The U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Federal Law Bars Discrimination Against Gay and Transgender Workers

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination “because of … sex,” covers sexual orientation and gender identity. The decision addressed three cases where employers terminated employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In one case, a public employer fired a long-time employee shortly after he began participating in a gay recreational softball league. The employer found this conduct “unbecoming.” In the second case, an employer fired an employee days after he mentioned being gay. In the third case, an employer fired its employee, who presented as a male when hired, after she informed her employer that she planned to “live and work full-time as a woman.” Each employee sued, alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The employers did not dispute that they fired the employees for being homosexual or transgender. Instead, they claimed that even intentional discrimination against employees based on homosexual or transgender status is not a basis for Title VII liability. One appellate court held that Title VII does not bar employers from firing employees for being gay and dismissed the suit. Two other appeals courts allowed the claims to proceed, concluding that sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII in one case and that Title VII bars employer from firing employees because of their transgender status in the other case.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender and to resolve the conflicting results from the different appeals courts. Applying Title VII’s terms, interpreted in accord with its ordinary meaning, the Court found that discrimination “because of sex” includes discrimination against individuals whose sexual orientation or gender identity does not align with ‘traditional’ gender roles. Since Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex, discrimination against such individuals is a violations of the law.

For more information, please contact Lisa Scidurlo, Joseph Hofmann, Theresa Zechman, Daniel Sobol or the Stevens & Lee attorney with whom you regularly work.

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