Many state anti-discrimination laws, such as those in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, specifically prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation. To the surprise of many employers, this explicit prohibition is absent under federal law. However, recent activity in the federal courts may be changing that.
For a number of years now, the EEOC has taken the position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination because it is discrimination based on “sex.” The EEOC even has a webpage summarizing the published decisions where it has taken this position in enforcement actions, including its decision in Baldwin v. Department of Transportation (July 15, 2015) where it concluded that an allegation of sexual orientation discrimination necessarily states a claim for discrimination on the basis of sex. The EEOC’s position has generally been at odds with decisions from federal courts, including the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which held in Higgins v. New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. (1st Cir. 1999) that sexual orientation is not a protected class under Title VII.
Now, it appears that the EEOC’s position may be gaining traction in the federal courts. For example, in October 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals announced that its entire panel of judges would rehear arguments in a case decided earlier in the summer, in which a three-member panel held that sexual orientation was not a protected class under Title VII. Oral argument in that case, Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, was held in November 2016. More recently, in January 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, Inc., where questions from the Court suggested that it might be willing to reconsider whether Title VII’s prohibitions encompassed discrimination based on sexual orientation. These two appellate court developments followed activity at the district court level, where courts in Pennsylvania (EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C. (November 2016)) and Nevada (Roberts v. Clark County School District (October 2016)) extended Title VII’s protection to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Obviously, the outcome of these cases remains to be seen, and it is unclear how the new Trump administration will affect the EEOC’s activities. Employers will therefore want to stay tuned in 2017 for new developments in this area of discrimination law.