UPDATED: Cook Paper Recycling Corp. has sent us an official statement, which appears at the bottom of the article.
James Pittman used to work at the Cook Paper Recycling Corp. in Overland Park, Missouri — after being bullied at work for being gay, they fired him. Pittman tried to sue over discrimination, but the ruling came down from the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals on October 27th — in a 2-1 decision, the court found in favor of Cook Paper Recycling. Missouri’s Human Rights Act only covers discrimination by “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age or disability” — no mention of sexual orientation.
The abuse Pittman received at work was severe. He was called a “cocksucker”, asked if he had AIDS, and mocked for both having a same-sex partner and for breaking up with that partner.
Pittman’s argument was that because the Human Rights Act covers “sex”, he was discriminated against because he didn’t fit the stereotype of a “real man”. Unfortunately, the court disagreed — Judge James Edward Welsh said the language of the act was “clear and unambiguous”:
Employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of their “sex.” The clear meaning prohibiting discrimination based upon “sex” under the Missouri Human Rights Act intended by the Missouri legislature concerns discrimination based upon a person’s gender and has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Indeed, the first definition of “sex” provided by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary is “one of the two divisions of human beings respectively designated male or female.”
Judge Robert M. Clayton agreed with Judge Welsh, but Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert was the dissenting voice — answering Welsh’s dictionary argument by pointing out the second, third and fourth definitions of “sex” from the same dictionary do apply to Pittman’s claims:
2. The sum of the morphological, physiological, and behavioral peculiarities of living beings that subserves biparental reproduction; 3. The sphere of interpersonal behavior especially between male and female most directly associated with, leading up to, substituting for, or resulting from genital union; 4. the phenomena of sexual instincts and their manifestations.
Interestingly, the day after the ruling came down, House Republicans blocked a bill that would make LGBT discrimination illegal at the national level. Currently 28 states do not make it illegal to fire someone for being LGBT.
What happened to Pittman is clearly awful and Cook Paper Recycling should have been punished for how poorly they treated him. This case just makes clear how essential it is that we have employment protections — homophobia hasn’t gone away, and even in this modern day and age many of our anti-discrimination laws are stuck in the past.
After this article was originally published, Joe Jurden, President of Cook Paper Recycling Corp. sent us a statement denying Pittman’s claims:
Discrimination is a real problem in our country, and even today there are numerous instances where gay and lesbian people are treated unfairly.
The case of James Pittman vs. Cook Paper Recycling Corp. is not one of these instances.
In recent days, publicity about this case has resulted in hateful allegations hurled at me and Cook Paper Recycling. In some instances, threats of violence have been made against company employees, me and my family.
I am disappointed that those who would seek fairness and due process for gay and lesbian people are so quick to dismiss these common courtesies when judging others.
In an effort to set the record straight, here are the facts:
Mr. Pittman made his sexual orientation known to us when he first interviewed for a position with our company. In his seven years of employment, he at various times was a guest in my home and the homes of other employees. Further, many employees of Cook Paper Recycling-including myself-were guests in his home. He was a member of the team no different than any other employee, and was treated with courtesy and respect.
At no time was Mr. Pittman ever subjected to name-calling or derision by me or any other employee. That sort of behavior is simply not tolerated at our company and is grounds for termination.
When Mr. Pittman’s employment was terminated, he chose to pursue legal action based on his sexual orientation.
Defending a lawsuit is expensive, especially for a small business. It takes up time and money that could otherwise be used to run our business and create jobs and commerce. In order to expedite the matter, we cited the laws of the State of Missouri to make our case. Both the Circuit Court and the Appellate Court ruled in our favor.
I realize this is an important and highly emotional issue for our society, and we believe everyone should be treated fairly. But please keep in mind fair treatment applies to me, Cook Paper Recycling and the employees of the company, too.
Very best wishes,
(Featured Photo via Matt Baume/Flickr)