Bostock v. Clayton County: An Unexpected Victory

A photo of the White House with rainbow lights shown on it[The following is a guest post from Alexa Bradley (L’18).]

The days in which same-sex couples could marry on Sunday and be fired on Monday are no longer.

Gone, too, are the days in which a transgender employee could be fired for giving themselves the gift of living their life as the person they were always meant to be. On June 15, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that Title VII’s prohibition of workplace “sex” discrimination clearly encompasses discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or transgender status because “homosexuality and transgender status are inextricably bound up with sex.” This long-awaited decision was an unexpected victory for the LGBTQi community, of course, but also for the sanctity of Title VII.

Before I get into the weeds of the Bostock opinion, a little background may be helpful. I’ll first explain Title VII and some of the early Supreme Court case law interpreting “sex.” Then, before I explain the opinion itself, I’ll explain how the circuit courts had interpreted “sex” when it came to claims involving sexual orientation and transgender status. Finally, after explaining the majority opinion, I’ll unravel the dissenting arguments.

 Title VII Background
Title VII was enacted by Congress in 1964 to address the pervasive problems of employment discrimination and to ensure that, among the other enumerated characteristics, an employee’s “sex” was not relevant to their selection, evaluation, or compensation. According to Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 64 (1986), Congress drafted Title VII in broad terms to “strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment between men and women.” Since Title VII’s passage, the Court has been tasked on a number of occasions with clarifying the scope of protection provided by Title VII’s ban on “sex” discrimination.

For example, in 1971, the Court held in Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542 (1971) (per curiam), that an employer who hired men with school-aged children but would not hire women with school-aged children had engaged in sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The Court’s decision in Phillips created the “sex-plus” theory of discrimination. Sex-plus discrimination is found when an employer, explicitly or in effect, classifies an employee on the basis of sex plus another characteristic, such as “women who have children.” So, in Ms. Phillips’s case, her employer discriminated against her because she was (A) a woman, who had (B) school aged children. Thus, her employer’s decision was motivated, in part, by Ms. Phillips’s sex, which violates Title VII.

In 1978, the Court considered in Los Angeles Department of Water & Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702 (1978), whether Title VII permitted an employer to require women to make larger contributions to the pension fund than men. The employer argued that the policy was justified because women are likely to live longer than men, so women would receive more over time from the pension fund. However, recognizing Title VII’s clear focus on the individual rather that a group, the Court rejected the employer’s justification. The Court reasoned that it may be true that women, as a whole, live longer than men, but an individual woman may die as early as a man, and that the individual, therefore, is the proper focus for Title VII. Thus, the Court held that an employer engages in sex discrimination in violation of Title VII when the employer uses generalizations or assumptions about an entire class of employees that results in individual disparate treatment.

In 1986, the Court held in Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), that claims of workplace sexual harassment fall under the umbrella of “sex discrimination” claims contemplated by Title VII, and in 1989, the Court held in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), that discrimination on the basis of an employee’s failure to conform to expectations of gender norms – or sex-stereotyping – constitutes “sex” discrimination in violation of Title VII.

Finally, in 1998, in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), an opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court found that Title VII’s prohibition on “sex” discrimination applies to cases of workplace harassment between members of the same sex. In so holding, Justice Scalia explained “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII. But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.” Id. at 79.

In considering the above-cited opinions, one central theme seems to ring through: “sex” must be interpreted broadly.

This theme becomes unavoidably clear when considered with Congress’ abrupt response to the Court’s holding in General Electric Co. v. Gilbert. 429 U.S. 125 (1976).  In Gilbert, the Court found that a company plan that provided nonoccupational sickness and accident benefits to all employees but did not provide such benefits for any absence due to pregnancy did not constitute sex discrimination. In response, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which explicitly overturned Gilbert and expanded Title VII’s definition of “sex” to cover “pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). Congress’ swift action to overturn Gilbert sent a clear message to the Court – the protected characteristics enumerated in Title VII are to be afforded broad interpretations.

How We Got Here
This is the landscape of Supreme Court decisions against which Bostock must be understood. (more…)

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Seventh Circuit Rejects Retroactivity for Padilla

In Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010), the Supreme Court held that a lawyer provides ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to inform a client of the deportation risks that result from a guilty plea.  However, the Court did not clearly indicate whether its holding must be applied retroactively to cases on collateral review, leaving the lower courts to sort out the mess.  A handful of district courts have already split on this issue.  Now, with the Seventh Circuit’s ruling last week in Chaidez v. United States (No. 10-3623), the circuits are also split.  A divided panel in Chaidez rejected both retroactivity and the Third Circuit’s reasoning to the contrary in United States v. Orocio, 645 F.3d 630 (3d Cir. 2011).

As the Chaidez majority observed, the key legal issue is whether Padilla announced a new rule, or merely provided an application of the established principles of ineffective assistance from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).  Under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), a new rule may not be applied retroactively unless it falls into one of two exceptions that plainly do not encompass the Padilla holding.

Teague and least some of its progeny suggest what seems effectively a strong presumption in favor of a “new rule” finding (and hence against retroactivity).  Here is how the Chaidez majority characterized the law:

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Two Circuits Approve Use of Uncounseled Convictions Against Native Americans

In Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109 (1967), the Supreme Court held that a prior conviction cannot be used to enhance a defendant’s sentence under a recidivism statute if the prior conviction was obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel. Native Americans, however, must deal with an apparent loophole in the Burgett rule: the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies to proceedings in federal and state courts, but not tribal courts. If an uncounseled prior conviction in tribal court does not violate the Constitution, it may arguably fall outside the Burgett prohibition and be used against the defendant in a later case.

By some apparent coincidence, the Eighth and Tenth Circuits last month both addressed the use of uncounseled tribal-court convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 117(a), which makes domestic assault by a habitual offender a federal crime. Both courts approved use of such convictions to satisfy the criminal-history element of the offense.

The Eighth Circuit decision, which actually drew a dissent, seems the more carefully reasoned.

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Seventh Circuit Decides That Reckless Injury and Statutory Rape Are Not “Crimes of Violence”

seventh-circuit51In a series of posts (e.g., here and here), I have been tracking the fallout in the Seventh Circuit of the Supreme Court’s decision in Begay v. United States, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008).  Begay adopted a new approach for deciding when former convictions count as “crimes of violence” that trigger the fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit had another in its increasingly long line of post-Begay decisions holding that this or that specific offense does not fit the new definition of “crime of violence.”  More specifically, in United States v. McDonald (No. 08-2703) (Sykes, J.), the court held that first-degree reckless injury (in violation of Wis. Stat. § 940.23) and second-degree sexual assault of a child (what would be colloquially called “statutory rape,” in violation of Wis. Stat. § 948.02(2)) do not count as crimes of violence.  (more…)

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Seventh Circuit Clarifies Application of Fourth Amendment to Searches of Computer Hard Drives

seventh-circuit51While working as a life guard instructor, Matthew Mann covertly installed a video camera in a locker room in order to take footage of women changing their clothes.  After the camera was discovered and turned over to the authorities, police executed a search warrant at Mann’s home for “video tapes, CD’s or other digital media, computers, and the contents of said computers, tapes, or other electronic media, to search for images of women in locker rooms or other private areas.”  In connection with the search, police seized computers and an external hard drive from Mann.  Police later ran forensic software on this equipment that revealed the presence of child pornography, which formed the basis of a federal prosecution.

The district court denied Mann’s motion to suppress the images found on his hard drives.  Mann then pled guilty, but preserved the right to litigate his Fourth Amendment claim on appeal.  In United States v. Mann (No. 08-3041) (Rovner, J.), the Seventh Circuit affirmed.  Although the scope of the warrant was limited by its terms to a search for “images of women in locker rooms or other private areas,” the court held that police did not exceed the scope of the warrant when they collected and viewed Mann’s collection of child pornography.  (more…)

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