Yes, federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants based on their sexual orientation. Yes, employers who allow discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation can be forced to pay a full range of damages, including punitive damages.
Employment and civil rights lawyers have struggled to find clear answers to these questions for years, and until last week, no federal court of appeals had ever answered them in the affirmative. That all changed, however, when the U.S Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its decision on April 4 in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.
Although the Hively decision is 69 pages long and discusses a number of important legal issues, the key holding is a simple one – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The decision is being lauded as a “gamechanger” by civil rights and LGBT advocates, and is being characterized as judicial overreach by others. Regardless of which side is correct, the underlying issue will almost certainly end up before the U.S Supreme Court sometime in the foreseeable future due to the fact that two other federal appeals courts have ruled against Title VII coverage for sexual orientation discrimination.
Although some media commentators have been quick to attack the Seventh Circuit’s decision because its author, Chief Circuit Judge Diane Wood, was appointed by President Clinton, the decision was supported by strongly worded concurring opinions written by Circuit Judge Richard Posner and Circuit Judge Joel Flaum, both President Reagan appointees. In fact, Judge Posner went so far as to write that “The position of a woman discriminated against on account of being a lesbian is thus analogous to a woman’s being discriminated against on account of being a woman. That woman didn’t choose to be a woman; the lesbian didn’t choose to be a lesbian.”
The Hively decision technically only applies to employers within the Seventh Circuit, which covers Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Nonetheless, employers elsewhere will be wise to take steps to protect their employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation because the EEOC has made it clear that it will use the Hively decision to support its long-standing position that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and is therefore illegal. Employers in many jurisdictions are also covered by state and local laws that already prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.
The Hively decision provides a good reminder to employers that they should review and update their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies with the employment counsel on a regular basis.