ACLU Sues St. Joseph Health for Discrimination Against Transgender Patient

Humboldt County Hospital Refused Transition-Related Surgery Because of Religious Directives

EUREKA, March 21, 2019 — The ACLU Foundation of Northern California, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP today filed a lawsuit against St. Joseph Health Northern California for denying care to a transgender patient.

Filed on behalf of Oliver Knight, the suit argues that withholding medical care from a patient because he is transgender violates California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

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Knight, 29, is a transgender man who was scheduled to receive a hysterectomy in August of 2017 at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka. Minutes before the scheduled surgery, Knight’s doctor informed him it had been canceled and would not be rescheduled because it was a Catholic hospital.

“The refusal of St. Joseph to allow a doctor to perform a medically necessary procedure because the patient is transgender is discriminatory,” said Jessica Riggin, a partner at Rukin Hyland & Riggin LLP. “This is a hospital that is open to the general public so even though it’s religiously affiliated, it’s illegal for them to turn away someone based on gender identity. Everyone should be able to get the care they need.”

St. Joseph regularly allows hysterectomies for patients who are not transgender. Knight’s medical records show the decision to cancel the surgery was based on an “ethics assessment” completed by a reverend with no medical training.

“Gender affirming care is lifesaving and medically necessary,” said Elizabeth Gill, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Transgender people are part of our community, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods and they, just like everyone else, deserve to get the health care they need.”

On the day of the scheduled surgery, Knight was admitted to the hospital and prepared for surgery. Many of the procedures caused him great anxiety. Hospital staff refused his request to wear a blue gown instead of a pink gown, telling him he was receiving a “female” surgery, and he was misgendered by the staff, even though he told hospital staff his pronouns and his records identify him as male.

Knight was hesitant to go to another hospital because he would be farther away from home and unfamiliar with the staff, and it would increase the burden on him and his family. But he eventually got the surgery at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata. The delay caused a disruption to his life and a great deal of anxiety.

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of anti-trans bigotry but I didn’t expect it from a hospital,” Knight said. “It seems the hospital doesn’t understand how it feels to be treated inhumanely just because your body parts do not match your soul.”

St. Joseph Health is owned by Providence St. Joseph Health Network, one of the largest health systems in both the country—operating 51 hospitals, with over 25,000 physicians—and in California, where it operates 18 hospitals.

In addition to representing Knight, the ACLU Foundations of California and the National Health Law Program are launching the All Care Everywhere campaign to make sure all Californians get the health care they need. Catholic hospitals are already the largest health care provider in California and are expanding rapidly. For many, Catholic hospitals are the only option within hundreds of miles. The campaign will gather stories of people denied care and work to ensure Catholic hospitals do not harm more people with their discriminatory practices.

Read this blog post by Oliver Knight: Catholic Bishops Stopped My Surgery Because I’m Transgender