Why it matters

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a pair of landmark lawsuits alleging sex discrimination based on sexual orientation, charging Scott Medical Health Center in Pennsylvania and Pallett Companies in Maryland with violations of Title VII. A supervisor at Scott subjected a gay male employee to harassment because of his sexual orientation, the agency alleged, repeatedly using antigay epithets and making other offensive comments about his sex life and sexuality. After complaining to his employer to no avail, the employee quit, the EEOC said. In the second suit, a lesbian employee was harassed by her male supervisors with comments about her orientation and appearance ("I want to turn you back into a woman," for example), according to the agency's complaint, and then fired when she reported the behavior. Sexual orientation discrimination, by its very nature, is discrimination because of sex, the EEOC emphasized. "With the filing of these two suits, EEOC is continuing to solidify its commitment to ensuring that individuals are not discriminated against in workplaces because of their sexual orientation," agency General Counsel David Lopez said in a statement. "While some federal courts have begun to recognize this right under Title VII, it is critical that all courts do so."

Detailed discussion

One of the priorities identified by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the agency's Strategic Enforcement Plan was addressing emerging and developing issues in the coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII's sex discrimination provisions.

Last year, the Commission released a federal sector decision that determined sexual orientation discrimination, by its very nature, is discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII. Sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves treating workers less favorably because of their sex because sexual orientation as a concept cannot be understood without reference to sex, the Commission wrote in Baldwin v. Department of Transportation, and the discrimination is rooted in noncompliance with sex stereotypes and gender norms, which have long been found to be prohibited sex discrimination under Title VII. In addition, sexual orientation discrimination punishes workers because of their close personal association with members of a particular sex, such as marital and other personal relationships.

Furthering the goals of its Strategic Plan—and relying upon the Baldwincase—the agency filed its first lawsuits alleging sex discrimination based on sexual orientation against employers in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

A gay male, Dale Baxley, worked in a telemarketing position at Scott Medical Health Center in Pennsylvania. Over the course of several weeks in the summer of 2013, Baxley's supervisor "routinely made unwelcome and offensive comments" at least three to four times each week, according to the EEOC's complaint. In addition to antigay epithets, the supervisor often made "highly offensive" remarks about Baxley's relationship with his male partner and also "frequently screamed and yelled" at the employee.

Baxley reported the behavior to the company's president, who expressly refused to take any action to stop the harassment, the EEOC said, causing Baxley to resign in order to avoid the sexually hostile work environment.

The supervisor's conduct "directed at Baxley was motivated by Baxley's sex (male), in that sexual orientation discrimination necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of his sex; in that Baxley, by virtue of his sexual orientation, did not conform to sex stereotypes and norms about males to which [the supervisor] subscribed; and in that [the supervisor] objected generally to males having romantic and sexual association with other males, and objected specifically to Baxley's close, loving association with his male partner," the agency alleged.

In a second complaint, the EEOC asserted similar claims against Pallet Companies. Yolanda Boone was hired as a forklift operator in 2013. Most, if not all, of her coworkers were aware of her sexual orientation as a lesbian. About three months after she began working for the Maryland company, the night shift manager requested that she begin working night hours. Boone agreed in order to earn extra income.

But almost as soon as she began working the night shift, the supervisor began harassing her on a weekly basis, making comments such as "I want to turn you back into a woman," "I want you to like men again," and "Are you a girl or a man?" The EEOC said the supervisor also quoted biblical passages to Boone that a man should be with a woman, and on several occasions he grabbed his crotch while staring at her.

Boone complained to her supervisor and the general manager on multiple occasions but no action was taken. After contacting human resources to file a complaint, only to return to the warehouse where the supervisor continued to intimidate and harass her, Boone left work early. The next day, an HR representative and her supervisor called her into a meeting and asked her to resign. Boone refused and was terminated, according to the agency's complaint.

The employer unlawfully discriminated against Boone on the basis of her sex by subjecting her to harassment, which culminated in her discharge—a termination that also violated Title VII as it occurred in retaliation for complaining about the harassment, the EEOC said.

Both lawsuits request a permanent injunction enjoining the employer from engaging in discrimination on the basis of sex and retaliation against those who engage in protected activity as well as an order that the defendants institute and carry out policies, practices, and programs that provide equal employment opportunities based on sex. In addition, the complaints seek back pay, damages for past and future pecuniary losses and nonpecuniary losses, as well as punitive damages for Baxley and Boone.

To read the complaint in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, click here.

To read the complaint in EEOC v. Pallet Companies, click here.