The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”), which enforces Pennsylvania’s state law prohibiting discrimination, has made a bit of splash in 2017.  How, you ask?  Well – that requires a bit of explanation.

One of the hottest topics of debate in employment law in the past few years relates to legal protections for LGBTQ employees.  While some states and municipalities expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, this isn’t the case everywhere.  Indeed, only 20 states and the District of Columbia protect these characteristics in all employment.  That leaves 30 states that lack comprehensive state law protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including 17 states who have zero express protections at all.  Similarly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which establishes protected characteristics and prohibits employment discrimination based on those characteristics, does not expressly cover sexual orientation or gender identity — despite a long history of Congressional efforts to amend Title VII to do so.

Nevertheless, both state and federal law prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sex.  Regular readers of our humble blog will recall a growing trend from courts around the country holding that sexual orientation/gender identity discrimination constitutes sex discrimination as a matter of law.  Moreover, the EEOC has adopted this position and taken enforcement action accordingly.  The EEOC has argued that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination under three separate legal theories: (1) a traditional “but-for” analysis, (2) an associational discrimination analysis, and (3) a sex stereotyping analysis.  You can read at greater length about these three theories here.

The PHRC’s proposed guidance focuses on the third of these: sex stereotyping.  This argument proceeds roughly as follows:  (1) sex discrimination in employment is prohibited;  (2) sex discrimination includes discriminating against employees because they fail to align with stereotypical male or female appearance, mannerisms, behaviors, etc.;  (3) the “default” assumption that an employee is or should be heterosexual and cisgender represents one of the preeminent kinds of sex stereotypes;  and therefore, (4) discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is impermissible sex stereotyping that constitutes sex discrimination as a matter of law.  While the nuances of this argument tend to vary with the facts of each individual case, this outline provides a 30,000 foot view of the sex stereotyping theory.

In late April 2017, the PHRC issued proposed guidance stating it would investigate complaints of discrimination by LGBTQ individuals, including claims of employment discrimination, as prohibit sex stereotyping.  Specifically, the proposed PHRC guidance states as follows:

The gist of these claims is that LGBTQ individuals do not comply with sexual stereotypes and that adverse action(s) against an LGBTQ individual due to that person’s failure to comply with sexual stereotypes amounts to discrimination based on sex. Accordingly, it is the position of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that it will take and investigate sex stereotyping claims filed by LGBTQ individuals.

The PHRC has received extensive public comment on this proposal, and it is expected that the Commissioners will review the public comments at their November commission meeting.  Pending further action by the commission, this guidance remains proposed guidance.  Nevertheless, the PHRC’s action reveals a growing enforcement trend in this area of law.  Stay tuned for the PHRC’s final decision regarding what, if any, guidance on this topic it will issue.