Federal Court In Pennsylvania Holds That Title VII Prohibits Discrimination On The Basis Of Sexual Orientation
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex. Since Title VII was enacted, courts have held virtually without exception that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These courts have almost uniformly reasoned that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex does not include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In a recent case filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, 2016 WL 6569233 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2016), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) challenged long standing law holding that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title VII.
In that case, the EEOC brought suit on behalf of Dale Baxley (Baxley), a gay male employee, who worked as a telemarketer at Scott Medical Health Center (Scott Medical). The EEOC claimed that Baxley was subjected to hostile work environment perpetuated by Scott Medical’s telemarketing manager. The telemarketing manager’s abusive behavior included unwelcome and offensive comments about Baxley, including regularly calling him “fag,” “faggot,” and “queer.” The telemarketing manager’s harassing conduct also included derogatory comments about Baxley’s sex life. The harassment was so extreme and pervasive that Baxley quit.
Scott Medical moved to dismiss the case on grounds that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In support of its motion to dismiss the case, Scott Medical relied on a case, Bibby v. Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 260 F.2d 257 (3d Cir. 2001), from the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals which has jurisdiction over U.S. district courts in Pennsylvania. The Third Circuit held in Bibby that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In response, the EEOC argued that but for Baxley’s sex he would not have been subjected to the discriminatory harassment. In other words, the EEOC contended that discrimination on the basis of sex inherently includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In denying Scott Medical’s motion to dismiss the case, the court found that there is “no meaningful difference between sexual orientation discrimination and discrimination because of sex.” In reaching its conclusion, the Court explained that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently applied a broad interpretation of the because of sex language in Title VII and has previously held that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex stereotypes. “There is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping,” the court reasoned, “than making a determination that a person should conform to heterosexuality.” “That someone can be subjected to a barrage of insults, humiliation, and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment, based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or women,” the court emphasized, “is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate.” The court also observed that significant intervening legal developments have eviscerated the holding in Bibby that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The court pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 U.S. 2584 (2015) legalizing gay marriage as evidence of a growing recognition of the illegality of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Thus, the court held that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subset of sexual stereotyping and thus covered by Title VII’s prohibitions on discrimination because of sex.
It is important to recognize that the decision in Scott Medical is not binding on federal or state courts in Florida. Federal courts in Florida are only bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Florida state courts are only bound by the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court, and Florida District Courts of Appeal. Because the decision in Scott Medical is not binding in Florida, federal and state courts in Florida are not required to follow it. Rather, the decision in Scott Medical simply constitutes persuasive authority that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, Scott Medical reflects that a transformation of the law is occurring and other courts may also be willing to hold that Title VII forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.