Our clients, Angel and Tiffany, recently achieved a significant victory in their multi-year legal battle against a designer who refused to sell them a wedding garment because they are a same-sex couple.
The couple became engaged in 2018. After searching for over a year for just the right wedding outfit, Angel eventually found a white jumpsuit being sold online by a New York City designer. In June of 2019, Tiffany emailed the designer to say that her fiancée had fallen in love with the garment and that she would like to purchase it. In response, the designer refused to sell Tiffany the jumpsuit, stating that she “wouldn’t be able to make a piece for a same-sex wedding. It goes against my faith” and then told the lesbian couple to “reconsider” their marriage plans.
Because the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, Tiffany filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights and reached out to LeGaL for help with the pleadings. LeGaL’s Legal Director, Brett Figlewski, provided extensive pro se assistance and was able to take the case on thanks to a partnership with law firm, Cooley LLP, with the phenomenal team of Kathleen Hartnett, Kaitland Kennelly, Valeria Pelet del Toro, Katelyn Kang, and Ian Shapiro as lead counsel.
After nearly two years, an online hearing was held in July 2022 before Administrative Law Judge Thomas S. Protano. On September 28th, Judge Protano issued a decision and proposed order, which found that the designer unlawfully discriminated against Tiffany on the basis of her sexual orientation when the designer refused to provide Tiffany with a jumpsuit for her same-sex wedding. Judge Protano rejected the designer’s First Amendment claim, finding, among other things, that the NYSHRL was not an unreasonable interference with the designer’s religious freedom, and that the designer’s refusal to sell an already designed jumpsuit for a same-sex wedding was not protected under the First Amendment as an “expressive statement.”
Under Judge Protano’s proposed order, Tiffany and Angel will be awarded $5,000 in compensation for emotional distress, and the designer will be required to pay $20,000 in civil fines and penalties. Though the proposed order is still pending review by the Commissioner of the Division, this case is a remarkable victory for the couple, and for the community, in the face of discrimination cloaked as the free exercise of religion or as free speech.
– James A. Naumann, LeGaL intern, fall 2022