HRC: Saks Fifth Avenue Doubles Down on LGBT Discrimination

Author: Human Rights Campaign
Published: Thursday 15th January 2015
Summary: CEO declines to renounce company stand that transgender employees are not protected under civil rights law.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, today condemned the decision by the chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue's parent company to decline to renounce Saks' claim that transgender Americans are not protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In an interview with the New York Times, Gerald L. Storch of Hudson's Bay declined to repudiate Saks' legal assertion that former transgender employee Leyth Jamal, who has filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against Saks under Title VII, was not protected under the law because "trannsexuals are not a protected class," as the company stated in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

"Mr. Storch's abhorrent decision not to renounce that position is not only morally wrong, but wrong on the law," said Sarah Warbelow, HRC Legal Director. "For more than two years, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has considered discrimination based on gender identity actionable. This latest development further undermines Saks' credibility and standing with the LGBT community - indeed, its standing with any consumer committed to equality."

In addition to the EEOC's position on transgender worker protections, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that the U.S. Department of Justice recognizes transgender discrimination as sex discrimination, as have a number of federal appellate courts.

Last week, HRC took the rare step of suspending Saks' Corporate Equality Index (CEI) score after reviewing Jamal's discrimination lawsuit and Saks' legal response asserting that Title VII protections don't apply to transgender employees. That claim directly contravenes the company's own LGBT equality policies, and is a troubling indication that Saks does not consider itself legally bound by its own workplace rules. In its legal brief, Saks asserted that it is not bound by its own corporate non-discrimination policies because "employee handbooks are not contracts as a matter of law."

"While recognizing a company's right to defend itself, we remain enormously concerned about the spurious legal route Saks is pursuing to get this case dismissed," Warbelow said. "Mr. Storch's silence on the issue in today's New York Times deepens our skepticism about Saks' commitment to workplace LGBT equality."

Saks provided a follow-up statement to the Times, which the paper described in the following way:

"In a follow-up statement, Saks stressed that it 'believes that all persons are protected against sex discrimination under Title VII' of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

"It said, however, that the plaintiff had based her case not on sex discrimination but on the issue of gender identity and transgender status, which it said some courts have ruled fall outside Title VII's mandate. Saks will follow that precedent, the retailer said, 'unless or until it is modified by the courts or the legislature.'"

The Human Rights Campaign is America's largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. HRC envisions a world where LGBT people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.

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