The Second Circuit has once again declined to rule that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, ruling that it cannot overrule a Second Circuit ruling from 2000 that said "sex discrimination" does not extend to gays and lesbians.
The case is Zarda v. Altitude Express, decided on April 18. I helped write the brief with lead counsel, Gregory Antollino, who argued the appeal. Zarda was a skydiver who was fired after a customer complained that he told her about his sexual orientation. A straight skydiver was not terminated after telling a customer about his own sexual orientation. The case went to trial in federal on a state-law discrimination claim after the district court ruled that plaintiff could not seek any relief under Title VII. The jury returned a defense verdict and plaintiff appealed the trial court's Title VII ruling, arguing that the EEOC's recent directive that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination renders the Second Circuit's decision in Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33 (2d Cir. 2000), obsolete.
A few weeks ago, the Second Circuit took up this issue, holding in Christianson v. Omnicom that one Second Circuit panel cannot overrule the decision of a prior panel. Two judges in Christianson issued a concurrence stating the time may be right to bring the Court of Appeals into the modern age and recognize that sexual orientation is in fact sex discrimination. Citing Christianson, the Zarda Court says it cannot overturn Simonton. The Second Circuit is essentially inviting Zarda to seek en banc review on this issue. Astute Title VII aficionados know that the Seventh Circuit recently overruled a prior decision in ruling en banc that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. Will the Second Circuit do the same?
An interesting side note. The plaintiff in Zarda lost his sexual orientation claim at trial under state law. Defendant argued that Zarda cannot win his Title VII appeal because the jury has already said there was no discrimination. Zarda got around this by pointing out that the jury charge on the state law claim asked whether Zarda could prove "but for" causation. That is not the standard under Title VII, which asks whether the plaintiff's protected characteristic -- gender, race, etc. -- was a motivating factor in his termination. "Motivating factor" is a more plaintiff-friendly standard than "but-for" causation, so Zarda's Title VII challenge is not mooted by the adverse state-law verdict in federal court.