Second Circuit Rules That Title VII Prohibits Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation

On Feb. 26, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held, in Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. (2018 WL 1040820), that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). As background, Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Although the EEOC currently agrees that sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII, only one other appeals court (the Seventh Circuit) has ruled that discrimination due to sexual orientation also violates Title VII.

The plaintiff in this case was a skydiving instructor who was fired after indicating that he was a gay man. In addition to filing an EEOC complaint, he also sued the employer, claiming violations of New York state law and Title VII. The district court dismissed the portion of the complaint that alleged a Title VII violation, and the plaintiff ultimately appealed to the Second Circuit.

During the “en banc” hearing, the Second Circuit frequently referenced the Seventh Circuit decision that had previously come to the conclusion that discrimination based on sexual orientation violates Title VII. Specifically, the Second Circuit adopted the idea that sexual orientation discrimination is basically discrimination based on sex. As such, the case was remanded to the district court to determine if the employer did, indeed, discriminate in violation of New York state law and Title VII.

Although the Second and Seventh Circuits have now come to this conclusion, a panel of the Eleventh Circuit recently came to a contrary decision. Since there is a circuit split, the Supreme Court may ultimately have to decide this issue.

The unsettled federal law, as well as the fact that roughly 20 states have their own laws protecting citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation, continues to make this issue an extremely litigious one. So employers should seek counsel if they’d like to pursue a policy that treats employees differently based on their sexual orientation.

Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. »