For the first time in Texas, a federal judge said LGBT workers should be protected from employment discrimination based on their gender identity and sexual orientation.
Judge Lee Rosenthal, the chief judge in the Houston-based Southern District Court of Texas, said in a decision last week that federal employment law protecting workers from discrimination based on sex also applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Nicole Wittmer, an engineer who alleged she wasn’t hired by energy company Phillips 66 because she’s transgender, couldn’t prove her claim, Rosenthal ruled. But if she had proof, the judge added, Wittmer would have had cause to sue under federal law.
Rosenthal’s ruling doesn’t mean it’s suddenly illegal in Texas to discriminate against LGBT workers. But it may be cited in the future by others who believe their sexual orientation or gender identity was a factor in workplace decisions, Wittmer’s lawyer told The Dallas Morning News.
“We’re certainly disappointed that this particular ruling did not fall in her favor,” Alfonso Kennard Jr. said Monday. “The silver lining here is it has helped to define the landscape for people who have been discriminated in the workplace due to their transgender status.”
“This ruling is earth-shattering — in a good way.”
Harper Jean Tobin, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, characterized her decision as part of a growing consensus that Title VII covers trans workers as well.
“This ruling, along with dozens of others, shows that discrimination against transgender workers is illegal under federal law,” Tobin said in a prepared statement. “This is the overwhelming approach of the courts across the country over the last decade.”
Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law and LGBT rights expert at Southern Methodist University, said the ruling was the first of its kind in Texas.
It goes beyond a 2008 case in which another federal judge in Texas said gender nonconforming persons could not be discriminated against in the workplace, he said, because this one also recognizes transgender status as a protected trait.
Here is a copy of the ruling, which is embedded in the story. Other federal court judges have made similar rulings, but none have been in the Fifth Circuit, so those rulings did not apply to Texas. My non-lawyer’s take on this is that while it has laid down a principle, we won’t know how that applies in specific cases until someone files a lawsuit based on this principle. I suspect it won’t be very long before that happens, so let’s keep an eye on this.