Court allows transgender inmate’s claim against DOC to proceed

scales-of-justice2The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today ruled that Ophelia De’lonta stated a “plausible” claim that the Virginia Department of Corrections violated her constitutional rights when it refused to have her evaluated for sex reassignment surgery. The ruling allows Ms. De’lonta’s case to move forward in the lower court.

“The Court of Appeals recognized that prison officials may not arbitrarily refuse to consider sex reassignment surgery,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “This is an important step forward for transgender inmates.”

Ms. De’lonta, a transgender woman, suffers from Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Being transgender is not itself a disorder. But individuals with GID experience discomfort with their physiological sex that is so extreme that it causes severe emotional and physical distress. In Ms. De’lonta’s case, this has led her to attempt self-castration numerous times, sometimes leading to hospitalization.

Pursuant to a previous settlement agreement, VDOC provided Ms. De’lonta with hormone treatment, therapy, and the opportunity to present as a woman to a degree consistent with prison security. This treatment, however, was not enough to alleviate Ms. De’lonta’s severe symptoms. Under the accepted standards of care, a patient with GID should be evaluated for sex reassignment surgery when such treatments are unsuccessful. VDOC refused to allow Ms. De’lonta to undergo such an evaluation.

Ms. De’lonta filed suit against VDOC in 2011, alleging that VDOC’s refusal even to consider sex reassignment surgery violated her Eighth Amendment rights. The district court dismissed her case, holding that because VDOC was already providing some treatment for GID, it did not have to evaluate her for sex reassignment surgery.

On appeal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Virginia submitted a friend-of-the -court brief, arguing that VDOC must provide Ms. De’lonta with treatment that actually addressed her symptoms. The Court of Appeals agreed. “[J]ust because [VDOC] ha[s] provided De’lonta with some treatment consistent with the GID Standards of Care, it does not follow that they have necessarily provided her with constitutionally adequate standards of care,” the court wrote.

The court analogized Ms. De’lonta’s situation to that of an inmate who has suffered injuries due to a fall, and whose symptoms persist to the point where he clearly should be evaluated for surgery. “Would prison officials then be free to deny him consideration for surgery, immunized from constitutional suit by the fact that they were giving him a painkiller? We think not,” the court wrote.

De’lonta was represented on appeal by Victor Glasberg and Bernadette Armand of Victor M. Glasberg & Associates in Alexandria.

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