Articles Posted in Sexual Stereotyping

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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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Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On November 15, 2017, in Berghorn v. Texas Workforce Commission, the District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed with prejudice plaintiff Kyle Berghorn’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, but allowed him to re-plead his gender stereotyping claim. Berghorn alleged that Xerox terminated his employment because he is gay and because he failed to conform to Xerox’s gender stereotypes. Both of Berghorn’s claims arose under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

Berghorn was employed by Xerox from 2002 until February 29, 2016. At the time of his termination, he held the position of senior manager. Xerox terminated Berghorn after finishing an investigation, which purportedly concerned Berghorn’s use of expenses, but in which Xerox instead asked Berghorn several questions about whom Berghorn was sleeping with and whether the person was male. Allegedly, Xerox employees had previously made other disparaging comments about Berghorn’s sexuality, like, “He has no children. He’s gay.” Ultimately, the investigation revealed that Berghorn had not stolen any money from the company and that he had himself paid for personal charges on his card; his expenses were in order. Nonetheless, Xerox fired him.

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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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In October, we reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had vacated its July 2016 decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, where a former adjunct college professor brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), alleging that her employer had refused to hire her for a full-time position because she is a lesbian. Yesterday, April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and became the first Court of Appeals to hold that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination.”

Kimberly Hively, who is openly gay, started teaching part-time at Ivy Tech Community College in 2000. Between 2009 and 2014, she unsuccessfully applied for six different full-time positions. When the college also failed to renew her part-time contract in July 2014, Hively filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and subsequently brought suit pro se in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, alleging that she had been denied employment opportunities because she is a lesbian. The district court dismissed Hively’s complaint on the grounds that Title VII did not cover sexual orientation discrimination, and Hively appealed.

In its original decision in July 2016, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal, explaining that it was bound to do so by circuit precedent and Congress’s legislative intent. However, the court expressed dissatisfaction with these constraints, pointing to the inconsistency and confusion created by existing case law. In October 2016, it vacated its decision and agreed to rehear the case en banc—an unusual move, typically granted only in cases involving questions of exceptional importance, in which a case is reargued before a panel of all active judges in a circuit. In yesterday’s 8-3 ruling, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding that Title VII’s protections extend to sexual orientation discrimination.

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Harrison Paige

On March 27, 2017, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded in part and affirmed in part the district court’s decision in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, Incorporated, et al. Plaintiff Matthew Christiansen brought claims against his former employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), alleging discrimination on the basis of his HIV-positive status and his failure to conform to gender stereotypes. The lower court dismissed Christiansen’s federal claims for failure to state a claim; the Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of the ADA claim, but reversed the dismissal of the Title VII claim, finding that Christiansen had plausibly alleged a Title VII gender stereotyping claim.

Christiansen, an openly gay man who is HIV-positive, was the creative director for DDB Worldwide Communications Group Incorporated (“DDB”), an international advertising agency and Omnicom subsidiary. According to the complaint, Christian’s direct supervisor, Joe Cianciotto, subjected Christiansen to a “pattern of humiliating harassment targeting his effeminacy and sexual orientation.” Cianciotto allegedly drew offensive, obscene caricatures of Christiansen on an office whiteboard, the most explicit of which depicted Christiansen naked with an erection, captioned with a mocking comment about same-sex marriage. On another occasion, according to the complaint, Cianciotto created a “Muscle Beach Party” poster, which he circulated amongst office members and posted on Facebook, displaying DDB employees’ heads photoshopped onto the bodies of people in swimwear; on the poster, Christiansen’s head was pasted onto a photo of a woman in a bikini, lying on the ground with her legs upright in the air “in a manner that one coworker thought depicted Christiansen as ‘a submissive sissy.’”

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Earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part the district court’s decision in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

Jameka Evans worked at Georgia Regional Hospital (the “Hospital”) in Atlanta, Georgia, as a security officer. Evans, who is a lesbian, had a masculine gender presentation at work: she wore the men’s security officer uniform, men’s shoes, and a short, masculine haircut. According to Evans’ complaint, the Hospital discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation and because she did not behave in a “traditional woman[ly] manner.” Evans alleged that she was denied equal pay, harassed, physically assaulted, targeted for termination, and retaliated against after making a complaint of discrimination to the Hospital’s Human Resources department.

Evans filed suit pro se in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, bringing a sexual orientation discrimination claim and a sex discrimination claim, the latter of which was based on the Hospital’s discrimination against her on the basis of her gender nonconformity. The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that Title VII “was not intended to cover discrimination against homosexuals” and that Evans’ sex stereotyping claim was “just another way to claim discrimination based on sexual orientation.” The court appointed counsel from Lambda Legal, who had filed an amicus brief in support of Evans, to represent Evans on appeal, and Evans appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

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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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Yarelyn Mena  and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On March 23, 2016, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed in to law the Public Facilities Privacy of Security Act (or H.B. 2), which bans transgender people from using the public bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, overturns Charlotte, North Carolina’s anti-LGBT discrimination law, prevents other localities from passing anti-discrimination laws, and prevents cities from raising their minimum wages higher than that of the state. H.B. 2 was passed days before Transgender Day of Visibility, a day that recognizes the accomplishments of the transgender community. Although there were many recent victories for the LGBT community, H.B. 2 is an important reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done before LGBT individuals have the same rights everyone enjoys.

On February 22, 2016, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina passed a law prohibiting discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace. The most controversial part of the law was that it would allow transgendered people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Opponents of the bill nicknamed it the “bathroom bill” and argue that it made bathrooms unsafe for women and children. University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Payton McGarry, a transgender student, is one of the Plaintiff’s in a lawsuit challenging H.B. 2, who has been assaulted and ridiculed for using the bathroom that comports with his gender identity at his university, experiences which will only grow worse with H.B. 2 in place. H.B. 2 abrogated that law.

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Owen H. Laird

In a recent decision, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) unexpectedly extended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) to protect against sexual-orientation discrimination. The EEOC’s decision applies to claims brought by federal employees and all EEOC investigations of private employers.  The EEOC, the federal agency tasked to implement Title VII, has 53 field offices across the United States.

Title VII protects individuals against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, but does not recognize sexual orientation protection. Complainants attempted to pursue claims of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII by way of perceived gender-stereotyping with some success, but by and large the EEOC dismissed these complaints. Similarly, courts across the country generally have held that Title VII does not protect against sexual orientation discrimination. Although many states and local municipalities have passed anti-discrimination laws that are more expansive than Title VII, for the millions of Americans who live in those that do not, Title VII is the only legal protection available against discrimination in the workplace.

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