Interpreting Title VII

Interpreting Title VII by James Vagnini {Read in 4 minutes}  When I was in law school 20 years ago, I wrote an article on legislation before Congress referred to as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or “ENDA.” This legislation was aimed at expanding Title VII’s coverage to specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories not specifically provided by Title VII.  
Title VII is part of the original Civil Rights Act federal law enacted in 1964 which provides employees protection from discrimination because of race, national origin, and gender. Over the years, the law was expanded to include some protections for those over the age of 40 and the disabled, and is the bedrock of civil rights law in the employment environment.
To this day, the ENDA legislation has not been passed and there are no specific federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Moreover, Title VII has not been amended to include these additional specific categories (despite other expansions). It is a sad commentary on our country, and our politics, that in 20+ years, we could not get our act together to provide the specific protections many working citizens require.
Despite this hurdle, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the watchdog agency empowered to enforce Title VII, has interpreted Title VII to protect against discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity.  
In fact, the EEOC has consistently interpreted any act of discrimination on account of these factors to be something that is covered by sex/gender discrimination. This means you are protected if:

  • You don’t conform to sexual or gender stereotypes
  • You identify as a different gender than the gender you may appear to be or were born
  • You have a different sexual orientation or prefer sex that doesn’t conform with the popular notion of what a man or a woman should be
  • Trans workers who don’t fit the form of what is considered to be the gender norms of society

The EEOC has been granted broad discretion to resolve disputes but unsettled legal issues still have to be resolved, by and large, in court — and federal courts have differed. Some circuits agree with the EEOC’s interpretation that sexual orientation falls under Title VII sex discrimination,while others have found that it does not.
Whenever you have circuit court splits like this, the issues become ripe for the Supreme Court — which can either agree to take up the issue or decline to take up the case(s) that address the conflict between the circuits. Recently, it was announced that the Supreme Court will take up this issue in the next term.
This is going to be a big, big decision. Obviously, we have a different Supreme Court makeup today than we did a few years ago, but this is an issue that has gained a lot of popularity and a lot of momentum legally, politically and socially.
The decision will have a huge impact on the landscape of workplace discrimination.  The Supreme Court will determine whether Title VII is essentially expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes thereby making it the law of the land.  If they find that Title VII does not provide such protection, it will permit employers, to a degree, to discriminate on account of sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBT workers would have to turn to state and local laws for protection should the Supreme Court limit the law.  Many states, such as New York, have laws that protect the LGBT community working in the state. Many states, sadly, have not extended such protections to members of the LGBT workforce.   
Things take time, but this decision will be here before we know it.  It is something that will have a huge impact on employee protections in the workplace — and could set back a lot of work and progress that has been made so far by the EEOC and the lower district courts who have upheld the EEOC’s interpretation of the law.
James A. Vagnini
Partner
email: jvagnini@vkvlawyers.com
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Let the Mother Beware: Pregnancy in the Workplace

Seal of the United States Equal Employment Opp...
Seal of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is somewhat hard to believe in this day and age that women experiencing pregnancy in the workplace are still being subjected to workplace policies that put their livelihood in jeopardy. Despite federal laws dating back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several updates and addendums, there are still employers in the United States that have written policies that terminate workers due to pregnancy, regardless of the ability to perform that job’s duties and the overall physical capabilities of the workers.
A recent case in point was brought by the EEOC against a Baytown, Texas, restaurant chain called Bayou City Wings. Acting on behalf of a former employee named Maryann Castillo and eight other dismissed workers, the EEOC claimed that Bayou City Wings, and its parent company, JC Wings Enterprises, LLC, operated with a discriminatory policy against their workers who were experiencing pregnancy in the workplace. Their written policy mandated laying off workers after their third month of pregnancy, regardless of the employees’ desire and ability to stay on the job. In this case, Castillo was not experiencing any difficulties performing her job duties and had received approval from her doctor to work up to her 36th week of pregnancy.
Despite the honorable desire of the employer to take responsibility for the well-being of the unborn babies in these cases, it is important to note that the law and previous Supreme Court cases have determined that it is not the responsibility of employers to make decisions to protect the well-being of the unborn children of their employees, but rather the sole responsibility of the mothers involved. For employers, this could be a release of guilt if a mother’s decision to work jeopardizes her unborn child. The true benefit for this is that the women carrying their children should be able to have control over what they can or cannot do, without the arbitrary decisions of companies that are driven by the bottom line.
The EEOC cannot be the only protector of these cases of injustice and discrimination in the workplace. It is important for all employees, and especially women, to know their rights in a situation where they are facing a pregnancy in the workplace. Under the laws of this country, mothers-to-be are protected and have the law on their side. The Law offices of Valli, Kane, and Vagnini are specially equipped to help any victim of this or any other kind of discrimination in the workplace. Contact them for a free consultation to make sure that your rights are protected.

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