In its continuing legal crusade to prevent workplace discrimination against transgender employees, the EEOC has sued a Lakeland, Florida, eye care facility and quickly settled the case for a $150,000.00 payment and the institution of an employee training program.

The settling employer is Lakeland Eye Clinic, P.A. (“LEC”), an organization of health care professionals including eye doctors and optometrists based in Lakeland, Florida. Its president is Kevin Dorsett, M.D, a Board Certified Ophthalmologist who has previously served as Chief of Ophthalmology at Lakeland Regional Medical Center.

The lawsuit against LEC, filed in the federal district court in Tampa, was one of the first two lawsuits ever filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sex discrimination against a transgender individual in the workplace. The two lawsuits are a part of the EEOC’s ongoing efforts to implement its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP), which the Commission adopted in December of 2012.  The SEP includes coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions as a top Commission enforcement priority.

The principal federal law enforced by the EEOC that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender — Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — does not specifically cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. However, both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have been arguing that Title VII should apply in such cases. They have been relying on a legal theory adopted by some court decisions holding that when an employer discriminates against an employee who does not conform to the employer’s “gender-based stereotypes,” the result is discrimination on the basis of gender.

In the LEC case, the EEOC alleged that the clinic illegally discriminated based on gender by firing its Director of Hearing Services after she began to present as a woman and informed the clinic that she was transgender, despite the fact that the employee had performed her duties satisfactorily throughout her employment.  The court complaint alleged that the employee was terminated because of being transgender, transitioning from male to female, and because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based stereotypes about how men and women are supposed to behave.

LEC, on the other hand, has asserted throughout the litigation that it fired the transgender employee for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, and that the employee’s gender, including transgender status, transition from one sex to another, and any other gender-related factor, were not considered in any way in terminating her employment. LEC did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement with the EEOC.

Under the court approved settlement agreement, LEC will pay $150,000 to the fired employee, including her lawyer’s fees — and provide the former employee a neutral job reference to assist her in finding a new job. The clinic also will implement a new gender discrimination policy in its workplace and provide training to its management and employees regarding the prevention of transgender/gender stereotype discrimination in violation of Title VII. The case settled barely six months after a team of seven lawyers from the Washington, D.C., Tampa, and Miami offices of the EEOC filed the suit.

U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven of Tampa will retain jurisdiction over the case for the next two years to ensure LEC’s compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement and a consent decree filed with the court.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, including Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The EEOC has taken the position that when an employer considers an employee’s sex in taking an adverse action — for example, if an employer fires a transgender employee because the employee does not conform to the employer’s expectations or stereotypes regarding how someone “born” that sex should live or look — the employer is violating Title VII.

The other similar EEOC lawsuit alleging discrimination against a transgender employee is on-going. In a federal lawsuit filed against Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., the EEOC is alleging that Harris fired a funeral director/embalmer because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes. The employer has denied any wrongdoing in that case, which was filed on the same day as the lawsuit against the Lakeland Eye Clinic.