EEOC Files First Transgender Discrimination Suit

November 11, 2014
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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently filed its first transgender discrimination suits against a private employer under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The latest legal development reinforces that preventing transgender discrimination should be on every employer’s radar. The EEOC and Transgender Discrimination In 2012, the EEOC ruled that employment discrimination against employees because they are transgender, because of their gender identity, and/or because they have transitioned (or intend to transition) constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. However, recently filed suits in Michigan and Florida are the first to test the commission’s position in federal court. The suits allege that the employers violated Title VII by terminating transgender workers who did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes. In the Florida suit, the EEOC alleges that Lakeland Eye Clinic terminated an employee after she informed them she was transgender and intended to start presenting as a woman. Meanwhile, the Michigan suit contends that Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. violated Title VII by firing a funeral director/embalmer who was transitioning from male to female. Both workers had always adequately performed their job duties, according to the EEOC In announcing the charges, EEOC Indianapolis Regional Attorney Laurie Young, stated, “Title VII prohibits employers from firing employees because they do not behave according to the employer’s stereotypes of how men and women should act, and this includes employees who present themselves according to their gender identity.” The Message for Employers If successful, the EEOC suit is likely the first of many. The agency has previously stated that “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions, as they may apply” among its top priorities. The Obama Administration is also taking action to protect transgender workers. As discussed in a prior Scarinci Hollenbeck Business News blog, the President signed an Executive Order this summer that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of gender identity. The action impacts 24,000 companies, which employ approximately one-fifth of U.S. workers. On the state level, New Jersey employers should be aware that the Law Against Discrimination includes “gender identity and expression” as a protected class. Accordingly, in New Jersey, any discrimination and/or retaliation against transgender workers would be proper grounds for an employment lawsuit under state law. If you have questions about transgender discrimination or would like to discuss your company’s employee policies, please contact me or the Scarinci Hollenbeck Labor and Employment attorney with whom you work.