Georgia Federal Judge Denies Motions to Dismiss Lawsuit Challenging Transgender Health Care Exclusion Under Title VII, Americans with Disabilities Act, and Equal Protection Clause

November 4, 2020

On October 30, 2020, Judge Treadwell of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia denied GA officials’ requests to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the exclusion of all transgender-related health care from Houston County’s employee health plan, paving the way for Plaintiff Sergeant Anna Lange’s suit to proceed after she was denied medically necessary care to treat her gender dysphoria. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2019 by Willkie and pro bono partner organization, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), on behalf of Sgt. Lange, a transgender woman and a Houston County Sheriff’s Deputy with 23 years’ experience in law enforcement.

The lawsuit asserted claims under the Federal equal protection clause, the Georgia state equal protection clause, Titles I and II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Judge Treadwell considered the assertions by Plaintiff Sgt. Anna Lange that Houston County not only adopted this exclusion without providing any lawful rationale but did so “despite [healthcare administrator] Anthem’s warning that their exclusion of coverage was ‘unlawful.’” Judge Treadwell ruled that if these claims are proven at trial, then both Houston County and Sheriff Cullen Talton have violated the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The opinion can be found here.

In their motions to dismiss, the defendants asserted various defenses and overlapping theories of immunity in an attempt to evade their obligation to comply with the Constitution and federal statutes solely through the creative division of their responsibilities. On one hand, Houston County argued that it was not Sgt. Lange’s employer within the meaning of Title VII or the ADA and that Sgt. Lange had equal access to the health plan as other employees, noting that there were 68 other exclusions in the health plan that apply to all plan participants. On the other hand, the remaining defendants argued that the complaint should be dismissed because of various immunity defenses, including sovereign immunity, legislative immunity, official immunity, and qualified immunity.

This past June, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, GA. that held that discrimination against transgender people is prohibited under Title VII. Judge Treadwell cited Bostock in his opinion and noted that the defendants’ argument that the exclusion does not discriminate on the basis of sex is therefore foreclosed. Judge Treadwell also declined to dismiss the claims against Sheriff Talton on the basis of sovereign immunity, adopting the plaintiff’s argument that the Sherriff failed to meet his burden to show that he was acting as an arm of the state when providing healthcare to his employees.

The Lange v. Houston County, GA lawsuit was filed in 2019 by TLDEF, Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, law firm Cooper, Barton & Cooper in Macon, Georgia, and Professor Kevin Barry of the Quinnipiac University School of Law Legal Clinic in North Haven, Connecticut.

The Willkie team included partners Wesley Powell and Sarah Wastler, and associates Jill Grant and Abigail Edwards.