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U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Trio of LGBTQ Discrimination Cases

Early on Monday, April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear three closely watched cases which could decide once and for all whether transgendered and gay employees are protected from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Here is an overview of these three cases: 

Altitude Express v. Zarda

In Zarda, a former skydiving instructor alleged he was wrongfully terminated in 2010 by his employer, Altitude Express, for telling a client he was gay in order to make the client more comfortable being strapped to him for a skydive.  The district court found for his employer, saying that the Civil Rights Act does not protect from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Unfortunately, Zarda passed away in 2014 in a base-jumping accident in Switzerland.  His estate chose to continue the suit.

After a three-judge panel of the Second circuit concurred with the district court the Second Circuit granted en banc review. In February 2018, in a 10-3 vote, the court ruled Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual orientation employment discrimination under the umbrella of sex discrimination.  The court held, “because sexual orientation is a function of sex and sex is a protected characteristic under Title VII, it follows that sexual orientation is also protected.”  Altitude Express has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh-in.

Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia

In Bostock, a former child welfare services coordinator for a Georgia county’s juvenile court system claims he was fired when his employer found out he was gay. Bostock had joined a gay softball club in Atlanta, and word started to spread at the juvenile court. Bostock believes his participation in the league and his sexual orientation and identity were openly criticized by one or more persons who had significant influence on his employer’s decision making, resulting in his termination.

After the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed Bostock’s case, he petitioned for an en banc hearing before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of the case. Bostock petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC

R.G. & G.R Harris involves a different type of LGBT bias – one based on transgender status.       In the case, former funeral director Aimee Stephens alleges she was fired from her job at Harris Funeral Homes after 6 years when she wrote a letter to her boss, advising him she would soon be transitioning from male to female and dressing in appropriate women’s attire at work.  She was fired two weeks later after being told what she was planning to do was unacceptable. 

Stephens filed a complaint with the EEOC, which sued the funeral home, alleging the funeral home fired Stephens for being transgender and for her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes. A federal district court found for the funeral home on summary judgement, holding Title VII did not protect transgender people. The EEOC appealed. On appeal, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Stephens and the EEOC, finding Title VII provides protection to transgender workers.  The funeral home appealed, urging the Supreme Court to review the case.

It has long been known that the law is unsettled on LGBTQ issues.  There has been a distinct split among the Circuits in recent years over whether Title VII protects gay and trans employees.  Since the Supreme Court made the decision to hear these cases, it seems we will once and for all know where the law stands on employment discrimination rights for gay and trans workers.  Stay tuned! This is a big deal.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com  or 203.454.0560.