In a significant decision on Wednesday, March 6, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes that discrimination against a worker on the basis of gender identity or transitioning status constitutes sex discrimination that violates Title VII.

In R.G. & G.R., the funeral home’s owner fired funeral director Aime Stephens after she informed him she intended to begin a gender transition and present herself as a woman at work. In finding gender identity to be covered by Title VII, the Sixth Circuit also upheld the EEOC’s claim that the funeral home’s dress code, which has different dress and grooming instructions for men and women, discriminates on the basis of sex.

In reaching its decision, the court concluded that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” As the court explained, “Discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex.”  Finding that Stephens would not have been fired if she had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code, the court determined that Stephens’s sex impermissibly affected the termination decision.

Harris Funeral Homes attempted to defend its termination decision under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), but the majority rejected this argument: “RFRA provides the funeral home with no relief because continuing to employ Stephens would not, as a matter of law, substantially burden [owner Thomas] Rost’s religious exercise, and even if it did, the EEOC has shown that enforcing Title VII here is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.”

In addition to providing Title VII coverage to transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, the Sixth Circuit’s decision marks another victory for the EEOC, whose position was similarly adopted less than two weeks ago by the Second Circuit in Zarda v. Altitude Express. In that case, the Second Circuit held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is discrimination based on sex and prohibited by Title VII.  As federal courts begin to reexamine earlier rulings that deny coverage to LGBT employees, employers are advised to conform their policies to EEOC guidance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: Second Circuit: Title VII Covers Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

“Legal doctrine evolves.” Those words from the Second Circuit spoke volumes as the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, overturning their own long-standing precedent. The court ruled in favor of a skydiving instructor who claimed he was fired for telling a client he was gay.

The majority opinion began by looking at whether sex is a motivating factor in the alleged unlawful practice. And, in this case, looking at sexual orientation discrimination, the court concluded that sex is a factor and inextricably linked to sexual orientation, and therefore sexual orientation acts as a proxy for sex. The Second Circuit now joins the Seventh Circuit in finding that Title VII does protect against sexual orientation discrimination, and deepens a circuit split with the Eleventh Circuit, which went the other way last year.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

In a move that could have broad national effects on gay rights in the workplace, the Second Circuit ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, deciding in favor of the estate of a deceased skydiving instructor who was allegedly fired for telling a client he was gay.

On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit became the second federal appeals court to rule that Title VII encompasses sexual orientation discrimination in Zarda v. Altitude Express, joining the Seventh Circuit in its decision last year. This issue has divided courts for years, and even caused a split between the EEOC and the Department of Justice, with the former arguing in favor of including sexual orientation under Title VII’s protections and the latter arguing against it. The Second Circuit’s decision furthers a circuit split, which occurred when the Eleventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination is not actionable under Title VII.

Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann delivered the majority opinion and concluded, “Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination applies to any practice in which sex is a motivating factor. Sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination because sexual orientation is defined by one’s sex in relation to the sex of those to whom one is attracted, making it impossible for an employer to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without taking sex into account.”

In so holding, the majority adopted each of the theories advanced by the EEOC. Applying the “comparative test” to determine whether an employment practice constitutes sex discrimination, the court considered the example in the Seventh Circuit’s decision Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College. The court compared a lesbian woman to a heterosexual man and rejected the framing urged by the government, which would compare a woman attracted to people of the same sex with a man attracted to people of the same sex.  Finding that sexual orientation acts as a proxy for sex, the majority concluded that a lesbian treated differently than a heterosexual man due to her sexual orientation would not have been subject to an adverse action “but for” her sex.

The majority opinion also concluded that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes actionable gender stereotyping, held to be unlawful under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, and associational discrimination, borrowing principles from Loving v. Virginia.

In dissent, Judge Lynch argued that Congress did not intend to cover sexual orientation discrimination when drafting Title VII. The majority court acknowledged this fact, but also recognized that the legal framework for evaluating Title VII claims has changed dramatically over time. “Because Congress could not anticipate the full spectrum of employment discrimination that would be directed at the protected categories,” Katzmann explained, “it falls to courts to give effect to the broad language that Congress used.”

Employers operating within the Second Circuit – comprising New York, Connecticut, and Vermont – already should have in place policies prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination because those state laws expressly prohibit such conduct. But this decision provides a roadmap for the potential adoption by other circuits around the country, and suggests that the Supreme Court may settle the current circuit split.  Thus, employers are encouraged to adopt nationwide policies prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination to the extent they have not done so.

Additionally, the sweeping adoption by the majority opinion of the positions pressed by the EEOC should signal to employers to take seriously the actions by and guidance from the EEOC in this and other matters. For example, the EEOC will finalize new enforcement guidance on harassment shortly, and employers should expect the EEOC to aggressively enforce that guidance, including with respect to harassment based on sexual orientation.

See also Nathaniel Glasser’s video interview on this topic, from next Monday’s Employment Law This Week: “Second Circuit Says Title VII Covers Sexual Orientation Discrimination.”

The United States is in the midst of an unusually lethal flu season, and health experts agree that despite inconsistencies in their effectiveness, flu shots are among the best ways to fight the spread of the flu. A recent holding from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals provides some good news for health care employers who require that their patient-facing employees receive flu shots, making it more difficult for employees to claim a religious exemption.

Courts have held that health care employers may require their patient-facing employees to be vaccinated against a number of diseases, including the flu.  Whether employers can mandate vaccinations for all employees has been a closer question.  A key issue faced by employers is determining whether an employee’s anti-vaccination beliefs qualify for a religious exemption.

In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center, the Third Circuit considered the religious exemption, clarifying what may qualify as such. Paul Fallon, a psychiatric crisis intake employee of Mercy Catholic Medical Center (“Mercy”), refused to get his required annual flu shot. Fallon had successfully asserted a religious exemption for several years before Mercy changed its policy to require that employees seeking such exemptions provide a note from a clergy member. Fallon, who does not belong to a religious organization, did not provide the clergy note, instead outlining his “sincerely held beliefs” opposing the vaccine in a 22-page essay. Mercy determined that Fallon’s beliefs, however sincere, were not religious. It did not grant the exemption, and subsequently fired Fallon when he continued to refuse vaccination. Fallon sued Mercy for wrongful termination alleging religious discrimination and a failure to accommodate in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The District Court sided with Mercy, and the Third Circuit affirmed the decision. The court relied on the three-part modern definition of religion, as adopted in Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025, 1032 (3d Cir. 1981): a religion (1) addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters; (2) is comprehensive in nature, consisting of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching; and (3) is often recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.  The court concluded that Fallon’s belief that “the flu vaccine may do more harm than good” amounted to nothing more than a concern about the health effects of the vaccine and demonstrated his disbelief of the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people.  Therefore, Fallon could not meet either of the first two prongs of the Africa test.  In addition, Fallon was unable to meet the third pong because he could not demonstrate that his beliefs manifested in “formal and external signs,” such as services or the existence of clergy.    Accordingly, the court concluded that Fallon’s “beliefs do not occupy a place in his life similar to that occupied by a more traditional faith,” meaning that “[h]is objection to vaccination is . . . not religious and not protected by Title VII.”

While the court’s decision provides guidance for employers responding to anti-vaccination beliefs, the court recognized that anti-vaccination beliefs can be part of “a broader religious faith.”  Thus, employers should be mindful not to categorically deny all requests for religious exemptions based on anti-vaccination beliefs.

Employers also should follow the recent developments within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which recently established a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and released a proposed rule that would provide protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in services that run counter to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.   In an HHS press release on January 19, 2018, Acting HHS Secretary Eric D. Hargan said that the creation of the Division constitutes “a rollback of policies that had prevented many Americans from practicing their profession and following their conscience at the same time,” adding that “Americans of faith should feel at home in our health system, not discriminated against.”  These developments, and the public comments by HHS officials, may signal a move to prevent employers from enforcing mandatory flu vaccination policies.

On January 11, New York’s City Council passed Int. No. 1186-A, which amends the New York City Human Rights Law to expand the definition of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender.”  Previously, the law defined sexual orientation as meaning “heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality.” The new definition takes a broader view and offers a more nuanced definition that recognizes a spectrum of sexual orientations, including asexuality and pansexuality.  As amended, the law defines sexual orientation as:

[A]n individual’s actual or perceived romantic, physical or sexual attraction to other persons, or lack thereof, on the basis of gender. A continuum of sexual orientation exists and includes, but is not limited to, heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, and pansexuality.

The law also offers clarity on the definition of “gender,” and continues to include a person’s gender-related self-image, appearance, behavior, expression, or other gender-related characteristic within its scope.

The new law will take effect on May 11, 2018.

Further emphasizing the split in authority on sexual orientation discrimination, last month the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed plaintiff Mark Horton’s claim that Midwest Geriatric Management LLC (“MGM”) violated Title VII by rescinding an offer of employment after learning that he is gay. Horton v. Midwest Geriatric Mgmt., LLC, Case No. 4:17CV2324, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209996 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 21, 2017).

Horton asserted that MGM unlawfully discriminated against him on the basis of sex and religion. Horton’s sex discrimination claim comprised three theories: (1) sexual orientation is necessarily discrimination based on sex; (2) discrimination on the basis of his association with a person of a particular sex (his male partner); and (3) nonconformity with sex stereotypes.  In granting MGM’s motion to dismiss, the district court cited Eighth Circuit precedent from a 1989 holding that Title VII does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, and concluded that both the sex and religious discrimination claims were merely refashioned sexual orientation discrimination claims.

The Eighth Circuit precedent, which comports with a recent decision in the Eleventh Circuit, contrasts with the EEOC’s position, adopted by the neighboring Seventh Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College. In that case, the Seventh Circuit held that “a person who alleges that [he] experienced employment discrimination on the basis of [his] sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.” Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmt. College, 853 F.3d 339, 351-52 (7th Cir. 2017). The Hively court based its holding on a conclusion that there is no difference between a gender nonconformity claim and one based on sexual orientation. Thus, “a policy that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation . . . is based on assumptions about the proper behavior for someone of a given sex.” Id. at 346. The Court further cited a “common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex.” Id. at 351.  While the Seventh Circuit is the first federal appellate court to find sexual orientation covered by Title VII, the Second Circuit is considering the question in en banc review.

Unlike the Seventh Circuit’s approach, the Eighth Circuit draws a distinction between discrimination based on sex stereotypes and that based on “notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality,” finding that Title VII protects against the former but not the latter. Though the basis for the claim is not always obvious, here—because Horton directly tied each of his claims to his homosexuality—the Court did “not struggle with exactly where to draw the line between actionable discrimination based on what is alleged to be gender non-conforming behavior and non-actionable discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

Despite the circuit split and legal uncertainty on the federal level, employers should be aware that many state and local laws offer protections against sexual orientation discrimination. And properly pled gender nonconformity claims may be pursued even in jurisdictions that do not recognize sexual orientation discrimination.  Thus, employers should train their employees to treat all employees equally in the workplace to prevent such claims.

As 2017 comes to a close, recent headlines have underscored the importance of compliance and training. In this Take 5, we review major workforce management issues in 2017, and their impact, and offer critical actions that employers should consider to minimize exposure:

  1. Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment in the Wake of #MeToo
  2. A Busy 2017 Sets the Stage for Further Wage-Hour Developments
  3. Your “Top Ten” Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities
  4. 2017: The Year of the Comprehensive Paid Leave Laws
  5. Efforts Continue to Strengthen Equal Pay Laws in 2017

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

The New York City Council recently passed two bills affecting New York City employers and their employees. The first bill, Int. No. 1399, passed by the Council on December 6, 2017, amends Chapter 12 of title 20 of the City’s administrative code (colloquially known as the “Fair Workweek Law”) to include a new subchapter 6 to protect employees who seek temporary changes to work schedules for personal events.  Int. No. 1399 entitles New York City employees to request temporary schedule changes twice per calendar year, without retaliation, in certain situations, e.g., caregiver emergency, attendance at a legal proceeding involving subsistence benefits, or safe or sick time under the New York City administrative code.  The bill establishes procedures for employees to request temporary work schedule changes and employer responses.  Exempt from the bill are employees: (i) who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement; (ii) who have been employed for fewer than 120 days; (iii) who work less than 80 hours in the city in a calendar year; and (iv) who work in the theater, film, or television industries.

The second bill, Int. No. 804-A, passed by the Council on December 19, 2017, amends New York City’s Human Rights law to require covered entities engage in a “cooperative dialogue” with individuals who may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Covered entitles include employers, providers of public accommodations and providers of housing accommodations.  The term “cooperative dialogue” means the process by which a covered entity and an individual who may be entitled to an accommodation engage in a discussion to identify what reasonable accommodations are available to assist the individual.  The bill requires the covered entity to provide the individual requesting an accommodation a written final determination identifying any accommodation granted or denied.  This determination may only be made after the parties have engaged, or the covered entity has attempted to engage, in the “cooperative dialogue.”

Mayor DeBlasio likely will sign both bills into law by the end of the year.  New York City employers should be prepared to comply with the new requirements.

In Makinen v. City of New York, New York’s Court of Appeals held the New York City Human Rights Law precludes an individual from bringing a claim of disability discrimination based on a mistaken perception of untreated alcoholism.

The question arose in a case brought by police officers against the City of New York and certain individuals alleging discrimination based on the mistaken perception that the plaintiffs were alcoholics. The plaintiffs had been referred to an internal counseling service and directed to undergo treatment even though neither plaintiff had been diagnosed as suffering from alcoholism. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court under New York State and City Human Rights Laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The district court held individuals regarded as untreated alcoholics could state a claim under the City Human Rights law because analogous claims were available under state and federal law.  On appeal, the Second Circuit certified the following question to the Court of Appeals: “Whether sections 8-102(16)(c) and 8-107(1)(a) of the New York City Administrative Code preclude a plaintiff from bringing a disability discrimination claim based solely on a perception of untreated alcoholism?”

The Court of Appeals answered the certified question in the affirmative, finding the City Human Rights law was “only open to one reasonable interpretation: the disability of alcoholism shall only apply to a person who (1) is recovering or has recovered, and (2) currently is free of such abuse.”

Since the Restoration Act of 2005, courts have broadly construed the City Human Rights law to provide greater protections for employees than its federal and state counterparts. The Court of Appeals’ decision in Makinen represents a rare finding that the City Human Rights law provides less protection than state and federal law. Even so, employers should remain cognizant of the provisions of the New York State Human Rights Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as they already prohibit discrimination based on perceived alcoholism.

In New York, State Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulations provide that the minimum wage must be paid for each hour an employee is “required to be available for work at a place prescribed by the employer.” (12 NYCRR § 142-2.1(b)) (“Wage Order”). Exception is made for a “residential employee,” defined as one who lives on the premises of the employer, during his or her sleeping hours or any time he or she is free to leave the place of employment. Id.

On March 1, 2010, the DOL issued an Opinion Letter advising that sleep-in employees, whether or not they are residential employees, who work a twenty-four hour shift must be paid not less than for thirteen hours for a twenty-four hour period provided they are afforded at least eight hours for sleep, actually received at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep and are afforded at least three hours for meals. (NYS St. Dept. of Labor OP. No-09-0169 at 4 (March 11, 2010)). The Opinion Letter was a reiteration of the DOL’s long standing interpretation of the Wage Order as applied to home health care attendants, and agencies assigning attendants to twenty-four hour shifts have long followed it in paying the attendants for this shift.

In recent decisions, New York appellate courts have declined to defer to the DOL’s Opinion Letter because, according to those Courts, the letter conflicts with the plain language of the Wage Order. The Appellate Division First Department was the first to so rule in Tokhtaman v. Human Care LLC, 149 A.D. 3d 476 (1st Dept. 2017). Then, last week, the Appellate Division Second Department in Andryeyeva, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated v. New York Home Attendant Agency, __ A.D. ___ (2nd Dept. 2017) and Moreno v. Future Care Health Services, Inc., ___ A.D. ___ (2nd Dept. 2017), adopted the First Department’s ruling.

The plaintiffs in Andryeyeva and Moreno were home health care attendants employed by the defendants to care for the elderly and disabled clients. They were assigned to twenty-four hour shifts in the client residents’ homes but claimed that they did not “live in” the homes. In Andryeyeva, they were paid an hourly rate for 12 hours of the shift and a flat rate for the 12 night hours. In Moreno, they were paid a flat fee for the entire shift. Plaintiffs in both cases argued that under the Wage Order they were entitled to the minimum wage for all twenty-four hours of the shifts. Defendants argued that plaintiff attendants were paid in accordance with the DOL Opinion Letter.

In Andryeyeva the Second Department acknowledged that it was required to uphold the DOL’s interpretation of the Wage Order as set forth in the Opinion Letter if it was not irrational or unreasonable. However, the court ruled that the DOL’s interpretation was neither rational nor reasonable because it conflicted with the plain language of the Wage Order. The court found that the plaintiffs were required to be at the client residences for the shift and were required to perform services if called upon. In reaching this decision the Second Department relied on the First Department’s decision in Tokhtaman, supra. The court also found that the plaintiffs met the prerequisites to class certification, thus allowing a class of over 1,000 attendants to proceed. The court in Moreno arrived at the same conclusion, noting that the DOL Opinion Letter conflicted with the plain language of the Wage Order because it failed to distinguish between “residential” and non-residential employees.

The state, trial and appellate court decisions in Andryeyeva, Moreno and Tokhtaman stand in contrast to the decisions in the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, Severin v. Project OHR and Bonn-Wittingham v. Project OHR, which gave deference to the DOL’s interpretation of the Wage Order as set forth in the Opinion Letter and held that home health aides need only be paid for 13 hours of a 24-hour shift based on the 2010 DOL opinion letter.

The decisions in Andryeyeva and Moreno may be appealed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. If upheld there, the decisions present a serious challenge to the home health care industry. By declining to embrace the DOL’s opinion letter, the courts are opening the door to significant wage claims by New York’s tens of thousands of home health care attendants. Combined with the six-year statute of limitations on such claims in New York, this may lead to substantial back pay liability for the employing agencies, which could lead to a restructuring of those agencies and the services they provide.

What To Do

Home healthcare providers must pay close attention to all developments on this issue.

The Andryeyeva and Moreno cases may well be appealed, however, that process will likely take some time and there is no guarantee of a favorable outcome.

Given the potential adverse financial impact of the ruling on the home care industry as a whole, industry groups are likely to seek regulatory and/or economic relief from the New York State Departments of Labor and Health, and revisions to reimbursement rates for the 24 hour shifts.