Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ohio federal court recognizes sexual orientation as a protected class for public employees

After Cuyahoga County fired Shari Hutchinson, she sued, claiming that her employer terminated her because she is a lesbian, in violation of her constitutional equal protection rights. In Hutchinson v. Cuyhoga County Board of County Commissioners (N.D. Ohio 4/25/11) [pdf], the employer sought dismissal on the ground that sexual orientation is not a protected class. The court overturned the motion and permitted the sexual orientation discrimination claim to proceed to discovery.

The court agreed with the employer that Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. Because Hutchinson was a public employee proceeding under the United States Constitution, Title VII did not define the court’s limits. Instead, the court concluded that it could analyze the sexual orientation claim

The Court concludes that an employee who alleges sexual orientation discrimination … is not per se precluded from establishing an equal protection claim against her employer.  Simply because Title VII does not include sexual orientation as a statutorily protected class does not, in this Court’s view, automatically remove all constitutional protection where a plaintiff employee claims equal protection violations based on her membership in that class…. Though sexual orientation may not be a suspect or quasi-suspect class, the Court finds that constitutional disparate treatment claims alleging sexual orientation discrimination by a public employer at least garner the bare minimum of rational basis review.

Pundits are lauding this decision as groundbreaking. In reality, the court refused to lift sexual orientation to special status as a suspect or quasi-suspect—such as race or sex. Instead, it simply requires public employers to treat all of its employees on equal footing. As a result, it will remain more difficult for public employees to prove sexual orientation discrimination than race or sex discrimination. Nevertheless, this case is a step in the right direct in recognizing some degree of protection for sexual orientation.

There are two more important points to make about this case:

  1. This decision only affects public employees. It has no impact on private employees, who still must proceed under Title VII (which does provide some limited protections for sexual orientation based on gender stereotypes).
  2. Hutchinson still most prove that her employer treated her differently because of her sexual orientation. This decision merely gives her the opportunity to try to prove the unlawfulness of her termination. Rest assured that the 6th Circuit (and, potentially) the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to weigh in on this charged issue.

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