District Court in Pennsylvania Rules Title VII Covers Sexual Orientation Discrimination

On November 4, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that protections against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extend to sexual orientation discrimination. EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Ctr., No. 16-225 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2016).  This decision marks an important trend of courts finding that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are entitled to full protection under laws prohibiting sex discrimination.  Although no federal appeals courts have yet ruled that sexual orientation discrimination falls under the Title VII umbrella, the Scott decision is expected to have serious implications in the Third Circuit and possibly beyond.

In the Scott case, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed a complaint alleging that a manager from Scott Medical Health Center routinely made derogatory comments to an employee based on his sexual orientation.  The EEOC claimed that the employee was targeted because he is a man who has intimate relationships with other men, which did not conform to his harasser’s notion of what a male should be or do.  In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that, had the employee been a female, he would not have been subjected to such discrimination.  The court further opined that “[t]here is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping than making a determination that a person should conform to heterosexuality.” EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Ctr., No. 16-225 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2016).  The court in the Scott case relied in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), which held that employment discrimination based on sex stereotypes (e.g., expectations about how persons of a certain sex should behave) is unlawful sex discrimination.

On November 30, the Seventh Circuit is scheduled to revisit its July 28, 2016 decision, which determined that Title VII does not protect against sexual orientation discrimination. Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 830 F.3d 689 (7th Cir. 2016).  The Seventh Circuit later vacated its own decision made by a three-judge panel and granted rehearing en banc because of the apparent discrepancy between the plain language of the statute and contemporary social constructs that have been acknowledged by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings. See Hively, 830 F.3d at 718. Additional oral arguments in cases involving sexual orientation discrimination claims are scheduled to be heard in the Eleventh and Second Circuits on December 15, 2016 and January 2017, respectively.

The “because of sex” provision contained in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k) will likely be the focal point of each oral argument and will determine whether sexual orientation protection is included under Title VII, which applies to all private and public sector employers with 15 or more employees.  Since the statute’s enactment in 1964, the courts and EEOC have routinely interpreted “because of sex” literally, which has consequently failed to recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.  However, Title VII’s protections could expand given recent legislative and legal developments within the past few years, and the development of the aforementioned sexual orientation decisions requires close scrutiny by employers throughout the country.

If you have any questions about employment decisions or application to your business, please contact the GW attorney with whom you normally consult.

-Submitted by Brian Jasinski

Categories: Employment Law