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.

Bloomberg BNA is out with a news story about a recent case filed in federal court in Georgia, which poses an interesting question:  does Title VII protect an employee on the basis of his or her spouse being a member of a different race from the employee?  Among the Circuit Courts of Appeals that have tackled this question, the answer is yes.  We’ll get to the reason why momentarily, but first, let’s take a look at the new case in Georgia:

Costco Wholesale Corp. permitted discrimination and harassment of a black female worker married to a white man, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Georgia . . .

Levara Speight brought associational discrimination claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981) against Costco, in addition to race bias, harassment and retaliation claims.

She alleged that a supervisor and a co-worker, who are both black, began to harass her after they discovered that her husband is white. She claimed that she was told, “You’re not black,” that she acted “like a 16-year-old white girl,” and that she liked “white people music,” such as Billy Joel. Speight, a pharmacy technician, said she was demoted to a cashier position after she complained about the harassment.

 

This kind of claim is known as associational race discrimination and is based on a quite simple concept.  A claim of this kind is premised on the idea that discriminating against an employee because the employee’s spouse is of a different race necessarily implicates the employee’s own race. Here, the plaintiff is arguing that she was subjected to race-based harassment because of her interracial association, in that she (an African-American woman) is married to a man of a different race (Caucasian).  Thus, the discrimination is necessarily based on her own race, in addition to that of her husband.  (If this concept sounds familiar, you may have read about it in the context of LGBT employees pursuing sex discrimination claims.)

While claims of this sort are not particularly common, they can be viable, depending on the circumstances.  Associational race discrimination cases also raise an important follow-up question:  what kind of association is required to support a claim?  While spousal relationships have been recognized as sufficient by courts that have considered the issue, the limits of an associational relationship remain an open question in many jurisdictions.

To learn more about this case and this type of claim, I encourage you to read the whole article, for which (shameless plug alert) I provided commentary.

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.

Earlier this month, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a proposal to update its guidance on employment discrimination based on national origin.   The proposal, which marks the EEOC’s first update to this particular guidance in 14 years, contains important information for employers and is available for public comment until July 5, 2016.

What’s National Origin?

Federal regulations define national origin discrimination as including employment discrimination that occurs “because of an individual’s, or his or her ancestor’s place of origin; or because an individual has the physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.”  29 C.F.R. § 1606.1.

The regulations note that the EEOC defines national origin discrimination broadly, and that the EEOC will pay particular attention to charges alleging discrimination based on national origin considerations,  including:

  • marriage to or association with persons of a national origin group
  • membership in, or association with, an organization identified with or seeking to promote the interests of national origin groups
  • attendance or participation in schools, churches, temples or mosques, generally used by persons of a national origin group, and
  • the individual’s name or spouse’s name being associated with a national origin group.

So What Does This Mean for the Workplace?

At the outset, it’s important to remember that EEOC guidance is not necessarily binding on courts.  In addition,  since this guidance has not yet been finalized, revisions remain a possibility.  That said, the proposed guidance provides an illuminating look into how the EEOC approaches enforcement on this issue.

Some noteworthy issues raised in the proposed guidance include:

  • Accents.  Employers tread in dangerous waters if they use accents as a basis for making an adverse employment decision, as accents and national origin are often linked.  While employment decisions may legitimately be based on accents, the EEOC proposed guidance states that this will require the employer to show that “effective spoken communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual’s accent materially interferes with his/her ability to communicate in spoken English.”
  • Word-of-Mouth Recruiting.  Word-of-mouth recruiting may violate Title VII if the employer’s actions have the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin.
  • Social Security Number (SSN) Screening.  Employers who have a policy or practice of screening out job candidates or new hires who do not have a social security number may constitute national origin discrimination, if work-authorized but newly arrived immigrants and new lawful permanent residents of a particular ethnicity or national origin are disproportionately affected.
  • Customer Preference.  Employers aren’t permitted to use the preferences of customers, coworkers, or clients as the basis for discriminating in violation of Title VII.  The EEOC notes that company “look” or “image” policies, under certain circumstances, can act as a proxy for discriminatory customer preferences; adverse employment actions taken according to such policies can serve as the basis of national origin discrimination.
  • Job Segregation.  An employer may not use national origin as the basis for assigning (or not assigning) individuals to specific positions, locations, or geographic areas; nor may an employer physically isolate, deny promotions to, or otherwise segregate individuals into certain roles due to their national origin.
  • Perceived National Origin.  It’s important to note that employer actions may not have the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin whether that is an individual’s real or perceived national origin.
  • English-Only Rules.  Work rules or practices requiring the use of English may be national origin discrimination as a person’s primary language is often intertwined with cultural/ethnic identity.  The EEOC operates under the presumption that rules requiring workers to speak English at all times (including during lunch, breaks, and other personal time while on employer premises) violate Title VII.

These items are just a sampling of the information contained in the EEOC’s proposed guidance update.  The full document is available here.

 

 

Title VIIAs my colleague Christina Stoneburner posted yesterday and today, North Carolina recently enacted the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which, among other similar state laws that continue cropping up (such as the recently vetoed religious exemption bill in Georgia), curtails protections based on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and/or Transgender (LGBT) status.  These proposed laws have drawn significant media attention and are likely to continue expanding and developing in the foreseeable future.  However, despite these local exceptions, please remember that federal law may still apply.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken an aggressive position on sexual orientation and gender identity under federal law, finding they are both protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Several federal court decisions have found the same, including for example, a recent decision by the federal district court in Arizona, which found with almost no analysis or fanfare, that a transgender prison guard is clearly entitled to protection under Title VII. Doe v. Arizona, No. CV-15-02399-PHX-DGC, 2016 WL 1089743 (D. Ariz. Mar. 21, 2016).  This decision illustrates just how far Title VII jurisprudence has evolved over the past decade.  Many district courts regularly hold that transgender and/or sexual orientation status is protected under federal anti-discrimination laws.

Previously such theories were not readily accepted, and even today remain debatable. Courts have had trouble in the past resolving the dissonance of Congress’ intent, which specifically excluded from the Civil Rights Act sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.  Indeed, Congress has repeatedly refused to expand Title VII to list sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

However, the United States Supreme Court originally opened the door for these gender identity and sexual orientation status protections in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989) and Oncale v. Sundowner Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1998).  To recap, very briefly, Hopkins involved a woman who was “too aggressive” and “not feminine enough,” and was ultimately passed over for partnership. The Court found that discrimination for failing to live up to gender stereotypes was actionable. Oncale similarly found same-sex harassment, in this case men harassing other men on an oil rig, was actionable because the harassment was based on expected gender norms.  Since then, the EEOC and some intermediate federal appellate courts have applied this reasoning and found that Title VII can protect transgender status and/or sexual orientation based on these gender norm theories. Macy v. Holder, App. No. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (EEOC Apr. 20, 2012); see also Glenn v. Brumby, 663. F.3d 1312 (11th Cir. 2011); Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566 (6th Cir. 2004).

As a result, for prudent employers, the question may be moot even in states that may curtail transgender and/or sexual orientation protections.  A body of federal cases protecting against gender identity and/or sexual orientation status discrimination exists and continues to develop.  In addition, many state and local jurisdictions affirmatively provide such protections (e.g., California and New York).  Until further guidance is provided by the Supreme Court or Congress, it would be best to assume discrimination based on these protected characteristics remains prohibited nationwide.