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EEOC Files First Sexual Orientation Discrimination Lawsuits

For the first time ever, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed lawsuits alleging that employees had been harassed as a result of their sexual orientation.  The EEOC filed the two lawsuits on March 1st.  Regardless of the eventual outcome of the cases, the filing of the suits sends a message to employers that the EEOC now considers sexual orientation a protected class under federal law.
 
The first lawsuit alleges that a gay male employee of a medical health center was subjected to harassment because of his sexual orientation.  The agency claims the employee’s manager used various anti-gay epithets and made other offensive comments about the man’s sexuality and sex life.  The employee complained to the clinic director, who responded by saying that the manager was “just doing his job” and refused to take any action to stop the harassment.  The employee eventually quit rather than endure further harassment.
 
The second lawsuit, filed against a different employer, alleges that a lesbian employee was also subject to harassment on account of her sexual orientation.  Among other activities, the employee’s supervisor made numerous comments about her sexual orientation, blew a kiss at her, and circled his tongue in a suggestive manner.  The employee was terminated after complaining to management.
 
The EEOC brought the lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.  “Sex” has been traditionally understood to mean gender and not sexual orientation.  Thus, these lawsuits are a marked departure from the way that Title VII has been interpreted since its adoption into law. 
 
While many states and municipalities prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, employers need to be aware that the EEOC is now pursuing sexual orientation discrimination claims.  Managers and supervisors should be counseled on handling claims of sexual orientation discrimination.  If you have questions about the EEOC’s lawsuits or about how to train managers and supervisors to respond to such claims, contact a member of MacDonald Illig’s Employment and Labor practice group.