The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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Federal Judge in Texas Rules Title VII Bans Anti-LGBT Discrimination

Judge Lee Rosenthal

A federal judge in Texas has added to the growing number of rulings asserting that existing civil rights law bans anti-LGBT discrimination.

Judge Lee Rosenthal’s ruling, issued last week, doesn’t automatically change the law but does stand to affect how other courts interpret it. And some case involving the law may eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could change the law for the entire nation.

Rosenthal, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, ruled in a lawsuit brought by Nicole Wittmer, an engineer who claimed that energy company Phillips 66 had rejected her for a job because she’s transgender, The Dallas Morning News reports. Rosenthal found that Wittmer hadn’t proved the company had discriminated, but if it had, she would have had a case under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law, in banning sex discrimination, also bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to Rosenthal.

This is the first time such a ruling has come out of Texas, which is part of the Fifth Circuit for federal courts. Federal appeals courts — a step above district courts — in the Second Circuit (covering New York, Vermont, and Connecticut) and the Seventh Circuit (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) have ruled that Title VII bans sexual orientation discrimination. The appellate court for the Sixth Circuit (covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) has ruled that it bans gender identity discrimination.

Rosenthal said these rulings influenced her decision. “Within the last year, several circuits have expanded Title VII protection to include discrimination based on transgender status and sexual orientation,” she wrote, according to the Morning News. “Although the Fifth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue, these very recent circuit cases are persuasive. ... The court assumes that Wittmer's status as a transgender woman places her under the protections of Title VII.”

With a majority of states still not banning anti-LGBT discrimination, and federal legislation on the matter stalled in Congress, LGBT people have often looked to courts for relief. President Barack Obama’s administration argued for an expansive view of Title VII, but Donald Trump’s administration has reversed that stance, with the Justice Department stating that the law does not ban anti-LGBT discrimination and even making that argument in the Second Circuit last year. A case involving the interpretation of Title VII was appealed to the Supreme Court in 2017, but the court declined to hear it, without comment, as is generally the case.

Wittmer’s lawyer, Alfonso Kennard Jr., expressed disappointment in the outcome for his client — since the ruling doesn't immediately make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT workers in Texas — but he praised the judge’s interpretation of Title VII. “We’re certainly disappointed that this particular ruling did not fall in her favor,” he told the Morning News Monday. “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. … This ruling is earth-shattering — in a good way.”

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