A Transgender Former Nike Contractor Sues, Saying Managers Failed to Protect Them

Jazz Lyles specified they were transgender and wished to be referred to by the pronouns “they/them/their.” But Nike employees allegedly disregarded Lyles’ requests.

Jazz Lyles worked at Nike from May 2017 to September 2018. (Justin Katigbak)

Jazz Lyles, a former computer engineer at Nike's Beaverton headquarters, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sportswear giant.

The lawsuit, filed this week in Multnomah County Circuit Court, alleges Nike and Mainz Brady, an IT staffing firm based in San Mateo, Calif., exposed Lyles to gender identity-based discrimination and harassment and retaliation. (Mainz Brady didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Lyles identifies as transmasculine/nonbinary. That means Lyles was assigned the female gender at birth but identifies with masculinity and as a nonbinary person.

Documents show that before coming to work at Nike as a $62.50-an-hour programmer in 2017, Lyles specified they were transgender and wished to be referred to by the pronouns "they/them/their."

But from the beginning, Nike employees allegedly disregarded Lyles' requests, as WW first reported last year ("Just Say They," Sept. 26, 2018). People on the technical teams on which Lyles worked—which included Nike employees and independent contractors but which reported to Nike managers—allegedly repeatedly used the wrong pronouns, which is known as "misgendering."

Emails and other electronic messages show Lyles politely but firmly communicated with peers and managers, seeking to help them understand why being referred to by the correct pronouns was important. One colleague responded by greeting Lyles, "Hey, girl, what's up?" Another told them that using Lyles' pronouns was against her religion.

Lyles cycled through three assignments, becoming increasingly wounded by co-workers using the wrong pronouns. Eventually, they took medical leave and worked primarily from home before their contract ended last fall. In their lawsuit, Lyles says Nike managers failed to safeguard Lyles' civil rights and blocked them from obtaining a full-time Nike job, as many contractors do.

"Nike had a pattern and practice of turning a blind eye to reported and known harassment," the lawsuit states, "instead blaming the harassed, treating them as the problem and as troublemakers, all the while failing to ever investigate or take corrective action to remedy the harassment."

Many of the assertions in the lawsuit mirror a complaint Lyles filed last year with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, which polices workplaces.

Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter said the company will not comment on Lyles' case but added, "Nike is committed to a culture of diversity, inclusion and respect where everyone can succeed and realize their full potential." In an earlier response to BOLI through its law firm, Stoel Rives, the company dismissed their complaint.

"Lyles was a mediocre [contractor] with a limited skill set," Stoel Rives wrote, noting that a hiring freeze, not discrimination, was the reason they failed to get a full-time job. "Lyles' allegations are without merit."

The BOLI process ended when Lyles' attorney, Shenoa Payne, withdrew the case to file the lawsuit.

A BOLI investigator's interviews with Nike employees who supervised Lyles, however, support Lyles' contention that the company was ill-prepared to integrate a transgender worker.

Paddu Ramachandran, a Nike manager Lyles worked for after their first assignment on the Beaverton campus led to repeated misgendering, told BOLI, "None of us were aware of their preferred pronouns."

Another of Lyles' managers, Allen Harper, agreed with Ramachandran. He told the state investigator that after Lyles raised the issue of misgendering in previous assignments, "we'd started having conversations about it being a problem with Nike Digital as a whole."

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.