(CBS News) — A transgender former Nike contractor is seeking $1.1 million in damages from the sporting goods giant for allegedly allowing gender identity-based harassment.
According to a civil lawsuit filed this week, Nike and Mainz Brady Group, a staffing firm that hired workers for Nike, discriminated against computer engineer Jazz Lyles, who identifies as transmasculine and prefers the pronouns they/them/their. The complaint was filed with Multnomah Circuit Court in Oregon.
During Lyles’ tenure at Nike — from May 2017 to September 2018 — the engineer was repeatedly “misgendered” by coworkers, the complaint said. While Lyles notified management about the issue multiple times, the companies allegedly failed to implement any policies, procedures and trainings around the use of gender pronouns in the workplace.
“When someone refuses to acknowledge a person’s gender identity or insists on referring to them by a gender to which they do not identify (called misgendering), this causes real and significant harm,” read the complaint. “This is particularly true when a person is misgendered repeatedly on a daily basis.”
Nike declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the company “is committed to a culture of diversity, inclusion and respect where everyone can succeed and realize their full potential.”
Mainz Brady did not respond to requests for comment.
Nike allegedly fostered a “boys-club ‘jock mentality'” work culture that was hostile to people who do not fit gender stereotypes, which the complaint said is contrary to the progressive reputation the sporting goods company enjoys with the public. In its “Be True” campaign, Nike hired transgender athletes to promote athletic wear like hoodies and sneakers.
The suit alleged that placing the burden on Lyles to educate colleagues about gender identity caused tension between the engineer and coworkers, who allegedly called Lyles “stupid” and “unstable.” One colleague allegedly said, “I know I’m not supposed to call you ‘she-male.'” Another coworker allegedly chose not to interact with the plaintiff. Still another colleague allegedly said she would not use Lyles’ gender pronouns for religious reasons.
Despite reporting these and separate incidents to Nike and Mainz Brady, neither took action nor conducted an investigation into the matter, according to the suit.
Instead, reports to the companies allegedly resulted in retaliation against Lyles, who was told they could ask for reassignment at the expense of their career or see their work further impeded by coworkers, the complaint said. On one occasion, Lyles was removed three times by a colleague from a Slack channel the engineer required to complete certain work, the complaint said.
On another occasion, after several reports to Nike, the company held a training on proper gender pronouns for Lyles and their coworkers. But the complaint alleged that the training — conducted for the plaintiff’s immediate teammates and not the entire department — was untimely, singled out Lyles and exacerbated their relationship to the team.
“Employers like Nike have a responsibility to present a safe workplace and ensure that employees respect their coworkers’ gender pronouns,” Shenoa Payne, the plaintiff’s attorney, told CBS News.
According to Payne, the misgendering lawsuit against Nike is unique, though it is not the first time the company faced a lawsuit focusing on gender. Last year, four women, alleging it violated state and federal equal-pay laws and fostered a work environment that allowed sexual harassment.
Lyles’ is seeking economic damages in excess of $195,000. The plaintiff is also seeking noneconomic damages in excess of $950,000.