“It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”
Resolving a case that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, along with two others, and resulted in a holding that “[a]n employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids,” the EEOC has announced that R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., will pay $250,000 to settle the EEOC’s sex discrimination lawsuit, the agency announced December 1, 2020.
Each of the three cases before the High Court—Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia ; Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., and this one, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC —involved the termination of a long-time employee; two were fired shortly after revealing they were gay, and in the instant case, an employee who initially presented as a male, was fired after telling her employer she planned to “live and work full-time as a woman.”
According to the EEOC’s 2014 lawsuit, Harris discharged the late Aimee Stephens as funeral director because she announced she was transitioning from male to female. The EEOC further alleged that Harris provided male front-facing employees suits but provided no clothing assistance to female employees until October 2014, when it began providing them a clothing stipend. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
At the Supreme Court. When the case reached the Supreme Court as one of three consolidated cases involving employees allegedly fired for being either gay or transgender, Justice Gorsuch, who was joined by Justices Roberts, Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, noted that while those who adopted the Civil Rights Act “might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result,” that is no reason to ignore the law’s demands (Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, June 15, 2020, Gorsuch, N.).
The Court explained that “From the ordinary public meaning of the statute’s language at the time of the law’s adoption, a straightforward rule emerges: An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex.” Moreover, an “individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”
When an employer fires a gay or transgender employee, the Court observed, two causal factors may be in play—both the individual’s sex and the sex to which the individual is attracted or with which the individual identifies. “But Title VII doesn’t care. If an employer would not have discharged an employee but for that individual’s sex, the statute’s causation standard is met, and liability may attach.” These cases, said the Court, involve simply the straightforward application of legal terms with plain and settled meanings.
EEOC resolution. The litigation between the EEOC and Harris is concluded by the consent decree, pursuant to which Harris will pay $130,000 in back pay and compensatory damages to Stephens’s estate and $120,000 in attorney fees to Stephens’s attorneys. The company will pay a total of $3,705 in clothing benefits for the period of September 2012 to the present, to be divided among approximately 17 female front-facing employees. Harris will also provide anti-discrimination training, revise its anti-discrimination policy, and implement new procedures for handling discrimination complaints.
“The law is now clear that discrimination against an employee because of his or her transgender status is sex discrimination,” said EEOC Trial Attorney Dale Price. “Employers also cannot discriminate on the basis of sex with regard to providing employees with clothing benefits.”
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