EEOC Files Two Lawsuits Challenging Sexual Orientation Discrimination

by Anne Zachritz

In two separate lawsuits filed yesterday, the EEOC alleged that a gay male employee and a lesbian employee were subject to a hostile work environment based on sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination, among other things, on the basis of sex but does not expressly list sexual orientation as a prohibited basis for discrimination. As the federal law enforcement agency charged with interpreting and enforcing Title VII, the EEOC has determined that harassment and other discrimination because of sexual orientation does constitute prohibited sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.

In one case, filed in federal court in Pennsylvania, the EEOC alleged that a gay male employee was subjected to harassment because of his sexual orientation. According to the EEOC, the employee’s manager repeatedly used anti-gay epithets and made other offensive comments about the employee’s sexuality. The employee complained, but the employer declined to take any action to stop the harassment. After several weeks of enduring harassing comments, the employee quit his job.

In the other case, filed in federal court in Maryland, the EEOC alleged that a lesbian employee was harassed by her supervisor because of her sexual orientation, making numerous comments such as “I want to turn you back into a woman”. The employee complained to management and also called the employee help line. In response, the employee was fired.

Addressing sexual orientation discrimination is one of the EEOC’s six national priorities in its Strategic Enforcement Plan of federal employment laws. EEOC General Counsel David Lopez stated that “With the filing of these two suits, [the] EEOC is continuing to solidify its commitment to ensuring that individuals are not discriminated against in workplaces because of their sexual orientation. While some federal courts have begun to recognize this right under Title VII, it is critical that all courts do so.”

So what does this mean for employers? Many states already prohibit discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and many employers already prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in their company’s equal employment opportunity policy. Regardless, employers should always treat all complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation seriously and equally. Employers should promptly investigate any complaint of discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and take appropriate action if warranted.

For information on investigating complaints of workplace discrimination, harassment or retaliation, please contact Anne Zachritz at 272-9241 or

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