It’s been a busy month for those keeping an eye on one of the most pressing questions in employment law:  whether Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment, also inherently prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Last week, the US Department of Justice argued to the Supreme Court that workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity is legal.  However, the Department requested the Court delay deciding whether to hear an appeal on this issue until it decides a similar question: whether Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In contrast, Victoria Lipnic, Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has said she hopes the Supreme Court takes up a case on the issue of whether Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination forbids discrimination on the basis of an employee’s gender identity.  This position diverges from the position articulated by the Department of Justice:

“There’s a lot of litigation going on on this, we have lots of people who have filed charges with the EEOC that we have taken in,” Lipnic said. “I’m always in favor of clarity.”

The DOJ’s brief argued against the Sixth Circuit’s March ruling that Title VII’s bar on discrimination “because of … sex” blocks employers from firing workers based on their gender identities. The ruling revived a suit the EEOC filed for former Harris funeral director Aimee Stephens alleging the company violated the law by firing her after she started living as a woman.

The brief reversed the EEOC’s lower court stance that Title VII protects transgender workers from discrimination. Although the EEOC argues its cases at the district and circuit courts, the DOJ speaks for the agency at the Supreme Court . . .

The EEOC voted unanimously in 2012 to adopt its stance that Title VII covers gender identity. Lipnic, who voted for coverage, told Law360 that she doesn’t know whether the EEOC will revisit its interpretation of the statute if President Donald Trump’s nominees to two commission vacancies are confirmed. She had earlier said she’ll be keeping a close eye on what the high court says . . .

The DOJ’s brief urges the high court to wait on the funeral home’s petition until it decides whether to answer a related question about whether Title VII covers sexual orientation. If it opts to take up that issue, the justices should grant cert to Harris, the DOJ said. If it doesn’t, the justices should not, it said.

Meanwhile, congressional leaders speaking on behalf of over 200 members of the United States House of Representatives have strongly signaled a desire to move forward with the Equality Act in the next Congress.  The Equality Act seeks to expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity to Title VII’s protected characteristics.

Watch this space: these developments have been happening quickly, and we will continue to cover what this all means for employers as more information becomes available.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), Pennsylvania’s leading agency that investigates and enforces Pennsylvania’s employment discrimination laws, has voted to accept complaints of discrimination from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.  Specifically, the PHRC has stated it will interpret complaints alleging workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals to fall under state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sex”:

The term “sex” under the PHRA may refer to sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and/or gender expression depending on the individual facts of the case.

The prohibitions contained in the PHRA and related case law against discrimination on the basis of sex, in all areas of jurisdiction where sex is a protected class, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and gender expression.

The Commission will accept for filing sex discrimination complaints arising out of the complainant’s sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and gender expression using any and all legal theories available depending on the facts of the individual case.

Discrimination complaints identifying “sex” as the protected class and specifying allegations related to sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and gender expression will be evaluated on a case by case basis throughout the Commission’s filing, investigation, and adjudication processes.

While the City of Philadelphia already prohibited workplace discrimination on these grounds, the PHRC’s actions extend protected status to LGBT employees throughout the Commonwealth.

Our blog has previously discussed the question of whether laws prohibiting sex discrimination inherently protect sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the context of Title VII.  While many observers expect the Supreme Court to eventually weigh in on the Title VII issue, the question remains in flux as a matter of federal law.

In light of the lack of clarity in the Title VII case law, states are beginning to take action.  For example, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission took action earlier this year, unanimously voting to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The PHRC’s action can be viewed as part of the trend of state agencies taking action to interpret their own state laws independently of federal court guidance.  This is significant because even if the Supreme Court ultimately rules that Title VII does not protect employees’ sexual orientation and/or gender identity, these state agency interpretations would not be overruled.  State court challenges to these agency interpretations, however, remains a possibility and warrants monitoring.

The takeaway for Pennsylvania employers is more straightforward: assess your hiring, equal opportunity, and anti-harassment policies, programs, and practices to make sure they include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected characteristics and reflect non-discrimination and non-harassment principles as it applies to LGBT employees and applicants.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission has taken significant action to clarify that its state statute prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sex (among other characteristics) extends to prohibit employment discrimination based on orientation and gender identity:

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted 5-0 to approve a statement legally interpreting the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act’s ban on “discrimination because of . . . sex” to include discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity . . .

The idea of an interpretive statement from the commission, initially requested by Equality Michigan last year, was revived after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a transgender woman who said she was illegally fired by a funeral home in Garden City while transitioning from male to female . . .

The [Michigan Department of Civil Rights] will begin taking complaints related to sexual orientation or gender-based discrimination.

Regular readers of our blog will be familiar with this particular legal issue, as we have previously discussed the question of whether bans on sex discrimination necessarily also ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the context of federal law.  This legal question is a hot topic in employment litigation in federal courts across the country.  Because of widely divergent outcomes in federal district and circuit courts across the country in addressing this question, we will likely have to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in to have a definitive interpretation of federal law.

Irrespective of the federal question, however, there appears to be a trend toward states considering this issue in the context of their own non-discrimination laws.  The Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s decision is similar to proposed guidance announced by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission from late 2017.  This development is important because a Supreme Court decision on this issue under federal law may not necessarily prove binding on states’ interpretations of state law.

We will, of course, continue to monitor this issue as it develops around the country.

Monday, New York’s budget bill for FY 2019 was presented to the Governor for signature.  Buried among the usual budget line items are several provisions that will drastically affect employers.

In what seems to be a direct response to the #metoo movement, the bill sets training requirements, prohibits mandatory arbitration of discrimination claims, and outlaws confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements unless specifically requested by the complainant.

The employment related provisions are set forth in S7507-C.  Here are the highlights (or low lights depending on your point of view):

  • Mandatory Harassment Policies:  All employers must have a policy against harassment that complies with or exceeds the model harassment policy that will be developed by the Division on Human Rights.  At a minimum, the policy must:
    • prohibit sexual harassment consistent with guidance issued by the department in consultation with the division of human rights and provide examples of prohibited conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment;
    • include information concerning the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment and a statement that there may be applicable local laws;
    • include a standard complaint form;
    • include a procedure for the timely and confidential investigation of complaints and ensure due process for all parties;
    • inform employees of their rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating sexual harassment complaints administratively and judicially;
    • clearly state that sexual harassment is considered a form of employee misconduct and that sanctions will be enforced against individuals engaging in sexual harassment and against supervisory and managerial personnel who knowingly allow such behavior to continue; and
    • clearly state that retaliation against individuals who complain of sexual harassment or who testify or assist in any proceeding under the law is unlawful.
  •  Mandatory Training:  All employers must also provide “interactive” training to their employees.  The Division will also be developing a model training program that must include:
    • an explanation of sexual harassment consistent with guidance issued by the department in consultation with the division of human rights;
    • examples of conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment;
    • information concerning the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment;
    • information concerning employees’ rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating complaints; and
    • address conduct by supervisors and any additional responsibilities for such supervisors.
  • Statements by Public Contractors:  Public contractors submitting a bid for work with the State must include a statement that they have a policy against sexual harassment and that they provide training to employees on that policy.  Public Contractors must generally comply with the policy and mandatory employment training that applies to all employers under new Labor Law §201-g which sets for the policy and training requirements.
  • Prohibition on Mandatory Arbitration Agreements:  No employer may require that a claim of unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment be submitted to mandatory arbitration.  Voluntary arbitration provisions are still okay.  Collective bargaining agreements trump this provision, so if the CBA requires arbitration of discrimination or sexual harassment, then that would not run afoul of the law.  The law only bans this on a prospective basis and the law will not apply to any agreements entered into prior to the effective date of the law.
  • Bar on Most Confidentiality Agreements:  Settlement agreements may not contain confidentiality provisions requiring the complainant to keep the facts of the harassment or discrimination confidential unless the complainant voluntarily agrees to it.  Employers may still put a draft provision in agreements requiring confidentiality for the complainant to review.  The complainant must be given 21 days to review the provision. If the complainant accepts the provision, there must be a separate writing stating that.  Complainants must also have 7 days to revoke their acceptance of the agreement.
  • Provides Protection (and a Cause of Action) for Non-Employees:  the bill makes clear that an employer may be held liable if one of its employees sexually harasses a contractor, subcontractor, vendor, consultant or other non-employee providing services to the employer.

These provisions will go into effect 180 days after the law is enacted.  We assume that the forthcoming regulations may clarify certain aspects of the law such as how frequently harassment training must occur.  We will keep you updated when the regulations are issued.

In the meantime, employers should begin assessing their harassment policies and training programs.  Employers should also review settlement agreements and employment agreements for compliance with the law.

Recently I watched a male attorney speak to opposing counsel (a female) in a condescending, chastising manner that I cannot imagine he would have used if he had been speaking to a male attorney.  Her male colleague, who was standing right next to her, said nothing.  I said nothing.  And the female opposing counsel said nothing in her own defense.

During an emergency custody hearing a female friend of mine who practices family law pushed back on the terms proposed by opposing counsel, an older male.  Opposing counsel shook his head and muttered “every time with female attorneys.”  When my friend asked “what did you say?” he responded, “nothing, just talking to myself.”

We all know that discrimination based on gender is prohibited in the workplace.  We can’t refuse to hire or promote a woman simply because she is a woman.  We can’t prefer a male over a female solely on that basis.  We can’t do that because the law won’t allow it.

But what about the much more subtle, and yet maybe more pervasive, forms of discrimination that women experience every day, such as the examples above?  What about being expected to laugh demurely when a male judge referred to me as “kiddo” in front of a jury?  What about criticizing women based on appearance instead of their qualifications or capabilities (“she’s such a fat slob” instead of “she’s incompetent”)? What about the female told to “stop overreacting” or to “calm down” when she advocates fiercely on behalf of a client (or herself)?  And what about all of us who silently tolerate these types of behavior?

In many (although certainly not all) professional environments, blatant gender discrimination is the exception, rather than the rule.  However, more subtle forms of gender discrimination are ignored, shrugged off, and even accepted or condoned every day in the workplace.  Until we stop tolerating this behavior, gender discrimination will continue to permeate and poison work environments.  Not only does this perpetuate gender imbalance in the workplace, it also hurts morale, results in decreased productivity, increases turnover, and promotes inefficient hiring and promotion practices.  Accordingly, employers should pay close attention to the day-to-day practices in the workplace and enforce anti-discrimination policies to help ensure that productivity and profitability are not being negatively affected by gender discrimination.

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Yesterday, the newly confirmed Education Secretary and Attorney General issued a joint letter eliminating the Obama administration’s guidance from last year addressing the issue of bathroom use by transgendered students.  Specifically, the former guidance had said that schools must allow students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, even if that gender is different from the students’ biological gender.

The Obama administration had decided that under Title IX, discrimination based on transgender was sex discrimination.  This guidance was in line with positions taken by the EEOC pushing the issue that Title VII covered sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination because of its broad ban on sex discrimination.

Yesterday’s action only impacts public schools and not private employers.  The question is whether it will have a broader impact on EEOC enforcement strategies going forward.

Of course, the Supreme Court may, sooner, rather than later, have the final say on whether Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.  The Court is scheduled to hear argument in the case of Gavin Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board next month.  The case could have an impact on the interpretation of Title VII, not just Title IX.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.

This past week, a news story appeared in New Jersey that caught my eye. It was the story of an eighth grade female basketball player at St. Theresa’s school in Union County. Admittedly, the story initially piqued my interest because it was set at was my childhood parish, with the accompanying warm memories of playing basketball in the parish hall gym.

But after reading the story, it was a great illustration of how to handle opportunities in the workplace that, for one reason or another, are not available to all genders. St. Theresa’s had previously made a decision to cut the girls eighth grade basketball team due to low enrollment. However, the boys’ eighth grade program was left intact. Thereafter, the girl sought to play on the boys team but was rebuffed by the archdiocese.

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In fairness to the archdiocese, it offered her the opportunity to play on the girls basketball team at a neighboring parish. Her family declined the offer and brought suit. This week, the court dismissed the case as a matter of law, saying that there was no implicit right to play on a team of the other gender.

While your company likely does not have single-gender sports teams, there are undoubtedly company activities that intentionally or unintentionally segregate by gender or another identifier. We discourage such practices. Even if separate activities are provided to both genders, there runs the risk that one activity will be seen as more desirable than the other.

To the extent that you must segregate workplace activities by gender, make sure the terms and conditions (time, place, budget) are the same for both. Also, ensure that decision makers and senior employees attend both events, regardless of their gender.

Employers take note:  the EEOC has issued an updated Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for fiscal years 2017-2021.

What’s a Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP describes the areas that will be a priority focus for its enforcement efforts over a particular period of time.  In some instances, it describes a particular component of the employment relationship (for example, the application process) that it will scrutinize more.  In other instances, it describes a particular basis of discrimination that it will focus on (for example, employees who are or are perceived to be Muslim, or LGBT employees).  Ultimately, the SEP is best understood as a kind of statement of intent–i.e., where the EEOC will focus resources in the coming years.

What Isn’t a Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP is not a statement of exclusion.  That is, just because a specific workplace issue or protected characteristic is omitted (or not emphasized) within the SEP doesn’t mean the EEOC will ignore that particular issue or characteristic.  Employers should expect that the EEOC will continue to enforce all of the relevant discrimination laws on the books.  The SEP merely acts as a guide for the EEOC to focus its enforcement efforts.

What Will the EEOC’s Priorities Be Under the Updated Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP has identified six national priority areas for enforcement in FY 2017-2021:

1.  Eliminating Recruitment/Hiring Barriers.  Moving forward, the EEOC will put additional emphasis on recruitment and hiring.  This includes exclusionary policies and practices.  In addition, the EEOC has noted it will focus on job channeling/steering and job segregation; restrictive applications; pre-employment tests/screenings and background checks that affect African-American and Latino employees; date-of-birth inquiries that affect older employees, and medical questions that affect people with disabilities. On the issue of restrictive applications, the EEOC has also highlighted online application systems that are inaccessible to applicants with disabilities.

2.  Protecting Vulnerable Workers and Underserved Communities.  Evaluating local issues and concerns, the EEOC’s district offices will identify particular vulnerable workers and underserved communities for enforcement attention.  As an example, the EEOC notes that some offices may target discrimination against Native American employees for increased focus.

3.  Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues.  These include: qualification or leave policies that discriminate on the basis of disability; accommodations for disabilities and pregnant workers; protecting LGBT employees from sex discrimination; addressing discrimination laws in the context of evolving job market structures/relationships (for example, temps, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, the on-demand or “gig” economy, etc.); and “backlash discrimination” against Muslims, Sikhs, persons of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent (or perceived members of these groups).

4.  Equal Pay.  The EEOC will continue its efforts to address sex-based pay discrimination under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act and will also focus on pay practices that discriminate on any protected basis.  In particular, the EEOC has noted pay discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, and disability remains an issue that it intends to continue targeting.

5.  Preserving Access to the Legal System.  The focus here will be on employer policies or practices that it perceives as limiting employee rights, discouraging employees from exercising their rights, or impeding the EEOC’s efforts.  In addition to retaliation, the EEOC has indicated it will focus on overly broad waivers/releases, certain mandatory arbitration agreements, and employer failure to retain required applicant/employee data.

 6.  Preventing Systemic Harassment.  The EEOC notes that over 30% of charges allege harassment (and that “the most frequent bases alleged are sex, race disability, age, national origin and religion, in order of frequency”).  The EEOC has stated it will seek to promote “holistic prevention programs” that it believes will serve as a deterrent to violations.

Of course, this brief summary is not exhaustive; click here for the full document.  Ultimately, the updated SEP is a reminder for employers to review their policies and practices as 2016 draws to a close, in order to ensure compliance.

Query: a longtime employee, who has previously identified in your workplace as female, begins dressing for work like a man, grooming according to male standards, and identifying as male.  He begins to make arrangements to have his name formally changed, and a number of other legal documents changed as well.  He also begins using the men’s room at work.  Other coworkers complain about “a woman using the men’s bathroom at work.”  What do you do?

According to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, what you do not do is: 1) ban him from the men’s bathroom for being biologically female, 2) ban him from the women’s bathroom for identifying as male, and 3) require him to use only gender-neutral bathrooms.  Last week, the court made headlines when it granted summary judgment against a school district, on a Title VII sex discrimination claim brought by one of the district’s police officers.  (Roberts v. Clark County School District, No 2:15-cv-00388-JAD-PAL, ECF No. 147).

While the court denied summary judgment as to the officer’s retaliation and hostile workplace claims, it noted that established case law holds that sex stereotyping is prohibited sex discrimination under Title VII.  In this case, the court noted that the district banning the officer from using the women’s bathroom “because he no longer behaved like a woman” was direct evidence of impermissible sex stereotyping.

Also of note: in granting partial summary judgment, the court held that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes both sex and gender.  At this point, some of our readers might be somewhat confused at the difference between sex and gender. Citing language from the Ninth Circuit, the court noted the difference between these key terms, in recounting the case law history in this area:

These early cases distinguished between the term ‘sex’, which referred to an individual’s distinguishing biological or anatomical characteristics and the term ‘gender’, [which] refers to an individual’s sexual identity, or socially-constructed characteristics.

The court’s language is significant because it simultaneously rejected the school district’s argument to draw legal distinctions based on these terms:

Although [the district] contends it discriminated . . . based on his genitalia, not his status as a transgender person, this is a distinction without a difference here. [The officer] was clearly treated differently than persons of both his biological sex and the gender he identifies as–in sum, because of his transgender status.

Moreover, the court held that the bathroom action alone was a sufficiently adverse employment action — in that “access to restrooms is a significant, basic condition of employment” — to involve Title VII protections.

We have previously discussed two separate theories that the EEOC and plaintiffs have used to argue sexual orientation and/or gender identity are incorporated into Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  These theories have had a mixed track record of success, and there is no certainty in predicting how they will continue to play out in the coming months and years.

Still, a key takeaway from this case is that employers should retain knowledgeable counsel to advise on employee workplace transitions.  Effective transition management can not only help defuse potential workplace tension and avoid litigation, but it can also lead to a more productive workplace, happier employees, and keeping pace with the market’s movement in this direction.

Regardless of the type of employer you are, you depend, on some level, on customers who are willing to pay for the goods or services being offered.  And the old adage, “The Customer is Always Right,” a mantra of the American business community since this country’s founding, is as true today as it was then.  But from time to time, valued customers will step over the line and act inappropriately towards company employees.  If and when that occurs, employers need to understand the legal ramifications of dealing with the fallout.

Recently, a receptionist at a New Jersey automobile dealership brought an action against her employer for violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  In the Complaint, she alleged, inter alia, that her employer retaliated after she pressed charges against a high-profile customer who had tugged at her shirt and exposed her bra.   Thereafter, she alleged that her work environment became hostile until she was terminated.

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This case has been up to the Appellate Division in New Jersey, who ruled that the employer is not responsible for the conduct of a non-employee, and will not be held responsible for customer conduct under most circumstances.  However, the Appellate Division did find that an employee filing charges against a customer is a protected activity that protects and individual against employer retaliation.

The upshot of the case is that in the rare case that customer behavior crosses over the line of good taste, take immediate measures to correct the situation.  In the even rarer case that the conduct becomes criminal, let your employees know that if they choose to press charges, they will not the subject of retaliation in any way, shape, or form.