Last September, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a suit against Lakeland Eye Clinic in Florida for discriminating against an employee because she is transgender. This past week, the clinic settled, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to pay her $150,000 in backpay and damages and agreeing to implement gender identity nondiscrimination protections and trainings for employees.
When Brandi Branson was first hired by Lakeland in July of 2010 to serve as its director of hearing services, she had not yet begun to transition. Half a year later she began wearing feminine attire and makeup to work, prompting ridicule from her coworkers. In April of 2011, she told the clinic of her intentions to transition as well as her name change. In addition to negative treatment, all but one of the clinic’s physicians stopped referring patients to her. She was fired in June and told that her position, along with the whole hearing division, was being eliminated. Two months later, hearing services were still in place and Branson had been replaced.
Such alleged conduct, the EEOC argued, violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including non-conformance with gender stereotypes. Robert Weisberg, regional attorney of the commission’s Miami District Office, praised Lakeland for its timely cooperation in the “historic settlement.” In a press release, Weisburg explained, “As employers take a leadership role in enforcing the law prohibiting discrimination based on one’s gender identity, the American workplace will move closer to embracing an inclusive work environment where employees are judged on their merit and not on any preconceived gender stereotype.”
According to the order, in addition to agreeing to pay Branson and provide her a neutral job reference, Lakeland will adopt a policy protecting transgender employees from harassment and termination based on their gender identity. The clinic will also provide training to its management and employees that shall include the following: “(1) an explanation of the prohibition against transgender/gender stereotype discrimination under Title VII; (2) an explanation of the rights and responsibilities of managers and supervisors under Title VII and the Policy; and (3) guidance on handling transgender/gender-stereotype complaints made by applicants employees, and customers/clients/patients.” Notice of the new policy will be posted in all of Lakeland’s facilities.
Branson told ThinkProgress that she’s glad for the victory, but she worries that transgender people are protected in so few states. “My situation would never have come about had the Florida legislature and the Governor seen fit to recognize this nondiscrimination principle in Florida law,” she explained. In fact, Florida is currently considering a bill to allow for discrimination against transgender people. Branson hopes Congress will add the four words (“sexual orientation” and “gender identity”) to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “to create equality for the millions of transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people people who live and work in this great country.”
Jillian T. Weiss, whose law firm represented Branson, told ThinkProgress that the case continues the trajectory of government agencies and courts recognizing transgender people’s right to a workplace free of discrimination. “I applaud Ms. Branson for opposing discrimination at a time when our rights were less clear,” she said. Ezra Young, another attorney at Weiss’ firm who worked on the case, pointed out to ThinkProgress that “nearly 90 percent of transgender persons experience discrimination in the workplace.” They plan to continue pursue litigation across the country “to ensure that transgender workers can can contribute to the economy without fear of discrimination.”
The EEOC’s suit was one of the commission’s first against a non-governmental agency. A second suit filed around the same time is still pending against a funeral home in Indiana. Previously, the EEOC has ruled twice on behalf of transgender government employees, in the 2012 case of Department of Justice employee Mia Macy and just recently in the case of Army civilian employee Tamara Lusardi.
At least one victory against transgender discrimination was won without the EEOC’s involvement. In 2011, the Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of Vandy Beth Glenn, an employee of the Georgia General Assembly who was fired for being transgender, concluding that the firing was a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Another could be on the way; last month, the Department of Justice filed its own suit against Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Regional University System of Oklahoma for discrimination and retaliation against a transgender employee.
Despite the successful precedent being established by these cases, gender identity nondiscrimination protections are still not enumerated under federal law. Courts may defer to the position the EEOC and Justice Department have taken on interpreting Title VII’s protections, but some may not.
This post has been updated to include comments from Branson.