Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse

Federal court rules for gay rights in major employment discrimination case

In a major ruling affirming protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual workers, a federal appeals court in New York City ruled Monday employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a 69-page “en banc” decision from the full court, the Second Circuit finds Donald Zarda, a now deceased skydiver who alleges he was fired from Altitude Express for being gay, can sue under existing civil rights law because sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

Writing for the court in the 10-3 decision, U.S. Chief Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann, a Clinton appointee, concludes Zarda’s estate is “entitled to bring a Title VII claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

“Zarda has alleged that, by ‘honestly referr[ing] to his sexual orientation,’ he failed to ‘conform to the straight male macho stereotype,’” Katzmann writes. “For this reason, he has alleged a claim of discrimination of the kind we now hold cognizable under Title VII.”

The decision vacates a trial court ruling against Zarda’s claims based on sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, remanding the case to the court for reconsideration. The “en banc” ruling also overturns Second Circuit precedent against protections for gay workers in the jurisdiction — the 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon and the 2005 decision in Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble.

In the past year alone, that precedent formed the basis for two rulings from three-judge panels on the Second Circuit against the idea that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination (although in one case, the court ruled in favor of the gay plaintiff anyway based on sex-stereotyping claims). The latest “en banc” ruling means lesbian, gay and bisexual plaintiffs will now unequivocally be able seek relief in the Second Circuit if they face anti-gay workplace discrimination.

The ruling is also a blow to the Trump administration, which sent Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hashim Mooppan to the court for oral arguments in September to argue employers should be able to fire workers for being gay despite Title VII.

Greg Nevins, an attorney and employment fairness project director for Lambda Legal, argued on behalf of Zarda before the Second Circuit and said the court’s decision is “huge” in the effort to prohibit anti-gay workplace discrimination nationwide.

“It really changes the dynamics about how people talk about who’s winning this argument,” Nevins said. “Nobody can call Hively an outlier. We now have an overwhelming victory in two circuits — out of Chicago, and out of New York now — and both of them were lopsided.”

In the reasoning for the decision, Katzmann finds three separate ways in which sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination.

First, Katzmann finds sexual orientation “is defined by one’s sex in relation to the sex of those to whom one is attracted,” which makes it impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without taking sex into account.

“In the context of sexual orientation, a woman who is subject to an adverse employment action because she is attracted to women would have been treated differently if she had been a man who was attracted to women,” Katzmann said. “We can therefore conclude that sexual orientation is a function of sex and, by extension, sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination.”

This interpretation is also known as the “but for” argument that anti-gay discrimination is sex discrimination. In this case, Zarda would have been able to keep his job as a skydiver as a man but for his attraction to other men.

Secondly, Katzmann finds anti-gay bias is based on assumptions and stereotypes about gender, which the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear is an unlawful motive for employment discrimination under existing precedent.

“Viewing the relationship between sexual orientation and sex through the lens of gender stereotyping provides yet another basis for concluding that sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination,” Katzmann writes. “Specifically, this framework demonstrates that sexual orientation discrimination is almost invariably rooted in stereotypes about men and women.”

Finally, Katzmann finds anti-gay workplace discrimination is associational discrimination based on sex because the employer is making a judgment about with whom an employee should have a relationship.

“Consistent with the nature of sexual orientation, in most contexts where an employer discriminates based on sexual orientation, the employer’s decision is predicated on opposition to romantic association between particular sexes,” Katzmann writes. “For example, when an employer fires a gay man based on the belief that men should not be attracted to other men, the employer discriminates based on the employee’s own sex.”

Four other judges on the Second Circuit filed concurring opinions in the case that affirmed protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual workers under Title VII, but reached that conclusion differently. The judges picked and chose from the findings presented by Katzmann on sexual orientation discrimination, although none disputed of any the reasoning.

One of the justices who dissented in the decision, the Obama-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch, objected to the majority opinion on the basis Congress didn’t intend to cover gay people when it passed Title VII in 1964.

“I would be delighted to awake one morning and learn that Congress had just passed legislation adding sexual orientation to the list of grounds of employment discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Lynch writes. “I am confident that one day — and I hope that day comes soon — I will have that pleasure. I would be equally pleased to awake to learn that Congress had secretly passed such legislation more than a half century ago — until I actually woke up and realized that I must have been still asleep and dreaming. Because we all know that Congress did no such thing.”

The court reached a conclusion in favor of Zarda despite efforts from the Justice Department to convince the court otherwise. In a strange development, one arm of the federal government, the Justice Department, had argued against gay protections, but another arm, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, argued in favor of them.

Devin O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesperson, said the department is committed to upholding civil rights, but argued against the gay plaintiff in this case because the administration believes existing civil rights law doesn’t apply to him.

“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals, and will continue to enforce the numerous laws Congress has enacted that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” O’Malley said. “We remain committed to the fundamental principle that the courts cannot expand the law beyond what Congress has provided. The position that the department advocated in this case has been its longstanding position across administrations and remains the law of nine different courts of appeals.”

Each of the three states in the Second Circuit — Vermont, Connecticut and New York — already had state laws prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The ruling, however, adds an additional layer for lesbian, gay and bisexual workers because under Title VII, sex discrimination need only be a motivating factor to meet the threshold for unlawful discrimination as opposed to state law, which requires it to be the only factor.

That’s why Zarda sought to sue under Title VII; his claims of sexual orientation discrimination were deemed insufficient in state court.

Nevins identified other benefits for gay workers in the Second Circuit to sue under Title VII, but pointed out they can still obtain relief under state laws.

“It helps the lawyers and the judges because it’s familiar terrain, and the remedies can be better and the procedural requirements can be clearer and, in this case, easier to satisfy,” Nevins said.

The Second Circuit is the second federal appeals court to find anti-gay discrimination is unlawful under Title VII and contributes an emerging legal consensus that sexual orientation amounts to sex discrimination under current law. In 2015, the EEOC determined in the case of Baldwin v. Foxx it would accept and litigate cases of anti-gay discrimination under Title VII.

Last year, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Hively v. Ivy Tech became the first federal appeals court to find anti-gay discrimination is illegal under Title VII. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reached the opposite the conclusion and found no protections for gay workers in the case of Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital.

Despite the circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant a writ of certiorari in the Evans case to iron out once and for all nationwide whether Title VII affords non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual workers.

Eric Lesh, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association of New York, said in a statement “momentum is headed towards justice under the law for LGBT employees” in the aftermath of the Second Circuit ruling.

“Today, the Second Circuit joined many other federal courts in recognizing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Lesh said. “The LGBT Bar of New York agrees with the full Second Circuit — which sits in our backyard. Everyone has the right to feel safe and protected at work. The U.S. Supreme Court should settle the divide among our appellate courts. LGBT employees need to know that they are protected under federal law. The time is now.”

In what may be the opposite of a silver lining to gay workers, the ruling leaves no opportunity for LGBT rights advocates to seek review from the Supreme Court in hopes of a nationwide decision. The only party that could file the petition is Altitude Express, but the company defended its termination of Zarda based on a technicality and isn’t likely to seek review.

Saul Zabell, an attorney with the Bohemia, N.Y.-based law firm Zabell & Associates, represented Attitude Express and expressed disappointment with the decision, but was non-committal about a decision for filing a petition for certiorari.

“We are extremely proud of the esteemed ‘en banc’ panel of the Second Circuit for curing this glaring legislative gap in fundamental human rights,” Zabell said. “Though we are equally as disappointed that the panel chose to ignore the facts of the underlying matter. In the course of doing so, the panel exceeded their judicial mandate to reach what appears to be a predetermined conclusion. Although we recognize the dire need for this change in the law, the manner in which it was effectuated calls into question the scope of power relative to the branches of government.”

Asked whether that meant Altitude Express would seek review before the Supreme Court, Zabell replied the company is still reviewing options.

Nothing in the Second Circuit explicitly spells out whether Title VII has impact on anti-transgender discrimination in the workforce. No precedent exists one way or the other in the jurisdiction on whether transgender workers are eligible for relief under the law.

Nevins said Katzmann took pains to restrict his ruling the issue of anti-gay discrimination, but his reasoning could just as well apply to transgender people.

“The biggest argument on the other side of this has always been Congress has been asked for these protections pretty explicitly and has not done so,” Nevins said. “To the extent that arguments bites the dust, a rising tide lifts all boats. Any victory for the principle that you interpret the law that you have, not the law you wish you had, is a good day for entire LGBTQ community.”