In a historic move, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed its first lawsuits on behalf of transgender employees on September 25, 2014. These lawsuits signal the EEOC’s intention to prosecute transgender discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Title VII does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals. Because of this, transgender employees have gone unprotected by federal antidiscrimination laws for many years. However, in 2012, the EEOC ruled that discrimination based on someone’s gender identity qualifies as sex discrimination, which is illegal under Title VII.
The first case, EEOC v. Lakeland Eye Clinic, is against a Florida eye clinic that fired a transgender employee after she gave notice that she would be transitioning from a man to a woman. Brandi Branson (formerly Michael Branson) began dressing as a woman a few months after being hired at the clinic. Ms. Branson received negative comments from her coworkers, and after a couple of months, her employer asked her about her appearance. Ms. Branson told her employer that she was transitioning from a man to a woman. The clinic fired Ms. Branson shortly thereafter, claiming that her position was being eliminated. After a couple of months, the clinic hired a man to replace Ms. Branson.
The second case, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, is against a Michigan funeral home. Aimee Stephens had worked at the funeral home for six years when she informed her boss that she was transitioning from a man to a woman. Ms. Stephens was fired a couple of weeks later. Her boss apparently didn’t conceal the reason behind the firing, telling her that what she was “proposing” to do was not acceptable.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether transgender discrimination is prohibited by Title VII, these cases are likely to be hotly contested. However, until the matter is settled by the courts, employers in all states should be aware that the EEOC is prosecuting transgender discrimination claims under federal law.