Iowa court rules in favor of gender identity discrimination case

Friday's decision by the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a large portion of a jury verdict in 2019 that found that the state discriminated against a transgender prison worker.

Iowa court rules in favor of gender identity discrimination case

He was denied access to men's toilets and locker rooms. However, the court dismissed the remaining portion of the case which dealt with sex discrimination.

Jesse Vroegh (a former nurse at the state’s Mitchellville prison facility for women) has been awarded the discrimination lawsuit based upon gender identity and $120,000 jury verdict for emotional distress.

A significant LGBTQ victory was the recognition by the full court of gender identity discrimination in transgender workers, under state civil rights laws.

Melissa Hasso, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa lawyer, stated that the lawsuit was the first to be filed in connection to transgender rights since 2007 when lawmakers amended the Iowa Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

Vroegh, who filed suit in 2017, stated that the victory was long overdue.

He said, "I'm so glad that my state Supreme Court recognized that transgender individuals like me should be treated equally as other people and that if a physician says that I should receive medical care, I get it." "It's important that all people are treated with dignity, respect, and compassion."

A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Corrections stated in a statement, that since the case was reported, a new director of the agency and a prison warden have been in place.

According to Nick Crawford, a spokesman, "The DOC does all it can create a safe environment for all its employees."

The court found that the amended act included sexual orientation and gender identification to the list of protected traits, which allowed Vroegh to be considered for gender identity discrimination. However, the court ruled that the allegation of sex discrimination should not be brought before the jury.

The court explained that it had previously separated sex and gender, with sex meaning whether one has a male or female gender and gender relating behavior, feelings, and thoughts that don't always correspond to one's physiological condition.

Vroegh claimed discrimination based upon sex also included discrimination due to gender identity. This argument was rejected by the court.

"Discrimination on the basis of an individual's gender identity doesn't equate with discrimination based upon the individual's male and female anatomical characteristics at birth (the definitions of'sex'). The court ruled that an employer could discriminate against transgender people without knowing their sex.

A jury in February 2019 found Vroegh discriminated against by the Corrections Department. The state executive branch further discriminated against Vroegh by offering him medical benefits that did not cover his gender confirmation surgery.

Vroegh was denied a lawsuit against Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield for refusing to cover surgery Vroegh had recommended for treatment of gender dysphoria. Wellmark stated that its plan didn't cover gender confirmation surgery. This benefit was later extended to state employees starting in 2017.

This ruling comes at a time when transgender rights are the focus of political and legal battles in many states. In states like Arizona, Georgia and Kentucky, Gender Identity Employment Discrimination cases are currently pending. Iowa is one of several states that Republican legislators have passed legislation to restrict transgender athletes' participation in sports.

Rita Bettis Austen, Legal Director of the ACLU of Iowa, stated that the case was part of a significant legal trend in the U.S. which recognizes equal rights of transgender individuals.

She said, "This case illustrates how important it can be to bring these enforcement actions and we're just so thankful and proud of Jesse that he was willing to fight this important fight for justice equality the courts."


 

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