Nov 13, 2014

EEOC Sues Florida and Michigan Employers Over Transgender Discrimination

Two individuals were fired by their employers shortly after disclosing their plans to undergo a gender transformation. The EEOC has filed lawsuits on behalf of the individuals claiming the employers discriminated on the basis of sex or gender stereotypes, preferences, or expectations.

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged violations of Title VII when two employers, a Florida eye clinic and a Michigan funeral home, engaged in discriminatory sex-based considerations because an employee was transgender, transitioning in gender, and/or because the employee did not conform to the employer’s sex-based or gender-based stereotypes or expectations. In both cases, the employee had begun the process of transitioning from male to female.

In the first case, EEOC v. Lakeland Eye Clinic, Michael Branson worked at the Lakeland Eye Clinic in Florida as Director of Hearing Services.  Branson presented himself as a male at the time of hiring in July 2010, but began wearing women’s clothing and makeup in February 2011. Branson’s coworkers responded negatively, often snickering, rolling their eyes, or withdrawing from social interaction with Branson. In April, Branson’s employer confronted her about her appearance. Branson informed her employer that she was undergoing a gender transition from male to female. She also sought to change her name from Michael to Brandi. Branson was fired in June, and told that her position was being eliminated and the hearing services division was closing. However, the division continued to operate and a male employee, who expressed traditional male gender norms, was hired in August.

In the second case, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Aimee Stephens was employed as an embalmer and funeral director at a Detroit funeral home. In July 2013, Stephens informed her employer that she planned to undergo a gender transition from male to female, and would begin to dress as a woman at work. Stephens was fired two weeks later, with her employer noting that what she was proposing to do was unacceptable.

In both cases, the EEOC cited its 2012 ruling in Macy v. Holder, in which the EEOC recognized that employment discrimination against transgender employees constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex. The EEOC stated in a press release that the lawsuits here are consistent with its position in Macy and binding court precedent.

Both cases are intended to reinforce the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan—a commitment to protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals from discrimination. Employers should understand that claims of transgender discrimination are now being recognized and supported by the EEOC. Employers should be cognizant of these potential claims when an employee identifies as transgender or discloses his or her intent to transition.

If you have any questions about any of the issues discussed in this alert, please contact your Labor and Employment counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.

This client alert is intended to inform clients and other interested parties about legal matters of current interest and is not intended as legal advice.

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