Extending Federal LGBT Workplace Protections

Extending Federal LGBT Workplace Protections

If you are discriminated against at your place of employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, you are protected under the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/). As such, employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited in Chicago workplaces under state law. However, Chicago-area LGBT employees who face sexual orientation discrimination are not explicitly members of a protected class under federal law. Indeed, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) points out, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not explicitly include sexual orientation or gender identity in its list of protected bases.”

Although the EEOC emphasizes that it “interprets and enforces Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination as forbidding any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation,” the federal law does not go as far as the Illinois Human Rights Act in clearly prohibiting LGBT discrimination at work. However, as a recent article in the Chicago Tribune discusses, a federal case could explicitly “extend workplace protection to the LGBT community” under federal law.

Full Panel of 7th Circuit Court Judges Hears Employment Discrimination Case

The case to which the article refers concerns a math teacher from Indiana who alleges that she “was repeatedly denied promotions and fired from the Indiana community college where she worked because she is a lesbian.” The plaintiff, Kimberly Hively, originally brought her federal lawsuit in 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The judges, however, dismissed her case because she had “failed to state her claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans workplace discrimination by sex but doesn’t explicitly address sexual orientation.”

The plaintiff appealed to the 7th Circuit, and a three-judge panel upheld the lower court’s ruling. However, the 12 judges who sit on the 7th Circuit voted to vacate the previous ruling and to rehear Hively’s case. As the article explains, the 7th Circuit, which sits in Chicago, will have to decide whether discrimination based on sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also includes discrimination based on sexual orientation. The plaintiff emphasizes that the U.S. Supreme Court already expanded the definition of sex discrimination in the cases of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), in which the Court determined that discrimination based on an employee’s failure to conform to gender norms is indeed covered under the language of sex discrimination in the federal statute.

Does Sex Discrimination Also Mean Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

Whether the 7th Circuit court will expand the definition of sex discrimination in Title VII is the question at issue. The defendant in the case argues that the legislature will need to change the language of the statute if sexual orientation discrimination is to be covered. However, Chief Judge Diane Wood emphasized that the court is “here to reconsider that.”

The outcome of the case could have a major impact on lower courts for which the 7th Circuit is binding. A lower court in Pennsylvania recently, for example, elected to expand the definition of sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation, yet that decision is not binding on a number of other courts. However, if the 7th Circuit panel decides in Haley’s favors, courts throughout the 7th Circuit—Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—would be bound by the ruling. While Illinois and Wisconsin both have state statutes that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, but Indiana does not.

If you have questions about employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, an aggressive Chicago employment discrimination attorney can assist you. Contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Kline today to get started on your case.