The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts (a George Bush appointee), and the four Justices appointed by Democratic presidents: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton) and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Barack Obama).
Samuel Alito, appointed to the Court by George Bush, wrote an outraged dissenting opinion, joined by Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush. Trump-appointee Brett Kavanaugh penned a more temperate dissent, concluding with a surprising salute to the movement’s achievement of this milestone.
Justice Gorsuch’s emergence as the writer of this opinion caught many by surprise, since he is an acolyte of Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he replaced on the Court. Despite Scalia’s avowed commitment to many of the interpretive principles that Gorsuch also embraces, one could not imagine Scalia writing such an opinion, especially in light of the vitriolic dissenting opinions that he wrote to all four prior landmark opinions.
Because Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority of the Court, he was in the position to assign the majority opinion to Gorsuch. Had this been a 5-4 ruling without Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, the senior justice in the majority, would have decided which justice would write for the Court. In the two marriage equality rulings, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose approach to gay issues had been established in earlier cases, assigned the opinions to himself as senior justice in the majority. Ginsburg might well have assigned the opinion to Gorsuch in any event, to help secure his vote, especially as it was possible that if Ginsburg or one of the other Democratic appointees wrote an opinion embracing arguments Gorsuch could not accept, he might either drift away or write a concurrence in the judgment, resulting in a plurality opinion. It is even possible that Roberts’ vote came from his institutional concern that such a significant ruling have the weight of a 6-3 vote. Since there were already five votes in favor of the employee parties, his vote would not affect the outcome, but would give him some control over the opinion through his assignment to Gorsuch.
The 1996 landmark gay rights ruling was Romer v. Evans, a decision that established for the first time that a state’s discrimination against “homosexuals” violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, striking down a homophobic amendment that Colorado voters had added to their state constitution, forbidding the state from providing anti-discrimination protection to gay people. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for a 6-3 Court found that the only explanation for the Colorado amendment’s adoption was animus against lesbians and gay men, never a constitutionally valid reason, so the Court did not expressly consider whether heightened scrutiny would apply to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.
The second landmark decision was Lawrence v. Texas (2003), declaring that a state law making gay sex a crime violated the guarantee of liberty in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause, and overruling a 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, which had rejected such a challenge to Georgia’s penal law.
The third landmark, United States v. Windsor, held in 2013 that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that states had authorized, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had put into the United States Code a definition of marriage limited to different-sex couples. The Court held that this violated the Due Process and Equal Protection rights of same-sex couples under the 5th Amendment, again without explicitly engaging in discussion of whether a law discriminating based on sexual orientation is subject to heightened scrutiny.
The fourth landmark, Obergefell v. Hodges, held in 2015 that gay people enjoyed the same fundamental right to marry that had previously been guaranteed to straight people under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Since the Court dealt with this as a fundamental rights case, both from the perspectives of due process and equal protection, it again avoided discussing whether the discriminatory aspect of the case implicated a suspect or quasi-suspect classification of sexual orientation.
In each of these cases, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., wrote for the Court. The decisions were noteworthy as being the product of an otherwise conservative Court whose Republican appointees outnumbered the Democratic appointees. In Windsor and Obergefell, Kennedy was the only Republican appointee to side with the Democratic appointees to make up the 5-4 majority of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, cast a sixth vote for the prevailing parties in Romer and Lawrence. Her replacement, Justice Alito, dissented in Windsor and Obergefell, as well as Bostock.
The Bostock decision, incorporating two other cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was the first major LGBT rights decision by the Court since Kennedy retired and Trump made his second appointment to the Court, seemingly locking in a solid conservative majority that was expected not to be so receptive to LGBT rights claims. With the retirement of Kennedy, it was widely believed that it would be unlikely for a gay rights claim to carry a majority of the Court.
Consequently, when the Court announced more than a year ago that it would review these three cases, tremors ran through the LGBT rights legal community. Although progress had been made in persuading the Obama Administration – including the EEOC – and the lower federal courts that Title VII’s ban on “discrimination because of an individual’s sex” could be interpreted to forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, it was difficult for people to count a fifth vote to add to the presumed votes of the Democratic appointees on the Court. Chief Justice Roberts had emphatically dissented from the Windsor and Obergefell rulings, and LGBT rights groups had strongly opposed the nominations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, based on their extremely conservative records as court of appeals judges, which was seemingly borne out in Gorsuch’s case by his dissent in Pavan v. Smith (2017), taking the transparently incorrect position that the Court had not clearly held in Obergefell that same-sex marriages must be treated the same as different-sex marriages for all legal purposes, including birth certificates, something specifically mentioned in Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion. Nobody really thought it possible that Alito or Thomas would ever cast a vote in favor of an LGBT employee’s claim, but Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were a question marks, as was the unpredictable chief justice, despite his anti-LGBT voting record up to that time.
The only facts about these cases that were relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision were that the three employees whose discrimination claims ended up before the Court claimed that they were fired because of their sexual orientation (Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda) or their gender identity (Aimee Stephens) in violation of Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. The merits of the Title VII claims had not been decided in Bostock or Zarda, because the district courts in both cases found the claims not to be covered under Title VII and dismissed them. Aimee Stephens’ Title VII claim survived a motion to dismiss, however; the district court found that although Title VII, standing alone, was violated in her case (but solely using a gender stereotype theory rather than holding the gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII), but that the employer, a deeply religious funeral home owner, had a valid defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and so granted judgement to the employer. The 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal in Bostock, as did a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit in Zarda, but the 2nd Circuit ultimately reversed the dismissal en banc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had sued on Stephens’ behalf, appealed to the 6th Circuit, which reversed the district court, finding the RFRA defense invalid, and ruling that Stephens’ gender identity discrimination claim had been proven. The 6th Circuit also rejected the district court’s conclusion that the EEOC, representing Stephens, was limited to a gender stereotyping claim, expanding on its prior precedents to hold that gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII as a form of sex discrimination. Thus, the only final merits ruling in the cases before the Court was the EEOC’s (and Stephens’) victory in the 6th Circuit. Stephens had intervened at the 6th Circuit, represented by the ACLU, making her a respondent alongside the EEOC in the Supreme Court.
After the Trump Administration took office, the Solicitor General took over the case from the EEOC and, consistent with the Administration’s view that Title VII did not forbid gender identity discrimination, effectively “changed sides,” arguing that the employer should have prevailed. But, surprisingly inasmuch as the employer was being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious freedom litigation group, the employer had not sought review of the 6th Circuit’s rejection of its RFRA defense, so the only question before the Court was the Title VII interpretation issue. Stephens was left to defend the 6th Circuit’s ruling, with the EEOC, represented by the Solicitor General, on the other side. The Solicitor General also participated as an amicus on behalf of the government in the Bostock and Zarda cases.
There was a big difference between the earlier landmark cases and this case. The four landmarks all involved interpretations of Constitutional Due Process and Equal Protection, and were decided, in sometimes quite emotional opinions by Justice Kennedy, based on concepts of human dignity and equality. The Bostock case, by contrast, was a matter solely of statutory interpretation, and solely of Title VII (despite Justice Alito’s decision to dwell on the RFRA question in his dissent). Perhaps surprisingly, two of the most ardent “textualists” on the Court, Trump’s appointees, parted company about how to apply that approach in determining the meaning of a 55-year-old statute.
Textualists contend that statutory interpretation is a matter of figuring out what the meaning of statutory language was at the time it was adopted. Extraneous information, such as congressional committee reports, hearing transcripts, speeches on the floor of Congress or statements inserted into the Congressional Record, are generally rejected by textualists, who argue, as Scalia memorably wrote in a 1998 opinion also involving Title VII and sex discrimination, that “it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
Gorsuch and Kavanaugh (as well as Alito) swear allegiance to this principle, but it took them in different directions in this case. Gorsuch, who had signaled this result as a possibility during the oral argument on October 8 last year, inclined towards a literalistic approach to the words of Title VII. While claiming that he was trying to determine “the ordinary public meaning” of the words at the time they were enacted, he rejected the argument that this meant that sexual orientation and gender identity could not possibly be covered, because he was persuaded by various arguments and examples that the statute as properly understood has always prohibited discrimination against people because of their “homosexuality” or “transgender status.” He wrote, “an employer who intentionally treats a person worse because of sex – such as firing the person for actions or attributes it would tolerate in an individual of another sex – discriminates against that person in violation of Title VII.”
Having accepted that point, he found persuasive several examples offered by counsel for Bostock and Zarda. Most prominent was the example of two employees, a man and a woman, with equally good qualifications, work records, and so forth, both of whom are attracted to men. The employer will hire the woman but reject the man. Because the employer will tolerate attraction to men by women but not by men, the employer’s refusal to hire the man is discrimination because of the man’s sex.
Stating his holding more generally, he wrote: “An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other facts besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group.” The idea is that sex is supposed to be irrelevant to a personnel decision unless, as the statute provides, the employer can prove that sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job in question, an affirmative defense provision that Gorsuch neglects to mention. But Gorsuch agreed that making a personnel decision because the person is gay or transgender makes sex relevant to the decision, and thus is generally prohibited by Title VII. Or, as he put it quite strongly, “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The issue, wrote Gorsuch, is whether the plaintiff’s sex is a “but-for” cause of the challenged personnel action, but it doesn’t have to be the sole cause, because the statute does not expressly require that. “When an employer fires an employee because she is homosexual or transgender,” he explained, “two causal factors may be in play, both the individual’s sex and something else (the sex to which the individual is attracted or with which the individual identifies). But Title VII doesn’t care. If an employer would not have discharged an employee but for that individual’s sex, the statute’s causation standard is met, and liability may attach.” Because all three cases being argued involved discharges, it is not surprising that Gorsuch mentions only discharges, but the clear important of the decision is that all the personnel actions coming within the scope of Title VII come within this ruling.
Responding to the argument that this could not possibly be the meaning of a statute passed in 1964, Gorsuch insisted that it has always been the meaning, it just was not recognized as such by the courts until more recently. He characterized this as the “elephant in the room” that everybody pretended was not really there. It was now time to recognize the presence of the elephant.
Aside from some passing references, Gorsuch’s interpretive discussion, and the examples he presented, focused mainly on the sexual orientation issue, but he was careful to mention gender identity or transgender status as well as sexual orientation whenever he stated his conclusions.
Alito unkindly stated in his dissent that Gorsuch’s conclusion that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title VII is “preposterous.” Alito’s focus on the “original meaning” of statutory language, which he documents at length, shows as a matter of the historical record that in 1964 gay people were widely reviled as sick criminals, so it is impossible in his view to read the statutory language of 1964 as forbidding discrimination on this ground. Furthermore, he pointed out, as of 1964 the public’s awareness of transgender individuals was slight at best. Indeed, the very terms “transgender” and “gender identity” were not even used until much later. That a statute enacted in 1964 could be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on this ground could not possibly accord with its “ordinary public meaning” at that time, he argued. But Gorsuch countered that Alito was talking about legislative intent, not contemporary meaning of the statutory language. As Scalia wrote so often in cases where he rejected evidence of legislative history, when the law is reduced to a written text, it is the text that is the law. Gorsuch even cited a few sources to suggest that some people at or near the time of enactment actually believed that gay or transgender people might have discrimination claims under Title VII.
“Ours is a society of written laws,” Gorsuch wrote. “Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Reading Alito’s dissenting opinion may induce nausea in the reader, so graphic is his recounting of the horrendously homophobic views of the government and the public towards LGBT people in 1964, but he recites them to make his point that prohibition of discrimination on these grounds could not possibly be a correct textualist interpretation of this language from his perspective. He started his dissent pointedly by saying that the Court was engaged in “legislation,” not interpretation. And he concentrated on shooting holes in Gorsuch’s examples of the situations that led Gorsuch to conclude that discrimination because of homosexuality or transgender identity is, at least in part, sex discrimination.
Alito also wandered far from the central question in the cases, interjecting discussion of various issues likely to arise as a result of the decision, such as hardship for employers with religious objections to homosexuality or transgender identity (such as the employer in the Harris Funeral Homes case), and objections by co-workers to transgender employees using bathrooms and locker rooms. Gorsuch rejoined that these were questions for another day, not presently relevant to decide the appeals before the Court, noting particularly that Harris Funeral Homes had not asked the Court to review the 6th Circuit’s decision rejecting its RFRA defense. Alito was definitely putting down markers for the future cases that the Court may confront.
Kavanaugh makes some of the same points as Alito in his dissenting opinion, but it is notable that he did not join Alito’s dissent. This may be at least in part a generational thing. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are considerably younger than Alito. By the time they were in college and law school, there were out gay people around and, on a personal level, they undoubtedly both agreed that as a matter of politics it would be appropriate for Congress to ban such discrimination. They just differed on whether the Court could reach the same result through interpretation of the 55-year old law. Kavanaugh noted that three-judge panels of ten circuit courts of appeals had rejected this interpretation. 30 judges out of 30, he wrote, more than once in his opinion, as if the unanimity of an incorrect interpretation somehow turned it into a correct interpretation. Obviously, these judges did not recognize the “elephant in the room”!
For Kavanaugh, this was really a “separation of powers” issue. The question for the Court, he wrote, was “Who decides?” The legislature has the power to make law, while the courts are limited to interpreting the statutes passed by the legislature. Here, agreeing with Alito, he asserted that the Court’s decision was violating the separation of powers. And he disagreed with Gorsuch’s approach to textualism in this case, find it too narrowly focused on individual works, thus losing the context necessary in his view to determine the contemporary “public meaning” of the overall provision in 1964.
However, Kavanaugh concluded his dissent revealing his political, as opposed to interpretive, preferences. “Notwithstanding my concern about the Court’s transgression of the Constitution’s separation of powers, it is appropriate to acknowledge the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans,” he wrote. “Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have worked hard for many decades to achieve equal treatment in fact and in law. They have exhibited extraordinary vision, tenacity, and grit – battling often steep odds in the legislative and judicial arenas, not to mention in their daily lives. They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today’s results. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, however, I believe that it was Congress’s role, not this Court’s, to amend Title VII.” Kavanaugh’s dissent largely ignored transgender people. His omission of them from this paragraph is inexplicable in light of the scope of the Court’s opinion and their activist role over the past several decades in seeking protection against discrimination.
Interestingly, Gorsuch premised the case entirely on a strict textualist reading of the statute, avoiding reliance on the alternative theories that the EEOC and some lower courts embraced. One such theory was gender stereotyping, grounded in the Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Court held that an employer who takes an adverse action because an employee fails to comport with stereotypes about women or men has exhibited an impermissible motivation for its actions under Title VII. Another theory, first developed in race discrimination cases, was that discharging a worker because he or she was engaged in an interracial relationship was a form of discrimination because of race. Neither this “associational theory” nor the sex stereotyping theory entered into Gorsuch’s rationale for binding Title VII applicable in Bostock.
The Court’s opinion has the immediate effect of extending protection to LGBT workers in the majority of states that do not ban sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws, but there remain significant gaps in protection. Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, state and local government employees, and federal employees. It does not apply to the uniformed military (so this decision does not directly affect Trump’s transgender service ban), or to religious organizations in their policies on “ministerial employees.” Thus, a substantial portion of the nation’s workforce does not gain any protection from discrimination by this interpretation of Title VII, because a substantial portion of the workforce is employed by smaller businesses or is classified as non-employee contractors. Furthermore, as Gorsuch noted briefly but Alito expounded at length, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) might be interpreted to “supplant” the Title VII protections in particular cases.
The potential application of RFRA is worth noting. Reading Gorsuch’s opinion, one might immediately identify this as a potential “poison pill.” A few years ago, in its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court suddenly discovered that business corporations could argue that a particular policy mandated by another federal law unduly burdened the employer’s free exercise of religion, and they might thereby escape compliance with the law if the government fell short in showing that its policy was the least restrictive alternative to achieve a compelling government interest. (In Harris Funeral Homes, the 6th Circuit interpreted RFRA in this context and found that the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex discrimination could be achieved only by an outright prohibition, without an exception for business owners who had religious objections.) Although Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby rejected the idea that an employer could make such an argument in defense of a race discrimination claim, Justice Ginsburg pointed out in dissent that Alito’s opinion failed to address the issue of sexual orientation, pointing to cases where businesses claimed a religiously-based right to discriminate against gay people. This is an issue that is hardly settled, and Gorsuch’s reference to the possibility of RFRA as a “super statute” to “supplant” Title VII protections in “appropriate cases” is ominous. Where a case does not involve “ministerial employees,” the full weight of Title VII normally applies to the issue of employment discrimination by religious institutions whether because of race or color, sex or national origin. Shortly, the Court will be ruling on some new cases about the scope of this “ministerial” exception, and may issue a decision that bears on cases in which, for example, gay employees of Catholic educational institutions have been terminated for entering same-sex marriages.
In addition, of course, Title VII only applies to employment decisions. It doesn’t affect decisions by companies about hiring people as non-employee independent contractors, and it doesn’t apply to the myriad other ways that LGBT people encounter discrimination through denial of services, housing, and other privileges of living in our society. This decision does not eliminate the need for enactment of the Equality Act, a bill that would amend numerous provisions of federal law to extend anti-discrimination protection to LGBT people, while amending Title VII to make explicit the coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps most importantly in terms of gap-filling, the Equality Act would add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in federal public accommodations law while at the same time expanding the concept of a public accommodation, and would also require federal contractors and funding recipients not to discriminate on these grounds.
Alito’s dissent suggested that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion could protect LGBT people from discrimination under all those other federal statutes that address discrimination because of sex. That would fill a significant part of the gap left by this decision, but not all of it, because, as explained in the previous paragraph, the Civil Rights Act provisions on public accommodations do not forbid sex discrimination and small employers are not covered. Alito appended to his dissent a list of more than 100 federal statutory provisions that he claimed would be affected by this decision, among them Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which courts have addressed disputes involving transgender students. This provides a useful “to do” list for the LGBT rights litigation groups, finding cases to firmly establish that the Court’s conclusion in Bostock applies to all those other protections. Closing the gaps through passage of the Equality Act and through passage of state and local laws to cover employers not subject to Title VII must be an ongoing project. There also may be an opening to persuade state courts that they should adopt similar interpretations of the prohibition of sex discrimination under their state laws.
An early test may come as courts confront challenges to a new regulation announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, just days before this decision was announced, reversing an Obama Administration rule under the Affordable Care Act’s antidiscrimination provision and “withdrawing” protection against discrimination under that Act for transgender people. Lawsuits were quickly threatened challenging this regulation. The ACA incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX, so federal courts should read this consistentlyly with Bostock and hold that the regulatory action violates the statute.
Another important point to bear in mind is that coverage of a form of discrimination by the statute does not inevitably lead to a ruling on the merits for the employee. Title VII litigation can be very difficult, and many employees lose their cases early in the process due to procedural roadblocks or, in the case of sex discrimination claims, to the courts’ view that sex may be a “bona fide occupational qualification” in a particular case. When plaintiffs attempt to represent themselves, they may be felled by statutes of limitations, shortcomings in their factual pleadings, or limited resources to investigate the facts and articulate a convincing claim as required by federal civil pleading standards. Furthermore, many employers require employees to execute arbitration agreements when they are hired, so plaintiffs seeking to get their proverbial “day in court” may be disappointed to discover that they are relegated to arguing in private before an arbitrator, in many cases carefully selected by the employer based on his or her “track record” in ruling on employee claims. The road to vindication is not always a smooth one.
The Court’s decision was immediately controversial with certain conservative and religious groups, some of which quickly made spurious claims about how this ruling could interfere with their free exercise and free speech rights, but public opinion polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for outlawing employment discrimination against LGBT people for many years now, so there was no startled outcry by the public at large in the days following the ruling. Those who are cynical about the idea of judging by “neutral principals of law” have often exclaimed that the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so they may characterize this opinion as more political than legal, but the “bipartisan” nature of the line-up of justices would rebut that contention. And, notably, many of the court of appeals decisions that have ruled this way in recent years have also been bipartisan. The opinion, in the matter of fact way that Gorsuch writes about “homosexual” and “transgender” people in the opinion, comes across as impassive by comparison to the florid prose of Kennedy, but it gets the job done.
Kavanaugh’s closing paragraph says that “gays and lesbians” should take pride in this victory, which was hard-earned through decades of political, legal and personal struggle. A brief pause to take pride in this ruling is appropriate, but pushing ahead to fill the remaining gaps in full legal equality is essential. A battle has been won, but not yet the war.
Unfortunately, neither Donald Zarda nor Aimee Stephens lived to learn of their victories. Zarda, who had been fired from a job as a sky-diving instructor, died in a sky-diving accident while his case was pending. Stephens was gravely ill by the time of the oral argument (which she attended, although wheelchair bound), and passed away just weeks before the Court’s decision. Gerald Bostock, however, gave delighted interviews to the press, and was looking forward to the remand back to the district court so that he would get his opportunity to prove that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination.
The Court was flooded with amicus briefs in these cases, too numerous to mention individually here. On October 8, 2019, the Court first heard arguments on the sexual orientation issue, with Pamela S. Karlen representing Bostock and the Estate of Zarda, Jeffrey M. Harris representing the Clayton County and Altitude Express, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco presenting the Trump Administration’s position in support of the employers. Next the Court heard arguments on the gender identity issue, with David Cole representing Stephens, John J. Bursch representing Harris Funeral Homes, and again Solicitor General Francisco representing the Trump Administration’s position that gender identity discrimination is not covered by Title VII. The EEOC, the respondent in the case, was not separately represented and did not support the government’s position, evidenced by the government’s briefs, which unusually did not list attorneys from the agency.
Posts Tagged ‘anti-gay discrimination’
Supreme Court Holds that Federal Law Bans Anti-LGBT Employment Discrimination in Historic 6-3 Ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s announcement on June 27 that he would retire from active service on the U.S. Supreme Court as of July 31, 2018, opening up a vacancy for President Donald J. Trump to fill with the assistance of the bare majority of Republican United States Senators, portends a serious setback for LGBT rights in the years ahead. Kennedy cast a crucial vote and wrote powerfully emotional opinions to establish the dignity of LGBT people under the Constitution’s 5th and 14th Amendments. Justice Kennedy will be remembered as the author of four major Supreme Court opinions that worked a revolution in United States constitutional law concerning the rights of sexual minorities.
Before his opinion for the Court in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, was announced on May 20, 1996, the Court had never ruled in favor of gay litigants in an Equal Protection Case. In Romer, the Court invalidated a Colorado constitutional amendment, adopted in a voter initiative that banned the state from protecting gay people from discrimination. Kennedy condemned the measure as an attempt to render gay people as “strangers to the law,” and found it to be an obvious violation of equal protection, leading Justice Scalia to complain in dissent that the Court’s opinion was inconsistent with its ruling a decade earlier that sodomy laws were constitutional.
Before his opinion for the Court in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, was announced on June 26, 2003, the Court had never used the Due Process Clause to strike down an anti-gay law. In Lawrence, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, by making private consensual adult gay sex a crime, had unconstitutionally abridged the liberty of gay people. (Justice O’Connor concurred in an opinion focused solely on the equal protection clause.) This time, Justice Scalia’s dissent denounced the Court’s opinion as opening the path to same-sex marriage.
His opinions in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), established a right to marriage equality for LGBT people in the United States, the most populous nation so far to allow same-sex couples to marry. In Windsor, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Defense of Marriage Act, a statute requiring the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that were valid under state law, violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment, emphasizing the affront to the dignity of gay married couples. In dissent, of course, Justice Scalia accused the Court of providing a framework for lower courts to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage. Scalia’s dissent was prophetic, as just two years later the Court ruled in Obergefell that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of Due Process and Equal Protection required the states to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize such marriages for all legal purposes. In the intervening years, lower courts had cited and quoted from Kennedy’s Windsor opinion (and Scalia’s dissent) in finding bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Kennedy’s vote with the majority in the per curiam ruling in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), reinforced Obergefell’s holding that couples in same-sex marriages enjoyed the “full constellation” of rights associated with marriage, as did his vote in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (2016), affirming that states were obligated to extend full faith and credit to second-parent adoptions granted by the courts of other states.
Justice Kennedy also joined the majority in a concurring opinion in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010), rejecting a 1st Amendment challenge to a public university law school’s refusal to extend official recognition to a student group that overtly discriminated against gay students.
When LGBT litigants lost Kennedy’s vote, however, they lost the Court. In his most recent LGBT-related decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2018 WL 2465172, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3386 (June 4, 2018), while reiterating his concern for the dignity of gay people to be able to participate without discrimination in the public marketplace, Kennedy could not bring himself to reject the religious free exercise claims of a Christian baker, and so engineered an “off ramp” by embracing a dubious argument that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was so overtly hostile to the baker’s religious beliefs that he had been deprived of a “neutral forum” to decide his case. Thus, Kennedy was able to assemble a 7-2 vote to overturn the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in that case, without directly ruling on whether the baker’s religious objections would override the non-discrimination requirements of Colorado law, leading to oversimplified media headlines suggesting that the baker had a 1st Amendment right to refuse to make the cake.
Kennedy also joined the majority (without writing) in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), a 5-4 ruling holding that the Boy Scouts had a 1st Amendment right to deny membership to an out gay Assistant Scoutmaster, based on BSA’s rights of free speech and expressive association. He was part of the unanimous Courts that rejected a constitutional challenge to the Solomon Amendment, a law denying federal money to schools that barred military recruiters (mainly because of the Defense Department’s anti-gay personnel policies), in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), and that, reversing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, held that a gay Irish-American group could be barred from marching in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995). However, in those cases all of the more liberal members of the Court joined in the unanimous opinions, so Kennedy’s vote did not make a difference to the outcome.
While Justice Kennedy’s majority opinions in the major LGBT rights cases were triumphs for LGBT rights, they were not viewed as unalloyed triumphs in the halls of legal academe. Commentators who agreed with the results were frequently harshly critical of Kennedy’s opinions in terms of their articulation of legal reasoning and doctrinal development. The Romer decision left many scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether the Court had applied some sort of “heightened scrutiny” to the Colorado constitutional amendment, puzzled about the precedential meaning of the ruling for later LGBT-related equal protection challenges. There was similar criticism of the opinions in Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell. Kennedy failed to use the doctrinal terminology familiar to constitutional law scholars and students, such as “suspect classification,” “heightened scrutiny,” “compelling state interest” and the like, leaving doubt about the potential application of these rulings. Indeed, three justices dissenting in Pavan v Smith in an opinion by Justice Gorsuch claimed that the Court’s Obergefell ruling had left undecided the question in Pavan – whether Arkansas had to list lesbian co-parents on birth certificates – and the Texas Supreme Court expressed similar doubts about the extent of Windsor and Obergefell in refusing to put an end to a dispute about whether the city of Houston had to extend employee benefits eligibility to the same-sex spouses of city employees. While some courts, such as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saw Kennedy’s opinions as extending protected class status to gay people for equal protection purposes, others insisted that those rulings had produced no such precedent.
Justice Kennedy’s retirement effective July 31, 2018, seemed to signal a likely retreat from LGBT rights leadership by the Supreme Court. Assuming that President Trump will nominate and the Republican majority in the Senate will confirm a justice with the ideological and doctrinal profiles of Neil Gorsuch or Samuel Alito, the crucial fifth vote to make a pro-LGBT majority would most likely be missing, although Supreme Court appointments are a tricky business. In the past, some presidents have been astounded at the subsequent voting records of their appointees. President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of William J. Brennan one of the worst mistakes of his presidency, as Brennan went on to be a leader of the Court’s left wing. Had he lived long enough to see it, President John F. Kennedy might have been similarly disappointed by the rightward drift of Byron R. White, his nominee who wrote the blatantly homophobic decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), that upheld Georgia’s felony sodomy law, calling a claim to constitutional protection by gay people “at best facetious.” President Richard Nixon was undoubtedly disappointed with the leftward drift of Harry Blackmun, author of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), the Court’s key abortion rights decision, and vigorous dissenter in Bowers v. Hardwick. President Ronald Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy assuming he would provide a vote to strike down abortion rights, but Kennedy was part of a moderate Republican coalition (joining with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter) that joined with the remaining Democratic appointees to reaffirm those rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). President George H. W. Bush’s appointment of Souter ended up being a massive disappointment to conservatives, as Souter frequently voted with the Democratic appointees and the leftward veering John Paul Stevens, who had been appointed by President Gerald Ford and ended up being much more liberal than expected. Souter was so disillusioned by the Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), handing the presidency to George W. Bush after Albert Gore decisively won the national popular vote and may well have been entitled to the Florida electoral votes needed to put him over the top, that he retired from the Court prematurely.
In other words, the past records of Supreme Court nominees are not inevitably accurately predictive prologues to how they will vote on the Court over the long term. Supreme Court justices frequently serve for several decades (Kennedy’s service stretched over 30 years), and the looming constitutional issues at the time of their appointment are inevitably replaced by new, unanticipated issues over the course of their service. Also, the Supreme Court is like no other court in the United States, in which the constraints of precedent faced by lower court judges are significantly loosened, since the Supreme Court can reverse its prior holdings, and in which theories and trends in constitutional and statutory interpretation evolve over time. The examples of Brennan, Souter and Kennedy have caused the confirmation process to change drastically, and the possibility of an appointee turning out a total surprise appears diminished, but it is not entirely gone. One can hope that a Trump appointee will not be totally predictable in the Alito/Gorsuch orbit, although that may be unduly optimistic when it comes to LGBT issues. In his first full term on the Court, Justice Gorsuch has not cast 100 predictable votes. . .
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.
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.
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.”