Historic Court Ruling: Sexual Orientation Discrimination is Unlawful Sex Discrimination

Gavel and Scales: Historic Court Ruling

If you are a member of the LGBT community, you may feel afraid to come out at work for fear of discrimination because you are gay or lesbian. A recent federal court ruling has made sure you are safe, ruling that sexual orientation discrimination counts as unlawful sex discrimination.

In this blog, I will discuss the recent federal district court ruling in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., (W.D. Pa., Civ. No. 2:16-cv-00225-CB), and its effect on LGBT equal employment rights. I will explain how federal sex discrimination laws are now being interpreted to protect against sexual orientation discrimination by the EEOC and the court.

EEOC Says Sexual Orientation Discrimination is Unlawful

In December 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) adopted a new Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP). Among other policy changes, the SEP now includes "coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII's sex discrimination provisions." This policy changed the way the EEOC responded to gay and lesbian civil rights complaints, and opened the door to sexual orientation discrimination protections nationwide.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not listed as protected classes under Title VII or the other civil rights statutes enforced by the EEOC. Because of this, until 2012, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees had nowhere to turn to fight back against hurtful discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Without requiring Congress to amend the statute, the EEOC's 2012 SEP reinterpreted the law, extending sex discrimination protections to any employee who doesn't fit traditional sex stereotypes.

The EEOC explains why Title VII's sex discrimination protections apply in sexual orientation discrimination cases like this:

  1. "[S]exual orientation discrimination necessarily involves treating workers less favorably because of their sex because sexual orientation as a concept cannot be understood without reference to sex;
  2. [S]exual orientation discrimination is rooted in non-compliance with sex stereotypes and gender norms, and employment decisions based in such stereotypes and norms have long been found to be prohibited sex discrimination under Title VII; and
  3. [S]exual orientation discrimination punishes workers because of their close personal association with members of a particular sex, such as marital and other personal relationships."

U.S. EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center

Based on its SEP, on March 1, 2016, the EEOC filed its first sex discrimination lawsuit based on sexual orientation. The case, U.S. EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, was based on the treatment of a gay male employee at a pain management and weight loss facility. In its lawsuit, the EEOC claimed that Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., discriminated against Dale Baxley when it allowed him to be harassed because of his sexual orientation. Baxley's immediate supervisor was aware that he was being subjected to highly offensive anti-gay epithets and other vulgar statements based on sex stereotypes. The EEOC said that this harassment was based on the fact that Baxley did not conform to his employer's gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes. When the facility failed to respond to his complaints for two to three weeks, Baxley resigned, resulting in a constructive discharge and the basis for a sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit.

The employer filed a motion to dismiss, saying there was no unlawful discrimination because sexual orientation is not protected under Title VII. But District Judge Cathy Bissoon of the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pttsburgh disagreed. On November 4, 2016, she issued a ruling that said sexual orientation discrimination was a type of discrimination "because of sex," which is illegal under Title VII. The law prohibits adverse treatment of workers based on "sex stereotypes." The court said:

There is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping than making a determination that person should conform to heterosexuality. . . . That someone can be subjected to a barrage of insults, humiliation, hostility and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment, based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or a woman, is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate.

The court's decision struck down the employer's motion to dismiss. Now the case will proceed to trial or settlement based on the harassment Baxley suffered and the reasonable steps Scott Medical Health Center could have taken, but didn't.

This marks the first time a federal court has found that Title VII extends to sexual orientation discrimination. The ruling paves the way for future EEOC complaints and lawsuits to protect the rights of LGBT workers across the country, even in jurisdictions that don't have inclusive civil rights statutes at the state level. This is a huge step forward in employment discrimination prevention. By extending sex discrimination to include sexual orientation, Judge Bissoon has provided a foothold for future litigation shielding gay and lesbian employees from cruel and often violent workplace harassment and discrimination.

The employment discrimination attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, applaud Judge Bissoon for taking this first step in LGBT protections. We are available to anyone, gay or straight, who feels they have been harassed because they didn't conform to an employer's assumptions about sexual stereotypes. If you are facing sexual orientation discrimination, contact us today to schedule a free initial consultation. We'll help you find a way out of your hostile work environment.

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