Quick Reads

Transgender rights group’s lawsuit against state unlikely to be resolved until 2024

By: - May 17, 2023 3:54 pm
(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

More than a year could pass before a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination by the state of South Dakota is resolved.

The Transformation Project, a nonprofit advocacy group working on behalf of transgender South Dakotans, filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Department of Health late last year after the department abruptly canceled a contract.

Transgender employee at center of contract controversy pledges to fight on

The Sioux Falls-based organization had earned the federally funded contract to hire and train a community health worker last summer. It hired Jack Fonder, a transgender man, to serve in that role by helping to connect transgender citizens with doctors and services. 

Shortly after a conservative news outlet called out Noem over the contract, however, the state canceled its agreement with the group. A letter from the health department’s Lynne Valenti alleged that The Transformation Project had failed to train Fonder on schedule, among other issues.

The group sued shortly thereafter, arguing that it was compliant with the contract terms, and that the governor’s statements to conservative media showed that the cancellation was directly tied to discrimination against transgender South Dakotans.

The state responded to the lawsuit in early August, demanding a jury trial. 

A scheduling order filed this week in the U.S. District Court of South Dakota set deadlines for action in the case well into next year. The discovery process, which each side of a case uses to gather evidence from the other prior to a trial, was set to end next February. All motions in the case, such as motions to exclude certain statements or pieces of evidence, must be filed by March 7, 2024. 

The filings set the stage for a summer and fall filled with legal fact-finding, including the possibility of sworn statements from Noem and Department of Health Secretary Melissa Magstad, among others, through in-person depositions or written answers to questions. The state of South Dakota, meanwhile, would be able to collect the same from the Transformation Project, Fonder or any expert witnesses the group might call to testify at a trial.

The case will play out with a backdrop of legislation and conversation on transgender rights in South Dakota. The 2023 legislative session, which began within weeks of the lawsuit’s filing date, saw lawmakers pass a bill restricting certain kinds of medical treatment for transgender youth. The year before, lawmakers passed, and Noem signed, a bill barring transgender student athletes from participating on sports teams that don’t align with their sex at birth.



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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.