Transgender employee fired by Saks Fifth Avenue files discrimination lawsuit in Houston court
A transgender former Saks Fifth Avenue employee has filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the luxury retailer for alleged unlawful employment practices based on sex and disability.
Leyth Jamal, a native of Houston now living in New York City, worked in the Women's Contemporary department at the Saks Fifth Avenue location in The Galleria. Court documents state that the company knew of Jamal's gender identity when she was hired by the company in April 2011.
According to the lawsuit, filed Sept. 30, 2014 in a U.S. District court in Houston, 23-year-old Jamal says that although she requested to use the women's restroom and to be referred to with female pronouns, she was forced to use the men's restroom and was exclusively referred to using male pronouns. The complaint alleges that the "motivation behind the misgendering in her case is to communicate the belief that the subject is not truly a member of their post-transition gender and/or to express contempt for their gender identity and gender expression."
The lawsuit alleges that Jamal was told by management that she could not wear makeup or "feminine-style clothing," and she was repeatedly harassed by both male and female coworkers.
Moreover, the lawsuit alleges that Jamal was told by management that she could not wear makeup or "feminine-style clothing," and she was repeatedly harassed by both male and female coworkers, records state, and on one occasion Jamal was asked if she was a prostitute by a male coworker. The same coworker later engaged in a verbal altercation with her on the sales floor where he threatened to "beat Leyth up" and "rip out 'his' hair extensions," according to the complaint.
Saks terminated Jamal in July 2012, just 10 days after she filed an official complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for sex discrimination. She was fired for allegedly engaging in a "conversation with inappropriate content," although the complaint claims other employees on the floor did not hear an inappropriate conversation.
The EEOC sent Jamal a letter on Feb. 12, 2014 stating that the commission concluded Saks had an unlawful policy denying employees access to restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity, in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Saks denies allegations
"In the strongest terms, I want to underscore that Saks Fifth Avenue did not discriminate against the plaintiff," Gerald L. Storch, chief executive of Saks parent company, Hudson's Bay, told the New York Times. "It's preposterous to think that in any way Saks Fifth Avenue is anything but a strong advocate for L.G.B.T. rights."
"This situation has nothing to do with gender identity and everything to do with highly inappropriate employee conduct and an individual employment matter," Saks said in a statement.
According to a follow-up statement made to the Times, Saks "claims the plaintiff had based her case not on sex discrimination but on the issue of gender identity and transgender status," which it said some courts have ruled fall outside Title VII’s mandate. Saks said it will follow that precedent "unless or until it is modified by the courts or the legislature."
The retailer insists that Jamal was fired after a customer complained that she used offensive language with another sales associate, who the company believes was not a gender minority. Both employees were fired, Saks said in a statement, adding, "This situation has nothing to do with gender identity and everything to do with highly inappropriate employee conduct and an individual employment matter."
On Friday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent Saks a letter demanding company documents related to its policy on discrimination and harassment, as well as employee training on harassment.
"We did receive a letter from the NY AG requesting information," a Saks spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle in a statement. "We welcome the discussion and opportunity for us to emphasize our excellent track record for supporting the LGBT community and our commitment to a diverse and equitable workplace."
On Wednesday, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief supporting Jamal.
The initial conference for the case is set for April 1, rescheduled from the original motion docket date of Jan. 20.