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Trans prison worker’s hostile work environment claim may proceed, 11th Circuit says

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Dive Brief:

  • A transgender man who worked at a Georgia state prison may proceed with his claim that the harassment he suffered was sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
  • The plaintiff, who completed his transition while employed by the Georgia Department of Corrections, faced “remarkably unconcealed” incidents of harassment, the court said. Co-workers allegedly misgendered, taunted and made threats against him. HR staff failed to address the harassment despite the plaintiff’s attempts to bring it to them, according to the 11th Circuit.
  • A federal district court granted summary judgment to the employer on all claims. It held that the harassment was not sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the plaintiff’s terms and conditions of employment, and it said the employee could not establish a link between his reporting of harassment and the prison’s decision not to promote him to lieutenant. The 11th Circuit reversed in part, vacating summary judgment on the hostile work environment claim but otherwise affirming.

Dive Insight:

In its decision, the 11th Circuit noted the relevance of the plaintiff’s work environment, stating that a correctional facility “is dangerous and sometimes violent — dramatically more so than the typical workplace.” The alleged conduct not only signaled a lack of cooperation and support on the part of co-workers, but it also “sends the message to inmates that the victim is fair game.”

“The harassment [the plaintiff] suffered was also humiliating,” the court continued. “He knew his [co-workers] were listening; he heard them laughing. He often had to explain his transgender status after being misgendered in front of subordinates.”

The case against GDOC is one of several to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., in which it held that the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act extend to a worker’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

In its decision, the 11th Circuit noted that discrimination against transgender individuals who are harassed about their gender after coming out at work, like the plaintiff, is discrimination on the basis of sex in line with the holding in Bostock.

Misgendering, which the plaintiff allegedly experienced, is also one example of harassment listed in proposed guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year. Other examples listed by EEOC included denial of access to bathrooms or other sex-segregated facilities consistent with an individual’s gender identity. At press time, the commission had not yet finalized the proposed guidance.

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