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EEOC files appeal in trans-related suit
by Matt Simonette
2017-02-14

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ( EEOC ), on Feb. 10, appealed a judge's ruling that a transgender woman's employer had the legal right to fire her, Slate reported.

The EEOC appeal came after worry from legal advocates over the EEOC's direction under President Donald Trump's administration. There is one open spot on the five-person commission, which Trump has to appoint; he will also have to name the agency's general counsel, who generally sets the litigation agenda. The Feb. 10 appeal signals that no major policy shift—for now—has set in at EEOC, though the White House previously signaled that it would step back from enforcing federal protections for transgender individuals.

The case in question, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, involves a Michigan trans woman, Aimee Stephens, who was fired because her employer objected to her wearing womens' clothes at work. EEOC sued on Stephens' behalf, arguing that she was a victim of sex-discrimination. A lower court judge ruled that the employer had indeed engaged in gender-stereotyping, but had a legally-protected religious motivation to do so.

EEOC would normally appeal the ruling, which came before Trump's November election. The agency stalled on the appeal however, and reportedly told the ACLU, also representing Stephens, not to contact her; ACLU filed a motion to intervene. But with the appeal now filed, the case is now back on track for the moment.

Trump named EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic, a Republican, as acting head of the agency. Lipnec was appointed by Barack Obama in 2010. In September, openly lesbian Commissioner Chai Feldblum, another Obama appointee, told Windy City Times that, at least at the time, the EEOC had a civil atmosphere, free of political squabbling.

"To be honest, it's something that's been shaped by the personal friendship and respect that my Republican colleague Victoria Lipnic and I have for each other," Feldblum said. "We actually knew each other before we came to the commission because of work I had done in labor. She was assistant secretary of labor under Bush II for seven years. Neither of us sought the commission; the White House sought us out. We didn't come with a commitment to partisanship. We came with a commitment to governing."

EEOC officials like Feldblum frequently argued that anti-LGBT discrimination fell under sex discrimination, meaning LGBT individuals were entitled to Title VII category protections, which is how the agency came to represent Stephens.

John Knight of ACLU told Slate that his organization would not withdraw its motion to intervene since Stephens may face more hurdles with EEOC once the new officials are appointed.

"We sought to intervene because of our concerns about whether our clients' interests are fully and adequately represented by the EEOC going forward," Knight said. "The fact that they filed a brief does not change those concerns."

Slate's article is at slate.me/2lMdLS9 .


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