The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency responsible for protecting employees against discrimination in the workplace, whether it's based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, or disability. They are given this authority by a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 called Title VII.1
Title VII and LGBT Rights
There is no language in Title VII that protects against LGBT employees, and, at first, courts dismissed such claims as not being protected by the Civil Rights Act. However, in the 1989 Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case, Title VII was invoked to punish the accounting firm. In this case, Ann Hopkins claimed she was denied partnership at the firm because she acted too manly, and didn't do stereotypically feminine things such as wear makeup and jewelry. In effect, the courts ruled that employers could not tell women how to act, because that would constitute an employment decision “based on gender.”
Hence, “sex” in Title VII for the first time came to encompass both biological sex and gender. Other courts soon followed suit, and Title VII was brought to bear on a number of cases where gay people were discriminated against because they failed to “comport with stereotypical notions of how men [or women] should appear and behave.”2
This paved the way for transgender people to also seek protection under Title VII.
Two Pivotal Cases in 2014
In 2014, two federal suits were filed separately that dealt with transgender employees facing discrimination in the private sector, one in Florida and one in Michigan. Both cases were filed by the EEOC on behalf of employees who began transitioning from male to female, and were subjected to derision and subsequently fired.
EEOC v. Lakeland Eye Clinic
In the Florida suit against Lakeland Eye Clinic, the plaintiff was fired after she started wearing women's clothing and told her co-workers that she was transitioning from male to female. When Brandi M. Branson started working for the clinic in 2010 as a director, she presented as male, dressed in male clothes, and went by the name Michael. Less than a year into her employment, she began wearing makeup and women's clothing to work.
Co-workers reacted rudely, laughing at her, rolling their eyes, and excluding her from office activities.
When her bosses confronted her about the issue, she told them that she was transitioning to female and would be changing her name to Brandi. In response, they stopped referring patients to her and told her in June 2011 that her position was being eliminated. Two months later, they hired someone else to fill the vacancy.
The wrongful termination attorneys of the EEOC argued that Title VII, in fact, applied to discrimination against transgender people, and won the suit, securing a sum of $150,000 for Branson. The settlement also mandates that the clinic must establish an anti-discrimination policy that covers transgender employees, and undergo annual sensitivity training on transgender issues.3
EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc.
In the Michigan case, a funeral home fired its director and embalmer two weeks after she informed them that she was transitioning from male to female.
Aimee Stephens, formerly Anthony Stephens, had always “adequately performed the duties of her position” according to the suit. Stephens told the funeral home in July 2013 that she would be transitioning to female and begin to wear women's clothes. The funeral home claimed that was unacceptable, and fired her.4
The case is currently ongoing, with a federal judge recently refusing the funeral home's request to dismiss the case. The court rejected the EEOC's claim that transgender people are a protected class, but allowed the case to proceed on the basis that a transgender person can claim sex-stereotyping discrimination under Title VII.
EEOC v. Deluxe Financial Services Corp.
Another more recent case brought by the EEOC resulted in a reward of $115,000 to settle discrimination and harassment claims. Britney Austin presented as male when she began working at Deluxe Financial Services. After a long tenure of satisfactory performance, she informed her supervisors that she would be transitioning to female.
In response, she was denied use of the women's restroom, and was subject to a harsh work environment – including hurtful epithets and being referred to intentionally by the wrong gender pronoun.
As part of the settlement, in addition to the fine, Deluxe was ordered to remove any poor evaluation of Austin from its records after 2010. They cannot make any mention of the discrimination charge when called by any of Austin's future employers, and instead must make a neutral reference indicating that she's a good employee.
The EEOC's wrongful termination lawyers will continue to identify and fight discrimination against LGBT employees through Title VII. Additionally, employers should know that, as of now, 16 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, or being transgender. So, even though there's not currently a federal law banning such discrimination, individual state laws might deal with such matters.
If you believe your company has run afoul of hostile work environment laws, contact one of our attorneys today and schedule an appointment to discuss the issue.