Does Title VII and Ohio law Prohibit Discrimination/Retaliation Based on Sexual Orientation (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender)?

Ohio Sexual Orientation Discrimination Attorneys:

Sexual orientation discrimination continues to be a contentious civil right facing millions of Americans. Courts around the country have continued the movement towards protecting employees against discrimination and/or retaliation because of sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgender). At some point in the future, federal and Ohio law will provide full protection against this conduct. However, we are not at that point, yet. This article focuses on the current protections under the law. If you are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgender, you are still protected against sexual orientation discrimination if you do not conform with traditional sex stereotypes (explained below) and are discriminated/retaliated against because of the non-conformity.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) provides that “it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to discharge an individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, condition, or privileges of employment, because of… his/her sex….” 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a). Under Title VII, sexual orientation is not a prohibited basis for discriminatory acts. See Gilbert v. Country Music Ass’n, Inc., 432 F. App’x 516, (6th Cir. 2011). (Ohio law has not yet extended protection).

Despite the fact that sexual orientation discrimination itself is not an actionable claim under current Federal and State (Ohio) law, federal Courts across the country have been expanding protection for related claims. Indeed, incremental changes have over time broadened the scope of Title VII’s protections of sex discrimination in the workplace.

Recently, on November 4, 2016, a U.S. District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania (3rd Circuit) denied an employer’s motion to dismiss the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) claim on behalf of a gay male against an employer. Among other claims, the EEOC alleged that the gay male was constructively discharged due to a hostile work environment because the male was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation (i.e. he is gay). The EEOC alleged that during his employment, he was subjected to disparaging comments referencing his sexual orientation that created a hostile work environment, which more or less forced him to leave his place of employment. The employer requested that the Court dismiss the case and argued that sexual orientation is not a protected class (i.e. it can discriminate/retaliate against the male employee because he is gay).

The Court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss and held that “Title VII’s ‘because of sex’ provision prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” Accordingly, the EEOC’s claim properly stated a claim for relief under federal law. See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Center, P.C., Case No. 16-225, 2016 WL 6569233 at *5-6 (W.D. Penn., Nov. 4, 2016).

Although federal courts in the 6th Circuit (Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky) have not recognized actual sexual orientation (i.e. you are fired because you are gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender), they do protect against sex discrimination when the individual does not conform with traditional sex stereotypes, which is explained in detail below.

Courts Recognize Sex Discrimination When the Claim is Based on “Non-Conformity with Traditional Sex Stereotypes”

In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held that harassment directed at a person because that person does not conform to traditional stereotypes is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. According to Price Waterhouse, it is apparent that the female employee was tougher than females are traditionally viewed. Comments like females should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry,” not be a “macho,” or that females should take a “course on charm school” were indirect evidence of discrimination because of sex (i.e. a female not conforming to traditional stereotypes of how females should be). Since this case, courts have continued to expand upon the meaning of “does not conform to traditional sex stereotypes” in the context of both male and female traditional sex stereotypes.

The Sixth Circuit (the federal circuit, which includes Ohio) also recognizes claims of sex discrimination when males or females are discriminated/retaliated against because he or she does not conform to traditional sex stereotypes. Indeed, where men are penalized for acting femininely, the disparate treatment (i.e. penalizing him) is “because of sex” and prohibited under federal law. See Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566, 674 (6th Cir. 2004).

In Koren v. The Ohio Bell Telephone Co. (Northern District of Ohio, 2012), the Plaintiff-employee alleged that his employer discriminated against him because he took his husband’s name after they married, but did not similarly discriminate against women for doing the same. Importantly, the Plaintiff did not allege discrimination because he was gay. Rather, he alleged that by taking his husband’s last name, he did not conform to traditional sex stereotypes. As a result, the Court allowed Plaintiff’s case to move forward on the theory of gender non-conformity.

This case again demonstrates the difference between a sexual orientation discrimination claim, which is not currently protected by Title VII or Ohio law, and a gender stereotyping claim, which is an increasingly recognized form of sex discrimination.  The claim of gender stereotyping removes actual sexual orientation from the analysis and relies only on establishing that the plaintiff was discriminated against because he or she did not conform to traditional gender stereotypes.

The Smith and Koren decisions, among others, have dramatically changed the landscape of sex discrimination cases. Under Smith and Koren, all other classes of individuals who engage in gender non-conforming conduct are granted Title VII protection.

As a result, employers’ traditional dress and grooming policies may also be challenged to the extent they require conformance to traditional gender roles, e.g., requiring women to wear skirts or make-up, or preventing men from doing so.

The Ohio Sexual Orientation attorneys at Bryant Legal, LLC will continue to monitor this ever-changing area of sex discrimination. If you believe you have been discriminated and/or retaliated against because of your non-conforming gender role, contact us immediately so we can immediately protect your rights.

Ratings and Reviews