Saks Fifth Avenue's lawyers have backed off their claim that former employee Leythe Jamal doesn't have the right to sue the company for discrimination because she is transgender.
In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Houston today, the attorneys stated, "Saks is withdrawing the Motion in contemplation of litigating the matter on the merits rather than asserting its legal defenses."
Lawyers for Saks went on to say they will proceed with the company's defense and that "the facts will demonstrate that Plaintiff's allegations are wholly without merit, that Saks did not discriminate against Plaintiff, and that Saks' policies and procedures are effective in ensuring an inclusive and diverse workplace free of discrimination and harassment."
In its original motion, filed December 29, Saks argued that transgender workers are not covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination based on sex.
Jamal's attorneys, Jillian Weiss and Mitchell Katine, responded in court last week, citing recent court decisions as well as rulings of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice saying that Title VII indeed covers discrimination based on gender identity.
The withdrawal came the same day the Justice Department filed its own brief in the case, asserting the "strong interest" of the U.S. government in the suit.
Today's Justice brief addressed the question directly: "In its Motion, SAKS maintains that Ms. Jamal cannot prevail on a Title VII sex discrimination claim that is based on her gender identity, particularly her transgender status. Not so. Discrimination against an individual based on gender identity is discrimination because of sex."
The company originally defended its motion, prompting an investigation by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who is looking into Saks's practices regarding trans workers in New York, and leading the Human Rights Campaign to take the unusual step of suspending Saks's "excellent" Corporate Equality Index ranking. The HRC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights also filed amicus briefs in support of Jamal.
Jamal, who worked in a Houston Saks store, alleges in the suit that she was harassed and belittled by coworkers, forced to use the men's restroom, subjected intentional and repeated use of male pronouns by her coworkers, and ultimately fired.
HRC and NCLR both issued statements praising today's moves. "Today's historic statement from the Department of Justice makes it very clear that transgender people are indeed protected by Title VII from workplace discrimination, "said HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow. "Saks also made the right decision by correcting its dangerous course of legal actions that sought to completely undermine those established protections. We are pleased that the case can now be resolved on the merits of the claims and not a sweeping negation of basic Title VII protections."
NCLR legal director Shannon Minter added, "We applaud Saks for correcting its position and recognizing that it has a legal obligation to treat transgender workers equally. We are also grateful to the Department of Justice for clearly stating that federal law prohibits all forms of workplace discrimination against transgender employees. The Department's filing today is historic and will have an enormously positive effect not only in this case, but in other cases across the country."
No date has been set for the trial.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The reporter handles media relations for the plaintiff's attorney.