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Appeals court upholds ruling requiring Georgia county to pay for a transgender deputy’s surgery

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ATLANTA (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court’s ruling that a Georgia county illegally discriminated against a sheriff’s deputy by failing to pay for her gender-affirming surgery.

In its ruling Monday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it was tasked with determining whether a health insurance provider can be held liable under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for denying coverage for a procedure because an employee is transgender. The three-judge panel decided in a 2-1 vote that it can and that the lower court had ruled correctly.

Houston County Sgt. Anna Lange, an investigator for the Houston County sheriff’s office, had sued Sheriff Cullen Talton and the county in 2019 after she was denied coverage.

“I have proudly served my community for decades and it has been deeply painful to have the county fight tooth and nail, redirecting valuable resources toward denying me basic health care – health care that the courts and a jury of my peers have already agreed I deserve,” Lange said in a news release from the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented her.

A woman who answered the phone at the sheriff’s office Tuesday said she would pass along a message seeking comment.

U.S. District Court Judge Marc Treadwell ruled in 2022 that the county’s refusal to cover Lange’s prescribed gender-affirmation surgery amounted to illegal sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Treadwell’s order cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision finding that a Michigan funeral home could not fire an employee for being transgender.

The judge ordered the county’s insurance plan to pay for the surgery and Lange eventually underwent the procedure. A jury awarded Lange $60,000 in damages in 2022.

The county sought to undo Treadwell’s order and the damage award.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says an employer cannot “discriminate against any individual with respect to his (or her) compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

The 11th Circuit opinion says the Supreme Court clarified in another Georgia case that discrimination based on the fact that someone is transgender “necessarily entails discrimination based on sex.”

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