ExxonMobil on Trial for Anti-Gay Discrimination

In one sense, this case really started 14 years ago when Exxon bought Mobil and actually erased Mobil's gay nondiscrimination rule. The issue has been simmering and boiling over regularly since then, most recently at Exxon's latest shareholder meeting where LGBT nondiscrimination was again voted down with the active support of the company's directors.

More accurately, this case — captioned, Freedom to Work v. ExxonMobil Corporation — is one in a long line of what civil rights attorneys call "testing cases." African American civil rights organizations have used this technique with considerable success. For example, two couples, one black and one white, go into a leasing office at an apartment building and show financial credentials that clearly make the black couple the better leasee. The building's decision not to rent to the more qualified applicant can be the beginning of a housing discrimination case.

That Mr. Almeida's version of Alice and Barbara didn't ever exist except on paper doesn't matter.

"The way this plays out in reality is no different than how it would play out in this test," Mr. Romer-Friedman said. The beauty of the test is that it gets us as close as possible to a lab experiment setting, Mr. Romer-Friedman notes. "It shines a light on what's actually happening to demonstrate that what you have is sexual orientation-based discrimination."

In other words, testing attempts to control for all other possible factors by making the choice as stark as possible: either choose the better qualified minority or choose the less qualified majority.

Testing, therefore, is an essential piece in any civil rights litigation puzzle.

First, testing is necessary to find concrete examples of discrimination. Mr. Romer-Friedman, an experienced employment lawyer, knows that it's notoriously difficult to document and uncover discrimination in the hiring process, so we need these kinds of experiments to quiet all the noise, focus on blatant discrimination, and bring actual cases to light.

Second, the mere fact that testing exists as a legitimate law enforcement strategy has the positive effect of reducing discrimination. "The fact that employers know that they may be subjected to testing puts them on notice not to discriminate or they may face legal action," Mr. Romer-Friedman said.

And, third, testing not only worked well in the past, but the Supreme Court has recognized it as a legitimate and necessary technique.

AlmeidaTo my knowledge, Mr. Almeida (pictured) of Freedom to Work is the first attorney to use testing to advance the cause of gay rights. We know Mr. Almeida from his efforts to get Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and to push President Obama to side step Republican obstructionism by issuing an ENDA executive order, which would apply to federal contractors like Exxon. In the past year, he has shifted a portion of his organization's resources to investigate and combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. "Freedom to Work is launching a testing project, the only one of its kind in the country, in which we are testing numerous companies in numerous states," he said.

But the importance of Freedom to Work v. Exxon Mobil goes beyond finding particular incidents of discrimination. It reminds us that every day, hundreds of thousands of LGBT Americans are looking for work in states where being gay can disqualify them from even getting a foot in the door. "Filing this lawsuit has an important educational value," for the American population as a whole and corporate America, said Mr. Romer-Friedman. "We hope that this lawsuit can cause Exxon to come to the table and understand why it's important to have a policy to protect LGBT Americans." 

It is also a necessary reminder for those of us in the gay community. 

"As ENDA advocates," Mr. Almeida told me, "it's important that we do this. Enthusiasm for ENDA stalls [in our community] when marriage is on the table because there seems to be so many more compelling personal narratives about marriage and gay couples who want to get married."

He's right. How many warm and loving, sometimes heartbreaking, but always inspiring videos do we see about two people who just want to get married? Compare that to how many videos we see about employment discrimination. There's a natural bias against those narratives built into the legal process: employment discrimination cases tend to settle with confidentiality clauses, preventing anyone from reporting on how bad things really are. Freedom to Work is trying to build that narrative one case at a time.


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Ari Ezra Waldman is the Associate Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy and a professor at New York Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. Ari writes weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues.