EEOC Issues Guidance Regarding Application of Title VII and ADA to Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, or Stalking

November 21, 2012

Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, issued on October 12, 2012, cautions employers that federal employment discrimination laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act may apply in certain situations involving applicants or employees who experience domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  This guidance, which is provided in a Q&A format, contains examples of such employment situations.

As employers are aware, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, and the ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on disability.  These laws do not specifically protect individuals who experience domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  In its guidance, the EEOC recognized this, but cautioned that "potential employment discrimination and retaliation against these individuals may be overlooked.”

In the Q&A, the EEOC addresses three protections under Title VII which may be implicated in a situation that may involve domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking:  (1) disparate treatment based on sex (including treatment based on sex-based stereotypes); (2) sexual or sex-based harassment; and (3) retaliation for engaging in protected activity.  The guidance provides several illustrations of employment decisions that may violate Title VII, including:  an employer terminating an employee who was subjected to domestic violence because the employer fears the “drama battered women bring to the workplace”; and an employer declining to hire a male applicant after learning he had obtained a restraining order against his male domestic partner because the employer believes that men should be able to protect themselves.

The EEOC also addresses a number of protections under the ADA, including the prohibition against different treatment or harassment at work based on an actual or perceived impairment that may result from domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  As an example, the EEOC guidance provides that an employer who refuses to hire an applicant after finding out she received counseling for depression due to a sexual assault might be found to be in violation of the ADA.  The EEOC guidance also reminds employers that reasonable accommodations must be made for any disabilities that result from domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

The EEOC guidance does not change the existing protected categories or prohibitions under Title VII or the ADA.  Instead, the EEOC guidance provides employers with a reminder that those laws may be implicated in situations where an employee or applicant is a victim of domestic or dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  Employers in New York should also be aware that the New York Human Rights Law was amended in 2009 to include a specific prohibition against discrimination based on domestic violence victim status.