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Judge tosses $4.2M award for transgender student

A Jackson County judge has thrown out a $4.175 million verdict for a transgender student who was denied equal access to the boys’ restrooms and locker room.

In a May 27 order, Judge Cory Atkins said the plaintiff, identified in the case as R.M.A., had failed to prove that his “male sex” was a contributing factor to his exclusion from those facilities while he was a student in the Blue Springs School District.

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“The sole, uncontradicted evidence at trial was that Plaintiff was excluded from the male facilities because of his female genitalia,” Atkins wrote. “As a result, Plaintiff failed to establish a submissible case and Defendant is entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”

The ruling likely will lead to further litigation that could clarify the limits of the Missouri Human Rights Act, which doesn’t explicitly bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Steve Coronado of Baty Otto Coronado Scheer, who represents the Blue Springs School District, said he expected the ruling to be appealed — which Katherine Myers of Edelman, Liesen & Myers in Kansas City, an attorney for R.M.A., confirmed.

“We won’t be ending the fight,” she said. “We will be continuing to pursue justice.”

R.M.A.’s suit, filed when he was a freshman, alleged that though he was born as a female child, he transitioned to living as male in the fourth grade and his legal sex was male following a change to his birth certificate.

The suit initially was dismissed for failure to state a claim. But in a landmark ruling in 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court allowed the case to proceed. The majority held that R.M.A.’s petition had adequately stated a case for sex discrimination because he “alleges he is a member of the male protected class and, under the applicable standard of review for a motion to dismiss, that is sufficient.” A two-judge dissent, however, argued that Missouri’s anti-discrimination law covers biological sex rather than legal sex.

The jury instruction at R.M.A.’s trial last December in Jackson County Circuit Court was based on language that the Supreme Court suggested in its opinion. To find for R.M.A., the jury had to find that he was denied equal use and enjoyment of the restroom and locker room, that “plaintiff’s male sex was a contributing factor in such denial” and that he sustained damages as a result.

MHRA instructions typically use the term “sex” without any gender modifier, but in a footnote the Supreme Court said R.M.A. “claims discrimination based on his sex and, therefore, he must allege he is either male or female.”

The jury’s initial verdict awarded $175,000 in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages. It was the sixth largest plaintiffs’ verdict of 2021, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media. Atkins also granted R.M.A.’s attorneys $558,313 in fees, though that award was effectively nullified by the simultaneous order for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

In post-trial filings with the court, the school district argued that R.M.A. had failed to meet his burden.

“We, as a society, have endorsed separate but equal when it comes to sex-designated bathrooms,” the district’s attorneys wrote. “We have sex-segregated bathrooms in the Jackson County Courthouses, in the Western District Court of Appeals Courthouse, and in the Missouri Supreme Court’s Courthouse. This is precisely why Plaintiff was required to prove he was of the male sex, and why his failure to introduce competent evidence on this point is fatal to his case. It is precisely why Plaintiff had to prove that his male sex was the basis of the School District’s refusal to grant Plaintiff unrestricted access to the facilities designated for boys, and why his failure to introduce any evidence on this point is fatal to his case.”

R.M.A.’s counsel, however, argued that anatomy does not automatically equal sex and that he’d faced discrimination “because he did not meet Defendant’s stereotypical, unfounded, version of what a ‘male’ is.”

“In this country, we are long past the dark days where discriminatory beliefs can be imposed on students by schools; today, thankfully, schools must not discriminate against children due to their sex, or any other protected class,” they wrote. “This country has seen many examples of mistaken discriminatory beliefs being corrected and no longer accepted by society. Though he is not a ‘cisgender’ male, that does not mean Plaintiff is not of the male sex.”

The case is R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District, 1516-CV20874.