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Title VII at SCOTUS

June 3, 2019 Leave a comment

AET Headshot Photo 2019 (M1344539xB1386)By: Amanda Thibodeau

In April 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear three cases related to discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity during its next term. The Court will analyze the scope of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a protected class. Currently, the lower courts are split on whether the term “sex” in the statute includes sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Both the Second and Seventh Circuit Courts as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) all interpret Title VII as covering sexual orientation, while the Eleventh Circuit disagrees.

In two of the cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Court will consider whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, on the other hand, the Court will consider whether discrimination on the basis of gender identity is prohibited under Title VII.

The Zarda case involves a skydiving instructor who was fired after he disclosed to a customer that he was gay. Mr. Zarda subsequently died in a 2014 skydiving accident, and his estate has been pursuing the case on his behalf. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit interpreted Title VII to include sexual orientation under its protections. Mr. Zarda’s former employer then appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Noteworthy is that the EEOC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) both submitted briefs in the Second Circuit which were inapposite of each other: the EEOC arguing that Title VII protects discrimination based upon sexual orientation, while the DOJ argued it does not.

In the Bostock case, a child welfare services coordinator claimed he was fired for being gay. The Eleventh Circuit ruled against him, citing a 1979 5th Circuit case that held homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.

The third case, Harris, involves a transgender woman, Aimee Stephens, who was fired after informing her employer, a funeral home, that she was a transgender woman and would start wearing women’s clothing to work. Her former employer defended itself in the case by claiming that it believed gender transition violated “God’s commands.” The federal district court initially ruled that Ms. Stephens was discriminated against, but that the employer was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Sixth Circuit then reversed the district court, holding that not only is transgender discrimination prohibited under Title VII, but also that the employer was not protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The funeral home appealed.

Some states, like Massachusetts, already provide their own individual protections based upon sexual orientation and/or gender identity, but many states do not. The Supreme Court’s determinations in these cases, therefore, have the potential to change the landscape of employment discrimination law nationwide, and will be closely watched.  Advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (who is co-counsel in two out of three cases), are particularly concerned about the potential impact of the Court’s decisions. Decisions in these cases are expected by June 2020.

Morse will watch these cases closely and will provide updates as new information becomes available.

For more information on Title VII or other discrimination issues, please contact Matthew Mitchell or Amanda Thibodeau.