by Chris Johnson, Washington Blade
A federal appeals court ruled Monday anti-gay bias in the workplace is legal under current federal civil rights law barring discrimination based on sex, but nonetheless handed a victory to a gay plaintiff on the basis that the discrimination she faced amounted to illegal sex-stereotyping.
In a 15-page opinion, a three-judge panel on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously found precedent bars the court from concluding the global DDB Worldwide Communications Group illegally discriminated against Matthew Christiansen for being gay under the Title VII of the Civil Rights of Act.
The per curiam opinion found a district court handling the Christiansen v. Omnicom Group erred in its conclusion sexual-orientation discrimination constitutes sex discrimination under federal civil rights law, citing the 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon and the 2005 decision in Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble.
“Because we are ‘bound by the decisions of prior panels until such time as they are overruled either by an en banc panel of our Court or by the Supreme Court…it [is] ordinarily…neither appropriate nor possible for [a panel] to reverse an existing Circuit precedent,'” the decision says. “We thus lack the power to reconsider Simonton and Dawson.”
However, the court concluded Christiansen, who’s openly gay and HIV positive, made a compelling case he faced discrimination based on sex-stereotyping, which the U.S. Supreme Court determined is unlawful in the 1989 decision of Price Waterhouse v. Coopers.
“Christiansen’s complaint identifies multiple instances of gender stereotyping discrimination,” the decision says. “His complaint alleges that his supervisor described him as ‘effeminate’ to others in the office…and depicted him in tights and a low-cut shirt ‘prancing around.’ The complaint further alleges that the ‘Muscle Beach Party’ party poster, depicting Christiansen’s head attached to a bikini-clad female body lying on the ground with her legs in the air, was seen by at least one coworker as portraying Christiansen ‘as a submissive sissy.'”
As a result, the court reverses the district court decision rejecting Christiansen’s allegations of sex-stereotyping in the workforce, remanding the decision for reconsideration.
The three-judge panel consisted of U.S. Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, a Clinton appointee; U.S. Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston, a George W. Bush appointee; and U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie, an Obama appointee sitting on the court by designation.
In a concurring opinion, Katzmann and Brodie examine the evolution of the understanding of sexual orientation in the legal landscape. Although the judges say precedent prevents them from determining sexual-orientation discrimination is sex discrimination, they conclude the time has come for reconsideration by the full court under “en banc” review.
“I respectfully think that in the context of an appropriate case our Court should consider reexamining the holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not cognizable under Title VII,” Katzmann writes. “Other federal courts are also grappling with this question, and it well may be that the Supreme Court will ultimately address it.”
A number of cases are percolating federal appeals court urging the judiciary to determine sexual-orientation discrimination is sex discrimination under current law. In a new trend, district courts and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have found Title VII bars anti-gay bias in the workforce, although no federal appeals court has reached that conclusion.
Had the 2nd Circuit ruled that sexual-orientation discrimination is unlawful under Title VII, it would have been the first federal appeals court to determine existing civil rights law extends to gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the workforce.
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the ruling had promise even though judges concluded the sexual-orientation discrimination isn’t unlawful under Title VII.
“I am actually encouraged by the court’s recognition that there is no principled reason to exclude sexual orientation discrimination from Title VII, and by their support for ‘en banc’ review,” Minter said. “Courts are finally taking these claims seriously, and I expect that we will see more and more positive decisions, hopefully including a positive ‘en banc’ decision from the 11th Circuit.”