Florida Clinic Pays $150,000 for Discriminating Against a Transgendered Employee

Ciera Ambrose and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Lakeland Eye Clinic (“Lakeland”), a Florida based ophthalmology and optometry center, agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a lawsuit for transgender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). The eye clinic allegedly discriminated against a transgender worker by terminating her employment for failing to conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations. The complaint alleged that although the employee had performed her duties satisfactorily throughout her employment, Lakeland terminated her employment after she began to present herself as a woman.

Gender-identity discrimination in the workplace occurs when an employer discriminates against an employee for not adhering to expected gender norms. According to Workplace Fairness, a non-profit organization working to preserve and promote employee rights, gender-identity discrimination includes: (i) terminating a transgender employee after the employer learns of the employee’s gender identity or planned transition; (ii) denying a transgender employee access to workplace restroom facilities available to other employees; (iii) requiring a transgender employee to use a restroom not consistent with the employee’s gender identity or presentation; (iv) harassing a transgender employee; (v) permitting and/or refusing to investigate claims of harassment by coworkers and supervisors; or (vi) any other adverse employment action taken because of an employee’s gender identity.

Federal law does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, but courts interpret Title VII gender protections to include discrimination based on gender stereotypes. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, where a female employee was rejected from a partnership for being, among things, “overly aggressive for a woman,” the Supreme Court of the United States stated that “we are beyond the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group….” The Court memorably stated, “[It does not] require expertise in psychology to know that, if an employee’s flawed ‘interpersonal skills’ can be corrected by a soft-hued suit or a new shade of lipstick, perhaps it is the employee’s sex and not her interpersonal skills that has drawn the criticism.” In Glenn v. Brumby, the Eleventh Circuit explained: “[A] person is defined as transgender precisely because of the perception that his or her behavior transgresses gender stereotypes…. There is thus a congruence between discriminating against transgender and transsexual individuals and discrimination on the basis of fender-based behavioral norms.” In Macy v. Holder, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the complainant’s charge of discrimination based on gender identity, change of sex and/or transgender status was cognizable under Title VII, stating “we conclude that intentional discrimination against a transgender individual because that person is transgender is, by definition, discrimination ‘based on …sex,’ and such discrimination therefore violates Title VII.” There is no debate over whether Title VII protections include transgender individuals, as long as the discrimination is motivated by gender stereotypes.

After the lawsuit, Lakeland adopted a new transgender policy that prohibits discrimination against employees transitioning from one gender to another, and for sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.  Lakeland also implemented a new training program for its managers and employees explaining the prohibition against transgender/gender stereotype discrimination and provided its management with guidance on handling transgender/gender-stereotype complaints.

Being discriminated against because your employer learns you intend to undergo sex reassignment surgery, being retaliated against for failure to conform to a company policy that makes no effort to accommodate transgender individuals, and being harassed by coworkers and supervisors on the basis of your gender identity are all examples of sexual identity discrimination and may be grounds for civil litigation.

If you have experienced gender identity discrimination by your employer, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.