On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Gerald Lynn Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. The Court consolidated three cases involving allegations that employees were fired for being homosexual or transgender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Court held that an employer who fires an individual for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.

The Court’s ruling and analysis has a significant impact on many employers.  The Court interpreted Title VII, which makes it “unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to  discharge  any  individual,  or  otherwise  to  discriminate  against  any  individual  with  respect  to  his  compensation,  terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of  such  individual’s  race,  color,  religion,  sex,  or  national  origin.”  In its ruling, the Court examined the proper interpretation of “sex,” “discriminate against,” and “what Title VII says about it.” 

The Court first defined “sex” using its ordinary meaning.  Although the employees argued that the definition of sex was broader than anatomy, the Court noted that the parties agreed – for argument’s sake – that sex referred to the biological distinctions between males and females.  The Court then considered the ordinary meaning of “discriminate against” and found the meaning when Title VII was adopted to follow its present meaning – “treating an individual worse than others who are similarly situated.”

The Court’s analysis did not stop at the definition of sex or discrimination.  The Court reconciled these terms with Title VII’s purpose, prohibitions, and judicial precedent.  While the Court acknowledged that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct from sex, it observed that discrimination based on homosexuality and transgender status necessitates discrimination based on sex.  The Court explained: 

“homosexuality and transgender status are inextricably bound up with sex.  Not because homosexuality or  transgender status are related to sex in some vague sense or because discrimination on these bases has some disparate impact on one sex or another, but because to discriminate on these grounds requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex.” 

Before the Court’s ruling, some jurisdictions interpreted sex to include gender and transgender status, while other jurisdictions levied a narrow interpretation.   However, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling is clear: “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”  

Employers, including government employers, should review and revise current policies, if necessary.  Employers should also provide updated training to all employees, especially managers.  The significance of the Court’s ruling will not be lost on employees or government enforcement agencies like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Employers should take preemptive actions to prevent discrimination in any form and be prepared to address complaints. 

The full case opinion is available here.

The attorneys at Chilivis Grubman assist businesses of all types and sizes in connection with employment-related litigation, as well as investigations by the EEOC.  If you need assistance with such a matter, please contact us today.