In a landmark decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act’s protections against discrimination on the basis of sex.
In Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, Kimberly Hively, a lesbian part-time professor at Ivy Tech, applied for but was denied several full-time positions with the college. After her employment was later terminated, she filed a lawsuit alleging that she was denied promotion and then terminated because of her sexual orientation. The lower courts held that they were bound by Seventh Circuit precedent to rule that sexual orientation was not a protected category under Title VII. On July 28, 2016, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination is not sex discrimination. The Seventh Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc with all 11 judges.
Deviating from almost every other circuit court, the Seventh Circuit voted 8-3 that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination. In March, the Eleventh Circuit held in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, et al. that it was bound by precedent that concluded that Title VII does not extend protections on the basis of sexual orientation. Later in the month, the Second Circuit reached a similar conclusion in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, et al. While that court found that the plaintiff had no viable claim for sexual orientation discrimination, it remanded the case to the Southern District of New York to address whether the plaintiff’s claims could be considered sex stereotyping discrimination.
The court acknowledged that the three-member panel in 2016 “described the line between gender nonconformity claim and one based on sexual orientation as gossamer-thin;” the majority now concludes that such a line “does not exist at all.”
Citing to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson (sexual harassment is discrimination on the basis of sex), Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (sex stereotyping is discrimination on the basis of sex), and Onacle v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc. (same sex harassment is discrimination on the basis of sex), the court held that sex discrimination has been understood to “cover far more than the simple decision of an employer not to hire a woman for Job A or a man for Job B.”
The majority addressed Hively’s two legal theories – (1) the comparative method, whether a woman and a man would be treated differently under the same facts, and (2) the associational theory, whether discrimination occurs against an individual because of the protected characteristic of one with whom the individual associates. Under each theory, the court reduced each inquiry to a simple question – if the employee in question were male instead of female, would it matter that the employee was in a relationship with a woman? Answering that if the sex of a plaintiff such as Hively in a lesbian relationship was changed, then the outcome would be different, the Court held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation necessarily is discrimination on the basis of sex.
The court acknowledged the long-standing critique of the judiciary with respect to civil rights issues – that the court was attempting to “legislate from the bench.” Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Diane P. Wood wrote that the decision to “amend” Title VII to add sexual orientation as a new protected category “lies beyond our power.” She further wrote: “We must decide instead what it means to discriminate on the basis of sex, and in particular, whether actions taken on the basis of sexual orientation are a subset of actions taken on the basis of sex. This is a pure question of statutory interpretation and thus well within the judiciary’s competence.” In response to the dissent’s reliance upon legislative intent, the Court noted that the definition of sex discrimination has expanded in numerous ways since the passage of Title VII, and that the Congress that enacted Title VII likely would be surprised as to the extent of expansion.
In an expectedly colorful concurrence, Judge Posner acknowledged that the Court is, in fact, re-writing Title VII because society’s definition of “sex” has changed over the past 50 years. Instead of relying solely upon stereotyping claims, as the majority writes, Judge Posner instead recognized that the judiciary has long been interpreting statutory language in the context of society’s new and changing understanding of terms. And here, Posner writes, that we should not rely upon the 88th Congress’ “failure” to divine how society’s interpretation of the term would change. Rather, he writes: “We understand the words of Title VII differently not because we’re smarter than the statute’s framers and ratifiers but because we live in a different era, a different culture.”
With a Circuit split, the question of whether sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under Title VII is ripe for review by the Supreme Court, although this case likely will not be the vehicle. Ivy Tech has released a statement that it does not intend to appeal. The decision in this case, however, may affect the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to rehear the Evans case en banc. When this issue does reach the Supreme Court, the soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch could render an impactful vote should this reach the highest court.