Amazon Accused of Harassing Transgender Worker, Husband

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By Jay-Anne B. Casuga

Amazon permitted the harassment of a transgender female employee and her husband, who both worked at a shipping facility in Kentucky, a federal lawsuit filed Aug. 9 alleges ( Schawe-Lane v. Amazon.com.KYDC LLC , E.D. Ky., No. 17-00134, complaint filed 8/9/17 ).

In addition to bringing sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the complaint includes some uncommon transgender association discrimination claims, disability bias claims, and corresponding state law claims.

Allegra Schawe-Lane and Dane Lane say they were subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act after co-workers discovered that Schawe-Lane is transgender. Schawe-Lane says co-workers called her “it,” “he/she,” “chick with a dick,” “shemale,” and other slurs. She further alleges male co-workers harassed her and her husband, propositioning them for sex, among other claims.

Additionally, Schawe-Lane was threatened with physical violence and intimidated by co-workers, she says. Despite complaining to management, no corrective action was taken, Schawe-Lane alleges. Instead, she and her husband were subject to heightened scrutiny and given less desirable work assignments in retaliation for their complaints, she says. Both ultimately resigned.

The couple filed a 21-count complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky that also includes Title VII association discrimination claims on behalf of Lane and Americans with Disabilities Act bias claims partly based on actual or perceived gender dysphoria. They also bring similar state claims.

“Amazon touts itself as being transgender friendly,” Jillian Weiss, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said, referencing the company’s award-winning web television series, “Transparent,” a family drama centering on a transgender character. But the company’s transgender friendly policies “don’t reach the shop floor,” Weiss told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 9.

The fund filed the suit on behalf of the couple.

Amazon didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

State Law to Follow Title VII?

Title VII doesn’t expressly prohibit workplace discrimination based on transgender status. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII and issues right-to-sue letters to private plaintiffs, took the position in 2012 that transgender discrimination is sex discrimination under the federal civil rights law.

That stance had already been adopted by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2008.

Additionally, at least two federal appeals courts, the Sixth and Eleventh circuits, have separately ruled that transgender discrimination can constitute a form of unlawful sex stereotyping under Title VII, a claim that has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1989. Federal courts in Kentucky sit within the Sixth Circuit.

Kentucky law also doesn’t expressly prohibit workplace transgender discrimination, except for state public employees. However, Kentucky law generally is interpreted consistently with Title VII, Weiss said.

A federal court interpreting state law must determine how a state supreme court would rule on the issue, and the Kentucky Supreme Court is a “fairly liberal force in many ways,” she said.

Associational Bias, ADA Claims

Title VII also doesn’t include express language prohibiting discrimination based on an employee’s association with someone in a protected class. However, at least four appeals courts, including the Sixth Circuit, have recognized such claims.

Weiss said she wasn’t aware of any other cases in Kentucky that involved associational bias claims based on a relationship with a transgender individual.

As for ADA claims based on gender dysphoria, only one federal court so far has allowed a transgender employee to proceed with such claims.

Amanda R. Walker and Bradley S. Zoppoth of the Zoppoth Law Firm in Louisville, Ky., represented Schawe-Lane and Lane. Attorneys haven’t yet entered an appearance for Amazon.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga in Washington at jcasuga@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

For More Information

The complaint is available at http://src.bna.com/rwC.

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