September, 2020 | The Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Landmark Sex Discrimination Lawsuit

Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court issued a written opinion in an employment discrimination case that will have significant implications in Texas, as well as throughout the county. The opinion involved the interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, whether the Act’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of an employee’s “sex” precludes an employer from firing an employee for being gay or transgender. The Court answered the question in the affirmative, finding that employers cannot discharge an employee for being gay or transgender, even if other motivations supported the employer’s decision.

Background Into the Civil Rights Act

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) was the country’s first civil rights legislation, protecting against discrimination based on an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However, initially, the protections under the CRA were weak and under-inclusive. So, while the CRA was an important step toward seeking a more equal workplace, it was not a complete solution. For example, the Act did not apply to discrimination based on a worker’s age or disability status. Additionally, although the Act purported to protect against sex discrimination, it was subsequently interpreted by the courts not to protect against pregnancy discrimination and, until recently, an employee’s status as gay or transgender.

Of course, subsequent legislation filled in some of the holes left by the CRA. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 provides protection for employees and job applicants over the age of 40. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, protects workers who are experiencing disability. And the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended the CRA to “prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.”

The Supreme Court’s Recent Opinion

The Court’s opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, is a consolidation of three similar cases, all arising from different states. Gerald Bostock was a child welfare advocate in Clayton County, Georgia. After he began playing in a gay softball league, he was fired for engaging in conduct “unbecoming” of an employee. Donald Zarda was a skydiving instructor who was fired days after mentioning that he was gay. And Aimee Stephens, who presented as a male when she was hired, was fired after telling her employer that she intended to “live and work full-time as a woman.”

In each of these three cases, the employee was fired at least in part for either being gay or transgender. All three employees filed employment discrimination claims against their employers under Title VII of the CRA. Oversimplifying the procedural background of each individual case; two of the cases were allowed to proceed toward trial while one was dismissed as a matter of law. The question that was eventually presented to the United States Supreme Court was whether Title VII to the CRA prevents an employer from making an employment decision because an employee is gay or transgender. In other words, does the CRA’s language precluding discrimination based on “sex” extend to an employee’s sexual orientation or status as a transgender person.

The Court’s Analysis

The Court began its analysis by noting that the CRA precludes employees from making an employment decision “because of” an employee’s sex. In its preliminary discussion of the applicable law, the Court reviewed several other opinions to glean a general rule regarding what is covered under the CRA.

First, the Court noted that it is “irrelevant what an employer might call its discriminatory practice, how others might label it, or what else might motivate it.” In making this statement, the Court was pointing out that it does not matter if the employer does not believe that they are engaging in sex discrimination. The Court explained “when an employer fires an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it necessarily and intentionally discriminates against that individual in part because of sex.”

Next, the Court went on to explain that the plaintiff’s sex does not need to be the only criteria leading to an employer’s decision. In other words, an employer cannot reframe their reason or firing an employee to be based on some non-protected trait.

Finally, the Court held that an employer cannot avoid the requirements of Title VII by showing that it treats men and women equally. The Court noted, “an employer who intentionally fires an individual homosexual or transgender employee in part because of that individual’s sex violates the law even if the employer is willing to subject all male and female homosexual or transgender employees to the same rule.”

In coming to its conclusion, the Court rejected each of the employers’ arguments. For example, the employers argued that firing an employee for being gay or transgender was not “sex” discrimination because it had nothing to do with an employee’s sex. In support of their argument, the employers noted that each of the employees, if asked, would likely have explained that they were fired for being gay or transgender (rather than for being male or female). However, the court reiterated that an employment discrimination charge does not require an employee to prove that the employer intended to discriminate, only that the employer acted in a discriminatory manner.

The Court also rejected the employers’ argument that public policy supported their actions. Specifically, the employers argued that, when enacted, few would have thought the CRA covered gay and transgender employees. The Court noted that “people are entitled to rely on the law as written, without fearing that courts might disregard its plain terms based on some extratextual consideration.” And the Court even acknowledged that these cases fell outside the “principal evil” at which the CRA was directed. However, rather than use that as a reason to minimize the protections afforded by the CRA, the Court explained that it “demonstrates the breadth of the legislative command.”

In the end, the Court’s holding was simple; employers cannot base an employment decision on an employee’s status as gay or transgender.

Contact an Experienced Austin Employment Law Attorney for Immediate Assistance

Whether you are an employer trying to navigate the new changes in the law, or an employee who believes that your employer illegally fired you, contact the Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan for help. For over 30 years, we have been helping individuals and businesses with complex employment law issues, including claims of employment discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation, wage and hour violations and more. To learn more about how we can help you with your situation, call 512-419-0684 to schedule a consultation today.

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