U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson’s opinion denying outdoor retailer Cabela’s motion to dismiss the ADA portion of Kate Lynn Blatt’s lawsuit comes nearly a year-and-a-half after argument was heard on the issue, in December 2015. Transgender rights advocates are calling the ruling a significant step forward in transgender legal protections.
Blatt, a transgender employee experiencing gender dysphoria who was fired by Cabela’s, sued the company under the ADA for allegedly forcing her to use the men’s bathroom at work, claiming her colleagues called her “ladyboy,” “fag,” “freak” and “sinner.”
Gender dysphoria, or GD, is a condition in which people identifying with a gender differing from their born gender experience physical and psychological distress.
Cabela’s argued exclusions from the ADA for certain categories, such as gender identity, meant that Blatt’s claims should be thrown out. In her lawsuit, Blatt has questioned the constitutionality of such exclusions.
In his May 18 opinion, Leeson, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sided with Blatt, reasoning that gender dysphoria is not simply identifying with a specific gender, but a debilitating condition that is covered under the ADA.
“It is fairly possible to interpret the term gender identity disorders narrowly to refer to simply the condition of identifying with a different gender, not to exclude from ADA coverage disabling conditions that persons who identify with a different gender may have—such as Blatt’s gender dysphoria, which substantially limits her major life activities of interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functioning,” Leeson said.
The judge also said classifying gender dysphoria as a debilitating condition side-steps having to deal with the constitutional question.
He continued, “Because this interpretation allows the court to avoid the constitutional questions raised in this case, it is the court’s duty to adopt it.”
The exclusions that Blatt fought emerged in the summer of 1989, when U.S. senators debating the ADA excluded from its protections behavior they deemed immoral, including “transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders,” according to the text of the law.
Blatt’s attorney, Neelima Vanguri of Sidney L. Gold & Associates in Philadelphia, said the decision was a major victory for transgender individuals.
“It recognizes that gender dysphoria is a medical condition and certainly we view that as a victory. And also I think the transgender community is going to be pleased with the opinion because being transgender itself is not a medical condition,” Vanguri said.
Cabela’s lawyer, Michael Avila of Fisher & Phillips in Radnor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Boston-based LGBT legal advocacy group GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) supported Blatt’s position through an amicus brief.
“This decision is consistent with contemporary medical standards, and is a huge step forward for the transgender community,” Jennifer Levi, transgender rights project director, said in a statement.
Leeson’s “decision is extremely important to the progress of transgender rights,” added Kevin Barry, professor of law at Quinnipiac University and co-counsel on the amicus brief. “There is no principled reason for carving transgender people out of the protections of one of our nation’s most important civil rights laws. Ms. Blatt’s successful challenge will reverberate far beyond her individual case, setting the stage for legal challenges to discriminatory laws and private activity that target all transgender people including those who experience gender dysphoria and those who do not.”
Thomas Ude Jr., legal and public policy director at the LGBT health and wellness-focused Mazzoni Center, said Leeson’s decision means there will be an uptick in the already increasing number of transgender-related ADA cases being filed.
“I expect that there will be an increase in bringing these claims,” Ude said. “It’s a district court decision, so it will be useful to other judges until there’s a ruling by a higher court.”
He added, “There already has been an increase in people asserting disability rights claims in the appropriate context. Not everyone who is trans has gender dysphoria, and not everyone with gender dysphoria has it such that it’s disabling, but they should have the same rights as everyone else.”