The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tueday about whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. What you probably won’t hear about is the importance of the employment at-will doctrine in how the case is decided
The case for including sexual orientation within Title VII is based on the“sex plus” theory of discrimination which prohibits gender stereotyping. More broadly the equal protection arguments underlying the 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage would also support the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity within federal civil rights law.
In a brief the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) argued against expanding TItle VII protections to sexual orientation and gender identity based on a narrow reading of Title VII. Though the DOJ brief doesn’t mention the concept or doctrine of employment at-will expressly, its influence is felt strongly.
Employment at-will is judge-created or, according to an authoritative essay written by attorney Ronald B. Standler, a law professor-created doctrine created in the late 19th century. Employment at-will is a doctrine that holds an employer is free to fire an employee without cause at any time, for any reason without notice. On the flip side an employee is free to quit at any time. (Of course, employment at-will doesn’t stop employers from whining about employee ghosting. Employers also seek to enforce non-compete agreements against employees who quit)
One consequence of employment at-will, as pointed out on this blog, is that courts will narrowly interpret any exceptions to employment at-will doctrine.
Civil rights laws are exceptions to employment at-will. But opponents of expanding Title VII expressly to sexual orientation and gender identity are arguing to narrowly construe Title VII. The employment defense bar makes these types of arguments, often successfully, on a routine basis.
In a way the argument over whether to include sexual orientation and gender identity within Title VII is both groundbreaking and routine. I scratch my head when strong advocates of employment at-will get apoplectic about the DOJ’s brief narrowly interpreting Title VII. All the DOJ is doing is narrowly interpreting an exception to employment at-will doctrine.
I also don’t understand the argument that laws prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination are economic development tools. I read an interesting article that could explain this idea. The article was a critical exploration of the philosophy of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas, the second African-American Supreme Court justice has been critical of policies such as affirmative action. The article pointed out, somewhat sympathetically, that Thomas sees affirmative action as a matter of aesthetics among elites. In other words, the elite gets to chose what the elite looks like without having their power challenged. Inclusion is a form of marketing.
I think the idea of elite aesthetics explains how the professional-managerial class and their defenders can support LGBT rights in the workplace and employment at-will. Even if sexual orientation and gender identity are included within Title VII, those cases will still be difficult to win. Employers will still have what amounts to private sovereign immunity through exhaustion of remedies requirements. The National Labor Relations Board will still be making it harder for employees to form unions and not be subject to employment at-will.
But not all management-types are so willing to let their socially liberal instincts override their support of employer power in the workplace to create more exceptions to employment at-will. There are also many in the business community who don’t share socially liberal sentiments. I suspect this side may prevail in the argument over whether sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title VII.
Would it be logically inconsistent to allow same sex marriage but allow discrimination based on sexual orientation? Yes, but the importance of the employment at-will doctrine would at-least give that seeming inconsistency some logical explanation.