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Federal Appellate Court Finds That Title VII Bans Sexual Orientation Discrimination

On February 26, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont) ruled that workplace discrimination on the basis sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). 

The language of Title VII does not expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, in 2015, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took the position that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination under the purview of prohibited sex discrimination. In 2016, the EEOC began filing sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits enforcing that position. 

Circuit courts are divided on the question of whether claims of sexual orientation discrimination are viable under Title VII. In March of 2017, the Eleventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination does not violate Title VII. The Seventh Circuit held the opposite the following month, and the Supreme Court declined to decide the split in December. With its en banc decision in Melissa Zarda et al. v. Altitude Express, dba Skydive Long Island, et al., the Second Circuit sided with the EEOC and the Seventh Circuit. 

As a result of the decision, employers may see increased litigation in the area of sexual orientation discrimination. To protect against potential lawsuits, employers should consider updating their nondiscrimination policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, employers should perform sexual orientation harassment training for employees and managers.

The decision also raises potential concerns for employee benefit plans. Although the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) generally preempts state laws that relate to employee benefit plans, ERISA does not preempt other federal laws, including Title VII. While certain spousal benefits and rights under qualified retirement plans are required by federal law to be extended to same-sex spouses, the same explicit mandates do not apply to welfare plans. Employers should consider whether any of their employee benefit plans discriminate against employees with same-sex spouses (e.g., excluding same-sex spouses from coverage under a self-funded medical plan). Such distinctions may be ripe for legal action as a result of the decision and the EEOC’s ongoing enforcement efforts. 

© 2018 McDermott Will & Emery

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About this Author

Todd A. Solomon apension 401k attroney  McDermott Will & Emery LLP, Chcago
Partner

Todd A. Solomon is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm’s Chicago office.  Todd focuses his practice primarily on designing, amending, and administering pension plans, profit sharing plans, 401(k) plans, employee stock ownership plans, 403(b) plans, and nonqualified deferred compensation arrangements.  He also counsels privately and publicly held corporations and tax-exempt entities regarding fiduciary issues under ERISA, employee benefits issues involved in corporate transactions, executive compensation matters, and the implementation of...

312-984-7513
stepanovic, chicago, associate
Associate

Rick Stepanovic focuses his practice on employee benefits and executive compensation matters. He has experience working on matters related to tax-qualified pension plans, health and welfare plans, and deferred compensation arrangements. He also has experience handling correction and administrative matters before the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor.

While in law school, Rick was the Managing Editor of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law. He previously worked as a law clerk in the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado and as a student attorney in Michigan Law’s Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic and Community Economic Development Clinic.

312-984-2054