EEOC Files First Sex Discrimination Cases Based on Sexual Orientation

 
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that it has filed its first two sex discrimination cases based on sexual orientation. The federal agency's Philadelphia District Office filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against Scott Medical Health Center, and, in a separate suit, in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Baltimore Division, against Pallet Companies, dba IFCO Systems NA.

In its suit against Scott Medical Health Center, EEOC charged that a gay male employee was subjected to harassment because of his sexual orientation. The agency said that the male employee's manager repeatedly referred to him using various anti-gay epithets and made other highly offensive comments about his sexuality and sex life. When the employee complained to the clinic director, the director responded that the manager was "just doing his job," and refused to take any action to stop the harassment, according to the suit. After enduring weeks of such comments by his manager, the employee quit rather than endure further harassment.

In its suit against IFCO Systems, EEOC charged that a lesbian employee was harassed by her supervisor because of her sexual orientation. Her supervisor made numerous comments to her regarding her sexual orientation and appearance, such as "I want to turn you back into a woman" and "You would look good in a dress," according to the suit. At one point, the supervisor blew a kiss at her and circled his tongue at her in a suggestive manner, EEOC alleged. The employee complained to management and called the employee hotline about the harassment. IFCO fired the female employee just a few days later in retaliation for making the complaints, EEOC charged.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination because of sex. As the federal law enforcement agency charged with interpreting and enforcing Title VII, EEOC has concluded that harassment and other discrimination because of sexual orientation is prohibited sex discrimination.

On July 15, 2015, EEOC, in a federal sector decision, determined that sexual orientation discrimination is, by its very nature, discrimination because of sex. See Baldwin v. Dep't of Transp., Appeal No. 0120133080 (July 15, 2015). In that case, EEOC explained the reasons why Title VII's prohibition of sex discrimination includes discrimination because of sexual orientation: (1) sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves treating workers less favorably because of their sex because sexual orientation as a concept cannot be understood without reference to sex; (2) sexual orientation discrimination is rooted in non-compliance with sex stereotypes and gender norms, and employment decisions based in such stereotypes and norms have long been found to be prohibited sex discrimination under Title VII; and (3) sexual orientation discrimination punishes workers because of their close personal association with members of a particular sex, such as marital and other personal relationships.

Both lawsuits were brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex as well as retaliation.  In both the case against Scott Medical Health Center (Case 2:16-cv-00225-CB), and the case against IFCO Systems (Case 1:16-cv-00595-RDB), EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach  pre-litigation settlements through its conciliation process.

Addressing emerging and developing issues, especially coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII's sex discrimination provisions, is one of six national priorities identified by EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP). The agency has posted materials on its website relating to coverage under Title VII for LGBT individuals. In addition, in June 2015, the Commission, in coordination with the Office of Personnel Management, Office of Special Counsel, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, developed a guide for federal agencies on addressing sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in federal civilian employment.

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