Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 (hereafter “Title VII”) has long prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in the terms, conditions or privileges of employment. One question of ongoing statutory interpretation has not been definitively answered: what constitutes “sex” for the purposes of employment discrimination? Are the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeable under the law? And does the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex extend to a prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, determined that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex extended to discrimination on the basis of sex-stereotyping; i.e. a person’s perceived failure to comply with socially constructed gender norms. But, the Court has not to date proclaimed that the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex stereotyping prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. Neither has Congress amended Title VII to explicitly include “sexual orientation” as a protected classification. (“Sexual orientation” discrimination is expressly prohibited by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”)).
Absent a position by the Supreme Court, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency that administers Title VII, issued a bulletin in 2015 proclaiming that the agency interprets and enforces Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination as “forbidding any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation,” regardless of any contrary state or local law. Also in 2015, the EEOC issued an administrative decision that “sexual orientation” discrimination is discrimination based on sex and therefore violates Title VII. In Baldwin v. Dep’t of Transportation, the EEOC explained:
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms. “Sexual orientation” as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex. A man is referred to as “gay” if he is physically and/or emotionally attracted to other men. A woman is referred to as “lesbian” if she is physically and/or emotionally attracted to other women. Someone is referred to as “heterosexual” or “straight” if he or she is physically and/or emotionally attracted to someone of the opposite-sex. [citations omitted.] It follows, then, that sexual orientation is inseparable from and inescapably linked to sex and, therefore, that allegations of sexual orientation discrimination involve sex-based considerations.
The EEOC then concluded, “[s]exual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex.”
On April 4, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (headquartered in Chicago) became the first federal appeals court to agree with the EEOC that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a “form of” sex discrimination. In Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, the Court explained that “all gay, lesbian and bisexual persons fail to comply with the sine qua non of [i.e. inseparable from] gender stereotypes – that all men should form intimate relationships only with women, and all women should form intimate relationships only with men.” In this decision, the Court endeavored to clean up an outstanding contradiction that resulted from the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges where the Court determined that the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S Constitution protect the right of same-sex couples to marry. Obergefell, in conjunction with prior federal appeals court decisions that refused to recognize sexual orientation discrimination as sex discrimination under Title VII, created a “paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act.” Looking to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit issued its ruling in consideration of “what the correct rule of law is now.” It concluded, there is no line between a gender nonconformity claim and a claim based on sexual orientation:
Any discomfort, disapproval, or job decision based on the fact that the complainant—woman or man—dresses differently, speaks differently, or dates or marries a same-sex partner, is a reaction purely and simply based on sex. That means that it falls within Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination, if it affects employment in one of the specified ways…The logic of the Supreme Court’s decisions, as well as the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex, persuade us that the time has come to overrule our previous cases that have endeavored to find and observe that line.
As noted, California’s FEHA explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (as well as gender identity and gender expression). However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (covering California) has not explicitly applied Title VII to sexual orientation discrimination. Indeed, its rulings on this issue leave open an opportunity for further exposition.
For example, in Schwenk v. Hartford the Ninth Circuit in 2000 relied on Title VII cases to conclude that violence against a transsexual person was violence because of gender under the Gender Motivated Violence Act. The Court proclaimed that the term “sex,” as used in Title VII, means both “sex” (then described as the biological difference between men and women) and “gender” (described as an individual’s sexual identity, or socially constructed characteristics.) Therefore, the Court concluded, discrimination based on sex included discrimination based on socially constructed gender characteristics.
Without precluding the possibility that Title VII could apply to sexual orientation discrimination, the Ninth Circuit in 2002 held that an employee’s sexual orientation was “irrelevant for purposes of Title VII.” In Rene v. MGM Grand Hotel, Inc., the Court explained that Title VII “neither provide[d for] nor preclude[d] a cause of action for sexual harassment.” The Court determined that the fact that an alleged harasser was, or may have been, motivated by hostility based on sexual orientation was similarly irrelevant to a sexual harassment claim. The Court explained that it is enough to assert a cause of action under Title VII based on allegations that the harasser engaged in “severe or pervasive unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Whether that conduct was “because of” the victim’s sexual orientation, a personal vendetta, misguided humor, or boredom, was beside the point.
Later, in 2011, the Northern District Court for California (the federal trial court headquartered in San Francisco) re-asserted that neither Title VII nor any other federal law protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Accordingly, it dismissed a plaintiff’s “failure-to-promote claim” based on alleged sexual orientation discrimination. See Johnson v. Eckstrom. More recently, in 2015 the Central District Court for California (headquartered in Los Angeles) rejected the Northern District ruling and concluded that claims of sexual orientation discrimination are gender stereotype or sex discrimination claims covered by Title VII (and Title IX, which applies specifically to federally supported education). See Videckis v. Pepperdine University. Also, see Nichols v. Azteca Rest. Enters., Inc., a 2001 decision of the Ninth Circuit holding that discrimination against either a man or a woman on the basis of gender stereotypes is prohibited. Like the recent Seventh Circuit decision, the California Central District in its 2015 decision in Videckis v. Pepperdine University concluded that sexual orientation discrimination is not a category distinct from sex or gender discrimination. Rather, it held, “claims of sexual orientation discrimination are gender stereotype or sex discrimination claims.”
Based on the Ninth Circuit’s varying application and interpretation of Title VII’s application to sexual orientation discrimination, the split reasoning regarding its application by the lower District Courts, and based on the Seventh Circuit’s more complete exposition of sexual orientation discrimination as a form of gender discrimination, this issue is likely ripe for the Ninth Circuit’s review. Indeed, given the split among U.S. Courts of Appeal, the issue may well be ripe for Supreme Court consideration.