U.S. Veterans File “Justice for LGBTQ Veterans” Lawsuit Against U.S. Department of Defense

Legal Aid at Work, Impact Fund, and King & Spalding

Class Action Lawsuit Seeks Justice for LGBTQ+ Veterans Discharged Under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and Related Policies

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A group of LGBTQ+ veterans discharged under the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (“DADT”) and similar earlier policies filed a class action lawsuit today against the U.S. Department of Defense seeking to end ongoing discrimination perpetuated by their discharge papers. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks the removal of narratives and separation codes that disclose the veteran’s sexual orientation and, when needed, seeks upgraded discharge statuses for tens of thousands of veterans discharged under DADT and its predecessor policies. The Plaintiffs are Sherrill Farrell, Steven Egland, James Gonzales, Jules Sohn, and Lilly Steffanides. The Plaintiffs are represented by the Impact Fund, Legal Aid at Work, and King & Spalding LLP.

According to the Department of Defense, more than 35,000 service members were discharged for their actual or perceived sexual orientation between 1980 and 2011. Many of these veterans received discharge paperwork, including a Form DD-214, that identifies their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Many also received discharge characterizations other than “Honorable” due to their sexual orientation. The discharge paperwork given to these veterans perpetuates discrimination by violating these veterans’ constitutional rights to privacy, due process, and equal protection under the law.

As outlined in the complaint, such discharges have significant long-term effects on the lives of veterans, continuing a cycle of discrimination against LGBTQ+ veterans. A veteran’s DD-214 serves as their primary record of service. For those discharged because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, proving their military service – for instance, in applying to subsequent jobs or applying for certain benefits – effectively amounts to “outing” their sexual orientation due to the discriminatory narratives and/or separation codes on their DD-214. Moreover, many veterans received discharges that were characterized as something other than Honorable and, as a result, are barred from accessing many of the critical benefits available to veterans with Honorable discharges. These include vital veteran services such as health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, funding for higher education, home loan financing, job benefits, and more.

“My family has a long and proud tradition of military service — my father served in the Air Force for more than 20 years and my grandfather was an officer in the Army during World War II,” said Sherrill Farrell (she/her), U.S. Navy Veteran. “Even as a young child, I longed to carry on my family’s legacy. It was an honor to serve in the U.S. Navy, although my service was cut short when I was discharged with an Other Than Honorable status because of my sexual orientation. This was devastating to me and has always made me feel as though my service was less valuable than heterosexual veterans. Today, I am proud of my country and proud of who I am. I feel I have the opportunity to serve my country again by seeking justice for other LGBTQ+ veterans so that we receive the same honor and respect.”

“I have dedicated my life to service, first in the U.S. Marine Corps and today in the Los Angeles Police Department,” said Jules Sohn (she/they), U.S. Marine Corps Veteran. “I believe that part of service is standing up for what is right. That is why I publicly spoke out against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, even though it led to my discharge from the Marine Corps. And that is what I hope to do today by filing this lawsuit – standing up so that other LGBTQ+ veterans are afforded the full dignity and honor for their service and sacrifices for this country.”

“Because of the circumstances and language of my discharge, which served as a painful reminder of the trauma I experienced, I was never able to proudly say that I served my country,” said Steven Egland (he/him), U.S. Army Veteran. “For many years I never disclosed my service in the military. Having an updated DD-214 would bring me so much healing and would restore my own pride in my service to this country. I believe every veteran deserves this, regardless of their sexual orientation. Our government and leaders have long acknowledged that the military’s discrimination against LGBTQ+ service members – and what was done to me – was wrong. The time has come to rectify it by correcting our records.  All of those who served deserve to have documents that reflect the honor in our service.”

“Following my Other Than Honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, which was accompanied by terrible harassment on my ship, I experienced homelessness and shame,” said Lilly Steffanides (they/them), U.S. Navy Veteran. “After many years, I reconnected with the veteran community and do my best to act as a leader and supporter for other LGBTQ+ veterans like me. I am joining this lawsuit because I want justice for my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, and I want my service to my country to be recognized as honorable.”

The currently available discharge upgrade process is burdensome, opaque, expensive, and for many veterans virtually inaccessible. The process not only takes months or years but also requires veterans to prove that an error or injustice warrants updating their discharge papers to the very entity that caused the error or injustice, despite the Government’s own acknowledgement that DADT was discriminatory.

The five Plaintiffs, on behalf of thousands more, are asking that the Government be ordered to remove the narratives and separation codes identifying their sexual orientation from their discharge forms, and upgrade their discharge statuses as needed.

The plaintiffs are represented by Jocelyn Larkin, Lindsay Nako, Fawn Rajbhandari-Korr, and Meredith Dixon of the Impact Fund; Elizabeth Kristen and Lynnette Miner of Legal Aid at Work; and David Willingham, Chelsea Corey, Radha Manthe, and Rachel Yeung of King & Spalding LLP.

A copy of the complaint can be found here.

If you were discharged from the military based on sexual orientation and you are interested in learning more about this lawsuit and/or becoming involved, please contact Legal Aid at Work at [email protected] or leave a voicemail at 415-593-0038 and someone will reach out to you. You can also visit www.justiceforlgbtqveterans.com for more information.

Comments from the legal team

Chelsea Corey (she/her)
Partner, King & Spalding LLP

“While Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed more than a decade ago, its discriminatory effects live on for the tens of thousands of service members who were discharged under this policy and its predecessors. Many were deprived access to the full benefits afforded to heterosexual veterans, including VA loan programs, college tuition assistance, health care, and hiring advantages in federal jobs. King & Spalding is proud to file this lawsuit and seek justice for the Plaintiffs and class. Their service is honorable and deserves recognition.”

Jocelyn Larkin (she/her)
Executive Director, Impact Fund

“The ongoing, long-term discrimination against LGBTQ+ veterans has not been fully addressed by the federal government. Since the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, members of Congress and governmental agencies have acknowledged that the policy was misguided and wrong. Yet, the military has institutionalized this policy in paperwork that acts as a discriminatory marker for an individual’s sexual orientation and bars them from access to benefits they are entitled to as U.S veterans. It is time for the Government to do right by these veterans.”

Elizabeth Kristen (she/her)
Director, Gender Equity and LGBTQ Rights Program, Legal Aid at Work

“Veterans who were wrongly discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” deserve better. They deserve access to benefits, they deserve privacy, they deserve to be respected and acknowledged, and, above all, they deserve to be proud of their honorable service. The Plaintiffs in this case have experienced the barriers of anti-LGBTQ+ policies for far too long and need to have the treatment, access, and support that they rightfully earned for their military service.”

Legal Aid at Work helps people know and assert their workplace rights, and advocates for and enforces employment laws and systems that help people most in need. Learn more at legalaidatwork.org

The Impact Fund is a nonprofit legal foundation that provides strategic leadership and support for impact litigation to achieve economic, environmental, racial, and social justice. The Impact Fund provides funding, offers innovative training and support, and serves as counsel for impact litigation across the country. The organization has served as class counsel in a number of major civil rights class actions.  More information can be found at www.impactfund.org

Celebrating more than 130 years of service, King & Spalding is an international law firm that represents a broad array of clients, including half of the Fortune Global 100, with 1,300 lawyers in 23 offices in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The firm has handled matters in over 160 countries on six continents and is consistently recognized for the results it obtains, uncompromising commitment to quality, and dedication to understanding the business and culture of its clients. More information is available at www.kslaw.com.

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