July 23, 2018

Employer's termination of a biologically male employee transitioning from male to female held unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex


Employer's termination of a biologically male employee transitioning from male to female held unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex
EEOC v R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Home., USCA, 6th Circuit, No. 16-2424

Plaintiff, born biologically male, while living and presenting as a man, worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. [Funeral Home], a closely held for-profit corporation.

In an unlawful discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] Plaintiff alleged that the Funeral Home terminated her* after she had advised the Funeral Home that she intended to transition from male to female and would commence presenting herself and dress as a woman while at work.

In the course of EEOC investigation of Plaintiff's complaint it found that the Funeral Home provided its male public-facing employees with clothing that complied with the company’s dress code while female public-facing employees received no such allowance.

The EEOC subsequently brought suit against the Funeral Home in which the EEOC charged the Funeral Home with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [Title VI] by (1) terminating Plaintiff's employment on the basis of her transgender or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes; and (2) administering a discriminatory-clothing-allowance policy.

In its motion for summary judgment, EEOC argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on both of its claims.

The Funeral Home, in contrast, contended that it had not violate Title VII by requiring Plaintiff to comply with a sex-specific dress code that it asserts equally burdens male and female employees, and, in the alternative, that Title VII should not be enforced against the Funeral Home because requiring the Funeral Home owners to employ Plaintiff while she dresses and represents herself as a woman would constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon the Funeral Home’s owner's sincerely held religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA].

The federal district granted summary judgment in favor of the Funeral Home on both claims.

The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that:

[1] the Funeral Home engaged in unlawful discrimination against Plaintiff on the basis of her sex; and 

[2] the Funeral Home has not established that applying Title VII’s proscriptions against sex discrimination to the Funeral Home would substantially burden its owner's exercise of their religious beliefs and, therefore, the Funeral Home was not entitled to a defense under RFRA.

Further, said the Circuit court, (a) even if the Funeral Home's owner's religious exercise were substantially burdened, the EEOC established that enforcing Title VII is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interest in eradicating workplace discrimination against Plaintiff and (b) that the EEOC may bring a discriminatory-clothing-allowance claim in this case because such an investigation into the Funeral Home’s clothing-allowance policy was reasonably expected to grow out of the original charge of sex discrimination that Plaintiff submitted to the EEOC.

The Circuit Court issued a judgment to the EEOC on its unlawful-termination claim, and remanded the case to the district court "for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

* The Circuit Court used female pronouns in its decision in accordance with the preference Plaintiff expressed through her briefing to this court.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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