Judge: County cannot deny insurance for deputy’s operation

Sgt. Anna Lange is an investigator who has worked in law enforcement for 25 years, including 16 years at the Houston County Sheriff’s Office. Lange was a male at birth but in 2017 came out as a transgender woman. (Contributed)

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Sgt. Anna Lange is an investigator who has worked in law enforcement for 25 years, including 16 years at the Houston County Sheriff’s Office. Lange was a male at birth but in 2017 came out as a transgender woman. (Contributed)

The Houston County Sheriff’s Office cannot deny insurance coverage to one of its investigators for a gender reassignment surgery, a federal judge has ruled.

The ruling, by Chief Judge Marc Treadwell of Macon, found the county violated Sgt. Anna Lange’s rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is believed to be the first ruling of its kind in the South, said Lange’s lawyer, David Brown, legal director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.

“This just shows that justice will prevail and bigotry and ignorance won’t win,” Lange said Thursday. “Hopefully this will send a message to the trans community and their employers who withhold trans healthcare that this won’t be tolerated.”

Neither Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton nor the county’s lawyers from the Atlanta law firm Ellarbee Thompson responded to requests for comment.

Lange has worked in law enforcement for 25 years, including 16 years at the Houston County Sheriff’s Office. She has been, by all accounts, an “exceptional employee” and a highly regarded investigator, Treadwell wrote in his order.

Lange said she specializes in elder care investigations but takes on all kinds of cases ranging from theft to homicide.

Lange was a male at birth but in 2017 came out as a transgender woman. Following recommendations of her doctor, two psychologists and a surgeon, Lange determined she needed the operation.

In April 2018, Lange met with Kenneth Carter, the county’s personnel director, told him she was transgender and asked if the procedure was covered under the county’s health insurance plan. Carter said such a surgery was excluded from the county’s coverage.

Later the same day, Lange met with the sheriff and disclosed her transgender status.

Talton, first elected sheriff in 1972, told his investigator he did not “believe in sex changes,” according to court records. But the sheriff granted Lange’s request to dress as a female, while warning her she would need a “tough skin” in dealing with coworkers.

Lange said that, initially, that she had some “rough moments” at work but it has since become a non-issue. “I think it’s because my coworkers know me and know what kind of job I do,” she said.

Lange unsuccessfully appealed the county’s denial of insurance coverage for the operation all the way to the county commission. She filed her federal lawsuit against the county in 2019.

In his order, issued June 2, Treadwell relied largely on precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2020 when it ruled federal law prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender employees in the workplace. That case was brought by Gerald Bostock of Atlanta, who said he was fired from his job in Clayton County because he is gay.

The Bostock ruling, Treadwell wrote, said that “discrimination on the basis of transgender status is discrimination on the basis of sex and is a violation of Title VII.”

Treadwell cited estimates predicting the cost of Lange’s surgery would be $25,600. Far more than that has been spent trying to get Lange’s suit thrown out of court.

Through last November, the county’s private attorneys billed almost $690,000 in fees and expenses to defend the case, according to Open Records Act requests filed by Lange’s attorneys.

“It just shows the length people are still willing to go to discriminate against transgender people,” Lange said.