BY CHRIS JOHNSON, WASHINGTON BLADE
The legal team behind a lawsuit seeking redress for a Georgia worker allegedly fired for being a lesbian is poised to seek review from the U.S. Supreme Court, potentially set up a decision establishing a nationwide prohibition on anti-gay workplace discrimination.
The plan came about after the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta refused on Thursday to rehear “en banc,” or before the full court, a three-judge panel decision against Jameka Evans, a security guard who claims she was targeted for harassment and effectively terminated from her job at Georgia Regional Hospital for being a lesbian.
In March, the three-judge panel ruled Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination on the basis of sex, affords no protections to Evans, rebuking arguments sexual-orientation discrimination is a form a sex discrimination.
Cited as reasoning for the decision was legal precedent in the circuit, such as the 1979 decision in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp. On Thursday, the full 11th Circuit denied the request filed by Lambda Legal to reconsider that decision “en banc” in a per curiam decision signed by U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez, who’s sitting on the 11th Circuit by designation. “The Petition(s) for Rehearing are DENIED and no Judge in regular active service on the Court having requested that the Court be polled on rehearing en banc (Rule 35, Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure), the Petition(s) for Rehearing En Banc are DENIED,” the decision said.
The 11th Circuit decision against Evans and the refusal to rehear the case “en banc” defies a growing body of casework that has determined sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace is unlawful under current law based on the prohibition of sex discrimination under Title VII. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with enforcing federal employment laws, ruled in 2015 sexual-orientation is a form a sex discrimination in the Baldwin v. Foxx case. That decision followed the commission’s 2012 decision in Macy v. Holder that determined transgender discrimination is illegal under Title VII.
A number of trial courts and state courts have accepted that line of legal reasoning. In April, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals during an “en banc” review of a lawsuit filed by fired lesbian teacher Kimberly Hively determined her termination was unlawful, becoming the first federal appeals court to find sexual-orientation discrimination is sex discrimination.
Now that the 11th Circuit had ruled the opposite way on the Title VII and all legal remedies in that legal circuit are exhausted, a circuit split has emerged between the 7th and 11th Circuit — the exact kind of situation that would make the Supreme Court step in. Greg Nevins, counsel to Evans and Employment Fairness Project Director for Lambda Legal, told the Washington Blade what was initially not a clear circuit split among the courts “all changed” as result of the 11th Circuit decision not to rehear the Evans case.
“It’s unbelievable that they did this because they had the oldest — and lamest — precedent of any of them, and to then say, ‘We’re good here,’ is really unthinkable,” Nevins said. Despite his disappointment, Nevins said the “crystal clear” circuit split leaves a path forward that could lead to the Supreme Court issuing a ruling to make nationwide guidance. “We’re set up to file for cert before the Supreme Court and ask them to resolve this once and for all and say on a national level that you cannot file people under federal law for being lesbian, gay or bisexual,” Nevins said.
Asked by the Blade when the petition would be filed, Nevins said the legal team is seeking consultation with the plaintiff and others, but nonetheless “our current thinking is they’ve given us the green light, they’ve actually, you could say, forced our hand.” But if the Supreme Court rules against protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual workers under Title VII as a result of the review, the decision could undo the sexual-orientation protections found by some courts and the EEOC. Lambda Legal seeks to take up the issue with the Supreme Court two years after its decision in favor of marriage equality nationwide, but shortly after the confirmation of U.S. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The Trump-appointed justice — along with U.S. Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — dissented in a recent ruling reaffirming that marriage-equality decision in a case overturning a birth certificate decision for lesbian parents by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The court with Gorsuch on the bench also agreed to take up a lawsuit filed by Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, which is asserting a First Amendment right to be able to refuse services for religious reasons to same-sex couples seeking a wedding cake. Recalling Gorsuch’s admiration for the late U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who despite his anti-gay dissents agreed in the 1998 Oncale decision Title VII should be read broadly, Nevins was the optimistic about the outcome of this case before the Supreme Court and said Gorsuch should pay heed to that decision.
“If Justice Gorsuch is truly a disciple of Justice Scalia and really believes sort of the same textualist arguments that Justice Scalia was a champion of, then we should be just fine,” Nevins said.