50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 48:  Transgender Rights Under Title VII 

As Pride festivities celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) culture occur this month in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento, we take a look at the development of transgender discrimination law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Unlike the California Fair Employment & Housing Act which expressly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, Title VII does not specifically identify these categories as protected from discrimination.  However, the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have interpreted Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination “because of sex” to encompass sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status.

One seminal decision came just over two years ago from the EEOC.  In Macy v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, the EEOC allowed Complainant Mia Macy to pursue a complaint against the Bureau when she was passed over for a transfer to a different office.

Macy, a police detective and ballistics technician, was a transgender woman.  At the time that Macy sought a transfer from her position at the Bureau’s Phoenix office to a Bay Area office, she was known as a male and had not yet made the transition to present as a female.   In speaking with the Phoenix director, Macy learned that she could assume she had the Bay Area position provided no problems arose during the background check procedures.  During the process, Macy informed her supervisor that she was in the process of transitioning from male to female, and requested that her supervisor inform the Director of the San Francisco Bureau of this change.

Just days later, Macy was told that the Bay Area position was no longer available due to budget reductions.  She subsequently received contradictory information that the position had not been eliminated, but a different candidate who had been further along in the background investigation was instead selected.  Macy believed that this was a false statement because her own background investigation had been proceeding.  She filed an internal complaint with the Bureau consistent with the federal agency’s requirements.  In her complaint, Macy described her claim of sex discrimination as “change in gender (from male to female)” and based on “my sex, gender identity (transgender woman) and on the basis of sex stereotyping.”  The Bureau’s response was that Title VII did not apply to transgender individuals.  Macy appealed the Bureau’s decision to the EEOC.

The EEOC Commissioners unanimously declared that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination is far broader than merely barring discrimination on the basis of biological sex.  It clarified “that claims of discrimination based on transgender status, also referred to as claims of discrimination based on gender identity, are cognizable under Title VII’s sex discrimination prohibition.”  Transgender discrimination is “related to the sex of the victim” and a type of discrimination prohibited by Title VII.   The discrimination can take many different forms, the EEOC explained, including whether an employer discriminates against an employee because the individual has expressed his or her gender in a fashion contrary to male-female stereotypes, because the employer is uncomfortable with the fact that the person has transitioned or is in the process of transitioning from one gender to another, or because the employer simply does not like that the person is identifying as a transgender person.  “Gender” not only encompasses a person’s biological sex, but also the cultural and social aspects associated with masculinity and femininity.

The EEOC’s Macy decision was only binding on federal agencies, but courts have also determined that Title VII protects gender stereotyping and transgender employees in the private sector.  In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) 490 U.S. 228, Hopkins sued her employer for sex discrimination on the grounds that her employer failed to promote her because she did not exhibit feminine mannerisms.  Hopkins’ coworkers did not want to work with her, believing that she did not act in a manner that they believed a woman should.  She was aggressive, foul-mouthed, demanding, and impatient.  Her supervisors told Hopkins to walk and dress more femininely.  The U.S. Supreme Court found that if an employer relies upon sexual stereotypes, including a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, the employer has acted on the basis of gender in violation of Title VII.  In 2004, the Sixth Circuit held that transgender individuals have viable Title VII claims, while the Eleventh Circuit declared in 2011 that the type of Price Waterhouse gender stereotyping that forms a Title VII claim extends to transgender employees.

Is Title VII a statute of expanding jurisdiction for the EEOC?  After Macy, it is clear that the EEOC thinks so.  The EEOC maintains that a transgender person may establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination in a variety of ways, such as an employer’s belief that biological men should consistently present as men and exhibit only typical male characteristics, or a failure to hire because an applicant is transitioning to the opposite gender.  As a result of the Macy decision, the EEOC’s 53 field offices will accept claims for investigation in which an applicant or employee alleges that he or she was discriminated against based on transgender status.  Based on these federal courts’ and the EEOC’s broad reading of “sex discrimination,” employers who discriminate against transgender individuals or based upon preconceived notions how males and females must present will find themselves in violation of Title VII.

- Kristin Oliveira

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 47: Same Sex Harassment Is Illegal

It seemed like a simple enough issue.  In 1984, the Supreme Court found that sexual harassment — when it is severe or pervasive — can alter an employee’s ability to work and thus can impact the victim’s “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”  Title VII doesn’t actually use the words “sexual harassment” and therefore there are no requirements in the law about the gender of the harasser and the victim.  Indeed, once Demi Moore sexually harassed Michael Douglas in the movie Disclosure, it was assumed that either a male or female could be harassed. Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 46: How To Deal With Employees Using Marijuana

Fifty years ago when Title VII became law and 23 years ago when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, it would be inconceivable that someone would be blogging about accommodating employees by allowing them to smoke marijuana.  Not just because blogs (and personal computing at Title VII’s dawn for that matter) didn’t exist, but also because the notion would have seemed crazy.  Marijuana use was illegal everywhere in the United States and people were receiving lengthy jail sentences related to it. Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 45: What Is A Disability?

Ever since disability discrimination became illegal, the most pressing question has been how to define a disability.  One of the first issues the courts faced was how to deal with disabilities that could be corrected with mitigating factors.  For example, a nearsighted person may well be substantially limited in his ability to see, but that disability can be corrected by eyeglasses or contact lenses.  So, how does a court treat such a plaintiff? Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 44: Psychiatric or Mental Disabilities Are Protected Under The Americans with Disabilities Act

In the continuing evolution of equal employment opportunity law, no area has led to more stress for employers (all puns intended) than complying with their poorly defined and ever-changing obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), passed in 1990.  One particularly gray area of the Act’s coverage concerns the extent of its protection for psychiatric disabilities.  The ADA defines a “disability” as:  “(a) A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual; (b) a record of such an impairment; or (c) being regarded as having such an impairment.”  The E.E.O.C.’s Guidance focuses on the first part of this test.  Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 43:  The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

As momentous as it was, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was, in many ways, an incremental, evolutionary response to centuries of racial, gender, and other types of discrimination.  This is not unusual in the business of making law: there is a problem that goes on for some time (and often, way too long) that is finally addressed.  On rare occasions, however, the law looks as much to the future as it does to the past.  The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) falls in this latter category, as it attempts to address problems, present and ostensibly future, arising from the revolutionary mapping of the human genome.  Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 42: Military Veterans And Their Families Gain Employment Rights

Veterans’ rights have always been a hot-button political issue, but it took several military conflicts for Congress to confront the employment rights of private sector military veterans.  In the wake of Vietnam War, two wars in Iraq and the so-called War against Terrorism, Congress has enacted a variety of employment-related laws dealing with the rights of individuals called up for military service.  Still, many question the efficacy of those laws and whether we as a country do enough to protect the rights of those who sacrifice themselves for our country.   Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 41:  Discrimination Laws Apply To Undocumented Immigrants

Illegal immigration is one of the biggest political issues of the 21st Century in the United States, as both political parties support the reform of immigration laws in one way or another.  Until the laws are reformed, the government has conscripted American employers to wage war against illegal immigration through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).  That law requires employers to ensure that new hires have proof of their legal right to work in the U.S.  Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 40:  “Me Too” Evidence

“Me too” evidence is testimony from employees other than the plaintiff who claim that they were subjected to discrimination, retaliation or harassment during their employment.  Plaintiffs often seek to have this evidence admitted at summary judgment or trial because they usually only have circumstantial evidence to support their case.  Employers, on the other hand, seek to exclude “me too” evidence from a jury because it often creates mini-trials in which the employer must prove not only that it did not take unlawful action against the plaintiff, but also that it did not discriminate against other witnesses. Continue reading

50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions

Number 39: Statistics In Discrimination Cases

Statistics have been a component of discrimination litigation since Title VII enforcement actions began to catch on.  Normally, statistics arise in a disparate impact discrimination claim – where a facially neutral employment practice falls more harshly on one group of employees than another, and the practice is not justified by any business justification. Continue reading