LGBT Workers Protected From Employment Discrimination, Texas Federal Court Rules

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 13, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Even cases that don't go a particular plaintiff's way can have larger and more positive ramifications for an entire community. Engineer Nicole Wittmer's claims against Phillips 66 -- that the energy company refused to hire her because she's transgender -- could be one of those cases.

Though a federal judge in Texas ruled that Wittmer lacked the evidence to prove discrimination in her particular case, the judge also ruled that federal employment law protecting workers from sex discrimination also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity. Meaning LGBT plaintiffs in other employment discrimination cases could benefit, even if Wittmer lost.

Placing LGBT Individuals Under Title VII Protections

Judge Lee Rosenthal ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, also provides protections for applicants and employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity:

"Within the last year, several circuits have expanded Title VII protection to include discrimination based on transgender status and sexual orientation ... Although the Fifth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue, these very recent circuit cases are persuasive. They consistently recognize transgender status and orientation as protected classes under Title VII, applying the long-recognized protections against gender- or sex-based stereotyping. Applying these recent cases, the court assumes that Wittmer's status as a transgender woman places her under the protections of Title VII."

LGBT Trend

Judge Rosenthal is the chief judge in the Houston-based Southern District Court of Texas, and noted both the absence of a ruling in her own Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) and the trend among other federal circuit courts that have dealt with LGBT discrimination in the context of Title VII.

Federal appeals courts in the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York, and Vermont) and the Seventh Circuit (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) have applied Title VII to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Additionally, the Sixth Circuit (covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) has ruled that Title VII bans discrimination based on gender identity.

So, while Wittmer's case didn't go her way, it could have more positive and far-reaching ramifications for the LGBT community. "We're certainly disappointed that this particular ruling did not fall in her favor," Wittmer's attorney Alfonso Kennard Jr. said following the ruling. "The silver lining here is it has helped to define the landscape for people who have been discriminated [against] in the workplace due to their transgender status."

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