In an unprecedented opinion, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appellate court in the country to rule that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Kimberly Hively sued her employer, Ivy Tech Community College, an Indiana-based college, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguing that Ivy Tech violated her civil rights when it failed to offer her full-time employment or a promotion because she is lesbian.
The trial court did not allow Hively’s lawsuit to proceed, holding that Title VII – which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion – does not protect employees from sexual orientation discrimination. Lambda Legal, on behalf of Hively, appealed the trial court’s decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
In July of 2016, a three-judge panel affirmed that the Civil Rights Act does not protect employees from discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Lambda Legal then requested that the full panel of the Seventh Circuit rehear the case; and, in November of 2016, all eleven judges of the circuit heard the parties’ argument. After this rare hearing, the court found 8 to 3 that the Civil Rights Act does protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Ivy Tech has stated they will not appeal this decision to the United States Supreme Court. Accordingly, gay and lesbian employees in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin now have the right to sue their employers over discriminatory practices based on sexual orientation. We suspect that other circuits will soon address this topic in the coming year. In the meantime, employers in the Seventh Circuit should re-evaluate their practices and ensure they are not discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.