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The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that employers can’t terminate workers based on their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) status, and employers should understand that the ruling provides employment protections beyond being fired.
The court ruling is significant as the decision makes clear that “sex” discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against workers based on protected characteristics with respect to terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, firing, laying off, training or disciplining.
An employer may not discriminate with respect to benefits provided to any group of similarly situated workers that includes members of a protected class, and that would be particularly true with respect to health care coverage, parental leave and similar emoluments.
Employers should thoroughly review their application, hiring and ongoing work processes to look for issues that may relate to these areas, said Randy Coffey, an attorney with Fisher Phillips. The review should include health plan coverage and procedures, leave and insurance benefits, and any other areas in which LGBTQ employees conceivably might be affected or treated differently from other employees, he said.
Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from discriminating against workers because of their color, national origin, race, religion or sex. The act makes it unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”
The Supreme Court held in its landmark ruling, Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., that an employee’s “homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.” Federal appeals courts had disagreed on whether Title VII’s ban on discrimination based on sex included LGBTQ status, but the high court found that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”
The decision focused on unlawful terminations, which were the subject of the cases before the court, but the ruling extends to all employment actions that are protected under Title VII.
“The Supreme Court’s decision not only prohibits an employer from refusing to hire or discharging an employee based on LGBTQ status, but also prohibits treating employees differently in the spectrum of compensation, terms or conditions of employment because of the individual’s LGBTQ status,” explained Amy Blaisdell, an attorney with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago and St. Louis.
Of course, employers will still be able to defend such discrimination claims in the same ways they have defended against other Title VII discrimination charges. In the event that an employee can make a viable, initial claim of discrimination—or prima-facie case—the employer will then have the opportunity to show nondiscriminatory reasons for the employment action.
As is the case generally with respect to Title VII, it is a best practice not only to be fair but to document employee-related decisions, furnish accurate evaluations, and maintain and publicize anti-discrimination policies.
Employers should note that Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, though many state and local anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ workers apply to smaller employers.
Scope of the Ruling
“There are definite health and benefit considerations for employers stemming from the court’s ruling,” Blaisdell said. For example, LGBTQ employees may rely on the case to argue that employers are required to offer medical plans providing transgender medical benefits to them.
“Yet, many faith-based employers decline coverage for such services on the basis that covering transgender benefits would conflict with moral and religious teachings,” she said. “This push and pull between individual rights and religious liberties was left unresolved by the court’s decision.”
Jay Dade, an attorney with Polsinelli in Kansas City, Mo., said he would caution anyone from drawing legal conclusions past the issues addressed by Bostock—that is, those of employment. However, he noted, employers are always free to offer protections beyond those provided by applicable laws and many provide employment protections to LGBTQ employees through workplace policies.
“The court also made it a point to note that these cases did not require the court to address concerns about religious conviction,” added Jason Plowman, also an attorney with Polsinelli in Kansas City, Mo. On that point, the court specifically noted that “how these doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases” because “none of the employers before us today represent in this court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.”
The intersection of these two sets of protections will almost certainly be a focus of future litigation related to sexual orientation and gender identity, along with how the Bostock ruling applies or does not apply in other contexts, Plowman said.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a final rule on June 12, three days before the Bostock decision, that eliminated anti-discrimination protections based on gender identity in health care and health insurance that the agency said were unenforceable and exceeded the prior administration’s authority.
“The Supreme Court ruling does not directly impact the recent HHS rule,” noted Jeffrey Smith, an attorney with Fisher Phillips. That’s because the HHS interpretation is based on Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, while the Supreme Court was interpreting provisions of Title VII.
“That said, it does demonstrate a shift in the legal landscape, and it may be harder for HHS to continue to enforce the interpretation it has just released,” Smith added.
Coffey said employers should expect a wave of litigation over the “outer reaches” of the Bostock decision. “There is no question that there will be many new filings alleging discriminatory failures to hire, harassment and hostile work environment claims, and discriminatory termination, all based on the sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity of applicants and employees.”
For many employers, the Bostock decision will reinforce their policies prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, said Lori Armstrong Halber, an attorney with Reed Smith in Philadelphia and Princeton, N.J. Other employers will need to amend their policies immediately to include sexual orientation and gender identity within the classes protected from discrimination in their workplace.
“All employers would be best served by taking the opportunity to educate and train their employees on their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and to focus some of that training on LGBTQ bias,” she said.
The split among appeals courts over whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual orientation discrimination deepened Feb. 26, as the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it does. The decision makes it likely that the Supreme Court ultimately will have to rule on the issue, said Michelle Phillips, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in White Plains, N.Y.
Two appellate courts now agree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) position that Title VII protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Claims of sexual orientation discrimination are increasingly being litigated,” said Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. “[A]n increasing number of courts are finding that such claims can be brought under Title VII, the law remains in flux. This uncertainty will continue until the Supreme Court addresses the issue or Congress passes clarifying legislation.”
He recommended that employers increase their sensitivity to issues related to sexual orientation in the workplace during this period of uncertainty.
Phillips noted that 22 states plus the District of Columbia prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.
Fired Gay Skydiver Sues
In the 2nd Circuit case, a skydiving instructor sued his former employer, alleging he was fired from his job after he revealed to a female customer that he was gay. He told her this to calm her worry about being strapped tightly to him during the jump. Her boyfriend complained to the employer following this disclosure and alleged that the skydiver touched her inappropriately, and the instructor was discharged. He alleged sex discrimination under Title VII, asserting that he was fired because he failed to conform to male sex stereotypes and because he was gay.
The plaintiff died in a skydiving accident, but his estate continued with the claim. The district court dismissed his Title VII claim. It held that the plaintiff had failed to show gender stereotyping under Title VII based on his sexual orientation. In addition, it noted that prior case law in the 2nd Circuit held that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
2nd Circuit Changes Course
During oral arguments before the 2nd Circuit in this case, the EEOC advocated for a broad reading of Title VII that encompassed sexual orientation. But the Justice Department argued that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination did not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination, Schwartz-Fenwick noted.
The 2nd Circuit reversed, overruling prior case law and determining that sexual orientation should be treated as a subset of sex discrimination for several reasons:
The 2nd Circuit also observed that the EEOC and the 7th Circuit had reversed their previous views that Title VII did not bar sexual orientation discrimination, Schwartz-Fenwick noted.
But in 2017, the 11th Circuit held that Title VII did not extend to sexual orientation, he observed. The Supreme Court declined to review the 11th Circuit Court’s decision in December 2017.
The other federal appeals courts—namely the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th Circuits—have also held that sexual orientation is not expressly covered by Title VII, said Sean Crotty, an attorney with Honigman in Detroit. The Supreme Court may want to see more recent opinions from the circuits on the issue before granting review, he said.
The 2nd Circuit encompasses Connecticut, New York and Vermont.
Late yesterday (4/4/17), the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal court of appeals in the nation to rule that sexual orientation claims are actionable under Title VII. Their decision opened the door for LGBT plaintiffs to use Title VII to seek relief for allegations of employment discrimination and retaliation.
The April 4th ruling is important to employers because it broadens the class of potential plaintiffs who can bring workplace claims against them, and will require employers to ensure fair and equal treatment to all applicants and workers regardless of their sexual orientation (Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College).
The initial aim of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to protect employees from race discrimination in the workplace. Just before it was enacted, however, Congress added a provision prohibiting discrimination based on “sex.” Initially, federal courts took the position that “sex” should be interpreted narrowly.
However, over the years, plaintiffs have sought a much broader interpretation of what should be covered as sex discrimination. Following the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision which made same-sex marriage legal across the country, federal courts have grappled with determining which types of claims are actionable under the “sex” provision of Title VII. Meanwhile, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a July 2015 administrative decision ruling 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” (Baldwin v. Foxx).
Although this decision involved a federal employee and was only binding on federal employers, other lower federal courts have discussed the rationale behind the EEOC’s conclusion and seemed ready to adopt the same approach. Indeed, on November 4, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with the EEOC and held that sexual orientation falls within the protection of Title VII (EEOC v. Scott Medical Center). However, no federal appellate court went that far – until now.
Kimberly Hively began working as a part-time adjunct professor for Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana in 2000. She worked there for 14 years until her part-time employment contract was not renewed in 2014. During her employment, she applied for six full-time positions but claims never to have even been offered an interview, even though she said she had all the necessary qualifications and had never even received a negative evaluation.
Hively filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, and in 2015, the trial court dismissed her case. She appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (which oversees federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), which initially agreed with the lower court by upholding the dismissal of her claim in July 2016.
The three-person panel of judges indicated that it had no choice but to deny Hively’s claim after reviewing a string of cases stretching back almost 40 years from across the country. The panel concluded that no other federal appellate court had decided that sexual orientation discrimination is covered under Title VII. The judges noted that we live in “a paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act,” but indicated they were all but powerless to rule otherwise absent a Supreme Court directive or a congressional amendment to Title VII.
In October 2016, the full collection of 7th Circuit judges set aside the ruling and agreed to re-hear the case en banc, which means all the judges would hear the case together. Late yesterday, the en banc panel issued a final ruling overturning its initial decision by an 8 to 3 vote and breathing new life into Hively’s case. More importantly, however, the 7th Circuit created a new cause of action under Title VII for other LGBT employees in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
In the opinion, drafted by Chief Judge Wood, the court concluded that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of discrimination” and that it “would require considerable calisthenics” to remove the “sex” from “sexual orientation” when applying Title VII. In addition, the court noted that efforts to do so had led to confusing and contradictory results.
In the end, the court concluded that the practical realities of life necessitated that it reverse its prior decision. It remanded Hively’s case back to the trial court for a new hearing under this broad new standard.
Employers in Illinois and Wisconsin are already subject to state laws protecting private workers based on sexual orientation, so yesterday’s decision should simply reaffirm their commitment to ensuring fairness and equality for these employees. For private employers in Indiana, however, the time is now to take proactive steps to ensure sexual orientation is treated the same as any other protected class – this includes reviewing your written policies, handbooks, training sessions, workplace investigations, hiring methods, discipline and discharge procedures, and all other aspects of your human resources activities.
As for employers in the rest of the country, it appears likely that yesterday’s ruling will be followed by decisions in other circuit courts similarly extending Title VII rights to cover sexual orientation. In fact, the plaintiff in a prominent case recently decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (hearing cases from Florida, Georgia, Alabama) has indicated she could seek a full en banc review of her case in the hopes of extending Title VII to cover LGBT workers in that circuit. It would not be surprising for the Hively case to be the first in a series of dominoes that brings about a new day for Title VII litigation across the country.
We can expect to see further judicial rulings in the coming years fleshing out this issue in more detail. For example, one issue not addressed by the 7th Circuit is how this new theory will affect religious institutions given that different standards apply to them under federal antidiscrimination laws. These and other considerations will be debated in courts across the country in the near future.
Even if these appeals court decisions do not immediately materialize, there are two other avenues whereby employers could still face immediate liability for such claims. The first is through state law. Almost half of the states in the country have laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in employment (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin), and some additional states protect state workers from such discrimination (Alaska, Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia).
Second, plaintiffs have successfully argued to various federal courts that Title VII sex discrimination covers claims where plaintiffs allege mistreatment based on gender non-conformity actions. This includes situations where employers are alleged to have discriminated against workers for failing to live up to stereotypical gender norms. Courts have noted that drawing a line that separates these “sex-stereotyping” claims from pure sexual orientation claims is “exceptionally difficult” because the distinction is often “elusive,” meaning that employers anywhere could face a Title VII claim akin to sexual orientation discrimination that would be accepted as valid by a federal court no matter what the federal appeals courts say. This concept was discussed in the 11th Circuit’s recent Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital decision, and the court in fact permitted the plaintiff to proceed with her case on a stereotyping theory.
While possible that the Supreme Court or Congress will step in and reverse this trend, as a recent court stated, “it seems unlikely that our society can continue to condone a legal structure in which employees can be fired, harassed, demeaned, singled out for undesirable tasks, paid lower wages, demoted, passed over for promotions, and otherwise discriminated against solely based on who they date, love, or marry.” Employers should take heed and prepare for what appears to be an inevitable extension of workplace protection rights for LGBT workers based on their sexual orientation.