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Federal Court in NYC Dismisses Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim under Title VII

Posted on: March 10th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

In 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over cases in the federal trial courts in New York, rejected the argument that sexual orientation discrimination claims could be dealt with as sex discrimination claims under federal law, but was open to the possibility that a gay litigant who had suffered discrimination because of failure to conform with the employer’s stereotypical views of appropriate gender behavior could pursue such a claim.  On March 9, a gay litigant informed the 2nd Circuit that he will appeal a Manhattan trial court’s dismissal of his federal sexual orientation claim, joining the trial judge in urging the appeals court to reconsider its 2000 decision.

Since the 2nd Circuit decided Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33 (2000), the law affecting LGBT rights has drastically changed.  In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that gay sex between consenting adults could no longer be outlawed.  In 2002, New York State joined New York City in outlawing sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, and the next year New York City extended the local law to gender identity discrimination claims.  In 2009 the federal government added sexual orientation and gender identity to the national Hate Crimes Law, and subsequently repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” anti-gay military policy.   In 2011 New York passed a Marriage Equality Act, in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages formed under state law, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to marry and have their marriages recognized by state governments everywhere in the country.

Through all this change, however, the principal federal anti-discrimination law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has never been amended to extend explicit protection against discrimination to LGBT people. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII, the employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act, has interpreted the federal ban on sex discrimination as extending to gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, but federal courts are not bound by that interpretation, and federal trial judges have differed about how to handle sexual orientation discrimination claims.  So far, no federal appeals court has ruled on the question since the EEOC issued its decision last summer, but cases are pending on appeal in several circuits.

On March 9, U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla, ruling on an employer’s motion to dismiss a Title VII claim filed by a gay man in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29972, found that his attempt to squeeze the case into the sex stereotype theory was unsuccessful and dismissed his claim, concluding that she was bound by the 2nd Circuit precedent to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  Reviewing the facts alleged by Matthew Christiansen against Omnicom Group (the parent company) and DDB Worldwide Communications (the business by which he is employed in New York), the judge found that all but one of the incidents he described in his complaint related to sexual orientation.

Indeed, Christiansen’s allegations clearly state that his supervisor, Joe Cianciotto, was “openly resentful and hostile toward Plaintiff because of his sexual orientation.” The various incidents of harassment that Christiansen described in his complaint all involved Cianciotto’s expression of such hostility in some form.  Only once did he refer to Christiansen as “effeminate,” which might have supported a sex stereotype claim, but most of the time Cianciotto’s razzing focused on Christiansen’s “big muscles” (as described by Cianciotto), pictorial invocations of exaggerated masculinity, and references to gay stereotypes.

Judge Failla focused on the difficulty of distinguishing between sexual orientation and sex stereotyping claims, quoting from several other court decisions illustrating that difficulty, and warning against using passing stereotypical references by a supervisor to “shoehorn” a sexual orientation claim into Title VII coverage.

“The lesson imparted by the body of Title VII litigation concerning sexual orientation discrimination and sexual stereotyping seems to be that no coherent line can be drawn between these two sorts of claims,” she wrote. “Yet the prevailing law in this Circuit – and, indeed, every Circuit to consider the question – is that such a line must be drawn.  Simonton is still good law, and, as such, this Court is bound by its dictates.  Consequently, the Court must consider whether the Plaintiff has pleaded a claim based on sexual stereotyping, separate and apart from the stereotyping inherent in his claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The Court finds that he has not.”

Christiansen’s complaint alleges that Ciancotto told a coworker that Christiansen was “effeminate and gay so he must have AIDS,” but this was not enough for Judge Failla. “This is the sole mention of Plaintiff as effeminate or otherwise non-conforming to traditional gender norms in the whole of the [first amended complaint],” she wrote.  “It alone cannot serve to transform a claim for discrimination that Plaintiff plainly interpreted – and the facts support – as stemming from sexual orientation animus into one for sexual stereotyping.  While Plaintiff provides virtually no support in his [complaint] for an allegation of discrimination based on sexual stereotyping, he provides multiple illustrations of Cianciotto’s animus toward gay individuals.  The [complaint] notes, for instance, the fact that ‘most of the pictures Cianciotto drew were of men fornicating, and they always involved a gay employee’; that he repeatedly expressed a belief that gay men were reckless and disease-prone; and that he commented at a meeting that he did not want an advertisement to be ‘too gay.’  All of these examples lend further support to the inference that Cianciotto’s harassment was motivated by sexual-orientation-based discriminatory animus, not sexual stereotyping.”

Failla conceded that she might be able to “latch onto the single use of the word ‘effeminate’ and the depiction of Plaintiff’s head on a woman’s body, strip these facts of the context provided by the rest of the [complaint], and conjure up a claim for ‘sexual stereotyping.’ But while the ends might be commendable, the means would be intellectually dishonest; the Court would obliterate the line the Second Circuit has drawn, rightly or wrongly, between sexual orientation and sex-based claims.  In light of the EEOC’s recent decision on Title VII’s scope, and the demonstrated impracticability of considering sexual orientation discrimination as categorically different from sexual stereotyping, one might reasonably ask – and, lest there by any doubt, this Court is asking – whether that line should be erased.  Until it is, however, discrimination based on sexual orientation will not support a claim under Title VII; Plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim must therefore be dismissed.”

Reading Christiansen’s factual allegations, one would have to be amazed that a supervisor behaving the way Joe Cianciotto is alleged to have behaved would be tolerated by a socially conscious employer in New York, much less a large advertising agency. As far as society has advanced over the past few decades in treating gay people with simple human dignity, the facts one reads in employment discrimination complaints filed by LGBT suggest that there is still a long way to go.

Christiansen, who is HIV-positive, also asserted an Americans With Disabilities Act claim, but Judge Failla found it was not timely, since the only incident on point occurred more than 300 days before Christiansen filed his charge with the EEOC, and in that charge he didn’t even mention the ADA. She also found that his factual allegations would not support a claim under the ADA in any event, since there was scant evidence that he was mistreated by the company because of his HIV status, and that the facts also did not support his claim to have suffered retaliation for filing his discrimination charges.  His complaint asserted a “constructive discharge” claim, which he had to withdraw since he was still working for the company when the complaint was filed

However, it is a fair inference from Judge Failla’s characterization of the evidence that if she felt Title VII could be construed to cover sexual orientation discrimination, she would not have granted the motion to dismiss. She also granted a motion to dismiss filed on behalf of various supervisory and managerial officials of the employer, as the federal anti-discrimination laws do not pose personal liability on company officials.  Having dismissed all the federal statutory claims that Christiansen made, the judge declined to extend jurisdiction over his state law claims, so he should be able to pursue his case further in state court, where the statutes do expressly forbid sexual orientation discrimination.

In the meantime, however, Christiansen’s reaction to the March 9 dismissal was immediate, as his attorney filed a notice of appeal with the 2nd Circuit the same day.  Little more than a week earlier, the EEOC had advanced its campaign to win judicial acceptance of the agency’s interpretation of Title VII by filing its first affirmative sexual orientation discrimination claims against employers in other parts of the country.  The EEOC had already intervened as a co-plaintiff in several other pending cases since last year’s administrative ruling.

Christiansen is represented by Susan Chana Lask, a New York City trial lawyer.