Jennifer Michelle Chavez Legal Fellowship

Picture of Jennifer Michelle Chavez and Jill Weiss in front of 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Jennifer Michelle Chavez is a Latina transgender woman, automotive technician, and pioneering transgender rights advocate in Georgia.

In 2009, Ms. Chavez transitioned on the job in an automotive shop. Despite being the best technician in her shop, Ms. Chavez was taunted by her coworkers, unfairly disciplined by management, and ultimately terminated under suspicious circumstances in early 2010.

Two years before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a landmark decision finding transgender workers are protected by federal sex discrimination laws, Ms. Chavez asked the EEOC to investigate her case claiming she was protected. The EEOC turned Chavez away. Not being deterred, Chavez went back to the EEOC repeatedly over a two-year period insisting that she had a right to have her case investigated. Eventually the EEOC admitted their error and permitted Ms. Chavez to proceed to federal court.

In 2013, Ms. Chavez filed her Title VII lawsuit in a federal trial court in Georgia. Early on, Ms. Chavez’s former employer attempted to get her case booted from court claiming that Ms. Chavez took too long to file her case (a delay caused by the EEOC’s repeated refusal to investigate). In an unprecedented move, the EEOC filed a brief with the court explaining it was the EEOC’s fault that Ms. Chavez had to wait so long to get to federal court and asked the court to equitably toll Chavez’s claims given EEOC’s mistake. The federal court agreed, and greenlighted Chavez’s case.

In Summer 2014, the federal district court dismissed Chavez’s case, claiming that Chavez did not point to sufficient evidence to support her case. Once again, Ms. Chavez did not back down. In November 2014, Ms. Chavez filed an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In her appeal, Ms. Chavez argued that the district court failed to recognize a wide swath of evidence which showed that bias motivated her employer to fire her and urged the 11th Circuit to let her proceed to a jury trial. Ms. Chavez case was eventually selected by the 11th Circuit for oral argument—a rare honor reflecting that the Court believed Ms. Chavez’s case was meritorious and deserved the time of three federal judges in a special proceeding.

On January 15, 2016 the 11th Circuit issued a landmark decision finding that Ms. Chavez had a right to proceed to a jury trial. The Court’s opinion was one of the first federal appeals court decisions in the nation to recognize that transgender people are protected from workplace discrimination under federal sex discrimination laws.

Starting in Summer 2017, TLDEF’s summer legal interns will be named as Jennifer Michelle Chavez Law Fellows in honor of Ms. Chavez’s tireless advocacy, grit, vision, and personal sacrifices made to further transgender rights around the nation.

Jennifer Michelle Chavez Law Fellows are paired with attorneys in TLDEF’s Impact Litigation Program. Each summer, the Jennifer Chavez Law Fellows are to be assigned real substantive work aimed at advancing transgender rights in the United States.