Federal Appeals Court Rejects Employee’s Claim of Sex Discrimination Based on Her Son’s Gender Dysphoria

This week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals[1] held that an employee could not bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) based on alleged harm to her son. In Tovear v. Essentia Health,[2] the plaintiff employee and her son, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoriawere was enrolled in her employer’s health insurance plan. The employer’s insurance plan categorically excluded coverage for gender reassignment services and surgeries, and accordingly denied the plaintiff’s requests that her son get coverage for medications and gender reassignment surgery. The plaintiff claimed that her employer engaged in unlawful sex discrimination by refusing to cover the requested treatment.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court and rejected the plaintiff’s claim, reasoning that Title VII and MHRA prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their own sex and other protected characteristics—not based on someone else’s sex or protected status.[3] Notably, the person who was allegedly harmed in Tovear (the plaintiff’s son) was not an employee of the defendant, and therefore any alleged harm the defendant caused him based on his own protected status was outside the scope of a Title VII or MHRA claim.

Practical Takeaway

Courts have considerably expanded the scope of Title VII’s anti-discrimination protections in recent years.[4] Tovear serves as an important reminder that the scope of Title VII is not unlimited, and that Title VII serves to protect employees from unlawful employment actions.

[1] The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals hears federal appeals from six midwestern states (Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and Arkansas.

[2] Tovar v. Essentia Health, No. 16-3186, 2017 WL 2259632, at *1 (8th Cir. May 24, 2017).

[3] The plaintiff in Tovar also brought a claim against the insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). Id. at *1. The district court dismissed this claim on the grounds that the plaintiff lacked standing. The Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the ACA claim, based solely on the reasoning that the plaintiff had standing to bring such a claim. The court declined to consider the merits of the ACA claim. Id. at *5.

[4] See Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, No. 15-1720 (7th Cir. Apr. 4, 2017) (holding that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII) (en banc).

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