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Federal Government Asks the Supreme Court to Delay Deciding Whether Title VII Bars Gender Identity Discrimination

Posted on: October 31st, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Trump Administration has asked the Supreme Court to hold off for now on deciding whether gender identity discrimination is covered under the ban on employment discrimination “because of sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco and several other Justice Department attorneys are listed on a brief filed with the Court on October 24, ostensibly on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that the Court should not now grant review of a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled earlier this year that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, who was transitioning and sought to comply with the employer’s dress code for female employees. The proprietor of the funeral home objected on religious grounds to having an employee whom he regards as a man dressing as a woman at work. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 18-107.

The government’s move came as something of a surprise, in light of recent news that a memorandum, originating from the Civil Rights Office in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is circulating within the Trump Administration proposing to adopt a regulation defining “sex” in terms solely of genitals and chromosomes and thus, effectively, excluding “gender identity” as part of the definition of sex for purposes of federal law.

The Solicitor General’s brief argues that instead, the Court should focus on one or both of two Petitions now pending that seek review of decisions by the 2nd Circuit and the 11th Circuit on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII. In the former case, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the en banc 2nd Circuit reversed prior circuit precedents and ruled that sexual orientation claims are covered by Title VII, following the lead of the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College (2017). In the other case, Bostock v. Clayton County, an 11th Circuit three-judge panel rejected a similar sexual orientation discrimination claim, and the circuit court turned down a petition for rehearing by the full circuit. In the Supreme Court, these cases are Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623.

In those two cases, the central question for the Court to decide is whether Title VII’s use of the term “sex” should be construed as the Trump Administration contends that it should be, as the simple difference between male and female as identified at birth, usually by the doctor’s visual inspection of genitals, or whether it should receive a broad interpretation that the EEOC and some lower federal courts have embraced, extending protection against discrimination to LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity as form of “discrimination because of sex.” This argument, for those preoccupied with the presumed legislative intent of the drafters and adopters of legislation, is based on the proposition that the Congress of 1964 did not intend to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination when they voted to include “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination in Title VII.

Referring to the pending sexual orientation case petitions, General Francisco’s brief argues, “If the Court grants plenary review in Zarda, Bostock, or both to address that question, its decision on the merits may bear on the proper analysis of the issues petitioner raises [in this case]. The court of appeals here relied on the reasoning of decisions (including Zarda) holding that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination extends to sexual-orientation discrimination. Accordingly, the Court should hold the petition in this case pending its disposition of the petitions in Zarda and Bostock and, if certiorari is granted in either or both of those cases, pending the Court’s decision on the merits.” If the Court were to grant review in Zarda and/or Bostock, oral argument would be held sometime in the Spring with a decision expected by the end of June 2019, at which time the Court could send the Funeral Homes case back to the 6th Circuit for reconsideration in light of its decision in the sexual orientation cases, avoiding deciding the gender identity question itself. The Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the question whether either the Constitution or federal statues protect transgender people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

Francisco’s brief also argues that the Court should not grant review in the Funeral Home case even if it decides not to review the sexual orientation cases. “To be sure,” says the brief, “the United States disagrees with the court of appeals’ decision. As relevant here, the court’s analysis of whether petitioner engaged in improper sex stereotyping reflects a misreading of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The court’s further conclusion that gender-identity discrimination necessarily constitutes discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII – although it was unnecessary to the ultimate result the court reached in this case – is also inconsistent with the statute’s text and this Court’s precedent. Both of those questions are recurring and important.”

This immediately raises the question why the Court should refuse to grant review to decide questions that are “recurring and important”? The Solicitor General’s response to that question appears to be improvised to cover over a difficult political transition that will eventually take place at the EEOC, the agency that filed suit against the Funeral Home on behalf of Aimee Stephens and is nominally the respondent on this petition at the Supreme Court.

President Trump has nominated three commissioners, one of whom, out lesbian Chai Feldblum (who was first appointed by President Obama and whose current term expires at the end of this year), has inspired fervent opposition from several Republican Senators. The other two nominees are Republicans whom the current Senate leadership would eagerly approve, but the three nominations were presented as a package, in recognition of the statutory requirement that no more than three of the five EEOC commissioners may be members of the same party, and the package has not moved in the Senate because of opposition to Feldblum. As of now, the EEOC has three commissioners – two Democrats and one Republican – and continues to take discrimination complaints under Title VII from LGBTQ people. If the package of nominees is approved, the new Republican majority of commissioners would likely come into line with the Justice Department’s position that Title VII does not cover such claims. If the “package” is not approved during the lame duck session of Congress, the EEOC will not be able to decide cases beginning on January 1, because it will lack a quorum of at least three Senate-confirmed commissioners. And the question of which party controls the next Senate will certainly affect which Trump nominees can be approved after January 3 when the new Senate convenes.

Setting aside the politics for the moment, however, the Solicitor General’s pragmatic argument is that there is a significant split among the circuit courts on the sexual orientation issues, which requires the Supreme Court to resolve with some urgency. But, says the brief, “Fewer circuits have addressed the questions presented in this case, and the panel decision here appears to be the first court of appeals decision to conclude in a Title VII case that gender identity discrimination categorically constitutes discrimination because of sex under that statute. If the Court determines that the question raised in Zarda and Bostock does not warrant plenary review at this time, the questions presented here would likewise not appear to warrant review at this juncture.”

Attorneys from the ACLU representing Aimee Stephens also filed a response to the Harris Funeral Homes’ petition on October 24. They argue that the Court should deny the petition.

They note that the Funeral Homes petition’s first “Question Presented” is “Whether the word ‘sex’ in Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of sex’ meant ‘gender identity’ and included ‘transgender status’ when Congress enacted Title VII in 1964.” They argue that this case is a “poor vehicle for addressing petitioner’s first question because deciding it would not affect the judgment” of the lower court. This is because, simply stated, the 6th Circuit decided this case on alternative grounds, one of which was relying on a sex stereotyping theory (that the Funeral Home fired Stephens for not complying with the employer’s stereotype about how a genitally-male person should groom and dress), the other of which identified discrimination because of gender identity as a form of sex discrimination. So answering the first question in the negative would still leave the lower court’s judgment intact on the first – and widely-accepted – sex stereotyping theory. Note that this first “Question Presented” is only relevant at all if the Court attributes any special weight to what the adaptors of statutory language thought it meant at the time they adopted it: an originalist approach to statutory interpretation that the Court itself rejected in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998.

The second question in the Funeral Homes petition is whether Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins “prohibits employers from applying sex-specific policies according to their employees’ sex rather than their gender identity.” As to that, the ACLU’s brief argues that the second question “was not adjudicated below and is not properly presented” to the Court in this case, because, first, the 6th Circuit held that Stephens was fired “based on multiple sex stereotypes, not only those related to the dress code,” and second, that the 6th Circuit “expressly did not address the lawfulness of sex-specific dress codes” in its decision, and that “sex-specific restroom policies” – an issue alluded to in the Funeral Homes petition — “are not at issue in this case.” Citing cases from many different circuits, the brief also argues that the 6th Circuit’s ruling “does not conflict with Price Waterhouse or any court of appeals.” Over the years since 1989, numerous circuit courts have accepted transgender discrimination claims using the sex stereotyping theory that the Supreme Court articulated in Price Waterhouse.

The government’s brief is undoubtedly disappointing to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the right-wing religious litigation group that is representing the Funeral Homes and urgently seeks review in this case, seemingly confident that the newly constituted Republican majority in the Supreme Court would likely overturn the 6th Circuit’s decision. After the Supreme Court Clerk listed the two sexual orientation petitions on the agenda for the Court’s end-of-September conference, ADF sent a letter to the Clerk, suggesting that the Court defer deciding whether to review those cases until after briefing was completed on the Funeral Homes petition – which was delayed because the Solicitor General twice requested and received from the Court an extension of time to file its response on behalf of the EEOC. ADF argued that the underlying questions in all three cases were related, so the Court should take them up together. Shortly after the letter was entered on the Court’s docket, the sexual orientation cases were removed from the agenda for the Court’s cert conference, and they had not been relisted for consideration. Now ADF finds the government arguing that the Court should not take up the cases together, and that the gender identity case should be deferred until the sexual orientation cases are decided, and should not even be addressed by the Court now if the Court decides not to take up the sexual orientation cases! ADF would likely see this as a lost opportunity to get the new Supreme Court majority to cut short the successful campaign by civil rights litigators to get federal courts to find protection for LGBTQ people under federal sex discrimination laws, an easier route to protection than passage of the Equality Act, which has been languishing in Congress for several years, denied even a hearing by the Republican-controlled chambers.

Although the S.G. attributed its requests for extensions of time to the need to deal with many other cases, it is possible that the S.G. was stalling in hopes that the new majority of EEOC commissioners would be quickly confirmed, and that the Commission would bring its position in line with the Justice Department (DOJ). Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an internal DOJ memo on October 4, 2017, rejecting any interpretation of Title VII (or other federal sex discrimination laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act or the Fair Housing Act) that covered gender identity or sexual orientation. During the early months of the Trump Administration, the Justice Department and the Education Department (DOE) abandoned the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, getting the Supreme Court to cancel an argument under that statute in transgender teen Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against a Virginia school district over bathroom access, and DOE has stopped accepting and process discrimination claims from transgender students. Thus, DOJ may feel that it can overturn the Obama Administration’s expansive interpretation of sex discrimination laws without having to win a case in the Supreme Court. The government’s brief devotes several pages to restating the Sessions memorandum’s interpretation of Title VII and criticizing the 6th Circuit’s decision on the merits.

Court watchers noted something interesting about the brief filed by the Solicitor General. The list of attorneys on the brief does not include any lawyers from the EEOC, which is unusual when the government is representing a federal agency in a Supreme Court appeal of one of their lower court victories. In this case, of course, DOJ and the EEOC have a strong disagreement about the correct interpretation of Title VII, so DOJ, representing the Trump Administration’s position, is not inclined to let the lingering Democratic majority at the Commission have any say in how this case is argued at the Supreme Court.

With the government opposing its own victory in the lower court, the only party left to defend the lower court’s ruling is Aimee Stephens with her counsel from the ACLU, whose brief is signed by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation in Chicago, the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the ACLU LGBT Rights Project headquartered in New York, and the ACLU Foundation’s office in Washington.

Of course, if the Supreme Court ultimately decides to grant review in any of these Title VII cases, it can expect a barrage of amicus curiae briefs similar to the record-setting number filed in last term’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Federal Appeals Court Rules for Transgender Funeral Director in Title VII Discrimination Suit

Posted on: March 11th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled on March 7 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 2018 WL 1177669, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720, that a Michigan funeral home violated federal anti-discrimination law by terminating a funeral director who announced that she would be transitioning during her summer vacation and would return to work as a woman.  The 6th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction over federal cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Rejecting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox that the funeral home’s action was protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the court that the government’s “compelling interest” to eradicate employment discrimination because of sex took priority over the religious beliefs of the funeral home’s owner.

This is the first time that any federal appeals court has ruled that RFRA would not shelter an employer from a gender identity discrimination claim by a transgender plaintiff.  Although the 6th Circuit has allowed Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs in the past under a “gender stereotype” theory, this is also the first time that the 6th Circuit has explicitly endorsed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s conclusion that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, directly prohibited by Title VII.  Judge Moore drew a direct comparison to a Title VII decision by the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017), which held similarly that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus potentially joining in the widening split of federal appellate courts over a broad construction of Title VII to extend to both kinds of claims.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s involvement as volunteer counsel for the funeral home makes it highly likely that the Supreme Court will be asked to review this ruling.

The lawsuit was filed by the EEOC, which sued after investigating Aimee Stephens’ administrative charge that she had been unlawfully terminated by the Michigan funeral home.  After the district court ruled in favor of the funeral home, the EEOC appealed to the 6th Circuit and Stephens, represented by the ACLU, was granted standing to intervene as co-plaintiff in the appeal.

“While living and presenting as a man,” wrote Judge Moore, “she worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a closely held for-profit corporation that operates three funeral homes in Michigan.  Stephens was terminated from the Funeral Home by its owner and operator, Thomas Rost, shortly after Stephens informed Rost that she intended to transition from male to female and would represent herself and dress as a woman while at work.”

Rost identifies himself as a Christian who espouses the religious belief that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” and that he would be “violating God’s commands if he were to permit one of the Funeral Home’s funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of the organization” or if he were to “permit one of the Funeral Home’s male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.”

“In particular,” related Judge Moore, “Rost believes that authorizing or paying for a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would render him complicit ‘in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.’”

As such, Rost claimed that his company’s obligation to comply with Title VII should be excused in this case because of the later-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that the federal government may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling justification for doing so, and that the rule the government seeks to apply is narrowly tailored to burden religious practice no more than is necessary to achieve the government’s goal.

The funeral home moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title VII does not ban discrimination against a person because they are transgender or transitioning, that the funeral home could reasonably require compliance with its dress code, and that requiring the funeral home to allow a “man dressed as a woman” to serve as a funeral director would substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion, as defined by Rost, and violate its rights under RFRA.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, there was no Supreme Court authority for the proposition that a funeral home, or any other for-profit business, could claim to “exercise religion,” but in that case the Court ruled that because business corporations are defined as “persons” in the U.S. Code, they enjoy the same protection as natural persons under RFRA.  At least in the case of a closely-held corporation such as Hobby Lobby, with a small group of shareholders who held the same religious beliefs on the issue in question – a federal regulation requiring that employer health plans cover various forms of contraception to which Hobby Lobby’s owners took exception on religious grounds – the corporation was entitled to protection under RFRA based on the religious views of its owners.  The Harris Funeral Home is analogous to Hobby Lobby Stores, albeit operating on a smaller scale, so Rost’s religious views on gender identity and transitioning can be attributed to the corporation for purposes of RFRA.

Interestingly, this would not have been an issue in the case had Stephens brought the lawsuit on her own behalf, without the EEOC as a plaintiff.  The 6th Circuit has interpreted RFRA to impose its restriction on the federal government but not on private plaintiffs suing to enforce their rights under federal statutes.  Since EEOC is the plaintiff, however, this is a case of the government seeking to impose a burden on the free exercise of religion by a business corporation, and RFRA is implicated.

District Judge Cox, bound by 6th Circuit precedent to find that Stephens had a potentially valid discrimination claim under Title VII (see Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F. 3d 566 (2004)), nonetheless concluded that ordering a remedy for Stephens would substantially impair the Funeral Home’s rights under RFRA, granting summary judgment to the funeral home.  In another contested issue in the case, Judge Cox ruled that the EEOC could not pursue in this lawsuit a claim that the Funeral Home’s policy of paying for male employees’ uniforms but not for female employees’ uniforms violated Title VII’s sex discrimination provision.  Cox held that this claim did not grow naturally out of the investigation of Stephens’ discrimination charge, and so must be litigated separately.

The 6th Circuit reversed on both points.  As to the uniform issue, the Court found that the EEOC’s investigation of Stephens’ discrimination claim naturally led to investigating the company’s uniform policy, since the question of which uniform Stephens could wear was directly involved in Rost’s decision to terminate her.  The court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the question back to the district court to determine whether the uniform policy, which the funeral home has since modified to provide some subsidy for the cost of women’s uniforms, violates Title VII.

More significantly, the court found that Judge Cox erred on several key points in his analysis of the company’s summary judgment motion.

Cox had determined that the 6th Circuit does not recognize gender identity claims under Title VII, as such, but in rejecting a prior motion to dismiss the case had concluded that Stephens could proceed on the theory that she was fired for failing to conform to her employer’s stereotype about how men are supposed to present themselves and dress in the workplace.  Rost stated in his deposition that he objected to men dressing as women – which is how he views Stephens in light of his religious belief that gender identity is just a social construct that violates God’s plan and not a reality.

After reviewing the court’s prior transgender discrimination decisions, Judge Moore concluded that the EEOC’s view of the statute to cover gender identity discrimination directly, without reference to sex stereotypes, is correct.  “First,” she wrote, “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”

She referred to the 7th Circuit’s Hively decision, a sexual orientation case, which employed the same reasoning to find that Title VII covers sexual orientation claims.  “Here, we ask whether Stephens would have been fired if Stephens had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code.  The answer quite obviously is no.  This, in and of itself, confirms that Stephens’ sex impermissibly affected Rost’s decision to fire Stephens.”

The court also referred to a landmark ruling by the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, Schroer v. Billington, 577 F. Supp. 2nd 293 (D.D.C. 2008), which allowed a transgender discrimination claim against the Library of Congress, which had withdrawn an employment offer when informed that the applicant was transitioning.

And, of course, the court noted the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins ruling (490 U.S. 228 (1989)), stating that Title VII requires “gender” to be “irrelevant to employment decisions.”  Moore wrote, “Gender (or sex) is not being treated as ‘irrelevant to employment decisions’ if an employee’s attempt or desire to change his or her sex leads to an adverse employment decision.”

Of course, Moore noted, transgender discrimination implicates the sex stereotype theory as well.  Referring to Smith v. City of Salem, she wrote, “We did not expressly hold in Smith that discrimination on the basis of transgender status is unlawful, though the opinion has been read to say as much – both by this circuit and others,” and then proceeded to say as much!  “Such references support what we now directly hold: Title VII protects transgender persons because of their transgender or transitioning status, because transgender or transitioning status constitutes an inherently gender non-conforming trait.”

In light of this holding, the funeral home had to be found in violation of the statute unless it was entitled to some exception or some affirmative defense.  One argument made in an amicus brief in support of the funeral home suggested that a person employed as a funeral director could be covered by the constitutionally-mandated ministerial exception recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  The Supreme Court said that it is a component of free exercise of religion that if somebody is being employed to perform religious functions, the government could not dictate the hiring decision.  The court rejected this defense, noting that the funeral home has conceded that it is not a “religious organization” and was not claiming the “ministerial exception” for any of its employees.  Furthermore, even if the funeral home tried to claim the exception, the court found it would not apply to the position of a funeral director in a for-profit funeral home business.  Stephen was not employed to serve a religious function, and the duties of a funeral directly only incidentally involved any religious function in the way of facilitating participation of religious funeral celebrants.

Turning to the RFRA defense, the court first dispensed with the argument that as Stephens had intervened as a co-plaintiff, RFRA had been rendered irrelevant because this was no longer purely a government enforcement case.  The EEOC remains the principal appellant in the case, and the court would not dismiss the RFRA concern on that basis.

However, the court found, significantly, that requiring the funeral home to employ Stephens after her transition would not impose a “substantial” burden within the meaning of RFRA.  The funeral home argued that the “very operation of the Funeral Home constitutes protected religious exercise because Rost feels compelled by his faith to serve grieving people through the funeral home, and thus requiring the Funeral Home to authorize a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would directly interfere with – and thus impose a substantial burden on – the Funeral Home’s ability to carry out Rost’s religious exercise of caring for the grieving.”

Rost suggested two ways this would impose a substantial burden.  First, he suggested, letting Stephens dress as a woman “would often create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones and thereby hinder their healing process (and the Funeral Home’s ministry),” and second, “forcing the Funeral Home to violate Rost’s faith would significantly pressure Rost to leave the funeral industry and end his ministry to grieving people.”  The court did not accept either of these as “substantial within the meaning of RFRA.”

For one thing, a basic tenet of anti-discrimination law is that businesses may not rely on customer preferences or biases as an excuse to refuse to employ people for a reason forbidden by Title VII.  Courts have ruled that even if it is documented that employing somebody will alienate some customers, that cannot be raised as a defense to a valid discrimination claim.  “We hold as a matter of law,” wrote Moore, “that a religious claimant cannot rely on customers’ presumed biases to establish a substantial burden under RFRA.”

The court rejected Rost’s argument that the EEOC’s position put him to the choice of violating his religious beliefs by, for example, paying for a women’s uniform for Stephens to wear, or otherwise quitting the funeral business.  The court pointed out that there is no legal requirement for Rost to pay for uniforms for his staff.  This is distinguishable from the Hobby Lobby case, where the issue was a regulation requiring employers to bear the cost of contraceptive coverage.  Further, wrote Moore, “simply permitting Stephens to wear attire that reflects a conception of gender that is at odds with Rost’s religious beliefs is not a substantial burden under RFRA,” because “as a matter of law, tolerating Stephens’ understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”

Since the court found no substantial burden, it did not necessarily have to tackle the question of the government’s justification for imposing any burden at all.  But with an eye to a likely appeal of this case, the court went ahead to determine whether, if it is wrong about this and the Supreme Court were to find that this application of Title VII to Rost’s business does impose a substantial burden, it passes the strict scrutiny test established by RFRA.

As to this, the court reached perhaps its most significant new ruling in the case: Having identified gender identity claims as coming within the ambit of sex discrimination claims, the court had to determine whether the government has a compelling interest and that enforcing Title VII is the least intrusive way of achieving that interest.  Even the Funeral Home was willing to concede that on a general level the government has a compelling interest, expressed through Title VII, in eradicating sex discrimination in the workplace, but the Funeral Home argued that interest did not justify this particular case, compelling it to let a man dress as a woman while working as a funeral director.  “The Funeral Home’s construction of the compelling-interest test is off-base,” wrote Moore.  “Rather than focusing on the EEOC’s claim – that the Funeral Home terminated Stephens because of her proposed gender nonconforming behavior – the Funeral Home’s test focuses instead on its defense that the Funeral Home merely wishes to enforce an appropriate workplace uniform.  But the Funeral Home has not identified any cases where the government’s compelling interest was framed as its interest in disturbing a company’s workplace policies.”  The question, according to the court’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedents, is whether “the interests generally served by a given government policy or statute would not be ‘compromised’ by granting an exemption to a particular individual or group.”

“Failing to enforce Title VII against the Funeral Home means the EEOC would be allowing a particular person – Stephens – to suffer discrimination, and such an outcome is directly contrary to the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating discrimination in the workforce.” And, continued Moore, “here, the EEOC’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination applies with as much force to Stephens as to any other employee discriminated against based on sex.”

The court specifically rejected the Funeral Home’s argument that its religious free exercise rights should take priority as being derived from the 1st Amendment, because that would go directly against Supreme Court precedent, which has rejected the idea that individuals and businesses generally enjoy a 1st Amendment right to refuse to comply with laws because of their religious objections.  Congress did not have authority, in the first version of RFRA that it passed and that was invalidated by the Supreme Court, to overrule a Supreme Court decision.  What RFRA does is to create a statutory right, not to channel a constitutional right, and the statutory right is circumscribed to cases where a federal law imposes a substantial burden on free exercise without having a compelling justification for doing so.  This does, not, according to the 6th Circuit, elevate a business’s free exercise rights above an individual’s statutory protection against discrimination.  (Indeed, Justice Samuel Alito said as much in his Hobby Lobby opinion for the Supreme Court, albeit in the context of race discrimination.)

Finally, as required by RFRA, the court found that requiring compliance with Title VII was the least restrictive means available for the government to achieve its compelling interest in eradicating employment discrimination because of sex.  The district court had suggested that the EEOC could pursue a less restrictive alternative by getting the parties to agree to a gender-neutral uniform for the workplace, thus removing Rost’s objection to a “man dressed as a woman.”  “The district court’s suggestion, although appealing in its tidiness, is tenable only if we excise from the case evidence of sex stereotyping in areas other than attire,” wrote Judge Moore.  “Though Rost does repeatedly say that he terminated Stephens because she ‘wanted to dress as a woman’ and ‘would no longer dress as a man,’ the record also contains uncontroverted evidence that Rost’s reasons for terminating Stephens extended to other aspects of Stephens’s intended presentation.”  It was not just about the uniforms.

The court could have reversed the summary judgment and sent the case back to the district court to reconsider its holding and determine whether a trial was needed, but in fact there are no material facts in dispute once one treats the 6th Circuit’s opinion as presenting the law of the case on interpreting Title VII and RFRA.  With no material facts to be resolved at this stage, the 6th Circuit directly granted summary judgment to the EEOC on its claim that the Funeral Home violated Title VII and is not entitled to a defense under RFRA.  Stephens won on the merits, unless the Funeral Home is successful in getting the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 6th Circuit’s decision.

The appeal was argued for the EEOC by Anne Noel Occhialinio, and for Stephens by ACLU attorney John A. Knight.  Douglas G. Wardlow of Alliance Defending Freedom argued on behalf of the Funeral Home.  The case attracted amicus briefs from Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Private Rights/Public Conscience Project (New York) and various law firms offering pro bono assistance to amici on briefs.

Judge Moore was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the unanimous panel were Helene N. White, appointed by President George W. Bush, and Bernice W. Donald, appointed by President Barack Obama.  Showing a recent trend in diversifying the federal bench, the panel was, unusually, made up entirely of female circuit judges.  As a result of several appointments by President Obama, half of the active judges on the 6th Circuit are women, the only federal appellate court yet to achieve gender parity.

Justice Department Tells 2nd Circuit That Gays Are Not Protected from Discrimination Under Federal Civil Rights Law

Posted on: July 27th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief on July 26 with the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, weighing in on the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination because of sexual orientation.  Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration’s answer is “No.”

 

Title VII lists forbidden grounds for employment discrimination: race or color, religion, sex and national origin. After it went into effect in July 1965, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcement of the statute, and the federal courts quickly took the position that people who encountered discrimination because they were gay or transgender could not pursue a claim under this law.  Both the administrative agency and the federal courts held fast to that position until relatively recently.

 

That consensus began to break down early in this century, first in response to discrimination claims by transgender people, as courts and then the EEOC (in 2012) accepted the argument that discriminating against somebody because they were transitioning or had transitioned was actually discrimination because of sex. The rationale they adopted derived from a 1989 decision by the Supreme Court, which recognized that discrimination against people for failing to comply with the employer’s stereotyped view about how people of a particular sex should behave, dress, or otherwise act, was actually discrimination because of their sex.  The 1989 case involved a woman who was denied a partnership in an accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not sufficiently feminine to meet their image of a “lady partner,” and her immediate boss told her she should get her hair styled and start wearing makeup and jewelry if she wanted to be a partner.

 

By 2015, the EEOC had taken the analysis one step further to cover sexual orientation claims. It recognized that having a same-sex attraction violates gender stereotypes, similarly to the transgender cases, but also drew analogies to cases where courts found that discriminating against an employee for being in an interracial relationship was a form of race discrimination, called associational discrimination.  Further, the EEOC decided that it was really not plausible to distinguish between sexual orientation discrimination and sex discrimination, since both were concerned with treating people differently because of their sex.

 

Until this year, no federal appellate court had accepted these theories, but on April 4, the full bench of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit became the first federal appeals court to rule that Title VII bans sexual orientation discrimination.  Reversing its prior precedents, the court accepted the EEOC’s analysis in a lawsuit by Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who had been denied a tenure-track position by an Indiana community college.  The college decided not to appeal, taking the position that it had not discriminated at all, so the case was sent back for trial to the district court.

 

Meanwhile, however, the same issue was being litigated in other parts of the country. In the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, a sexual orientation discrimination claim by Jameka Evans against a Georgia hospital that had been dismissed by the district court was revived by the court of appeals, but on a narrower theory.  In common with several other circuits, the 11th Circuit will accept Title VII claims from gay plaintiffs who allege that they suffered discrimination because of their failure to conform to gender stereotypes.  In this case, while a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 to affirm the trial court’s rejection of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, the panel sent the case back to the trial court to allow the plaintiff to pursue a sex stereotyping claim.  One member partially dissented, Judge William Pryor (who had been on Trump’s potential Supreme Court list), finding no basis for any Title VII claim by the plaintiff.  Another member of the court agreed to send the case back, but argued that Title VII should be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims.  A third member found that the panel was bound by circuit precedent to reject the sexual orientation claim, but agreed that the plaintiff should have a chance to pursue a sex stereotype claim.  The 11th Circuit denied a petition to reconsider the Evans case “en banc” (by the full bench) a few weeks ago, and Lambda Legal announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to review the panel decision.  Lambda has until the first week of October to file its petition.

 

Meanwhile, however, within the 2nd Circuit, at least two federal district court judges have recently refused to dismiss sexual orientation claims under Title VII, finding that the circuit’s acceptance of the “associational theory” in a race discrimination case means that the court should accept sexual orientation discrimination claims.  Several other district judges have dismissed such claims, concluding that until the court of appeals explicitly overrules its earlier precedents, the trial judges are bound to follow them.  A few months ago, confronted by petitions for en banc review in three different cases, the Circuit announced that it would reconsider the panel decision in Estate of Donald Zarda v. Altitude Express.

 

In Zarda, the district court had dismissed a Title VII claim but allowed the case to go to trial under New York State’s Human Rights Law, which expressly outlaws sexual orientation discrimination. The jury ruled in favor of the employer, although it is questionable whether the jury was properly instructed about how to weigh the evidence.  The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of the Title VII claim. A three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal, while noting that recent developments in the law could justify reconsideration by the full 2nd Circuit bench.  In a case decided by a different three-judge panel at around the same time, Christiansen v. Omnicom, the panel also upheld dismissal of a sexual orientation claim, but sent the case back to the district court for reconsideration as a sex stereotyping claim, and two of the judges joined a concurring opinion suggesting that it was time for the 2nd Circuit to reconsider the sexual orientation issue en banc in an “appropriate case.”  However, after granting en banc review in Zarda, the circuit court denied a petition for en banc review in Christiansen!

 

Briefs were due from the plaintiff’s side in the Zarda appeal during the last week in June. The EEOC, consistent with its interpretation of the statute, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of the Zarda. (Zarda, a sky-diving instructor, died in a diving accident after starting his discrimination case, so the lawsuit is now being pursued by his executors, seeking money damages for the estate.)    Briefs were due by July 26 from the employer and any amicus parties supporting its position.  After some suspense about what the Trump Administration might do, the Justice Department filed its brief right at the deadline.

 

It is somewhat unusual for the government to file an amicus brief in opposition to a position taken by a federal agency, and it is also unusual for the government to file a brief in a case between private parties – a former employee versus a business – but the federal government has a significant interest in this case, and the politics of EEOC v. DOJ are unusual because of the timing. Until this month, the majority of the EEOC Commissioners have been appointees of President Obama.  They decided the key sexual orientation case two years ago by a vote of 3-2, with the Republican commissioners dissenting.  Upon confirmation of Trump’s appointees to fill some vacancies, control of the EEOC will switch over to Republican hands.  But for now, the EEOC continues to pursue sexual orientation discrimination cases under Title VII, and has even filed some new lawsuits this year despite the change of administrations in January.  On the other hand, the Justice Department reflects the views of the new administration, which are consistent with those expressed by 7th Circuit Judge Diane Sykes (also on Trump’s potential Supreme Court list), who wrote a dissenting opinion in the Hively case.

 

Why does the Trump Administration have a strong interest in a case between private parties? Because Title VII has provisions banning sex discrimination in the federal workforce, and because the president’s political base and the Republicans in Congress stand in opposition to outlawing sexual orientation discrimination.  This is clear from the failure of Republican legislators to co-sponsor the Equality Act, a bill that would amend Title VII to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the statutory list of forbidden grounds of employment discrimination.  A few Republicans were co-sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a narrower bill that was pending in Congress from the mid-1990s through Obama’s first term until it was supplanted by the Equality Act, but not enough to call that bipartisan legislation.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act came up for floor votes once in each house of Congress but in different sessions of Congress.  On both of those occasions it received few votes from Republican legislators, and their party’s platform never endorsed it.

 

The Justice Department’s brief, noting the EEOC’s position in the case, states that “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States and its position about the scope of Title VII is entitled to no deference beyond its power to persuade.” And, almost needless to say, the Justice Department under the outspokenly anti-gay Jeff Sessions is not persuaded by any of the EEOC’s arguments.  The brief argues that Congress did not intend to ban sexual orientation discrimination in 1964 when it enacted Title VII and that should be the end of the matter.  The failure of Congress to approve any amendment to add sexual orientation to the law is cited as evidence of continuing legislative intent, and the brief argues that only Congress can change the law.  It argues at length that the theories embraced by the EEOC and the 7th Circuit are mistaken interpretations of the Supreme Court’s rulings on sex stereotyping and associational discrimination, and that there is a distinct difference between sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, despite statements by many federal judges that they have difficulty drawing the line between the two.

 

The 2nd Circuit will not be oblivious to the political nature of the government’s opposition.  The concurring opinion in the Christiansen case, written by 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, virtually endorsed the EEOC’s interpretation of the statute while calling for the circuit to reconsider its earlier precedents.  And a majority of the judges who will sit on the en banc panel were appointed by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and have generally taken a more liberal approach to interpreting Title VII.  The circuit’s earlier precedents that are being reconsidered were issued by three-judge panels at a time when the arguments for allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims were not nearly as well developed as they have been in recent years, and the circuit has accepted the associational discrimination theory in a race discrimination case after those earlier cases were decided.  It is likely to see that theory’s applicability here, as the district judges have commented.  However, if the Supreme Court decides to grant Lambda Legal’s petition to review the 11th Circuit case, it is possible that the 2nd Circuit will hold up on deciding the Zarda appeal until the Supreme Court has spoken.  Interesting timing issues will arise this fall.  The 2nd Circuit argument is scheduled for late in September, before the Supreme Court will begin its fall term and start announcing whether it will grant petitions for review filed over the summer.

 

The brief filed by Altitude Express in opposition to the appeal has raised significant jurisdictional arguments that would give the 2nd Circuit a way out of deciding this appeal on the merits, if the judges are so inclined.  That brief argues that when he filed his initial discrimination charge with the EEOC, Donald Zarda expressly disclaimed making a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, relying instead on the allegation that he suffered discrimination for failing to comply with sex stereotypes.  That was the theory he initially presented in his federal court complaint under Title VII as well, and it was dismissed by the trial judge, who opined that Zarda’s factual allegations were not sufficient for a sex stereotyping claim.  Zarda only pressed a sexual orientation claim under the New York State Human Rights Law.  Thus, Altitude Express argues, he cannot now argue for a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, because the statute requires that any claim first be presented to the administrative agency, and further that any ruling by the court of appeals on that question would be, in effect, an advisory opinion, as the jury has already ruled against his sexual orientation discrimination claim.  There’s no telling how the 2nd Circuit will respond to these arguments, but one suspects that if they had serious doubts about jurisdiction, they would not have granted the en banc petition.

 

In the meantime, however, it is clear that if the Supreme Court grants review in the 11th Circuit Evans case, the federal government, represented by the Solicitor General, will come into the case against the plaintiff, and by then the EEOC will be in Republican control and will probably not be filing a separate brief.  Once again, the Trump Administration is actively disavowing the LGBT-supportive stance that the candidate claimed during the election last year.  The brief was filed just as Trump was tweeting his decision to bar transgender people from military service, which seemed no coincidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal Trial Courts Divided Over Title VII Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claims

Posted on: June 21st, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last July the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), reversing its position dating back fifty years, issued a ruling that a gay man could charge a federal agency employer with sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for denying a promotion because of his sexual orientation. The Baldwin v. Foxx decision is an administrative ruling, not binding on federal courts, and federal trial judges are sharply divided on the issue.

During May and June, federal district judges in Virginia, New York, Illinois, Mississippi and Florida issued rulings in response to employers’ motions to dismiss Title VII claims of sexual orientation discrimination.  In each case, the employer argued that the plaintiff’s Title VII claim had to be dismissed as a matter of law because the federal employment discrimination statute does not forbid sexual orientation discrimination.

Title VII was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the House committee considering the bill took evidence about sex discrimination, it decided to send the bill to the House floor without including “sex” as a prohibited basis for discrimination, because this was deemed  too controversial and might sink the bill. During the floor debate, however, a southern representative, Howard Smith of Virginia, a conservative Democrat who was opposed to the proposed ban on race discrimination, proposed an amendment to add “sex” to the list of prohibited grounds.  Most historical accounts suggest that Smith’s strategy was to make the bill more controversial, thus ensuring its defeat.  More recent accounts have suggested that Smith, although a racist, was actually a supporter of equal rights for women and genuinely believed that sex discrimination in the workplace should be banned.  (His amendment did not add “sex” to the other titles of the bill addressing other kinds of discrimination.)  The amendment passed, and ultimately the bill was enacted, going into effect in July 1965.

Because “sex” was added through a House floor amendment, the Committee Report on the bill says nothing about it, and the subsequent debate in the Senate (where the bill went directly to the floor, bypassing committee consideration) devoted little attention to it, apart from an amendment providing that pay practices “authorized” by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 would not be outlawed by Title VII. As a result, the “legislative history” of Title VII provides no explanation about what Congress intended by including “sex” as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

During the first quarter century of Title VII, the EEOC and the federal courts consistently rejected claims that the law outlawed sexual orientation discrimination. In the absence of explanatory legislative history, they ruled that Congress must have intended simply  to prohibit discrimination against women because they are women or against men because they are men, and nothing more complicated or nuanced than that.  This interpretation was challenged in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins that a woman who failed to conform to her employer’s sex stereotypes could bring a sex discrimination case under Title VII, adopting a broader and more sophisticated view of sex discrimination.

Since 1989, some lower federal courts have used the Price Waterhouse ruling to allow gay or transgender plaintiffs to assert sex discrimination claims in reliance on the sex stereotype theory, while others have rejected attempt to “bootstrap” sexual orientation or gender identity into Title VII in this way.   More recently, several federal appeals courts have endorsed the idea that gender identity discrimination claims are really sex discrimination claims, and a consensus to that effect has begun to emerge, but progress has been slower on the sexual orientation front.

Last summer the EEOC’s decision in Baldwin v. Foxx presented a startling turnabout of the agency’s view. The EEOC does not adjudicate discrimination claims against non-governmental and state employers, but it is assigned an appellate role concerning discrimination claims by federal employees.  In Baldwin v. Foxx, the EEOC reversed a ruling by the Transportation Department that a gay air traffic controller could not bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  Looking at the developing federal case law since Price Waterhouse and seizing upon a handful of federal district court decisions that had allowed gay plaintiffs to bring sex discrimination claims under a sex stereotype theory, the agency concluded that a sexual orientation discrimination claim is “necessarily” a sex discrimination claim and should be allowed under Title VII.

Since that July 15 ruling, many federal district judges have had to rule on motions by employers to dismiss Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims. The precedential hierarchy of the federal court system has required some of them to dismiss those claims because the circuit court of appeals to which their rulings could be appealed had previously ruled adversely on the issue.  In other circuits, however, the question is open and some judges have taken the EEOC’s lead.

On May 5, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne in Virginia found that he was bound by 4th Circuit precedent to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, even though the plaintiff, an openly-gay administrative assistant at Virginia Union University, had alleged clear evidence of anti-gay discrimination by the university president.  Judge Payne found that a 1996 decision by the 4th Circuit, Wrightson v. Pizza Hut of America, was still binding.  Payne noted that other federal trial courts were divided about whether to defer to the EEOC’s Baldwin ruling, but in any event he felt bound by circuit precedent to dismiss the claim.

A district judge on Long Island, Sandra J. Feuerstein, reached a similar result in Magnusson v. County of Suffolk on May 17, dismissing a Title VII claim by an openly-lesbian custodial worker at the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, who alleged that her failure to comply with her supervisors’ stereotypes of how women should dress had led to discrimination against her. Relying on prior decisions by the New York City-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Feuerstein refrained from discussing more recent developments and dismissed the claim, asserting that the plaintiff’s “claims regarding incidents of harassment based on her sexual orientation do not give rise to Title VII liability.”

However, on May 31, a senior district judge in Illinois decided that prudence in light of the developing situation counseled against dismissing a pending “perceived sexual orientation” claim in the case of Matavka v. Board of Education. Judge Milton I. Shadur confronted the school district’s motion to dismiss a discrimination claim by  an employee at J. Sterling Morton High School, who alleged that “he experienced severe harassment from his coworkers and supervisors, including taunts that he was ‘gay’ and should ‘suck it,’ frequent jokes about his perceived homosexuality, and hacking of his Facebook account to identify him publicly as ‘interested in boys and men’, and an email stating ‘U. . . are homosexual.’”  Judge Shadur observed that the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals had in the past rejected sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, which “would appear to bury” Matavka’s Title VII claim.  But, he noted, Baldwin v. Foxx, while not binding on the court, may prompt a rethinking of this issue, and that the 7th Circuit heard oral argument on September 30 of a plaintiff’s appeal from a different federal trial judge’s dismissal of a sexual orientation discrimination claim in the case of Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College.  “Should Hively follow recent district court decisions in finding Baldwin persuasive,” he wrote, “that finding plainly would affect the disposition of Morton High’s motion.  That being so, the prudent course at present is to stay this matter pending the issuance of a decision in Hively.”

The 7th Circuit has not issued a decision in Hively as of this writing.  Judge Shadur stayed a ruling on the motion until July 29, and said that if the 7th Circuit had not issued a ruling by then, he might stay it further.

The federal appeals courts are not bound by any rules about how soon after oral argument they must issue opinions. Sometimes the 7th Circuit moves quickly.  During 2014 it took just a week after the August 26 oral argument to rule affirmatively on a marriage equality case on September 4, giving the states of Wisconsin and Indiana time to petition the Supreme Court for review before the start of the Court’s October term.  The panel that heard the Hively argument has not ruled in more than eight months, suggesting that an extended internal discussion may be happening among the nine active judges of the 7th Circuit, to whom the panel’s proposed opinion would be circulated before it is released.  Panels may not depart from circuit precedent, but a majority of the active judges on the circuit can overrule their past decisions.  A 7th Circuit ruling reversing the district court’s dismissal of the Hively complaint would be a major breakthrough for Title VII coverage of sexual orientation claims.

Meanwhile, two decisions issued in June have taken opposite views on the question. In Brown v. Subway Sandwich Shop of Laurel, U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett of the Southern District of Mississippi bowed to prior 5th Circuit rulings rejecting sexual orientation claims under Title VII, and he even claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that the EEOC’s Baldwin decision did not support the plaintiff’s claim, stating that Baldwin “takes no position on the merits of the claim and resolves only timeliness and jurisdictional issues.”  While this may appear to be technically true, since the EEOC was ruling on an appeal from the Transportation Department’s dismissal of the claim and not ultimately on the merits, on the other hand the EEOC definitely did take a “position” on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are covered by Title VII; it had to address this question in order to determine that it had jurisdiction over the claim.  The EEOC clearly stated in Baldwin that sexual orientation discrimination claims are “necessarily” sex discrimination claims.

By contrast, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker of the Northern District of Florida, finding that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has not issued a precedential ruling on the question, refused to dismiss a “perceived sexual orientation” discrimination claim in Winstead v. Lafayette County Board of County Commissioners on June 20.  Pointing out that the 11th Circuit had ruled in 2011 in Glenn v. Brumby that a gender identity discrimination claim could be considered a sex discrimination claim under the Equal Protection Clause using a sex stereotyping theory, Judge Walker found that the Baldwin ruling, which also discussed sex stereotyping as a basis for a sexual orientation claim, was persuasive and should be followed.

Judge Walker rejected the argument made by some courts that using the stereotyping theory for this purpose was inappropriately “bootstrapping” claims of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII. “These arguments seem to this Court to misapprehend the nature of animus towards people based on their sexual orientation, actual or perceived,” he wrote.  “Such animus, whatever its origin, is at its core based on disapproval of certain behaviors (real or assumed) and tendencies towards behaviors, and those behaviors are disapproved of precisely because they are deemed to be ‘inappropriate’ for members of a certain sex or gender.”

He concluded: “This view – that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is necessarily discrimination based on gender or sex stereotypes, and is therefore sex discrimination – is persuasive to this Court, as it has been to numerous other courts and the EEOC.” He also contended that it “follows naturally from (though it is not compelled by) Brumby, which is binding Eleventh Circuit precedent.  Simply put, to treat someone differently based on her attraction to women is necessary to treat that person differently because of her failure to conform to gender or sex stereotypes, which is, in turn, necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex.”

Ironically, Judge Walker turned to an opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights, to seal the deal. He quoted from Scalia’s opinion for the Supreme Court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, a 1998 decision that same-sex harassment cases could be brought under Title VII.  “No one doubts,” wrote Judge Walker, “that discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation was not ‘the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII,’” quoting Scalia, and continuing the quote,  “’But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.’”  Scalia was opposed to relying on “legislative history” to determine the meaning of statutes, instead insisting on focusing on the statutory language and giving words their “usual” meanings.

Judge Walker concluded that his decision not to dismiss the Title VII claim “does not require judicial activism or tortured statutory construction. It requires close attention to the text of Title VII, common sense, and an understanding that ‘in forbidding employers to discrimination against individuals because of their sex, Congress intended to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women resulting from sex stereotypes,’” a quote from a 1971 court of appeals ruling that had been cited by the Supreme Court.

Judge Walker’s decision provides the most extended district court discussion of the merits of allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, but it will not be the last word, as the EEOC pushes forward with its affirmative agenda to litigate this issue in as many federal courts around the country as possible, building to a potential Supreme Court ruling. So far, the Supreme Court has refused to get involved with the ongoing debate about whether sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims are covered under Title VII.  It refused to review the 11th Circuit’s decision in Glenn v. Brumby.  But it can’t put things off much longer.  An affirmative 7th Circuit ruling in Hively would create the kind of “circuit split” that usually prompts the Supreme Court to agree to review a case.  That may not be long in coming.

The current status of transgender legal rights in the U.S.

Posted on: June 8th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was invited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to give a talk at Friday night services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on June 3 about the current status of transgender rights in the U.S.  CBST observes Gay Pride Month with a series of guest speakers on Friday nights, and the first Friday of the month was designated as “Trans Pride Shabbat” this year.  Below is a revised version of the text I prepared for that talk, although on Friday night I left this text in my folder and spoke extemporaneously.

This month we mark the anniversary of a major victory for transgender rights in the U.S. which has generally been overlooked. There was much celebration last June 26 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples were entitled to marry and to have our marriages recognized by state and local governments under the 14th Amendment .  What few mentioned in those celebrations was that this decision implicitly overruled some terrible state court rulings from around the country holding that marriages involving transgender people were invalid under the state bans on same-sex marriage.  By removing any gender requirements for marriage, the Supreme Court was not only opening up marriage nationwide for same-sex couples, it was also making it possible for transgender people to marry the partners they love regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  This would also cancel out any argument that a married person who was transitioning was no longer validly married or should be required to divorce their spouse. However, since every state now has no-fault divorce, of course if such a transition takes place and the couple decides to end their marriage, there would be no impediment under state law to their doing so.

Let’s consider the current legislative status of transgender rights protections in the U.S. As of today, 17 states expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).  Massachusetts prohibits gender identity discrimination in employment and housing, and the legislature is working on adding public accommodations, with the likely approval of the governor.  Most of these laws have specific exemptions for religious institutions, and some of the states also have Religious Freedom statutes that might be interpreted to provide exemptions for businesses whose owners have religious objections, but the question of such exemptions for businesses is not really settled and heavily argued.

Three states prohibit sexual orientation discrimination by statute but not yet gender identity discrimination: New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin. In New York, however, the State Division of Human Rights earlier this year published a regulation stating that it interprets the New York Human Rights Law ban on sex discrimination to include discrimination because of gender identity, and the ban on disability discrimination to cover gender dysphoria, thus providing protecting to individuals who have not yet finished transitioning to the gender with which they identify.  That interpretation has not yet been tested in the courts, but it is consistent with some unfolding federal law developments and  also some older decisions by New York trial courts.

In addition, many states have now included specific protection on the basis of gender identity under their Hate Crimes statutes, which authorize enhanced penalties against people who perpetrate violent crimes against people because of their transgender identity. Also, many cities, towns, villages and counties around the country have passed local laws banning gender identity discrimination.  In states that lack such laws, many of the large cities have passed them, although there is a disturbing new trend in some of those states for the state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting localities from going beyond the provisions of the state civil rights laws.  Lawsuits are challenging these limitations.

At the federal level, two statutes, the Matthew Shepard – James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act and the Violence against Women Act, provide for enhanced penalties for those who commit crimes of physical violence against people because of their gender identity, but only when there is some connection to interstate activity.   The interstate activity requirement relates to Congress’s limited power to pass criminal statutes because Article I of the Constitution does not list criminal laws, so federal criminal statues are normally based on Congress’s power to regulate commerce between the states or to enforce other provisions of the Constitution.  In states that do not provide gender identity protection under their hate crimes laws, state prosecutors can refer cases to the US Justice Department, which may prosecute after determining that the crime implicates interstate commerce.  For example, if the weapon used to commit the crime had moved across state lines, or if the crime (such as kidnaping) involved transportation on an interstate highway, the federal Hate Crimes law could come into play.

Congress has not yet approved the Equality Act, which was introduced last year to amend all federal civil rights statutes to list gender identity and sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination. This would provide protection in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, educational institutions, and all programs that receive federal financial assistance or are operated by federal contractors, and would also cover state government employment and federal employment.  The bill enjoys wide co-sponsorship among Democratic members of both houses, but has only a handful of Republican co-sponsors, and the Republican leadership in both houses has denied committee hearings or votes on the bill, so it cannot be passed unless there is a significant change in the political balance of Congress or in the views of the Republican Party.

The Obama Administration adopted executive orders last year that prohibit federal executive branch agencies and federal contractors from discriminating in employment or provision of services because of gender identity or sexual orientation. These orders are enforced administratively within the executive agencies, not in federal courts.  However, there has been recent activity in Congress placing the federal contractor protections into question.  An impasse between Republicans and Democrats has led to a stalemate over adoption of important pending spending bills and has generated substantial debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, because there are enough Republicans who will vote in favor of this protection (which essentially incorporates the terms of the President’s executive order into legislation) to add it to the pending bills as amendments, but then not enough votes from the Republican majority in the House to pass the resulting amended bills, which are generally opposed by the Democrats because they provide insufficient funding for federal agencies or place objectionable restrictions on the agencies’ actions.  This curious situation has brought the legislative authorization process to a temporary halt, and looms as a potential crisis as we move through this hotly contested congressional election cycle.

There are areas where there is much contention now in legislatures and the courts over transgender discrimination claims asserted under existing sex discrimination laws.   Is it possible that gender identity discrimination is already illegal, even when it is not mentioned as a prohibited ground of discrimination?  This is the hot issue of the day that may reach the Supreme Court next term.

In 1964, Congress considered a Civil Rights Act that was mainly intended to ban race and religious discrimination in employment and public services. However, the employment provision, Title VII, was amended in the House of Representatives to add “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination.  The term “sex” was not defined in the statute, and historical accounts show that the amendment was introduced by a Conservative Virginia representative, possibly as part of a strategy to keep the bill from being passed.  When Title VII went into effect in July 1965, some attempts were made to bring discrimination claims on behalf of gay and transgender people, but they were rejected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency in charge of enforcement of Title VII, and in early decisions by the federal courts.

In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which forbids sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education and courts interpreting Title IX have generally followed the interpretation of “sex” under Title VII.  In early cases they refused to use this statute to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.  Other federal statutes addressing sex discrimination, including the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, also received narrow interpretations of their sex discrimination provisions.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some opponents of that bill complained that it might be hijacked by sexual minorities claiming that homosexuality or transsexuality could be deemed disabilities.  Republican Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina obtained an amendment specifically stating that homosexuality  and “transsexualism” would not be considered disabilities for purposes of protection under this statute.

Interpretation of federal sex discrimination laws began to change after 1989, when the Supreme Court decided an important Title VII case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was denied a partnership at a national accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not adequately feminine in her appearance and conduct.  One said she needed “a course in charm school,” and the head of her office told her she should wear make-up and jewelry and walk, talk and dress more femininely if she wanted to be a partner.  The Supreme Court said that this kind of sexual stereotype was evidence of a discriminatory motive under Title VII, and stated that Congress intended to knock down all such barriers to advancement of women in the workplace, signaling a broad interpretation of sex discrimination.

Over the following two decades, lower federal courts have used the Price Waterhouse decision to adopt a broader interpretation of “sex” under Title VII and other federal sex discrimination provisions. By early in this century federal appeals courts started to extend protection to transgender plaintiffs on the theory that they were suffering discrimination because they failed to conform to sex stereotypes.  Federal circuit and district courts in many different parts of the country have now found gender identity protection in cases under the Violence against Women Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  In an important breakthrough, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that discrimination against a transgender state employee violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, finding that the same standard used for sex discrimination claims should be applied to gender identity claims.

One of the key factors advancing this broad interpretation of sex discrimination was President Obama’s appointment of Chai Feldblum, then a law professor at Georgetown University, to be a commissioner at the EEOC during his first term. (She is now serving a second term at the EEOC.)  Commissioner Feldblum, the first openly lesbian or gay EEOC commissioner, argued effectively that the agency should adopt a broad interpretation of “sex” and apply it to discrimination claims by federal employees.  In three important rulings over the last few years, the EEOC held first that gender identity discrimination claims may be brought under Title VII, then that sexual orientation discrimination claims could also be brought under Title VII, and late last year that Title VII requirs federal agencies to allow transgender employees to use workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Building on these rulings as well as the growing body of federal court rulings, the Justice Department, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies with civil rights enforcement responsibility, have also begun to interpret their statutory sex discrimination laws more broadly.

The EEOC was ruling on internal discrimination claims within the federal government, but the agency has also undertaken an affirmative litigation strategy, filing briefs in cases pending in federal court brought by private litigants against non-governmental employers. In addition, the EEOC has filed its own gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits in federal courts on behalf of individuals who filed charges against employers with that agency.

The Department of Education and the Justice Department have become involved in several cases brought by transgender high school students under Title IX, seeking access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

In a case that drew national attention last year, the Education and Justice Departments represented a transgender high school student in Illinois who was denied appropriate bathroom access and negotiated a settlement with the school district affirming the student’s rights. That attracted a federal court lawsuit against the government by Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing litigation group representing some objecting parents and students.  The lawsuit claims that Title IX does not apply to this situation and that their children’s “fundamental right of bodily privacy” was violated by the terms of the settlement.  It also claims that the Education and Justice Departments did not have authority to adopt this new interpretation of the law without proposing a formal regulation under the procedures established by the Administrative Procedure Act, which include a right of any interested member of the public to challenge a new regulation directly in the federal appeals courts.

This issue burst into wider public discussion when the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, passed an ordinance forbidding sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, and made clear that transgender people in Charlotte would be allowed to use public and workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity. The ordinance was set to take effect on April 1, 2016.  This stirred up a storm in the North Carolina legislature, which held a special session late in March to pass H.B. 2, a measure that preempted local anti-discrimination laws and provided that in government-operated buildings the restrooms would be strictly segregated by biological sex, meaning, for example, that a person can’t use a women’s restroom unless their birth certificate indicates that they are female.  This would apply to public colleges, universities and schools at all levels and in all other government buildings.

The main focus of debate was Republican legislators’ argument that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms would present a danger to women and children of possible sexual assault by heterosexual men declaring themselves to be transgender in order to gain improper access. The argument is patently ridiculous.  Seventeen states prohibit gender identity discrimination in public facilities, as do several hundred local jurisdictions, but there are no reports that these laws have enabled male sexual predators to gain access to women’s restrooms, and existing criminal laws against public lewdness and sexual assault can easily be used to prosecute such individuals.  In a alternative argument, the opponents of transgender restroom access are now pushing the theory argued in the new Illinois lawsuit: that allowing transgender people into restrooms consistent with their gender identity threatens the “right of bodily privacy” of other users to avoid exposing themselves to the view of transgender people.  Those making this argument reject the proposition that a transgender woman is genuinely a woman and a transgender man is genuinely a man, and argue that there is a tradition of sheltering people in restrooms from the gaze of members of the opposite sex.

A similar rejection of the reality of transgender identity can be found in a law recently passed by the state of Mississippi, which specifically authorizes people whose religious belief rejects transgender identity to refuse to treat transgender people consistent with their gender identity, including in places of business when it comes to things like restroom access. This reverts back to the views that used to be expressed by courts during the 20th century, rejecting the idea of gender transition and insisting that gender must be defined solely by a determination made at someone’s birth and entered on their birth certificate.

North Carolina’s H.B. 2 and the Mississippi law are now both the subject of multiple federal law suits disputing the bodily privacy argument and forcing courts to confront the question whether discrimination against transgender people violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, Title IX and Title VII.  While this dispute was pending, the Obama Administration threatened North Carolina with enforcement action under Title VII and Title IX, and distributed a letter in May to educational administrators nationwide advising them of the requirement to respect the rights of transgender students and staff under Title IX.  The administration’s action attracted new lawsuits, including one filed by the State of Texas on behalf of itself and a dozen other states challenging the administration’s interpretation of Title IX.

Meanwhile, during April the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, ruling in a high school restroom case brought by a transgender boy under Title IX, held that the federal district court should defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of that statute, reversed the district court’s dismissal order, and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.  At the end of May, the full bench of the 4th Circuit rejected the School District’s petition for reconsideration of the case, and on June 7 the school district filed a notice with the 4th Circuit that it plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.   This will probably result in a “stay” of the 4th Circuit’s ruling, which will delay further consideration by the district court of the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction so that he can access the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school when classes resume in the fall.

Although legal commentators have suggested that it is unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear this case, it is at least possible. The notice the School Board filed focuses on two arguments: that the district court should not defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, and that giving transgender students the restroom access they desire violates the “bodily privacy rights” of other students.  The first argument would require the Supreme Court to overrule a precedent that has been strongly criticized by the Court’s most conservative justices.  The second would require the Court to broaden the right of privacy under the Due Process Clause to encompass a right not to share restroom facilities with transgender people.

We should begin to see decisions in many of the pending lawsuits in the months ahead. One of the complications facing us now in getting a resolution to this controversy is that the Supreme Court is operating with only 8 members since the death of Justice Scalia in February.  Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nominee for the seat, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  This vacancy may lead the Supreme Court to avoid taking for review controversial cases as to which it is likely to be sharply divided, such as the case from Virginia involving the transgender student’s discrimination claim under Title IX.  The court of appeals decision in that case was 2-1. The dissenting judge urged the school district to seek review from the Supreme Court.  Although there might be some delays in getting this issue to the Supreme, it appears likely that the next big LGBT rights case to go to that Court will focus on whether gender identity discrimination is a form of “sex” discrimination that can be challenged under existing sex discrimination statutes and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Federal Judge Agrees With EEOC that Sexual Orientation Discrimination is Actionable under Title VII

Posted on: October 30th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

At last, a federal district judge has expressly relied on the EEOC’s ruling from July 2015 that sexual orientation discrimination claims can be brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama, rejecting the recommendation of a U.S. Magistrate Judge that a sexual orientation discrimination complaint under Title VII be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, determined that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was correct when it ruled that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.  However, this determination in Isaacs v. Felder, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146663 (Oct. 29, 2015), did not do any good for the plaintiff, Roger Isaacs, because the court concluded that his factual allegations included neither direct nor indirect evidence of discriminatory intent in his discharge or treatment by his employer.

Isaacs, a gay man, worked for Felder Services as a dietician for about six months. Felder provides various services to healthcare facilities. Isaacs was assigned to work at Arbor Springs Health and Rehabilitation Center under a contract that Felder had with that organization. He complained that he was subjected to a discriminatory hostile environment at Arbor Springs, and relayed this complaint back to Felder, which asked Arbor to investigate and report.

Meanwhile, Isaacs had also been assigned by Felder to provide dietician services at another facility, in Florala, Alabama, once every three weeks. Isaacs had been injured in a car accident and asked for permission “for a man he identified as his brother but who was actually his husband to drive him to Florala, and for the two to stay overnight there,” wrote Judge Thompson, observing that there was a “dispute” about whether Isaacs was authorized to seek expense reimbursements on behalf of his “brother” for these expeditions. He submitted these expenses, and also brought his mother along on some of these trips and submitted for reimbursement of her expenses as well. An administrative assistant at Felder Services raised questions about these expense reimbursements, leading to an internal investigation at Felder. This investigation led to the conclusion that Isaacs was submitting unauthorized expenses for reimbursement, and then Felder’s human resources director received the result of Arbor’s investigation of Isaacs’ allegations about harassment, which found his charges to be unsubstantiated. The results of the expense reimbursement investigation were brought to Felder’s president by the HR director, and they decided to terminate him “based on the improper reimbursement requests.”

Felder asserted Title VII claims of discrimination (by firing him) on the basis of his sex, gender non-conformity, and sexual orientation, hostile environment sexual harassment, and retaliation for claiming about the harassment. The company’s motion for summary judgment was referred to a magistrate judge, who recommended granting the motion as to all three claims. Among other things, the magistrate judge asserted that the sexual orientation claim should be rejected as not actionable under Title VII.

Judge Thompson, conducting de novo review of the record before the magistrate judge, granted summary judgment to the company on all claims, but for some different reasons from those stated by the magistrate judge. Most importantly, Thompson rejected the contention that a sexual orientation discrimination claim could not be brought under Title VII.

“The court rejects the magistrate judge’s conclusion that ‘sexual orientation discrimination is neither included in nor contemplated by Title VII,” wrote Thompson. “In the Eleventh Circuit, the question is an open one,” he wrote, citing to a recent ruling from the Southern District of Georgia, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, 2015 WL 5316694 (Sept. 10, 2015) (where the judge noted that the 11th Circuit hadn’t decided this issue yet). “This court agrees instead with the view of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that claims of sexual orientation-based discrimination are cognizable under Title VII,” Thompson wrote, citing the July EEOC decision in Baldwin v. Federal Aviation Administration. In that case, he wrote, “the Commission explains persuasively why ‘an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII.’ Particularly compelling is its reliance on Eleventh Circuit precedent,” he continued, noting the EEOC’s invocation of Parr v. Woodmen of the World Life Ins. Co., 791 F.2d 888, 892 (11th Cir. 1986), where the 11th Circuit held that discriminating against an employee based on an interracial marriage or association was a form of race discrimination; Thompson was making an analogy to same-sex marriage or associations as sex discrimination. Judge Thompson also cited a 1994 law review article by Northwestern University Professor Andrew Koppelman titled “Why Discrimination Against Lesbians and Gay Men is Sex Discrimination,” 69 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 197, which made the same argument by analogy to the racial association cases in the wake of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s ruling in Baehr v. Lewin that a ban on same-sex marriage was sex discrimination.

Thompson continued, “To the extent that sexual orientation discrimination occurs not because of the targeted individual’s romantic or sexual attraction to or involvement with people of the same sex, but rather based on her or his perceived deviations from ‘heterosexually defined gender norms,’ this, too, is sex discrimination, of the gender-stereotyping variety,” here again citing Baldwin as well as a concurring opinion in Latta v. Otter, the 9th Circuit’s 2014 marriage equality decision, in which Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon argued that a state ban on same-sex marriage was a form of sex discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Judge Thompson quoted a passage from Berzon’s concurring opinion that included a citation to a 1975 law review article by then-professor (now Supreme Court Justice) Ruth Bader Ginsburg titled “Gender and the Constitution” (44 U. Cin. L. Rev. 1), which had helped to provide the theoretical underpinning for the Supreme Court’s subsequent adoption of the view that sex-stereotyping is evidence of sex discrimination.

While determining that the magistrate judge’s recommendation to reject Isaacs’ sex discrimination claim on the basis that Title VII did not apply was incorrect, however, Thompson concluded that Isaacs had failed to allege facts that would give rise to an inference that he was discharged because of his sexual orientation, and he agreed with the magistrate judge that the factual allegations were also insufficient to support Isaacs’ hostile environment and retaliation claims against Felder.

Thompson’s decision is apparently the first by a federal district judge to rely on the EEOC’s Baldwin decision to hold affirmatively that sexual orientation discrimination claims, if supported by sufficient factual allegations, can be brought under Title VII. Since the employer won its motion for summary judgment, there would seem to be no reason for it to seek review of Thompson’s ruling at the 11th Circuit, but the issue might get there if Isaacs were to appeal. He is represented in this lawsuit by Benjamin Howard Cooper of Cooper Law Group LLC, Birmingham, Alabama.

Civil Rights Through Administrative Action: Can It Be Effective?

Posted on: October 23rd, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

When legislatures refuse to act on proposals to protect LGBT people from discrimination, can civil rights agencies and executive officials just go ahead and extend the protection on their own?  Some recent events put this question sharply into play.

In July 2014, President Obama signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to adopt policies banning discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity and extending protection against gender identity discrimination to applicants and employees in the executive branch of the federal government.  (Prior executive orders first adopted during the Clinton administration by agency heads as well as the president extended protection against sexual orientation discrimination to executive branch employees.)  Even before President Obama’s action, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had issued an administrative ruling in 2012 that the ban on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination because of gender identity, a conclusion that was later confirmed by a Justice Department ruling in the same case, Macy v. Holder.

This past summer, the EEOC took a further step, ruling administratively in the case of a gay air traffic controller who had been denied a permanent position by the Federal Aviation Administration under circumstances suggesting that homophobia may have influenced the decision.  The gay man, David Baldwin, filed an internal discrimination claim within the FAA, asserting a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination ban.  That agency said Title VII didn’t apply, but the EEOC reversed the ruling, holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims can be raised under Title VII, in an opinion announced on July 15.  This left Baldwin with a choice: he could litigate his discrimination claim administratively, or he could, with the authorization of the EEOC, take his dispute to federal court. Baldwin’s attorney announced recently that he will pursue his Title VII claim in federal court.

Most recently, on October 22, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the New York State Division of Human Rights will be publishing a proposed regulation in the state register on November 4, interpreting the state’s Human Rights Law ban on discrimination because of sex or disability as providing protection against discrimination for transgender people.  The Division will treat “gender dysphoria” as the kind of diagnosable medical condition that falls within the statutory definition of a disability, and it will take the position that discriminating against somebody because of their gender identity is the same for legal purposes as discriminating because of their sex.

These actions by President Obama, Governor Cuomo, the EEOC and the New York State Division come in the face of the failure by Congress or the New York legislature to approve pending legislative proposals to adopt these policies.  They are arguing, in the face of such legislative inaction, that existing laws already provide a basis for acting against such discrimination. These executive and administrative actions can have concrete consequences.  Companies with substantial federal contracts will have to adopt non-discrimination policies if they want those contracts renewed.  Employees who encounter gender identity discrimination will be able to file charges with the EEOC and the State Division of Human Rights, those agencies will investigate the charges, and if they find them meritorious, may attempt to negotiate settlements on behalf of the individuals, take their claims to court, or authorize them to file their own lawsuits, as Baldwin is doing against the FAA.  In fact, the EEOC recently reported that they had administratively resolved 846 discrimination claims nationwide on behalf of LGBT plaintiffs during 2014, the last year for which they have complete statistics, just on the basis of these internal policy interpretations.

The important question now is whether the courts will cooperate when an alleged discriminator resists the agencies’ interpretations?  After all, both the federal and state constitutions give the power to make new laws to the legislatures, not to elected executives or administrative agencies.  The EEOC and the State Division of Human Rights can interpret existing laws, but they can’t manufacture “new” substantive legal rules.  Some defendants in these lawsuits can be counted on to raise the objection that the relevant statutes do not forbid this kind of discrimination.  Courts will have to determine whether these new interpretations are legitimate, and that will turn heavily on the judicial philosophies of the particular judges deciding these cases.

Shortly after Title VII of the federal civil rights act went into effect in July 1965, the EEOC was faced with the question whether gay or transgender people were protected from discrimination by that statute, and its unequivocal answer was “no,” in line with the response of numerous federal courts in early cases.  The EEOC maintained that position through half a century, even as the courts were “evolving” on the issue in light of a Supreme Court decision in 1989, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, finding that “sex stereotyping” by an employer could be evidence of unlawful intentional sex discrimination.  By early in this century, several federal courts — include courts of appeals — had accepted this sex stereotyping theory on behalf of some gay and transgender discrimination plaintiffs, and a consensus seemed to be emerging among federal courts that gender identity discrimination could violate Title VII’s sex discrimination ban.  The EEOC relied on these rulings in 2012 when it issued its opinion in Macy v. Holder.

Over the past few years, a handful of federal trial judges have also used the sex stereotyping theory in discrimination cases brought by gay people, and the EEOC seized upon some these opinions this summer, as it celebrated its 50th anniversary of enforcing Title VII, when it ruled on David Baldwin’s discrimination complaint.

One of the biggest barriers to getting trial judges to accept these new interpretations is the system of precedent followed in the court system.  A trial judge is bound by the rulings of the appellate courts.  A federal district court is bound by the rulings of the court of appeals in the circuit in which it is located.

On September 9, a sexual orientation discrimination plaintiff confronted this problem in a federal lawsuit in Florida.  Barbara Burrows sued the College of Central Florida claiming that her sexual orientation was one of the reasons she was fired and argued that the EEOC’s recent decision supported her claim that Title VII applied to her case.  District Judge James Moody, observed that although “the EEOC’s decision is relevant and would be considered persuasive authority, it is not controlling.”  He evidently considered that he was not free to accept her argument, writing, “Until the Supreme Court or Eleventh Circuit recognizes the opinion expressed in the EEOC’s decision as the prevailing legal opinion, the Court declines to reconsider in light of the EEOC’s decision.”

Several other federal court rulings issued since the EEOC’s July 15 Baldwin opinion have not even mentioned it while reaffirming that sexual orientation discrimination claims cannot be asserted under Title VII.  For example, in a dispute between Julio Rodriguez and the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan in Brooklyn wrote on September 8, “The Second Circuit has decided the question of whether ‘sex’ under Title VII includes ‘sexual orientation’ as a protected class.  It has explained that ‘the law is well-settled in this circuit and in all others to have reached the question that . . . Title VII does not prohibit harassment or discrimination because of sexual orientation.’  Therefore, plaintiff’s argument that he ‘is clearly a member of a protected class, because he identifies as bisexual,’ is wrong.”

Another federal district judge in Brooklyn, John Gleeson, issued a decision on October 16 in a discrimination case brought by Steven D. Moore against Greyhound Bus Lines.  Moore alleged discrimination because of his “sexual preference” and religion.  While finding that Moore’s factual allegations did not meeting the requirements for a discrimination claim in any event, Judge Gleeson dropped a footnote at the end of his opinion, reminding Moore that “Title VII does not apply to allegations of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” referring to the same 2nd Circuit opinion from 2000 that Judge Cogan relied on in his ruling on Rodriguez’s case.

Similarly, in a suit by Jameka K. Evans against Georgia Regional Hospital in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, decided on September 10, U.S. Magistrate Judge G.R. Smith undertook a lengthy discussion of the numerous federal court rulings rejecting sexual orientation claims under Title VII, not once mentioning the EEOC’s Baldwin decision.

To make some headway on this issue a case has to go to the court of appeals. Lambda Legal announced that they have taken that step, urging the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to reverse a lower court ruling and allow a lesbian, Kimberly Hively, to litigate her discrimination claim against Ivy Tech Community College.  Ivy Tech had persuaded the federal district court in the Northern District of Indiana to dismiss Hively’s Title VII case, successfully arguing that Title VII does not apply to sexual orientation claims.  In a hearing before a three-judge panel of the court held on September 30, Lambda argued that the EEOC opinion, together with a handful of earlier federal trial court decisions cited by the EEOC, provide persuasive reasons for the 7th Circuit to set aside its own prior precedents on this issue and embrace the new approach to interpreting “sex” under Title VII.   A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit may consider itself bound by prior circuit precedent, but Lambda could then petition for an “en banc” rehearing by the full 7th Circuit bench, which could overrule its old precedent.  Or this case could be the vehicle to get the issue before the Supreme Court.

Federal Discrimination Agency Says Gays Are Protected Against Employment Discrimination

Posted on: July 19th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, issued a decision on July 15 holding for the first time that Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination because of sex includes discrimination against somebody because they are gay, lesbian or bisexual.  This marks a complete turnaround by the EEOC from the position taken by the agency throughout all of its 50 year history.  The Commission, acting in its appellate capacity, overruled a 2013 agency decision that had rejected a discrimination claim by a man who had been denied a permanent Front Line Manager position by the Federal Aviation Administration.  As is customary with such administrative rulings by the EEOC, the decision does not give the name of the man, referring throughout to the “Complainant.”   Baldwin v. Foxx (Anthony Foxx, Secretary, Department of Transportation), 2015 WL 4397641 (EEOC, July 15, 2015).

 

The EEOC went into business in July 1965 when Title VII took effect.  That statute was the result of prolonged struggle in Congress, including a lengthy filibuster in the Senate led by southern conservative Democrats opposed to racial integration of the workplace.  Almost all of the attention around Title VII focused on the proposal for a federal ban on race discrimination in employment.  The bill originally introduced in the House of Representatives was limited to race or color, religion and national origin as prohibited grounds of discrimination.  The relevant House committees did study sex discrimination issues, but decided that the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, which prohibited compensating men and women at different rates for the same work, was sufficient, and proponents of the bill feared that adding a general prohibition on sex discrimination would endanger the bill’s passage.  Nonetheless, on the floor of the House, Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia, a long-time proponent of equal legal rights for women, introduced an amendment to add sex, which was passed by an unlikely alliance of pro-feminist liberals and southern conservatives.  Some of the southerners probably supported the amendment hoping that this would make the final bill more difficult to pass.  Because “sex” was added as a floor amendment, the committee reports on the bill do not discuss it, and Smith’s amendment did not add any definition of sex to the definitional section of the bill, merely adding the word “sex” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination wherever that list appeared in the bill.

After the bill passed the House, it went to the Senate under a deal worked out by the leadership to by-pass the committee process, in order to prevent it from being bottled up in committee by the conservative southern Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Eastland, who was a sworn opponent of the bill.  Instead the measure went directly to the Senate floor under a procedure that allowed little opportunity for amendments.  There was some brief discussion about the inclusion of sex but nothing really illuminating, apart from a floor amendment attempting to reconcile the bill with the Equal Pay Act, the meaning of which wasn’t settled until a Supreme Court ruling several years later.

Consequently, the “legislative history” provides no help in figuring out what kind of discrimination Congress intended to ban when it voted to add “sex” to the list of prohibited grounds of employment discrimination.  Without such guidance, the EEOC and the courts were left to their own devices in trying to figure out what this meant, and the conclusion they reached early in the history of Title VII was that it was intended to prohibit discrimination against women because they were women or against men because they were men.  As such, both the EEOC and many courts ruled beginning shortly after the Act went into effect that it did not apply to discrimination because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, both concepts that were largely missing from American jurisprudence during the 1960s.  One commonsense reason usually raised by courts in rejecting such discrimination claims was that if Congress had intended to ban these forms of discrimination, there surely would have been some mention during the debates over the bill. They have also pointed to the fact that bills to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Title VII or to enact a free-standing law addressing such discrimination have been frequently introduced in Congress since the early 1970s, but no such measure has ever been enacted.  Some courts have construed this history to reflect Congress’s view that Title VII does not already ban such discrimination.

A Supreme Court decision from 1989, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, initiated a changing landscape for sexuality issues under Title VII.  Ann Hopkins, rejected for a partnership at Price Waterhouse, won a ruling from the Supreme Court that sex stereotypes held by some of the partners who voted against her application violated her rights under Title VII.  Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice William J. Brennan said that Title VII applied to discrimination because of gender, not just biological sex.  Later courts seized upon this to justify taking a broader view of sex discrimination under Title VII.  By early in this century, there was a growing body of federal court rulings suggesting that LGBT people might be protected to some extent under Title VII, depending on the nature of their case.  If the discrimination they suffered could be described in terms of sex stereotypes, or if they could show that they had been the victim of sexual harassment that turned in some way on their gender, they might be able to maintain a legal claim of discrimination.

Within the past few years, the EEOC has taken a leading role in making these developments more concrete, first by its treatment of discrimination claims within the internal investigative process, and then through its decision-making on discrimination claims brought against federal agencies, where the Commission plays an important appellate role reviewing rulings by federal agencies on internal employment grievances.  In 2012, the EEOC ruled in a case against the Justice Department that a transgender woman who was denied a position because of her gender identity had a valid claim under Title VII.  Macy v. Dep’t of Justice, 2012 Westlaw 1435995 (April 20, 2012).  This ruling echoed many then-recent federal court decisions, including some by courts of appeals, finding that discrimination because of gender identity almost always involves sex stereotyping by the discriminating employer.   Late last year, the agency and then the Justice Department concluded that all gender identity discrimination claims could be investigated and prosecuted under Title VII.  Pushing that position forward, the Justice Department has filed suit on behalf of the EEOC or joined ongoing private cases in federal court seeking to move the courts beyond the stereotyping theory to a straightforward acceptance that gender identity discrimination is sex discrimination.

The new July 15 ruling by the EEOC seeks to achieve the same thing for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals confronting employment discrimination.  While acknowledging the significance of the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse decision and sex stereotyping theory in widening the agency’s appreciation of the scope of sex discrimination, this ruling takes things a step further.  “In the case before us,” wrote the Commission, “we conclude that Complainant’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination alleges that the Agency relied on sex-based considerations and took his sex into account in its employment decision regarding the permanent FLM position.  The Complainant, therefore, has stated a claim of sex discrimination.  Indeed, we conclude that sexual orientation is inherently a ‘sex-based consideration,’ and an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII.  A complainant alleging that an agency took his or her sexual orientation into account in an employment action necessarily alleges that the agency took his or her sex into account.”

The Commission amplified this conclusion with an extended discussion, grounding its conclusion in rulings by several federal courts and pointing especially to the well-established principle that discriminating against somebody because of the race of their sexual partner has long been deemed by the Commission and the courts to be race discrimination.  Logically, then, discriminating against somebody because of the sex of their sexual partners would be sex discrimination.  The Commission also referenced the recent marriage equality litigation, noting the Supreme Court’s statement in Obergefell v. Hodges that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage “abridge central precepts of equality.”  Of course, the Commission also explained that recent court rulings have made clear that stereotyped thinking about proper gender roles, as well as behavior, underlies much sexual orientation discrimination, thus providing a firm theoretical justification in the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse case.

What is the significance of this EEOC ruling?  It is likely to result in the agency initiating federal court litigation, enlisting the Justice Department, to push this interpretation of Title VII into the courts.  Although federal courts are not bound by an administrative agency’s interpretations of their governing statutes, the Supreme Court has frequently deferred to agency interpretations when they are seen as consistent with the statutory language and overall congressional purpose, and constitute a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  Here is where the EEOC’s past rulings may result in less deference than courts otherwise might give.  When an agency “changes its mind” about an issue, courts may be skeptical about whether the new ruling is more political than legalistic.  So it may be premature to assume that this ruling by the EEOC means that we have no need to enact explicit federal protection through a vehicle such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which has been pending in one form or another in Congress since 1993.

Ironically, this EEOC action comes at a time when LGBT political leaders have largely abandoned ENDA, finding it too narrowly focused on employment.  Objections have also been raised to the extremely broad religious exemption contained in ENDA.  One of the major lobbying victories last summer was persuading the Obama Administration not to include the broad ENDA-style religious exemption in President Obama’s executive order banning sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by federal contractors.  Lobbyists are now working with legislators on a broader, comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill, expected to be introduced this summer, that would go beyond employment to cover other areas traditionally covered by federal law, including housing, public services and public accommodations.  In the meantime, however, it will certainly be useful for the federal government’s primary civil rights enforcement agency, the EEOC, to be on record that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination.  EEOC’s view may be influential with the agencies that enforce the Fair Housing Act and the other titles of the Civil Rights Act, and its analysis may prove persuasive to the courts, regardless of the level of deference it receives.

The vote on this decision is not indicated in the opinion (which was drafted by the Commission’s staff), but was reported in the press as a party-line vote of 3-2.  Under the statute, the five-member Commission may not have more than three commissioners who are members of the same political party.  The two Republicans on the Commission voted against this decision, but did not issue a written dissent.  A prime mover behind the EEOC’s expanded view of sex discrimination to encompass gender identity and sexual orientation claims has been Commissioner Chai Feldblum, the first openly gay member of the Commission, who was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate for a second term last year.

EEOC Rules on Transgender Employee Restroom Rights

Posted on: April 9th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcement of federal bans on sex discrimination in employment, has ruled that a transgender woman employed in a civilian position by the U.S. Department of the Army, is entitled to use restroom facilities consistent with her gender identity, despite the agency’s objection to providing such access before the individual has undergone sex-reassignment surgery.  Although the EEOC had previously ruled that refusal to employ somebody because of their gender identity was a form of sex discrimination in violation of federal law, this was its first pronouncement on one of the great looming issues in transgender workplace rights: restroom access.

The case is Lusardi v. McHugh, the complainant being Tamara Lusardi and the named defendant being Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh.  The EEOC designates this as Appeal No. 0120133395.

Lusardi was hired as a male-identified person in 2004, as a civilian employee with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  The case decided by the EEOC relates to events from October 2010 through August 2011 when she was assigned to the AMRDEC Software Engineering Directorate, and was also doing work at the Project Management office, Aircraft Survivability Equipment, as a Software Quality Assurance Lead.

As early as 2007 she had begun to discuss her gender identity issues with the Division Chief, and she began the actual transitioning process in 2010, obtaining a legal name change from an Alabama court in April of that year from a male-identified first-name to her desired name of Tamara.  She requested that the name be changed in Department records, which was effected on October 13, 2010.  Two weeks later, at the request of the supervisor on the Aircraft Survivability Equipment job, she met with that supervisor and the Division Chief to discuss the process of transitioning to presenting herself in conformance with her gender identity, and the issue of how she would relate to co-workers came up, particularly regarding restroom use once she began presenting as a woman.  An agreement of sorts was reached, and memorialized in writing, that she would use a single-user restroom, referred to as the “executive restroom,” until she had undergone sex reassignment surgery.

She generally adhered to that agreement, but there were a few occasions when that restroom was unavailable or out of order, so she used the restroom designated for women, which brought forth objections from the supervisor and it turned into an issue.  There was also a problem of harassment, derived from another supervisor’s  apparent difficulty in accommodating to Lusardi’s gender identity.  This supervisor persisted in referring to Lusari with masculine pronouns or calling her “sir,” using her former first name, and “smirking” and “giggling” in front of others while stating “What is this, [Complainant’s former male name] or Tamara”?

Lusardi initially spoke with an EEO counselor about these issues in September 2011, and filed a formal complaint of disparate treatment and hostile environment with the agency’s EEO office on March 14, 2012.  A final agency decision was issued on September 5, 2013, concluding that she had failed to show a violation of the applicable ban on sex discrimination.  She appealed this ruling to the EEOC a few weeks later.  She also filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, which is charged with ruling on internal executive branch personnel matters.  That office found that the restroom access denial was improper, in a report that ordered training for Army Department staffers but awarded no remedy to Lusardi.

Reversing the Army Department’s decision, the EEOC found that the disparate treatment in restroom access was a direct violation of the ban on sex discrimination.  Following up on the logical implications of its prior decision, it held that a transgender woman who is presenting as a woman is entitled to be treated by her employer as a woman.  This includes access to women’s facilities, regardless whether the individual has had surgery.  “This case represents well the peril of conditioning access to facilities on any medical procedure,” wrote the Commission.  “Nothing in Title VII makes any medical procedure a prerequisite for equal opportunity (for transgender individuals or anyone else).  An agency may not condition access to facilities — or to other terms, conditions, or privileges of employment — on the completion of certain medical steps that the agency itself has unilaterally determined will somehow prove the bona fides of the individual’s gender identity.”

The EEOC also rejected the agency’s findings on the harassment claim, concluding that the insults to Lusardi were intentional, and ordered the agency to take concrete steps to educate its employees and supervisors on their non-discrimination obligations. The EEOC also ordered the agency to undertake a fact-finding investigation to determine compensatory damages for Lusardi in connection with the findings of sex discrimination and hostile environment.

It will be interesting to see whether the federal courts will fall in line with this ruling, which contradicts older court opinions.