Funeral home could be ordered to pay in Michigan transgender bias case

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the status of the proposed consent decree.

A Garden City funeral home that fired a transgender woman, sparking a historic case that was decided in the Supreme Court this year, appears to be nearing a settlement that includes paying the late woman's estate and training its workers on gender discrimination, according to a proposed federal consent decree filed Friday.

Michigan’s Aimee Stephens, flanked by wife Donna at left and ACLU attorney Ria Tabacco Mar, greets well-wishers outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday after the justices heard arguments in her case. Rally-goers outside the court chanted her name as she left the building.

If Friday's version of the consent decree is approved by U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox, the amount R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes must give to the estate of Aimee Stephens includes back pay with interest of $63,723.91 and $66,276.09 in damages.

The business would also pay the ACLU Foundation $120,000 for costs and attorney fees incurred on behalf of Stephens' widow, Donna, who leads a trust in her name, according to the document.

Additionally, the funeral home would have to "develop written policies and procedures concerning sex discrimination to conform with the law"; provide training to all employees on the topic in the next 90 days; and "pay each of its customer-facing female employees employed since September 9, 2012, a monetary stipend equivalent to the average amount Harris spent on clothing for male employees for each year between September 9, 2012 and the date of entry of the decree."

An attorney who represented the funeral home's owner did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday night.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Stephens in the case, welcomed the proposed decree.

"All the parties were able to work together to reach the settlement," Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT Project at the ACLU of Michigan, told The Detroit News.

David Ashenfelter, a spokesman for the federal court in Detroit, noted, however, that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the ACLU "submitted a proposed consent decree at the last minute this week, the judge reviewed it, had issues with certain portions of the decree and would not sign it."

Stephens waged a legal fight on behalf of transgender Americans for seven years after she lost her job as a funeral home director at R.G. & G.R. Harris.

The Michigan resident, who grew up as Anthony Stephens, was fired in 2013 after informing her boss she planned to transition from male to female and would start abiding by the business' dress code for women. 

The owner, Thomas Rost, said her dress would distract grieving families. His lawyer has argued the funeral home was within its rights to insist that Stephens follow its dress code for male employees during work hours. 

in 2014, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Harris Homes, which operates several funeral homes in southeast Michigan, on her behalf.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled against Rost in 2018, concluding in part that discrimination on the basis of transgender status is "necessarily" discrimination on the basis of sex. Rost and Harris Homes appealed to the Supreme Court.

In June, the high court ruled 6-3 that federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Stephens was the first transgender person to have a civil rights complaint heard by the Supreme Court, according to the ACLU.

Supporters celebrated the landmark victory and mourned that she couldn't see it. Stephens, who had kidney disease, died in May at age 59.

She had trouble finding work in the funeral home industry after her termination and eventually became an autopsy technician at the Detroit Medical Center's Sinai-Grace Hospital. Stephens worked through late 2014, when her kidneys failed, then retired.