New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Posts Tagged ‘gender identity discrimination’

Court Recognizes Gender Dysphoria Discrimination Claims under Americans With Disabilities Act

Posted on: May 19th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

For the first time, a federal court has recognized that individuals suffering from gender dysphoria are entitled to protection against workplace discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law that requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ disabilities. The May 18 ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson, Jr., accepted an argument by attorneys for Kate Lynn Blatt, a transgender woman, that a provision in the ADA excluding protection for “gender identity disorders” should be narrowly construed to avoid a potential violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75665 (E.D. Pa.).

Blatt, who is also alleging sex discrimination by her employer, Cabela’s Retail, Inc., was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in October 2005. She alleges that her gender dysphoria “substantially limits one or more of her major life activities, including, but not limited to, interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational function.”   The ADA provides protection for people suffering from physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more of their major life activities.

Blatt claims that shortly after she was hired by Cabela’s in September 2006, she began to experience discrimination, culminating in her termination in February 2017. The court’s decision does not provide much factual detail, because it is narrowly focused on Cabela’s motion to dismiss the portion of Blatt’s complaint that relies on the ADA.

Part of the opposition to the ADA in Congress in 1990 focused on the possibility that the proposed law could be interpreted to prohibit discrimination against sexual minorities – gays, lesbian, bisexuals, and transgender people – on the theory that “abnormal” sexuality was a “disability” within the meaning of the statute. To combat this argument, the bill was amended to provide that “homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and as such are not disabilities under this Act.”  The provision goes on to say that the term “disability” “shall not include transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders.”  It also excludes protection for people afflicted by “compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania; or psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.”

This provision has long been considered to exclude any protection for transgender people related to their gender identity under the ADA. During the debate over the bill, it was made clear that this would not deny protection to transgender people who suffer from other disabling conditions, such as blindness, deafness and the like, not related to their gender identity.

Cabela’s asked the court to dismiss the two ADA counts of Blatt’s four-count complaint: failure to accommodate her gender dysphoria, and retaliation against her for reporting discrimination and requesting accommodations for her disability. Cabela’s argued that because of the exclusionary provision, any claim related to Blatt’s gender identity was excluded from coverage.  Cabela’s was not seeking in this motion to dismiss Blatt’s sex discrimination claims under Title VII.

Blatt’s attorneys countered with the argument that denying protection for a disability without a rational justification would violate Blatt’s right to equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment, but that the court could avoid having to consider the constitutionality of the statute by interpreting it to cover Blatt’s claims.

Judge Leesom accepted Blatt’s argument, finding that there is a “fairly possible” interpretation of the exclusionary provision, “namely, one in which the term gender identity disorders is read narrowly to refer to only the condition of identifying with a different gender, not to encompass (and therefore exclude from ADA protection) a condition like Blatt’s gender dysphoria, which goes beyond merely identifying with a different gender and is characterized by clinically significant stress and other impairments that may be disabling.”

Leesom breaks down the text of the exclusion into “two distinct categories: first, non-disabling conditions that concern sexual orientation or identity, and second, disabling conditions that are associated with harmful or illegal conduct. If the term gender identity disorders were understood, as Cabela’s suggests, to encompass disabling conditions such as Blatt’s gender dysphoria, then the term would occupy an anomalous place in the statute, as it would exclude from the ADA conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct.  But under the alternative, narrower interpretation of the term, this anomaly would be resolved, as the term gender identity disorders would belong to the first category described above.”

The judge found that this interpretation was consistent with controlling precedents in the 3rd Circuit, which covers the federal courts in Pennsylvania.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has endorsed the view that the ADA, as “a remedial statute, designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society, must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.”  This requires a narrow reading of any exclusionary provisions.  This is also consistent with 2008 Amendments to the ADA that emphasized the Congressional purpose to allow a liberal interpretation of the concept of disability so as to provide maximum protection against unjustified workplace discrimination.

Leesom held that because a narrow interpretation of the exclusionary provision would avoid raising the constitutional equal protection question, it was his “duty to adopt it,” and the motion to dismiss should be denied.

This ruling does not necessarily mean that Blatt will ultimately win her case, but it will remove the employer’s argument that her case cannot be brought under the ADA.   Even if she had lost this motion and suffered dismissal of her ADA claim, Blatt could still litigate a sex discrimination claim, as the 3rd Circuit has accepted the argument that anti-transgender discrimination may be attacked as sex discrimination under Title VII by using the sex-stereotype theory that was approved by the Supreme Court in 1989 in the Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case.  But finding ADA coverage is very important, because that statute imposes a duty of reasonable accommodation to enable an employee with disabilities to work, while Title VII does not impose any gender-related accommodation requirements other than, arguably, some accommodation to pregnancy and childbirth.  The ADA also has provisions governing medical testing and confidentiality of medical information, which may be useful for individuals dealing with gender dysphoria as well.

Blatt is represented by Sidney L. Gold, a Philadelphia lawyer, with assistance from the Civil Justice Clinic of Quinnipiac University School of Law, as well as Neelima Vanguri, an attorney at Gold’s law firm.

New Jersey Appellate Division Defines Standard for Hostile Environment Claim by Transgender Detainee Against Police Officers

Posted on: April 29th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New Jersey Appellate Division rejected a municipality’s contention that the standard for determining a hostile environment for employment discrimination purposes should be the same as the standard for determining a hostile environment claim in the context of public accommodations, particularly when the accommodation at issue is the county jail and the alleged harassers are police officers dealing with a transgender arrestee. Holmes v. Jersey City Police Department, 2017 WL 1507189 (April 27, 2017).

Plaintiff Shakeem Malik Holmes, who identifies as a transgender man, was arrested for shoplifting and transported to a police station, where he contends that he was subjected to hostile treatment because of his gender identity. He was placed into a “female-only jail cell” and was “categorized as female for security purposes within the jail facilities,” but that was not the basis for this hostile treatment claim asserted under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD).  The LAD identifies gender identity as a prohibited ground for discrimination in places of public accommodation, and the court notes that the defendant was not contesting the assertion that the jail was a place of public accommodation subject to the statute.

Holmes’ claim rests on his allegation that “police officers made demeaning, insulting and threatening comments about his transgender status,” wrote Judge Susan L. Reisner for the Appellate Division.  “Specifically, he alleges that several officers referred to plaintiff as ‘it,’ referred to plaintiff’s situation as ‘bullshit,’ and stated ‘so that’s a fucking girl?’  He also asserts that one of the officers threatened to put his fist down plaintiff’s throat ‘like a fucking man.’”

The trial judge, relying on Heitzman v. Monmouth County, 321 N.J. Super. 133 (App. Div. 1999), concluded that rude and insensitive comments “did not rise to the level of severe or pervasive LAD violations” and granted summary judgement to the defendants.

The “severe or pervasive” standard is normally applied to determine whether verbal harassment can create a hostile workplace environment for purposes of an employment discrimination case. But this case concerns treatment in a jail, not workplace harassment.

“In this case,” wrote Reisner, “the inquiry is whether plaintiff’s allegations, if true, could support a hostile environment claim under the LAD. We find that they could, and that plaintiff is therefore entitled to present his claim to a jury.  In reaching that conclusion, we consider that plaintiff, as an arrestee temporarily incarcerated in the police station, was in a uniquely vulnerable position; that the individuals making the hostile comments were police officers, who wield tremendous power over arrestees; and that the comments included a physical threat.  Under all the circumstances, a jury could find that the conduct was sufficiently severe that a reasonable transgender person in plaintiff’s position would find the environment to be hostile, threatening and demeaning.”

The court pointed out that the Heitzman case on which the trial judge in Hudson County relied, which apparently required a higher evidentiary standard for hostile environment workplace claims based on religion than for those based on race, “was overruled, in pertinent part, by Cutler v. Dorn, 196 N.J. 419 (2008), where the Court ‘unequivocally rejected the higher proof standard.’”

And further, she pointed out, the Appellate Division has recognized that “the prohibition of discrimination in relation to public accommodation is functionally distinct from the ban on employment discrimination” and that “in the context of public accommodation discrimination, hostile comments that might not suffice to create a hostile environment in a work context may nonetheless violate the LAD.”

The court also distinguished a case involving a student being harassed by fellow students, observing that in Holmes’ case the harassment came from police officers, analogous to teachers, not from fellow inmates, who would be analogous in some sense to other students. “Here, the comments were not made by school children, or by plaintiff’s peers.  They were made by police officers, in a position of authority over plaintiff, who was their prisoner.  In those circumstances, the impact of threatening and harassing conduct may be magnified, even if it only occurs on one day.  Moreover, while a certain amount of strong language may be expected in teh confines of a police department, defendant has not suggested that its personnel have any operational need to threaten, demean or humiliate prisoners on the basis of their gender affiliation or membership in any other protected class.  In fact, such conduct may encourage other prisoners to attack the harassment victim, thus undermining the orderly operation of the police lock-up as well as the safety of the transgender prisoner.”

Thus, summary judgment in favor of the defendants should have been denied, and the case was remanded for trial on Holmes’ hostile environment claim.

Holmes is represented by Deborah L. Mains of Costello & Mains.

Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law

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

Arthur S. Leonard, Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law, New York Law School, April 26, 2017

A Battle Over Statutory Interpretation: Title VII and Claims of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

I feel particularly honored to have my name associated with that of United States Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr., NYLS Class of 1900, a hero of the New Deal whose legislative leadership gave us such important achievements as the National Labor Relations Act – commonly known among labor law practitioners as the Wagner Act – and the Social Security Act — laws that have shaped our nation for generations.   Senator Wagner was an immigrant who made an indelible mark on the United States. I hope that in some small way I have made a contribution that makes this named chair fitting.

I decided to select a topic for this talk that would bring together the two major areas of my teaching and scholarship: labor and employment law, and sexuality law. These intersect in the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination against an individual because of his or her sex, will be open to claims by job applicants and workers that they have suffered discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are at a decisive point in the judicial battle over that question, having achieved just weeks ago the breakthrough of our first affirmative appellate ruling on the sexual orientation question, following several years of encouraging developments on the gender identity question.

To understand the significance of this, we have to go back more than half a century, to the period after World War II when the modern American gay rights movement began stirring with the protests of recent military veterans against unequal benefits treatment, with the formation of pioneering organizations like the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and New York and The Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco, and with the vital behind-the-scenes work undertaken by gay scholars as the great law reform effort of the Model Penal Code was being launched by the American Law Institute. That postwar period of the late 1940s and 1950s played out alongside the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, for which the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a signal achievement.

The early gay rights advocacy groups had their lists of goals, and some kind of protection against discrimination was prominent among them, but that task seemed monumental, at a time when there was no federal statute prohibiting employment discrimination of any kind. Until Illinois adopted the Model Penal Code in 1960, which effectively repealed criminal sanctions for private consensual gay sex, it was a crime in every state; a serious felony with long prison sentences in many. President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order shortly after taking office banning the employment of “homosexuals” and “sexual perverts” in the federal civil service. A major immigration law passed during the 1950s for the first time barred homosexuals from immigrating to the U.S. and qualifying for citizenship by labeling us as being “afflicted by psychopathic personality,” making us excludable on medical grounds. The military barred gay people from serving on similar grounds, and many lines of work that required state licensing and determinations of moral fitness systematically excluded LGBT people. To be an ‘openly gay’ lawyer or doctor was virtually unthinkable in the 1950s and on into the 1960s.

When Congress was considering the landmark civil rights bill, first introduced during the Kennedy Administration and shepherded into law by Lyndon Johnson, the idea that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people might seek or obtain assistance rather than condemnation from Congress seemed a pipe dream. None of the legislators involved with the bill proposed protecting members of these groups from discrimination. Title VII, the provision of the bill dealing with employment discrimination, was limited in its original form to discrimination because of race or color, religion, or national origin. A floor amendment, introduced by Howard Smith of Virginia, a conservative Southern Democrat who was opposed to the bill, proposed to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds for discrimination. The amendment carried, the bill passed, and it went to the Senate where it was held up by one of the longest filibusters in history – at a time when filibusters involved unbroken floor debate by the opponents of a pending measure, with no vote on the merits until the Chamber was thoroughly exhausted and no opponent could be found to continue speaking. The leadership of the Senate, trying to avoid having the bill bottled up in committees headed by conservative senior Southern senators, had sent the bill direct to the floor with a tight limit on amendments. Thus committee reports that would have provided a source of legislative history on the meaning of “sex” in the bill are missing. The only floor amendment relating to the addition of “sex” to Title VII was to clarify that pay practices that were authorized under the Equal Pay Act, which had been passed the year before, would not be held to violate Title VII. The statute contained no definition of “sex,” and in the early years after its passage, the general view, held by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was that the ban on sex discrimination simply prohibited employers from treating women worse than men – with little agreement about what that meant. In fact, in an early interpretive foray, the Supreme Court decided that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination against women because they became pregnant. The resulting public outcry inspired Congress to amend the statute to make clear that discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy or childbirth was considered to be discrimination because of sex.

Early attempts by gay or transgender people to pursue discrimination claims under Title VII all failed. The EEOC and the courts agreed that protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or transgender status was not intended by Congress. They embraced a literalistic “plain language” interpretation of Title VII, including a narrow biological understanding of sex.

But something began to happen as the courts considered a wider variety of sex discrimination claims. It became clear that a simplistic concept of sex would not be adequate to achieve the goal of equality of opportunity in the workplace. Legal theorists had been advancing the concept of a “hostile environment” as a form of discrimination, first focusing on the open hostility that many white workers showed to black, Latino and Asian workers in newly-integrated workplaces. During the 1970s the courts began to expand that concept to women who experienced hostility in formerly all-male workplaces as well. Lower federal courts were divided about whether such “atmospherics” of the workplace could be considered terms or conditions of employment when they didn’t directly involve refusals to hire or differences in pay or work assignments. Finally the Supreme Court broke that deadlock in 1986, holding in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that a woman who experienced workplace hostility so severe that it could be said to affect her terms and conditions of employment would have a sex discrimination claim under Title VII, and subsequent cases clarified that the plaintiff did not have to show a tangible injury, although a finding that working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit would clearly meet the test of a hostile environment. Some courts began to extend this reasoning to complaints by men, in situations where male co-workers subjected them to verbal and even physical harassment.

The Court also began to grapple with the problem of sex stereotypes, and how easily employers and co-workers could fall into stereotyped thinking to the disadvantage of minorities and women. Stereotypes about young mothers’ ability to balance work and home obligations, stereotypes about the ability of women to do physically challenging working, stereotypes about female longevity and the costs of retirement plans – all of these issues came before the Court and ultimately led it to expand the concept of sex discrimination more broadly than legislators of the mid-1960s might have imagined.

The key stereotyping case for building a theory of protection for sexual minorities was decided in 1989 – Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins’ bid for partnership was denied because some partners of the firm considered her inadequately feminine. They embraced a stereotype about how a woman partner was supposed to look and behave. Hopkins, with her loud and abrasive manner and appearance, failed to conform to that stereotype. Communicating the firm’s decision to pass over her partnership application, the head of her office told her she could improve her chances for the next round by dressing more femininely, walking more femininely, toning down her speech, wearing make-up and jewelry, having her hair styled. Her substantial contributions to the firm and her leadership in generating new business counted for little, when decision-makers decided she was inadequately feminine to meet their expectations. In an opinion by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., the Court accepted Hopkins’ argument that allowing such considerations to affect the partnership decision could be evidence of a prohibited discriminatory motivation under Title VII. The Court’s opinion embraced the idea that discrimination because of “gender,” not just discrimination because of biological sex, came within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition. The statutory policy included wiping away gender stereotypes that created barriers to equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

Although Ann Hopkins was not a lesbian and nothing was said about homosexuality in her case, the implications of the ruling became obvious over time as federal courts dealt with a variety of stereotyping claims. A person who suffered discrimination because she did not appear or act the way people expected a woman to appear or act was protected, and that sounded to lots of people like a description of discrimination against transgender people and some – but perhaps not all – lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The argument seemed particularly strong when an employer discriminated against a person who was hired appearing and acting as a man and then began to transition to living life as a woman.

At the same time, legal academics had begun to publish theoretical arguments supporting the idea that discrimination against gay people was a form of sex discrimination. Among the earliest were Professor Sylvia Law of New York University, whose 1988 article in the Wisconsin Law Review, titled “Homosexuality and the Social Meaning of Gender,” suggested that anti-gay discrimination was about “preserving traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Law’s pioneering work was quickly followed by the first of many articles by Andrew Koppelman, first in a student note he published in the Yale Law Journal in 1988 titled “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination,” later in his 1994 article in the New York University Law Review titled “Why Discrimination Against Lesbians and Gay Men is Sex Discrimination.” Both Koppelman, now a professor at Northwestern University, and Law proposed theoretical arguments for treating anti-gay discrimination as sex discrimination.

Seizing upon the Price Waterhouse precedent, transgender people and gay people began to succeed in court during the 1990s by arguing that their failure to conform to gender stereotypes was the reason they were denied hiring or continued employment, desirable assignments or promotions. A strange dynamic began to grow in the courts, as judges repeated, over and over again, that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as such, but that it did prohibit discrimination against a person because of his or her failure to conform to gender stereotypes and expectations, regardless of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation. Many of the courts insisted, however, that there was one gender stereotype that could not be the basis of a Title VII claim – that men should be attracted only to women, and women should be attracted only to men. To allow a plaintiff to assert such a claim would dissolve the line that courts were trying to preserve between sex stereotyping claims and sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims. Decades of past precedents stood in the way of acknowledging the unworkability of that line.

Ten years after the Price Waterhouse decision, the Supreme Court decided another sex discrimination case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, with an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia that helped to fuel the broadening interpretation of Title VII. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a man who is subjected to workplace harassment of a sexual nature by other men could not bring a hostile environment sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The court of appeals reasoned that Congress intended in 1964 to prohibit discrimination against women because they were women or men because they were men, and that such a limited intent could not encompass claims of same-sex harassment, which would be beyond the expectations of the legislators who passed that law. In reversing this ruling, Justice Scalia, who was generally skeptical about the use of legislative history to interpret statutes, wrote for the Court that the interpretation of Title VII was not restricted to the intentions of the 1964 Congress. While conceding that same-sex harassment was not one of the “evils” that Congress intended to attack by passing Title VII, he wrote:

“Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed. Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex in employment. This must extend to sex-based discrimination of any kind that meets the statutory requirements.”

Thus, as our collective, societal understanding of sex, gender, sexuality, identity and orientation broadens, our concept of sex discrimination as prohibited by Title VII also broadens. With the combined force of Price Waterhouse and Oncale, some federal courts began to push the boundaries even further during the first decade of the 21st century.

By the time the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2012 in Macy v. Holder, a federal sector sex discrimination case, that a transgender plaintiff could pursue a Title VII claim against a division of the Justice Department, its opinion could cite a multitude of federal court decisions in support of that conclusion, including two Title VII decisions by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals involving public safety workers who were transitioning, and a 2011 ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that a Georgia state agency’s discrimination against an employee because she was transitioning violated the Equal Protection Clause as sex discrimination. There were also federal appellate rulings to similar effect under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Violence against Women Act, as well as numerous trial court rulings under Title VII. So the EEOC was following the trend, not necessarily leading the parade, when it found that discrimination against a person because of their gender identity was a form of sex discrimination.

After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, striking down a state sodomy law under the 14th Amendment, and further rulings in 2013 and 2015 in the Windsor and Obergefell cases, leading to a national right to marry for same-sex couples, the persistence by many courts in asserting that Title VII did not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination appeared increasingly archaic. Just weeks after the Obergefell decision, the EEOC issued another landmark ruling in July 2015, David Baldwin v. Anthony Foxx, reversing half a century of EEOC precedent and holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims were “necessarily” sex discrimination claims covered by Title VII. The Commission ruled that a gay air traffic controller could bring a Title VII claim against the Department of Transportation, challenging its refusal to hire him for a full-time position at the Miami air traffic control center because of his sexual orientation.

Building on the Price Waterhouse, Oncale and Macy decisions, the EEOC embraced several alternative theories to support this ruling. One was the now well-established proposition that an employer may not rely on “sex-based considerations” or “take gender into account” when making employment decisions, unless sex was a bona fide occupational qualification – a narrow statutory exception that is rarely relevant to a sexual orientation or gender identity case.

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms,” wrote the EEOC. “Sexual orientation as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex. Sexual orientation is inseparable from and inescapably linked to sex and, therefore, allegations of sexual orientation discrimination involve sex-based considerations.” By the summer of 2015, the agency was able to cite several federal trial court decisions applying these concepts in particular cases.

Another theory was based on the associational discrimination theory. Courts had increasingly accepted the argument that discrimination against a person because he or she was in an interracial relationship was discrimination because of race. The analogy was irresistible: Discriminating against somebody because they are in a same-sex relationship must be sex discrimination, because it involved taking the employee’s sex into account. Denying a job because a man is partnered with a man rather than with a woman means that his sex, as well as his partner’s sex, was taken into account by the employer in making the decision.

Finally, the Commission embraced the stereotyping theory that some courts had refused to fully embrace: that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily involves discrimination based on gender stereotypes, not just those involving appearance, mannerisms, grooming, or speech, but also stereotypes about appropriate sexual attractions. Quoting a Massachusetts federal trial court ruling, the agency wrote, “Sexual orientation discrimination and harassment are often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms. . . The harasser may discriminate against an openly gay co-worker, or a co-worker that he perceives to be gay, whether effeminate or not, because he thinks, ‘real’ men should date women, and not other men.” Professor Law’s theoretical proposition of 1988 was now surfacing in court and agency rulings a quarter century later.

The EEOC also rejected the view that adopting this expanded definition of sex discrimination required new congressional action, pointing out that the courts had been expanding the definition of sex discrimination under Title VII continually since the 1970s, with minimal intervention or assistance from Congress.

Since 2015 the issue of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII has risen to the level of the circuit courts of appeals. In most of the circuits, there are precedents dating back decades holding that sexual orientation claims may not be litigated under Title VII. These precedents are softened in some circuits that have accept discrimination claims from gay men or lesbians who plausibly asserted that their visible departure from gender stereotypes provoked discrimination against them. But many of these appeals courts have strained to draw a line between the former and the latter, and have rejected stereotyping claims where they perceived them as attempts to “bootstrap” a sexual orientation claim into Title VII territory.

Ironically, one judge who emphatically rejected such a case several years ago with the bootstrapping objection, Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit, is the author of a concurring opinion in this new round of circuit court rulings in which he argues that it is legitimate for federal courts to “update” statutes without waiting for Congress in order to bring them into line with current social trends. This was part of the 7th Circuit’s en banc ruling in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, the April 4, 2017, decision that is the first by a federal appeals court to embrace all aspects of the EEOC’s Baldwin decision and hold that a lesbian could pursue a sexual orientation claim under Title VII. Posner’s argument echoes one made decades ago by Guido Calabresi, then a professor at Yale, now a judge on the 2nd Circuit, in a series of lectures published as a book titled “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” in which he argued that legislative inertia would justify courts in updating old statutes to meet contemporary needs. Although Posner did not cite Calabresi’s book, his argument is much the same. He quoted both Justice Scalia’s statement from Oncale and an earlier iteration of similar sentiments in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from 1920, in which Holmes wrote: “The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago.”

The federal circuit courts follow the rule that when a three-judge panel of the circuit interprets a statute, it creates a binding circuit precedent which can be reversed only by the full bench of the court in an en banc ruling, or by the Supreme Court, or by Congress changing the statute. The Hively ruling reversed a three-judge panel decision that had rejected the plaintiff’s Title VII claim based on prior circuit precedents. The vote was 8-3. Incidentally, 5 of the judges in the 8-member majority were appointees of Republican presidents. The employer in that case quickly announced that it would not seek Supreme Court review, but this ruling creates a split among the circuit courts, so it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court receives a petition asking for a definitive interpretation of Title VII on this question.

The 7th Circuit opinion by Chief Judge Diane Wood accepted all of the EEOC’s theories from the Baldwin decision. Judge Wood concluded that “it would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’” “We hold that a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.”

Dissenting Judge Diane Sykes criticized the majority for deploying “a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.” Here the battle is joined. For the majority, it is appropriate to trace the development of case law over decades, treating the concept of sex discrimination as evolving. For Judge Posner, concurring, it is legitimate for the court to set aside the pretense of ordinary interpretation and to “update” an old statute to reflect contemporary understandings. And for Judge Sykes, these are both illegitimate because it violates the division of authority between the legislature and the courts to adopt an “interpretation” that would be outside the understanding of the legislators who enacted the statute.

Now the scenario is playing out in other circuits. In recent weeks, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit and the New York-based 2nd Circuit have issued panel rulings refusing to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII. The panels did not consider the issue afresh and decided to reaffirm the old rulings on the merits, but rather asserted that they were powerless to do so because of the existing circuit precedents. In both of the cases decided in March, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital and Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, the panels sent the cases back to the trial court to see whether they could be litigated as sex stereotyping cases instead of sexual orientation cases. But one judge dissented in the 11th Circuit, arguing that an old pre-Price Waterhouse precedent should not longer be treated as binding. The 2nd Circuit panel rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that because the gay plaintiff’s complaint included evidence that his treatment was tainted by homophobia he could not assert a sex stereotyping claim, and two members of the panel wrote a concurring opinion virtually accepting the EEOC’s view of the matter and suggesting that the circuit should reconsider the issue en banc.. In both cases, the panels took the position that sex stereotyping claims could be evaluated without reference to the sexual orientation of the plaintiff. And, in both of these cases, lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking the circuits to convene en banc benches to reconsider the issue, as a preliminary to seeking possible review in the Supreme Court. A different 2nd Circuit panel has also issued a ruling where sex stereotyping of the sort that is actionable in the 2nd Circuit is not part of the case, and counsel in that case is also filing a petition for en banc review.

One or more of these petitions is likely to be granted. While we may see more en banc rulings in favor of allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims, at some point a new circuit split may develop, leading inevitably to the Supreme Court. Or the issue could get to the Supreme Court by an employer seeking further review, since older rulings in other circuits still present the kind of circuit splits that the Supreme Court tries to resolve.

That leads to the highly speculative game of handicapping potential Supreme Court rulings. Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation restores the ideological balance that existed before Justice Scalia’s death. The Court as then constituted decided the historic same-sex marriage cases, Windsor and Obergefell, with Justice Kennedy, a Republican appointee, writing for the Court in both cases, as well as in earlier gay rights victories, Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. These opinions suggest a degree of empathy for gay litigants that might lead Kennedy to embrace an expansive interpretation of Title VII. He is part of a generation of appellate judges appointed by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s who made up half of the majority in the recent 7th Circuit ruling: Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Joel Flaum, and Kenneth Ripple. Another member of that majority, Ilana Rovner, was appointed by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. This line-up underlies optimism that Kennedy might join with the Clinton and Obama appointees on the Supreme Court to produce a five-judge majority to embrace the EEOC’s interpretation. Such optimism may also draw on Kennedy’s decisive rejection of the argument that legal rules are frozen at the time of their adoption and not susceptible to new interpretations in response to evolving social understandings. This was the underlying theme of his opinions in the four major gay rights decisions.

Since the 1970s supporters of gay rights have introduced bills in Congress to amend the federal civil rights laws to provide explicit protection for LGBT people. None of those attempts has succeeded to date. If the judicial battle reaches a happy conclusion, those efforts might be rendered unnecessary, although there is always a danger in statutory law of Congress overruling through amendment, but that seems unlikely unless the Republicans attain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

On that optimistic note, I conclude with thanks for your attention, and I am happy to answer questions now.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge, concurring:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S. Nye, “Famous”:

The river is famous to the fish.

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

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

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court Will Not Decide Transgender Title IX Case This Term

Posted on: March 7th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court will not decide this term whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and an Education Department regulation, 34 C.F.R. Section 106.33, require schools that receive federal money to allow transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., No. 16-273 (Summary Disposition, March 6, 2017).  Title IX states that schools may not discriminate because of sex if they get federal money, and the regulation allows schools to provide separate restroom and locker room facilities for boys and girls so long as they are “equal.”

Responding to a February 22 letter from the Trump Administration, advising the Court that the Education and Justice Departments had “withdrawn” two federal agency letters issued during the Obama Administration interpreting the statute and regulation to require allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, the Court announced on March 6 that it was “vacating” the decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, which it had previously agreed to review, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit for “further consideration in light of the guidance document issued by the Department of Education and Department of Justice.”  The case had been scheduled for argument on March 28.

This result was not unexpected, although both parties in the case, Grimm and the Gloucester County, Virginia, School District, had asked the Court to keep the case on the docket and decide whether Title IX and the bathroom regulation required the district to let Grimm use boys’ restrooms at the high school. Represented by the ACLU LGBT Rights Project, Grimm urged the Court to hold the previously scheduled hearing.  The school district urged the Court to delay the hearing, in order to give the Trump Administration an opportunity to weigh in formally, but then to hear and decide the case.  Had the Court granted the school district’s request, the case might have been argued before the end of the Court’s current term or delayed to next fall.

The case dates back to 2015, when Grimm and his mother had met with school administrators during the summer prior to his sophomore year to tell them about his gender transition and they had agreed to let him use the boys’ restrooms, which he did for several weeks with no problems. Complaints by parents led the school board to adopt a resolution requiring students to use restrooms consistent with the sex indicated on their birth certificates – so-called “biological sex” – regardless of their gender identity.  The school also provided an alternative, unacceptable to Grimm, of using a single-user restroom that he found inconvenient and stigmatizing.

Grimm sued the school district, alleging a violation of his rights under Title IX and the 14th Amendment. The Education Department sent a letter at the request of the ACLU informing the district court that the Department interpreted Title IX and the bathroom regulation as “generally” requiring schools to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Following the lead of several federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreting other federal statutes that forbid sex discrimination, the Obama Administration took the position that laws against sex discrimination protect people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

The district judge, Robert Doumar, rejected the Obama Administration’s interpretation and granted the school district’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim on September 17, 2015 (132 F. Supp. 3d 736), while reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim that the policy violated his right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.  Doumar opined that when adopting Title IX in 1972, Congress had not intended to forbid gender identity discrimination, notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s more recent interpretation of the statute.

The ACLU appealed Doumar’s ruling to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit, where a three-judge panel voted 2-1 on April 19, 2016 (822 F.3d 709), to reverse Judge Doumar’s decision.  The panel, applying a Supreme Court precedent called the Auer Doctrine, held that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the bathroom regulation because the regulation was ambiguous as to how transgender students should be accommodated and the court considered the Obama Administration’s interpretation to be “reasonable.”  A dissenting judge agreed with Judge Doumar that Title IX did not forbid the school district’s policy. The panel voted 2-1 to deny the school district’s motion for rehearing by the full 4th Circuit bench on May 31 (824 F.3d 450).

Shortly after the 4th Circuit issued its decision, the Education and Justice Departments sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school administrators nationwide, advising them that the government would interpret Title IX to protect transgender students and providing detailed guidance on compliance with that requirement.  The letter informed recipients that failure to comply might subject them to Education Department investigations and possible loss of eligibility for federal funding.  This letter stirred up a storm of protest led by state officials in Texas, who filed a lawsuit joined by ten other states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation as inappropriate.  Subsequently another lawsuit was filed in Nebraska by state officials joined by several other states making the same argument.

Judge Doumar reacted quickly to the 4th Circuit’s reversal of his ruling, issuing a preliminary injunction on June 23 requiring the school district to allow Grimm to use boys’ restrooms while the case proceeded on the merits (2016 WL 3581852).  The 4th Circuit panel voted on July 12 to deny the school district’s motion to stay the preliminary injunction, but on August 3 the Supreme Court granted an emergency motion by the school district to stay the injunction while the district petitioned the Supreme Court to review the 4th Circuit’s decision (136 S. Ct. 2442).

It takes five votes on the Supreme Court to grant a stay of a lower court ruling pending appeal. Usually the Court issues no written opinion explaining why it is granting a stay.  In this case, however, Justice Stephen Breyer issued a one-paragraph statement explaining that he had voted for the stay as a “courtesy,” citing an earlier case in which the conservative justices (then numbering five) had refused to extend such a “courtesy” and grant a stay of execution to a death row inmate in a case presenting a serious 8th Amendment challenge to his death sentence.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicated that they would have denied the motion, so all four of the conservative justices had voted for the stay.  Since it takes five votes to grant a stay but only four votes to grant a petition for certiorari (a request to the Court to review a lower court decision), it was clear to all the justices that the school district’s subsequent petition for review would be granted, and it was, in part, on October 28 (137 S. Ct. 369).

Meanwhile, however, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Wichita Falls, Texas, had granted a “nationwide” preliminary injunction later in August in the Texas case challenging the Obama Administration guidance, blocking federal agencies from undertaking any new investigations or initiating any new cases involving gender identity discrimination claims under Title IX. Texas v. United States, 2016 WL 4426495 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 21, 2016).  The Obama Administration filed an appeal with the Houston-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to cut down the scope of O’Connor’s injunction to cover just the states that had joined that lawsuit, pending litigation on the merits in that case.

The Gloucester school district’s petition for certiorari asked the Supreme Court to consider three questions: whether its doctrine of deferral to agency interpretations of regulations should be abandoned; whether, assuming the doctrine was retained, it should be applied in the case of an “unpublished” letter submitted by the agency in response to a particular lawsuit, and finally whether the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and the regulation were correct.  The Court agreed only to address the second and third questions.

Donald Trump was elected a week later. During the election campaign, he stated that he would be revoking Obama Administration executive orders and administrative actions, so the election quickly led to speculation that the Gloucester County case would be affected by the new administration’s actions, since the Guidance had been subjected to strong criticism by Republicans.  This seemed certain after Trump announced that he would nominate Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be Attorney General, as Sessions has a long history of opposition to LGBT rights.  The announcement that Trump would nominate Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education fueled the speculation further, since her family was notorious for giving substantial financial support to anti-LGBT organizations.  It seemed unlikely that the Obama Administration’s Title IX Guidance would survive very long in a Trump Administration.

The other shoe dropped on February 22, just days before the deadline for submission of amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs on behalf of Gavin Grimm.   The Solicitor General’s office had not filed a brief in support of the school district at the earlier deadline, and there had been hope that the government would file a brief on behalf of Grimm or just stay out of the case.  According to numerous press reports, Secretary DeVos, who reportedly does not share her family’s anti-gay sentiments, had not wanted to withdraw the Guidance, but Attorney General Sessions insisted that the Obama Administration letters should be withdrawn, and Trump sided with Sessions in a White House showdown over the issue.

The February 22 “Dear Colleagues” letter was curiously contradictory, however. While announcing that the prior letters were “withdrawn” and their interpretation would not be followed by the government, the letter did not take a position directly on whether Title IX applied to gender identity discrimination claims.  Instead, it said that further study was needed on the Title IX issue, while asserting that the question of bathroom access should be left to states and local school boards and that schools were still obligated by Title IX not to discriminate against any students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The letter was seemingly an attempt to compromise between DeVos’s position against bullying and discrimination and Sessions’ opposition to a broad reading of Title IX to encompass gender identity discrimination claims.  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the question of Title IX’s interpretation was still being considered by the administration.

In any event, the Obama Administration interpretation to which the 4th Circuit panel had deferred was clearly no longer operative, effectively rendering moot the first question on which the Supreme Court had granted review.  Although the parties urged the Court to continue with the case and address the second question, it was not surprising that the Court decided not to do so.

The usual role of the Supreme Court is to decide whether to affirm or reverse a ruling on the merits of a case by the lower court. In this case, however, the 4th Circuit had not issued a ruling on the merits as such, since the basis for its ruling was deference to an administrative interpretation.  The 4th Circuit held that the Obama Administration’s interpretation was “reasonable,” but not that it was the only correct interpretation of the regulation or the statute.  The only ruling on the merits in the case so far is Judge Doumar’s original 2015 ruling that Grimm’s complaint failed to state a valid claim under Title IX.  Thus, it was not particularly surprising that the Supreme Court would reject the parties’ request to hear and decide the issue of interpretation of Title IX, and instead to send it back to the 4th Circuit to reconsider in light of the February 22 letter.  The Court usually grants review because there are conflicting rulings in the courts of appeals that need to be resolved. Here there are no such conflicting rulings under Title IX and the bathroom regulation, since the only other decisions on this question are by federal trial courts.

After issuing its February 22 letter, the Justice Department abandoned its appeal of the scope of Judge O’Connor’s preliminary injunction in the Texas case and asked the 5th Circuit to cancel a scheduled argument, which it did.  Furthermore, withdrawal of the Obama Administration Guidance rendered the Texas v. U.S. case moot, since the relief sought by the plaintiffs was a declaration that the Guidance was invalid, so Judge O’Connor will dissolve his injunction and the case will be withdrawn, as will be the Nebraska case.

In the meantime, there are several other relevant cases pending. The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit and the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit will be considering appeals from district court rulings on transgender student rights from Ohio and Pennsylvania, there are cases pending before trial courts elsewhere, and there are multiple lawsuits pending challenging North Carolina’s H.B. 2, which among other things mandates that transgender people in that state use public restrooms consistent with their birth certificates.  One case challenging H.B. 2 was filed by the Obama Justice Department and may be abandoned by the Trump Administration.  But the 4th Circuit is shortly to hear arguments on an appeal filed by three transgender plaintiffs who are students or staff members at the University of North Carolina, who won a preliminary injunction when the trial judge in their case, filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, deferred to the Obama Administration Guidance as required by the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Grimm’s case, but declined to rule on the plaintiffs’ claim that H.B. 2 also violated their constitutional rights.  Carcano v. McCrory, 2016 WL 4508192 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 26, 2016). The appeal is focused on their constitutional claim and their argument that the preliminary injunction, which was narrowly focused on the three of them, should have been broadly applied to all transgender people affected by H.B. 2.  The case pending in the 3rd Circuit also focuses on the constitutional claim, as a trial judge in Pittsburgh ruled that a western Pennsylvania school district violated the 14th Amendment by adopting a resolution forbidding three transgender high school students from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26767, 2017 WL 770619 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2017).

Meanwhile, Gavin Grimm is scheduled to graduate at the end of this spring semester, which may moot his case since he was seeking injunctive relief to allow him to use the boys’ restrooms, unless the court is convinced that a live controversy still exists because the school district’s policy continues in effect and will still prevent Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms if he come to the school to attend alumni events.

It seems likely that whatever happens next in the Gavin Grimm case, the issue of transgender people and their access to gender-identity-consistent public facilities will continue to be litigated in many federal courts in the months ahead, and may be back to the Supreme Court soon, perhaps as early as its 2017-18 Term. By then, the Court is likely to be back to a five-member conservative majority, assuming the Senate either confirms Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch or, if that stalls, another conservative nominee.  It is even possible that Trump may have a second vacancy to fill before this issue gets back to the Court, in which case the plaintiffs may face very long odds against success.

 

 

Federal Court Awards Preliminary Restroom Access Relief to Transgender Students on Their Constitutional Claim

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Switching the focus from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution, U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak of the Western District of Pennsylvania awarded a preliminary injunction on February 27 to three transgender high school students represented by Lambda Legal who are challenging a school board resolution that bars them from using sex-segregated restrooms that are consistent with their gender identities. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, Civil No. 2:16-01537.

Acknowledging the Trump Administration’s February 22 action withdrawing two letters sent by the U.S. Education Department during the Obama Administration on the subject of transgender restroom access under Title IX as well as the pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (certiorari granted October 28, 2016), a Title IX claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia, against his school district, in which that Court granted the school district’s request to stay a preliminary injunction issued by the district court (see 136 S. Ct. 2442 (Aug. 3, 2016)), Judge Hornak wrote that he “cannot conclude that the path to relief sought by the Plaintiffs under Title IX is at the moment sufficiently clear that they have a reasonable likelihood of success on that claim.”  A “reasonable likelihood” finding is a prerequisite to issuing preliminary relief.

On the other hand, Hornak concluded that the plaintiffs did have such a path under the Equal Protection Clause and decided to blaze a new trail on this issue, in which prior courts have focused their attention almost exclusively on Title IX in line with the general preference of federal courts to rule based on statutes rather than resorting to constitutional rulings.

Hornak prefaced his constitutional analysis with a detailed set of factual findings and a sharp focus on the particular facts of this case, including that the three transgender students involved all began their transitions a few years ago and had been using restrooms consistent with their gender identities without any opposition from school administrators or any disturbance as early as the 2013-14 school year. In each case, they and their parents had met with school administrators, who had agreed to recognize and honor their gender identities in all respects.  Each of them has been living consistent with their gender identity for several years, although because of their ages only one of them has obtained a new birth certificate.  Administrators, teachers and fellow students have consistently used their preferred names and pronouns and treated them accordingly.  It wasn’t until a student mention the restroom use to her parents, who then contacted the school board together with other parents and turned it into an “issue,” that administrators even became aware that the transgender students were using the restrooms, since nobody had complained about it or made it an issue before then.  Ultimately the school board responded to noisy parental opposition at a series of public meetings, first rejecting a resolution allowing the transgender students to use the restrooms consistent with their gender identity by a tie vote, then adopting a contrary resolution by a slim margin.

The judge also pointed out that the boys’ and girls’ restrooms at the Pine-Richland high school were designed with individual privacy in mind, with dividers between the urinals in the boys’ rooms and privacy-protecting stalls with internal locks for the toilets in both rooms. Locker room access is not an issue at this point in the case, since all three plaintiffs have completed their physical education requirements and are not using the locker rooms.  The school also has established numerous single-user restrooms that are accessible to students.  The judge easily concluded, based on uncontested evidence that the restrictive Resolution was not necessary to protecting anybody’s privacy, thus rejecting one of the main justifications advanced by the school board.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Pennsylvania, has ruled on what standard of judicial review applies to government policies that discriminate because of gender identity. The school board argued that this means the court should use the least demanding standard, rationality review, to evaluate its policy.  Judge Hornak rejected that argument, saying, “First, that means that applying an Equal Protection standard other than rational basis in such a setting is not contrary to settled law, and second, when an issue is fairly and squarely presented to a District Court, that Court must address it. Dodging the question is not an option.”  He also observed that an earlier decision by another trial judge in his district involving a transgender student, Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, 97 F. Supp. 3d 557 (W.D. Pa. 2015), was not binding on him, and he found that case distinguishable on the facts and the law, not least because of the extended period in this case during which the plaintiffs used restrooms without incident and had full recognition of their gender identity by the school administration and staff.

Reviewing the various criteria that the Supreme Court has discussed in cases about the appropriate level of equal protection review, Hornak concluded that the “intermediate standard” used in sex discrimination cases should apply in this case. “The record before the Court reflects that transgender people as a class have historically been subject to discrimination or differentiation; that they have a defining characteristic that frequently bears no relation to an ability to perform or contribute to society; that as a class they exhibit immutable or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group; and that as a class, they are a minority with relatively little political power.”  Focusing on this particular case, he wrote, “As to these Plaintiffs, their transgender characteristics are inherent in who they are as people, which is not factually contested by the District.  As to these Plaintiffs, and more generally as to transgender individuals as a class, that characteristic bears no relationship to their ability to contribute to our society.  More precisely, the record reveals that the Plaintiffs are in all respects productive, engaged, contributing members of the student body at the High School.  Thus, all of the indicia for the application of the heightened intermediate scrutiny standard are present there.”

That means that the defendants have the burden to justify their discriminatory policy, and the judge concluded they were likely to fall short in that. “Specifically, what is missing from the record here are facts that demonstrate the ‘exceedingly persuasive justification” for the enforcement of Resolution 2 as to restroom use by these Plaintiffs that is substantially related to an important governmental interest,” wrote Hornak.  The Resolution was not shown to be “necessary to quell any actual or incipient threat, disturbance or other disruption of school activity by the Plaintiffs,” he found, and there was no evidence that it was necessary to “address any such threat or disturbance by anyone else in the High School restrooms.” Furthermore, it did not address any privacy concern “that is not already well addressed by the physical layout of the bathrooms,” he found, continuing, “it would appear to the Court that anyone using the toilets or  urinals at the High School is afforded actual physical privacy from others viewing their external sex organs and excretory functions.  Conversely, others in the restrooms are shielded from such views.”  And the school’s existing code of conduct as well as state laws already exist to deal with any “unlawful malicious ‘peeping Tom’ activity by anyone pretending to be transgender,” he wrote, dismissing a concern raised by the defendants as a hypothetical justification for the policy.

The school board argued that some parents had threatened to withdraw their students from school if the Board did not keep transgender students out of the restrooms, but the court was not willing to countenance this as a justification for the policy. “If adopting and implementing a school policy or practice based on those individual determinations or preferences of parents – no matter how sincerely held – runs counter to the legal obligations of the District,” he wrote, “then the District’s and the Board’s legal obligations must prevail. Those obligations to the law take precedence over responding to constituent desires,” because the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause “is neither applied nor construed by popular vote.”

Furthermore, rejecting the Board’s argument that enjoining the Resolution while the case proceeds was an improper change of the “status quo,” the court found that for several years the plaintiffs freely using the restrooms consistent with their gender identity was the “status quo,” even if school officials claimed they were unaware of it. This was a “persistently-applied custom or practice” which had the same weight as a written policy and, of course, until the Resolution was adopted, the District had no written policy on this issue.  The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the availability of single-user restrooms “sprinkled around the High School” provided a sufficient “safety valve” for the plaintiffs, making an injunction unnecessary.  “Given that settled precedent provides that impermissible distinctions by official edict cause tangible Constitutional harm,” he wrote, “the law does not impose on the Plaintiffs the obligation to use single-user facilities in order to ‘solve the problem.’” He found that this was “no answer under the Equal Protection Clause that those impermissibly singled out for different treatment can, and therefore must, themselves ‘solve the problem’ by further separating themselves from their peers.”

He easily concluded that the differential treatment inflicted irreparable harm on the plaintiffs, and that ordering the District to allow them to use gender-appropriate restrooms would “cause relatively little ‘harm’ in the preliminary injunction sense – if any harm at all – to the District and the High School community.” It was crucial to this conclusion, of course, that the plaintiffs had been using the restrooms without incident for years until some parents made an issue out of it.  He also found that issuing the injunction would serve the public interest by vindicating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

In case a second-guessing court of appeals should disagree with his determination that heightened scrutiny applied to this case, Judge Hornak also stated that the Resolution probably would not even survive rationality review, since he found that it was not necessary to achieve any of the goals suggested by the defendants.

Judge Hornak’s decision not to grant the injunction based on Title IX seems prudent in light of the unsettled situation he describes. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Gavin Grimm case depended on deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Education Department’s bathroom regulation.  With that interpretation being “withdrawn” by the Trump Administration in a letter that did not substitute any new interpretation in its place, there is nothing to defer to and the construction of the statute and regulation is now pending before the Supreme Court, which voted 5-3 last summer to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction in the Grimm case.  Hornak noted that the criteria for the Supreme Court issuing a stay in a case like that include the Court’s judgment that the case presents a serious possibility of being reversed by the Court on the merits.  What he omits to mention is that the stay was issued only because Justice Stephen Breyer, who would in other circumstances have likely voted against granting the stay, released an explanation that he was voting for the stay as a “courtesy” to the four more conservative justices, undoubtedly because they had the four votes to grant a petition to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Under the Supreme Court’s procedures, five votes are needed to take an action, such as issuing a stay or reversing a lower court ruling, but only four votes are needed to grant a petition to review a lower court decision.  It was clear in that case that the Gloucester County School Board would be filing a petition for review and that there were four justices ready to grant it.  Judge Hornak interpreted that, as Justice Breyer clearly did, as a signal that the interpretation of Title IX in this context is up for grabs.  If Neil Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate in time to participate in deciding that case, the outcome will probably turn on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted for the stay.  (Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan announced that they would have denied the stay.)

Judge Hornak’s ruling confirms that for the overwhelming majority of educational institutions subject to Title IX because they receive federal funds, it does not really matter whether Title IX requires them to afford gender-consistent restroom access to transgender students (or staff, for that matter), because as government-operated institutions they are bound to respect the Equal Protection rights of their students and employees. However, for non-governmental educational institutions that receive federal funds, either through work-study programs, loan assistance, or research grants in the case of the major private universities, their federal obligations towards transgender students depend on Title IX and whatever state or local laws might apply to them as places of public accommodation, which vary from state to state, only a minority of states and localities protecting transgender people from discrimination.

In light of the lack of 3rd Circuit appellate precedent on the constitutional issue, it would not be surprising if the defendants seek a stay of this injunction from the court of appeals, and there is no predicting how that court would rule, although the likelihood that the Supreme Court will issue a ruling of some sort in the Grimm case by the end of June might lead them to err on the side of caution to give the school district temporary relief.

Lambda Legal’s attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Christopher Clark and Kara Ingelhart, who are joined by local counsel in Pennsylvania, Tracie Palmer and David C. Williams of Kline & Specter, P.C..

Arkansas Supreme Court Rules Fayetteville Anti-Discrimination Measure Violates State Law

Posted on: February 23rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Fayetteville has been a hotbed of LGBT rights advocacy, but on February 23 the Arkansas Supreme Court, reversing a ruling by Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin, found that the city and its voters had violated state law by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to their antidiscrimination ordinance. Protect Fayetteville & State of Arkansas v. City of Fayetteville, 2017 Ark. 49.  Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.

Responding to earlier attempts to enact LGBT rights protections in Fayetteville, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 137 in 2015. Titled the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act, Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 14-1-401 to 403, the measure was intended, according to its purpose section, “to improve intrastate commerce by ensuring that businesses, organizations, and employers doing business in the state are subject to uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations, regardless of the counties, municipalities, or other political subdivisions in which the businesses, organizations, and employers are located or engage in business or commercial activities.”  To that end, the measure bars local governments from adopting or enforcing “an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.”  The Act recognizes one exception: local governments are left free to legislate on their own employment policies.  Thus, a city can adopt an ordinance banning discrimination in its own workforce on grounds “not contained in state law.”

Arkansas, in common with the entire southeastern United States, does not forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in its state antidiscrimination statute. The clear intent of the legislators was to preempt local governments from adding those two characteristics to their local antidiscrimination ordinances. Or at least that’s what the court held in this decision.

Local LGBT rights advocates and city officials took a different view, however, seizing upon the literal meaning of “not contained in state law” and finding that Arkansas laws existed mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, an anti-bullying law protects public school students and employees from bullying because of gender identity or sexual orientation, among a list of 13 characteristics.  There is also a provision in the state’s domestic violence law requiring domestic violence shelters to adopt nondiscrimination policies that include “sexual preference.”  And the state’s vital statistics act provides a mechanism for an individual to get a new birth certificate after sex reassignment surgery.  Taken together, the advocates argued that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are classifications that exist in Arkansas law, their inclusion in the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance would not be prohibited by Act 137.

The city council approved a new ordinance, Ordinance 5781, to add those categories to the local law, subject to an affirmative referendum vote. Opponents of the measure (plaintiffs in this case) tried to get the local court to stall the referendum while they contested the legality of the proposed ordinance, but the local court refused and the public voted to approve the measure.  Ultimately, Judge Martin agreed with the argument that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” could be added to the local ordinance, as they were categories that were mentioned in state law.

The Supreme Court’s reversal was premised on legislative intent. “In this case,” wrote Justice Hart, “the General Assembly expressly stated the intent.”  The operative language could not be construed in isolation from the prefatory provision explaining why the legislature had adopted Act 137.  They wanted nondiscrimination laws to be uniform through the state, and did not want localities to outlaw discrimination based on classifications that were not included in the state’s own antidiscrimination law.  “The express purpose of Act 137 is to subject entities to ‘uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations,’” wrote Justice Hart.  She also noted that the Fayetteville ordinance, in a provision explaining the city council’s purpose, stated that “its purpose is to ‘extend’ discrimination to include ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.”  Explained Justice Hart, “In essence, Ordinance 5781 is a municipal decision to expand the provisions of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act to include persons of a particular sexual orientation and gender identity.”  She’s incorrect, of course, as to this statement, since by its plain meaning the ordinance would protect anybody from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including “straight” and “cisgender” people.

“This violates the plain wording of Act 137 by extending discrimination laws in the City of Fayetteville to include two classifications not previously included under state law,” wrote Hart. “This necessarily creates a nonuniform nondiscrimination law and obligation in the City of Fayetteville that does not exist under state law. It is clear from the statutory language and the Ordinance’s language that there is a direct inconsistency between state and municipal law and that the Ordinance is an obstacle to the objectives and purposes set forth in the General Assembly’s Act and therefore it cannot stand.”  She noted that the statutes relied upon by the city and Judge Martin to argue that these categories were covered in state law were not antidiscrimination statutes, and thus could not be relied upon as a basis for adding them to the local antidiscrimination ordinance.

As a co-plaintiff in the case the State had intervened to protect the constitutionality of Act 137, which had been questioned by the city, but that issue had not been addressed by the circuit court, and the Supreme Court held it thus had not been preserved for appeal. The case was reversed and remanded.  On remand, the city could pursue the question of the constitutionality of Act 137.  It is strikingly similar, despite its euphemistic wording, to Colorado Amendment 2, which was declared unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment by the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans (1996).  Amendment 2 prohibited the state or any political subdivision from prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation.  The Supreme Court, focusing on the legislative history of the measure, condemned it as intended to make gay people unequal to everybody else in the state out of moral disapproval.  The state had advanced a desire for uniformity of state laws as one of many justifications for Amendment 2, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, did not specifically reject any of the state’s justifications, merely stating that none of them were sufficient to justify the law, which did not even clear rational basis scrutiny.

Trump Administration Withdraws Title IX Guidance in Contradictory “Dear Colleague” Letter

Posted on: February 23rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

The Trump Administration, keeping a promise made by Donald Trump during his campaign to leave the issue of restroom and locker room access by transgender students up to state and local officials, issued a letter to all the nation’s school districts on February 22, withdrawing a letter that the Obama Administration Education Department submitted in the Gavin Grimm transgender rights case on January 7, 2015, and a “Dear Colleague” letter sent jointly by the Education and Justice Departments to the nation’s school districts on May 13, 2016.

 

The Obama Administration letters had communicated an interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a statute banning sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal money, as well as a DOE regulation issued under Title IX, 34 C.F.R. Section 106.33, governing sex-segregated facilities in educational institutions, to require those institutions to allow transgender students and staff to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. The regulation says that educational facilities may have sex-segregated facilities, so long as they are “equal.”

 

The February 22 letter states that the Departments “have decided to withdraw and rescind the above-referenced guidance documents in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved. The Department thus will not rely on the views expressed within them.”  It also states that the departments “believe that, in this context, there must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing educational policy,” embodying Trump’s articulated campaign position on this issue.

 

At the same time, however, the February 22 letter stated: “All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment,” and insisted that the withdrawal of the earlier guidance documents “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment” and that the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights “will continue its duty under law to hear all claims of discrimination and will explore every opportunity to protect all students and to encourage civility in our classrooms.” It asserts that the two departments “are committed to the application of Title IX and other federal laws to ensure such protection.”

 

However, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on February 22 that the administration was analyzing its overall position on Title IX, which could result in parting ways from the Obama Administration’s view that Title IX prohibits gender identity discrimination in schools.

 

Thus, an internal contradiction appears. The letter at least implies that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination do violate Title IX, but that the question whether transgender students should be allowed access to sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity needs further study and perhaps needs to be addressed in a new regulation accompanied by detailed analysis that is put through the Administrative Procedure Act process of publication of proposed rules, public comment and hearing, and final publication in the Federal Register, with Congress having a period of several months during which it can intervene to block a new regulation.

 

The Solicitor General’s office, which represents the government in Supreme Court cases, also informed the Court on February 22 that the Obama Administration guidance documents had been withdrawn, that the views expressed in them would no longer be relied upon by those executive branch agencies, and that, instead, the administration would “consider further and more completely the legal issues involved.”

 

This development comes just six weeks before the Supreme Court argument scheduled for March 28 in Gloucester County School District v. G.G. (the Gavin Grimm case), and just before the due date for the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief presenting the government’s position on the issues before the Court.

 

The Court might react to this development in a variety of ways. Since the government is not a party in the case, the Court might just ignore the letter and go ahead with the argument.  Or it might consider that this development renders moot one or both of the questions on which it granted review, which could lead to a reshaping of the case to focus solely on the appropriate interpretation of Title IX and the facilities regulation.  It might even decide that the entire case should be sent back to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration in light of these developments.

 

The new Dear Colleague letter, sent over the signatures of Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Sandra Battle (Education Department) and Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights T.E. Wheeler, II (Justice Department), shows the signs of compromise reflecting the reported battle between Betsy DeVos, the recently-confirmed Secretary of Education, and Jeff Sessions, the recently-confirmed Attorney General. Several media sources reported that DeVos did not want to withdraw the earlier Guidance, but that Sessions was determined to do so.

 

In light of his record on LGBT issues as a Senator and former Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions is reportedly bent on reversing the numerous Obama Administration regulations and policy statements extending protection to LGBT people under existing laws. It was probably a big disappointment to him that the President decided not to rescind Obama’s Executive Order imposing on federal contractors an obligation not to discriminate because of sexual orientation or gender identity, and we may not have heard the last on that issue.

 

DeVos, by contrast, is reportedly pro-LGBT, despite the political views of her family, who are major donors to anti-LGBT organizations. According to press accounts, for example, in Michigan she intervened on behalf of a gay Republican Party official whose position was endangered when he married his partner.

 

Several newspapers and websites have reported that DeVos and Session brought their dispute to the President, who resolved it in favor of Sessions, leaving it to them to work out the details. Trump was undoubtedly responding to the charge by many Republicans that the Obama Administration had “overreached” in its executive orders and less formal policy statements, going beyond the bounds of existing legislation to make “new law” in areas where Congress had refused to act and overriding state and local officials on a sensitive issue.  In this case, Republicans in both houses had bottled up the Equality Act, a bill that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity as explicitly forbidden grounds for discrimination in a variety of federal statutes, including Title IX.

 

While withdrawing the Obama Guidance documents, the February 22 the letter does not state a firm position on how Title IX should be interpreted, either generally in terms of gender identity discrimination or specifically in terms of access to sex-segregated facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms. It criticizes the withdrawn documents as failing to “contain extensive legal analysis or explain how the position is consistent with the express language of Title IX,” and points out that they did not “undergo any formal public process,” a reference to the Administrative Procedure Act steps that are necessary to issue formal regulations that have the force of law.

 

While the withdrawn guidance documents did not have the force of law, they communicated to schools that the Education Department believed that Title IX bars gender identity discrimination and requires access to facilities consistent with a person’s gender identity, which meant that the Education Department or the Justice Department might initiate litigation or seek suspension of federal funding against districts which failed to comply. In the end, it would be up to courts to decide whether to follow this interpretation.  Furthermore, federal courts have found an “implied right of action” by individuals to bring suit to enforce their rights under Title IX, and that is not changed by withdrawal of the guidance documents.

 

The 4th Circuit’s decision of May 2016, up for review by the Supreme Court, came in a lawsuit initiated by an individual high school student, Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who was barred from using the boys’ restrooms at his high school by a resolution of the Gloucester County, Virginia, School Board after it received complaints from members of the community. District Judge Robert Doumar had dismissed Grimm’s Title IX complaint, even though the Obama Administration sent its January 7, 2015, letter, informing the court that the Education Department believed that Title IX required the school district to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms.  The 4th Circuit ruled that Judge Doumar should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation, as the regulation governing sex-segregated facilities was ambiguous on the question and the Department’s interpretation, which relied on federal appeals court and administrative agency decisions under other sex discrimination statutes finding that gender identity discrimination was a form of sex discrimination, was “reasonable.”  The School District petitioned the Supreme Court to review this ruling.

 

The Supreme Court agreed to consider two questions: (1) Whether deference to an informal letter from the Education Department was appropriate, and (2) whether the Department’s interpretation of Title IX and the regulation was correct. With the letter having been withdrawn, the question of deferring to it may be considered a moot point, but some commentators on administrative law had been hoping the Court would use this case as a vehicle to abandon its past ruling that courts should give broad deference to agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations, and the Court could decide that this issue has not really been rendered moot since it is a recurring one. Indeed, the February 22 letter implicitly raises the new question of whether the courts should defer to it in place of the withdrawn Guidance.

 

The Supreme Court’s agreement to consider whether the Education Department’s interpretation was correct might also be considered moot, since the Education Department has abandoned that interpretation, but certainly the underlying question of how Title IX and the regulation should be interpreted is very much alive, as several courts around the country are considering the question in cases filed by individual transgender students, states, and the Obama Administration (in its challenge to North Carolina’s H.B. 2, which is based on Title IX, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution).

 

Two groups of states filed suit in federal courts challenging the Dear Colleague letter of May 13, 2016. In one of those lawsuits, with Texas as the lead plaintiff, Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their challenge, and issued a nationwide preliminary injunction last August forbidding the government from enforcing this interpretation of Title IX in any new investigation or case.  The DOE/DOJ February 22 letter points out that this nationwide injunction is still in effect, so the departments were not able to investigate new charges or initiate new lawsuits in any event.  What it doesn’t mention is that the Obama Administration filed an appeal to the 5th Circuit, challenging the nationwide scope of the injunction, but the Trump Administration recently withdrew that appeal, getting the 5th Circuit to cancel a scheduled oral argument.  Of course, these lawsuits specifically challenging the Obama Administrative Guidance documents are now moot with those documents having been withdrawn by the Trump Administration, since the plaintiffs in those cases sought only prospective relief which is now unnecessary from their point of view.  Presumably a motion to dismiss as moot would be granted by Judge O’Connor, dissolving the preliminary injunction.  O’Connor’s order never had any effect on the ability of non-governmental plaintiffs, such as Gavin Grimm, to file suit under Title IX.

 

In North Carolina, the Obama Administration, former governor Pat McCrory, Republican state legislative leaders, a group representing parents and students opposed to transgender restroom access, and transgender people represented by public interest lawyers had all filed lawsuits challenging or defending H.B.2. The Trump Administration’s February 22 actions may signal that at least the federal government is likely either to abandon or cut down on the scope of its lawsuit challenging H.B.2.  Since North Carolina is in the 4th Circuit, all of these cases were likely to be affected by a reconsideration by the 4th Circuit in light of these new developments.  Around the country, several pending lawsuits have been put “on hold” by federal district judges as well, while awaiting Supreme Court action on the Gavin Grimm case.  If the Supreme Court were to reject the argument that “sex discrimination” in a statute can be broadly construed to encompass gender identity, these cases, arising under either Title IX or Title VII, may be dismissed.

 

Since the confirmation hearing for 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch, nominated by Trump for the Supreme Court vacancy, is scheduled to take place on March 20, and Democratic opposition may stretch out the confirmation process, it seems likely that there will be only eight members on the Supreme Court to consider the Grimm case. In that event, it was widely predicted that the result would be either a tie affirming the 4th Circuit without opinion and avoiding a national precedent, or a 5-3 vote with an opinion most likely by Justice Anthony Kennedy, joining with the more liberal justices to adopt the more expansive reading of Title IX.  However, this will be the first time the Supreme Court has tackled directly a gender identity issue under sex discrimination laws, so predicting how any member of the Court may vote is completely speculative.

 

 

Federal Court Lets Transgender Employee Sue Employer for Transition Benefits Denial Under Title VII

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

Does a transgender employee who seeks coverage under her employer’s benefits plans for breast augmentation surgery have a legal remedy if her claims are denied? U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater ruled on January 13 that a transgender woman employed by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (L-3) may pursue a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, having alleged that she was denied such benefits because of her gender, but not under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Baker v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5665, 2017 WL 131658 (N.D. Tex.).

Judge Fitzwater rejected discrimination claims against the insurance company that provides the coverage and administers the plans on behalf of the employer, finding that the ACA and President Obama’s Executive Order governing gender identity discrimination by federal contractors do not apply to this situation, and that the insurance company cannot be sued under Title VII because it is not the plaintiff’s employer. Judge Fitzwater declined to grant motions for summary judgment by either the employee or by the insurer of her claim that denial of health and short-term disability benefits violates her rights under the terms of the employee benefits plan, setting that claim down for further proceedings.

According to her Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, Charlize Marie Baker is an employee of L-3 and a participant in the company’s Health Plan and its Short-Term-Disability (STD) Plan, both of which are administered by Aetna Life Insurance Company. She began the process of transitioning in 2011, obtained a legal name change, and had her gender designation changed from male to female on all government-issued documents.  She scheduled breast implant surgery in 2015 after her doctor determined that it was medically necessary to treat her gender dysphoria.

Baker filed claims for coverage of the surgery under the Health Plan and coverage of her recovery period under the STD Plan.  She alleges that the Health Plan denied her claim to cover the surgery, because “the plan does not cover breast implants for individuals with a male birth gender designation who are transitioning to the female gender, although the plan covers individuals with a female birth designation who are transitioning to the male gender and seeking a mastectomy.”  Presumably the mastectomy would be routinely covered because the Health Plan is accustomed to covering mastectomies for female employees when their doctors state that the procedure is medically necessary.   Baker was denied STD benefits because the Plan administrator decided that surgery to treat Gender Dysphoria does not qualify as “treatment of an illness.”

In his January 13 ruling, Judge Fitzwater focused on motions by L-3 and Aetna to dismiss discrimination claims brought under Section 1557 of the ACA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Section 1557 of the ACA incorporates by reference Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”  ERISA has its own non-discrimination provision, but does not specifically ban discrimination “because of sex.”  The ERISA provision broadly prohibits discriminating against an employee to prevent them from getting benefits to which they are entitled under an employee benefit plan.  ERISA provides a vehicle for employees to sue plan administrators for the wrongful denial of benefits to which they are entitled under employee benefit plans.

None of the statutes under which Baker filed her claims explicitly prohibits discrimination because of gender identity. In resisting the motions to dismiss, she relied heavily on a regulation published by the Department of Health and Human Services last spring, providing that Section 1557 of the ACA bans discrimination because of gender identity by insurers and health care providers, tracking interpretations of Title IX by the Department of Education and the Justice Department, which in turn relied on interpretations of Title VII by some federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Baker also relied on President Obama’s Executive Order 13672, which bans gender identity discrimination by federal contractors. Noting that L-3 is a federal contractor, Baker’s attorneys, Michael J. Hindman and Kasey Cathryn Krummel of Hindman/Bynum PC, urged the court to make “a good faith extension of existing law that the discrimination by Defendants based on her Gender Identity is also discrimination in violation of ERISA in this context and that ERISA must be read to include the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity.”

“Baker is unable to point to any controlling precedent that recognizes a cause of action under Section 1557 [of the ACA] for discrimination based on gender identity,” wrote the judge. For one thing, he pointed out, the HHS regulation on point was to become effective on January 1, 2017, long after Baker was denied benefits, and thus was not applicable at the time of Aetna’s decision to deny the claims, and furthermore, one of Judge Fitzwater’s colleagues on the Northern District of Texas bench, Judge Reed O’Connor, has issued two rulings rejecting the argument that Title IX, which is the source of the ACA non-discrimination policy regarding sex, should be “construed broadly to protect any person, including transgendered persons, from discrimination.”

On August 21, 2016, Judge O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of Title IX by the federal government in gender identity cases, and he issued a similar preliminary injunction on December 31, 2016, against the enforcement of the HHS regulation in gender identity cases under the ACA. The government appealed the August 21 ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, and announced it would similarly appeal the December 31 ruling.  Whether those appeals will be pursued or dropped after the change of administration on January 20 is a decision for the new attorney general and secretaries of education and health.  In both of those cases, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that Title IX (and by extension the ACA) does not ban gender identity discrimination.

Many federal courts are grappling with the question whether federal laws and regulations banning discrimination “because of sex” should apply to gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination, but there is no consensus yet among the appellate courts. The Supreme Court has a case pending on the gender identity issue under Title IX, but it has yet to be scheduled for argument.  The closest the appeals courts have come are decisions finding that “sex stereotyping” violates Title VII and perhaps by extension other sex discrimination laws, based on a 1989 ruling by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  Some courts have used the “sex stereotyping” theory to protect transgender employees in Title VII cases.  However, Judge Fitzwater was correct in observing that as of now there is no “controlling precedent” supporting Baker’s claim that gender identity discrimination, as such, violates Section 1557 of the ACA.  For this judge, a “controlling precedent” would be one coming from the 5th Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Texas, or the Supreme Court, and expressly addressing the issue.

Baker sought to argue that “the ‘effect’ of E.O. 13672 seems to be little more than to clarify the issue left somewhat ambiguous in Section 1557 that discrimination against transgender persons under this law is prohibited.” She argued that when the ACA was enacted in 2010, some courts had already relied on Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins to find gender identity discrimination covered by Title VII.

Fitzwater found “two fallacies” in this argument. “First,” he wrote, “the Fifth Circuit has not extended Hopkins’ Title VII reasoning to apply to any statute referenced in Section 1557,” and cited Judge O’Connor’s August 21 ruling in support of this point.  “Second, Baker is relying on an Executive Order to clarify what she characterizes as a ‘somewhat ambiguous’ legislative act.”  This was not enough to satisfy Fitzwater, who granted the motions to dismiss the ACA discrimination claim.

Aetna also moved to dismiss Baker’s ERISA claim, contending that ERISA does not ban gender identity discrimination in the administration of employee benefit plans. Fitzwater agreed with Aetna, finding that “as Baker acknowledges, this claim is not currently recognized.  It is for the Congress, not this court, to decide whether to create in ERISA a protection that the statute does not already provide.”  And because the court had already rejected her argument under Section 1557, it would not rely on that ACA provision as a basis for finding a right under ERISA.

Turning finally to the motions to dismiss the Title VII claim, Judge Fitzwater rejected Baker’s argument that Aetna should be liable to suit for sex discrimination under Title VII as an “agent” of L-3 in administering the benefits plans. Fitzwater pointed to 5th Circuit precedents holding that Title VII does not apply in the absence of an employer-employee relationship.  Baker argued that in the EEOC Compliance Manual there is a suggestion that an insurance company administering an employer’s benefit plans is acting as the employer’s agent, “but the EEOC Compliance Manual does not have the force of law,” wrote Fitzwater.  “And this circuit recognizes an agency theory of employer liability only if the alleged agent had authority ‘with respect to employment practices,’” which Baker did not allege.

However, at long last Fitzwater reached the only claim that he refused to dismiss in this opinion: Baker’s allegation that the denial of coverage for her surgery and recovery period under the benefits plans provided by her employer constituted sex discrimination by the employer in violation of Title VII. L-3 argued that Baker had failed to allege that she suffered an adverse employment action based on her gender, but, wrote Fitzwater, “The Court disagrees.”

“Baker plausibly alleges that she was denied employment benefits based on her sex,” he wrote. “She asserts that L-3 ‘engaged in intentional gender discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment by denying her a medically necessary procedure based solely on her gender,’” that the company’s “conduct constitutes a deliberate and intentional violation of Title VII,” and that this conduct “has cause [her] to suffer the loss of pay, benefits, and prestige.”  This was enough, concluded Fitzwater, to allow her Title VII claim against her employer to continue.  Interestingly, his opinion does not explore explicitly whether Title VII applies to gender identity discrimination claims as such, and makes no mention of the EEOC’s 2012 decision to that effect, choosing to treat this as purely a sex discrimination, presumably on the basis that Baker would have been covered for the procedure had she been identified female at birth, so clearly in that sense the denial was because of her sex.

Thus, at this point Baker continues to have a claim under ERISA against Aetna, based on her allegation that Aetna’s refusal to cover her procedure and recovery period violated the terms of the benefits plans, and a sex discrimination claim under Title VII against her employer, based on her allegation that the employer’s benefit plan discriminated against her because of her sex.