EEOC files first transgender discrimination lawsuits

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed its first two transgender discrimination lawsuits Thursday, including one against a Florida eye clinic.

The lawsuits claim that by firing employees because they identify as transgender, Lakeland Eye Clinic and Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination.

The Lakeland case, based on a complaint filed to the commission’s Miami division, involves a woman name Brandi Branson, who was hired in July 2010 as director of hearing services after the clinic decided to add a hearing division, according to a copy of the lawsuit. Less than a year later, she was fired.

At the time she was hired, Branson went by Michael and presented himself as male. About six months later, Branson started wearing make-up and women’s clothing to work. She noticed colleagues making fun of her and was eventually confronted about her changing appearance, according to the lawsuit.

Branson explained that she’s transitioning from male to female and would be changing her name to Brandi. By April, only one physician was referring patients to Branson despite the fact that she’d been performing her job successfully, the lawsuit states.

In June 2011, the clinic fired Branson on the grounds that her position was being eliminated. That August, the clinic hired a replacement.

“Defendant’s [the clinic’s] decision to terminate Branson was motivated by sex-based considerations,” according to the suit. “Specifically, Defendant terminated Branson because Branson is transgender, because of Branson’s transition from male to female, and/or because Branson did not conform to the Defendant’s sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.”

Commission lawyers tried unsuccessfully to work out a pre-litigation settlement with the clinic through what’s known as the conciliation process. The commission is suing for monetary compensation and reinstatement of employment.

Lakeland Eye Clinic declined to comment.

Typically, the commission doesn’t take cases past the conciliation process and instead advises complainants to seek private counsel, said Robert Weisberg, regional attorney for the commission. But, Weisberg said, the commission felt Branson’s story is representative of many transgender discrimination cases that legally go unnoticed.

Weisberg cited a study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that found that 81 percent of transgender participants in the survey experienced harassment on the job and 56 percent experienced an adverse job action, such as getting fired.

“The issue of coverage for transgender individuals was a question that needed further development as a community that’s been subjected to severe and pervasive discrimination,” he said. “We hope that this complaint and this litigation serves as an educational opportunity for the public, for employers at large and for other individuals that may be discriminated against.”