Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of sex and other factors. Compared to New Jersey employment discrimination law (the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination), Title VII’s list of protected categories seems short. Federal court decisions have expanded the scope of the statute beyond the narrowest literal meaning of its words, to include categories or actions mentioned more specifically in other laws. Most recently, a 2020 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In June 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance clarifying its interpretation of Title VII in light of the court’s ruling.
Federal law does not provide a specific definition of “sex” in the context of employment discrimination. The Supreme Court has built on the statute’s rather sparse language in several important rulings. In 1986, for example, the court ruled in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. That case involved sexual harassment of a female employee by a male supervisor. The court ruled in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998 that sexual harassment of a man by male employees may also violate Title VII.
The Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins expanded the understanding of sex discrimination by holding that Title VII bars discrimination on the basis of “sex stereotyping.” The plaintiff in that case claimed that the defendant discriminated against her because she did not conform to expectations of how she should dress and behave as a woman. This decision did not lead directly to last summer’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, but it set an important precedent.