Articles Posted in EEOC

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Leah Kessler

This summer, we reported on the Second Circuit’s decision to review en banc its holding in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., where the Second Circuit had affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) on the grounds that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation discrimination. On Monday, the Second Circuit broke with precedent and reversed that decision, finding that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

While Title VII forbids discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin, the statute does not explicitly prohibit sexual orientation–based discrimination. This has historically left many employees vulnerable to discrimination because of their sexuality: No federal law explicitly forbids discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace, local laws differ considerably from state to state, and the U.S. Supreme Court has never addressed whether Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination. While, under the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the government agency that interprets and enforces Title VII—made clear that it views sexual orientation discrimination as a violation of Title VII, the EEOC’s interpretations don’t have legal force in federal court, and courts have typically dismissed Title VII sexual orientation claims in the past.

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Earlier this year, we reported on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital affirming the dismissal of a former security guard’s claims that her employer had discriminated against her because she is a lesbian and did not conform to gender stereotypes. This Monday, December 11, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Evans, leaving unanswered the question of whether Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination.

Plaintiff Jameka Evans, who is a lesbian, worked at an Atlanta regional hospital as a security officer. She was open about her sexual orientation with her coworkers and dressed in a masculine manner, wearing the men’s security guard uniform, men’s shoes, and a short haircut. According to Evans’s complaint, the hospital discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation and nonconformity with gender stereotypes by denying her equal pay, harassing her, physically assaulting her, and targeting her for termination, then retaliated against her after she complained about the discriminatory treatment.

Evans brought sex and sexual orientation discrimination claims in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia under Title VII, which is a federal statute that protects employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.  The district court dismissed Evans’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, holding that Title VII “was not intended to cover discrimination against homosexuals,” and Evans appealed the ruling to the Eleventh Circuit.

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On October 5, 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to the heads of all federal government agencies and all U.S. attorneys, stating that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is now taking the position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or transgender status. The memo reverses the DOJ’s previous stance on the issue and runs contrary to the position taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as various federal appellate and district courts.

While Title VII explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, there has been heated debate in recent years over whether that prohibition includes discrimination against transgender workers. The status of legal protections for transgender employees is complicated: no federal law explicitly forbids discrimination against transgender people in the workplace, state and city employment protections vary widely, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address the question of whether Title VII covers gender identity­–based discrimination. The EEOC views discrimination against transgender people as discrimination based on sex and therefore a violation of Title VII, but the EEOC’s interpretations of Title VII are not legally binding, and federal appellate and district courts have differed in their applications of the statute to transgender workers.

Until last week, the DOJ’s position on Title VII’s applicability to transgender people was consistent with that of the EEOC. Under the Obama administration, in December 2014, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a DOJ memo stating that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination encompassed discrimination on the basis of gender identity, as such discrimination unlawfully takes into account “sex-based considerations.” Last week’s memo, however, reverses that position. Sessions characterized the reversal as “a conclusion of law, not policy,” stating that, while Title VII “expressly prohibits discrimination ‘because of…sex,’” it does not prohibit discrimination “based on gender identity per se because the statute “does not refer to gender identity” explicitly. Sessions justified this distinction by claiming that the word “sex” is “ordinarily defined to mean biologically male or female,” and stated that, under the DOJ’s new interpretation, transgender people are covered by Title VII if they are discriminated against based on whether they are “biologically male or female,” but not if they are discriminated against specifically because they are transgender.

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Owen H. Laird

The Harman Firm blog has run several stories over the past year about the evolving case law concerning sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Last week, a plaintiff in a sexual orientation discrimination case in the Eleventh Circuit, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, requested that the United States Supreme Court take up the issue.

To recap: Title VII is one of the foundational federal anti-discrimination statutes; it protects employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.  Sexual orientation is not one of the protected statuses enumerated in Title VII.  In 2016, however, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) – the federal agency tasked with administering Title VII – filed two lawsuits asserting sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  This was a major change, as both the EEOC and nearly every federal court had previously taken the position that sexual orientation discrimination was not prohibited under Title VII.

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Last week, on July 6, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota granted summary judgment in favor of defendant in EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, finding that a Minnesota hospital had not violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) when it withdrew a nurse’s conditional employment offer after she requested a religious accommodation. The court held that the act of requesting a reasonable accommodation did not, in and of itself, constitute protected activity under Title VII. Consequently, North Memorial’s withdrawal of plaintiff’s job offer, as a matter of law, could never give rise to a Title VII retaliation claim. This decision contradicts the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance, which includes requests for religious accommodations as protected activity.

Emily Sure-Ondara, the plaintiff in North Memorial, is a nurse and a practicing Seventh Day Adventist (a Protestant Christian denomination). In November 2013, Sure-Ondara was recruited for a registered nurse position at North Memorial. She applied for the job, and, after a series of successful interviews, North Memorial extended her a conditional offer of employment. According to the terms of the conditional job offer, Sure-Ondara was scheduled to work the night shift—11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.—and weekends, every other weekend.

Upon receiving her proposed schedule, Sure-Ondara contacted North Memorial’s Human Resources (HR) to request a religious accommodation. As a Seventh Day Adventist, Ms. Sure-Ondara observes the Sabbath on Saturdays and was consequently not able to work on Friday nights due to her religious obligations. HR responded that the North Memorial union agreement required all nurses to work every other weekend and that, if Sure-Ondara would not be able to work the proposed schedule, the hospital might “need to offer the position to another candidate.” Sure-Ondara told HR that she would “make it work” and offered to either trade her Friday night shifts with another nurse or—if she could not find a substitute—come in to work anyway, despite her religious obligations.

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By Harrison C. Paige

On April 18, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York’s decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express, dismissing Donald Zarda’s sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In reaching its decision, the Second Circuit relied on its 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon, where the court held that Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on May 25, 2017, the Second Circuit granted en banc review in Zarda, signaling that the Second Circuit may be ready to reexamine Simonton and revisit its position on Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims.

In Simonton, Dwayne Simonton, a postal worker, was harassed because of his sexual orientation. The harassment was so severe that Simonton suffered a heart attack as a direct result of the abuse. While the Second Circuit’s decision noted the severity of the harassment and rebuked the behavior, the court nonetheless held that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination based on “sex” does not include discrimination based on sexual orientation and dismissed Mr. Simonton’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims. The precedent set by Simonton has prevented countless individuals from bringing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, leaving individuals stranded in their search for justice.

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On June 15, 2017, U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District of New York approved the parties’ consent decree in United States v. City of New York, a race discrimination case brought against the City of New York and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in January 2017, alleged that NYCDOT management violated Title VII by systematically discriminating against racial minorities over a nearly ten-year period.

According to the complaint, the NYCDOT “engaged in a pattern or practice of racial discrimination and retaliation based on the failure to promote minority employees” within the Fleet Services unit, an NYCDOT division responsible for maintaining NYCDOT vehicles such as trucks, passenger cars, and heavy machinery. The complaint described a “culture of fear and intimidation” created by nearly a decade of discrimination and retaliation against minority employees in the Fleet Services Unit, perpetrated primarily by two NYCDOT executive directors.

The directors allegedly referred to African-American employees with racist epithets like “n*gger” and “monkey”; gave preferential treatment to white employees in promotions, hiring, and project assignments, including promoting less experienced white individuals over more qualified minority candidates and changing hiring procedures to disadvantage racial minorities; and retaliated against employees who complained of discrimination by cutting their hours and even physically threatening them.

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On May 3, 2017, in Philpott v. State of New York, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York joined a growing number of courts across the country in finding sexual orientation discrimination cognizable under Title VII, stating, “I decline to embrace an illogical and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination.”

Plaintiff Jeffery Philpott was employed at the SUNY College of Optometry as Vice President of Student Affairs, where, according to his complaint, he was subjected to years of discrimination and harassment because he is gay. Philpott alleges that his supervisors and coworkers mockingly called him “sensitive” and “flamboyant,” told him that “separate but equal treatment of gay people might be best,” dismissively referred to his relationship with his long-term domestic partner as “this marriage, or whatever you want to call it,” and refused to let him meet their families because they did not “want our children to be around homosexuality.” In addition, SUNY allegedly excluded him from meetings and projects because of his sexual orientation and implied that he deserved a lower salary because he is gay, telling him that “your team [i.e., gay people] doesn’t have kids. You have more than you need.” Shortly after Philpott complained to SUNY of the ongoing discrimination, Philpott claims, SUNY terminated his employment. Philpott filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), then filed suit in federal court, alleging hostile work environment, wrongful termination, and retaliation claims under Title VII.

Title VII does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet the EEOC and a growing number of courts take the position that the statute’s provision against sex discrimination covers sexual orientation discrimination, as well. Most recently, as we reported in April, the Seventh Circuit became the first Court of Appeals to recognize sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII with its groundbreaking decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College. While the Second Circuit (the Court of Appeals with jurisdiction over New York) has previously ruled that Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation, the court recently addressed the topic in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, Incorporated, and—as we noted in our post about the decision—seemed reluctant to endorse existing precedent, stating that “no coherent line can be drawn” between gender stereotyping and sexual orientation discrimination claims.

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On September 21, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Southern District of Alabama’s decision in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, in which the district court held that an employer’s policy prohibiting employees from having dreadlocks did not constitute race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

In May 2010, Chastity Jones, who is Black and wears her hair in dreadlocks, completed an online employment application for a customer service representative position at Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS), an insurance claims processing company based in Mobile, Alabama, and was selected for an in-person interview. Ms. Jones performed well in her interview, and CMS hired her for the customer service representative position on the spot.

However, as Ms. Jones was leaving, Jeannie Wilson, a Human Resources Manager at CMS with whom Ms. Jones had met to discuss the terms of her employment, asked her if she was wearing her hair in dreadlocks. When Ms. Jones responded that she was, Ms. Wilson told her that CMS could not hire her if she continued to wear her hair in dreadlocks on the grounds that dreadlocks violated CMS’s grooming policy, which required employees to be “dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image,” including hairstyle. Ms. Wilson allegedly told Ms. Jones that “[dreadlocks] tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about.” When Ms. Jones replied that she would not cut her hair, Ms. Wilson immediately rescinded CMS’s offer of employment.

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Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On November 4, 2016, the Western District of Pennsylvania—joining the Middle District of Alaska, District of the District of Columbia, District of Oregon, and Central District of California—held that a gay person has standing to bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). In EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, the Complainant, Dale Baxley, alleges that his supervisor, Robert McClendon, Scott Medical Health Center’s telemarketing manager, subjected him to a hostile work environment because he is a gay man. After Scott Medical Health Center’s president and chief executive officer allegedly ignored his complaint about the discrimination and harassment, Mr. Baxley quit.

In the complaint, Mr. Baxley alleges that Mr. McClendon called him a “fag,” “faggot,” “fucking faggot,” and “queer,” and, after learning that Mr. Baxley had a male partner, made statements such as “I always wondered how you fags have sex,” “I don’t understand how you fucking fags have sex,” and “Who’s the butch and who is the bitch?” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that Title VII covered this type of harassment as, had it not been but for Mr. Baxley’s sex, he would not have been subjected to this harassment. The court agreed, stating that Title VII’s “because of sex” provision prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

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