Illinois appellate decision vindicates transgender woman in 11-year battle with Hobby Lobby

US retailer Hobby Lobby has been fined for barring a transgender woman employee from using its women’s bathroom for 11 years, following a court ruling that is a first for transgender people in the state of Illinois.

The Second District Appellate Court of Illinois found that Hobby Lobby violated the Illinois Human Rights Act when it barred Meggan Sommerville, 51, an employee of more than 20 years, from using its women’s restroom facilities.

The Aug. 13 decision also affirmed an order by Administrative Law Judge William J. Borah, finding that Hobby Lobby was liable for damages and recommending an award of $220,0000 to Ms. Sommerville.

LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal filed an amicus brief together with Equality Illinois, the state’s LGBTQ civil rights organization, in support of Ms. Sommerville.

In its first opportunity to consider this issue, the court methodically destroyed every justification Hobby Lobby tried to argue for why it had discriminated against Ms. Sommerville for years. The court could not have been clearer that the Illinois Human Rights Act and numerous other Illinois and federal laws prohibit employers from discriminating against their employees based on gender identity, including by excluding them from the restroom.

"The Illinois Commission on Human Rights got it right years ago when it ruled for Ms. Sommerville, and it’s past time for Hobby Lobby to do the right thing, and treat their transgender employees with dignity and respect,” said Kara Ingelhart, staff attorney at Lambda Legal.

“This decision is a win for all transgender people in Illinois. Thank you to Ms. Sommerville for staying in this fight for so long. By standing up for herself, she stood up for all transgender people in Illinois, and in the end was completely vindicated. Congratulations to Ms. Sommerville and her legal team.”

“Illinois keeps moving forward,” said Myles Brady Davis, Director of Communications and Press Secretary at Equality Illinois. “This decision reaffirms what we already know to be true: Trans Illinoisans have both a legal and moral right to be affirmed and honored for who they are and to live their life with dignity and respect. As a nation, we decided long ago that discrimination is wrong and that everyone should have the same opportunities to succeed in life and that should include the trans community.”

About Meggan Sommerville's case

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, Judge 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 was pending.

Read Lambda Legal’s brief in support of Meggan Sommerville here.

Read the decision here.

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