Wednesday, May 20, 2020
The Causation Problem of "Because of Sex" in the Trio of Supreme Court Cases on Title VII, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation, and a Proposed Solution
Shirley Lin, Aimee Stephens and Preserving Our Broader Understandings of Sex, JURIST
Just last week, we were saddened by the loss of Aimee Stephens at age 59. Ms. Stephens was a Detroit funeral director who, in 2013, announced a gender transition that exposed her employer’s deep intolerance toward transgender people. For seven years, she challenged the harsh dismissal and loss of livelihood that followed the announcement. Although she will not hear the Supreme Court’s decision in her case, Ms. Stephens’ unwavering commitment to workplace dignity made history in 2018 in her landmark victory before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in one of the most nuanced examinations of sex discrimination ever issued.
The decision in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. is best understood as a doctrinal correction to the current ideological drift in causation theory in discrimination law. Since 1989, a segment of the Court has pursued approaches that needlessly narrow the effectiveness of Title VII through causation analysis and anti-classification.
The law’s plain language prohibits discrimination against any individual “because of such individual’s…sex.” An employer generally cannot use an employee’s protected trait — here, her sex — to harm or otherwise disadvantage her. Under a different provision, the causation element of proving discrimination against an employee is a factual question due to other reasons employers may point to as the genuine, non-discriminatory reason for its action against the employee. In other words, it is a separate element from the trait element. Thus, “because of…sex” has been interpreted to encompass not only claims regarding women being passed over for men because they are women, but also contextual subordination that relies upon our sex trait, including gender stereotyping, sexual assault, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and hostile work environment. No less than race or religion, sex is a protected trait from which we infer meaning, and experience harm, based upon variable circumstances of time and place.
Thus, the Sixth Circuit unanimously held that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based upon that employee’s status” as a transgender person or lesbian employee “without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” But the panel took the farther step of affirming the non-binary sex spectrum. ***
However, buried in the Second Circuit’s en banc opinion in Zarda v. Altitude Express (also pending within the Title VII trio of cases the Court heard with Ms. Stephens’s case) was an outlier within the groundswell of courts seeking to course-correct causation analysis. There, a plurality ventured that a gay man’s status was the “but-for cause” of his dismissal, because if he had been a heterosexual woman married to a man, rather than a gay man, his status was determinative of the outcome. This theory, raised on appeal among other theories, conflates the social trait and causation elements of disparate treatment claims and thus competes with the approach of examining the social context of the sex trait. If misapplied to future sex and other trait discrimination cases, but-for causation could flatten existing sex discrimination analysis at a time when society has made significant strides toward recognizing intersex, non-binary, and gender-fluid people.
Shirley Lin, Dehumanization "Because of Sex": The Multiaxial Approach to the Title VII of Sexual Minorities, Lewis & Clark L. Rev. (forthcoming)
Although Title VII prohibits discrimination against any individual “because of such individual’s . . . sex,” legal commentators have not yet accurately appraised Title VII’s trait and causation requirements embodied in that phrase. Since 2015, however, many courts have read “sex” in Title VII as a socially defined trait and evaluate social construction of a protected trait before identifying causation when a court detects subordination. This Article builds on this judicial consensus by introducing “multiaxial analysis,” a framework with which judges and stakeholders identify the role of Title VII’s protected traits as socially constructed along four axes: the aggrieved individual’s self-identification, the defendant-employer, society, and the state. This context-sensitive approach to subordination gives fuller effect to Title VII’s provisions and purposes as compared to sex stereotyping theory or the “but-for causation” method recently raised with the Supreme Court in the Title VII suits brought by gay and transgender plaintiffs. Uncoupling causation from the sex trait analysis will realize the statute’s civil rights protections as localities increasingly recognize the scope of sex beyond a fixed binary.