Gender Stereotypes Now Serve as a Basis for Sex Discrimination Claim under the MHRA
Despite an uptick in advocacy, support, and inclusion of the LGTBQ community over the past several decades, as of today, discrimination based on sexual orientation remains an invalid claim under the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). However, in a recent decision by the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, disparate treatment of a gay male employee because he did not conform to traditional or stereotypical notions of masculinity warranted a claim of sex discrimination; which is a cognizable claim under the MHRA.
In Lampley, et al. v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights, plaintiff Lampley alleged that his employer discriminated against him based on sex because his behavior and appearance deviated from the stereotypes of “maleness” held by his employer and managers. Lampley claimed the stereotypes surrounding masculinity encouraged his employer to harass him and treat him differently from similarly situated employees who conformed to gender stereotypes. Subsequently, a close friend and co-worker of Lampley’s named Frost also filed charges with the alleging retaliation based on her close association and support of Lampley. The two employees “dual-filed” their charges of discrimination with both the EEOC and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The MCHR dismissed the state administrative proceedings, stating it lacked jurisdiction over the claims because they were based on sexual orientation. Both complainants then petitioned the trial court for administrative review arguing that sex, and not sexual orientation, serves as the basis of their claims. The trial court consolidated the cases and granted summary judgement in favor of the MCHR.
On appeal, Lampley and Frost argued that the trial court erroneously construed their claims to be based on sexual orientation, while in fact, they were based on sex, and therefore actionable under the MHRA. Lampley and Frost further contented that the sex discrimination was based upon sex stereotyping. The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed. Relying on federal case law under Title VII, the Court held that sex stereotyping can form the basis of a sex discrimination claim allowable under the MHRA. The Court of Appeals also cited R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School Dist., another recent Missouri Court of Appeals decision, which held “discrimination on the basis of sex means the deprivation of one sex of a right or privilege afforded the other sex, including a deprivation based on a trait unique to one sex, or a deprivation based on traits perceived as unique to one sex.”
In sum, the Court held that under the MHRA, “evidence an employee has suffered an adverse employment decision based on stereotyped ideas of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination.” Thus, employers must be wary of company managers who might try to dictate what is masculine or feminine enough to meet accepted company norms. Just like ideas of gender identity have become more fluid and inclusive over the years, so has the applicable law.