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U.S. Supreme Court ruling protects LGBT persons from employment discrimination

By Lauren Smith and David Canupp

In a long-awaited opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision today, June 15, 2020, that held an employer who fires a person solely for being gay or transgendered violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VII is the federal law that outlaws employment discrimination on the basis of sex.

In reaching its decision, the court reviewed three cases that asserted a violation of Title VII because of sex.

1. Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, decided by the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (Alabama is in this circuit.) The Eleventh Circuit dismissed the employee’s claim as a matter of law because of circuit precedent holding that Title VII does not protect against sexual-orientation discrimination.

2. Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, decided by the Second Circuit, which found that Title VII does protect LGBT persons against employment discrimination. In reaching this decision, the court overruled circuit precedent that held that Title VII doesn't protect against sexual-orientation discrimination.

3. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), decided by the Sixth Circuit, which held that Title VII does protect transgender employee against discrimination.

Since the Eleventh Circuit in the Bostock case reached a different conclusion than the Second and Sixth Circuits in the Altitude Express and Harris cases, it created a circuit split. A circuit split makes it difficult for lower courts to know how to apply federal law, creating confusion from inconsistent rulings. The Supreme Court stepped in to conclusively establish the law as it will apply to all federal courts. In doing so, the court looked to each situation presented in the three different cases.

In Bostock, the employer (Clayton County) fired a gay employee for “unbecoming” conduct when it found out that the employee had joined a gay softball league.

In Zarda, the employer fired a gay employee within days after he mentioned that he was gay.

In Harris Funeral Homes, the employer fired a transgender employee (presenting as male when hired) when she told her employer that she would begin living and working full-time as a woman. (The EEOC filed lawsuit on behalf of the employee.)

The Supreme Court vote was 6 to 3, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch (who wrote the court's opinion) siding with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh dissented.

This is a major change in employment law for more than half of U.S. states, including Alabama. These states had no state-specific laws in place to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status. And before this decision, many federal courts in these states held that federal law didn’t protect them against discrimination. This fact was true despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015).

Bottom line: Alabama employers cannot refuse to hire people solely for being LGBT. Likewise, Alabama employers cannot terminate, demote, or otherwisew take an adverse employment against employees for being LGBT. Sexual orientation and transgender status are now formally protected characteristics under Title VII.

More about the Bostock and Zarda cases.

More about the Harris Funeral Homes case.

This blog post contains more information about the legal history of LBGT employment rights.

Download a copy of the Supreme Court’s opinion.

Items on this web page are general in nature. They cannot—and should not—replace consultation with a competent legal professional. Nothing on this web page should be considered rendering legal advice.

© 2020

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Thursday, 02 July 2020

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