By Annette Tyman, Lawrence Z. Lorber, and Michael L. Childers

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”) is closing the summer by issuing two new enforcement directives. The first, Directive 2018-03, clarifies the OFCCP’s enforcement of religious non-discrimination in light of recent court decisions and executive orders. The second, Directive 2018-04, creates focused reviews for Executive Order 11246 (“EO 11246”), Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 503”), and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (“VEVRAA”). These two directives come just a week after the OFCCP released its much anticipated publication outlining what federal contractors can expect from the agency.

“What Contractors Can Expect”

On August 2nd, the OFCCP published the “What Contractors Can Expect” guidance which lays out the agency’s enforcement plans and echoes the message of transparency that the OFCCP announced when the new leadership took over and that Acting OFCCP Director Craig Leen recently reiterated to the contractor community during his opening address at the 2018 National Industry Liaison Group. In it the OFCCP assures contractors that they can expect:

  • Access to Accurate Compliance Assistance Material;
  • Timely Responses to Compliance Assistance Questions;
  • Opportunities to Provide Meaningful Feedback and Collaborate;
  • Professional Conduct by OFCCP’s Compliance Staff;
  • Neutral Scheduling of Compliance Evaluations;
  • Reasonable Opportunity to Discuss Compliance Evaluation Concerns;
  • Timely and Efficient Progress of Compliance Evaluations; and
  • Confidentiality

These expectations are consistent with the message of collaboration that the OFCCP has promised under the current administration. References to the neutral scheduling of compliance reviews and the opportunity to discuss concerns contained in the guidance echo previous actions taken by the agency in 2018.

The agency followed up on August 10th by issuing two new directives.

Directive 2018-03: Executive Order 11246 § 204(c), religious exemption

Directive 2018-03 clarifies the agency’s position on religious non-discrimination under EO 11246 in light of recent cases involving the relationship between federal regulation and the Free Exercise Clause, including Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In its press release, the OFCCP noted that this Directive also serves to align the agency’s enforcement actions with recent executive orders issued by the White House protecting religious freedom and the ability of faith-based and community organizations to compete fairly for government contracts and grants. The Directive instructs OFCCP staff to take these policies into consideration when providing compliance assistance, processing complaints, and reviewing compliance with EO 11246.

In practical terms, this Directive may not impact the vast majority of interactions that occur between the agency and the contractor community, as it is directed to OFCCP staff. However, it does signal a change in the way that the agency reviews religious accommodations during compliance evaluations. It may also impact complaint investigations against certain employers which allege discrimination on the basis of religion or sexual orientation and gender identity. The Directive specifically notes that “[t]his Directive supersedes any previous guidance that does not reflect these legal developments, for example, the section in OFCCP’s Frequently Asked Questions: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity regarding “Religious Employers and Religious Exemption.” See https://www.dol.gov/ofccp/LGBT/LGBT_FAQs.html.”

Directive 2018-04: Focused reviews of contractor compliance with Executive Order 11246 (E.O.), as amended; Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 503), as amended; and Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA), as amended

While the impact of Directive 2018-03 appears to be fairly limited, Directive 2018-04 represents a major change in the way that the OFCCP enforces affirmative action and non-discrimination requirements, particularly under Section 503 and VEVRAA. The Directive calls for the agency to direct a portion of future scheduling lists to “focused reviews” of EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA. The Directive further notes that in these focused reviews, “OFCCP would go onsite and conduct a comprehensive review of the particular authority at issue.” The reviews would include “interviews with managers…as well as employees affected” by the particular regulation and also evaluations of “hiring and compensation data.” The Directive instructs the OFCCP staff to develop a standard protocol for conducting the focused reviews as well as staff training, contractor education and compliance assistance materials. This policy suggests that the agency will be increasing its focus on the enforcement of Section 503 and VEVRAA which have historically received less attention than EO 11246 during compliance reviews.

What This Means for Employers?

Neither the “What Contractors Can Expect” policy, nor the directive clarifying the religious exemption signal any significant change for contractors. The creation of the focused reviews, however, puts contractors on notice that the OFCCP will be scrutinizing policies and practices that relate to disability and protected veteran status much more closely. In anticipation of the first round of focused reviews, contractors should ensure that their current policies and practices comply with the 2014 updates to the Section 503 and VEVRAA regulations. Contractors should specifically focus on the following:

  • Implementing an audit and reporting system to measure the effectiveness of their affirmative action efforts and take any necessary remedial measures;
  • Documenting requests for accommodations;
  • Ensuring that an interactive process for requesting accommodations during the hiring process is in place;
  • Soliciting protected veteran and disability status from applicants and new hires;
  • Listing all job openings with state employment delivery services; and
  • Reviewing job descriptions and qualifications to ensure that they do not screen out protected veterans or individuals with disabilities.

Contractors should also remember that in connection with both current compliance reviews and the new focused reviews, they may be asked to provide their most recent VETS-4212 Report. The deadline for filing the 2018 VETS-4212 Report is fast approaching on September 30, 2018.

It is unclear how the introduction of the focused reviews may impact desk audit submissions or whether these reviews will necessitate additional analyses for hiring or compensation. We anticipate further announcements from the OFCCP given its promise to provide contractor education and compliance assistance materials. We will continue to monitor these changes and will alert you as more develops.

In the meantime, if you have questions about best practices for OFCCP compliance and audit defense, please contact a member of Seyfarth’s Organizational Strategy & Analytics Team or your Seyfarth relationship partner.

By Scott Rabe and Marlin Duro

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent decision in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., No. 16-2424, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018), the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit has sent the strong message that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has minimal impact on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) authority to enforce the anti-discrimination laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

The RFRA, enacted in 1993, prohibits the government from enforcing a law that is religiously neutral against an individual, if the natural law “substantially burdens” the individual’s religious exercise and is not the least restrictive way to further a compelling government interest. Importantly, the RFRA applies only in the context of government action, and therefore would not provide a defense for an employer in a civil suit brought by a private plaintiff.

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a Sixth Circuit panel held in a unanimous decision that: (i) Title VII’s proscription of discrimination on the basis of sex encompasses a prohibition on discrimination based on transgender status, and that (ii) in this case the RFRA would not limit the EEOC’s authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws under Title VII. With this decision, the Sixth Circuit became the first federal Court of Appeals to address the extent to which the RFRA may limit the EEOC’s power to enforce Title VII.

By way of background, the EEOC brought suit against a funeral home on behalf of a transgender employee, Aimee Stephens, who was terminated from her employment shortly after informing her employer that she intended to transition from male to female. The EEOC alleged the funeral home violated Title VII by terminating Stephens’ employment on the basis of her transgender or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes. The funeral home argued that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of transgender status and that the funeral home was protected from enforcement of Title VII by the RFRA as the government action would constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon the funeral home owner’s exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Both parties moved for summary judgment and the district court found in favor of the funeral home on both motions The district court found that Title VII did not protect against discrimination based on transgender status and that, while Stephens had suffered discrimination based on sex stereotyping, the RFRA prevented the EEOC from suing on her behalf.

On the EEOC’s appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court with respect to both motions and granted summary judgment in favor of the EEOC. First, the Sixth Circuit held that the funeral home’s conduct violated Title VII, reinforcing its prior holdings that discrimination against employees because of their gender identity and transgender status are illegal under Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination based on sex stereotyping. The Sixth Circuit explained that “discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex” and found that firing a person because he or she will no longer represent him or herself as the gender that he or she was born with “falls squarely within the ambit of sex-based discrimination” forbidden under Title VII. Id. at *18.

Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the EEOC’s enforcement of Title VII against the funeral home did not violate the funeral home’s rights under the RFRA. A viable defense based on the RFRA requires a demonstration that the government action at issue would substantially burden a sincerely held religious exercise. Although the Sixth Circuit treated the running of the funeral home as a sincere religious exercise by the owner, it held that the alleged burden caused by the enforcement of Title VII was not “substantial” within the meaning of RFRA. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that tolerating an employee’s understanding of his or her sex and gender identity was not “tantamount to supporting it” and that mere compliance with Title VII, “without actually assisting or facilitating transition efforts,” did not amount to an endorsement by the employer of the employee’s views. Id. at *59, *61. Nor, the Sixth Circuit explained, could the funeral home rely on customers’ “presumed biases” against transgender individuals to meet the substantial burden test. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that the funeral home had not demonstrated a substantial burden on the its religious exercise.

While the Sixth Circuit could have ended its analysis there, it went on to hold that even if tolerating Stephens’ gender identity and transitioning status were a “substantial burden” on the funeral home’s religious exercise, the EEOC did not violate the RFRA because the agency had a compelling interest in eradicating all forms of invidious employment discrimination, and enforcement of Title VII through its enforcement function was the least restrictive means for eradicating discrimination in the workforce. This analysis, if found not to apply only to the facts of this case, could ostensibly doom any defense to a Title VII action within the Sixth Circuit where an employer raises a defense based on the RFRA.

The Sixth Circuit’s opinion is an important one, as it addresses two of the more hot button topics in employment jurisprudence: the scope of the definition of “sex discrimination” under Title VII and the impact of laws protecting the free exercise of religion in the workplace. On the former, this opinion joins the recent trend in decisions finding that gender identity is inextricably linked with sex and therefore is protected under Title VII. And on the latter, the Sixth Circuit has laid down a gauntlet as the first federal circuit addressing the RFRA’s impact on the EEOC’s Title VII enforcement power. The decision is clearly intended to send a strong message that the RFRA has limited application, if any, in defense of a Title VII action brought by the Commission. While time will tell whether other federal circuits will adopt a similar interpretation, if the Sixth Circuit’s legal rationale is followed, employers will be hard-pressed to defend Title VII claims brought by the EEOC based on the alleged exercise of religious freedom.

In light of the current uncertainty regarding the ultimate interpretation of Title VII as it applies to gender identity, employers should regularly review their policies to ensure that adequate protections are provided to employees on the basis of their gender identity, and transgender and transitioning status. As always, we also invite employers to reach out to their Seyfarth contact for solutions and recommendations regarding anti-harassment and EEO policies and addressing compliance with LGBTQ+ issues in the law.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Scott Rabe and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: In landmark decision, the Second Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit in holding that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a subset of sex discrimination.

In a landmark decision today in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No. 15-3775, the Second Circuit ruled en banc that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a subset of discrimination on the basis of sex. The Second Circuit now joins the Seventh Circuit, the EEOC, and a number of district and administrative courts across the country that have interpreted Title VII to extend its prohibition of sex discrimination to sexual orientation.  Chief Judge Katzmann authored the decision for the plurality, in which four judges joined in full, five judges joined in part, and to which three judges dissented.  In total, eight of the thirteen judges issued an opinion.

The Appellant in Zarda, a former skydiving instructor, sued his employer, alleging that he was terminated from his job after he revealed to a customer that he was gay.  Specifically, he alleged sex discrimination under Title VII asserting that his employment was terminated because he failed to conform to male sex stereotypes because he was gay.  The district court dismissed Zarda’s Title VII claim at summary judgment, holding that, although there was sufficient evidence to permit his claim for sexual orientation discrimination to proceed under New York law, which explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of gender stereotyping under Title VII based on his sexual orientation.  The district court explained that in reaching this decision it was constrained by Second Circuit precedent in Simonton v. Runyon and Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, which held that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Today the Second Circuit reversed, and in doing so, explicitly stated that it was overturning its prior opinions in Simonton and Dawson.

In the plurality opinion, Judge Katzmann explained that sexual orientation discrimination should be treated as a subset of sex discrimination for several reasons.  He observed that “sexual orientation is defined by one’s sex in relation to the sex of those to whom one is attracted,” that “sexual orientation discrimination is . . . based on assumptions or stereotypes about how members of a particular gender should be, including to whom they should be attracted,” and that “sexual orientation discrimination is associational discrimination because an adverse employment action that is motivated by the employer’s opposition to association between members of particular sexes discriminates against an employee on the basis of sex.”   The plurality also found compelling that, while the consensus among Circuits and the EEOC in 2000 at the time of Simonton was that Title VII did not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the EEOC and the Seventh Circuit both changed their stance on this issue and courts across the country continue to explore this issue.

The main dissent, written by Judge Lynch and joined in part by two justices, argued primarily that under a strict textual interpretation of Title VII, the statute did not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as it is clear Congress could have but did not include sexual orientation as a protected class.  This is the same rationale employed in 2017 by the Eleventh Circuit in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, which recently held in a divided opinion that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination does not encompass discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Today’s decision widens the Circuit split on this issue.  Further, the diverse array of opinions among the judges on the Second Circuit mirrors the nationwide divergence in views regarding the protections that Title VII affords employees based on their sexual orientation.  While the EEOC has now taken the clear position that discrimination against workers because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual is sex discrimination under Title VII, the Department of Justice has issued guidance and sought to enforce an interpretation of Title VII that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not prohibited under Title VII as sex discrimination.  Circuit, district, and administrative courts are also split.  With the Circuit divide, complicated by vastly divergent interpretations of Title VII by the very agencies entrusted to enforce Title VII, the issue is poised for a Supreme Court ruling.

In light of the current uncertainty regarding the ultimate interpretation of Title VII as it applies to sexual orientation, as well as gender identity, see our prior post, and because numerous state and local laws already explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, employers should regularly review their policies to ensure that adequate protections are provided to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Scott Rabe, Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, and Marlin Duro

Seyfarth Synopsis: In the first case following the Department of Justice’s pronouncement that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination against transgender persons on the basis of gender identity, a court in the Western District of Oklahoma held that Title VII protects transgender individuals from discrimination. Tudor v. Se. Okla. State Univ., No. civ-15-324-C. (W.D. Okla. Oct. 26, 2017).

With the recent October 5, 2017 memorandum from the Department of Justice stating that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination against transgender persons, the legal landscape regarding Title VII’s protection of transgender individuals is very much in flux. The DOJ’s interpretation is a reversal of the DOJ’s interpretation under the Obama administration and also conflicts with the current interpretation of the EEOC, both of which interpret Title VII to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. U.S. Circuit courts are also split on the issue, meaning this issue is likely primed for resolution by the Supreme Court in the not too distant future.

The latest decision addressing this issue comes from Tudor v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, a case from the Western District of Oklahoma in which Tudor, a transgender former professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, alleged among other things that she was harassed and discriminated against on the basis of her gender identity after she was denied tenure following her transition from male to female. The court in Tudor denied the university’s motion for summary judgment, finding that there were triable issues of fact with respect to each of Tudor’s claims. This decision is important because it shows that, despite the DOJ’s memorandum, courts are still willing to extend Title VII protections to transgender persons. It also provides helpful guidance to employers as they ponder how their own internal policies and procedures affect transgender employees.

Importantly, the court in Tudor rejected the University’s argument that Tudor was not entitled to protection under Title VII because “transgender” is not a protected class. The court, relying on its prior ruling on the issue, reiterated that Title VII’s prohibition of gender discrimination extended to transgender individuals to the extent they were discriminated against based on “gender non-conformity.” Specifically, Tudor had alleged that Defendant’s actions towards her occurred because she was female, yet Defendants regarded her as male.

The Court also denied the University’s motion for summary judgment on Tudor’s hostile work environment claim, finding that there was a triable issue of fact. In particular, the court highlighted Tudor’s evidence that for four years the University placed restrictions on what restroom she could use, how she could dress, what makeup she could wear, and that it used the wrong pronouns when referencing her. The Court found that these facts, if true, could be sufficient to establish a hostile work environment claim.

The Court also rejected the University’s Faragher/Ellerth defense, which can provide a complete defense to an employer that has non-discrimination and non-harassment policies in place but where an employee fails to take advantage of those procedures. Here, the court explained that the defense would not apply because the University’s sexual harassment and sex discrimination policies did not contain specific language regarding protections for transgender employees.

Even though the law in this area remains uncertain, there is much for employers to glean from the Tudor case. First, it is clear that the DOJ’s recent memorandum has not resolved the question of whether Title VII protects transgender employers on the basis of gender identity. Therefore, employers should be vigilant in establishing and maintaining non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that extend protections to individuals on the basis of gender identity. This will help ensure that employers stay compliant with federal (and applicable state and local) laws, and it also preserves a potential Faragher/Ellerth defense to a hostile work environment claim. Employers should also be mindful of the unique conduct that may be considered harassing in nature to transgender employees. For example, Tudor demonstrates that denying employees access to their bathroom of choice, enacting strict gender normative dress codes, and refusing to use preferred pronouns may all contribute to a hostile work environment. Thus, employers should update their anti-harassment policies and trainings to include examples that address some of the unique scenarios affecting transgender employees.

As always, we invite employers to reach out to their Seyfarth contact for solutions and recommendations regarding anti-harassment and EEO policies and addressing compliance with LGBT issues in the law.

By Sam Schwartz-FenwickMichael W. Stevens, and Kylie Byron

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Justice has reversed the previous Administration’s position on employment protections for transgender individuals, and issued a memorandum that will likely be relied on by private employers seeking to use their religious faith to engage in otherwise prohibited discriminatory conduct.

In a bombshell week, with significant implications for employers, the Department of Justice issued two memos setting forth its views on transgender discrimination claims and an employer’s ability to make decisions based on its religious beliefs.

On October 5th, 2017, the Department of Justice released a memorandum stating that the new position of the DOJ would be that Title VII does not protect transgender persons from discrimination in the workplace. However, somewhat confusingly, the memo specified that transgender people were still protected under Title VII’s existing formulation. This presumably means that a transgender person may sue under Title VII if their employer discriminates against them on the basis of their race or country of origin, but not on the basis of sex or gender identity. The DOJ had previously argued in Court that Title VII does not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination.

On October 6th, 2017, the Department issued new guidance providing that “[e]xcept in the narrowest of circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.” The directive explicitly states that private companies must be given the same leeway regarding religious beliefs that churches receive. This guidance may impact hiring, and could possibly give any private organization the ability to hire, fire, and discipline employees based upon the faith of the owner or supervisor. It may also lead to changes in benefit plans that expressly exclude on religious grounds transgender coverage and/or same-sex spousal benefit.

These directives were not unexpected. Nonetheless, they mark a sharp reversal of DOJ policy. Under the Obama Administration, the DOJ had held the position that transgender employees were protected from discrimination under Title VII, congruent with the EEOC’s position. Specifically, the Department’s position was that gender identity discrimination was a form of sex stereotyping and thus covered by under Title VII. The DOJ intervened in litigation throughout the country advocating this view of the statute. Likewise, the prior administration argued in Hobby Lobby v Burwell, that private companies cannot claim exemption on religious grounds from generally applicable statutes.

In addition, the DOJ’s new course puts it at odds with the EEOC. The EEOC continues to advocate for a broad interpretation of Title VII that extends to claims of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.   Further it remains the EEOC’s position that a business cannot defend otherwise discriminatory conduct by arguing such conduct was consistent with its religious beliefs.

The memos underscore that this is an area of law filled with uncertainty. The law on the scope of Title VII’s coverage, and the ability of religion to act as an affirmative defense to otherwise discriminatory conduct, remain unsettled. The memos do not resolve the issue. The Department of Justice has stated its viewpoint and direction, but these directives do not supersede state or federal law already in place. Further, these memos do not control the position of the EEOC.

It is anticipated that these memos will lead to an increase in targeted employment lawsuits from impact groups. How such cases will turn out is unknown.

What is known is that these issues will remain in flux until either the Supreme Court hears the issue or Congress passes clarifying legislation. This term, the Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop will be given the opportunity to provide some insight into how it views the tension between religious rights and principles of non-discrimination. The case involves whether or not a business (here a bakery) is permitted to refuse service to same-sex couples on the basis of the business-owner’s faith. The baker asserts a First Amendment rights to religious liberty and freedom of speech. A ruling in favor of the baker would be consistent with the DOJ’s October 6 memo, and could dramatically change the employment law landscape. As with the DOJ memo, such a ruling could be relied on by employers and plan sponsors to justify otherwise discriminatory actions in hiring, promotion, firing and plan design.

As the policy change by the DOJ is not binding, it is not advisable to shift employment policies based upon the Attorney General’s statements. Treating transgender employees with equality in the workplace is a best practice standard that increases employee safety and productivity and helps with recruitment, retention and morale. Further, inclusive policies mitigate against the risk of potential litigation. In addition, several states and cities have protective statutes that prohibit discrimination against transgender people in employment, and federal courts in multiple jurisdictions have found transgender claims covered by Title VII.

For more information on this topic, or for advice or assistance in helping your workplace comply with best practices for transgender employees, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, Michael W. Stevens, and Kylie Byron

Seyfarth Synopsis: The first eight months of the new administration signals a retrenchment on the executive branch’s view of legal protections due LGBT individuals, including in employment.

Recently, in a dramatic shift, the Department of Justice broke ranks with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and filed an amicus brief in the Second Circuit in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., No 15-3775, Dkt. #417 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2017).  In that brief, the Department argued that, contrary to its prior position (and that of the E.E.O.C.), discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was not prohibited under Title VII as harassment on the basis of gender. The E.E.O.C.’s longstanding position is that such discrimination is prohibited, a position that recently found support in the Seventh Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech, No. 15-720 (7th Cir. Apr. 4, 2017) (en banc).

There is currently a circuit split on this issue, with the Seventh Circuit finding that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII, and the Eleventh Circuit finding that it is not. The sudden reversal of the Department of Justice, injects further uncertainty in the already unsettled landscape of LGBT protections under Title VII.  Employers can expect this uncertainty to continue until the issue is addressed by either Congress or by the Supreme Court. Employers seeking to navigate this in flux legal landscape should work closely with counsel.

In another shift on LGBT issues, in March 2017, the Administration revoked Executive Order 13673, or the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Order.”  Order 13673 required federal government contractors and prospective contractors to show compliance with Order 13672, an order that barred federal contractors from discriminating in employment on the bases of sexual orientation or gender identity. By revoking Order 13673, the  Administration has limited the impact of Order 13672.  While the nondiscrimination Order remains in place, the Order that would hold contractors accountable has been revoked.  Revocation of Order 13673 has created uncertainty among federal contractors as to their responsibilities, and as to appropriate best practices. To remain compliant with Order 13672, employers should work closely with counsel.

In addition, the Administration has revoked the Department of Education issued guidance regarding transgender students. The DOE under the Obama administration stated that transgender students were protected under Title IX on the basis of gender identity.  Thus, schools that did not permit transgender students to use the necessary hygienic facilities (such as bathrooms) appropriate to their gender were in violation of Title IX’s nondiscrimination provisions and risked losing federal funds.

In February 2017, the Trump Administration rescinded that guidance finding it did not “contain extensive legal analysis or explain how the position is consistent with the express language of Title IX.” Absent legal mandates to the contrary, schools can continue to offer protections to their transgender students consistent with their beliefs as to what is in the best interest of students.  Schools that seek to limit bathroom access to the sex-at-birth assigned to their students will need to grapple with how they can enact and implement such a rule while still complying with the present DOE guidance which provides that LGBT students must be assured that they “are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment” and cannot be subjected to discrimination.

The Administration’s view that Title IX does not protect transgender individuals has also led it to consider making changes to Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, Section, the regulations containing anti-discrimination protections in the provision of healthcare. Section 1557 bars covered entities from discriminating, including barring coverage based on a transgender exclusion in a plan. Last year, a court in the Northern District of Texas placed a nationwide preliminary injunction on enforcement of the transgender related Section 1557 regulations in a suit against HHS. The current administration chose not to appeal the decision. The Department of Justice further asked the court for a remand to HSS, so that HHS could determine whether or not the regulations comported with Title IX. The court granted this remand, and HHS is currently reportedly planning a new proposed rule for that purpose.

On August 4, 2017, the Justice Department announced that it was reviewing a draft proposed rule already prepared by HHS. It is likely that the proposed rule will unwind the transgender protections of Section 1557, in whole or provide exemptions to the regulations. Healthcare providers, employers, human resources departments and benefits administrators should work closely with counsel on this rapidly changing area of the law.

In further recent action, on July 26, 2017 President Trump tweeted that he would bar transgender persons from service in the military, and thus discharge all transgender service members. While a tweet does not appear to create legal policy, the tweet, and subsequent tweets on the subject, sent strong signals regarding his intention. On August 9, 2017, two lawsuits were filed alleging that although the ban has not yet been enacted, the policy announcement itself caused harm to service members. While this policy change does not directly impact private employers it underscores the need to keep abreast of change in the law that relate to gender-identity based protections, and to consult with counsel to evaluate internal policies, practices, and procedures with an eye toward gender identity claims.

Finally, in understanding the impact of the new administration on LGBT issues, it is instructive to examine the President’s judicial appointments, especially his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. While numerous publications, including ours, have been written on Justice Gorsuch’s outlook towards LGBT individuals, his dissent in Pavan v. Smith is instructive as to his leaning in future LGBT-related cases. In Pavan, the Court held that the same-sex parents of children in the state of Arkansas may not be prohibited from being listed as legal parents on their child’s birth certificate.  The Court held, per curiam, that because Arkansas already listed non-biological parents on birth certificates for non-same-sex couples, the state could not deny the same treatment to same-sex couples.

Justice Gorsuch, along with Justices Alito and Thomas, dissented in part arguing that “essentialist” biological or anatomical rationales should be the primary determining factor of parenthood, rather than adoption and other legal same-sex parenting methods. He further called into question the reach of Obergefell v. Hodges.  Judge Gorsuch’s views on LGBT issues will receive attention next year when the Court addresses whether a business can refuse to provide service to a gay couple.  This decision has wide ranging implications for employers and plan administrators, as it is expected to touch on the extent to which religious liberty can trump discrimination claims.

As the current administration continues to unwind regulations and legal arguments put forth by the Obama Administration, the legal landscape regarding LGBT employment issues will continue to remain in flux. Stay tuned to this blog for further analysis of subsequent developments.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Lucas Deloach

Seyfarth Synopsis: To the surprise of many, the EEOC is not retreating from the argument first made by the Obama administration that Title VII forbids employment discrimination based on gender identity.

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman, informed her employer, a funeral home, of her gender identity and intention to transition.  Although she intended to abide by the funeral home’s gender-specific dress code and wear clothing approved for female employees, she was terminated.  She filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC, and ultimately, the EEOC during the Obama administration brought suit against the funeral home in federal district court alleging that the funeral home terminated Ms. Stephens “because [she] is transgender, because of [her] transition from male to female, and/or because [she] did not conform to [the funeral home’s] sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.”

The district court rejected the funeral home’s motion to dismiss, holding the complaint stated a claim for relief based upon unlawful sex-stereotyping but not gender identity discrimination. The district court subsequently granted the funeral home’s motion for summary judgment, in which the funeral home relied in part upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) as a defense.  In its order, the district court found that the RFRA did, in fact, operate as a defense to Ms. Stephens’ wrongful termination claim.

In its opening brief to the Sixth Circuit, the EEOC continues to advance arguments originally made during the Obama administration.  The EEOC argues that, “[c]ontrary to the court’s ruling below, Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of … sex’ encompasses discrimination based on transgender status and/or transitioning.”  The EEOC also maintains that the “RFRA does not provide what Title VII omits: a defense in this case that exempts the Funeral Home from complying with Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination based on the sincere religious beliefs of its owner.”

Many observers had expected the EEOC to reverse its stance, and the agency may still do so. After all, the full impact of President Trump’s administration on the makeup and enforcement agenda of the EEOC remains to be seen.  Additionally, the administration’s position on a range of LGBT issues is not clear.  The EEOC’s actions here are aligned with President Trump’s statements on preserving President Obama’s Executive Order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT individuals employed by the federal government and by federal contractors.  However, that position is at odds with the DOJ’s and Education Department’s withdrawal of Obama-era guidance advising federally-funded educational institutions that Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.  (The EEOC’s current position is further complicated by the fact that the stated protections for transgender individuals, found in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, derive in part from Title IX.)

Currently, it appears the EEOC is poised to maintain its position, in the context of Title VII. But it is unclear whether the EEOC will continue to prioritize sex discrimination claims on behalf of transgender employees.  Additionally, although unsettled, a growing number of courts have held that discrimination on the basis of gender identity violates Title VII.  For these reasons, employers are wise to consider how their policies, practices, and procedures impact transgender employees and whether they are sufficiently inclusive.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Lucas Deloach

Seyfarth Synopsis: Increasingly, courts have held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity violates Title VII. Federal district courts in Nevada and Pennsylvania have recently joined their ranks.  Nonetheless, the issue remains unsettled.

In the previous two months, federal courts in Nevada and Pennsylvania held that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, respectively. These rulings accompany the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision to vacate its panel ruling that Title VII did not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination and to re-hear the case en banc.

In Roberts v. Clark County School District, a transgender police officer brought suit in the District of Nevada after the Clark County School District prohibited him from using either the men’s or women’s restrooms.  The school district argued in its motion for partial summary judgment that Title VII only prohibits discrimination based on “biological sex.”  In an October 4, 2016 ruling, the court disagreed and “join[ed] the weight of the authority” concluding that discrimination based upon an individual’s transgender status violated Title VII.  It further concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to summary judgment on his discrimination claim, as he was “clearly treated differently than persons of both his biological sex and the gender he identifies as ­­- in sum, because of his transgender status.”

In EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued a pain management and weight loss clinic and alleged that a gay male employee was constructively discharged after a manager created a sexually hostile work environment.  The complaint recited a number of the manager’s alleged homophobic slurs and statements. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Title VII does not protect discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  The court denied the defendant’s motion exactly one month after the Roberts decision.  The court remarked that “the singular question” is “whether, but for [the employee’s] sex, would he have been subjected to this discrimination or harassment.”  The court thought not and held that Title VII’s “because of sex” provision prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Of course, these decisions are not the final word. As President-elect Trump assembles his administration, it is not yet clear whether the executive branch and its agencies will depart from the position that the protections of Title VII extend to LGBT statuses.  Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal which asks the Court to weigh in on the issue of restroom access for transgender students.  While the appeal directly implicates Title IX, the ruling could also impact courts’ interpretations of prohibitions on sex discrimination under Title VII.

Given this uncertainty and the patchwork of court decisions across the country, employers should consult with counsel to review their policies, practices, and procedures as they relate to sexual orientation and gender identity claims.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

 

 

 

By Kylie Byron, Abigail Cahak, Mary Kay Klimesh, and Sam Schwartz-Fenwick

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Fourth Circuit in a case of first impression held that Title IX entitles transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Though that ruling only discusses Title IX, the Court’s language and reasoning may have implications for Title VII jurisprudence.

The Fourth Circuit has become the first Federal Circuit to weigh in on bathroom access for transgender students. In G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, Case No. 15-2056 the court deferred to the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance that Title IX, which permits segregation of toilet, locker room, and shower facilities on the basis of “sex,” prohibits restriction of restrooms on the basis of “gender identity” as well as assigned sex. This ruling not only places the Circuit at odds with state “bathroom bills”, but also has potential implications for the Circuit’s interpretation of Title VII.

In G.G., plaintiff, a transgender boy, was prevented from using the men’s restroom at his high school due to a policy enacted by the school board specifically in response to his gender transition. G.G. sued for gender discrimination under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause and requested a preliminary injunction allowing him to use the bathroom aligning with his gender identity.  The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed G.G.’s Title IX claim holding that Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and not on the basis of other concepts such as gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of G.G.’s Title IX claim. The Court held that Auer deference required the Court to defer to the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX regulations, which indicated that transgender students could use hygienic facilities (such as restrooms) consistent with their gender identity regardless of the sex assigned at birth. The Court further found the Department of Education’s position regarding access to restrooms for transgender individuals consistent with the position of other federal agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

G.G. is an important decision for employers. While the lawsuit arose under Title IX not Title VII, the reasoning of the Court readily applies to Title VII given the similar verbiage of the statutes and the regular practice of courts to look to case law under both statutes.  It is expected that Title VII litigants going forward will increasingly cite G.G, to bolster their argument that courts should defer to the EEOC’s position that Title VII’s prohibition on sex-discrimination encompasses gender identity. Indeed, as we have blogged previously, a case, ACLU v. McCrory, has already been filed challenging North Carolina’s “bathroom bill”, alleging harm under Titles IX and VII and under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

While the reasoning of G.G. is unlikely to be universally adopted by courts analyzing gender identity claims under Title VII or Title IX, the decision adds voice to the growing chorus of support for the argument that claims of gender identity discrimination are actionable under current Federal law. Employers should consult with counsel to evaluate their internal policies, practices and procedures with an eye toward gender identity claims.

By Laura J. Maechtlen and Craig B. Simonsen

A transgender woman filed a complaint last week against a large healthcare employer alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.

The complainant seeks, among other things, a permanent injunction against the employer from engaging in the “unlawful conduct of discriminating against employees who have undergone, or are undergoing, a gender transition.” Seidler v. Sanford Health, et al., No. 15-cv-00111 (December 1, 2015). The defendant in this case is “one of the largest health systems in the nation, with 43 hospitals and nearly 250 clinics in nine states, and three countries,” with approximately 27,000 employees. See About Sanford Health.

The complaint alleges that the defendant engaged in unlawful discrimination against the plaintiff, a woman who is transgender, because of sex, by  subjecting the plaintiff to different terms and conditions because of sex. Particularly, it alleges that defendant had, and continues to maintain, a “companywide policy or practice that discriminates against transgender female employees by precluding them use of a locker room that is consistent with their sex and/or gender, and/or by intentionally treating transgender females disparately from other employees with regard to the use of a locker room that is consistent with their sex and/or gender.”  The plaintiff alleges that she was “compelled to quit her job” after she was repeatedly denied access to the women’s locker rooms and subjected to disparate treatment from managers.

According to a statement provided to Law360, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated a charge that the plaintiff filed with the agency and was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of statutes.” The employer indicated that its “employment policies prohibit discrimination of any kind .”

Implications For Employers

As we have noted previously here, the EEOC has been pursuing test cases to establish legal protections for transgender workers under Title VII’s prohibition against “sex” discrimination and harassment as part of its strategic mission even though no federal statute, including Title VII, explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity or expression. The EEOC has made clear that, while gender identity and/or expression are not independent classifications for protection under federal law, the agency will attempt to establish a case of sex discrimination through a variety of different formulations.

In that effort, in Macy v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (April 23, 2012), the EEOC asserted that transgender individuals may state a claim for sex discrimination under Title VII. While the EEOC acknowledged that transgender, like sex stereotyping, was not an independent protected status, it concluded that a transgender person “may establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination through a number different formulations .”

Other than the Macy case, the EEOC has actively pursued R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, and others on behalf of transgender workers.

Recommendations For Employers

In order to avoid potential pitfalls in this emerging area of law, employers must be mindful of issues related to gender identity and/or expression that might arise during interviewing, hiring, discipline, promotion and termination decisions.  Employers should be particularly vigilant when an employee identifies as transgender, or announces a plan to undergo a gender transition. Moreover, the theories often articulated by plaintiff’s counsel are not just limited to transgender employees—many forms of “sex stereotyping” may give rise to actionable claims, not just discrimination or harassment against individuals who identify as transgender.

Employers must also be aware that transgender individuals may be affirmatively protected under state or local laws (see our analysis of a recent California case), and that any allegations concerning transgender discrimination, gender stereotyping or gender identity, require the same analysis, investigation and response as a traditional sex discrimination complaint. Finally, employers should consider whether to implement gender transition guidelines for human resources and/or management that define a process through which employees and management approach an employee gender transition in the workplace.