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Judge throws out a jury's $4 million verdict in favor of a Blue Springs transgender student

Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
The jury award was thought to be among the biggest ever awarded in a case concerning bathroom access for transgender people.

The judge ruled that the student failed to prove an essential element of his case.

A judge has thrown out a $4.2 million jury award in favor of a transgender student who was denied access to the boys’ locker rooms and bathrooms in Blue Springs School District schools.

The verdict last December against the district was thought to be one of the biggest jury awards in the country in a discrimination case brought by a transgender student.

The jury awarded the plaintiff, identified only by his initials R.M.A., $175,000 in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages. It also awarded him more than $558,000 in legal fees and costs.

But in overturning the verdict, Jackson County Circuit Judge Cory L. Atkins ruled last month that R.M.A. had failed to prove an essential element of his case.

That element, according to the jury instructions, was that R.M.A.’s “male sex was a contributing factor” in the district’s refusal to grant him access to the male bathrooms and locker rooms.

Atkins ruled that “(t)he sole, uncontradicted evidence at trial was that Plaintiff was excluded from the male facilities because of his female genitalia.”

As a result, Atkins wrote, “Plaintiff failed to establish a submissible case and Defendant is entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”

Sarah Liesen, one of R.M.A.’s attorneys, said they plan to appeal Atkins' ruling.

"We're going to continue to fight for justice for our client," Liesen said.

The case had a long, winding history before going to trial last year. R.M.A., who has since graduated from college, filed his lawsuit in 2015. A different Jackson County judge dismissed his lawsuit in 2016 after finding that the Missouri Human Rights Act – the basis for the lawsuit – does not extend its protection to claims based on gender identity.

But in 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision reinstating the lawsuit. The court held that, while Missouri does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, it does prohibit discrimination against people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that the Missouri Human Rights Act does not prohibit discrimination only on the basis of biological sex.

R.M.A. began his transition in 2009 and legally changed his name a year later to reflect his gender identity. In 2014, he amended his birth certificate to reflect that he was a male.

While he was allowed to take part in boys’ sports programs, the school district required him to dress in a separate unisex bathroom. At the time the lawsuit was filed, R.M.A. attended Blue Springs South High School. Before that, he attended Delta Woods Middle School and the Freshman Center.

In reinstating R.M.A.’s case in 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court said the jury instructions had to specify the element that Atkins found R.M.A. had failed to prove.

That may have put R.M.A. in a legally tenuous position since it required the jury to find the very biological factors that the court had said were not the sole basis of the Missouri Human Rights Act's prohibition against discrimination.

Updated: June 7, 2022 at 3:49 PM CDT
This story has been updated to include comments from an attorney for the plaintiff.
Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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