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Funeral home settles landmark transgender bias case for $250,000

The landmark lawsuit prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in June that discrimination against transgender workers is a form of unlawful sex bias.

A Michigan funeral home has agreed to pay $250,000 to the estate of a transgender former funeral director to settle a landmark lawsuit that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule discrimination against transgender workers is a form of unlawful sex bias.

RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes Inc, represented by conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom, and lawyers for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the estate of Aimee Stephens filed a joint consent decree in Detroit federal court on Monday bringing the 2014 lawsuit to a close.

Transgender activist Aimee Stephens, sits in her wheelchair outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Oct. 8, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images file

Stephens, who had intervened in the EEOC's lawsuit in 2016, died from complications related to kidney disease in May, weeks before the Supreme Court issued its decision.

Chase Strangio, one of the American Civil Liberties Union attorneys who worked on Stephens' case, said the "settlement marks a closing chapter in Aimee Stephens’ remarkable fight for justice."

"We are sad that Aimee is not here to experience this moment with her wife Donna and grateful for all that Aimee, Donna, and the many trans fighters for justice and their families have done to bring us to this place. As Aimee always said, this fight is about more than just her and it will stretch far beyond this case," Strangio wrote in a statement Wednesday. "The Biden administration must make it clear that across all areas of federal law sex discrimination protections apply to LGBTQ people and Congress must pass the Equality Act to close critical gaps in our civil rights laws that leave so many LGBTQ people, women, and many people of color vulnerable to discrimination. We will honor Aimee's legacy by continuing her fight for a country where all trans and non-binary people belong and feel safe."

Harris' lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

EEOC trial attorney Dale Price in a statement said that as a result of the case, "the law is now clear that discrimination against an employee because of his or her transgender status is sex discrimination.

"The EEOC had accused Harris of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for firing Stephens when she told the company's president she planned to transition from male to female.

A federal judge in 2016 dismissed the case. He held that while the EEOC had stated a viable sex discrimination claim, Harris was shielded from the lawsuit because its president is a devout Christian who fired Stephens because of his religious beliefs.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 revived the case and said Stephens had been unlawfully terminated, finding that Harris had failed to show how employing Stephens would burden its owner's religious practice.

Harris appealed the portion of the 6th Circuit ruling holding that Title VII bars discrimination against transgender workers. The case was consolidated with two other lawsuits filed by gay workers who claimed they were fired because of their sexual orientation.

Before the Supreme Court, the U.S. Solicitor General argued on behalf of the EEOC that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination against gay or transgender workers. Commission officials did not sign onto the Solicitor General's briefs, and the agency continued to pursue lawsuits on behalf of LGBTQ workers.

The court in June sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that workers' gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be separated from their sex, so bias against LGBTQ people amounts to sex discrimination. The court upheld the 6th Circuit's ruling and remanded the case to the district court.

Monday's settlement requires Harris to pay $130,000 in back pay and compensatory damages to Stephens' estate, along with $120,000 in attorney fees.

The company also agreed to pay $3,700 to 17 female employees to settle a separate claim that Harris engaged in sex bias by providing suits to men while requiring women to buy their own clothing for work.

The case is EEOC v. RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes Inc, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, No. 2:14-cv-13710.

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