gender identity discrimination

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 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.

Contract
Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

(Many thanks to Christina, for her gracious invitation to join the blog as a regular contributor! -Brian)

In the wake of controversy over efforts in North Carolina and other states to roll back legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) people, Pennsylvania’s taking a different approach.

On April 7th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued Executive Order 2016-05, hailing it as an effort to combat discrimination.  The Commonwealth’s Department of General Services will now require contractors and grantees to agree not to discriminate in hiring, promotion, or other labor matters, or in the award of subcontracts or supply contracts.

Specifically, contractors and grantees will be required to agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, creed, color, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.  The EO defines sexual orientation as heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality.  Gender identity or expression is defined as an individual’s gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, expression, or other gender-related characteristics, regardless of the individual’s sex at birth.

Notably, EO 2016-05 requires agency heads to recommend to the Secretary of General Services such sanctions “as may be appropriate” for entities that fail to comply with Commonwealth contracting programs.  Coupled with provisions that establish compliance, reporting, and audit systems, this EO suggests the Wolf administration intends to pursue enforcement through a broad variety of executive branch tools—with a particular eye toward addressing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Department of General Services will also be charged with ensuring that contractors and grantees have a written sexual harassment policy and that the contractor’s or grantee’s employees are aware of that policy.  These requirements are expressly made a condition of payment or funding—heightening the urgency for contractors and grantees to review their current policies and employee training programs on non-harassment and non-discrimination.

As a result of this EO, Commonwealth contractors/grantees and potential contractors/grantees should contact knowledgeable employment counsel to ensure compliance, as the Department of General Services begins to set up enforcement efforts.

The city of Helena, Montana may be next to join the “national trend” in passing laws to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from employment discrimination.  Already, Bozeman and Missoula have such laws.

Interestingly, what also may be included in the proposed law is non-discrimination based upon “familial status,” which, according to Helena City Attorney Jeffrey Hindoien (who is drafting the proposed law) “isn’t presently covered, expressly as a protected class for purposes of employment under either state or federal law."
 

A great resource has been posted online for employers, lawyers, and anyone interested in a compendium of all state laws regarding gay and transgender employees. Written by Jerome Hunt and just released by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, this 84-page report notes that there is no current federal law which provides the gay and transgender workforce protections against workplace discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

And Congress has yet to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would apply to all federal, state, and local government agencies; employment agencies; unions; and private employers with 15 or more employees.

The report further notes (as we have discussed in frequent blog entries) that “Sixteen states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. An additional five states have passed laws or enacted policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but not gender identity.”

After this preface, the report catalogues which states have such laws, ranks the state laws as to the degree of protection afforded to gay and transgender employees, and recites the remedies and penalties under each law.

This could become an indispensable tool in employment law.