Settlement of Sexual Orientation Case – The EEOC and a Maryland employer have settled a landmark sexual orientation discrimination case. EEOC v. Pallet Companies d/b/a IFCO Systems NA, Inc. was filed in March 2016, and was among one of the earliest EEOC lawsuits against a private employer, alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. At the same time that the EEOC filed this case, the agency also filed suit for discrimination based on sexual orientation in Pennsylvania federal court against Scott Medical Health Center of Pittsburgh, which we reported on at the time. The Pennsylvania case is still pending.
The lawsuit alleged that employee, Yolanda Boone, was repeatedly harassed by her supervisor because of her sexual orientation. Her supervisor allegedly made comments to her about her sexual orientation and her appearance, such as: “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “you would look good in a dress.” It is also alleged that the supervisor “blew a kiss at her and circled his tongue at her in a suggestive manner.” After Boone reported the incidents to management and called an employee hotline, she was fired, supposedly in retaliation.
Under the terms of the Maryland settlement, Pallet Companies will pay $202,000 to settle the case: $182,200 will be paid to Boone, and $20,000 will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s workplace equality program. The settlement also provides that the employer will strengthen its discrimination policies by developing an employee training program that has a section on LGBT workplace issues, and it will post workplace notices informing employees that the company “will conduct its hiring and employment practices without regard” to an individual’s sexual orientation. In addition, all employees will receive wallet cards containing the toll-free number and web address of the company’s hotline for bias complaints.
New Transgender Discrimination Case – Yesterday the EEOC filed yet another case against Bojangles Restaurant, in North Carolina, alleging discrimination against a transgender female employee. According to that complaint, the employee was harassed and then fired after complaining of the harassment. The allegations include claims that she visited the store when she was off duty, wearing female clothing, and was told never to enter the store dressed as a woman. A store assistant manager also allegedly made comments to plaintiff like, “Boy, you need to pray.” She was then threatened with a transfer because she put a braid in her hair. The EEOC complaint alleges that she was then fired after making a hotline complaint. Bojangles disputes these allegations, and claims that the plaintiff was fired for misconduct, which included insubordination.
The Maryland settlement, the pending Pennsylvania case, and this new lawsuit are a continuing signal of the EEOC’s expansive view of Title VII and its aggressive enforcement of rights for gay and transgender employees. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, but does not explicitly cover sexual orientation or transgender status. This has not stopped the EEOC, which has taken the view that discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or transgender status are sex discrimination, as a form of gender stereotyping and has made this one of its enforcement priorities. Currently, there are 22 states that have statewide laws prohibiting discrimination in employment based on an individual’s sexual orientation. However, the EEOC’s position creates a national standard.
Thus, all employers – no matter what your state law – should be aware of this trend and should be actively educating managers, and updating policies, so you are not the next case to make news in this area.