United States executive agencies are practically always on the same page when presenting to the public. So, it is incredibly unusual to see two such agencies taking positions directly contrary to one another in pending litigation. This, however, is exactly the current situation between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), chaired by Victoria Lipnic.
Last week, Mr. Sessions issued a memo setting out the Justice Department’s stance that Title VII does not protect individuals against discrimination on the basis of “gender identity per se, including discrimination against transgender individuals.” The memo states that the DOJ is now taking the position that “sex” (as used in Title VII) only means “biologically male or female.” This is a reversal of its 2014 policy under then-Attorney General Eric Holder that the word “sex” in the statute “extends to claims of discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity, including transgender status.”
Notably, the DOJ’s position now is directly contrary to the EEOC’s position on the matter. The EEOC’s position is that transgender status is protected under Title VII. In fact, the EEOC just filed suit against a tire company in Denver over alleged discrimination against a job applicant on the basis of transgender status. This is consistent with the EEOC’s 2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan, which includes “[p]rotecting lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination based on sex” as a top enforcement priority.
The DOJ has also come out swinging against the EEOC in a pending lawsuit on this very issue. In a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the plaintiff, a skydiver, claimed that his employer fired him because of his sexual orientation. A three-judge Court of Appeals panel previously ruled that the instructor had no claim for sex discrimination under Title VII. However, the full court (as opposed to a three-judge panel) has agreed to review that decision.
So, the Second Circuit then asked the EEOC to file an amicus (“friend of the Court”) brief in the case. The EEOC argued that sexual orientation discrimination claims “fall squarely within Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex.” Among other reasons, the EEOC’s brief states that any line drawn “between sexual orientation discrimination and discrimination based on sex stereotypes is unworkable and leads to absurd results.”
Not to be outdone, the DOJ also filed an amicus brief with the Second Circuit in opposition to the EEOC (even though the Second Circuit had not asked for the DOJ’s input). The DOJ argued that this issue has been “settled for decades” and that Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination “as a matter of law.” The DOJ went on to state that the question of whether “sexual orientation discrimination should be prohibited by statute, regulations, or employer actions” is one of “policy” and “[a]ny efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts.” The Court heard oral arguments in the case in late September 2017, with the EEOC and DOJ completely at odds.
This is not the only case where the DOJ has taken a position adverse to the EEOC’s position. In a well-known case involving a Colorado cake shop which refused to make a cake for a gay couple in 2012 known as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Civil Rights Commission (which is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court), the Colorado Civil Rights Commission relied on a state statute that prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations to order the cake shop to stop discriminating against same-sex couples. The shop owners contend that violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
The DOJ has recently filed an amicus brief in favor of the cake shop owners. The DOJ argues that baking a cake for money is “expressive conduct” and “association” that raises First Amendment concerns, and a state’s interest in protecting gay residents is not strong enough to justify “compelling” this “creative process” for same-sex couples. While not an employment case, this position is clearly contrary to the EEOC’s position on these issues when the workplace is involved.
It seems that the EEOC and the DOJ will remain at odds on these issues in the coming months (and possibly years). It will be interesting to watch how this impacts courts’ analysis in these cases and whether any enforcement efforts or positions will change as a result.