50 For 50: Five Decades Of The Most Important Employment Discrimination Decisions - Number 48: Transgender Rights Under Title VII

by Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP
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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.

 

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