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Federal Circuit Scorecard – Title VII & Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Posted on: October 13th, 2017

By: Michael M. Hill

A Georgia case is in the running to be the one the Supreme Court uses to resolve the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex and certain other characteristics) also includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court is widely expected to take on this issue at some point, but no one knows exactly when or which case it will be.

In Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, 850 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2017), a former hospital security guard alleged she was harassed and otherwise discriminated against at work because of her homosexual orientation and gender non-conformity.  While the trial court dismissed her case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed.  The Eleventh Circuit held that Evans should be given a chance to amend her gender non-conformity claim, but it affirmed dismissal of her sexual orientation claim.

The issue, in most federal circuits, is a distinction between (1) claims of discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes (e.g., for a woman being insufficiently feminine), which the Supreme Court has held is discrimination based on sex, and (2) claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which all but one federal circuit has held is not discrimination based on sex.

At present, this is how things stand now:

  • In the Seventh Circuit (which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), sexual orientation discrimination does violate Title VII.
  • In every other federal circuit, sexual orientation discrimination does not violate Title VII.
  • But no matter where you are, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) takes the position that sexual orientation discrimination does violate Title VII.

To make matters more confusing, the full court of the Second Circuit (which covers New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) is considering whether to affirm its past position that sexual orientation is not protected by Title VII or to join the Seventh Circuit. In that case, the EEOC of course is arguing that sexual orientation is a protected category, but the U.S. Department of Justice has filed an amicus brief to argue that sexual orientation is not protected.  In the words of the Department of Justice, “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States.”

The long and short of it is that, until the Supreme Court weighs in, employers need to be mindful of the federal law as interpreted in their circuit, while also understanding that the EEOC enforces its position nationwide whether or not the local federal circuit agrees with it.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Michael M. Hill at [email protected].

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