Articles Posted in Sex Discrimination

Owen H. Laird

As we move into 2018, it is worth reflecting on one of the most significant developments of 2017: sexual harassment becoming a topic of national discussion. In the past year, scores of people—primarily, but not exclusively, women—came forward and told their stories of harassment, abuse, and assault. As a result, dozens of high-profile individuals were fired, suspended, or forced to resign. Politicians, business leaders, media personalities, actors, writers, and other celebrities all faced public disgrace for their actions.

While these cases focus public attention on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, the unfortunate reality is that these high-publicity cases represent only a miniscule fraction of the incidents of sexual harassment and assault that people in the workplace face. The media rarely covers the stories of people working in low-wage, low-profile jobs who face sexual harassment or assault. Restaurant workers, office workers, home health aides, and hospitality workers all face high levels of harassment, and—as many Americans cannot afford to lose their jobs—victims go silent out of fear of retaliation.

Lev Craig

Earlier this year, we reported on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital affirming the dismissal of a former security guard’s claims that her employer had discriminated against her because she is a lesbian and did not conform to gender stereotypes. This Monday, December 11, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Evans, leaving unanswered the question of whether Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination.

Plaintiff Jameka Evans, who is a lesbian, worked at an Atlanta regional hospital as a security officer. She was open about her sexual orientation with her coworkers and dressed in a masculine manner, wearing the men’s security guard uniform, men’s shoes, and a short haircut. According to Evans’s complaint, the hospital discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation and nonconformity with gender stereotypes by denying her equal pay, harassing her, physically assaulting her, and targeting her for termination, then retaliated against her after she complained about the discriminatory treatment.

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.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On May 4, 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law prohibiting employers from inquiring about a prospective employee’s salary history, which goes into effect on October 21, 2017. The Office of the Mayor hopes that preventing employers from asking questions during the hiring process about an applicant’s previous compensation—which is often used as a benchmark for a new employee’s starting pay—will end the “perpetuating cycle of suppressed wages” for minorities.

The new law prohibits an employer from asking about or using a job applicant’s compensation history to determine their salary during the hiring process, including the negotiation of a contract. An applicant’s salary history includes their current or prior wage, salary, benefits, or other compensation.  Employers are still allowed to discuss expectations about salary, benefits, and other compensation with a job applicant.  Further, if an applicant, voluntarily and without prompting, discloses their salary history to an employer, the employer may consider that information in determining the applicant’s salary, benefits and other compensation.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On August 22, 2017, in Edwards v. Nicolai, the First Department Appellate Division—the appellate court of the counties of New York and the Bronx—overturned the trial court’s decision to dismiss gender discrimination claims, allowing Plaintiff Dilek Edwards to pursue her claims against Defendants Charles V. Nicolai and his wife, Stephanie Adams, a former Playboy Playmate. Ms. Edwards alleges that Mr. Nicolai and Ms. Adams—co-owners of Wall Street Chiropractic and Wellness (WSCW)—discriminated against her by terminating her employment because she was sexually attractive.

In April 2012, Mr. Nicolai hired Ms. Edwards as a yoga and massage therapist. According to Ms. Edwards, her relationship with Mr. Nicolai was “purely professional,” and Mr. Nicolai “regularly praised Plaintiff’s work performance throughout her period of employment.” In June 2013, however, Mr. Nicolai allegedly “informed Plaintiff that his wife might become jealous of Plaintiff, because Plaintiff was too cute.” Approximately four months later, Ms. Adams sent Ms. Edwards a text message stating, “You are NOT welcome any longer at Wall Street Chiropractic, DO NOT ever step foot in there again, and stay the [expletive] away from my husband and family!!!!!!! And remember I warned you.” A few hours later, Ms. Edwards allegedly received an email from Mr. Nicolai stating, “You are fired and no longer welcome in our office. If you call or try to come back, we will call the police.”

Lev Craig

On August 10, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s sex discrimination and FMLA interference claims in Shultz v. Congregation Shearith Israel of the City of New York. The Second Circuit found that the defendant’s notice to the plaintiff of her future termination constituted an adverse employment action, even though the notice of termination was later revoked.

Alana Shultz began working as Program Director at a New York City synagogue in 2004. In June 2015, Shultz, who was pregnant at the time, got married and notified her employer that she was pregnant. Shortly after Shultz disclosed her pregnancy, the synagogue notified Shultz that her employment would be terminated effective August 14, 2015, purportedly due to “restructuring.” Suspecting that the supposed “restructuring” was pretext for terminating her because of her pregnancy and because the synagogue’s leadership “disapproved of the fact that she was pregnant at the time of her marriage,” Shultz retained counsel, who then notified the synagogue of Shultz’s intent to pursue legal claims. Several days later, the synagogue rescinded its notice of termination, telling Shultz that it had “reinstated” the Program Director position and that she would therefore retain her position.

By Edgar M. Rivera

On May 24, 2017, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff Brittany Tovar’s sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The court held that Defendant Essentia Health’s denial of insurance coverage for Ms. Tovar’s son’s transition-related medical procedures did not state a claim for sex discrimination under Title VII, since Ms. Tovar did not suffer discrimination based on her own sex and therefore lacked statutory standing.

Ms. Tovar, a nurse practitioner, worked for Essentia Health from 2010 to 2016. During her employment at Essentia Health, she was enrolled in an employer-provided health insurance plan that also covered her teenage child, who is a transgender boy, meaning that he was designated female at birth but identifies as male. In 2014, doctors diagnosed Ms. Tovar’s son with gender dysphoria and recommended various treatments, including medications and gender reassignment surgery, for which Ms. Tovar sought coverage under her employer’s insurance plan.