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Iowa Supreme Court Upholds Verdict for Transgender Employee

Jesse Vroegh worked as a nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (“IWC”) from 2009 to 2016. He transitioned from female to male in 2014. Vroegh asked for permission to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms. The department denied his request and told him to use the single-stall, unisex bathroom in a different building. They also denied him insurance coverage for his gender transition-related surgery. After the IWC fired him in 2017 for unrelated reasons, Vroegh sued the state, asserting its refusal to allow him to use the men’s bathroom was discrimination based on his gender identity.

A jury agreed with Vroegh that the state discriminated against him when it would not allow him to use the men’s restroom. They awarded him $120,000 for emotional distress. The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the jury’s finding that IWC discriminated against Vroegh based on his gender. The court recognized that the state’s civil rights law prohibits gender identity discrimination against transgender workers. The law had recently been amended to bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. The high court dismissed Vroegh’s sex discrimination case, finding sex-based discrimination does not include gender identity. The court said, “Discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity does not equate to discrimination based on the individual’s male or female anatomical characteristics at the time of birth (the definition of ‘sex’).” The court also denied Vroegh’s suit against the insurance carriers for denial of coverage as the plan did not cover that surgery at the time. It began offering that coverage to state employees in 2017. The IWC stated a new agency director and prison have been put in place since the lawsuit began.