BY CHRIS JOHNSON, WASHINGTON BLADE
A federal court for the first time has ruled transgender people can sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite the law’s explicit exclusion of claims based on gender identity.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Gleeson, an Obama-appointed judge in Pennsylvania, determined in a six-page decision a case filed by transgender plaintiff Kate Lynn Blatt filed against Cabela’s Retail, Inc., can proceed because she meets the conditions of the 1990 law.
“[I]t is fairly possible to interpret the term gender identity disorders narrowly to refer to simply the condition of identifying with a different gender, not to exclude from ADA coverage disabling conditions that persons who identify with a different gender may have – such as Blatt’s gender dysphoria, which substantially limits her major life activities of interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functioning,” Gleeson writes.
The decision rejects calls from Cabela’s Retail over the course of the litigation to block claims on the basis of the ADA from going forward over the course of the lawsuit.
In 2014, Blatt sued alleging discrimination she faced at work at the Hamburg, Pa.-based outlet in Pennsylvania for being transgender. Although she was initially allowed to use the women’s restroom, a human resources director subsequently forced her to use the men’s room, which her complaint says created “a situation that was extremely uncomfortable for her, as she identified as female.” Blatt was forced to work the third shift at all times in an effort she believes was intended to keep her out of sight of customers, the complaint says.
The human resources director also allegedly refused to give her a name tag identifying Blatt as “Kate Lynn” and instead gave her one reading “James.” Other employees were allowed to wear name tags displaying a nickname and Groves instructed employees to refer to Blatt as “James” or risk termination, the complaint says.
According to the complaint, fellow employees commonly referred to Blatt as “he/she,” “ladyboy,” “fag,” “sinner” and “freak.” Blatt was also subjected to questions, such as “Do you have a penis?” Although Blatt complained to a supervisor, no action was taken.
In 2007, Blatt was involved in an altercation with Mercedez Ramirez, a maintenance technician. The complaint says Blatt amicably asked her a question, but Ramirez responded with a tirade of obscenities and told Blatt, “You’re not a real woman and you never will be!” Afterward, Blatt was terminated on the basis that she threatened Ramirez’s son, although Blatt maintains she never made a threat and didn’t even know Ramirez had a son, the complaint says.
In 2014, Blatt sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has a provision barring sex discrimination in the workplace that courts have interpreted to apply to transgender people, as well as ADA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. The court decision allows the lawsuit to proceed on the basis of all three laws.
The ADA includes language that seemingly prevents transgender people from filing lawsuits. The 1990 law excludes from disabilities “transsexualism” as well as “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments.”
The court determination that the ADA allows transgender claims is a major breakthrough. In fact, in this very case, the U.S. Justice Department in 2015 (under the Obama administration) asked the court to hold off on determining whether the ADA applies to transgender people until the question is resolved on whether Title VII was violated.
In the decision, Gleeson ruled Blatt can sue under the ADA despite the gender-identity exclusion based on legislative history in Congress and precedent in the Third Circuit, citing in a 2008 decision the law “must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.” As a result, Gleeson concludes, “any exceptions to the statute…should be read narrowly in order to permit the statute to achieve a broad reach.”
Jillian Weiss, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said on Facebook the court decision was a positive step despite questions about whether gender dysphoria should be considered a disorder.
“This is the first court opinion to rule that the Americans With Disabilities Act protects transgender people from discrimination at work because of gender dysphoria, despite an exclusion for ‘transsexualism,'” Weiss said. “It invokes the broad protections, the reasonable accommodations requirement and the interactive process afforded by the Americans With Disabilities Act. While there may be important questions as to whether gender dysphoria should be considered a disability, there is no question but that additional protections for transgender people is a welcome sign.”
The Washington Blade has placed a request for comment with attorneys for Cabela’s Retail on whether they intend to appeal the decision to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.