Willkie’s Commitment to LGBTQ+ Rights

June 11, 2021

Willkie has a long history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community through pro bono work and community outreach.

From representing 92 plaintiffs from 15 states as amici curiae in the landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, to Willkie’s LGBTQ+ affinity group’s efforts to enhance the recruitment, retention and development of LGBTQ+ attorneys at the firm, to marching with Immigration Equality at NYC’s annual Pride March, Willkie has a strong commitment to advocating for and protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, and combating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In recent years, Willkie’s pro bono efforts have focused on supporting the transgender community in particular as set forth below.

Restroom Access

Willkie has filed four amicus briefs in partnership with EducationCounsel, on behalf of leading educational organizations (such as GLSEN and the National PTA), to support adopting gender identity-affirming school restroom and locker room policies nationwide:

  • Parents for Privacy v. Dallas (Ninth Circuit): In February 2020, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal securing equal access to bathrooms, locker rooms and other essential facilities for transgender students. The court referenced Willkie’s amicus brief in its decision, noting that “amici highlight the importance of the policy for creating a safe, non-discriminatory school environment for transgender students that avoids the detrimental physical and mental health effects that have been shown to result from transgender students’ exclusion from privacy facilities that match their gender identities.”
  • Adams v. School Board of St. Johns County (Eleventh Circuit): Willkie’s amicus brief was filed in support of a transgender high-school student who was denied access to the boys’ restroom at his Florida school.
  • Doe v. Boyertown (Third Circuit) and Gloucester County School Board v. Gavin Grimm (SCOTUS): In both of these cases, the circuit court decisions were upheld allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice – the position supported in Willkie’s amicus briefs.

Healthcare Coverage

  • Willkie continues its work, which began with Cruz v. Zucker in the Southern District of New York, to ensure nationwide access to healthcare coverage for transgender individuals. Willkie was co-counsel with the Legal Aid Society and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in this federal class action on behalf of transgender Medicaid recipients diagnosed with gender dysphoria (GD). The suit was brought against the NYS Department of Health seeking to overturn a New York State regulation that excluded Medicaid coverage for transgender-related healthcare. The team achieved a complete victory, resulting in the amendment of the challenged regulation which now provides coverage for treatment for many low-income people with GD. The team also obtained an order resulting in New York State removing restrictions on medically necessary healthcare for transgender Medicaid recipients under the age of 18.
  • Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) and 12 attorneys from three Willkie offices filed a federal lawsuit in Georgia representing a sheriff’s deputy who was denied coverage for medical care related to her transition. The suit, Lange v. Houston County, alleges that the plan’s transgender-related healthcare exclusion violates the constitutional right to equal protection, Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws. Georgia officials’ motion to dismiss was denied and the lawsuit is moving forward.
  • Willkie also is pursuing a lawsuit with the ACLU in federal court in Arizona (Toomey v. Arizona), challenging an exclusion of healthcare coverage for transition-related medical care imposed on transgender employees of Arizona’s state university system. Class certification was granted in May 2020 and the case is in discovery.
  • Willkie, in partnership with GLAD, represented an incarcerated individual seeking transgender health services in prison in the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

 Civil Rights

  • Willkie represented Columbia Law School’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project as amicus curiae in E.E.O.C. v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. (6th Circuit), in support of a transgender woman who was fired for not conforming to her employer’s gender-based dress code. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and held that the termination constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The case was then brought before the Supreme Court. In a landmark 6-3 decision on June 15, 2020, SCOTUS ruled in favor of Aimee Stephens, holding that transgender individuals are protected from employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Willkie, in partnership with TLDEF, regularly provides pro bono legal name-change services to low-income transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary people.

Immigration

  • A Willkie team is seeking asylum for a transgender woman from Peru and a transgender woman from Indonesia. Both experienced persecution on the basis of their gender identity in their home countries. These matters were referred to Willkie through the City Bar Justice Center Immigrant Justice Project.
  • Also through a referral from the City Bar Justice Center Immigrant Justice Project, a Willkie team obtained T visa status for an Argentinian transgender woman and survivor of human trafficking. A T visa is a temporary immigration benefit that enables certain victims of human trafficking to remain in the United States for up to four years if they have assisted law enforcement in an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking.
  • A Willkie team recently secured asylum for a transgender woman who fled persecution in Ecuador in search of safety in the United States. The team also obtained employment authorization for her and is currently working to secure her permanent resident status. The client came to Willkie through the firm’s partnership with Immigration Equality.

Transactional Work

  • A Willkie team is working on obtaining tax-exempt status for an El Salvadoran nonprofit organization that provides mental health interventions for LGBTQ+ youth.
  • Willkie is providing IP assistance to Girl Vow, a non-profit organization addressing gender specific needs of disadvantaged girls, femmes, and gender-expansive youth in New York City.
  • Willkie provides legal advice to Stop Hate UK, a leading UK organization working with local strategic partners to challenge all forms of hate crime and discrimination based on identity. As part of this effort, Stop Hate UK has a hotline specifically for reporting transgender hate crimes.

Recognition for LGBTQ+ Advocacy

  • Willkie was honored at Immigration Equality’s 2020 Safe Haven Awards with the #ProudandFree Law Firm Award.
  • Willkie was awarded Pro Bono Program of the Year at the Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards, USA 2020.
  • Sameer Advani was shortlisted as Diversity & Inclusion Lawyer of the Year and Sruti Swaminathan was shortlisted as Future Leader - Diversity & Inclusion at the Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards, USA 2020.
  • Wes Powell was named LGBT+ Equality Lawyer of the Year and Kyle Mathews was named Future Leader - LGBT+ Equality at Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards, USA 2019.
  • Immigration Equality honored Willkie with a 2019 Safe Haven Award for Willkie’s “lifesaving work for LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers.”
  • More than 25 Willkie attorneys received recognition by Immigration Equality for “excellence in pro bono representation” during 2019.
  • Richard Mancino shortlisted as Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year, Sameer Advani shortlisted as Diversity and Inclusion Lawyer of the Year, and Kaydene Grinnell shortlisted as Future Leader – Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards: North America 2021.
Willkie was honored by the Legal Aid Society with a Pro Bono Publico Award and by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project with an Attorneys and Advocate Award for its work on the Cruz case.