Articles Tagged with EEOC

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I have written previously about the EEOC’s litigation on behalf of Aimee Stephens, whose employer—a Michigan funeral home—fired her when she announced that she was transitioning and would present as a woman at work in the future.  At ZDB we have continued to follow this potentially groundbreaking federal litigation in the Eastern District of Michigan.  In the most recent development, Magistrate Judge David R. Grand granted the EEOC’s motion for a protective order, seeking to prevent the defendant funeral home from violating Ms. Stephens’ privacy during the process of discovery in the case.  While, given the nature of the discovery sought, this was patently the right outcome, the judge’s order could (and, in my view, should) have provided more assurance to future transgender litigants that they will be protected from attempts to use discovery as a tool to invade their privacy and humiliate them.

The discovery requests at issue sought detailed disclosures on numerous personal matters totally irrelevant to the ultimate issue in the case (which, following the court’s decision on the funeral home’s motion to dismiss, is whether the funeral home fired Ms. Stephens because she did not conform to its sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes).  Among those matters was Ms. Stephens’ medical history: the funeral home sought her medical and counseling records as well as asking whether she “currently has male sexual organs, including but not limited to, a penis and testicles”; whether she has had “any surgery performed to remove or modify any male sexual organs”; and whether she has undergone hormone therapy.  The funeral home also sought to pry into Ms. Stephens’ family life, asking for detailed information on any past marriages (including all pleadings from any prior divorce), her biological offspring, her communications with her family regarding her transition, her wife’s feelings about the transition, and the current state of her marriage.

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The Supreme Court has recently been quite receptive to litigants asserting their rights to religious freedom. (For Exhibit A, see Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.) On June 1, the Court in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch applied that pro-religion perspective in the employment discrimination context and took a fairly strong stand against religion-based discrimination. The Court held that employers cannot hide behind facially neutral policies where religious practices are concerned. Rather, it stated that religious practices must be given “favored treatment,” and a failure to accommodate religious practices constitutes intentional discrimination under federal law, subjecting employers to damages.

In this case, a woman named Samantha Elauf applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch. She is a practicing Muslim and wears a headscarf. The assistant manager who interviewed her would have hired her, but was not sure whether the headscarf would violate a store policy against wearing “caps” while on the job. The assistant manager believed (correctly) that the headscarf was religious in nature, but did not ask Elauf whether she would need an accommodation. A district manager said that any headwear, religious or not, would violate the policy, and Elauf was not hired. A lower court found this discriminatory and awarded the EEOC (on Elauf’s behalf) $20,000 in damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, to be held liable on a failure to accommodate claim, the employer must have “actual knowledge” that the employee (or prospective employee) would need a religious accommodation.

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In September 2014, the EEOC filed its first employment discrimination lawsuits on behalf of transgender employees. (Rachel Stroup previously wrote about those suits, and related moves by the federal government to recognize antidiscrimination protection for transgender individuals, here.) The first of those suits, against an eye clinic, has settled; the clinic agreed to pay the employee $150,000 as well as to take specified proactive actions to avoid discrimination in the future. The second, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., is a suit pending in the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of a transgender employee, Amiee Stephens, whose employer, a funeral home, allegedly fired her when she informed it that she was undergoing a gender transition from male to female and intended to dress in appropriate business attire as a woman. That case has just survived the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The Court’s reasoning should encourage employees who believe that they are experiencing discrimination due to transgender status to stand up for their rights, but it also reveals continuing gaps in federal discrimination law that Congress should act to remedy.

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