By R. Joseph Leibovich
Employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation, according to a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The question is, will this ruling ultimately persuade federal courts to agree?
No federal law currently explicitly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Several states do have such laws.
The case in question involved a federal air traffic controller who claimed he was denied a permanent position, in part, because he is gay. In a 3-2 opinion, the Commission held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation because it is gender based discrimination, which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In coming to this conclusion, the Commission noted that sexual orientation discrimination directly relates to gender. The opinion stated
For example, assume that an employer suspends a lesbian employee for displaying a photo of her female spouse on her desk, but does not suspend a male employee for displaying a photo of his female spouse on his desk. The lesbian employee in that example can allege that her employer took an adverse action against her that the employer would not have taken had she been male.That is a legitimate claim under Title VII that sex was unlawfully taken into account in the adverse employment action.
In addition to this, the Opinion applied cases involving race discrimination to note that discrimination based on sexual orientation was “associational” discrimination. That is, discrimination based on associating with an individual who is in a protected class. In addition, the Commission stated that sexual orientation discrimination can be based on gender stereotypes, and is therefore illegal.
The EEOC’s decision only directly applies to federal employees. However, federal courts do give deference to the Commission’s interpretation of Title VII. Certainly, all the federal circuits could either accept or reject the EEOC’s interpretation. Any courts that disagree with the Commission decision could find that had Congress intended to provide protection for sexual orientation in Title VII, it would have explicitly done so.
The likely result of this will be a split in the federal circuits, which would probably lead to the Supreme Court having the final say. Of course, new legislation could moot this issue one way or the other.
Until this issue is clarified legislatively or by the Supreme Court, private employers covered by Title VII – those with 15 or more employees – should be aware that the EEOC’s decision has put sexual orientation discrimination on the table, and the agency will likely accept charges based on such alleged discrimination.
Now may be a good time to review policies and training to attempt to minimize potential exposure for the new charges and litigation that are almost certain to ensue.