Lambda Legal Files Brief in Support of Transgender Employee Fighting Hobby Lobby

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December 22, 2020

Today, Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois in support of Meggan Sommerville, a transgender woman, in her almost decade-long fight with her employer, Hobby Lobby, to gain access to the women’s facilities at work, facilities that match her gender identity. The brief, filed on behalf of Lambda Legal and Equality Illinois, provides background information to the court about gender identity and Illinois law that acknowledges and affirms that a person’s sex is determined by gender identity, as well as state and federal law that supports transgender people having equal access to facilities that are consistent with their sex.

“Meggan Sommerville is a woman, full stop,” said Ethan Rice, Senior Attorney at Lambda Legal. “Well-established state and federal law says so, but most importantly, Meggan Sommerville says so. Hobby Lobby has denied this woman her equal rights for far too long; she is a human being and deserves better. I am inspired by Meggan’s commitment to fighting this injustice for so long and Lambda Legal is proud to stand with her and all transgender people in Illinois and across the country.”

“Denying transgender people the ability to use the facilities that match their gender identities is not just dangerous to that person’s health, but is an attempt to deny transgender people full participation in society and render us invisible,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Tyron Garner Memorial Law Fellow at Lambda Legal. “Transgender people exist; and we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

“Illinois law is clear: Meggan Sommerville is due her equal rights and dignity by Hobby Lobby,” said Brian C. Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, the state’s LGBTQ civil rights organization. “Throughout Meggan’s case, Hobby Lobby has acted in direct contrast to Illinois’ values of justice, inclusion and fairness in the workplace, and respecting people for who they are. Now, we urge the appellate court to settle this matter by ensuring Meggan’s equality and dignity under the law. We at Equality Illinois are inspired by and thankful to Meggan for her years of resilience and courage in this fight for her rights and the rights of all trans people in Illinois.”

Meggan Sommerville, a Hobby Lobby employee for more than 20 years, was forced to use the men’s restroom or wait until her lunch break to use a women’s facility at a nearby business after she transitioned on the job. In 2013, Ms. Sommerville filed a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, and on May 15, 2015, Administrative Law Judge William J. Borah concluded that Hobby Lobby violated the Illinois Human Rights Act, finding Hobby Lobby “liable for the distress, anguish, anxiety, humiliation, fear, and embarrassment caused by its ongoing entrenched policy of banning Complainant [from the appropriate restroom], as well as the delay, threats, and intimidation that accompanied Respondent’s discriminatory behavior, and enforcement of it,” and recommending [Hobby Lobby] pay her $220,000 for emotional distress damages. Hobby Lobby has thwarted enforcement of Judge Borah’s order by the Illinois Department of Human Rights, refusing to comply while its appeal is pending.

In another attempt to thwart compliance with Judge Borah’s order, Hobby Lobby has sought to disqualify him from the case because he was recognized by the Illinois State Bar Association for his work as a civil rights attorney when in private practice many years prior.

“Hobby Lobby has shown that they will stop at nothing in order to avoid treating Ms. Sommerville and all transgender people with basic human dignity and respect even if it means attacking the judge that ruled against them in retaliation,” added Rice. “A history of representing LGBT plaintiffs honorably is not evidence of bias. You can’t disqualify a judge simply because you don’t like his ruling.”

Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Ethan Rice, Senior Attorney Sasha Buchert, Attorney and Tyron Garner Memorial Law Fellow Avatara Smith-Carrington, Director of Constitutional Litigation Camilla B. Taylor, Senior Counsel and Employment Fairness Project Director Gregory R. Nevins, and Staff Attorney Kara Ingelhart are counsel on the brief.

Read the brief here.