Rob Akers, 04/06/2006

lawsuit filed last week by a pre-operative transgender woman charges her former employer with alleged discrimination and retaliation during her transition period from male to female.

The legal action may have far-reaching implications for giant international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, which has ties to various government agencies.

Danielle Ryan, 44, filed suit Wednesday, March 29, in Sacramento County Superior Court, claiming harassment, gender discrimination, failure to maintain a work environment free of harassment, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract.

Ryan, who lives in Sacramento, said she was employed at the firm for over 10 years and consistently received outstanding performance reviews. She claims that only after her transition in February 2005 did she suffer “pervasive harassment from co-workers and supervisors” and “was threatened with termination, demoted to part-time status and wrongly forced to leave the company.”

“When I let them know I was transitioning, they sent me home from work the same day,” said Ryan.

Her attorney, Waukeen McCoy, of San Francisco-based McCoy and Associates, said, “This lawsuit is important because it will send a message to companies that discrimination or harassment of homosexuals and transgender people will not be tolerated and will not be ignored.”

“To discriminate in any way against an employee for undergoing sex reassignment or otherwise failing to conform to stereotypical notions of how a man or a woman should look or act is prohibited by both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act,” stated McCoy.

Parsons Brinckerhoff has local offices in San Francisco and Oakland as well as in Sacramento. According to its Web site, the firm has contracts with the city of San Francisco and does business with public agencies such as Bay Area Rapid Transit and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The company also has a hand in construction of the new Bay Bridge.

Ryan began working at the firm’s Sacramento office in 1995 as an information technology systems analyst. She said after she began transitioning, supervisors gave her the option to remain with the company for three months “as I am” or to take a part-time job and pay cut.

The situation then escalated to the point that Ryan’s doctor recommended she leave the company for health reasons. Today, she is living on a disability.

She said she decided to file a lawsuit in the matter after “seeing the writing on the wall.”

“I am tired of seeing people’s civil rights stomped on. I would like to see some changes made,” she said.

Ryan said she hid her desire to live as a woman and presented herself as a man at work for nine years. During that time, she said she witnessed company-wide animosity toward women and homosexuals. Despite the situation, Ryan had the fortitude to inform supervisors of her upcoming transition weeks in advance. When she eventually came to work dressed as a woman, she was sent home.

“It took a lot of courage for me to be who I am at work,” she said. “My appearance has changed but my ability to do my job has not – I simply made a personal choice.”

“I hope my lawsuit brings to light the issues transgender people confront in the workplace and the world. My case shows that despite all our freedoms, we still live in a society that attempts to socially and economically marginalize those who are different,” stated Ryan.

In the lawsuit, Ryan claims that she had to deal with an “extremely hostile work environment.” She said co-workers regularly called her derogatory names such as “faggot,” “homo,” “he/she,” and “it.”

Former co-workers and friends refused to work with or recognize Ryan as female, according to the lawsuit.

The situation escalated into jokes about her appearance, a public request to see her breasts, and physical assault after a superior allegedly shoved her into the hallway, the lawsuit contends.

Ryan said she informed both management and human resources about the incidents but the company took no corrective action. Instead, she said workers in the human resources department told her they were tired of dealing with her “transition issues.”

Ryan said she was warned the company was going to “hire someone off the street to perform her duties” at work.

McCoy said the lawsuit filed on Ryan’s behalf alleges that Parsons Brinckerhoff failed to remedy a hostile work environment once the company was made aware of it. He charged the company with condoning, perpetuating, and participating in the harassment through a campaign of intimidation, retaliation, and abuse.

“Parsons Brinckerhoff knew that Ms. Ryan was being harassed and did nothing to correct it,” stated McCoy. “In addition, Parsons retaliated against Ms. Ryan once she complained of the discrimination.”

Judith Cooper, director of corporate communications for Parsons Brinckerhoff, told the Bay Area Reporter, “We haven’t seen any filings or an actual lawsuit, therefore, we simply cannot comment.”

Parsons Brinckerhoff is one of the world’s leading planning, engineering and construction management firms for transportation, energy, environmental, and telecommunications projects. The company, founded more than 120 years ago, employs approximately 9,700 workers in more than 150 offices worldwide. Company founder William Barclay Parsons designed New York City’s first subway line and constructed a railroad across China.

The company Web site states: “Parsons Brinckerhoff welcomes and respects difference as vital to our success: Our corporate vision can only be achieved through maintaining a diverse working environment.”