Being Transgender is Covered by ADA, PA Court Decides

When we think of disabilities, being transgender-hopefully-is not something that comes to mind. This is for a simple reason, gender identity is state of being rather than a disorder. However, out in Pennsylvania, Judge Joseph Leeson was recently saddled with the unenviable position of parsing how gender identity should be handled under the Americans With Disabilities (ADA)—the act which provides federal protection against discrimination based on a disability.

This ruling is the first of its type and had some serious hurdles to overcome to include gender identity as a disability under the ADA. When the ADA was first passed gender identity was specifically excluded from being classified as a disability. It wasn’t in particularly good company, other specific exclusions include kleptomania, pyromania, and pedophilia. The unfortunate truth is that the exclusion was a bit of a product of the times when the ADA was passed. At the time, congress specifically railed against the inclusion of so-called “immoral” medical conditions. Thus, gender identity was unfairly lumped in to ADA exceptions. However, the exception remains as part of the law. Truthfully, despite it’s unfortunate conception, being transgender is not a disorder or disability in and of itself. Including it under the ADA seems out of place for that reason. However, like most things in law, the question before Judge Leeson was one of definition. In order to understand the Judge’s ruling, ultimately including gender dysphoria as a disability, let’s look at how a disability is defined and the ruling itself.

What is a Disability Under The ADA?

In 2008, the ADA updated their definitions of what exactly constitutes a disability.  The ADA now defines disability as a person who has one of three things: a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, a history or record of such an impairment, or is perceived by others as having such an impairment.  The changes also broadened the interpretation of “substantially limits” to require less, forbad the consideration of mitigating measures that could be taken in the analysis of a disability, expanded the definition of “major life activities,” and provided a non-exhaustive list of such activities which included caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working.

transgenderUnderstanding Judge Leeson’s Ruling

So does gender identity constitute a disability? Absolutely not. However, Judge Leeson’s ruling recognized a clear distinction between gender identity and gender dysphoria-the distress created by the differences between a transgender person’s gender and the gender they were assigned at birth. Let’s take a look at the facts of the case to figure out how he got there.

The case involves one Kate Lynn Blatt suing Cabela’s Retail, her former employer, for firing her based on her diagnosed gender dysphoria. Ms. Blatt was not allowed to dress and act as woman while working for Cabela’s. This became a point of contention between her and her employer. Under the ADA, an employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee. However, Cabela’s refused to let Ms. Blatt dress as a woman and allegedly eventually fired her over it. This led to Ms. Blatt’s ADA retaliation claim. A retaliation claim requires her to show that she engaged in protected activity under the ADA and that adverse employment action was taken against her based on this action.

The ruling in question was on a motion to dismiss the case entirely. Thus, Judge Leeson needed only to find that the facts and law were sufficient to show that Ms. Blatt had a plausible claim under the ADA. The facts were there, Blatt had diagnosed gender dysphoria and it is at least plausible she was fired over her desire to dress as a woman-a very reasonable accommodation to require. The question came down to whether gender dysphoria was a disability under the ADA.

The ADA specifically excludes gender identity. However, Blatt argued that her gender dysphoria substantially limited major life activities for her including how she interacted with other and social and occupational functioning. Ms. Blatt further argued that the outright exclusion of gender identity from the ADA was either not meant to be interpreted as a blanket ban on any element of gender identity or the existence of such a ban violated her equal protection rights.

Judge Leeson agreed to a certain extent. Where the constitutionality of a law is called into question, judges are advised to look for an interpretation of the statute that reads in a constitutional manner. The Judge found this middle ground-the distinction between gender identity and gender dysphoria-a condition clearly associated in the medical community with stress and other disabling impairments. He determined that if the exclusion of gender identity disorders in the ADA excludes gender dysphoria it would undermine the statute itself. Instead, he chose to construe the exclusion of gender identity very narrowly and preserve the intent of the statute.

In a motion to dismiss, this was enough. If gender dysphoria can be a disability then Blatt had given enough facts to get past this initial threshold.

What Does This Ruling Mean?

Gender identity disorders, as opposed to gender identity itself, has had an unfortunate position in the ADA since the law was first passed. This ruling is a huge step for the transgender community. These protections are something that have been unfairly placed out of reach for decades.

However, it is important to recognize what this ruling is and what this ruling is not. First and foremost, it is a ruling on a motion to dismiss. While the analysis of the law from this judge will not change as the lawsuit progresses, a big victory for the LGBT community, this ruling may well be appealed and the lower standard of these type of motions mean that Ms. Blatt is far from a guaranteed victory. Also important to keep in mind, Judge Leeseon’s analysis allows the ruling to bypass a larger issue. By reinterpreting the law in a way that avoids potential constitutional issues, Leeson made it unnecessary to decide whether the exclusion for gender identity disorders violates Blatt’s equal protection rights. This ruling is a big step, but it must be recognized as a step and not a leap. The full implications of this ruling, and whether it will stand up in the long term, still remain to be seen.

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