Chicago man sues former employer, union for denying gender-affirming care: ‘I was shattered’

Morgan Mesi says Breakthru Beverage Illinois denied coverage of a bilateral mastectomy and hormone therapy, according to a complaint filed in federal court Thursday.

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Morgan Mesi (right), a 34-year-old transgender Chicago man, speaks alongside attorney Caryn Lederer at a news conference announcing his lawsuit against his former employer for denying him gender affirming care, Thursday, December 14, 2023.

Morgan Mesi (right) a 34-year-old transgender Chicago man, with attorney Caryn Lederer at a news conference announcing his lawsuit against his former employer. The suit alleges that Breakthru Beverage Illinois denied him gender-affirming care.

Violet Miller/Sun-Times

A transgender Chicago man has filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer and union, alleging they denied him gender-affirming care.

Morgan Mesi, a 34-year-old lifelong Chicago resident, said his former employer, Breakthru Beverage Illinois — a liquor distribution company formerly co-chaired by Rocky Wirtz, the former Chicago Blackhawks co-chairman — denied coverage of a bilateral mastectomy, commonly known as “top surgery,” and hormone therapy, according to the complaint filed in federal court Thursday.

Local 3 Liquor and Allied Workers Union and its trustees were also named in the suit for their role in the alleged discrimination.

“This lawsuit is about my right to control my body free from discrimination,” Mesi said at a news conference. “A board of trustees who has never met me should not be the ones deciding if my gender-affirming health care is medically necessary. That decision should be between me and my doctors.”

Mesi started seeking gender-affirming mental health care in November 2016, about a year after he started at the company, according to the complaint. By the end of 2017, Mesi had started seeking hormone therapy and booked a consultation for the mastectomy.

In 2018, he received a “Plan Exclusion Notice,” and a representative for the insurance company later clarified that the company had received a document from the union directing them to deny Mesi’s request because the surgery was deemed “cosmetic.”

His appeal later that year was denied, with a letter from the union’s trustees stating the plan covered mastectomies only when people had cancer, a family history of cancer or similar disease, the complaint states. His attempts to get hormone therapy were also denied, with the union saying the care wasn’t covered by the union plan.

“Reading the letter, I wanted to die,” Mesi said. “I was shattered. I thought my union would protect me, I felt betrayed. Why did they go against the direction of my doctors?”

The complaint also said Mesi’s doctor visits had been covered by insurance until he requested the surgery, after which they were denied. He left the company in 2019.

Despite letters from Mesi’s doctors outlining the care as “medically necessary” and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation finding the company had “likely” acted illegally, Breakthru didn’t change its stance, the complaint states.

The suit claims the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act in denying his care, in addition to forcing him to pay thousands out of pocket and his experiencing suicidal ideation.

Breakthru Beverage Illinois and Local 3 Liquor and Allied Workers Union didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Breakthru Beverage paid nearly $1 million in settlements to employees in 2019 after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found “reasonable cause to believe” it offered Illinois sales employees accounts and territory assignments that “resulted in national origin or race discrimination.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that discrimination against transgender people falls under sex-based discrimination, and a later federal case out of Georgia ruled that denying transgender people health care was also discriminatory.

Several recent cases and government rulings relating to Illinois and Illinois-based insurers have cemented protections for those seeking gender-affirming care.

In a unanimous February 2022 decision, the Illinois Human Rights Commission found that excluding gender-affirming care from employee insurance plans was a violation of Illinois civil rights laws. The ruling came after a transgender woman working for the city of Springfield was denied care for hormone therapy when the same hormones were covered for other people who weren’t transgender.

Later that year, a Washington federal district court ruled that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois violated the nondiscrimination section of the Affordable Care Act when it enacted bans on gender-affirming care on behalf of companies that paid for employee health care, including some care that was given to cisgender people. A class-action lawsuit against the insurance provider is ongoing.

The announcement also comes about a week after Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul signed a brief with 20 other state attorneys general supporting a challenge to Florida’s ban on gender-affirming health care through Medicaid.

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