The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently settled its first transgender discrimination lawsuit, which marks one of only two lawsuits ever filed by the EEOC alleging sex discrimination against a transgender individual. Lakeland Eye Clinic, a Florida based organization, will pay a former employee $150,000 to resolve claims of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The EEOC's lawsuit alleged that Lakeland Eye Clinic discriminated based on sex by firing its Director of Hearing Services after she began to present as a woman and informed the defendant that she was transgender, despite the fact that the employee had performed her duties satisfactorily throughout her employment. The complaint alleged that the action was taken because the former Director was transgender, transitioning from male to female, and because she did not conform to the employer's gender-based stereotypes.
EEOC General Counsel, David Lopez, described the case as a "historic settlement," which “solidifies the EEOC's commitment to enforcing the rights of transgender employees secured by Title VII." The lawsuit against Lakeland is part of the EEOC's ongoing efforts to implement its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP), which the Commission adopted in December of 2012. The SEP includes "coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII's sex discrimination provisions, as they may apply" as a top Commission enforcement priority. The other EEOC lawsuit alleging discrimination against a transgender individual, EEOC v. Harris Funeral Home, is on-going.
Moral of the Story: Employers must be mindful of issues related to gender identity and/or expression that might arise during interviewing, hiring, discipline, promotion and termination decisions and should be particularly vigilant when an employee identifies him or herself as transgender, or announces a plan to undergo a gender transition. Decisions affecting employment must be made without regard to an employee's transgender status. Employers should also carefully review existing employment policies, including dress code policies, to ensure there is no implication of gender based stereotypes.