While the issue of accommodating transgender people is not a new topic – think Orange is the New Black – on August 16, 2022, the Fourth Circuit became the first federal appellate court to consider whether gender dysphoria constitutes a disability under the ADA, and therefore requires reasonable accommodation.

In Williams v. Kincaid, the Court considered a case in which a transgender woman alleged that she was wrongfully incarcerated in a men’s prison and refused reasonable accommodations. Ms. Williams was first imprisoned in a women’s detention center but was moved to men’s housing when prison deputies learned she was transgender. The lawsuit, which was filed against the Fairfax County Sheriff, a prison deputy, and a prison nurse, alleged that Ms. Williams was harassed by other inmates and law enforcement officers, and was denied access to medical treatment, including hormone treatment, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Ms. Williams alleged that the withheld treatment caused her to experience worsening symptoms of gender dysphoria, defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM-5”) as “clinically significant distress or impairment related to gender incongruence,” causing functional impairment. Sheriff Kincaid argued that Ms. Williams was not protected by the ADA or Rehabilitation Act, because gender dysphoria would not be considered a “disability”under the ADA. Rather, she stated that Ms. Williams was experiencing a “gender identity disorder not resulting from physical impairments,” which is excluded from ADA coverage.

Although the district court originally agreed with Sheriff Kincaid, the Fourth Circuit ultimately held that gender dysphoria is not synonymous with being transgender, but rather is a specific disability experienced by only certain transgender people, necessitating reasonable accommodation. While this decision currently only applies in the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, other circuit courts could follow suit.

In light of this decision, employers should take care to ensure that gender dysphoria is treated like any other medical condition. Employers should not assume any transgender employee experiences gender dysphoria, and deliberate efforts should be taken to ensure transgender, gender-queer, and non-binary employees are treated respectfully and without discrimination or harassment. Employers should also consider including LGBTQ-specific material in their anti-harassment and discrimination training and policies.

If you have questions or concerns about employer ADA violation matters, please do not
hesitate to reach out to any member of Gardner Skelton’s employment team.