2nd Circuit rules Title VII bars anti-gay workplace discrimination

By : Chris Johnson OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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In a major ruling affirming protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual workers, a federal appeals court in New York City ruled Monday employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a 69-page “en banc” decision from the full court, the Second Circuit finds Donald Zarda, a now deceased skydiver who alleges he was fired from Altitude Express for being gay, can sue under existing civil rights law because sexual-orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

Writing for the court, U.S. Chief Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann concludes Zarda’s estate is “entitled to bring a Title VII claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

“Zarda has alleged that, by ‘honestly referr[ing] to his sexual orientation,’ he failed to ‘conform to the straight male macho stereotype,'” Katzmann writes. “For this reason, he has alleged a claim of discrimination of the kind we now hold cognizable under Title VII.”

The ruling is a blow to the Trump administration, which sent Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hashim Mooppan to the court for oral arguments in September to argue employers should be able to fire workers for being gay despite Title VII.

In the reasoning for the decision, Katzmann finds three separate ways in which sexual-orientation discrimination is a subset a sex discrimination.

The first is that anti-gay discrimination in the workplace is associational discrimination based on sex because the employer is making a judgment about whom an employee should have a relationship.

“Consistent with the nature of sexual orientation, in most contexts where an employer discriminates based on sexual orientation, the employer’s decision is predicated on opposition to romantic association between particular sexes,” Katzmann writes. “For example, when an employer fires a gay man based on the belief that men should not be attracted to other men, the employer discriminates based on the employee’s own sex.”

The Second Circuit is the second federal appeals court to find anti-gay discrimination is unlawful under Title VII and contributes an emerging legal consensus that sexual-orientation amounts to sex discrimination under current law. In 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined in the case of Baldwin v. Foxx it would accept and litigate cases of anti-gay discrimination under Title VII.

Last year, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Hively v. Ivy Tech became the first federal appeals court to find anti-gay discrimination is illegal under Title VII. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reached the opposite conclusion and found no protections for gay workers in the case of Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital.

Despite the circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a writ of certiorari in the Evans case to iron out once and for all nationwide whether Title VII affords non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual workers.

Eric Lesh, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association of New York, said in a statement “momentum is headed towards justice under the law for LGBT employees” in the aftermath of the Second Circuit ruling.

“Today, the Second Circuit joined many other federal courts in recognizing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Lesh said. “The LGBT Bar of New York agrees with the full Second Circuit — which sits in our backyard. Everyone has the right to feel safe and protected at work. The U.S. Supreme Court should settle the divide among our appellate courts. LGBT employees need to know that they are protected under federal law. The time is now.”

More to come…

Photo by Ken Lund; courtesy Flickr

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