The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
May 17, 2012

Pro Bono to Promote Equal Rights

The PBEye imagines a world without discrimination and inequality, and are proud of the pro bono lawyers who work hard every day to achieve that vision.  Transgender people suffer persistent intolerance and experience prejudice and violence throughout their everyday life.  They experience workplace discrimination, are met with challenges to their parental relationships, lack sufficient access to quality healthcare free from discrimination, and face difficulties in obtaining appropriate name and gender designations on their identity documents.  The PBEye is gratified that many law firms have expanded their pro bono programs to advocate for and defend protections of transgender people under federal, state, and local laws and other policies.  Pro bono efforts range from impact litigation to policy advocacy to time-limited, discrete projects and involve a host of law firm attorneys and staff, from senior lawyers to summer associates.

Inspiring examples of pro bono work dedicated to fighting discrimination and advancing civil rights for transgender people include:

  • Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP* represented a 44 year-old transgender woman who had been denied health insurance coverage for a mammogram.  The client underwent the mammogram at her doctor’s recommendation but her insurance provider denied coverage on the grounds that it fell under her policy’s exclusion for treatments “related to changing sex.”  Cleary Gottlieb, along with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), argued that the insurance company’s interpretation of the policy exclusion should only apply to treatments prescribed to change an individual’s sex characteristics.  Because a mammogram is a procedure that has nothing to do with changing sex characteristics, it should have been covered.  The insurance provider’s interpretation could have led to the continued denial of claims for medically necessary care for transgender patients, including treatment for conditions such as breast cancer.  Last month, the insurance provider reversed its position and paid for the client’s mammogram in full;
  • Numerous firms provide pro bono support as part of TLDEF’s The Name Change Project.  For many transgender people, securing a legal name change can send an important message to themselves and the world.  But, it can be an expensive, intimidating, and time-consuming process.  The process is relatively straightforward, but involves significant interaction with the court system.  The Name Change Project, which has helped hundreds of people in a short period of time, ensures that transgender people have adequate legal representation when seeking name changes.  Additionally, after the court issues the order granting leave to their name, many people must then go about changing other official documents, including Social Security, passport, driver’s license, and educational documents.  This whole process becomes more efficient and comfortable for the client with legal representation by their side:
  • On behalf of TLDEF, a group of summer associates from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP*† examined the rights of transgender people in prison by conducting a 50-state survey  to determine which states had the most and least favorable policies and case law.  The team, which came from several Skadden offices, prepared a memo that examined two main prison policies targeted at transgender individuals: health care (including access to hormones), and living conditions and housing.  They concluded that prisons either did not provide hormones for transgender individuals or, if they did prison policy mandated that an individual’s level of hormone therapy be kept equal to the individual’s pre-incarceration level.  The memo’s findings are being use to attack the discriminatory treatment of incarcerated transgender people; and
  • McDermott, Will & Emery*† represented a civilly-committed transgender client diagnosed with gender identity disorder.  The client had been evaluated by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections’ (DOC) doctors and prescribed hormonal therapy, access to female canteen items, and psychotherapy.  The DOC approved the prescription, but then discontinued it and withheld treatment without explanation.  Following a bench trial, the District Court ruled that McDermott’s client “may not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment which consists of the neglect of her serious medical needs, nor may her serious needs become a pretext for the infliction of additional punishments. And that is what has happened here.”  The DOC appealed.  The First Circuit found that an unjustified failure to treat gender identity disorder gives rise to a constitutional violation, and ruled that McDermott’s client has a right to receive hormone medication while civilly-committed.

Is your law firm engaged in a pro bono project that promotes civil rights?  Leave us a comment below!

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project

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