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Posts Tagged ‘gender dysphoria as a disability’

Obscure Brooklyn Appellate Ruling Protects Transgender People from Discrimination Without Saying So

Posted on: June 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Talk about “hiding the ball!” On June 6, a unanimous four-judge panel of the New York Appellate Division, 2nd Department, based in Brooklyn, confirmed an Order by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR), which had adopted a decision by an agency administrative law judge (ALJ) ruling that a Port Jervis employer violated the human rights law when it discharged a transgender employee.

But nobody reading the court’s short memorandum opinion, or the short agency opinion and order, would have any idea that the case involved a gender identity discrimination claim. Surprisingly, given the novelty of the legal issues involved, only the administrative law judge’s opinion, an internal agency document, communicates what the case is actually about.

The case is Matter of Advanced Recovery, Inc. v. Fuller, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 03974, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3969, 2018 WL 2709861 (N.Y. App. Div., 2nd Dept., June 6, 2018).

Erin Fuller, a transgender woman, was fired by Mark Rea, the owner and chief executive of Advanced Recovery, Inc., the day Fuller presented a supervisor with a copy of a court order authorizing her change of name from Edward to Erin and the supervisor passed the document to Rea. Rea called Fuller into his office and, according to Fuller, said in the presence of the supervisor, “Now I have a problem with your condition.  I have to let you go.”

Rea and other company officials had been aware for some time that Fuller was transitioning, since she had presented them with a letter from her doctor in 2009 explaining her gender dysphoria diagnosis and how she would be transitioning, and on at least one occasion Rea had reacted adversely to Fuller’s mode of dress, but it wasn’t until he was presented with the legal name change that Rea apparently decided that he had enough and no longer wanted Fuller, a good worker who had been with the company more than two years.

When Fuller went back later to pick up her final paycheck, a supervisor told her that “he felt bad, but your job would be waiting for you as long as you came in wearing normal clothes.”

Attempting to escape possible liability, Rea and the company’s lawyer later came up with a termination letter that cited other reasons for terminating Fuller and said nothing about her name change, mode of dress, or gender identity, but they never sent her that letter, which first surfaced when it was offered as evidence at the SDHR law judge’s hearing on Fuller’s discrimination claim.

The discharge took place on August 4, 2010, several years before Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the SDHR to adopt a policy under which gender identity discrimination claims would be deemed to come within the coverage of the state’s ban on sex discrimination.

Fuller filed her complaint with SDHR on October 13, 2010. On the complaint form, she checked the boxes for “sex” and “disability” as the unlawful grounds for her termination.  After the company was notified of the complaint, it apparently prompted local police to arrest Fuller for altering a medical prescription, a spurious charge based on her changing the pronouns on the note written by a doctor on a prescription form after she missed a few days of work due to hospital treatment.  At the time, she didn’t think of amending her discrimination charge to allege retaliation, unfortunately, waiting until the hearing to raise the issue, by which time the judge had to reject her motion because she waited too long to assert the retaliation claim.

The agency concluded, after investigation, that it had jurisdiction over the discharge claim and set the case for a public hearing before an ALJ. At the hearing, Fuller was represented by attorneys Stephen Bergstein and Helen Ullrich, who persuaded the judge that Fuller had a valid claim and that the reasons given by the employer for firing her were pretexts for discrimination.  The same lawyers represented Fuller when the company appealed the judge’s ruling to the Appellate Division.

Relying on a scattering of trial court decisions holding that transgender people are protected from discrimination under the New York Human Rights Law, ALJ Robert M. Vespoli concluded that Fuller “states a claim pursuant to New York State’s Human Rights Law on the ground that the word ‘sex’ in the statute covers transsexuals.”

“Complainant also has a disability,” wrote Vespoli, “as that term is defined in the Human Rights Law.” The New York Human Rights Law’s definition of “disability” is broader and more general than the federal definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and New  York law does not have the explicit exclusion of coverage for people with “gender identity disorders” that is in the federal law.  Under New York’s law, a disability is “a physical, mental or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.”  The statute provides that a disability may also be a “record of such impairment or the perception of such impairment.”

“During the relevant time period,” wrote Vespoli, “Complainant was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. This condition falls within the broad definition of disability recognized under the Human Rights Law,” citing a 2011 decision by the agency to recognize its jurisdiction in a transgender discrimination case. The employer could not claim ignorance about Fuller’s transition, because in 2009 she had presented the company with her doctor’s letter explaining the situation, after which she began to dress and groom differently.

In his opinion dated February 20, 2015, Judge Vespoli rejected the employer’s evidence of other reasons for the discharge, finding that the proffered letter was a document created after the discharge for the purpose of litigation, that it had never been delivered to Fuller, and that the reasons it offered were pretexts for discrimination. The judge recommended awarding Fuller $14,560.00 in back pay and $30,000.00 for mental anguish caused by the discrimination.  He also recommended imposing a civil penalty on the company of $20,000.00.

The company filed objections to Vespoli’s recommendations with the Commission, but did not specifically object to Vespoli’s finding that Fuller had a disability or that the agency had jurisdiction over this case on grounds of sex and disability. The Commission’s Notice and Final Order of April 1, 2015, overruling without discussing the company’s evidentiary objections and adopting the judge’s recommendations and findings, said nothing about the details of the case, beyond noting that Fuller had complained of discrimination because of sex and disability.

The company’s appeal to the court again did not explicitly contest the ruling that the statute covers the case, instead urging the court to find that the ruling was not supported by substantial evidence of discrimination. Perhaps because the company’s appeal did not raise the question whether the Human Rights Law bans discrimination because of gender identity, the Appellate Division’s ruling also  did not  mention that the complainant is a transgender woman, and did not discuss the question whether this kind of case is covered under the disability provision.  Rather, the court’s opinion recites that the complainant alleged “that the petitioners discriminated against her on the basis of sex and disability,” and that the agency had ruled in her favor.  “Here there is substantial evidence in the record to support the SDHR’s determination that the complainant established a prima facie case of discrimination, and that the petitioners’ proffered reasons for terminating the complainant’s employment were a pretext for unlawful discrimination.  The petitioner’s remaining contentions are either not properly before this Court or without merit.”

Of course, Fuller’s brief in response to the appeal would have mentioned this issue, and SDHR, which cross-petitioned for enforcement of its Order, mentioned the issue as well.

The court wrote that there is “substantial evidence in the record” to support the agency’s ruling, so the court presumably looked at the record, including the ALJ’s opinion, and was aware that this was a gender identity discrimination claim.  The appellate panel surely knew that this was an important issue in the case.

Cursory research in published New York court opinions would show that there is no prior appellate ruling in New York finding that a gender identity claim can be asserted under the Human Rights Law’s prohibited grounds of “sex” and “disability.” The court took its time on this case, waiting until June 6, 2018, to issue a ruling upholding an administrative decision that was issued on April 1, 2015.  Despite taking all this time, the court produced an opinion that never mentions these details, that provides no discussion of the ALJ’s analysis of the jurisdictional issue, and that does not expressly state agreement with the trial court ruling that Judge Vespoli specifically cited in support of his conclusions.

This may be the first case in which a New York appellate court has affirmed a ruling holding that an employer violated the state’s Human Rights Law by discriminating against an employee because of her gender identity, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the court’s opinion. While the court’s failure to mention the doctrinal significance of its ruling may be explainable because the employer did not raise the issue on its appeal, it’s omission nonetheless renders the decision basically useless as an appellate precedent.

One can fairly criticize the court for failing to play its proper role in a system of judicial precedent to produce a decision that can be referred to by later courts. The judges whose names appear on this uninformative opinion are Justices Mark C. Dillon, Ruth C. Balkin, Robert J. Miller, and Hector D. LaSalle.

Governor Cuomo’s directive, issued while this case was pending before the Appellate Division, actually reinforced existing practice at the State Division of Human Rights, as the earlier opinions cited in Judge Vespoli’s opinion show, but in the absence of an explicit appellate ruling, enactment of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act remains an important goal and its recent defeat in a Senate committee after renewed passage by the Assembly is more than merely a symbolic setback for the community.

A legal team of Caroline J. Downey, Toni Ann Hollifield and Michael K. Swirsky represented SDHR before the Appellate Division, which had cross-petitioned for enforcement of its decision. Port Jervis lawyer James J. Herkenham represented the company, and Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich presented Fuller’s response to the appeal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Court Recognizes Gender Dysphoria Discrimination Claims under Americans With Disabilities Act

Posted on: May 19th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.