Two federal court opinions, issued less than 10 days apart, have set the stage for a potential landmark showdown at our nation’s highest court. The issue revolves around the proper interpretation of the term “sex” contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—an interpretation that will greatly impact workplace discrimination rights and requirements for years to come.
On March 27, 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, Inc. In its decision, the 2nd Circuit revived a homosexual employee’s employment discrimination claims by ruling that the employee possessed viable Title VII claims based on the theory of “sex stereotyping.” However, in its ruling, the 2nd Circuit also expressly stated that Title VII’s definition of “sex” did not cover a person’s sexual orientation. This decision tracked historical rulings of other U.S. courts, in holding that the term “sex” within Title VII refers only to a person’s gender—meaning that discrimination had to be premised on whether a worker is male or female.
Nine days later, on April 4, 2017, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appellate court to buck this trend and rule that Title VII does extend workplace protections on the basis of their sexual orientation. In deciding the case of Hively v. Ivy Tech, the 7th Circuit opted to expand the definition of “sex” under Title VII to include an individual’s “sexual orientation.” With its 8-3 decision, the 7th Circuit effectively presents two avenues of recovery for individuals asserting claims on the basis of their sexual orientation.
For years, LGBT employees could only advance claims of workplace discrimination under a theory of “sex stereotyping” discrimination—that is, discrimination based on an employee’s failure to conform to an employer’s perceived gender roles. In July 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued its first administrative ruling declaring that Title VII’s use of the word “sex” meant both gender and sexual orientation. However, until now, no federal court had adopted or mirrored the EEOC’s guidance.
Now things are set to get interesting. The contradictory rulings will most likely be condensed and presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. This would be a landmark ruling for employees, LGBT advocates, and employers. All of this brings further attention to the remaining uncertainty surrounding the 8-justice status of the Supreme Court, the on-going political fight over filling the late Justice Scalia’s seat, and the impending Democratic filibuster over President Donald Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Even if Gorsuch were confirmed, it remains to be seen how he would rule on this issue.