NEW YORK — Saks Fifth Avenue, embroiled in a legal suit involving a transgender employee who was fired, has caught the ire of Human Rights Campaign.
The HRC, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, suspended Saks’ score on its corporate equality index due to the retailer’s response to an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by ex-Saks worker Leyth Jamal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alleging discrimination and harassment based on her gender identity.
According to the HRC, Saks — in a motion to dismiss the case, which was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston — claims that Title VII protections don’t apply to transgender employees and that it’s not legally bound by its own LGBT equality policies. HRC said it honors the right of the company to defend itself against allegations of misconduct, but vehemently disagreed with Saks’ contentions.
According to the HRC, “In a motion to dismiss the case and in stark contrast to clearly established positions of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Saks astoundingly claimed that the plaintiff’s discrimination and harassment claims fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because transsexuals are not a protected class under Title VII. Additionally, Saks goes on to claim that they are not bound by their own corporate non-discrimination policies because employee handbooks are not contracts as a matter of law.”
HRC said the EEOC concluded in 2012 that sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes discrimination based on gender identity. “The decision makes clear that transgender people across the country who have experienced workplace discrimination can file a claim with the EEOC under existing federal sex discrimination law.” HRC also said that in December 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. Department of Justice will recognize transgender discrimination as sex discrimination.
“Saks’ arguments are hugely concerning to us,” said Deena Fidas, director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program. “In its court filings, Saks attempts to secure a motion to dismiss Ms. Jamal’s allegations by simultaneously calling into question the validity of its own non-discrimination policy and the larger, crucial protections afforded by Title VII.”
In response, Saks issued the following statement: “Saks Fifth Avenue is proud of its proven track record in upholding a diverse, equitable and rewarding work environment for associates. However, as this matter is before the courts we are unable to comment further.”
The CEI is an annual measure of how equitably large businesses in the U.S. treat their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, consumers and investors, based on a number of criteria including benefits bestowed transgender employees and their partners, and demonstrating a commitment to the LGBT community. Saks previously got a high score of 90 out of 100.
According to Jillian Weiss, attorney for Jamal, the case occurred in 2012, while Jamal was working as a sales associate at Saks in the Houston Galleria. She is a transgender woman, meaning born male and transitioned to female. “She encountered a lot of harassment and hostility from people in the store, reported it to management and not much was done. She also received physical threats. Ultimately she was fired in 2012,” Weiss told WWD.
Jamal filed a claim with EEOC which conducted an investigation and issued a determination in July 2014 that she was subjected to a hostile work environment. An attempt to resolve the situation with Saks failed, and Jamal took her case to federal court. Weiss said the next step is to respond to the motion and move the case into the discovery phase.