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News & Alerts

Landmark Supreme Court Ruling Holds LGBT Employees Are Protected Under Title VII

June 2020


Summary

On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 6 to 3 ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e, et al. (“Title VII”) prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  Opinion.  Title VII is a federal statute which outlaws employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  Because Title VII did not expressly cover sexual orientation or gender identity, in recent years, there had been a flood of litigation before the lower federal courts on the unresolved issue.  The Supreme Court’s decision this week provides a resolution to the open issue for employers and employees alike.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”  The Court went on to note that “[a]n employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.” 

State & Local LGBT Laws

Until the Supreme Court’s ruling this week, it was legal in 27 states for an employer to take an adverse employment action against an employee for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender without fear of repercussion.  The remaining states already had implemented state or local laws which protected sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  (For instance, the Illinois Human Rights Act was amended on January 1, 2006 to include "sexual orientation", which is defined to include "gender-related identity", as a protected class).  Notably, many of the state or local laws cover small employers which fall outside Title VII’s coverage threshold of 15 or more employees.  The Supreme Court’s decision expands an employee’s right to sue for LGBT discrimination, harassment or retaliation to all 50 states, which puts the onus on all employers with at least 15 employees to ensure compliance with the new law.

All Employers Should Take Action

Illinois employers should consider revisiting employee handbooks or policies to ensure that gender identity and sexual orientation are specifically identified as protected classes in EEO statements as well as anti-discrimination, harassment and retaliation policies. Employers operating in states without state or local laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace are also encouraged to review their employee handbooks to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Companies may also wish to consider revising managerial and employee training materials to familiarize their workplace with LGBT issues.  It is imperative that employers take these proactive measures now to prevent potential liability in the future.

If you have questions related to the Supreme Court ruling and its impact on your workplace, please contact Naureen Amjad, a Partner and the Leader of Pedersen & Houpt's Employment Law Practice Group, at 312.261.2273 or at namjad@pedersenhoupt.com.