Sexual Orientation Discrimination Prohibited by Title VII, Seventh Circuit Rules

On April 4 2017, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBT employees from sexual orientation discrimination. Prior to this 8-3 decision by the Seventh Circuit, no other federal courts of appeal had ruled that mistreatment of employees based on sexual orientation was unlawful under Title VII.

Understanding the Seventh Circuit’s Decision on Sexual Orientation Discrimination

In the year 2000, teacher Kimberly Hively began working as an adjunct professor at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana. While Hively had applied for six full-time positions with the community college over the years, she was never selected for a full-time role. In 2014, the college also declined to renew her contract. Hively then filed a lawsuit alleging that Ivy Tech discriminated against her due to her sexual orientation and denied her a full-time job because she was a lesbian. The lawsuit also alleged that Ivy Tech violated Hively’s rights under Title VII.

In response to Hively’s discrimination lawsuit, Ivy Tech moved to dismiss it claiming that sexual orientation is not a protected class under Title VII. Hively’s case was then dismissed when the district court granted Ivy Tech’s motion.

Hively Appealed to the Seventh Circuit

When Hively decided to appeal to the Seventh Circuit, a three-judge panel first found the court’s decision was correct. However, the panel noted that because it was comprised of just three judges, it did not have authority to overturn the first decision. The Seventh Circuit then invited Hively to request that they reconsider the decision en banc. This means that all court judges could consider overturning prior decisions. Hively accepted the court’s invitation.

The Seventh Circuit’s Decision

Ultimately, eight out of the eleven Seventh Circuit judges decided that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination.” The court’s opinion also made clear that Title VII was not being amended to include sexual orientation as a protect class, but that sexual orientation discrimination could be a “subset” of actions taken based on sex.

Even though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that discrimination due to sexual orientation is a form of sex and gender discrimination, courts have still declined to protect victims of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII – until now.

Seventh Circuit Decision Doesn’t Change Federal Law

It’s important for employees to understand that even though the Seventh Circuit came to this decision in Hively’s case, federal law remains unchanged. Nonetheless, the court’s decision on the matter is a step in the right direction to ensure that LGBT employees are offered adequate protections in the workplace.

Sexual Orientation is a Protected Class in California

While Title VII does not include the term “sexual orientation” as a protected class, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. If you are facing LGBT discrimination in California, contact the passionate Los Angeles workplace discrimination attorneys at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation today.