Articles Posted in Discrimination – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

“Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear.”

“An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”

In today’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court made clear that the anti-discrimination protections of Title VII apply to LGBTQ+ persons across the country.

As employers across the country reckon with the impacts of the #MeToo movement, the California legislature and Governor Newsom took decisive action to extend the statute of limitations on certain workplace claims, acknowledging that those who have been targeted by discrimination, harassment, and retaliation do not always come forward immediately.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against California employees on a variety of bases. The FEHA provides some of the best employment protections in the country, and has been expanded several times over the years to afford additional protections in the workplace. However, one of the greatest hurdles to employees is the statute of limitations. In California, an employee has one year from the date of the unlawful practice to file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”). Failure to file a charge within the limitations period waives an employee’s rights to any claims she has under the FEHA. Further complicating matters is that the intake process at the DFEH has several steps and it has been unclear to employees as to when their charge was actually filed, and thus, whether they filed within the one-year period.

On Thursday, Governor Newsom signed AB 9 which extends the one year period to three years starting on January 1, 2020. The bill also specifies filing a complaint means filing an intake form with the DFEH and the operative date of the verified complaint relates back to the filing of the intake form- clarifying what has been a confusing issue for employees over the years. This new statute triples the time an employee has to file their charge, which is particularly valuable for those employees who feel they cannot come forward soon after the adverse employment action.

Wage disparities between men and women continue to be a significant problem even today. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that female full-time wage and salary workers only made 88% of what their male counterparts made. (  So, for every $100 a man earns, his female counterpart only earns $88. Recently, two tech giants have been in the news because female employees filed lawsuits for gender-pay discrimination.

 In recent years there have been several legislative changes strengthening the equal pay law in California. The California Equal Pay Act prohibits an employer for paying a male employee more than a female employee “for substantially similar work.” Cal. Labor Code § 1197.5. The California Equal Pay Act applies to all California employers, regardless of the size of the employer.  The California Equal Pay Act also prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against an employee for invoking rights provided by the law or helping another person invoke her rights under the law.

 On January 1, 2017, the Fair Pay Act was expanded to address compensation disparities between members of one race or ethnicity and those of another race or ethnicity. For example, women of color are often paid less than white women, and the changes to the law allow women of color to make a claim where this occurs. See Cal. Labor Code § 1197.5(b)

Recently the U.S. Justice Department submitted a brief in Zarda v. Altitude Express arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not protect workers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Donald Zarda was a skydiving instructor who sued his employer for discriminating against him based on his sexual orientation in violation of Title VII.  Title VII, a federal law that prohibits discrimination, specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on “sex.” The U.S. Justice Department’s position is that discrimination based on “sex” does not include discrimination based on sexual orientation. This position is a departure from the position of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which has argued for years that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination.

Courts have differed on whether Title VII protects workers on the basis or their sexual orientation or not. This has led to a split of authority in several federal districts. For example, in 2000, the Seventh Circuit decided that Title VII did not protect workers on the basis of their sexual orientation, but earlier this year, the Seventh Circuit sitting en banc came to the opposite conclusion: that Title VII does in fact protect workers based on their sexual orientation. Compare Hamner v. St. Vincent Hospital & Health Center, Inc. (7th Cir. 2000) 224 F.3d 701 and Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana (April 4, 2017, en banc.)

While federal courts continue to argue the meaning of “sex” under Title VII, California employees can rest assured that they are protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) explicitly prohibits discrimination against any person because of his or her sexual orientation. This means that employees in California are protected from discrimination based on their actual and/or perceived sexual orientation. Cal. Gov. Code §§ 12926(o), (s); 12940(a)-(d). Like Title VII, FEHA also prohibits discrimination based on “sex” but FEHA expressly defines “sex” to include “gender” which is defined as a person’s “gender identity” and “gender expression.” Cal. Gov. Code § 12926(r)(2).

Seldom do employee-side lawyers cheer a ruling for the employer, but the Ninth Circuit decision holding that homophobic behavior in the workplace is not justified by an employee’s right to religious freedom was correctly decided and is good for employees.

In Flanagan v. City of Richmond (Ninth Circuit June 19, 2017) No. 15-17258, Ms. Flanagan claimed she was fired for her religious disapproval of homosexuality.  The record reflected that she manifested this intolerance by, for example, forbidding a lesbian intern from entering the workplace, leaving her stranded in the waiting room and declaring that she wouldn’t be going to heaven.

The court observed that although Flanagan’s religious speech may have touched on a matter of public concern her free speech, when balanced against the “… interest in maintaining a discrimination – and harassment – free environment” must fail.

On June 24, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued two rulings that were met with a roar of approval from equal rights advocates from coast to coast. Just days before the annual LGBT pride celebrations got underway nationwide, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), and issued another decision which resulted in same-sex marriages resuming in the state of California.

Although the most obvious effect of Hollingsworth v. Perry is that same-sex couples once again have the right to get married in California, many same-sex couples are now wondering how their rights, if they choose to get married, will be impacted with respect to their employment. One of the many benefits same-sex spouses are now entitled to is family leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

In U.S. v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of DOMA that defined the term “spouse” as only a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife, and defined “marriage” as a legal union between a man and a woman. There are over 1,000 federal statutes that use the term “spouse,” and among them is the FMLA which provides up to twelve weeks per year of job-protected unpaid leave for covered employees. Prior to the U.S. v. Windsor decision, same-sex spouses could not take FMLA leave to care for each other because they were excluded from coverage by the opposite-sex definition of spouse in DOMA. Now, however, same-sex spouses are entitled to coverage under the FMLA and may take leave to care for their spouse with a serious health condition. Unfortunately, however, this decision does not have an impact on couples in recognized domestic partnerships or civil unions which means, same-sex couples who are not married are still without FMLA rights.

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