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Title VII bars sexual orientation bias, federal judge rules

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A federal court has held that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes as an historic ruling.

The ruling by Judge Cathy Bissoon of the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh came Nov. 4 when she refused to dismiss a sexual orientation discrimination case filed by the EEOC in U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Health Center P.C.  The ruling was announced by the EEOC on Monday.

The EEOC charged in the lawsuit filed in March against the Pittsburgh-based medical center that a telemarketing manager had harassed an employee, Dale Baxley, because he is gay.

In refusing to dismiss the case on the basis Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, Judge Bissoon cited among other rulings the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Hopkins vs. Price Waterhouse, in which the court ruled Title VII protected against sexual stereotyping, in a case where a woman did not display feminine characteristics.

She also cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., which said same-sex harassment is actionable under Title VII.

Judge Bissoon referred to the Supreme Court’s 2015 recent ruling legalizing gay marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, as well.

“The Supreme Court’s recent opinion legalizing gay marriage demonstrates a growing recognition of the illegality of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Judge Bissoon’s ruling.

“That someone can be subjected to a barrage of insults, humiliation, hostility and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or a woman, is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate,” the ruling continued.

“Because this Court concludes that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subject of sexual stereotyping, and thus covered by Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of sex,’ defendant’s motion to dismiss on the ground that the EEOC’s complaint fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted will be denied.”

The EEOC states in its announcement on the ruling that while the court made a legal ruling in the case, to date there has be no trial or factual finding as to whether discrimination occurred.

Three appellate courts are now considering cases in which lower courts had ruled against plaintiffs seeking Title VII protection on the basis of sexual orientation.

 In October, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago vacated a panel’s earlier ruling in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, South Bend and said it would consider whether a lesbian college instructor was protected under Title VII.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York is considering Matthew Christiansen v. Omnicom Group Inc. et al., in which a gay employee is charging his employer with discrimination under Title VII.

And in Jameka K. Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital et al., the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is considering a case filed by a former hospital security guard who said she was targeted for termination because of her perceived homosexuality.