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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SBA Statement in Support of BLM and Against Racial Injustice

Logo of Student Bar AssociationTo Our Peers, Professors, And Administrators:

Marquette University Law School Student Bar Association writes to you today to address the tragedy that we as a community and a country have faced in the last three weeks. Not one of a pandemic, but rather the state-sanctioned murders of Black Americans. Namely, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others. Their deaths are not novel, and we would be remiss to categorize them as such. Their deaths are the tragic manifestation of a long-standing system of racial oppression that continues to unjustly claim the lives of Black Americans.

We want to be loud and exceptionally clear: SBA believes Black Lives Matter. We are an anti-racist organization, and we condemn every form of racism. We stand in solidarity with the members of the Black Law Student Association, the Black community of Marquette University, and the Black community around the world.  (more…)

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Once We Know, We’ll Know What To Do

In a Facebook post last Saturday, after reading “What protesters say is fueling their anger,” I wondered what I could do to help eliminate racism, which is causing so much harm to our collective humanity.  I wasn’t sure what to do first.

As a law professor and member of the Sports Lawyers Association (including 2 years as its president and 18 years on its board of directors) for 30+ years, I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know and work with many persons of color as students and professional colleagues.  I’ve become friends with many of them.  During the past couple days, I learned that I didn’t know some of them very well.

On Sunday, I read a Facebook post by a former student stating: “Black people need your empathy. Put yourself in my shoes. I jog nearly everyday in the suburbs of North Dallas, but I run with my dog because I know that I somehow appear ‘less intimidating’ to the general public as a black man running with our family pet. . . . I have three kids – two of which are boys. I fear the day that I am forced to have the conversation with them that many Americans see them as a threat simply because of the melanin in their skin. . . . [O]ver the summer before I went to college, I had a police officer pull a gun on me in the 90s when he pulled me over simply because he said I didn’t ‘belong in this neighborhood’ where I actually grew up. He said ‘give me a reason’ to pull the trigger. I was merely a teenager with a gun pointed at the left side of my head during a traffic stop. I recall that day like it was yesterday.”

I responded: “Very sorry you personally experienced such horrifying racism (like so many others). It’s appalling, and NO human being should be subjected to and have to live in fear of it happening again! I hear you and strongly agree that racism must be publicly condemned, most especially by whites.”

He replied: “Thank you. I appreciate your awareness of the situation. . . . Have an intentional conversation with your own friends and family, on my behalf.”

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A Community Lawyering

(Gratitude to Rodrigo Sanchez for assistance in compiling data on 53206.)

The Shriver Center in Chicago provides training on a particular model of community-based lawyering.  They define “community lawyering” as “using legal advocacy to help achieve solutions to community-identified issues in ways that develop local leadership and institutions that can continue to exert power to effect systemic change.” The concept grew out of the older ideas of community organizing generally pioneered by Saul Alinsky’s work in 1930s and 40s Chicago, where, broadly speaking, the goal is to promote the empowerment of citizens, i.e. members of the community, to address problems and effect change. These ideas were applied to the practice of law at least as far back as 1970 in the form of a Yale Law Journal article where Stephen Wexler outlined a number of ways in which effective lawyering in an impoverished community is different from the traditional practice of law.

Whereas the traditional lawyering model sets up an adversarial dynamic between parties, community lawyering may engage alternative systems of relational power or power sharing aimed at ultimate reconciliation or compromise, founded on a recognition of common interests between parties.  (See Ross Dolloff & Marc Potvin, Community Lawyering—Why Now?, 37 Clearinghouse Review 136 (July–Aug. 2003)).  Whereas traditional lawyering may entail simply spotting issues that can be resolved through litigation or formal legal recourse, community lawyering can approach citizen-identified problems as opportunities to engage stakeholders in a broader conversation in the hope of building authentic, trusting relationships.  Whereas the traditional lawyer model is that of a litigator, negotiator of claims, and counselor to the client, the community lawyer’s focus may be to “develop inside the client population a sustainable knowledge base that allows the population to build foundations for opportunity from within,” to identify and defeat the causes of poverty.  Whereas in the traditional lawyering model the attorney is the “voice” of the client before the court, in a community lawyering model, the strategy and policies are accountable to the voice of the population being served.  The lawyer assists a community in identifying a structural barrier (access to economic resources, housing, sustainability, stability, employment opportunities, political voice, etc.) and then helps build capacity within the community to take action (through organizing, relationship building, advocacy, policy development, traditional case work, etc.).

The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee applied for and received a grant funded by the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation to introduce its related but unique approach of embedding lawyers into communities called “neighborhood lawyering,” focused on two targeted communities in Milwaukee.  (more…)

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The Unprofessionals

In the decade after the American Civil War, Congress ratified three Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) and passed five civil rights statutes (the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1870, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875) in an attempt to integrate African Americans into society and provide them with the full rights and privileges of citizenship.  From rights to vote, hold property, and contract, to rights of access to the courts, public infrastructure, and the marketplace, these enactments represented a dream of reconstruction that strove toward a more universal application of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.  In striking down and interpreting these laws, the decisions of the Supreme Court played a crucial role in curtailing the promise of this older civil rights movement.  The Court’s undermining of the laws led to the legal segregation, discrimination, terrorizing, denial of due process, lynching, murdering, exploitation, and injustice that characterizes the African American experience in the century that followed.

The highlight reel that we all study in Constitutional Law class includes:

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