Transgender People Given New Legal Protections

A federal judge in Pennsylvania recently held that a transgender employee can proceed with her allegations that she was mistreated and fired based on her gender identity-related disability. During the early stages of the lawsuit, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss which the Court denied, allowing the claim to proceed.

The case involved Kate Lynn Blatt who was identified as a boy at birth. Later, as an adult, Blatt was diagnosed with gender disorder identity.  She underwent hormone therapy to change her appearance and legally changed her name from her birth name of James Benjamin Blatt.

In 2006, Blatt began working at the retail chain Cabela’s as a stocking clerk.  At that time, she was dressing as a female and was using the female restroom while at work. She claimed that soon her store manager would not allow her to use the female restroom and refused to give her a name tag with “Kate Lynn” on it. Further, she claimed that a department manager referred to her as a “confused sicko” and her co-workers called her by other derogatory names. Her employment was terminated in 2007.

In her lawsuit, Blatt alleges a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in that her treatment while working at Cabela’s was discriminatory and her firing was in retaliation for her seeking an accommodation for her disability. She claims her medical condition was covered by the ADA as it impaired her ability to engage in certain normal living pursuits.

The scope of the ADA is vast as it defines the “disability” broadly: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). There are certain exceptions to the ADA’s coverage, however, including gender identity disorders. 42 U.S.C. § 12211. Cabela’s argued that Blatt could not pursue her claim as the ADA bars claims of workplace bias by transgender individuals.  They based their argument on amendments in the ADA that state homosexuality and “gender identity disorders” are not covered by the law.

The court disagreed, narrowly interpreting the phrase “gender identity disorders,” stating that most of the words used in the ADA exclusions from coverage were “associated with harmful or illegal conduct,” but the reference to “gender identity disorders” alluded only to an individual’s self-identification as being of a different gender, without any actual disability. Specifically, the Court held the term “gender identity disorders is read narrowly to refer to only the condition of identifying with a different gender, not to encompass (and therefore exclude from ADA protection) a condition like Blatt’s gender dysphoria, which goes beyond merely identifying with a different gender and is characterized by clinically significant stress and other impairments that may be disabling.”

The judge concluded that Blatt’s diagnosis of “gender dysphoria…substantially limits her major life activities of interacting with others, reproducing and occupational functioning.” Thus, the court distinguished between gender identify disorder, which is the condition of identifying with a different gender and is not protected under the ADA’s statutory language, and gender dysphoria, which in Blatt’s case significantly limited certain major life activities and could be protected. The court refused to dismiss either of Blatt’s claims of discrimination or retaliation and the matter continues to proceed through the litigation process.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for sixty years and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.