Yesterday, in a landmark 10-3 ruling, the Second Circuit became the second federal Court of Appeals to hold that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) includes protections against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. Employers in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont can no longer discriminate against gay and lesbian workers with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, without running afoul of Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex.
While the Second Circuit had previously held that sexual orientation discrimination claims were not cognizable under Title VII, yesterday’s majority opinion, written by Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, acknowledged that the legal framework for evaluating such claims had, “evolved substantially,” requiring the overturning of the Circuit’s prior precedents.
According to the majority, one’s sexual orientation is largely defined by an individual’s sex and the sex of the person he or she is attracted to. Therefore, the Court held, sexual orientation discrimination is motivated, at least in part, by sex, and is thus covered under Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex.
Additionally, the Court found that discrimination against a gay or lesbian employee on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes unlawful “sex stereotyping”, under Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that employment decisions cannot be predicated on mere ‘stereotyped’ impressions about the characteristics of males or females. For instance, a company cannot fire a female employee because she is deemed insufficiently “feminine” in her demeanor, dress, or mannerisms. In yesterday’s Opinion, the Circuit Court acknowledged that stereotypes about homosexuality are inescapably related to people’s preconceived notions regarding the proper roles of men and women, and therefore, any adverse employment action taken on account of sexual orientation would necessarily involve impermissible gender-based stereotyping.
Finally, the Court held that sexual orientation discrimination is a prohibited form of associational discrimination on the basis of sex. Just as an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of that employee’s association with a person of another race, an employer cannot take action against an employee because of that employee’s mere association with a person of the same (or opposite) gender. Importantly, the Court held, with limited exception, that the prohibition on associational discrimination applies with equal force to all the classes protected by Title VII, including race, color, religion, and national origin.
Although this ruling does not apply nationwide, for the time being, it represents binding precedent in the Second Circuit, which is includes Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. Gay and lesbian workers in these states will now be able to challenge the discriminatory behavior of their employers in Federal Court, and may be eligible to recover attorney’s fees and punitive damages if they are successful. The decision also creates another avenue to bring the issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could give the decision nationwide effect.
If you work in New York and feel you are being discriminated against by your employer based on your sex or sexual orientation, or if you have additional questions regarding the protections granted under Title VII, you should consider meeting with a New York Employment Attorney to learn more about your rights.
The case discussed in this blog post is Zarda v. Altitude Express, No. 15-3775 (2d Cir. 2017)