Articles Posted in Sexual Orientation

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

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.

Lev Craig and Harrison Paige

On March 27, 2017, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded in part and affirmed in part the district court’s decision in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, Incorporated, et al. Plaintiff Matthew Christiansen brought claims against his former employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), alleging discrimination on the basis of his HIV-positive status and his failure to conform to gender stereotypes. The lower court dismissed Christiansen’s federal claims for failure to state a claim; the Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of the ADA claim, but reversed the dismissal of the Title VII claim, finding that Christiansen had plausibly alleged a Title VII gender stereotyping claim.

Christiansen, an openly gay man who is HIV-positive, was the creative director for DDB Worldwide Communications Group Incorporated (“DDB”), an international advertising agency and Omnicom subsidiary. According to the complaint, Christian’s direct supervisor, Joe Cianciotto, subjected Christiansen to a “pattern of humiliating harassment targeting his effeminacy and sexual orientation.” Cianciotto allegedly drew offensive, obscene caricatures of Christiansen on an office whiteboard, the most explicit of which depicted Christiansen naked with an erection, captioned with a mocking comment about same-sex marriage. On another occasion, according to the complaint, Cianciotto created a “Muscle Beach Party” poster, which he circulated amongst office members and posted on Facebook, displaying DDB employees’ heads photoshopped onto the bodies of people in swimwear; on the poster, Christiansen’s head was pasted onto a photo of a woman in a bikini, lying on the ground with her legs upright in the air “in a manner that one coworker thought depicted Christiansen as ‘a submissive sissy.’”

Lev Craig

Earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part the district court’s decision in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

Jameka Evans worked at Georgia Regional Hospital (the “Hospital”) in Atlanta, Georgia, as a security officer. Evans, who is a lesbian, had a masculine gender presentation at work: she wore the men’s security officer uniform, men’s shoes, and a short, masculine haircut. According to Evans’ complaint, the Hospital discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation and because she did not behave in a “traditional woman[ly] manner.” Evans alleged that she was denied equal pay, harassed, physically assaulted, targeted for termination, and retaliated against after making a complaint of discrimination to the Hospital’s Human Resources department.

Lev Craig

Last Friday, the parties submitted a settlement agreement for approval in Cote v. Walmart, a class action suit filed in federal court alleging that Walmart discriminated against gay Walmart employees by denying spousal health insurance coverage to same-sex married couples. The settlement would provide $7.5 million for current and former Walmart employees who could not obtain employer health insurance benefits for their same-sex spouse.

The suit was the first class action filed on behalf of gay employees after the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling extending marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, according to the Boston-based LGBT legal advocacy group GLAD. Jackie Cote filed suit in the District of Massachusetts in July 2015, bringing claims against Walmart under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Law on behalf of Walmart employees who were married to a same-sex spouse and did not receive spousal health insurance benefits from Walmart between 2011 and 2013.

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On November 4, 2016, the Western District of Pennsylvania—joining the Middle District of Alaska, District of the District of Columbia, District of Oregon, and Central District of California—held that a gay person has standing to bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). In EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, the Complainant, Dale Baxley, alleges that his supervisor, Robert McClendon, Scott Medical Health Center’s telemarketing manager, subjected him to a hostile work environment because he is a gay man. After Scott Medical Health Center’s president and chief executive officer allegedly ignored his complaint about the discrimination and harassment, Mr. Baxley quit.

In the complaint, Mr. Baxley alleges that Mr. McClendon called him a “fag,” “faggot,” “fucking faggot,” and “queer,” and, after learning that Mr. Baxley had a male partner, made statements such as “I always wondered how you fags have sex,” “I don’t understand how you fucking fags have sex,” and “Who’s the butch and who is the bitch?” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that Title VII covered this type of harassment as, had it not been but for Mr. Baxley’s sex, he would not have been subjected to this harassment. The court agreed, stating that Title VII’s “because of sex” provision prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Lev Craig

In August, we reported on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, which held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Last week, on October 11, the Seventh Circuit vacated the Hively decision and granted rehearing en banc. Plaintiff filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which requests that the Seventh Circuit hear the case before a panel of all active judges. Although en banc hearings ordinarily are not ordered, a case may be reheard en banc where the proceedings involve a request of exceptional importance.

In Hively, Kimberly Hively, a part-time adjunct professor at Ivy Tech Community College, alleged that her employer had discriminated against her by denying her full-time employment and promotions because of her sexual orientation. Hively argued that this treatment violated Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination. The federal district court for the Northern District of Indiana dismissed Hively’s complaint on the grounds that Title VII did not cover sexual orientation discrimination and, as such, there was no legal basis for Hively’s claims. Hively then appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Owen H. Laird, Esq.

On March 25, 2016, we reported on landmark lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in a blog titled “EEOC Files Landmark Lawsuits Alleging Sexual Orientation Discrimination Under Title VII.” In these cases, the EEOC asserted claims of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) on behalf of workers.  Title VII provides the basic anti-discrimination protection that most employees in the United States enjoy.  These new cases are significant because they mark a departure from the previous interpretation of sexual orientation under Title VII: treating sexual orientation as a protected characteristic under Title VII where it previously had not been viewed as such.

Title VII protects against discrimination on the basis of sex. The EEOC asserted that sexual orientation claims constitute a form of sex discrimination, arguing that sexual orientation and sex are inherently linked and that sexual orientation discrimination involves gender stereotypes and adherence to gender norms. While some states and municipalities have enacted laws explicitly protecting against sexual orientation discrimination, the EEOC’s expansion of Title VII brought these protections to millions of American workers who do not live in regions with state or local anti–sexual orientation discrimination statutes.

Lev Craig

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves’ ruling in Barber v. Bryant enjoined a new Mississippi state law – House Bill 1523, or the “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act” (“HB 1523”) – that would have gone into effect on July 1, 2016.  The court struck down HB 1523 on the grounds that it violated both the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.

HB 1523 authorized discrimination by businesses and public employees who asserted one of three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions”: namely, the beliefs that marriage should be “the union of one man and one woman,” that sexual relations should only occur within a heterosexual marriage, and that a person’s gender is defined by their “anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.”