Showing posts with label LGBT. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LGBT. Show all posts

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Employment Non-Discrimination Act Nears Senate Vote and Related "Lagniappe"


In a  posting last month, I noted on the improved prospects for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”), which would extend Title VII protection against employment discrimination to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender employees (“LGBT”). The law would make sexual orientation/sexual identity a protected class in the same manner race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability are protected under existing federal laws, and make it illegal for organizations with 15 or more employees to:

"[F]ail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."

On Monday, October 28, 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would bring the legislation to a Senate vote within the coming weeks. The legislation has picked up support from two Republicans in the majority Democrat chamber. Passage in the Senate would be a symbolic first for the legislation, which has been unsuccessfully introduced in one form or another for decades. However, it is unlikely that bill will get much traction in the House of Representatives.

This is an issue where the private sector has quietly taken action without the help or hindrance of lawmakers in Washington. A significant majority of Fortune 500 companies have voluntarily put in place policies prohibiting discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity. Some states also have  passed similar legislation into law.
 
However, specific provisions of ENDA do raise concern among employers, on such issues as employer dress codes. The language of ENDA does not prohibit “reasonable dress or grooming standards” but would require employers to permit:

"[A]ny employee who has undergone gender transition prior to the time of employment, and any employee who has notified the employer that the employee has undergone or is undergoing gender transition after the time of employment, to adhere to the same dress or grooming standards as apply for the gender to which the employee has transitioned or is transitioning."

Employers also have expressed worries about ENDA interpretations that would require employers to allow access to restrooms or dressing/locker rooms to employees who are biologically one gender, but identify with another gender. With the potential for sexual harassment liability or privacy issues, some business owners believe, for example, that ENDA would force them to ignore the legitimate concerns of female employees about having to share a restroom of dressing room with a male employee who self-identifies as a woman.

Regardless of how ENDA fares in Congress, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is already trying to pursue some of the same goals of ENDA, within the existing structure of Title VII. As I’ve previously discussed, late last year, the EEOC released its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for 2013 – 2016. Among the agency’s targeted goals was to provide LGBT coverage under Title VII sex discrimination, even though such protection is not contained within the actual statute. The SEP also addressed the agency’s intent to curtail employer’s use of criminal background checks when making employment decisions.

In a somewhat related story, on September 27, 2013, in an en banc ruling, a ten-judge majority of a bitterly divided sixteen-judge Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the EEOC could establish a same-sex harassment claim with evidence of gender stereotyping in the form of sexually charged taunting directed at a male employee by his male supervisor. EEOC v. Boh Bros. Constr. Co., (5th Cir. Sept. 27, 2013).

In 2007, the employee filed a charge with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment stemming from the conduct of his male supervisor, who oversaw an all-male workforce on an ironworker construction site. The supervisor purportedly was lewd and vulgar to the employee on a daily basis, including instances of exposing his genitals to the employee while urinating, simulating anal intercourse whenever the employee bent over, and using homophobic slurs to refer to the employee. Upon completion of the administrative process, the EEOC brought an enforcement action on the employee’s behalf and, following a three-day jury trial, obtained a $300,000 verdict in favor of the employee.

The employer appealed the verdict. Initially, a Fifth Circuit panel tossed out the trial verdict for the employee, finding that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the supervisor had discriminated against the employee because of his gender. The EEOC subsequently sought and obtained an en banc review. Upon review, the en banc majority disagreed with the panel’s decision to overturn the jury verdict.

Although same-sex harassment has been judicially recognized for over a decade, this decision links the concept of unlawful gender stereotyping directly to same-sex harassment and reminds employers that same-sex taunting can be actionable. Moreover, the court noted that there was no evidence that either the employee or supervisor were homosexual, nor was evidence presented that the conduct at issue was motivated by sexual desire. The court’s opinion cautions that notions of sexual harassment based solely on sexual desire or exclusively between members of the opposite sex are misplaced and can increase risks for employers who are not aware that the prohibitions can be broader.

Employers should review their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in light of this opinion, and stay tuned for further developments in this area.

* Lagniappe: An extra or unexpected gift or benefit, i.e. “a little something extra”. (Chiefly Southern Louisiana & Mississippi).

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijman@phelps.com