Jury sides with transgender employee in 'historic' Iowa case

Jess Vroegh, who is transgender, filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Department of Corrections...
Jess Vroegh, who is transgender, filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Department of Corrections after was denied use of the men's restrooms and locker rooms at work. (Courtesy: ACLU of Iowa)(KCRG)
Published: Feb. 13, 2019 at 5:52 PM CST
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A jury ruled Wednesday that an Iowa prison warden discriminated against a transgender employee by denying him the use of men's restrooms and locker rooms in a verdict that advocates call "historic."

Jurors also found that the state executive branch discriminated against Jesse Vroegh by offering medical benefits that would not cover his gender reassignment surgery. After making those findings, the eight-member jury awarded $120,000 in damages for emotional distress to Vroegh, 37, a former nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Vroegh, said the lawsuit was the first related to transgender rights that's been filed since lawmakers amended the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007 to bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. ACLU lawyer Melissa Hasso said the verdict marks "an historic day for transgender Iowans, their friends and families."

Vroegh began working at the women's prison Mitchellville as a registered nurse in 2009. Vroegh was considered a female at work and used the women's bathrooms and locker rooms, even though he had long presented as male in clothing and hair style. In 2014, Vroegh informed his boss that he would be begin a social transition at work from female to male after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

Beginning in 2015, Vroegh requested that he be able to begin using men's bathrooms and locker rooms and that the prison develop a policy to accommodate the rights of transgender employees.

Prison Warden Patti Wachtendorf denied Vroegh's requests, saying she was concerned about the rights of male employees who may be uncomfortable sharing facilities with him. Instead, Wachtendorf designated two single-occupancy bathrooms as gender neutral for Vroegh to use and ultimately told him no policy would be adopted.

Vroegh argued in the lawsuit that the prison's accommodation amounted to discrimination because, unlike other male employees, he had to walk outside to another building and pass through security whenever he needed to use the restroom. He also argued that the accommodation meant that his male gender identity wasn't accepted.

Around that time, Wellmark, which offers the health insurance plan for state employees, refused to cover a chest surgery that had been recommended by Vroegh's doctors to treat his gender dysphoria. Wellmark said its plan did not cover any gender reassignment surgery. That benefit was later covered for state employees beginning in 2017.

Jurors ruled the Iowa Department of Corrections and Wachtendorf, now the warden at the Iowa State Penitentiary, discriminated against Vroegh on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in denying his use of the men's bathrooms. And they found that the Department of Administrative Services, which administers benefits for state employees, discriminated against him by denying his insurance benefits.

Vroegh thanked jurors for their verdict in a statement distributed by the ACLU.

"It makes me happy and proud that they recognized that I should be treated equally by my employer and with health care coverage," he said. "This whole lawsuit process has been difficult and emotionally very trying ... But I do it because it's important for all the transgender Iowans who come after me."

Department of Corrections spokesman Cord Overton said the agency is working with state lawyers to evaluate the verdict and review its options, which could include an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Hasso told The Associated Press that the trial showed many prospective jurors had experience around transgender people and that Vroegh was supported by his co-workers. But she said the trial also revealed that the state failed to train supervisors on protections for transgender individuals enshrined in the Iowa Civil Rights Act, and she called on Department of Administrative Services Director Janet Phipps to make such training mandatory instead of voluntary.

"It's a continuous frustration when the state is not enforcing its own civil rights laws," Hasso said. "Moving forward, we would expect any transgender employee be allowed to use the restroom, locker room and any other single-sex facility consistent with their gender identity if that's what they choose to do."