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Federal Court Assesses Damages Against Pennsylvania Health Clinic for Committing Sexual Orientation-Based Discrimination

On November 16, 2017, U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, of the Western District of Pennsylvania, issued an order finding that a Pennsylvania Health Clinic is liable for $55,000 in back pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages to a former employee who alleged that the clinic discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation.

The case involved Plaintiff Dale Massaro, who was a telemarketer at Defendant Scott Medical Health Center (SMHC) less than a month in 2013. According to the Court’s findings, “[a]lmost immediately after starting work with Defendant, Massaro was subjected to sex-based harassment in the form of anti-gay slurs and comments directed at him by his supervisor,” and he was forced to “endure offensive questioning about his sex life and relationships.” The Court also found that Massaro reported the harassment to SMHC’s owner and CEO, but the owner and CEO “refused to take action to stop the harassment, instead stating that [the supervisor] ‘was just doing his job.’” The Court’s findings further explain that Massaro quit his job with SMHC because of the harassment, and that even after he left SMHC he continued to suffer from depression and emotional distress, which manifested in him experiencing anxiety and extreme weight-gain.

Massaro eventually filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and in March 2016, the EEOC filed suit on behalf of Massaro against SMHC. SMHC filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but in November 2016, Judge Bissoon denied that motion, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In September 2017, the Court entered a default judgment against SMHC and in favor of Massaro, and held a hearing to determine the amount of damages.

Judge Bissoon ultimately determined that SMHC owed Massaro $5,000 in back pay, $25,000 in compensatory damages, and another $25,000 in punitive damages because “[t]he discrimination for which defendant has been found liable was intentional and egregious and warrants punishment.” The Court stated that it would have determined the damages were worth $75,000, but concluded with the lower amount because “by operation of the statutory damages cap the aggregate amount awarded for compensatory damages for emotional distress and punitive damages combined cannot exceed $50,000.”

Notwithstanding Judge Bissoon’s decision, a number of other federal courts have held that Title VII does not protect against sexual orientation discrimination, including the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia). On the other hand, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), recently held that Title VII does cover sexual orientation discrimination. This emerging “split” in authorities among federal courts throughout the country could lead to the United States Supreme Court taking up the issue in the foreseeable future. To add to the confusion, the Department of Justice (DOJ) – under Attorney General Jeff Sessions – has recently reversed its position and asserted that sexual orientation discrimination is not prohibited by Title VII, a reversal of Obama-era DOJ policy, and directly contrary to the EEOC’s current official position.

The attorneys at CCLB represent clients of all types and sizes in connection with employment-related matters, including those brought under Title VII and similar employment discrimination statutes. For any questions, or if we can be of any assistance with such a matter, please contact us at (404) 262-6505 or sgrubman@cclblaw.com.