New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Iowa Supreme Court Bars Wrongful Imprisonment Suit by HIV-Positive Man Whose Conviction Was Vacated by That Court

 

In an unfortunate turnabout, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled on April 15 that Nick Rhoades, whose guilty-plea conviction to one count of criminal transmission of HIV was reversed by that court in 2014, could not bring an action for damages against the state under its Wrongful Imprisonment Statute because the statute does not allow claims by those who pled guilty. Rhoades v. State of Iowa, 2016 WL 1533519, 2016 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 47.  The court declined to follow rulings in some other states interpreting similar statutes that had allowed such lawsuits when a guilty plea was vacated on appeal.

Rhoades met A.P. through a social networking website. After exchanging messages, A.P. invited Rhoades to his home and they had unprotected oral sex and anal sex with a condom.   A.P. believed Rhoades to be HIV-negative based on his online profile, and they did not discuss the issue before having sex.  When A.P. subsequently learned that Rhoades was HIV-positive, he contacted law enforcement and Rhoades was charged with criminal transmission of HIV under Iowa Code sec. 709(C).1, a statute that was subsequently repealed in part due to the publicity surrounding this case, and replaced with a statute that better reflects current science on HIV transmission.  Rhoades pled guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, lifetime parole, and a requirement to register as a sex offender.  No evidence was presented that A.P. was infected with HIV, and the statute at that time did not require evidence of actual transmission, merely exposure that could cause transmission.

Rhoades filed a motion to reconsider the sentence, stressing the lack of transmission, and the district court suspended the prison sentence and placed him on five years’ probation. Then Rhoades filed an application for postconviction relief.  He claimed his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by letting him plead guilty when there was, in his view, no factual basis for the charge.  Rhoades argued that as his viral load was virtually undetectable at the time he had sex with A.P., the chance that he would transmit the virus, even through unprotected anal sex, was slight, and certainly not sufficient to meet the standard of guilt under the statute, which required “the intentional exposure of the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in a manner that could result in the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus.”  This was described in the statute as “intimate contact.”  At the time of his guilty plea, the trial judge asked Rhoades if he had engaged in “intimate contact” with A.P., without any explanation by the judge or Rhoades’ trial counsel of the meaning of that term.  Indeed, without an explanation, Rhoades could have believed he had violated the statute without having engaged in any penetrative sex.  Although the trial and intermediate appellate courts rejected his motion, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed because, as Justice Appel writes in the current decision, “We concluded that the district court had used technical terms from the statute but that such conclusory terms were insufficient to establish that the defendant acknowledged facts consistent with the completion of the crime.  We further noted the minutes of testimony and the presentence investigation report did not provide a factual basis for the element of intimate contact.”

The Supreme Court had also concluded that “in light of advances in medicine” the record contained “insufficient evidence to show that Rhoades exchanged bodily fluids with A.P. or intentionally exposed A.P. to the disease.” By vacating the guilty plea, the court was not concluding that Rhoades was innocent, but rather that a new trial was needed to determine his guilt, either through a properly informed guilty plea or a trial.  “Because it was possible the State may have been able to establish the necessary factual basis,” wrote Justice Brent R. Appel, “we directed the district court to give the State an opportunity to do so.  If the State was unable to do so, we stated that the plea must be withdrawn and the State could proceed accordingly.  On remand, the State dismissed the charges against Rhoades.”

In the current lawsuit, Rhoades asserted a claim under Iowa Code chapter 663A for “wrongful imprisonment.” That provision provides relief if two tests are met: “the individual did not plead guilty to the public offense charged, or to any lesser included offense, but was convicted by the court or by a jury of an offense classified as an aggravated misdemeanor or felony,” and the claimant proves “by a clear and convincing preponderance of the evidence that the claimant is actually innocent.”  Thus, the legislature was not authorizing a damage claim by somebody who had been officially charged and convicted but then got off on some technicality or procedural flaw.  The Supreme Court pointed out that if it were to hold that Rhoades’ guilty plea was not disqualifying in this case, he would still have to prove his innocence under the repealed statute before he could receive relief.  The focus of this appeal, however, was on interpretation of the guilty plea language.

Rhoades argued, with support from some cases in other jurisdictions, that a guilty plea that is vacated or nullified as the result of an appellate ruling should not stand in the way of a “wrongful imprisonment” claim, but, after a lengthy consideration of the issue, including review of the various state wrongful imprisonment statutes, the court decided to reject his claim. First, it pointed out, the statutory language was clear and did not include any statement, as was found in other state’s laws, softening the guilty plea bar in certain circumstances.  Justice Appel pointed out that in a separate provision the legislature had provided that somebody who is vindicated and proved innocent through DNA evidence may seek relief despite having pled guilty, and “the difference in linguistic approach between Iowa’s DNA statute and the wrongful imprisonment statute offers at least some support for the view that if the legislature intended to provide relief to those who plead guilty, it knows how to do it.”  There was also the contention that the state “should not pay for convictions for which the accused is in part responsible.”  The court also noted that the overwhelming majority of criminal charges are resolved through plea bargaining resulting in a guilty plea in exchange for an agreed sentence, and “the legislature could rationally believe that allowing one who pleads guilty to later seek compensation from the state unduly unravels the benefit of the bargain.”  The court observed that as a result of the guilty plea, there is no trial record in the case, so no basis relatively contemporary with the charged acts for a court to determine whether the claimant can prove actual innocence.  The court also noted the fiscal consequences of allowing such claims by defendants who pled guilty.

While acknowledging at some length the flaws in its arguments attempting to justify disqualifying Rhoades, the court ultimately retreated into a narrow view of its role in matters of statutory interpretation. “Although there are substantial arguments that a guilty plea should not disqualify a claimant from seeking compensation for wrongful imprisonment in all instances,” wrote Justice Appel, “we conclude … that the legislature made a different judgment in 1997” when it enacted the statute.  “Our job is to do the best we can in interpreting the meaning of legislation.  We do not expand the scope of legislation based upon policy preferences.  In balancing all the considerations, we think the best interpretation of Iowa Code section 663A.1(1)(b) is that it categorically excludes all persons who plead guilty from Iowa’s wrongful imprisonment statute.  This interpretation leads to a narrow but not impractical or absurd result.  As we have stated before, if we have missed the mark, the legislature may respond to correct it.”  The court upheld the lower courts’ dismissal of Rhoades’ claim.

Justice Thomas Waterman, specially concurring, opined that most of Justice Appel’s decision was unnecessary because the clear language of the statute excludes those who plead guilty from relief. Justice Bruce Zager also concurred, having dissented in the earlier case in which the court had vacated Rhoades’s guilty plea, and continuing to take the view that “the record, when viewed as a whole and allowing all reasonable inference, provided an ample factual basis for his guilty plea.”

Rhoades is represented in this appeal by attorney Dan Johnston of Des Moines. Since the case revolves entirely around an interpretation of an Iowa statute, there appears no basis to seek further review from the U.S. Supreme Court.

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4th Circuit Revives Transgender Teen’s Title IX Claim Against Virginia School Board

A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 on April 19 that U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred by not deferring to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of its regulations to require schools to let transgender students use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Judge Doumar had dismissed a claim by G.G., a teenage transgender boy attending high school in Gloucester County, Virginia, that the school violated his statutory right under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act by adopting a rule that he could use only restrooms designated for girls or unisex single-user restrooms.  The court referred to the plaintiff by his initials throughout the opinion to guard his privacy, but the ACLU’s press releases about the case identify him as Gavin Grimm.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7026 (April 19, 2016).

The high school had accommodated G.G. when, at the beginning of his sophomore year in August 2014, he informed school officials that he was transitioning, had gotten a legal name change, and would be expressing his male gender identity, by letting him use the boys’ restroom. After several weeks without serious incident,  some parents alerted to the situation by their children objected and pushed the school board to adopt its resolution after two public meetings in which indignant parents threatened the board members with political retribution if they did not adopt the restrictive policy.  G.G., now 16, has not undergone reassignment surgery, which is not available to minors under the prevailing medical standards for treating gender dysphoria, but has transitioned in all other respects and identifies fully as male.

The 4th Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule that the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, as expressed in an opinion letter by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights on January 7, 2015, in response to this controversy, should be followed by the federal courts.  Since North Carolina is also within the 4th Circuit, this ruling, as it now stands, suggests that the “bathroom” provisions of the notorious H.B. 2, at least as they apply to public educational institutions, violate federal law, as the ACLU and Lambda Legal have argued in a lawsuit challenging that statute pending in the U.S. District Court in North Carolina.

Writing for the majority of the panel, Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd observed that the court’s role in a case involving an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute is most deferential when the statute and the official regulations that have been adopted by the agency are ambiguous regarding the particular issue in dispute. Title IX says that educational institutions that receive federal funds may not discriminate because of sex.  The regulations, adopted decades ago, provide that educational institutions may designate separate facilities for use by males and females, so long as the facilities are equal in quality, but never directly address how to deal with transgender individuals whose “biological sex” differs from their gender identity.  In this respect, concluded a majority of the court, the regulations are “ambiguous.”  As such, the Department’s interpretation of the regulations should be deferred to by the court when they are a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  Indeed, wrote Floyd, the Department’s interpretation is entitled to deference “unless the [school] board demonstrates that the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.”

District Judge Doumar had concluded that the regulations were not ambiguous, and refused to defer to the Department interpretation. Judge Floyd devoted a section of his opinion to explaining why the regulations are ambiguous.  “We conclude that the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading – determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia – and the Department’s interpretation – determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”  When language can support alternative readings, there is ambiguity.  “The Department’s interpretation resolves the ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity.”

Protesting against this conclusion, dissenting Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer (who was, incidentally, also a dissenter in the 4th Circuit’s Virginia marriage equality decision in 2014), found that it would produce unacceptable results by violating the “physiological privacy interest” of students who did not want to share restroom facilities with students whose biological sex differed from theirs.  Judge Niemeyer essentially articulated, in more elevated terms, the arguments that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has been making in defense of the “bathroom” provisions in H.B. 2: that the privacy concerns of students who object to sharing facilities with transgender students should take priority over the interests of the transgender students.

But Judge Niemeyer doesn’t put it quite so crudely. Indeed, he suggests that the opinion letter from the Department authorized just what the school board did, by opining that schools could accommodate the needs of transgender students by providing unisex single-occupancy facilities for them to use.  Judge Floyd points out, however, that the Department’s advice was to provide such facilities for students who did not want to use multiple-use facilities.  In this case, G.G. wants to use the male-designated multiple-use facility as being congruent with his gender identity.  As to the privacy concerns, the court noted that the school board has made physical modifications in the boys’ restrooms by adding partitions between urinals and taping over visual gaps in the toilet stalls so as to enhance the privacy of all users.

Judge Floyd emphasized that because G.G. was only contesting the school board’s policy on restrooms, the court did not have to deal with the question whether other single-sex facilities, such as locker rooms and shower rooms, would have to be open to transgender students as well. Judge Niemeyer observed that discrimination “because of sex” had to mean the same thing throughout the statute and regulations, so he argued that the majority opinion opened up the door to allowing transgender students to claim a right of access to all such sex-designated facilities.

In a somewhat unintentionally humorous footnote, Judge Floyd noted the school board’s argument, reiterated in Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, that allowing biological males into the girls’ restrooms and biological females into the boys’ restrooms could produce “danger caused by ‘sexual responses prompted by students’ exposure to the private body parts of students of the other biological sex.’” Floyd observed, perhaps tongue in cheek, “The same safety concern would seem to require segregated restrooms for gay boys and girls who would, under the dissent’s formulation, present a safety risk because of the ‘sexual responses prompted’ by their exposure to the private body parts of other students of the same sex in sex-segregated restrooms.”  Yes!  Here is a federal judge with real empathy for hormone-infused teenagers of every sexual orientation and gender identity!

In addition to appealing Judge Doumar’s dismissal of his Title IX claim, G.G. was also appealing the Judge Doumar’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction that would require the school board to let him use the boys’ restroom facilities while the case proceeded. Judge Doumar had refrained from ruling on G.G.’s constitutional equal protection claim, so his case was still alive before the district court even though his Title IX claim was dismissed.  Judge Doumar had focused his refusal of injunctive relief on his determination that G.G. failed to show that he would suffer irreparable harm if he was excluded from the boys’ restrooms while the case was pending.

The majority of the panel concluded that Doumar had wrongly refused to give appropriate consideration to the evidence presented by G.G. and his medical expert on this point, applying too strict a standard for considering evidence in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction. The majority concluded that the appropriate step was to reverse the dismissal of the Title IX claim and send the case back to the district court for reconsideration of the motion for preliminary injunction, applying the correct evidentiary standard.  This means that G.G. will be back to square one before the district court, but with the wind of the court of appeals decision behind his back on key issues in the case.

G.G. had asked the court of appeals to reassign the case to another district judge. Judge Doumar made various comments in court that suggested bias, or at least a refusal to believe in the validity of the concept of gender identity, with references to G.G. as a girl who wanted to be a boy.  However, Judge Floyd pointed out, none of that objectionable language appeared in the written opinion that Judge Doumar released to explain his ruling, and the court was not going to conclude at this point that Doumar would not give appropriate consideration to the evidence when called upon by the court of appeals to reconsider his ruling, so the court denied G.G.’s request and the case will return to Judge Doumar.

The third member of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis, agreed with Judge Floyd that the Title IX claim should be revived, but would have gone further, contending that G.G. had satisfied the requirements for a preliminary injunction. However, since the grant of such an injunction is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, he ultimately agreed to “defer to the district court in this instance.  It is to be hoped,” he continued, “that the district court will turn its attention to this matter with the urgency the case poses.  Under the circumstances here, the appropriateness and necessity of such prompt action is plain.  By the time the district court issues its decision, G.G. will have suffered the psychological harm the injunction sought to prevent for an entire school year.”

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, reminiscent of his dissent in the Virginia marriage equality case, harps on the “unprecedented” nature of the ruling, asserting that the court’s “holding overrules custom, culture, and the very demands inherent in human nature for privacy and safety, which the separation of such facilities is designed to protect.” He also accused the majority of misconstruing the language of Title IX and its regulations, and concluded that “it reaches an unworkable and illogical result.”

G.G. is represented by the ACLU of Virginia and the ACLU’s national LGBT rights project. Joshua Block argued the appeal on his behalf on January 27.

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9th Circuit Revives Equal Protection Claims against San Diego Police in Pride Festival Public Nudity Arrest

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has revived a constitutional case against the San Diego Police Department by Will X. Walters, who was arrested for “public nudity” at the 2011 San Diego Pride Event while wearing what the trial court described as “a gladiator-type black leather loincloth.”  U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo had dismissed his Equal Protection claim on March 11, 2014.  His appeal took exactly two years to oral argument before the 9th Circuit on March 11, 2016, but less than a month for the court to rule on April 5 that Judge Bencivengo erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants.  Walters v. Nieslit, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 6239, 2016 WL 1320762.

According to the district court’s opinion, based on Walters’ complaint and the allegations accompanying the city’s motion for summary judgment, police officers met with the San Diego Pride organization about two months in advance of the event, at which time a Pride staffer told the officer in charge that “they were having issues with the public nudity and they were asking the police department to help get compliance.” Pride organizers were concerned that excessive nudity would endanger the “family” nature of the event.  The police evidently resolved to be stricter than they had been in the past in enforcing the city’s public nudity ordinance at the Pride Event.

The ordinance states that nobody over the age of ten “shall be nude and exposed to public view in or on any public right of way, public park, public beach or waters adjacent thereto, or other public land.” The term “nude” is defined in the ordinance: “It shall mean devoid of an opaque covering which covers the genitals, public hair, buttocks, perineum, anus or anal region of any person, or any portion of the breast at or below the areola thereof of any female person.”  Male areolas can be exposed without alarming the horses, evidently.

Will Walters bought a ticket and was admitted to the 2011 Pride Event’s festival. Nobody at the admission point questioned his outfit.  “He was inside the beer garden in the festival having his photograph taken by a photographer when Lieutenant Nisleit told him that his outfit was borderline breaking the nudity law,” wrote Judge Bencivengo.  Nisleit told him to “cover up,” and Walters evidently responded belligerently, stating, according to the officer, “So either cite me, arrest me, or leave me alone because I’m not interested in your opinion.”  Nisleit told Walters that he was the person in charge and his opinion mattered, to which Walters replied, “You’re not a judge, you’re a police officer.”

Nisleit walked away and conferred with other officers on duty. Officer Debbie Becker went over to check out Walters, and testified that she “saw his butt.  The wind blew, and I saw his one buttock . . . the behind portion of his butt where his buttocks intersected with his leg … I could not see the crack.”  She tapped him on the shoulder and he was placed under arrest.  However, according to news reports about the case he was not prosecuted, although he was briefly held in the city jail and not provided with anything to wear other than his gladiator-style outfit.

Walters sued the City of San Diego, the police officers involved in his arrest, and San Diego Pride, Inc. and one of its members, claiming discriminatory enforcement against him of the nudity ordinance, invasion of privacy and false arrest, and battery (against a Pride member who alleged hit him during the arrest process). Walters argued that the police routinely ignored people wearing a lot less than he had been wearing in various other public venues, and he contended that the crackdown was taking place at the Pride Festival because of anti-gay animus.

In granting summary judgment to the defendants, Judge Bencivengo dismissed the significance of Walters’ allegations. “There is anecdotal evidence before the Court that individuals wearing less than what Walters wore at the 2011 Pride Event may not have been cited for public nudity at different times and in different settings,” she wrote.  “The Court concludes that this anecdotal evidence is irrelevant, confusing, lacking in foundation, and therefore, inadmissible.”  She contended that “unequal treatment that results from laxity of enforcement does not deny equal protection and is not constitutionally prohibited discriminatory enforcement.”

Further, she wrote, “Plaintiff proffers no competent evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that Walters’ arrest was based on his sexual orientation, or that it resulted from an unequal enforcement policy or practice concerning public nudity.” She also rejected any assertion that there was some “conspiracy” between the police and the San Diego Pride organizers to “implement an unlawful policy of discriminatory and selective enforcement of San Diego’s public nudity laws.”

But the 9th Circuit’s panel consisting of Judges Harry Pregerson, Richard Paez and Jacqueline Nguyen, reversed in an unsigned opinion designated as not for official publication.  They begged to differ with the trial judge, finding that Bencivengo “erred in granting summary judgment” to the city and Lt. Nieslit.  “Viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to Walters, there are material triable issues of fact as to whether the San Diego Police Department (“SDPD”) adopted a discriminatory policy of selectively enforcing the City’s nudity ordinance at San Diego Gay Pride (the “Pride Event”) in 2011,” wrote the court, recounting the testimony about the planning meeting at which Lt. Nieslit “announced a new, more restrictive nudity policy for the Pride Event, which required that attendees fully cover their buttocks.  Previously, by contrast, SDPD had enforced a ‘one-inch rule’ at the Pride Event, which only required a one-inch strip of fabric covering the center of an attendee’s buttocks.  Walters also presented evidence that beachgoers and attendees of other special events in San Diego were in violation of the new nudity enforcement policy, but that SDPD did not increase enforcement anywhere except the Pride Event.  Given this and other evidence, Walter raised material triable issues of fact as to the existence of a policy of selective enforcement.”  And, of course, if there are material triable issue of fact, it is wrong for the trial court to grant summary judgment to the defendants.

The 9th Circuit opinion mentions some of the evidence that Judge Bencivengo omitted from her opinion, such as that “at least 12 to 15 other attendees were warned to ‘cover up’,” and that a police officer referred to Walters as a “drama queen” during his arrest.  The 9th Circuit panel saw this statement as “additional evidence of discriminatory purpose.”  The court also disputed Bencivengo’s assertion that because the Pride Event was open to everybody, not just gay people, a stricter enforcement policy at that event could not be construed as anti-gay.  “As for discriminatory purpose,” wrote the 9th Circuit panel, “Walters is entitled at the summary judgment stage to an inference that targeting Pride Event attendees is tantamount to targeting gay individuals and individuals who support gay rights.”  Furthermore, although it was possible that in a trial the City could establish that “another purpose motivated their nudity policy at the Pride Event, that question is seriously disputed.”

So Walters, who is represented by San Diego attorney Christopher Morris, will get a chance at a trial, unless the City offers a settlement offer that he can’t resist. This would undoubtedly have to include a commitment by the City to refrain from discriminatory enforcement of the nudity ordinance at future Pride Events.

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N.Y. Appellate Division Approves Comity for California Parentage Rights of Lesbian Co-Parent

The New York Appellate Division, Second Department, an intermediate appellate court based in Brooklyn, issued a unanimous ruling on April 6 affirming a decision by Suffolk County Family Court Judge Deborah Poulos recognizing the parental status of a lesbian co-parent, now resident in Arizona, who is seeking visitation with two children who were conceived through donor insemination while she was legally partnered with their birth mother, first as a California domestic partner and then as a California spouse.  The birth mother and children live in Suffolk County.  The case is Matter of Kelly S. v. Farah M., 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2533, 2016 N.Y. Slip Op 02656.

The lead sentence above is complicated, but not more so than the decision by Justice Sheri S. Roman, which methodically works its way through several complex issues to arrive at a total affirmance of Judge Poulos’s decision from March 2015, which not only upheld the co-parent’s standing to seek visitation but also rejected the birth mother’s attempt to institute a paternity action against the sperm donor for both children. Justice Roman’s opinion refers to the parties as Kelly S. and Farah M., but an article about the decision published in Newsday on April 9 identifies them as Kelly Steagall and Farah Martin.

According to the decision, Kelly and Farah began their relationship around March 2000 and became registered domestic partners in California in January 2004. Shortly afterwards they asked a close friend, Andrew S., to donate sperm so they could have a child together.  Kelly became pregnant and bore their first child, whom Farah legally adopted.  That child is not a subject of this lawsuit.

Kelly and Farah decided to have another child, and Andrew again donated sperm. This time Farah became pregnant, giving birth in March 2007 to Z.S.  Kelly was listed as a parent on the birth certificate and the child’s legal surname is Steagall.

After the California Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in 2008, Kelly and Farah decided to get married, which they did that August. A few months later the voters approved Proposition 8, ending new same-sex marriages in California until it was declared unconstitutional several years later.  In the meantime, however, the California Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that same-sex marriages performed prior to the passage of Prop 8 remained valid.  Kelly and Farah decided to have a third child and Andrew again donated sperm so that Farah could become pregnant.  Their third child, E.S., was born in April 2009.  Kelly was again listed on the birth certificate as a parent, and E.S. received Kelly’s surname.

In 2012 the family relocated to New York State, but Kelly and Farah soon split up and Kelly moved to Arizona in the summer of 2013. The children remained in New York with Farah.  As diplomatic relations between the women were poor, Kelly filed a visitation petition in the Suffolk County Family Court, seeking visitation with Z.S. and E.S.  She alleged that the women were legally married in California and Kelly was a legal parent of the two children, whom she had helped to raise until the parties split up.

Farah moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Kelly lacked standing under New York law to seek visitation, invoking the old New York precedent of Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), under which same-sex co-parents were deemed to be “legal strangers” to their children. She also sought to drag Andrew into the case as the children’s biological father by filing a paternity petition.  Although Andrew had never sought to establish his paternity, he was a close friend of the women and had formed a loving relationship with the children and they with him.  Farah evidently hoped that if the court declared Andrew their legal father, that would cut off Kelly’s claim, because New York does not recognize that a child can have more than two legal parents at the same time.

Farah argued in opposition to Kelley’s standing that Z.S. was born before the women were married, and that Kelly should not be deemed their parent because the insemination did not follow the prescribed route under either California or New York donor insemination statutes, which specify the involvement of a doctor in performing the insemination and a written consent from the birth mother’s spouse in order to raise a presumption of parental status for the spouse. Both of these children were conceived through insemination at home without the aid of a physician.

LGBT family law has advanced so significantly in both California and New York since the turn of the century that Farah’s arguments clearly lacked merit. Same-sex marriage is legal in both states, and New York’s Marriage Equality Law, enacted in 2011, makes clear that same-sex and different-sex marriages are to be treated the same, a point driven home as a matter of constitutional rights by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision.

New York courts have several times used the doctrine of “comity” to rule that somebody who is a parent of a child under the law of another state will be recognized as their parent in New York, despite the precedent of the Alison D. case. Under California law, when a registered domestic partner gives birth to a child her partner is presumed to be a legal parent of the child and, of course, when a married woman gives birth to a child in California, her legal spouse is presumptively the child’s parent.  The family court found that both of these presumptions applied in this case, and the Appellate Division agreed.

The court rejected Farah’s argument that failure to comply with the statutory donor insemination procedures of the two states would bar Kelly from parental status, pointing out that court decisions in both California and New York establish that the donor insemination statutes are not the exclusive way to create parental rights. These laws provide that partners of birth mothers who comply with the statutory requirements will obtain parental status, but don’t explicitly provide that failure to comply will forfeit any claim to parental status. The general rule for recognition of parental status in New York for a child born in a sister state is comity unless there is a strong public policy reason for New York to refuse to recognize the status.  California law clearly provides that a child born to a woman who has a registered domestic partner is also the child of the partner, and similarly, of course, that a child born to a married woman is the child of her spouse, and New York courts have extended comity in such situations in the past.  In this case, since Kelly was listed on both birth certificates and the children were given her surname, it is clear that the parties intended that she be a parent of both children when they were born.

The Appellate Division also upheld Judge Poulos’s decision to dismiss Farah’s paternity petition. Poulos determined that Farah filed the “in an attempt to terminate Kelly S.’s parental rights.”  But this would be inconsistent with the ultimate factual findings in the case.  Wrote Justice Roman, “The record reflects that the parties made an informed, mutual decision to conceive the subject children via artificial insemination and to raise them together, first while in a registered domestic partnership in California, and, later, while legally married in that state.  Additionally, the children were given Kelly S.’s surname, Kelly S. was named as a parent on each birth certificate, and the parties raised the children from the time of their births, in March 2007 and April 2009, respectively, until the parties separated in or around the summer of 2013.  Under the circumstances presented, the court properly determined that Farah M. may not rebut the presumption of parentage in favor of Kelly S. arising under California law by filing paternity petitions against the sperm donor and correctly determined that Kelly S. has standing to seek visitation with the subject children at a best interests hearing.”

Kelly Steagall’s appellate attorney is Christopher J. Chimeri of Hauppague, N.Y. Farah Martin is represented by Sari M. Friedman of Garden City.  Regina M. Stanton was appointed by the court to represent the interest of the children.  Friedman told Newsday that she doubted her client would appeal, but she criticized the decision as “not good law.”  Steagall told Newsday, “As unfortunate as the situation is, I’m happy that some good came out of my rough situation and could help families in the future.”

The New York Court of Appeals will hear oral argument on June 2, 2016, in Matter of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C., an appeal challenging the continued validity of Alison D. v. Virginia M. The Court of Appeals gave leave to appeal a ruling by the Buffalo-based Appellate Division, 4th Department, Matter of Barone v. Chapman-Cleland, 129 A.D. 3d 1578, 10 N.Y.S.3d 380 (June 19, 2015), which had matter-of-factly applied the Alison D. precedent to hold that a lesbian co-parent lacked standing to seek custody and visitation with her son.  The Court of Appeals reaffirmed the holding of Alison D. as recently as 2010, in Debra H. v. Janice R., 14 N.Y.3d 576, but since then Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has appointed six new judges of the seven-member court, leaving only one appointee by former Republican Governor George Pataki on the bench, an almost complete turnover of membership since Alison D. was last affirmed, so it is highly possible that the court granted leave to appeal with a view to overruling the obsolete precedent.

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Mississippi Defies the 1st Amendment with “Freedom of Conscience” Law

On April 5 Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law H.B. 1523, a measure that received overwhelming approval in both houses of the state legislature.  Titled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act,” the law was clearly intended to encourage businesses and individuals in the state to discriminate against same-sex couples, LGBT people, and even sexually-active unmarried heterosexuals.

Despite the broad wording of its title, the measure does not on its face protect freedom of conscience in general.  Instead, in Section 2, the legislature stated that “the sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that (a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”  The first of these, of course, defies the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  The second defies the 2003 ruling, Lawrence v. Texas, which held that the state may not penalize sexual relations between consenting adults in private, regardless of their sex.  And the third defies the general medical consensus that gender identity is a human characteristic that exists apart from biological sex in terms of anatomy and genetics.

The law does not specify how it will be determined that somebody sincerely holds these beliefs or is merely asserting them opportunistically to avoid liability for mistreating somebody.

In effect, Mississippi has moved to protect from any adverse consequences at the hands of the state anybody who sincerely believes that a person born with a penis can only be considered a man for the rest of their life, and similarly a person born with a vagina can only be considered a woman.  This takes things one step further than North Carolina, which provided in its notorious H.B. 2, enacted in March, that “biological sex” means the sex indicated on a person’s birth certificate.  Since North Carolina will allow people to obtain new birth certificates consistent with their gender identity upon medical certification of surgical transition, that state evidently does not officially believe that sex is quite so “immutable.”

The new law goes on to protect people who act on these beliefs in various ways.  For example, religious organizations and clergy can refuse to have anything to do with same-sex marriages, including refusing to provide facilities or services in connection with same-sex marriage or to married same-sex couples.  Businesses can refuse to provide their goods or services or accommodations to same-sex couples, and can exclude transgender people from the use of single-sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Nobody can be subjected to loss of their tax-exempt status or denial of government contracts or benefits because they have these “protected” beliefs.  People who spout anti-LGBT rhetoric will be protected from adverse consequences as well.  They can’t be fired from government jobs for articulating such beliefs, for example.

Government employees whose jobs involve authorizing or licensing marriages can seek “recusal from authorizing or licensing lawful marriages based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” as defined in the statute, provided they send a written notice of such recusal to the State Registrar of Vital Records. They may not suffer any adverse consequences for recusing themselves, but “the person who is recusing himself or herself shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”  Apparently, then, the person recusing themselves is responsible for being sure that somebody else who is willing to perform their duty is available to do so when the service is needed.  This provision is undoubtedly intended to shield the state from liability for refusing to provide a service that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to receive.

The law also relieves people who officiate at weddings from any obligation to perform ceremonies in violation of their sincerely held religious or moral beliefs about the invalidity of same-sex marriages. This presumably would include refusing to officiate if one of the prospective spouses is transgender and that raises religious or moral objections for the officiant because of their lack of belief in the reality of the individual’s gender identity.  OF course, such protection is completely superfluous, since nobody would seriously contend that the government can compel clergy to perform services.

The “discriminatory action” that the government is not allowed to take against people holding and acting on these beliefs goes far beyond taxes to encompass any state benefit, license, certification, accreditation, custody award or agreement, and on and on and on. The list seems to anticipate the variety of cases that have arisen around the country over the past few years in which people have suffered adverse consequences because of their religious objections to homosexuality or same-sex marriage.  For example, some people have been expelled from graduate counseling programs for refusing to provide non-judgmental counseling to gay clients, and such expulsions would clearly be prohibited by this law.  The law would also forbid denying government employment to anybody because of these sincerely held religious beliefs by the prospective employee.

The practical effect is to say that married same-sex couples can be denied a host of benefits and entitlements under a variety of programs, in blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell. Ironically, this law was enacted just days after a federal district judge in Mississippi ruled that the state’s ban on adoption of children by same-sex married couples violates the 14th Amendment in light of Obergefell.   And the law erects a structure somewhat akin to apartheid around same-sex marriages.

The measure seems clearly unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, since it exalts and privileges particular religious beliefs and those who hold them for “special rights.”  On the other hand, some of the law is “merely” symbolic for several reasons.  First, since neither Mississippi nor any of its political subdivisions expressly outlaws discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations because of sexual orientation or gender identity, people or businesses acting to deny goods, services or accommodations to LGBT people and same-sex couples could do so freely without any consequence under state law before this measure was enacted.  Second, due to the Supremacy Clause of the federal constitution, federal constitutional and statutory rights take priority over state law.

Thus, for example, under Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments Act as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education, educational institutions in Mississippi that receive federal money (which would be just about all of them) may not discriminate against transgender individuals because of their gender identity, and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice, employers in Mississippi may not discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

And, of course, as a federal court ruled days earlier, state policies denying equal rights and benefits to married same-sex couples can be challenged under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The main question now is who will file for the first lawsuit to challenge this travesty. Robbie Kaplan, the fearless slayer of DOMA, victorious advocate in the Mississippi marriage equality lawsuit, and representative of the plaintiffs in the same-sex parents adoption case, would be our candidate.

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New Judge Rules for Plaintiffs in Puerto Rico Marriage Equality Case

On April 7, U.S. District Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi issued an order declaring the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the case of Conde-Vidal v. Padilla.  This was a bit of an anti-climax, since the state government had been complying with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling since last summer while awaiting some action in the lawsuit pending in federal court, but the pathway to the April 7 Order was not easy.

Lambda Legal represented a group of Puerto Rico residents who filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the statutory ban, Article 68 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, title 31, section 221, after the Supreme Court had declared DOMA unconstitutional.   At a time when federal trial judges around the country seemed to be competing with each other to see how fast they could strike down state bans on same-sex marriage, District Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez was determined to be an outlier.  On October 21, 2014, he granted the Commonwealth’s motion to dismiss the case, relying on the Supreme Court’s decades-old Baker v. Nelson ruling and the lack of any marriage equality ruling by the federal courts in the First Circuit.  (The First Circuit comprises most of the New England states, where marriage equality was achieved through state court litigation, referenda and state legislative action, without any assistance from the federal courts.)

This dismissal seemed particularly odd because it came just a few weeks after the Supreme Court refused to review the pro-marriage equality rulings by federal appeals courts in the 4th, 7th and 10th Circuits, and those circuit courts had all ruled that Baker v. Nelson was no longer a controlling precedent.

Lambda filed an appeal to the 1st Circuit, which then put the appeal on hold when the Supreme Court announced early in 2015 that it would review an anti-marriage equality decision that had been issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015 that state bans on same-sex marriage violate the 14th Amendment, Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Padilla, the lead defendant in Lambda’s case, issued an order that the state government comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the Commonwealth agreed to file a joint motion with Lambda in the 1st Circuit, informing that court that all parties to the case agreed that the Puerto Rico ban was unconstitutional.  The 1st Circuit agreed as well, vacated Judge Perez-Gimenez’s decision on July 8, 2015, and sent the case back to him “for further consideration in light of Obergefell.”  At that time, the 1st Circuit stated, “We agree with the parties’ joint position that the ban is unconstitutional.  Mandate to issue forthwith.”

But Judge Perez-Gimenez did not take action “forthwith.”  Instead, he pondered for eight months, and then issued a peculiar decision on March 8, 2016, stating that the Supreme Court’s decision did not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico because of its commonwealth status.  This was nonsense, because a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1976 had ruled that the residents of Puerto Rico are entitled to the rights protected under the 14th Amendment, which was the provision underlying the marriage equality ruling.

Once again Lambda Legal petitioned the 1st Circuit, which responded on April 7: “The district court’s ruling errs in so many respects,” said the court, “that it is hard to know where to begin.” After pointing out the 1976 Supreme Court ruling, the court observed that its own mandate from July 8 was clear, and the federal district court was obligated to follow it.

The appeals court ordered that the clerk of the district court randomly assign the case to a different judge “to enter judgment in favor of the Petitioners promptly, and to conduct any further proceedings necessary in this action.”

Acting with alacrity, the clerk reassigned the case immediately to Judge Gelpi, who quickly issued his Order the same afternoon. As part of the Order, Gelpi scheduled a conference of the lawyers in the case in his chambers on April 11, by which time he hoped they would have drafted a joint stipulation for him to endorse as the final judgment in the case.  Once that is done, presumably, the plaintiffs can file a motion for attorney fees and costs as the prevailing parties.

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Federal Court Enjoins Enforcement of Mississippi’s Ban on Adoptions by Married Same-Sex Couples

 

Finding that the ability of a couple to adopt a child is a “benefit” of marriage, U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan, III, ruled on March 31 in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Mississippi Department of Human Services, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43897 (S.D. Miss.), that Mississippi’s statutory ban on adoptions by same-sex couples probably violates the 14th Amendment under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.  Although Judge Jordan found that some of the plaintiffs and many of the defendants had to be dismissed from the case on grounds of standing and jurisdiction, he concluded that other plaintiffs did have standing to challenge the law in court, and that the Executive Director of the state’s Department of Human Services was an appropriate defendant to be ordered on behalf of the state not to enforce the ban while the lawsuit is pending.  The ruling came as the state’s legislature was putting finishing touches on a so-called religious-freedom bill intended to protect persons or businesses with religious objections to same-sex marriage or sex relations between anyone other than a man and a woman united in marriage from any adverse consequences at the hand of the government or any liability for refusing to provide goods or services in connection with same-sex marriages.  The constitutionality of such a measure is much disputed in light of Obergefell.

Among the plaintiffs are same-sex couples who sought second-parent adoptions of children born to one member of the couple by her same-sex partner, and same-sex couples who sought to adopt children not biologically related to either of them through the foster care system. The court found that one of the couples was not married at the time the complaint was filed, and dismissed them from the case for lack of standing, since the state denies adoptions to all unmarried couples, whether same-sex or different-sex.  However, the court concluded that all of the remaining couples had standing to challenge the statutory ban in court, since an employee of the Department had told one of the couples in response to an inquiry about the foster-care route that the Department would continue enforcing the ban despite the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that states are required under the 14th Amendment to allow same-sex couples to marry and to accord official recognition to same-sex marriages contracted in other jurisdictions. The organizational plaintiffs, Campaign for Southern Equality and Family Equality Council, met the test for associational standing by alleging that they had members who were married same-sex couples in Mississippi with interests in adoption similar to the named plaintiffs.

The court found, however, that neither the governor nor the attorney general were appropriate defendants, since neither of those state officials plays any role in administering the adoption system. On different grounds, the court dismissed from the case several judges who were named as defendants, finding that judges whose role is to adjudicate cases are not “adverse parties” to plaintiffs seeking to invalidate a state statute.  The Department of Human Services could not itself be sued, as the 11th Amendment as construed by the Supreme Court gives state agencies general immunity from being sued by citizens of the state in federal court for violations of constitutional rights.  However, the Supreme Court has allowed a “work around” for that constitutional barrier, by allowing suits against the officials charged with the direction of an agency that plays a role in the enforcement of a challenged statute.  Judge Jordan found that the Department plays a significant role in administering the foster care system and in investigating adoption petitions and making recommendations to the courts, and thus the Director of the Department would be an appropriate defendant.  While noting that the Department has stated recently that it would not stand in the way of a same-sex couple adopting a child, the court found there was sufficient evidence in the record that same-sex couples continue to be discouraged from applying for the foster care program to discount this statement for purposes of determining who can be sued in this case, stating that “the record before the Court indicates that [the Department] has interfered with same-sex adoptions after Obergefell.”

Turning to the merits of the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court had to confront the doctrinal mysteries of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court in Obergefell.  While that opinion makes clear that the right to marry as such is a fundamental right under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that exclusion of same-sex couples from marrying violates that fundamental right, the Court never directly addressed the question of what level of judicial review might be appropriate for claims that a same-sex couple is being denied any particular benefit of marriage, which would determine what kind of justification a state would have to present for treating same-sex couples differently from different-sex couples.

“While the majority’s approach [in Obergefell] could cause confusion if applied in lower courts to future cases involving marriage-related benefits,” wrote Jordan, “it evidences the majority’s intent for sweeping change.  For example, the majority clearly holds that marriage itself is a fundamental right when addressing the due-process issue.  In the equal-protection context, that would require strict scrutiny.  But the opinion also addresses the benefits of marriage, noting that marriage and those varied rights associated with it are recognized as a ‘unified whole.’  And it further states that ‘the marriage laws enforced by the respondents are in essence unequal: same-sex couples are denied all the benefit afforded to opposite-sex couples %and% are barred from exercising a fundamental right.’”

“Of course the Court did not state whether these other benefits are fundamental rights or whether gays are a suspect class,” Judge Jordan continued. “Had the classification not been suspect and the benefits not fundamental, then rational-basis review would have followed.  It did not.  Instead, it seems clear the Court applied something greater than rational-basis review.  Indeed, the majority never discusses the states’ reasons for adopting their bans on gay marriage and never mentions the word ‘rational.’”  Thus, from a doctrinal standpoint, the Obergefell opinion is in some sense incomplete.  But it was not puzzling enough to deter Judge Jordan from moving ahead to the logical result.

“While it may be hard to discern a precise test,” he wrote, “the Court extended its holding to marriage-related benefits – which includes the right to adopt. And it did so despite those who urged restraint while marriage-related benefits cases worked their way through the lower courts.  According to the majority, ‘Were the Court to stay its hand to allow slower, case-by-case determination of the required availability of specific public benefits to same-sex couples, it still would deny gays and lesbians many rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.’”  Judge Jordan noted Chief Justice John Roberts’ response to this point in his dissenting opinion, including his contention that as a result of the Court’s ruling “those more selective claims will not arise now that the Court has taken the drastic step of requiring every State to license and recognize marriage between same-sex couples.”  (In all these quotations from Obergefell, the emphases were added by Judge Jordan.)

“In sum,” wrote Jordan, “the majority opinion foreclosed litigation over laws interfering with the right to marry and ‘rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.’ It also seems highly unlikely that the same court that held a state cannot ban gay marriage because it would deny benefits – expressly including the right to adopt – would then conclude that married gay couples can be denied the very same benefits.”  The conclusion is obvious: Obergefell decides this case.  “The majority of the United States Supreme Court dictates the law of the land,” wrote Jordan, “and lower courts are bound to follow it,” which means the Mississippi statutory ban on same-sex couples adopting children violates the Equal Protection Clause.

In his March 31 decision Judge Jordan was not rendering a final ruling on the merits, but rather responding to the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the statutory ban while the case continues. The first step of determining whether plaintiffs can get their injunction requires the court to determine whether they are likely to win on the merits, and the foregoing discussion was directed to that point.  Next Jordan considered whether allowing the ban to continue would inflict irreparable harm on the plaintiffs, which is simply answered by noting that monetary damages could not compensate a delay in being allowed to adopt a child and that a denial of equal protection of the laws is always considered an irreparable injury.  Since the current position of the Department is that “it will not impede an otherwise valid gay adoption,” it was clear that the “balance of harms” between the parties favors plaintiffs, as does the factor of how the public interest would be affected by granting or denying an injunction.  Thus, the court concluded that an injunction should be issued.  “The Executive Director of DHS is hereby preliminarily enjoined from enforcing Mississippi Code section 93-17-3(5),” ordered the court.  There was no immediate word whether the state would attempt to appeal this grant of preliminary relief.  Perhaps the court’s opinion will suffice to convince state officials that “marriage equality” as decreed by the Supreme Court means equality in all respects, invalidating any state law or policy that would treat same-sex married couples differently from different-sex married couples.

Since Obergefell dealt with benefits of marriage and did not rule on the rights, if any, of unmarried same-sex couples, it would not provide a direct precedent concerning attempted second-parent adoptions or adoptions out of foster care by unmarried same-sex couples, which is why one of the plaintiff couples was dismissed from the case, even though they informed the court that they had married after the complaint was filed.  And it would be difficult to argue that unmarried same-sex couples are “similarly situated” to married couples in relation to the adoption of children, at least for purposes of an Equal Protection challenge.  Everybody involved in the case, it appears, agrees that the sole issue is whether the challenged statute can be used to deny married same-sex couples a benefit afforded to married different-sex couples.

Lead attorney for the plaintiffs is Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, a partner in the New York City office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who also represented Campaign for Southern Equality in its successful legal challenge to Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage and Edith Windsor in her successful legal challenge to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.

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North Carolina H.B. 2 Draws ACLU/Lambda Lawsuit and Numerous Protest Actions

 

Within days of Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, signing into law H.B. 2, an “emergency measure” that passed with unanimous support of the Republicans in the North Carolina legislature to restrict public restroom access for transgender people and preempt localities from legislating on LGBT rights, the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project and its North Carolina affiliate in collaboration with the Atlanta office of Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, attacking the constitutionality of the measure. %Caracano v. McCrory%, No. 1:16-cv-236 (filed March 28, 2016).  The case was assigned to District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder.  North Carolina’s attorney general, Roy Cooper III, one of the named defendants in his official capacity, soon announced that he agreed with the plaintiffs that H.B. 2 was unconstitutional and so his office would not defend it.  Cooper is planning to run for governor against McCrory.

Social and political fallout responding to the new statute was swift. Governors from three states and mayors from several major cities had banned official travel by their employees to North Carolina within a week after the bill was signed, scores of corporate executives, including many from the state’s largest employers, signed letters to the governor deploring the measure, and talk had begun about professional sports leagues possibly shifting championship games out of the state.  Particular attention was focused on a large furniture trade fair held annually in North Carolina, organized by a gay couple, with the organizers reporting that many of the usual participants had indicated that they would not come this year due to passage of the law.  Efforts to put pressure on the state legislature through a tourism and business boycott were soon well under way. Governor McCrory dug in his heels, claiming that the law was not “discriminatory” and was intended to protect the private of public restroom users, charging that Attorney General Cooper’s announced refusal to defend the measure was a violation of his oath of office, a point that Cooper hotly disputed.  McCrory’s position was quickly undermined as Governor Nathan Deal, a fellow Republican, vetoed an anti-gay “religious freedom” measure in Georgia just days later, to be followed shortly by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Passage of H.B. 2 was provoked by a majority vote of the Charlotte City Council to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its local civil rights ordinance effective April 1, over protests by opponents that this would allow men pretending to be women to invade women’s restroom facilities, thus violating the privacy of their female users and posing a danger of sexual assaults. The claim was bizarre on its face, since scores of municipalities and counties, and many states, have banned gender identity discrimination in places of public accommodation, some for a decade or more, without any such incidents being reported.  Furthermore, somebody identified as male at birth but asserting a female gender identity would not likely attempt to use a woman’s restroom or locker room facility if they were not expressing their gender identity as female through dress and grooming and taking female hormones through a prescription written by a doctor who has diagnosed gender dysphoria, and such is the experience under such laws in other jurisdictions.  But Governor McCrory, running for re-election and seeking to energize his conservative (and presumably transphobic) base, had warned even before the Council voted that passage of the measure in the city where he had previously served as mayor would require a response from the state government.  Although McCrory did not call for the special session, which was initiated by Republican leaders in both houses, he signed the resulting bill with alacrity, probably setting speed records for a controversial measure being introduced, passing both houses, and being signed into law in a single legislative day.  Some state legislators protested that they did not even receive the text of the bill prior to the day’s floor debates.

Although the “provocation” focused on restrooms, the legislative response ran far beyond a simple overturning of the gender identity provision of the local ordinance as it pertains to public accommodations or more narrowly to specific kinds of facilities. Instead, the legislature affirmatively enacted a %requirement% that the public schools and other government facilities throughout the state restrict access to any “multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility” by designating each such facility as being for the exclusive use of males or females and providing that only persons identified on their birth certificates as male could use male-designated facilities and analogously  for women.  Since North Carolina requires proof of sex reassignment surgery before issuing new birth certificates to applicants seeking a change to reflect their gender identity, and many transgender people don’t undergo complete reassignment surgery for a variety of reasons, including the expense of a procedure not covered by their health insurance, many transgender people would be left in effect without ready access to appropriate restroom facilities.  Use of facilities consistent with their birth certificates could subject them to violent reactions, especially noting the gun culture of southern states like North Carolina.  (Imagine the danger to a transgender man coming into a female-designated restroom occupied by women with pistols!)  The legislature apparently gave no thought to how its restroom restrictions would be enforced in practice, an issue not addressed in the statute.  Indeed, the statute directs its mandate to “local boards of education” and government “agencies” to “establish” single-sex facilities and restrict their use, but does not explicitly impose penalties for failure to do so, and says nothing specifically about penalties, if any, imposed on persons apprehended using the “wrong” restrooms.  We are waiting for somebody to confront Gov. McCrory in a men’s restroom in the state capitol to demand that he prove his “biological sex,” presumably by exposing his penis to inspection.  But we digress. . . .

The legislature went even further. Not contenting itself with addressing the “bathroom” issue, it also passed a provision preempting local governments from forbidding discrimination in employment and public accommodations by declaring such issues as properly reserved to statewide resolution.  Just to drive the point home and to avoid arguments about broadly defining bans on sex discrimination, the preempting statute bans discrimination on the basis of “biological sex,” which is defined according to the individual’s sex as designated on their birth certificate.  The measure also eschews creating any private right of action for discrimination in employment or public accommodations, instead limiting enforcement to complaints to the Human Relations Commission, which is authorized to “investigate and conciliate” but not to legislate, the goal being to resolve all complaints from “amicable resolution.”  This effectively preempted and wiped out all local civil rights laws, and because of the limited list of categories covered in H.B. 2, incidentally eliminated some local protections for veterans.  While they were at it, the legislators threw into the bill a totally unrelated prohibition on local governments legislating on public contracting, wages and hours, child labor, and other subjects dealt with by the state’s wage and hours law, including prohibiting localities from establishing a minimum wage higher than the state’s rather low minimum.  The thread tying these provisions together was a purported bid for “statewide consistency” in employment regulation, contracting, and anti-discrimination policies, the “theory” being that allowing localities to legislate would make life too difficult for businesses and confusing for everybody else.

The lawsuit was brought in the name of two state university employees, Joaquin Carcano (a transgender man at UNC Chapel Hill) and Angela Gilmore (a lesbian at Northern Carolina Central University Law School) and a current student, Payton Grey McGarry (a transgender man at UNC Greensboro), as well as the ACLU of North Carolina (a legal membership organization) and Equality North Carolina (a political membership organization). The named defendants are Governor Patrick McCrory, Attorney General Roy Cooper III, the University of North Carolina and its Board of Governors, and the UNC Board’s chair, W. Louis Bissette, Jr.

The complaint proceeds along several lines, constitutional and statutory. The constitutional claim was that H.B. 2 violates the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, by imposing harms on transgender and lesbian/gay/bisexual residents of the state without sufficient justification to meet constitutional requirements.  The complaint asserts that heightened scrutiny judicial review applies to these sorts of discrimination, a point not yet expressly embraced by the Supreme Court but starting to make its way in the lower federal courts.  (For example, the 11th Circuit, in %Glenn v. Brumby%, 663 F.3d 1312 (2011), found that gender identity discrimination by a public employer was sex discrimination subject to heightened scrutiny.  The Obama Administration argued in the %Windsor% case that sexual orientation discrimination was subject to heightened scrutiny, a point embraced by the 2nd Circuit in that litigation.)  The Due Process Clause claim includes a privacy claim, arguing that the bathroom restrictions will require transgender people to “out” themselves, thus exposing themselves to danger, and that in light of the state’s demanding criteria for issuing new birth certificates, in effect dictating to transgender people that they must undergo surgical procedures to attain equal access to appropriate public facilities for their gender, another imposition upon individual choice and autonomy.  The complaint also asserts violations of Title IX of the federal Education Act Amendments, which forbid sex discrimination by educational institutions that get federal money.  This relies on recent decisions by the U.S. Department of Education that this provision requires educational institutions to allow transgender people to access restroom and locker room facilities consistent with their gender identity.

The complaint also attacks the preemption of local laws protective of LGBT rights, summoning an argument based on the Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in %Romer v. Evans%, which struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment prohibiting the state or its political subdivisions from outlawing anti-gay discrimination.  Unlike the Colorado amendment, H.B. 2 does not single out LGBT people for exclusion from protection on its face, excluding them instead by %not% mentioning them sexual orientation or gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination and preempting local governments from legislating on discrimination.  But the rationale of %Romer% seems to apply, in that the measure was adopted for the proclaimed purpose of excluding LGBT people from the protections afforded to other groups that suffer discrimination, with no rational basis articulated other than a desire to exclude.  Another argument that seems relevant here would be derived from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in %U.S. v. Windsor% striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.  The government sought to defend the refusal to recognize same-sex marriages contracted under state law by advancing the need for a national unified definition of marriage for purposes of federal rights and programs, similar to North Carolina’s argument for “statewide consistency” in anti-discrimination law.  The Supreme Court did not even find that justification significant enough to dignify it with discussion.

Since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination in employment, applies to state and local government workplaces, the restroom provisions likely violate Title VII consistent with the views of the EEOC, as expressed in %Lusardi v. McHugh%, Appeal No. 0120133395, 2015 WL 1607756 (EEOC, April 1, 2015, holding that the Department of the Army violated Title VII by refusing by restricting restroom access of a transgender civilian employee.  Title VII claims must be filed initially with the EEOC or designated state civil rights agencies, subject to an “exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement,” before they can be brought in federal court, so no Title VII claim was asserted in this challenge to H.B. 2.  However, it is possible that transgender state and local government employees will file such complaints, generating additional litigation as the %Carcano% case works its way through the federal courts. EEOC is busy litigating, directly and through amicus briefs in private litigation, to establish its position on the interpretation of “sex” under Title VII in non-federal employment cases in the courts, and a private “bathroom” case under Title IX is pending before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, %G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board%, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124905, 2015 WL 5560190 (E.D. Va. September 17, 2015). (Federal courts generally consider Title VII sex discrimination and Title IX cases under the same doctrinal rubric and freely refer to court decisions under both statutes.)  Indeed, the %G.G.% appeal has been argued before a circuit panel and a ruling is imminent. Such a ruling would be direct binding precedent on the district court in the case challenging H.B. 2.

The legal team representing plaintiffs includes Christopher A. Brook for the North Carolina Legal Foundation of the ACLU, Elizabeth O. Gill and Chase B. Strangio of the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project, and Tara L. Borelli, Peter C. Renn, and Kyle A. Palazzolo of Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office.

[Government officials from other states taking official action to ban state-funded employee trips to North Carolina included New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Executive Order No. 155), New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, Seattle Mayor Edward Murray (Executive Order 2016-03), San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.]

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Federal Court in Connecticut Finds Transgender Plaintiff’s Sex Discrimination Claim Actionable Under Title VII

U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill has ruled that a transgender doctor could go forward with her sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against a Connecticut hospital. Noting a split of authority among federal circuit courts of appeals and the lack of a controlling ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, Judge Underhill found more persuasive the more recent opinions finding that “sex” in the Civil Rights Act should be broadly construed to include gender identity, as opposed to older rulings rejecting such an argument.  Fabian v. Hospital of Central Connecticut, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34994 (D. Conn., March 18, 2016).

According to her complaint, Dr. Deborah Fabian had applied and was very nearly hired as an on-call orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital of Central Connecticut. She was recruited for the position by Delphi Healthcare Partners, a third-party provider of physicians and management services to health care institutions.  Fabian, who initially presented herself in the hiring process as Dr. David Fabian, claims that she was “all but hired” and had even been sent a proposed contract, which she had signed, and that she considered the final interview with hospital officials to be a “formality.”  Indeed, relying on representations from Delphi, she and her wife sold their home in Massachusetts, contemplating the move to Connecticut.  During the interview she disclosed that she was a transgender woman in the process of transition and would be reporting to begin work as Dr. Deborah Fabian.  She was later informed that she would not be hired.

She took her discrimination claim and the hospital and Delphi to the EEOC, alleging a violation of the federal sex discrimination statute as well as Connecticut’s statute. At the time, Connecticut’s statute had not yet been amended to add an explicit prohibition of discrimination because of gender identity, so under both statutes her claim was that the employer failed to hire her due to her gender identity and that this was sex discrimination.

In moving for summary judgment, the hospital focused on several lines of attack. It argued that she was not being considered for a staff employee position, but rather to be an independent contractor retained through Delphi, and thus in effect a subcontractor of a subcontractor.  Since the anti-discrimination laws apply only to employment, the hospital argued that they did not apply to this case.  Secondly, the hospital argued that its decision not to hire her was based on its conclusion from the interview that she was reluctant to take late-night calls to the Emergency Department, was uncomfortable with their new electronic records system, and that she wanted a job that involved performing more surgery.  Finally, and cutting to the chase, the hospital argued that gender identity discrimination claims are not actionable under Title VII or under the Connecticut state law as it was when this case arose.

Attacking the subcontractor point, Judge Underhill found that many factual issues would have to be resolved before determining whether Dr. Fabian was applying to be an employee of the hospital. Formal titles and contractual arrangements are less significant in these types of cases than a broad array of factors that the Supreme Court has identified in determining whether somebody is an employee or an independent contractor.  In the health care field, companies frequently try to structure their relationship with professional staff in such a way as to avoid the legal entanglements of an employment relationship, and some health care professionals may prefer the autonomy of not being full-time employees.  The Supreme Court has identified more than a dozen distinct factors to consider in making this determination, with particular emphasis on the degree to which the alleged employer controls the work of the employee.  The court found that there were enough disputed factual issues here to preclude making a determination based on a pre-trial motion without the benefit of an evidentiary hearing.  The judge found that Fabian’s factual allegations were sufficient to create a material factual issue on such questions as “control,” so denied the motion on this ground.  The judge also found that factual issues would need to be resolved concerning the hospital’s contentions, disputed by Fabian, about her willingness to handle late-night calls, deal with the information system, or enthusiastically take the job despite the amount of surgery involved.

The main question, to which the judge devoted most of his opinion, was whether Fabian was alleging a kind of discrimination covered by these statutes. Judge Underhill reviewed the history of the inclusion of sex in Title VII and its subsequent interpretation, noting that for many decades after the statute went into effect in 1965 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts had taken the view that gender identity claims were not covered.  However, things began to change after the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, where the Court accepted the plaintiff’s contention that her promotion had been denied because various of the firm’s partners objected to her failure to conform to their stereotyped views about how a “woman partner” should act, groom and dress.  With sex stereotyping accepted as evidence of a sex-discriminatory motivation, courts began to accept the argument that discrimination against transgender persons involves sexual stereotypes in violation of Title VII. By early in the 21st century, some federal circuit courts had adopted this view, which was finally embraced by the EEOC in a 2010 decision involving federal employment, which was subsequently endorsed by the Justice Department.

Judge Underhill stated his agreement with the courts “that have held that %Price Waterhouse% abrogates the narrow view” that had been taken in earlier decisions.  “The narrower view relies on the notion that the word ‘sex’ simply and only means ‘male or female,’” he continued.  “That notion is not closely examined in any of the cases, but it is mistaken.  ‘Male or female’ is a relatively weak definition of ‘sex’ for the same reason that ‘A, B, AB, or O’ is a relatively weak definition of ‘blood type’: it is not a formulation of meaning, but a list of instances.  It might be an exhaustive list, or it might not be, but either way it says nothing about why or how the items in the list are instances of the same thing; and the word ‘sex’ refers not just to the instances, but also to the ‘thing’ that the instances are instances of.  In some usages, the word ‘sex’ can indeed mean ‘male or female,’ but it can also mean the distinction between male and female, or the property or characteristic (or group of properties or characteristics) by which individuals may be so distinguished. Discrimination ‘because of sex,’ therefore, is not only discrimination because of maleness and discrimination because of femaleness, but also discrimination because of the distinction between male and female or discrimination because of the properties or characteristics by which individuals may be classified as male or female.”  The judge cited historical references to support his contention that such broader understandings of sex date back as far as 1755, in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of the English language, and he found a similarly broad understanding in dictionaries contemporary with the adoption of Title VII in the 1960s.  Thus, even in the absence of direct evidence about what the drafters of the “sex” amendment thought in 1964, there is indirect evidence that a broader understanding of the word and concept then existed.

The judge also quoted a favorite hypothetical case put by proponents of coverage for gender identity discrimination: just as an employer who had no bias against Christians or Jews could be held to have discriminated because of religion if she discharged an employee for converting from one religion to the other, an employer who has no particular bias against men or women could be held to discriminate because of sex if he discharged an employee for transitioning from male to female.   He insisted that no court would make the mistake of finding no discrimination because of religion in the case of the religious convert.  “Because Christianity and Judaism are understand as examples of religions rather than the definition of religion itself,” he wrote, “discrimination against converts, or against those who practice either religion the ‘wrong’ way, is obviously discrimination ‘because of religion.’  Similarly, discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes, or on the basis of being transgender, or intersex, or sexually indeterminate, constitutes discrimination on the basis of the properties or characteristics typically manifested in sum as male and female – and that discrimination is literally discrimination ‘because of sex.’”

Thus he concluded, “on the basis of the plain language of the statute, and especially in light of the interpretation of that language evident in Price Waterhouse’s acknowledgment that gender-stereotyping discrimination is discrimination ‘because of sex, . . . discrimination on the basis of transgender identity is cognizable under Title VII.”  In a footnote, he observed that he would reach the same conclusion under the pre-amended Connecticut statute.  The legislature’s subsequent addition of the term “gender identity” to the statute did not require a different conclusion “because legislatures may add such language to clarify or settle a dispute about the statute’s scope rather than solely to expand it.”

With the denial of the hospital’s summary judgment motion, the case can proceed to trial unless a settlement is reached. The court noted that Delphi did not join in the motion for summary judgment.

Dr. Fabian is represented by Theodore W. Heiser of Sullivan Heiser LLC, of Clinton, Connecticut.

Judge Underhill was appointed to the District Court by President Bill Clinton.

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Federal Judge Says Straight but Not Gay Students Are Protected from Homophobic Harassment Under Title IX

Ruling on pretrial motions in a case brought by the estate of a student who committed suicide after allegedly suffering severe harassment from fellow students at a public school, Chief U.S. District Judge Glenn T. Suddaby (N.D.N.Y.) allowed the plaintiff to amend the complaint to add a Title IX cause of action for sex discrimination by an educational institution, based on the homophobic nature of slurs aimed at the decedent in Estate of D.B. v. Thousand Islands Central School District, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32054, 2016 WL 945350 (March 14, 2016), but only because the proposed amendment does not allege that the student was gay.

Judge Suddaby’s opinion lacks any coherent narration of the facts, only mentioning individual factual allegations in passing while analyzing the various motions before the court. From what one discerns, however, the case concerns a male public school student who was subjected to bullying and harassment by fellow-students, that school officials failed to protect him, and that he committed suicide at home.

The original complaint alleged violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 14th Amendment, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the New York State Education Law and the N.Y. Dignity for All Students Act.  The opinion does not identify the nature of D.B.’s alleged disability. The First Amended complaint sought to add sex discrimination claims under federal and state law, most significantly Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which the U.S. Department of Education has construed to protect gay students from bullying and harassment.  There are also state law tort claims alleging infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision.  The defendants raised a variety of jurisdictional and procedural arguments in support of their motion to dismiss, and opposed the cross-motion to add new counts, including the Title IX count.  The opinion is mainly interesting for the way in which Judge Suddaby analyzed the motion to add a Title IX sex discrimination claim.

Judge Suddaby found that because of 2nd Circuit precedent rejecting the idea that sexual orientation discrimination is actionable as sex discrimination under federal statutes, a student who is harassed with homophobic slurs would have an action under Title IX if the student alleged that the harassment was due to his incorrectly perceived sexual orientation but not his actual homosexual orientation!

There is a sort of “Through the Looking Glass” quality to the judge’s discussion of the Title IX claim. For example, the judge rejects the allegation that calling a boy a “pussy” could be seen as a sexually-related slur.  The complaint alleges: “[Another student] called the Decedent a ‘pussy,’ and told him ‘You’re a pussy and you need the shit kicked out of you.’ These are the types of anti-gay and gender-related slurs Decedent was consistently subjected to.’”  Judge Suddaby begs to differ. “As shocking as this slur may be,” he wrote, “the Court is not persuaded that it is related to gender under the circumstances.  Rather, as Defendants point out, the slur ‘pussy’ is more likely to mean ‘coward’ than anything gender related.  Even if the other student did intend the slur to relate to gender, Plaintiff has not made a proper showing of that fact.  Rather, most of Plaintiff’s reference to ‘gender-related slurs’ are nothing more than conclusory statements.”

On the other hand, Judge Suddaby accepted the argument that explicitly homophobic slurs could support a “gender stereotyping” claim of sex discrimination under Title IX, provided that the plaintiff was not gay!  “The Second Circuit recognizes a fine line between gender stereotyping and bootstrapping protection for sexual orientation,” he wrote.  “Because a Title IX sex discrimination claim is treated in much the same way as a Title VII sex discrimination claim, Title VII jurisprudence therefore applies.  Under the ‘gender stereotyping’ theory of liability under Title VII, individuals who fail or refuse to comply with socially accepted gender roles are members of a protected class.  However, courts in the Second Circuit do not recognize sexual orientation as a protected classification under Title VII or Title IX.  The critical fact under the circumstances is the actual sexual orientation of the harassed person.  If the harassment consists of homophobic slurs directed at a homosexual, then a gender-stereotyping claim by that individual is improper bootstrapping.  If, on the other hand, the harassment consists of homophobic slurs directed at a heterosexual, then a gender-stereotyping claim by that individual is possible.”

In this case, the plaintiff is not alleging that D.B. was gay. To the contrary, wrote Suddaby, “D.B.’s own alleged statements refer to accusations that he was homosexual as ‘stupid gay rumours [sic].’  Moreover, the Amended Complaint alleges that the bullying was based on D.B.’s ‘actual or perceived sexual orientation’ and his ‘perceived and/or presumed sexual orientation.’  Under the circumstances, the Amended Complaint alleges facts plausibly suggesting a gender-stereotyping claim to survive a [dismissal] motion; and the amendment to include this claim is not futile.  As a result, Plaintiff’s cross-motion to amend is granted as to the inclusion of the Title IX claim.”

The judge rejected the rather bizarre argument that certain federal claims should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, in light of the difficulty of a deceased person pursuing administrative remedies. But he accepted the argument that the negligent supervision claim could not apply to the suicide, as such, because D.B. took his life at home, not at school.  On the other hand, this tort claim could extend to the alleged failures of school officials to respond to the ongoing bullying of D.B.  The court rejected plaintiff’s motion to add claims under the N.Y. Civil Rights Law, on the ground that statutory notice of claims had not been served on the school district as a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing suit.

The opinion reflects the retrograde state of the law within the federal 2nd Circuit as a result of a 2000 court of appeals decision, Simonton v. Runyon, which rejected a Title VII sex discrimination brought by a gay plaintiff subjected to sexually-oriented workplace harassment.  Attempts are under way to get the Circuit to reconsider this precedent in the context of ongoing litigation asserting sexual orientation discrimination claims under federal sex discrimination statutes, in line with a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2015 that sexual orientation discrimination is “necessarily” sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.  EEOC rulings are not binding on the courts, however, and the persuasiveness of this particular EEOC ruling is somewhat compromised by the fact that it represents a reversal of almost half a century of agency precedent.

The Estate of D.B. is represented by Michael D. Meth of Chester, N.Y. Charles C. Spagnoli and Frank W. Miller of East Syracuse represent the school district.  Judge Suddaby was appointed to the district court by President George W. Bush during the last year of his second term in office.

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