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EEOC Settles Transgender Bias Case That Went to High Court (1)

Dec. 1, 2020, 7:43 PM; Updated: Dec. 1, 2020, 9:18 PM

A federal civil rights agency and a Michigan funeral home settled for $250,000 a transgender discrimination lawsuit that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which held earlier this year that federal anti-bias protections extend to LGBT workers.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the settlement with R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes on Tuesday. It brings to a close one of the EEOC’s first lawsuits alleging discrimination against a transgender worker, filed in 2016 when it wasn’t clear whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers were protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The high court ruled in June in a trio of cases, including R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes LGBT bias.

The EEOC sued Harris Funeral on behalf of late director Aimee Stephens, who was fired after informing her boss that she was transgender. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the EEOC in March 2018. Stephens died in May.

Harris will pay $130,000 “in back pay and compensatory damages to Stephens’s estate,” as well as $120,000 in attorney fees, according to the EEOC statement.

“The company will pay a total of $3,705 in clothing benefits for the period of September 2012 to the present, to be divided among approximately 17 female front-facing employees,” the agency said. “Harris will also provide anti-discrimination training, revise its anti-discrimination policy, and implement new procedures for handling discrimination complaints.”

When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Department of Justice represented the EEOC and disagreed with the commission’s stance. The DOJ said Title VII didn’t expressly protect LGBT workers.

Religious Liberties?

The high court didn’t address whether the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act could be used to overrule LGBT worker protections under Title VII, but Harris was the only lawsuit of the trio to have raised this issue earlier on. For-profit, closely held corporations can use RFRA as a defense against government actions that substantially burden their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The Sixth Circuit previously dismissed the notion that employers could use RFRA “as a tool to discriminate” against LGBT workers, but Justice Neil Gorsuch, who penned the Supreme Court opinion, left the question open, saying RFRA “might supersede” Title VII in certain circumstances.

The balancing of LGBT rights and religious liberties has played out in a number of areas beyond employment, including health care and public accommodations. The EEOC recently issued guidance on the matter that avoided a straight answer on the matter, but presented how various courts have analyzed the balance to date.

(Updates with additional case background and details.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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