A Georgia district asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to overturn a ruling unlawfully discriminated against a sheriff’s deputy by failing to pay for her gender reassignment surgery.
But Houston County attorneys Sgt. Anna Lange asked a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the appeal. They said during a hearing in Atlanta that the U.S. Supreme Court had made clear that denying Lange insurance coverage for the procedure was illegal sex discrimination.
Lange, an investigator with the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, sued Sheriff Cullen Talton and the county in 2019 after she was denied coverage.
U.S. District Court Judge Marc Treadwell ruled in 2022 that the county’s refusal to cover Lange’s prescribed gender confirmation surgery constituted illegal sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Treadwell’s decision cited that 2020 US Supreme Court decision It turns out a funeral home in Michigan couldn’t fire an employee because he was transgender.
The judge ordered county insurance to cover the cost of the surgery, and Lange ultimately underwent the procedure. A jury awarded Lange $60,000 in compensatory damages in 2022.
The county wants to reverse Treadwell’s order and damages award and is seeking to argue its case before a jury.
After the hearing, Lange expressed confidence that the order and the damages claim would stand, saying: “The law is clearly on our side.”
Houston County argues that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning firing people because they are transgender doesn’t apply to health insurance.
The county also argues that the exclusion of gender-confirming surgical procedures is not discriminatory because the plan funds some other treatments. An attorney for the county compares the county’s refusal to pay for Lange’s surgery to its refusal to pay for hearing aids or pelvic band surgery for weight loss. The county said it has paid for some of Lange’s care, such as hormone therapy and visits to an endocrinologist, but is trying to avoid the cost of surgery.
“We have a plan that Sgt. Lange got, just like every other county employee and sheriff’s employee,” attorney Patrick Lail told the judges Tuesday.
But lawyers for Lange and the U.S. Justice Department told the justices that Houston County’s arguments should be rejected, pointing to six other court rulings elsewhere that agreed with Treadwell’s decision. The federal government intervened on Lange’s behalf, saying it must protect the rights of transgender people and uphold Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“This is a simple case,” argued David Brown, a lawyer for Lange. “The Supreme Court has found that an employer who offers unequal benefits based on sex violates Title VII.”
Lange’s lawyers argued that the court should disregard arguments about other benefits provided to the sergeant or other procedures not covered. Instead, judges should focus on whether this particular rule barring gender-confirming surgeries is discriminatory.
“This creates an obligation not to treat people differently based on their gender,” said Justice Department attorney Anna Baldwin. “There can’t be an exclusion that says we don’t cover belly band surgery because you’re transgender.”
Lange told the sheriff and other officials in 2018 that she wanted to start dressing as a woman at work, according to court documents, and asked if Houston County health insurance would cover gender-affirming surgery.
Talton, who was first elected sheriff in 1972, told Lange he didn’t believe in gender reassignment before ultimately giving her permission to dress as a woman, the documents say.
The county’s health plan has excluded gender-affirming surgeries and medications since 1998, and court documents showed that Houston County officials maintained the exclusion even after the company administering the plan said in 2016 that the rule was within federal law about affordable care is discriminatory.