No Surprise: EEOC files two sexual orientation lawsuits

Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed two lawsuits charging employers with discriminating against employees based upon their sexual orientation. In a Pennsylvania federal court, the EEOC claimed Scott Medical Health Center had subjected a gay employee to harassment because he did not meet co-employees’ gender stereotypes. The lawsuit alleges that the health center ignored his complaints of discriminatory and harassing treatment. In a Baltimore federal court, the EEOC sued IFCO Systems contending a lesbian employee was harassed by her supervisor on account of her sexual orientation. Considering how this workplace issue has evolved, these most recent lawsuits are not surprising.

Although efforts by Congress to amend Title VII’s employment discrimination prohibition to expressly include sexual orientation as a protected classification have been unsuccessful to date, a number of states and municipalities have passed laws protecting employees against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. During the last several years, federal courts around the country have ruled that employment discrimination based upon sexual stereotyping and/or sexual orientation is already prohibited under Title VII’s existing provisions.

More lawsuits expected

The EEOC’s current Strategic Enforcement Plan includes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees as one of its top enforcement initiatives. Most recently, in July 2015 the EEOC ruled in a federal employee claim that discrimination based upon sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination that violates Title VII.

The EEOC’s Pennsylvania and Baltimore lawsuits are the first of many sexual orientation actions the Commission will be filing in federal courts in the future. Employers should anticipate that the EEOC will also begin processing and investigating charges of discrimination based upon sexual orientation, sexual stereotyping or transgender status.