The courts, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hold differing views on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity. Nevertheless, on November 20, an Oklahoma City federal court jury awarded a transgender employee $1,165,000 on her discrimination and retaliation claims.
Professor Tudor’s claims
When Rachel Tudor was hired as a professor by Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SEOSU) in 2004, she presented as a man. In 2007, she began transitioning to a woman. While at SEOSU, she complained that she was subjected to insults, restrictions on which restrooms she could use, and limitations on her makeup and clothing.
In 2009, Tudor applied for a tenured associate professor position. Although the faculty committee recommended that she be granted tenure, her application was ultimately rejected by SEOSU’s administration. At the time, the university did not have a policy addressing sexual orientation discrimination or harassment. In 2010, she filed a grievance and complained to the U.S. Department of Education about discrimination and the hostility she experienced during the 2009-10 tenure process.
During the 2010-11 academic year, SEOSU denied Tudor the opportunity to reapply for tenure. Ultimately, the university terminated her employment.
Tudor’s lawsuit and the jury’s verdict
Tudor filed a Title VII lawsuit in federal court against SEOSU alleging discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment based on her transgender status. The university’s efforts to get her claims dismissed were unsuccessful, and an Oklahoma City jury heard her claims in November. Although the jury ruled in favor of SEOSU on the hostile work environment claim, it awarded Tudor $1,165,000, finding that the university discriminated against her by denying her tenure and retaliated against her for complaining about discrimination. Tudor v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, et al., CIV-15-324-C (W. Dist. Okla., 11/20/17).
What to make of the decision
Although employment protections based on sexual orientation and sexual identity are currently the source of debate, employers should be proactive and promptly address discrimination or harassment based on employees’ sexual orientation or sexual identity. At the end of the day, workplaces that value respect and professionalism will be more successful, more rewarding, and less likely to face legal challenges.