March 30, 2015 at 9:57 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
DOJ files lawsuit alleging anti-trans bias in employment

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The U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has filed a lawsuit alleging anti-trans discrimination. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Obama administration for the first time has filed a lawsuit alleging an employer violated federal civil rights law by engaging in anti-transgender workplace discrimination.

The U.S. Justice Department on Monday filed the complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma alleging Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Regional University System of Oklahoma discriminated and retaliated against Rachel Tudor, a trans English professor, based on her gender identity.

Following precedent established by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012 as a result of the decision in Macy v. Holder, the Justice Department maintains the discrimination that Tudor allegedly faced is illegal because it constitutes gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement the lawsuit “sends a clear message that we are committed to eliminating discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity.”

“We will not allow unfair biases and unjust prejudices to prevent transgender Americans from reaching their full potential as workers and as citizens,” Holder said. “And we will continue to work tirelessly, using every legal tool available, to ensure that transgender individuals are guaranteed the rights and protections that all Americans deserve.”

Holder in December announced the Justice Department will support the idea that gender protections under Title VII applies to trans people seeking restitution for workplace discrimination. Although the Justice Department filed a “statement of interest” in a case alleging anti-trans discrimination at Saks Fifth Avenue, it hasn’t formally filed a lawsuit making that claim until this time.

According to a statement, the Justice Department initiated the lawsuit as a result of a joint effort to enhance collaboration between the EEOC and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for enforcement of Title VII.

Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said her department is “committed to protecting the civil rights of all Americans, including transgender Americans.”

“Discrimination against employees because of their gender identity, gender transition, or because they do not conform to stereotypical notions about how men and women should act or appear violates Title VII,” Gupta said. “Retaliating against an employee for complaining about unlawful discrimination, as happened in this case, is also unacceptable under Title VII.”

According to the complaint, Tudor presented as a man in 2004 when she began working for Southeastern University as an assistant professor. She didn’t present as a woman until 2007.

After performing in her job well for years, she applied for a promotion to the tenured position of associate professor in 2009..

Tudor had a meeting with Lucretia Scoufos, dean of the Southeastern University School of Arts and Sciences, who indicated a bias against her.

Scoufos allegedly referred to Tudor as “he” or “him” over the course of their meeting despite her gender identity. Tudor further alleges she felt another faculty member was discriminating against her and she would prefer if this person wasn’t on her review board, but Scoufos took no action.

Southeastern University’s administration denied Tudor’s application, but refused to say why. Tudor continued to press for explanation and resubmitted her application, but the result was no different.

It was the first time that Southeastern University denied an English professor’s application for tenure and promotion after the applicant obtained a favorable tenure recommendation from tenured faculty and the department chair. Since Tudor didn’t attain tenure before the end of her seventh year at the university, the institution terminated her employment on May 31, 2011 — but after faculty presented her with an award for excellence in academia.

Sean Burrage, president of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, said his university received notice the Justice Department has filed a lawsuit.

“Southeastern Oklahoma State University is committed to diversity and equal employment opportunities,” Burrage said. “The university is confident in its legal position and its adherence to all applicable employment laws; however, due to the litigation, Southeastern has been advised by the Attorney General’s Office not to discuss any specifics concerning this matter.”

According to Southeastern University, the office of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt will be represent the institution in the lawsuit.

“We will allow the legal system to run its course, while we direct our focus and energy on our top priority, that of educating our students,” Burrage added.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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