Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an agency-wide memorandum entitled “Revised Treatment of Transgender Employment Discrimination Claims Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The memorandum expressly withdraws a December 15, 2014 memorandum in which then-current Attorney General Eric Holder opined that Title VII “encompasses discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status.”
While the new memo is undoubtedly a reversal of the Obama DOJ’s policy (ed., “Elections have consequences.”), the Sessions’ memo is consistent with the weight of federal case authority that has held that gender identity (as well as sexual orientation) is not covered by the plain language of Title VII. Thus, in many ways, the current policy prescription is less a “reversal” than a return to the status quo ante, circa 2014.
That said, since 2012 the EEOC has consistently taken the position that Title VII does encompass discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Sessions memo creates clear tension, if not outright conflict, between the respective agencies’ policy positions. And, given that the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled specifically on the question, the issue will likely not be resolved until the Justices speak on the same. Of course, were it inclined to do so, Congress could resolve the matter by amending Title VII, though such an outcome is unlikely at best.
With respect to federal contractors, it should be understood that the revisions to E.O. 11246, which amended federal EEO requirements to include sexual orientation and gender identity, are not affected by the Sessions memo. That is, even if Congress did not intend to include those criteria within the statutory concept of “sex” – the executive branch has (to date) concluded that companies choosing to do business with the federal government will continue to treat sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics.
About the Author:
David Warner is a seasoned legal counselor with extensive experience in the resolution and litigation of complex employment and business disputes. His practice is focused on the government contractor, nonprofit, and hospitality industries. David leads Centre’s audit, investigation, and litigation practices.