Federal Court Holds That ADA Protects Employees with Gender Dysphoria

Lev Craig

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently refused to dismiss Kate Lynn Blatt’s gender and disability discrimination claims in Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc. Blatt, a transgender woman, brought suit against her former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that Cabela’s had discriminated against her based on her gender identity and her diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Being transgender does not necessarily involve a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Whereas a transgender person is someone whose gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth, gender dysphoria is a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), characterized by a “marked difference between [an individual’s] expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign [them],” which is present for at least six months and “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

As the APA points out, being transgender or gender nonconforming is not a mental disorder, and since “[m]any transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling,” not all transgender people are diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Rather, gender dysphoria is characterized by gender identity–related distress, anxiety, and depression: “The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.” Treatments for gender dysphoria are focused on helping transgender people access the resources they need to transition, such as “counseling, hormone therapy, medical procedures and the social support.”

Blatt is a transgender woman who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2005. In 2006, she began working at a Cabela’s store in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, where she claims that she was subjected to discrimination and harassment based on her gender identity and gender dysphoria. Cabela’s employees allegedly made “degrading and discriminatory comments” to Blatt because she is transgender and has gender dysphoria, which comments she “continually reported” to Cabela’s management. According to the complaint, Blatt also requested accommodations for her gender dysphoria—including a nametag with her preferred name, a female work uniform, and use of the women’s restroom—which Cabela’s refused. Blatt claims that Cabela’s, after denying her requests for accommodations and ignoring her complaints, terminated her employment.

After her termination, Blatt brought Title VII and ADA discrimination and retaliation claims against Cabela’s, alleging that Cabela’s had discriminated against her based on her sex by treating her less well because she is a transgender woman and based on her disability by refusing to grant her the reasonable accommodations she had requested for her gender dysphoria. Cabela’s moved to dismiss Blatt’s ADA claims on the grounds that such claims were precluded by the plain text of the statute.  Cabela’s argued that gender dysphoria was not an ADA-qualifying disability, since “transsexualism” and “gender identity disorders,” among other conditions, are explicitly excluded under § 12211(b)(1) of the ADA: “the term “disability” shall not include […] transsexualism […or…] gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments.”

The court denied Cabela’s motion to dismiss, finding that the exclusions in § 12211 did not preclude Blatt’s ADA claims related to her gender dysphoria. The court first distinguished between identifying as transgender and having gender dysphoria, stating that, while the former is not inherently disabling, the latter “is characterized by clinically significant stress and other impairments that may be disabling” and, as such, met the conditions for an ADA-qualifying disability.

Since the language of § 12211 did not specifically include gender dysphoria as an excluded condition, the court moved next to an analysis of the two categories of conditions that § 12211 does bar: “non-disabling conditions that concern sexual orientation or identity,” and “disabling conditions that are associated with harmful or illegal conduct.” The court concluded that, if the provision were interpreted as encompassing “disabling conditions such as Blatt’s gender dysphoria, […] it would exclude from the ADA conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct.” Such a reading would contradict the express language of the ADA and subvert its broad remedial purpose of combating disability discrimination. Accordingly, the court denied Cabela’s motion to dismiss and allowed Blatt’s ADA claims to move forward.

Transgender workers in New York are protected by the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws, which both allow transgender plaintiffs—with or without a diagnosis of gender dysphoria—to bring discrimination claims. If your employer has discriminated against you because you are transgender or have a qualifying disability, including gender dysphoria, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.