By Deborah Hopkins, June 15, 2020

This morning, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Altitude Express, Inc. v. ZardaBostock v. Clayton County, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, 590 U.S. ______ (Jun. 15, 2020). The 6-3 decision was written by Justice Gorsuch. He was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

The question before the Court was whether an individual’s sexual orientation or transgender status was covered under Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination. The Court ruled that “The answer is clear. An 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.” (p. 2).

AT FELTG, we’ve reviewed the decision and will be re-reading it to be sure we glean all the relevant information. After the initial read, we’ve pulled out couple of interesting points the Supreme Court discussed:

  • If sex was one but-for cause for discrimination – not the motivating factor or the only cause – then Title VII applies. (p. 6)
  • Employers who seek to avoid liability because they discriminate against men and women who are LGBTQ do not avoid liability – they double their exposure to liability because the language of Title VII talks about discrimination against individuals. (p. 9)

A few takeaways directly from the language of the case include:

  • [A]n employer who intentionally treats a person worse because of sex— such as by firing the person for actions or attributes it would tolerate in an individual of another sex—discrimi­nates against that person in violation of Title VII. (p. 7)
  • 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. It doesn’t matter if other factors besides the plaintiff ’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the em­ployer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to dis­charge the employee — put differently, if changing the em­ployee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the em­ployer — a statutory violation has occurred. (p.9)
  • The statute’s message for our cases is equally simple and momentous: 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. (p. 9)
  • [H]omosexuality and transgender status are inex­tricably bound up with sex. Not because homosexuality or transgender status are related to sex in some vague sense or because discrimination on these bases has some dispar­ate impact on one sex or another, but because to discrimi­nate on these grounds requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex. (p. 10)
  • When an employer fires an employee because she is homo­sexual or transgender, two causal factors may be in play— both the individual’s sex and something else (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. (p. 11)
  • We agree that homosex­uality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex. But, as we’ve seen, discrimination based on homosex­uality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimina­tion based on sex; the first cannot happen without the sec­ond. (p. 19)
  • In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language mak­ing it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for be­ing gay or transgender defies the law. (p.33)

We’ll be going over this case in much more detail in future training events including an upcoming EEO Refresher webinar entitled The Latest on Sexual Orientation and Gender Discrimination in the Federal Workplace on July 9, and a virtual training session as part of FELTG’s special event Federal Workplace 2020: Accountability, Challenges, and Trends on July 29.

In the meantime, read the full decision yourself here. Hopkins@FELTG.com

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