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Idaho's failed legal fight against an inmate’s gender affirming surgery nets plaintiffs' attorneys

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Adree Edmo became the first incarcerated person to get court-ordered gender confirmation surgery in July 2020. Now, the team of lawyers that fought for her treatment will be granted nearly $2.6 million in attorneys' fees.

Back in 2017, Edmo’s attorneys sued the Idaho Department of Correction and its health insurance provider to secure gender reassignment surgery for Edmo.

They argued she had life-threatening gender dysmorphia – a condition where a person experiences significant stress over being born in a body that doesn't match their gender identity – and that the surgery was healthcare that should be provided by the state and its former private insurance provider, Corizon.

Edmo’s attorneys argued that not doing so was cruel and unusual punishment. An Idaho district court judge agreed in 2018, before the case was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court.

Then, those circuit court judges agreed, too. In 2019, they found that the state must provide Edmo’s sex reassignment surgery, writing “responsible prison officials were deliberately indifferent to Edmo’s gender dysphoria, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Edmo got that surgery in 2020, was transferred to a women’s prison, and was released from prison July 2021. She was serving a 10-year sentence for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy when she was 22.

Since then, the team of lawyers who represented Edmo sought attorney fees from the losing parties. Late last year, they requested about $2.82 million in fees, saying they had represented Edmo on a “contingency basis,” knowing they may never be compensated.

“Securing competent counsel to represent Ms. Edmo was especially important given the unpopularity of her case ... and the legal landscape in Idaho," they wrote. "Idaho has no state laws that expressly protect transgender people from discrimination and was the first state to try to ban transgender children from playing sports.”

Idaho Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill reduced the attorneys' request to about $2.58 million over several things like vague timesheets and items that can’t be reimbursed, like time talking to the press.

One of Edmo’s attorneys, Amy Whelan with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the court’s decision was a “detailed and thoughtful decision.”

“Federal law requires defendants to pay the reasonable attorney fees and costs of a civil rights plaintiff that proves that her civil rights complaint has been violated, so this order reflects that law,” she said.

Winmill also felt the requested hourly rates for attorneys was reasonable, including $465 an hour for many of the lawyers. Winmill stated that this rare increased payment was warranted, given the unique technicalities in the case, the attorney’s success and the general rates for Boise counsel.

Boise civil rights attorney Howard Belodoff submitted a declaration attesting to the reasonableness of Edmo’s attorney fee request, given that his own rate is $475 an hour.

He said in an interview that it may seem like a lot, but in this case, “it required a lot of expert testimony, and it took an exceptional amount of time, and it also required the primary attorney to devote all her efforts to this particular case.”

Beyond that, he said people should also question the decision of bodies like the state of Idaho in fighting these cases – and accruing these fees.

“They choose to do that, and if they choose to do that, the consequence is: When you lose, you pay. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

Belodoff noted that the state could still appeal Winmill’s attorney fee decision to the 9th Circuit Court.

According to the Associated Press, the Idaho Department of Correction won’t be paying those attorney fees, but instead insurance provider Corizon will pay while the state pays its own attorneys for years of litigation.

Gov. Brad Little issued a statement about the finding, saying, “We were successful in vindicating our public servants and ensuring no public dollars are paid to the former inmate or her lawyers.”

Little did not mention how much time and resources state attorneys spent on this case.

He added that he’s “committed to defending our public servants from baseless legal attacks and ensuring critical public dollars are not diverted away from the priorities of keeping the public safe and rehabilitating offenders.”

“That is why I fought to ensure that the hardworking taxpayers of Idaho are not forced to pay for a convicted sex offender’s gender reassignment surgery, especially when it is contrary to the medical opinions of the treating physician and multiple mental health professionals.”

However, the 9th Circuit Court found that even though Edmo’s doctor and two other physicians agreed with a treatment plan excluding surgery, “general agreement in a medically unacceptable form of treatment does not somehow make it reasonable.”

“It is enough that [her doctor] knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to Edmo’s health by rejecting her request for [gender confirmation surgery] and then never re-evaluating his decision despite ongoing harm to Edmo,” the judges wrote.

Edmo’s case could affect how prisons across the nation handle transgender inmates with gender dysphoria and their medical needs.

For a more in-depth look at Adree Edmo’s case, check out the Mountain West News Bureau podcast Locked

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck
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