Supreme Court of the United States: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act Prohibits Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ("SCOTUS") issued a landmark decision, ruling that workplace discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity, including being transgender, is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").

SCOTUS issued a consolidated opinion addressing three cases reflecting a split of opinion among the U.S. Courts of Appeals on this issue: Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia; Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda; and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Two of the cases, Bostock and Zarda, involved employees who alleged they were discriminated against because of sex when they were terminated based on their sexual orientation, and one of the cases, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, involved an employee who alleged she was terminated on the basis of sex when she was terminated for being transgender.

In a 6-3 majority opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, SCOTUS stated that its ruling was based on "the ordinary public meaning of the statute's language at the time of the law's adoption." Title VII bars discrimination against workers because of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. In its opinion, SCOTUS ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/transgender status discrimination are both forms of "sex" discrimination under Title VII.

All employers should take note of this SCOTUS decision. While many states, including New York, already have laws that protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, other states do not. The SCOTUS decision now provides federal protection to millions of employees across the United States. Employers should be aware that, although the facts of the SCOTUS case related to employment terminations, the SCOTUS decision applies to all aspects of the employment relationship.

Therefore, employers that have not previously had policies prohibiting discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should adopt those policies. Employers should also update their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training materials to include this expanded view of sex discrimination. Employers may need to update their internal policies and employee handbooks and review their hiring and performance protocols to ensure that they are in compliance with the law.

Employers should consult legal counsel if they have specific questions regarding policies and practices. Please contact Laura L. Spring, Esq. at CCBLaw for more information.