The Fifth Circuit Refuses to Extend Title VII to Sexual Orientation or Transgender Status

downloadOver the past two years, the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits have construed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of either sexual orientation or transgender status.

Last year, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, when confronted with the issue, referenced the other circuits and ruled that it assumed that an employee’s “status as a transgender woman place[d] here under the protections of Title VII.”  See Wittmer v. Phillips 66 Co., 304 F. Supp. 3d 627, 634 (S.D. Tex. 2018). This past week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district’s grant of summary judgment against the transgender employee, but clarified that in the Fifth Circuit (which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi), Title VII affords no protections against discrimination by employers on the basis of transgender status or sexual orientation.

Specifically, the Fifth Circuit invoked its own opinion from 1979 stating that it remains the binding  precedent in this circuit.  See Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp., 97 F.2d 936 (5th Cir. 1979) (holding that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).  Furthermore, despite the amicus briefs from the EEOC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights asking the Fifth Circuit to hold that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of transgender status, the court of appeals did not grant their request.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for Phillips 66 because the employee failed to present sufficient evidence to support a prima facie case of discrimination, and because the employee failed to present a genuine issue of material fact concerning pretext.  The evidence in this cased showed that Wittmer conditional job offer was revoked because the background check showed that she had been terminated by her previous employer, which contradicted her representations to Phillips 66 during her job interview.

BOTTOM LINE: The question of whether Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act covers LGBTQ employees continues to percolate in the courts, and at least three petitions involving this issue are pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.  While the law in this area continues to develop, it may be wise for companies confronted with this issue to take a cue from Phillips 66, which sidestepped the issue of transgender protections under Title VII and instead focused on the lack of evidence that the employee experienced any discrimination in its job application process and that the company had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason to revoke the job offer.

Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice.  Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation.  You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.