The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing for the first time private employers on behalf of employees alleging sexual orientation discrimination.
The commission filed federal lawsuits in Baltimore and Pittsburgh this week, asking courts to acknowledge that employers violate the civil rights of gay and lesbian workers if they treat them unfairly because of their sexual orientation.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion — not sexual orientation. The EEOC is arguing that harassment based on sexual orientation is covered under the prohibition against discrimination based on sex.
"With the filing of these two suits, EEOC is continuing to solidify its commitment to ensuring that individuals are not discriminated against in workplaces because of their sexual orientation," David Lopez, the EEOC's general counsel, said in a statement.
One of the lawsuits, against Pallet Companies, which operates as IFCO Systems North America, alleges that a female employee at a Baltimore office was harassed because she is a lesbian and fired after she complained.
The employee, Yolanda Boone, whose sexual orientation was known to her co-workers, said her supervisor made numerous comments regarding her orientation and appearance, including "I want to turn you back into a woman" and "You would look good in a dress," according to the lawsuit.
The supervisor blew a kiss at her and stuck out his tongue in a suggestive manner, the EEOC alleges in the lawsuit.
"We strongly disagree with the allegations made in the lawsuit," said Jay Frye, regional general counsel for Brambles Limited, the Australian parent company of Pallet Companies. "While we cannot comment publicly on this matter, we will vigorously defend against this litigation."
The Baltimore lawsuit says that Boone was hired at IFCO in September 2013 as a forklift operator. She was harassed for weeks while working the night shift, according to the lawsuit.
Boone's supervisor harassed her because he "objected generally to females having romantic and sexual associations with other females, and objected specifically to Boone's close, loving association with her female partner," the lawsuit said.
Frye said Pallet Companies is committed to providing a work environment in which everyone is treated fairly and with respect, regardless of "sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender, race, nationality, age, disability, religion, marital status or political opinion."
"We have no tolerance for any such discrimination, harassment or retaliation in the workplace," Frye said in an email. "We greatly value the diversity of the people with whom we work and the contributions they make to our business and our culture."
The other lawsuit was filed against Scott Medical Health Center in Pennsylvania. The EEOC alleges a gay male employee was harassed by a manager who repeatedly referred to him with anti-gay epithets and made offensive comments about his sexuality. The employee complained to the clinic director, who took no action, according to the lawsuit. The employee eventually quit.
The company did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The EEOC filed both cases after failing to reach settlements with the employers, the commission said.
Courts have recognized discrimination in cases based on gender stereotyping, said Nancy Modesitt, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
"What the EEOC is trying to do is take that farther," she said.
Maryland and more than 30 other states prohibit employers from discriminating against at least some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the workplace, but it's an uneven patchwork of protections, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the LGBT community.
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Hundreds of companies also have voluntarily adopted policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
But no federal statute specifically provides such protections, the group notes.
Robin Maril, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said the organization applauds the EEOC.
"We believe it should put all employers on notice that they must comply with civil rights law and not discriminate against an employee based on LGBT status," Maril said. "It does provide LGBT people who've experienced discrimination at work with an extra tool to combat that discrimination.
"We're hopeful federal courts will continue to take this up and adopt this interpretation," Maril said.
In a national strategic plan, the EEOC has said it would make it a priority to address problems that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees face in the workplace.