Metro Weekly

Iowa jury awards transgender corrections employee $120,000 in discrimination lawsuit

Iowa's Department of Corrections found to have discriminated against prison nurse Jesse Vroegh in two different ways

Jesse Vroegh – Photo: ACLU of Iowa.

An Iowa jury has awarded a transgender man $120,000 for discrimination he faced while working for the state Department of Corrections.

In its verdict, the jury found that the Department of Corrections had discriminated against Jesse Vroegh, a nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa, when it barred him from accessing the men’s restroom and locker room, and refused to provide insurance coverage for his transition-related expenses.

The jury ruled that the department, through its actions against Vroegh, had engaged in both sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination, which is illegal under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

This is the second jury award in recent months to a client of the American Civil Liberties Union who alleges they were discriminated against due to their gender identity.

In October, a jury in Wisconsin awarded $780,000 to two university employees who were forced to forego medically necessary surgery or pay out-of-pocket after their insurance refused to cover the procedures.

Vroegh issued a statement thanking the jury for their verdict.

“Being an Iowan, I want to thank a jury, made up of my fellow Iowans, for their verdict. It means a lot for them to consider the facts of the case and determine that yes, I was discriminated against. It makes me happy and proud that they recognized that I should be treated equally by my employer and with health care coverage,” he said.

Melissa Hasso, an ACLU of Iowa cooperating attorney with the Des Moines-based Sherinian and Hasso Law Firm who represented Vroegh, also celebrated the verdict.

“This truly is a historic day for transgender Iowans, their friends, and families,” Hasso said in a statement. “The Iowa Civil Rights Act was amended in 2007 to protect Iowans from employment discrimination based on gender identity. Yet Mr. Vroegh’s employer, the Iowa Department of Corrections, and Warden Patti Wachtendorf repeatedly denied his requests to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms consistent with his gender identity.

“The jury properly found that this was illegal discrimination based on sex and gender identity under the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” Hasso continued. “The jury also found that the State of Iowa’s providing a health insurance plan to state employees that explicitly excluded coverage for medically necessary gender reassignment surgery violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex and gender identity discrimination in the provision of employee benefits.”

Jesse Vroegh and his wife – Photo: ACLU of Iowa.

Hasso noted that Vroegh had received widespread support from friends and co-workers at the prison when he began to transition, but it was the warden and other administrators who decided they would refuse to recognize Vroegh as a male. She also said the facts of the case point to a failure on the part of the state to properly train administrators about Iowa’s nondiscrimination laws, and urged Janet Phipps Burkhead, the director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, to make such training mandatory, rather than voluntary.

“Until the State of Iowa demonstrates a firm commitment to preventing discrimination and enforcing the state’s longstanding civil rights laws, state employees like Mr. Vroegh will continue to have no choice but to look to the courts to protect them from discrimination. This is simply unacceptable,” she said.

“Transgender Iowans deserve the same dignity, respect, and access to health care and gender-appropriate restroom and locker room facilities as any other person,” John Knight, an attorney with the national ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, said in a statement. “The state should have been a model for other employers in its treatment of transgender workers. Instead, it blatantly discriminated against Jesse Vroegh. The jury in this case obviously saw that what the state did was wrong and should never happen again.”

Vroegh says the whole process of filing a lawsuit and going to trial has been “difficult” and “emotionally very trying” for him, but he doesn’t regret moving forward with his lawsuit.

“My life has been put under a microscope because of this case,” he said. “But I thought it was an important thing to do for the transgender Iowans who come after me. I hope this decision means that we will be treated fairly in the future.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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