The popular press has touted as “unprecedented” a decision in May by a federal judge in Pennsylvania that a transgender employee could move forward with her suit for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
But the reality of Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., is not quite as novel as the press would suggest. Rather than recognize being transgendered as a disability per se, the court simply acknowledged that Kate Lynn Blatt’s claim of “Gender Dysphoria, also known as Gender Identity Disorder,” which caused her severe physical and psychological distress, could qualify as a disability under the ADA.
Judge Joseph F. Leeson, Jr. rendered the decision carefully, to avoid ruling on Blatt’s constitutional challenge to the statutory language of the ADA, which expressly excludes from the definition of covered disabilities “homosexuality and bisexuality,” “gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments,” and “sexual behavior disorders,” among other conditions.
Rather than determine whether such exclusions deny equal protection to individuals because of their sex, in violation of the Constitution and following the Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Judge Leeson focused on the specific allegations in the complaint. He noted that Blatt did not merely allege that she was disabled because she has gender dysphoria. Instead, she specifically pled how the condition caused her clinically significant stress and other impairments that substantially limited her major life activities, including “interacting with others, reproducing and social and occupational functioning.”
The exclusions of the ADA are to be construed narrowly, Judge Leeson ruled, while conversely, the coverage of the ADA “must be broadly construed” to effect its purpose of “eliminate[ing] discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society.” As such, her claim of a disability of gender identity disorder was allowed to proceed, despite the statute’s express exclusion of “gender identity disorders.”
No doubt that this is a victory for the transgendered community, because some claims of gender identity disorder may now proceed, despite the exclusion. But at its heart, the ruling simply reaffirms an ADA basic: an employee claiming disability discrimination must identify how he or she is substantially limited in a major life activity. Merely putting a label on the condition – such as “gender dysphoria” or “diabetic” — will not be dispositive for or against the claim.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.