Iowa jury sides with transgender worker in landmark discrimination case

Jesse Vroegh and his wife Jackie — photo courtesy of the ACLU of Iowa

In a history-making decision, a Polk County jury found on Wednesday that the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the Iowa Department of Administrative Services (IDAS) engaged in sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination against Jesse Vroegh, a transgender man and former IDOC employee.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2017, was the first discrimination lawsuit filed in Iowa by a transgender plaintiff since the Iowa Civil Rights Act was amended in 2007 to include protection for gender identity.

Vroegh, who worked as a nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Marshalltown from 2009 to 2016, sued IDOC and IDAS, as well as Patti Wachtendorf, the institute’s former warden, alleging IDOC refused to make reasonable accommodations for him as he transitioned from female to male.

“This truly is a historic day for transgender Iowans, their friends and families,” Des Moines attorney Melissa Hasso said in a press release. Hasso, along with the ACLU of Iowa and the ACLU LGBT project, represent Vroegh in his lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Vroegh first identified as male at the age of seven, and has dressed as a man for the past 18 years. In 2014, Vroegh was clinically diagnosed with gender dysphoria. His doctors advised him to begin living full-time as a male in every aspect of his life, and prescribed hormone therapy as part of his gender transition.

In 2014, Vroegh informed his superiors at IDOC of his diagnosis, and that he was beginning his gender transition. In October 2015, Vroegh asked for permission to begin using the men’s restroom and locker room at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women. The request was denied. Vroegh was told the request was denied to protect “the rights of the male officers,” the lawsuit states.

None of the insurance options offered to state employees covered prescriptions or medical procedures related to gender reassignment, even in a case like Vroegh’s where those things have been deemed medically necessary by a doctor. IDAS was named in the lawsuit for allowing the corrections department to offer only “employer-sponsored health care plans which discriminated against transgender employees.”

“Being an Iowan, I want to thank a jury, made up of my fellow Iowans, for their verdict,” Vroegh said in a press release on Wednesday afternoon. “It means a lot for them to consider the facts of the case and determine that yes, I was discriminated against. It makes me happy and proud that they recognized that I should be treated equally by my employer and with health care coverage.”

In addition to finding the state illegally discriminated against Vroegh, the jury awarded him $120,000 in damages.