Shari Hutchinson joins Freedom to Work’s Speakers Bureau

December 2011 Update: Six-Figure Settlement from a Sexual Orientation Bias Case in which Federal Judge Ruled That Workplace Discrimination Committed by Government Employers Against Gays and Lesbians is Prohibited Under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Shari Hutchinson was hired as a Support Officer in the Child Support Enforcement Agency for Cuyahoga County, Ohio. She holds an Executive Masters of Business Administration degree and she had almost twenty years of private sector management experience prior to working for the Agency, so she was eager to move up the career ladder. However, after her co-workers and managers learned that Shari is lesbian, they spread false rumors about her and repeatedly passed her over for promotions that went to significantly less qualified applicants, including heterosexual candidates who did not even pass the required tests or comply with the Agency’s application procedures.

However, Shari decided to stand up for her freedom to be judged based on her talent rather than her sexual orientation. She filed a lawsuit in federal court based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Her employer argued to the judge that “all of Hutchinson’s claims must fail because sexual orientation is not a protected class, and thus does not merit the constitutional protection, under the Equal Protection Clause, that Hutchinson seeks.” However, the federal judge rejected this argument, and in December 2011, Shari won a significant six-figure settlement on the eve of the discrimination trial.

She now joins Freedom to Work’s Speakers Bureau to help educate and lobby for ENDA.

Additional Background: When Shari joined the Agency, she was immediately open to others about her sexual orientation. Shortly after her first day of work, she brought her domestic partner, Diane, in to the office to meet her co-workers and supervisor. She introduced Diane as her “partner.” She also placed a picture of Diane on her desk, and listed Diane as her emergency contact on Agency forms and stated that her relationship was “partner” or “domestic partner.”

Unfortunately, one of the Agency’s managers began to gossip about Shari’s sexual orientation, and he spread a false rumor that she “writes for a lesbian porno magazine.” The manager’s false rumor spread throughout the workplace, and soon thereafter the Agency began to treat Shari differently than her straight co-workers. In order to stunt her advancement, her supervisors failed to give Shari an annual review for over five years. Moreover, throughout the course of her career with the Agency, Shari has been denied for more than a dozen advancement opportunities, even though she was often the most qualified candidate.

For example, in 2008, Shari applied for a promotion to Support Enforcement Manager. The Agency required applicants to take a standardized test and to submit a writing sample by a certain date. The Agency explicitly warned the applicants: “Candidates who do not return the writing sample or do not return the writing sample within the required time frame will not be invited to interview.”

On the standardized test, Shari scored 29 out of 30 points, the highest score of all applicants. She also submitted her writing sample in a timely manner, unlike the straight male employee who failed to submit his writing sample by the deadline but nevertheless won the position.

When the Agency realized that its preferred heterosexual candidate had not complied with the application procedures, the managers took drastic steps to ensure that he would get the promotion instead of Shari. The Agency unexpectedly suspended the application process without stating a valid reason and then suspiciously initiated a “new” process for the exact same promotion only two weeks later. During the second application process, the heterosexual male applicant submitted his writing sample on time and won the promotion, even though Shari had scored higher than him on the standardized test.

Unfortunately, Ohio laws do not protect LGBT employees’ freedom to work without discrimination. Neither does federal law. However, because the Cuyahoga County Agency that denied Shari’s promotions is a public entity, Shari was able to hold her employer accountable based on the equal protection guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. If Shari had worked in the private sector in Ohio, she would not have had any legal basis to fight for her freedom to work.

That is why we need the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

You can read the federal court’s decision ruling in favor of Shari Hutchinson’s freedom to work: