Neelima Vanguri (Photo by Nanette Kardaszeski)

As legal battles over transgender rights rage in courtrooms across the country, one case stands out among the pack for its unique and potentially game-changing legal strategy: Blatt v. Cabela’s.

In that case, attorney Neelima Vanguri, of Sidney Gold and Associates in Philadelphia, was the first lawyer in the country to argue that a company can violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying a transgender person use of a bathroom that corresponds with the gender they identify with.

A federal judge approved the use of the novel theory, and while the case settled under confidential terms, the ruling is sure to be looked to by sibling courts across the country dealing with similar issues involving bathrooms.

But while the ruling was widely lauded as a landmark victory for transgender rights and, as one advocate put it, ”a huge step forward for the transgender community,” getting there was no easy task. After all, unique theories also present unique challenges.

“Just being the first to assert any type of claim is difficult,” Vanguri said. “We don’t have a bank of potential claims or briefs to draw from. The first challenge was figuring out how to assert this constitutional challenge.”

Kate Lynn Blatt, the plaintiff, was a transgender employee of the Cabela’s outdoor retail chain who was experiencing gender dysphoria. Blatt 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 who identify with a gender different from their birth 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.

Those exclusions emerged in the summer of 1989, when U.S. senators debating the ADA decided to bar 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.

In her lawsuit, Blatt questioned the constitutionality of such exclusions.

In a May 18, 2017, opinion, presiding U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sided with Blatt, reasoning that gender dysphoria is not simply a person’s identification 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.”

Whenever a constitutional question hits the courts, the pertinent federal agency—in this case the Department of Justice—has to be notified so that it can weigh in. Vanguri said she dealt with two attorneys general in the case, first Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch.

Holder essentially gave no opinion about whether Blatt could bring an ADA claim, and instead said she should proceed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, dealing with sex discrimination. Vanguri said she had to go back to Holder and tell him Title VII wasn’t good enough because it lacked the extra remedies, including for failure to accommodate, that the ADA provides.

Time wore on and eventually Holder left office. It then was up to Lynch to address the issue. Vanguri said Lynch advised her that while she should avoid the constitutional question, there was room for Blatt to move forward with ADA claims.

The rest is history.

“I felt that it was life-changing,” Vanguri said of Leeson’s resulting decision. “I really love what I do and helping the greater good, but very rarely do you get the opportunity to create civil rights, so the opportunity to do something like that is extremely profound to me.”

A celebratory event will be held at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia on June 27 to honor The Legal’s Professional Excellence Award winners and finalists. For more information, contact Andre Sutton at asutton@alm.com or 757-721-9020.