Transgender Employees May Be Entitled To Protection From Discrimination Under The ADA

30 May 2017 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

Of late, we have recently written quite a bit about the ever-changing legal landscape regarding protections for LGBTQ employees. Most of the authority we explored involved whether or not sexual orientation (as well as gender identity and expression) are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).  Now, for the first time, a federal district court has ruled that a transgender employee may proceed with her discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While courts applying Title VII have held that sex discrimination prohibits anti-transgender discrimination in the workplace, this case is unique because it held that a transgender employee, with gender dysphoria, may also be protected by the federal disability law.

Kate Lynn Blatt, a transgender woman, claimed she was subjected to discrimination and harassment while working at a hunting and fishing retailer. She additionally claimed that the retailer terminated her employment in retaliation for complaining about her treatment.  Ms. Blatt sued under both Title VII and the ADA, which protects employees with disabilities.

While the ADA is a remedial statute designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled, the Act explicitly exempts from its definition of disability “transvestism, transsexualism [and] gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments.” The judge distinguished such conditions from 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 court noted that Ms. Blatt’s gender dysphoria substantially limited her major life activities of interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functioning. Therefore, the court determined that her gender dysphoria was a medical condition entitled to protection under the ADA.  Accordingly, Ms. Blatt’s claims under the ADA survived the employer’s motion to dismiss and were permitted to proceed.

Are transgender employees now automatically considered disabled under the ADA? No. The court emphatically stated as much by commenting that simply being transgender would be insufficient to bring suit.  In this case, the fact that the employee suffered from the condition of gender dysphoria is what made the ADA applicable.

The takeaway for employers is to expect transgender rights to continue to expand. Employers can expect statutes like the ADA to potentially be broadly interpreted to afford a wider range of protections to employees.  Accordingly, employers should be prepared to provide reasonable accommodations to transgender employees with gender dysphoria, in order to perform the essential functions of the job.

In the case at issue, Ms. Blatt alleged that she was not permitted to wear a name tag with her female name or use the women’s restroom – both requests that arguably could have been easily accommodated. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued guidance to employers on best practices regarding restroom access for transgender workers, concluding that transgender employees should have access to restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

Finally, Ms. Blatt alleged that coworkers made degrading comments to her. Employers can also expect employees, like Ms. Blatt, to turn to the federal courts when they fail to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace.

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