Walmart is facing a lawsuit from a former employee who says she faced horrific discrimination at work because she is transgender.
The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund has today filed a federal lawsuit against Walmart on behalf of a North Carolina transgender woman.
Sam’s Club is a membership-only retail warehouse chain owned by a subsidiary of Walmart.
According to the lawsuit, Charlene Bost endured a shockingly hostile work environment during her time at the company, from 2011 through her firing in 2015.
Ms Bost says that after she transitioned, co-workers and supervisors began discriminating against her because of her sex. She was repeatedly subjected to a barrage of hostilities which included being wrongfully disciplined and repeatedly called by the wrong name and pronouns.
The lawsuit says Walmart employees took to “misgendering Ms. Bost directly by addressing her as ‘Sir’ or ‘man’ or by her former male name, or mocking her by calling her ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Madam’ in a sarcastic tone of voice, or pretending confusion by calling her both ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir’ in succession.
She was also branded a “faggot” by colleagues, “while humiliating Ms. Bost by treating her as a freak”.
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The court heard that on one occasion, a customer in Walmart filed a complaint after overhearing workers referring to Ms Bost as a “faggot”.
Ms Bost says bosses failed to step in to stop the tirade of harassment.
She said: “Despite excelling at my job, Sam’s Club treated me with cruelty and disrespect, simply for being a woman.
“I am bringing this lawsuit because transgender people must have the same opportunities to work hard, earn a living and contribute to our communities, free from bias. No one should ever be confronted with the prejudice I experienced on the job.”
TLDEF contends that the discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act.
In August the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found evidence that Ms Bost was subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment because of her sex and determined this violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The determination was one of two successful EEOC decisions secured by TLDEF against Walmart this year that led the Human Rights Campaign to suspend Walmart’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) rating, despite the company’s trans-inclusive corporate policies.
TLDEF Executive Director Jillian Weiss said: “The EEOC put its weight behind this case and our federal lawsuit is the next step on the road to justice for Ms. Bost.
“This case makes clear that workplace discrimination against transgender individuals violates the law and will not be tolerated. It also sends a strong message to Walmart that good corporate policy alone will not suffice. It must be backed by strong enforcement mechanisms that reach the shop floor.”
“We stand with TLDEF and our fellow North Carolinian, Ms. Bost, in their pursuit of this discrimination case,” said Ames Simmons, Director of Transgender Policy for Equality North Carolina. “Mistreating trans employees is illegal and unacceptable. Sam’s Club must be held accountable.”
This case is Charlene Bost v. Sam’s East, Inc. and Wal-Mart Associates, Inc. It was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
TLDEF Senior Staff Attorney Donna Levinsohn is representing Ms. Bost in partnership with Robert Elliot of the North Carolina law firm of Elliot Morgan Parsonage, PLLC.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Wal-Mart maintains a strong anti-discrimination policy. We support diversity and inclusion in our workforce and do not tolerate discrimination or retaliation of any kind.
“We disagree with the claims raised by Ms. Bost. Her termination was for performance reasons. We will respond as appropriate with the court.”
There is no federal law that explicitly bans discrimination against LGBT people, so the case relies on an interpretation of a civil rights provision outlawing discrimination based on sex.
Such interpretations have been hotly contested in the past few months.
Under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued that the Civil Rights Act provisions should be narrowly interpreted to refer to discrimination against men or women, whereas Obama-era officials had argued that it logically also provided protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Trump administration recently made an uninvited intervention in a workplace discrimination case to argue that the law permits discrimination against gay employees.
A court had been hearing the case of Donald Zarda, a late former skydiving instructor who alleged that Altitude Express Inc fired him because of his sexuality.
In a surprise intervention, federal government officials sided with the employer – arguing that it is entirely legal to discriminate against gay employees on a federal level.
Zarda’s lawyers had cited civil rights protections from the 1960s in their case.
But the Department of Justice now insists that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws discrimination in employment based on sex, does not provide any protection for gay people.
Mooppan insisted: “Employers under Title VII are permitted to consider employees’ out-of-work sexual conduct.
“There is a commonsense, intuitive difference between sex and sexual orientation.”
The DOJ had insisted: “Discrimination based on sexual orientation does not fall within Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination because it does not involve “disparate treatment of men and women”.
“Rather than causing similarly situated ‘members of one sex [to be] exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed’, differential treatment of gay and straight employees for men and women alike.”
The DOJ also argued somewhat circularly that it was clear that existing civil rights law doesn’t protect gay people, because Congress remains opposed to “proposed legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation”.