July 22, 2014

(WASHINGTON, D.C.)  In an important victory for Freedom to Work, a non-profit group committed to banning workplace discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) Americans, the Illinois Human Rights Commission has upheld Freedom to Work’s right to pursue its groundbreaking legal action against Exxon Mobil’s sexual orientation discrimination. This opens the way for a full investigation into the sexual orientation discrimination charges against the mammoth international oil and gas corporation, according to Freedom to Work counsel Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC.

In May 2013, Freedom to Work filed a legal action against Exxon after paired resume testing revealed that Exxon gave substantial preference to a heterosexual job applicant over a more qualified LGBT applicant in Illinois. 

“We are relieved but not surprised by the state agency’s decision that Freedom to Work and other civil rights groups have the right to challenge unlawful discrimination, including Exxon’s sexual orientation discrimination,” said Cohen Milstein.  “This decision means that Exxon will have to answer tough questions about why it treated a well-qualified LGBT applicant far worse than a straight applicant who had lesser qualifications.  The decision also paves the way for other non-profit groups to enforce civil rights laws.” 

Earlier this year, the Illinois Human Rights Department dismissed Freedom to Work’s charge against Exxon based on its erroneous view that Freedom to Work does not have standing as an organization to challenge Exxon’s discrimination under the Illinois Human Rights Act.  The dismissal, while not related to the merits of the case, was troubling because many organizations, such as Freedom to Work, assist in the enforcement of civil rights laws through testing and the pursuit of discrimination charges based on organizational standing.  Thus, it was important to have the Illinois Human Rights Commission, which hears appeals from the lower agency, resolve the issue and find that organizations do have standing to file discrimination charges. 

The decision means Illinois will now investigate the merits of Freedom to Work’s charge and determine whether Exxon broke the law when it aggressively pursued a non-LGBT applicant but refused to even contact a LGBT applicant who was very similar but had better qualifications in terms of experience, education, and skills than the other candidate.  An Illinois Human Rights Department spokesperson had previously commented on the merits of the case, telling a national news publication, “The facts as alleged would constitute a violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act.”    

Freedom to Work’s legal action calls for Exxon to amend its workplace policies to specifically include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” along with other protected categories such as race, sex and religion.  Exxon management has long fought this change, and just last month Exxon rejected an LGBT shareholder resolution for the 17th consecutive year.  

The reinstatement of Freedom to Work’s charge came in response to an appeal filed on May 9, 2014 with the Commission, arguing that the Illinois Human Rights Act authorizes non-profit groups to file discrimination charges with the Illinois Human Rights Department, based on the text, purpose, and history of the law. 

“We always knew that Exxon would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into adopting workplace policies that treat LGBT employees with basic fairness,” said Freedom to Work Founder Tico Almeida. “There are now two big reasons that 2014 might finally be the year Exxon makes these long overdue changes.  First, Freedom to Work’s legal victory means Exxon will have to continue wasting its own shareholders’ dollars on an expensive legal defense when it could settle this case by simply copying and pasting the LGBT workplace policies of their competitors at oil companies Chevron or BP.  Second, President Obama’s newly signed executive order will go into effect in early 2015 and require Exxon to amend its LGBT policies if Exxon wants to continue profiting from hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded contracts.  This oil giant has a lot to lose here, and it should be clear that the clock is ticking and  it’s now time to update Exxon’s policies to give LGBT Americans a fair shot on the job.”  

Freedom to Work is represented in the legal action by Christine E. Webber of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, a public interest and class action law firm based in Washington, DC. 

This action against Exxon highlights the harmful discrimination that LGBT Americans face at companies that profit from taxpayer-funded contracts, and Freedom to Work has been a leading national advocate urging President Barack Obama to sign an executive order requiring LGBT workplace protections at federal contractors like Exxon. 

About Freedom to Work

Freedom to Work is a national nonprofit organization committed to banning workplace harassment and career discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender Americans through public education, policy analysis and legal work. Freedom to Work’s online petition to President Obama has collected almost 200,000 signatures.  Freedom to Work has also co-authored research showing that more than $300 billion of taxpayer dollars each year are sent to perform federal contracts in states without LGBT protections, and federal contractors with inadequate LGBT protections have shown a troubling pattern of discrimination against well qualified LGBT applications.

About Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC

Founded in 1969, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is a national leader in plaintiff class action lawsuits and litigation. As one of the premier firms in the country handling major complex cases, Cohen Milstein, with 80 attorneys, has offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.  For more information, visit https://www.cohenmilstein.com or call (202) 408-4600.