Penn may settle trans discrimination lawsuit as landmark Supreme Court ruling enshrines LGBTQ protections

The historic SCOTUS decision provides civil rights that were lacking in Pennsylvania.

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia

Sage Ross / Flickr Creative Commons
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that you can’t legally fire someone because they’re gay or transgender. That’s exactly what a former Penn employee says happened to her last year.

Identified only as Jane Doe, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania in July 2019, alleging that her contract at the Ivy League medical center was terminated because she’s trans.

Then in November — while SCOTUS was actively reviewing whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination — Penn’s lawyers moved to dismiss the entire case on the basis that being trans wasn’t a protected class.

So even if discrimination against a trans person had happened, they argued, it wouldn’t be grounds for a legal battle.

“While the United States Supreme Court is currently considering the issue of whether Title VII protection should extend to gay and transgender employees, the Third Circuit does not currently recognize such protections,” Penn’s lawyers stated in a legal filing.

Within six days, the university’s defense team walked that argument back. On Nov. 13, HUP withdrew the initial legal claim — arguing instead that Penn does offer full protection for its trans patients and employees.

Monday’s SCOTUS decision is meaningful for this specific instance of discrimination and also for Pennsylvania in general, said Julie Chovanes, the attorney repping Jane Doe.

In the HUP case, it means Penn can’t reintroduce its motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that being trans isn’t a protected class. “They withdrew it, but they were willing to re-bring it depending on the Supreme Court case,” Chovanes said.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine provided an emailed statement.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision today,” it reads, in part. “Our legal filings in the Jane Doe case make clear that we do not tolerate discrimination on any basis, including gender identity. The plaintiff’s complaint alleges conduct that is at odds with our policies and our values, and we intend to demonstrate that those allegations are without merit.”

The decision is also a huge deal for the commonwealth, where there are virtually no employment protections for LGBTQ people.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act provides employment, public accommodations and housing discrimination protections based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, and disability — not gender identity or sexuality.

The General Assembly has declined several times to amend these laws, most recently updated in the 1990s. In the absence of statewide reform, Philadelphia and more than 50 other PA municipalities have passed local protection ordinances.

And even the municipal protections offered unstable footing, since Harrisburg lawmakers repeatedly threatened to undo them.

With Monday’s landmark 6-to-3 SCOTUS ruling, which was written by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and supported by Chief Justice John Roberts alongside the court’s progressive members, the patchwork of LGBTQ protections in Pennsylvania and across the country have been universalized.

“This thing is going to be awesome in the sense that, in the eyes of the court, trans and gay people are now properly included,” Chovanes said.

What’s next for Jane Doe? A settlement hearing on July 20, per Chovanes.

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