The top story on Employment Law This Week is the EEOC’s filing of its first sexual orientation bias suits.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against an individual for sexual orientation. The EEOC concluded that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of unlawful gender discrimination. This month, the agency filed two landmark federal lawsuits seeking to enforce its interpretation of the statute for the first time. The agency is suing on behalf of workers at a company in Baltimore and one in Pittsburgh for harassment based on sexual orientation. Our colleague Jeffrey Landes, from Epstein Becker Green, has more.

View the episode below or read more about these landmark lawsuits in an earlier post on this blog.

The top story on Employment Law This Week is the EEOC’s announcement of new nationwide disclosure rules for position statements.

Retroactive to January 1, 2016, employers should expect the disclosure of their position statements to the charging party, even if the statement contains confidential information. Under the new policy, complainants have the right to request access to the statement and respond to it, but any response from the charging party will not be disclosed to the employer in turn. Lauri Rasnick, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has more on what this means for employers.

View the episode below or read more about the EEOC’s announcement in an earlier blog post.

Laura C. Monaco
Laura C. Monaco

This week, the EEOC filed its first two federal lawsuits that frame allegations of sexual orientation-based harassment and discrimination as claims of unlawful “sex discrimination” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In EEOC v. Pallet Companies the EEOC alleges that an employee’s night-shift manager harassed her because of her sexual orientation by making repeated offensive comments (sometimes accompanied by sexually suggestive gestures), such as “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “I want you to like men again.”  According to the Complaint, the employee was discharged after she complained about her manager’s comments to another supervisor and the Human Resources department.  The EEOC makes similar allegations in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center.  There, a supervisor allegedly harassed an employee by making repeated anti-gay comments and vulgar statements about the employee’s sexual orientation.  The employee claims that he was constructively discharged after the company refused to take any corrective action in response to his complaints.

In both lawsuits, the EEOC articulates three legal theories in support of its claim that the alleged sexual orientation harassment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII.  First, sexual orientation discrimination “necessarily entails” treating an employee less favorably due to his or her sex and, therefore, the employee’s gender unlawfully motivated the alleged harassment.  Second, the alleged harassment stemmed from the employee’s failure to conform to the harasser’s “sex stereotypes and norms.”  Third, the harasser displayed both general objections to the idea of individuals having romantic associations with others of the same sex, as well as a specific objection to the employee’s close, loving association with a same-sex partner.

Although these are the first lawsuits the EEOC has filed on the grounds of sexual orientation discrimination as “sex discrimination” under Title VII, the agency has actually raised these same three legal theories before.  In July 2015, the EEOC issued Baldwin v. Department of Transportation, an agency determination concluding that allegations of sexual orientation discrimination necessarily state a claim of unlawful sex discrimination because (1) the alleged discrimination would not have occurred but for the employee’s sex, (2) the challenged treatment was based on the sex of the people the employee associates with, and/or (3) the alleged conduct was premised on the fundamental “sex stereotype, norm, or expectation that individuals should be attracted only to those of the opposite sex.”

The EEOC’s new lawsuits attacking sexual orientation discrimination represent just one facet of the agency’s recent efforts to address emerging and developing issues – one of the six national priorities identified in its Strategic Enforcement Plan for fiscal years 2013 to 2016.  In addition to focusing on sexual orientation discrimination, the EEOC also recently filed federal lawsuits alleging unlawful sex discrimination against transgender individuals.  As the EEOC intensifies this focus, employers should review their antidiscrimination policies to determine whether LGBT employees have the same protections as employees in other protected categories, and should consider expanding their training programs to ensure they encompass issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender discrimination.  Employers should also remain mindful of state and local legislation that has increasingly expanded to prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in employment.

Our colleague Nancy L. Gunzenhauser has a Technology Employment Law blog post that will be of interest to many of our retail industry readers: “Three States Seek to Bolster Fair Pay Laws.”

Following is an excerpt:

Following on the tails of recent updates in New York and California’s equal pay laws, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California all have bills pending in their state legislatures that would seek to eliminate pay differentials on the basis of sex and other protected categories. …

While states are leading the charge with updates to equal pay laws, the EEOC is also stepping up equal pay enforcement with their proposal to modify the EEO-1 forms to include pay information. This push to gather more information regarding pay among various categories may lead to an increase in pay-related claims over the next few years. To help avoid such claims, employers should consider auditing job titles and compensation methods to ensure compliance with each jurisdiction’s equal pay laws.

Read the full post here.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently implemented nationwide procedures for the release of employer positionConfidential-shutterstock_41997904 statements to Charging Parties upon request.  The new procedures raise concerns about disclosure by the EEOC of non-public personnel and commercial or financial information the employer may disclose to support its position with regard to the Charge.

Before releasing the supporting documents to the Charging Party, the EEOC will review the employer’s submissions and withhold only information the Commission decides should be considered confidential.  The type of information considered confidential by the EEOC includes:

  • Sensitive medical information (except for the Charging Party’s medical information)
  • Social Security Numbers
  • Confidential commercial or confidential financial information
  • Trade secrets
  • Non-relevant personally identifiable information of witnesses, comparators or third parties, e.g., dates of birth in non-age cases, residential addresses, personal telephone numbers, personal email addresses, etc.
  • References to Charges filed with the EEOC by other Charging Parties

The EEOC has stated  that it will not accept an employer’s blanket or unsupported assertions of confidentiality.  If employers present confidential information with their position statements, the EEOC instructs that the information should be segregated from the position statement in separate attachments and bear one of the following designations to signify that the attachment contains information believed to be confidential and subject to protection from disclosure:

  • Sensitive Medical Information
  • Confidential Commercial Information
  • Confidential Financial Information
  • Trade Secret Information

The labels are intended to expedite the EEOC’s review of confidential information and consideration of the justification proffered to maintain confidentiality.  After its review, the EEOC has discretion to redact the information designated by the employer as confidential before releasing the position statement to the Charging Party.

Given the short amount of time often provided to respond to a Charge, and the type of information generally presented to support the position statement—e.g., employment information of non-parties and proprietary, competitive corporate information—employers should familiarize themselves with the EEOC’s new procedures for releasing employer position statements so that they are prepared to properly present and protect confidential information.

The top story on Employment Law This Week is the EEOC’s release of fiscal year 2015 enforcement data.

Retaliation claims were once again the number one type of charge filed, up 5% from last year for a total of 44.5% of all charges. Race claims were second, making up 34.7% of claims. 30.2% of charges alleged disability discrimination, up 6% from last year. Ronald M. Green from Epstein Becker Green (EBG) gives more detail on what’s behind the numbers.

View the episode below or read recent comments about the EEOC’s release, from David W. Garland of EBG.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) created the Action Council for Transformation to a Digital Charge System (“ACT Digital”) to enable the electronic submission of documents between the parties to a Charge of Discrimination and the EEOC.  Phase I of the system allows an employer against whom a Charge of employment discrimination has been filed to electronically interact with the EEOC through its online service for respondents, the EEOC Respondent Portal.  The pilot program for Phase I began in May 2015 in the Commission’s Charlotte and San Francisco field offices and rolled out to other offices, including Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis and Phoenix. It is expected that the Respondent Portal will be available in all EEOC field offices by October 1, 2015.

An employer named as a respondent in a Charge of Discrimination filed with the EEOC may receive a Notice of Charge of Discrimination by electronic mail, rather than a paper notice.  The electronic Notice of Charge will include an https://link, Charge number, and unique login information to allow the employer access to the Respondent Portal.  System access by a Charging Party is not currently available.

The Respondent Portal allows the employer to electronically:

  • View and download the Charge;
  • Review an invitation to mediate and respond to the Charge;
  • Submit a position statement to the EEOC; and
  • Provide/verify the employer’s contact information, including the designation of a legal representative.

Extensions of time may not be requested through the Portal.  If the employer has not logged onto the Respondent Portal within 10 days of the emailed Notice, the EEOC will attempt to re-serve the Notice of Charge.  The EEOC has published a User Guide for employers and guidance in the form of Frequently Asked Questions.

Employers may wish to notify their information technology services personnel about the electronic notification system to ensure emails ending with a “.gov” domain are not captured by spam filters.  Employers should also inform their human resources and management personnel about the system and instruct them to forward immediately to the appropriate individuals/department all communications, documents and notices received from the EEOC.

In the wake of several high-profile wins for the LGBT community, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) added employment discrimination protection to the list.  On July 16, 2015, the EEOC ruled that discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation is prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) as discrimination based on sex.

The EEOC held that “[s]exual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex.”  The EEOC noted that sex-based considerations also encompassed gender-based considerations under Title VII. This ruling, if accepted by federal courts, would extend protection under Title VII to decisions made on the basis of sexual orientation. While only the Supreme Court can issue a final, definitive ruling on the interpretation of Title VII, EEOC decisions are given significant deference by federal courts.

Employers across the U.S. should anticipate that overt actions, practices, and harassment that could be construed as discriminatory on the basis of a worker’s sexual orientation will be challenged in federal court and subject employers to potential liability.

My colleague Nathaniel M. Glasser recently authored Epstein Becker Green’s Take 5 newsletter.   In this edition of Take 5, Nathaniel highlights five areas of enforcement that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continues to tout publicly and aggressively pursue.

  1. Religious Discrimination and Accommodation—EEOC Is Victorious in New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
  2. Transgender Protections Under Title VII—EEOC Relies on Expanded Sex Discrimination Theories
  3. Systemic Investigations and Litigation—EEOC Gives Priority to Enforcement Initiative
  4. Narrowing the “Gender Pay Gap”—EEOC Files Suits Under the Equal Pay Act
  5. Background Checks—EEOC Seeks to Eliminate Barriers to Recruitment and Hiring

Read the Full Take 5 here.

Since we last reported on the 2012 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) decision in Macy v. Holder,[1] the federal government has continued to extend protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) to transgender employees.  In July 2014, President Obama issued Executive Order 13672, prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Two months later, in September 2014, the EEOC filed its first-ever lawsuits alleging sex discrimination against transgender employees under Title VII.  Shortly thereafter, in December 2014, outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo announcing that the Department of Justice considers Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination to include discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status.  Finally, earlier this year, on March 30, 2015, the Department of Justice filed its first lawsuit alleging an employer engaged in discrimination and retaliation against a transgender employee in violation of Title VII.

As a result, private employers may increasingly face lawsuits asserting gender identity discrimination claims and should revisit their policies– including employment, non-discrimination, and even dress code policies – to avoid the litigation of such claims.  Just last month, on April 1, 2015, Alexia (formerly “Anthony”) Daskalakis, a former employee of clothing retailer Forever 21, filed a complaint in the Eastern District of New York alleging discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on the basis of her gender, gender identity, gender expression and/or failure to conform to gender stereotypes.  Daskalakis, who was assigned male gender at birth, worked as a visual merchandiser at a Forever 21 store located in Brooklyn.  Daskalakis’s allegations arise from her manager’s conduct after she began transitioning to a woman.  The claims in Daskalakis v. Forever 21, Inc. are currently based on New York State and City non-discrimination laws, but the complaint indicates that plaintiff will file and/or seek leave to amend the complaint to include Title VII claims after receiving a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC.

In another recent EEOC decision, Lusardi v. McHugh, Appeal No. 0120133395, Agency No. ARREDSTON11SEP05574 (EEOC Apr. 1, 2015), the EEOC found that the Department of the Army subjected the complainant-employee to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment.  In holding that denying the employee equal access to the common women’s restroom constituted disparate treatment, the EEOC wrote: “The decision to restrict Complainant to a ‘single shot’ restroom isolated and segregated her from other persons of her gender” . . . and “perpetuated the sense that she was not worthy of equal treatment and respect.”  Appeal No. 0120133395 at 13.  Notably, the EEOC stated that co-workers’ confusion or anxiety regarding sharing a restroom with a transgender individual would not justify discriminatory terms and conditions of employment.   Appeal No. 0120133395 at 10-11.  The EEOC found that the Department of the Army had subjected the employee to a hostile work environment because a team leader referred to the employee by male names and pronouns and made hostile remarks after being aware that the employee identified as female.  Appeal No. 0120133395 at 17.

While the Lusardi decision has no precedential effect for private employers, it is predictive of a potential enforcement position in the event of a transgendered employee’s charge of discrimination against a private employer.  Notably, the EEOC did not declare that in all situations an employer should designate the gender-corresponding common restroom for the transgender employee’s use, but rather that the employer should develop individualized transition plans appropriate for the employee’s circumstances.  Appeal No. 0120133395 at 10.  Such a transition might even “include a limited period of time where the employee opts to use a private facility instead of a common one.”  Id.

To reduce the risk of litigating claims of gender identity discrimination and retaliation, it is important for employers to confer with counsel to ensure that all policies comply with the employer’s obligations to transgender employees under Title VII.

[1] Macy v. Holder, Appeal No. 0120120821, Agency No. ATF-2011-00751 (EEOC, Apr. 20, 2012).