Does Title VII Protect LGBT Workers?; Our Trusty Tools; Technology in the Courtroom
by Andrea L. Moseley
Since last year, we have been watching the U.S. Supreme Court to see whether it will hear a trio of cases that gave conflicting answers to the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on discrimination “based on . . . sex” protects LGBT workers. That burning question has been simmering for years, and now the Supreme Court is poised to take on the Title VII quandary.
The trifecta of cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC, were initially set for Supreme Court consideration last September. But the Court punted then and continued to do so until last month. On April 22, 2019, the high court finally decided to move forward and hear the cases. After much waiting, we finally know the Supreme Court will weigh in on the question and issue the final word on the scope of Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination.
What were those three cases again?
Because each of the cases has its own set of facts, it’s helpful to recap the specific issues the Supreme Court will be considering:
- In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that gender identity is fundamentally tied to biological sex. Therefore, the court ruled that an employer violated Title VII when it terminated a transgender employee for failing to conform to gender norms.
- In Altitude Express v. Zarda, a skydiving company is asking the Court to overturn the 2nd Circuit’s ruling that a former employee established a viable Title VII claim when he alleged the company fired him because of his homosexuality.
- In Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the 11th Circuit ruled that an employee’s claim that he was fired after his employer learned he had joined a gay softball league wasn’t legally cognizable under Title VII. That ruling, of course, is in direct conflict with the 2nd Circuit’s decision in Zarda.
Significantly, the litigation of the three cases has exposed sharp disagreement within the federal government over Title VII’s range. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have taken opposite positions on this significant issue. The EEOC has maintained that Title VII extends to sexual orientation and gender identity, while the DOJ has taken the position that it does not. The Supreme Court will have the final word on which agency is correct.
It has been a long time coming, but now we can expect clarity from the highest court in the land on the meaning of “sex” in Title VII. However, that clarity will not come immediately. The Supreme Court process will take a while.
First, the Court will set a briefing schedule, and then it will schedule a date for oral argument in the fall. The cases have been consolidated, and a total of one hour has been allotted for oral argument. After oral argument, we will have to wait for the Court to deliver its opinion, which likely will not come until sometime in early 2020.
What should you do now?
While we wait, we recommend that you chart a course to safeguard your business against a potentially expansive reading of Title VII. Until we have an answer from the Court, the safest route is to implement policies that protect, and are inclusive of, all your employees, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Supreme Court’s decision to address whether Title VII applies to LGBT employees may shine a new spotlight on the potential for expanded protections under Title VII, and workers may very well become aware of the issue for the first time.
As the debate reaches the Supreme Court and the date for oral argument approaches, you can expect Title VII issues to be on the minds of many more workers. The 2nd Circuit (whose decisions apply to employers in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont) and the 7th Circuit (whose decisions apply to employers in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The 4th Circuit, which is based in Richmond and decides cases applicable to Virginia employers, hasn’t ruled either way. However, the Commonwealth of Virginia protects state workers from sexual orientation discrimination, and many Virginia localities have adopted protections for gay employees in their jurisdictions.
Updating your antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies and training your workforce are the best ways to protect yourself against potential liability for discrimination against LGBT employees. Consider contacting experienced employment counsel, the best source of information for developing employment policies and training your managers on possible changes to the scope of Title VII.
Getting ahead of the curve as to the changing currents in Title VII law will put you in the best position to address the employment issues you will be facing, no matter how the Supreme Court defines the term “sex” for Title VII purposes.
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by Corey Zoldan
Imagine this: Two individuals start a job at the same time. Quickly, management recognizes one employee’s hard work and dedication and promotes her. In a short time, the employee ascending the corporate ladder becomes the superior of the employee with whom she had onboarded. The nonpromoted employee becomes jealous and resentful. To this employee, there must be some reason not based on merit why the other employee has advanced. Whether true or not, the nonpromoted employee starts spreading a rumor—the promoted employee “slept” her way to the top.
The above-mentioned scenario is far from hypothetical. Accusations and unsubstantiated rumors like this unfortunately exist in the workplace. Indeed, this exact fact pattern recently played out in a case arising out of Sterling, Virginia.
In December 2014, Evangeline Parker was working for Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (RCSI), at its warehouse facility. By March 2016, after a series of promotions, she became an assistant operations manager. Within two weeks, another RSCI employee who had started working for the company at the same time began spreading a rumor she had been promoted only because she had a sexual relationship with a higher-ranking manager.
As the rumor spread, Parker alleged she “was treated with open resentment and disrespect” by coworkers, including her subordinates. She was also told by the highest-ranking manager at RSCI, Larry Moppins, that he would be unable to promote her any further because of the rumors, and in May 2016, he fired her.
Believing her termination was unjustified and unfair, Parker filed suit against RCSI in federal district court. Among her legal claims was a hostile work environment claim for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In assessing the legal merit of Parker’s suit, the district court considered the cause of the hostile work environment to which she had allegedly been subjected. Specifically, were her coworkers, superiors, and subordinates harassing her because she was a woman, or were they doing so because of her alleged conduct? And was it even possible to separate the two considerations?
The federal court decided to focus on Parker’s conduct. Although it empathized with her situation, it noted “that her complaint as to the establishment and circulation of this rumor is not based upon her gender, but rather based upon her alleged conduct.” Thus, it reasoned the “same type of rumor could be made in a variety of other contexts involving people of the same gender or different genders alleged to have had some kind of sexual activity leading to promotion.” Because the district court found the cause of the purported hostile work environment couldn’t be attributed to her sex, it dismissed her claim.
Parker appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (which is based in Richmond and whose decisions apply to employers not only in Virginia but also in West Virginia, Maryland, and North and South Carolina). In analyzing her discrimination claim, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the district court’s view that the rumor wasn’t related to her sex. Rather, it characterized the rumor as a female subordinate having sex with her male superior to obtain a promotion, “implying that Parker used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain . . . a promotion.”
To the 4th Circuit, the stereotype “that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success” clearly persists in today’s world. It also pointed out that Parker’s lawsuit, in addition to inferentially invoking sex stereotyping, explicitly alleged only males started and spread the rumors about her and that she was treated differently than the male manager with whom she was alleged to have had a sexual relationship.
Accordingly, the 4th Circuit found that any distinction between harassment “based on gender” and harassment “based on conduct” wasn’t one of substance “because the conduct is also alleged to be gender-based.” Thus, it held that the district court was wrong to have ruled she had failed to state a valid claim for a hostile work environment. It reversed the dismissal of her Title VII claim and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings. Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc., 2019 WL 490652 (4th Cir., Feb. 8, 2019).
The 4th Circuit’s decision provides important lessons for all employers. Although we as a society may be working to combat negative stereotypes, they still exist in many workplaces. In this case, the 4th Circuit made clear that any attempt to masquerade sex discrimination as discrimination based on conduct will fail when it perpetuates a discriminatory negative stereotype. Although Parker’s case dealt with the stereotype of women using sexual promiscuity to gain advancement in the workplace, the principle applies equally to negative stereotyping based on race, religion, national origin, or some other legally protected category.
As an employer, you can avoid being in the position RCSI now finds itself of facing a jury trial on Parker’s hostile work environment claim. Make sure you have policies in place to identify workplace misconduct, and when problematic situations arise, launch proper and expedient investigations with the oversight and guidance of experienced employment counsel.
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by Jayna Genti
The regular session of the 2019 Virginia General Assembly has ended. The session convened on January 9 and adjourned on February 24. The reconvened session is scheduled for April 3. During the regular session, approximately 35 labor and employment bills were introduced, but only three were passed and sent to Governor Ralph Northam for his signature.
Minimum wage exemptions. In an effort to modernize Virginia’s minimum wage law, the General Assembly passed House Bill (HB) 2473, which repeal certain minimum wage exemptions that were viewed as Jim Crow-era legalized wage discrimination against African Americans. The legislation rescinds laws that allowed employers to pay less than minimum wage to newsboys, shoeshine boys, ushers, doormen, concession attendants, cashiers in theaters, and babysitters who work 10 hours or more per week.
In 2018, a similar bill with the same intent died in committee. This year, the measure passed the senate 37-3 on January 18. On February 13, the house voted 18-14 in favor of a modified version of the bill. Two days later, the senate unanimously approved that version and sent it to Governor Northam to be signed into law.
Help for new mothers. Two bills facilitating employees’ ability to express breast milk were introduced this session. One passed, while the other was abandoned in committee.
The bill that passed the house and senate, HB 1916, requires the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management to develop state personnel policies that provide for break time during which mothers may express breast milk. The policies will require each state agency to provide:
- Reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time the employee has a need to express breast milk; and
- A place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion by coworkers and the public and may be used by an employee to express breast milk.
The bill that stalled in committee, HB 1862, would have required all employers to provide reasonable unpaid break time each day to employees who need to express breast milk for nursing children and to make reasonable efforts to provide a room or other location, other than a bathroom, where employees can express breast milk in privacy.
Written wage statements. The General Assembly also passed SB 1696, which require every Virginia employer to provide employees, on each regular payday, a written statement on their pay stub or through online accounting that shows:
- The name and address of the employer;
- The number of hours the employee worked during the pay period; and
- The employee’s rate of pay.
Currently, employers must provide a written statement of employees’ gross wages and any deductions only upon request. The new measure doesn’t apply to agricultural employment and has a delayed effective date of January 1, 2020.
Covenants not to compete. A bipartisan bill prohibiting employers from entering into, enforcing, or threatening to enforce covenants not to compete with low-wage workers passed the senate as well as the House Commerce and Labor Committee. However, the General Assembly ended before the bill could be put up for a vote in the house.
Given the bill’s bipartisan support, similar legislation may be introduced again next year. According to Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Richmond), the proposed legislation is probusiness as well as proemployee because noncompete agreements hinder businesses from hiring talented employees and prevent employees from starting their own companies.
Minimum wage increases. At least four bills introduced in the General Assembly this session proposed to raise Virginia’s minimum wage, which is set at the federal floor of $7.25 an hour. None of the measures made it into law, and most were left in committee. A bill passed in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee by a 9-5 vote would have mandated annual increases to the hourly minimum wage, raising it to $8 this year and reaching a final rate of $11.25 in 2022. Another bill that would have increased the minimum wage to $10 this year, $13 next year, and $15 by 2021 made it through committee but was defeated in the senate by a vote of 21-19.
Although none of the efforts to increase the state minimum wage was successful this year, it’s likely that similar efforts will be undertaken when the General Assembly convenes for its 2020 session.
Wage history. A senate bill that would have prevented employers from requiring as a condition of employment that prospective employees provide or disclose their wage or salary history was defeated in committee. The proposal also would’ve prohibited employers from attempting to obtain prospective employees’ wage or salary history from current or former employers.
Nonpayment of wages. House bills designed to allow employees to file individual claims against employers that fail to pay wages didn’t make it out of committee. Other bills that died in committee included a bill to authorize the commissioner of labor and industry to investigate and proceed against employers suspected of nonpayment of wages and one that would have prohibited employers from retaliating against employees who complain about the failure to pay wages.
The General Assembly made no significant changes to Virginia’s employment laws in 2019, especially for private-sector employers. However, the bills that were introduced but didn’t make it into law show that change is in the air for the minimum wage, restrictive covenants, and policies to assist working mothers. Keep an eye out for our coverage of the 2020 General Assembly to see how legislative proposals in those and other emerging areas of the law will fare with senators and delegates next year.
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