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Federal Court Refuses to Enjoin School District from Allowing Transgender Students to Use Facilities Consistent With Their Gender Identity

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

After rendering a bench ruling in mid-August in anticipation of the approaching resumption of school for the fall semester, U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith released a lengthy opinion (running over 75 pages in LEXIS) on August 25, explaining why he was denying a preliminary injunction motion by plaintiffs in Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137317, 2017 WL 3675418 (E.D. Pa.), in which the plaintiffs, cisgender students and their parents, sought to block the school district’s unwritten policy of allowing transgender students to use bathroom and changing room facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit law firm self-identified with conservative Christian principles which has filed similar lawsuits against other school districts, represents the plaintiffs in arguing that constitutional and common law privacy rights of the students are violated by the school district’s policy. In addition to local attorneys representing the school district, intervenors on behalf of defendants are represented by attorneys from the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project and ACLU of Pennsylvania with cooperating attorneys from Cozen O’Connor’s New York and Philadelphia offices.

This case presents in many respects a mirror image of the lawsuits brought by transgender teens seeking the right to use bathroom and changing facilities at their high schools consistent with their gender identity. In both kinds of cases, testimony is presented that the plaintiffs have suffered emotional and physical harm because the schools’ usage policy interferes with their ability to use a convenient, non-stigmatizing restroom when they need it.  In this case, cisgender students affirmed that they were so traumatized at the prospect of encountering a “student of the other sex” – as they insist on calling transgender students – in the restroom or locker room, that they avoid using the facilities altogether during the school day, and the fear of such encounters haunts them throughout the day.  The court rejected the underlying premise, because Boyertown Area High School (referred to by the acronym BASH throughout the opinion) has provided numerous single-user facilities and alternative locations that would accommodate the plaintiffs’ concerns, and has made physical alterations in the common facilities to enhance the ability of individuals to avoid exposing themselves unclothed (fully or partially) to other students.  The plaintiffs’ position is to argue that transgender boys are really girls, and transgender girls are really boys, and the traditional of sex-segregated restroom and locker-room facilities most be preserved in order to protect the long-recognized privacy interests of cisgender people.  But to the court, the issue for decision in August 2017 had to be based on the facilities available for the upcoming academic year, as to which alterations and additions have changed the situation since the incidents during the 2016-17 school year that gave rise to the lawsuit.

The court sets out the factual allegations in great detail, including findings that this writer – having attended high school in the 1960s – found startling, such as a finding that few of the students at the high school actually use the showers after their gym classes. (When this writer attended high school, showering after gym was mandatory and closely monitored by the coaches, and the required freshman swimming course at his college prohibited students in the class from wearing anything in the pool.)  Another startling finding: that the high school, even before the recent renovations, had several single-user restrooms available to students, and not just in the nurse’s and administrative offices, so that any student seeking absolute privacy for their restroom needs could easily avail themselves of such facilities.

This lawsuit can be traced to several instances during the Fall Semester of 2016 when plaintiffs claim to have been startled, abashed, and disturbed to discover students whom they considered to be of the opposite sex in the locker room or restroom, leading them to approach administrators to complain and subsequently to involve their parents in further complaints. The transgender students were in these facilities after having obtained permission from school administrators who had determined that the students had sufficiently transitioned to make it appropriate. The administrators were determining, on a case-by-case basis, the students in question had transitioned sufficiently that it would have been awkward, unsettling, and perhaps even dangerous to them for them to use facilities consistent with the sex originally noted on their birth certificates.

The evidence presented to the court was that transgender students went through a transitional facilities usage period as they were transitioning in their gender presentation, generally preferring the single-user facilities until their transition was far enough along that they would feel more comfortable using facilities consistent with their gender expression and expected their presence would not cause problems. Indeed, there was testimony that when one transgender boy went into the girls’ restroom, he was chased out by the girls, who perceived him a boy and didn’t want him in there! Because surgical transition is not available under established standards of care before age 18, none of the transgender students at the high school had genital surgery, so their transitions were based on puberty-blocking drugs, hormones, grooming and dress.  One suspects that parents particularly objected to the presence of transgender girls who still had male genitals in the girls’ facilities, but there were no allegations that any transgender girl was exposing male genitals to the view of others in the common facilities.

When the issue arose and the administrators had to respond to a handful of protesting students and parents, they had long since received the “Dear Colleague” letter sent out by the Obama Administration’s Education and Justice Departments in May 2016, which advised that Title IX required public schools to accommodate transgender students by allowing them to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity and presentation. The Boyertown administrators, who did not seek authorization from the school board prior to problems arising, treated that letter as “the law of the land” and informally extended approval on a case-by-case basis to transgender students seeking permission to use appropriate facilities, a phenomenon which began to surface in that school district prior to the 2016 school year.  Not only did they refrain from adopting a formal written policy, but they also refrained from announcing the school’s policy to the student body or parents generally.  Thus, it is not surprising that some students were startled to encounter students who they considered to be of the “wrong sex” in their facilities.  The response of the administrators to the complaints was the this was the school’s policy and the students should just treat the situation as natural and adjust to it, which some students and their parents found unacceptable.

After the issue blew up during the 2016-2017 school year, the board of education voted 6-3 to back up the administrators, but there was still no formal written policy, and the school actually refused a demand by some parents to produce a written policy. Although the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title XI, the substitute letter issued in 2017 did not take a firm position on whether Title IX required such accommodations, merely asserting that the matter required further “study” and should be left to state and local officials to decide.  The Boyertown administrators decided to continue the policy they were following.  This lawsuit was first filed in March 2017, with an amended complaint adding more plaintiffs on April 18.

The complaint asserted claims under the 14th Amendment, Title IX, and Pennsylvania common and statutory law (the Public School Code, which mandates that public schools provide separate facilities for boys and girls).  They claimed a substantive due process violation (privacy), hostile environment sex discrimination in violation of Title IX, and Pennsylvania common law invasion of privacy in violation of public policy.

Judge Smith’s opinion thoroughly dissects the plaintiff’s arguments and carefully distinguishes the cases they cite as precedents, taking the perspective that the issue in deciding the motion for preliminary injunction is whether to preserve the status quo (the school district’s current policy of allowing transgender students, with permission given on a case-by-case basis depending upon their stage of transition and gender presentation, to the use the facilities with which they are comfortable), or to upset the status quo by requiring transgender students to restrict themselves to using single-user facilities or those consistent with their sex as identified at birth. There is a strong bias in considering preliminary injunctions in favor of preserving the status quo, so the plaintiffs had a heavy burden to persuade the court that they were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim in an ultimate ruling, and that the status quo policy inflicted real harm on them that would outweigh the harm that halting the policy would impose on the transgender students and the district.  As to both of those issues, Judge Smith found that plaintiffs had failed to make their case.

In particular, the school’s alteration and expansion of its facilities had significantly undermined the privacy arguments, and the court easily rejected the contention that the possibility of encountering one of about half a dozen transgender students in a high school with well over a thousand students had created a “hostile environment” for cisgender students. The court also noted that the common law privacy precedents concerned situations where the individual defendants had physically invaded the private space of the plaintiffs.  In this case, the individual defendants are school administrators, none of whom had personally invaded the private space of students using restroom and locker room facilities.

Judge Smith devoted a substantial portion of his opinion to recounting expert testimony, presenting a virtual primer on the phenomena of gender identity, gender dysphoria, and transition from a medical and social perspective. The opinion clearly and strongly rejects the plaintiffs’ argument that this case is about boys invading girls’ facilities or vice versa.  The tone and detail of the opinion reflect the considerable progress that has been made in educating courts and the public about these issues.

On the plaintiff’s likelihood of ultimately winning their case on the merits, Judge Smith pointed to the most definitive appellate ruling so far on the contested transgender bathroom issue, a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit involving a lawsuit by Ash Whitaker, a transgender student, against the Kenosha (Wisconsin) school district, which the school district asked the Supreme Court to review, coincidentally on the date that Judge Smith released this opinion.  No other federal circuit appeals court has issued a ruling on the merits of the constitutional and Title VII claims being put forth on this issue, although the 4th Circuit had in 2016 dictated deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County (Virginia) school district, only to have that decision vacated by the Supreme Court last spring after the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter.  That case is still continuing, now focused on a judicial determination of the merits after the filing of an amended complaint by the ACLU.

Because ADF is on a crusade to defeat transgender-friendly facilities policies, it will most likely seek to appeal this denial of injunctive relief to the 3rd Circuit, which has yet to weigh in directly on the issue, although there are conflicting rulings by district courts within the circuit in lawsuits brought by transgender students.  ADF’s first step could be to seek emergency injunctive relief from the Circuit court and, failing that, the Supreme Court (which had during the summer of 2016 granted a stay of the preliminary injunction issued in the Grimm case).  If the Supreme Court grants the Kenosha school district’s petition, as seems likely, the underlying legal issues may be decided during its 2017-18 Term, before the Boyertown case gets to a ruling on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.

Judge Smith was nominated to the district court by President Obama in 2013, winning confirmation from the Senate in 2014. A substantial part of his prior career involved service as a military judge, followed by a period of private practice and then service as a state court judge.  In his Senate confirmation vote he received more votes from Republicans than Democrats.  The Washington Post reported at the time that Smith was the first Obama judicial nominee to win more Republican than Democratic votes.

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