On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision extending employment discrimination protections to LGBTQ employees across the country. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Unlike some state employment discrimination statutes, Title VII does not expressly address sexual orientation or gender discrimination. Before this ruling, federal courts had disagreed whether Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on “sex” extended into those areas. The Supreme Court’s decision conclusively answers that question in the affirmative.
The Supreme Court’s opinion came out of three separate cases involving employers who fired their employees allegedly for identifying as gay or transgender. The employees sued their employers for sex discrimination under Title VII.
In Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the 6-3 majority’s opinion holding: “An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex . . . [b]ecause discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex. An employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII”. In other words, this decision generally prohibits employers from disciplining, firing, failing or refusing to hire, or otherwise discriminating against an employee (or a prospective employee) because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Supreme Court focused on the meanings of the terms used in Title VII at the time of its enactment. The majority considered the ordinary public meaning of “sex,” finding that the term refers to the biological distinction between males and females. After establishing the applicable definition of “sex,” the Court applied the “but for” causation standard to establish if the defendant employers had violated Title VII. This standard asks whether a particular outcome would not have happened ‘but for’ the alleged discriminatory basis. In this case, the employers would not have fired the plaintiffs, “but for” the employees’ sexual orientation or transgender status. The Court held that as long as the plaintiff’s sex was the “but for” cause of the termination, it was enough to trigger Title VII liability.
The three dissenting justices relied on strict constructionist views of the definition of “sex”. Specifically, they focused on what they felt the average person would have viewed the term to mean when Congress enacted Title VII in 1964. According to Justice Alito, at that time, “[d]iscrimination ‘because of sex’ was not understood as having anything to do with discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status.”
Justice Kavanaugh reasoned that the Court should rely on the “ordinary meaning” rather than the “literal meaning” of “sex”. He then concluded that “discrimination because of sex” does not encompass “gender identity” or “sexual orientation” discrimination.
The Supreme Court ruling will not have much practical impact on employees and employers in New York. In 2016, the New York State Division of Human Rights issued regulations interpreting the protected category “sex” to include discrimination on the basis of gender identity and the status of being transgender. The regulations defined “gender identity” as “having or being perceived as having a gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth”. Then, in 2019 the New York Human Rights Law was amended to include “gender or identity or expression” among the statutory characteristics protected from employment discrimination.
The New York State Human Rights Law had already prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 2003.
The Supreme Court discussed concerns about Title VII carveouts for religious institutions. The First Amendment bars applying employment discrimination laws “to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers”. The Court decided not to decide this issue and left the question for future cases. The decision also does not specifically resolve issues like sex-segregated bathrooms and locker rooms.
Employers subject to Title VII (most with at least 15 employees) now clearly may not take adverse employment action against an employee or a prospective employee based on their homosexuality or transgender status. If an employer discriminates based on employee’s “sex” status, including sexual orientation or transgender status, they may be liable for monetary damages. This can include lost wages, compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages. Especially if your business was not already subject to state laws prohibiting these forms of discrimination, you should promptly review and update policies and training materials.