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EEOC Says Title VII Prohibits Discrimination Against Transgendered Persons

    Client Alerts
  • April 27, 2012

In a potentially landmark decision issued on Tuesday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against transgendered persons. The EEOC stated that transgendered status falls within the definition of gender discrimination under Title VII's sex discrimination prohibitions.

The EEOC's interpretation of Title VII arose in a federal government employment discrimination case, Macy v. Holder. The EEOC administratively adjudicates employment discrimination claims involving federal government employees and applicants. In this case, a transgendered female applicant for a job with the ATF alleged that her offer was suddenly rescinded because of her transgendered status.

The EEOC initially took the position that the plaintiff's sex discrimination claim could not be adjudicated under Title VII. She appealed that decision to the full Commission, which concluded that Title VII prohibits discrimination against persons who have changed their gender. The EEOC stated that the plaintiff's claims fell within the Supreme Court's Price Waterhouse decision. In that case, the Court stated that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on stereotypes about acceptable conduct based on gender.

The Commission noted that by definition, transsexual persons do not confirm to the stereotypes of their birth gender. The EEOC stated that it was only interpreting Title VII's sex discrimination prohibitions, and was not creating a new protected class of persons under the statute. When a transgendered person is discriminated against based on the sex reassignment, the employer is making a decision based on the employee's or applicant's gender.

Federal courts have taken different positions on this issue, with more recent decisions agreeing with the EEOC's conclusions. Unless reversed through a subsequent appeal, this decision can be expected to constitute the EEOC's position on transgendered discrimination charges involving both public and private sector employers.

Perhaps more importantly, much of the same reasoning regarding gender stereotypes has been used to argue that Title VII's sex discrimination prohibitions also apply to discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation. While most courts have not accepted these legal claims, the EEOC's action may provide additional impetus for plaintiffs to challenge the limits of Title VII's sex discrimination protections.