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District of Columbia

Lawsuit charges D.C. Courts illegally fired trans man

Complaint says building technician subjected to abuse by supervisors

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Among the names appearing on the AG office’s court briefs in the Carter lawsuit is D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, a longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. Court of Appeals is currently deliberating over whether a 51-year-old transgender man who was fired in June 2019 from his job as a building maintenance technician at three buildings where the D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals are located has legal grounds to contest the firing, which he says was based on his gender identity.

In a little-noticed development, D.C. resident Dion Carter in June 2020 filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court naming the D.C. government as the defendant in the case on procedural grounds, even though D.C. has no legal authority over the courts and was not responsible for more than eight years of discrimination and abusive treatment to which Carter was subjected on the job, according to Carter’s attorney, Stephen Pershing.

At the request of the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, which is representing the DC Court system in the lawsuit, a D.C. Superior Court judge on Jan. 29, 2021, dismissed the lawsuit, also on procedural grounds, without addressing any of Carter’s allegations of discrimination.

Superior Court Judge William M. Jackson stated in a three-page ruling that the D.C. Attorney General’s Office correctly stated in a motion seeking the dismissal of the case that Carter’s lawsuit failed to plead a viable cause of action on two grounds.

One of the grounds, the AG’s office stated, is that the D.C. Courts’ Comprehensive Personnel Policy does not provide employees with a private right of action to seek monetary damages in a lawsuit related to discrimination.

The second ground that the D.C. AG’s office cited, and the judge upheld, is that Carter’s lawsuit was invalid because under court rules pertaining to the D.C. Courts’ personnel system, an internal administrative complaint alleging employment discrimination must be filed and carried out to completion before a lawsuit could be filed in court.

In a brief in support of Carter’s lawsuit, Carter’s attorney, Stephen Pershing, strongly disputes the AG office’s assertions, saying at least one Court of Appeals ruling indicated the D.C. Courts’ personnel policies legally “mirror” the provisions of the D.C. Human Rights Act, which, among other things, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.  

Pershing also argued in his court briefs that Carter did file an internal administrative complaint to contest his firing. But he stated that a high-level D.C. Courts’ official advised Carter that under the court system’s personnel rules, a ruling in Carter’s favor could not result in monetary compensation for lost wages or other legal remedies that Carter called for in his complaint. The official advised Carter and Pershing to file the discrimination case in a lawsuit in court, the lawsuit says. This prompted Carter to withdraw his administrative complaint, a development that Pershing now says was based on misleading information provided by the D.C. Court’s official.

In February 2021, Pershing appealed the dismissal of the case before the D.C. Court of Appeals, requesting that the dismissal be reversed and the case be sent back to D.C. Superior Court, where the specific merits of the case could be argued and presented before a jury.

Since the filing of the appeal, Pershing and attorneys with the Office of the D.C. Attorney General have filed briefs under consideration by the Court of Appeals supporting and opposing the contention that the D.C. Courts’ personnel rules allow a remedy for Carter’s discrimination claims.

Like the original lawsuit filed in Superior Court, Carter’s appeal briefs filed by Pershing state that the alleged discrimination against Carter started shortly after Carter first began working in the court system’s building maintenance department in January 2010 as an out lesbian prior to his transition as a male.

At that time Carter already had 15 years of experience in the field of building maintenance technology and became the first woman to hold such as position at the D.C. Courts, the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, the abusive and discriminatory treatment toward Carter increased dramatically in 2015 when Carter informed his then-supervisor Emanuel Allen that he would be taking a short period of leave to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Upon his return to work after the first of five gender reassignment surgical procedures that he has now completed, Carter presented for the first time at work as a male, the lawsuit says.

“For the six months between Carter’s Family Medical Leave Act notice and his surgery, Mr. Allen cut Mr. Carter out of all overtime duty, overtime that was mandatory for all building maintenance workers and that they considered desirable,” the lawsuit says. It says that when Carter asked why Allen did this Allen refused to provide an answer and threatened to issue a poor work performance evaluation against Carter if he continued to question the overtime denial decision.

When Carter returned from his surgery and presented as male, the lawsuit charges, Allen repeatedly referred to Carter as “he-she” in the presence of fellow employees as well as high-level officials involved in the operation of the court system buildings. Carter viewed his treatment by Allen as a form of bullying and disrespect, the lawsuit states.

Over the next three years, according to the lawsuit, Carter was subjected to a hostile work environment by supervisors who, among other things, made false claims that Carter was not doing his job properly, was absent from work without permission, and was acting “aggressively” toward his supervisors or fellow employees. One supervisor blamed Carter’s alleged hostile behavior on the testosterone treatment that Carter was undergoing as a routine part of his gender transition process, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Carter was ultimately fired “on a false pretext” allegedly fabricated by James Vaughn, the Chief Building Engineer and Acting Building Operations Manager of the D.C. Courts. The lawsuit and appeals court briefs say Vaughn accused Carter of consuming an alcoholic beverage at one of the court buildings where Carter was assigned to work on April 6, 2019.

Vaughn recommended to the court system’s acting director of capital projects and facilities management that Carter be terminated from his job on grounds of violating Personnel Policy No. 800, which prohibits consuming illegal drugs or alcohol on court property while on duty.

“That allegation is factually untrue,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Carter neither consumed nor was under the influence of alcohol while on site,” it says.

“Mr. Carter’s termination was unjustified on any legitimate ground and was an act of unlawful discrimination on account of Mr. Carter’s race, sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, and in retaliation for his complaining to his superiors about his illicit mistreatment on these grounds,” the lawsuit and the current appeals court briefs charge.

“These acts and omissions caused Mr. Carter loss of employment, loss of pay and other benefits of employment, as well as anguish, intense hurt, humiliation, anger, sense of loss, disappointment, and emotional conflict between his desire for professional excellence and the torment inflicted on him merely for showing up every day, working, and working well, as an African American, as a lesbian, and as a transgender male,” the lawsuit says. 

“The acts of one or more of Mr. Carter’s superiors alleged in this complaint were motivated by actual malice and/or evil intent and were done with the intention to cause Mr. Carter pain, humiliation, anguish and torment, and as such warrant the imposition of punitive damages,” the lawsuit concludes.

A spokesperson for the Office of the D.C. Attorney General said the office is preparing a statement in response to an inquiry from the Blade on Carter’s discrimination allegations. (We will update this story when we receive the statement.) Among the names appearing on the AG office’s court briefs in the Carter lawsuit is D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, who has expressed strong support for LGBTQ rights in the past.

Douglas Buchanan, a spokesperson for the D.C. Courts, said he would try to determine whether the court system’s building maintenance department would respond to a Blade request for comment on the Carter lawsuit and its allegations that high-level court officials in the maintenance department engaged in anti-transgender discrimination.

Pershing said he plans to file a separate lawsuit on Carter’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claiming the discrimination Carter faced violated his constitutional rights. He said he is hopeful that the D.C. Court of Appeals will rule in Carter’s favor, but a backlog in cases will likely mean a ruling would not take place before June of this year.

Under federal court rules, Carter must file his federal discrimination lawsuit in the U.S. District Court within three years from the time he was fired from his job in June of 2019.

Congress created the D.C. court system as a federal entity shortly before it created D.C.’s home rule government in the early 1970s. The U.S. president nominates, and the U.S. Senate confirms all judges. The D.C. Council and mayor have no control over the court system, with Congress funding the system. The system is run by a Joint Committee on Judicial Administration consisting of five judges and a secretary who serves as the executive officer.

Previous D.C. Court of Appeals rulings have held that the D.C. government rather than the D.C. Courts’ system itself must be named as the defendant in lawsuits seeking redress from the D.C. Courts.

Dion Carter (Photo courtesy of India Rogers)

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District of Columbia

Capital Stonewall Democrats backs Robert White over Bowser

LGBTQ group endorses Erin Palmer over incumbent Mendelson

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Council member Robert White won the backing of Capital Stonewall Democrats in his bid for mayor over incumbent Muriel Bowser. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Capital Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, announced on May 17 that it has selected D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At-Large) over incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser and political newcomer Erin Palmer over D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson as its endorsed candidates in the city’s June 21 Democratic primary.

With Bowser and Mendelson as well as White having longstanding records of support for LGBTQ rights and Palmer expressing strong support for the LGBTQ community, local observers say the LGBTQ Democratic group’s 163 voting members appear to have based their endorsement decisions on other pressing issues facing the city rather than only LGBTQ specific issues.

In other races, Capital Stonewall Democrats, formerly known as the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which was founded in 1976, voted to endorse incumbent Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau over gay former D.C. police officer Salah Czapary and community activist Sabel Harris who are running against Nadeau.

In the Ward 5 Council race, the group has endorsed gay D.C. Board of Education member Zachary Parker in a five-candidate contest for the seat being vacated by incumbent Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who ran unsuccessfully for the office of D.C. Attorney General.

The group has also endorsed Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who is running unopposed in the primary; D.C. Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who’s favored to win re-election against two lesser-known opponents; and D.C. shadow U.S. Rep. Oye Owolewa, who’s also favored over a lesser known opponent.

Capital Stonewall Democrats announced it did not make an endorsement in the Ward 3 and At-Large D.C. Council races and in the D.C. Attorney General race because no candidate received a required 60 percent of the vote under the group’s longstanding rules for endorsements.

By not endorsing in the At-Large race, the group passed over incumbent At-Large Council member Anita Bonds, a longtime supporter of LGBTQ issues. Bonds is being challenged by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lisa Gore, former D.C. shadow House member Nate Fleming, and former D.C. Council staffer Dexter Williams.

In the hotly contested Ward 3 Council race, nine candidates are competing for the seat being vacated by incumbent Mary Cheh, another longtime LGBTQ rights supporter.

In the race for attorney general, three prominent local attorneys — Brian Schwalb, Ryan Jones, and Bruce Spiva — are competing for the AG position being vacated by incumbent Karl Racine, who chose not to run for re-election.

Capital Stonewall Democrats’ endorsements follow a series of five LGBTQ candidate forums the group held virtually in which most of the candidates running in the various races attended.
In the group’s mayoral form, Bowser was the only one of the four mayoral contenders that did not attend. Her supporters said she had a conflicting event organized by gay Democratic activist Kurt Vorndran that prevented her from attending the Stonewall event.

Those who attended the mayoral forum were Robert White, D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and former attorney and community activist James Butler.
A detailed vote tally released by Capital Stonewall Democrats shows the vote count for each of the endorsed candidates as well as candidates in the races for which the group did not make an endorsement.

In the mayoral race, Robert White received 120 votes, or 74.5 percent. Bowser came in second place with 37 votes or 23.0 percent; Trayon White received just two votes or 1.2 percent, with Butler receiving just 1 vote at 0.6 percent. One vote was cast for no endorsement.

In the D.C. Council Chair race, Palmer received 89 votes or 60.1 percent, just surpassing the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement. Mendelson received 48 votes or 32.4 percent. Eleven votes were cast for no endorsement.

In the Ward 1 Council race, Nadeau received 100 votes or 69.4 percent compared to gay candidate Czapary, who came in second place with 23 votes or 16.0 percent. Candidate Sabel Harris came in third place with 9 votes or 6.3 percent, with a no endorsement selection receiving 12 votes or 8.3 percent.

In the Ward 5 contest, gay school board member Parker received 91 votes or 64.5 percent. Candidate Faith Hubbard came in second with 31 votes or 22.0 percent. The remaining candidates received fewer than 10 votes each, including former At-Large and former Ward 5 Council member Vincent Orange, who received 5 votes or 3.5 percent.

“Since Capital Stonewall Democrats has only 221 members, and only 163 bothered to vote, this is clearly not representative of the LGBTQ+ community in the District,” said gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein, who is supporting Bowser for mayor.

But longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights advocate A. Billy S. Jones-Hennin is among the local activists who view the Capital Stonewall Democrats’ endorsement of lesser-known challengers – most of whom have progressive, left-leaning views – as a reflection of changes in the demographics of the LGBTQ community and the Stonewall group’s members.

“At the forefront for voters is who they feel can address core problems like crime, open drug transactions, and increased homeless populations,” Jones-Hennin told the Blade. “Just asking voters for support based on their support of the LGBTQ+ community in the past does not cut it,” he said. “We are multi-faceted voters looking for new, more progressive and aggressive leadership.”

The Capital Stonewall Democrats list of endorsements as well as races with no endorsement can be viewed below:

• Mayor: Robert White, with 74.5% of the round one vote
• DC Attorney General: No Endorsement
• DC Council Chair: Erin Palmer, with 60.1% of the round one vote
• Ward 1 Council: Brianne K. Nadeau, with 69.4% of the round one vote
• Ward 3 Council: No Endorsement
• Ward 5 Council: Zachary Parker, with 64.5% of the round one vote
• Ward 6 Council: Charles Allen, with 83.2% of the round one vote
• At-Large Council: No Endorsement
• Delegate to U.S. House of Representatives: Eleanor Holmes Norton, with 69.7% of the round one vote
• U.S. Representative: Oye Owolewa, with 66.1% of the round one vote

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District of Columbia

Pannell resigns in protest from Ward 8 Council member’s LGBT Commission

Says Trayon White has no out member of his staff

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Phil Pannell resigned as a member of the Ward 8 LGBT Commission created by D.C. Council member Trayon White. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights activist Phil Pannell announced on May 6 that he has resigned as a member of the Ward 8 LGBT Commission created by D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) on grounds that White does not have an LGBTQ person on his Council staff.

White’s office has said the Council member created the commission to “focus on the specific needs of this community” in his role as a supporter of LGBTQ equality.

“For me, this is a major issue of inclusion, affirmative action and diversity,” Pannell said in an email message announcing his resignation. “I as a Black Gay man cannot in good conscience continue to be a member of my Councilmember’s LGBT Commission when he has no one from my community on his staff,” Pannell’s announcement message continues.

“This is hypocritical at best and structurally homophobic at worst,” he said. “I deeply resent and refuse to be used as anyone’s homosexual prop for any purposes. Therefore, I resign from the commission effective immediately.”

In response to a request by the Washington Blade for comment on Pannell’s resignation, Julia Jessie, White’s director of communications, said White’s Council office “follows all legal HR procedures and hires based on experience and skillset.” Jessie added, “As an employer, we do not discriminate or consider a person’s race, color, religion, or sex, including sexual orientation or gender identity, when making decisions about employment qualifications.”

According to Jessie, “We do, however, harvest a safe and inclusionary work environment where employees who wish to voluntarily disclose their sexual orientation of gender identity feel comfortable doing so.”

White’s office released a statement from the Ward 8 LGBT Commission’s chair, Marvin ‘Rahim’ Briggs, saying the commission “regretfully accepts” Pannell’s resignation.

“The Commission will continue to focus on and address issues affecting Ward 8 LGBTQ,” Briggs says in the statement. “We’ll continue to organize to promote acceptance of LGBTQ community diversity and to foster respect and appreciation for each member of the community residing in Ward 8.”

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District of Columbia

Two gay candidates disqualified from D.C. primary ballot

Republican, Libertarian activists withdraw from races

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(Blade archive photo by Aram Vartian)

A member of the Capital Stonewall Democrats, D.C.’s largest LGBTQ local political group, mounted a successful challenge before the D.C. Board of Elections earlier this month that resulted in a gay Republican and a gay Libertarian Party activist withdrawing as candidates for public office in the city’s June 21 primary.

James Harnett, 24, a member of the Ward 2 Democratic Committee and a member of the staff of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), filed challenges to the candidacy of gay Libertarian Party activist Bruce Majors, who was running unopposed in the June 21 primary for the office of both D.C. Delegate to the U.S. House and chair of the Libertarian Party of D.C.

The Board of Elections upheld Harnett’s challenge claiming that Majors failed to obtain a sufficient number of valid petition signatures needed to be placed on the ballot for both offices, according to elections board spokesperson Nicholas Jacobs. Majors withdrew his candidacy for both offices rather than contest the challenge.

The Board of Elections also upheld a challenge filed by Harnett against the candidacy of gay Republican and D.C. Log Cabin Republicans organization member Andrew Desser, who was running unopposed in the primary for the position of Ward 1 Chairperson of the D.C. Republican Committee.

Desser told the Blade he acknowledged that he fell short in obtaining the needed number of valid petition signatures and would not contest the challenge.

Harnett, who appeared to be acting on his own behalf and not representing the Capital Stonewall Democrats in his challenges to Majors and Desser before the election board, did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

Board of Elections records showed that he also successfully challenged six other candidates seeking ballot placement in the June 21 primary, one of whom, Lori Furstenberg, was running for mayor as a Republican and another, Corren Brown, was running for mayor as a Statehood-Green Party member.

The others Harnett mounted a successful challenge against were GOP candidates running for the Ward 2, Ward 4, and Ward 7 GOP Chairperson positions; and Leniqua ‘Dominique’ Jenkins, a Democrat running for the at-large D.C. Council seat, who was the only Democrat challenged by Harnett.

Harnett, a former ANC commissioner in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for the nonpartisan office of D.C. Board of Education for Ward 2. Among the candidates he ran against was gay education advocate Allister Chang, who won that race.

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