Why it matters

A transgender professor can move forward on her Title VII hostile work environment and discrimination claims, an Oklahoma federal court has ruled, denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment. When she was hired by the school in 2004, Dr. Rachel Tudor presented as a man. In 2007, she began to transition and present as a woman. Her application for tenure was denied in 2009 despite the recommendations of the faculty, and she was terminated a short time later. Pointing to restrictions on which restrooms she could use, how she could dress and what makeup she could wear, Tudor claimed she was subjected to a hostile work environment as well as discrimination in violation of Title VII. The university moved for summary judgment, but the court denied the motion. The combination of administrators’ use of an improper pronoun to refer to the plaintiff with the various restrictions was enough for a jury to infer the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive, the court wrote.

Detailed discussion

When she was hired by Southeastern Oklahoma State University as an assistant professor in 2004, Dr. Rachel Tudor presented as a man. In 2007, she began to transition and present as a woman. She applied for the tenured position of associate professor in 2009, but her application was denied over the recommendations of tenured faculty members. Tudor was then terminated during the 2010–2011 school year based on her lack of tenure.

Alleging that she suffered significant discrimination and harassment after she announced her transition, Tudor filed suit asserting that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and discriminated against in violation of Title VII.

The school moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff failed to provide sufficient evidence of a hostile environment and offered just a “handful” of insults, incidents or comments.

But U.S. District Judge Robin J. Cauthron disagreed.

“Rather, [the plaintiff] argues that every day over the course of a four-year period she had restrictions on which restrooms she could use, restrictions on how she could dress, what makeup she could wear,” the court said. “She was also subjected to hostilities from administrators targeting her gender, such as using an improper pronoun to refer to her and other gender-based hostilities. Although Plaintiff’s proof is not well organized or her facts well presented, she has offered sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that her work place was filled with a sufficient amount of offensive or insulting conduct that it was sufficiently severe or pervasive.”

The university argued that Tudor failed to take advantage of the preventive and corrective opportunities that were available to her because she never submitted a complaint or grievance regarding the allegedly harassing events.

The court was not persuaded, however, noting that at the time of the plaintiff’s employment, the defendants did not have any policy addressing transgender discrimination or the type of hostility displayed toward her as a transgender person.

Tudor’s discrimination claim also survived, with the court rejecting the employer’s contention that the plaintiff had not demonstrated pretext behind the reason given for her termination. She provided sufficient evidence suggesting that substantial procedural irregularities existed in the decision to deny her tenure, the court said.

“For example, she notes one of the decisionmakers on her tenure initially refused to give her any reason for the denial,” Judge Cauthron wrote. “Later, that same person planted a backdated letter in her portfolio spelling out some rationales for the denial. A second decisionmaker … refused to provide his reasons for denial and persisted even after the faculty advisor committee ordered him to disclose them.”

Each of these actions demonstrated some weakness, implausibility, inconsistency or incoherencies in the employer’s assertion that Tudor’s tenure submission was clearly insufficient, the court said.

Finally, the plaintiff’s retaliation claim moved forward. She engaged in multiple protected activities, from filing an internal grievance to sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Education complaining of discrimination, the court found, establishing “sufficient facts from which a reasonable jury could find she was subject to retaliation by the Defendants.”

To read the opinion and order in Tudor v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, click here.