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.

Ohio Retaliation Attorneys Update: New EEOC Enforcement Guidance Broadens Employee Protection

The purpose of this post is to provide a brief overview of how employees are protected from retaliation as well as how the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) enforcement guidance now provides even broader protection to employees.

At the end of this post, I have included a “Top 10 List” of conduct which is protected under the law. If you believe you have been retaliated against, the Ohio retaliation attorneys at Bryant Legal, LLC can make sure your rights are protected and asserted effectively.

Are You Protected from Retaliation under Federal and Ohio law? Yes.

If you, as an employee, engage in certain activity at work, it may be protected under federal and Ohio law. If your employer takes disciplinary action against you because you either opposed discrimination (or other conduct you believe to be unlawful) or participate in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing regarding the discrimination, it will likely be unlawful retaliation.

A. What is “Protected Activity?”

Federal and Ohio law have anti-retaliation provisions so that employees can be free from discipline and not discouraged from opposing discrimination in the workplace. It is important to understand the two major types of activity that provide employees with protection (“protected activity”). These anti-retaliation provisions protect two main types of activity:  (1) participation; and (2) opposition.

  • (1) Participation is defined as follows:
    • An individual is protected from retaliation for having made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII, the ADEA, the EPA, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or GINA. Participation may include, for example, filing or serving as a witness in an administrative proceeding or lawsuit alleging discrimination.
  • (2) Opposition is defined as follows:
    • An individual is protected from retaliation for opposing any practice made unlawful under the EEO laws. Protected “opposition” activity broadly includes the many ways in which an individual may communicate explicitly or implicitly opposition to perceived employment discrimination. The manner of opposition must be reasonable, and the opposition must be based on a reasonable good faith belief that the conduct opposed is, or could become, unlawful.

B. Can My Employer Retaliate Against Me? No. 

Many employment laws, whether they are under federal or Ohio law, have provisions which prohibit retaliation against their employees. Importantly, any employee, regardless of his or her status, has a private cause of action if he or she experiences retaliation.

Although each situation is different, your employer cannot retaliate against you. For example, if you oppose discrimination in the workplace (based on your reasonable belief) and your employer takes disciplinary action against you (e.g. write-ups, reduction of hours, termination, etc.), it may constitute unlawful retaliation. As  you can imagine, retaliation can occur against employees in a variety of situations and in all aspects of employment.

C. New EEOC Enforcement Guidance Broadens Protection for Employees

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued its new enforcement guidance for claims of retaliation under laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Topics explained in the new guidance include:

  • The scope of employee activity protected by the law.
  • Legal analysis to be used to determine if evidence supports a claim of retaliation.
  • Remedies available for retaliation.
  • Rules against interference with the exercise of rights under the ADA.
  • Detailed examples of employer actions that may constitute retaliation.

With respect to examples of employer actions that may constitute retaliation, a non-exhaustive list of actions that constitute protected activity by the employee is below.

Top 10 List of Protected Activity:

  1. Complaining about discrimination against oneself or others
  2. Threatening to complain about discrimination against oneself or others
  3. Providing information in an employer’s investigation of discrimination or harassment
  4. Refusing to obey an order reasonably believed to be discriminatory
  5. “Passive resistance” – e.g. supervisor refusing a request to dissuade subordinates from filing EEO complaints. Just not acting on the request is considered protected.
  6. Advising an employer on EEO compliance
  7. Resisting harassing behavior – The EEOC gives the example of an employee telling a supervisor to “leave me alone” and “stop it.” The fact that it’s a supervisor seems important here because the supervisor’s knowledge is imputed to the employer.
  8. Intervening to protect others from harassing behavior – Again, the EEOC example involves a co-worker intervening to stop harassment by a supervisor.
  9. Requesting accommodation for a disability or religion
  10. Complaining that pay practices are discriminatory – There doesn’t need to be an explicit reference to discrimination. If a woman says her pay is unfair and asks what men in the job are being paid, the EEOC deems that protected.

If you have questions about retaliation and/or have been retaliated against by your employer, you should contact an employment attorney at Bryant Legal, LLC to help make sure your rights are protected and asserted appropriately.

Additional Medical Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act – New EEOC Guidelines

Ohio Disability Discrimination Attorneys Insight: Medical Leave is a Reasonable Accommodation Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

This post is intended to provide general information regarding when and how medical leave, as a form of an accommodation, must be granted to an employee for reasons related to an employee’s disability in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For specific questions about your situation, please utilize the contact form to speak with an Ohio disability discrimination attorney at Bryant Legal, LLC.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the workplace and requires that covered employers (those with 15 or more employees) must provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees with disabilities who require such accommodations due to their disability. Importantly, an employee or applicant must still be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without an accommodation. An overview of disability discrimination can be found here.

What is an Accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is generally “any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o). With respect to medical leave, an employee can request medical leave (or additional medical leave) as an accommodation so long as the leave is not indefinite (i.e. your return-to-work date is unknown).

An accommodation for medical leave includes making modifications to existing leave policies (e.g. “maximum leave” and “100% healed” provisions) and providing leave when needed for a disability, even where an employer does not offer leave to other employees or leave runs out under federal, state, or local laws (e.g. Family and Medical Leave Act). As with any other accommodation, the goal of providing leave as an accommodation is to afford employees with disabilities equal employment opportunities.

Employer policies that require employees on extended leave to be 100 percent healed or able to work without restrictions, as clarified below, will likely unlawfully deny some employees reasonable accommodations that would enable them to return to work. Additionally, employers sometimes fail to consider reassignment as an option for employees with disabilities who cannot return to their jobs following leave. Unless the employer can establish undue hardship (which is rare most of the time), these types of policies will likely violate the ADA under the Equal Employment Opportunity’s new guidelines describing medical leave as a reasonable accommodation.

Examples of Potential Violations under the ADA:

  •  Maximum Leave Policy
    • Maximum leave policies (sometimes referred to as “no fault” leave policies) take many different forms. A common policy, especially for entities covered by the FMLA, is a flat limit of 12 weeks for both extended and intermittent leave. In the event an employee runs out of leave under the FMLA, but the employee requests additional leave as a reasonable accommodation, an employer must provide it so long as it does not impose undue hardship on the employer.
  • 100% Healed Policy
    • An employer will violate the ADA if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions — that is, be “100%” healed or recovered — if the employee can perform her job with or without reasonable accommodation unless the employer can show providing the needed accommodations would cause an undue hardship.
    • Similarly, an employer will violate the ADA if it claims an employee with medical restrictions poses a safety risk but it cannot show that the individual is a “direct threat.” Direct threat is the ADA standard for determining whether an employee’s disability poses a “significant risk of substantial harm” to self or to others. If an employee’s disability poses a direct threat, an employer must consider whether reasonable accommodation will eliminate or diminish the direct threat.
  • Reassignment
    • In some situations, the requested reasonable accommodation will be reassignment to a new job because the disability prevents the employee from performing one or more essential functions of the current job, even with a reasonable accommodation, or because any accommodation in the current job would result in undue hardship. If reassignment is required, an employer must place the employee in a vacant position for which he is qualified, without requiring the employee to compete with other applicants for open positions. Reassignment does not include promotion, and generally an employer does not have to place someone in a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation when another employee is entitled to the position under a uniformly-applied seniority system.

In the event you have a physical or mental impairment that constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and you have questions about requesting an accommodation or you believe your employer is treating you differently because of your disability or request for an accommodation, please contact an Ohio disability discrimination attorney to discuss in more detail.

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