Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of race, color, religion, or national origin. The Act doesn’t, however, specifically protect employers from discrimination based upon sexual orientation. That didn’t stop the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from filing its’ first two sexual orientation claims earlier this year. Fortunately for the employee, a settlement was just reached in one of those cases.
Yolanda Boone filed suit on the basis that she was terminated from a Baltimore pallet company after complaining of being harassed because of her sexual orientation. Even though sexual orientation isn’t a protected class under Title VII, Boone had some pretty damning arguments against her former company. You can read more about Boone’s story here, but she claimed once she complained to upper management, she was asked to resign and when she would not, she was terminated.
The EEOC took hold of Boone’s case and filed suit against her employer. The Baltimore company settled and with no small price either. The company will be required to develop an employee-training program for LGBT workplace issues, make a $20,000 donation to the Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality Program, and compensate Boone a total of $182,220. There’s not much doubt that this will create a domino effect with the same result in the other pending matter.
Boone’s Settlement was Warranted Because EEOC Considers Sexual Orientation Discrimination Definitively Sex Discrimination
The EEOC is the governmental entity responsible for enforcing compliance with the Civil Rights Act and they’ve been taking great strides to honor the rights of the LGBT community. Often times, the EEOC will settle cases without filing a lawsuit.
In these recent cases though, I imagine the EEOC wanted to take a definitive stance on the matter in order to protect LGBT rights as they slowly gain traction, especially in light of all the recent law changes throughout different states that are negatively impacting the LGBT community.
Without an abundance of precedent to stand on, the EEOC took their first official stance on the matter last year when they definitively ruled that discrimination based upon sexual orientation can be classified under discrimination based on sex, which is strictly prohibited.
Courts will soon follow the EEOC’s footsteps. When looking to form a new protected class, courts will look to the history of discrimination, the economic disadvantages to the class, and immutable characteristics.
The LGBT community is discriminated against on a daily basis; just consider all the recent media attention from different states passing laws that allow businesses to refuse service to a patron because of their sexual preference. Economic disadvantages aren’t a hard argument to make either, for the same reasons. Immutable characteristics? No problem—there’s plenty of evidence and studies that convey one’s sexual preference is not a choice.
Supreme Court Decisions Lean Towards Favoring EEOC Interpretation
Although it’s up to the courts (or an unlikely law change) to interpret Title VII in the same manner as the EEOC, in the past federal courts have typically given great deference to EEOC decisions. The courts aren’t far behind a similar mindset either when you consider past decisions like Griswold v. Connecticut, Lawrence v. Texas and, most notably, recent decisions like Obergefell v. Hodges.
Griswold established that intimate choices defining one’s personal identity are a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment, while Lawrence struck down a law that tried to prohibit intimate sexual contact between members of the same sex.
Although the latter didn’t deal specifically with workplace discrimination based upon sexual preference, the Justices stressed that a personal relationship is within a person’s own liberty to choose and, again, reiterated that core principle in Obergefell. I can’t imagine the Justices on today’s bench would find workplace discrimination based upon sexual preference acceptable.
Despite the fact that Boone’s case settled, it’s not a step back. The EEOC’s primary mission is to enforce federal laws and make sure individual rights are protected. It’s more about awareness and making sure companies comply with EEOC policies moving forward.
With the settlement of the lawsuit, the Baltimore company is forced to change their policies and will undoubtedly do more in the future to make sure their employees are protected. Again, it’s a domino effect and once the EEOC rules start gaining traction, other companies will take note and start complying.