One of the major legislative goals of the LGBT rights movement is to get Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a measure that has been pending in Congress in one form or another since 1996 (with predecessor “gay rights” bills having been introduced since the mid-1970s). ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, but would prohibit only intentional discrimination, not employer practices that are neutral on their face but have the effect of discriminating. It is narrowly drafted legislation, and has a big religious exemption that is controversial. And, although the current version was passed by a comfortable majority in the Senate last year, the Republican leadership in the House has refused to hold hearings or schedule a vote, and strategy for a “discharge petition” (a procedural floor vote to get the bill released from Committee and onto the floor for a vote on enactment) is at an early stage.
But what if ENDA is not needed? What if existing law already bans such discrimination? In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, whose Title VII bans employment discrimination because of sex. For a long time, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the federal courts have ruled that discrimination against LGBT people is not prohibited, because in 1964 Congress did not intend to forbid such discrimination. In effect, Title VII was limited to cases where people were suffering discrimination because they are a man or a woman.
But the Supreme Court came to view “sex discrimination” more broadly, ruling in one case that a woman who suffered discrimination because she failed to conform to gender stereotypes (“too butch”) was a victim of sex discrimination, and in another case that a man who encountered a hostile environment in an all-male workplace (treated by his rougher, tougher co-workers as a sex toy) might also have a valid claim under Title VII. The EEOC and some lower federal courts have taken the next step in recent years, holding that discrimination because of gender identity is a kind of sex discrimination, because it is inspired by discomfort or disapproval with people defying conventional gender roles. There is a recent EEOC formal opinion to that effect, and a growing body of federal court decisions support this view.
But what about lesbians, gay men or bisexuals who are not gender-nonconforming in their appearance or conduct, but who encounter discrimination simply because their employer, co-workers or customers are biased against gay people? Before March 31, there were no court opinions suggesting that such a person might be protected from discrimination under Title VII, although some law review commentators had made the argument. On March 31, however, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly made history by issuing her opinion in Peter J. Terveer v. James H. Billington, Librarian, Library of Congress, 2014 Westlaw 1280301, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43193 (U.S. District Ct., Dist. Columbia), holding that a man who suffered adverse treatment at the hands of an anti-gay supervisor could maintain a claim under Title VII, even though his only gender non-conforming characteristic is his sexual orientation.
According to the court’s opinion, Mr. Terveer was hired in February 2008 to be a Management Analyst in the Auditing Division of the Library of Congress. His first-level supervisor, John Mech, is described in the opinion as “a religious man who was accustomed to making his faith known in the workplace.” According to Terveer’s complaint, Mech said to him on June 24, 2009, that “putting you closer to God is my effort to encourage you to save your worldly behind.” According to the complaint, Terveer became close to Mech and Mech’s family, including his daughter. “In August 2009, Mech’s daughter learned that Plaintiff is homosexual,” wrote Judge Kollar-Kotelly. “Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff received an email from Mech mentioning his daughter and containing photographs of assault weapons along with the tagline ‘Diversity: Let’s Celebrate It.'”
Things went downhill from there. According to the complaint, Mech subjected Terveer to “work-related conversation to the point where it became clear that Mech was targeting Terveer by imposing his conservative Catholic beliefs on Terveer throughout the workday.” Terveer claimed that Mech stopped giving him detailed instructions with his assignments, instead making ambiguous assignments that, in effect, set up Terveer to fail, and assignments that were clearly beyond Terveer’s experience level. Terveer claims he was given one huge assignment that would normally require the attention of half a dozen employees, and then Mech piled additional work on top of that.
Terveer alleged that on June 21, 2010, Mech called an unscheduled meeting that lasted more than an hour, “for the purpose of ‘educating’ Terveer on Hell and that it is a sin to be a homosexual, that homosexuality was wrong, and that Terveer would be going to Hell.” Mech recited Bible verses to Terveer and told him, “I hope you repent because the Bible is very clear about what God does to homosexuals.” A few days later, Terveer received his annual review from Mech, and felt it did not reflect the quality of his work. Terveer believed that the review “was motivated by Mech’s religious beliefs and sexual stereotyping.” Terveer confronted Mech about this unfair treatment, which got Mech angry, vehemently denying that he was partial, and he accused Terveer of trying to “bring down the library.”
Terveer next went to Mech’s supervisor and told him about what was happening. According to Mech’s account of that meeting with Nicholas Christopher, Christopher told him that, in his opinion, “employees do not have rights,” and Christopher took no action to remedy the problem or advise Terveer about appropriate complaint procedures. According to Terveer, Mech’s response to this was to put Terveer under “heightened scrutiny” supervision by Mech and to generate an evaluation of the project to which Terveer had been assigned, even though it wasn’t finished, that was “extremely negative.” Terveer got into an argument with Mech about this evaluation, and Mech told him that he was “damn angry” that Terveer had threatened to bring a claim for wrongful discrimination and harassment. According to Terveer, Mech ended his tirade with the statement, “You do not have rights, this is a dictatorship.”
Early in 2011 Mech issued another negative evaluation of Terveer and put him on 90-day written warning, which could lead to Terveer not receiving the pay increase he would ordinarily receive. Terveer then initiated a discrimination claim with the EEOC. An attempt by another agency officer to get him transferred away from Mech failed when Mech’s supervisor said that Terveer was “on track to be terminated within six months.” As things deteriorated further for Terveer, he finally filed a formal complaint on November 9, 2011, alleging discrimination because of religion and sex, sexual harassment, and reprisal. Terveer had been suffering emotional distress from the situation and ended up taking lots of leave time, ultimately claiming that he was constructively terminated on April 4, 2012, because he could not return to the workplace to confront Mech and Christopher. The Library formally terminated him, and his appeal within the Library’s grievance process was unsuccessful. The agency issued a decision on May 8, 2012, denying his discrimination claims. He filed suit on August 3, 2012, alleging violations of Title VII and the constitution, as well as Library of Congress regulations and policies.
The court faced a variety of legal issues in ruling on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, the most serious of which was the failure of Terveer to pursue various administrative remedies before he resorted to a lawsuit. But perhaps the most important part of the opinion addresses the Defendant’s claim that the facts alleged by Terveer would not suffice for a legal claim of discrimination under Title VII. At the time that the Defendants filed this motion, federal courts had limited protection against discrimination for gay men to situations where a supervisor’s discriminatory conduct was motivated by judgments about a plaintiff’s behavior, demeanor or appearance that failed to conform to sexual stereotypes, and Terveer was not alleging that his behavior or appearance failed to conform to stereotypes about “manly men.”
But Judge Kollar-Kotelly saw Title VII’s protection as broader than these traditional gender stereotyping cases. “Under Title VII,” she wrote, “allegations that an employer is discriminating against an employee based on the employee’s non-conformity with sex stereotypes are sufficient to establish a viable sex discrimination claim. Here, Plaintiff has alleged that he is ‘a homosexual male whose sexual orientation is not consistent with the Defendant’s perception of acceptable gender roles,’ and that his ‘status as a homosexual male did not conform to the Defendant’s gender stereotypes associated with men under Mech’s supervision or at the (Library of Congress),’ and that ‘his orientation as homosexual had removed him from Mech’s preconceived definition of male.'” This, found the judge, was sufficient to meet the burden under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to set forth “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Since Terveer had alleged that the Library had denied him promotions and created a hostile work environment because of his “nonconformity with male sex stereotypes,” Terveer could proceed with his claim.
The judge emphasized that the burden on the plaintiff to state a claim at this stage of the litigation is “relatively low” when a court is deciding a motion to dismiss, before there has been any discovery in the case. Interestingly, the judge found another basis for Terveer’s Title VII claim in the religiously-motivated bias of his supervisor, observing that past courts had allowed claims of discrimination in such cases. “The Court sees no reason to create an exception to these cases for employees who are targeted for religious harassment due to their status as a homosexual individual,” she wrote, refusing to dismiss Terveer’s religious discrimination claim under Title VII. The judge also found that Terveer’s factual allegations would be sufficient grounding for a claim of a “retaliatory hostile work environment.” However, she noted, having found that Terveer’s claims are covered, at least at this early stage in the case, under Title VII, the court would have to dismiss his constitutional due process and equal protection claims, as the Supreme Court has made clear that Title VII is the exclusive remedy for federal employees with discrimination claims that come within its scope.
The bottom line for this ruling was that although certain claims were dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, the court refused to dismiss the sex and religious discrimination claims, as well as the retaliation claim. In so doing, the court made history with its acceptance that a gay man who was not gender non-conforming in appearance or behavior could assert a sex discrimination claim when a supervisor’s own religiously-inspired stereotyped notions of proper sex roles motivated adverse treatment of the gay employee.
While such a ruling is most welcome, it would probably be premature to suggest that ENDA is not needed. This is one non-precedential ruling on a pre-trial dismissal motion by a single federal judge. However, it reflects the broadening trend of defining sex under Title VII reflected in the growing body of cases rejecting motions to dismiss such claims brought by transgender plaintiffs, and may portent more definitive rulings expanding Title VII’s sex discrimination ban to claims brought by otherwise-gender-conforming LGBT plaintiffs.Tags: Civil Rights Act of 1964, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, gender stereotyping, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, LGBT rights, sex discrimination, sex stereotyping, Terveer v. Billington, Title VII