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EEOC supports professor's sexual orientation bias suit

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is continuing to pursue its stance that federal discrimination law extends to sexual orientation bias, with an amicus brief filed last week with a federal appeals court.

The EEOC argues in the brief submitted to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Jan. 6 in support of the plaintiff in Barbara Burrows v. The College of Central Florida that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers against sexual orientation discrimination, though federal laws do not explicitly prohibit it.

Ms. Burrows, a lesbian college professor and administrator, was hired by the College of Central Florida in Ocala as its vice president for instructional affairs in 2008, according to the EEOC's brief.

In March 2011, Ms. Burrows was informed her contract would not be renewed and she was transferred to a teaching position in the mathematics department, where she was paid $40,000 less per year. Her position was eliminated in March 2013 as part of a reduction in force, according to the brief.

Ms. Burrows sued the college on charges including gender stereotyping. In July 2015, the U.S. District Court in Tampa, Florida, granted the college summary judgment dismissing the case. “Plaintiff's claim, although cast as a claim for gender stereotype discrimination, is merely a repackaged claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is not cognizable under Title VII” or state law, said the ruling. Ms. Burrows appealed to the 11th Circuit.

The EEOC says in its amicus brief that the District Court's “unduly restrictive interpretation of Title VII is contrary to the understanding of an increasing number of courts (as well as the commission) that sexual orientation discrimination claims necessarily involve illegal sex stereotyping, illegal gender-based associational discrimination and impermissible consideration of a plaintiff's sex, placing them squarely within Title VII's prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex.”

In July, in what was hailed as a historic development, the EEOC held in a 3-2 ruling that workplace sexual orientation discrimination is illegal under federal law.

Although the commission's ruling applied only to federal workers, the agency said in a statement that “its reasoning and application extend to the entire EEOC, including how we will look at investigations, conciliations and litigation.”