A federal government agency last week filed first-of-their-kind lawsuits, alleging a pair of companies violated federal employment laws by subjecting LGBTQ employees to hostile work environments.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Philadelphia District Office filed suit against Scott Medical Health Center. In its lawsuit, the EEOC alleges that a gay male employee was subjected to harassment because he is gay. The male employee’s manager “repeatedly referred to him using various anti-gay epithets and made other highly offensive comments about his sexuality and sex life,” according to the EEOC, the federal agency charged with interpreting and enforcing federal employment law.
An EEOC press release about the suits states:
When the employee complained to the clinic director, the director responded that the manager was “just doing his job,” and refused to take any action to stop the harassment, according to the suit. After enduring weeks of such comments by his manager, the employee quit rather than endure further harassment.
The Baltimore Division of the EEOC, meanwhile, filed suit against IFCO Systems NA. The EEOC alleges that a lesbian employee was harassed repeatedly by her supervisor because of her sexual orientation. The supervisor made comments about the employee’s sexual orientation and appearance, like “I want to turn you back into a woman” and “You would look good in a dress,” according to the complaint.
The supervisor at one point “blew a kiss at her and circled his tongue at her in a suggestive manner,” the EEOC lawsuit claims. The employee then called the employee hotline about the harassment, and complained to management. A few days later, IFCO fired the female employee “in retaliation for making the complaints,” the EEOC alleges.
Both lawsuits claim the employers violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination because of sex. The law has been slow to recognize that those protections include discrimination against LGBTQ employees harassed on the basis of their sexual orientation. In a 2015 decision, the EEOC ruled that sexual orientation discrimination is, by its very nature, discrimination because of sex.
EEOC in that case explained the reasons why Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination includes discrimination because of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves treating workers less favorably because of their sex, according to the agency. That is because, the agency determined, sexual orientation “as a concept cannot be understood without reference to sex.”
The agency held that sexual orientation discrimination is “premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms.” Since federal courts have long held employment decisions grounded in such stereotypes and norms to be prohibited sex discrimination under Title VII, sexual orientation claims should be no different.
Finally, the agency said that sexual orientation discrimination “punishes workers because of their close personal association with members of a particular sex, such as marital and other personal relationships,” which Title VII also prohibits.
“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,” David Lopez, EEOC general counsel, 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.”
The companies have not yet responded to the lawsuits.