Whether Title VII protects employees from discrimination based upon sexual orientation is one of the most contentious employment law issues being litigated in the federal courts today.    EEOC contends Title VII covers sexual orientation, and a handful of district courts have agreed.  But, as of today, every U.S. Court of Appeal to consider the question has ruled that sexual orientation is not a protected status under Title VII.

The Eleventh Circuit is the most recent to weigh in, with a new opinion issued March 10. (Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, No. 15-15234).    In a 2-1 ruling, the court held that a female security officer who alleged she was discriminated against because she was a lesbian could not sue for sex discrimination under Title VII.   District Court Judge Martinez, sitting by designation, wrote the opinion of the court, which is not particularly noteworthy and breaks no new ground in its analysis of the issue.   What makes this ruling interesting, however, is the other two judges on the panel wrote separate opinions: Judge Pryor a special concurrence, and Judge Rosenbaum a dissent.  Both the special concurrence and the dissent articulate in a fairly clear way the legal analysis supporting the competing arguments for and against extending Title VII coverage to include sexual orientation.   In so doing, these judges have drawn a map for other circuits and perhaps the Supreme Court to follow, regardless on which side those other courts will rule.

Approximately twenty one states, including Iowa, have amended their civil rights statutes to cover sexual orientation as a protected status.   The language of Title VII, on the other hand, remains essentially the same as when Congress passed the law in 1964.  It prohibits an employer from discrimination in employment because of a person’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”    Even though Congress has not amended Title VII to include sexual orientation as one of the protected statuses, proponents of broader coverage contend sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, and is therefore already covered under the law.

How does discrimination because of “sex” include “sexual orientation”?   The argument traces its origins to a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  The Supreme Court ruled Price Waterhouse violated Title VII when it refused to offer partnership to a female senior manager, based in part on the male partners’ beliefs that she was too aggressive and did not act sufficiently feminine.   Price Waterhouse established the rule that an employer may not make employment decisions based upon “sex stereotypes.”  (A more thorough discussion and analysis of the expanding notions of sex discrimination under Title VII is contained in my article published in the January 2017 edition of DRI’s For The Defense, “Pushing the Boundaries of Sex Discrimination Under Title VII: Does Discrimination “Because of Sex” Cover Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation”).

In her dissent in the Evans case, Judge Rosenbaum contends Price Waterhouse “substantially broadened the scope of actionable discriminatory stereotyping under Title VII.   Before Price Waterhouse, Judge Rosenbaum noted that liability for sex stereotyping was “ascriptive”.  That means an employer could violate Title VII by ascribing certain characteristics to individual women based upon a stereotype, without considering whether any individual woman actually possessed the characteristics.   For example, an employer may assume women employees with young children have more family care obligations than men with young children, and as a result give more or better opportunities to men.

Price Waterhouse, however, recognized for the first time a form of what the judge calls “prescriptive” stereotyping.  Judge Rosenbaum explained that, under the prescriptive type, Title VII imposes liability if an employee does not satisfy the discriminator’s stereotyped “prescription” of “what the employee of that protected group should be or how the employee should act.” (emphasis added).   Unlike ascriptive,which attributes stereotyped characteristics to a female employee which she may or may not possess, prescriptive stereotyping treats the female employee less favorably because she fails to conform to the group’s prescribed stereotype.

As it relates to sexual orientation, Judge Rosenbaum contends one of the prescribed stereotypes of a woman is that she is sexually attracted only to men.   Therefore, if an employer terminates a lesbian because she is sexually attracted to women, the employer has acted based upon her failing to conform to the prescribed gender stereotype.  In this view, sexual orientation discrimination is by definition discrimination based upon a gender stereotype, which under Price Waterhouse is discrimination based upon sex.

Not surprisingly, Judge Pryor holds a more limited view of the doctrine of gender non-conformity.    The concurrence distinguishes between an employee’s gender-based “behavior” and her gender “status”.   Claims based upon gender non-conformity focus only on whether the employee’s behavior failed to conform to how the employer believes someone of that gender should act.  Judge Pryor rejects the dissent’s view that Title VII liability exists when an employee’s status deviates from the stereotype of what a person should be.     A person who experiences sexual orientation discrimination may also experience discrimination based upon the failure to conform to a gender stereotype.  But, it is also true one can occur without the other, and as such the concepts must be treated as legally distinct.    To treat the concepts as equivalent, Judge Pryor argues, imposes a false stereotype on gay individuals; namely, that their behavior always deviates from a certain prescribed gender stereotype.

Judge Pryor also rejects the dissent’s view that gender non-conformity, in and of itself, results in Title VII liability.    In the concurrence’s view, gender non-conformity under Price Waterhouse is not a revolutionary new doctrine, but is simply an evidentiary approach to proving sex discrimination.  In other words, an employer’s reliance on gender stereotypes is evidence the employer holds males and females to different standards of behavior.   Discrimination based upon gender non-conforming behavior is used as a proxy for discrimination because of sex.   But, a Title VII plaintiff must always prove that one of the enumerated statuses, in this case sex, is the basis for the employment decision.   Sexual orientation is not a protected status under Title VII; therefore, sexual orientation alone, without evidence the person’s behavior failed to conform to gender stereotypes, does not result in liability.

The competing approaches of the concurrence and dissent are ultimately based competing judicial philosophies.  Specifically, is establishing a new protected status under Title VII the role of Congress or the Courts?   Judge Pryor contends that, because Congress has not made sexual orientation a protected class, the arguments the dissent makes should be made to Congress and not the court.   Judge Rosenbaum disagrees.  During the fifty years since Title VII was enacted, the courts have expanded the meaning of discrimination because of sex more broadly that the law’s sponsors probably intended.  Based on this view, extending its meaning to cover sexual orientation is the next logical step.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion is not the last word on this subject.  There are similar cases pending in the Second and Seventh Circuits, and it is likely those courts will issue opinions later this year.  As Congress is not likely to amend Title VII any time soon, there is little doubt the Supreme Court will be asked to take up this issue soon.

How to best accommodate pregnant employees is a frequent challenge Iowa employers face.    Pregnant employees may be entitled to protection under the laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, as well as those requiring equal treatment based upon gender and disability.  Many employers have tried to walk this fine line with policies that allow for accommodation of a temporary disability only if it is the result of an on-the-job injury.   For non-worked related temporary disabilities (which pregnancy presumably is almost all the time), no accommodation is offered.

The theory behind such policies is that it treats similarly situated employees equally, regardless of gender or the nature of the temporary disability.   The distinction is drawn between work and non-work causes of the temporary disability.   The rationale for treating on-the-job injuries differently is that the workers’ compensation law provides an incentive to return injured workers to work as soon as possible, indexso as to avoid paying benefits for temporary total disability.

Until about the last year or so, this was a workable policy for an employer to have.   But, two cases decided last year, one by the U.S. Supreme Court (Young v. UPS)  and one by the Iowa Supreme Court (McQuistion v. City of Clinton) should cause employers to re-visit and possibly change their policies governing temporary disabilities and pregnancy accommodations.

Both cases dealt with employer policies of the type described here.  That is, accommodation was provided for some temporary disabilities, but not others, pregnancy being within those that were not subject to accommodation.   Although the U.S. Supreme Court addressed federal law and the Iowa Supreme Court Iowa law, the practical result from both opinions is the same:  this type of policy is presumed to violate the law against pregnancy discrimination.   The employer can overcome this presumption if it can show the legitimate reason underlying the policy is sufficiently strong to justify the burden it places on pregnant employees.   But, if the practical effect of the employer’s policy is to accommodate a large percentage of non-pregnant while a large percentage on pregnant employees are not accommodated, it will be difficult for the employer to carry its burden.    In the end, a jury will get to decide whether your policy is justified or creates an unreasonable burden.

The best way to avoid litigation is to change the policy that automatically results in pregnancy not being accommodated.   Each and every condition that results in a disability should be evaluated on its own merits to determine whether it can be accommodated.   While this may create more burdens for the employer each time you have to address a pregnancy related request for accommodation, it is more likely to keep you from being sued.


Hard to believe it’s August already.   It has been a busy summer in the employment law world while we have been away, and there is a lot to catch up on for Iowa employers.  For starters, here is a re-cap of three of the summer’s significant court decisions and one notable but not so significant one.   Almost all of these case are good news for employers.   We plan to follow-up in coming posts with more details and analysis.

1.             Who is a "Supervisor", and Why Does it Matter Anyway?    Whether an employee is a supervisor can be important in many different contexts, but the one in Vance v. Ball State University  (U.S. Supreme Court, 6/24/13) involved an employer’s liability for race based harassment.    If the alleged harasser is a "supervisor", the employer in many cases is strictly liable for the harm caused by the harassment, regardless whether anyone else in management knew about it.   On the other hand, the employer is not liable if the harasser is not a supervisor, unless management knew or should have known about it.    According to the Supreme Court, a "supervisor" for purposes of determining legal liability for unlawful harassment includes only those employees who have the power to make tangible employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, reassignment, promotion, etc.  The ruling in this case also applies to any other unlawful harassment under Title VII, such as sex, national origin, or religion.   It probably applies to age and disability related harassment as well. 

2.       What is the standard for proving retaliation under Title VII:  In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (U.S. Supreme Court, 6/24/13), the Court held the plaintiff must prove the employer would not have taken adverse action against the employee “but for” the employee’s engagement in protected activity.    Before Nassar, some trial courts had applied a lesser burden on plaintiffs, requiring a them to prove only that the protected activity was "a motivating factor" in the employment decision.    There is a big difference a "but-for" standard compared to "a motivating factor."   With the latter, the employee must prove only that the unlawful reason played a part in the decision, whereas the former requires that it be the determining factor. 

3.       Punitive Damages are Not Recoverable under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.   The Iowa Supreme Court so ruled in Ackelson v. Manley Toy Direct, L.L.C.  (Iowa Supreme Court 6/21/13).   Employers should breathe a big sigh a relief with this ruling.

4.       Nelson v. Knight reprise.   Remember this case from last December involving the Fort Dodge dentist who fired one of his assistants because he was attracted to her?   The Iowa Supreme Court granted a motion to re-hear the case, which almost never happens.   The court then issued a new opinion, but the result was the same—no sex discrimination by the dentist.  The difference this time was three justices wrote a separate opinion the purpose of which seemed to be to limit the precedential value of the case going forward.    As we stated after the first opinion, the Nelson case is not likely to have significant impact on discrimination jurisprudence.   It’s not clear why the three concurring justice felt compelled to write a separate opinion after re-hearing.   

We have written many times here about an employer’s obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, so as not to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of their religion. Indeed, according to EEOC statistics, claims of religious discrimination by employees are increasing at a higher rate than most other forms of discrimination.

Much less discussed, however, is an employer’s right to the free exercise of religion in the face of employment laws that conflict with religious tenets.    There are countless institutions in the U.S., including hospitals, schools, charities, fraternal organizations, and colleges and universities, that are affiliated with a religious organization.   Collectively, these institutions employ hundreds of thousands (if not more) people.  Not all of these employees practice the religion with which their employer is affiliated, and many of them serve people of all backgrounds and faiths.   Thus, there can be tension when the law grants rights to employees that conflict with the rights of their religiously affiliated employers to adhere to religious teachings.   Jesus famously declared that we should “render unto Ceasar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God."   But how are these conflicts worked out in light of modern day employment laws?

Just this month, a pair of significant government decisions spotlight the potential conflicts between religious employers and secular laws.    On January 12, the Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, that a Lutheran School’s decision to terminate a teacher cannot be challenged under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Court unanimously ruled the Lutheran School was exempt from the ADA under what is known as the “ministerial exception”.   In essence, a religious institution has a First Amendment right to decide who is or is not suitable to serve its ministerial functions without court interference. 

Just as the Supreme Court’s decision was sinking in, on January 20, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule mandating that employer provided health insurance cover abortion, sterilization, and contraception, all with no co-pay or other out-of-pocket cost to the employee. The HHS rule contains an exception for religious institutions, but defines that term very narrowly.   The only religiously affiliated employers who can opt out of the mandatory coverage are those primarily employ and serve people of the same faith. As a practical matter, this rule does not accommodate religiously affiliated hospitals, charities, and educational institutions.   Indeed, one commentator complained the exception is so narrow that Jesus himself would not qualify for it.

In a thoughtful piece, law professor David Skeel writes that while the HHS rule flouts the spirit of Hosanna-Tabor, it may very well comply with its letter, if narrowly construed.  In other words, while the Court’s ruling was on the side of greater religious accommodation, it is possible to interpret the opinion as applying only to those religious organizations whose purpose is the “inculcation of religious values”.   Such a construction would apply to churches and some Catholic schools, but would leave out hospitals and other institutions that serve the general public.  Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to draw the religious exemption in the HHS rule as narrowly as possible only invites litigation, and ensures these issues will be battled in the courts for years to come.  Professor Skeel believe the courts are the worst place to resolve these difficult accommodation issues.   He proposes that the better approach is to hash them out legislatively, or even better, allow the affected groups to work out in good faith practical accommodations. Amen.

Wal-Mart v. Dukes, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, could derail a class action race discrimination case against the State of Iowa that has been pending since 2007 (See our posts here and here on the Wal-Mart case).    The Iowa case involves 32 named plaintiffs who claim the State maintained hiring and promotion practices that discriminated against African American applicants and employees.   The suit was certified as a class action in 2010 to include class all African Americans who sought appointment to or held a merit based position in the Executive branch since July 1, 2003.   The class claims could potentially involve up to 6,000 persons in addition to the named plaintiffs. 

The court held a hearing last week concerning the potential application of the Dukes case.  The holding in Dukes that potentially applies to the Iowa case involves the question of “commonality”. That is, are the circumstances of the class members sufficiently common that their discrimination claims can be addressed as a group rather than individually.   In Dukes, the Court held that claims of 1.6 million female employees alleging gender discrimination at thousands of Wal-Mart stores across the United States could not, as a practical matter, be adjudicated as a class.   The essential question in a discrimination claim—“why was I disfavored”-involved too many individual circumstances. 

According to coverage of the hearing in the Des Moines Register,  the Iowa Plaintiffs are trying to overcome the Dukes decision by showing the State of Iowa’s hiring and promotion practices were centralized and applied to each African American applicant and employee.   At Wal-Mart, on the other hand, the evidence showed the hiring and promotion decisions occurred at the store level and therefore were highly decentralized.   The Plaintiffs’ evidence against the State of Iowa relies to a great extent on statistics purporting to show African Americans were less likely to survive an initial round of applicant screening, less likely to be interviewed, and less likely to be hired.

Another important difference in the Iowa case is that it is pending in Iowa state court rather than federal court.   Although similar, Iowa courts and federal courts have two different sets of rules governing these types of proceedings. 

The Dukes case is a powerful weapon for employers defending class actions, and it will be interesting to see whether it will allow the State to avoid a trial in this case.

In a unanimous decision yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the universe of employees who might be protected from retaliation under Title VII and other federal employment laws.

A retaliation claim is based upon an employer’s adverse action taken in response to an employee’s “protected activity”. Typically, protected activity includes things such as making a complaint of discrimination or harassment, or giving information in connection with a harassment investigation. Any adverse action against an employee (or even a former employee) because he engaged in “protected activity” subjects an employer to liability for damages and attorney’s fees.  

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the Supreme Court held that Title VII’s anti-retaliation protection extends to the fiancée of an employee who filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Even though the fiancée himself engaged in no “protected activity”, the Court reasoned the company’s conduct could well dissuade a reasonable employee from herself filing a charge. In other words, if an employee knew her fiancée would be fired in response to her EEOC charge, she might not file the charge. 

The practical challenge this case presents for employers is identifying the zone of persons who might be affiliated with a complainant.   While acknowledging this difficulty, the Court nonetheless declined to establish a bright line to determine which relationships are protected and which are not. Justice Scalia, writing for a unanimous Court, stated:

We must also decline to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful. We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.

Two immediate takeaways from this case:

First, when going down the road of termination, employers need to inquire whether there is anyone affiliated with the employee to be terminated who has filed a charge of discrimination.  Who is affiliated? Certainly a spouse or other close family member; definitely a fiancée. After that, who knows?

Second, just because there is some affiliation does not mean the termination should not occur.   The terminated employee is still required to prove a connection between his termination and the protected activity of the other employee with whom he is affiliated.

For other commentary on this decision, I recommend the following:

Daniel Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog

Eric Meyer, at The Employer Handbook

IIyse Schuman at Washington DC Employment Law Update

Russell Cawyer, Texas Employment Law Update


Remember Jack Gross? Back in 2003 he claimed a demotion from his management job at West Des Moines based FBL Financial Services constituted age discrimination.   A federal jury in the Southern District of Iowa agreed and awarded him $47,000 in damages. From there his case had a remarkable journey: first stopping in St. Louis at the Eighth Circuit, then to Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Supreme Court, back to St. Louis for another stop at the Eighth Circuit, and ultimately back to Des Moines for another jury trial. In the meantime, Gross became moderately famous, testifying before Congress about his case and inspiring legislation to change the law.

About two weeks ago Gross presented his case to a second jury. This time, however, Gross ran out of luck.  The jury found in favor of FBL Financial Services.  

Why the long journey with all the stops along the way? Because of two phrases: “a motivating factor” and “but for”.    In the first trial, the court instructed the jury that, under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), they must find for Gross if his age was “a motivating factor” in the demotion decision.   The Supreme Court ruled that was the wrong instruction. In the second trial, the jury was instructed to find for Gross on his ADEA claim if FBL would have not demoted him “but for” his age. 

Did a few words in the jury instructions result in a different outcome in the second trial?  While it is impossible to know for certain, there probably is more to it than that.   What has generally gone unreported about the Gross case is that he also claimed his demotion violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act.    In both the first and second trials, the jury was instructed they must find for Gross on the ICRA claim if his age was "a motivating factor" in the decision.    Thus, the same question was presented to both juries, but with a different result.

The case may not be over yet.   It appears grounds may exist to appeal this decision as well.   In particular, the instruction incorporated a version of the “same decision” defense for the ICRA claim.  In other words, not only did Gross have to prove his age was “a motivating factor”, but also had to prove “the adverse action would not have otherwise occurred.”    As we have discussed  here previously, it is far from clear that the "same decision" defense is available under the ICRA. 

We will be watching to see what happens…


Last week the U.S. Supreme Court kicked off its 2010-2011 term.   There are at least three cases this term of interest to employment lawyers. The Delaware Employment Law Blog had three excellent postings (here, here, and here) analyzing the cases in some detail. All three cases address important questions concerning the scope of an employer’s liability under the anti-discrimination laws. 

The first case is from the Seventh Circuit, Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.  Kasten addresses whether an employee’s verbal complaints to his superiors about issues with a time clock is protected activity under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so as to protect the employee from retaliation.  The Circuit Court held that verbal complaints were not enough to protect an employee from retaliation; they had to be written.

The second case, Staub v. Proctor Hospital,(also from the Seventh Circuit) will decide the viability of the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability.  “Cat’s paw” applies when there is no evidence the decision maker had discriminatory motives, but others in the organization did. The issue involves the extent to which those with discriminatory motives influenced the decision maker. 

The third case is Thompson v. North American Stainless, from the Sixth Circuit.  The issue in Thompson involves so called "associational retaliation".  That is, to what extent is an employee is protected from retaliation not because of his own protected activity, but the protected activity of others. Specifically, the case involved an engaged couple who worked for the same employer.  The male employee claimed he was fired because his fiancee filed an EEOC charge alleging she was discriminated against.   The Sixth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer, holding that the male employee was not protected because his fiancee filed a charge of discrimination.

The opinions will most likely be issued in 2011.

On November 30, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion on the remand of  Gross v. FBL Financial Group, Inc.   We have discussed the Gross case in several previous posts (here, here, and here).  The case has particular local interest because it was tried in the Southern District of Iowa, appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In a decision that surprised many in the employment law community, the Supreme Court  held that an age discrimination plaintiff always has the burden of proving that age was the "but for" cause of the adverse employment action, regardless whether the employer had a "mixed motive", and regardless whether there is "direct evidence" of discrimination.  Under Gross,  the burden of persuasion never shifts to the defendant.  The trial judge’s instructions were in error, the Court concluded, because FBL was required to prove it would have made the same decision regardless of Gross’ age.  The case was remanded for a new trial.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Gross argued to the Eighth Circuit on remand that his original jury verdict should stand because the jury was correctly instructed under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA).  Notably, this was the first time the ICRA issue had come up in the case.  The reason: between the date of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gross and the Eighth Circuit’s remand opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of DeBoom v. Raining Rose, Inc.   One of the significant issues decided in DeBoom was that an employer is liable under the ICRA if the jury finds unlawful discrimination was "a motivating factor" in the employment decision.   Gross argued that it did not matter under the ICRA whether the burden shifted to FBL to prove the "same decision" defense, because liability attaches once the jury concludes discrimination was "a motivating factor."

We predicted back in September that DeBoom would have a significant impact on the litigation of age discrimination cases in Iowa, because the standard under the ICRA was different than under the ADEA.   We did not realize at the time, however, that the issue would come up in the Gross case itself.  

Interestingly, Judge Colloton, writing for the Court, did not agree with Gross’ contention that the jury was instructed consistent with the Iowa Civil Rights Act, and thus remanded for a trial on both the ICRA and ADEA claims.  Why? The primary reason was that DeBoom was a "pretext" case, and not a "mixed motive" case.   In mixed motive cases, the Eighth Circuit concluded that Iowa precedent requires the same approach as the Eighth Circuit did pre-Gross.  That is, the defendant has the burden of proving the same decision defense only if there is direct evidence of discrimination.  Thus, the jury instruction was still in error, despite DeBoom

This matter is far from settled,and will likely result in further litigation in the Iowa Courts for years to come.   It is not clear the Iowa Supreme Court intended the DeBoom case to be as limiting as the Eighth Circuit purported to make it.



Des Moines Register columnist Marc Hansen writes about an interview he had with Jack Gross, the plaintiff in Gross v. FBL Financial, Inc., decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last June.   Mr. Gross was in Washinton, DC last week to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee that is considering amendments to the ADEA that would effectively overrule the Gross decision.   

Lawyers and judges think and talk about cases in terms of how the "law" applies to the "facts."  It is easy to forget these controversies involve real people with interesting backgrounds, stories, and motives.   Any good trial lawyer knows the likelihood of success in a lawsuit often depends more on the people involved and how they present themselves, rather than obscure legal rules or abstract "facts."   

Jack Gross’ case is now back in the Southern District of Iowa, waiting for a new trial.   The jury instructions will be slightly different this time around (assuming Congress has not changed the law by then).  It will be interesting to see if it makes any difference in the outcome.