Why it matters

In the first settlement of charges brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that an employer engaged in illegal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Pallet Companies agreed to pay almost $200,000 to a former worker and make a $20,000 donation to the Human Rights Campaign. The agency filed suit on behalf of Yolanda Boone after her supervisor allegedly made comments about her appearance and sexual orientation, such as “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “you would look good in a dress.” A few days after she complained about the comments and other inappropriate behavior, she was terminated, the EEOC said. To settle the charges in the Maryland federal court complaint, Pallet will pay Boone $7,200 in back pay and $175,000 in nonpecuniary compensatory damages, as well as establish a training program regarding sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. Although the company did not admit liability under Title VII, Pallet is additionally subject to an injunction against a hostile work environment based on sex and sexual orientation, as well as retaliation against employees who complain about discrimination. Addressing emerging and developing issues—including coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions—is one of the agency’s stated priorities. “This consent decree marks EEOC’s first resolution of a suit challenging discrimination based on sexual orientation under Title VII,” EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said in a statement. “EEOC is committed to ensuring that individuals are not subjected to discriminatory treatment in workplaces based on their sexual orientation and looks forward to the day that this fundamental right is widely recognized.”

Detailed discussion

A forklift operator at Pallet Companies in Baltimore, Maryland, Yolanda Boone’s sexual orientation as a lesbian was known to most, if not all of her coworkers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stated in a complaint against her former employer. Initially working the first shift, Boone began to pick up hours on the night shift about three months into her employment.

Immediately the night shift supervisor began harassing Boone. In addition to comments such as “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “you would look good in a dress,” he quoted biblical passages to Boone that a man should be with a woman and would grab his crotch while staring at her on multiple occasions, the EEOC said. After weeks of harassment, Boone complained to her other supervisor, but nothing changed.

On another occasion the night supervisor blew a kiss to Boone and then stuck out his tongue and circled it in a suggestive manner at her. She immediately contacted human resources through a hotline to file a complaint, but was fired on her next scheduled work day, the EEOC said.

In one of the first two lawsuits alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation filed by the EEOC, the agency’s Maryland federal court complaint alleged that the employer ran afoul of Title VII by unlawfully discriminating against Boone on the basis of her sex as well as retaliating against her when she complained about the harassment.

The employer elected to settle the suit, agreeing to pay Boone $7,200 in back pay and $175,000 in nonpecuniary compensatory damages. In addition, Pallet will provide her with a positive letter of reference and ensure that inquiries from potential employers will receive a positive reference concerning Boone.

For each of the two years the consent decree will be in effect, the employer will contribute $10,000 to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation to support the organization’s Workplace Equality Program.

The agency also obtained injunctive relief, with Pallet enjoined from engaging in sex discrimination by creating or maintaining a hostile work environment on the basis of sex as well as being subject to a prohibition on retaliating against any individual for asserting her or his rights under Title VII or otherwise engaging in protected activity.

The company’s equal employment opportunity policy and wallet cards with a toll-free number for the Speaking Up hotline will be distributed to all employees. Training was also a term of the consent decree, with Pallet promising to retain a subject matter expert on sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender training to help develop a new program on LGBT workplace issues.

Once the EEOC has approved the training module, plant management, human resources, and all other employees will take part. Pallet will provide the agency with written documentation that the training occurred, including a list of participants and job titles.

The EEOC’s second case alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation remains pending in Pennsylvania federal court. That dispute involves a supervisor at Scott Medical Health Center who allegedly used epithets to refer to a gay employee and made offensive comments about his sexuality and sex life.

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