A federal jury on Monday awarded a transgender professor, Dr. Rachel Tudor, $1.165 million in a groundbreaking Title VII sex discrimination case. This case is the first federal sex discrimination case with a transgender plaintiff to go before a jury. The case is also particularly notable because of its origins and the counsel involved, where the Obama Justice Department represented Dr. Tudor, only to face abandonment when the Trump Administration recently announced that the prohibition on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act will no longer be interpreted to include discrimination on the basis of gender identity. On Monday, a federal jury in Oklahoma disagreed.
Dr. Tudor was a tenure-track professor of English at Southeastern Oklahoma State University from 2004 to 2011. In 2007, she informed the University that she would be transitioning and that her gender identity was female. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Tudor received a phone call from a human resources employee who warned Dr. Tudor that the University’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Douglas McMillan, had asked the human resources employee whether they could fire Dr. Tudor because her “transgender lifestyle” offended his religious beliefs. Then, during the 2007-2008 school year, the Director of the University’s Counseling Center (Vice President McMillan’s sister), again warned Dr. Tudor, this time that McMillan considered transgender people to be a “grave offense to his religious sensibilities.”
The University continued to discriminate against Dr. Tudor, including instructing her to only use certain restrooms, and to not to wear specific “female” articles of clothing. Then, in the fall of 2009, despite a positive recommendation from her Promotion and Tenure committee, Vice President McMillan and another Dean denied Dr. Tudor tenure without explanation, and systematically undermined her attempts to appeal the decision. In the spring of 2011, the University terminated Dr. Tudor’s employment.
In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama announced that the Justice Department, interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect transgender individuals under the prohibition on sex discrimination. In 2015, the Department of Justice then sued the University, alleging that Dr. Tudor was discriminated against, denied tenure, and fired because of her sex. In a landmark decision, the federal district court in Oklahoma denied the University’s Motion to Dismiss, definitively stating that Dr. Tudor is a member of a protected class under federal law and that these actions against her occurred because of her sex.
In the fall of 2017, however, after two and a half years co-litigating her claim, the Department of Justice under President Trump abandoned Dr. Tudor’s claims. Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo reversing the 2014 Department Of Justice statement that had confirmed that discrimination against transgender individuals is covered under the sex discrimination prohibition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Following this about-face from the U.S. government, Dr. Tudor continued on with private counsel, and in front of a jury of her peers, she prevailed in her claim of sex discrimination. The jury awarded Dr. Tudor $1.1 million. This win reminds us of the importance of American’s right to a jury trial, and is all the more significant in light of recent efforts across the country – and in the Trump Administration – to use religious objections as a basis to discriminate in employment and beyond. Congratulations to Dr. Tudor and her counsel on this important victory.