MN Court of Appeals sends transgender powerlifter’s case back to Ramsey County District Court

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has sent the case of a transgender powerlifter back to Ramsey County District to determine whether she was barred from participating in women’s competitions because of her sexual orientation.

A year ago, Ramsey County District Judge Patrick Diamond sided with JayCee Cooper, then 35, of Minneapolis, finding that USA Powerlifting engaged in discriminatory practices by prohibiting the transgender athlete from competing.

A claim of an unfair performance advantage because of sexual orientation or sex — as USA Powerlifting officials have contended — is not a reason to discriminate, Diamond wrote in his Feb. 27, 2023, ruling. The judge ordered the Alaska-based organization to “cease and desist from the unfair discriminatory practice” and to revise its policies within two weeks.

In its decision released Monday, the appellate court affirmed that discrimination against athletes based on gender identity violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

However, the appellate court found Diamond erred by granting Cooper’s motion for partial summary judgment on Cooper’s claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation in a place of public accommodations and in business, “because there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether USAPL’s decision to exclude Cooper … was motivated by her sexual orientation (i.e., transgender status).”

The appellate court reversed the district court’s Feb. 27, 2023, and April 11, 2023, orders for injunctive relief.

“We remand the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the ruling read.

Policy question

Attorneys for Gender Justice filed the lawsuit against USA Powerlifting and USA Powerlifting Minnesota on behalf of Cooper in June 2021, alleging violations of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act. The lawsuit came two years after the St. Paul-based legal and policy advocacy group filed a charge of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

According to the 2021 lawsuit, Cooper had trained for and registered in 2018 to compete in the 2019 USAPL Minnesota State Bench Press Championship in Maplewood and the Minnesota Women’s State Championship.

A USAPL medical doctor emailed Cooper, informing her that she was ineligible to compete. The emailed explanation read “male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females in our static strength sport as it is a direct competitive advantage,” the lawsuit states.

At the time, USAPL had no express policy regarding participation in competition by transgender athletes, according to the lawsuit. USAPL revoked Cooper’s competition card, and later issued a formal policy banning all transgender women from participating in its competitions, according to the lawsuit.

USA Powerlifting contends it did not exclude Cooper because she is transgender. The organization had argued to the appellate court that it excluded Cooper from the women’s division of its competition for a non-discriminatory reason: that she has male physiology, which gives her “unmitigated strength advantages that would compromise principles of fair athletic competition.”

After last year’s lower court ruling, USAPL submitted a proposed policy in April 2023 that would allow a transgender woman to compete in USAPL’s women’s division if she declared her gender to be female, had conforming government identification and maintained a testosterone level below a certain numerical level, according to Monday’s opinion.

The district court held a hearing on USAPL’s proposed policy on April 11, 2023 and Diamond ruled from the bench that the proposed policy does not comply with the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Diamond said at the time that USAPL “is enjoined from holding any events in the state of Minnesota, competitive or otherwise” and “is similarly enjoined . . . from selling memberships to identified residents of the state of Minnesota” until USAPL submits a proposed policy that complies with the MHRA.

Jess Braverman, legal director for Gender Justice, said in a Monday statement they believe it is “crystal clear” that Cooper was not allowed to compete because of her sexual orientation, “and we are confident that the courts will ultimately agree.”

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