Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.

Decision Date07 March 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-2424,16-2424
Parties EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff-Appellant, Aimee Stephens, Intervenor, v. R.G. &. G.R. HARRIS FUNERAL HOMES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

884 F.3d 560

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff-Appellant,

Aimee Stephens, Intervenor,
v.
R.G. &.
G.R. HARRIS FUNERAL HOMES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 16-2424

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Argued: October 4, 2017
Decided and Filed: March 7, 2018


ARGUED: Anne Noel Occhialino, EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. John A. Knight, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, Chicago, Illinois, for Intervenor. Douglas G. Wardlow, ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM, Scottsdale, Arizona, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Anne Noel Occhialino, EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. John A. Knight, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, Chicago, Illinois, Jay D. Kaplan, Daniel S. Korobkin, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FUND OF MICHIGAN, Detroit, Michigan, for Intervenor. Douglas G. Wardlow, Gary S. McCaleb, ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM, Scottsdale, Arizona, for Appellee. Jennifer C. Pizer, Nancy C. Marcus, LAMBDA LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND, INC., Los Angeles, California, Gregory R. Nevins, LAMBDA LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND, INC., Atlanta, Georgia, Richard B. Katskee, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, Washington, D.C., Doron M. Kalir, CLEVELAND-MARSHALL COLLEGE OF LAW, Cleveland, Ohio, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Katherine Franke, PRIVATE RIGHTS / PUBLIC CONSCIENCE PROJECT, New York, New York, Mary Jane Eaton, Wesley R. Powell, Sameer Advani, WILLKIE FARR & GALLAGHER, LLP, New York, New York, Eric Alan Isaacson, LAW OFFICE OF ERIC ALAN ISAACSON, La Jolla, California, William J. Olson, WILLIAM J. OLSON, P.C., Vienna, Virginia, for Amici Curiae.

Before: MOORE, WHITE, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

KAREN NELSON MOORE, Circuit Judge.

Aimee Stephens (formerly known as Anthony Stephens) was born biologically male.1 While living and presenting as a man, she worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. ("the Funeral Home"), a closely held for-profit corporation that operates three funeral homes in Michigan. Stephens was terminated from the Funeral Home by its owner and operator, Thomas Rost, shortly after Stephens informed Rost that she intended to transition from male to female and would represent herself and dress as a woman while at work. Stephens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), which investigated Stephens's allegations that she had been terminated as a result of unlawful sex discrimination. During the course of its investigation, the EEOC learned that the Funeral Home provided its male public-facing employees with clothing that complied with the company's dress code while female public-facing employees received no such allowance. The EEOC subsequently brought suit against the Funeral Home in which the EEOC charged the Funeral Home with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") by (1) terminating Stephens's employment on the basis of her transgender

884 F.3d 567

or transitioning status and her refusal to conform to sex-based stereotypes; and (2) administering a discriminatory-clothing-allowance policy.

The parties submitted dueling motions for summary judgment. The EEOC argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on both of its claims. For its part, the Funeral Home argued that it did not violate Title VII by requiring Stephens to comply with a sex-specific dress code that it asserts equally burdens male and female employees, and, in the alternative, that Title VII should not be enforced against the Funeral Home because requiring the Funeral Home to employ Stephens while she dresses and represents herself as a woman would constitute an unjustified substantial burden upon Rost's (and thereby the Funeral Home's) sincerely held religious beliefs, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"). As to the EEOC's discriminatory-clothing-allowance claim, the Funeral Home argued that Sixth Circuit case law precludes the EEOC from bringing this claim in a complaint that arose out of Stephens's original charge of discrimination because the Funeral Home could not reasonably expect a clothing-allowance claim to emerge from an investigation into Stephens's termination.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Funeral Home on both claims. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that (1) the Funeral Home engaged in unlawful discrimination against Stephens on the basis of her sex; (2) the Funeral Home has not established that applying Title VII's proscriptions against sex discrimination to the Funeral Home would substantially burden Rost's religious exercise, and therefore the Funeral Home is not entitled to a defense under RFRA; (3) even if Rost's religious exercise were substantially burdened, the EEOC has established that enforcing Title VII is the least restrictive means of furthering the government's compelling interest in eradicating workplace discrimination against Stephens; and (4) the EEOC may bring a discriminatory-clothing-allowance claim in this case because such an investigation into the Funeral Home's clothing-allowance policy was reasonably expected to grow out of the original charge of sex discrimination that Stephens submitted to the EEOC. Accordingly, we REVERSE the district court's grant of summary judgment on both the unlawful-termination and discriminatory-clothing-allowance claims, GRANT summary judgment to the EEOC on its unlawful-termination claim, and REMAND the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was "assigned male at birth," joined the Funeral Home as an apprentice on October 1, 2007 and served as a Funeral Director/Embalmer at the Funeral Home from April 2008 until August 2013. R. 51-18 (Stephens Dep. at 49–51) (Page ID #817); R. 61 (Def.'s Counter Statement of Disputed Facts ¶ 10) (Page ID #1828). During the course of her employment at the Funeral Home, Stephens presented as a man and used her then-legal name, William Anthony Beasley Stephens. R. 51-18 (Stephens Dep. at 47) (Page ID #816); R. 61 (Def.'s Counter Statement of Disputed Facts ¶ 15) (Page ID #1829).

The Funeral Home is a closely held for-profit corporation. R. 55 (Def.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 1) (Page ID #1683).2 Thomas

884 F.3d 568

Rost ("Rost"), who has been a Christian for over sixty-five years, owns 95.4% of the company and operates its three funeral home locations. Id. ¶¶ 4, 8, 17 (Page ID #1684–85); R. 54-2 (Rost Aff. ¶ 2) (Page ID #1326). Rost proclaims "that God has called him to serve grieving people" and "that his purpose in life is to minister to the grieving." R. 55 (Def.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 31) (Page ID #1688). To that end, the Funeral Home's website contains a mission statement that states that the Funeral Home's "highest priority is to honor God in all that we do as a company and as individuals" and includes a verse of scripture on the bottom of the mission statement webpage. Id. ¶¶ 21–22 (Page ID #1686). The Funeral Home itself, however, is not affiliated with a church; it does not claim to have a religious purpose in its articles of incorporation; it is open every day, including Christian holidays; and it serves clients of all faiths. R. 61 (Def.'s Counter Statement of Facts ¶¶ 25–27; 29–30) (Page ID #1832–34). "Employees have worn Jewish head coverings when holding a Jewish funeral service." Id. ¶ 31 (Page ID #1834). Although the Funeral Home places the Bible, "Daily Bread" devotionals, and "Jesus Cards" in public places within the funeral homes, the Funeral Home does not decorate its rooms with "visible religious figures ... to avoid offending people of different religions." Id. ¶¶ 33–34 (Page ID #1834). Rost hires employees belonging to any faith or no faith to work at the Funeral Home, and he "does not endorse or consider himself to endorse his employees' beliefs or non-employment-related activities." Id. ¶¶ 37–38 (Page ID #1835).

The Funeral Home requires its public-facing male employees to wear suits and ties and its public-facing female employees to wear skirts and business jackets. R. 55 (Def.'s Statement of Facts at ¶ 51) (Page ID #1691). The Funeral Home provides all male employees who interact with clients, including funeral directors, with free suits and ties, and the Funeral Home replaces suits as needed. R. 61 (Def.'s Counter Statement of Disputed Facts ¶¶ 42, 48) (Page ID #1836–37). All told, the Funeral Home spends approximately $470 per full-time employee per year and $235 per part-time employee per year on clothing for male employees. Id. ¶ 55 (Page ID #1839).

Until October 2014—after the EEOC filed this suit—the Funeral Home did not provide its female employees with any sort of clothing or clothing allowance. Id. ¶ 54 (Page ID #1838–39). Beginning in October 2014, the Funeral Home began providing its public-facing female employees with an annual clothing stipend ranging from $75 for part-time employees to $150 for full-time employees. Id. ¶ 54 (Page ID #1838–39). Rost contends that the Funeral Home would provide suits to all funeral directors, regardless of their sex, id. , but it has not employed a female funeral director since Rost's grandmother ceased working for the organization around 1950, R. 54-2 (Rost Aff. ¶¶ 52, 54) (Page ID #1336–37). According to Rost, the...

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