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EEOC Files Sexual Orientation Harassment Lawsuits

Government Charges that Gay and Lesbian Employees Were Subjected to Hostile Work Environments Because of Their Sexual Orientation

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed two lawsuits alleging that gay and lesbian employees were subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.  These are the first sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits brought by the government under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

In one lawsuit against Scott Medical Health Center, the EEOC alleges that a gay male employee was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his sexual orientation.  The complaint alleges that the employee’s manager referred to him using anti-gay epithets and made other highly offensive comments about his sexuality and sex life.  The company allegedly failed to take any action after the employee complained.  Ultimately, the employee quit to avoid further harassment.

In the other lawsuit against IFCO Systems, the EEOC alleges that a lesbian employee was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her sexual orientation.  Her supervisor allegedly made comments about her appearance and sexual orientation, such as “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “You would look good in a dress.”  The employee was fired shortly after she called an employee hotline to complain.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits harassment in the workplace based on a person’s sex.  Until now, the government has only pursued lawsuits for harassment based on an employee’s gender.  It has not pursued discrimination or sexual harassment lawsuits based on an employee’s sexual orientation.

Last year, however, the EEOC determined that sexual orientation discrimination is, by its very nature, discrimination based on sex.  That was an administrative proceeding involving a government employee.  The new lawsuits have been filed in courts against private employers.  

The EEOC explained three rationales for finding that sexual orientation discrimination constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII.  First, sexual orientation discrimination is necessarily based on an employee’s sex, because sexual orientation as a concept cannot be understood without reference to sex.  Second, sexual orientation discrimination is based on the employee’s perceived non-compliance with sex stereotypes and gender norms, and employment decisions based on such stereotypes and norms have long been prohibited under Title VII.  Third, sexual orientation discrimination punishes workers because of their close personal association with members of a particular sex, such as marital and other personal relationships.

The new lawsuits are significant because the EEOC is challenging the conduct of private employers in court.  The EEOC hopes that by bringing these lawsuits, courts will recognize that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

If you have faced harassment in the workplace because of your sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, you should consult with an experienced employment lawyer to understand and protect your rights.  To schedule a free and confidential consultation, call John Howley, Esq. at (212) 601-2728.

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