The following case applied Title VII protections to homosexual and transgender employees.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
BOSTOCK v. CLAYTON COUNTY, 590 U.S. ___, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020)
(Case Syllabus edited by the Author)
Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court.
In each of these cases, an employer allegedly fired a long-time employee simply for being homosexual or transgender. Clayton County, Georgia, fired Gerald Bostock for conduct “unbecoming” a county employee shortly after he began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Altitude Express fired Donald Zarda days after he mentioned being gay. And R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes fired Aimee Stephens, who presented as a male when she was hired, after she informed her employer that she planned to “live and work full-time as a woman.” Each employee sued, alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Eleventh Circuit held that Title VII does not prohibit employers from firing employees for being gay and so Mr. Bostock’s suit could be dismissed as a matter of law. The Second and Sixth Circuits, however, allowed the claims of Mr. Zarda and Ms. Stephens, respectively, to proceed.
Held: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.
(a) Title VII makes it “unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a)(1). The straightforward application of Title VII’s terms interpreted in accord with their ordinary public meaning at the time of their enactment resolves these cases.
(1) The parties concede that the term “sex” in 1964 referred to the biological distinctions between male and female. And “the ordinary meaning of ‘because of’ is ‘by reason of’ or ‘on account of,’ ” University of Tex. Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 350. That term incorporates the but-for causation standard, id., at 346, 360, which, for Title VII, means that a defendant cannot avoid liability just by citing some other factor that contributed to its challenged employment action. The term “discriminate” meant “[t]o make a difference in treatment or favor (of one as compared with others).” Webster’s New International Dictionary 745. In so-called “disparate treatment” cases, this Court has held that the difference in treatment based on sex must be intentional. See, e.g., Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust, 487 U.S. 977, 986. And the statute’s repeated use of the term “individual” means that the focus is on “[a] particular being as distinguished from a class.” Webster’s New International Dictionary, at 1267. .
(2) These terms generate the following rule: An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It makes no difference if other factors besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision or that the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. A statutory violation occurs if an employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee. Because discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex, an employer who intentionally penalizes an employee for being homosexual or transgender also violates Title VII. There is no escaping the role intent plays: Just as sex is necessarily a but-for cause when an employer discriminates against homosexual or transgender employees, an employer who discriminates on these grounds inescapably intends to rely on sex in its decision making.
(b) Three leading precedents confirm what the statute’s plain terms suggest. In Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542, a company was held to have violated Title VII by refusing to hire women with young children, despite the fact that the discrimination also depended on being a parent of young children and the fact that the company favored hiring women over men. In Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702, an employer’s policy of requiring women to make larger pension fund contributions than men because women tend to live longer was held to violate Title VII, notwithstanding the policy’s evenhandedness between men and women as groups. And in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75, a male plaintiff alleged a triable Title VII claim for sexual harassment by co-workers who were members of the same sex.
The lessons these cases hold are instructive here. First, it is irrelevant what an employer might call its discriminatory practice, how others might label it, or what else might motivate it. In Manhart, the employer might have called its rule a “life expectancy” adjustment, and in Phillips, the employer could have accurately spoken of its policy as one based on “motherhood.” But such labels and additional intentions or motivations did not make a difference there, and they cannot make a difference here. When an employer fires an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it necessarily intentionally discriminates against that individual in part because of sex. Second, the plaintiff’s sex need not be the sole or primary cause of the employer’s adverse action. In Phillips, Manhart, and Oncale, the employer easily could have pointed to some other, nonprotected trait and insisted it was the more important factor in the adverse employment outcome. Here, too, it is of no significance if another factor, such as the plaintiff’s attraction to the same sex or presentation as a different sex from the one assigned at birth, might also be at work, or even play a more important role in the employer’s decision. Finally, an employer cannot escape liability by demonstrating that it treats males and females comparably as groups. Manhart is instructive here. An employer who intentionally fires an individual homosexual or transgender employee in part because of that individual’s sex violates the law even if the employer is willing to subject all male and female homosexual or transgender employees to the same rule.
(c) The employers do not dispute that they fired their employees for being homosexual or transgender. Rather, they contend that even intentional discrimination against employees based on their homosexual or transgender status is not a basis for Title VII liability. But their statutory text arguments have already been rejected by this Court’s precedents. And none of their other contentions about what they think the law was meant to do, or should do, allow for ignoring the law as it is.
(1) The employers assert that it should make a difference that plaintiffs would likely respond in conversation that they were fired for being gay or transgender and not because of sex. But conversational conventions do not control Title VII’s legal analysis, which asks simply whether sex is a but-for cause. Nor is it a defense to insist that intentional discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status is not intentional discrimination based on sex. An employer who discriminates against homosexual or transgender employees necessarily and intentionally applies sex-based rules. Nor does it make a difference that an employer could refuse to hire a gay or transgender individual without learning that person’s sex. By intentionally setting out a rule that makes hiring turn on sex, the employer violates the law, whatever he might know or not know about individual applicants. The employers also stress that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex, and that if Congress wanted to address these matters in Title VII, it would have referenced them specifically. But when Congress chooses not to include any exceptions to a broad rule, this Court applies the broad rule. Finally, the employers suggest that because the policies at issue have the same adverse consequences for men and women, a stricter causation test should apply. That argument unavoidably comes down to a suggestion that sex must be the sole or primary cause of an adverse employment action under Title VII, a suggestion at odds with the statute.
(2) The employers contend that few in 1964 would have expected Title VII to apply to discrimination against homosexual and transgender persons. But legislative history has no bearing here, where no ambiguity exists about how Title VII’s terms apply to the facts. See Milner v. Department of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 574. While it is possible that a statutory term that means one thing today or in one context might have meant something else at the time of its adoption or might mean something different in another context, the employers do not seek to use historical sources to illustrate that the meaning of any of Title VII’s language has changed since 1964 or that the statute’s terms ordinarily carried some missed message. Instead, they seem to say when a new application is both unexpected and important, even if it is clearly commanded by existing law, the Court should merely point out the question, refer the subject back to Congress, and decline to enforce the law’s plain terms in the meantime. This Court has long rejected that sort of reasoning. And the employers’ new framing may only add new problems and leave the Court with more than a little law to overturn. Finally, the employers turn to naked policy appeals, suggesting that the Court proceed without the law’s guidance to do what it thinks best. That is an invitation that no court should ever take up.
No. 17–1618, 723 Fed. Appx. 964, reversed and remanded; No. 17–1623, 883 F.3d 100, and No. 18–107, 884 F.3d 560, affirmed.
Gorsuch, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined. Kavanaugh, J., filed a dissenting opinion.
1 Together with No. 17–1623, Altitude Express, Inc., et al. v. Zarda et al., as Co-Independent Executors of the Estate of Zarda, on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and No. 18–107, R. G. & G. R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
Source: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/590/17-1618/ August 4, 2020