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May 4, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Will Not Hear Case Concerning Medical Care of Transgender Woman in Prison

The U.S. Supreme Court declined today to hear an appeal on behalf of Michelle Kosilek, a transgender woman who has been denied essential health care while serving a prison sentence in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC). The denial marks the end of the road legally in Kosilek’s lengthy struggle to receive appropriate care while in prison.

“This is a terrible and inhumane result for Michelle,” said Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Rights Project for GLAD. “But it is just a matter of time before some prison somewhere is required to provide essential surgery, meeting the minimal Constitutional obligations of adequate medical care for transgender people in prison.”

GLAD, attorney Joseph L. Sulman, and Goodwin Procter LLP filed a petition for certiorari in March after an en banc decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse two lower court decisions in Kosilek’s favor. The petition asserted that the First Circuit Court of Appeals overstepped its role with its December 2014 en banc ruling that retried the facts of a 2012 trial, and applied the wrong standard of legal review. The petition can be read here. Goodwin Procter attorneys working on the case Abigail K. Hemani, Michele E. Connolly, James P. Devendorf, Jaime A. Santos, and Christine Dieter.

“The treatment of Michelle has been cruel and unusual, according to two lengthy, thoughtful, and closely reasoned judgements,” said Sulman. “The DOC’s behavior has been abominable as they have repeatedly defied their own experts in their eagerness to deny her desperately needed medical attention.”

The cert denial is the culmination of over 20 years of litigation on whether DOC officials have violated Kosilek’s 8th Amendment rights by failing to provide adequate care for her severe gender identity disorder (GID), a condition that all parties agree is a “serious medical need.”  As a result of being denied treatment, Kosilek has self-mutilated and has attempted suicide twice.

The district court decision, written by Judge Mark L. Wolf, found that the DOC engaged in a pattern of “pretense, pretext, and prevarication” to deny her treatment.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts appealed, and on January 17, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals upheld Judge Wolf. The Commonwealth requested and was granted a rehearing of the appeal before the full bench, which then overturned Judge Wolf on December 16, 2014 by a vote of 3-2.