The Change Continues: Transgender Status Ruled Protected Under Title VII

In continuing with the theme of the year, another appellate court has taken more expansive view of the protections under Title VII to extend its previous limits to cover a newer issue: discrimination on the basis on an individual’s transgender status.  In so doing, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appellate court to recognize such rights under the federal law.

Some Background

R.G & G.R Harris Funeral Home hired Aimee Stephens when she was living and presenting as a man.  She worked for the funeral home for approximately 6 years, until in 2013, when she informed the owner that she intended to begin living and working as a woman.  The owner terminated Aimee’s employment two weeks later on the basis that “the public would not be accepting of her transition.”

Aimee filed a complaint with the EEOC which brought a lawsuit against the funeral home for discrimination based on Aimee’s sex and gender identity. The district court, interpreting Title VII within its traditional limits, dismissed the claims against the funeral home alleging discrimination based on transgender status.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed.  In taking a more expansive approach to Title VII, the court ruled that it was “analytically impossible” to terminate an employee based on their transgender status without being motived, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.  Thus, the court found “[discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex” in violation of Title VII.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

Most employers are by now well acquainted with the reality that the EEOC will bring and has brought charges for perceived discrimination or harassment of employees based on their transgender status.  The EEOC has held that position since 2012. What’s changed now is that a federal appellate court has affirmed the EEOC’s position.  This will likely encourage employees, and their attorneys, to file claims for transgender discrimination where they would have otherwise been hesitant to do so.

Employers should respond to this ruling by reviewing their existing antidiscrimination and harassment policies, procedures, and training to ensure they adequately address protections afforded individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.  Employers should additionally ensure managers and supervisors are prepared to handle requests by employees relating to their transgender or transitioning status, such as requests for name changes or exceptions to the enforcement of gender specific uniforms.

As a final note, employers should remember that regardless of how unconventional an employee’s request for accommodation may seem, when based on the employee’s protected characteristic (such as transgender status), the fact that customer sensibilities might be offended in most instances will not be a sufficient basis to refuse the employee’s request.