Transgender worker sues Detroit over office harassment

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A transgender woman who works for the city of Detroit is suing amid claims her transition sparked harassment and discrimination officials largely ignored.

The staffer lived as a man when hired in a high-profile position at the Office of Development and Grants in January 2016, then months later announced plans to undergo sex reassignment surgery — a decision colleagues initially supported, according to the suit filed this week in U.S. District Court.

But soon after the employee returned to work with a new name and wearing female clothing, two complaints were filed alleging she violated the office dress code, although human resources staff “confirmed” that such a code did not exist, the filing asserts.

Following another reassignment-related procedure, she found her office door name plate defaced with “Mr.” then, days later, a holiday gift bag containing a sex toy and a note that alluded to Scripture and saying: “We don’t want People like you working here,” lawyers wrote.

The worker identified only as Jane Doe filed complaints, but the city “refused to otherwise take prompt, effective remedial action to stop the harassment,” including against more demeaning letters, the lawsuit alleges.

She filed complaints in May 2017 with the city’s Human Rights Department as well as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights but was told to keep working, seek a leave guaranteed by federal law, or quit, according to the court document.

The worker also “experienced an increase in her already hostile work environment and retaliatory harassment,” suffered panic attacks and was denied a promotion a supervisor recommended, her attorneys claim.

The lawsuit said these actions violate Michigan’s Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act and were “deliberate and intentional, and engaged in with malice, or with reckless indifference to the rights and sensibilities” of the transgender woman.

Reached for comment Thursday, Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in a statement: “The city takes any allegation of discrimination very seriously, although we do not comment on pending litigation. We are confident that the legal process (will) validate the city’s actions in this case.”

The litigation comes as Detroit and other Michigan communities address issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer residents — a group that more than six in 10 Americans believe face much discrimination in the United States, a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute poll found.

The findings were part of a national survey focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues. The nonpartisan research organization conducted the survey among 2,031 adults between Feb. 10, 2017, and Feb. 19, 2017, according to a news release from the group.

In recent years, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other city leaders have touted moves to help the demographic — including the Police Department forming a LGBT Advisory Board and the city pursuing policies strengthening non-discrimination protections.

Last year, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of a national LGBTQ civil rights group, gave the city an “All Star” designation as part of its 2017 Municipal Equality Index.

That signaled Detroit was among the Michigan communities advancing LGBTQ equality without relying on state law, officials reported.

Meanwhile, FBI statistics show in 2016, authorities reported 59 hate crimes related to sexual orientation across the state — a slight jump from the 51 tallied the year before.

A state analysis also found that some 12 percent of the 583 hate-crime victims in 2016 were targeted based on sexual orientation.

“Patchwork protections” remain since not every community has LGBTQ policies and state lawmakers haven’t tweaked the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which addresses discrimination in the workplace, to include sexual orientation and gender identity, said Stephanie White, executive director of the nonprofit Equality Michigan. “We need the state to be able to communicate to everyone, all citizens, that this type of discrimination is not allowed and is in fact damaging to our state.”

In November, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission tabled a decision on whether the state prohibitions against sex discrimination apply to gay and transgender residents amid conflicting legal viewpoints over its authority to interpret the law.

Critics have suggested the decision could lead to reverse discrimination against religious people and argued that only lawmakers have the power to expand civil rights protections.

The commission, which investigates alleged discrimination against any person because of religion, race, color or national origin, is scheduled to review the matter May 21. Last month, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a Garden City funeral home illegally fired a director who disclosed a male-to-female transition, said Agustin Arbulu, head at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Pending a decision, the commission recently instructed the Civil Rights Department not to process complaints involving sexual orientation or gender identity as officials requested, he said Thursday. Employees who believe they’ve been discriminated against on that basis still can seek a case through the EEOC if their workplace is over 15 employees, Arbulu added.

The Civil Rights Department plans to present a memo on its stance during the commission meeting next month in Ypsilanti, Arbulu said.

“We are hoping that the department will find itself in the position to start taking those cases after the May 21 commission meeting,” Arbulu said. “Since the language found in both the state and federal statutes are identical, from our position, there’s a presumption that a prohibition would be enforced.”