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Sixth Circuit Reverses Grant of Summary Judgement in Trans Bias Case

Today, the Sixth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment in a trans bias case, holding that transgender discrimination was protected under Title VII, and that the employer (a funeral home) could not avail itself of any “religious defense” to the former employee’s discrimination claim. Some excerpts follow – there is also a lengthy section on why Title VII outweighs the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The opinion is online at: Some excerpts follow (emphasis added):

EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., No. 16-2424 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018)

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit.
No. 2:14-cv-13710-Sean F. Cox, District Judge.
Argued: October 4, 2017
Decided and Filed: March 7, 2018
Before: MOORE, WHITE, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.


Aimee Stephens (formerly known as Anthony Stephens) was born biologically male. While living and presenting as a man, she worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. (“the Funeral Home”), a closely held for-profit corporation that operates three funeral homes in Michigan. Stephens was terminated from the Funeral Home by its owner and operator, Thomas Rost, shortly after Stephens informed Rost that she intended to transition from male to female and would represent herself and dress as a woman while at work. Stephens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which investigated Stephens’s allegations that she had been terminated as a result of unlawful sex discrimination. During the course of its investigation, the EEOC learned that the Funeral Home provided its male public-facing employees with clothing that complied with the company’s dress code while female public-facing employees received no such allowance. The EEOC subsequently brought suit against the Funeral Home in which the EEOC charged the Funeral Home with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) by (1) terminating Stephens’s employment on the basis of her transgender or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes; and (2) administering a discriminatory-clothing-allowance policy.

The parties submitted dueling motions for summary judgment. The EEOC argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on both of its claims. For its part, the Funeral Home argued that it did not violate Title VII by requiring Stephens to comply with a sex-specific dress code that it asserts equally burdens male and female employees, and, in the alternative, that Title VII should not be enforced against the Funeral Home because requiring the Funeral Home to employ Stephens while she dresses and represents herself as a woman would constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon Rost’s (and thereby the Funeral Home’s) sincerely held religious beliefs, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). As to the EEOC’s discriminatory-clothing-allowance claim, the Funeral Home argued that Sixth Circuit case law precludes the EEOC from bringing this claim in a complaint that arose out of Stephens’s original charge of discrimination because the Funeral Home could not reasonably expect a clothing-allowance claim to emerge from an investigation into Stephens’s termination.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Funeral Home on both claims. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that (1) the Funeral Home engaged in unlawful discrimination against Stephens on the basis of her sex; (2) the Funeral Home has not established that applying Title VII’s proscriptions against sex discrimination to the Funeral Home would substantially burden Rost’s religious exercise, and therefore the Funeral Home is not entitled to a defense under RFRA; (3) even if Rost’s religious exercise were substantially burdened, the EEOC has established that enforcing Title VII is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interest in eradicating workplace discrimination against Stephens; and (4) the EEOC may bring a discriminatory-clothing-allowance claim in this case because such an investigation into the Funeral Home’s clothing-allowance policy was reasonably expected to grow out of the original charge of sex discrimination that Stephens submitted to the EEOC. Accordingly, we REVERSE the district court’s grant of summary judgment on both the unlawful-termination and discriminatory-clothing-allowance claims, GRANT summary judgment to the EEOC on its unlawful-termination claim, and REMAND the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. . . .

. . . 2. Discrimination on the Basis of Transgender/Transitioning Status

We also hold that discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status violates Title VII. The district court rejected this theory of liability at the motion-to-dismiss stage, holding that “transgender or transsexual status is currently not a protected class under Title VII.” R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 100 F. Supp. 3d at 598. The EEOC and Stephens argue that the district court’s determination was erroneous because Title VII protects against sex stereotyping and “transgender discrimination is based on the non-conformance of an individual’s gender identity and appearance with sex-based norms or expectations”; therefore, “discrimination because of an individual’s transgender status is always based on gender stereotypes: the stereotype that individuals will conform their appearance and behavior-whether their dress, the name they use, or other ways they present themselves-to the sex assigned them at birth.” Appellant Br. at 24; see also Intervenor Br. at 10-15. The Funeral Home, in turn, argues that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on a person’s transgender or transitioning status because “sex,” for the purposes of Title VII, “refers to a binary characteristic for which there are only two classifications, male and female,” and “which classification arises in a person based on their chromosomally driven physiology and reproductive function.” Appellee Br. at 26. According to the Funeral Home, transgender status refers to “a person’s self-assigned ‘gender identity'” rather than a person’s sex, and therefore such a status is not protected under Title VII. Id. at 26-27.

For two reasons, the EEOC and Stephens have the better argument. First, it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex. The Seventh Circuit’s method of “isolat[ing] the significance of the plaintiff’s sex to the employer’s decision” to determine whether Title VII has been triggered illustrates this point. See Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmty. Coll. of Ind., 853 F.3d 339, 345 (7th Cir. 2017). In Hively, the Seventh Circuit determined that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation-a different question than the issue before this court-by asking whether the plaintiff, a self-described lesbian, would have been fired “if she had been a man married to a woman (or living with a woman, or dating a woman) and everything else had stayed the same.” Id. If the answer to that question is no, then the plaintiff has stated a “paradigmatic sex discrimination” claim. See id. Here, we ask whether Stephens would have been fired if Stephens had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code. The answer quite obviously is no. This, in and of itself, confirms that Stephens’s sex impermissibly affected Rost’s decision to fire Stephens.

The court’s analysis in Schroer v. Billington , 577 F. Supp. 2d 293 (D.D.C. 2008), provides another useful way of framing the inquiry. There, the court noted that an employer who fires an employee because the employee converted from Christianity to Judaism has discriminated against the employee “because of religion,” regardless of whether the employer feels any animus against either Christianity or Judaism, because “[d]iscrimination ‘because of religion’ easily encompasses discrimination because of a change of religion.'” Id. at 306 (emphasis in original). By the same token, discrimination “because of sex” inherently includes discrimination against employees because of a change in their sex. See id. at 307-08.

Here, there is evidence that Rost at least partially based his employment decision on Stephens’s desire to change her sex: Rost justified firing Stephens by explaining that Rost “sincerely believes that ‘the Bible teaches that a person’s sex (whether male or female) is an immutable God-given gift and that it is wrong for a person to deny his or her God-given sex,'” and “the Bible teaches that it is wrong for a biological male to deny his sex by dressing as a woman.” R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 201 F. Supp. 3d at 848 (quoting R. 55 (Def.’s Statement of Facts ¶ 28) (Page ID #1687); R. 53-3 (Rost 30(b)(6) Dep. ¶ 44) (Page ID #936)). As amici point out in their briefing, such statements demonstrate that “Ms. Stephens’s sex necessarily factored into the decision to fire her.” Equality Ohio Br. at 12; cf. Hively, 853 F.3d at 359 (Flaum, J., concurring) (arguing discrimination against a female employee because she is a lesbian is necessarily “motivated, in part, by . . . the employee’s sex” because the employer is discriminating against the employee “because she is (A) a woman who is (B) sexually attracted to women”).

The Funeral Home argues that Schroer‘s analogy is “structurally flawed” because, unlike religion, a person’s sex cannot be changed; it is, instead, a biologically immutable trait. Appellee Br. at 30. We need not decide that issue; even if true, the Funeral Home’s point is immaterial. As noted above, the Supreme Court made clear in Price Waterhouse that Title VII requires “gender [to] be irrelevant to employment decisions.” 490 U.S. at 240. Gender (or sex) is not being treated as “irrelevant to employment decisions” if an employee’s attempt or desire to change his or her sex leads to an adverse employment decision.

Second, discrimination against transgender persons necessarily implicates Title VII’s proscriptions against sex stereotyping. As we recognized in Smith, a transgender person is someone who “fails to act and/or identify with his or her gender”-i.e., someone who is inherently “gender non-conforming.” 378 F.3d at 575; see also id. at 568 (explaining that transgender status is characterized by the American Psychiatric Association as “a disjunction between an individual’s sexual organs and sexual identity”). Thus, an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of transgender status without imposing its stereotypical notions of how sexual organs and gender identity ought to align. There is no way to disaggregate discrimination on the basis of transgender status from discrimination on the basis of gender non-conformity, and we see no reason to try.