For the first time, a federal appeals court has determined discrimination based on sexual orientation amounts to sex discrimination and is unlawful under current civil rights law.
In a 69-page decision, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled Tuesday in the case of Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College anti-gay workplace bias is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reversing an earlier decision from a three-judge panel finding precedent precludes the court from making that determination.
Writing for the majority in the 8-3 decision, U.S. Chief Judge Diane Wood, a Clinton appointee, finds discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes discrimination based on one’s perception of gender stereotypes, which the U.S. Supreme Court has determined is unlawful under Title VII.
“Any discomfort, disapproval, or job decision based on the fact that the complainant—woman or man— dresses differently, speaks differently, or dates or marries a same-sex partner, is a reaction purely and simply based on sex,” Wood writes. “That means that it falls within Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination, if it affects employment in one of the specified ways.”
Wood also relies heavily on the reasoning in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down bans on interracial marriage and served as a basis for the court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality in 2015.
“Changing the race of one partner made a difference in determining the legality of the conduct, and so the law rested on distinctions drawn according to race, which were unjustifiable and racially discriminatory,” Wood writes. “So too, here. If we were to change the sex of one partner in a lesbian relationship, the outcome would be different. This reveals that the discrimination rests on distinctions drawn according to sex.”
Wood cautions the ruling “decided only the issue put before us” and not, for example, whether Ivy Tech is a religious institution and therefore entitled to the religious exemption under Title VII, nor the legality of anti-gay discrimination “in the context of the provision of social or public services.”
“We hold only that a person who alleges that she experienced employment dis- crimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes,” Wood concludes. “It was therefore wrong to dismiss Hively’s complaint for failure to state a claim.”
In a new trend, a number of district courts have begun to rule anti-gay discrimination violates federal laws against sex discrimination, but federal appeals courts — including the 11th Circuit and the 2nd Circuit — had continued to reject that interpretation of Title VII until now. The 7th Circuit ruling marks the first time a federal court has reached that conclusion after decades of gay, lesbian and bisexual plaintiffs filing complaints before federal courts under that law.
The ruling reverses and remands the lower court ruling in the case, which was filed in 2014 by Kimberly Hively against her former employer, the Indiana-based Ivy Tech Community College, where she worked as a part-time professor. The lawsuit alleged the school violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by denying Hively full-time employment and promotions because she’s a lesbian.
Echoing Wood in a concurring decision is U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who was responsible for the 7th Circuit’s decision in favor of marriage equality in 2015 and opined in this case changing attitudes toward sex and gender call for a new interpretation of Title VII.
“The position of a woman discriminated against on account of being a lesbian is thus analogous to a woman’s being discriminated against on account of being a woman,” Posner writes. “That woman didn’t choose to be a woman; the lesbian didn’t choose to be a lesbian. I don’t see why firing a lesbian because she is in the subset of women who are lesbian should be thought any less a form of sex discrimination than firing a woman because she’s a woman.”
But Posner cautioned against basing the decision on Supreme Court precedent prohibiting gender stereotyping in Oncale, which he wrote is “rather evasive,” or Loving, which he said was a constitutional case based on race and “had nothing to do with the recently enacted Title VII.”
Despite criticism of the judiciary for allegedly interpreting the law in ways inconsistent with the intentions of Congress, Posner writes that’s not a problem because he says courts do it “fairly frequently to avoid statutory obsolescence and concomitantly to avoid placing the entire burden of updating old statutes on the legislative branch.”
Also writing a concurring opinion was U.S. Circuit Judge Joel Flaum, a Reagan-appointed judge who writes that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII without any need to reinterpret the law.
“So if discriminating against an employee because she is homosexual is equivalent to discriminating against her because she is (A) a woman who is (B) sexually attracted to women, then it is motivated, in part, by an enumerated trait: The employee’s sex,” Flaum writes. “That is all an employee must show to successfully allege a Title VII claim.”
Writing the dissent in the case was U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Sykes, a George W. Bush-appointed judge who writes the majority “deploys a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.”
“Respect for the constraints imposed on the judiciary by a system of written law must begin with fidelity to the traditional first principle of statutory interpretation: When a statute supplies the rule of decision, our role is to give effect to the enacted text, interpreting the statutory language as a reasonable person would have understood it at the time of enactment,” Sykes writes. “We are not authorized to infuse the text with a new or unconventional meaning or to update it to respond to changed social, economic, or political conditions.”
Sykes was on the list of judges from which President Trump said during his campaign he’d make appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and reportedly was one of the three picks on the short list for the late U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat before Trump nominated U.S. Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch.
The decision was a source of joy for LGBT rights supporters, who for decades have made a priority of protecting LGBT workers from discrimination.
Greg Nevins, employment fairness program director for Lambda Legal and attorney for the plaintiff, said in a statement the decision is a “gamechanger” for gay people facing workplace discrimination and “sends a clear message to employers: It is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”
“In many cities and states across the country, lesbian and gay workers are being fired because of who they love,” Nevins said. “But, with this decision, federal law is catching up to public opinion: ninety-percent of Americans already believe that LGBT employees should be valued for how well they do their jobs—not who they love or who they are. Now, through this case and others, that principle is backed up by the courts.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. agency charged with enforcing federal employment civil rights law, determined in its 2015 decision in the case of Baldwin v. Foxx that discrimination against workers for being gay, lesbian or bisexual violates Title VII.
Chad Feldblum, a lesbian and commissioner of the EEOC, said in reaction to the Hively ruling she hopes the decision will serve as model for outside the 7th Circuit in sexual-orientation discrimination cases.
“I am gratified to see that the Seventh Circuit has adopted the simple logic that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and I hope its reasoning can serve as a model for other courts,” Feldblum said.
The 7th Circuit is composed of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Wisconsin and Illinois already had state laws against sexual-orientation discrimination in employment, but the ruling assures for the first-time gay, lesbian and bisexual workers have recourse if they face discrimination in Indiana.
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the decision “opens the door to a new era for LGBTQ plaintiffs under federal sex discrimination law.”
“With this historic decision, the 7th Circuit is the first federal appellate court to acknowledge that discrimination because a person is gay, lesbian or bisexual can only reasonably be understood as discrimination based on sex,” Minter said. “The court deserves credit for rejecting the tortured rationales of older decisions and undertaking a principled analysis, based on the Supreme Court’s affirmation in Price Waterhouse and other cases, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must be broadly construed to prohibit the full range of sex-based discrimination.”
Although Ivy Tech Community College could file a petition for certiorari to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the 7th Circuit decision, the school has indicated it won’t pursue that route.
“Ivy Tech Community College rejects discrimination of all types, sexual-orientation discrimination is specifically barred by our policies,” said Jeff Fanter, an Ivy Tech spokesperson. “Ivy Tech respects and appreciates the opinions rendered by the judges of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and does not intend to seek Supreme Court review. The college denies that it discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of her sex or sexual orientation and will defend the plaintiff’s claims on the merits in the trial court.”
With the 7th Circuit decision, workplace protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual people are catching up to those of transgender people. For years, federal appeals courts have determined discrimination against workers for being transgender amounts to sex discrimination under Title VII, but haven’t done so for sexual orientation discrimination. In 2012, the U.S. EEOC affirmed anti-trans discrimination is unlawful under Title VII in the case of Macy v. Holder.