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Gender Identity Discrimination U.S. Appellate Decisions of the 21st Century (So Far)

Posted on: October 18th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

I am giving a talk at NY Law School under the auspices of the Justice Action Center tomorrow, Oct. 19, about the current controversy over Title IX and the rights of transgender students.  I’ve prepared a case table to distribute at the talk and thought I would post it here as a useful reference.  The table covers U.S. appellate rulings from 2000 to date on gender identity discrimination claims.  I count decisions by the EEOC on appeal from agency determinations to be appellate decisions for purposes of this table.  This table does not include prisoner litigation, benefits claims, name change claims, etc.  The focus is on Title IX, Title VII, other federal sex discrimination laws, and the Equal Protection Clause.

Transgender [Gender Identity] Discrimination Law – Important 21st Century Appellate Rulings:


Barnes v. City of Cincinnati, 401 F.3d 729 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1003 (2005) (allowing Title VII sex discrimination claim by transgender woman police officer discharged after transitioning).


Chavez v. Credit Nation Auto Sales LLC, 641 Fed.Appx. 883 (11th Cir. 2016) (“Sex discrimination [under Title VII] includes discrimination against a transgender person for gender nonconformity.”)


Doe v. Brockton School Committee, 2000 WL 33342399 (Mass. App. Ct. 2000) (unofficially published disposition) (junior high school administration preliminarily enjoined from barring transgender student from school based on student’s refusal to wear gender-appropriate clothing as defined by school).


Etsitty v. Utah Transit Auth., 502 F.3d 1215 (10th Cir. 2007) (gender identity is not a suspect classification for Equal Protection purposes).


Fowlkes v. Ironworkers Local 40, 790 F.3d 378 (2nd Cir. 2015) (Union violates duty of fair representation under National Labor Relations Act by discriminating against transgender woman in operation of hiring hall program).


G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709 (4th Cir. 2016), petition for certiorari pending (district court must defer to DOE/DOJ interpretation of Title IX sex discrimination provision allowing transgender high school student to use bathroom facilities consistent with his gender identity, because regulation is ambiguous and agency interpretation is reasonable). See also 136 S. Ct. 2442 (U.S. Supreme Ct., August 3, 2016), granting stay of preliminary injunction pending a decision on petition for certiorari, or if such petition is granted, pending ultimate disposition of appeal.


Glenn v. Brumby, 663 F.3d 1312 (11th Cir. 2011) (discrimination against a transgender woman because of her gender identity was sex discrimination for purposes of a 14th Amendment equal protection claim, invoking heightened scrutiny).


Hispanic Aids Forum v. Estate of Bruno, 16 A.D.3d 294 (N.Y. Appellate Division, 1st Dept. 2005) (landlord did not violate NYC Human Rights Law prohibition of gender identity discrimination by insisting that transgender patrons of commercial tenant use public hallway restrooms consistent with their biological sex rather than their gender identity).


Hunter v. United Parcel Service, 697 F.3d 697 (8th Cir. 2012) (granting summary judgment to employer on transgender employee’s Title VII claim because the employer’s decision-maker was unaware of the plaintiff’s gender identity and had a non-discriminatory reason for the discharge).


Lusardi v. McHugh, 2015 WL 1607756 (EEOC, April 1, 2015) (employer must allow a transgender employee to use the restroom consistent with the employee’s gender identity).


Macy v. Holder, 2012 WL 1435995 (EEOC 2012) (gender identity discrimination claims are actionable under Title VII as sex discrimination claims).


Rosa v. Park West Bank & Trust Co., 214 F.3d 213 (1st Cir. 2000) (bank discrimination against a transgender woman violates sex discrimination provision of federal Fair Credit Act).


Schwenk v. Hartford, 204 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2000) (The Violence against Women Act [VAWA] covers violence against transgender women; the Act was subsequently amended to clarify that it covers violence against persons because of their gender identity).


Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F.2d 566 (6th Cir. 2004) (allowing Title VII sex discrimination claim and equal protection claim [heightened scrutiny] by a transgender woman discharged as firefighter after transitioning).

Federal Court Issues Nationwide Injunction to Stop Federal Enforcement of Title IX in Gender Identity Cases

Posted on: August 22nd, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district judge in Wichita Falls, Texas, has issued a “nationwide preliminary injunction” against the Obama Administration’s enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act to require schools to allow transgender students to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity. Judge Reed O’Connor’s August 22 ruling, State of Texas v. United States of America, Civ. Action No. 7:16-cv-00054-O (N.D. Texas), is directed specifically at a “Dear Colleague” letter dated May 13, 2016, which the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) jointly sent to all the nation’s schools subject to Title IX, advising them of how the government was now interpreting federal statutes forbidding discrimination “because of sex.”  The letter advised recipients that failure to allow transgender students’ access to facilities consistent with their gender identity would violate Title IX, endangering their eligibility for funding from the DOE.

The May 13 letter was sent out shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, had ruled in April that this interpretation by the Administration, previously stated in filings in a Virginia lawsuit, should be deferred to by the federal courts.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709.    That lawsuit is about the right of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use boys’ restroom facilities at his Gloucester County, Virginia, high school.  The ACLU had filed the case on Grimm’s behalf after the school district adopted a rule forbidding students from using single-sex-designated facilities inconsistent with their “biological sex” as identified on their birth certificates, a rule similar to that adopted by North Carolina in its notorious H.B.2, which is itself now the subject of several lawsuits in the federal district courts in that state.  After the 4th Circuit ruled, the federal district judge hearing that case, Robert Doumar, issued a preliminary injunction requiring that Grimm be allowed access to the boys’ restrooms while the case is pending, and both Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay that injunction.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-3 to grant the school district’s request for a stay on August 3.  Judge O’Connor prominently mentioned the Supreme Court’s action in his opinion as helping to justify issuing his preliminary injunction, commenting that the case presents a question that the Supreme Court may be resolving this term.

Underlying this and related lawsuits is the Obama Administration’s determination that federal laws banning sex discrimination should be broadly interpreted to ban discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation. The Administration adopted this position officially in a series of rulings by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.  This interpretation was in line with prior decisions by several federal circuit courts, ruling in cases that had been brought by individual transgender plaintiffs to challenge discrimination under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), the Fair Credit Act (FCA), and Title VII.  These are all “remedial statutes” that traditionally should receive a liberal interpretation in order to achieve the policy goal of eliminating discrimination because of sex in areas subject to federal legislation.  Although the EEOC and other federal agencies had rejected this broad interpretation repeatedly from the 1960s onward, transgender people began to make progress in the courts after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that sex-stereotyping by employers – disadvantaging employees because of their failure to comply with the employer’s stereotyped view of how men and women should act, groom and dress – could be considered evidence of sex discrimination, in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  While some of these courts continue to reject the view that gender identity discrimination, as such, is automatically illegal under these statutes, they have applied the sex-stereotype theory to uphold lawsuits by individual transgender plaintiffs, especially those who are discharged in response to their announcement that they will be transitioning or when they begin their transition process by dressing in their desired gender.

The Education Department built on this growing body of court rulings, as well as on the EEOC’s rulings, when it became involved in cases where transgender students were litigating over restroom and locker room access. DOE first expressed this view formally in a letter it sent in connection with a lawsuit against an Illinois school district, participated in negotiating a settlement in that case under which the school district opened up restroom access, and then began to take a more active approach as more lawsuits emerged.  By earlier this year DOE and DOJ were ready to push the issue nationwide after the 4th Circuit’s ruling marked the first federal appellate acceptance of the argument that this was a reasonable interpretation of the existing regulation that allows school districts to provide separate facilities for boys and girls, so long as the facilities are comparable.  DOE/DOJ argue that because the regulation does not specifically state how to resolve access issues for transgender students, it is ambiguous on the point and thus susceptible to a reasonable interpretation that is consistent with the EEOC’s position on workplace discrimination and the rulings that have emerged from the federal courts under other sex discrimination statutes.  Under a Supreme Court precedent, agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations should receive deference from the courts if those interpretations are reasonable.

The May 13 letter provoked consternation among officials in many states, most prominently Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton took the lead in forming a coalition of about a dozen states to file this joint lawsuit challenging the DOE/DOJ position. Paxton aimed to bring the case in the federal court in Wichita Falls before Judge O’Connor, an appointee of George W. Bush who had previously issued a nationwide injunction against the Obama Administration’s policy of deferring deportation of undocumented residents without criminal records and had also ruled to block an Obama Administration interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act favoring family leave for gay employees to care for same-sex partners.  Paxton found a small school district in north Texas, Harrold Independent School District, which did not have any transgender students but nonetheless adopted a restrictive restroom access policy, to be a co-plaintiff in the case in order justify filing it in the Wichita Falls court.  Shortly after Paxton filed this case, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson put together another coalition of nine states to file a similar lawsuit in the federal district court in Nebraska early in July.

These cases rely heavily on an argument that was first proposed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay “Christian” public interest law firm, in a lawsuit it brought in May on behalf of some parents and students challenging the settlement of the Illinois case, and a “copycat” lawsuit filed by ADF in North Carolina. The plaintiffs argue that the DOE/DOJ position is not merely an “interpretation” of existing statutory and regulatory requirements under Title IX, but rather is a new “legislative rule,” imposing legal obligations and liabilities on school districts.  As such, they argue, it cannot simply be adopted in a “guidance” or “letter” but must go through the formal process for adopting new regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act. This would require the publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register, after which interested parties could submit written comments, perhaps one or more public hearings being held around the country to receive more feedback from interested parties, and then publication of a final rule, which would be subject to judicial review in a case filed in a U.S. Court of Appeals.  (This is referred to as the “notice and comment” process.) Neither DOE nor any other agency that has adopted this new interpretation of “sex discrimination” has gone through this administrative rulemaking process.  Additionally, of course, the plaintiffs contend that this new rule is not a legitimate interpretation of Title IX, because Congress did not contemplate this application of the law when it was enacted in the 1970s.

In his August 22 ruling, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs met their burden to show that they would likely succeed on the merits of their claim, a necessary finding to support a preliminary injunction. As part of this ruling, he rejected the 4th Circuit’s conclusion that the existing statute and regulations are ambiguous and thus subject to administrative interpretation.  He found it clear based on legislative history that Congress was not contemplating outlawing gender identity discrimination when it passed sex discrimination laws, and that the existing regulation allowing schools to provide separate facilities for boys and girls was intended to protect student privacy against being exposed in circumstances of undress to students of the opposite sex.  In the absence of ambiguity, he found, existing precedents do not require the courts to defer to the agency’s interpretation.  He found that the other prerequisites for injunctive relief had been met, because he concluded that if the enforcement was not enjoined, school districts would be put to the burden of either changing their facilities access policies or potentially losing federal money.  He rejected the government’s argument that the lack of any imminent enforcement activity in the plaintiff states made this purely hypothetical.  After all, the federal government has affirmatively sued North Carolina to enjoin enforcement of the facilities access restrictions in H.B.2.

Much of O’Connor’s decision focuses on the question whether the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the DOE/DOJ guidance in a district court proceeding and whether the court had jurisdiction over the challenge. He found support for his ruling on these points in a recent decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has appellate jurisdiction over cases from Texas) in a lawsuit that Texas brought against the EEOC, challenging a “guidance” about employer consideration of applicant arrest records in deciding whether to hire people.  Texas v. EEOC, 2016 WL 3524242.  Noting disparate enforcement of criminal laws against people of color, the EEOC took the position that reliance on arrest records has a disparate impact on people of color and thus potentially violates Title VII.  A 5th Circuit panel divided 2-1 in determining that the state had standing to maintain the lawsuit and that the district court had jurisdiction to rule on the case.   This suggests the likelihood that the Administration may have difficulty persuading the 5th Circuit to overrule O’Connor’s preliminary injunction on procedural grounds if it seeks to appeal the August 22 ruling.

The Administration argued in this case that any preliminary injunction by O’Connor should be narrowed geographically to the states in the 5th Circuit, even though co-plaintiffs included states in several other circuits, but O’Connor rejected this argument, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the injunction should be nationwide.  He emphasized the regulation allowing schools to have sex-segregated restroom facilities.  “As the separate facilities provision in Section 106.33 is permissive,” he wrote, “states that authorize schools to define sex to include gender identity for purposes of providing separate restrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities will not be impacted” by the injunction.  “Those states who do not want to be covered by this injunction can easily avoid doing so by state law that recognized the permissive nature” of the regulation.  “It therefore only applies to those states whose laws direct separation.  However, an injunction should not unnecessarily interfere with litigation currently pending before other federal courts on this subject regardless of state law.  As such, the parties should file a pleading describing those cases so the Court can appropriately narrow the scope if appropriate.”  This reference is directed mainly to the plethora of lawsuits pending in North Carolina, in which the federal government is contending that H.B.2 violates Title IX and Title VII.

Kansas’ Narrow Interpretation of Obergefell Rejected by Federal District Court

Posted on: July 25th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Crabtree, who had ruled on November 4, 2014, that the Kansas constitutional amendment and statutes banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, has issued a final ruling in that case, Marie v. Mosier, 2016 WL 3951744 (D. Kan., July 22, 2016), effectively finding that Kansas officials cannot be trusted to comply voluntarily with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), without the prod of an injunction that would subject them to contempt proceedings if they fail to comply fully.  In light of the initial refusal by the state to issue appropriate birth certificates for children of lesbian couples, and continuing ambiguity about how state officials will handle such situations, the court rejected the state’s argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed as “moot” or that its prior rulings should be vacated as unnecessarily in light of Obergefell.

When Judge Crabtree issued his preliminary injunction in 2014, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Kansas, had already issued rulings prohibiting Oklahoma and Utah from enforcing their laws against same-sex marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to review those rulings on October 6, 2014, so they had gone into effect.  Shortly afterward, however, the 6th Circuit had ruled against marriage equality, and in January 2015 the Supreme Court announced it would review that decision.  On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell that same-sex couples were entitled to the same marriage rights under state law as different-sex couples.  After Obergefell, the Kansas defendants moved to dismiss Marie v. Mosier as “moot,” but the plaintiffs moved instead to have the court issue a declaration that the Kansas ban on marriage equality was unconstitutional and to issue an injunction requiring the state to comply with Obergefell.  This responded to an argument that was being made by some marriage equality resisters that the Supreme Court’s decision applied only to states in the 6th Circuit, and to the announced opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and other Kansas officials.  The plaintiffs feared that Kansas would not give full effect to the “equality” requirement of the Supreme Court’s decision, despite assurances by the state’s attorney that it would do so.

At that time, Judge Crabtree decided to give the state the benefit of the doubt. On August 10, 2015, he issued a declaratory judgment, but withheld injunctive relief to give the state time to comply voluntarily.  Voluntary compliance did follow in many respects, such as issuing marriage licenses, but the plaintiffs responded to the state’s contention that it had complied voluntarily by bringing to the court’s attention two instances in which state officials had refused to issue birth certificates listing both mothers of children born to married lesbian couples.  Indeed, in one of those cases the mothers had gone into state court to get an order to issue an appropriate birth certificate, and the state initially resisted the state court order.  Subsequently both of those cases were resolved by the state issuing appropriate birth certificates, but contradictory statements issued from officials of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, one suggesting that in future same-sex couples would be treated the same as different-sex couples when children were conceived through donor insemination, but the other stating that same-sex couples would have to alert the department in advance so that a case-by-case determination could be made about whether a birth certificate listing both women would be issued.

Judge Crabtree concluded that the case was not “moot” and an injunction was necessary. In this case, there was clear evidence that state officials were complying reluctantly with Obergefell, sometimes only under the prodding of court orders, so the court could not conclude that there was no longer an issue of whether same-sex couples in Kansas could expect to receive equal treatment from all instrumentalities of the state government in all circumstances.

“Exercising its remedial discretion,” wrote Crabtree, “the court has decided to grant a permanent injunction forbidding defendants (and their successors) from enforcing or applying any aspect of Kansas law that treats same-sex married couples differently than opposite-sex married couples. As the court noted last August, a significant value exists in giving public officials a reasonable opportunity to comply voluntarily with a mandate by the Supreme Court.  The record here shows that defendants have said they will comply with Obergefell and, in many instances, they have acted to implement the changes that compliance requires.  But even after Obergefell and even after this court’s declaratory judgment, the record also demonstrated one defendant’s department deliberately refused to treat two same-sex married couples in the same fashion it routinely treats opposite-sex couples.  This disparate treatment did not result from oversight, inadvertence, or decisions made at lower levels of the department.  To the contrary, the conduct involved officials who the court would expect to know about Obergefell, this court’s preliminary injunction [from 2014], and the defendants’ assurances that they intended to comply with Obergefell.  This conduct required one same-sex couple to file an action in state court to get something that an opposite-sex couple would have received as a matter of course.”

In reaching this conclusion, Judge Crabtree listed the decisions by judges in numerous other states who issued permanent injunctions against those states after the Obergefell decision upon finding that the cases were not “moot” because of actual or potential failures of those states fully to comply with Obergefell’s equality mandate.  These included decisions from Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Arkansas, South Dakota, Idaho, and Louisiana.  The only court to reach a contrary conclusion was in South Carolina, where the state government had quickly fallen into line after the Supreme Court refused to review the 4th Circuit’s decision in the Virginia marriage equality case.  Given the birth certificate contretemps in Kansas, the case was clearly distinguishable.

Crabtree sympathized with the plaintiffs’ concern about “whether defendants will comply voluntarily with Obergefell without the judicial oversight that an injunction permits.”  His response to this concern was to provide that the court will maintain supervisory oversight for three years, which means that at the first sign that a government official in Kansas is denying equal treatment to a same-sex couple, direct application can be made to Judge Crabtree for relief without the need to run into state court and start a new lawsuit.  “The court finds that permanent injunctive relief could prevent future same-sex married persons from having to do what the Smiths had to do,” he wrote: “initiate a separate lawsuit and incur expenses to secure the equal treatment that Obergefell promises.”

In rejecting the defendants’ argument that Obergefell was a narrow ruling that did not address the issue of birth certificates for children born to same-sex couples, Crabtree pointed out that Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court specifically mentioned this issue!  “The Supreme Court found that the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marital status include ‘taxation; inheritance and property rights; spousal privilege; hospital access; medical decision making authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rules.’”  By quoting from the Obergefell opinion, Crabtree made clear that Kansas may not impose any different treatment on same-sex couples regarding any of these issues without running afoul of Obergefell.

He also rejected the bizarre argument made by Kansas that one lesbian married couple that encountered birth certificate issues was not entitled to recognition of their marriage under Obergefell because they were married in Canada and the Full Faith and Credit Clause refers on to other states.  Judge Crabtree pointed out that Kansas’s own marriage recognition statute provides that “all marriages which would be valid by the law of the country in which the same are contracted, shall be valid in all courts and places in this state.”  If Kansas automatically recognizes different-sex marriages contracted in other countries, Obergefell’s equality requirement would mandate application of this rule to same-sex marriages.

“In sum,” wrote Crabtree, “defendants’ argument that Obergefell’s holding was narrow is unpersuasive,” and he quoted Justice Kennedy’s comment that a “slower, case-by-case determination of the required availability of specific public benefits to same-sex couples would deny gays and lesbians many rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.”  “Perhaps defendants will provide the voluntary compliance with Obergefell that they promise,” Crabtree wrote.  “But the court cannot assign plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to such uncertainty.  In short, defendants’ assurances of future compliance do not provide the reliability that those rights deserve.”

The last issue before the court was an award of attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs. He ordered them to submit their fee bill promptly, and if Kansas disputes the amount (which they will likely do, since the state’s budget has been decimated by Governor Brownback’s unrealistic tax-cutting measures, which have led, among other things, to a crisis in school funding that caused a confrontation with the state’s Supreme Court), Judge Crabtree will address the issue promptly.

North Carolina Supreme Court Rejects 1st Amendment Challenge to Social Networking Ban for Sex Offenders

Posted on: November 11th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The North Carolina Supreme Court has rejected a 1st Amendment challenge to a provision of state law that forbids convicted sex offenders from accessing most commercial social networking websites, such as State v. Packingham, 2015 WL 6777114 (Nov. 6, 2015).


Lester Packingham, a convicted sex offender, established a page using the name J.R. Gerrard. A Durham Police Department officer investigating whether any convicted sex offenders were on recognized Packingham from his profile photo, triggering a search of Packingham’s residence that turned up a copy of a notice of “Changes to North Carolina Sex Offender Registration Laws” that specified the kind of social networking sites prohibited to sex offenders that he had signed, so he could not credibly raise a procedural due process argument that he was unaware of the prohibition. The prohibition specifically extends to any commercial social networking website to which minors may subscribe. fits within this description.


Packingham was indicted for violating the statute. The trial court denied his motion challenging the facial constitutionality of the provision, finding that it was constitutional as applied to him. He was then sentenced to jail time and probation. The court of appeals reversed, finding that intermediate scrutiny applied to this speech-targeted statute, and that the statute was too vague to withstand review by failing to “target the ‘evil’ it is intended to rectify” because of the sweeping prohibition extending to all social networking websites.


The Supreme Court vote was 4-2 to reverse, with one member not participating. Writing for the court, Justice Robert Edmunds held that the statute was a regulation of conduct, not speech, and that the legislature had a rational basis for enacting it in order to protect children from being approached by sex offenders through social networking websites. He pointed out that a sex offender was not barred from using the internet as a whole, and that there were plenty of websites apart from commercial social networking websites where he could express his views and interact with others.


Justice Robin Hudson, dissenting, agreed with the court of appeals that the statute regulates speech and fails to meet the test of heightened or strict scrutiny. Justice Cheri Beasley joined Hudson’s opinion in dissent.


Packingham is represented by an appointed Appellate Defender, Glenn Gerding. Perhaps the ACLU or a similar free-speech organization will step up and assist Packingham in seeking United States Supreme Court review.  The dissent makes cogent arguments about why the majority decision misses the mark on 1st Amendment grounds.

Woman Wins Second Ruling on Unauthorized Use of Photo in Anti-Discrimination Ad

Posted on: October 27th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

New York Court of Claims Judge Thomas Scuccimarra has ruled that the New York State Division of Human Rights defamed Avril Nolan, a model whose photograph the Division purchased from Getty Images to use in advertisements intended to inform the public that discrimination against people living with HIV is unlawful in New York.  Scuccimarra’s ruling in Nolan v. State of New York, No. 123283, reported on October 27 in the New York Law Journal, was the second win for Nolan, who had also sued Getty Images in New York County Supreme Court and won a ruling on March 6, 2014, from Supreme Court Justice Anil C. Singh, refusing to dismiss her complaint against Getty Images for selling her photograph to the Division without her permission.  Justice Singh’s unpublished opinion is Nolan v. Getty Images (US), Inc., 2014 NY Slip Op 30564(U).

According to Nolan’s complaint against the State Division as described in the Law Journal report, she allowed photographer Jena Cumbo to take her picture in 2011 for use in a feature on New Yorkers interested in music for an online publication, Soma Magazine.  Nolan did not sign a model release, did not specifically authorize any other use of the photograph, and was not paid for it.  Nonetheless, Cumbo sold the photograph to Getty Images, which in turn licensed it to the State Division of Human Rights for use in its anti-discrimination advertisement and poster.

The advertisement appear in April 2013in print editions of Newsday, Metro, and AM New York, and was published in on-line websites by Metro, the Journal News site, and the Albany Times-Union site  Next to Nolan’s photo were the captions “I AM POSITIVE (+)” and “I HAVE RIGHTS,” and the advertisement also stated that people living with HIV are protected against discrimination under the state’s Human Rights Law.  The clear implication, alleged Nolan, was that she is HIV-positive when in fact she is not.

The earlier lawsuit against Getty Images was a seemingly straightforward application of the state’s privacy statute, which forbids the publication of a person’s image without their written consent for purposes of advertising or trade usage.  Getty had argued that since the Division of Human Rights is a government agency and the advertisement was not published for purposes of selling goods or services, Getty should not be held liable under the law.  This argument was unsuccessful because Getty purchased the photo from photographer Cumbo in order to license its use to ultimate publishers for a fee.  Justice Singh characterized Nolan’s argument against Getty as follows: “Nolan argues that the law places a clear duty on those who trade in photographs and advertise photographs for commercial use, to obtain the written consent of the subject.”  Rejecting Getty’s motion to dismiss Nolan’s claim, Singh wrote, “Contrary to Getty’s argument, a claim lies for placing Nolan’s image in Getty’s catalogue, especially where plaintiff’s photograph is ultimately used in an advertisement, and the use of plaintiffs likeness created a false impression about the plaintiff,” that she was HIV-positive.

Nolan’s lawsuit in the Court of Claims against the State Division of Human Rights, while building on the privacy statute and pointing out that State Division made no effort to determine whether Nolan had authorized the use of her photograph in its advertising campaign (of which she was totally unaware), further claimed that the anti-discrimination advertisement, by implicitly labeling her HIV-positive, can be presumed to have caused her actual monetary injury as well as harming her reputation in society.

Judge Scuccimarra agreed with Nolan that falsely labeling somebody HIV-positive would be considered “per se” defamation under New York law.  That is, the court would presume that somebody so falsely labeled would suffer an actual injury beyond harm to her reputation.  An initial finding that the advertisement would harm Nolan’s reputation was merely the first step to analyzing her claim.  Since she did not specifically allege any particular economic injury as a result of the ads being briefly published — they were withdrawn from publication as soon as she complained to the State Division of Human Rights — she could only maintain her lawsuit if this case falls into the category of “per se” defamation, where the court finds that under the circumstances actual injury can be presumed.

Scuccimarra characterized this as a “thorny” issue, in light of the “shifting attitudes” of society, which have been reflected by a recent ruling, Yonaty v. Mincolla, by the Appellate Division in Albany, that falsely calling somebody gay is no longer deemed “per se” defamatory under New York law.   Scuccimarra noted that the “per se” defamation category has traditionally included falsely stating that somebody is afflicted with a “loathsome” disease that “arouses some intense disgust in society.”  The attorney for the state argued that there was no New York precedent holding that HIV or AIDS is a “loathsome” disease for this purpose.  While implying some reluctance to label those living with HIV in this way, and noting the lack of direct New York precedent, the judge concluded that societal prejudice against HIV-positive people justifies including it within this category.

“Viewed under the current societal lenses,” he wrote, “the asserted defamatory content here, that Ms. Nolan is presently diagnosed as HIV positive, from the perspective of the average person, clearly subjects her to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace and constitutes defamation per se.  It would be hoped that an indication that someone is suffering from AIDS or that she has been diagnosed as HIV positive would not be viewed as indicative of some failure of moral fiber, or of some communicable danger, however our society is not so advanced.”

Scuccimarra considered it of “no moment” that the photo was used in a public service advertisement rather than a commercial advertisement when considering the part of Nolan’s lawsuit based on the civil rights law’s privacy provision.  He found that there was no dispute that she never provided written consent for this use of her photograph, beyond photographer Cumbo’s original use described above, and that State Division made no attempt to contact her and obtain her consent.  Having found that Nolan stated a claim under the Civil Rights Law and defamation law, Scuccimarra indicated that the next step will be a hearing on damages.

Nolan is represented by Erin Lloyd with the firm of Lloyd Patel.  Lloyd told the Law Journal that they had hoped the case could be resolved without the need for lengthy litigation over damages, but they were ready to go to trial if necessary.  Assistant Attorney General Cheryl Rameau of the New York State Law Department defended the State Division of Human Rights.  The state could obviate the need for a trial on damages by making an appropriate settlement offer.

LGBT Legal Organizations Call for Decriminalization of Sex Work as Federal Government Initiates Prosecution of’s Owner and Employees

Posted on: August 26th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

On August 20, leading LGBT rights legal organizations in the United States issued a joint statement supporting Amnesty International’s August 11 Resolution that advocates for the human rights of sex workers, including repeal of laws against prostitution. Just days later, on August 25, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raided the New York City offices of, the world’s largest on-line escorting website, carted away boxes of business records and computers, and arrested the company’s chief executive officer, Jeffrey Hurant, and six employees.

Amnesty International (AI), a non-governmental organization concerned with human rights issues worldwide, called on governments to repeal laws criminalizing sex work, while asking them to move to prevent and combat sex trafficking, to ensure that sex workers are protected from exploitation, and to enforce laws against the sexual exploitation of children. In short, AI suggests that adults should be able to freely consent to engage in sexual activity for compensation without criminal penalty, and that continued maintenance of criminalization exposes all sex workers, whether children or adults, to exploitation, violence, and severe health risks.

Sex work for pay is presently legal in some countries (e.g., Canada, United Kingdom), but outlawed in most. Even those countries that don’t criminalize prostitution as such generally maintain laws against promotion and public solicitation of prostitution. In the United States, every jurisdiction except some counties in Nevada treats all sexual activity for monetary compensation as unlawful, although they differ as to the classification of the offense and potential penalties. The Model Penal Code as adopted in the states decriminalized private consensual sexual activity between adults, but not when such activity involves a commercial transaction, and courts have been unanimous in holding that the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision striking down sodomy laws, Lawrence v. Texas, does not create a protected liberty interest extending to commercial sex or sex between adults and minors.

The LGBT organizations that joined in the statement endorsing AI’s resolution are Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National Center for Transgender Equality.

The Joint Statement explains, “For many LGBT people, participation in street economies is often critical to survival, particularly for LGBT youth and transgender women of color who face all-too-common family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education.”

The Joint Statement goes on to describe the various hazards faced by sex workers that are amplified by the criminalization of their activities, with a particular emphasis on the difficulties experienced by transgender sex workers. “Laws criminalizing sexual exchange – whether by the seller or the buyer – impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use and other boundaries, and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are move vulnerable to violence. Research and experience have shown that these laws serve only to drive the industry further underground, make workers less able to negotiate with customers on their own terms, and put those who engage in criminalized sex work at higher risk for abduction and sex trafficking,” says the Joint Statement. “And as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have recognized, criminalization also seriously hampers efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS – efforts in which people involved in the sex trades are crucial partners.”

Just days before the Joint Statement was issued, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) submitted a Complaint and Affidavit in Support of Arrest Warrants to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn) on August 18, seeking to arrest the owner and employees of, described in the complaint as “a commercial male escort advertising site that promotes prostitution.” The complaint quotes advertising itself as the “original and largest male escort service online.” The Complaint was submitted under oath by DHS Special Agent Susan Ruiz, who led the investigation leading to the prosecution. The Complaint requested that its supporting affidavit and warrants be kept under seal until they were executed to prevent the defendants from fleeing the jurisdiction.

On August 25, Homeland Security agents accompanied by NYC Police Department officers appeared at’s offices on West 14th Street in Manhattan to conduct their raid.  They also arrested the employees there and arrested others at their homes, effectively shutting down operation of the website. The defendants were listed in the complaint as Jeffrey Hurant (the owner) and employees Michael Sean Belman, Clint Calero, Edward Lorenz Estanol, Shane Lukas, Diana Milagros Mattos, and Marco Soto Decker. The title of the case on the Complaint is United States of America v. Hurant.

The complaint sets out a detailed description of the website, defining terms, providing graphic descriptions of the activities advertised, and asserting repeatedly that the disclaimers on the site were meaningless and that the entire operation was set up to connect customers with prostitutes.

Anyone seeking a detailed description of the on-line male escort business will find it in this complaint, which became public upon serving of the arrest warrants and was posted later on August 25th on various news websites. The complaint describes each of the defendants (including aliases used by many of them) and their role in the business, including past or present escorting activity by some of them.

The complaint asserts that the term “escort” is a euphemism for a prostitute. The complaint describes and quotes from various escort listings on, including the quotation of rates for services and the listing of specific sexual activity that an escort is willing to engage in. The complaint also notes cross-references in some of the advertisements to another website,, at which can be found detailed accounts by customers of their experiences with the escorts in the form of reviews, including reports on the amount of money charged by the escort.

It is unclear whether this action taken against was a precursor to actions against similar websites operated from the United States as part of a more general crackdown on the use of the Internet for commercial sexual assignations, whether Homeland Security is also targeting heterosexual escort sites, or whether was singled out for prosecution because of the brazenness of its owner, who is quoted in the complaint as having made clear in published interviews that the purpose of the website was to assist escorts in marketing their sexual services.

According to the complaint, Hurant uses as an email address, which is hardly subtle. The complaint quotes Hurant telling one interviewer, “There is no place in this website where somebody says I’ll have sex for money because that is against the law. We can talk about what you look like, what you are, what you like to do, what people say about you in bed. . . People say I’m a great top, people say I fuck like nobody’s business, but you can’t say I’ll fuck you for two hundred bucks.” The website includes a disclaimer that rates quoted by the escorts on the site are only for their time, and that any sexual activity that takes place is a private matter between consenting adults.

In justifying the arrest of the employees as well as the owner, the complaint states, “There is probable cause to believe that anyone employed by the organization was aware that its aim was the promotion of prostitution, based on its publicly-disseminated advertising and promotional material and the content of the site itself.” Illustrating the openness with which went about its business, the complaint describes how the company applied to the Department of Homeland Security for an occupational visa for one of its employees. It also describes an annual public event held by, the “Hookies,” at which awards were bestowed on escorts listed on the site as the “best” in particular categories of sexual performance, and at which Hurant gave his business card to an undercover agent.

The prosecution is premised on 18 U.S.C. Section 1952, a federal statute that provides, in relevant part: “(a) Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses the mail or any facility in interstate or foreign commerce, with intent to. . . (3) otherwise promote, manage, establish, carry on, or facilitate the promotion, management, establishment, or carrying on, of any unlawful activity, and thereafter performs or attempts to perform – (A) an act described in paragraph . . . (3) shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both. . . (b) As used in this section (i) “unlawful activity” means (1) any business enterprise involving . . . prostitution offenses in violation of the laws of the State in which they are committed or of the United States.”

The complaint cites provisions of New York law criminalizing “promoting prostitution” and engaging in prostitution activity, thus satisfying the federal statutory requirement that the proposed defendants are using a “facility in interstate or foreign commerce” with the intent to “promote” an “unlawful activity.” News reports indicated that the prosecution may also involve charges of “money-laundering,” but that is not specified in the complaint submitted to the federal court to get the arrest warrants.  Of course, the complaint submitted to get the warrant does not limit the scope of the ultimate prosecution. In a footnote, it states that because the complaint was submitted “for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause,” Agent Ruiz did not “set forth each and every fact learned during the course of this investigation.” One might expect that the investigation would include rigorous tax auditing of and its parent corporation, as well as the seven individuals arrested, and that the U.S. Attorney, acting as a prosecutor on behalf of DHS, is likely to assert as broad a range of charges as the results of the DHS investigation may support.

NY Court Dismisses Divorce Petition Where Religious Marriage was Performed Without a License Ten Years Earlier

Posted on: July 10th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

In what may have been the first New York court opinion to cite Obergefell v. Hodges, a Manhattan trial judge ruled on July 2 that a purported marriage between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a man was invalid, even though the parties lived together for ten years after a rabbi performed a marriage ceremony for them without a marriage license.  Devorah H. v. Steven S., 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 25228 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co.).

The parties never obtained a marriage license.  They were living together with their young children from prior marriages in a tiny apartment, and sought help from their rabbi in finding more suitable housing when a complaint by the woman’s ex-husband to the Administration for Children’s Services caused alarm.  The rabbi found them a larger apartment and suggested they should marry before moving.  He then officiated an abbreviated religious marriage ceremony for them on the spot, partially completing a standard form certificate (which he didn’t sign) and urging them to go to City Hall and get a license.  They didn’t follow up, however.

Ten years later the woman filed for divorce and the man moved to dismiss, contending they were never validly married.  The woman relied on NY Domestic Relations Law Sec. 25, which provides that a “properly solemnized” marriage is valid despite the lack of a marriage license.  This is an ancient statute, most likely passed in order to validate religious marriages in the large immigrant community in New York when it was adopted in the early years of the 20th century.  After recounting the extensive testimony of the man, the woman, and the rabbi on the question whether this marriage was “properly solemnized,” the court concluded that the marriage was invalid, noting particularly the rabbi’s testimony that he had repeatedly urged the parties to “go to City Hall” to get a license, and that they had to know that they would need a new solemnization after a license was issued.  The man testified that after they left the rabbi’s office, he had torn up the copy of the certificate that the rabbi gave them.

Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper’s conclusion, invoking Obergefell, is interesting: “In the over 100 years since the enactment of DRL Sec. 25, the way citizens marry in New York has changed immeasurably. While at one time the wedding ceremony was the central element of the process, that is no longer the case; church weddings are more and more the exception rather than the rule, and the new wage of marriage ceremonies would be almost unrecognizable to earlier generations.  What is key to the process is the marriage license itself.  This is not only true for New York, but for the entire nation.  After all, when the United States Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. – [2015]) making the right to same-sex marriage the law of the land, it did so by decreeing that ‘States are required by the Constitution to issue licenses to same-sex couples’ (emphasis added).”

“DRL Sec. 25, in its present form, serves no useful function in today’s world.  Conceivably, if the statute was amended to allow couples who justifiably believed they were legally married with a valid marriage license to protect the marriage from the claim that the license was improperly executed or otherwise defective, that would certainly serve the public interest.  But as it exists now, the statute allows for the wholesale disregard of New York’s licensing requirements – requirements that, as we have seen, play a vital role in insuring that marriages are legally valid.  Until DLR Sec. 25 is repealed or reformed, courts will be forced to grapple with situations like this, where the parties fully understood that they did not legally marry but one side seeks to abuse the statute to attain the financial remedies only available to litigants who are married to one another.”

“In light of the foregoing, it must be concluded that plaintiff cannot show that she and defendant are married, and therefore has failed to prove an essential element of her prima facie case for divorce.”

The court evidently did not consider the couples’ ten years of cohabitation after the quick marriage ceremony to be a basis for finding the woman eligible to seek a formal divorce and disposition of assets.  This apparently rests on the court’s conclusion that the woman could not under the circumstances claim justifiable reliance on a belief that she was in a valid marriage with the man.  The court noted the “Rashomon effect” in the parties’ testimony, the man, the woman and the rabbi each providing a different account of what happened, leaving the court to sort out questions of credibility, which were resolved against the woman.

Devorah H. is represented by Eurydice A. Kelley, Steven S. by Jeffrey S. Kofsky.

Supreme Court Issues Historic Marriage Equality Ruling

Posted on: June 26th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court ruled today that “same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry” and that “there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character.”  Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., grounded these marital rights in the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that no State may deprive any person of “liberty” without due process of law or deny to any person the “equal protection of the laws.”  He saw the claimed rights in this case as logical extensions of the rights recognized by the Court through his opinions in United States v. Windsor (2013) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003).   Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14-556, 2015 WL 2473451, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4250 (June 26, 2015).  By fitting coincidence, the opinion was issued on the second anniversary of Windsor and the twelfth anniversary of Lawrence.

Kennedy was appointed to the Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987.  Kennedy’s opinion was joined by the four justices appointed by Democratic presidents: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (appointed by Bill Clinton) and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (appointed by Barack Obama).  Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito all wrote dissenting opinions for themselves, and each of them also signed one or more of the other dissenting opinions.

The Court had granted petitions filed by the plaintiffs in cases emanating from the states of Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky.  In each of those states, federal district courts had ruled during 2014 either that state laws refusing to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states violated equal protection rights or that the refusals of the states to allow same-sex couples to marry violated due process and/or equal protection rights.  Those rulings were consolidated for appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, which reversed the trial courts in an opinion by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton.  Sutton held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1972 that a challenge to the Minnesota ban on same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question” remained binding as precedent on lower federal courts, but went on to reject the plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments, opining that the question whether same-sex couples could marry or have their marriages recognized was one to be resolved through the democratic process, not through litigation.  In granting the plaintiffs’ petition to review that ruling, the Court ordered argument on two questions:  whether same-sex couples have a right to marry, and whether states are obligated to recognize same-sex marriages.  A majority of the Court has now answered both of those questions in the affirmative.

This outcome was widely predicted because of the Court’s behavior since October 2014, when it declined to review pro-marriage equality decisions by the 4th, 7th and 10th Circuits, thus lifting stays and allowing marriage equality rulings to go into effect in Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Utah, and eventually in all the other states in those circuits.  When the 9th Circuit ruled for marriage equality, the Supreme Court rebuffed every request by state officials to delay marriage equality rulings going into effect in that circuit, and subsequently refused to stay marriage equality rulings from Florida and Alabama, even though the 11th Circuit had not yet ruled on the states’ appeals.  The denial of the Alabama stay, weeks after the Court had granted review of the 6th  Circuit’s decision, decisively confirmed that there was a majority for marriage equality on the Supreme Court, to the consternation of Justice Thomas expressed in his dissent from the denial of Alabama’s staff petition.

The outcome being highly predictable, the main questions arousing speculation were which constitutional theories the Court would use to strike down the bans, and whether an additional member of the Court — most likely Chief Justice Roberts — would join the majority.  Roberts stayed put with his fellow conservative brethren.  Kennedy’s opinion took a route that could have been predicted based on his opinions in Windsor and Lawrence.  Kennedy’s preferred approach in gay rights cases (leaving aside his first such opinion, in Romer v. Evans, which is really sui generis) is to rely heavily on his broad conception of liberty protected by the Due Process Clause.

Kennedy began with a quick review of the situations of some of the plaintiffs, showing the deprivations they faced by not being allowed to marry or have their marriages recognized, and then presented a historical overview of the changing nature of marriage.  He wrote that “changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.  This dynamic can be seen in the Nation’s experiences with the rights of gays and lesbians.”  After reviewing the growing recognition of gay rights by the courts, and referring to an amicus brief filed by the American Psychological Association, he wrote, “Only in more recent years have psychiatrists and others recognized that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable.”  This could be a key statement for a holding that sexual orientation is a “suspect classification” for equal protection purposes, but Kennedy never followed up along that line.

Instead, he turned to a due process analysis, and premised his conclusion on “four principles and traditions” which he said “demonstrate that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples.”  The first “is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”  The second is “that the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.”  The third is “that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education.”  Finally, he wrote, “This Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order.”

As to each of these four principles, Kennedy penned eloquent explanations that play into the themes he previously developed in his opinions in Windsor and Lawrence.  For example, he wrote, “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.  This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.”  Speaking about marriage’s “support” for the “two-person union,” he wrote, “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.  It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”  After observing that “hundreds of thousands of children are presently being raised” by same-sex couples, he wrote: “Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.  They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life.  The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”

In explaining why the right to marriage is a fundamental right, Kennedy observed that “States have contributed to the fundamental character of the marriage right by placing that institution at the center of so many facets of the legal and social order.  There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle.”  As he had observed in 2003 when he wrote for the Court striking down the Texas sodomy law, he reiterated in this case.  “The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.  With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”   Several times in the course of this part of his opinion, Kennedy referred to the “dignity” of same-sex couples being denied or disparaged by denying them the right to marry.

Turning to the Equal Protection Clause as an alternative source of the marriage right, Kennedy avoided any explicit pronouncement about whether sexual orientation discrimination claims should be subject to heightened scrutiny.  Actually, there are two different strands of equal protection theory: the classification strand and the rights strand.  Under the former, the Court asks whether the challenged law creates a classification that is “suspect” and thus subject to heightened or strict scrutiny.  Under the latter, the Court asks whether the challenged law discriminates concerning a fundamental right, and thus will be struck down unless the government proves a compelling justification.  Kennedy focused on the second strand.

Referring back to the Court’s earlier marriage cases, he wrote, “The equal protection analysis depended in central part on the Court’s holding that the law burdened a right of ‘fundamental importance.’ It was the essential nature of the marriage right, discussed at length in Zablocki v. Redhail, that made apparent the law’s incompatibility with requirements of equality.”  He emphasized the interconnectedness of the liberty/due process and equal protection theories, referring to his 2003 opinion in the Texas sodomy case, Lawrence v. Texas.  “Lawrence therefore drew upon principles of liberty and equality to define and protect the rights of gays and lesbians, holding the State ‘cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.’  This dynamic also applies to same-sex marriage.  It is now clear that the challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and it must be further acknowledged that they abridge central precepts of equality.  Here the marriage laws enforced by the respondents are in essence unequal: same-sex couples are denied all the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right.  Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial to same-sex couples of the right to marry works a grave and continuing harm.  The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them.  And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”

Thus, in the ongoing dispute over whether the plaintiffs were claiming a new constitutional right of “same-sex marriage” or access to an existing fundamental right to marry, the Court in this case adopts the broader view.

Kennedy rejected the states’ argument that this decision was being made without sufficient “democratic discourse,” pointing out that same-sex marriage has been a topic of debate for decades, and asserting that “there has been far more deliberation than this argument acknowledges,” referencing referenda, legislative debates, “countless studies, papers, books, and popular and scholarly writings.”  Indeed, he pointed out, “more than 100 amici” had filed briefs with the Court presenting a wide range of perspectives on all sides of the issues.  And, he pointed out, “the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights.”  Having found that the marriage bans abridge fundamental rights, he found that judicial action was justified.  “The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.”

Kennedy also rejected the argument that the Court should refrain from this ruling because of possible adverse impact on traditional marriages, finding that the argument “rests on a counterintuitive view of opposite-sex couples’ decisionmaking processes regarding marriage and parenthood.  Decisions about whether to marry and raise children are based on many personal, romantic, and practical considerations; and it is unrealistic to conclude that an opposite-sex couple would choose not to marry simply because same-sex couples may do so.”

The Court devoted just one paragraph to the potential clash over religious liberty, asserting that the 1st Amendment “ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”  However, Kennedy shied away from opining about how the balance of rights might be struck in particular cases of the type that have arisen in recent years involving recalcitrant wedding photographers, florists, bakers and the like.

Kennedy briefly addressed the second question certified by the Court for argument, pointing out that all parties had acknowledged that if the Court found a right for same-sex couples to marry, the right to have those marriages recognized by the states would follow as of course.  “It follows that the Court also must hold — and it now does hold — that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character.”

Kennedy concluded with a paragraph integrating the main points of his analysis in eloquent fashion:  “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”    Thus, at the end, Kennedy recurred to the same principle he had invoked two years ago in striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act: equal dignity.

Chief Justice Roberts penned a “who decides” dissent, along the lines previously articulated by Judge Sutton in the 6th Circuit opinion.  “The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage,” he wrote, insisting that defining marriage was the state’s prerogative as matter of democratic process.”  He found “the majority’s approach” to be “deeply disheartening.”  His dissent ended up being slightly longer than Kennedy’s opinion for the Court, embracing simplistic notions of the history of marriage that were directly contradicted by the detailed amicus briefs submitted on behalf of the plaintiffs.  For example, he referred to a “universal definition” of marriage as the “union of a man and a woman,” thus ignoring the numerous cultures in which plural marriage has long been accepted.  Rejecting Kennedy’s very empathetic view of the plaintiffs’ claims, Roberts asserted, “There is, after all, no ‘Companionship and Understanding’ or “Nobility and Dignity” Clause in the Constitution.”  He raised the question whether the Court’s opinion would reopen the question of plural marriage, which is being litigated by fundamentalist Mormons, and insisted that Kennedy’s argument sounded more in moral philosophy than in law.

In conclusion, he wrote: “If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”  Justices Scalia and Thomas joined his dissent.

Scalia, the self-proclaimed originalist, was in fine fulminating form, although perhaps less colorfully than in his dissent a day earlier in the case upholding federal tax credits under the Affordable Care Act.  He was quick to observe that the generation that wrote and adopted the 14th Amendment would not have seen it as creating a right for same-sex couples to marry, and under his jurisprudence that should end the matter.  But, as he had done in the Windsor and Lawrence cases, he sharply criticized the Court for short-circuiting political debate.  Noting the “unrepresentative” nature of the Court, he questioned the legitimacy of it making such a policy decision.  “This is a naked judicial claim to legislative – indeed, super-legislative – power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government,” he exclaimed.  “They have discovered in the Fourteenth Amendment a ‘fundamental rights’ overlooked by every person alive at the time of ratification, and almost everyone else in the time since.”   He also criticized the opinion as being “couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.”  As he has frequently done in past dissents, he decried Justice Kennedy’s conception of liberty, concluding, “The stuff contained in today’s opinion has to diminish this Court’s reputation for clear thinking and sober analysis.”  Actually, many past decisions of the Court emanating from its conservative voices have already done that many times over.  One need only cite Bush v. Gore and Citizen’s United. . .   Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent.

Justice Thomas has long contested the Court’s entire history of substantive due process doctrine, so this case was just one more example for him of illegitimate decision-making.  He argued that refusing to let same-sex couples marry does not deprive them of any liberty, insisting that the reference to “liberty” in the due process clause should be restricted to its “original” meaning of restrictions on mobility.   Thus, the state restricts your liberty when it locks you up, but not when it refuses to let you marry.  He located the origins of this concept in Magna Carta, the 800-year old English document signed by King John in 1215 to settle disputes with the English nobility about royal prerogative, and then traced the concept through American law up to the time of adoption of the 14th Amendment.  “When read in light of the history of that formulation,” he wrote, “it is hard to see how the ‘liberty’ protected by the Clause could be interpreted to include anything other than freedom from physical restraint.”  Even accepting a broader meaning, he held that it should be restricted to “individual freedom from governmental action, not as a right to a particular governmental entitlement.”  He insisted that “receiving governmental recognition and benefits has nothing to do with any understanding of ‘liberty’ that the Framers would have recognized.”  Scalia joined Thomas’s dissent.

Finally, Justice Alito’s dissent rechanneled his dissent from two years ago in U.S. v. Windsor, quoting from it extensively, arguing that there were various different views of marriage and that it was up to the people, through the democratic process, to decide which ones to embrace through law.  “Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage,” he insisted.  He particularly bemoaned the likelihood that this ruling would lead to the oppression of people who oppose same-sex marriage, predicting future disputes.  “Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fair play,” he wrote.  “But if that sentiment prevails, the National will experience bitter and lasting wounds.”  Both Scalia and Thomas signed his opinion.

All the dissents sounded like rearguard actions seeking to provoke public discontent with the Court’s opinion.  But in that sense they are well within the tradition — at least the recent tradition — of Supreme Court dissenting opinions from the very polarized Court.  A 5-4 ruling may be bitterly argued, but it is no less a precedential holding of the Court than a unanimous  ruling.  Although there had been rumblings in the weeks leading up to this day that some state officials might try to avoid complying with a pro-marriage equality decisions, the immediate response of governors in the four states involved with this case seemed to be prompt, if reluctant, compliance with the Court’s decision.

A long list of attorneys participated in representing the various plaintiffs in this case, culminating in the presentations by three oral advocates at the Supreme Court — two representing the plaintiffs and one representing the Solicitor General as amicus curiae.  In the end, all of the nation’s LGBT litigation groups played a part, as did numerous groups who submitted amicus briefs to the Court, many of which were cited in the opinions.   One group among all others will be particularly affected by this ruling.  Evan Wolfson announced months ago that upon the achievement of marriage equality nationwide, his organization — Freedom to Marry — will wind up its affairs and cease to exist.



N.Y. 4th Department Rejects Custody & Visitation Petition From Same-Sex Co-Parent

Posted on: June 23rd, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Relying on a quarter-century old N.Y. Court of Appeals precedent under which a same-sex co-parent is considered a “legal stranger” to the child she was raising with her former partner, the Appellate Division, 4th Department has affirmed a decision by Chautauqua County Family Court Judge Judith S. Claire to dismiss a petition for custody and visitation filed by Brooke S. Barone.  The ruling in Barone v. Chapman, 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEIS 5226, 2015 WL 3797129, was issued on June 19, 2015.

Brooke Barone and Elizabeth Chapman were same-sex partners and Barone had been co-parent of Chapman’s son.  They did not marry and Barone never adopted the child.  After they ceased to be partners Barone filed this petition seeking to have the Family Court determine custody and visitation issues.  The court appointed R. Thomas Rankin, an attorney in Jamestown, to represent the interest of the child.  Barone represented herself in the proceeding.

Chapman filed a motion to dismiss the petition, arguing that Barone did not have standing to seek custody or visitation because she had no legal relationship to the child.  Rankin opposed the motion on behalf of the child, arguing that the child’s best interests should be “paramount” over the legal formalities, and that “the standing accorded to parents should extend to those who have a recognized and operative parent-child relationship, regardless of their sexual orientation.”  He further argued that the court should use the doctrine of equitable estoppel, arguing that a legal parent who has fostered and encouraged her unmarried partner to form a relationship with her child should be forbidden by the court to deny the reality of that relationship by raising an objection to standing.  Judge Claire, finding herself bound by New York precedents, dismissed the petition.

The Appellate Division was equally dismissive of Rankin’s argument.  “Those contentions are without merit,” it wrote, quoting from an Appellate Division ruling that “the Court of Appeals has recently reiterated that a nonbiological, nonadoptive parent does not have standing to seek visitation when a biological parent who is fit opposes it, and that equitable estoppel does not apply in such situations even where the nonparent has enjoyed a close relationship with the child and exercised some matter of control over the child with the parent’s consent.”  The court noted earlier cases involving same-sex couples, in which the Court of Appeals had stated that “parentage under New York law derives from biology or adoption” and the Court of Appeals’ 1991 ruling, Alison D. v. Virginia M., had created a “bright-line test” under which a person who was neither the biological or adoptive parent of a child is considered a legal stranger without standing to seeking custody or visitation.  A few courts have departed from that more recently in the context of married same-sex couples, finding that when a married woman bears a child, her spouse should be presumed to be the child’s legal parent, but the Court of Appeals hasn’t yet ruled on such a case.

Concluded the Appellate Division panel, “We reiterate that, as the Court of Appeals unequivocally stated, ‘any change in the meaning of “parent” under our law should come by way of legislative enactment rather than judicial revamping of precedent.’  Finally, we note that petitioner ‘failed to sufficiently allege any extraordinary circumstances to establish her standing to seek custody’ as a nonbiological, nonadoptive parent.”  The Court of Appeals has recognized that such special circumstances might justify bending the rules, but in the Alison D. case and subsequent cases relying upon it, the court have found that same-sex couples raising a child together do not automatically qualify under the “extraordinary circumstances” rule.

After Alison D. was decided, the Court of Appeals in a late case construed the Adoption Law to allow same-sex partners to adopt child they were co-parenting without terminating the parental rights of the child’s legal parent, providing a clear path for same-sex partners to avoid this result.  However, in the absence of such an adoption, the courts have adhered to the “legal stranger” rule, and the legislature has yet to modify the statutes on parental standing to take account of non-traditional families in New York.