For the first time, a federal court has recognized that individuals suffering from gender dysphoria are entitled to protection against workplace discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law that requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ disabilities. The May 18 ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson, Jr., accepted an argument by attorneys for Kate Lynn Blatt, a transgender woman, that a provision in the ADA excluding protection for “gender identity disorders” should be narrowly construed to avoid a potential violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75665 (E.D. Pa.).
Blatt, who is also alleging sex discrimination by her employer, Cabela’s Retail, Inc., was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in October 2005. She alleges that her gender dysphoria “substantially limits one or more of her major life activities, including, but not limited to, interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational function.” The ADA provides protection for people suffering from physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more of their major life activities.
Blatt claims that shortly after she was hired by Cabela’s in September 2006, she began to experience discrimination, culminating in her termination in February 2017. The court’s decision does not provide much factual detail, because it is narrowly focused on Cabela’s motion to dismiss the portion of Blatt’s complaint that relies on the ADA.
Part of the opposition to the ADA in Congress in 1990 focused on the possibility that the proposed law could be interpreted to prohibit discrimination against sexual minorities – gays, lesbian, bisexuals, and transgender people – on the theory that “abnormal” sexuality was a “disability” within the meaning of the statute. To combat this argument, the bill was amended to provide that “homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and as such are not disabilities under this Act.” The provision goes on to say that the term “disability” “shall not include transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders.” It also excludes protection for people afflicted by “compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania; or psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.”
This provision has long been considered to exclude any protection for transgender people related to their gender identity under the ADA. During the debate over the bill, it was made clear that this would not deny protection to transgender people who suffer from other disabling conditions, such as blindness, deafness and the like, not related to their gender identity.
Cabela’s asked the court to dismiss the two ADA counts of Blatt’s four-count complaint: failure to accommodate her gender dysphoria, and retaliation against her for reporting discrimination and requesting accommodations for her disability. Cabela’s argued that because of the exclusionary provision, any claim related to Blatt’s gender identity was excluded from coverage. Cabela’s was not seeking in this motion to dismiss Blatt’s sex discrimination claims under Title VII.
Blatt’s attorneys countered with the argument that denying protection for a disability without a rational justification would violate Blatt’s right to equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment, but that the court could avoid having to consider the constitutionality of the statute by interpreting it to cover Blatt’s claims.
Judge Leesom accepted Blatt’s argument, finding that there is a “fairly possible” interpretation of the exclusionary provision, “namely, one in which 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.”
Leesom breaks down the text of the exclusion into “two distinct categories: first, non-disabling conditions that concern sexual orientation or identity, and second, disabling conditions that are associated with harmful or illegal conduct. If the term gender identity disorders were understood, as 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. But under the alternative, narrower interpretation of the term, this anomaly would be resolved, as the term gender identity disorders would belong to the first category described above.”
The judge found that this interpretation was consistent with controlling precedents in the 3rd Circuit, which covers the federal courts in Pennsylvania. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has endorsed the view that the ADA, as “a remedial statute, designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society, must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.” This requires a narrow reading of any exclusionary provisions. This is also consistent with 2008 Amendments to the ADA that emphasized the Congressional purpose to allow a liberal interpretation of the concept of disability so as to provide maximum protection against unjustified workplace discrimination.
Leesom held that because a narrow interpretation of the exclusionary provision would avoid raising the constitutional equal protection question, it was his “duty to adopt it,” and the motion to dismiss should be denied.
This ruling does not necessarily mean that Blatt will ultimately win her case, but it will remove the employer’s argument that her case cannot be brought under the ADA. Even if she had lost this motion and suffered dismissal of her ADA claim, Blatt could still litigate a sex discrimination claim, as the 3rd Circuit has accepted the argument that anti-transgender discrimination may be attacked as sex discrimination under Title VII by using the sex-stereotype theory that was approved by the Supreme Court in 1989 in the Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case. But finding ADA coverage is very important, because that statute imposes a duty of reasonable accommodation to enable an employee with disabilities to work, while Title VII does not impose any gender-related accommodation requirements other than, arguably, some accommodation to pregnancy and childbirth. The ADA also has provisions governing medical testing and confidentiality of medical information, which may be useful for individuals dealing with gender dysphoria as well.
Blatt is represented by Sidney L. Gold, a Philadelphia lawyer, with assistance from the Civil Justice Clinic of Quinnipiac University School of Law, as well as Neelima Vanguri, an attorney at Gold’s law firm.