Employment LawScene Alert: Supreme Court Rules that Title VII Prohibition on Sex Discrimination Protects Gay and Transgender Employees

Today, June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling holding that an employer who fires an individual based on his or her sexual orientation or transgender status violates Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination “because of . . . sex.” In a 6-3 decision, the majority found that “[s]ex plays a necessary and undisguisable role” in a decision to terminate an individual for being homosexual or transgender, which is “exactly what Title VII forbids.” Although the Court recognized that “homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex . . . discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.”

Title VII requires the Court to apply a but-for test, under which an employer violates the law if the employment decision is based in part on sex. Therefore, the Court concluded that if you change only the individual’s sex and it results in a different outcome, that is a violation of Title VII. So, the fact that a man who is attracted to men is treated differently from a woman who is attracted to men means that sex is the but-for cause of the decision. Justice Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion, analogized this to an employer firing female employees who were Yankees fans but not male employees who were Yankees fans. Sex does not have to be the sole or even the primary cause of the adverse action. There may be two or more reasons for the termination, but if a different outcome would have been reached if the individual’s sex was changed, sex is the but-for cause of the decision. Therefore, because “homosexuality and transgender status are inextricably bound up with sex,” a decision based on homosexuality or transgender status takes sex into account in a way that is impermissible under Title VII. Additionally, the Supreme Court did not find it persuasive that homosexual men and homosexual women would be treated the same. Instead, the Court stated that the focus of Title VII is on the individual and how the individual is treated.

The Court found that this decision is in line with prior precedent finding that the following instances violated Title VII where, if the plaintiff had been a different sex, they would have been treated differently: a policy where women with young children were not hired when men with young children were; a policy where women were required to make larger pension fund contributions than men because of longer overall life expectancies; and an instance where a male employee was sexually harassed by male coworkers. In each of these situations, the Court found that there was a violation of Title VII because the result would have been different if the individual was a different sex.

Finally, the Court dismissed arguments that this interpretation was not what Congress intended. First, the Court reasoned that the term “sex” was broad and that, where there are no statutory exceptions to a broad rule, it is not the Court’s role to write in such exceptions. Additionally, the Court stated that, while this result may not have been what the drafters of Title VII anticipated in 1964, the meaning of sex has not changed, and the Court is bound to the plain meaning of the words contained in the statute.

The Supreme Court’s decision does not change business-as-usual for Wisconsin employers. In 2017, the Seventh Circuit ruled that sex discrimination under Title VII includes discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of both sex and sexual orientation, and since at least 2015, the EEOC has taken the policy stance that sexual orientation and transgender status were protected categories under Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling serves as a reminder for employers to stay vigilant about enforcing their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and practices for all individuals.

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