Supreme Court Rules that Title VII Protects Workers from Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Transgender Status

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In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier today (June 15, 2020) that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) protects employees from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status. The ruling brings federal employment law into alignment with the New York State Human Rights Law (“HRL”), which already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status. Across the country, however, several states’ employment laws did not expressly cover LGBTQ employees; now, the Court’s decision leaves no question that LGBTQ employees will receive the protection of Federal law.

The decision was long-awaited. As discussed in a previous legal alert: on April 22, 2019, the Supreme Court announced that it would review three cases that addressed the scope of “sex discrimination” under Title VII. The Supreme Court took up review of the issue after several Federal courts had reached differing conclusions as to whether Title VII applied to sexual orientation and/or transgender status.

Specifically, the Supreme Court reviewed two cases addressing whether Title VII prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, U.S., No. 17-1623 and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, U.S., No. 17-1618), and one case addressing whether Title VII prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity (R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., v. EEOC, U.S., No. 18-107). Each of the three cases followed a basic fact pattern: an employer firing a long-time employee shortly after the employee revealed that they were homosexual or transgender. The employees, in turn, alleged that their firing violated the Title VII prohibition on sex discrimination.

In a 6-3 majority decision penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Court ruled that an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII. As stated in the opinion: “[a]n employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

For employers in New York State, however, the decision should not have much, if any, practical application since New York’s Human Rights Law already covers sexual orientation and transgender status. Employers may take this as an opportunity, however, to review their policies on equal employment and non-harassment to ensure they cover all classes protected by New York law. Employers should also remember their obligation to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training to all employees, an obligation that continues despite the coronavirus pandemic.

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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