Iowa Supreme Court rules in favor of transgender worker in landmark employment discrimination case

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

In a decision handed down Friday morning, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld a 2019 jury verdict that found the Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on their gender identity. Jesse Vroegh, a transgender man and former Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) employee, sued that agency and the Iowa Department of Administrative Service (IDAS) for sex discrimination and gender identity dissemination in Polk County District Court in 2017.

It 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. In February 2019, a jury decided IDOC and IDAS had engaged in discrimination and awarded Vroegh $120,000 in damages, as well as attorneys’ fees and other legal costs. The Reynolds administration appealed the verdict.

In its decision, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the jury’s verdict that IDOC and IDAS discriminated on the basis of sex, but affirmed the verdict that agencies had illegally discriminated on the basis of gender identity. It also upheld the entirety of the jury’s award.

“This is a historic victory for civil rights in Iowa, because it makes real the promise of nondiscrimination protections in employment that our legislature put in place for transgender Iowans in 2007,” Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, said at a news conference on Friday afternoon.

The ACLU of Iowa, the ACLU LGBT Project, and Des Moines civil rights attorney Melissa Hasso of the Sherinian & Hasso Law Firm represented Vroegh in the case.

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

According to the lawsuit, Vroegh first identified as male at the age of 7, 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.

That year, 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, which approves the insurance plans offered by state agencies, was named in the lawsuit for allowing the corrections department to offer only “employer-sponsored health care plans which discriminated against transgender employees.”

All seven justices agreed that the agencies’ actions violated the protection agreed the agencies had violated the protections regarding gender identity provided by the Iowa Civil Rights Act, although Justice Brent Appel filed a separate concurring opinion. All the justices also agreed to reverse the finding of sex discrimination.

Writing for the majority, Justice Matthew McDermott explained “our review of the evidence of discrimination presented at trial… [determined it] focused on discrimination associated exclusively with Vroegh’s transgender status and not his sex.” In addition, McDermott said the trial court judge’s jury instruction regarding the difference between sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination were unclear and confusing.

McDermott also rejected the argument by Vroegh’s attorneys that state courts should follow the example of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the high court ruled the protections against sex discrimination in Title VII of federal civil rights law apply in cases of employment discrimination against transgender individuals. According to McDermott, the Bostock decision is not applicable in state court cases in Iowa, due to an Iowa Supreme Court decision from the 1980s and the language in Iowa code regarding the two forms of discrimination.

Still, the court completely upheld the decision regarding discrimination based on gender identity, which Bettis Austen said means, “in terms of the actual impact on the ground for employment protections for transgender people,” Iowans have the same rights in state courts under the Iowa Civil Rights Act they would in federal court under Title VII.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Vroegh said, reading a statement at Friday’s news conference. “I am so happy that my state supreme court has recognized that transgender people like me should be treated just the same as everyone else when it comes to medical care — that if a doctor says I should receive medical treatment, I get the treatment.”

“I am doing this so that other transgender people do not have to go through what I have. I am a nurse and I see on a regular basis how important it is for people to be treated equally when receiving medical care. It’s important for all people to be treated with dignity and respect.”