Thursday, May 18, 2017

SDNY judge allows sexual orientation discrimination case to proceed

The law is evolving quickly on the question whether Title VII makes it illegal to discriminate against employees based on their sexual orientation. While Second Circuit precedent continues to hold that Title VII does not prohibit this kind of discrimination, two en banc petitions are pending that would change that. In the meantime, a Southern District judge has refused to dismiss a sexual orientation discrimination case under Title VII.

The case is Philpott v. State of New York, 16 Civ. 6778, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67591 (S.D.N.Y. May 3, 2017), decided by Judge Hellerstein. In 2000, the Second Circuit held in Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33 (2d Cir. 2000), that sexual orientation discrimination is not sex discrimination, noting that Title VII says nothing about sexual orientation. Therefore, under Simonton, gay and lesbian employees had no recourse under Title VII. Since that time, the Supreme Court has recognized the right to same-sex marriage, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has (only recently) jettisoned its own Simonton-style precedent in ruling en banc that Title VII does in fact prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. See Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmty. Coll. of Indiana, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017). Hively arose in part because in 2015 the EEOC determined for the first time that Title VII makes this kind of discrimination illegal. 

Earlier this year, the Second Circuit resolved two cases that allege sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII. In Christianson v. Omnicom, 852 F.3d 195 (2d Cir. 2017), the Court of Appeals said it was bound by Simonton and rejected the plaintiff's claim that he was fired because of his sexual orientation (although it did sustain the plaintiff's claim for sex stereotyping under the Supreme Court's Price Waterhouse decision, holding that Title VII makes it illegal to stereotype people based on gender). Two judges concurred in Christianson, stating that it was time for the Second Circuit to take a hard look at Simonton en banc. Shortly thereafter, in Zarda v. Altitude Express, ___ F.3d ___,
2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6578 (2d Cir. April 18, 2017), the Court of Appeals again declined to overturn Simonton. (I am co-counsel to the plaintiff in Zarda, along with lead counsel Gregory Antollino, Esq.). En banc petitions have been filed in both Christianson and Zarda, so the Court of Appeals now has an opportunity to change course and follow the Seventh Circuit in holding that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.

Judge Hellerstein notes this recent Title VII activity in this sexual orientation discrimination case. In declining to dismiss the plaintiff's sexual orientation discrimination claim, Judge Hellerstein writes that "The law with respect to this legal question is clearly in a state of flux, and the Second Circuit, or perhaps the Supreme Court, may return to this question soon. In light of the evolving state of the law, dismissal of plaintiff's Title VII claim is improper." This means that, for now, Judge Hellerstein is bucking Second Circuit authority. He writes:

In Christiansen, Chief Judge Katzmann wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Judge Margo Brodie (who was sitting on the Second Circuit by designation). See Christiansen, 852 F.3d at 201 (Katzmann, C.J., concurring). Judge Katzmann's majority concurrence persuasively outlines why sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and should therefore be cognizable under Title VII. See id. 201-06. Judge Katzmann articulated three distinct justifications for this conclusion, but his central point was that "sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination for the simple reason that such discrimination treats otherwise similarly-situated people differently solely because of their sex." This is because "sexual orientation cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex." Id. at 202.

Judge Katzmann also explained that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination  because "such discrimination is inherently rooted in gender stereotypes." Id. at 205. In fact, the Second Circuit had previously suggested as much in Dawson [v. Bumble & Bumble, 2d Circuit 2005], when it observed that "[s]tereotypical notions about how men and women should behave will often necessarily blur into ideas about heterosexuality and homosexuality." ... In light of this prior observation, Judge Katzmann reasoned that "it is logically untenable for us to insist that this particular gender stereotype" — stereotyping on the basis of sexual orientation — "is outside of the gender stereotype discrimination prohibition articulated in Price Waterhouse." Id. at 205. Judge Katzmann concluded his concurrence by stating that "in the context of an appropriate case our Court should consider reexamining the holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not cognizable under Title VII." Id. at 207. Revisiting this question was warranted "especially in light of the changing legal landscape that has taken shape in the nearly two decades since Simonton issued." Id. at 202.

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