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Title VII Protects Transgender and Transitioning Transgender Individuals in the Workplace

By Susan Baker

October 26, 2018

On March 7, 2018, the Sixth Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals, which includes Ohio, was the first federal appellate court to explicitly hold that Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination statute, extends specifically to transgender and transitioning employees.  R.G & G.R Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. March 7, 2018). This decision provides further support for the growing opinion that Title VII protects LGBT individuals in the workplace setting.  In Harris, the plaintiff, who was born male, worked as a funeral director at R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes for six years dressing as a male. The plaintiff then presented to work dressed as a female and advised her employer that she was transitioning to a female.  She was terminated because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man” and because continuing to employ the plaintiff would violate the owners and the funeral home’s religious beliefs that a person’s sex “is an immutable God-given gift.”

The Sixth Circuit ruled that the plaintiff was fired because of her failure to conform to sex stereotypes in violation of Title VII.  It held that transgender discrimination constitutes a form of unlawful discrimination because such discrimination constitutes a form of sex stereotyping, which is prohibited under Title VII.  The Court further held that the “ministerial exception” to Title VII which precludes application of employment discrimination laws such as Title VII to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers had no application to the funeral home because it wasn’t a religious organization and the plaintiff was not a ministerial employee.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision supports the current position of the EEOC that discrimination against transgender or transitioning individuals is actionable under Title VII.  While the US Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the issue, two other federal appellate courts have rendered similar decisions.  This trend should put employers on notice that discrimination against employees because they are transgender or transitioning is prohibited in Ohio under Title VII. Now is a good time to undertake a review of employee handbooks and education of supervisors and those in a position to make employment decisions regarding this emerging area of the law. 

If you have any questions or need assistance with this or any other employment related question please feel free to contact one of our CCJ employment law attorneys.

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