New York Federal Court Refuses to Split Hairs Over Whether a Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim Can Proceed Under Federal Law

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination because of sex.  It does not, however, expressly prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.  Recently, federal courts have started to disregard this distinction in favor of concluding that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination because it inherently involves gender stereotyping.  Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont, has been reluctant to find that sexual orientation discrimination is illegal under federal law, Chief Judge Katzmann of the Second Circuit explained just last month in Christiansen v. Omnicom Grp., Inc., that sexual orientation discrimination should be considered sex discrimination because “such discrimination is inherently rooted in gender stereotypes.”  A prior opinion from the Second Circuit suggested that stereotypical “notions about how men and women should behave will often necessarily blur into ideas about heterosexuality and homosexuality.”  In light of these statements from the Second Circuit, lower courts have started to accept that federal law does, in fact, prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.

Most recently, on May 3, 2017, Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to dismiss a claim for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII in Philpott v. State of New York, insisting that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination because “sexual orientation cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex.” In refusing to dismiss the claim, Judge Hellerstein stated that he “decline[d] to embrace an ‘illogical and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination. . . .”  The court viewed the plaintiff’s allegations as supporting a claim of gender stereotyping discrimination.  These allegations included statements attributed to the President of SUNY Optometry that referred to the plaintiff as “sensitive,” “flamboyant,” and “frenetic.”  This same official told the plaintiff that “separate but equal treatment of gay people might be best,” and that upon learning that plaintiff’s relationship with his domestic partner had ended, this official told the plaintiff that “this marriage, or whatever you want to call it, is a distraction to the College.”

A finding that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination as a form of sex discrimination would not affect employers and employees in states such as New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts that already prohibit such discrimination.  Nevertheless, the federal court’s decision in Philpott highlights that even high-level management officials in states like New York, where sexual orientation discrimination is already illegal, require workplace training to instill that stereotyping is discrimination, and cannot form the basis for workplace decisions.

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