Zarda is Out: En Banc Second Circuit Holds Sexual Orientation Discrimination is Protected by Title VII

This is the decision that so many have been waiting for. In a historic ruling in Zarda v Altitude Express, the Second Circuit today overruled its’ prior precedent in Simonton v. Runyon, and held that sexual orientation discrimination is discrimination because of sex that finds protection under Title VII.

The comprehensive opinion the majority of the Second Circuit held that “sexual orientation discrimination is motivated, at least in part, by sex and is thus a subset of sex discrimination” (Opn, at 20-21). Looking to the text of Title VII, the majority concluded that Title VII’s protection against discrimination “because of . . . sex” extends to sexual orientation because “sex is necessarily a factor in sexual orientation” (Opn, at 21). Leading with the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of sexual orientation—”[a] person’s predisposition or inclination toward sexual activity or behavior with other males or females”—the Court noted that a person’s sexual orientation can’t be identified unless that person’s sex is known as well as the sex of those to whom the person is attracted. As the majority put it,

Because one cannot fully define a person’s sexual orientation without identifying his or her sex, sexual orientation is a function of sex. Indeed sexual orientation is doubly delineated by sex because it is a function of both a person’s sex and the sex of those to whom he or she is attracted. Logically, because sexual orientation is a function of sex and sex is a protected characteristic under Title VII, it follows that sexual orientation is also protected.

Taking apart the argument that firing an employee for his or her sexual orientation is not firing them because of their gender, the majority held that “this semantic sleight of hand is not a defense; it is a distraction” (Opn, at 23-24). The failure to reference the employee’s gender doesn’t change the fact that “firing a man because he is attracted to men is a decision motivated, at least in part, by sex” (Opn, at 24). Merely using different terminology to achieve the same discriminatory result, the majority held, doesn’t fly under Title VII.

The Court also held that Congress’ failure to protect expressly sexual orientation under Title VII doesn’t undermine the conclusion that the broad language that Congress did use was intended to protect not only the “principal evil,” but also “comparable evils” (Opn, at 27).  Thus, the majority reasoned, the protections afforded to employees against discrimination because of their “sex” was not meant to be exclusive, and necessarily includes protection for sexual orientation too.

This conclusion, the Court held, is also supported by the Supreme Court’s “comparative test” for when an employment practice constitutes sex discrimination. Using the en banc Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hively v Ivy Tech Community College as a salient example, the majority explained if a female employee who is attracted to females is denied a promotion when a male employee also attracted to females is given the promotion, the denial of the promotion (all other things being equal, of course) is because of the female employee’s sex. Thus, it is clear, the majority held, that sexual orientation discrimination is just a subset of sex discrimination and is protected under Title VII.

Having addressed the proper application of the comparative test, we conclude that the law is clear: To determine whether a trait operates as a proxy for sex, we ask whether the employee would have been treated differently “but for” his or her sex. In the context of sexual orientation, a woman who is subject to an adverse employment action because she is attracted to women would have been treated differently if she had been a man who was attracted to women. We can therefore conclude that sexual orientation is a function of sex and, by extension, sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination.

The gender stereotyping theory provided yet another basis to conclude that sexual orientation discrimination is discrimination because of sex, the majority held. When an employer discriminates because it believes that a man cannot, or should not, be attracted to men, but doesn’t discriminate when women are similarly attracted to men, the employer acts on the basis of the employee’s gender. That is clearly protected by Title VII. Thus, the Court explained, the prior framework under Simonton trying to distinguish when a discrimination claim is impermissibly based on sex stereotyping or when it is (formerly) permissible sexual orientation discrimination no longer worked.  The lower courts struggled with the distinction, the majority held, and no basis remained to keep it.

It is also unlawful associational discrimination for an employer to discriminate based on an employee’s romantic association with a partner of the same sex, the majority held.  Harkening back to the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v Virginia, the majority explained that “policies that distinguish according to protected characteristics cannot be saved by equal application” (Opn, at 54) and so whether an employer adversely treats both men and women for same sex association is no defense to a claim of discrimination under Title VII. Indeed, discrimination based on sexual orientation, the majority held, “is no less repugnant to Title VII than anti-miscegenation policies” (Opn, at 59).

The Second Circuit has now joined the Seventh Circuit in Hively, holding that sexual orientation discrimination is protected under Title VII. This is a huge decision, and one that has been long awaited by LGBT rights advocates. But, it is certainly not the end.  The Eleventh Circuit has declined to agree. And Zarda may well be poised to head up to the Supreme Court, where it faces an uncertain reception. This decision of the en banc Second Circuit, though, to overrule its prior precedent and recognize that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic is a monumental one.

The Second Circuit’s en banc opinion can be found here.

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