City Manager Fired Over Gender Reassignment

After a city manager in Largo, Florida, admitted he is seeking a sex-change operation, city commissioners voted 5-2 to fire him based on their views that he had lost “his standing as a leader among the employees of the city.”

City commissioners listened to about 60 speakers at the four-hour meeting Tuesday night to decide whether Steve Stanton should keep his $140,234-a-year job as city manager.

However, Rebecca Steele, director of the ACLU West Central Florida office, says this is primarily a personnel issue, and a meeting should never have been held.

“Employers are throwing away valuable resources when they make employment decisions based on gender orientation or identity, instead of relevant skills, training, and experience,” says Steele.

Trans-phobic Biases Alleged

The local St. Petersburg Times wrote an editorial last week that said employers should rely on employees’ “skills, not sex” when evaluating workers.

The ACLU’s Steele agrees, noting that “it would be far better for recruiters to help employers with diversity/sensitivity training if necessary, so that valuable employees can be kept or recruited.”

Steele notes that Stanton was a good employee with valuable contacts.

“Recruiters know how expensive it is to recruit, hire, and train new employees and bring them up to speed. That is going to be a loss to the city,” she says.

The ACLU also faxed a letter before the Largo meeting in which it stated, “the government cannot discriminate on the basis of avoiding others’ societal prejudice, however real.”

Employment At Will Issues

Employment at will means you can’t fire someone because of age, race, or religion, but as long as they are not specifically covered under the law, employers can fire anyone, according to Mickey Silberman, a partner at the law firm Jackson Lewis.

“You don’t have a right to your job,” he says. “It can be a bad reason or unfair, but it doesn’t necessarily make it unlawful.”

However, Ken Choe, an ACLU attorney involved with its LGBT Rights project, says what happened in Largo is illegal.

“From a legal perspective, there is actually a rich body of case law that indicates that the discomfort of others is not a permissible reason to take action against an employee,” he says.

Silberman agrees with Choe’s stance but says, “he’s being over-broad. The rich case law refers to protected categories such as disability or race; that would be unlawful.”

“But transgender is, generally speaking, not a protected characteristic. The ACLU is trying to argue by analogy, but transgender is not similar to the ‘protected classes’ case. But it is the same logic, and that is what the ACLU is saying,” says Silberman.

Choe says he sees a trend in the law toward liability for employers that discriminate against transgender employees.

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“Increasingly, employers are adopting discrimination policies that extend to gender-identity discrimination. Employers are doing so because it helps to reduce the risk of liability to everyone in the workplace that this sort of discrimination will not be tolerated,” he says.

Despite Choe’s legal observations, it seems that not everything is always as it appears. For example, The Human Rights Campaign maintains a list of governments, Fortune 500 companies, and private corporations that have adopted anti-discrimination policies covering sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ironically, the city of Largo is a part of this comprehensive list.

On Tuesday, The Human Rights Campaign noted on its website that Largo’s decision “is in direct violation of the city government’s own internal non-discrimination policy. In 2003, the town of Largo, Fla., adopted a policy that explicitly prohibits discrimination in public employment on the basis of gender identity and expression.”

Court of Public Opinion

One of the two dissenters at Tuesday’s special meeting was Mayor Pat Gerard.

“I’m going to be embarrassed if we throw this man out on the trash heap after he’s worked so hard for the city,” Gerard said before the vote. “We have a choice to make: We can go back to intolerance, or we can be the city of progress.”

During the special meeting — with more than 480 residents packing city hall — some in attendance were adamantly opposed to the idea of Stanton keeping his job, while others spoke on intolerance and progress.

“Mr. Stanton is not a role model. He’s proven that,” said Ron Sanders, a pastor at the Lighthouse Baptist Church of Largo. “I think for the sake of our young people today, you need to do what’s right, and that’s terminate him…if Jesus was here tonight, I can guarantee you he’d want him terminated. Make no mistake about it.”

Opposing those opinions, Largo business owner Keith Winn said, “I’m proud to be part of a Largo that would oppose this resolution and put hatred and bigotry back in the 1950s where it belonged.”

Despite the range of public opinion, commissioners voted 5-2 to place Stanton on paid leave.

According to the Times, Stanton’s severance will consist of 12 months of pay totaling $140,234; about 550 hours of accrued vacation time; and health, life, and disability insurance benefits and contributions to his retirement accounts for that period.

Elaine Rigoli has nearly 15 years of experience managing content and community for various B2B and consumer websites. Elaine has written thousands of business and technology articles and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal and eWeek, among other publications.

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2 Comments on “City Manager Fired Over Gender Reassignment

  1. The “at will” status referenced keeps the courts from snarling from every “wrongful termination” lawsuit that might come up. Because no one ever feels that their firing was “right”. I think we can all agree that sexual orientation and gender issues should not play a part in candidate selection or retention, but I also think there are likely some case references to be made for when lifestyle is perceived to interfere in someone’s ability to carry out the duties, responsibilities, accountabilities, and purpose of the job in question. Could that have been the case here? A city manager, for example, would need to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest on a large number of fronts. Could it be that the lifestyle of this person caused a conflict of interest?

  2. There actually *is* case law supporting the idea that someone undergoing a transistion such as Ms. Stanton would be protected under the Title VII prohibition against sex discrimination. Although not binding on Florida (the most recent decisions come out of the 6th Circuit in the midwest), it would be persuasive.

    I don’t think that Ms. Stanton’s gender identity is a function of lifestyle and, moreover, believe it would have no effect on her ability to perform and see no conflict of interest between her gender and her job.

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