In July, Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed into law an amendment to Delaware’s employment-discrimination statute. The amendment prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, many employers are concerned about the potential for increased litigation in light of the new law. Some employers may be surprised to learn that current federal law has been used to achieve a similar level of protection. A recent decision from the federal appeals court demonstrates the extent that such protection is provided under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII).
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which has jurisdiction over the federal courts of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Virgin Islands, ruled in late August that a homosexual employee could proceed with his claim that he was harassed and fired because of his “effeminate behaviors.” The unanimous decision of a three-judge panel in Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc., has made headlines across the country as an extension of Title VII’s sex-based discrimination provisions. Brian D. Prowel brought the claim after he was terminated by his employer after 13 years with the company. He alleges that Wise told him that he was being terminated for lack of work as part of a workforce reduction.
According to Prowel, his termination actually was a result of “gender stereotyping.” Unlawful gender stereotyping in the workplace occurs when an employer discriminates against an individual because the individual fails to conform to a certain perception about how the gender should look and act.
Prowel claims that his coworkers called him “Rosebud” and “Princess” because he was well dressed and well groomed and did not engage in rowdy and distasteful behavior like his male colleagues. Coworkers, Prowel claims, left items such as a pink, feathered tiara and anti-gay religious pamphlets on his desk. In other words, Prowel claims that he was harassed and eventually terminated because he didn’t act “manly enough.”
Although the Prowel Rule May Be New, A Much Older Rule Still Applies
Organizations with employees in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey should be mindful of the court’s ruling in Prowel, not because it stands for an expansion of the anti-discrimination laws, but because it strongly supports a principle that is much older than Title VII: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If an individual is being harassed, he will likely be able to characterize the harassment as being based on some protected characteristic. If no harassment occurs in the first place, there will be no need to split hairs over the true reason that he harassment occurred. Thus, to avoid being faced with a claim of unlawful harassment, the best practice is to strictly prohibit any kind of taunting, mockery, or from occurring in your organization’s workplace.