Judge signs off on settlement in Michigan transgender bias case

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

A federal judge has signed off on a settlement between the estate of Aimee Stephens and the Metro Detroit funeral home that fired her in 2013 after she came out to her boss as transgender. 

U.S. District Judge Sean Cox on Monday approved the terms of the settlement between the estate of Stephens, who died in May, and her former employer, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which going forward is prohibited from firing employees on the basis of transgender status.

Under the terms of the agreement, Harris Homes is to pay $130,000 to Stephens' estate, including $63,724 in back pay with interest and $66,276 in damages.

The consent decree also says Harris Homes, which operates three funeral homes in southeast Michigan, must pay another $120,000 to the ACLU Foundation for costs and plaintiff attorney fees. 

The settlement stems from the case that rocketed Stephens to national prominence after she became the first transgender person to have a civil rights case heard and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court

In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo Aimee Stephens, seated, and her wife Donna Stephens, in pink, listen during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

The justices in June ruled that federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity, but Stephens of Redford Township didn't live to read the high court's ruling, passing away on May 12 due to complications from kidney disease. She would have turned 60 next week. 

"We are pleased that all sides were able to come to an agreement regarding damages and attorney fees," said Jay Kaplan, Stephens' long-time attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. 

"The settlement of this case is bittersweet in that Aimee passed away before matters could be resolved."

After six years of employment, Stephens was fired from her job as an embalmer and funeral home director at Harris' location in Garden City in 2013 after informing her boss, Thomas Rost, that she was transitioning from male to female and planned to start wearing appropriate women's business attire to work. 

On behalf of Stephens, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 sued Harris Homes. The EEOC is also party to Monday's settlement.

Rost argued Stephens’ dress would become a distraction for grieving families. His lawyer said the funeral home was within its rights to insist that Stephens adhere to its dress code for male employees during work hours. 

The justices disagreed, ruling the firing constituted sex discrimination under what's known as Title VII of federal civil rights law.

Under Monday's settlement, Harris Homes must also pay each of the women it employed since September 2012 who dealt with customers a stipend equal to the average amount it spent on its male employees for clothing.

That will total $3,040 for the period between September 2012 and October 2014 and $665 for the period since 2014, according to the consent decree. 

Harris Homes is also required under the settlement to begin providing clothing benefits to its female employees going forward, equal to those it gives to male employees. Previously, the business only provided the clothing benefit to men. 

The company within 90 days must provide training to all company employees on sex discrimination including transgender discrimination and sex-based stereotyping. 

Harris Homes must also develop written policies in relation to sex discrimination, including a statement encouraging employees to report to a manager when they believe they have been the victim of sex discrimination, assurances that the company will investigate such reports "promptly and fairly," and a pledge of non-retaliation for victims and witnesses to the alleged discrimination.

Harris Homes also must post for employees a notice of non-discrimination policy that includes a specific statement that "federal law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex (including transgender status) in all aspects of employment, including but not limited to hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, job training and workplace benefits."

Finally, the company must submit reports regularly to the EEOC for the next three years with copies of the new policies, confirmation of its revised clothing benefits, registry of personnel who attended the required trainings and the disclosure of company employees who complained of sex discrimination.