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Stanton ready to go national

He will discuss his case on Larry King Live on Thursday.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published April 11, 2007


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Steve Stanton is poised to join a national campaign to make America more aware of the plight of transgender people.

Fired as Largo's city manager a month after he acknowledged he planned to become a woman named Susan, Stanton is writing a book and plans to lobby Congress.

Thursday night, he's slated to appear with his attorney on Larry King Live. And next week, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart is scheduled to broadcast its take on his case.

Stanton will announce whether he'll sue his former employer on Larry King, said his lawyer, Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

She wouldn't say what Stanton will do, but did say Stanton has a "winnable" case.

"When the city terminated him they engaged in illegal discrimination," she said.

Largo officials expect a lawsuit.

"I can't imagine you go on Larry King to announce you're not going to sue," City Attorney Alan Zimmet said. "For the first time in my career, I can watch an announcement that my client's going to be sued on national TV."

- - -

A lawsuit, however, would be just one piece of Stanton's emergence as an advocate for transgender people.

Mayor Pat Gerard and other officials said Stanton told them he was writing a book about his transition.

Stanton also is gearing up to lobby Congress for federal legislation to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.

Simon Aronoff, deputy director National Center for Transgender Equality, said Stanton will join his organization in Washington, D.C., next month to lobby Congress for the transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

As a polished, well-spoken professional, Stanton makes for an effective spokesperson.

"My guess is that he'd someday be on a show like Oprah or Dr. Phil, and that's when he'll really get the big exposure," Largo City Commissioner Andy Guyette said.

- - -

If Stanton does sue, legal experts disagree on whether he would win.

Florida and federal laws don't include transgender people as a protected class. But some federal courts and state agencies have said transgender people can be the targets of discriminatory stereotyping.

Stanton could file a discrimination complaint with the state, with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or both.

Or, as a government employee, he could go straight to court and sue the city under the Constitution's equal protection clause.

"He has an excellent case, but not necessarily an easy one," said Jillian Weiss, assistant professor of law and society at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She pointed to three cases handled by the Florida Commission on Human Relations that could help Stanton.

In 1992, the commission sided with a corrections officer fired after he was found wearing a woman's bathing suit in an isolated area while changing his flat tire. The commission said that transsexualism was a handicap under Florida law.

In 2004, the commission supported a transgender Brevard County Sheriff's Office employee. While it dismissed a discrimination complaint based on disability, it said the employee had grounds for a discrimination complaint on the basis of sex.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court case that said sex discrimination can include stereotyping of how a woman should look or act, the commission said transsexuals "may maintain an action for discrimination based on sex."

And last year, the Florida commission sided with Largo resident Madalynn Shepley, an RV mechanic fired after she transitioned.

The commission ordered Lazy Days RV Center to give Shepley her job back and to cover back pay and attorneys fees.

The commission also said Lazy Days' justification to fire Shepley was a pretext - or an after-the-fact excuse - for discrimination.

Doering has made similar claims in Stanton's case.

But Shepley's attorney, Craig Berman, said Stanton's case is different from Shepley's because Stanton was fired before he became Susan. Still, he predicted the city would try to avoid a drawn-out court battle.

"I'm sure they'll settle," Berman said. "It's too messy for everyone."

Considering those Florida commission cases and federal precedents, Stanton "has a strong basis for a lawsuit," said Juan Perea, a professor who specializes in employment law at the University of Florida.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses federal district courts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, twice ruled that the federal Civil Rights Act can protect the employment of transgender people, one a firefighter, the other a police officer.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia, hasn't ruled on the issue yet, meaning that Stanton could provide a test case.

But one legal scholar notes that the circuit tends to be conservative, pro-employer and pro-state.

"Given the nature of the 11th Circuit, I'm not optimistic," said Paul Secunda, assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

[Last modified April 11, 2007, 09:48:36]


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