First Circuit moves towards acknowledging sexual orientation discrimination prohibited by Title VII

Over the past two months I’ve written about federal employment discrimination lawsuits focusing on LGBT-based discrimination as forms of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Second Circuit recently joined the Seventh Circuit to hold sexual orientation is a prohibited form of sex discrimination under Title VII and the Sixth Circuit explicitly held transgender discrimination is prohibited under Title VII. This month the First Circuit continues down the path with another lawsuit involving sexual orientation. Although the First Circuit did not go as far as its colleagues in the Second Circuit and Seventh Circuit, it acknowledged that employment discrimination law is evolving in that direction. This decision in Franchina v. City of Providence is the first to address sexual orientation as the “plus” factor in a sex-plus discrimination lawsuit under Title VII.

The backstory on Franchina v. City of Providence

Lori Franchina was a firefighter for the City of Providence, Rhode Island and is a lesbian who suffered a long history of sex discrimination at work. Franchina worked with a male firefighter who often made comments and sexual gestures to Franchina and other firefighters about her sexual orientation. Although she did not complain herself, the coworker’s behavior became known to a superior who disciplined the coworker. In response, Franchina suffered a long history of workplace harassment related to her sex, including vulgar comments, both verbal and written, and foul acts against her. Despite forty written complaints, the department took no action to stop the harassment. Eventually she retired from the department with a diagnosis of PTSD.

Franchina’s lawsuit advanced to an eight day trial in which she asserted the disgusting behavior was unlawful sex-plus harassment. The “plus” factor alleged was her sexual orientation. The jury awarded her over $800,000 in emotional distress and lost wages which unsurprisingly triggered the employer to appeal. After launching a series of weak arguments up on appeal the First Circuit affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

The plaintiff initially pursued a separate sexual orientation discrimination claim which was dismissed upon a motion to dismiss early in the lawsuit because the First Circuit decided in the past not to extend Title VII over sexual orientation claims. The appellate court explicitly acknowledged that other appellate courts had changed their minds on this issue but declined to follow because Franchina did not appeal the dismissal of her claim. Nevertheless, the sex-plus discrimination claim continues an important line of authoritative acknowledgement of sexual orientation discrimination as a component of sex discrimination under Title VII.

What is a sex-plus discrimination claim under Title VII?

The sex-plus theory of discrimination is a form of sex discrimination that alleges the employer discriminated on the basis of sex plus another factor that made a discrete group of women the target for discrimination. The “plus” factor can be another protected status or trait, such as race or age, but it can also be a factor not explicitly protected like women who have small children. Sex-plus claims do not set a higher burden of evidence for the employee; the employee does not even have to prove the “plus” factor. An employee only has to show sex or gender was, by itself, at least one motivating factor in an adverse employment action.

Sex-plus discrimination claims acknowledge that sometimes sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination target some women but not others because of a second, related trait and the discrimination on the second factor cannot be untangled from the sex discrimination. As a substantive matter, courts have long accepted sex-plus discrimination claims to protect employees from sex discrimination in which only some members of a sex may be targeted because Title VII does not require a perpetrator to discriminate against every member of a sex for the victim to prevail on a claim. Procedurally, when the “plus” factor is not explicitly protected under Title VII the sex-plus discrimination claim makes it difficult for the employer to take the position that it discriminated but only on the unprotected “plus” factor and not on sex or gender.

Sex-plus discrimination and sexual orientation

Nevertheless, that is exactly what the employer attempted to do on appeal in this case. The thrust of the employer’s appeal relies on the argument that the plaintiff only presented sufficient evidence of sexual orientation discrimination and not sex or gender, therefore the jury verdict cannot be upheld. The employer pointed to First Circuit precedent denying sexual orientation as the sole basis for a sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The First Circuit dismantles the employer’s position on two fronts.

First, it acknowledges its own precedent but points out even the employer’s chosen case law the appellate court left open the door to sexual orientation as a “plus” factor. The Court then expresses that no reason exists why sexual orientation cannot be a “plus” factor. The court does not deeply explore this issue but in explicitly thrusting the door fully ajar it took full advantage of the appeal in front of it to expand sexual orientation as an issue related to sex discrimination under Title VII. Not only will this make it easier, at least in this circuit, to bring sex-plus claims with sexual orientation, but also signals the court may be willing to take more progressive steps in future appeals.

Second, the court explored the evidence and found even without looking at the evidence of sexual orientation there was more than sufficient evidence of sexual harassment on plaintiff’s sex and gender given the many offensive comments and acts perpetrated by her coworkers.

Although the First Circuit did not spend much space applying the facts to sexual orientation as a “plus” factor, its clear willingness to do so in any future case has broad and important meaning for future cases in the circuit.

What this case means for Colorado employees

As usual, I like to bring these discussions back to Colorado and what it means for employees in this state. Colorado is not part of the First Circuit so this case does not directly affect employees in this state; however, it is another federal circuit moving sympathetically towards including sexual orientation discrimination as a prohibited act under Title VII which affects Colorado employees. As more circuits reverse precedent opposing its inclusion, the circuits will either settle the matter by reaching agreement or a circuit split will push the Supreme Court to have the final word. Then federal law will join Colorado state law in prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination at work, giving employees another legal avenue to pursue claims for sex discrimination in the workplace. If you believe you suffered employment discrimination at work on the basis of sex or sexual orientation then you should find an employment law attorney in Colorado and schedule a consultation.

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