Right to Work
Izza Lopez, a young woman who received a job offer from a local medical firm, then lost that position because of her transgender status, files a discrimination lawsuit, aided by Lambda Legal.
In October 2005, Izza Lopez was excited about starting her new job in scheduling at River Oaks Imaging and Diagnostics. The interview process, she says, had gone smoothly and was a positive experience for her. As many people do, she was leaving the job she had at the time (at the now-defunct Diagnostic Clinic of Houston) for better pay.
“It went very well,” Lopez, a soft-spoken 26-year-old, says. “They were very laid back. It was a real casual interview. They told me they would call me after they did more interviews but called me really quick.”
The medical-imaging company offered the scheduling position to Lopez, and she accepted. But although she had made her transgender status clear, someone in the company apparently didn’t approve of her working there. In a telephone call from the human resources director and in a letter, she received the same message: She had misrepresented herself as an individual who had been born a woman, when in fact she was not.
“I was interviewed by a manager and a director who both felt I was qualified to do the job,” Lopez says. “I was shocked when I received the call from human resources taking away the job they’d offered me. It felt as if they’d said to me, ‘You’re a monster. We don’t want you here.'”
Now Lambda Legal, the New York-based advocacy organization, has joined Lopez in suing the Houston medical firm in the Fifth Circuit federal court, asserting that her treatment is a form of sexual harassment.
Her Lambda Legal attorney, Cole Thaler, cites legal precedent in similar cases and protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he believes will assure a victory in the case. Title VII, which protects U.S. citizens from discrimination based on their sex, has been used in other cases.
One of the primary tools Lamda Legal will use, Thaler says, is a letter that he says River Oaks Imaging and Diagnostics sent to Lopez after rescinding the job offer. In the letter, River Oaks Diagnostic claims that Lopez misrepresented herself as a woman during the interview process. The letter demonstrates that the issue was with the company’s perception of Lopez’s gender identity and presentation, and not her work experience.
Thaler, who is the transgender rights attorney based at the Lambda Legal regional office in Atlanta, points to a 1989 case, Anne Hopkins vs. Price Waterhouse, in which Hopkins was fired from a major accounting firm where she was on track to become a partner after executives decided she was too aggressive and masculine. Hopkins won the case when the court ruled that she was fired because she failed to conform to a gender stereotype, which is considered a form of sexual discrimination.
In another case cited by Thaler, Ulane v. Eastern Airlines, a highly successful airline pilot, Karen Ulane, was fired after she transitioned from male to female. Thaler says this 1984 case, as well as the Hopkins case, supports the argument that Lopez should not have had her job taken away from her because of perceptions about gender identity.
Other federal circuit courts, Thaler says, have provided enough cases to encourage the Fifth Circuit Court, which encompasses a region that includes Texas, to rule in favor of Lopez.
“There has been some good case law of the First Circuit and the Ninth Circuit,” he says. “The Fifth Circuit Court should follow all of the courts. We will be citing all of those cases.”
And while sexual orientation is not protected under federal law, cases in which gender bias is an issue has been defended in federal courts, Thaler says.
“The thing that people often don’t know is that case law about discrimination against transgendered people is stronger than case law for gay or lesbian people, because of the issues with gender stereotyping,” Thaler says. “We’re seeing more wins for the transgender community under federal law than for gay and lesbian people, in the workplace.”
As of press time, River Oaks Imaging and Diagnostics had not responded on the record to OutSmart requests for a comment. An employee who requested anonymity did indicate in a telephone conversation that River Oaks Imaging has submitted all of the documents in the case to the lawyer representing the company.
Lambda Legal and Lopez filed the case in December. A status conference between the judge and the attorneys was scheduled February 23, at which time the judge would have heard the arguments by both sides and determined whether the case would continue. That conference has been delayed and had not been rescheduled by press time. Thaler expects the court to decide to continue the case, despite the possibility that River Oaks Imaging could ask the court to drop the case.
“We have a very clearly presented legal issue,” he says. “Even River Oaks Imaging is not disputing the facts we have presented in this case.”
According to Lambda Legal, March 2008 is the earliest date that the trial could begin. Lopez v. River Oaks is Lambda Legal’s latest lawsuit in its Blow the Whistle campaign to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and those with HIV in the workplace.
Open About Her Status
Lopez says the situation with River Oaks Imaging should never have occurred, because she did everything she could think of to prevent it.
Lopez, who had transitioned at her previous job, says her transgender status was known to everyone she spoke with at the time. From her understanding, it was not an issue. She had been referred to the River Oaks Diagnostic position by a friend, and says she was clear about her gender status before she applied for the job.
“Prior to faxing in my résumé, I had them speak to the supervisor beforehand, because I didn’t want to risk harassment and losing what was my current job,” Lopez says. “And they made no indication it would be a problem.”
After the River Oaks Diagnostic job offer was rescinded, Lopez was unable to keep her previous job, because she had sought employment elsewhere. Now a nanny for a family member who provides her with room and board, Lopez is unsure about her employment future. She says her transgender status has kept her from obtaining work elsewhere.
“I’m content right now, doing what I’m doing,” she says. “I want to get back to [the job market], but at this point, I don’t know when I’m going to get back to working. I never planned to be unemployed this long.”
In a recent e-mail to OutSmart, Lopez explained her position: “I do want people to know and understand that I’m not only standing up for myself but for everyone who has ever been discriminated against, especially in the transgender community.” Lopez (who plans to attend the April 14 Houston Transgender Unity Banquet, the biggest event of the year for the local trans community) wrote . “It is my goal to inspire a situation where people are willing to raise their voice in order to abolish discrimination. Transform a negative into positive. Hopefully, I’ve already conveyed that. I know its not easy, believe me. I’m extremely shy. The more people there are the easier it will be.”
In a better world, Lopez would now be working at River Oaks Imaging and Diagnostics (located, in one of life’s ironies, in a Richmond Avenue building adjacent to another commercial building that houses the offices of Nechman, Simoneaux & Frye, the prominent GLBT law firm).
“Izza is composed, professional, and has had her offer taken away from her for a reason that has no relation to her ability to perform her job,” Thaler says.
Josef Molnar profiled three of our People To Watch choices for our February issue.