Characterizing a lesbian plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim under Title VII and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act as a sexual orientation discrimination claim, Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley, Jr., granted an employer’s motion for partial dismissal, finding that 6th Circuit precedent from a decade ago expressly rejected using a sex stereotype theory to find sexual orientation discrimination actionable under Title VII or the Kentucky statute. Lindsey v. Management & Training Corporation, 2018 WL 2943454, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98001 (W.D. Ky., June 12, 2018).
Terry Lindsey alleged that she was terminated because she is an African-American, noting that she and other African-American employees in management positions were either removed or encouraged to resign from management prior to her termination. She also alleged that she was terminated because she was seen by another employee with her female “significant other,” who is a former employee of the company. Lindsey pointed to inconsistent enforcement by the company of its rule against co-workers forming romantic relationships, pointing out that the company “never took disciplinary action against employees who were engaged in opposite-sex relationships with other employees. The company moved to dismiss the sex discrimination claim as well as a retaliation claim which had not been administratively exhausted prior to filing suit.
The company’s motion asserted that Lindsey had not pled a cognizable sex discrimination claim, as “the characteristic upon which she claims she was discriminated, her sexual orientation, is not a protected classification” under either Title VII or the Kentucky law, wrote Judge McKinley. One might argue that this mischaracterizes Lindsey’s claim. She is not alleged that she was discriminated because she is a lesbian, but rather she is being discriminated against because of the sex of the person she is dating, observing that the company treats same-sex and different sex relationships differently, thus having a policy based on sex. But the court, without any discussion of the matter, accepts the company’s characterization of the claim, and comments, “The Sixth Circuit has categorically held that ‘sexual orientation is not a prohibited basis for discriminatory acts under Title VII,” citing Vickers v. Fairfield Medical Center, 453 F.3d 757 (6th Cir. 2006). “Further,” he wrote, “the Sixth Circuit, in applying Title VII precedent to the KCRA, has held that the KCRA also does not protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation,” citing Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, 579 F. 3d 722 (6th Cir. 2009). “Lindsey’s complaint alleges that M & T took adverse action against her because of her same-sex relationship. Because of the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Vickers, this claim is foreclosed both under Title VII and the KCRA.”
But the judge acknowledges that there is some logic to viewing this as a sex stereotyping case, writing, “Lindsey’s arguments to the contrary, while foreclosed by Vickers, are not without some merit. Title VII’s protection against sex discrimination allows for claims ‘based on gender nonconformance that is expressed outside of work,’” citing EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, 884 F.3 560 (6th Cir. 2018), and some earlier 6th Circuit cases allowing sex discrimination claims to be brought by transgender plaintiffs using a sex stereotype theory. “If the court were simply required to apply this framework,” the judge continued, “Lindsey’s claim would likely survive. Lindsey’s behavior that was at the root of the alleged discrimination (dating another woman) fails to conform to the stereotypical female behavior of dating men. The Vickers court seemed to acknowledge that such claims based on sexual orientation discrimination fit within the framework for analyzing sex discrimination claims, stating that, ‘in all likelihood, any discrimination based on sexual orientation would be actionable under a sex stereotyping theory if this claim is allowed to stand, as all homosexuals, by definition, fail to conform to traditional gender norms in their sexual practices.’ But the Vickers court removed claims based on sexual orientation from ever being put through this analytical framework by declaring that ‘a gender stereotyping claim should not be used to bootstrap protection for sexual orientation into Title VII,’” in this instance quoting the 2nd Circuit’s opinion in Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, 398 F.3d 211 (2nd Cir. 2005). In a footnote, Judge McKinley notes that Dawson “was recently overruled by Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., 883 F.ed 100 (2nd Cir. 2018).
Nonetheless, despite these developments since Vickers, Judge McKinley states that “because Vickers remains good law [citing EEOC v. Harris Funeral Homes], the court must dismiss Lindsey’s Title VII and KCRA claims for sex discrimination.”
Lindsey also tried to argue in opposition to the motion to dismiss that M&T is a federal contractor and thus bound not to discriminate because of sexual orientation as part of its contract with the federal government under Obama Administration Executive Order 13672, which has not been expressly rescinded by Trump. Judge McKinley notes that the complaint filed in this case “makes no mention of this Executive Order as a legal theory under which she is seeking relief,” nor could it, really, because the E.O. is only enforceable administratively within the department with which the employer has its contract. There is no general right for an employee to sue an employer in federal court to enforce a provision in a contract between the employer and the government. And, of course, raising new legal theories that were not mentioned in a complaint in opposition to a dismissal motion just does not work as a matter of civil procedure.
However, Judge McKinley may not have read Harris Funeral Homes closely enough. He cited it for the proposition that Vickers remains “good law” in the 6th Circuit, but the paragraphs in Harris dealing with the Vickers precedent may lead one to doubt whether Vickers remains on such solid ground as circuit precedent as Judge McKinley believes. In Harris, admittedly a gender identity rather than a sexual orientation case, the court cast doubt on the viability of the Vickers panel’s narrow approach to the sex stereotyping theory, citing to the earlier circuit gender identity cases of Smith v. City of Salem and Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, which had taken a broader view of sex stereotyping theory than the Vickers panel had embraced. (The Harris panel criticized Vickers for engrafting an additional interpretive test to the theory that went beyond what the Supreme Court had done in the seminal sex stereotyping case of Price Waterhouse.) Furthermore, of course, the 2nd Circuit case on which Vickers relied, Dawson, has been overruled in Zarda, as Judge McKinley noted. Which is a long way around to saying that if he were willing to stick his neck out, there was sufficient diversity of approach in 6th Circuit sex discrimination precedents for McKinley, had he been so inclined, to decline to dismiss the sex discrimination claim.
It is unfortunate that Lindsey is apparently litigating pro se, because this seems like the kind of case that might be used to persuade the 6th Circuit to abandon Vickers and, in light of the broader view of sex stereotyping and flexibility in interpreting “sex” in Title VII exhibited in Harris, to adopt an interpretation that could encompass Lindsey’s claim.