A cook who claims he was fired from a fancy Westchester, N.Y., restaurant when coworkers discovered he is a biological woman is protected by the state's human rights law, a judge has ruled. State supreme court justice Joan Lefkowitz held that although discrimination against a transgender person is not specifically listed in the law—which does mention racial, religious, and sexual discrimination—it is covered nonetheless.
The ruling means that Eric Buffong's $3 million lawsuit can go forward. "Transgender" is an umbrella term that covers cross-dressers, transsexuals, and other people whose outward appearance doesn't match their gender at birth. Their protected status "really wasn't settled law before this," Louis Ginsberg, Buffong's attorney, said Friday.
His client, a 27-year-old from White Plains, was born Erica but changed his name seven years ago. Buffong was working at the jackets-required Equus restaurant in Tarrytown until 2005, when a coworker found a high school yearbook photo showing him as Erica. He was mocked by fellow employees, his name was changed to Erica on the work schedule, his hours were cut, and he was fired within four months, the lawsuit says.
"Prior to that I was the chef's number 1 guy," Buffong told the Daily News. "Just because I was born a female and I chose to be a male, it's a problem now?"
Castle on the Hudson, the hotel that houses Equus, asked Lefkowitz to dismiss the case, but she noted that courts had found that New York City's human rights law protected transgender people even before that law was amended to specifically include them.
Ginsberg said Lefkowitz's ruling will now apply throughout New York State as well as to Buffong's case. "It's certainly a positive development," he said. Buffong "was very pleased," he added.
The restaurant's lawyer, Robert Pitkofsky, did not return a call seeking comment. Executive chef David Haviland denied that Buffong was fired for being transgender. "We are good people, and we wouldn't do anything that is unscrupulous like that," he told the News.
No court date has been set for the case. (AP)