A transgender client of the Human Resources Administration who claims she was demeaned and humiliated by New York City officials can proceed with a lawsuit alleging violations of the state and city human rights laws, a judge in Manhattan has held.
Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan (See Profile) denied the city’s dismissal motion, finding no explanation “other than abject discriminatory reasons” for the way in which the woman alleges she was treated by the Human Resources Administration (HRA).
The plaintiff, identified only as Jane Doe in the decision, was identified as male at birth but displayed a female gender identity as a child, according to court records. In 2011, after a court granted a motion to change her name, Doe asked the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) of the HRA to change its records to reflect her new identity and to issue a new benefits card. But Doe said officials insisted she sign a document with her birth name and continually referred to her with masculine pronouns.
“Plaintiff explained that every time she used the benefits card, she was subjected to embarrassment, humiliation, discrimination, accusations and denial of services because the card indicated the holder to be male while plaintiff presented as a female with a female name,” Chan wrote in Doe v. City of New York, 401383.
The city refused to recognize Doe’s new identity without a revised birth certificate, but Doe was caught in a Catch-22 because Puerto Rico, where she was born, does not alter the gender marking on its birth certificates, according to the decision.
Although HASA eventually updated records to reflect Doe’s legal name without an amended birth certificate, Doe alleges she was subjected to discriminatory harassment and filed complaints under the New York State Human Rights Law as well as the broader New York City Human Rights Law.
In a motion to dismiss, the city argued that Doe has no viable claim because there was never any disruption in the services or benefits to which she was entitled. It also insisted that if Doe was harassed or demeaned by HASA employees, the conduct did not rise to the level of discrimination.
Chan, accepting Doe’s allegations as true, as required at this stage, said that “while HASA’s policy [on the birth certificate] appears to be equal across the board, its practical impact for the transgender community is not.”
She said that although Doe remained eligible for benefits, the city’s initial refusal to recognize her sexual identity—despite the legal name change and medical proof that the convertive surgery was complete—effectively hindered her ability to access benefits.
“As plaintiff had experienced, she was subject to accusations of fraud, and denial of tangible benefits because she did not present as a man, contrary to the benefits card indication,” Chan said.
In an interview, Doe, 45, said that when she approached the city agency she “behaved like a lady and they insulted and bullied me.” Doe said she hopes the decision leads to a change of attitude, but recognizes “it will take a lot more work.”
“These people need to be re-educated toward the transgender community,” said Doe, a resident of Washington Heights who began the medical journey to womanhood when she was 12. “They do not have a lot of knowledge and they need to learn how to treat the transgender community with respect and dignity. This [decision] is a good start.”
Doe was represented by Cathy Bowman and Sonja Shield of South Brooklyn Legal Services as well as Daniel Pepitone of Manhattan Legal Services.
“This decision validates that refusing to use someone’s name and the proper pronoun is discrimination,” Shield said. “What we have seen from the city is an attitude that these things are irrelevant as long as someone, even someone who was treated improperly and called by a name that is not their legal name, got their benefits.”
Bowman said most federal and state agencies have stopped requiring a revised birth certificate, and will recognize a transgender individual’s new identity with a note from a doctor.
“We are in a strange position where it is easier to get your passport changed than changing your food stamp card,” Bowman said.
The city defendants were represented by assistant corporation counsel Andrew Rauchberg.
A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said the decision is under review.
“The circumstances under which a gender marker can be changed are explicitly governed by the state,” the spokeswoman said. “Furthermore, the plaintiff has not alleged that she was denied any benefits for which she was eligible, and the record supports this. We are evaluating the decision and our next steps.”
Chan’s ruling was the second in several days in which a judge in New York City ruled in favor of a transgender individual in a discrimination case. Acting Supreme Court Justice Debra Silber (See Profile) held on Tuesday in Wilson v. Phoenix, 25755/11, that a transgender individual can sustain an action against a residential drug treatment program that allegedly failed to accommodate her gender identity (NYLJ, Dec. 12).
@|John Caher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.