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.

On May 31, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied en banc review of an April decision permitting transgender students to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.  The Fourth Circuit encompasses North Carolina; thus, the case G.G. v. Gloucester County Public School Board (“Gloucester County”), although it arose in Virginia, creates a conflict between federal law and North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (“HB2”), which requires transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates.  Although Gloucester County applies on its face to students and public schools, the decision impacts retailers who provide bathroom facilities to employees and customers and who must navigate conflicting laws regarding transgender protections.  Of additional importance, plaintiffs in sex discrimination lawsuits will likely use the decision as support for the view that a person’s “sex” includes “gender identity.”

In Gloucester County, a sixteen-year-old transgender high school student who was born a biological female filed suit to use the boys’ restroom at school.  G.G. and his mother contended that the school’s policy of providing separate restrooms and locker rooms based upon a student’s biological sex constituted sex discrimination under Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities.  On April 19, G.G. prevailed in a two-to-one decision of a three member panel of the Fourth Circuit, which deferred to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation that the reference to “sex” in Title IX includes “gender identity.”

Following the panel’s ruling, the school board asked the Fourth Circuit to rehear the case with the full panel of 15 active judges.  On May 31, the en banc panel denied the school board’s request.  Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, widely considered the most conservative member of the Fourth Circuit, filed the lone dissent, stating the issue “deserves an open road to the Supreme Court to seek the Court’s controlling construction of Title IX for national application.”

Regardless whether the case proceeds to the Supreme Court, the decision signifies the first time a federal appeals court has found that federal law protects the rights of transgender persons to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.  Although decided under Title IX with regard to student rights, the decision may have ramifications in the area of employment law, inasmuch as Title VII, like Title IX, prohibits discrimination based on “sex.”  Retailers and other employers should be alert to the issue and may expect that future litigants will seek to expand the Gloucester County ruling to Title VII and other sex discrimination claims.

Given the political and legal climate surrounding HB2 and related laws that affect the rights of transgender persons, we recommend that retailers proactively accommodate the needs of transgender workers rather than reactively respond to potential claims of discrimination.  Retailers, particularly those operating in states with anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity, should implement a policy designed to foster workplace inclusion.  In particular, retailers are encouraged to provide transgender employees access to bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity and, where possible, provide employees with additional options, including single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities and use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls.  Furthermore, retailers in the clothing industry with dressing/fitting rooms should accommodate their employees and patrons alike by permitting them to use the dressing/fitting room that corresponds to their gender identity.  These recommendations apply equally to those retailers in North Carolina because, although HB2 remains in effect in that state, the law applies only to places of public accommodation, and, in any event, the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision signals that the controversial law may not withstand judicial scrutiny.  In general, retailers should beware that engaging in discriminatory practices may have negative business as well as legal ramifications.

John M. O’ConnorRetail employers and other businesses that serve the public in New York City should take particular notice of the New York City Commission on Human Rights’ detailed written guidance issued on December 21, 2015, reinforcing its desire that the protections afforded to transgender individuals by the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) be broadly interpreted to ensure that transgender individuals receive the full protection of the NYCHRL. The guidance includes specific examples of what the Commission believes constitutes unlawful discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived transgender status, gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or gender expression.

The Commission stresses the need for employers in New York City to use an employee’s preferred name, pronoun (he/she) and title (Mr./Mrs.) regardless of the employee’s “sex assigned at birth, anatomy, gender, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on the individual’s identification.”  Recognizing that many transgender and gender non-confirming individuals choose to use a different name than the one they were given at birth, or chose to use gender neutral pronouns (such as ze/hir), the Commission explains that employees expressing such a preference “have the right to use their preferred name.”  Refusal by an employer to use an employee’s preferred name, pronoun or title because they do not conform to gender stereotypes is a violation of the NYCHRL.  Thus, if a transgender woman advises that her preferred name is Jane, even though her identification states that her first name is John, it would be a violation of the NYCHRL for the employer to refuse to call her Jane.  The Commission suggests in its guidance that employers should consider creating a workplace policy of asking all employees what their preferred name and gender pronoun are so that employees can self-identify, and so that no single employee is singled out for such questioning (giving rise to a potential harassment claim).

The Commission also addresses employer dress code and grooming policies, advising that employers “may not require dress codes or uniforms, or apply grooming or appearance standards, that impose different requirements for individuals based on sex or gender.”  The Commission expressly rejects the federal standard that allows employers to apply different dress code or grooming policies to male and female employees unless the policies create an undue burden on employees.  Rather, the Commission opines that “holding individuals to different grooming or uniform standards based on gender serves no legitimate non-discriminatory purpose.”  Thus, while employers are entitled to enforce a dress code or require certain grooming/appearance standards, they must do so without imposing restrictions or requirements specific to gender or sex.  In this regard, polices such as allowing only women to wear jewelry, or requiring only male employees to maintain short hair would be violations of the NYCHRL, as would a policy requiring different uniforms for men and women.  Accordingly, to avoid violations, employers should create gender-neutral dress codes and grooming standards.

Retailers and other businesses that serve the public should also note the Commission’s position that the NYCHRL, “requires that individuals be permitted to use single-sex facilities, such as bathrooms or locker rooms … consistent with their gender, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, anatomy, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on their identification.”  Recognizing that other employees or customers may object to sharing a bathroom with a transgender or gender non-conforming person, the Commission warns that “such objections are not a lawful reason to deny access to that transgender or gender non-conforming individual.”  The Commission suggests that, to avoid violating the NYCHRL, employers should, “wherever possible,” provide single-occupancy restrooms (that can be used by people of all genders), or provide private space within multi-use bathrooms or locker rooms for anyone who has privacy concerns.  However, it would be a violation to force a transgender or gender non-conforming person to use a single-occupancy restroom if he/she/ze does not want to use it.  The Commission suggests that employers should post signs in all single-sex bathrooms or locker rooms that state that: “Under New York City Law, all individuals have the right to use the single-sex facility consistent with their gender identity or expression.”

By issuing the guidance, the Commission makes very clear its intention to protect transgender individuals from discrimination based on their transgender status and gender expression.  The guidance concludes with a bold reminder of the penalties for violating the NYCHRL’s prohibition of gender identity discrimination.  In addition to the remedies available at law to aggrieved individuals who prevail on claims under the NYCHRL, the Commission can impose civil penalties up to $125,000 for violations, and up to $250,000 for violations that are the product of willful, wanton or malicious conduct.  Accordingly, to avoid potential violations, New York City employers should consult with counsel to ensure that they create new policies and/or amend existing policies to comply with the directives set forth in the Commission’s guidance, and to minimize the likelihood of a violation of the NYCHRL.

For additional information regarding the Commission’s guidance and other recent developments affecting New York City employers, see our January 28 Act Now Advisory, “NYC Employers Risk New Penalties in 2016: Gender and Caregiver Discrimination, Paying Freelancers.”

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.