Court Rules Georgia County Illegally Discriminated By Not Paying For Sheriff’s Deputy’s Gender-Affirmation Surgery

A federal appeals court ruled that a Georgia county illegally discriminated against a sheriff’s deputy by failing to pay for Houston County Sgt. Anna Lange’s gender-affirmation surgery. On Tuesday, the county filed an appeal in the federal court requesting that the court’s ruling be overturned.

Lange’s lawyers filed pleadings taking the opposite position: that the three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reject the county’s appeal asking that the previous ruling be overturned. Lange’s lawyers argued during a hearing in Atlanta “that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that denying Lange insurance coverage for the procedure is illegal sex discrimination.”

As reported, Lange told the sheriff and other officials in 2018 that she wanted to begin dressing as a woman at work, according to court documents, and asked if Houston County’s health plan would pay for gender-affirmation surgery. Talton, first elected sheriff in 1972, did grant Lange permission to dress as a woman.

Lange, an investigator for the Houston County sheriff’s office, sued Sheriff Cullen Talton and the county in 2019 after she was denied insurance coverage for the transgender surgery.

“U.S. District Court Judge Marc Treadwell ruled in 2022 that the county’s refusal to cover Lange’s prescribed gender-affirmation surgery amounted to illegal sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Judge Treadwell’s order relied upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision finding that a “Michigan funeral home couldn’t fire an employee for being transgender.”

The judge ordered the county’s insurance plan to pay for the surgery, and Lange eventually underwent the procedure. Lange had a trial against the county in 2022. A jury found in favor of Lange and awarded Lange $60,000 in damages. Lange expressed confidence after the hearing that the order and the damage award would stand, saying, “The law is on our side, clearly.”

The county wants to undo Treadwell’s order and the damage award. Houston County advances the argument that the issue of firing an employee because they are transgender, as was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is inapplicable to a health insurance claim.

“The county also argues that its exclusion of gender-affirmation surgery isn’t discriminatory because the plan pays for some other treatments.” A lawyer representing the county asserted analogies to support the county’s legal position. The lawyer compared “the county’s refusal to pay for Lange’s surgery to its refusal to pay for hearing aids or lap band surgery for weight reduction.” As reported, the county claimed “it paid for some care for Lange, such as hormone therapy and endocrinologist visits, but was trying to avoid the cost of surgery.”

“We have one plan that Sgt. Lange got, just like every other county employee and sheriff’s employee,” lawyer Patrick Lail told the judges on Tuesday.

News coverage of the matter informs that lawyers for Lange and the U.S. Department of Justice told judges that Houston County’s arguments should be rejected. The federal government explained that it intervened on Lange’s behalf “to protect the rights of transgender people and uphold Title VII of the 1964 civil rights law.” To support their sex-discrimination argument, they referenced “six other court rulings elsewhere that agreed with Treadwell’s decision.”

“This is a simple case,” argued David Brown, a lawyer for Lange. “The Supreme Court has established that an employer who offers unequal benefits because of sex violates Title VII.”

“What it creates is an obligation not to treat people differently because of sex,” Justice Department attorney Anna Baldwin said. “You can’t have an exclusion that says we don’t cover lap band surgery because you’re transgender.”

The county health plan had excluded gender-affirmation surgery and drugs since 1998, and court documents showed Houston County officials kept the exclusion even after the company that administers the plan advised in 2016 that the rule was discriminatory under the federal Affordable Care Act.

D & B Staff

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