$1.1 Million Verdict to Woman in Gender Identity Case

The Case

Rachel Tudor, a transgender professor whose tenure and promotion was denied at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was awarded $1.1 million by a federal jury on Monday in a landmark Title VII case.

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Tudor was hired by the university in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English department and presented as male at the time. She began transitioning in 2007, becoming the university's first openly transgender professor.

According to the lawsuit, after notifying the university that she would be presenting as a woman at work for the 2007-2008 academic year, Tudor received a phone call from an unnamed human resources staffer who told her the school's vice president for academic affairs, Douglas McMillan, had inquired about firing her because her identity as a transgender woman offended his religious beliefs.

The lawsuit also states the director of the university's counseling center, Jane McMillan, Douglas McMillan's sister, told Tudor to take safety precautions, because some people were openly hostile to transgender people. She also reiterated to Tudor that her brother considered transgender people to be a "grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities."

In October 2009, Tudor applied for tenure and a promotion to an associate professor position. Her application was denied, while the application of a similarly qualified male coworker was approved, the lawsuit claims. After Tudor asked for an explanation as to why her application was rejected, according to the suit, Douglas McMillan and another dean refused to provide her with one. Tudor then filed a federal discrimination complaint in 2010.

In March 2015, the Justice Department, then under the Obama administration, sued the university, with former Attorney General Eric Holder declaring that federal prohibitions against sex discrimination include protections based on gender identity.

On Monday, an eight-person jury voted in favor of Tudor on three counts: that she was "denied tenure in 2009-10 because of her gender," that she was denied "the opportunity to apply for tenure in the 2010-11 cycle ... because of her gender" and that the university retaliated against her after she complained about workplace discrimination. The jury then awarded her $1.165 million in damages.

Why Is This Case Important

This case is important because it is one of the first times that a federal court has explicitly found that a plaintiff whose gender identity is transgender is a protected class under federal anti-discrimination laws. In the past, many courts have held that gender identities are not protected in and of themselves. Plaintiffs could only seek protection of federal anti-discrimination laws by arguing they were covered under traditional sexual discrimination statutes because they were mistreated due to application of a sexual stereotype. This argument has worked with varying degrees of success across the country but it is more convoluted and difficult to apply than it should be. 

The issue will certainly have to be decided by the US Supreme Court eventually but this court decision is a good start.