EEOC Argues that Sexual Orientation Discrimination by a Heterosexual Person can Constitute a Protected Activity

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Seyfarth Synopsis: In her appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel argues that the trial court wrongly concluded that it was unreasonable for O’Daniel to believe that a complaint about discrimination based on sexual orientation constituted a protected activity. The EEOC recently joined the fray by filing an amicus curiae brief, which argues that it was reasonable for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to sexual orientation discrimination constituted protected activity.

The EEOC argues that O’Daniel need only “reasonably believe[]” the opposed conduct was unlawful and that O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable when viewed in the context of recent decisions reached by the Southern District of Texas, Second Circuit, Seventh Circuit, and the EEOC. The EEOC also cites the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues as another reason O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable.

Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel filed suit against her employer, Plant-N-Power, and its parent company (Defendants) in the Middle District of Louisiana alleging, amongst other things, retaliation on the basis of her sexual orientation—heterosexual. O’Daniel alleged that Defendants terminated her employment because of one of her Facebook posts. In the post, she included a photograph of a man wearing a dress at a Target store and expressed discontent with his ability to use the women’s restroom and/or dressing rooms. O’Daniel alleged that this offended the President of Plant-N-Power, a member of the LGBT community, and that the president subsequently suggested O’Daniel’s termination.

Defendants responded to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss and argued that O’Daniel’s retaliation claim failed in part because she did not “plead any protected activity … under Title VII.” By consent of the parties, a magistrate judge heard Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The magistrate judge ultimately agreed with Defendants and dismissed O’Daniel’s retaliation claim because it was “unreasonable for [O’Daniel] to believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes protected activity” and cited the Fifth Circuit’s 1979 holding in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp. to support its holding. The trial court noted that while Title VII may protect gender-non-conformity, O’Daniel did not allege discrimination on this basis. O’Daniel appealed the magistrate judge’s decision to the Fifth Circuit.

On May 2, 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus curiae brief with the court, taking issue with the trial court’s finding that it was “unreasonable” for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation was a protected activity. In arguing this, the EEOC pointed out that the employee need only “reasonably believe[] the opposed conduct was unlawful.” The EEOC maintains that, “given recent appellate decisions …, the EEOC’s view that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, and the rapidly changing legal landscape,” O’Daniel had a reasonable belief that discrimination based on sexual orientation was impermissible.

The EEOC pointed to a number of decisions in the Southern District of Texas, the Second and Seventh Circuits, as well as holdings from the commission itself, to demonstrate that the “law on sexual orientation discrimination” had evolved and that at least some courts prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment. In addition, the EEOC noted the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues and the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions endorsing the right of gay and lesbian individuals to be free from discrimination in Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor. Given this context, O’Daniel—“a layperson without legal expertise”—could “reasonably conclude that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination encompasses discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation.” This would extend, in the EEOC’s view, to discrimination on the basis that an employee is heterosexual.

The EEOC similarly noted that Fifth Circuit precedent did not preclude an individual from harboring a reasonable belief that sexual orientation is unlawful. To argue this, the EEOC distinguished Blum, in which the Court held that “[d]ischarge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.” The EEOC argued that Blum was decided on the issue of pretext and not on whether Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Moreover, according to the EEOC, there were post-Blum decisions that recognize that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex stereotyping, to include Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction, Co. Thus, O’Daniel could have relied on these post-Blum holdings to arrive at a reasonable conclusion that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Defendants have not yet filed their appellate brief.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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