Plaintiff Matthew Christiansen filed suit against his employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alleging that he was subjected to various forms of workplace discrimination due to his failure to conform to gender stereotypes. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York construed Christiansen’s Title VII claim as an impermissible sexual orientation discrimination claim and dismissed it. Christiansen appealed, and the Federal Appeals Court held that Christiansen’s complaint plausibly alleged a gender stereotyping claim.
Christiansen, an openly gay man who is HIV-positive, worked as an associate creative director and later creative director at DDB Worldwide Communications Group, Inc., an international advertising agency. Christiansen’s complaint alleged that his direct supervisor engaged in a pattern of humiliating harassment targeting his effeminacy and sexual orientation. According to Christiansen, in the spring and summer of 2011, his supervisor drew multiple sexually suggestive and explicit drawings of Christiansen on an office whiteboard. The most graphic of the images depicted a naked, muscular Christiansen, holding a manual air pump and accompanied by a text bubble reading, “I’m so pumped for marriage equality.” Another depicted Christiansen in tights and a low-cut shirt “prancing around.” A third depicted Christiansen’s torso on the body of “a four legged animal with a tail and male member, urinating and defecating.” Later in 2011, Christiansen’ s supervisor circulated at work and posted to Facebook a “Muscle Beach Party” poster that depicted various employees’ heads on the bodies of people in beach attire. Christiansen’s head was attached to a female body clad in a bikini, lying on the ground with her legs upright in the air in a manner that one coworker thought depicted Christiansen as “a submissive sissy.”
Christiansen’s supervisor also made remarks about the connection between effeminacy, sexual orientation, and HIV status. The supervisor allegedly told other employees that Christiansen “was effeminate and gay so he must have AIDS.” Additionally, in May 2013, in a meeting of about 20 people, the supervisor allegedly told everyone in the room that he felt sick and then said to Christiansen, “It feels like I have AIDS. Sorry, you know what that’s like.” At that time, Christiansen kept private the fact that he was HIV-positive.
District Court Litigation and Decision
Christiansen filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. In their motion to dismiss, defendants argued that Christiansen’s claim under Title VII was a sexual orientation discrimination claim rather than a gender stereotyping claim and was thus not cognizable under the applicable precedent.
The district court agreed.
In its decision, the district court described at length difficulties in distinguishing sexual orientation discrimination claims from gender stereotyping claims, specifically noting that negative views people hold of those with certain sexual orientations may be based on stereotypes about appropriate romantic associations between men and women.
The district court concluded that no coherent line can be drawn between these two sorts of claims. Nevertheless, the district court recognized that the prevailing law in the Second Circuit—and, indeed, every Circuit to consider the question—is that such a line must be drawn.
Although the district court considered several references to effeminacy in the complaint, it concluded that, as a whole, Christiansen’s complaint did not allege that he was discriminated against because he did not conform to gender stereotypes, but because he was gay.
As a result, the district court held that Christiansen’s claim was a sexual orientation discrimination claim that was not cognizable under Title VII pursuant to Second Circuit precedent and dismissed the claim.
Christiansen appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The appeals court disagreed with the district court’s and held that the gender stereotyping allegations in Christiansen’s complaint were cognizable under the United States Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedents.
The Court noted that Christiansen alleged that he was perceived by his supervisor as effeminate and submissive and that he was harassed for these reasons. Furthermore, the harassment to which he was subjected, particularly the “Muscle Beach Party” poster, is alleged to have specifically invoked these “stereotypically feminine” traits.
The appeals court rejected the district court’s comment that much more of the complaint was devoted to sexual orientation discrimination allegations than gender stereotyping discrimination allegations and that it thus might be difficult for Christiansen to withstand summary judgment or prove at trial that he was harassed because of his perceived effeminacy and flouting of gender stereotypes rather than because of his sexual orientation.
The appeals court stated that even if that were Christiansen’s burden at summary judgment or at trial it is not the courts’ task at the motion to dismiss stage to weigh the evidence and evaluate the likelihood that Christiansen would prevail on his Title VII gender stereotyping claim. Instead, the courts must assess whether he has stated a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.