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Pennsylvania Court Recognizes Sexual-Orientation Harassment Claim Under Title VII

| Dec 16, 2016 | Cases of Interest

In August of this year, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission succeeded on a Title VII claim on behalf of an employee who was discriminated against due to sexual orientation. We wrote about that opinion in a previous blog post. Last month, they achieved a similar victory in Pennsylvania, marking the latest in a recent trend of federal courts across the nation recognizing that LGBT employees are subject to all of Title VII’s protections.

The case, EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, was a constructive discharge case brought by a gay telemarketer. Constructive discharge cases differ from regular termination cases, in that employees in a constructive discharge action quit the job on their own volition due to the intolerable workplace conditions created by discrimination. The harassment in these cases must be so severe or pervasive that they “change the working conditions” of the person’s employment. In Scott Medical, the plaintiff’s telemarketing manager referred to him as a “fag,” “queer,” and other slurs three to four times a week while he was on the job.

The employer argued that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Like other cases around the country, the Pennsylvania court relied on the Price-Waterhouse doctrine. This doctrine states that discriminating against employees for failing to conform to stereotypes about how members of certain genders should behave, is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. The EEOC argued, and the court agreed, that discriminating against someone based on the gender of their preferred romantic partner, necessarily involves stereotypes about “proper” roles in sexual relationships-that men should only be sexually attracted to women, and not men.

The Pennsylvania court’s opinion follows a growing trend of similar cases recognizing causes of action for sexual orientation discrimination under federal statutes: including federal courts in Alabama, Oregon, the District of Columbia, California and, of course, Florida. While the growing recognition of sexual orientation discrimination cases is relatively new, the court did not believe its opinion was pushing the limits of Title VII. It noted, “[t]hat someone can be subject to a barrage of insults, humiliations, hostility and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment, based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or a woman, is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate.”