In a landmark decision, a New York federal appeals court ruled that the protections in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extend to claims of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. While it has long been established that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, there has recently been much debate surrounding whether it also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals now joins the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in holding that it does.
The underlying case, Zarda v. Altitude Express, involved a skydiving instructor who disclosed that he was gay to one of his customers. When the customer’s boyfriend learned of the skydiving instructor’s disclosure, he called the company to file various complaints about the instructor’s behavior. The skydiving instructor was then fired. The company claimed that he was fired for inappropriate behavior, however the skydiving instructor filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sex discrimination under Title VII.
In a 10-3 decision, the court ruled in favor of the skydiving instructor. While the EEOC supported the skydiving instructor, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an amicus brief, claiming that Congress did not intend for Title VII protections to extend to claims of sexual orientation. The court rejected the DOJ’s arguments, instead siding with the EEOC, which claimed that Title VII also bars employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The court outlined three justifications for its decision.
According to this justification, but for the skydiving instructor’s gender, he would not have been discriminated against. Sexual orientation is dependent upon the person’s gender, therefore sexual orientation is a function of gender. Had the skydiving instructor been a woman, he likely would not have suffered employment discrimination.
The Supreme Court has held that employers may not be punished for failing to conform to gender norms and that gender stereotyping constitutes a form of sex discrimination. In this case, the skydiving instructor failed to conform to gender norms by dating men and not members of the opposite sex.
This justification is based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, in which the court held that states may not prohibit interracial marriages as it constitutes racial discrimination. Similarly, employers may not fire employees for entering an interracial or homosexual marriage.
This is a huge win for the LGBT community, especially considering opposition from the DOJ and the Trump administration. The attorney for the skydiving school has stated that he is undecided as to whether he will appeal the case to the Supreme Court. For now, LGBTQ employees can rest assured that federal law protects them from sexual orientation employment discrimination.
If you were treated unfavorably in any aspect of employment because of your gender identity, transgender status, sex, or sexual orientation, contact a skilled Allegheny County employment lawyer at AlpernSchubert P.C. From our office in Pittsburgh, we represent clients throughout Western Pennsylvania, including those in Allegheny County, Lawrence County, and Washington County. To schedule a confidential consultation, contact us online or call 412-765-1888 today.
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