New York City Mandates Bathroom Access Consistent with Gender Identity

transgender bathroom accessThis week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order requiring city agencies to ensure all employees and members of the public can use the restrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, protecting transgender and gender non-conforming individuals from discrimination in public facilities.

“Every New Yorker should feel safe and welcome in our city—and this starts with our city buildings,” de Blasio said. “Access to bathrooms and other single-sex facilities is a fundamental human right that should not be restricted or denied to anyone. New York City is proud to enforce one of the strongest human rights laws in the country, which protects the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to live freely and with respect.”

Under the new measure, effective immediately, individuals will not have to provide identification or other proof in order to access bathrooms at any city-owned building, including city offices, public parks, playgrounds, pools, recreation centers and certain museums. It does not require agencies to build single-stall restrooms or locker rooms, though as OSHA noted over the summer in its guidelines on provisions for transgender employees, access to single-occupancy gender-neutral facilities is a safe, easy way to ensure compliance with workplace safety and nondiscrimination policies.

Ensuring a safe and compliant workplace for transgender employees is an increasingly urgent concern for risk managers of public entities and private enterprise alike. The OSHA guidelines, executive orders issued by President Barack Obama, and other emerging guidance from labor-related agencies make clear that federal and state governments are issuing more protections for transgender individuals, and the enforcement actions and reputational damage pose significant risk.

As I reported in the September issue of Risk Management, the president’s April executive order banned federal contractors who do more than $10,000 a year in federal business from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Such federal contractors employ more than 20% of the American workforce—28 million workers. The Office of Personnel Management has issued a comprehensive guide for these entities to best ensure that they are compliant and treating all employees with dignity and respect while preventing discrimination in the workplace. OPM also called for all federal agencies to review their anti-discrimination policies as well. In addition to restroom access, other issues addressed—and likely to face increasing scrutiny—include employment practices such as hiring and promotion, and the consistent use of preferred pronouns, the subject of a recent EEOC ruling against the Department of the Army.

“One of the encouraging things we’re seeing is that people are not waiting for the laws to change,” said Victoria Nolan, risk and benefits manager at Clean Water Services, who draws upon both her professional background and personal experience to offer private consulting services on transgender and diversity issues in the workplace. “There are companies that are being proactive. In some cases, for example, companies that are functioning in multiple states realize that it is extremely difficult to have a variety of offices and just comply with state law, so they are starting to look at the probable end results and move in that direction now.”

While many issues regarding transgender rights continue to spark controversy in legislatures across the country, almost all of the nation’s 20 largest cities have state or local laws allowing transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. As CBS reported, Houston voters debated—though ultimately defeated—an ordinance that would have established nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people, while just last week, South Dakota’s governor vetoed a bill that would have made the state the first in the U.S. to approve a law requiring transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their sex at birth rather than their gender identification.

Following our previous coverage, “Developing a Strategy for Transgender Workers,” there will also be a hot topic session of the same name at the upcoming RIMS Annual Conference and Exhibition in San Diego. Led by Victoria Nolan and employment attorney Liani Reeves, the session will take place on Monday, April 11.

EEOC Settles its First Transgender Suit Filed Under Title VII

As we previously reported, the EEOC has decided to pursue protections for transgender workers under Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination and harassment as part of its strategic mission, even though no federal statute, including Title VII, explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

To this end, the EEOC filed two lawsuits on Sept. 25, 2014 on behalf of transgender workers –EEOC v. Lakeland Eye Clinic, P.A. (Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division) and EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. (Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division) — on behalf of transgender workers.

On April 9, Judge Mary S. Scriven of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida approved a consent decree entered into between the EEOC and Lakeland Eye Clinic, P.A. settling one of the two lawsuits. The terms of the Consent Decree, including the nature of the programmatic relief required by the EEOC make it crystal clear that this is an area that the EEOC will continue to pursue in 2015 and beyond.

Case Background

In EEOC v. Lakeland Eye Clinic P.A., the EEOC claimed that an organization of healthcare professionals fired an employee because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes. The complaint alleged that even though the claimant had been performing her duties satisfactorily, she was terminated soon after she began presenting as a woman and informed her employer that she was transgender.

Terms of the Consent Decree

The EEOC and Lakeland Eye Clinic, P.A. reached a settlement during the course of discovery. In full and complete settlement of the claims raised by the EEOC, the parties entered into a Consent Decree which Judge Scriven approved on April 9. The following are highlights of the terms of the Consent Decree:

  • Total payment of $150,000 to the aggrieved employee as well as a neutral letter of reference
  • Revised employer discrimination and harassment policies stating that no employee will be terminated (or harassed) “based on an employee’s status as transgender, because of an employee’s transition from one gender to another, and/or because the employee does not conform to the Defendant’s sex or gender-based preferences, expectations or stereotypes”
  • Managerial and employee training including “an explanation of the prohibition against transgender/gender stereotype discrimination under Title VII” and “guidance on handling transgender/gender-stereotype complaints made by applicants, employees and customers.”
  • Monthly reports to the EEOC every six months certifying compliance with the terms of the Consent Decree
  • Two years of monitoring by the EEOC, including the right to conduct workplace inspections with 24 hours’ notice

Implications for Employers

The theories of liability articulated by the EEOC in this case closely follow the EEOC’s prior landmark administrative ruling titled Macy v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (April 23, 2012) (previously discussed here) in which it held that transgender individuals may state a claim for sex discrimination under Title VII.

We expect that EEOC-initiated ligation on behalf of transgendered individuals will continue to increase given the Commission’s enforcement strategy and desire to “push the envelope” in this area. As we previously advised, employers must be mindful of issues related to gender identity and/or expression that might arise during interviewing, hiring, discipline, promotion and termination decisions. Employers should be particularly vigilant when an employee identifies as transgender, or announces a plan to undergo a gender transition. Stay tuned!

This blog was previously posted on the Seyfarth Shaw website here.

EEOC Issues $245 million Probable Cause Determination against NYC

On April 1, the EEOC’s New York District Office issued a Determination finding probable cause to believe that the City of New York’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) violated Title VII and the Equal Pay Act based on its “pattern of wage suppression and subjective promotion based on…sex, race, and national origin.” In the accompanying conciliation agreement proposal, the EEOC demanded numerous forms of programmatic relief from DCAS (e.g., EEOC monitoring and notice postings) as well as back pay, future pay, compensatory damages and legal fees and costs totaling more than $246 million. For any employer, the EEOC’s position is one that ought to be heeded for “lessons learned….”

The Charge

The Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO Local 1180 filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC against DCAS in 2014 on behalf of a class of African-American and Hispanic women who were (or still are) employed as administrative managers in various NYC agencies. The Union asserted that a discriminatory pattern of wage suppression on the basis of sex, race and national origin exists as well as facially neutral policies governing assignment, promotion and wages that have a disparate impact on female African-American and Hispanic administrative managers. To this end, the Union alleged that the minimum salary for administrative managers—which is disproportionately paid to Hispanic and African-American women—has been frozen for many years whereas the maximum salary for administrative managers (positions held primarily by Caucasian males) has increased significantly.

In addition to arguing that the Union did not have standing to file a charge with the EEOC, DCAS denied the allegations of discrimination and provided “a small sample of administrative managers along with their gender, race, agency, salary, and description of their job duties in an attempt to demonstrate that administrative managers do not perform equal work.”

EEOC’s Determination and Proposed Conciliation Agreement

The EEOC agreed with the Union, opening that DCAS’ evidence “was insufficient” and did “not withstand scrutiny.” The EEOC also alleged that DCAS declined to provide certain requested information and “the Commission determines that the silence is an admission of the allegations in the charge, and exercises its discretion to draw an adverse inference with respect to the allegations.”

In addition to its Determination, the EEOC provided a proposed Conciliation Agreement to resolve the charge against DCAS. The Conciliation Agreement, were DCAS to accept it, would require DCAS to, at a minimum, award raises via “an annual step process;” increase the minimum salary for all administrative managers; and agree to “proper oversight, opportunity and enforcement of equal employment,” which would include the appointment of an EEO monitor; amended job descriptions with a revised posting and bidding process; and provision of tuition assistance to union members to “level the playing field” for union members so that they can “effectively compete with their white male colleagues in the workplace.”

With respect to monetary damages the EEOC demanded $188,682,531.00 in back pay, a new starting salary for administrative managers of no less than $92,117.00, $56,922,000.00 in compensatory damages under Title VII, and no less than $1,000,000.00 in legal fees and costs.

The EEOC gave DCAS until April 17, 2015 to provide a written counter-proposal or advise if it did not wish to engage in conciliation. Absent what it deems a “reasonable written counter-proposal” from DCAS, the EEOC warned that it may deem conciliation futile and fail conciliation.

Implications or Employers

The headline grabbing dollar amount requested by the EEOC in this proposed conciliation agreement is certainly staggering and catapults this case into the “one to watch” column. Furthermore, this confirms what we predicted in our EEOC-Initiated Litigation Report – that the EEOC is going to focus this year on recovering large settlements and verdicts to try to make up for low recoveries in fiscal year 2014. As DCAS has already publically stated that it intends on participating in the conciliation process, we will be sure to monitor developments. Stay tuned!

This post can also be found on the EEOC Countdown blog here.


Amicus Supports Government’s Position in Mach Mining vs. EEOC

On Nov. 3, six advocacy groups representing the interests of workers and plaintiffs’ class action lawyers filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Mach Mining v. EEOC, No. 13-1019. A copy is here.

Authored by the Civil Rights Clinic of the Dickinson School of Law and The Impact Fund, the amicus brief represents the collective views of multiple public interest organizations, including the National Employment Lawyers Association, The Impact Fund, the American Association of Retired Person, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, Disability Rights California and Public Counsel.

The amicus brief was filed in support of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed its Reply Brief with the SCOTUS on Oct. 27, 2014. In supporting the government’s position, the amicus asserted that the brief represents the “perspective of the victims of workplace discrimination whom Title VII is intended to protect.”

Given the importance of this case and the issue presented, the new amicus brief is well worth a read by employers.

The Context and the Stakes

Mach Mining v. EEOC is a big case for employers and for government enforcement litigation. In a game-changing decision in December 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that an alleged failure to conciliate is not an affirmative defense to the merits of an employment discrimination suit brought by the EEOC.

That decision had far-reaching, real world significance to the employment community, for it means the EEOC is virtually immune from review in terms of the settlement positions it takes prior to suing employers: “pay millions or we will sue and announce it in a media release.”

We have blogged on this case at various points before, as the litigation winded through the lower courts and culminated in the precedent-setting decision of the Seventh Circuit reported at 738 F.3d 171 (7th Cir. 2013). Readers can find the previous posts here and here and here.

In essence, the Seventh Circuit determined that the EEOC’s pre-lawsuit conduct in the context of conciliation activities cannot be judicially reviewed. Subsequently, in what many SCOTUS watchers found ironic, even though the EEOC prevailed in the Seventh Circuit, the Government also backed Mach Mining’s request for SCOTUS review to resolve the disagreement among the courts of appeals regarding the EEOC’s conciliation obligations. Given the stakes, the SCOTUS accepted Mach Mining’s petition for certiorari in short order to resolve this issue.

Amicus Briefs for the Defense

Employer groups have lined up behind Mach Mining to support reversal of the Seventh Circuit’s decision. Seyfarth Shaw LLP submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the American Insurance Association in Mach Mining. For blog readers interested in our amicus brief, a copy is here.

Amicus Brief Filed In Support of the EEOC

The amicus submission to the Supreme Court asserts that interpreting Title VII to allow judicial review of conciliation efforts by the EEOC would harm alleged victims of discrimination by violating the mandate of the statute that conciliation remain confidential. Judicial review, the amicus brief asserts, would chill full and frank settlement discussions; expose sensitive information about pre-lawsuit negotiations to the public, and hurt the cases of allegedly injured workers because federal judges might be potentially influenced by irrelevant settlement communications. The amicus brief also argues that if the SCOTUS interprets the statute to allow judicial review of pre-lawsuit conciliation efforts by the EEOC, dismissal is an overly harsh remedy where those efforts are determined to be inadequate (and instead the parties should be ordered to engage in further settlement negotiations).

The point of the amicus brief about compromising the impartiality of federal judges—by exposing the court to settlement discussions in conciliation—is somewhat surprising. Federal judges conduct mediations and settlement conferences as a matter of course, and are “exposed” to settlement discussions routinely.

Next Up on the Docket

Mach Mining’s answering brief is due on Nov. 26, 2014, and then the SCOTUS will set the case for oral argument for January 2015. We will keep our readers updated as developments occur in this litigation.

This post was previously published on the Seyfarth Shaw website here.