Lawsuit Exposes City’s Discrimination Against Transgender Individuals Seeking Critical Services

November 28, 2012, Queens, NY— A transgender woman has filed suit against the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) for violating her rights by unlawfully denying her request to complete an application in her legal name, and for its retaliatory act of citing her for trespassing when she requested to file a discrimination complaint. The suit, filed by Queens Legal Services (a program of Legal Services NYC), is LSNYC’s second this year on behalf of clients who have faced such discrimination.

In May 2011, Jolie Estrella was issued an Order for Change of Name, and the following November brought the Order to the HRA East River Job Center to complete an application for Public Assistance and to request a name and gender change for all HRA documents including her existing EBT card. 

The Center’s Case Manager refused to process her request to change her name, refused to correct her gender marker from male to female, and refused to use the correct pronouns and her legal name despite repeated requests. Furthermore, the Case Manager made stunningly inappropriate, discriminatory and demeaning remarks about Ms. Estrella’s sex, gender, orientation and physical disability (including telling her that she had low self-esteem and could not “make it as a man”). When Ms. Estrella asked to speak to a supervisor, the supervisor likewise refused to use her legal name and instead sent her to another location where she was met by HRA security guards and ordered to leave the building. When she refused to leave, a guard physically assaulted her and dragged her into an office where she was issued a summons and citation, again in her former name.

HRA failed to process Ms. Estrella’s application for benefits in her correct name.  Because of this treatment, Ms. Estrella was denied equal access to benefits.  In April 2012, an Administrative Law Judge ordered HRA to process Ms. Estrella’s Public Assistance application in her legal name and to provide her with retroactive benefits. Stunningly, HRA continues to address Ms. Estrella by her former name in all correspondence.

These actions by HRA staff constitute violations of the New York City and State Human Rights Laws, which prohibit such discrimination in public accommodations. The actions further violate HRA’s own Procedure No. P-09-22, “Serving Transgender, Transsexual, and Gender Nonconforming Individuals,” which was issued in December 2009 after years of advocacy by the Audre Lorde Project, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Housing Works. The Procedure instructs HRA staff to ask clients what their preferred name, title, and gender pronoun are and informs staff that refusing to abide by their answer is a form of harassment.

“Ms. Estrella has a right to be treated with respect and to have her documents reflect who she is, as does any applicant for benefits,” said Richard Saenz, Staff Attorney at Queens Legal Services. “Transgender individuals are constantly forced to accept harassment or give up their benefits. That’s not a choice that anyone should be forced to make, particularly at agencies that serve as a last defense against poverty, homelessness, and poor health. As a City agency, HRA must abide by the laws and regulations of both the State and New York City.”

The new suit follows a similar suit filed against HRA in June by Manhattan Legal Services and South Brooklyn Legal Services on behalf of another transgender woman whose request to change her name and gender marker were denied, despite the fact that she had in her possession both a name change order and a letter from her physician. LSNYC’s clients seek damages, an order that the defendants and their employees will refrain from such discrimination against the clients or any other person, trainings for HRA staff on the rights of transgender people, and a clear procedure for changing gender markers on identity documents.

Contact: Richard Saenz at 347-592-2207 or Jennifer Ching at 347-592-2242  

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