Human Resources News & Insights

Court rules sexual orientation is covered under federal sex discrimination law

In a landmark decision, a federal district court has ruled that sexual orientation bias is a form of sex discrimination – and illegal under U.S. law.  

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today that a federal court has denied a motion to dismiss a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by EEOC, ruling that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Last March 1, the  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the U.S. government’s first sex discrimination lawsuit based on sexual orientation, EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center. EEOC charged that a gay male employee was subjected to sex discrimination in the form of harassment because of his sexual orientation and then forced to quit his job rather than endure further harassment.

In response to EEOC’s lawsuit, Scott Medical Health Center filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Judge Cathy Bissoon, ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, denied Scott Medical Health Center’s motion to dismiss the case. In its ruling, the court found that sexual orientation discrimination is a type of discrimination “because of sex,” which is barred by Title VII.

‘Sex stereotyping’ is the key component

Applying decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court finding that Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination includes adverse treatment of workers based on “sex stereotypes” —  pre-conceived ideas of how a man or a woman should act or think — the federal court stated, “There is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping than making a determination that a person should conform to heterosexuality.”

The judge concluded, “That someone can be subjected to a barrage of insults, humiliation, hostility and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment, based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or a woman, is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate.”

While the federal court made a legal ruling in the case, to date there has been no trial or factual finding whether discrimination occurred.

The EEOC has previously concluded that harassment and other discrimination because of sexual orientation is prohibited sex discrimination. In July 2015, EEOC, in a federal sector decision, Baldwin v. Dep’t of Transp., determined that sexual orientation discrimination is, by its very nature, discrimination because of sex.

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.

The take-home

Obviously, the bottom line for employers here is that there’s now a broader range of grounds for employees to file suit under sexual discrimination laws. It’d make sense to include sexual orientation in your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination for employees and managers.

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