As an attorney, Katie Eyer litigated and won precedent-setting court cases protecting the legal rights of LGBT and disabled employees. Now, the associate professor at Rutgers Law School’s Camden location has taken a leading role in advocating for greater coverage of LGBT employees in Pennsylvania under sex discrimination provisions.
Eyer is the author of a letter to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in response to the commission’s request for public comments about their proposed guidance on the extent to which the sex discrimination provisions of state law should be construed to include LGBT discrimination claims.
Eyer, and the scholars who joined her in signing the letter, argue that sex discrimination provisions do, categorically, reach LGBT discrimination claims.
“If Jane is fired for having a picture of Mary, her wife, on her desk, had Jane been a man the same thing would not have happened to her, right?,” said Eyer, explaining that sexual orientation discrimination is necessarily sex discrimination. “In the gender identity context, the courts have said that is discrimination because somebody doesn’t conform to your stereotypes of what a man and a woman should be.” Prior case law by the Supreme Court establishes that such “gender stereotyping” is sex discrimination.
Eyer says that in both cases, the discrimination does necessarily involve the person’s sex, so it should be categorically covered under sex discrimination.
In the letter, Eyer suggests that the commission follow the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s approach that in every case of sexual orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination, the EEOC processes it as it is a sex discrimination case.
Two dozen law professors who specialize in in employment discrimination, LGBT rights, or antidiscrimination law signed Eyer’s letter to the PHRC including Rutgers colleagues Jason Cohen, Ann Freedman, Phil Harvey, Suzanne Kim, and Sarah Ricks and faculty from Dickinson, Seton Hall, Temple, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, Drexel, Penn State, and Villanova law schools.
Like many states, Pennsylvania does not have explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in its laws, although many localities have enacted local anti-discrimination ordinances. New Jersey state anti-discrimination laws do clearly cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal law also does not have explicit categories to protect against sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in most contexts.
For this reason, Eyer says it is especially important to be able to offer safeguards through court and agency interpretations of sex discrimination law.
“I think it’s one of the most important things in people’s lives to be able to go to work and know that they’re not going to be fired or harassed simply because of who they are,” Eyer said.
While attending Yale Law School in the early 2000s, Eyer knew she wanted to work in LGBT advocacy. At one time, she was interested in working in family law, but she became interested in employment discrimination because of its impact on people’s day-to-day lives. In addition to earning a living, a job informs a person’s sense of identity.
“Many of my clients try to stay at their jobs in the face of extraordinary levels of harassment because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” said Eyer. She also noted that they often face “total non-responsiveness from management” or even harassment from management itself.
In 2009, when Eyer was a practicing attorney, she and Pittsburgh attorney Timothy O’Brien litigated and won the case Prowel vs. Wise Business Forms. Eyer and O’Brien represented Brian Prowel, a gay employee who sued the company under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for harassment he had experienced as an employee. When he reported the harassment, he was fired. The case was one of the first in the country to allow a claim of a gay employee to go forward under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.
“One of the wonderful things about being an academic is that I get to look at and work on these types of issues from a variety of perspectives,” said Eyer, who teaches a course called “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and the Law.” In addition to her practice-oriented work and scholarship, Eyer enjoys the opportunity to train future lawyers to be able to unpack the issues underlying the sex discrimination argument for LGBT rights as well as other sets of arguments that can be made on behalf of LGBT rights.