A Missouri court ruled for the first time Tuesday that Missouri law bars employment discrimination based on a failure to conform to gender stereotypes.
While Missouri doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City found that stereotyping can be evidence of sex discrimination, which state law does prohibit.
“It’s the first time a Missouri court has explicitly said that sex stereotyping discrimination constitutes sex discrimination under Missouri law,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.
“It’s really Missouri catching up with decades of case law interpreting federal law and similar law in other states.”
The case arose when Harold Lampley, who worked in the child support enforcement division of Missouri’s Office of Administration, sued the office for sex discrimination and retaliation.
Lampley, who is gay, claimed that his employer harassed him and treated him differently from other employees because his behavior didn’t conform to the stereotype of masculinity held by his employer and managers.
Lampley was joined in his suit by a friend and co-worker, Rene Frost, who claimed the office retaliated against her based on her association with Lampley.
Because the case was brought under the Missouri Human Rights Act, Lampley and Frost filed their charges with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The commission, however, threw out their complaints after ruling that it wasn’t authorized to decide claims based on sexual orientation.
In its decision Tuesday, the appeals court sent the case back to the commission. It found that Lampley and Frost’s claims were not based on their sexual orientation but on their sex.
Heather Hardinger, an attorney who handles sex discrimination cases, said that the court’s decision means sexual orientation or gender identity “shouldn't preclude you in any way from the same protections that someone who fits those traditional norms receives under the law.”
“I think the court is clearly saying that you can claim that when someone's looking at your behavior, your appearance, your actions, and using that as a basis to discriminate against you based on not fitting the sexual norms, that your gender orientation can’t be looked at essentially as one of those behaviors to bring you under the protections of the law,” Hardinger said.
In finding that gender stereotyping could be evidence of sex discrimination, the Missouri Court of Appeals drew on a long line of federal cases, including a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989.
In that case, a female senior manager with Price Waterhouse claimed she was denied a partnership in the firm because she was considered insufficiently feminine.
The Supreme Court found that gender stereotyping could be a form of sex discrimination.
The Price Waterhouse decision has since been cited by numerous federal and state courts. And with its decision Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals fell in line with those courts.
In sending the case back to the Missouri Human Rights Commission, the court said Lampley should have been allowed to show how stereotyping was behind his office’s allegedly discriminatory conduct.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the decision on sex discrimination was issued by the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City handed down the decison.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.