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Pennsylvania Superior Court Recognizes Pre-2005 Same-Sex Common Law Marriage

Posted on: April 18th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 Pennsylvania abolished common-law marriage by statute effective January 24, 2005, but provided that the statute should not be “deemed or taken to render any common-law marriage otherwise lawful and contracted on or before January 1, 2005, invalid.” After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, implicitly affirming Whitewood v. Wolf, 992 F. Supp. 2d 410 (M.D. Pa. 2014), a trial court decision that was not appealed by the state, numerous trial judges in Pennsylvania have issued declaratory judgments recognizing common law marriages of same-sex couples that were contracted prior to January 1, 2005.  The outlier was a July 8, 2016, order by Judge John D. McBride of the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas in In re Estate of Stephen Carter, in which Judge McBridge refused to affirm an alleged common law marriage contracted in 1996 or 1997 by Carter and his surviving spouse, Michael Hunter, in Philadelphia.  On April 17, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court provided the first appellate ruling in the state granting retroactive recognition to a same-sex common law marriage, reversing the Beaver County court in response to Hunter’s appeal, 2017 PA Super 104.

Writing for the court, Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton, Jr., found that McBride erred on both of the grounds of decision. The first was that because same-sex couples did not have the right to marry in Pennsylvania until the Whitewood decision in 2014, the two men could not have contracted a common law marriage prior to January 1, 2005.  The second was based on McBride’s finding that Hunter had at best established that the men intended to marry when it became legal to do so in Pennsylvania, which he deemed insufficient to establish a common law marriage, despite the evidence that the men exchanged rings, regarded themselves as spouses, lived together, and were regarded as spouses by members of their families.

Judge Moulton found that the trial court’s first ground had misconceived the effect of Whitewood and the U.S. Supreme Court’s subsequent rulings in U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges.  “Together,” he wrote, “Windsor, Whitehead, and Obergefell teach that same-sex couples have precisely the same capacity to enter marriage contracts as do opposite-sex couples, and a court today may not rely on the now-invalidated provisions of the Marriage Law to deny that constitutional reality.  Consequently, because opposite-sex couples in Pennsylvania are permitted to establish, through a declaratory judgment action, the existence of a common law marriage prior to January 1, 2005, same-sex couples must have that same right.  To deprive Hunter of the opportunity to establish his rights as Carter’s common law spouse, simply because he and Carter are a same-sex couple, would violate both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Turning to the trial court’s second ground, Judge Moulton conceded that even prior to its legislative abolition, common law marriage had been difficult to prove, because of the insistence by Pennsylvania courts that the proponent of recognizing the marriage prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the purported spouses had expressed to each other a present intention to be married. He quoted from the most recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, Staudenmayer v. Staudenmayer, 714 A. 2d 1016 (Pa. 1998), where the court stated: “A common law marriage can only be created by an exchange of words in the present tense, spoken with the specific purpose that the legal relationship of husband and wife is created by that.”  However, continued the Supreme Court, “Because common law marriage cases arose most frequently because of claims for a putative surviving spouse’s share of an estate, however, we developed a rebuttable presumption in favor of a common law marriage where there is an absence of testimony regarding the exchange of verba in praesenti.  When applicable, the party claiming a common law marriage who proves: (1) constant cohabitation; and (2) a reputation of marriage ‘which is not partial or divided but is broad and general,’ raises the rebuttable presumption of marriage.”

In this case, both ways of proving a common law marriage could be found based on the testimony presented to Judge McBride. Hunter recounted how he proposed marriage to Carter on Christmas Day 1996, giving him a diamond ring, asking if Carter would marry him, and Carter answering yes.  Two months later, on February 18, 1997, Carter gave Hunter a ring in return which was engraved with that date, and the men henceforth celebrated February 18 as their anniversary for the next 16 years, until Carter died tragically from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in April 2013, “less than two months before the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), which struck down the provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) defining ‘marriage’ as only between one man and one woman,” Judge Moulton commented.

After the men exchanged rings, they bought a house together with a joint mortgage, made mutual wills and other legal documents establishing their relationship, supported each other, held joint bank and investment accounts, and subsequently moved to the Pittsburgh area where they again jointly purchased a house. There was testimony from Carter’s nieces that they referred to Hunter as “Uncle Mike.”  It was easy based on the testimonial record for the Superior Court to conclude that McBride erred in basing his decision on one bit of evidence considered out of context, that Carter and Hunter had consciously decided not to go out of state to marry when it became possible for same-sex couples to marry elsewhere, since an out-of-state same-sex marriage would not be recognized in Pennsylvania at that time and they specifically planned to have a ceremonial wedding in their home state of Pennsylvania when that became possible.

This did not, in the view of the Superior Court, undermine the conclusion that they considered themselves married as of February 18, 1997, had continuously cohabited, and had held themselves out to the world as married from that date forward. “In sum,” wrote Moulton, “the evidence clearly established that Hunter and Carter, like countless loving couples before them, expressed ‘an agreement to enter into the legal relationship of marriage at the present time.’  Therefore, we conclude that Hunter proved, by clear and convincing evidence, that he and Carter had entered into a common law marriage on February 18, 1997.”  Where McBride went wrong was in failing to distinguish between ceremonial marriage and common law marriage.  The evidence on which he relied related to ceremonial marriage, and did not undermine the evidence of a common law marriage.

The court returned the case to the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas “for the entry of an order declaring the existence of a common law marriage between Hunter and Carter as of February 18, 1997.”

Nebraska Supreme Court Ends State’s Anti-LGBT Adoption/Foster Policies

Posted on: April 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The seven-member Nebraska Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed a decision by Lancaster County District Judge John A. Colborn that a formal published policy adopted by the state in 1995 banning adoptions or foster placements into any household with a “homosexual” in residence was unconstitutional, as was an informal policy adopted more recently by chief executive officers of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services under which “exceptions” could be made in particular cases by personal order of the department’s director.

Ruling on a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of some same-sex couples who sought to foster or adopt children but were either discouraged by Department staff members or deterred by the formal policy posted on the Department’s website, Stewart v. Heineman, 296 Neb. 262, the Supreme Court focused mainly on technical issues, as the state apparently conceded that there was no good reason to single out gay and lesbian adults for discriminatory treatment and sought to persuade the court that the case was “moot” and should be dismissed, preferably without awarding costs and fees to the plaintiffs. The trial judge awarded costs and fees totaling more than $175,000, an amount that will increase if fees are later awarded to the plaintiffs for successfully defending their victory in the state supreme court.

The lengthy opinion by Justice John F. Wright is devoted almost entirely to refuting ridiculous arguments mounted by the state to try to convince the court that it lacked jurisdiction to decide the case, rather than to repeating in any detail the evidence presented to the district court about the parenting abilities of lesbians and gay men and the wholesome, well-adjusted children they have raised when given the opportunity to do so.

The complaint the ACLU filed centered on Memo 1-95, an administrative memorandum written by the director of the Department of Social Services (which later became the Department of Health and Human Services) in 1995. The memo stated: “It is my decision that effective immediately, it is the policy of the Department of Social Services that children will not be placed in the homes of persons who identify themselves as homosexuals.  This policy also applies to the area of foster home licensure in that, effective immediately, no foster home license shall be issued to persons who identify themselves as homosexuals.”  The memo adopted a similar policy regarding “unmarried heterosexual couples.”  The memo “directed staff not to specifically ask about an individual’s sexual orientation or marital status beyond those inquiries already included in the licensing application and home study,” wrote Justice Wright.  “The stated reason for the policy was this State’s intent to place children in the most ‘family-like setting’ when out-of-home care is necessary,” Wright continued.  The memo contemplated that a formal regulation incorporating its policy decisions would be adopted, but this did not happen.

In fact, there is no formal statutory or regulatory ban on gay people being foster or adoptive parents in Nebraska, as such. Thus, the entire focus of the lawsuit and the court opinions was on the “policy” expressed in Memo 1-95 and subsequent “practices” adopted by the director of the department.

The Memo was posted on the Department’s website as a formal policy statement, and was not removed from the website until after this lawsuit began and motions for summary judgment had been filed with Judge Colborn. The Memo was used in training new staff members, and was referred to specifically by staff members when they discouraged one of the couples from formally applying to get a foster child, which is a prerequisite in Nebraska to legal adoption.

Part of the state’s defense in this case was that although Memo 1-95 continued to appear on the website, it was no longer the actual policy of the Department, as recent chief executive officers had determined that lesbian and gay applicants otherwise qualified to serve as foster or adoptive parents should be allowed to do so. However, this informal policy was not well publicized throughout the department, formal instructions were not issued at the line staff level, and no mechanism for appealing denials based on an applicant’s sexual orientation was created.

Under this “practice,” which was referred to throughout the opinion as the Pristow Procedure, after Thomas Pristow, director of the Division beginning in March 2012, if gay applicants were approved at the line staff level, the approval had to go through four layers of sign-offs, including by Pristow himself. No other potentially controversial placements, such as those with unmarried heterosexual parents or with former prison inmates, had to go through so many layers of approval, and only placements with “homosexuals” had to be personally approved by the director.

An earlier form of this policy “exception” was first adopted by Todd Reckling when he was director in June 2010, expressed in a letter to two gay men, Todd Vesely and Joel Busch, who had begun the process of qualifying to be foster and adoptive parents in 2008, completing the training program. Reckling wrote them that the division’s policy was to bar licensing unrelated adults living together, referring to Memo 1-95, but that the division’s policy “allows for an exception” under which one member of an unmarried couple might be licensed, but Reckling’s letter “gave no indication that such an exception would be made in their case” because, as Reckling explained, “second parent adoptions” were not permitted in Nebraska involving unmarried couples, and Todd and Joel could not marry because of Nebraska’s anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.   Neither would their marriage be recognized if contracted out of state.

One of the state’s incredible arguments was that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit because none of the couples had formally applied and been turned down. This was a nonsensical argument, since it was clear that any gay couple applying had to be rejected under the formal policy posted on the website and taught to staff members.  In reviewing the deposition testimony of the various directors of the division and other staff members, as well as their internal written communications, the court uncovered the entire history of developments within the department as this issue unfolded.  When pressed about why Memo 1-95 remained for so long on the website despite insistence by some of the witnesses that it was no longer the “practice” of the division, witnesses intimated that they wanted to prevent the possibility that a formal withdrawal of the memo would provoke the state legislature to pass an explicit ban on “homosexuals” serving as foster or adoptive parents, as had happened in some other states when the issue aroused public attention.

The defense witnesses struggled to define the difference between a “policy” and a “practice,” and to argue that because the complaint filed in this case only explicitly attacked 1-95 as a “policy,” the court should not consider whether the “practice” actually followed was constitutional. Of course, since the “practice” was never formally published, it turns out that the plaintiffs did not learn of it until after filing their complaint and conducting discovery.  The court turned aside formalistic objections to extending the lawsuit to consider the “practice,” and agreed with Judge Colborn that the “practice” as variously described in depositions and internal division communications was itself discriminatory.

The defense witnesses could advance no good reason why approval of gay people to be foster or adoptive parents should require five layers of approval culminating in personal approval by the CEO, a degree of internal scrutiny that was not demanded of any other class of applicants.

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the case was not “ripe” for decision because nobody had been turned down under the “practice”, now that the Memo has been removed from the website. Interestingly, however, the opinion does not mention any evidence that any gay foster or adoptive parents have actually been approved.  The defendants argued that none of the plaintiffs have yet incurred the injury of formally being denied, so it was premature for the court to rule on the merits.  But the court noted plentiful U.S. Supreme Court precedents adopting the view that a denial of equal treatment was itself an injury, even if it was in the form of an official policy that had deterred individuals from applying and thus had not resulted in any formal denials.

Approving the district court’s decision to issue an injunction against the “policy” and the “practice,” Justice Wright quoted from U.S. Supreme Court opinions, that the Court had “repeatedly emphasized” that “discrimination itself, by perpetuating ‘archaic and stereotypic notions’ or by stigmatizing members of the disfavored group as ‘innately inferior’ and therefore as less worthy participants in the political community, can cause serious noneconomic injuries to those persons who are personally denied equal treatment solely because of their membership in a disfavored group.”

As to the “ripeness” issue in the context of a “reverse-discrimination” attack on a governmental affirmative action contracting policy, the Supreme Court has said “that the plaintiffs seeking to prevent future deprivation of the equal opportunity to compete need only demonstrate they will ‘sometime in the relatively near future’ bid on a contracted governed by such race-based financial incentives.”

The court also rejected the state’s contention that the case was “moot” because Memo 1-95 had been removed from the website. The court noted that the Memo had not been formally withdrawn, since it was not included on a website list of withdrawn memoranda, presumably so as not to call the legislature’s attention to its withdrawal.

“If a discriminatory policy is openly declared,” wrote Wright, “then it is unnecessary for a plaintiff to demonstrate it is followed in order to obtain injunctive or declaratory relief. We thus find immaterial any dispute in the record as to whether the Pristow Procedure was a policy versus a practice, whether it ‘replaced’ Memo 1-95, or the level of confusion within DHHS and its contractors concerning DHHS’ policy and practice when this action was filed.  A secret change in policy or procedure cannot moot an action based on a published policy statement that has been cited by the agency as excluding the plaintiffs from eligibility.”

Furthermore, the court said that a party cannot “moot” a case “simply by ending its unlawful conduct once sued,” because if such “voluntary cessation” rendered the case “moot”, causing its dismissal, “a defendant could engage in unlawful conduct, stop when sued to have the case declared moot, then pick up where he left off, repeating this cycle until he achieves all his unlawful ends.”

In the final section of his opinion, Justice Wright’s discussion intimated what this appeal is really all about. The state is not actually contesting Judge Colborn’s conclusion that the policy or practice is unconstitutional.  Rather, hoping to get the case dismissed as moot, the state wants to be in a position to argue that it should not have to pay court costs and attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs!  They argued that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding costs and fees, and should have declared the case moot and dismissed it when the state removed 1-95 from its website.  The court wasn’t falling for this sophistry, however.

The April 7 opinion is a total rejection of all the arguments the state raised on appeal, and a total endorsement of Judge Colborn’s summary judgment order of August 5, 2015, which ordered the defendants to “refrain from adopting or applying policies, procedures, or review processes that treat gay and lesbian individuals and couples differently from similarly situated heterosexual individuals and couples when evaluating foster care or adoption applications under the ‘best interests of the child’ standard set forth in DHHS’ regulations.” The district court issued an order on December 15, 2015, awarding $28,849.25 in costs and $145,111.30 in attorney fees.

Lead attorneys for the plaintiffs are Amy Miller of the ACLU of Nebraska, Leslie Cooper of the national ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project, and cooperating attorneys Garrard R. Beeney and W. Rudolph Kleysteuber of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. Amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs were filed by Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Child Welfare League of America.

Federal Court Rules for “Unique” Family in Fair Housing Act Case

Posted on: April 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district judge in Colorado granted summary judgment under the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) on April 5 to a couple in a “unique relationship” who were turned down by a landlord who had two residential properties available for rent that would have met the needs of the couple and their family. Judge Raymond P. Moore found that in turning down two woman (one of whom is transgender) who are married to each other and their two children as tenants, the landlord had discriminated against them because of their sex, as well as their familial status, both of which are forbidden grounds of discrimination under the federal law.

The court also granted judgment to the plaintiffs under Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which explicitly bans discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status as well as familial status.

The landlord, Deepika Avanti, owns three rental properties close to each other in Gold Hill, Colorado. Two are single family houses, and the third is a building subdivided into two separate living spaces, referred to as “townhouses.”  As of April 24, 2015, one of the townhouses was rented to a heterosexual couple, Matthew and Chiara, and the other was being advertised for rent on Craigslist.

The plaintiffs are Rachel Smith, a transgender woman, and Tonya Smith. They had been married for five years and were living with their two children in rental housing that they had to vacate because the building was being sold and withdrawn from the rental market.  They responded to the Craigslist advertisement by emailing Avanti.  “In the email, among other things, Tonya discussed her family, including mentioning that Rachel is transgender,” wrote Judge Moore.  Avanti responded to the email, mentioning that both the townhouse and one of the single family houses, which had three bedrooms, were available for rent. She also asked Tonya to send photos of her family.  Replying by email, Tonya agreed to meet Avanti that evening and attached a photo of the Smith family.

Tonya and Rachel and their children met with Avanti that evening and got to view the townhouse and the single-family house that were available for rent. They also got to meet Matthew and Chiara, the tenants of the other townhouse.  After she returned to her home, Avanti emailed Tonya Smith twice that night.  In the first email, she told Tonya that they were “not welcome to rent the Townhouse because of Matt and Chiara’s concerns regarding their children and ‘noise.’”  In the second email, Avanti said she had talked to her husband and “they have ‘kept a low profile’ and ‘want to continue it’ that way,” so they would not rent either residence to the Smiths.

The next morning, Tonya emailed Avanti, asking what she meant by “low profile.” Avanti replied “that the Smith’s ‘unique relationship and ‘uniqueness’ would become the town focus and would jeopardize [Avanti’s] low profile in the community.”

It took the Smiths months to find a suitable place to rent. Because they had to vacate their existing residence, they moved in with Rachel’s mother for a week and had to shed possessions to fit into a small space.  The new apartment they found did not meet their needs as well as Avanti’s property would have done, due to the location.  Their new apartment placed them in a less desirable school district for the children and required a longer daily commute to her job for Rachel, although she subsequently switched to a job closer to their new apartment.

They sued in federal court, asserting claims under the Fair Housing Act and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The basis for the federal court having jurisdiction to hear the case was the federal statutory claim, which was divided into a sex discrimination claim and a familial status claim.

The more significant part of the ruling for purposes of LGBT law is the federal sex discrimination claim. Federal discrimination statutes do not at present expressly forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, but courts are increasingly willing to apply bans on sex discrimination to claims brought by GLBT plaintiffs.  Although the Department of Housing during the Obama Administration took the position that the FHA should be construed to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, the Trump Administration has not announced a position on this.  Judge Moore’s opinion thus may be breaking new ground by granting summary judgment in favor of the Smiths on their sex discrimination claim.

Because Colorado is within the 10th Circuit, Judge Moore had to follow 10th Circuit precedent in determining whether the Smiths could sue for sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.  The Smiths had argued that discrimination based on “sex stereotypes” is “discrimination based on sex” under the FHA.  Moore pointed out that the 10th Circuit has followed court rulings under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when interpreting the FHA discrimination ban, and that the 10th Circuit has an employment discrimination ruling on a claim by a transgender plaintiff, Etsitty v. Utah Transit Authority, 502 F.3d 1215 (2007).  In that case, the court ruled that “discrimination against a transsexual based on the person’s status as a transsexual is not discrimination because of sex under Title VII,” and that “Title VII protections” do not extend to “discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.”  However, the Etsitty opinion did recognize the possibility that a gay or transgender plaintiff might claim sex discrimination because of gender stereotyping, relying on the Supreme Court’s 1989 Title VII ruling, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, where the court held that discriminating against a woman for her failure to conform to the employer’s stereotyped views of how women should act and present themselves in a business setting could violate the statute.

Judge Moore noted that in the Etsitty opinion the 10th Circuit had “cited with approval” to Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566 (6th Circuit 2004), a decision upholding a Title VII claim by a transgender woman who was being pressured to quit by the City’s Fire Department after confiding in a supervisor that she was transitioning.  The court held that the fact that the plaintiff is a “transsexual” was “not fatal to a sex discrimination claim where the victim has suffered discrimination because of his or her gender non-conformity.”  In a 2014 decision, McBride v. Peak Wellness Center, 688 F.3d 698, the 10th Circuit has, according to Judge Moore, “implicitly recognized that claims based on failure to conform to stereotypical gender norms may be viable.”

This was enough for Moore. “In this case,” he wrote, “the Smiths contend that discrimination against women (like them) for failure to conform to stereotype norms concerning to or with whom a woman should be attracted, should marry, and/or should have children is discrimination on the basis of sex under the FHA.  The Court agrees,” he continued, finding that “such stereotypical norms are no different from other stereotypes associated with women, such as the way she should dress or act (e.g., that a woman should not be overly aggressive, or should not act macho), and are products of sex stereotyping.”

Moore also stated agreement with the Smiths’ argument that “discrimination against a transgender (here, Rachel) because of her gender-nonconformity is sex discrimination. In other words,” he explained, “that discrimination based on applying gender stereotypes to someone who was assigned a certain sex (here, male) at birth, constitutes discrimination because of sex.”  So long as the argument was phrased in terms of stereotyping, Moore believed that he could rule on the claim under the FHA.  However, he cautioned, “To the extent the Smiths argue something more – that the FHA has been violated based on sex stereotyping as they have been discriminated against solely because of Rachel’s status as transgender, and that the Smiths were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or identity – the Court declines to do so.”  Thus, the court did not hold, as such, that discrimination because sexual orientation or gender violate the FHA’s ban on sex discrimination, but embraced such a broad view of sex stereotyping that the opinion appears to have much the same effect.

As to the motion for summary judgment, Moore concluded that the “undisputed material facts” show that Avanti violated the FHA, as her reference to the Smiths’ “unique relationship” and their family’s “uniqueness” showed reliance on stereotypes “of to or with whom a woman (or a man) should be attracted, should marry, or should have a family.”

As to the “familial status” discrimination claim, there is clear precedent that it violates the FHA for a landlord to have an “adults only” policy or to discriminate against prospective tenants because they have children, so that was a clear winner. Judge Moore also found it relatively simple to rule in the Smiths’ favor on their state law claims, since Colorado explicitly forbids housing discrimination because of sexual orientation (which is defined to include “transgender status”) as well as familial status.  The next stage of the lawsuit will be to determine the damages or relief that the court might order.

The Smiths are represented by Karen Lee Loewy and Omar Francisco Gonzalez-Pagan, from Lambda Legal’s New York office, and cooperating attorneys from Holland & Hart LLP’s Denver office: Matthew Paul Castelli and Benjamin Nichols Simler.

4th Circuit Judges Hail Gavin Grimm as a Civil Rights Leader

Posted on: April 10th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A pair of federal appeals court judges have saluted Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school senior, as a civil rights leader in the struggle to establish equal rights for transgender people under the law.

On April 7, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion by the Gloucester County (Virginia) School District to vacate a preliminary injunction issued last summer by the U.S. District Court, which had ordered the school district to allow Grimm, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restrooms at the high school during his senior year.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2017 WL 1291219.

That Order was quickly stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which then agreed to hear the school board’s appeal of the Order last fall. However, after the Trump Administration withdrew the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, to which the 4th Circuit had deferred in ordering the district court to issue the Order, the Supreme Court cancelled the scheduled oral argument and returned the case to the 4th Circuit.  Although the Order is now vacated, presumably the 4th Circuit still retains jurisdiction to decide whether the district court was correct in its decision to dismiss Gavin Grimm’s sex discrimination claim under Title IX in the absence of an administrative interpretation to which to defer, since it was Grimm’s appeal of the dismissal that brought the case to the 4th Circuit in the first place.

Although the court granted the school district’s unopposed motion to vacate the Order, a member of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis, was moved to write a short opinion reflecting on the case. Circuit Judge Henry M. Floyd directed that Davis’s opinion be published together with the 4th Circuit’s order, and Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, who had dissented from the 4th Circuit’s decision, agreed to the publication.

Davis’s eloquent brief opinion deserves to be read in full. Throughout the opinion, Grimm is referred to by his initials, as the case was filed on his behalf by his mother and stalwart champion in his struggle for equal rights, Deirdre Grimm.

DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge, concurring:

G.G., then a fifteen-year-old transgender boy, addressed the Gloucester County School Board on November 11, 2014, to explain why he was not a danger to other students. He explained that he had used the boys’ bathroom in public places throughout Gloucester County and had never had a confrontation. He explained that he is a person worthy of dignity and privacy. He explained why it is humiliating to be segregated from the general population. He knew, intuitively, what the law has in recent decades acknowledged: the perpetuation of stereotypes is one of many forms of invidious discrimination. And so he hoped that his heartfelt explanation would help the powerful adults in his community come to understand what his adolescent peers already did. G.G. clearly and eloquently attested that he was not a predator, but a boy, despite the fact that he did not conform to some people’s idea about who is a boy.

Regrettably, a majority of the School Board was unpersuaded. And so we come to this moment. High school graduation looms and, by this court’s order vacating the preliminary injunction, G.G.’s banishment from the boys’ restroom becomes an enduring feature of his high school experience. Would that courtesies extended to others had been extended to G.G.

Our country has a long and ignominious history of discriminating against our most vulnerable and powerless. We have an equally long history, however, of brave individuals—Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Mildred and Richard Loving, Edie Windsor, and Jim Obergefell, to name just a few—who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them. It is unsurprising, of course, that the burden of confronting and remedying injustice falls on the shoulders of the oppressed. These individuals looked to the federal courts to vindicate their claims to human dignity, but as the names listed above make clear, the judiciary’s response has been decidedly mixed. Today, G.G. adds his name to the list of plaintiffs whose struggle for justice has been delayed and rebuffed; as Dr. King reminded us, however, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” G.G.’s journey is delayed but not finished.

G.G.’s case is about much more than bathrooms. It’s about a boy asking his school to treat him just like any other boy. It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins. It’s about governmental validation of the existence and experiences of transgender people, as well as the simple recognition of their humanity. His case is part of a larger movement that is redefining and broadening the scope of civil and human rights so that they extend to a vulnerable group that has traditionally been unrecognized, unrepresented, and unprotected.

G.G.’s plight has shown us the inequities that arise when the government organizes society by outdated constructs like biological sex and gender. Fortunately, the law eventually catches up to the lived facts of people; indeed, the record shows that the Commonwealth of Virginia has now recorded a birth certificate for G.G. that designates his sex as male.

G.G.’s lawsuit also has demonstrated that some entities will not protect the rights of others unless compelled to do so. Today, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination persist — and are sometimes even promoted — but by challenging unjust policies rooted in invidious discrimination, G.G. takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail, and that the core dignity of every one of our brothers and sisters is respected by lawmakers and others who wield power over their lives.

G.G. is and will be famous, and justifiably so. But he is not “famous” in the hollowed-out Hollywood sense of the term. He is famous for the reasons celebrated by the renowned Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in her extraordinary poem, Famous. Despite his youth and the formidable power of those arrayed against him at every stage of these proceedings, “[he] never forgot what [he] could do.”

Judge Floyd has authorized me to state that he joins in the views expressed herein.

S. Nye, “Famous”:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.

Landmark Federal Appeals Ruling Holds Sexual Orientation Discrimination Violates Title VII

Posted on: April 5th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The full bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, substantially advanced the cause of gay rights on April 4, releasing an unprecedented decision in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 2017 WL 1230393, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies generally to all employers with fifteen or more employees as well as many federal, state and local government operations, prohibits discriminating against a person because of their sexual orientation.  The text of the statute does not mention sexual orientation, so the interpretive question for the court was whether discriminating against somebody because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual can be considered a form of sex discrimination.

What was particularly amazing about the affirmative decision, the first to rule this way by a federal appeals court, was that the 7th Circuit is composed overwhelmingly of Republican appointees, many of whom were appointed as long ago as the Reagan Administration.  Although the lead opinion for the Circuit was written by Chief Judge Diane Pamela Wood, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, the 8-member majority of the 11-judge bench included more Republicans than Democrats.  Many of the judges in the majority could be generally characterized as judicial conservatives.

Wood’s opinion was joined by Frank Easterbrook (Reagan appointee), Ilana Rovner (George H. W. Bush appointee), Ann Claire Williams (Clinton appointee), and David F. Hamilton (the only Obama appointee on the Circuit). Richard Posner (Reagan appointee) wrote a concurring opinion.  Joel Martin Flaum (Reagan appointee) wrote a concurring opinion which was joined by Kenneth Francis Ripple (Reagan appointee).  The dissent by Diane S. Sykes (George W. Bush appointee) was joined by Michael Stephen Kanne (Reagan appointee) and William Joseph Bauer (Ford appointee).  Ripple and Bauer are senior judges who were sitting on the en banc hearing because they were part of the three-judge panel (with Judge Rovner) that ruled on the case last year.  The Circuit has 11 authorized positions, but there are two vacancies among the active judges, part of the Republican Senate’s legacy of refusing to confirm most of President Obama’s judicial appointees during his second term.

The Circuit’s decision to grant en banc review clearly signaled a desire to reconsider the issue, which Judge Rovner had called for doing in her panel opinion. Rovner then made a persuasive case that changes in the law since the 7th Circuit had previously ruled negatively on the question called out for reconsideration.  Those who attended the oral argument on November 30 or listened to the recording on the court’s website generally agreed that the circuit was likely to overrule its old precedents, the only mystery being who would write the opinion, what theories they would use, and who would dissent.

The lawsuit was filed by Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who was working as an adjunct professor at the college, which is located in South Bend, Indiana. Despite years of successful teaching, her attempts to secure a full-time tenure-track position were continually frustrated and finally her contract was not renewed under circumstances that led her to believe it was because of her sexual orientation.  Since Indiana’s state law does not forbid sexual orientation discrimination, and South Bend’s ordinance (which does forbid sexual orientation discrimination) would not apply to the state college, she filed suit in federal court under Title VII.  She represented herself at that stage.  The trial judge, Rudy Lozano, granted the college’s motion to dismiss the case on the ground that 7th Circuit precedents exclude sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.

Hively obtained representation from Lambda Legal on appeal. The three-judge panel rejected her appeal, while two of the judges urged that the precedents be reconsidered.

Judge Wood found that several key Supreme Court decisions have broadened the meaning of “because of sex” in Title VII, to the extent that she could write that “in the years since 1964, Title VII has been understood to cover far more than the simple decision of an employer not to hire a woman for Job A, or a man for Job B.” The broadening includes launching a complex law of sexual harassment, including same-sex sexual harassment, and discrimination against a person who fails to conform to “a certain set of gender stereotypes.”

As have many of the other judges who have written on this issue, Wood quoted from Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion for the unanimous court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), the same-sex harassment case, in which, after noting that “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII,” this did not mean that the statute could not be interpreted to apply to such a situation. “But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” Scalia wrote, “and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

Woods found convincing Hively’s contention, argued to the court by Lambda Legal’s Greg Nevins, that two alternative theories would support her claim. The first follows a “comparative method in which we attempt to isolate the significance of the plaintiff’s sex to the employer’s decision: has she described a situation in which, holding all other things constant and changing only her sex, she would have been treated the same way?”  The second rests on an intimate association claim, relying on the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling striking down state laws barring interracial marriages, Loving v. Virginia.  The Supreme Court held that a ban on interracial marriage was a form of race discrimination, because the state was taking race in account in deciding whom somebody could marry.  Similarly here, an employer is taking sex into account when discriminating against somebody because they associate intimately with members of the same sex.  After briefly describing these two theories, Wood wrote, “Although the analysis differs somewhat, both avenues end up in the same place: sex discrimination.”

Woods noted at least two rulings by other circuits under Title VII that had adapted Loving’s interracial marriage analysis to an employment setting, finding race discrimination where an employer discriminated against persons who were in interracial relationships, Parr v. Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co., 791 F.2 888 (11th Cir. 1986), and Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2nd Cir. 2008).  These citations were a bit ironic, since the 11th and 2nd Circuits have in recent weeks rejected sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, in which the plaintiffs advanced the same analogy to support their Title VII claims.  These recent opinions were by three-judge panels that held themselves to be bound by prior circuit rulings.  Lambda Legal has already filed a petition for en banc review in the 11th Circuit case, and counsel for plaintiff in the 2nd Circuit case is thinking about doing the same.

Ultimately, Wood acknowledged, “It would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’ The effort to do so has led to confusing and contradictory results, as our panel opinion illustrated so well.  The EEOC concluded, in its Baldwin decision, that such an effort cannot be reconciled with the straightforward language of Title VII.  Many district courts have come to the same conclusion.  Many other courts have found that gender identity claims are cognizable under Title VII.”

Woods recited the now well-worn argument about how it is a basic inconsistency in the law that a person can enter into a same-sex marriage on Saturday and then be fired without legal recourse for having done so when they show up at the workplace on Monday. That is still the state of the law in a majority of the states.

Wood acknowledged that this decision does not end the case. Because Hively’s original complaint was dismissed by the district court without a trial, she has not yet been put to the test of proving that her sexual orientation was a motivating factor in the college’s decision not to hire her or renew her adjunct contract.  And, what passed unspoken, the college might decide to petition the Supreme Court to review this ruling, although the immediate reaction of a college spokesperson was that the school – which has its own sexual orientation non-discrimination policy – denies that it discriminated against Hively, and is ready to take its chances at trial.

Judge Posner submitted a rather odd concurring opinion, perhaps reflecting the oddity of some of his comments during oral argument, including the stunning question posed to the college’s lawyer: “Why are there lesbians?” Posner, appointed by Reagan as an economic conservative and social libertarian, has evolved into a forceful advocate for LGBT rights, having satisfied himself that genetics and biology play a large part in determining sexual identity and that it is basically unfair to discriminate against LGBT people without justification.  He wrote the Circuit’s decision striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin in 2014.

In this opinion, he takes on the contention that it is improper for the court to purport to “interpret” the language adopted by Congress in 1964 to cover sexual orientation discrimination. After reviewing various models of statutory interpretation, he insisted that “interpretation can mean giving a fresh meaning to a statement (which can be a statement found in a constitutional or statutory text) – a meaning that infuses the statement with vitality and significance today.”  He used as his prime example judicial interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, adopted “long before there was a sophisticated understanding of the economics of monopoly and competition.”  As a result of changing times and new knowledge, he observed, “for more than thirty years the Act has been interpreted in conformity to the modern, not the nineteenth-century, understanding of the relevant economics.” Basically, the courts have “updated” the Act in order to keep it relevant to the present.

He argued that the same approach should be brought to interpreting Title VII, adopted more than half a century ago. This old law “invites an interpretation that will update it to the present, a present that differs markedly from the era in which the Act was enacted.”  And, after reviewing the revolution in understanding of human sexuality and public opinion about it, he concluded it was time to update Title VII to cover sexual orientation claims, even though “it is well-nigh certain that homosexuality, male or female, did not figure in the minds of the legislators who enacted Title VII.”  Although some of the history he then recites might arouse some quibbles, he was able to summon some pointed examples of Justice Scalia employing this method in his interpretation of the Constitution regarding, for example, flag-burning and an individual right to bear arms.

“Nothing has changed more in the decades since the enactment of the statute than attitudes toward sex,” wrote Posner, going on to recite the litigation history of the struggle for marriage equality that culminated in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Although it might sound odd at times as a judicial opinion, Posner’s concurrence is eminently readable and packed full of interesting information, including his list of “homosexual men and women (and also bisexuals, defined as having both homosexual and heterosexual orientations)” who have made “many outstanding intellectual and cultural contributions to society (think for example of Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Jane Addams, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich, Bayard Rustin, Alan Turing, Alec Guinness, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, and James Baldwin – a very partial list).”

This brought to the writer’s mind a famous paragraph in Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion rejecting a challenge to the traditional anti-trust exemption for professional baseball, in which Blackmun included his own list of the greatest professional baseball players in history (compiled through a survey of the Supreme Court’s members and their young legal clerks).

Instead of pursuing Judge Wood’s line of reasoning, Posner was ready to declare that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination without such detailed analysis. “The most tenable and straightforward ground for deciding in favor of Hively is that while in 1964 sex discrimination meant discrimination against men or women as such and not against subsets of men or women such as effeminate men or mannish women, the concept of sex discrimination has since broadened in light of the recognition, which barely existed in 1964, that there are significant numbers of both men and women who have a sexual orientation that sets them apart from the heterosexual members of their genetic sex (male or female), and that while they constitute a minority their sexual orientation is not evil and does not threaten society.  Title VII in terms forbids only sex discrimination, but we now understand discrimination against homosexual men and women to be a form of sex discrimination; and to paraphrase [Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.], ‘We must consider what this country has become in deciding what that [statute] has reserved.’”

In his concurring opinion Judge Flaum took a narrower approach, noting that Title VII was amended in 1991 to provide that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that … sex … was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” In other words, discrimination does not have to be “solely” because of sex to violate Title VII.  It is enough if the individual’s sex was part of the reason for the discrimination.  In light of this, Flaum (and Ripple, who joined his opinion) would look to the analogy with discrimination against employees in interracial relationships.  In addition, he noted, “One cannot consider a person’s homosexuality without also accounting for their sex: doing so would render ‘same’ and ‘own’ meaningless” in dictionary definitions that define homosexuality in terms of  whether somebody is attracted to persons of “the same” or “their own” sex.  Clearly, “sex” is involved when people are discriminated against because they are gay.

Judge Sykes’s dissent channeled scores of cases going back to the early years of Title VII and argued against the method of statutory interpretation used by the various opinions making up the majority. “The question before the en banc court is one of statutory interpretation,” she wrote.  “The majority deploys a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.  So does Judge Posner in his concurrence.  Neither is faithful to the statutory text, read fairly, as a reasonable person would have understood it when it was adopted.  The result is a statutory amendment courtesy of unelected judges.  Judge Posner admits this; he embraces and argues for this conception of judicial power.  The majority does not, preferring instead to smuggle in the statutory amendment under cover of an aggressive reading of loosely related Supreme Court precedents.  Either way, the result is the same: the circumvention of the legislative process by which the people govern themselves.”

Although Sykes conceded that sexual orientation discrimination is wrong, she was not ready to concede that one could find it illegal by interpretation of a 1964 statute prohibiting sex discrimination at a time when the legislature could not possibly have been intending to ban discrimination against LGBT people. As Posner pointed out, that issue wasn’t on the radar in 1964.  Thus, to Sykes, Bauer and Kanne, it was not legitimate for a court to read this into the statute under the guise of “interpretation.”

Speculating about the ultimate fate of this decision could go endlessly on. There are fierce debates within the judiciary about acceptable methods of interpreting statutes, and various theories about how to deal with aging statutes that are out of sync with modern understandings.

Posner’s argument for judicial updating allows for the possibility that if Congress disagrees with what a court has done, it can step in and amend the statute, as Congress has frequently amended Title VII to overrule Supreme Court interpretations with which it disagreed. (For example, Congress overruled the Supreme Court’s decision that discrimination against pregnant women was not sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.)  Posner’s approach will be familiar to those who have read the influential 1982 book by then-Professor (now 2nd Circuit Judge) Guido Calabresi, “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” suggesting that courts deal with the problem of ancient statutes and legislative inertia by “updating” statutes through interpretation to deal with contemporary problems, leaving it to the legislature to overrule the courts if they disagree.  This method is more generally accepted in other common law countries (British Commonwealth nations), such as Australia, South Africa, India and Canada, than in the United States, but it clearly appeals to Posner as eminently practical.

So far the Republican majorities in Congress have not been motivated to address this issue through amendments to Title VII, or to advance the Equality Act, introduced during Obama’s second term, which would amend all federal sex discrimination laws to address sexual orientation and gender identity explicitly. Perhaps they will be provoked to act, however, if the question gets up to the Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit’s view prevails.

With the possibility of appeals now arising from three different circuits with different views of the issue, Supreme Court consideration of this question is highly likely. Public opinion polls generally show overwhelming support for prohibiting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace, which might serve as a brake on conservative legislators who would otherwise respond adversely to a Supreme Court ruling approving the 7th Circuit’s holding.

Florida Ordered to Correct Death Certificates to List Surviving Same-Sex Spouses Without Requiring Individual Court Orders

Posted on: April 1st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who rendered a decision prior to Obergefell v. Hodges finding that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, had the opportunity to apply his ruling further in Birchfield v. Armstrong, Case No. 4:15-cv-00615 (N.D. Fla.), issued on March 23, 2017.  The case was brought by Lambda Legal as a class action on behalf of all survivors of same-sex spouses who died in Florida prior to the Obergefell decision, and who were thus not listed as surviving spouses on their death certificates.  Those certificate identify the decedents as being unmarried at death because Florida did not recognize their same-sex marriages, which had been performed out-of-state in jurisdictions that allowed such marriages.

There are two named plaintiffs, Hal B. Birchfield and Paul G. Mocko. Birchfield married James Merrick Smith in New York in 2012, the year after New York adopted its Marriage Equality Law.  Smith died in Florida in 2013.  Mocko married William Gregory Patterson in California in 2014, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal and left standing a federal court order striking down California Proposition 8, thus allowing the resumption of same-sex marriages in California as decreed by that state’s Supreme Court in 2008.  Patterson died in Florida later in 2014.  In both cases, the decedents were identified as unmarried on their death certificates, and any mention of their surviving spouses was omitted.

A proper death certificate is an important document for a surviving spouse to have as they settle the affairs of their decedent, especially when it comes to dealing with issues involving property ownership, bank accounts, survivor benefits under government programs, insurance policies and the like. To have to initiate litigation to obtain a proper death certificate is an inconvenience at a difficult time.

After the Obergefell decision, Birchfield and Mocko sought to get corrected death certificates.  But the state insisted, pursuant to a statute and an interpretive rule, that they could only get such certificates by obtaining an individual court order.  Lambda sued on their behalf in federal court seeking class relief, arguing that the Obergefell decision must be applied retroactively and that the state should have to issue corrected death certificates upon presentation of documentation of the out-of-state weddings, without requiring surviving spouses to go to state court for an order.

The state relied on Fla. Stat. Sec. 382.016(2), which states: “CERTIFICATE OF DEATH AMENDMENTS – Except for a misspelling or an omission on a death certificate with regard to the name of the surviving spouse, the department may not change the name of a surviving spouse on the certificate except by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Judge Hinkle pointed out that one might plausibly read this statute to authorize exactly the relief that Lambda Legal was seeking in this case. “One might conclude that the explicit exception to the court-order requirement – the exception for ‘an omission on a death certificate with regard to the name of the surviving spouse’ – applies to a death certificate that both omits the fact that the decedent was married and omits the name of the surviving spouse.”  The problem, however, is that the ambiguity created by the wording of the statute had been addressed years ago through an interpretive rule adopted by the Health Department, which allows an amendment to marital statusor the name of a surviving spouse, but not both, without a court order.  “The defendants refused to depart from that interpretation,” the judge observed, without noting an explanation offered for such refusal.  The obvious explanation is sheer cussedness.  As far as Florida officials are concerned, apparently, they won’t do anything voluntarily to effectuate marriage equality beyond what a court orders them to do.  Witness, for example, the state’s obstinacy on the issue of parental status presumption for same-sex spouses of women who give birth.  Thus, the need for this wasteful litigation.

“As a matter of federal constitutional law,” wrote Judge Hinkle, “a state cannot properly refuse to correct a federal constitutional violation going forward, even if the violation arose before the dispute over the constitutional issue was settled. If the law were otherwise, the schools might still be segregated.”  Florida concedes in this case that as a result of Obergefell, declaring a constitutional right under a provision adopted as part of the Constitution shortly after the Civil War, its failure to recognize these marriages at the time of death was unconstitutional.  “They are willing to correct any pre-Obergefell constitutional violation,” Hinkle continued. “But the defendants insist that, as a prior condition to any correction, an affected party must obtain an order in response to an individual claim in state court.  Not so.  As the Supreme Court said long ago, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 affords a person whose federal constitutional rights have been violated ‘a federal right in federal courts.’  In short, a federal court has jurisdiction to remedy a federal violation, including, when otherwise proper, through a class action.”

Hinkle found this was an appropriate case for such class relief. “To the extent the defendant state officials simply need a clear resolution of the perceived conflict between the federal constitutional requirement and the state statute, this order provides it.”  Acknowledging that state officials could legitimately seek proof that the marriages in question took place, Hinkle said that the state could require the submission of an application, affidavit, and appropriate documentary evidence.  “This order provides that, upon submission of the same materials, the defendants must correct a constitutional error that affected a death certificate’s information on both marital status and a spouse’s identity.”  If they were going to insist on a “court order” to make such a change, then a copy of Judge Hinkle’s order in this case can accompany the application.  “This injunctions binds the defendants [Florida’s Surgeon General/Secretary of Health and the State Registrar of Vital Statistics] and their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys – and others in active concert or participation with any of them – who receive actual notice of this injunction by personal service or otherwise.”

Hinkle indicated that he would retain jurisdiction of the case “to enforce the injunction” if necessary and to “award costs and attorney’s fees” to the plaintiffs. If past is prologue, expect haggling about the amount of attorney’s fees the state will be ordered to pay.  Lambda Legal attorneys Karen L. Loewy and Tara L. Borelli represent the plaintiffs with volunteer co-counsel David P. Draigh and Stephanie S. Silk of White & Case LLP.

2nd Circuit Panel Rejects Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claim Under Title VII, but Revives Sex-Stereotyping Claim by Gay Man

Posted on: March 27th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in Manhattan, has issued a mixed ruling concerning a gay man’s claim that he was sexually harassed in his workplace in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In a per curiam opinion in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 5278, 2017 WL 1130183, the court ruled on March 27 that plaintiff Matthew Christiansen could not sue under Title VII on a claim of sexual orientation discrimination because of existing circuit precedents, but that he  could maintain his lawsuit on a claim that he was the victim of unlawful sex stereotyping by his employer.  Thus, the case was sent back to U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla (S.D.N.Y.), who last year had granted the employer’s motion to dismiss all federal claims in the case and to decline to exercise jurisdiction over state law claims; see 167 F. Supp. 3d 598.

The ruling on this appeal, which was argued on January 20, was much awaited because it was the first time for the 2nd Circuit to address the sexual orientation issue since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reversed its position, held for half a century, and ruled in 2015 that sexual orientation discrimination claims should be treated as sex discrimination claims subject to Title VII, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, joined by U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie, suggested that if the full 2nd Circuit bench, which can change a circuit precedent, were to consider the question, Katzmann and Brodie would find that sexual orientation discrimination claims can be litigated under Title VII.  The other member of the panel, Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston, did not join the concurring opinion.

Christiansen, described in the opinion as “an openly gay man who is HIV-positive,” worked at DDB Worldwide Communications Group, an advertising agency based in New York that is a subsidiary of Omnicom Group. He alleged that his direct supervisor subjected him to humiliating harassment “targeting his effeminacy and sexual orientation.”  This began in the spring and summer of 2011, a time when marriage equality in New York was much in the news as the legislature prepared to vote upon and pass the marriage equality bill.  The supervisor, who is not named in the opinion, “drew multiple sexually suggestive and explicit drawings of Christiansen on an office whiteboard.”  These graphic drawings “depicted a naked, muscular Christiansen with an erect penis, holding a manual air pump and accompanied by a text bubble reading, ‘I’m so pumped for marriage equality.’”

There was another picture that “depicted Christiansen in tights and a low-cut shirt ‘prancing around.’” Yet another showed his “torso on the body of ‘a four legged animal with a tail and penis, urinating and defecating.’” Later in 2011, the same supervisor “circulated at work and posted to Facebook a ‘Muscle Beach Party” poster that depicted various employees’ heads on the bodies of people in beach attire,” including Christiansen’s head “attached to a female body clad in a bikini, lying on the ground with her legs upright in the air in a manner that one coworker thought depicted Christiansen as ‘a submissive sissy.’”

The supervisor also made remarks about “the connection between effeminacy, sexual orientation, and HIV status,” and allegedly told other employees that Christiansen “was effeminate and gay so he must have AIDS.”  The supervisor made other references to AIDS in connection with Christiansen, although at the time Christiansen was keeping his HIV-status private.  Christiansen included a disability discrimination claim in his complaint, but the district court found that his factual allegations were not sufficient to maintain a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a conclusion that Christiansen did not appeal.

Christiansen filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2014, describing the harassment in detail, and upon receiving the agency’s notice of right to sue, filed his lawsuit in the federal court in Manhattan, which the defendants quickly moved to dismiss. Christiansen alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII for his federal claims, and also alleged violations of New York State and city anti-discrimination laws. The employer argued that his claim under Title VII was really a sexual orientation discrimination claim rather than a gender stereotyping claim, and the district judge agreed.

The state of precedent in the 2nd Circuit has frequently been questioned by federal trial courts in the circuit as confusing and difficult to apply.  The Circuit has ruled that under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), an employee, including a gay or lesbian employee, can bring a sex discrimination claim involving sex stereotyping, but if the court perceives that the employer’s mistreatment of the employee was really due to the employee’s sexual orientation, the claim will be rejected.  These precedents date from 2000 (Simonton v. Runyon, 232 F.3d 33) and 2005 (Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, 398 F.3d 211).  They predate the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675) and state bans on same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Windsor, 135 S. Ct. 2584), as well as the EEOC’s 2015 ruling recognizing sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  While none of these later rulings produced a precedent binding on the 2nd Circuit that sexual orientation claims are covered under Title VII, they have “changed the landscape,” as Judge Katzmann wrote in his concurring opinion.

The per curiam opinion premised its holding squarely on the rule that circuit precedents can only be revised or reversed by the Supreme Court or the full circuit bench sitting en banc. Thus, the panel ruled that it was precluded from reconsidering Simonton and Dawson.

However, the panel disagreed with Judge Failla’s conclusion that there was too much about sexual orientation in Christiansen’s complaint to allow him to proceed with a gender stereotyping sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The panel pointed out that the 2nd Circuit has never ruled that gay people may not sue under Title VII when they have substantial evidence of gender stereotyping to present, provided that such evidence is not limited to the argument that sexual orientation discrimination is itself a form of sex stereotyping.  That is, the Title VII claim may not based, under current circuit precedent, on the argument that men loving men and women loving men is a violation of gender stereotypes in and of itself.  In this case, the panel wrote that there were enough allegations of gender stereotyping as such to survive the employer’s motion to dismiss.

“The district court commented that much more of the complaint was devoted to sexual orientation discrimination allegations than gender stereotyping discrimination allegations and that it thus might be difficult for Christiansen to withstand summary judgment or prove at trial that he was harassed because of his perceived effeminacy and flouting of gender stereotypes rather than because of his sexual orientation.” But the court pointed out that Christiansen’s burden at this initial stage of the litigation was not to show that he would prevail at later stages. Rather, it was enough for him to “state a claim that is plausible on its face” that he was subjected to harassment because of non-conformity to male gender stereotypes.

Judge Katzmann noted in his concurrence that because Christiansen was also alleging violations of state and local laws forbidding sexual orientation discrimination as well as a violation of Title VII, it was to be expected that his factual allegations would cover both kinds of claims. While joining in the per curiam opinion, Judge Katzmann wrote separately to express his view “that when the appropriate occasion presents itself, it would make sense for the Court to revisit the central legal issue confronted in Simonton and Dawson, especially in light of the changing legal landscape that has taken shape in the nearly two decades since Simonton issued.”

He went on to identify three theories under which sexual orientation discrimination claims should be treated as sex discrimination claims under Title VII, drawing heavily on the EEOC’s 2015 decision. First, he wrote, “sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination for the simple reason that such discrimination treats otherwise similarly-situated people differently solely because of their sex.”  The EEOC has observed, he wrote, that “sexual orientation ‘cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex,’ because sexual orientation is defined by whether a person is attracted to people of the same sex or opposite sex (or both, or neither).”  Thus, according to the EEOC, “sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex.”

The second theory follows a 2nd Circuit ruling from 2008, Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2008), where the circuit formally embraced the associational discrimination theory that other courts have applied in race discrimination cases.  If an employee suffers discrimination because he is involved in an interracial relationship, the courts will recognize his claim of race discrimination in violation of Title VII.  By analogy, discriminating against an employee because of a same-sex relationship is quite simply sex discrimination.  In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court had commented that Title VII “on its face treats each of the enumerated categories exactly the same.”  Thus, if employees in interracial relationships are protected from race discrimination, then employees in same-sex relationships should be protected from sex discrimination.

Finally, of course, there is gender stereotyping, including the kind of stereotyping that the 2nd Circuit has not yet accepted as violating Title VII, the stereotype that men should be attracted only to women and women only to men.  “Relying on common sense and intuition rather than any ‘special training,’” wrote Katzmann, “courts have explained that sexual orientation discrimination ‘is often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms.  In fact, stereotypes about homosexuality are directly related to our stereotypes about the proper roles of men and women.’”  Katzmann noted that the circuit in Dawson had pointed out that “stereotypical notions about how men and women should behave will often necessarily blur into ideas about heterosexuality and homosexuality.”  He continued, “Having conceded this, it is logically untenable for us to insist that this particular gender stereotype is outside of the gender stereotype discrimination prohibition articulated in Price Waterhouse,” and concluded that this particular stereotype about sexual attraction is “as clear a gender stereotype as any.”

At the same time, he rejected the argument, raised by some courts, that because Congress has been considering unsuccessful efforts to pass a federal ban on sexual orientation discrimination since the 1970s, the courts are precluded through interpreting Title VII to ban such discrimination. When the circuit decided Simonton in 2000, it reached the same conclusion that all other federal circuit courts had then reached on this issue.  “But in the years since,” he wrote, “the legal landscape has substantially changed,” citing Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (the sodomy law case) and Obergefell v. Hodges (the marriage equality case), “affording greater legal protection to gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.  During the same period,” he observed, “societal understanding of same-sex relationships has evolved considerably.”  Thus, he wrote, despite the failed legislative proposals, there is “no justification in the statutory language for a categorical rule” excluding sexual orientation claims.

“I respectfully think that in the context of an appropriate case our Court should consider reexamining the holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not cognizable under Title VII. Other federal courts are also grappling with this question, and it well may be that the Supreme Court will ultimately address it.”

The other cases are in the 7th Circuit, where the full bench heard argument on November 30 on this question, and the 11th Circuit, where a petition for en banc review is being filed by Lambda seeking reversal of a 2-1 adverse panel decision issued a few weeks ago.  There is also another panel case argued in January in the 2nd Circuit, although the circuit rule on precedent will likely produce the same result in that case, which does not include a separate gender non-conformity allegation.

Christiansen is represented by Susan Chana Lask, a New York attorney whose Complaint in this case originally cast the federal claim as a sex stereotyping claim. Now that the case is being sent back to the district court to be litigated on the stereotyping theory, the plaintiff need not seek full circuit en banc review to proceed and seek discovery to produce evidence in support of his claim.

The case attracted widespread amicus participation, including a brief filed by the EEOC, another from a long list of civil rights organizations led by the ACLU, and briefs on behalf of 128 members of Congress, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Lambda Legal, all arguing that the court should allow the case to proceed as a sexual orientation discrimination case.

Florida Supreme Court Confronts Definition of “Sexual Intercourse”

Posted on: March 17th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In Debaun v. State, 2017 Fla. LEXIS 583, 2017 WL 1024526 (March 16), the Florida Supreme Court resolved a conflict between the intermediate appellate courts of the state about how to define “sexual intercourse” for purposes of a statute that makes it a crime for a person who knows he is HIV-positive to fail to disclose that fact before engaging in “sexual intercourse” with another person. Surprisingly, the 2nd District Court of Appeals had ruled in 2011 that the statute applied only to acts of penile-vaginal intercourse and not to cases of sex between gay men.  The 3rd and 5th District Courts of Appeals ruled that gay sex was covered by the statute.  The Court granted review in the 3rd District case to resolve the dispute.

The problem arose from the legislature’s failure to define the term “sexual intercourse” in the statute, presumably because the legislators assumed everybody would know what they meant. In 2011, the legislature decided to update the state’s sex crimes law by replacing the old “Venereal Diseases Act,” which explicitly applied only to sex between a man and a woman, with a new law titled “Control of Sexually Transmissible Disease Act.”   Both of these statutes used the term “sexual intercourse,” but the later statute removed the earlier statute’s explicit application only to mixed-sex couples.

In an early case decided under the new law, the 2nd District court confronted a motion by a gay man to rule that the statute did not apply to him.  Looking for a statutory definition of “sexual intercourse” elsewhere in the Florida penal laws, the court found the incest statute, which defines “sexual intercourse” as “the penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ.”  That court concluded that when the legislature defines a phrase in one sex crimes statute, it is appropriate to use that definition in other sex crimes statutes.  Thus, it concluded – rather nonsensically, given the context – that the legislature’s use of the phrase “sexual intercourse” in the sexually-transmitted disease statute “is clearly and unambiguously limited to heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse,” so the statute did not apply to that gay defendant’s case.

Gary Debaun’s charged violation was particularly egregious. His prospective sex partner had asked him for proof that he was not infected with HIV, and he responded by forging his doctor’s name on a lab test form to certify that he had tested negative for the virus.  He knew he was positive, but did not want to disclose that fact.  Somehow his partner later discovered after having sex with him that Debaun was positive and reported the crime, helping police detectives obtain an admission from Debaun during a “controlled phone call.”

Debaun moved to dismiss resulting the felony charge by citing the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruling.  At the time, this was the only Florida appellate ruling on point, and the trial judge followed it, granting the motion.  The state appealed, and the 3rd District reversed, resorting to dictionary definitions of “sexual intercourse,” which go beyond the traditional heterosexual definition.  The 3rd District also relied on the legislative history of the statute.  If the legislature’s intention was to deter and punish conduct that could spread HIV, it would not make sense to limit the law’s application to heterosexual intercourse.  The 3rd District court concluded that the legislature clearly intended to adopt the broader interpretation.  Debaun appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court.

While Debaun’s appeal was pending, the 5th District Court of Appeals had occasion to rule in a similar case, also reversing a trial court’s dismissal of charges against a gay man, where the trial court had relied on the 2nd District ruling.  That case didn’t get up to the Supreme Court because the defendant did not file a timely notice of appeal.

The Supreme Court, ruling unanimously, agreed with the 3rd District’s approach.  Where the legislature does not spell out the meaning of a term it uses in a statute, Justice Charles Canady wrote for the court, “the statute’s plain and ordinary meaning must control, unless this leads to an unreasonable result or a result clearly contrary to legislative intent.”  The first place to look for plain meaning, said the court, is the dictionary.

Justice Canady quoted from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, all of which define the term to apply more broadly to genital sex acts beyond penile-vaginal intercourse. The court found this broader definition consistent with the legislative intent, in which preventing HIV transmission was the particular spur to replacing the old law with the new one.  Citing statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the court noted that gay and bisexual men “accounted for the majority (67%) of new HIV infections” in 2014, and as of 2013 made up a majority of the people living with HIV infection in the United States.

Thus, adopting the broader interpretation produces a reasonable result, as it “gives full effect to the Legislature’s intent to reduce the incidence of HIV.”

Furthermore, looking to other statutory provisions as a guide to meaning is inappropriate unless “the provision to which a court looks” is “related to the provision lacking a definition.” The court found that the incest provision relied upon by the 2nd District is not so related.  The legislative concern there is with “the prevention of pregnancies which may involve a high risk of abnormal or defective offspring” when the man and the woman are closely related to each other.  That policy concern is not present when both parties to the sexual act are men or are women.

The court also found that the 2nd District had neglected to look at some more recent Florida cases that had defined “sexual intercourse” to apply to two males in other contexts.  And the court rejected application of the “rule of lenity” by which criminal statutes are strictly construed, finding that “the term ‘sexual intercourse’ is commonly understood to broadly refer to various sexual acts – including the sexual act at issue here.  In certain contexts, the term refers specifically – that is, more narrowly – to penile-vaginal intercourse.  But in the context of [the sexually transmitted disease statute], ‘sexual intercourse’ unambiguously denotes sexual conduct that includes acts of oral and anal intercourse,” wrote Justice Canady.

 

11th Circuit Panel Splinters Over Lesbian’s Appeal of Title VII Dismissal

Posted on: March 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a divided ruling on March 10 holding that a lesbian plaintiff suing for discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could file an amended complaint alleging that she suffered discrimination because of sex stereotyping, but upholding the district court’s dismissal of her claim that sexual orientation discrimination violates the statute.  A dissenting judge, agreeing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which submitted an amicus brief in the case, and Lambda Legal, which was appointed to represent the plaintiff on appeal, argued that the plaintiff should be allowed to pursue her sexual orientation discrimination claim as well.  Lambda Legal, representing the appellant, immediately announced that it would petition for rehearing “en banc” before the entire 11th Circuit bench.

Unsurprisingly, the judges rejecting the sexual orientation claim, Circuit Judge William Pryor and Florida District Judge Jose Martinez, were appointed by President George W. Bush.  The dissenter, Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum, was appointed by President Barack Obama.

This case is one of appeals recently argued in three different federal circuits presenting the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are covered as “discrimination because of sex” under Title VII.  The Chicago-based 7th Circuit heard argument “en banc” on November 30, and the New York-based 2nd Circuit heard three-judge panel argument in two different appeals in January. So far, no federal circuit court has ruled favorably on such a claim, although many have ruled that gay plaintiffs can sue under Title VII on gender-based sex stereotyping claims, depending on their factual allegations.  There are older court of appeals precedents in most circuits rejecting sexual orientation discrimination claims, as such, under Title VII.  The Supreme Court has never directly ruled on the question.

In this case, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, plaintiff Jameka Evans claimed that she was discriminated against in her position as a security officer at the hospital because of both gender non-conformity and sexual orientation.  Evans is a “butch” lesbian who claims she was discriminated against because she failed to carry herself in a “traditional womanly manner” and that “it was ‘evident’ that she identified with the male gender, because of how she presented herself – ‘(male uniform, low male haircut, shoes, etc.’),” wrote Judge Martinez.

She filed her case in federal district court in Savanah, Georgia, without a lawyer (“pro se”). The district judge, J. Randal Hall, referred her case to a magistrate judge to rule on procedural issues and “screen” the claim, as is usually done with “pro se” cases.  Magistrate Judge George R. Smith found procedural problems and, applying old circuit precedent, held that the claim of sexual orientation discrimination could not be brought under Title VII.  Smith recommended dismissal of the case. Lambda Legal submitted an amicus brief, urging Judge Hall to reject the Magistrate’s recommendation, but Hall dismissed without reference to Lambda’s arguments.  However, Hall then appointed Lambda to represent Evans on appeal to the 11th Circuit, and Gregory Nevins from Lambda’s Atlanta office argued the appeal.  The hospital never responded to the complaint and was not represented at the one-sided argument before the court of appeals.

At the heart of this appeal and of the other pending cases on the same question is the effect of two Supreme Court rulings, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. In the first of these, the Court ruled that an employer’s denial of a partnership to a woman because of her failure to conform to the employer’s stereotyped view of how women should behave and present themselves was evidence of discrimination “because of sex” in violation of Title VII.  In the second, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s dismissal of a same-sex harassment case in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia holding that the interpretation of discrimination “because of sex” was not limited based on the intentions of Congress when it enacted the statute in 1964.  Scalia commented that “comparable evils” to those that Congress sought to address might be covered by the statute, and that we are governed by the language of our statutes as adopted by Congress, not by the presumed intentions expressed by individual legislators or committees as reflected in the legislative history.  Thus, a claim by a man that he was subjected to sexual harassment by male co-workers could be dealt with under Title VII, even if members of Congress did not anticipate or intend that such cases could be brought under Title VII.

LGBT rights advocates have used these two Supreme Court cases to argue that gay and transgender plaintiffs who suffer discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to bring sex discrimination claims under Title VII. Sex stereotyping is arguably present to some extent in all such cases and, at a more fundamental level, anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination is “necessarily” because of sex.  These arguments persuaded the EEOC during the Obama Administration, resulting in administrative rulings in cases raised by LGBT federal employees, and have also persuaded some federal district judges.  Several federal courts of appeals have accepted the sex stereotyping argument, but only to a limited extent, according to the extensive concurring opinion in Evans’s case by Judge Pryor.  So far, no federal circuit court has accepted the argument that an otherwise gender-conforming gay person can bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.

Judge Martinez premised his vote to reject the sexual orientation discrimination claim on a 1979 decision by the 5th Circuit, Blum v. Gulf Oil Corporation, 597 F.2d 936, in which that court said that “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII” as an alternative basis for its ruling.  Effective on September 30, 1981, a statute divided the old 5th Circuit in half, assigning Georgia to the newly-created 11th Circuit. At that time, the 11th Circuit ruled that former 5th Circuit cases would be treated as precedent in the new 11th Circuit, so this case counts as a binding circuit precedent.  Lambda argued that the 1979 ruling is no longer valid in light of the 1989 Price Waterhouse decision and the 1999 Oncale decision.  Martinez and Pryor both rejected that argument, but dissenting Judge Rosenbaum embraced it.  At the oral argument, Judge Pryor had observed that in light of the Blum precedent, the three judge panel most likely could not rule in favor of Evans on this point, as only an en banc panel could reverse circuit precedents.

As to the sex stereotyping claim, Martinez asserted that Evans’ pro se complaint “failed to plead facts sufficient to create a plausible inference that she suffered discrimination. In other words, Evans did not provide enough factual matter to plausibly suggest that her decision to present herself in a masculine manner led to the alleged adverse employment actions.”  However, he wrote, it was inappropriate for the district judge to dismiss her case outright rather than allowing her to file an amended complaint, since her theory of sex stereotyping discrimination was a theory accepted in the 11th Circuit and it was possible that, in light of the court’s discussion of her claim, she might be able to meet these pleading deficiencies in an amended complaint.  It is customary in pro se cases to allow the plaintiff to file an amended complaint if she is asserting a claim under a valid legal theory and there is a possibility that a better framed complaint could survive screening.

Pryor’s concurring opinion agreed that the magistrate erred in asserting that a sex stereotyping argument by a lesbian plaintiff was just “another way to claim discrimination based on sexual orientation,” and thus Evans should get a second chance to frame a complaint that might survive review. However, he argued at length to refute the arguments by the EEOC and Judge Rosenbaum that sexual orientation discrimination claims were “necessarily” sex discrimination claims.  Pryor insisted on a strict distinction between “status” and “conduct,” arguing that sex stereotyping claims were tied to the plaintiff’s conduct in failing to conform to gender stereotypes.  Thus, a claim of sexual orientation discrimination not accompanied by factual allegations about the plaintiff’s gender non-conformity fell short, in his view, of coming within the compass of discrimination “because of sex.”  He was not willing to accept the argument that being sexually attracted to members of the same-sex would suffice to constitute non-conformity with sexual stereotypes.

Judge Rosenbaum took a diametrically opposite approach, embracing a theoretical description of how Price Waterhouse had changed Title VII law by extending prior sex stereotyping cases to adopt a “prescriptive stereotyping” model. In prior cases, the Supreme Court had condemned “ascriptive stereotyping,” situations where an employer discriminated against a class of employees because of a stereotype about the class.  For example, an employer required women to contribute more to its pension plan than men in order to get the same monthly benefits upon retirement, based on the stereotype that women live longer than men so it would all “even out” in the end.  The Supreme Court condemned this practice as sex discrimination, finding that the statute protects individuals from being treated based on class-based stereotypes.  In Price Waterhouse, the Court for the first time condemned “prescriptive stereotyping,” where an employer discriminated against an employee because she failed to conform to a sexual stereotype, presenting a demeanor which was not traditionally feminine.

Applying this to the sexual orientation case, Rosenbaum accepted the argument that in such cases the employer was discriminating because the employee violated the stereotypical view that men are supposed to be attracted to women, not to men, and vice versa. Furthermore, she found that it was clearly sex discrimination to treat a woman differently based on whether she was attracted to men or women.

Judge Rosenbaum argued that Pryor’s opinion was “at war” with his vote a decade ago that allowed a sex discrimination claim under the Equal Protection Clause by a transgender employee of the Georgia legislature. Indeed, Pryor’s vote in the former case, Glenn v. Brumby, had given the plaintiff hope in this case that the panel might rule in her favor.  Pryor devoted considerable effort in his concurring opinion to explaining why he found this case to be different, once again relying on the “status” and “conduct” distinction.  Cross-dressing and announcing plans to transition were “conduct,” in his view, while having a sexual orientation was “status.”  He argued that sex stereotyping theory was concerned with conduct, not status, in its focus on gender non-conformity.

The sharp division among the judges may lead the 11th Circuit to agree to hear the case en banc, especially noting that one member of the panel was a district judge.  The federal judiciary is so short-handed as a result of the Republican-controlled Senate’s stonewalling of President Obama’s court of appeals nominees during his second term that it has become increasingly common for some particularly short-staffed circuits to fill-out three-judge panels by “designating” district court judges to provide the third member to make up a panel.  These district judges do not participate if the case is reargued en banc.  Furthermore, with the 7th Circuit having held en banc argument on this question recently, it seems clear that many federal judges believe it is time to reconsider the issue.  Meanwhile, decisions from the 7th and 2nd Circuits are eagerly awaited, especially if they create a “circuit split” that would entice the Supreme Court to agree to take up the issue.

9th Circuit En Banc Panel Revives Gay Mexican’s Asylum Claim

Posted on: March 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

An eleven-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit revived an HIV-positive gay Mexican man’s claim for refugee status to remain in the United States on March 8, reversing rulings by a three-judge panel of the court, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and an Immigration Judge.  The opinion for the court in Bringas-Rodriguez v. Sessions, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 4077, 2017 WL 908546, was written by Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, a Clinton appointee.  One member of the court, Judge Richard R. Clifton, filed a concurring opinion, and two members, Judges Carlos T. Bea and Diarmuid O’Scannlain, dissented in an opinion by Judge Bea.  Bea, appointed by George W. Bush, and O’Scannlain, appointed by Ronald Reagan, are among the most conservative judges on the 9th Circuit.  The reversed three-judge panel consisted of two George W. Bush appointees and a dissenting Clinton appointee, William Fletcher.

Carlos Alberto Bringas-Rodriguez, born in Tres Valles, Veracruz State, was, according to Judge Wardlaw’s summary of his testimony, which was deemed credible by the Immigration Judge, “horrifically abused by his father, an uncle, cousins, and a neighbor, all of whom perceived him to be gay or to exhibit effeminate characteristics.”  Bringas testified that his uncle raped him when he was four, and that three of his cousins and a male neighbor “physically and sexually abused him on a regular basis while he lived in Mexico.”  He also suffered regular beatings from his father, who told him, “Act like a boy.  You are not a woman.”  He claims his uncle told him when he was eight that he was being abused because he was gay.  “His uncle, cousins, and neighbor never called him by his name,” wrote Wardlaw, “referring to him only as ‘fag, fucking faggot, queer,’ and they ‘laughed about it.’”

Bringas lived briefly with his mother in the U.S. when he was twelve, but he returned to Mexico because he missed his grandmother, who had been raising him since he was nine.  The abuse intensified when he returned.  “On one occasion, when Bringas refused to comply with his neighbor’s demand for oral copulation, the neighbor beat and raped him, leaving Bringas with black eyes and bruises,” and his abusers “also threatened to hurt his grandmother, with whom he was close, if he ever reported what was happening,” wrote Wardlaw.  “Fearing that they would follow through on their threats, Bringas did not tell his mother, teachers, or anyone else about the sexual abuse.”  He fled back to the U.S. in 2004 when he was fourteen.

Entering the country illegally at El Paso, he made his way to Kansas where he lived with his mother for the next three years.  Then he moved out of his mother’s home, living elsewhere in Kansas and in Colorado, holding several jobs.  In August 2010 he pled guilty to “attempted contributing to the delinquency of a minor” in Colorado.  According to his account, as related by Wardlaw, “he had been at home drinking with some friends when another friend brought over a minor who became drunk.”  Bringas served 90 days in jail, “during which time he attempted suicide and was hospitalized, which precipitated his finally telling a doctor and then his mother about his childhood abused.”  His conviction triggered a notice to the Department of Homeland Security, which immediately issued him a “Notice to Appear.”

The next year, at age 20, he applied for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention against Torture (CAT).  Asylum claims normally have to be filed within a year of arrival in the U.S., but he claimed he had been “unaware” at age 14 that he could apply for asylum, and only learned of this when he “spoke with an ICE officer in Colorado in September 2010” when he responded to the Notice to Appear.  In his application, he described the abuse he had suffered in Mexico and “explained that he feared persecution if he returned because he was gay and that the Mexican police would not protect him.  Bringas also credibly testified about his gay friends’ experiences with police in Veracruz.  Those friends went to the police to report that they had been raped, but the officers ignored their reports and ‘laughed [on] their faces.’”  He also submitted State Department country human rights reports on Mexico from 2009 and 2010, as well as newspaper articles documenting violence against gays in Mexico, which showed that violence was rising even as “Mexican laws were becoming increasingly tolerant of gay rights.”  In a footnote, Judge Wardlaw cited guidelines issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, explaining that “legal improvements and widespread persecution are not mutually exclusive.”

An Immigration Judge found Bringas’ factual testimony to be credible, but denied his application, as did the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) on his appeal.  The IJ found that his asylum claim was untimely under the one-year rule, a point that the BIA ignored, treating his asylum claim on the merits.  Next, the IJ found, and the BIA recognized, that although Bringas had suffered “serious abuse” as a child, he did not show that the “abuse was inflicted by government actors or that the government was unwilling or unable to control his abusers.”  This was a critical finding, because the basis for establishing refugee status is to show persecution at the hands of the government or private actors whom the government is unwilling or unable to control.  Purely private abuse, as such, is not considered to be “persecution” under relevant statutes and treaties.  Having found that Bringas had not established “past persecution,” the BIA approved the IJ’s finding that there was no presumption that he had a reasonable fear of future persecution in Mexico, because he had “failed to show a pattern or practice of persecution of gay men in Mexico.”  The BIA wrote that “the record did not demonstrate widespread brutality against homosexuals or that there was any criminalization of homosexual conduct in Mexico.”  Indeed, the BIA found that the Mexican government “has taken numerous positive steps to address the rights of homosexuals.”  The IJ and BIA found no evidence that Bringas was likely to be tortured by the government if he were removed back to Mexico.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit considering his appeal focused on a prior circuit ruling, Castro-Martinez v. Holder, 674 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2011), concerning cases where the applicant’s abusers were all private citizens, which held that in order to establish that the government was unwilling or unable to control the abusers, the victim had to have reported the abuse to the government.  Wrote Wardlow, “the panel majority reasoned that where a victim fails to report abuse, even as a child, ‘there is a “gap in proof about how the government would have responded,”’ and that petitioner bears the burden to ‘fill in the gaps’ by showing how the government would have responded had he reported the abuse.”  The 3-judge panel emphasized the part of the State Department country reports that discussed how Mexican law had improved for gay people, including the government’s establish of a “specialized hate crimes prosecution unit” and the proclamation of a “national day against homophobia.”  The panel found “insufficient” Bringas’s testimony about the comments by his gay friends in the U.S. about how the police had failed to respond to their reports of abuse.  “Even if the friends’ reports were credited, the panel majority explained, those reports failed to establish that police practices in the city or state of Veracruz could be linked to police practices in Tres Valles, Bringas’s hometown.”

The panel majority, in common with the IJ in this case, also suggested that the issue here was not narrowly sexual abuse because of homosexuality, but rather the more general phenomenon of sexual abuse of children, and suggested that there was no evidence that the Mexican law enforcement authorities would be indifferent to reports of child sexual abuse.  In this connection, they noted that Bringas’s testimony did not specify how old his friends were when they unsuccessfully reported their abuse to the police.

Judge William Fletcher, the dissenting member of the 3-judge panel, expressed growing discomfort about the prior precedent upon which the majority of that panel was relying, pointing to the circuit’s “ample precedent that does not require victims of private persecution, especially child victims, to contemporaneously report their abuse to government authorities in order to become eligible for asylum in the United States.”

The en banc panel majority, reversing the 3-judge panel, embraced Judge Fletcher’s criticism, citing extensive evidence about the psychological and practical problems a child victim of sexual abuse would have in reporting the abuse to authorities, especially if they or their loved ones were threatened with retribution if they made any report, as had happened in Bringas’s case with threats to harm his grandmother.  Going further, the en banc panel overruled the prior precedent to the extent that it had been relied on as requiring reporting to the authorities in a case founded on abuse by non-governmental actors in order to establish “persecution” for purposes of asylum or withholding of removal.

While it was clear in this case that the asylum claim was filed too late, the court determined that Bringas’s claims for withholding of removal and protection under the CAT must be reconsidered by the Board.  The court found Bringas’ testimony, which had been deemed credible by the IJ and the BIA, sufficient to establish that he had been subjected to past persecution, and based on that testimony he was entitled to a presumption of further persecution.  Sending the case back to the BIA, the court said the remaining issue was whether that presumption had been rebutted by the government’s evidence of changed conditions in Mexico.

Furthermore, while this case was in progress, but after the BIA issued its opinion, Bringas learned for the first time that he was HIV-positive.  He had asked to reopen the case in order for the BIA to take this new information into account, but the BIA refused his request, observing that he had failed to show “how his status as an HIV positive homosexual changes the outcome of his case.”  The court ordered that BIA allow Bringas to supplement the record and to take account of new evidence about his HIV diagnosis.

Judge Clifton concurred on narrower grounds.  He felt, along with Judge Bea’s dissent, that the court’s opinion was insufficiently deferential to the BIA, which as a matter of administrative law is entitled to substantial deference by the courts and should not be reversed unless “any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary based on evidence in the record.”  To Clifton, the evidence presented by Bringas about the unwillingness or inability of the government to address sexual abuse of gay children was not overwhelming, relying on “an unspecific hearsay report by Bringas of what he was told by one or two other persons about what had happened when a report was made to police in a different town.  That evidence would have been sufficient to support a conclusion that a report by a child to the police would have been futile, but it was not so powerful that no reasonable adjudicator could have found to the contrary,” he wrote.  He also noted that much of Bringas’ evidence was rather general and did not necessarily compel the conclusions reached by the majority of the court as to his persecution case.

On the other hand, Clifton found that the BIA “appeared to disregard the evidence that Bringas offered on the subject,” so it was appropriate to remand for reconsideration.  The IJ had written that there “was ‘no evidence whatsoever’ to support Bringas’s contention that a police report would have been futile, and it did not reflect any awareness of the evidence to that effect,” and the BIA’s opinion did not correct that misstatement.  While Clifton agreed the case should be sent back, he, unlike the majority, “would not dictate the answer to that past persecution question” but rather allow the BIA to reweigh the evidence.

Judge Bea’s dissent, as mentioned by Judge Clifton, focused on the court’s failure to accord sufficient deference to the BIA’s decision, emphasized the weak points in Bringas’s testimony, and accused the majority of mischaracterizing the precedent that it was overruling.  He also argued that the situation facing Bringas at age 14 was very different from the situation he would face today as an adult if returned to Mexico, pointing out further that the record showed that conditions for gay men in Mexico varied.  If returned to Mexico, Bringas would not have to live in Veracruz, but could instead locate in Mexico City, a jurisdiction that has legislated for same-sex marriage, supports gay pride marches, and is notably gay-friendly.

It will be interesting to see whether the government will seek Supreme Court review of this en banc ruling from the 9th Circuit.  The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was substituted as Respondent for his predecessor, Loretta Lynch, upon taking office.  As this ruling may make it easier for Mexican asylum applicants to win the right to remain in the United States, the Trump Administration may seize upon it as a vehicle to tighten up on the asylum process by winning a reversal.  Certainly the Administration would have an interest in establishing deference for the BIA, given the ability of the President and Attorney General to influence the policies of that agency through appoints to the Board. In light of the timing, any review would take place after Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat on the Court takes the bench, re-establishing a majority of Republican appointees on the Court.

This en banc reconsideration of Bringas’s case was considered a big deal by the immigrants’ rights and civil liberties communities.  Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California (Irving) School of Law argued the appeal, with the Appellate Litigation Clinic at his school representing Bringas together with pro bono attorneys from major California law firms.  The government’s case was argued by relatively high level attorneys from the Justice Department in Washington.  Several amicus briefs were filed in support of Bringas’s appeal, including a wide variety of public interest groups, including Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rigths, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the HIV Law Project, the Transgender Law Center.  An amicus brief was submitted on behalf of Alice Farmer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, by Williams & Connolly LLP, a major national law firm that frequently appears before the Supreme Court.