Karine Jean-Pierre
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HRC Challenges Saks' Defense of Antitrans Discrimination

HRC Challenges Saks' Defense of Antitrans Discrimination

The Human Rights Campaign has taken the unusual step of suspending Saks Fifth Avenue’s Corporate Equality Index score, due to the manner in which the company is defending itself in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a transgender former employee.

“While HRC honors the right of the company to vigorously defend itself against allegations of misconduct, the arguments made in Saks’ court filings go well beyond arguing the veracity of the allegations,” says a press release issued today by the organization.

In documents asking a federal court to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Leyth O. Jamal, who worked in a Houston-area Saks store, the company contends that Jamal’s “discrimination and harassment claims fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because transsexuals are not a protected class under Title VII” of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, the HRC notes. Saks also claims not to be bound by its own antidiscrimination policy because “employee handbooks are not contracts as a matter of law.”

However, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice both say that Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination extends to discrimination based on gender identity, HRC officials point out. Also, Saks touted its nondiscrimination policies in its response to the Corporate Equality Index questionnaire. Its most recent score in the index was 90 out of a possible 100.

“Saks’ arguments are hugely concerning to us,” Deena Fidas, director of HRC’s workplace equality program, said in the press release. “In its court filings, Saks attempts to secure a motion to dismiss Ms. Jamal’s allegations by simultaneously calling into question the validity of its own nondiscrimination policy and the larger, crucial protections afforded by Title VII. The policies our CEI advances are not window dressings for any company to prop up or disregard in the face of individual allegations of misconduct. Saks is publicly undercutting the applicability of its own policies reported in the CEI and we must suspend Saks’ CEI score until further notice.” HRC has contacted Saks and asked it to clarify matters and amend its legal filings.

Jamal’s suit alleges that she faced a hostile work environment at the Saks store, where she was harassed and belittled by coworkers, forced to use the men’s restroom, endure intentional and repeated use of male pronouns by her coworkers, and ultimately fired. She filed a complaint with the EEOC, which found there was reasonable cause to believe that she had faced antitrans discrimination, which led to Jamal filing a federal lawsuit. Saks filed its motion to dismiss this week.

Jamal’s attorney, Jillian T. Weiss, had already denounced the language used by Saks in its court filings. “Saks is touting its high score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, including its gender identity protections, and then arguing that its trans employees aren’t entitled to expect it to deliver on that promise,” Weiss said this week.

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