Twenty years ago, a New Jersey appellate court issued a groundbreaking ruling that recognized the rights of transgender people under the state’s anti-discrimination law.
The case involved Carla Enriquez, a doctor who was assigned male at birth, and until February 1998, was legally known as “Carlos”. She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1997 and changed her name and appearance to reflect her female identity.
Enriquez sued West Jersey Health Systems, now known as Virtua Health, and several other defendants, alleging that they fired her from her job as a medical director of a learning behavior center because of her transsexual status. She also claimed that they interfered with her relationships with her patients and unjustly enriched themselves by retaining the fees paid by those patients.
The trial court dismissed Enriquez’s complaints, finding that she failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination or any other cause of action. The court also held that transsexuals are not protected by the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
However, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that Enriquez had presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on her discrimination claim. The court also held that transsexuals are protected by the LAD both on the basis of disability and on the basis of sexual identity.
The court reasoned that transsexualism is a recognized medical condition that may qualify as a disability under the LAD. The court also found that discriminating against someone because of their gender identity or expression is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the LAD.
The court noted that New Jersey has a strong public policy of protecting individuals from discrimination based on their personal characteristics. The court stated that “the LAD must be liberally construed to effectuate its important social goals.”
The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings on Enriquez’s claims.
The ruling was hailed as a victory for transgender rights by various advocacy groups and legal experts. It was one of the first cases in the nation to recognize transsexuals as a protected class under state law.
Since then, New Jersey has continued to advance its protections for LGBTQI+ people, including passing laws to ban conversion therapy, allow gender-neutral birth certificates, and establish specific rights for LGBTQI+ older adults and people living with HIV in long-term care facilities.