Federal Court Rules on Gender Identity Employment Discrimination Claim

IdentityNew York City’s anti-discrimination statute protects workers against discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression, but these protections are far less certain in other jurisdictions and under federal laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that the sex discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cover gender identity discrimination, and some federal courts have also reached this conclusion. Other courts have specifically rejected this view. One federal district court took the unusual step of rejecting a gender identity discrimination claim on the basis of the federal “religious freedom” statute. EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, No. 2:14-cv-13710, order (E.D. Mich., Aug. 18, 2016). While the case is likely to be reversed on appeal, it is important to understand the development of the law on this issue.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of various factors, including sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). The Supreme Court has held that an employer engages in unlawful sex discrimination when it makes decisions based on “sex stereotyping,” which includes “evaluat[ing] employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 251 (1989). This decision has influenced numerous cases dealing with gender identity discrimination.

The EEOC has generally taken the view that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes gender identity. See Macy v. Holder, Appeal No. 0120120821, decision (EEOC, Apr. 20, 2012). The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes the court that decided R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, has held that Price Waterhouse “eviscerated” narrower interpretations of “sex discrimination” under Title VII. Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566, 573 (6th Cir. 2004); see also Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, 401 F.3d 729 (6th Cir. 2005).

The complainant in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes is a transgender woman who alleges that the defendant terminated her employment after she notified her supervisors that she was transitioning from male to female and therefore intended to dress “in appropriate business attire” as a woman. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, order at 10. She alleges that the only reason given by the defendant for her termination “was that management did not believe the public would be accepting of [her] transition.” Id. at 11.

The EEOC filed suit on the complainant’s behalf under Title VII. The court rejected the EEOC’s claim of gender identity discrimination under Title VII in 2015, but it found that the EEOC had made a valid claim of “sex stereotyping” based on Price Waterhouse. 100 F. Supp. 3d 594 (E.D. Mich. 2015).

In 2016, however, the court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. It rejected the defendant’s “sex-specific dress code” defense, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, order at 21, but it also noted that the EEOC did not challenge this dress code by proposing a “gender-neutral dress code.” Id. at 41. The court found that the defendant was entitled to an exemption from Title VII’s prohibition on “sex stereotyping” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.; see also Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. ___ (2014).

The transgender discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job seekers in New York City. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

General Services Administration Issues New Regulation Regarding Transgender Rights in the Workplace, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 16, 2016

Lawsuit Alleges Gender Identity Discrimination Under New York City and State Laws, New York Employment Attorney Blog, June 8, 2016

Appellate Court Rules that Federal Antidiscrimination Law Applies to Gender Identity and Expression, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 20, 2016

Photo credit: “Identity” [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Blue Diamond Gallery.

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