Denver Health LGBT Discrimination Case Referred to Colorado Supreme Court

“This matter is one of substantial public importance,” writes the Colorado Court of Appeals. 

Last week, the Colorado Court of Appeals referred Houchin v. Denver Health and Hospital Authority and Tim Hansen to the Colorado Supreme Court. A referral to the Colorado Supreme Court is rare, but can happen if (1) the ultimate decision involves a prior Supreme Court ruling (only the Supreme Court can overrule itself) and (2) the case involves an issue of “substantial public importance.” We are deeply gratified and relieved that the Court of Appeals appreciates the broader impact of this case. You can read the Court of Appeals referral HERE.

Here, Denver Health argues that because of 2015 changes to the Colorado Anti-discrimination Act (CADA) designed to provide equal remedies to LGBT employees, CADA no longer applies to its workforce. These 2015 amendments, Denver Health argues, transformed CADA into a tort (i.e. personal injury) for which it enjoys absolute governmental immunity under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). Never mind, Denver Health says, that in adopting these changes, the Colorado legislature expressly waived CGIA immunity for governmental entities, thereby subjecting public entities to discrimination and harassment lawsuits under the CADA. According to Denver Health’s General Counsel, Scott Hoye, however, this express waiver does not apply to Denver Health either and since January 1, 2015, he has considered Denver Health absolutely immune from CADA lawsuits. Because only CADA protects LGBT employees from workplace discrimination and harassment (whereas race, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability are protected under federal law), Denver Health’s LGBT employees have effectively worked without legal protections since January 1, 2015.

If Denver Health is right (and we firmly believe that Denver Health is WRONG), then the LGBT employees working at every statutorily created Colorado public entity enjoy NO protection or remedy under the CADA for unlawful workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on who they are and whom they love. What ARE other statutorily created public entities, you ask?

  • County governments;
  • Local governments like municipalities;
  • School districts;
  • Any “special district” for
    • Water
    • Sanitation
    • Parks and Recreation
    • Culture and Science like the SCFD;
    • Health Care
    • Fire Protection

In effect, according to Denver Health, the General Assembly only intended to protect a narrow swath of LGBT employees technically employed by the State of Colorado, as opposed to all publicly-employed Coloradans working for its various subdivisions. This interpretation, we submit, would undermine one of the central purposes of the 2015 amendments: to provide LGBT employees throughout Colorado the same rights and remedies against workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation that other protected categories of employees (e.g. race, gender, national origin, religion, age, disability) enjoy under federal law.

Perceptions of absolute immunity foment unlawful conduct. After all, if the General Counsel believes that Denver Health is absolutely immune from CADA lawsuits, what steps would Denver Health’s top leadership take to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws in their decision-making processes?

On September 7, 2016, Denver Health summarily fired its Employee Relations Manager, Brent Houchin, without warning, ending years of distinguished service based on his annual performance evaluations. What happened to Brent is every LGBT employee’s worst [workplace] nightmare: you love your job, your direct supervisor, your mission, your duties, and your team. And then, a new boss who makes his dislike of LGBT people known enters the picture, and less than eight weeks later, you’re summarily and unceremoniously canned (without your direct supervisor’s knowledge and consent, while she was on vacation) for trumped up “violations” that are not violations at all. No doubt, in firing him, Denver Health circumvented its own published workplace policies regarding progressive discipline, patient privacy (HIPAA) violations, employee rehabilitation, and worse, the prevention, investigation, and remediation of employee drug diversion.

Indeed, Denver Health ostensibly fired Brent for recommending “investigative leave” in two suspected (and later substantiated) cases of employee drug diversion, a recommendation that strictly followed Denver Health’s own legally mandated Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplace Policy. This recommendation, says Denver Health, violated the employee’s patient privacy rights, a justification that conflicts directly with Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regulations, federal grant requirements, and its own policies. Likely for these reasons, Denver Health has never defended against our discrimination, retaliation, and whistle-blowing allegations on the merits; rather, Denver Health has instead claimed that the laws we seek to enforce do not apply to its operations given its status as an “exotic legal animal.” Notably, Denver Health also argues that laws protecting whistle-blowers do not apply to its operations either.

We should know soon whether the Colorado Supreme Court will agree to decide this important issue, which affects thousands of LGBT employees throughout Colorado. We will keep you posted, and we hope that you will share this information within the LGBT advocacy community. Denver Health has long enjoyed a reputation for being LGBT-friendly based on the services that several of its PROVIDERS have offered to LGBT patients. This work is important and no doubt, we’re grateful for Denver Health’s work with LGBT patients.

But like every human-powered organization, Denver Health IS its employees. Denver Health could not operate without the dedicated and talented humans who come to work every day. Many LGBT employees choose to work at Denver Health because of its LGBT-friendly reputation. Unfortunately, unless and until the Colorado Supreme Court and/or the Colorado Court of Appeal’s dispenses with Denver Health’s claim of an exalted legal status immune from CADA lawsuits, LGBT employees working at Denver Health today enjoy no legal or practical protection against workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation because of who they are and whom they love.

We (including and especially many decent people at Denver Health) deserve better. We can do better and so, we must. Join us.

Merrily Archer, Esq., M.S.W.