Thursday, April 28, 2011
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A federal judge ruled Monday that a gay Cuyahoga County worker can claim constitutional protection in her job discrimination lawsuit against the county.
The ruling involves Shari Hutchinson, a lesbian who works for the county child support enforcement agency. Hutchinson sued the county in 2008, claiming she was denied promotions based on her sexual orientation, and that administrators retaliated against her when she complained.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin ruled that Hutchinson's claim falls under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, a decision that her lawyer described as far-reaching and unprecedented.
"This potentially affects millions of gay government workers," said civil rights lawyer Avery Friedman. "The court ruled the 14th Amendment of the Constitution protects gay workers, and the case now proceeds to trial."
The burden is still on Hutchinson to prove her claims. She began working for the child-support enforcement agency in 2002, first as a support officer and then as an account clerk. Her suit claims the county passed her over for higher-paying positions in favor of less qualified straight people, though Hutchinson has a master's in business administration.
In an effort to quash a promotion, one supervisor told his boss that Hutchinson "writes for a 'lesbian porno magazine' and her license plate, PACK8, has her lesbian 'pen name,' " the suit says.
The county denied her claims in court filings. Dave Lambert, civil division chief for Prosecutor Bill Mason, said he was pleased that the judge also ruled Monday that several of her claims are barred by a two-year statute of limitation.
The judge also rejected her complaint that the county discriminated by denying her a maximum $100 credit for opting out the county health plan. The county gives married employees the $100-per-paycheck credit, and $50 to single employees with no dependents who opt out. Hutchinson, who opted out in favor of her domestic partner's insurance plan, said the "program's failure to provide a similar opt-out incentive for the county's homosexual employees amounts to sexual orientation discrimination."
Carrie Davis of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio applauded the court for ruling that the constitution provides protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. But she said a federal law prohibiting workplace bias based on sexual orientation is long overdue.
"The judge wouldn't have had to make this decision had Congress changed the law a long time ago," Davis said.