Employers and health plans should be aware that two recent federal decisions have recognized that the non-discrimination provision in the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Plans cannot categorically exclude coverage for procedures to treat gender dysphoria.

In Boyden v. Conlin, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin found that the state’s exclusion of gender reassignment-related procedures from the state employees’ health insurance coverage constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Section 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination and the denial of benefits under a health program or activity, any part of which is in receipt of federal financial assistance, on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability. The plaintiffs, two transgender women employed by the State of Wisconsin, also alleged that the exclusion violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This case involved the exclusion of “procedures, services, and supplies related to surgery and sex hormones associated with gender reassignment” from the health insurance coverage. Pursuant to the exclusion, the health plan did not cover hormone therapy involving gender reassignment surgery, or the surgery itself. Defendants argued that the exclusion did not discriminate on the basis of sex because the plan excludes coverage for all cosmetic treatments for psychological conditions, and because the exclusion simply prohibits coverage for gender reassignment procedures, not because plaintiffs are transgender. The court disagreed, finding that the case constituted a “straightforward case of sex discrimination” because the exclusion treated people differently based on their natal sex. The court also found that the exclusion implicated “sex stereotyping by limiting the availability of medical transition … thus requiring transgender individuals to maintain the physical characteristics of their natal sex.”

The court also found liability against the state on plaintiffs’ Equal Protection Clause claim. In applying heightened scrutiny review, the court concluded that the state failed to show that the exclusion was the product of cost concerns or concerns about the safety and efficacy of gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. Because the state could not put forth evidence of a genuine reason for the exclusion, the court found in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection Claim.

Two days after the decision in Boyden, in Tovar v. Essentia Health, the District Court for the District of Minnesota held that Section 1557 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. In that case, plaintiffs alleged that Essentia Health and HealthPartners Inc. violated Section 1557 by sponsoring or administering a plan that categorically excluded coverage for all health services and surgery related to gender reassignment. Section 1557 incorporates four federal civil rights statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of: race, color and national origin (Title VI); sex (Title IX); age (ADEA); and disability (Rehabilitation Act). Concluding that Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination should be read as coextensive with Title VII, and noting that courts have recognized a cause of action under Title VII for sex discrimination based on gender identity and gender-transition status, the court determined that “sex discrimination encompasses gender-identity discrimination.” The court thus concluded that Section 1557 prohibits gender identity discrimination and denied defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The court also declined to stay the action pending resolution of Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, in which the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide injunction enjoining enforcement of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations providing that Section 1557’s prohibition of sex discrimination encompasses gender identity discrimination. The Minnesota court concluded that a stay was not warranted because its conclusion that Section 1557 prevents discrimination based on gender identity is based on the plain reading of the statute and does not rely on the Franciscan Alliance decision.

Employer Takeaways

These two cases are the latest in a series in which plaintiffs allege that their employer sponsored health plans are designed in a manner that discriminates based on gender identify in violation of Section 1557 of the ACA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. While an earlier decision (Baker v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., 228 F. Supp. 3d 764 (N.D. Tex. 2017)) by the Northern District of Texas declined to find a cause of action for gender identity discrimination under Section 1557, these decisions are in line with the current trend to allow gender identity discrimination claims to be pursued under Section 1557. Therefore, while HHS continues its current policy of non-enforcement of allegations of gender identity discrimination under Section 1557, employers should be aware of provisions in their group health plans that exclude coverage for transgender benefits and litigation risks that these provisions may pose.

Notably, the plans in both Boyden and Tovar included categorical exclusions for services and/or surgeries related to gender reassignment or transition. These categorical exclusions often are a red flag. By contrast, in Baker, the plan did not categorically exclude gender reassignment procedures; there, the insurance company denied the plaintiff’s request for breast augmentation surgery as not medically necessary. The Baker court found in favor of defendants on both the Section 1557 and Title VII claims. Thus, employers are advised to review their plans to ensure that services to treat gender dysphoria and related conditions are made available to their covered employees.

State attorneys general from Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, and South Dakota have joined Arkansas (collectively the “States”) in an amicus brief to the Eighth Circuit, urging the court not to join the Seventh Circuit and Second Circuit in interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.

The States submitted this brief in a case brought by Mark Horton against Midwest Geriatric Management LLC (“Midwest Geriatric”) in which the plaintiff alleges sexual orientation and religious discrimination in violation of Title VII. More specifically, Horton alleges that Midwest Geriatric revoked his job offer after the company learned he was gay. In their brief, the States assert that Horton wrongly petitioned the court to ignore precedent and reverse its prior position that sexual orientation discrimination is not covered by Title VII.

The States argue that until last year, when the Seventh and Second Circuits expanded the scope of Title VII to encompass sexual orientation discrimination, federal courts had unanimously found that sexual orientation was not a protected category under Title VII, and the Eighth Circuit should follow this long-standing view. The States add that, despite numerous opportunities to revise Title VII to include sexual orientation, Congress has chosen not to do so. Finally, the States contend that Horton’s arguments simply are not persuasive.

In addition to the States’ brief, the Eighth Circuit has also received amicus briefs supporting Horton’s argument from 18 other states and Washington D.C., in addition to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and various businesses.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision remains pending, and we will be watching for it. In the meantime, employers operating within the Eighth Circuit—comprising Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota—are encouraged to evaluate their non-discrimination policies with this potential change to the federal law in mind, to the extent they have not already done so to comply with state or local laws.

In the midst of one of the worst flu seasons to date, many hospitals and other health care organizations enforced mandatory flu vaccine policies for their employees to boost vaccination rates. However, recent litigation and governmental actions should serve as a reminder that health care entities should carefully consider safeguards whenever implementing mandatory vaccine policies and to not categorically deny all requests for religious exemptions based on anti-vaccination beliefs.

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and released a proposed rule to provide protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in services that run counter to their religious beliefs or moral conviction. Recent legal challenges to mandatory vaccination policies in the health care context have also gained media attention.

Earlier this month, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) accused a county-owned skilled nursing facility (SNF) in Wisconsin of violating a certified nursing assistant’s religious rights when it required her to be vaccinated or be terminated if she refused.  Although the certified nursing assistant believed that the Bible prohibited her from receiving the vaccine, the SNF refused to grant her an exemption from its vaccination policy because she was unable to produce a written statement from the clergy leader supporting her request, as the SNF’s exemption policy required. The DOJ complaint asserts that the SNF’s vaccination policy denies religious accommodations to employees who do not belong to churches with clergy leaders and that the SNF unlawfully denied the employee a reasonable accommodation for her religious beliefs when it refused her request for an exemption.

However, not all requests for accommodation must be honored.  In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center, an employee sued his hospital employer for wrongful termination alleging religious discrimination and a failure to accommodate in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the hospital terminated him for refusing to get his annual flu shot. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the hospital and held that the employee’s “sincerely held beliefs” were not religious but based on health concerns, and therefore, the hospital did not violate Title VII.

In another recent development, a Massachusetts state Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association against Brigham and Women’s Hospital for lack of standing when the union challenged the hospital’s flu vaccination policy. The dismissal occurred a few months after the court denied the union’s request for an injunction.  Thus, a plaintiff’s standing to challenge mandatory vaccination policies will be scrutinized.

Key Takeaways

Despite the actions of DOJ and HHS, health care employers are well within their rights to implement a mandatory flu vaccination policy, especially considering the potential implications to patient safety. Employers need to be prepared to handle requests for reasonable accommodations made by employees who have sincerely held religious beliefs against flu vaccination.  When presented with such a request for accommodation, employers should engage in the interactive process with the employee as outlined in this recent blog post.

To lessen the risk of infringing on worker’s rights, many health care entities are employing non-mandatory tools and policies to boost employee vaccine participation through positive enforcement rather than with the threat of being fired. For example, health care entities can ensure that employees are educated and reminded about the benefits of being vaccinated, provide free and convenient access to vaccines, and issue small incentives and rewards to employees who are vaccinated.

Whenever implementing a mandatory vaccination policy, employers should be prepared for a challenge. Essentia Health required its employees to receive the flu vaccination and sustained a public legal challenge from three hospital unions.  Essentia prevailed, discharging 50 workers who refused to be vaccinated.

Lastly, health care entities should review applicable state-worker vaccination laws to ensure they are in compliance with such laws when deciding upon vaccination policies.

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.”

In an October 4, 2017 letter to all United States attorneys and heads of federal agencies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) will no longer interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) to provide employment protections to transgender individuals.  This statement reversed former Attorney General Eric Holder’s position, who previously concluded that Title VII does protect transgender individuals from employment discrimination.

Although this letter from the Attorney General is a departure from the DOJ’s prior position, this announcement is not surprising.  Earlier this year the DOJ filed a brief, without being asked by the court, in a case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Zarda v. Altitude Express.  The DOJ argued that Title VII does not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  In that same matter, the current Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) argued that Title VII does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This case has not yet been decided, but Judge Rosemary Parker of the Second Circuit noted during oral arguments that “[i]t’s a little bit awkward for us to have the federal government on both sides of the case.”

The grounds for this change in interpretation by the DOJ could be based on several reasons – whether political or based on a strict textual interpretation of Title VII.  Regardless of the motive, however, this policy change is yet another signal that the DOJ will likely continue to actively argue in court, whether they are a party or not, that Title VII and other laws do not provide protection to LGBT individuals.  It is also likely that the DOJ will seek to withdraw itself from any active litigation in support of expanding such protection.

Regardless of the rationale for issuing this letter, the impact of the Attorney General’s new interpretation of Title VII likely will not have significant immediate impact on employer obligations and conduct for several reasons.  First, the DOJ’s newly stated position stands in direct opposition to the EEOC interpretation of Title VII, and the EEOC is the primary federal agency tasked with investigating violations of and pursuing enforcement of Title VII.  While the DOJ has the ability to prosecute violations of Title VII against state and local governments, it does not do so with nearly the frequency of the EEOC, and does not do so with respect to private employers.  Second, courts ultimately will determine the scope of Title VII, not the DOJ.  While the DOJ may seek to persuade the courts that Title VII does not provide protection for transgender individuals, as it did in its amicus brief filed in Zarda, the DOJ’s insertion into such lawsuits does not guarantee that its position will be accepted.  The Supreme Court held in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, almost thirty years ago, that employment discrimination based on sex stereotypes is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII, and this decision has been relied on in dozens of subsequent lower court decisions in finding that protection from discrimination based on someone’s transgender status falls within the text of Title VII.  Finally, numerous states and localities, such as New York and the District of Columbia, already have passed legislation to expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

shutterstock_633954278In a departure from the recently developing law, a federal court judge from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) may cover gender dysphoria, and other conditions related to gender identity disorder – opening the door to expanding employment protections to some transgender individuals under the ADA.

In Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., a transgender woman filed Title VII and ADA claims against her former employer claiming that she had suffered disability discrimination and retaliation based on her gender dysphoria. The plaintiff alleged that her gender dysphoria was characterized by clinically significant stress and substantially limited one or more of her major life activities, including but not limited to, interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functions. The employer sought dismissal of the ADA claims on the grounds that gender identity disorders are expressly excluded from coverage under Section 12211 of the ADA. In response, the plaintiff argued that the ADA’s exclusion of gender identity disorders violated her equal protection rights under the Constitution.

What makes this case unique, and its holding potentially narrow, is its reliance on the legal “constitutional-avoidance canon” which, if possible, requires the court to interpret a statute in a way that avoids any constitutional questions raised by the plaintiff. Here, the court interpreted the ADA to allow plaintiff to proceed with her disability discrimination claim because “this interpretation allows the Court to avoid the constitutional questions raised” by the plaintiff.

In reaching its holding, the court noted that two categories of conditions are explicitly excluded from protection under the ADA: non-disabling conditions concerning sexual orientation and identity (e.g., homosexuality and bisexuality), and conditions associated with harmful or illegal conduct (e.g., pedophilia and kleptomania). The court narrowly interpreted these exceptions and found that the ADA does not exclude protection of “conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct” – such as the gender dysphoria affecting the plaintiff. This line of reasoning in many ways mimics how the ADA approaches pregnancy: while the ADA does not cover ordinary pregnancies, complications arising from the pregnancy can trigger ADA protection.

The court also noted that this interpretation is consistent with the Third Circuit’s mandate that the ADA is “a remedial statute, designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society. . . [and] must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.” Thus, the judge wrote, any exceptions in the ADA “should be read narrowly in order to permit the statute to achieve a broad reach.” As such, the Court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss.

This is yet another case in a recent wave of litigation concerning protections for LGBT individuals under the federal employment statutes, including Title VII. This ADA challenge represents a different approach to gender equity litigation that will warrant close monitoring to see how it impacts the development of jurisprudence – particularly since it is possible that the court may not have ever engaged in this exercise had the plaintiff had not raised a constitutional argument. In the meantime, employers should be mindful of their duties under the ADA to accommodate disabling impairments, even if the underlying condition is arguably not covered by the ADA.

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s protections against discrimination on the basis of sex.

In Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, Kimberly Hively, a lesbian part-time professor at Ivy Tech, applied for but was denied several full-time positions with the college. After her employment was later terminated, she filed a lawsuit alleging that she was denied promotion and then terminated because of her sexual orientation. The lower courts held that they were bound by Seventh Circuit precedent to rule that sexual orientation was not a protected category under Title VII. On July 28, 2016, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination is not sex discrimination. The Seventh Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc with all 11 judges.

Deviating from almost every other circuit court, the Seventh Circuit voted 8-3 that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination. In March, the Eleventh Circuit held in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, et al. that it was bound by precedent that concluded that Title VII does not extend protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Later in the month, the Second Circuit reached a similar conclusion in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, et al. While that court found that the plaintiff had no viable claim for sexual orientation discrimination, it remanded the case to the Southern District of New York to address whether the plaintiff’s claims could be considered sex stereotyping discrimination.

The court acknowledged that the three-member panel in 2016 “described the line between gender nonconformity claim and one based on sexual orientation as gossamer-thin;” the majority now concludes that such a line “does not exist at all.”

Citing to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson (sexual harassment is discrimination on the basis of sex), Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (sex stereotyping is discrimination on the basis of sex), and Onacle v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc. (same sex harassment is discrimination on the basis of sex), the court held that sex discrimination has been understood to “cover far more than the simple decision of an employer not to hire a woman for Job A or a man for Job B.”

The majority addressed Hively’s two legal theories – (1) the comparative method, whether a woman and a man would be treated differently under the same facts, and (2) the associational theory, whether discrimination occurs against an individual because of the protected characteristic of one with whom the individual associates. Under each theory, the court reduced each inquiry to a simple question – if the employee in question were male instead of female, would it matter that the employee was in a relationship with a woman? Answering that if the sex of a plaintiff such as Hively in a lesbian relationship was changed, then the outcome would be different, the Court held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation necessarily is discrimination on the basis of sex.

The court acknowledged the long-standing critique of the judiciary with respect to civil rights issues – that the court was attempting to “legislate from the bench.” Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Diane P. Wood wrote that the decision to “amend” Title VII to add sexual orientation as a new protected category “lies beyond our power.” She further wrote: “We must decide instead what it means to discriminate on the basis of sex, and in particular, whether actions taken on the basis of sexual orientation are a subset of actions taken on the basis of sex. This is a pure question of statutory interpretation and thus well within the judiciary’s competence.” In response to the dissent’s reliance upon legislative intent, the Court noted that the definition of sex discrimination has expanded in numerous ways since the passage of Title VII, and that the Congress that enacted Title VII likely would be surprised as to the extent of expansion.

In an expectedly colorful concurrence, Judge Posner acknowledged that the Court is, in fact, re-writing Title VII because society’s definition of “sex” has changed over the past 50 years. Instead of relying solely upon stereotyping claims, as the majority writes, Judge Posner instead recognized that the judiciary has long been interpreting statutory language in the context of society’s new and changing understanding of terms. And here, Posner writes, that we should not rely upon the 88th Congress’ “failure” to divine how society’s interpretation of the term would change. Rather, he writes: “We understand the words of Title VII differently not because we’re smarter than the statute’s framers and ratifiers but because we live in a different era, a different culture.”

With a Circuit split, the question of whether sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under Title VII is ripe for review by the Supreme Court, although this case likely will not be the vehicle. Ivy Tech has released a statement that it does not intend to appeal. The decision in this case, however, may affect the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to rehear the Evans case en banc. When this issue does reach the Supreme Court, the soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch could render an impactful vote should this reach the highest court.

How will the Trump administration handle discrimination cases involving transgender employees? The EEOC’s pursuit of a sex discrimination claim on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was terminated by a Michigan funeral home for expressing her intention to dress in conformance with her gender identity, will be an early indicator.

In a brief filed with the Sixth Circuit on January 26, 2017, Stephens argues that the interests of transgender individuals will not be adequately represented under the new administration. Under the Obama administration, the EEOC sued Stephens’ former employer, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, for sex discrimination on her behalf. The funeral home owner argued permitting Stephens to dress as a woman would conflict with his Christian beliefs and pose a threat to his free exercise of religion. The Eastern District of Michigan dismissed the EEOC’s lawsuit in August 2016 on the grounds that the funeral home is exempt from Title VII under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). Although the EEOC appealed to the Sixth Circuit in October 2016, Stephens filed a motion to intervene as plaintiff-appellant, citing her belief that the new administration would not adequately represent her interests.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, the trend in federal government was the extension of protections for transgender individuals. Many federal agencies, including the EEOC, OFCCP, OSHA, and HHS, previously promulgated rules and guidance affording increased protections for transgender individuals. Numerous federal courts, including the First, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh circuits, have applied theories of sex stereotyping under Section 1983 or Title VII, resulting in protections for transgender individuals. Few courts, however, have found gender identity or transgender status is a protected class under Title VII. Indeed, the district court in G.R. & R.G. Funeral Homes rejected that position when presented by the EEOC.

Whether the EEOC will continue to aggressively pursue the expansion of Title VII to include transgender protections remains an open question. While still just a rumor, it has been reported that the Trump administration is considering an executive order that would provide individuals and organizations the ability to deny employment, as well as services and other benefits, to LGBT individuals on religious grounds. In her motion, Stephens references the removal of the White House webpage dedicated to LGBT rights, the federal government’s requests for extensions of time in other civil rights cases, and the President’s authority over EEOC appointments as reasons she believes her interests may not be adequately represented. Further, the current acting chair of the EEOC, Victoria Lipnic, was one of two commissioners who voted against the EEOC’s July 2015 decision that held that sexual orientation is included within the definition of sex for discrimination purposes under Title VII. The Trump administration also has rescinded guidance previously issued by the departments of Education and Justice under the Obama administration that took the position that the Title IX prohibitions of discrimination “on the basis of sex” require access to sex-segregated facilities based on gender identity.

On the other hand, the EEOC filed its opening brief with the Sixth Circuit just two weeks after Stephens moved to intervene, arguing that (a) discrimination based on transgender status and/or transitioning is inherently sex discrimination under Title VII; and (b) the RFRA does not provide the for-profit funeral home a defense in this case. This stance is consistent with that taken by the EEOC while Obama was in office. Further, Trump has indicated Executive Order 13672, which banned federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, will stand.

Stephens’ case may have implications for the protection of transgender employees at the federal level, but employers need to keep in mind that many states explicitly prohibit discrimination against transgender workers. At least sixteen jurisdictions – including California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the District of Columbia – now include gender identity as a protected characteristic under their discrimination laws.

Employers are advised to familiarize themselves with their state and local laws, to take a proactive role in preventing transgender, or gender identity, discrimination in the workplace, and to have a plan in place to accommodate the potential needs of transgender workers.