New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Virginia Federal District Court to Determine Whether Gavin Grimm Case is Moot

On August 2, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals announced that instead of holding oral argument in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit challenging the Gloucester County School Board’s bathroom access policy, it was sending the case back to the district court for a determination whether Grimm’s recent graduation from high school made the case moot.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 14158.  The three-judge panel had tentatively scheduled an oral argument for September to consider yet again whether U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred when he dismissed Grimm’s Title IX sex discrimination claim against the Gloucester County School Board. The circuit panel speculated that its jurisdiction to decide the case may have been ended by Grimm’s graduation, but that it was not clear from the record before the court and the supplemental briefs filed by the parties earlier this summer whether this is so, and the court concluded that more fact-finding is necessary before the issue of its jurisdiction can be decided.

Grimm’s mother filed suit on his behalf against the school board in July 2015, during the summer before his junior year, alleging that the Board’s policy of requiring students to use restrooms based on their biological sex rather than their gender identity violated Grimm’s right to be free of sex discrimination protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The Board moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title IX did not apply to this dispute and that its action did not violate the Constitution.  Judge Doumar ruled on September 17, 2015, in favor of the Board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserved judgment on the 14th Amendment claim, and denied Grimm’s motion for a preliminary injunction to allow him to use the boys’ bathrooms as he appealed the dismissal.  While the case was pending before Judge Doumar, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice filed a joint statement with the court supporting Grimm’s claim that barring him from using the boys’ bathrooms violated the ban on sex discrimination.

Ruling on Grimm’s appeal of the dismissal on April 19, 2016, the 4th Circuit focused on the document issued by the federal agencies, finding that the district court should have deferred to their interpretation of the Title IX regulations, finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of the regulations.  The court reversed Judge Doumar’s dismissal of the Title IX claim, and sent the case back to Doumar to reconsider Grimm’s request for a preliminary injunction.  Reacting to the Circuit’s decision, Doumar issued a preliminary injunction on June 23, 2016, too late to get Grimm access to the boys’ bathrooms during his junior year but potentially ensuring that he could use appropriate bathrooms at the high school during his senior year.  But that was not to be.  Even though Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit refused to stay the preliminary injunction while the case was on appeal, the School Board successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay while it prepared to file a petition to have the Supreme Court review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Thus, as the 2016-17 school year began, Grimm was still barred from using the boys’ bathrooms at his high school.

The Supreme Court subsequently granted the Board’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s decision, continuing the stay of the preliminary injunction, and scheduled an oral argument to take place on March 28, 2017.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump was elected president, took office in January, 2017, and appointed Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General and Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education.  Sessions and DeVos disagreed with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, and on February 22 announced that the Departments of Education and Justice were “withdrawing” the document that had been submitted to the district court and, in effect, taking no position at that time on the appropriate interpretation of Title IX, instead stating that the question of bathroom access in public schools should be decided by the states and localities, not the federal government.  The Supreme Court reacted to this development by cancelling the oral argument, vacating the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit to address the merits of Grimm’s appeal as a matter of judicial interpretation of the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions, there no longer being an executive branch interpretation to which the court need defer.  The 4th Circuit tentatively scheduled an argument to be held in September, but then, after Grimm graduated in June, the parties filed supplemental briefs to update the court on what had happened since it last considered the case.

The School Board argued that the case had become moot because Grimm had graduated. “The School Board argues that, absent any allegation of a ‘particular intention to return to school after graduation,’ this change of status deprives Grimm of a continued interest in the litigation, rendering the case moot,” wrote the court in its brief order issued on August 2.  “The School Board states further that its bathroom policy does not necessarily apply to alumni, and that the issue of whether the policy is applicable to alumni is not yet ripe for adjudication.”  Grimm responded that it was enough that his possible “future attendance at alumni and school-community events” at the high school gave him a continuing concrete interest in obtaining the injunctive relief he was seeking in this lawsuit.  He also pointed out that the School Board’s “noncommittal statement” that the policy did “not necessarily apply” to alumni “falls short of a representation that the Board will voluntarily cease discriminating against” him.

The court does not have jurisdiction of the case unless there is an “actual case or controversy” between the parties. The Supreme Court has established that this means that the plaintiff, Grimm, must have a concrete interest in the outcome, which would mean that the policy he is challenging must actually affect him personally.  “Thus,” wrote the court, “a crucial threshold question arises in this appeal whether ‘one or both of the parties plainly lack a continuing interest’ in the resolution of this case such that it has become moot.”  The court decided that “the facts on which our jurisdiction could be decided are not in the record before us.”  The factual record in this case consists of the sworn allegations that were presented to the district court back in 2015 when it was ruling on the Board’s motion to dismiss the case, when Grimm was but a rising junior at the high school.  The parties’ assertions in their briefs are just that: merely argumentative assertions, not sworn statements of fact or actual testimony submitted in court.  Thus, the 4th Circuit panel decided it was necessary to send the case back to the district court for “factual development of the record by the district court and possibly additional jurisdictional discovery.”  They are not sending the case back for a new ruling on the merits, just for a ruling on the question of mootness after additional fact-finding.  Any determination by Judge Doumar that the case is moot could, of course, be appealed by Grimm, so final resolution of this case may still take some time, and it is possible that the courts will resolve the mootness issue against the Board.

If the mootness issue is decided in Grimm’s favor and the case returns to the 4th Circuit for a ruling on whether the Title IX claim was appropriately dismissed, it may yet provide a vehicle for the ACLU LGBT Right Project and the ACLU Foundation of Virginia, which represent Grimm, to get this issue back before the Supreme Court, although if they are ultimately successful in the 4th Circuit, that would depend on the School Board persisting in seeking Supreme Court review.  However, this issue is being litigated in other places, in some cases involving elementary school students, and it is possible that one of the other cases will get far enough along to knock at the Supreme Court’s door long before the plaintiff has graduated.  Indeed, while this litigation drama was unfolding in Gloucester County, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 30 in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034, that Title IX prohibits a public school from refusing to let transgender students use bathrooms appropriate for their gender identity, so the issue has percolated further elsewhere in the country.  It seems only a matter of time before it gets to the Supreme Court, regardless of what the Trump Administration may say about the issue, unless Congress intervenes by amending Title IX, an outcome that is unlikely unless the Senate Republicans abolish the filibuster rule for ordinary legislation, as Trump has been asking them to do, so far without success.

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Indiana Appeals Court Allows Anonymous Document Changes for Transgender Men

Finding that enforcing a statutory publication requirement for a transgender name change would result in a dangerous “outing” of the applicants, a three-judge panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals unanimously reversed two rulings by the Tippecanoe Circuit Court on August 10 in In re Name Changes of A.L. and L.S., 2017 Ind. App. LEXIS 340, 2017 WL 3429074, holding that the publication requirement should be waived such cases.  The court also ruled that the circuit judge erred in requiring publication of an intent to seek a change of gender marker on a birth certificate, which is not specifically required by statute.

 

An Indiana statute provides that anybody who applies for a name change must publish their intention to do so in a newspaper of general circulation, indicating their existing name and proposed new name.  An administrative regulation provides that a court can exercise discretion to waive the requirement if publication would present a risk to the health or safety of the applicant, and to seal the court record to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.  The August 10 ruling involves two applicants, identified by the court as A.L. and L.S., both transgender men seeking alteration of their official records.

 

On May 11, 2016, A.L. filed a petition for a name change, having previously published his intent to do so in a newspaper, and the trial court granted his petition.  He had been living as a man for two years at that point, and had undergone “medical procedures in line with his transition,” according to the Court of Appeals opinion by Judge John Baker.  At the hearing on his name change, A.L. asked to have his gender marker changed on his birth certificate.  The judge instructed him to publish his intent to change his gender marker in a newspaper and scheduled a new hearing on this request.  A.L., who had been representing himself up to that point, then obtained a lawyer who filed a “motion to correct error,” arguing that Indiana law did not require such a publication for a gender marker change.

 

At the subsequent hearing, A.L. testified about his reasons for seeking the change and presented evidence of his medical transition, but the court denied his motion because he had not published his intention in a newspaper.  The court subsequently ordered A.L. to provide proof of publication before it would issue the requested order.

 

The judge said that although he found the application to be made in good faith, without any fraudulent intent, and that A.L. had presented evidence that “transgender individuals are disproportionately subject to violence based on their status as transgender individuals,” where A.L. feel short, in the judge’s view, was in failing to show that he “is personally at increased risk for violence (other than as a general member of the transgender community) or that this Petition would lead to an increased risk of violence for the Petitioner.”

 

The trial judge rejected the idea that there should be “a general rule that would require no notice for an individual seeking to change their legal gender and have their birth certificate amended,” speculating that this could increase the potential for fraud “in that individuals might be able to seek multiple gender changes in attempts to avoid identification by creditors, governmental actors, or other aggrieved parties without those parties having an opportunity to object or even be aware of said changes.” Thus, the judge concluded, it was in the public interest to require publication both of gender identification changes as well as name changes, even though the statute only specifically addressed name changes.

 

While the trial judge expressed reluctance “to force well-meaning and potentially vulnerable individuals to address intimate and personal issues central to their personal identity in the harsh public light of open court,” he said this was common to anybody who sought “court intervention in the most personal areas of their lives” and noted the judicial preference for court proceedings that are “open” and “transparent” is “well established in American jurisprudence.”

 

L.S. filed his petition for change of name and gender on September 7, 2016, in the same circuit court, and encountered the same response. L.S. had not arranged for any publication of his intentions, and the trial judge ruled that he could not grant the petition unless L.S. presented proof of publication.  According to Judge Baker’s opinion, the trial judge basically repeated the same statements he had made in response to A.L.’s petition.

 

The two cases were consolidated for appeal, and the Court of Appeals totally rejected the trial judge’s reasoning.

 

First, the court pointed out that authority to change gender markers on birth certificates stemmed from its own prior ruling in 2014, not from the statute governing name changes. Instead, it had relied on a different statute that authorized the state’s health department to “make additions to or corrections in a certificate of birth on receipt of adequate documentary evidence.”  In its 2014 ruling, the court had pointed out that “the vast majority of states” had allowed for corrections to be made to birth certificates, including, by that date, for changes of gender, as part of the “inherent equity power of a court of general jurisdiction.”

 

As the legislature had not reacted to the 2014 decision by enacting any new requirements, and there was no specific statutory requirement for advance publication in a newspaper of an intention to request a correction to a birth certificate regarding gender, “it was erroneous to create a requirement where none exists.” As far as the Court of Appeals was concerned, when a petitioner establishes that their request is made in good faith and without fraudulent or unlawful purpose, which the trial court had found to be true as to L.S. and A.L., “no further requirements need to be met and the petition should be granted.”

 

As to the name changes, the court said, the issue was whether the trial court should have waived the statutory publication requirement. “The rule seeks to balance, among other things, the risk of injury to individuals with the promotion of accessibility to court records as well as governmental transparency,” wrote Judge Baker.  The judge quoted the published Commentary in the Indiana statute book, which “notes that the rule ‘attempts to balance competing interests and recognizes that unrestricted access to certain information in Court Records could result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or unduly increase the risk of injury to individuals and businesses.”  The same considerations govern requests to seal a Court Record.  The petitioner must show that leaving the record open to public inspection “will create a significant risk of substantial harm to the requestor” in order to get a judicial waiver.

 

Judge Baker then summarized the evidence L.S. had presented about violence against transgender people, including the significant percentage who had responded to surveys showing workplace harassment, harassment at school, and physical assaults. L.S. had also testified about a transgender friend who had been brutally assaulted on the street, and about the discrimination he had encountered in seeking a work internship, because the way he was identified on his Social Security card did not “match” how he appeared.  L.S. “testified that he believes that if information about his transgender status became public, he would be ‘at great risk of potential harm.’”

 

The trial judge had considered this evidence credible, but nonetheless denied waiver of the publication requirement or sealing of the record because he found that L.S. had not specifically shown that there was an individualized risk to himself, as opposed to the generalized risk to the transgender community as a whole. The Court of Appeals disagreed with this conclusion.

 

Baker wrote, “L.S. provided evidence that, as an out member of the transgender community, he would face a significantly higher risk of violence, harassment, and homicide. He has personally witnessed a transgender friend being violently assaulted because of her gender identity.  He has personally experienced discrimination in the workplace after a discrepancy between the way he looked and the way he was identified by Social Security outed him as a transgender individual.  Publication of his birth name and new name would enable members of the general public to seek him out, placing him at a significant risk of harm.  And in today’s day an age, information that is published in a newspaper is likely to be published on the Internet, where it will remain in perpetuity, leaving L.S.  at risk for the rest of his life.  There was no evidence in opposition to L.S.’s evidence.”

 

The Court of Appeals found that this evidence was sufficient to establish that “public of notice of his petition for a name change would create a significant risk of substantial harm to him. As a result, the trial court should have granted his requests to seal the record and waive publication” under the administrative rule.

 

The court sent the case back to the Tippecanoe Circuit Court “with instructions to ensure that the record of this case remains sealed, and for consideration of L.S.’s petition for a name change.” The court also ordered that as to the petitions for gender marker changes on birth certificates for both petitioners, the trial court should “grant both petitions and issue orders” to the health department to “amend both certificates to reflect their male gender.”

 

 

 

 

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Justice Department Tells 2nd Circuit That Gays Are Not Protected from Discrimination Under Federal Civil Rights Law

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief on July 26 with the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, weighing in on the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination because of sexual orientation.  Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration’s answer is “No.”

 

Title VII lists forbidden grounds for employment discrimination: race or color, religion, sex and national origin. After it went into effect in July 1965, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcement of the statute, and the federal courts quickly took the position that people who encountered discrimination because they were gay or transgender could not pursue a claim under this law.  Both the administrative agency and the federal courts held fast to that position until relatively recently.

 

That consensus began to break down early in this century, first in response to discrimination claims by transgender people, as courts and then the EEOC (in 2012) accepted the argument that discriminating against somebody because they were transitioning or had transitioned was actually discrimination because of sex. The rationale they adopted derived from a 1989 decision by the Supreme Court, which recognized that discrimination against people for failing to comply with the employer’s stereotyped view about how people of a particular sex should behave, dress, or otherwise act, was actually discrimination because of their sex.  The 1989 case involved a woman who was denied a partnership in an accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not sufficiently feminine to meet their image of a “lady partner,” and her immediate boss told her she should get her hair styled and start wearing makeup and jewelry if she wanted to be a partner.

 

By 2015, the EEOC had taken the analysis one step further to cover sexual orientation claims. It recognized that having a same-sex attraction violates gender stereotypes, similarly to the transgender cases, but also drew analogies to cases where courts found that discriminating against an employee for being in an interracial relationship was a form of race discrimination, called associational discrimination.  Further, the EEOC decided that it was really not plausible to distinguish between sexual orientation discrimination and sex discrimination, since both were concerned with treating people differently because of their sex.

 

Until this year, no federal appellate court had accepted these theories, but on April 4, the full bench of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit became the first federal appeals court to rule that Title VII bans sexual orientation discrimination.  Reversing its prior precedents, the court accepted the EEOC’s analysis in a lawsuit by Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who had been denied a tenure-track position by an Indiana community college.  The college decided not to appeal, taking the position that it had not discriminated at all, so the case was sent back for trial to the district court.

 

Meanwhile, however, the same issue was being litigated in other parts of the country. In the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, a sexual orientation discrimination claim by Jameka Evans against a Georgia hospital that had been dismissed by the district court was revived by the court of appeals, but on a narrower theory.  In common with several other circuits, the 11th Circuit will accept Title VII claims from gay plaintiffs who allege that they suffered discrimination because of their failure to conform to gender stereotypes.  In this case, while a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 to affirm the trial court’s rejection of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, the panel sent the case back to the trial court to allow the plaintiff to pursue a sex stereotyping claim.  One member partially dissented, Judge William Pryor (who had been on Trump’s potential Supreme Court list), finding no basis for any Title VII claim by the plaintiff.  Another member of the court agreed to send the case back, but argued that Title VII should be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims.  A third member found that the panel was bound by circuit precedent to reject the sexual orientation claim, but agreed that the plaintiff should have a chance to pursue a sex stereotype claim.  The 11th Circuit denied a petition to reconsider the Evans case “en banc” (by the full bench) a few weeks ago, and Lambda Legal announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to review the panel decision.  Lambda has until the first week of October to file its petition.

 

Meanwhile, however, within the 2nd Circuit, at least two federal district court judges have recently refused to dismiss sexual orientation claims under Title VII, finding that the circuit’s acceptance of the “associational theory” in a race discrimination case means that the court should accept sexual orientation discrimination claims.  Several other district judges have dismissed such claims, concluding that until the court of appeals explicitly overrules its earlier precedents, the trial judges are bound to follow them.  A few months ago, confronted by petitions for en banc review in three different cases, the Circuit announced that it would reconsider the panel decision in Estate of Donald Zarda v. Altitude Express.

 

In Zarda, the district court had dismissed a Title VII claim but allowed the case to go to trial under New York State’s Human Rights Law, which expressly outlaws sexual orientation discrimination. The jury ruled in favor of the employer, although it is questionable whether the jury was properly instructed about how to weigh the evidence.  The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of the Title VII claim. A three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal, while noting that recent developments in the law could justify reconsideration by the full 2nd Circuit bench.  In a case decided by a different three-judge panel at around the same time, Christiansen v. Omnicom, the panel also upheld dismissal of a sexual orientation claim, but sent the case back to the district court for reconsideration as a sex stereotyping claim, and two of the judges joined a concurring opinion suggesting that it was time for the 2nd Circuit to reconsider the sexual orientation issue en banc in an “appropriate case.”  However, after granting en banc review in Zarda, the circuit court denied a petition for en banc review in Christiansen!

 

Briefs were due from the plaintiff’s side in the Zarda appeal during the last week in June. The EEOC, consistent with its interpretation of the statute, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of the Zarda. (Zarda, a sky-diving instructor, died in a diving accident after starting his discrimination case, so the lawsuit is now being pursued by his executors, seeking money damages for the estate.)    Briefs were due by July 26 from the employer and any amicus parties supporting its position.  After some suspense about what the Trump Administration might do, the Justice Department filed its brief right at the deadline.

 

It is somewhat unusual for the government to file an amicus brief in opposition to a position taken by a federal agency, and it is also unusual for the government to file a brief in a case between private parties – a former employee versus a business – but the federal government has a significant interest in this case, and the politics of EEOC v. DOJ are unusual because of the timing. Until this month, the majority of the EEOC Commissioners have been appointees of President Obama.  They decided the key sexual orientation case two years ago by a vote of 3-2, with the Republican commissioners dissenting.  Upon confirmation of Trump’s appointees to fill some vacancies, control of the EEOC will switch over to Republican hands.  But for now, the EEOC continues to pursue sexual orientation discrimination cases under Title VII, and has even filed some new lawsuits this year despite the change of administrations in January.  On the other hand, the Justice Department reflects the views of the new administration, which are consistent with those expressed by 7th Circuit Judge Diane Sykes (also on Trump’s potential Supreme Court list), who wrote a dissenting opinion in the Hively case.

 

Why does the Trump Administration have a strong interest in a case between private parties? Because Title VII has provisions banning sex discrimination in the federal workforce, and because the president’s political base and the Republicans in Congress stand in opposition to outlawing sexual orientation discrimination.  This is clear from the failure of Republican legislators to co-sponsor the Equality Act, a bill that would amend Title VII to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the statutory list of forbidden grounds of employment discrimination.  A few Republicans were co-sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a narrower bill that was pending in Congress from the mid-1990s through Obama’s first term until it was supplanted by the Equality Act, but not enough to call that bipartisan legislation.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act came up for floor votes once in each house of Congress but in different sessions of Congress.  On both of those occasions it received few votes from Republican legislators, and their party’s platform never endorsed it.

 

The Justice Department’s brief, noting the EEOC’s position in the case, states that “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States and its position about the scope of Title VII is entitled to no deference beyond its power to persuade.” And, almost needless to say, the Justice Department under the outspokenly anti-gay Jeff Sessions is not persuaded by any of the EEOC’s arguments.  The brief argues that Congress did not intend to ban sexual orientation discrimination in 1964 when it enacted Title VII and that should be the end of the matter.  The failure of Congress to approve any amendment to add sexual orientation to the law is cited as evidence of continuing legislative intent, and the brief argues that only Congress can change the law.  It argues at length that the theories embraced by the EEOC and the 7th Circuit are mistaken interpretations of the Supreme Court’s rulings on sex stereotyping and associational discrimination, and that there is a distinct difference between sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, despite statements by many federal judges that they have difficulty drawing the line between the two.

 

The 2nd Circuit will not be oblivious to the political nature of the government’s opposition.  The concurring opinion in the Christiansen case, written by 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, virtually endorsed the EEOC’s interpretation of the statute while calling for the circuit to reconsider its earlier precedents.  And a majority of the judges who will sit on the en banc panel were appointed by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and have generally taken a more liberal approach to interpreting Title VII.  The circuit’s earlier precedents that are being reconsidered were issued by three-judge panels at a time when the arguments for allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims were not nearly as well developed as they have been in recent years, and the circuit has accepted the associational discrimination theory in a race discrimination case after those earlier cases were decided.  It is likely to see that theory’s applicability here, as the district judges have commented.  However, if the Supreme Court decides to grant Lambda Legal’s petition to review the 11th Circuit case, it is possible that the 2nd Circuit will hold up on deciding the Zarda appeal until the Supreme Court has spoken.  Interesting timing issues will arise this fall.  The 2nd Circuit argument is scheduled for late in September, before the Supreme Court will begin its fall term and start announcing whether it will grant petitions for review filed over the summer.

 

The brief filed by Altitude Express in opposition to the appeal has raised significant jurisdictional arguments that would give the 2nd Circuit a way out of deciding this appeal on the merits, if the judges are so inclined.  That brief argues that when he filed his initial discrimination charge with the EEOC, Donald Zarda expressly disclaimed making a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, relying instead on the allegation that he suffered discrimination for failing to comply with sex stereotypes.  That was the theory he initially presented in his federal court complaint under Title VII as well, and it was dismissed by the trial judge, who opined that Zarda’s factual allegations were not sufficient for a sex stereotyping claim.  Zarda only pressed a sexual orientation claim under the New York State Human Rights Law.  Thus, Altitude Express argues, he cannot now argue for a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, because the statute requires that any claim first be presented to the administrative agency, and further that any ruling by the court of appeals on that question would be, in effect, an advisory opinion, as the jury has already ruled against his sexual orientation discrimination claim.  There’s no telling how the 2nd Circuit will respond to these arguments, but one suspects that if they had serious doubts about jurisdiction, they would not have granted the en banc petition.

 

In the meantime, however, it is clear that if the Supreme Court grants review in the 11th Circuit Evans case, the federal government, represented by the Solicitor General, will come into the case against the plaintiff, and by then the EEOC will be in Republican control and will probably not be filing a separate brief.  Once again, the Trump Administration is actively disavowing the LGBT-supportive stance that the candidate claimed during the election last year.  The brief was filed just as Trump was tweeting his decision to bar transgender people from military service, which seemed no coincidence.

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South Carolina Supreme Court Finds Some Gays Are Protected from Domestic Violence

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on July 26 in Doe v. State, 2017 S.C. LEXIS 113, that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires the state to provide the same protection against domestic violence to same-sex couples as it provides to different-sex couples.  But a majority of the court sought to achieve this at the expense of the plaintiff in the case, who would not be protected by the court’s decision to invalidate the definitional portion of the state’s domestic violence law pertaining to unmarried cohabiting couples.

While all five members of the court found problems with the existing definition of the class of persons protected by the statute, they were divided about how to remedy the apparent failure of the existing statute to provide protection to many same-sex couples.

The plaintiff, identified in the court’s opinion as “Jane Doe” to safeguard her identity, sought an Order of Protection from the Richland County Family Court following a “domestic violence incident” between her and her “former same-sex partner.”   The trial judge found that she was not entitled to such protection under the state’s Protection from Criminal Domestic Violence Act, as the statutory definition of a “household member” did not, in the court’s view, include same-sex partners who were living together without being married to each other or having a child in common.

Rather than appeal this ruling directly, Doe filed a petition in the state Supreme Court, naming the state as the respondent, invoking the court’s “original jurisdiction” to decide whether a statutory provision violates the constitution. Doe argued that there was a violation of her right to due process of law and equal protection of the law, citing the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

When South Carolina enacted its first domestic violence statute in 1984, its definition of “family or household members” who were protected included “spouses, former spouses, parents and children, persons related by consanguinity or affinity within the second degree, and persons cohabitating or formerly cohabitating.” In 1994 the legislature amended the definition, changing the reference to cohabitation to refer to “a male and female who are cohabitating or formerly have cohabitated.”  Thus, the definition was narrowed, apparently specifically to exclude same-sex couples.   The act was amended several times since then, and a tougher statute called the Domestic Violence Reform Act was passed in June 2015 providing harsher penalties, but through all these amendments and enactments the narrow definition of “cohabiting household members” was largely retained, although the definition was amplified to include “persons who have a child in common.”

Today, of course, as same-sex couples can marry in South Carolina, those who do marry would obtain protection from domestic violence as “spouses.” The issue in this case is that Jane Doe and her former partner were not married.  In one of the opinions, Doe’s alleged assailant is referred to as her “former fiancé.”

When this case was argued before the South Carolina Supreme Court in March 2016, Costa Pleicones was Chief Justice. His term expired at the end of 2016, but he participated as an “Acting Justice” and wrote the court’s opinion for this case. Justice Kaye Hearn concurred in the opinion, and Justice John W. Kittredge concurred in the result without joining the opinion.  Thus, Pleicones’ opinion states the decision of the court, although he speaks as to the details of the analysis only for Justice Hearn and himself.

As Pleicones reads the statutory history, the legislature intentionally narrowed the definition in 1994 to exclude presently or formerly cohabiting same-sex couples from protection, which created an obvious equal protection problem.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not clearly specified the “level of scrutiny” that courts are to apply to determine when unequal treatment of same-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause, “we find,” wrote Justice Pleicones, “the statutory subsections [containing the definition] cannot survive even the most government-friendly, deferential level of scrutiny – the rational basis standard.”

“In this case,” he continued, “we cannot find a reasonable basis for providing protection to one set of domestic violence victims – unmarried, cohabitating or formerly cohabitating, opposite-sex couples – while denying it to others.” He rejected the argument of one of the other justices that the statutory language was ambiguous so the problem could be cured by interpretation.  “The plain language is clear and the intent is unmistakable: the legislative history of the Act unequivocally demonstrates the General Assembly intentionally excluded same-sex couples from the protections of the Acts.”

Having found that the definition violates the Equal Protection Clause, Justice Pleicones turned to the question of a remedy. He found that both of the state’s domestic violence statutes contain severability clauses, under which the court could strike out unconstitutional provisions while otherwise leaving the statute in effect.  “In this case,” he wrote, “the test for severability is met.  Specifically, all provisions of the Acts, save the discriminatory definitions, are capable of being executed in accordance with the legislative intent.  Further, it may be fairly presumed the General Assembly would have passed each Act absent the offending provision, and both Acts contain severability clauses.  Therefore, the remedy for this constitutional infirmity is to sever the discriminatory provision from each Act.  The remainder of each Act – providing domestic violence protection to ‘household member[s]’ defined as a spouse, former spouse, or persons who have a child in common – remain in effect.”

This creates a new problem, however. By stripping out the cohabitation portion of the definition, the court is narrowing the protective scope of the statute to apply only to present or former spouses, or unmarried couples who have a “child in common.”  That would provide protection to married same-sex couples but not to other same-sex couples.  Cohabitants, whether same-sex or different-sex, would lose the protection of the statute.  Arguably, both same-sex and different-sex couples who had a child in common would still be protected, since that part of the definition referred to “persons” rather than to “a male and a female.”

Two members of the five member court wrote separate opinions because of their discomfort with this result.

Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty, while agreeing that the “household member” definitions as they stand violate Doe’s Equal Protection rights, disagreed that the solution was to sever the offending portions of the definitional provisions. “Instead,” he wrote, “in order to remain within the confines of the Court’s jurisdiction and preserve the validity of the Act, I would declare the sections … unconstitutional as applied to Doe.”  He noted that in her petition Doe claimed that the statutes were both unconstitutional on their face and as applied to her, but, he wrote, “I would find that Doe can only utilize an ‘as-applied’ challenge.”

A facial challenge, he explained, would work only if the statutes had no constitutionally valid application as written. In this case, he argued, the laws were valid as applied to the other kinds of family arrangements described in the definitional provisions.  The constitutional flaw, as to which he agreed with Justice Pleicones, was in specifically excluding protection for cohabiting same-sex couples while extending it to different-sex couples.  He found that the definitional sections are “facially valid” because they do “not overtly discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Though not an all-inclusive list, the statutes would be valid as to same-sex married couples, opposite-sex married couples, and unmarried opposite-sex couples who live together or have lived together.  Because there are numerous valid applications of the definition of ‘household member,’ it is not ‘invalid in toto.’”

Turning to the “as-applied” challenge, Justice Beatty concluded that Doe met her burden of “showing that similarly situated persons received disparate treatment.” Although she was arguing for heightened scrutiny in this case, Beatty concluded that was not necessary, as “she seems to concede that the appropriate standard is the rational basis test” and, he concluded, “the definition of ‘household member’ as applied to Doe cannot even satisfy the rational basis test.” Excluding same-sex couples from protection “‘bears no relation to the legislative purpose of the Acts, treats same-sex couples who live together or have lived together differently than all other couples, and lacks a rational reason to justify this disparate treatment.”  He referred to statistical evidence concerning domestic violence to show that the need for the statute was just as great for unmarried same-sex couples as for the other categories that were covered by the statutory language.  “There is no reasonable basis,” he concluded, “and the State has offered none, to support a definition that results in disparate treatment of same-sex couples who are cohabiting or formerly have cohabited.”

He observed that the remedy embraced by the majority “is unavailing since the constitutional infirmity still remains. Specifically, protection afforded by the Acts would still be elusive to Doe and would no longer be available to opposite-sex couples who are cohabiting or formerly have cohabited.  Yet, it would be available to unmarried persons such as former spouses (same-sex or not) and persons (same-sex or not) with a child in common.  Absent an ‘as-applied’ analysis, the ‘household member’ definitional sections must be struck down.  As a result, the Acts would be rendered useless.  Such a drastic measure is neither necessary nor desired.”

Thus, he would not sever the definitional sections, and would not invalidate the Acts in their entirety, since those steps would leave many victims of domestic violence in South Carolina totally unprotected. Instead, he would declare the definitional sections unconstitutional as applied to Doe and others similarly situated.  Thus, the family court could not refuse to provide protection to unmarried same-sex cohabitants, because to do so would violate their constitutional right to equal protection.

Justice John Cannon Few embraced a different approach. Unlike the other members of the court, he found the statutory definitions to be sufficiently ambiguous that the court would be justified in avoiding a constitutional ruling entirely by interpreting the statute to protect unmarried same-sex couples.  “Jane Doe, the State, and all members of this Court agree to this central point,” he wrote: “if the Acts exclude unmarried same-sex couples from the protection they provide all other citizens, they are obviously unconstitutional.”  But he would not declare them unconstitutional for two reasons: “First, Doe and the State agree the Protection from Domestic Abuse Act protects Doe, and thus, there is no controversy before this Court.  Second, Doe and the State are correct: ambiguity in both Acts – particularly in the definition of household member – requires this Court to construe the Acts to provide Doe the same protections they provide all citizens, and thus, the Acts are not unconstitutional.”

He pointed out that this “original jurisdiction” action was a suit by Doe against the state. But the state agreed with her, or at least the attorneys representing the state in the current action agree with her. The problem is that the family court wrongly interpreted the statutes to deny her relief based on the definitional sections.  But she didn’t appeal that ruling, in which her former partner was the defendant.  Since the state now agrees with her that she should be protected, Justice Few wrote, the court should interpret the statute to provide that protection for the future.

Justice Few observed that South Carolina precedent requires courts to avoid declaring a statute unconstitutional unless it is absolutely necessary to do so, unless “its repugnance to the Constitution is clear beyond a reasonable doubt.” Justice Few went through a convoluted explanation of why he found the statutory definition to be ambiguous, mainly due to changes in wording and emphasis over the course of successive amendments, and argued that the majority was misled by its reliance on legislative history and the presumed intent of the legislature when it amended the original definitions.  “If the statutory text truly was clear and unambiguous,” he wrote, “the majority would not need to consider legislative history to determine the motives of the General Assembly.  The statutory text is not clear, and therefore, this Court must find a way to construe the Acts as constitutional.  I respectfully believe Doe and other members of same-sex unmarried couples are covered by the Acts and the Acts are therefore constitutional.”

Now it is up to the legislature to sort things out. The opinion is sufficiently complicated that the initial Associated Press report about the opinion fails to explain how the Court’s remedy leaves unmarried couples in South Carolina unprotected – not a result, presumably, that the legislature would favor.  The ball is now back in the legislative forum to repair the problem.

 

 

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Ohio Appeals Court Upholds Conviction of HIV-Positive Gay Man for Felonious Assault in Non-Disclosure Case

The 9th District Court of Appeals of Ohio affirmed a felonious assault conviction and five-year prison sentence for Jeffrey A. Boatright, a gay man who was convicted by a jury of violating the section of the state’s felonious assault statute pertaining to HIV-positive individuals who fail to disclose their status prior to engaging in sex.  State of Ohio v. Boatright, 2017-Ohio-5794, 2017 Ohio App. LEXIS 2854, 2017 WL 2979147 (July 12, 2017).  The jury heard conflicting stories about how and when Boatright learned that he was HIV-positive and decided to believe the prosecution’s witnesses, who directly contradicted Boatright’s claim that he did not know he was HIV-positive when he had sex with the victim, a gay man identified in the opinion by Presiding Judge Diana Carr as “M.H.”

Summarizing the trial record, Judge Carr wrote that “prior to November 13, 2014, M.H. and Boatright were just friends and would text each other often. Because M.H. was having problems with his boyfriend and wanted to have ‘fun,’ he contacted Boatright and went over to his house around 11 p.m. on November 13, 2014.  The two had a few alcoholic drinks and watched TV.  Boatright then asked M.H. to give him a massage.  M.H. declined because he knew Boatright had a boyfriend.  However, M.H. came to discover that Boatright and his boyfriend were having problems.  Shortly thereafter, M.H. left and went downtown, but, before long, returned to Boatright’s house.  Boatright began to make sexual advances and M.H. began to ask Boatright about his sexual history.  Boatright indicated that he last had sex with someone in September 2014, was tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, shortly thereafter, and that the result ‘was negative.’  After that discussion, the two engaged in unprotected, consensual anal and oral intercourse; Boatright penetrated M.H. orally and anally.  Afterwards, M.H. went home and the two never engaged in sex again.  M.H. testified that, prior to that night, M.H.’s last HIV test was the summer of 2013, and it was negative.  Approximately a week and a half after M.H. and Boatright had sex, M.H. began to develop flu-like symptoms.  About a week after that, M.H. presented to an emergency room as he was still suffering from flu-like symptoms.  Based upon his history and symptoms, doctors ordered an HIV test.  Both the preliminary and confirmatory tests came back positive.”

Continued Carr, “M.H. contacted Boatright while M.H. was waiting for his test results and told Boatright there was a possibility he gave M.H. HIV. Boatright again stated he was HIV negative and said he was sorry M.H. had to go through the situation.  After M.H. got his results, he again spoke to Boatright.  Boatright kept saying how sorry he was but never stated that he had been deceptive about his HIV status.  However, at the end of their conversation, M.H. testified that Boatright stated, ‘I’m sorry, man.  I lied.’  After M.H. received his test results, he kept stating that he did not want to live life having HIV.  In light of those statements, as a precaution, M.H. was admitted to a psychiatric unit for observation.”

The prosecution presented evidence that Boatright had been an occasional compensated plasma donor at CSL Plasma, during which he filled out intake forms in which he failed to disclose, as required by the questions, that he was a man who had sex with other men, which would have caused him to be deferred as a donor. CSL, as required by regulations, tested all donations for HIV.  Boatright made a donation on August 22, 2011, that tested positive for HIV.  CSL sent him a certified letter, but it was returned by the post office for wrong address.  They also called and left a voicemail for him to call back, but received no response.  Shortly thereafter, as required by public health regulations, CSL reported this HIV-positive test result to the Ohio Disease Reporting System, and Health Department employees attempted to contact Boatright, leaving a voicemail on September 2, 2011, and sending a letter on September 6, 2011.  The letter was returned.  Two appointments were made for Boatright to come to the Health Department, but he failed to show up.  Following standard procedure, the case was closed.  However, Boatright showed up at CLS Plasma on December 12, 2012, to make another donation.  Bonnie Chapman, a registered nurse who worked there, testified that at that time she counseled Boatright about his prior test result and gave him literature, and documented the session in an electronic record.  She confirmed that she told him on December 12, 2012, that he was HIV-positive, and she gave him the appropriate forms.  “Ms. Chapman testified that, from her recollection, when she told Boatright he had tested positive for HIV, she was expecting a reaction but did not get one.  Instead, he said, ‘Okay; and he left.’”

Another witness, a registered nurse at the Health Department referred to in the opinion as “Mr. Osco,” testified that Boatright came to the Health Department in December 2014 requesting HIV testing “because he was informed that one of his sexual contacts was hospitalized with an HIV diagnosis, and because the home test Boatright took thereafter was positive. Mr. Osco indicated that both Boatright’s preliminary and confirmatory HIV tests were positive.  Mr. Osco also discovered the prior 2011 positive test result while researching Boatright in the Ohio Disease Reporting System.  When Mr. Osco informed Boatright of the results in early 2015, Boatright became emotional and seemed very sincere.  Boatright told Mr. Osco that he had been in a relationship for two years and the only other person he had sexual contact with was M.H.  Boatright declined to name his partner, but indicated that he had told the partner about the possibility Boatright had HIV and his partner had thereafter tested negative.  Mr. Osco testified that he informed Boatright of the prior positive result, and Boatright maintained that he was never contacted by anyone about it.”

However, during his own testimony, Boatright basically admitted that he had lied to Mr. Osco. He testified that “his partner, who he was dating at the time he engaged in sexual conduct with M.H., testified positive for HIV in March 2013.  The parties also entered into a stipulation with respect to this fact.  Boatright stated that, after he learned of the diagnosis, the two men waited to have sex until after his boyfriend’s viral load was undetectable and also used condoms.  Boatright acknowledged that he lied to Mr. Osco when Boatright told Mr. Osco that his partner was negative for HIV.”

As for the sex with M.H., Boatright admitted that they engaged in unprotected sex. “He stated that he did not use a condom because he thought he was HIV-negative.  He acknowledged that he and M.H. discussed their respective HIV statuses that night,” and he essentially confirmed M.H.’s testimony about his contacting Boatright, which had prompted Boatright to test himself and then seek testing from the Health Department.

The statute under which Boatright was tried, R.C. 2903.11(B)(1), states that “no person, with knowledge that the person has tested positive as a carrier of a virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, shall knowingly engage in sexual conduct with another person without disclosing that knowledge to the other person prior to engaging in the sexual conduct.” Another section of the statute states that “a person acts knowingly, regardless of his purpose, when he is aware that his conduct will probably cause a certain result or will probably be of a certain nature.  A person has knowledge of circumstances when he is aware that such circumstances probably exist.”

The major point of contention in the case, of course, was whether Boatright could be charged with criminal liability based on his state of knowledge about his HIV status at the time he had sex with M.H. on November 13, 2014. He had tested positive in 2011 when donating plasma, but he claimed he had never been notified.   He also made much of the fact that he either worked for or volunteered at the Akron AIDS Collective beginning in 2008, in which role he was an AIDS outreach worker involved in counseling about prevention and detection of HIV, and he claimed that in that connection he was regularly tested for HIV and had tested negative.  He was aware that the man he was dating tested positive in March 2013, but he asserted that they did not resume having sex until his partner’s HIV load was undetectable and they used condoms.  His case depended on his testimony that he genuinely thought he was HIV-negative as of November 13, 2014, and that he first learned he was positive when M.H. contact him, leading to his home test followed by the Health Department test.  Set against this was the testimony by Nurse Chapman that she had counseled Boatright about his HIV status on December 12, 2012, which Boatright denied in court, and Mr. Osco’s testimony confirming that a record of Boatright’s 2011 positive test result was in the Ohio reporting database.

In appealing his conviction and sentence, Boatright argued first that the statute was unconstitutional, but his attorney had not raised a constitutionality objection during the trial, so the appeals court found this argument to have been waived. Boatright contended that the trial judge should have dismissed the case rather than sending it to the jury, on grounds of insufficient evidence for a conviction, but the appeals court rejected this out of hand, finding that in sorting through the contradictory evidence, the jury could reasonably have reached the conclusion that Boatright knew about his HIV-positive status and lied to M.H. before they had sex.  The court emphasized that Boatright even admitted during his testimony to having lied more than once, including when he filled out plasma donation forms and failed to disclose that he was a sexually active gay man who should have been deferred as a donor.  He claimed he did this because he was opposed to the categorical exclusion of gay men as donors, and that he was altruistically donating because “he wanted to help people and did not think that his sexual orientation should prevent him from donating.”

“After a thorough, independent review of the record,” wrote Judge Carr, “we conclude that the jury did not lose its way in finding Boatright guilty of felonious assault. The jury was presented with two competing views of the evidence.  Ms. Chapman clearly testified that she informed Boatright in 2012 that he had tested positive for HIV.  Boatright denied that he ever received that information and averred that he had no knowledge that he had tested positive for HIV prior to engaging in sexual conduct with M.H.  Boatright testified about his work in the community to prevent and educate people about HIV and AIDS and about his knowledge of the importance of testing and receiving prompt treatment.  He also presented Mr. Osco’s testimony which, if believed, could evidence that Boatright was surprised by the HIV diagnosis in 2015.  However, the jury also heard about the multiple instances in which Boatright lied.  He lied on the CSL Plasma questionnaires and to Mr. Osco about Boatright’s partner’s HIV status.  Additionally, M.H. testified that, following his diagnosis, Boatright apologized for lying.” The court refused to overturn the jury’s verdict “on a manifest weight of the evidence challenge merely because the trier of fact opted to believe the testimony of a particular witness,” wrote Carr.  “Under these circumstances, and in light of the argument made on appeal, we cannot say that the trier of fact lost its way and committed a manifest miscarriage of justice in finding Boatright guilty of felonious assault.”

The court also rejected Boatright’s challenge to the jury instructions on the issue of knowledge, finding that the trial judge’s charge paraphrasing the statute did not constitute “reversible error,” even if the statute was less than ideally phrased. The court also rejected Boatright’s challenge to the length of his sentence, observing that the range provided by the statute was between two and eight years, so a five-year sentence was comfortably within the range.  The court also pointed out that Boatright had failed to present a full record in support of his argument that the sentence was excessive, noting that “the presentence investigation report, the statements by Boatright’s friends, and the victim impact statement, which the trial court considered in sentencing Boatright, have not been included in the record on appeal.”  It is the appellant’s responsibility to provide this kind of information to the appeals court.  “This Court has consistently held that, where the appellant has failed to provide a complete record to facilitate appellate review, we are compelled to presume regularity in the proceedings below and affirm the trial court’s judgment.”  The court also rejected Boatright’s argument that his trial attorney had presented an ineffective defense by failing to raise a constitutional objection to the statute, pointing out that another district of the court of appeals had recently rejected a constitutional argument attack on the statute.  Given the strong presumption of constitutionality accorded to statutes, and the lack of any legal authority cited by Boatright to support the claim that it was viable argument, the court was unwilling to fault his trial attorney for failing to raise such an objection.  Similarly, the court was unwilling to credit the argument that the attorney was ineffective for failing to object to the length of his sentence at the time it was imposed, again because Boatright did not support documentation to the appeals court that could be the basis for a review of the sentence.

Boatright’s appellate counsel is James K. Reed.

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Supreme Court May Consider Whether Federal Law Already Outlaws Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Lambda Legal has announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination because of sex, also bans discrimination because of sexual orientation. Lambda made the announcement on July 6, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, announced that the full circuit court would not reconsider a decision by a three-judge panel that had ruled on March 10 against such a claim in a lawsuit by Jameka K. Evans, a lesbian security guard who was suing Georgia Regional Hospital for sexual orientation discrimination.

The question whether Title VII can be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims got a big boost several months ago when the full Chicago-based 7th Circuit ruled that a lesbian academic, Kimberly Hively, could sue an Indiana community college for sexual orientation discrimination under the federal sex discrimination law, overruling prior panel decisions from that circuit.  The 7th Circuit was the first federal appeals court to rule in favor of such coverage.  Lambda Legal represented Hively in her appeal to the 7th Circuit.

Title VII, adopted in 1964 as part of the federal Civil Rights Act, did not even include sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the bill that came to the floor of the House of Representatives for debate. The primary focus of the debate was race discrimination. But a Virginia representative, Howard Smith, an opponent of the bill, introduced a floor amendment to add sex.  The amendment was approved by an odd coalition of liberals and conservatives, the former out of a desire to advance employment rights for women, many of the later hoping that adding sex to the bill would make it too controversial to pass. However, the amended bill was passed by the House and sent to the Senate, where a lengthy filibuster delayed a floor vote for months before it passed without much discussion about the meaning of the inclusion of sex as a prohibited ground for employment discrimination.  (The sex amendment did not apply to other parts of the bill, and the employment discrimination title is the only part of the 1964 Act that outlaws sex discrimination.)

Within a few years both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal courts had issued decisions rejecting discrimination claims from LGBT plaintiffs, holding that Congress did not intend to address homosexuality or transsexualism (as it was then called) in this law. The judicial consensus against coverage did not start to break down until after the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision on Ann Hopkin’s sex discrimination lawsuit against Price Waterhouse.  The accounting firm had denied her partnership application.  The Court accepted her argument that sex stereotyping had infected the process, based on sexist comments by partners of the firm concerning her failure to conform to their image of a proper “lady partner.”

Within a few years, litigators began to persuade federal judges that discrimination claims by transgender plaintiffs also involved sex stereotyping. By definition a transgender person does not conform to stereotypes about their sex as identified at birth, and by now a near consensus has emerged among the federal courts of appeals that discrimination because of gender identity or expression is a form of sex discrimination under the stereotype theory.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed its position as well, following the lead of some of the court decisions, in 2012.

Advocates for gay plaintiffs also raised the stereotype theory, but with mixed success. Most federal circuit courts were unwilling to accept it unless the plaintiff could show that he or she was gender-nonconforming in some obvious way, such as effeminacy in men or masculinity (akin to the drill sergeant demeanor of Ann Hopkins) in women.  The courts generally rejected the argument that to have a homosexual or bisexual orientation was itself a violation of employer’s stereotypes about how men and women were supposed to act, and some circuit courts, including the New York-based 2nd Circuit, had ruled that if sexual orientation was the “real reason” for discrimination, a Title VII claim must fail, even if the plaintiff was gender nonconforming.  Within the past few years, however, several district court and the EEOC have accepted the stereotype argument and other arguments insisting that discrimination because of sexual orientation is always, as a practical matter, about the sex of the plaintiff.  This year, for the first time, a federal appeals court, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, did so in the Hively case.  A split among the circuits about the interpretation of a federal statute is listed by the Supreme Court in its practice rules as the kind of case it is likely to accept for review.

The Supreme Court has been asked in the past to consider whether Title VII could be interpreted to cover sexual orientation and gender identity claims, but it has always rejected the invitation, leaving in place the lower court rulings.

However, last year the Court signaled its interest in the question whether sex discrimination, as such, includes gender identity discrimination, when it agreed to review a ruling by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the district court should not have dismissed a sex-discrimination claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal money.  The 4th Circuit held in Grimm’s case that the district court should have deferred to an interpretation of the Title IX regulations by the Obama Administration’s Department of Education, which had decided to follow the lead of the EEOC and federal courts in Title VII cases and accept the sex stereotyping theory for gender identity discrimination claims. Shortly before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case, however, the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration interpretation, pulling the rug out from under the 4th Circuit’s decision.  The Supreme Court then canceled the argument and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit, where an argument has been scheduled for this fall on the question whether Title IX applies in the absence of such an executive branch interpretation.

Meanwhile, the Title VII issue has been percolating in many courts around the country. Here in New York, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has had several recent panel decisions in which the judges have refused to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims because they are bound by earlier decisions of the court to reject them, although in some cases they have said that the gay plaintiff could maintain their Title VII case if they could show gender nonconforming behavior sufficient to evoke the stereotype theory. In one of these cases, the chief judge of the circuit wrote a concurring opinion, suggesting that it was time for the Circuit to reconsider the issue by the full court.  In another of these cases, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the court recently granted a petition for reconsideration by the full bench, appellants’ briefs and amicus briefs were filed late in June, and oral argument has been scheduled for September 26.  The EEOC as well as many LGBT rights and civil liberties organizations and the attorneys general of the three states in the circuit have filed amicus briefs, calling on the 2nd Circuit to follow the 7th Circuit’s lead on this issue.

This sets up an interesting dynamic between the 11th Circuit case, Evans, and the 2nd Circuit case, Zarda.  Lambda’s petition for certiorari (the technical term for seeking Supreme Court review) is due to be filed by 90 days after the denial of its rehearing petition by the 11th Circuit, which would put it early in October, shortly after the 2nd Circuit’s scheduled argument in Zarda.  After Lambda files its petition, the Respondent, Georgia Regional Hospital (perhaps, as a public hospital, represented by the state attorney general’s office), will have up to 30 days to file a response, but this is uncertain, since the hospital failed to send an attorney to argue against Evans’ appeal before the 11th Circuit panel.  Other interested parties who want the Supreme Court to take or reject this case may filed amicus briefs as well.  If Lambda uses all or virtually all of its 90 days to prepare and file its petition, the Supreme Court would most likely not announce whether it will take the case until late October or November.  If it takes the case, oral argument would most likely be held early in 2018, with an opinion expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

That leaves the question whether the 2nd Circuit will move expeditiously to decide the Zarda case?  Legal observers generally believe that the 2nd Circuit is poised to change its position and follow the 7th Circuit in holding that sexual orientation claims can be litigated under Title VII, but the circuit judges might deem it prudent to hold up until the Supreme Court rules on the Evans petition and, if that petition is granted, the 2nd Circuit might decide to put off a ruling until after the Supreme Court rules.  In that case, there will be no change in the 2nd Circuit’s position until sometime in the spring of 2018, which would be bad news for litigants in the 2nd Circuit.  Indeed, some district judges in the Circuit are clearly champing at the bit to be able to decide sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, and two veteran judges have bucked the circuit precedent recently, refusing to dismiss sexual orientation cases, arguing that the 2nd Circuit’s precedents are outmoded.  A few years ago the 2nd Circuit accepted the argument in a race discrimination case that an employer violated Title VII by discriminating against a person for engaging in a mixed-race relationship, and some judges see this as supporting the analogous argument that discriminating against somebody because they are attracted to a person of the same-sex is sex discrimination.

The 2nd Circuit has in the past moved to rule quickly on an LGBT issue in a somewhat similar situation.  In 2012, cases were moving up through the federal courts challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had been held unconstitutional by several district courts.  A race to the Supreme Court was emerging between cases from Boston (1st Circuit), New York (2nd Circuit), and San Francisco (9th Circuit).  The Supreme Court received a petition to review the 1st Circuit case, where GLAD represented the plaintiffs.  The ACLU, whose case on behalf of Edith Windsor was pending before the 2nd Circuit, filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to leapfrog the district court and bring the issue directly up to the highest court.  After the ACLU filed its petition, the 2nd Circuit moved quickly to issue a decision, and the Supreme Court granted the petition.  Meanwhile, Lambda Legal, representing the plaintiff whose case was pending in the 9th Circuit, had filed its own petition asking the Supreme Court to grant review before the 9th Circuit decided that appeal.  It was all a bit messy, but ultimately the Court granted the ACLU’s petition and held the other petitions pending its ultimate decision, announced on June 26, 2013, declaring DOMA unconstitutional.  If the 2nd Circuit moves quickly, it might be able to turn out an opinion before the Supreme Court has announced whether it will review the Evans case, as it did in 2012 in the DOMA case (although that was just a panel decision, not a ruling by the full circuit bench.)  The timing might be just right for that.

Another concern, of course, is the composition of the Supreme Court bench when this issue is to be decided. At present, the five justices who made up the majority in the DOMA and marriage equality cases are still on the Court, but three of them, Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote those opinions), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, are the three oldest justices, and there have been rumors about Kennedy considering retirement.  Donald Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Neil Gorsuch, filling the seat previously occupied by arch-homophobe Antonin Scalia, immediately showed his own anti-LGBT colors with a disingenuous dissenting opinion issued on June 26 in a case from Arkansas involving birth certificates for the children of lesbian couples, and it seems likely that when or if Trump gets another appointment, he will appoint a person of similar views.  Kennedy, who turns 81 this month, has not made a retirement announcement and has hired a full roster of court clerks for the October 2017 Term, so it seems likely he intends to serve at least one more year.  There is no indication that Ginsburg, 84, or Breyer, 79 in August, plan to retire, but given the ages of all three justices, nothing is certain.

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New Jersey Court Grants Name Change to Trans Teen in Case of “First Impression”

In what the court characterized as a matter of “first impression in this state,” New Jersey Superior Court Judge Marcia Silva granted a transgender teenager a change of name from Veronica to Trevor on March 17. “At the parties’ request,” wrote Judge Silva, “this court has used the parties’ real names.  It was also Trevor’s desire that his name be used in this opinion.”  The opinion was approved for publication on June 28.  The case is Sacklow v. Betts, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 85, 2017 WL 2797437 (Middlesex County).

While this may have been a case of first impression in New Jersey in terms of published court opinions, Trevor is not the first transgender minor to get a court-approved name change. Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia whose lawsuit against his school district to gain appropriate restroom access is still pending before the federal appeals court in Richmond even though he recently graduated from Gloucester County High School, received a legal name change, as have some other transgender teens who are involved in litigation against their schools.

The case was originally contested. Trevor’s parents were divorced in 2011 and have joint custody, although Trevor lives with his mother, Janet Sacklow.  His father, Richard Betts, consented to Trevor beginning hormone treatments in 2014, first to suppress menstruation and then, in 2016, testosterone to begin masculinizing his body.  However, Richard was opposed to the name change.  Janet filed the petition seeking the name change on Trevor’s behalf on September 12, 2016, naming Richard as the defendant.  He did not drop his opposition until after he heard Trevor testify during a hearing on March 7.

The biggest issue for Judge Silva was whether the court had any judgment to exercise in this case once the consent of both parents had been obtained. When an adult petitions for a name change, New Jersey law dictates that the court should grant the change unless there is some public interest in denying it, usually based on a finding that it is being done to perpetrate a fraud on creditors or to avoid criminal prosecution.  Unless one of those complicating factors is present, the court is normally not required to make any finding as to whether the name change is in the best interest of the applicant.

A quarter-century ago, in the case of Matter of Eck, 245 N.J. Super. 220 (App. Div. 1991), a New Jersey trial judge refused to grant a transgender adult’s petition for a name change, holding that “it is inherently fraudulent for a person who is physically a male to assume an obviously ‘female’ name for the sole purpose of representing himself to future employers and society as a female.” The Appellate Division reversed this ruling, stating that “a person has a right to a name change whether he or she has undergone or intends to undergo a sex change through surgery, has received hormonal injections to induce physical change, is a transvestite, or simply wants to change from a traditional ‘male’ first name to one traditionally ‘female’ or vice versa.”  In other words, where an adult is concerned, the court has limited discretion to deny a name change, and in New Jersey, at least since 1991, it has been established that a name change to accord with gender identity is not deemed fraudulent as such.

The issue for minors is different, Judge Silva explained. There is a statute governing name changes for minors that has some factual inquiries as prerequisites similar to those governing adults, which did not seem to apply in Trevor’s case.  “It is uncontested,” wrote Silva, “that Trevor is not doing this with the purpose to defraud creditors or avoid criminal prosecution nor has Trevor ever been involved with the criminal justice system.”

But most name change petitions for minors involve situations where the parents are divorcing and the mother, who may have primary residential custody, is planning to assume her maiden name and wants her child to have the same last name as her. In such cases, where the father may be opposed, the court has to referee the situation by figuring out whether it is in the child’s best interest for a change of surname, and in a 1995 case a New Jersey court set out a list of factors to consider in such a case.  Of course, the decision to change a given name to reflect gender identity presents different issues, but Judge Silva concluded that in light of the court’s role as a guardian of the interests of children (referred to in the law as parens patriae) “the best interest of the child standard should apply,” while acknowledging that although the cases involving surnames “provide some guidance to this court, they do not fully address whether the proposed name change is in Trevor’s best interest.”

Judge Silva specified the following factors that she would consider in Trevor’s case: his age, how long he has used the name Trevor, “any potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that may result from the child having a name he or she believes does not match his or her outward appearance and gender identity,” the history of Trevor’s medical or mental health counseling, the name by which he is known in his family, school and community, his preference and motivation for seeking the name change, and whether his parents have given consent.

In this case, the court concluded that all these factors supported a finding that it was in Trevor’s best interest to approve the name change. Trevor had been considered a “quintessential tomboy” by his parents due to his lack of interest in typical girl activities as a youth, and they noticed when he entered the sixth grade “a change in his behavior” that led them to seek counseling for him, first with a child study team at school and then with a clinical social worker.  Ultimately Trevor announced his male gender identity to his parents and his desire to be called Trevor.  His gender dysphoria was diagnosed by a psychologist who continues to work with him through his transition.  Trevor testified that “the only people that still call him Veronica are his father, his stepmother and step-siblings” and that “he feels that the name [Trevor] better represents who he is and the gender with which he identifies.”

While noting the “constant changes that have occurred in the legal landscape as it relates to gender identity, sexual orientation and similar issues,” Silva wrote, “the issue of whether a transgender minor child should be permitted to change his or her name to better match his or her gender identity is a novel one for this court.” She pointed out that if Trevor had waited until his 18th birthday, the issue would be simpler.  Parental approval would not be required.  “However, children are unable to make such decisions on their own unless they have been emancipated.”

Judge Silva observed that the legislature has declared that the state “has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth” and, she wrote, “recognizing the importance of a name change is one of the ways to help protect the well-being of a transgender minor child. The name change allows the transgender minor child to begin to fully transition into their chosen gender and possibly prevent them from facing harassment and embarrassment from being forced to use a legal name that may no longer match his or her gender identity.”

One practical reason why Trevor wanted the change now was because, as he was about to turn 17, he would be applying for a driver’s license and applying to colleges. He was planning this summer to travel to China and would be getting a passport.  It was important, now that he is living as a boy, for him to be able to get these official documents with an appropriate name matching his identity, and a legal name change was needed to use this name on official documents.  Judge Silva counted this motivation in favor of granting the application.

The judge concluded, “Trevor has undergone hormone therapy and presents as a young man with facial hair, a muscular build, a head full of male-textured hair, and a deeper voice. To force him to legally keep the feminine name ‘Veronica’ would not be in his best interest.  Therefore, plaintiff’s motion to legally change Veronica’s name to Trevor is granted.”  Trevor was not seeking to change his surname, and will henceforth be known as Trevor Adam Betts.

Often transgender people seek an exemption from the legal requirement that court-ordered name changes be published in a newspaper of public record, but Trevor was not seeking such an exemption.   “Given the parties’ request that their real names be used in this decision, and the fact that Trevor is the subject of a documentary, this court does not find it necessary to protect his identity and thus will order plaintiff to comply with the publication and filing requirements.”

Trevor and his mother were represented in this proceeding by Jennifer Weisberg Millner of the firm Fox Rothschild LLP.

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Texas Supreme Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to Spousal Benefits for Houston City Employees

In a clear misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling from 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, especially as elucidated just days ago by that Court in Pavan v. Smith, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously refused on June 30 to dismiss a lawsuit by two disgruntled Houston taxpayers who argue that the city of Houston may not provide employee benefits for the same-sex spouses of its employees. The case is Pidgeon v. Turner, 2017 Tex. LEXIS 654.

Instead, while affirming a ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals that had reversed the preliminary injunction that a Texas trial court issued in 2014 against payment of the benefits, the Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for it to decide whether the Obergefell decision obligates Houston to provide equal benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, and also to consider the taxpayers’ argument that the city should be required to “claw back” the value of benefits that were paid prior to the Obergefell decision, on the theory that Texas’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages contracted out-of-state was valid until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was announced.

In Pavan v. Smith, the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that the Obergefell decision did not require the state to treat same-sex spouses the same as different-sex spouses for listing as a parent on the birth certificate of a child born to their spouse. Reversing that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said: “As we explained [in Obergefell], a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’ Indeed, in listing those terms and conditions — the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities’ to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access — we expressly identified ‘birth and death certificates.’ That was no accident…”

Thus, the Supreme Court made clear in Pavan, contrary to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s unduly narrow reading of Obergefell, that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits of marriage as different-sex couples. In listing some of the rights and benefits of marriage that same-sex couples had wrongly been denied, the Obergefell court specifically mentioned health insurance, an employee benefit that is at issue in the Texas case.  Thus, to claim that the Obergefell opinion fails to deal with this issue explicitly is totally disingenuous.

And yet, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd wrote for the Texas Supreme Court in Pidgeon v. Turner, “The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons, and – unlike the Fifth Circuit in DeLeon – it did not hold that the Texas DOMAs are unconstitutional.” “DeLeon” refers to the Texas marriage equality decision that was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit a few days after the Obergefell decision, holding that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional in light of Obergefell.

Instead of cutting through procedural complications and saving everybody involved lots of wasted time and money through prolonged litigation, the Texas court has now repeated the error of the Arkansas Supreme Court by insisting that the Obergefell ruling does not clearly require “the same” rights, benefits and responsibilities, and, incredibly, cited in support of this point the Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 to grant review of a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission, which concerns a totally different question: whether a baker has a 1st Amendment right to discriminate against a same-sex couple by refusing an order for a wedding cake in violation of a state anti-discrimination law.  The Supreme Court did not address in Obergefell the question of reconciling a potential clash between anti-discrimination laws and the rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech enjoyed by non-governmental entities and individuals.  But the Court most emphatically did address the issue that governmental actors, bound by the 14th Amendment, must accord the same rights to all married couples, whether same-sex or different-sex, and it reiterated that point in Pavan.

The Texas case dates back to 2013, when Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker, an out lesbian, reacted to the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision by extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees who had gone out of state to get married. At the time, Texas had both a state Defense of Marriage Act and a similar constitutional amendment, and Houston had a charter provision limiting municipal employee benefits to legal spouses and children of employees.  Relying on an advisory opinion from the city attorney, Parker concluded that after Windsor it was unconstitutional to refuse to recognize those out-of-state marriages.

Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, Houston taxpayers who identified themselves as devout Christians who did not want their tax money going to subsidize same-sex marriages, filed a lawsuit challenging the benefits extension in December 2013, and refiled in October 2014 after the first case was dismissed for “want of prosecution” while the parties were wrangling about the city’s attempt to remove the case to federal court. Pidgeon and Hicks claimed, based on state and city law, that the benefits extension was “expending significant public funds on an illegal activity.”  They persuaded a local trial judge to issue a preliminary injunction against continued payment of the benefits while the case was pending, and the city appealed.

The Texas Court of Appeals sat on the appeal while marriage equality litigation proceeded both in the federal courts in Texas – the DeLeon v. Perry case – and nationally. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, the 5th Circuit, affirming a federal district court ruling, held in DeLeon that the Texas laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

Then the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s preliminary injunction in the Pidgeon case and sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to decide the case “consistent with DeLeon.” Pidgeon and Hicks sought to appeal this ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but were initially turned down by that court.  Then the top Republican elected officials in the state – the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general – and a bunch of other non-parties filed papers with the Supreme Court urging it to change its mind and allow the appeal, which the court eventually agreed to do.

In its June 30 ruling, the court buried itself in procedural complications. Based on its incorrect conclusion that the Obergefell decision, as amplified by the Pavan ruling, does not decide the merits of this case, and further giving credence to the plaintiffs’ argument that Obergefell cannot be construed to have any retroactive effect because “the Supreme Court acknowledged that it was attributing a new meaning to the Fourteenth Amendment based on ‘new insights and societal understandings,”  the court opined that Pidgeon and Hicks should have an opportunity to “develop” their argument before the trial court.  This contention on retroactivity is not the view that has been taken by other courts, including some that have retroactively applied Obergefell to find that cohabiting same-sex couples in states that still have a common law marriage doctrine can be held to have been legally married prior to that ruling.  Indeed, the federal government even gave Windsor retroactive application, allowing same-sex couples to file for tax refunds for earlier years on the basis that the Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to recognize their state-law marriages under DOMA had been unconstitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Pidgeon that the Texas Court of Appeals should not have directed the trial court to rule “consistent with DeLeon” because, technically, the state trial courts are not bound by constitutional rulings of the federal courts of appeals, only by U.S. Supreme Court rulings on questions of federal law. DeLeon could be a “persuasive” precedent, but not a “binding” precedent.  This merits a big “so what?”  After all, the real question in this case is whether Obergefell requires that married same-sex couples are entitled to the “same benefits” as different-sex couples from their municipal employer, and the answer to that could not be more clear, especially after Pavan v. Smith.  (Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s dissenting opinion in Pavan repeats the same mistaken assertion — that Obergefell does not clearly require the “same” rights and benefits which the Court responds to by quoting from Obergefell to the opposite effect – and is just as disingenuous as Justice Boyd’s decision for the Texas court.)

Now the case goes back to the trial court in Houston, where the outcome should be dictated by Pavan v. Smith and Obergefell and the court should dismiss this case. But, since this is taking place in Texas, where contempt for federal law is openly expressed by public officials, who knows how it will turn out?

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Nevada Supreme Court Affirms Parental Rights for Former Gay Partner of Adoptive Dad

The Nevada Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed a District Court decision granting a gay man paternity over a child adopted by his former partner.  Four members of the court based their June 22 ruling on the concept of “equitable adoption,” while the other three based their ruling on an interpretation of the state’s “presumption of paternity” under Nevada’s parentage statute, NRS 126.041. The case is Nguyen v. Boynes, 2017 Nev. Adv. Rep. 32, 2017 Nev. LEXIS 45, 2017 WL 2733779.  Justice Ron D. Parraguirre wrote the opinion for the majority of the court, and Justice Lidia S. Stiglich wrote for the concurring justices.

Ken Nguyen and Rob Boynes began dating in November 2009.  “At some time during the relationship,” wrote Justice Parraguirre, “a decision was made to adopt a child.”  They approached Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, but that organization would not arrange joint adoptions for same-sex couples, so the men agreed that Ken would adopt the child and then Rob would later initiate a second-parent adoption.  They went through Catholic Charities’ procedure beginning in July 2012, and in February 2013, Catholic Charities notified Ken that it was placing a newborn child with him for adoption.  Both men “were present to receive the newborn child,” and both participated as parents after the placement.

When Ken’s co-workers arranged a baby shower, it was held at Rob’s house. The child was baptized at the Desert Spring United Methodist Church, with both men standing in as fathers and listed on the baptism certificate.  However, shortly after that they ended their relationship. “Rob asked Ken to add his name to the child’s birth certificate, and Ken refused,” wrote Justice Parraguirre.  The formal adoption by Ken was finalized in October 2013.  “Both parties sat at the plaintiff’s table during the adoption hearing, and Ken reiterated once again that he would not place Rob’s name on the child’s birth certificate, nor would he allow a second-parent adoption.”

Despite Ken’s position on the legal issues, the men continued to share parental duties, as they had done from the outset. Indeed, “Since the child’s first day of placement with Ken, he has primarily been under Rob’s care.”

“The child stayed overnight at Rob’s house during the first night of placement and continued to do so for more than a month,” after which he spent weekends at Ken’s house. After two months of placement, Ken decided to hire a neighbor as a full-time babysitter, but after several weeks they reverted back to their previous arrangement of the child staying with Rob during the week until Ken enrolled the child in daycare in May 2014.  “Rob primarily took the child for doctor visits and provided most of the baby supplies,” wrote Parraguirre.  “Additionally, in November 2013, Rob took the child to North Carolina to visit Rob’s sister during Thanksgiving.”

Rob filed a petition for paternity and custody in the Clark County Family Court Division in May 2014. After a full hearing, Judge Bill Henderson decided that Rob was entitled to a “presumption of paternity” under the Nevada parentage statute, and held that the men were to have joint legal and physical custody.  Judge Henderson also referred to the “equitable adoption” theory in reaching his decision.  Ken appealed the order.

The Supreme Court explained that equitable adoption is “an equitable remedy to enforce an adoption agreement under circumstances where there is a promise to adopt, and in reasonable, foreseeable reliance on that promise a child is placed in a position where harm will result if repudiation is permitted.”

“This case concerns whether there was an agreement by the parties to adopt the child together that was formed at the beginning of the adoption process, and whether accompanying that agreement was an intent and promise by Ken to allow Rob to adopt the child second due to Catholic Charities’ policy disallowing joint adoptions for same-sex couples,” wrote Justice Parraguiree. “The parties do not dispute their non-biological relations with the child,” he continued, so “Nevada’s Uniform Parentage Act is not implicated.  We thus conclude that the equitable adoption doctrine is applicable to enforce an adoption agreement under the unique factual circumstances of this case.”

The Supreme Court agreed with District Judge Henderson that Rob had satisfied the four element test set forth in Nevada’s case law: Intent to adopt, promise to adopt, justifiable reliance, and harm resulting from repudiation. The Family Court’s decision would be reviewed under the “abuse of discretion” standard, so Judge Henderson’s decision to recognize Rob as a father would be upheld if substantial evidence supports it.

The court found evidence supporting every aspect of the four-element test: that the parties intended that both would ultimately be adoptive fathers of the child, that Ken had promised Rob to facilitate his adoption second, and that Rob was an integral factor in the adoption process and was “intimately involved.”  Indeed, there was testimony at the Family Court hearing by officials from Catholic Charities that both men participated in the process, “including the background check, post-placement visits, orientation, and adoption classes.”

Furthermore, from the commencement of the placement of the child with Ken, Ken treated Rob as a second parent and Rob took on parental responsibilities. Furthermore, Rob was regarded as a father to the child by others, who testified at the hearing.  In a footnote, Parraguirre mentioned that “the district court found that the deterioration of Ken and Rob’s relationship during the summer of 2013 seemed to be the driving factor in Ken’s decision to not follow through with the second adoption for Rob.”

The court also found plenty of evidentiary support for Rob’s reliance on Ken’s promise. “Rob dedicated a substantial amount of his time to the adoption process.  Moreover, Rob primarily cared for the child post-placement.”  Rob provided the baby supplies and “made substantial changes to his house and lifestyle to accommodate the child’s needs, which included changing one of the rooms in his house to a nursery.”  The court found that Ken’s repudiation of the promise produced harm: “the deprivation of Rob’s emotional and financial support to the child.”  Since letting Ken repudiate his promise would be to the child’s detriment, “equity cannot allow such a result,” insisted Justice Parraguirre.

The court upheld the grant of joint legal and physical custody, finding that the Judge Henderson had not abused his discretion in light of the trial record, and rejecting Ken’s allegations of disqualifying misconduct by Rob.

The court also rejected Ken’s argument that the parentage and custody award violated his constitutional rights as an adoptive parent. He argued that the district court’s ruling was unprecedented, and had treated the men differently than it would have treated an unmarried heterosexual couple.  “Here,” wrote the court, “Ken does not challenge the constitutionality of a particular statute; rather, he alleges generally that the district court treated the parties differently than it would have a heterosexual couple.  However, ‘child custody determinations are by necessity made on a case-by-case basis,’ and, here, ‘there is nothing to indicate that the ultimate decision of the district court turned on [the couple’s sexual orientation].”

Justice Stiglich, writing for herself and two others, contended that “the Nevada Parentage Act provides a more appropriate analysis in this case than the doctrine of equitable adoption.” She pointed out that in a prior case, St. Mary v. Damon, 309 P.3d 1027 (2013), the court had “clearly concluded that Nevada law does not preclude a child from having two mothers under the Nevada Parentage Act,” stating in that opinion that “the Legislature has recognized that the children of same-sex domestic partners bear no lesser rights to the enjoyment and support of two parents than children born to married heterosexual parents.”

Consequently, she wrote, “Pursuant to St. Mary, if a presumption of parentage can apply to a woman in a same-sex relationship, there appears no reason why the provision of [the parentage statute] cannot apply to a man in a same-sex relationship. Because Rob submitted ample evidence to support the presumption of parentage under [the statute], I concur with the majority’s holding affirming the decision of the district court, but on different grounds.”

Rob is represented by the Pecos Law Group and Bruce I. Shapiro and Jack W. Fleeman, of Henderson, Nevada. Ken is represented by McFarling Law Group and name-partner Emily M. McFarling of Las Vegas.

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Supreme Court Rules that Same-Sex Spouses are Entitled to Be Listed on Birth Certificates

When a child is born to a woman married to another woman, both women should be listed as parents on the child’s birth certificate. So ruled the Supreme Court, voting 6-3 and reversing a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court on the last day of its October 2016 Term, which was coincidentally the second anniversary of the Court’s historic marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), which provides the basis for this new ruling in Pavan v. Smith, No. 16-992 (June 26, 2017), reversing 505 S.W.3d 169 (2016).

The petitioners in this case were two married same-sex couples, Leigh and Jana Jacobs and Terrah and Marisa Pavan. Both couples resided in Arkansas when their children were born in 2015, having previously married out of state.  Both couples filed paperwork with the state seeking birth certificates listing both mothers as parents.  The state turned them down, issuing birth certificates listing just the birth mothers and leaving the space for fathers blank.

The state’s Health Department argued that this was compelled by a state statute that provides that when a married woman gives birth, her husband will be listed on the birth certificate. (This is frequently referred to as the parental presumption.) This is so even if the woman conceives through donor insemination and her husband is not the biological father of the child, or even if some other man got the wife pregnant.  Incredibly, the Health Department sought to justify its refusal to name both parents on birth certificates by saying that the purpose of the birth certificate is to record biological lineage, which is pretty strange if husbands get listed regardless of their biological relation to the child.  Furthermore, Arkansas, like other states, issues amended birth certificates if children are adopted, listing their new legal parents, again regardless of the fact that one or both of the adoptive parents are not biologically related to the child.

The women sued the Commissioner of the health department and the trial court agreed with them that this result was unconstitutional under Obergefell, because the statute “categorically prohibits every same-sex married couple from enjoying the same spousal benefits which are available to every opposite-sex married couple.” In Obergefell, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as opposite-sex couples, which means they are entitled to be treated the same by the state for all reasons of law.

The Arkansas Supreme Court was divided in this case. A majority sided with the Health Department, buying the incredible argument that birth certificates are supposed to be a record of biological lineage.  Wrote the Arkansas court, “The statute centers on the relationship of the biological mother and the biological father to the child, not on the marital relationship of husband and wife,” and so it was consistent with Obergefell.  Not so, argued the dissenters, writing that under Obergefell “a same-sex married couple is entitled to a birth certificate on the same basis as an opposite-sex married couple.”

The majority U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the dissenters, finding this case so clear that it simultaneously granted the petition for review and issued a decision, without waiting for briefing on the merits or oral argument. The decision was issued “Per Curiam” (Latin for “by the Court”) without identifying an individual justice as its author.

The Court concluded that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision “denied married same-sex couples access to the ‘constellation of benefits that the State has linked to marriage,’” in violation of the Obergefell ruling. Under Arkansas’s statute, “same-sex parents in Arkansas lack the same right as opposite-sex parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate, a document often used for important transactions like making medical decisions for a child or enrolling a child in school.  Obergefell proscribes such disparate treatment.”

The Court pointed out that in the Obergefell decision it had included “birth and death certificates” in its list of “rights, benefits, and responsibilities” of marriage to which same-sex couples are entitled on the same basis as different-sex couples.   “That was no accident,” said the Court, as “several of the plaintiffs in Obergefell challenged a State’s refusal to recognize their same-sex spouses on their children’s birth certificates.  In considering those challenges, we held the relevant state laws unconstitutional to the extent they treated same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples.”  The Court said this applied with “equal force” to the Arkansas statute.

Rejecting Arkansas’s argument that birth certificates were all about biological relationships, the Court insisted, to the contrary, that “Arkansas law makes birth certificates about more than just genetics,” citing as a prime example the provision involving donor insemination. “Arkansas has thus chosen to make its birth certificates more than a mere marker of biological relationships: The State uses those certificates to give married parents a form of legal recognition that is not available to unmarried parents.  Having made that choice,” the Court continued, “Arkansas may not, consistent with Obergefell, deny married same-sex couples that recognition.”  The case was sent back to the Arkansas courts for “further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

The Per Curiam Court included all of the justices who had voted in the majority in Obergefell plus Chief Justice John Roberts, who was the principal dissenter in the marriage case. Roberts’ vote in this case is notable, given the vehemence of his dissent in Obergefell, but apparently, accepting that Obergefell is now a precedent and that there are not five votes on the Court to overturn it, Roberts was willing to agree that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling was inconsistent with it.

Not so the three dissenters, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and the recently installed Neil Gorsuch, who wrote a dissent on their behalf. When Gorsuch was nominated, it was predicted that he would be as bad for LGBT rights as his predecessor, Justice Antonin Scalia, if not worse. His dissent here vindicated that view.

First, he scolded the Court for deciding the case summarily, arguing that the law in question is not “settled and stable.” He did not deem it clear that Obergefell would invalidate state laws restricting who could be listed on a birth certificate, when justified by a policy of recording biological ties.

He took a narrow view of Obergefell, as some lower courts have done in birth certificate litigation around the country, arguing that “nothing in Obergefell spoke (let alone clearly) to the question whether [the Arkansas statute], or a state supreme court decision upholding it, must go. The statute in question establishes a set of rules designed to ensure that the biological parents of a child are listed on the child’s birth certificate.”  This is, of course, incorrect, as the Per Curiam opinion demonstrated.  The state’s rules, requiring that the husband of a woman who conceives through donor insemination be listed as the child’s father, clearly do not “ensure” that the biological parents of a child are listed on the certificate.  Indeed, as the Court noted in passing in its Per Curiam opinion, the “rules” in Arkansas even provide that if the birth mother, her husband, and the actual biological father of the child all agree in sworn statements, the actual father can be listed instead of the husband, but otherwise the husband would be listed.  Clearly, listing people on birth certificates in Arkansas under current statutes is not all about biological relationships.

Gorsuch also noted that since this litigation has been under way Arkansas officials have come around to agree that the birth mother’s spouse should be listed on the birth certificate. Since the state has now agreed (without amending its statute) that it should list same-sex spouses on birth certificates, Gorsuch professes to see no reason for this ruling.  “Indeed,” he wrote, “it is not even clear what the Court expects to happen on remand that hasn’t happened already.  The Court does not offer any remedial suggestion, and none leaps to mind.  Perhaps the state supreme court could memorialize the state’s concession.”  Indeed, exactly so, the proper action on remand is a judicial declaration that same-sex spouses are entitled to be listed on birth certificates, and a permanent injunction requiring that result. This is not superfluous, since the state legislature has not amended the statute.

The Court’s decision will affect pending litigation elsewhere. In Arizona, the state’s intermediate court of appeals ruled on June 22 in Turner v. Steiner, 2017 WL 2687680, that a lesbian co-parent was not entitled to be listed on a birth certificate, conflicting with a ruling by another panel of the court of appeals, McLaughlin v. Jones, 382 P.3d 118 (2016), which was recently granted review by the Arizona Supreme Court.  The Turner decision cited the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling in this case, as well as a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling from 2015, In re P.L.L.-R., 876 N.W.2d 147.   Plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case should be able to file a new suit based on Pavan, if necessary, but perhaps Pavan v. Smith will encourage state officials to drop their obstructions and accord equal treatment to same-sex married couples.

The plaintiffs in this case were represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, with local counsel Cheryl Maples of Heber Springs, Arkansas. Attorneys from the Washington and Boston offices of Ropes & Gray, LLP, worked on the case in collaboration with NCLR, and R&G’s Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, who shared the oral argument in the marriage equality cases two years ago, was Counsel of Record who might have argued the case had the Court scheduled a hearing.

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