US Attorney General Jefferson Sessions Issues New Guidance On Transgender Employees

Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions issued new guidance reversing the federal government’s former position that gender identity is protected under Title VII.

In a memo sent to the heads of all federal agencies and the U.S. attorneys, the attorney general stated that as a matter of law, “Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se.” The memorandum further stated the DOJ will take the position in all pending and future matters that Title VII does not protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or transgender status.

Sessions’ memo explains Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex but makes no reference to gender, and that courts have interpreted “sex” to mean biologically male or female. Sessions concluded employers may differentiate on the basis of sex in employment practices, so long as the practices do not expose members of one sex to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which the other sex is not exposed. The memo highlighted sex-specific bathrooms as such an example. Sessions explained while Title VII prohibits “sex-stereotypes,” insofar as that sort of sex-based consideration causes disparate treatment between men and women, Title VII is not properly construed to proscribe employment practices that take into account the sex of employees, but do not impose different burdens on similarly situated members of each sex.

This guidance reverses and withdraws previous guidance by Attorney General Eric Holder in a December 15, 2014 memorandum in which Holder stated Title VII prohibits employers from using “sex-based considerations,” such as gender identity, in employment decisions. Sessions’ memo also runs contrary to the current position of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which treats discrimination against an employee on the basis of gender identity, including transgender status and sexual orientation, as violations of Title VII.

Currently, there is a split of authority in the courts on whether sex discrimination under Title VII includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex stereotyping, and thus prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely have to resolve the issue in the future, but may issue some relevant guidance this term in the Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. case (involving issues of a school district’s obligations to a transgender student).

While it is now the position of the Department of Justice that Title VII protections do not extend to transgender individuals, employers should still be careful to avoid discrimination on the basis of gender identity, as the law is still unsettled. As Attorney General Sessions’ memorandum notes, there are still federal statutes that prohibit discrimination against transgender persons, and states and localities may have additional protections. Moreover, the EEOC could still bring suit against employers who engage in transgender discrimination.

This post was written by Allison L. Goico & Hayley Geiler of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. All rights reserved., © 2017
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Update Company Policies for Transgendered Employees

Although no federal statute explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has actively sought out opportunities to ensure coverage for transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions under its Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2012-2016. After the EEOC issued its groundbreaking administrative ruling in Macy v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, EEOC Appeal No. 012012081 (April 23, 2012), where it held that transgendered employees may state a claim for sex discrimination under Title VII, some courts have trended to support Title VII coverage for transgendered employees.

To address potential challenges and lawsuits that may arise, employers should consider updating codes of conduct as well as non-discrimination and harassment policies. While policies may differ based on an employer’s business, there are some key features to consider:

  • Include “gender identity” or “gender expression” in non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Gender identity refers to the gender a person identifies with internally whereas gender expression refers to how an employee expresses their gender—i.e. how an employee dresses. The way an employee expresses their gender may not line up with how they identify their gender.

  • Establish gender transition guidelines and plans. A document should be established and available to all members of human resources and/or managers to eliminate mismanaging an employee who is transitioning. The guidelines may identify a specific contact for employees, the general procedure for updating personnel records, as well as restroom and/or locker room use.

  • Announcements. After management is informed, and with the employee’s permission, management should disseminate the employee’s new name to coworkers and everyone should begin using the correct name and pronoun of the employee. Misuse of a name or pronouns may create an unwelcome environment which could lead to a lawsuit.

  • Training and compliance. Employers should review harassment and diversity training programs and modules to ensure coverage of LGBTQ issues. All employees should be trained regarding appropriate workplace behavior and consequences for failing to comply with an organization’s rules.

In addition to the potential liability under federal law, some state laws provide a right of action for transgendered employees who are discriminated against at work; therefore, employers should review the laws of the jurisdictions in which they operate to ensure compliance.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in California

Key Implications of Fourth Circuit’s Denial of En Banc Review of Pro-Transgender Ruling

On May 31, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied en banc review of an April decision permitting transgender students to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.  The Fourth Circuit encompasses North Carolina; thus, the case G.G. v. Gloucester County Public School Board (“Gloucester County”), although it arose in Virginia, creates a conflict between federal law and North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (“HB2”), which requires transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates.  Although Gloucester County applies on its face to students and public schools, the decision impacts retailers who provide bathroom facilities to employees and customers and who must navigate conflicting laws regarding transgender protections.  Of additional importance, plaintiffs in sex discrimination lawsuits will likely use the decision as support for the view that a person’s “sex” includes “gender identity.”North Carolina Transgender students

In Gloucester County, a sixteen-year-old transgender high school student who was born a biological female filed suit to use the boys’ restroom at school.  G.G. and his mother contended that the school’s policy of providing separate restrooms and locker rooms based upon a student’s biological sex constituted sex discrimination under Title IX—the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities.  On April 19, G.G. prevailed in a two-to-one decision of a three member panel of the Fourth Circuit, which deferred to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation that the reference to “sex” in Title IX includes “gender identity.”

Following the panel’s ruling, the school board asked the Fourth Circuit to rehear the case with the full panel of 15 active judges.  On May 31, the en banc panel denied the school board’s request.  Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, widely considered the most conservative member of the Fourth Circuit, filed the lone dissent, stating the issue “deserves an open road to the Supreme Court to seek the Court’s controlling construction of Title IX for national application.”

Regardless whether the case proceeds to the Supreme Court, the decision signifies the first time a federal appeals court has found that federal law protects the rights of transgender persons to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.  Although decided under Title IX with regard to student rights, the decision may have ramifications in the area of employment law, inasmuch as Title VII, like Title IX, prohibits discrimination based on “sex.”  Retailers and other employers should be alert to the issue and may expect that future litigants will seek to expand the Gloucester County ruling to Title VII and other sex discrimination claims.

Given the political and legal climate surrounding HB2 and related laws that affect the rights of transgender persons, we recommend that retailers proactively accommodate the needs of transgender workers rather than reactively respond to potential claims of discrimination.  Retailers, particularly those operating in states with anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity, should implement a policy designed to foster workplace inclusion.  In particular, retailers are encouraged to provide transgender employees access to bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity and, where possible, provide employees with additional options, including single-occupancy gender-neutral (unisex) facilities and use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls.  Furthermore, retailers in the clothing industry with dressing/fitting rooms should accommodate their employees and patrons alike by permitting them to use the dressing/fitting room that corresponds to their gender identity.  These recommendations apply equally to those retailers in North Carolina because, although HB2 remains in effect in that state, the law applies only to places of public accommodation, and, in any event, the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision signals that the controversial law may not withstand judicial scrutiny.  In general, retailers should beware that engaging in discriminatory practices may have negative business as well as legal ramifications.

©2016 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

Oxford, Alabama, City Council Repeals Bathroom Ordinance Targeting Transgender Individuals

The Oxford, Alabama, City Council has repealed on May 4, 2016, an ordinance it passed a week previously that barred transgender people from using a bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. (See our article, Oxford, Alabama, City Council Adopts Ordinance Restricting Access to Bathroom Facilities Based on Biological Sex.)

The ordinance made it unlawful for a person to use a bathroom or changing facility within the jurisdiction of the City that did not correspond to the sex indicated on the individual’s birth certificate. Persons deemed to have violated the ordinance could have faced a misdemeanor charge, punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to six months’ incarceration.

 The ordinance quickly garnered national attention and civil rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center, publicly condemned the ordinance. In a letter issued to the Oxford City Council prior to the repeal, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Alabama stated that the ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clause by singling out transgender people for different and unequal treatment. The groups also argued that the ordinance violated the due process clause, “because of its broad reach and lack of enforcement mechanisms,” which, according to the groups, left it unclear “whether people risk arrest simply for failing to carry their birth certificates to the restroom at all times.”

The letter also stated that the ordinance violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in public schools. The letter noted a recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, G.G. v. Gloucester Cty. Sch. Bd., No. 15-2056, 2016 LEXIS 7026 (4th Cir. Apr. 19, 2016), in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, accorded deference to the Department of Education’s interpretation of regulations governing toilets, locker rooms and shower facilities. The Department of Education opined that a school must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.

In a special meeting, the Council voted 3-2 to repeal the ordinance. Because the mayor was ill and had not yet signed it, the Council could vote to recall the ordinance. In repealing the ordinance, some Council members expressed concerns regarding whether the ordinance violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

In addition to the repeal of the Oxford ordinance, the U.S. Department of Justice took a similar position in a letter dated May 4, 2016, to North Carolina Governor McCrory. The DOJ stated that North Carolina’s law restricting bathroom access to restrooms based on an individual’s biological sex and not based on an individual’s consistent gender identity violates both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (See our article, Department of Justice Warns Governor that North Carolina LGBT Law is Unlawful.)

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2016

Fourth Circuit Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Transgender Student

Schools across the country have found themselves at the forefront of the societal debate on the appropriate manner in which to address issues surrounding accommodation of transgendered persons. Conflicting regulatory rulings, contemplated state legislation, and in the case of North Carolina, state prohibitions on accommodation have led to a patchwork of inconsistencies and doubt in relation to a school district’s legal duties.

On Tuesday, April 19, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of a transgender student, Gavin, who was born female and wished to use the boys’ restroom at his rural Virginia high school. The ruling, G.G. v Gloucester County Sch. Bd., No. 15-2056 (4th Cir., Apr. 19, 2016), is significant, as it marks the first time that a federal appellate court has ruled that Title IX extends to protect the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the student’s gender identity.

Gavin had previously been granted approval by administration to use the boys’ restroom and did so for a short period of time until the school board adopted a policy prohibiting him from using the bathroom of the gender with which he identifies. Instead, according to board policy, Gavin was required to use the restroom of his biological gender or a separate, unisex restroom. Gavin filed a lawsuit claiming that the school board impermissibly discriminated against him in violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.

In reaching its decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed the Department of Education (“DOE”) regulations implementing Title IX. Those regulations permit schools to provide “separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities on the basis of sex,” so long as the facilities are comparable. The question the Court faced in light of this regulatory guidance was how to apply the “separate but equal” mandate to transgender individuals.

The DOE argued that the regulation should be interpreted to mean that schools generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity; the Gloucester school board argued for an interpretation that defined students consistent with their biological sex. The Court recognized that the plain language of the regulation clearly permits schools to provide separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities for its male and female students. By implication, the regulation also permits schools to exclude males from the female facilities, and vice versa. Although the regulation is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female for the purpose of access to sex-segregated restrooms, the Court concluded it is susceptible to two interpretations – determining maleness or femaleness is either a matter exclusively of biology, or it is a matter of gender identity.

The Court agreed that public restrooms, locker rooms, and showers historically have been separate on the basis of sex, and that individuals have a legitimate and important interest in bodily privacy. Nonetheless, the Court stated that these safety concerns or privacy interests should be addressed by the DOE or Congress, and not the Court. Thus, the Court held that it was required to afford deference to the DOE’s interpretation. In so doing, the Court held that an individual’s sex should be determined by reference to the student’s gender identity, i.e., consistent with DOE interpretation.

The Fourth Circuit only addressed the student’s claims with respect to Title IX and whether Title IX extends to gender identity. The case has been remanded back to the district court to decide whether the school board violated Title IX and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the Fourth Circuit’s ruling only has precedential value in that circuit (encompassing Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which means those states are now required to follow the DOE’s interpretation of Title IX – that schools generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.

What Does This Mean for Your District?

Although not binding in the Seventh Circuit, which encompasses Wisconsin, the Fourth Circuit’s decision is instructive as to how Wisconsin school districts should address restroom, locker room, and shower concerns under Title IX. Additionally, the DOE has been aggressive in its efforts to ensure that transgender students can use bathrooms in public schools that correspond with their gender identities. In November 2015, the DOE Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) issued a letter of findings to a Chicago-area school district demanding that the school district give unfettered locker room access to a transgender student for the facilities of the gender in which the student identified. The OCR gave the school district only 30 days to resolve the matter or risk forfeiting Title IX funding. The school district reached a settlement with OCR prior to having its federal funding rescinded.

School districts should begin the process (if they have not done so already) of developing policies to set the parameters and processes the district will follow when a transgender student seeks guidance and clarity. A district should further ensure that its non-discrimination policy is comprehensive in scope as to all protected classes of students. District policies should address how the district will ascertain the student’s gender identity; what proof, if any, a district will require; the manner in which a student should be addressed and allowed to change his/her name; student dress codes; student records; physical education class; school-sponsored and WIAA-sanctioned sports; and of course, restroom, locker room, and shower facilities.

If your district has a prior policy in place regarding transgender students and gender identity, your district should consider revising the policy to ensure it does not run afoul of Title IX. Ultimately, school districts should be prepared to respond to a request from a student seeking direction as to school processes and procedures. Now is the time to prepare for the inevitable and ensure the district has laid the framework to quickly and fairly respond.

©2016 von Briesen & Roper, s.c

California DFEH Announces Guidance to Employers Regarding Transgender Rights in the Workplace

Individuals who identify as transgender are protected under California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act (Cal. Govt. Code §12940)(“FEHA”).  FEHA protection was extended in 2012 to include gender identity and gender expression categories, and defines “gender expression” to mean a “person’s gender-related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s assigned sex at birth.”  Transgender worker rights have received increased attention in recent months as employers attempt to put into place compliant procedures that are sensitive to transgender workers.

On February 17, 2016, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) issued guidelines on transgender rights in the workplace.  As this cutting edge area of law continues to develop, employers would be wise to follow the DFEH common sense recommendations which are summarized below:

Do Not Ask Discriminatory Questions

Finding the right employee can be a challenge for employers.   Interviews of prospective candidates can provide helpful insight as to whether the particular candidate is right for the position.  Employers may ask about an employee’s employment history, and may still ask for personal references and other non-discriminatory questions of prospective employees.  However, an employer should not ask questions designed to detect a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  The following questions have been identified by the DFEH as off-limits:

  • Do not ask about marital status, spouse’s name or relation of household members to one another; and

  • Do not ask questions about a person’s body or whether they plan to have surgery because the information is generally prohibited by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Apply Dress Codes and Grooming Standards Equally

The DFEH reminds employers that California law explicitly prohibits an employer from denying an employee the right to dress in a manner suitable for that employee’s gender identity.  Any employer who requires a dress code must enforce it in a non-discriminatory manner.  For example, a transgender man must be allowed to dress in the same manner as a non-transgender man.  Additionally, transgender persons should be treated equally as are non-transgender persons.

Employee Locker Rooms/Restrooms

According to the DFEH, employees in California have the right to use a restroom or locker room that corresponds to the employee’s gender identity, regardless of the employee’s assigned sex at birth.  Where possible, employers should provide an easily accessible unisex single stall bathroom for use by any employee who desires increased privacy.  This can be used by a transgender employee or a non-transgender employee who does not want to share a restroom or locker room with a transgender co-worker.

Summary

It is important to note that FEHA protects transgender employees and those employees who may not be transgender, but may not comport with traditional or stereotypical gender roles.

The DFEH’s guidance reminds California employers that a transgender person does not need to have sex reassignment surgery, or complete any particular step in a gender transition to be protected by the law.  An employer may not condition its treatment or accommodation of a transitioning employee on completion of a particular step in the transition.

Ultimately, while not the binding authority, the DFEH’s message is clear—employers should avoid discriminatory conduct, apply procedures consistently, and follow transgender employee’s lead with respect to their gender identity and expression.  The DFEH guidelines are consistent with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in California

Illinois: Transgender Locker Room Policy Eludes School District Facing Government Sanctions Under Title IX

An Illinois school district has violated anti-discrimination laws by not allowing a transgender student who identifies as female and is on her high school’s girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room, the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) has held.

The OCR released its findings on November 2, 2015, after completing an extensive investigation of a complaint for unlawful discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 filed by a transgender female high school student against the Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Illinois. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. An entity in violation of Title IX may lose some or all of its Title IX funding.

Schools districts, colleges, and private employers are increasingly at risk of transgender discrimination charges or complaints under laws enforced by the OCR, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as these agencies develop their policies on transgender issues.

The EEOC, the DOL, and the DOJ have interpreted Title VII of the Civil Right Act’s prohibitions on sex discrimination to bar employment discrimination based on gender identity.

On the employment front, in the seven months between October 2014 and April 2015, EEOC received 505 charges based on sexual orientation discrimination and 112 charges based on gender identity. Moreover, the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2012-2016 includes the investigation and enforcement of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) sex stereotyping claims .

Further, effective April 2015, the DOL’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs requires federal contractors subject to Executive Law 11246 to allow transgender employees to use the restroom and other facilities consistent with their gender identity (See article DOL Releases Regulations Extending Protections to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Employees, Applicants).

Finally, the OSHA guidelines require all employers under its jurisdiction to provide a “safe and healthy working environment for all employees” and transgender employees “should have access to restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.”

OSHA recommends that companies should implement written policies to ensure that all employees have “prompt access to appropriate sanitary facilities.” The agency’s best practices guide also recommends providing options from which a transgender employee may choose. These can include single-occupancy gender-neutral facilities and the use of multiple-occupant, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single occupant stalls (See article Restroom Access Should Be Consistent with Employee’s Gender Identity, OSHA Says).

Background

The Township High School District 211 denied a transgender female student access to three separate girls’ locker rooms (“LR”) (including the Physical Education (“PE”) LR, the PE Swim LR, and the Athletics LR). The Student alleged the District discriminated against her based on sex by denying her access to the girls’ locker rooms because of her gender identity and gender non-conformity.

OCR Decision

The OCR found the District violated Title IX for excluding the Student from participation in and denying her the benefits of its education program, providing services to her in a different manner, subjecting her to different rules of behavior, and subjecting her to different treatment on the basis of sex.

“The evidence shows that as a result of the District’s denial of access to the girls LRs, Student A has not only received an unequal opportunity to benefit from the District’s educational program, but also has experienced an ongoing sense of isolation and ostracism throughout her high school enrollment.”

Other than access to the female locker rooms, the OCR found the District treated the Student consistently with her gender identity, including identifying her by her female name and with female pronouns, providing her with full access to girls’ restrooms and allowing her to participate in girls’ sports.

Alternatives Not Acceptable

The District argued it offered the Student alternative changing options, such as permitting her to change with several female friends in an alternative restroom closer to the PE gym and offering her another restroom near the Swim LR.

The OCR found that the alternatives “continued or would continue to exclude [the Student] from the girls’ locker rooms and set her apart from her female classmates and teammates,” particularly as some of the proposed alternative facilities were not comparable to those provided for other girls.

For example, unlike the other female students who used the PE class swim unit, the Student had access only to a rinse shower and was not able to dry her hair because there was no electrical outlet. Furthermore, by not having access to the PE locker room, she was subjected to stigma and different treatment, OCR said, because she occasionally had been late to class or missed class announcements that were made in the girls’ locker room.

Finally, as a result of being denied access to the girls Athletics LR, the Student felt excluded from the team because she missed the informal huddle in the LR before matches, locker room “girl talk,” and the female bonding in the LR. According, the OCR concluded the District denied the Student’s Title IX rights.

Privacy Concerns Unavailing

While acknowledging that it denied the Student access to the female locker rooms, the District argued that it had to balance the Student’s rights and interests with two distinct privacy concerns of other female students:

  • the need to protect female students from “being observed in a state of undress by a biologically male individual,” and

  • the “inappropriateness of allowing young female students to view a biologically naked male in the locker room in a state of undress.”

The OCR found both of these arguments unpersuasive as the District had installed five showers with privacy curtains and five restroom stalls in the girls PE LR, but had not provided private changing areas in the other two LRs.

“The District’s installation and maintenance of privacy curtains in one locker room go a long distance toward achieving such a nondiscriminatory alternative because providing sufficient privacy curtain access to accommodate any students who wish to be assured of privacy while changing would allow for protection of all students’ rights in this context. Those female students wishing to protect their own private bodies from exposure to being observed in a state of undress by other girls in the locker rooms, including transgender girls, could change behind a privacy curtain.”

Given the Student’s willingness to change privately, the OCR said, the District could have provided equal access to all three LRs if it installed additional privacy curtains for any student that wanted privacy.

Takeaways

Federal government agencies are increasingly examining the purported protections afforded to transgender students and employees, in both the public and private sectors. How to handle transgender issues is still a work-in-progress for the agencies and the entities they regulate. In this case, despite the District’s accommodations and options to provide equal treatment to the Student in all respects other than access to the Locker Room, the OCR nevertheless held its efforts were insufficient. Moreover, states also have laws protecting LGBT individuals (See article Utah Governor Signs Landmark LGBT and Religious Expression Anti-Discrimination Bill).

The following steps can help lower the risk of being under government scrutiny:

  1. closely review and revise EEO (equal employment opportunity), harassment, and transgender policies;

  2. ensure proper sensitivity training of administrators, faculty, and students to foster diverse and inclusive primary, secondary school, and campus environments to avoid stigmatizing transgender students; and

  3. ensure that accommodations for transgender students and employees provide equal access in all respects, as well as balance privacy concerns.

Because of the complexities involved in this area, school districts, colleges, and private sector employers would be well-served to regularly review their policies and practices with counsel to ensure they address specific organizational needs effectively and comply with applicable law.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2015