Judge: Trans people protected from disability bias

Judge: Trans people protected from disability bias

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A federal judge in Allentown this week ruled that transgender people diagnosed with gender dysphoria are protected from disability bias under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The ADA protects disabled persons from discrimination in private employment, public accommodations and governmental services.

In a six-page ruling May 18, U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr. said Kate Lynn Blatt's disability claim against Cabela's Retail Inc. can advance to the discovery phase. Blatt has gender dysphoria, and she's suing her former employer for more than $150,000, claiming disability discrimination and other wrongdoing.

Cabela's sought to have Blatt's disability claim dismissed, arguing that gender dysphoria is excluded from coverage under the ADA.

But Leeson ruled that while the ADA excludes gender-identity disorder from coverage, the act doesn't exclude gender dysphoria — a specific medical condition that Blatt reportedly suffers from.

Gender dysphoria can "substantially" limit a person's major life activities, including socializing with others, reproducing and occupational functioning, Leeson noted.

Leeson avoided ruling on the constitutionality of the ADA's exclusion of gender-identity disorder from coverage.

Blatt, 36, said she's "ecstatic" with Leeson's ruling.

"I needed this [ruling] to make sense of if all," she told PGN. "After 10 years of struggling, I finally feel vindicated. This helps me make sense of everything that's happened."

Blatt thanked her attorneys, Sidney L. Gold and Neelima Vanguri.

"We now have a strong trans-friendly court ruling that I believe has the potential to help all transgender people," Blatt added. "The days of silent resignation of transgender people are over."

Blatt said she lives near Cabela's, yet remains reluctant to shop there. The retail chain specializes in outdoor sports items.

"Store employees stand, like, three feet from me every time I'm shopping there — and follow me around. This is 10 years later. And they're still continuing to harass me, to this day."

In addition to her disability claim, Blatt is pursuing sex-discrimination, wrongful termination and retaliation claims against Cabela's.

Blatt worked at Cabela's outlet in Hamburg as a seasonal stocker between September 2006 and March 2007. She contends Cabela's discriminated against her when denying her access to a female restroom and a female name tag.

"Blatt has plausibly alleged that she engaged in protected activity [at Cabela's] by reporting discrimination and requesting accommodations for her disability," Leeson wrote. "She has also plausibly alleged that she was subjected to a 'pattern of antagonism' as a result of this activity, including Cabela’s allegedly intentional and repeated refusal to provide her with a correct name tag."

Blatt alleges she "continually reported to her superior that she was subject to degrading and discriminatory comments on the basis of her disability, that she requested a female name tag and uniform and use of the female restroom as accommodations for her disability and that as a result of requesting these accommodations she was subjected to a 'pattern of antagonism' prior to her termination," Leeson wrote.

Attorneys for Cabela's couldn't be reached for comment. In court papers, Cabela's denied any wrongdoing.

Thomas W. Ude Jr., legal director at Mazzoni Center, hailed Leeson's ruling.

"Congratulations to Ms. Blatt and her team," Ude said in an email. "This decision gets it right. Yesterday's ignorant prejudice must — and inevitably will — yield to today's truth, in law and in medicine. Employers better think twice before discriminating against their trans employees. Even better yet, they should just stop."

Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), echoed Ude's sentiments.

"This decision is consistent with contemporary medical standards and a huge step forward for the transgender community," Levi said in an email. "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 in recognizing and righting the decades-long wrong of excluding transgender people from being able to pursue civil-rights claims when the discrimination they face is based on bias and stigma associated with a medical condition."

But civil-rights attorney Justin F. Robinette tempered his praise of the ruling. He said trans people without gender dysphoria should also have ADA protections because they're trans, or if they're perceived to be disabled.

"While I agree that Judge Leeson's ruling is a step forward, I wish he had struck down the gender-identity disorder exclusion. That would have paved the way for more trans folks to have protections under the ADA. Those protections are vital because there's no federal LGBT-inclusive antibias law. And it's unclear whether transgender discrimination is considered sex discrimination. Unfortunately, Judge Leeson missed an important opportunity to condemn the animus behind the ADA's gender-identity disorder exclusion." 

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