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Lessons from Key Cases the U.S. Supreme Court Relied Upon in Ruling that Title VII Protects Homosexual and Transgender Employees


What is Title VII?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, offers protections for employees whose employer has subjected him/her to discrimination and/or retaliation on the basis of that employee’s protected characteristic(s). The protected characteristics, as articulated in the statute, are race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Although these five characteristics are specifically listed in the statute, the actual application is much more complex.

The complexity of Title VII was most recently evidenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on three separate, but related cases, in which employees were terminated because they were either homosexual or transgender. Prior to these cases going before the U.S. Supreme Court, they were ruled upon by three separate U.S. Circuit Courts. Ultimately, two of the Circuit Courts ruled Title VII protects a homosexual or transgender employee because this is included under “sex” in the statute. However, one Circuit Court ruled Title VII does not protect such employees. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that “[a]n employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex.” Therefore, Title VII protects homosexual and transgender employees from sex discrimination in the workplace.

Cases Relied Upon by the U.S. Supreme Court

In reaching its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court relied upon three leading precedents: Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power v. Manhart, and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. Each case examined Title VII and the application of “sex” in the statute.

In Phillips, the Court previously held that an employer was liable under Title VII when it refused to hire a woman with young children, despite the fact that the discrimination also depended upon being a parent with children and the fact that the employer actually favored hiring women over men. In Manhart, the Court held that an employer violated Title VII when it required women to make larger pension fund contributions than men because they tended to live longer, despite the fact that the employer’s policy fairly dealt with men and women as groups. In Oncale, a male plaintiff successfully alleged a Title VII claim for sexual harassment by co-workers who were also male.

Lessons from these Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court noted three takeaway lessons from the aforementioned cases, which impacted their ultimate ruling. First, the Court stated that “it’s irrelevant what an employer might call its discriminatory practice, how others might label it, or what else might motivate it.” Second, “the plaintiff’s sex need not be the sole or primary cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Finally, “an employer cannot escape liability by demonstrating that it treats males and females comparable as groups.” Each of these lessons played a key role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling that Title VII protects homosexual and transgender employees from sex discrimination in the workplace.

If you feel your rights under Title VII have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you.

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