judge Bissoon said that the EEOC’s three arguments were actually just one argument stated three different ways, “with the singular question being whether, but for Mr. Baxley’s sex, would he have been subjected to this discrimination or harassment. The answer, based on these allegations, is no.”

For purposes of ruling on a motion to dismiss a claim, the court assumes that the plaintiff’s factual allegations are true, and asks whether, based on those facts, the plaintiff has a plausible legal claim. Thus, Judge Bissoon was ruling, if the EEOC can prove these factual allegations, it will win the case.

Judge Bissoon held, straightforwardly, that “Title VII’s ‘because of sex’ provision forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” This statement directly contradicts the two prior 3rd Circuit rulings, but Judge Bissoon found that it was consistent with how the law had developed under Title VII, dating back as early as 1983 when the Supreme Court began “broadening” its interpretation of sex discrimination in a series of cases culminating with Price Waterhouse in 1989.  She also noted that at least one federal appeals court, the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, has already used the sex stereotyping theory to extend protection to a transgender plaintiff.

As the EEOC has done, Judge Bissoon quoted Justice Scalia’s statement in the Supreme Court’s 1998 same-sex harassment case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, that “statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil [that Congress intended to address] 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.” Thus, the lack of any evidence that Congress intended to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in 1964 does not require rejecting a sexual orientation discrimination claim in 2016.

Referring back to Price Waterhouse, the judge wrote, “There is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping than making a determination that a person should conform to heterosexuality. As the EEOC states, ‘discrimination against a person because of the sex of that person’s romantic partner necessarily involves stereotypes about “proper” roles in sexual relationships – that men are and should only be sexually attracted to women, not men.’  This discriminatory evil is more than reasonably comparable to the evil identified by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse.  Indeed, the Court finds discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is, at its very core, sex stereotyping plain and simple; there is no line separating the two.”

And the judge found that this argument was not presenting in its fully developed form to the 3rd Circuit in its earlier cases, so it had not been specifically rejected by that court.  In its earlier cases, furthermore, the 3rd Circuit panels had relied on the failure of Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as evidence that Congress did not intend to protect gay people from discrimination.  “However,” she wrote, “subsequent Third Circuit decisions have questioned the value of reliance on Congress inaction.”  Furthermore, she pointed out, many of the cases relied upon in those earlier 3rd Circuit decisions had in turned relied upon circuit court cases that pre-dated Price Waterhouse, and so necessarily had not ruled on the sex stereotype theory.

“The Supreme Court’s recent opinion legalizing gay marriage demonstrates a growing recognition of the illegality of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” wrote the judge. “That someone can be subjected to a barrage of insults, humiliation, hostility and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment, based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or a woman, is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate.” Thus, the court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the Title VII complaint.

If the employer appeals this case to the 3rd Circuit, it will be reaching an appellate bench with seven Democratic appointees (by Presidents Clinton and Obama) and five Republican appointees (by Presidents Bush I and II).  There are two vacancies.  There are nine active senior judges of the circuit, mostly appointed by Republican presidents, who might sit on particular three-judge panels but would not participate in “en banc” reviews by the full circuit bench.   By random draw, any particular three-judge panel might by more or less receptive to Judge Bissoon’s reasoning, although one can’t conclusively presume that every Democratic appointee will agree and every Republican appointee will disagree.  But the point to bear in mind is that Obama, through his appointments, switched the 3rd Circuit from a more conservative to a more progressive bench, and Trump can rebalance the circuit by filling the two vacancies and the next one that comes along if a Clinton or Obama appointee takes senior status.

Similarly, at the EEOC, significant progress in protecting LGBT rights came through administrative rulings and litigation decisions undertaken by President Obama’s appointees. The agency has become a vocal proponent of a broad interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBT people from employment discrimination, and its reasoning has been followed by other agencies, such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Education.   It seems unlikely that Trump’s appointees, once attaining full control of the federal agencies and departments, would keep to the same course.  Indeed, it is not a sure thing that Trump will allow Obama’s executive orders banning sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination within the Executive Branch, to stay in place.  The Order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies is likely on the repeal list.

Luckily, individuals can continue to file discrimination lawsuits under Title VII, so the loss of the agency as a plaintiff in their cases will not shut them out of court. But preserving the gains made so far may be difficult against the tide of new judicial and agency appointments that will be made beginning January 21.  Stalling on confirmations by the Senate has left close to 100 federal judgeships vacant, and there are hundreds of agency appointments to be made as well, which will cumulatively change the direction in which federal anti-discrimination law has been developing during the Obama years.  The appointment of new Supreme Court justices will matter as well, of course, because ultimately the question whether Title VII and other federal sex discrimination laws protect LGBT people will end up before that Court, where a transgender “bathroom” case under Title IX has already been accepted for review.   If these cases are decided after Trump has had two Supreme Court appointments, it is reasonable to speculate that the newly solidified conservative majority will not be inclined to adopt such a broad interpretation of Title VII or other federal sex discrimination laws.  Elections matter.

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.