Articles Posted in Civil Rights Act

On October 8, 2019, the United States Supreme Court will consider three companion cases concerning whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees gay and transgender employees across the nation protection from workplace discrimination. In two cases, the Court will decide whether sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination within the meaning of Title VII. In the third, the Court will decide whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people.  The Supreme Court’s decisions to both these questions will have dramatic impact on the rights (or lack thereof) of LGBT persons throughout the country.

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The outcomes of these cases will not only have a significant impact on employees’ rights nationwide, they will also have a significant impact on the individual employee-plaintiffs in each lawsuit. For some brief background, their stories are presented below:

(1)       Bostock v. Clayton County

Institutions of higher education are often perceived as being ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of equality and progressive treatment of members of protected groups. In reality, this is not always the case — especially when it comes to women working as college coaches or as employees within the athletic departments of universities. In fact, there have been several high-profile instances of employment discrimination lawsuits within athletic departments of several “Power 5” athletic universities have made news in recent years. These high profile lawsuits have resulted in much needed increased public scrutiny of important issues of systemic discrimination within our country’s university athletic departments.   

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Perhaps most notably is the gender and sex orientation discrimination brought by a former field hockey coach and senior athletic official against the University of Iowa athletic department. In that case, Tracey Griesbaum and her partner Jane Meyer were employed by the University of Iowa’s athletic department. Griesbaum, a former field hockey coach at the University of Iowa, and Meyer, a senior department director, were romantic partners during their tenure at Iowa. Throughout their employment, both women alleged they were subjected to gender and sexual orientation discrimination by department director Gary Barta. Meyer and Griesbaum’s relationship was often scrutinized and used against them in their job performance reviews and assessments, despite being approved by administrative officials through appropriate process. Further, Meyer was passed over for promotions and paid drastically less than male coworkers who had fewer job responsibilities and less experience. 

The discrimination escalated when Griesbaum was fired in 2014. The University attributed her termination to allegations that she abused her athletes, but an extensive investigation revealed that these allegations were baseless. As a senior department director who recognized the unlawful behavior, Meyer complained about Griesbaum’s termination, explaining that it was discriminatory and unlawful, and brought up additional instances of gender discrimination occurring within the department. The following day, following her complaints, Meyer was subjected to that same discrimination when she was placed on administrative leave and transferred out of the athletic department. Following Meyer’s unlawful transfer and termination, the two former employees filed lawsuit in a Iowa state court. Through the suit, Meyer and Griesbaum argued that they had been victims of discrimination based on both gender and sexual orientation. 

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a defeat to President Donald Trump and more importantly a victory for First Amendment Rights in July, finding that the President could not block individuals on the social media platform Twitter. In the matter, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump, — F.3d –, 2019 WL 2932440 (2d Cir. July 9, 2019), the Second Circuit upheld the Southern District of New York’s ruling that the President’s Twitter account was effectively a public forum.  Based on this finding, the Court held that President Trump could not restrict certain individuals’ access to his Twitter account because to do so would constitute “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment.

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In his opinion, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker highlighted that though the account was made in 2009, before President Trump was elected, the account has become at least temporarily a government-controlled account and qualifies as a public forum. The opinion noted that the account had been used for governmental purposes in the past. This was made evident when the account was used to announce meetings with foreign leaders, or when it was used to announce the nominations of high-ranking officials, like Christopher Wray as the new Director of the FBI. Because the account was used in an “official capacity” to make announcements regarding governmental activity, the Second Circuit found that the President was likewise acting “in the same capacity when he blocks those who disagree with him.”