Missouri Supreme Court Finds Sex Stereotyping Illegal

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

March 8, 2019

In a ruling with broad implications, the Missouri Supreme Court has found it illegal for employers to discriminate based on sexual stereotyping in Lampley v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

The case involved a gay man's claims that his employer discriminated against him because he did not conform to sex-based stereotypes of how a man should behave or appear. A female coworker claimed she faced discrimination as well because of her friendship with the man.

While acknowledging that the Missouri Human Rights Act does not cover sexual orientation, the state high court held that to be irrelevant because the plaintiffs' claims were based on the employer's stereotypical attitudes. It found that the Human Rights Commission erred in assuming that because Lampley was homosexual, there was no possible sex discrimination claim other than one for sexual orientation.

Citing the US Supreme Court's landmark Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins ruling, the court explained that stereotyping may give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. In that case, the employer denied partnership to a female senior manager after partners referred to her as "macho" and "needing a course at charm school." The employer also advised the manager that to become a partner she needed to "walk more femininely, talk more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry."

The Supreme Court made clear that an employer that cites such stereotypes in its promotion decisions is engaging in sex discrimination because the discrimination would not have occurred but for the victim's gender.

While the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling is a first-of-its-kind employment decision in the Show Me State, it noted that federal courts have regularly distinguished between discrimination based on sexual orientation and sex discrimination as evidenced by sex stereotyping. Thus, the court directed the Human Rights Commission to issue right-to-sue letters to Lampley and his female friend at work.

In a separate ruling issued the same day, the Missouri High Court ruled that a transgender student could go forward with a discrimination case based on a school denying the student access to a boy's locker room and bathroom.