The New Wave Of Title VII Suits Alleging Sexual Orientation Discrimination

By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr., Managing Member, Seltzer Chadwick Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

On July 26, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed an amicus brief in an employment discrimination case pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., the plaintiff alleged he had been discriminated against based upon sexual orientation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

The DOJ amicus brief argued that, although Title VII prohibits sex discrimination in employment, it does not proscribe sexual orientation discrimination. The brief emphasized that, until recently, federal Courts of Appeal uniformly held that sexual orientation bias is not unlawful under Title VII.  The brief added: “Any efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts.”

Nevertheless, on February 26, 2018, the Second Circuit ruled en banc that Title VII bars discrimination based on sexual orientation. Prior to the ruling, other Circuits had been evenly split on the issue. On April 4, 2017 an en banc decision by the Seventh Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana concluded “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination” outlawed by Title VII. On March 10, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit in in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hosp. found (by a 2-1 vote) it could not recognize sexual orientation claims under Title VII.

For its part, the U.S. Supreme Court declined on December 11, 2017 to take up the issue of whether Title VII addresses sexual orientation discrimination.

So, why have two federal appellate courts embraced the opposite view of that asserted by the DOJ? Simply stated, the courts found sexual orientation discrimination to be a form of sex discrimination. Four arguments were cited in support of this conclusion.

First, the Seventh Circuit in Hively noted a lesbian or gay man “represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to a gender stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional); she [or he] is not heterosexual.” The court continued: “Any discomfort, disapproval, or job decision based on the fact that the complainant—woman or man— dresses differently, speaks differently, or dates or marries a same-sex partner, is a reaction purely and simply based on sex.”

Second, the Seventh Circuit in Hively observed “a person who is discriminated against because of the protected characteristic of one with whom she [or he] associates is actually being disadvantaged because of her [or his] own traits.” The Court found this to be just as true for sex discrimination as race discrimination.

Third, the Second Circuit in Zarda opined: “… the most natural reading of the statutes prohibition of on discrimination ‘because of sex’ is that it extends to sexual orientation discrimination because sex is necessarily a factor in sexual orientation.”

Finally, as to the previously uniform rejection of sexual orientation claims under Title VII, the Seventh Circuit in Hively cited the need “to take a fresh look” at the issue “in light of developments at the Supreme Court extending over two decades.” The Second Circuit in Zarda cited a change of position by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Hively opinion.

At the district court level, the impact of the en banc decisions at the Seventh and Second Circuits has already been felt. Steadily since Spring 2017, new Title VII suits have been filed alleging sexual orientation discrimination. With Hively and Zarda providing non-frivolous arguments for the reversal of existing law in other circuits, sanctions are not a deterrent to such suits. Indeed, such suits carry the hope that other circuits or the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually follow the lead of the Seventh and Second Circuits.

To be sure, the Supreme Court may eventually decide that Congressional, not judicial, action is needed to expand the scope of Title VII to sexual orientation discrimination. In the meantime, however, employers must manage the risk of sexual orientation discrimination suits  even in states which do not have state laws barring such discrimination.

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