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TWO MORE LGBTQ-RELATED CONTROVERSIES DROP OFF THE SUPREME COURT DOCKET

Posted on: January 10th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

As the Supreme Court’s 2017-18 Term began in October, it looked like a banner term for LGBTQ-related cases at the nation’s highest court. Petitions were pending asking the Court to address a wide range of issues, including whether LGBTQ people are protected against discrimination under federal sex discrimination laws covering employment (from Georgia) and educational opportunity (from Wisconsin), whether LGBTQ people in Mississippi had standing to seek a federal order to prevent a viciously anti-gay religiously-motivated law from going into effect, and whether the Texas Supreme Court erred in holding that Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), did not necessarily require a municipal employer to treat same-sex married couples the same as different-sex married couples in their employee benefits plans.  The Court had already granted review in a “gay wedding cake” case from Colorado (Masterpiece Cakeshop, which was argued on December 5), and another petition involving a Washington State florist who refused to provide floral decorations for a same-sex wedding was waiting in the wings.

 

But the hopes for a blockbuster term have rapidly faded. In December, the Court declined to hear the employee benefits case and the Title VII employment discrimination case.  And now in January, the Court has declined to hear the Mississippi cases, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, and the Wisconsin case, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, has settled, with the school district agreeing to withdraw its Supreme Court petition.   It may be that the only LGBTQ-related issue that the Court decides this term is the one it heard argued in December: whether a business owner’s religious objections to same-sex marriage or his right to freedom of speech would privilege him to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  An opinion expected sometime in the coming months.

On January 8, the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barber v. Bryant, 860 F.3d 345 (5th Cir.), petition for rehearing en banc denied, 872 F.3d 671 (2017), which had dismissed a constitutional challenge to Mississippi’s infamous H.B. 1523, a law enacted in 2016 that protects people who discriminate against LGBTQ people because of their religious or moral convictions.  The 5th Circuit had ruled that none of the plaintiffs – either organizations or individuals – in two cases challenging the Mississippi law had “standing” to bring the lawsuits in federal court.

H.B. 1523, which was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016, identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and protects against “discrimination” by the state anybody who acts in accord with those beliefs in a wide range of circumstances. The beliefs, as stated in the statute, are: “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”  Among other things, the law would protect government officials who rely on these beliefs to deny services to individuals, and would preempt the handful of local municipal laws in the state that ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, so that victims of discrimination would have no local law remedy.  Mississippi does not have a state law banning sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, so H.B. 1523 in relation to private businesses and institutions was mainly symbolic when it came to activity taking place outside of the cities of Jackson, Hattiesburg and Oxford, or off the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Two groups of plaintiffs brought constitutional challenges against the law in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, where the case came before Judge Carlton W. Reeves, the same judge who ruled for plaintiffs in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage a few years earlier. He issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of H.B. 1523 on June 30, 2016, the day before it was to go into effect, finding that it would violate the 1st Amendment by establishing particular religious beliefs as part of the state’s law.  The plaintiffs also challenged it on Equal Protection grounds. Judge Reeves refused to stay his preliminary injunction, and so did the 5th Circuit.

The state appealed the grant of preliminary injunction to the 5th Circuit, where a unanimous three-judge panel ruled on June 22, 2017, that the district court did not have jurisdiction to issue the injunction because, according to the opinion by Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, none of the plaintiffs could show that they had suffered or were imminently likely to suffer a “concrete and particularized injury in fact,” which was necessary to confer the necessary “standing” to challenge the law in federal court.  In the absence of standing, he wrote, the preliminary injunction must be dissolved and the case dismissed.

The plaintiffs asked the full 5th Circuit to reconsider the ruling en banc, but the circuit judges voted 12-2 not to do so, announcing that result on September 29.  The dissenters, in an opinion by Judge James L. Dennis, bluntly stated that “the panel decision is wrong” and “misconstrues and misapplies the Establishment Clause precedent.”  Indeed, wrote Judge Dennis, “its analysis creates a conflict between our circuit and our sister circuits on the issue of Establishment Clause standing.”

Judge Dennis pressed home the point by citing numerous cases from other circuits which, he held, would support allowing the plaintiffs in this case to seek a preliminary injunction blocking the law from going into effect.  This gave hope to the plaintiffs that they might be able to get the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 5th Circuit, since one of the main criteria for the Supreme Court granting review is to resolve a split in authority between the circuit courts on important points of federal law.

However, on January 8 the Court denied the petitions the two plaintiff groups had filed, without any explanation or open dissent, leaving unresolved important questions about how and when people can mount a federal court challenge to a law of this sort. In the meantime, shortly after the 5th Circuit had denied reconsideration, H.B. 1523 went into effect on October 10.

A challenge to H.B. 1523 continues in the District Court before Judge Reeves, as new allegations by the plaintiffs require reconsideration of their standing and place in question, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2017 ruling, Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075, whether the law imposes unconstitutional burdens on LGBTQ people seeking to exercise their fundamental constitutional rights.

Two days after the Court announced it would not review the 5th Circuit ruling, the parties in Whitaker, 858 F. 3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017), involving the legal rights of transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, announced a settlement.  Under their agreement the school district will withdraw its cert petition.

The Supreme Court had been scheduled to hear a similar transgender student case last March, Gloucester County School Bd. v. G. G. ex rel. Grimm, but that case was dropped from the docket after the Trump Administration withdrew a Guidance on Title IX compliance that had been issued by the Obama Administration.  Since the 4th Circuit’s decision in Gavin Grimm’s case had been based on that Guidance rather than on a direct judicial interpretation of the statute, the Supreme Court vacated the 4th Circuit’s ruling and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration. See 137 S. Ct. 1239 (Mar. 6, 2017). That court, in turn, sent it back to the district court, which dismissed the case as moot since Grimm had graduated in the interim.

Ashton Whitaker is a transgender boy who graduated from Tremper High School in the Kenosha School District last June. His case would have given the Supreme Court a second chance to address the Title IX issue.  Whitaker transitioned while in high school and asked to be allowed to use the boys’ restroom facilities, but district officials told him that there was an unwritten policy restricting bathroom use based on biological sex.  He sued the district under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.  U.S. District Judge Panela Pepper (E.D. Wisconsin) issued a preliminary injunction on Whitaker’s behalf in September 2016, and refused to stay it pending appeal.  See 2016 WL 5239829 (Sept. 22, 2016).

On May 30, 2017, the 7th Circuit upheld Judge Pepper’s ruling, finding that even though the Trump Administration had withdrawn the prior Title IX Guidance, both Title IX and the 14th Amendment require the school to recognize Whitaker as a boy and to allow him to use boys’ restroom facilities.  The school district petitioned the Supreme Court on August 25 to review the 7th Circuit’s decision, even though Whitaker had graduated in June.

In the meantime, Judge Pepper ordered the parties to mediation to attempt a settlement. Whitaker’s graduation in June undoubtedly contributed to the pressure to settle, and the parties asked the Supreme Court several times to extend the deadline for Whitaker to file a formal response to the petition as the negotiations continued.  According to press reports on January 10, the case settled for $800,000 and an agreement that the district would withdraw its petition.

The settlement and withdrawal of the petition leaves the 7th Circuit’s opinion standing as the first federal circuit court ruling to hold on the merits that Title IX and the 14th Amendment require public schools to respect the gender identity of their students and to allow students to use sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity.  However, lacking a Supreme Court ruling on the point this decision is only binding in the three states of the 7th Circuit: Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, the same three states bound by another 7th Circuit last year holding that employment discrimination because of sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

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.