DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld much of a 2019 jury verdict that found the state discriminated against a transgender state prison employee by denying him the use of men’s restrooms and locker rooms, but the court dismissed a portion of the case that centered on sex discrimination.
The ruling means Jesse Vroegh, a former nurse at the state’s Mitchellville prison for women, has won his discrimination lawsuit based on gender identity and the jury's $120,000 damages verdict for emotional distress.
The decision in which the full court recognized gender identity discrimination for transgender workers under state civil rights law is a significant LGBTQ victory.
American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa lawyer Melissa Hasso has said the lawsuit was the first related to transgender rights that’s been filed since lawmakers amended the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007 to bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Vroegh, who filed the lawsuit in 2017, said the victory was a long time coming.
“I'm so happy that my state Supreme Court has recognized that transgender people like me should be treated the same as everyone else and that if a doctor says I should receive medical treatment I get the treatment,” he said. “It is important for all people to be treated with dignity and respect.”
An Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman said in a statement that a new agency director and prison warden are in place since this case occurred.
“The DOC does everything it can to create a safe and accommodating environment for all its employees,” said the statement provided by spokesman Nick Crawford.
The court determined that the amended act added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics, which allowed the jury to consider gender identity discrimination in Vroegh’s case. The court, however found the sex discrimination allegation should not have been before the jury.
The high court explained that it has previously separated sex from gender with sex meaning whether one is male or female and gender relating to behavior, feelings and thoughts that do not always correlate to one's physiological status.
Vroegh claimed that discrimination based on sex included discrimination based on gender identity. The court rejected that argument.
“Discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity does not equate to discrimination based on the individual’s male or female anatomical characteristics at the time of birth (the definition of `sex'). An employer could discriminate against transgender individuals without even knowing the sex of the individuals adversely affected,” the court said,
In February 2019 a jury found that the Corrections Department discriminated against Vroegh and the state executive branch further discriminated against him by offering medical benefits that would not cover his gender confirmation surgery.
While the court on Friday upheld that verdict, damages award and payment of more than $348,000 in attorney fees, it denied Vroegh's attempt to pursue a case against the state's insurer, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, for denial of coverage for surgery that was recommended by Vroegh's doctors to treat gender dysphoria. Wellmark said its plan did not cover any gender confirmation surgery. That benefit was later covered for state employees beginning in 2017.
The ruling comes as transgender rights have become the center of legal and political fights in several states. Gender identity employment discrimination cases are pending in states including Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas. Also, Iowa is among several states where Republican lawmakers have passed laws to limit transgender athlete participation in sports.
ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said the case is part of an important legal trend in the U.S. that recognizes equal rights for transgender people.
“This case shows how important it is to bring these enforcement cases and we’re just so grateful and proud of Jesse for being willing to take this important fight for justice and equality to the courts,” she said.