By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Kylie Byron
A Judge in the Northern District of Illinois has found that the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do not extend to cases of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
This ruling is in line with longstanding judicial reluctance to expand the scope of Title VII to encompass claims of sexual orientation discrimination. However, the decision is at odds with the interpretation of the law espoused by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Obama Administration. Indeed, both the EEOC and the administration have been firm in vocalizing their position that the protections of Title VII extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination.
The EEOC made its position clear in its seminal 2015 Baldwin v. Foxx administrative decision. There it held that Title VII’s protections extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination. It reasoned that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, as it is based upon expectations of which sex a person of a particular sex should prefer. While Baldwin is an administrative decision, and therefore not necessarily binding on federal courts, it provided both guidance from the EEOC and a firm statement of the EEOC’s position.
Since Baldwin, which we blogged about here, it has been an open question whether Federal Courts will reconsider their historic reluctance to adopt a more expansive view of Title VII. If the holding in Igasaki v. Illinois Dept. of Financial and Professional Regulation, is any indication, the answer is a resounding NO.
The court in Igasaki reiterated that the sex-discrimination protections of Title VII do not apply to individuals claiming discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. In reaching this decision it focused on the language of the statute, noting that sexual orientation is not one of the listed protected categories.
It is unknown whether the Seventh Circuit will uphold the interpretation of Title VII espoused in Igasaki. Indeed, the issue is presently before the court in the pending matter of Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, which we blogged about here.
How the Seventh Circuit ultimately decides this issue will give insight into whether Federal Courts are willing to look beyond past precedent and adopt the EEOC’s view that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and thus barred under the current text of Title VII. If the holdings of other courts are any indication, it appears that there is at least some judicial willingness to interpret Title VII more broadly to cover these types of claims. For instance, in Chavez v. Credit Nation Auto Sales, LLC, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 598 (11th Cir. Jan. 14, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit held that gender identity discrimination is prohibited by Title VII. While gender identity is distinct and different from sexual orientation, both rely on an expansive interpretation of “sex” discrimination rather than on a textual interpretation of the language of the statute itself.
Stay tuned, as we will continue to blog on forthcoming developments in this rapidly evolving area of the law. If you have any questions about this topic, please contact the author or your Seyfarth Shaw attorney.