June 19, 2020

Employment Law

Landmark Victory for LGBTQ Employment Rights Nationwide

This week, the United States Supreme Court ruled conclusively that it is unlawful under federal law for an employer to fire an employee because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While LGBTQ employees have long been protected under Minnesota law, this is the first time the nation’s top Court ruled on the matter to protect all LGBTQ workers nationwide. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) it is “unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” and that sex is necessarily a but-for cause when an employer discriminates against LGBTQ employees. In reaching this landmark decision, there were three cases before the Court.

The first concerned Gerald Bostock, who worked as a child welfare advocate for Clayton County, Georgia. Mr. Bostock was fired shortly after he took part in a gay softball league. Mr. Bostock filed suit alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The Eleventh Circuit held that termination based on sexual orientation does not violate Title VII.

The second case involved Donald Zarda, who worked for Altitude Express as a skydiving instructor. Not long after Mr. Zarda mentioned his sexual orientation, Altitude Express terminated his employment. Mr. Zada sued alleging violation of Title VII. Unlike the Eleventh Circuit, the Second Circuit held discrimination based on sexual orientation as a violation of Title VII.

The third case involved Aimee Stephens, who worked at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Michigan. When Ms. Stephens was hired by the company she appeared as male, which was her assigned sex at birth. Several years into working for the funeral home, Ms. Stephens struggled with depression and was soon diagnosed with gender dysphoria. With the help and advice of Ms. Stephens’ clinicians, she made the decision to identify as a woman. Ms. Stephens informed the company that she identified as a woman and planned to present herself as such. In response, the funeral home fired her. A suit was brought, and the Sixth Circuit held that Title VII prohibits employers from terminating employees based on that employee’s transgender status.

In Bostock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme court was asked to resolve the division among the Circuit Courts on whether gay and transgender individuals are protected under Title VII. The majority held “an employer who fired an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.” The Court ruled:

An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other factors besides the Plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group.  If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee—put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer—a statutory violation has occurred.

The majority reasoned that sexual orientation and gender identity are undeniable linked with sex and thus “when  an  employer  discriminates  against  homosexual or transgender employees, an employer who discriminates on these grounds inescapably intends to rely on sex in its decisionmaking.” The Court further reasoned that “homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex. But . . . discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.” The opinion concluded that Title VII clearly “prohibits all forms of discrimination because of sex, however, they may manifest themselves or whatever other labels might attach to them.”

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) has long protected the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees to be free of workplace discrimination and harassment. In addition, the MHRA extends protections even further to encompass employees who are even perceived to be LGBTQ.  Thus, even because an employer “thinks” an employee is gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual, that employee is protected.

Have you suffered LGBTQ employment discrimination?

Discrimination could arise in the form of teasing, inappropriate comments, demotion, termination, or any adverse employment action. If you have suffered from discrimination because of your sexual orientation, our attorneys want to hear from you. We are currently investigating cases related to sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace and can help you protect your rights. Wanta Thome PLC is dedicated to protecting employee rights in Minneapolis, St. Paul and throughout Minnesota. Contact us for a free initial consultation.