Missouri Supreme Court Issues Pair of Opinions Addressing LGBTQ Rights Under the State's Anti-Discrimination Statute
On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a pair of opinions interpreting LGBTQ rights under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). In Harold Lampley & Rene Frost v. The Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR), the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that sex-based stereotypes can form the basis of a sex discrimination claim under the Missouri Human Rights Act regardless of the employee’s sexual orientation. The court concluded that the employees’ claims should not be construed as claims for discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is not covered under the MHRA.
Lampley alleged his employer, the Missouri Department of Social Services Child Support Enforcement Division, subjected him to sex discrimination and retaliation because he “does not exhibit the stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave.” Lampley’s co-worker Frost contended their employer retaliated against her because of her association with Lampley. The MCHR opened investigations into Lampley’s and Frost’s claims, but terminated its proceedings based on its conclusion that their claims of discrimination based on sex were really claims based on “sexual orientation,” which the investigator concluded is not protected by the MHRA. Lampley and Frost filed petitions for review, and the circuit court later granted summary judgment in favor of the MCHR.
Although Lampley and Frost acknowledged that Lampley is a gay man, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded this fact was incidental to the basis for the discrimination. The MHRA provides it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the basis of sex. The court’s opinion cited cases in which federal courts have distinguished between discrimination based on sexual orientation and sex discrimination based on sex stereotyping, and concluded that the rules and regulations promulgated by the MCHR support applying this analysis under Missouri law as well. The MCHR’s rules provide that an employer may not refuse “to hire an individual based on stereotyped characteristics of the sexes…The principle of nondiscrimination requires that individuals be considered on the basis of individual capacities and not on the basis of any characteristics generally attributed to the group.” The court concluded that because the MCHR’s rules “already characterize sexual stereotyping as an unlawful hiring practice, it follows that sexual stereotyping during employment is an unlawful employment practice.” Thus, the court held:
[A]n employee who suffers an adverse employment decision based on sex-based stereotypical attitudes of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination. Sexual orientation is incidental and irrelevant to sex stereotyping. Sex discrimination is discrimination, it is prohibited by the Act, and an employee may demonstrate this discrimination through evidence of sexual stereotyping.
Based on this conclusion, the court found the MCHR erroneously assumed that Lampley and Frost intended to bring sex discrimination claims based on sexual orientation, and Lampley and Frost should have been allowed to demonstrate whether the alleged sexual stereotyping motivated their employer’s alleged discriminatory conduct.
The court’s opinion clarifies that while sexual orientation and gender identity cannot form the basis of a claim under the MHRA, sex stereotyping can form the basis of a sex discrimination claim regardless of the employee’s sexual orientation.
The Missouri Supreme Court also handed down an opinion in R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District, which involves a transgender student’s claim that he was discriminated against in a public accommodation on the basis of his sex. After filing a charge of discrimination with the MCHR, the student filed suit against the Blue Springs School District and the School Board alleging that although his “legal sex is male,” he was denied access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms, which constituted discrimination against him based on his sex in violation of the MHRA. The circuit court granted the school district and school board’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on two grounds, including that the MHRA does not cover claims based on gender identity.
The MHRA provides that “[i]t is an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from or deny any other person…advantages, facilities, services, or privileges made available in any place of public accommodation…or to segregate or discriminate against any such person in the use thereof on the grounds of…sex….” The court concluded that R.M.A. adequately pleaded facts that could support a jury verdict in his favor: (1) denial by the defendants of the “full and equal use and enjoyment of a public accommodation,” (2) membership in a protected class—sex—based on his allegation that his “legal sex is male,” (3) that his sex was a contributing or motivating factor in the denial of his use of a public accommodation, and (4) damages as a result of defendants’ alleged conduct. The court emphasized this was all that was required of R.M.A. at this stage of the proceedings, and the motion to dismiss should have been denied.
The court’s opinion disagreed with the dissenting opinion from the court’s Chief Justice Fischer for presuming that R.M.A. will not be able to present evidence regarding his sex and whether his sex was a contributing factor to the discrimination he claimed to have suffered. The court argued the dissenting opinion’s debate was “premature” and emphasized that R.M.A. had alleged he is a member of the male protected class, and under the applicable standard for review for a motion to dismiss, that was sufficient. The court further noted, in response to the dissenting opinion, that R.M.A. does not claim protection under the MHRA based on his transgender status but, rather, based on his sex. Thus, while the court’s ruling will allow R.M.A.’s case to proceed in the circuit court, questions remain, as articulated in the dissenting opinion, about the ultimate viability of R.M.A.'s cause of action.