Transgender prison nurse sues the state of Iowa for discrimination

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

Jesse Vroegh, a transgender man, has filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging state agencies and a major insurance company violated Iowa laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of gender identity. It’s believed to be the first such lawsuit filed in the state.

Vroegh, who worked as a nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women (ICIW) in Marshalltown from 2009 to 2016, is suing the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC), the former warden of the ICIW and the Iowa Department of Administrative Services (IDAS), claiming that the IDOC refused to make reasonable accommodations for him as he transitioned from female to male. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, which provides health insurance policies for IDOC employees, is also named in the lawsuit for allegedly not covering medically prescribed treatments related to Vroegh’s transition.

“It’s important that transgender people in our state be treated equally, and that means they must be treated the same way in the workplace as people who are not transgender are treated,” Veronica Fowler, communications director for the ACLU of Iowa, told Little Village.

The state chapter of the ACLU, the ACLU LGBT project and Des Moines attorney Melissa Hasso are representing Vroegh.

According to the lawsuit, Vroegh first identified as male at the age of seven. Vroegh, now 36, has dressed as a man for the past 17 years. In 2014, he was clinically diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Vroegh’s doctors advised him to begin to living full-time as a male in every aspect of his life, and prescribed hormone therapy as part of his gender transition. Wellmark refused to pay for the hormone therapy and other related medical treatment, Vroegh said.

Vroegh informed his superiors at IDOC in 2014 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 ICIW. The request was denied. Vroegh was told the request was denied to protect “the rights of the male officers,” according to the lawsuit.

“The harms from not being allowed to use the same facilities that other men who work at the prison are able to use really can’t be understated. It’s stigmatizing, it’s isolating,” ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit on Monday.

Vroegh filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in 2016 alleging discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The commission has not issued an opinion in the case, although Bettis said it had found “reasonable probability” that a violation had occurred.

Iowa amended its civil rights laws in 2007 to prohibit discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Vroegh is suing the IDOC for refusing to allow him to use the male restrooms and locker room, and for not requiring Wellmark to cover his medical treatments. He is suing IDAS for allowing IDOC to offer only “employer-sponsored health care plans which discriminated against transgender employees.” Wellmark is included in the lawsuit for only offering state employees health insurance policies that fail to provide transgender employees with the same level of coverage as other employees, which Vroegh said made him forgo medically necessary treatments.

In his lawsuit, Vroegh is seeking unspecified damages, “including damages for emotional distress, mental anguish, compensatory relief, reasonable attorney fees, and court costs, with interest as provided by law.” In addition to damages Vroegh wants the court to issue an injunction requiring IDOC and IDAS to adopt policies that will guarantee equal treatment for transgender employees. He is also seeking an injunction requiring Wellmark to offer health insurance policies that provides equitable treatment for all state employees.

IDOC and IDAS have not commented on the lawsuit, because state policy requires agencies not comment on pending or ongoing litigation. Wellmark has not issued an official response, but did tell Iowa Public Radio that the state of Iowa is responsible for what health insurance offered to state employees covers, and Wellmark administers whatever plans the state devises.

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Vroegh’s lawsuit was filed on the same day as two federal lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s newly created ban on transgender people serving in the military. Fowler said the timing is coincidental and the two lawsuits are not related beyond the fact that both involve the rights of transgender people.