On November 4, 2016, the Western District of Pennsylvania held that the “because of sex” provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In doing so, the court broke from the recent trend of federal courts that have felt compelled by prior precedent to dismiss sexual orientation discrimination claims.
In EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., the plaintiff (a gay male) alleged that he was subjected to repeated and unwelcome offensive comments regarding his sexual orientation and his relationship with a male partner, creating a hostile and offensive work environment that resulted in the plaintiff’s constructive discharge. Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), which held that discrimination on the basis of sex stereotyping is prohibited, the court concluded that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is, at its very core, sex stereotyping plain and simple; there is no line separating the two.”
This conclusion contradicts recent decisions in the Seventh Circuit and Southern District of New York, both of which have held that gender discrimination can be “disentangled” from sexual orientation discrimination, and have dismissed claims premised solely on sexual orientation discrimination allegations. The Western District of Pennsylvania’s departure from prior precedent could signal the beginning of a split in authority that could eventually end up with this issue being considered by the Supreme Court.
This area of law is ripe for further litigation. In the short term, employers should continue to monitor the changing legal landscape and be mindful that other courts could also conclude the discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited under Title VII, as well as anti-discrimination provisions in other laws and regulations, such as Executive Order 13672 expressly barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Regardless of the federal court pronouncements, employers should be aware that various federal agencies are taking the same expansive view of the definition of discrimination on the basis of “sex.” In the Final Rule implementing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services expressly defines discrimination on the basis of sex to include sex stereotyping (and gender identity). Numerous states also expressly prohibit sexual orientation discrimination under their employment law. Thus, employers seeking to comply with applicable state law and seeking to avoid scrutiny from the EEOC and other federal agencies should train their workforce to eliminate discriminatory or harassing behavior premised on sexual orientation, and review their policies to ensure that such discrimination is prohibited.