Articles Posted in LGBT

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On November 15, 2017, in Berghorn v. Texas Workforce Commission, the District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed with prejudice plaintiff Kyle Berghorn’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, but allowed him to re-plead his gender stereotyping claim. Berghorn alleged that Xerox terminated his employment because he is gay and because he failed to conform to Xerox’s gender stereotypes. Both of Berghorn’s claims arose under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).

Berghorn was employed by Xerox from 2002 until February 29, 2016. At the time of his termination, he held the position of senior manager. Xerox terminated Berghorn after finishing an investigation, which purportedly concerned Berghorn’s use of expenses, but in which Xerox instead asked Berghorn several questions about whom Berghorn was sleeping with and whether the person was male. Allegedly, Xerox employees had previously made other disparaging comments about Berghorn’s sexuality, like, “He has no children. He’s gay.” Ultimately, the investigation revealed that Berghorn had not stolen any money from the company and that he had himself paid for personal charges on his card; his expenses were in order. Nonetheless, Xerox fired him.

Lev Craig

Last year, we reported on North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, better known as “HB 2.” HB 2, which was passed in March 2016, required North Carolina public schools and agencies to separate bathrooms by “biological sex,” preventing many transgender people from using the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. In the wake of the passage of HB 2, many companies reduced or withdrew their business in North Carolina, and musicians and speakers cancelled scheduled events in protest of the new law. The state was even drawn into conflict with the federal government when, in May 2016, the United States filed suit against the State of North Carolina and Pat McCrory—the state’s Republican governor at the time—on the grounds that HB 2’s “bathroom provision” violated several federal anti-discrimination statutes, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The widespread opposition to HB 2 caused a serious hit to North Carolina’s economy and reputation, and in the year and a half since the law was passed, a number of North Carolina politicians and activists have pushed to repeal it. In March 2017, North Carolina repealed HB 2 with the passage of HB 142. The new bill was hampered, however, by two significant concessions to Republican legislators: a provision stating that regulating “access to multiple occupancy restrooms, showers, or changing facilities” would be left to the state, and a provision prohibiting local governments from “enact[ing] or amend[ing] an ordinance regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations.” These components of HB 142 mean that transgender North Carolinians remain vulnerable to discrimination; the state retains its power to control bathroom access, and local governments aren’t able to pass their own laws protecting LGBT constituents from discrimination in the workplace or public accommodations.

Lev Craig

On September 29, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed all claims in Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, finding that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception” precluded a gay music director at a Catholic church from bringing wrongful termination claims after he was fired just days after marrying his male partner.

In 2012, St. Andrew Parish and the Archdiocese of Chicago hired Sandor Demkovich as music director, choir director, and organist, where he was responsible for selecting and performing music played during mass at St. Andrew. Reverend Jacek Dada, the pastor at St. Andrew, knew that Demkovich was gay and engaged to a man. But shortly before Demkovich married his now-husband in September 2014, Demkovich’s coworkers told him that Reverend Dada intended to ask him to resign after the wedding and had already started telling St. Andrew employees that Demkovich had been fired.

Lev Craig

On October 5, 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to the heads of all federal government agencies and all U.S. attorneys, stating that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is now taking the position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or transgender status. The memo reverses the DOJ’s previous stance on the issue and runs contrary to the position taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well as various federal appellate and district courts.

While Title VII explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, there has been heated debate in recent years over whether that prohibition includes discrimination against transgender workers. The status of legal protections for transgender employees is complicated: no federal law explicitly forbids discrimination against transgender people in the workplace, state and city employment protections vary widely, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address the question of whether Title VII covers gender identity­–based discrimination. The EEOC views discrimination against transgender people as discrimination based on sex and therefore a violation of Title VII, but the EEOC’s interpretations of Title VII are not legally binding, and federal appellate and district courts have differed in their applications of the statute to transgender workers.

Owen H. Laird

The Harman Firm blog has run several stories over the past year about the evolving case law concerning sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Last week, a plaintiff in a sexual orientation discrimination case in the Eleventh Circuit, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, requested that the United States Supreme Court take up the issue.

To recap: Title VII is one of the foundational federal anti-discrimination statutes; it protects employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.  Sexual orientation is not one of the protected statuses enumerated in Title VII.  In 2016, however, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) – the federal agency tasked with administering Title VII – filed two lawsuits asserting sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  This was a major change, as both the EEOC and nearly every federal court had previously taken the position that sexual orientation discrimination was not prohibited under Title VII.

Owen H. Laird and Walker G. Harman, Jr.

On Wednesday, President Trump and his administration took two major actions against LGBT rights: First, President Trump tweeted that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the U.S. military; then, the Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a brief in an ongoing Second Circuit case, arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)—a major federal anti-discrimination statute—does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. These two actions clearly demonstrate Trump’s position on LGBT rights: He does not support them, and his actions are disturbing and intolerant. As Trump forces the LGBT community—and all of us—to take giant steps backward, we all need to bear arms (so to speak) to protect the rights of all those marginalized within the LGBT community.

Last year, President Obama instituted a new policy allowing transgender people to serve in the military. On Wednesday, President Trump, via Twitter, announced that transgender people would no longer be able to serve, claiming that the armed forces could not afford the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” supposedly caused by transgender people serving in the military. Trump provided no empirical support for his offensive statement. The backlash against Trump’s statement was swift, with Democrats and LGBT advocates swiftly decrying the decision. There are estimated to be anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 transgender people currently serving in the U.S. military, and Trump’s announcement puts their careers at risk.

By Harrison C. Paige

On April 18, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York’s decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express, dismissing Donald Zarda’s sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In reaching its decision, the Second Circuit relied on its 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon, where the court held that Title VII does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on May 25, 2017, the Second Circuit granted en banc review in Zarda, signaling that the Second Circuit may be ready to reexamine Simonton and revisit its position on Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims.

In Simonton, Dwayne Simonton, a postal worker, was harassed because of his sexual orientation. The harassment was so severe that Simonton suffered a heart attack as a direct result of the abuse. While the Second Circuit’s decision noted the severity of the harassment and rebuked the behavior, the court nonetheless held that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination based on “sex” does not include discrimination based on sexual orientation and dismissed Mr. Simonton’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claims. The precedent set by Simonton has prevented countless individuals from bringing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, leaving individuals stranded in their search for justice.

Lev Craig

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently refused to dismiss Kate Lynn Blatt’s gender and disability discrimination claims in Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc. Blatt, a transgender woman, brought suit against her former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that Cabela’s had discriminated against her based on her gender identity and her diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Being transgender does not necessarily involve a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Whereas a transgender person is someone whose gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth, gender dysphoria is a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), characterized by a “marked difference between [an individual’s] expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign [them],” which is present for at least six months and “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

Lev Craig

On May 3, 2017, in Philpott v. State of New York, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss sexual orientation discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York joined a growing number of courts across the country in finding sexual orientation discrimination cognizable under Title VII, stating, “I decline to embrace an illogical and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination.”

Plaintiff Jeffery Philpott was employed at the SUNY College of Optometry as Vice President of Student Affairs, where, according to his complaint, he was subjected to years of discrimination and harassment because he is gay. Philpott alleges that his supervisors and coworkers mockingly called him “sensitive” and “flamboyant,” told him that “separate but equal treatment of gay people might be best,” dismissively referred to his relationship with his long-term domestic partner as “this marriage, or whatever you want to call it,” and refused to let him meet their families because they did not “want our children to be around homosexuality.” In addition, SUNY allegedly excluded him from meetings and projects because of his sexual orientation and implied that he deserved a lower salary because he is gay, telling him that “your team [i.e., gay people] doesn’t have kids. You have more than you need.” Shortly after Philpott complained to SUNY of the ongoing discrimination, Philpott claims, SUNY terminated his employment. Philpott filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), then filed suit in federal court, alleging hostile work environment, wrongful termination, and retaliation claims under Title VII.

Lev Craig

In October, we reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had vacated its July 2016 decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, where a former adjunct college professor brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), alleging that her employer had refused to hire her for a full-time position because she is a lesbian. Yesterday, April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and became the first Court of Appeals to hold that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination.”

Kimberly Hively, who is openly gay, started teaching part-time at Ivy Tech Community College in 2000. Between 2009 and 2014, she unsuccessfully applied for six different full-time positions. When the college also failed to renew her part-time contract in July 2014, Hively filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and subsequently brought suit pro se in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, alleging that she had been denied employment opportunities because she is a lesbian. The district court dismissed Hively’s complaint on the grounds that Title VII did not cover sexual orientation discrimination, and Hively appealed.