Another appellate court holds Title VII bars LGBT discrimination as a form of sex discrimination

Last week I wrote about the Second Circuit’s opinion earlier this year holding sexual orientation discrimination as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. In the title of that post I questioned whether the tide is turning among federal courts to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII. It certainly seems that way as the Sixth Circuit dropped its opinion in EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes reaching the same conclusion on transgender discrimination. This brings the count to three of the thirteen federal circuits abandoning earlier positions opposing inclusion of LGBT discrimination under Title VII in favor of broader protections against sex discrimination.

Overview of EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes a transgender employee was fired after disclosing her intent to transition. Aimee Stevens was hired by the funeral home with her male birth name and appearance. After obtaining the job she informed her employer that she intended to transition and would begin working with her female appearance. The funeral director in response fired her. A Michigan federal district court dismissed the EEOC‘s case on the basis that transgender discrimination was not a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII.

Sixth Circuit holds transgender discrimination is sex discrimination

The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the district court holding:

We hold that the EEOC could pursue a claim under Title VII on the ground that the Funeral Home discriminated against Stephens on the basis of her transgender status and transitioning identity. The EEOC should have had the opportunity, either through a motion for summary judgment or at trial, to establish that the Funeral Home violated Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex by firing Stephens because she was transgender and transitioning from male to female.

Discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII. The unrefuted facts show that the Funeral Home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex, and therefore the EEOC is entitled to summary judgment as to its unlawful-termination claim.

Total beat down on the district judge.

Unlike sexual orientation discrimination which has only more recently been recognized as a form of sex discrimination under employment discrimination laws, discrimination on the basis of gender and sex stereotypes has been recognized as an unlawful form of sex discrimination under Title VII since Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins in 1989 and commonly extended to cover transgender discrimination.

The Sixth Circuit also rejected the employer’s argument that accepting her identity burdens his exercise of religious freedom.

Although in last week’s post I opined that SCOTUS likely won’t hear any of these cases until more circuits weigh in and a circuit split in new cases exists; however, with the interplay of the religious issue SCOTUS might be more inclined to hear this case given its recent desire to hear cases on religious freedom issues.

What this means for Colorado employees

Another decision outside of the Tenth Circuit bears no direct effect on Colorado employers or employees but it brings us closer to a day when the Tenth Circuit may find allies on either side of its own decision on LGBT issues. If this case makes its way to SCOTUS and the court decides to weigh in on the LGBT issues under Title VII then the issue may be settled under federal law for Colorado. For now employees facing LGBT discrimination in Colorado enjoy protections under state law so the issue is less urgent in this states than other less forward-thinking states. Colorado employees facing LGBT discrimination in the workplace should contact a Denver employment lawyer for help.

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