Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Health Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Sixth Circuit Finds Title VII Covers Discrimination Based on Transgender Status.”

Following is an excerpt:

In a significant decision on Wednesday, March 6, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes that discrimination against a worker on the basis of gender identity or transitioning status constitutes sex discrimination that violates Title VII.

In R.G. & G.R., the funeral home’s owner fired funeral director Aime Stephens after she informed him she intended to begin a gender transition and present herself as a woman at work. In finding gender identity to be covered by Title VII, the Sixth Circuit also upheld the EEOC’s claim that the funeral home’s dress code, which has different dress and grooming instructions for men and women, discriminates on the basis of sex. …

Read the full post here.

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.

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).