A transgender employee’s gender dysphoria is a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), according to the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., No. 5:14-cv-04822, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75665, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 18, 2017), the transgender employee alleged that her gender dysphoria, also known as gender identity disorder, substantially limited one or more of her major life activities, including, “interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functioning.” Blatt, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75665, at *2. Her complaint alleged that Cabela’s denied her requests for a female uniform, name tag, and female restroom use as disability accommodations, and that consequently she experienced a “pattern of antagonism” that ultimately ended in her termination from Cabela’s in violation of the ADA. Blatt at *9.
Cabela’s sought dismissal of the employee’s ADA claims for disability discrimination/failure to accommodate and retaliation, arguing that the ADA on its face excludes gender identity disorders from its coverage. In denying Cabela’s motion to dismiss, the Court narrowly interpreted the ADA’s exclusion of gender identity disorders, and held that the employee’s gender dysphoria was not encompassed within the broad gender identity exclusion under 42 U.S.C. § 12211.
The Court reasoned that the ADA § 12111 exclusions fall into one of two categories: (i) “non-disabling conditions” including sexual identity and orientation, and (ii) “disabling conditions that are associated with harmful or illegal conduct.” Blatt at *7. Examples from the second category include pedophilia, pyromania, and kleptomania. The Court stated that because gender dysphoria is not associated with harmful or illegal conduct like the other conditions from Section 12211’s second category, it should not be construed as a § 12211 exempted condition.
The Court also emphasized the ADA’s remedial purpose, stating that it is “designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society” and “must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.” Blatt at *7. The court explained that “gender dysphoria…substantially limits her major life activities of interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functioning.” Blatt, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75665, at *8.
Because this ruling is the first of its kind, it is unclear what impact the decision will have on other courts. This is a curveball decision for Cabela’s, because recent decisions rely on the § 12211 exceptions to exclude gender dysphoria as a recognized disability under the ADA. In any case, employers should familiarize themselves with emerging complex gender identity issues. Employers should consider updating their policies and employee handbooks to ensure that transgender employees and transitioning employees are addressed in a manner that helps facilitate a supportive working environment.
Law Clerk Hannah Wurl is a rising 3L at George Mason University School of Law.