Vroegh v. Iowa Dep't of Corr., 20-0484

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMcDERMOTT, Justice.
Citation972 N.W.2d 686
Parties Jesse VROEGH, Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant, v. IOWA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Iowa Department of Administrative Services, and Patti Wachtendorf, Individually and in her Official Capacities, Defendants-Appellants, and Wellmark Inc. d/b/a Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, Defendant/Cross-Appellee.
Docket Number20-0484
Decision Date01 April 2022

972 N.W.2d 686

Jesse VROEGH, Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant,
v.
IOWA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Iowa Department of Administrative Services, and Patti Wachtendorf, Individually and in her Official Capacities, Defendants-Appellants,
and
Wellmark Inc. d/b/a Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, Defendant/Cross-Appellee.

No. 20-0484

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted September 15, 2021
Filed April 1, 2022


Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and William A. Hill (argued), Assistant Attorney General, for appellants.

Rita Bettis Austen (argued) and Shefali Aurora of ACLU of Iowa Foundation, Des Moines, John A. Knight (argued) of ACLU Foundation, Chicago, Illinois, and Melissa C. Hasso of Sherinian & Hasso Law Firm, Des Moines, for appellee/cross-appellant.

Debra Hulett (until withdrawal) (argued), Angel A. West, and Leslie Behaunek of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for cross-appellee.

McDermott, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

McDERMOTT, Justice.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on ten characteristics, among them "sex" and "gender identity." Iowa Code § 216.6(1)(a ) (2017). The jury returned a verdict in favor of Jesse Vroegh, a transgender state employee, against two state agencies and an agency official (collectively referred to as "the State" in this opinion) on Vroegh's claims of both sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination. The State argues on appeal that while Vroegh's claims of gender identity discrimination might

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have been properly submitted to the jury, the district court should not have submitted the separate claim of sex discrimination. The State also argues that the district court erred in its evidentiary rulings and jury instructions. Vroegh, for his part, cross-appeals a summary judgment ruling that dismissed Wellmark Inc., the third-party administrator of the State's employer-provided healthcare benefits plan, from claims that it too discriminated against him in its work on behalf of the State. Wellmark moved to dismiss Vroegh's cross-appeal as moot based on Vroegh's judgment against the State.

I.

The Iowa Department of Corrections employed Jesse Vroegh as a registered nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women from 2009 to 2016. Vroegh was born with female sexual organs and presented himself as female when he was hired. He was diagnosed with gender dysphoria (previously referred to as gender identity disorder) a few years after he began work with the Department of Corrections. Vroegh began hormone therapy and started living publicly as a man in 2014. He also began changing virtually every government-issued indicia of his identity—birth certificate, driver's license, Social Security card, nursing license, and permit to carry firearms—to reflect his male gender and his name change from "Jessie Sue Vroegh" to "Jesse Samuel Vroegh." Vroegh notified his supervisor at the Department of Corrections, Kerri Friedhof, that he was transitioning from female to male in October 2014. By mid-2015, Vroegh was consistently using men's restrooms in public places.

In June 2015, Vroegh requested permission from Friedhof to use the male restrooms and locker rooms at work. Friedhof told Vroegh that she would discuss the issue with her supervisors and report back. In November 2015, Vroegh requested a meeting with Friedhof, the prison warden Patti Wachtendorf, the prison medical director Dr. Harbans Deol, and the employee union representative Todd Givens. At the meeting, Vroegh again asked permission to use the male restrooms and locker rooms.

Wachtendorf and Deol believed Vroegh's use of the men's facilities at the prison would be controversial. They told Vroegh not to use the men's restroom. Vroegh then suggested that they convert two single-stall gender-specific restrooms in a separate administrative building to gender-neutral restrooms and permit him to use those unisex restrooms. Vroegh believed this solution a temporary one until the prison could implement a policy permitting him to use the male restrooms and locker rooms. Wachtendorf, for her part, believed that the unisex restrooms in the separate administrative building were always intended to be a permanent solution, and one that Vroegh himself wanted. In April 2016, Vroegh learned that he would need to use the unisex restrooms on a permanent basis, and thus he wouldn't be permitted to use the men's restrooms or locker rooms in the prison where he worked.

In December 2016, the Department of Corrections terminated Vroegh based on an allegation that he sent confidential information about an inmate to a third party. An arbitrator upheld the termination. Vroegh's lawsuit included no claim that his termination violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Throughout Vroegh's employment with the Department of Corrections, the State of Iowa provided Vroegh health insurance benefits under the "State of Iowa Blue Access Plan." Wellmark administered the plan. The services agreement between

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Wellmark and the State specifies that Wellmark is an independent contractor. The plan is self-funded by the State, meaning that the State, and not Wellmark, pays for any claims for covered benefits deemed medically necessary. The State determines what benefits are included under the plan.

In 2015, Vroegh sought to have a double mastectomy to align his physical body with his male gender identity. Vroegh's doctor testified that this procedure (sometimes called "top surgery," "gender reassignment surgery," or "gender affirming surgery") is considered medically necessary, rather than cosmetic, within the medical field to relieve the distress that results from gender dysphoria. The plan in 2015 excluded coverage for "[s]exual disorders and gender identity disorders" under the plan's mental health coverages, and also excluded coverage for "gender reassignment surgery" under the plan's surgery coverages. Under the plan, the same mastectomy would be a covered benefit if it were sought for a medically-necessary reason other than treatment of gender dysphoria. Wellmark denied Vroegh's request for coverage based on the exclusions in the plan. Vroegh appealed Wellmark's denial, with the denial decision ultimately upheld. That coverage denial decision isn't an issue in this appeal.

Vroegh filed this lawsuit in the district court in August 2017. He pleaded claims against the Department of Corrections and Wachtendorf for both sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination for denying him use of the men's restrooms and locker rooms. He also pleaded claims against the Department of Corrections and the Iowa Department of Administrative Services for sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination for denying the same level of healthcare benefit coverage that they provide to nontransgender employees. And finally, Vroegh pleaded claims against Wellmark for sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination for its role in providing and administering the State's benefit plan.

Vroegh moved for partial summary judgment against all the defendants, arguing that each discriminated against him in employment as a matter of law. Wellmark filed its own motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of Vroegh's claims against it, arguing that no claim for employment discrimination could exist against it as third-party administrator of the plan. The district court denied Vroegh's motion and granted Wellmark's motion.

The case against the State proceeded to a jury trial. During jury deliberations, the jury sent a question to the court asking: "How are we defining sex vs. how are we defining gender identity? i.e. is sex = biological sex or sex on legal documents or should it [be] considered the same as gender identity in the instructions?" The court responded: "Sex is a term used to assign or identify an individual's gender. Gender identity is but one component of the concept of sex. Gender identity is an individual's sense of their own gender which may or may not comport with the sex or gender assigned to them at birth."

The jury found in Vroegh's favor on his sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination claims against the Department of Corrections and Wachtendorf for denying him use of the men's restrooms and locker rooms. For these claims, the jury awarded $100,000 in past emotional distress damages. The jury also found in Vroegh's favor on his sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination claims against the Department of Administrative Services for denying him health insurance coverage. For these claims, the jury awarded $20,000 in past emotional distress damages. The district court awarded Vroegh attorney fees, which are granted to

972 N.W.2d 695

prevailing plaintiffs under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, totaling $348,227.24. Iowa Code § 216.15(9)(a )(8).

The State appeals both verdicts. Vroegh cross-appeals the district court's summary judgment dismissal of Wellmark. Wellmark on appeal has moved to dismiss Vroegh's appeal as moot based on his recovery against the State.

II.

The State first argues that the...

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1 practice notes
  • Carreras v. Iowa Dep’t of Transp., 20-0963
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 17, 2022
    ...as opposed to a strict or crabbed one-which is what courts are supposed to provide anyway.'" Vroegh v. Iowa Dep't of Corr., 972 N.W.2d 686, 702 (Iowa 2022) (quoting Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 233 (2012) [hereinafter Scalia & Garner]). A ......
1 cases
  • Carreras v. Iowa Dep’t of Transp., 20-0963
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 17, 2022
    ...as opposed to a strict or crabbed one-which is what courts are supposed to provide anyway.'" Vroegh v. Iowa Dep't of Corr., 972 N.W.2d 686, 702 (Iowa 2022) (quoting Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 233 (2012) [hereinafter Scalia & Garner]). A ......

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