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First-Ever Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Transgender Workers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The lawsuits are the first to enforce transgender workers' rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, in first-of-their-kind complaints, accused two companies of discriminating against transgender employees in violation of federal law.

It’s the first time the federal government has sued to protect transgender rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In two complaints, filed Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in federal courts in Michigan and Florida, the commission alleges that two employees faced workplace discrimination because they are transgender.

According to the EEOC, Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. discriminated based on sex in violation of federal law by firing a Garden City, Michigan, funeral director-embalmer because she is transgender. Amiee Stephens had been employed by Harris as a funeral director and embalmer since October 2007.

Stephens in 2013 gave Harris a letter explaining she was undergoing a gender transition from male to female and would soon start to present in appropriate business attire at work, consistent with her gender identity as a woman. Two weeks after notifying the company of her transition, Harris’ owner fired Stephens, telling her that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable.

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“Title VII prohibits employers from firing employees because they do not behave according to the employer’s stereotypes of how men and women should act, and this includes employees who present themselves according to their gender identity,” EEOC Indianapolis regional attorney Laurie Young, whose jurisdiction includes Michigan, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

The EEOC, in a second lawsuit, accused Lakeland Eye Clinic, a Lakeland, Florida-based organization of health-care professionals, of violating Title VII by firing an employee because she is transgender and did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.

The allegations in the Lakeland lawsuit are very similar to those in the Harris Funeral Homes lawsuit. Lakeland Eye Clinic fired an employee after she informed them she was transgender and intended to start presenting as a woman, according to the EEOC.

In both cases the commission argues the employees are entitled to restitution for back pay, reinstatement or front pay, and punitive damages to protect against future discrimination against other employees.

The lawsuits are the latest evidence of efforts within the EEOC to advance the issue of workplace equality for transgender employees.

The commission in December 2012 adopted a Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) that includes “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions” as a top enforcement priority of the commission. The commission in 2012 decided that discrimination against transgender people is “sex discrimination” within the meaning of Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination in the case of Macy v. Holder.

That case involved claims brought by a federal employee against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In Macy v. Holder the commission ruled that discrimination against employees because they are transgender, because of their gender identity, and/or because they have transitioned (or intend to transition) is discrimination because of sex, and thus violates Title VII.

The decision in Macy v. Holder is precedent for transgender discrimination claims made against the federal government. Thursday’s lawsuits are the first to seek to enforce the rights of transgender workers in the private sector.

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