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Courts Inch Closer to Recognizing Sexual Orientation as a Protected Class

August 20, 2012
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Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Wrongful Discharge, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Policies and Procedures, Termination
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The Ohio Bell Telephone Company fired Plaintiff Jason Koren after he missed work for his father's funeral. Koren suspected that Ohio Bell really fired him because he's homosexual and took his husband's last name. He sued for gender discrimination. Did the court: a) grant Ohio Bell's motion for summary judgment because Title VII does not offer protections for sexual orientation; or b) deny the motion because Title VII does protect against the application of unlawful sex-based stereotypes? Give yourself a prize if you answered "b."

Here's what the court had to say in Koren v. The Ohio Bell Telephone Co. (N.D. Ohio 8/14/12) [pdf]:

"[A] plaintiff hoping to succeed on a claim of sex stereotyping [must] show that he fails to act and/or identify with his or her gender, … as all homosexuals, by definition, fail to conform to traditional gender norms in their sexual practices." Koren's position is that changing his name upon marriage was a nonconforming "behavior" that supports his gender discrimination claim…. Ohio Bell disagrees and attempts to frame Koren's claims as a simple attempt "to bootstrap protection for sexual orientation into Title VII." …

The Court agrees with Koren: homosexual males do not "by definition, fail to conform to the traditional gender norms" by changing their surname upon marriage. And here, Koren chose to take his spouse's surname—a "traditionally" feminine practice—and his co-workers and superiors observed that gender non-conformance when Koren requested to be called by his married name….

Koren has alleged just such a failure to conform. And he says that [manager] Miceli "harbored ill-will" because he changed his name but that she would not have done so if a female employee had changed her name. Koren testified that Miceli refused to call him by his married name, that Miceli went out of her way to call him by his previous last name, and that Miceli informed him that she did not recognize same-sex marriages. And that ill-will, Koren says, resulted in seven unexcused absences and, ultimately, his termination.

Nine out of the last 10 Congresses have tried to pass a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which among other things, would add "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the list of classes protected under Title VII. It has failed each time. Courts and the EEOC, however, continue to give the LGBT community that which the legislature has rejected.

As for me, I'll simply repeat the opinion I gave after the EEOC issued its groundbreaking pronouncement on this issue earlier this year: The time is coming when this type of discrimination will no longer be an open issue. I suggest you get on the bandwagon now, and send a signal to all of your employees that you are a business of inclusion, not one of bigotry and exclusion.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.


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