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A U.S. District Court has refused to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit filed by a transgender English professor who lost her job after she failed to achieve tenure.
The ruling is significant in light of a recent memo by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stating Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination does not encompass transgender individuals, says an attorney.
Rachel Tudor, an English professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, began to present as a woman at work during the 2007-08 academic year, according to court papers in Dr. Rachel Taylor v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Regional University System of Oklahoma.
Southeastern terminated her employment in May 2011 because she failed to attain tenure before the end of her seventh year as assistant professor.
Ms. Tudor filed suit in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, charging discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.
The District Court denied the university’s motion for summary judgment in its Oct. 26 ruling. Discussing her hostile work environment charge, the ruling said Ms. Tudor “has offered sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that her work place was filled with a sufficient amount of offensive or insulting conduct that it was sufficiently severe or pervasive” to create a hostile environment.
On the discrimination claim, the ruling states the defendants argued its decision to deny Ms. Tudor tenure “was a subjective matter based upon decisions made at the administrative level.”
However, it says, Ms. Tudor “has offered at least some evidence demonstrating that Defendants’ reasons for denying her tenure were pretextual.”
“That is, Plaintiff’s evidence demonstrates some weakness, implausibility, inconsistency or incoherencies” in the defendants’ proffered reason, said the ruling, in denying their motion for summary judgment.
Scott Rabe, a partner with Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. in New York, said the ruling is “quite significant” because it follows shortly after the Oct. 4 memo by Mr. Sessions, which rescinds the Obama administration’s Department of Justice 2014 memo on the issue and states the department now takes the position that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination “does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.”
“The holding in this case does not identify transgender as a protected class, or gender identity as a protected characteristic” but “is broad enough that it suggests the vast majority of transgender individuals who are discriminated against on the basis of transgender status … could have an available claim under Title VII,” Mr. Rabe said.
The ruling also “provides some guidance to employers” as to what behavior may not be considered acceptable under Title VII, Mr. Rabe said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a controversial case involving transgender students’ bathroom use, means employers are on their own without clear guidance on how to deal with transgender-related issues in the workplace. A joint Department of Justice and Department of Education memorandum issued Feb. 22 revoked Obama administration-issued guidelines on transgender students’ use of bathrooms.