Human Resources News & Insights

EEOC ushers in a new era of discrimination lawsuits

For the first time ever, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is taking private employers to task over transgender discrimination. The agency claims two employers blatantly fired transgender workers illegally. 

The first employer is Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. The EEOC filed a sex discrimination lawsuit claiming the funeral home fired Amiee Stephens two weeks after she presented Harris with a letter explaining that she was undergoing a gender transformation from male to female and would soon start to dress in women’s business attire.

While terminating Stephens, Harris’ owner said that what Stephens was planning to do was unacceptable.

The EEOC said those actions violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination, including that based on gender stereotyping.

The second employer is Lakeland Eye Clinic of Lakeland, FL. The EEOC filed a similar sex discrimination lawsuit against the clinic after it, too, fired an employee once it became known the person was transitioning from male to female. This case, however, represents a less-direct form of discrimination, according to the EEOC.

Brandi Branson worked at the clinic in a position that relied on having physicians refer patients to her. Shortly after beginning to wear female attire and make-up to work, she was approached about her appearance. At that point, Branson acknowledged she was transitioning to female.

Then, according to the EEOC’s charges, Branson’s co-workers began directing derogatory comments toward her and physicians stopped referring patients to her. Shortly after, she was told her position was being eliminated, and she was terminated. But two months later, the clinic hired a replacement for Branson.

Following precedent set in federal employer case

While these are the first transgender discrimination causes brought in the private sector, they’re not the first transgender discrimination cases to ever be heard.

The EEOC, which has appellate adjudicatory authority in the federal sector, rendered a ruling in a similar case brought by Mia Macy against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — a federal employer. The ruling stated discrimination against transgender employees amounts to sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

The EEOC used its reasoning in that federal-sector case as the basis for its charges against Harris and Lakeland.

It also said that the private-sector lawsuits are part of its ongoing efforts to implement the Strategic Enforcement Plan it adopted in 2012, which lists as a top enforcement priority including “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions, as they may apply.”

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