Are tides changes in favor of prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII?

The last several years questions have renewed whether sexual orientation discrimination may be a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. For most of Title VII’s history federal courts have said no. Recently the federal Seventh Circuit changed its mind and became the first court of authority to say yes. Last month a full panel of the Second Circuit reversed its prior decisions and held sexual orientation discrimination is an unlawful form of sex discrimination under Title VII. While this may not have a substantial impact for Colorado employees it certainly moves the nation closer to a Supreme Court opinion on the matter.

Title VII and sexual orientation discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (here) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Initially this discrimination prohibition was used to put an end to employment practices that blocked women from jobs and promotions in addition to sexual harassment. Over time courts expanded the statute’s role to prohibit discrimination related to gender and sex stereotypes–Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989)–and eventually accepted that the statute prohibits same-sex harassment–Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998).

However, federal courts generally have continued to hold that Title VII does not apply to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In recent years the Seventh Circuit became the first appellate court to rule Title VII does cover sexual orientation discrimination while the Eleventh Circuit declined to rule of the question in 2017. The EEOC moved in 2015 to formally adopt the position favoring inclusion of sexual orientation within Title VII but that position is not mandatory for federal courts.

The failure to include sexual orientation within Title VII drew some states to specifically include sexual orientation within its anti-discrimination statutes. For example, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act specifically prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

Second Circuit changes its mind on Title VII and sexual orientation discrimination

At the end of February a full panel of the Second Circuit delivered a sixty-nine page decision on Title VII and sexual orientation discrimination, reversing its prior opinion denying Title VII protection. The underlying case is a fairly standard sexual orientation case. The plaintiff, a homosexual male employee, alleged he was discharged because he was openly gay and did not avoid the subject in the workplace. The employer alleged the discharge related to customer complaints. (Zarda v. Altitude Express)

At the district court the employer moved to dismiss and the court granted dismissal under then-current precedent. A panel of the Second Circuit affirmed. When the plaintiff sought an en banc review the appellate court made the unusual decision to agree. The product of the en banc convention of the court resulted in overturning its prior precedent and protecting sexual orientation under Title VII.

In its lengthy opinion the majority’s position might best be summed up by the following quote (clipped by an excellent employment law blog here):

Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination applies to any practice in which sex is a motivating factor. . . . Sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination because sexual orientation is defined by one’s sex in relation to the sex of those to whom one is attracted, making it impossible for an employer to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without taking sex into account. Sexual orientation discrimination is also based on assumptions of stereotypes about how members of a particular gender should be, including to whom they should be attracted. Finally, sexual orientation discrimination is associational discrimination because an adverse employment action that is motivated by the employer’s opposition to association between members of particular sexes discriminates against an employee on the basis of sex.

What this means for Colorado employees facing sexual orientation discrimination

Eventually SCOTUS will be set up to resolve a circuit split among the federal appellate courts whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit is not binding on Colorado courts and the Tenth Circuit, which oversees the federal District of Colorado,  has yet to rule on the issue. Until the Tenth Circuit or SCOTUS weigh in favor of accepting sexual orientation discrimination as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII, it must be assumed the federal courts here will not rule differently.

It may take time before the federal appellate courts create enough of a divide in the law that SCOTUS feels compelled to wade into the conflict. The more state statutes prohibit sexual orientation discrimination the fewer people need to rely upon Title VII as a remedy and therefore the less SCOTUS needs to act to resolve what may otherwise be mostly a philosophical issue among the courts. My belief is that by the time SCOTUS accepts a case on the subject public opinion will support including sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII that the court will no longer accept it as controversial and concede the inclusion–much like the court’s approach to same sex marriage in Obergefell.

However, for Colorado employees a change in interpretation of Title VII will do little because the state anti-discrimination law already prohibits sexual orientation as an unlawful form of employment discrimination. Employees harassed or otherwise discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation may already pursue claims under state law that closely mirror the remedies under federal law. A Denver employment lawyer may always want more arrows in the quiver and welcome a Title VII claim; but employees in Colorado do not have to wait pursue these claims until the federal courts act.

If you believe you suffered sexual orientation discrimination in a Colorado workplace then you should contact a Colorado employment law attorney right away. Remember that sexual orientation discrimination, like other forms of sex discrimination, do not only exist under a single dynamic. While many instances of this form of workplace discrimination target LGBT employees and applicants, it is no less appropriate to discriminate against an employee who is straight or for an LGBT manager to discriminate against an LGBT employee or applicant.


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