Second Circuit Court Expands Title VII Protections to Sexual Orientation
In Boutillier v. Hartford Public Schools, No. 3:13-CV-01303-WWE (November 17, 2016), a Connecticut district court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation.
This decision is contrary to Second Circuit Court of Appeals precedent in Simonton v. Runyon, where the Court held that “Title VII does not proscribe discrimination because of sexual orientation.” But Boutillier is not an isolated decision. Numerous courts across the country have considered sexual orientation to be a protected class under Title VII. Further, since Simonton, the Second Circuit has recognized “associational” race discrimination claims under Title VII. Under this doctrine, if an employer discriminates against an employee of one race because he or she is married to an individual of another race, the employee can file suit under Title VII alleging race discrimination. As Judge Eginton explained in Boutillier, “[i]f interracial association discrimination is held to be ‘because of the employee’s own race,’ so ought sexual orientation discrimination be held to be because of the employee’s own sex.”
The plaintiff, Lisa Boutillier, and her spouse, Ginene Branch, were teachers employed by Hartford Public Schools. According to Boutillier, her troubles began during the 2006–2007 school year, when she and her spouse had a joint meeting with their principal to discuss classroom assignments. Boutillier alleges that it was at this point that her principal discovered that she was gay. This meeting ended with the principal asking the plaintiff and her wife to decide which one of them would transfer to a different school location, as their current school was overstaffed.
Boutillier alleges that after her wife chose to transfer, the principal and assistant principal began a campaign of discrimination and harassment. This included unfairly criticizing her in front of her colleagues, intentionally placing students with behavioral issues in her classroom, and threatening her with discipline and termination. She also alleged that the assistant principal made a “nasty face” when she saw Boutillier’s wedding ring. Facts showed that her sexual orientation was common knowledge among her colleagues and supervisors.
Eventually, and following an unrelated medical leave, Boutillier was reassigned to a position requiring her to travel between classrooms. There was evidence that she had several arguments with her principal and vice principal; during one of these arguments, she collapsed due to stress and was taken to the hospital.
Boutillier filed a complaint of discrimination with the school district, which was investigated and found to be without merit. Following her complaint, she was assigned a new supervisor. However, shortly thereafter, Boutillier was informed that she was being reassigned to her previous supervisor, the principal whom the plaintiff had accused of discrimination. It was at that point that she resigned.
The Court’s Decision
The plaintiff brought a claim against the school district alleging sexual orientation discrimination in violation of Title VII. Title VII protects individuals from job discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. For years, courts refused to hold that discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation falls within the definition of sex-based discrimination under Title VII. These decisions refused to recognize sexuality and gender as one and the same.
The Boutillier court rejected this view, holding that “straightforward statutory interpretation and logic dictate that sexual orientation cannot be extricated from sex; the two are necessarily intertwined.” The court further reasoned that “[p]resuming that an employer has discriminated against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's sexual orientation, that employer has necessarily considered both the sex of the partner and the sex of the individual.”
The Boutillier court then addressed Simonton, in which the Second Circuit held “Title VII does not proscribe discrimination because of sexual orientation.” Although the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, as well as the Simonton court, recognized that Title VII protects against “sex-based stereotyping,” it warned against “bootstrapping” stereotyping claims to encompass all sexual-orientation claims.
The Boutillier court declined to apply Simonton, citing instead to Holcomb v. Iona Coll., in which the Second Circuit more recently recognized “associational” race claims and determined that discriminating against a white male employee for marrying an African-American woman constitutes race discrimination under Title VII. As the Holcomb court explained, “[t]he reason is simple: where an employee is subjected to adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee's own race.” According to the Boutillier court, Holcomb foreshadows the Second Circuit’s rejection of Simonton—“The logic is inescapable: If interracial association discrimination is held to be ‘because of the employee's own race,’ so ought sexual orientation discrimination be held to be because of the employee's own sex.” [Emphasis added.]
The court concluded its sexual orientation discrimination analysis by citing to Christiansen v. Omnicom Grp., Inc., where, relying on Simonton, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a claim for non-conformity with gender stereotypes. In dismissing the claims, the Christiansen Court held that the plaintiff’s claims were in reality for sexual orientation discrimination: “Simonton is still good law, and, as such, this Court is bound by its dictates. Consequently, the Court must consider whether the Plaintiff has pleaded a claim based on sexual stereotyping, separate and apart from the stereotyping inherent in his claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Court finds that he has not.”
Christiansen, which is currently on appeal, “may ultimately decide the fate of plaintiff's Title VII claims” according to the Boutillier Court.
Many states (including Connecticut) already have laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination. As a result, for many employers, the impact of Boutillier and the Christiansen appeal is largely academic.
With that said, these decisions show that there is a push to expand Title VII’s protections to broader classes of individuals. Boutillier also warns that employers are not always protected by reliance on seemingly controlling case law (in this case, Simonton) because lower courts may consider other factors, such as the changing legal landscape. Best practice is for employers to continue to take measures to ensure that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for any adverse employment actions are well-documented so that they can effectively defend against claims of illegal discrimination and wrongful termination.