Why it matters

One of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) first two lawsuits seeking to hold an employer liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for discrimination against a transgender employee has settled. Last fall, the agency charged an eye clinic in Florida with violations of the statute after an employee who previously presented as male began the transition to female. Coworkers “snickered” and “withdrew from social interactions” and the owner of the clinic terminated her not long after the employee revealed her plans, the EEOC alleged. These actions constituted discrimination and harassment based on “sex” under Title VII, the agency claimed. While the clinic did not admit fault, it reached a deal with the agency. In addition to a $150,000 payment and a neutral letter of reference for the former employee, the clinic agreed to revise its discrimination and harassment policies and update managerial and employee training to include gender stereotype discrimination. The litigation—coupled with a second suit filed against a Michigan funeral home featuring similar allegations—reiterates the EEOC’s intent to focus on “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals” as part of its Strategic Enforcement Plan. “This historic settlement is significant,” David Lopez, EEOC General Counsel, said in a press release about the deal. “It not only is one of the first two lawsuits ever filed by the Commission alleging sex discrimination against a transgender individual, but it also solidifies the EEOC’s commitment to enforcing the rights of transgender employees secured by Title VII.”

Detailed discussion

In February 2011, Michael Branson began wearing feminine attire to work at the Lakeland Eye Clinic in Florida. When hired in July 2010, Branson presented as male. But when he began wearing feminine attire to work, including women’s makeup and clothing, Branson reported that coworkers “snickered, rolled their eyes, and withdrew from social interactions” in response to her changing appearance.

The owner of the clinic met with Branson in April and confronted her about her changing appearance. Branson informed him that she was undergoing a gender transition from male to female and would be legally changing her name from Michael to Brandi. After the meeting, the ostracism and derogatory comments by coworkers increased, Branson claimed.

Branson was terminated in June. Although she was told that her position was being eliminated and the division she worked in would be closed, the clinic hired a male employee who conformed to traditional male gender norms and kept the division operating.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit on Branson’s behalf in Florida federal court.

The eye clinic’s “decision to terminate Branson was motivated by sex-based considerations,” the agency claimed in the complaint. “Specifically, defendant terminated Branson because Branson is transgender, because of Branson’s transition from male to female, and/or because Branson did not conform to the defendant’s sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.”

Lakeland continued to maintain that no laws were violated but reached a settlement agreement with the EEOC to end the litigation.

Branson will receive a $150,000 payment ($75,000 representing back pay with the remaining $75,000 for other damages including emotional distress) and a neutral job reference. Any inquiries to Lakeland about Branson’s employment will include no mention of the charge of discrimination, the lawsuit, Branson’s gender transition, that her legal name used to be “Michael,” or the use of any male pronouns.

The employer also promised to revise and implement changes to its gender discrimination policy and training. Lakeland’s updated policy will clearly define prohibited conduct and specifically prohibit gender discrimination against all applicants and employees.

Harassment (from coworkers, customers, agents, and any others present at the facilities) as well as termination on the basis of transgender status or transition from one gender to another are banned, and the company agreed to take “immediate and appropriate corrective action” to any complaints.

Managers—including Lakeland’s owner and CEO—will be required to undergo an annual one hour of training that includes an explanation of the prohibition on discrimination against transgender/gender stereotype under Title VII and guidance on handling complaints; employees will partake in a similar training about prohibited conduct and their rights under Title VII.

Lakeland is also subject to reporting and monitoring requirements pursuant to the consent decree, which remains in effect for two years.

To read the complaint in EEOC v. Lakeland Eye Clinic, click here.

To read the consent decree, click here.