In Landmark Ruling Federal Court Allows Transgender Woman to Pursue Claim Under ADA

ACA Trans NondiscriminationPhoto: © Redbaron | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Ruling is the first to say that transgender people are not categorically barred from seeking relief from discrimination under the federal civil rights law

A federal district court in Pennsylvania has ruled that a transgender woman’s employment discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can move forward. The May 18 opinion marks the first time a court has ruled that transgender people are not categorically barred from seeking relief from discrimination under the ADA.

Retailer Cabela’s, Inc., had moved to dismiss the claim, brought by former employee Kate Lynn Blatt, arguing that the exclusion of “Gender Identity Disorders” (the GID exclusion) at the time of the ADA’s passage precluded any protections for transgender employees.

The Court found, however, that the GID exclusion could not be read that broadly. The opinion recognizes two distinct experiences – one of being transgender, the other of having gender dysphoria. The Court reasoned that being transgender is, standing alone, not a medical condition and, therefore, not itself a condition that brings a person under the ADA’s protections. At the same time, the Court also acknowledged that some transgender people experience gender dysphoria, clinically significant distress associated with the experience of being transgender.

For those transgender people who experience gender dysphoria, the Court found there is no justification for their exclusion from the ADA. The judge reasoned that nothing in the text, legislative history, or structure of the ADA supported Cabela’s effort to dismiss Blatt’s ADA claim.

“This decision is consistent with contemporary medical standards, and is a huge step forward for the transgender community,” said Jennifer Levi, Transgender Rights Project Director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which submitted an amicus brief challenging the exclusion on behalf of transgender advocacy organizations.

“For over 25 years, the ADA has wrongly excluded protections for individuals with ‘gender identity disorders’ because of moral animus. While not all transgender people experience clinically significant distress, the fact that many do should not be ignored. Gender dysphoria is a quintessentially stigmatized medical condition. This decision goes a long way toward ending the wrongful exclusion of transgender people from the ability to pursue civil rights claims when they encounter discrimination because of that stigma,” Levi said.

The decision reads in part: “If the term gender identity disorders were understood, as [Defendant] Cabela’s suggests, to encompass disabling conditions such as Blatt’s gender dysphoria, then the term would occupy an anomalous place in the statute, as it would exclude from the ADA conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct.”

“Today’s decision is extremely important to the progress of transgender rights,” added Kevin Barry, Professor of Law at Quinnipiac University and co-counsel on the amicus brief. “There is no principled reason for carving transgender people out of the protections of one of our nation’s most important civil rights laws. Ms. Blatt’s successful challenge will reverberate far beyond her individual case, setting the stage for legal challenges to discriminatory laws and private activity that target all transgender people including those who experience gender dysphoria and those who do not.”

While employed as a Seasonal Stocker at Cabela’s Retail beginning in 2006, Blatt was routinely subjected to harassment by management and coworkers, singled out for exclusion from facilities to which coworkers were regularly granted access, and then abruptly terminated in March, 2007.

Blatt is pursuing charges under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – on the grounds that Cabela’s discriminated against her based on her sex – and the ADA – on the grounds that Cabela’s refused her reasonable accommodation in the form of an appropriate nametag and use of the appropriate restroom. She is represented by Sidney L. Gold and Neelima Vanguri of Sidney L. Gold & Associates. 

Through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders works in New England and nationally to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation.

[From a News Release]


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