Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Federal circuits are currently split on whether discrimination based on sexual orientation falls within the scope of discrimination based on sex (and therefore within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition). On February 26, 2018, the en banc Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in Zarda v. Altitude Express that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex does in fact cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, overturning its own precedent holding from almost twenty years prior. This result signals increased viability for challenges advocating a broader interpretation of Title VII to remedy sexual orientation discrimination, as well as a potential pushback by the Jeff Sessions-helmed Justice Department as these challenges arise.
Zarda involved a skydiving instructor (Zarda) who alleged that his employer (Altitude Express) fired him in response to a customer telling them of his sexual orientation. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment in favor of Altitude Express on Zarda’s claim, finding that Title VII failed to cover sexual orientation discrimination, and that Zarda failed to establish the type of gender-stereotyping claim covered by the act. The District Court considered itself bound by the Second Circuit’s 17-year-old decision in Simonton v. Runyon, and held that, absent an en banc review by the Second Circuit reversing Simonton, Second Circuit precedent required dismissal. Zarda appealed the summary judgment to the Second Circuit, which granted an en banc review. Writing the majority opinion, Judge Robert Katzmann wrote in the majority opinion that sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves sex discrimination, as it means discrimination against someone based on their own sex in relation to the sex of those to whom they are sexually attracted. Katzmann noted that although Congress had not sought to address sexual orientation discrimination in Title VII, laws like Title VII “often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” which in this case included sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit thus reversed Simonson, vacated the summary judgment, and remanded the Title VII claim to the District Court.
By allowing such a claim to proceed under Title VII, the Second Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit, which found last April that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination in its decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Hively concerned an adjunct professor who alleged that her employer passed her up for full employment because she was openly gay. Hively argued that she faced discriminated for failing to conform to female stereotypes, and because she publicly identified as a lesbian. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the summary judgment in favor of her employer. It found that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination” and that “a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.” According to the Seventh Circuit, Title VII encompassed both her gender non-conformity and sexual orientation discrimination allegations.
The Eleventh Circuit held otherwise in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, decided on March 10, 2017. The case involved a male-identifying security hospital security guard (Evans) allegedly dismissed from employment for failing to present as a woman. Like the plaintiff in Hively, Evans argued that she suffered discrimination due to her gender non-conformity, which she argued fell within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit agreed that Title VII protected against this type of discrimination, but found that she failed to make a prima facie showing of it. The Eleventh Circuit distinguished discrimination based on gender non-conformity from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and found that Title VII did not address the latter.
In Franchina v. City of Providence, decided on January 25, 2018, the First Circuit heard the city’s appeal of a verdict and judgment against it for a female firefighter’s Title VII claim that her employer provided her with a hostile workplace, where she suffered discrimination as both a woman and a lesbian. She proceeded under a “sex-plus” theory, or a gender discrimination claim alleging that an employer classifies employees based on their sex “plus” another characteristic (in this case, sexual orientation). The First Circuit held in denying the city’s challenge that the plaintiff’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination, although not technically redressable under Title VII, did not cause her meritorious sex discrimination claim to fail. In a jurisdiction following Zarda’s reasoning, this “sex-plus” heuristic becomes less meaningful or necessary for the plaintiffs to resort to, where sexual orientation itself becomes a protectable distinction. The difference between two jurisdiction’s analyses in cases like Franchina underscores the stakes in the national push for Circuit reconsideration of narrow judicial applications of Title VII.
After these cases, a pronounced Circuit split exists on the scope of Title VII’s coverage. On December 11, 2017, the Supreme Court refused certiorari for the plaintiff’s appeal in Evans, but more appeals to the Court’s jurisdiction on this issue appear imminent. The Second Circuit’s reversal appears to increase the impetus for the Supreme Court to address this question. In the meantime, state legislatures draft their own provisions aimed at remedying the type of discrimination typified by these suits.