ATLANTA– A federal judge has found that a Georgia sheriff’s office discriminated unlawfully when it denied a deputy sex reassignment surgery.
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell ruled June 2 that Houston County cannot exclude surgery for the transgender woman from its health insurance plan, citing a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found, that a Michigan funeral home cannot fire an employee for being transgender.
The case involves Sgt. Anna Lange, a mid-Georgia County investigator who began her transition in 2017 after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
“I can confidently move forward with my life knowing that gender-affirming care is protected by federal law,” Lange said in a statement from the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, which represented her. “This decision is not just a personal victory, but a tremendous step forward for all transgender Southerners seeking insurance coverage for essential medical care.”
David Brown, the fund’s legal director, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the ruling is believed to be the first of its kind in the South.
Neither Talton nor the county’s attorneys responded to requests for comment.
Treadwell wrote in his order that Lange, a 16-year-old employee, told the sheriff and other county officials in 2018 that she wanted to dress as a woman for work while inquiring whether Houston County’s health plan covered sex reassignment surgery would.
Sheriff Cullen Talton, who was first elected sheriff in 1972, initially thought it was a joke, Treadwell wrote, then said he didn’t “believe in gender reassignment surgery” before eventually giving Lange permission to dress as a woman, she warned but before that needs “tough skin” to deal with their peers.
However, the county’s health plan had barred sex reassignment surgery and medication since 1998. Lange was denied approval for surgeries in November 2018 after county human resources director Kenneth Carter told the insurer the county wanted to keep the exclusion, despite the insurer’s advice to Houston County in 2016 that the rule under the federal Affordable Care Act be discriminatory.
District commissioners voted unanimously to keep the ban in place in 2019 after Lange asked them to pay for the surgery at a public meeting, claiming they were trying to keep health insurance costs down. The surgery she sought cost an estimated $25,600 at the time.
Treadwell did not dispute that Lange’s surgery was “medically necessary” and questioned whether concern about the cost was just a cover to discriminate against Lange.
“Certainly the county is now raising concerns about costs, but that argument is undermined by the undisputed fact that the county built its cost defense after the fact,” Treadwell wrote.
But the judge said the Supreme Court in a 2020 case clarified that treating someone differently because they are transgender violates a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits sex discrimination. For example, the judge found that the county’s health plan would pay for a mastectomy for cancer treatment, but not for gender dysphoria treatment.
“Discrimination based on transgender status is sex discrimination and a violation of Title VII,” the judge wrote.
The Lange case is not over yet. Treadwell has yet to decide what remedies are appropriate. He also dismissed Lange’s claims for damages and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Public records obtained by Lange’s attorneys show that the district spent more than $690,000 defending the case.
“It just goes to show how long people are still willing to go to discriminate against transgender people,” Lange told the Journal-Constitution.