May 5, 2014
Niagara County Transgender Woman Secures Name Change After Judge Initially Denies Request to Waive Court Filing Fee
Case Illustrates the Importance of Name Changes for Transgender People and Courts’ Obligation to Waive Fees for Those with Financial Hardships
New York, NY- The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) announced a victory today in the case of a transgender woman who was initially denied the ability to change her name in Niagara County because she could not afford the court’s $210 filing fee. A judge rejected her request for a fee waiver – not because she failed to meet income requirements – but simply because it was for a name change. Following TLDEF’s intervention, the Supreme Court of Niagara County reversed its decision, waived the fee and approved a name change for 44-year-old Mikell Puglisi of Youngstown, New York.
In December 2013, Mikell applied to have a legal name change so that she could obtain identity documents that accurately represent her. Having recently transitioned, she had difficulty when presenting her identification to public officials because it listed the wrong name and gender. In a particularly upsetting instance, Mikell was harassed and laughed at by local police during a routine traffic stop that lasted more than an hour.
Because of medical issues, Mikell cannot work and receives public assistance. She lives on a small budget and asked the court to waive the name change filing fee when she decided to change her name. A Niagara County Supreme Court Justice denied her request, ruling that Mikell was not entitled to a fee waiver because fees simply could not be waived for name changes.
TLDEF stepped in on Mikell’s behalf, arguing that the court had made a mistake in ruling that name changes are not eligible for a fee waiver. TLDEF also argued that denying Mikell access to the courts for her name change violated her constitutional rights and subjected her to further harassment and discrimination from having a mismatched name.
“Legal name changes are crucial for transgender people to participate equally in society,” said TLDEF Staff Attorney Noah Lewis. “New York provides fee waivers to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to the courts, regardless of income. Denying Mikell a fee waiver simply because she was seeking a name change was unfair and a clear violation of her rights. No one should be forced to use a name that doesn’t reflect who they are, especially when it opens the door to discrimination.”
“I am so relieved that I can finally bring my legal documents in line with who I am, said Mikell. “Living on a limited income, I could not meet the financial burden associated with changing my name. I appreciate the court reconsidering its previous decision and granting me the fee waiver so that I can move forward with my life.”
In its court filing, TLDEF explained that name changes are required to get any identity documents issued in a person’s preferred name. “Basic transactions require presentation of IDs. These include applying for public benefits such as food stamps, Social Security retirement benefits, Medicare, Social Security Disability Benefits, Medicaid, and public housing. Getting a job can also require professional certifications and background checks, and all employees must fill out the US Citizenship and Immigration I-9 form. Other situations include registering for school, obtaining a photo ID or driver’s license, passport or gun permit, and getting married. Many of these rights, including the right to marry and the right to bear arms, have constitutional implications.”
In addition to TLDEF, the legal team representing Mikell included Lynette Nogueras-Trummer of Nixon Peabody LLP in Buffalo.