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Obscure Brooklyn Appellate Ruling Protects Transgender People from Discrimination Without Saying So

Posted on: June 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Talk about “hiding the ball!” On June 6, a unanimous four-judge panel of the New York Appellate Division, 2nd Department, based in Brooklyn, confirmed an Order by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR), which had adopted a decision by an agency administrative law judge (ALJ) ruling that a Port Jervis employer violated the human rights law when it discharged a transgender employee.

But nobody reading the court’s short memorandum opinion, or the short agency opinion and order, would have any idea that the case involved a gender identity discrimination claim. Surprisingly, given the novelty of the legal issues involved, only the administrative law judge’s opinion, an internal agency document, communicates what the case is actually about.

The case is Matter of Advanced Recovery, Inc. v. Fuller, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 03974, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3969, 2018 WL 2709861 (N.Y. App. Div., 2nd Dept., June 6, 2018).

Erin Fuller, a transgender woman, was fired by Mark Rea, the owner and chief executive of Advanced Recovery, Inc., the day Fuller presented a supervisor with a copy of a court order authorizing her change of name from Edward to Erin and the supervisor passed the document to Rea. Rea called Fuller into his office and, according to Fuller, said in the presence of the supervisor, “Now I have a problem with your condition.  I have to let you go.”

Rea and other company officials had been aware for some time that Fuller was transitioning, since she had presented them with a letter from her doctor in 2009 explaining her gender dysphoria diagnosis and how she would be transitioning, and on at least one occasion Rea had reacted adversely to Fuller’s mode of dress, but it wasn’t until he was presented with the legal name change that Rea apparently decided that he had enough and no longer wanted Fuller, a good worker who had been with the company more than two years.

When Fuller went back later to pick up her final paycheck, a supervisor told her that “he felt bad, but your job would be waiting for you as long as you came in wearing normal clothes.”

Attempting to escape possible liability, Rea and the company’s lawyer later came up with a termination letter that cited other reasons for terminating Fuller and said nothing about her name change, mode of dress, or gender identity, but they never sent her that letter, which first surfaced when it was offered as evidence at the SDHR law judge’s hearing on Fuller’s discrimination claim.

The discharge took place on August 4, 2010, several years before Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the SDHR to adopt a policy under which gender identity discrimination claims would be deemed to come within the coverage of the state’s ban on sex discrimination.

Fuller filed her complaint with SDHR on October 13, 2010. On the complaint form, she checked the boxes for “sex” and “disability” as the unlawful grounds for her termination.  After the company was notified of the complaint, it apparently prompted local police to arrest Fuller for altering a medical prescription, a spurious charge based on her changing the pronouns on the note written by a doctor on a prescription form after she missed a few days of work due to hospital treatment.  At the time, she didn’t think of amending her discrimination charge to allege retaliation, unfortunately, waiting until the hearing to raise the issue, by which time the judge had to reject her motion because she waited too long to assert the retaliation claim.

The agency concluded, after investigation, that it had jurisdiction over the discharge claim and set the case for a public hearing before an ALJ. At the hearing, Fuller was represented by attorneys Stephen Bergstein and Helen Ullrich, who persuaded the judge that Fuller had a valid claim and that the reasons given by the employer for firing her were pretexts for discrimination.  The same lawyers represented Fuller when the company appealed the judge’s ruling to the Appellate Division.

Relying on a scattering of trial court decisions holding that transgender people are protected from discrimination under the New York Human Rights Law, ALJ Robert M. Vespoli concluded that Fuller “states a claim pursuant to New York State’s Human Rights Law on the ground that the word ‘sex’ in the statute covers transsexuals.”

“Complainant also has a disability,” wrote Vespoli, “as that term is defined in the Human Rights Law.” The New York Human Rights Law’s definition of “disability” is broader and more general than the federal definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and New  York law does not have the explicit exclusion of coverage for people with “gender identity disorders” that is in the federal law.  Under New York’s law, a disability is “a physical, mental or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.”  The statute provides that a disability may also be a “record of such impairment or the perception of such impairment.”

“During the relevant time period,” wrote Vespoli, “Complainant was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. This condition falls within the broad definition of disability recognized under the Human Rights Law,” citing a 2011 decision by the agency to recognize its jurisdiction in a transgender discrimination case. The employer could not claim ignorance about Fuller’s transition, because in 2009 she had presented the company with her doctor’s letter explaining the situation, after which she began to dress and groom differently.

In his opinion dated February 20, 2015, Judge Vespoli rejected the employer’s evidence of other reasons for the discharge, finding that the proffered letter was a document created after the discharge for the purpose of litigation, that it had never been delivered to Fuller, and that the reasons it offered were pretexts for discrimination. The judge recommended awarding Fuller $14,560.00 in back pay and $30,000.00 for mental anguish caused by the discrimination.  He also recommended imposing a civil penalty on the company of $20,000.00.

The company filed objections to Vespoli’s recommendations with the Commission, but did not specifically object to Vespoli’s finding that Fuller had a disability or that the agency had jurisdiction over this case on grounds of sex and disability. The Commission’s Notice and Final Order of April 1, 2015, overruling without discussing the company’s evidentiary objections and adopting the judge’s recommendations and findings, said nothing about the details of the case, beyond noting that Fuller had complained of discrimination because of sex and disability.

The company’s appeal to the court again did not explicitly contest the ruling that the statute covers the case, instead urging the court to find that the ruling was not supported by substantial evidence of discrimination. Perhaps because the company’s appeal did not raise the question whether the Human Rights Law bans discrimination because of gender identity, the Appellate Division’s ruling also  did not  mention that the complainant is a transgender woman, and did not discuss the question whether this kind of case is covered under the disability provision.  Rather, the court’s opinion recites that the complainant alleged “that the petitioners discriminated against her on the basis of sex and disability,” and that the agency had ruled in her favor.  “Here there is substantial evidence in the record to support the SDHR’s determination that the complainant established a prima facie case of discrimination, and that the petitioners’ proffered reasons for terminating the complainant’s employment were a pretext for unlawful discrimination.  The petitioner’s remaining contentions are either not properly before this Court or without merit.”

Of course, Fuller’s brief in response to the appeal would have mentioned this issue, and SDHR, which cross-petitioned for enforcement of its Order, mentioned the issue as well.

The court wrote that there is “substantial evidence in the record” to support the agency’s ruling, so the court presumably looked at the record, including the ALJ’s opinion, and was aware that this was a gender identity discrimination claim.  The appellate panel surely knew that this was an important issue in the case.

Cursory research in published New York court opinions would show that there is no prior appellate ruling in New York finding that a gender identity claim can be asserted under the Human Rights Law’s prohibited grounds of “sex” and “disability.” The court took its time on this case, waiting until June 6, 2018, to issue a ruling upholding an administrative decision that was issued on April 1, 2015.  Despite taking all this time, the court produced an opinion that never mentions these details, that provides no discussion of the ALJ’s analysis of the jurisdictional issue, and that does not expressly state agreement with the trial court ruling that Judge Vespoli specifically cited in support of his conclusions.

This may be the first case in which a New York appellate court has affirmed a ruling holding that an employer violated the state’s Human Rights Law by discriminating against an employee because of her gender identity, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the court’s opinion. While the court’s failure to mention the doctrinal significance of its ruling may be explainable because the employer did not raise the issue on its appeal, it’s omission nonetheless renders the decision basically useless as an appellate precedent.

One can fairly criticize the court for failing to play its proper role in a system of judicial precedent to produce a decision that can be referred to by later courts. The judges whose names appear on this uninformative opinion are Justices Mark C. Dillon, Ruth C. Balkin, Robert J. Miller, and Hector D. LaSalle.

Governor Cuomo’s directive, issued while this case was pending before the Appellate Division, actually reinforced existing practice at the State Division of Human Rights, as the earlier opinions cited in Judge Vespoli’s opinion show, but in the absence of an explicit appellate ruling, enactment of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act remains an important goal and its recent defeat in a Senate committee after renewed passage by the Assembly is more than merely a symbolic setback for the community.

A legal team of Caroline J. Downey, Toni Ann Hollifield and Michael K. Swirsky represented SDHR before the Appellate Division, which had cross-petitioned for enforcement of its decision. Port Jervis lawyer James J. Herkenham represented the company, and Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich presented Fuller’s response to the appeal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Third Circuit Rejects Challenge to Pennsylvania School District’s Policy Allowing Transgender Students to Use Facilities Consistent with Their Gender Identities

Posted on: May 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit took the unusual step on May 24 of announcing about an hour after hearing oral argument that it would unanimously affirm U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith’s ruling from last summer denying a motion for a preliminary injunction by a group of parents and students seeking to stop the Boyertown (Pennsylvania) Area School District from continuing to implement a policy allowing transgender students to use locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities. Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2018 WL 2355999 (3rd Cir., May 24, 2018), affirming 276 F. Supp. 2d 324 (E.D. Pa., August 25, 2017).

Later that day, the court issued a brief “Judgement” written by Circuit Judge Theodore A. McKee, so brief that it can be quoted in full here: “We agree Plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits and that they have not established that they will be irreparably harmed if their Motion to Enjoin the Boyertown School District’s policy is denied. We therefore Affirm the District Court’s denial of a preliminary injunction substantially for the reasons that the Court explained in its exceptionally well-reasoned Opinion of August 25, 2017.  A formal Opinion will follow. The mandate shall issue forthwith.  The time for filing a petition for rehearing will run from the date that the Court’s formal opinion is entered on the docket.”  There was some suggestion in press reports that after hearing argument the court was concerned that the affirmance be effective immediately, since the school year would shortly end.

This is one of several similar cases filed around the country by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization formed to advance the freedom of Christians to assert the primacy of their beliefs over any conflicting obligations imposed by law. ADF is a staunch opponent of LGBT rights, battled on the ramparts to oppose marriage equality and to support the ability of businesses operated by Christians to refuse to sell their goods and services for same-sex weddings.  ADF has inserted itself into the “bathroom wars” by filing lawsuits on behalf of parents and allegedly cisgender students who oppose allowing transgender students to use single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identities.  When Judge Smith issued his decision last August, a federal magistrate judge in Illinois, Jeffrey T. Gilbert, had issued a report and recommendation to U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso, which recommended denying ADF’s motion for a preliminary injunction against a similar school district policy in Students & Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, 2016 WL 6134121 (N.D. Ill., Oct. 18, 2016), and Judge Smith cited and relied on Judge Gilbert’s analysis at various points in his decision.  Judge Alonso subsequently adopted Judge Gilbert’s Report and Recommendations, over the objections of ADF, on December 29, 2017, in Students & Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, 2017 WL 6629520.

The plaintiffs in the Boyertown case argued three legal theories: first, that the district’s policy violates the constitutional privacy rights of non-transgender students under the 14th Amendment; second, that the school district’s policy violates Title IX’s requirement, as fleshed out in Education Department regulations, to provide separate restroom and locker room facilities for boys and girls; and third, that the policy violates Pennsylvania’s common law tort of invasion of privacy by intruding on the right of seclusion of non-transgender students.  Judge Smith found that the record compiled by the parties in response to the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction showed that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on any of these claims.  The bulk of his lengthy opinion (which runs 83 pages, including about six pages of headnotes, in Lexis) is devoted to a careful delineation of the factual record upon which he based his legal analysis.

Judge Smith explored each of the three theories at length, rejecting ADF’s argument that high school students have some sort of fundamental constitutional right not to share restroom facilities with transgender students because of the possibility that a transgender student would see them in their underwear, and noting particularly that factual allegations by individual plaintiff students who had found themselves in restrooms with transgender students showed that even if such a “right” existed, it had not been violated in any instance.

As to the Title IX argument, plaintiff insisted that allowing transgender students to use the restrooms created a “hostile environment” for the non-transgender students, but Judge Smith, recurring to Judge Gilbert’s ruling in the Illinois case, observed that “the School District treats both male and female students similarly,” undercutting the argument that the District is discrimination in education opportunity “because of” the sex of the individual plaintiff students.   “The practice applies to both the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms,” wrote Smith, “meaning that cisgender boys potentially may use the boys’ locker room and bathrooms with transgender boys and cisgender girls potentially may use the girls’ locker room and bathrooms with transgender girls.  In addition, with regard to the transgender students, both transgender boys and transgender girls are treated similarly insofar as they, upon receiving permission from the School District, may use the locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.  Moreover, the School District is not discriminating against students regarding the use of alternative facilities if students are uncomfortable with the current practice insofar as those facilities are open to all students who may be uncomfortable using locker rooms or multi-user facilities… The School District’s similar treatment of all students I fatal to the plaintiffs’ Title IX claim.”  Concluding on the Title IX point, Judge Smith wrote, “The plaintiffs have failed to cite to any case holding that a plaintiff can maintain a sexual harassment hostile environment claim when the allegedly sexually harassing party treats all individuals similarly and there is, as such, no evidence of gender/sex animus.”  Simply put, the District was not “targeting” any student for particular adverse treatment because of his or her sex.  Judge Smith also pointed out that the law of “hostile environment” as it has been developed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to which courts refer in Title IX cases, sets a very high evidentiary bar for establishing a hostile environment, which he concluded could not be met by the plaintiffs’ factual allegations in this case.

As to the tort of invasion of privacy claim, Judge Smith noted that there were no allegations that any of the named defendants had personally invaded the privacy of any of the plaintiffs, as the plaintiffs’ factual allegations all related to two transgender students, identified as Student A and Student B, whose presence in locker rooms or restrooms was the subject of individual plaintiffs’ angst. But, of course, Students A and B were only present in those facilities because the District’s policy allowed them to be.  “The court does not deny that an individual seeks seclusion in a bathroom toilet stall from being viewed by other people outside of the stall,” wrote Judge Smith, pointing out that the cases cited by the plaintiffs in support of their common law privacy claims “involve alleged invasions of privacy in bathroom stalls,” usually involving police surveillance of public restrooms.  “Here,” Smith pointed out, “there are no allegations and the plaintiffs presented no evidence that any transgender student invaded their seclusion while they were in a bathroom stall.  And similarly, although the plaintiffs indicate that viewing a person while in a bathroom would be ‘considered “highly offensive” by any reasonable person,’ the case cited involved an intrusion into a single bathroom stall and not the presence of someone in the common area of a multi-user facility.”  After noting how the plaintiffs’ factual allegations about particular incidents involving transgender students in restrooms fell short of supporting the plaintiffs’ contentions about unwanted exposure of their bodies, Smith wrote, “the court does not find that a reasonable person would be offended by the presence of a transgender student in the bathroom or locker room with them, despite the possibility that the transgender student could possibly be in a state of undress more significant than Student A was in this case when the male plaintiffs same him.”  He concluded similarly regarding the other incidents described by the plaintiffs, and concluded they had not shown a likelihood that they would be able to establish liability under Pennsylvania’s invasion of privacy tort.

That could be the end of Smith’s analysis, since a finding that plaintiffs are likely to prevail would be necessary to ground a preliminary injunction against the District’s policy, but Smith, to be thorough, analyzed the irreparable harm factor that courts consider, concluding that because the District was providing single-user alternatives the individual plaintiffs would not be irreparable harmed if the policy was allowed to continue in effect. He concluded as well that because these two factors weighed against granting the injunction, there was no need to perform the “balance of harms” analysis that would necessarily follow if the plaintiffs had prevailed on the first two factors.

As noted above, the 3rd Circuit’s brief Judgement issued on May 24 described Judge Smith’s opinion as “exceptionally well-reasoned,” so it is likely that the “formal opinion” to follow will run along similar lines and probably quote liberally from Judge Smith.  Also, it would not be surprising were the court of appeals to give persuasive weight to decisions from other courts ruling on claims by transgender students to a right under Title IX and the 14th Amendment to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  In the course of deciding those cases, the courts necessarily considered the same factual and legal issues presented by the Parents & Students cases.  In light of the judicial rulings so far in these “bathroom wars” cases, a consensus seems to have emerged in the federal judiciary that is part of a larger movement in the law in the direction of recognizing transgender civil rights claims under both the Equal Protection Clause in constitutional law and the statutory bans on discrimination because of sex.

In addition to ADF’s attorneys and the attorneys defending the school district, the court heard from ACLU attorneys representing the interests of transgender students in the Boyertown School District, including lead attorney Leslie Cooper with the ACLU LGBT Rights Project, lead attorney Mary Catherine Roper with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and cooperating attorneys from Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia law firm.

 

Federal Court Rejects Gloucester School District’s Motion to Dismiss Gavin Grimm’s Case

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Opening up a new chapter in the continuing battle of Gavin Grimm to vindicate his rights as a transgender man, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen issued an Order on May 22 denying the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board’s motion to dismiss the latest version of the case Grimm filed back in July 2015, prior to his sophomore year at Gloucester High School.

During the summer of 2014, Grimm’s transition had progressed to the point where he and his mother met with high school officials to tell them that he was a transgender boy and “would be attending school as a boy,” wrote Judge Allen.  They agreed to treat him as a boy, including allowing him to use the boys’ restrooms.  He did so for about seven weeks without any incident, until complaints by some parents led the school board to adopt a formal policy prohibiting Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.  The school established some single-user restrooms that were theoretically open to all students, but Grimm was the only one who used them because they were not conveniently located to classrooms.

“Because using the single-user restrooms underscored his exclusion and left him physically isolated,” wrote Judge Allen, “Mr. Grimm refrained from using any restroom at school.  He developed a painful urinary tract infection and had difficulty concentrating in class because of his physical discomfort.”  During the summer after his sophomore year, he filed his lawsuit, alleging violations of Title IX – a federal statute that forbids schools from discriminating because of sex – and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Grimm had begun hormone therapy in December 2014, “which altered his bone and muscle structure, deepened his voice, and caused him to grow facial hair.”  In June 2015, he received a new Virginia identification car from the Motor Vehicles Department designated him as male.  During the summer of 2016, he had chest-reconstruction surgery, a necessary step to get the circuit court to issue an order changing his sex under Virginia law and directing the Health Department to issue him a birth certificate listing him as male.  He received the new birth certificate in October 2016.  Thus, as of that date, Grimm was male as a matter of Virginia law.

Yet, despite all these physical and legal changes, the School District clung to its contention that his “biological gender” was female and that he could not be allowed to use boys’ restrooms at the high school.  The school maintained this prohibition through the end of the school year, when Grimm graduated.

Meanwhile, his lawsuit was not standing still.  Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar dismissed his Title IX claim in September 2015, denying his motion for a preliminary injunction, and holding his Equal Protection Claim in reserve while he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond.  In the spring of 2016, the 4th Circuit sent the case back to the district court, issuing an opinion holding that the court should have deferred to the position advanced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, which opined that discrimination because of gender identity is sex discrimination and schools are required under Title IX to treat student consistent with their gender identity.

Judge Doumar then issued a preliminary injunction during the summer of 2016 ordering the School District to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but the School District obtained a stay of that order from the Supreme Court, which subsequently granted the School’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s “deference” ruling.  The Supreme Court scheduled the case for argument, but then the incoming Trump Administration “withdrew” the position that the Obama Administration had taken, knocking the props out from under the 4th Circuit “deference” ruling, and persuaded the Supreme Court to cancel the argument and send the case back to the 4th Circuit, which in turn sent it back to the district court.  And, by the time it got there, Grimm had graduated from Gloucester County High School.

The School District attempted to get rid of the case at that point, arguing that it was moot.  Grimm begged to differ, arguing that his Title IX and Equal Protection rights had been continuously violated by the School District from the time it adopted its exclusionary restroom policy through the time of his graduation.  In a newly amended complaint, Grimm sought a declaratory judgement as to the violation of his rights under both Title IX and the constitution and an end to the school’s exclusionary policy.

The School District moved to dismiss this new complaint, leading to the May 22 ruling by Judge Allen, to whom the case had been reassigned in the interim. Judge Doumar, who was born in 1930, was appointed to the court by President Reagan and is still serving as a part-time senior district judge.  Judge Allen was appointed to the court by President Obama in 2011.

Judge Allen’s opinion relies heavily on important judicial developments that have occurred since Judge Doumar’s initial dismissal of the Title IX claim back in 2015. The 4th Circuit has yet to issue a ruling on the merits of the question whether federal laws that forbid discrimination because of sex can be construed to apply to gender identity discrimination claims.  Since the Supreme Court has also avoided addressing that issue, it was open to Judge Allen to follow as “persuasive precedents” the lengthening list of rulings from other federal courts, including five different circuit courts of appeals and many district courts, holding that sex discrimination laws should be broadly construed to cover gender identity claims.

These decisions draw their authority from two important Supreme Court decision: Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998). In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court accepted as evidence of intentional sex discrimination an accounting firm’s denial of a partnership to a woman who was deemed inadequately feminine by several partners who voted against her.  In Oncale, the Court ruled that Title VII, the federal law banning employment discrimination because of sex, could apply to a claim of hostile environment sexual harassment by a man who worked in an all-male workplace, commenting that even if this scenario was not contemplated by Congress when it passed Title VII in 1964, that statute could be applied to “comparable” situations.

Since the turn of the century, federal appeals courts have used those two cases to find that transgender people can seek relief from discrimination under the Gender-Motivated Violence Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, and the Equal Protection Clause. In addition, district courts have found such protection under the Fair Housing Act.  A consensus based on the gender stereotype theory has emerged, even in circuits that have generally been hostile to sexual minority discrimination claims.  And, most significantly, the 7th Circuit ruled last year in the case of Ashton Whitaker, a transgender boy, that Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause required a school district to allow him to use boys’ restroom and locker room facilities.  There is no material distinction between the Whitaker and Grimm cases.

Furthermore, and closer to home, on March 12 of this year U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III, ruled in a case from Maryland (also in the 4th Circuit) that a school district had violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause by refusing to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ locker room at his high school.  Judge Allen found Judge Russell’s analysis persuasive, as she did the recent cases from other courts.

Turning to Grimm’s constitutional claim, Judge Allen followed the precedents from other courts that have determined that discrimination against transgender people is subject to “heightened scrutiny” judicial review, similar to that used for sex discrimination cases. Under this standard, the challenged policy is presumed to be unconstitutional and the government bears the burden of showing that it substantially advances an important governmental interest.

The Gloucester School District argued that its interest in protecting the privacy of other students was sufficient to vindicate its policy, but Judge Allen disagreed, finding that “the policy at issue was not substantially related to protecting other students’ privacy rights. There were many other ways to protect privacy interests in a non-discriminatory and more effective manner than barring Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.”  The school had created three single-user restrooms open to all students, so any student who sought to avoid using a common restroom with Mr. Grimm had only to use one of those.  She also noted that the School Board reacted to the controversy by taking steps “to give all students the option for even greater privacy by installing partitions between urinals and privacy strips for stall doors.”  Thus, any validity to privacy concerns raised when the controversy first arose had been substantially alleviated as a result of these renovations.

Having denied the School District’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint, Judge Allen directed the attorneys to contact the Courtroom Deputy for United States Magistrate Judges within thirty days to schedule a settlement conference. If the parties can’t work out a settlement with a magistrate judge, the district court will issue a final order dictating what the school district must do to be in compliance with Title IX and the Constitution.  And, because Grimm is the prevailing party in this long-running and hotly litigated civil rights case, one suspects that sometime down the road there will be a substantial attorneys’ fee award.

Grimm’s lawyer, Joshua Block of the ACLU LGBTQ Rights Project, indicated that their goal in the case at this point is the declaratory judgment and nominal damages for Grimm, and of course an end to the School Board’s discriminatory policy. Grimm now lives in Berkeley, California, and intends to begin college this fall in the Bay Area, according to the New York Times’ report on the case.

Of course, the School District may seek to appeal Judge Allen’s Order to the 4th Circuit.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a Memorandum last fall formally rejecting the Obama Administration’s position that federal sex discrimination laws forbid gender identity discrimination, so the School District could count on the Justice Department to support an appeal.  And Trump’s rapid pace in filling federal circuit court vacancies may slow or eventually halt the continuing trend of transgender-positive rulings from the other circuit courts, but that is not likely to be the case in the 4th Circuit for some time.  At present that court has an overwhelming majority of Democratic appointees (including six by Obama and four by Clinton on the 15 member court) with only one vacancy for Trump to fill.  The 4th Circuit was out front of the Supreme Court in 2014 in striking down state bans on same-sex marriage, and its 2016 opinion in Gavin Grimm’s case was notably transgender-friendly, so it is unlikely that an appeal by the School District will be successful in the 4th Circuit.  The Supreme Court, of course, may be a different matter.  Time will tell.

Out Gay Federal Judge Rejects Anonymity for Genderqueer Trans-Masculine Plaintiff

Posted on: May 7th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, himself the first out gay man to be appointed a federal trial judge, has granted a motion by the defendants in an employment discrimination case to lift an order he had previously issued allowing the plaintiff, a “genderqueer and transmasculine” individual, to proceed anonymously as “Jamie Doe” in a discrimination lawsuit against their former employer, Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, and two of Fedcap’s supervisors. Judge Oetken gave the plaintiff 14 days from the April 27 ruling on FedCap’s motion to decide whether they intend to proceed with this suit using their real name.  Doe v. Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, Inc., 2018 WL 2021588, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71174 (S.D.N.Y., April 27, 2018).

The plaintiff uses “preferred pronouns of ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘theirs,” wrote the judge. “Doe” alleges that “the Defendants discriminated against Doe based on Plaintiff’s disability (breast cancer, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder), sexual orientation (queer), and gender (gender non-conformity/genderqueer/trans-masculine). Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants retaliated against Plaintiff for exercising their rights under the Family Medical Leave Act.  Plaintiff has since left Fedcap and found new employment.”  Upon filing the lawsuit, Doe had moved to proceed under a pseudonym. The court granted the motion without prejudice to the Defendants’ right to seek lifting of the order, which they have now done.

The starting point for the court is Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that “all the parties” be named in the title of a Complaint. The 2nd Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over cases filed in the Southern District of New York, has ruled that this requirement “serves the vital purpose of facilitating public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and therefore cannot be set aside lightly.”  That court has commented, “When determining whether a plaintiff may be allowed to maintain an action under a pseudonym, the plaintiff’s interest in anonymity must be balanced against both the public interest in disclosure and any prejudice to the defendant.”  The 2nd Circuit has identified a non-exclusive list of ten different factors that courts might consider in conducting such a balancing test.

The plaintiff identified four harms if their name is revealed in this litigation. Plaintiff says their trans-masculinity is an “intimate detail” that they don’t want to disclose through the public record; that “outing them” as trans-masculine would compound the trauma they have already suffered from the defendant’s discrimination; that “genderqueer individuals suffer disproportionately from discrimination” and “outing” them in this way would place them “at further risk of discrimination by employees at their new job,” and finally that, as a parent of school-age children, plaintiff is concerned that disclosing their identity may expose their children to bullying.”

The defendants identified three types of prejudice to them if plaintiff is allowed to proceed anonymously. First, the “non-trivial cost of sealing or redacting court filings;” second, that “anonymity might allow Plaintiff to make accusations that they would not have made if their identity were publicly known;” and third, “Defendants contend that anonymity creates an imbalance when it comes to settlement negotiations.”  The defendants, who are not anonymous, may feel public pressure to settle the case in order to avoid bad publicity, while an anonymous plaintiff might “hold out for a larger settlement because they face no such reputational risk.”

Judge Oetken concluded that the case “presents no particularly strong public interest in revealing Plaintiff’s identity beyond the ‘universal public interest in access to the identities of litigants,’” which he remarks is “not trivial.” But the public interest would not be “especially harmed if Plaintiff proceeded pseudonymously.”

However, wrote the judge, “The key issue here is the extent to which Plaintiff has already revealed their gender and sexual orientation to the general public. Defendants point to Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in a news story for a major news outlet.  In the story, Plaintiff used their real name, identified as genderqueer, and revealed other details about their gender non-conformity.  The article also featured a photograph of Plaintiff, and the picture specifically illustrated Plaintiff’s non-conformance with gender norms.”  Thus, the defendants argued, Doe had already voluntarily disclosed “the sensitive issues they seek to keep secret in this case.”

Doe disagrees, saying they have revealed their sexual orientation but not their gender identity, particularly their identity as “trans-masculine,” which would be disclosed if they have to proceed under their real name in this lawsuit. But this argument did not persuade Judge Oetken, who wrote, “But while that is true, the news story still shows that Plaintiff was comfortable with putting their gender-non-conformity in the public eye.  The Court is mindful that coming out is a delicate process, and that LGBTQ individuals may feel comfortable disclosing one aspect of their identity but uncomfortable disclosing another.  Nevertheless, Plaintiff’s very public coming out as genderqueer undermines their arguments about the harm that would be caused by disclosure of their trans-masculinity.”

The court concluded that the issue was “whether the additional disclosure of Plaintiff’s identity as trans-masculine would so harm Plaintiff as to outweigh the significant prejudice to Defendants and the public interest in access to the identities of the litigants. Plaintiff has not met that significant burden.”  Oetken suggests that Plaintiff wants “what most employment-discrimination plaintiffs would like: to sue their former employer without future employers knowing about it,” but that is not how the civil litigation system is set up.  “Defendants – including two individuals – stand publicly accused of discrimination and harassment, including detailed allegations of misconduct.  Defendants do not have the option of proceeding pseudonymously,” commented Oetken. “Allowing Plaintiff to proceed anonymously would put Defendants at a genuine disadvantage, particularly when it comes to settlement leverage.  Courts allow such an imbalance only in unique circumstances, and Plaintiff has not shown that this is one of those special cases.”

While acknowledging that the disclosure of Doe’s trans-masculinity “would be difficult and uncomfortable,” wrote the judge, “this alone is not enough to demonstrate the exceptional circumstances required to proceed pseudonomously, especially in light of Plaintiff’s public identification as genderqueer.”

During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many federal courts granted motions for plaintiffs suing for AIDS-related discrimination to proceed as John Doe or Jane Doe, accepting the argument that requiring them to sue under their own names would have compounded the discrimination they had suffered, especially in light of the media interest in reporting about legal issues stemming from the epidemic. Today, when there is considerable litigation by transgender individuals, including high school students seeking appropriate restroom access, it is not unusual to find that the court will refer to plaintiffs by their initials, even though the plaintiffs — represented by public interest law firms — may have revealed their names and posed for photos to publicize their cases.  One suspects that “Jaime Doe” would have been allowed to proceed anonymously had they not already appeared under their name in news stories.

Doe is represented by Brittany Alexandra Stevens of Phillips & Associates PLLC, and Marjorie Mesidor of Phillips & Phillips PLLC. Attorneys from the law firm of Epstein, Becker & Green, P.C., represent the defendants.

Federal Court Rejects Trump Administration Ploy and Orders Trial on Trans Military Ban

Posted on: April 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman issued an Order on April 13 in Karnoski v. Trump, one of four pending legal challenges to the Trump Administration’s announced ban on military service by transgender people.  Judge Pechman, who sits in the Western District of Washington (Seattle), rejected the Administration’s argument that existing preliminary injunctions issued by her and three other federal district judges last year against the transgender ban are moot because of President Donald J. Trump’s March 23 Memorandum, which purported to “revoke” his August 25, 2017, Memorandum and July 26, 2017, tweets announcing the ban.  Karnoski v. Trump,  2018 WL 1784464 (W.D. Wash.).

Her skepticism as to this is clear from her description of events: “The 2018 Memorandum confirms [Trump’s] receipt of [Defense Secretary James Mattis’s] Implementation Plan, purports to ‘revoke’ the 2017 Memorandum and ‘any other directive [he] may have made with respect to military service by transgender individuals [an oblique reference to the July tweets],’ and directs the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to ‘exercise their authority to implement any appropriate policies concerning military service by transgender individuals.’”  Thus, the judge rejected the Administration’s contention that Mattis was directed by the President to have a new study made to decide whether to let transgender people serve, and saw it for what it was: an order to propose a plan to implement Trump’s announced ban.

Judge Pechman also rejected the government’s argument that the policy announced in the February 22 Memorandum signed by Secretary James Mattis either deprives all the plaintiffs in the case of “standing” to sue the government, or that the policy it announces is so different from the one previously announced by President Trump that the current lawsuit, specifically aimed at the previously announced policy, is effectively moot as well. The government argued that due to various tweaks and exceptions to the policy announced on March 23, none of the individual plaintiffs in this case were threatened with the kind of individualized harm necessary to have standing, but Pechman concluded that each of the plaintiffs, in facts submitted in response to the March 23 policy, had adequately shown that they still had a personal stake in the outcome of this case.

Instead, and most consequentially, Judge Pechman found that the court should employ the most demanding level of judicial review – strict scrutiny – because transgender people are a “suspect class” for constitutional purposes.  However, Judge Pechman decided that it is premature to grant summary judgment to the plaintiffs, because disputed issues of material fact will require further hearings to resolve.  One is whether the government can prove that excluding transgender people from the military is necessary for the national security of the United States.  Another is whether the purported “study” that produced the February 22 “Report and Recommendations” and Mattis’s Memorandum are entitled to the kind of deference that courts ordinarily extend to military policies.

Judge Pechman’s boldest step is abandoning her prior ruling in this case that the challenged policies are subject only to heightened scrutiny, not strict scrutiny.  Although the Supreme Court has not been consistent or precise in its approach to the level of judicial scrutiny for constitutional challenges to government actions, legal scholars and lower courts have generally described its rulings as divided into three general categories – strict scrutiny, heightened scrutiny, and rationality review.

If a case involves discrimination that uses a “suspect classification,” the approach is strict scrutiny. The policy is presumed unconstitutional and the government has a heavy burden of showing that it is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest, and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest without unnecessarily burdening individual rights.  The Supreme Court has identified race, national origin and religion as suspect classifications, and has not identified any new such classifications in a long time.  Lower federal courts have generally refrained from identifying any new federal suspect classifications, but the California Supreme Court decided in 2008 that sexual orientation is a suspect classification under its state constitution when it struck down the ban on same-sex marriage.

Challenges to economic and social legislation that do not involve “suspect classifications” or “fundamental rights” are generally reviewed under the “rational basis” test. They are not presumed unconstitutional, and the burden is on the plaintiff to show that there was no rational, non-discriminatory reason to support the challenged law.  Courts generally presume that legislatures have rational policy reasons for their actions, but evidence that a law was adopted solely due to animus against a particular group will result in it being declared unconstitutional.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to identify some types of discrimination that fell somewhere between these existing categories, and the third “tier” of judicial review emerged, first in cases involving discrimination because of sex.  The Supreme Court has used a variety of verbal formulations to describe this “heightened scrutiny” standard, but it places the burden on the government to show that such a law actually advances an important government interest.

So far, litigation about transgender rights in the federal courts has progressed to a heightened scrutiny standard in decisions from several circuit courts, including recent controversies about restroom access for transgender high school students, public employee discrimination cases, and lawsuits by transgender prisoners. Ruling on preliminary injunction motions in the transgender military cases last fall, Judge Pechman and the three other federal judges all referred to a heightened scrutiny standard.  Now Judge Pechman blazes a new trail by ruling that discrimination against transgender people should be subject to the same strict scrutiny test used in race discrimination cases.

It is very difficult for the government to win a strict scrutiny case, but its best shot in this litigation depends on the court finding that the policy announced by Mattis is entitled to deference, and this turns on whether it is the product of “expert military judgment,” a phrase that appears in the Mattis Memorandum and the Report.   Judge Pechman has already signaled in her Order her skepticism as to this.  By characterizing this as an “Implementation Plan,” she implies that the question whether Trump actually consulted with generals and military experts back in July before tweeting his absolute ban remains in play, and she pointedly notes the continued refusal by the government to reveal who, if anyone, Trump consulted.

“Defendants to date have failed to identify even one General or military expert he consulted,” she wrote, “despite having been ordered to do so repeatedly. Indeed, the only evidence concerning the lead-up to his Twitter Announcement reveals that military officials were entirely unaware of the Ban, and that the abrupt change in policy was ‘unexpected.’”  Here she quotes Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s statement the day after the tweets that “yesterday’s announcement was unexpected,” and news reports that White House and Pentagon officials “were unable to explain the most basic of details about how it would be carried out.”  She also notes that Mattis was given only one day’s notice before the announcement.  “As no other persons have ever been identified by Defendants – despite repeated Court orders to do so – the Court is led to conclude that the Ban was devised by the President, and the President alone.”

Thus, it would be logical to conclude, as she had preliminarily concluded last year when she issued her injunction, that no military expertise was involved and so no deference should be extended to the policy. On the other hand, the new “Report and Recommendations” are now advanced by the government as filling the information gap and supporting deference.  But Judge Pechman remains skeptical.  (There are press reports, which she does not mention, that this document originated at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, rather than from the Defense Department, and it has been subjected to withering criticism by, among others, the American Psychiatric Association.)

Citing their “study,” the government now claims “that the Ban – as set forth in the 2018 Memorandum and the Implementation Plan – is now the product of a deliberative review. In particular, Defendants claim the Ban has been subjected to ‘an exhaustive study’ and is consistent with the recommendations of a ‘Panel of Experts’ convened by Secretary Mattis to study ‘military service by transgender individuals, focusing on military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion,’ and tasked with ‘conduct[ing] an independent multi-disciplinary review and study of relevant data and information pertaining to transgender Service members.’  Defendants claim that the Panel was comprised of senior military leaders who received ‘support from medical and personnel experts from across the [DoD] and [DHS],’ and considered ‘input from transgender Service members, commanders of transgender Service members, military medical professionals, and civilian medical professions with experience in the care and treatment of individuals with gender dysphoria.’  The Defendants also claim that the Report was ‘informed by the [DoD]’s own data obtained since the new policy began to take effect last year.’”

But, having “carefully considered the Implementation Plan,” wrote Pechman, “the Court concludes that whether the Ban is entitled to deference raises an unresolved question of fact. The Implementation Plan was not disclosed until March 23, 2018.  As Defendants’ claims and evidence regarding their justifications for the Ban were presented to the Court only recently, Plaintiffs and [The State of Washington, which has intervened as a co-plaintiff] have not yet had an opportunity to test or respond to these claims.  On the present record, the Court cannot determine whether the DoD’s deliberate process – including the timing and thoroughness of its study and the soundness of the medical and other evidence it relied upon – is of the type to which Courts typically should defer.”

In other words, Pechman suspects that this purported “study” is a political document, produced for litigation purposes, and she is undoubtedly aware that its accuracy has been sharply criticized. Furthermore, she wrote, “The Court notes that, even in the event it were to conclude that deference is owed, it would not be rendered powerless to address Plaintiffs’ and Washington’s constitutional claims, as Defendants seem to suggest.”  And, she noted pointedly, the Defendants’ “claimed justifications for the Ban – to promote ‘military lethality and readiness’ and avoid ‘disrupt[ing] unit cohesion, or tax[ing] military resources’ – are strikingly similar to justifications offered in the past to support the military’s exclusion and segregation of African American service members, its ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, and its policy preventing women from serving in combat roles.”  In short, Pechman will not be bamboozled by a replay of past discriminatory policies, all of which have been abandoned because they were based mainly on prejudice and stereotyping.

Thus, although the judge denied for now the Plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment, it was because factual controversies must be resolved before the court can make a final ruling on the merits.

The Defendants won only one tiny victory in this ruling: a concession that the court lacks jurisdiction to impose injunctive relief against President Trump in his official capacity. However, even that was just a partial victory for Defendants, as Judge Pechman rejected the suggestion that the court lacks jurisdiction to issue a declaratory judgment against the President.  “The Court is aware of no case holding that the President is immune from declaratory relief – rather, the Supreme Court has explicitly affirmed the entry of such relief,” citing several cases as examples.  “The Court concludes that, not only does it have jurisdiction to issue declaratory relief against the President, but that this case presents a ‘most appropriate instance’ for such relief,” she continued, taking note of Trump’s original Twitter announcement, and that two of the operative Memoranda at issue in the case were signed by Trump.  If, as Judge Pechman suspects, the Ban was devised in the first instance by Trump, and by Trump alone, a declaratory judgment that his action violated the Constitution would be entirely appropriate.

Plaintiffs are represented by a team of attorneys from Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN, with pro bono assistance from the law firms of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Newman Du Wors LLP.

(Post script):

Trump Administration Issues New Transgender Military Policy, Attempting To Sidetrack Lawsuits

Posted on: March 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a move intended to evade existing preliminary injunctions while reaffirming in its essential elements President Trump’s Twitter announcement from last July categorically prohibiting military service by transgender individuals, the Administration issued three new documents on Friday afternoon, March 23, the date that the President had designated in an August 2017 Memorandum for his announced policy to take effect.  A new Presidential Memorandum “revoked” Trump’s August Memo and authorized the Defense and Homeland Security Secretaries to “implement any appropriate policies concerning military service by transgender individuals.”  At the same time, Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys filed with the federal court in Seattle copies of Defense Secretary James Mattis’s Memorandum to the President and a Department of Defense (DOJ) working group’s “Report and Recommendations” that had been submitted to the White House on February 23, in which Mattis recommended a version of Trump’s transgender ban that would effectively preclude military service for many, perhaps most, transgender applicants and some of those already serving, although the number affected was not immediately clear.

 

Mattis’s recommendation drew a distinction between transgender status and the “medical condition” of gender dysphoria, as defined in the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM) generally cited as authoritative in litigation.  Mattis is willing to let transgender people enlist unless they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, which the Report characterizes, based heavily on subjective assertions rather than any evidence, as a condition presenting undue risks in a military environment.  Transgender people can enlist if they do not desire to transition and are willing to conform to all military requirements consistent with their biological sex as designated at birth.  Similarly, transgender people currently serving who have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria can serve on the same basis: that they comply with all requirements for service members of their biological sex.  However, people with a gender dysphoria diagnosis are largely excluded from enlistment or retention, with some individual exceptions, although those currently serving who were diagnosed after the Obama Administration lifted the transgender ban on June 30, 2016, are “exempted” from these exclusions and may serve while transitioning and after transitioning consistent with their gender identity.  (This is pragmatically justified by the investment the military has made in their training, and is conditioned on their meeting all military performance requirement for those in their desired gender presentation.)  Under the recommended policy, Defense Department transition-related health coverage will continue to be available for this “grandfathered” group, but for no others.

 

The March 23 document release took place just days before attorneys from Lambda Legal and the DOJ were scheduled to appear on March 27 in U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s Seattle federal courtroom to present arguments on Lambda’s motion for summary judgment in Karnoski v. Trump, one of the four pending legal challenges to the policy. Lambda’s motion, filed in January, was aimed at Trump’s July tweet and August Memorandum, although it anticipated that the Administration would attempt to come up with some sort of documents to fill the fatal gap identified by four federal district judges when they issued preliminary injunctions last fall: Trump’s unilateral actions were not based on any sort of “expert military judgment,” but rather on his short-term political need to win sufficient Republican votes in the House to pass a then-pending Defense Department spending measure.

 

Based on the obvious conclusion that Trump’s policy was not based on “expert military judgment,” the courts refused to accord it the usual deference that federal courts accord to military regulations and rules when they are challenged in court. Indeed, the only in-depth military study on the subject was that carried out over a period of years by the Obama Administration before it lifted the transgender service ban formally on June 30, 2016, while delaying implementation of new accession standards for transgender enlistees for a year. (Mattis later extended that deadline an additional six months to January 1, 2018.)  With no factual backup, Trump’s across-the-board ban was highly vulnerable to constitutional challenge in light of recent federal court rulings that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.  Policies that discriminate because of sex are treated by courts as presumptively unconstitutional, putting the government to the burden of showing that they substantially advance an important government interest, and demanding “exceedingly persuasive” proof.  The “Report and Recommendations” filed in Judge Pechman’s court were clearly devised to attempt to fill that evidentiary gap, despite their disclaimer that the group assembled to study the issues and report their recommendations to Mattis and the President were tasked with an objective policy review.

 

The White House document dump ignited a host of questions. There was no clarity about when the “new” policies recommended by Mattis were intended to go into effect (their implementation would require rewriting and formal adoption in the form of regulations), and there were many questions about how transgender people currently serving would be affected.  Defense Department spokespersons said that the Pentagon would abide by federal law, which at present consists of the preliminary injunctions against the policies announced by Trump last summer, which were supposed to go into effect on March 23, 2018, if they had not been blocked by the courts.

 

Since the preliminary injunctions were all aimed at last summer’s tweets and August Memorandum, were they rendered moot by Trump’s revocation of those policy announcements? Or would the courts see the proposed new policy as essentially a continuation of what Trump had initiated, and thus covered by the preliminary injunctions?  The district judges had all denied requests by the government to stay these injunctions, and two courts of appeals had refused to stay those issued by the judges in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., leading DOJ to desist from seeking a stay of the Seattle and Riverside, California, injunctions.  Complying with those injunctions, the Pentagon allowed transgender people to begin applying to enlist in January, and announced that at least one transgender applicant had completed the enlistment process by February.  Arguably, the preliminary injunctions would apply to any policy of excluding transgender people from military service pending a final resolution of these cases, giving them a broad reading consistent with their analysis of the underlying issues.

 

In a signal of what was coming, DOJ attorneys stoutly combatted the plaintiffs’ demand in the Seattle case for disclosure of the identity of “generals and military experts” with whom Trump claimed in his July tweets to have consulted before announcing his categorical ban, arguing that after Mattis made his recommendation in February, DOJ would not be defending the policy announced in the summer but rather whatever new policy the President decided to announce, relying upon Mattis’ “expert military judgment” and whatever documentation was provided to support it. That led to a series of confrontations over the discovery demand, producing two written opinions by Judge Pechman ordering DOJ to come up with the requested information, and at last provoking a questionable claim of Executive Privilege protecting the identity of those consulted by Trump.  This waited to be resolved at the March 27 hearing as well.

 

The Administration’s strategic moves on March 23 appeared intended to change the field of battle in the pending lawsuits. When they were originally filed, they had a big fat target in Trump’s unilateral, unsupported actions.  By revoking his August Memorandum and “any other directive I may have made” (that is, the tweets from July), Trump sought to remove that target and replace it with a new, possibly more defensible one: a policy recommended and eventually adopted as “appropriate” by Mattis based on his “expert military judgment” in response to the recommendation of his study.  Clearly, the Administration was aiming to be able to rely on judicial deference to avoid having to defend the newly-announced policy on its constitutional merits.

 

The big lingering question is whether the courts will let them get away with this. The policy itself suffers from many of the same constitutional flaws as the one it replaces, but the “Report and Recommendations” – cobbled together in heavy reliance on the work of dedicated opponents to transgender military service – has at least the veneer and trappings of a serious policy review.  The plaintiffs in the existing lawsuit will now need to discredit it in the eyes of the courts, painting it as the litigation advocacy document that it obviously is.

 

Mark Joseph Stern, in a detailed dissection published in “Slate ” shortly after the document release, credited Administration sources with revealing that the process of producing the report had been taken over by Vice President Pence and Heritage Foundation personnel who have been producing articles opposing transgender rights in a variety of contexts. According to Stern’s report, Mattis was opposed to reinstating the transgender ban, but was overruled by the White House and is reacting as a soldier to the dictates of his Commander in Chief, unwilling to spend political capital on this issue.  Tellingly, the Report itself does not provide the names of any of those responsible for its actual composition, setting up a new discovery confrontation between the plaintiffs and DOJ.

 

Some are predicting that the new policy will never go into effect. If the courts refuse to be bamboozled by the façade of reasoned policy-making now presented by the Administration, those predictions may be correct.

Federal Appeals Court Rules for Transgender Funeral Director in Title VII Discrimination Suit

Posted on: March 11th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled on March 7 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 2018 WL 1177669, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720, that a Michigan funeral home violated federal anti-discrimination law by terminating a funeral director who announced that she would be transitioning during her summer vacation and would return to work as a woman.  The 6th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction over federal cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Rejecting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox that the funeral home’s action was protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the court that the government’s “compelling interest” to eradicate employment discrimination because of sex took priority over the religious beliefs of the funeral home’s owner.

This is the first time that any federal appeals court has ruled that RFRA would not shelter an employer from a gender identity discrimination claim by a transgender plaintiff.  Although the 6th Circuit has allowed Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs in the past under a “gender stereotype” theory, this is also the first time that the 6th Circuit has explicitly endorsed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s conclusion that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, directly prohibited by Title VII.  Judge Moore drew a direct comparison to a Title VII decision by the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017), which held similarly that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus potentially joining in the widening split of federal appellate courts over a broad construction of Title VII to extend to both kinds of claims.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s involvement as volunteer counsel for the funeral home makes it highly likely that the Supreme Court will be asked to review this ruling.

The lawsuit was filed by the EEOC, which sued after investigating Aimee Stephens’ administrative charge that she had been unlawfully terminated by the Michigan funeral home.  After the district court ruled in favor of the funeral home, the EEOC appealed to the 6th Circuit and Stephens, represented by the ACLU, was granted standing to intervene as co-plaintiff in the appeal.

“While living and presenting as a man,” wrote Judge Moore, “she worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a closely held for-profit corporation that operates three funeral homes in Michigan.  Stephens was terminated from the Funeral Home by its owner and operator, Thomas Rost, shortly after Stephens informed Rost that she intended to transition from male to female and would represent herself and dress as a woman while at work.”

Rost identifies himself as a Christian who espouses the religious belief that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” and that he would be “violating God’s commands if he were to permit one of the Funeral Home’s funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of the organization” or if he were to “permit one of the Funeral Home’s male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.”

“In particular,” related Judge Moore, “Rost believes that authorizing or paying for a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would render him complicit ‘in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.’”

As such, Rost claimed that his company’s obligation to comply with Title VII should be excused in this case because of the later-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that the federal government may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling justification for doing so, and that the rule the government seeks to apply is narrowly tailored to burden religious practice no more than is necessary to achieve the government’s goal.

The funeral home moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title VII does not ban discrimination against a person because they are transgender or transitioning, that the funeral home could reasonably require compliance with its dress code, and that requiring the funeral home to allow a “man dressed as a woman” to serve as a funeral director would substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion, as defined by Rost, and violate its rights under RFRA.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, there was no Supreme Court authority for the proposition that a funeral home, or any other for-profit business, could claim to “exercise religion,” but in that case the Court ruled that because business corporations are defined as “persons” in the U.S. Code, they enjoy the same protection as natural persons under RFRA.  At least in the case of a closely-held corporation such as Hobby Lobby, with a small group of shareholders who held the same religious beliefs on the issue in question – a federal regulation requiring that employer health plans cover various forms of contraception to which Hobby Lobby’s owners took exception on religious grounds – the corporation was entitled to protection under RFRA based on the religious views of its owners.  The Harris Funeral Home is analogous to Hobby Lobby Stores, albeit operating on a smaller scale, so Rost’s religious views on gender identity and transitioning can be attributed to the corporation for purposes of RFRA.

Interestingly, this would not have been an issue in the case had Stephens brought the lawsuit on her own behalf, without the EEOC as a plaintiff.  The 6th Circuit has interpreted RFRA to impose its restriction on the federal government but not on private plaintiffs suing to enforce their rights under federal statutes.  Since EEOC is the plaintiff, however, this is a case of the government seeking to impose a burden on the free exercise of religion by a business corporation, and RFRA is implicated.

District Judge Cox, bound by 6th Circuit precedent to find that Stephens had a potentially valid discrimination claim under Title VII (see Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F. 3d 566 (2004)), nonetheless concluded that ordering a remedy for Stephens would substantially impair the Funeral Home’s rights under RFRA, granting summary judgment to the funeral home.  In another contested issue in the case, Judge Cox ruled that the EEOC could not pursue in this lawsuit a claim that the Funeral Home’s policy of paying for male employees’ uniforms but not for female employees’ uniforms violated Title VII’s sex discrimination provision.  Cox held that this claim did not grow naturally out of the investigation of Stephens’ discrimination charge, and so must be litigated separately.

The 6th Circuit reversed on both points.  As to the uniform issue, the Court found that the EEOC’s investigation of Stephens’ discrimination claim naturally led to investigating the company’s uniform policy, since the question of which uniform Stephens could wear was directly involved in Rost’s decision to terminate her.  The court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the question back to the district court to determine whether the uniform policy, which the funeral home has since modified to provide some subsidy for the cost of women’s uniforms, violates Title VII.

More significantly, the court found that Judge Cox erred on several key points in his analysis of the company’s summary judgment motion.

Cox had determined that the 6th Circuit does not recognize gender identity claims under Title VII, as such, but in rejecting a prior motion to dismiss the case had concluded that Stephens could proceed on the theory that she was fired for failing to conform to her employer’s stereotype about how men are supposed to present themselves and dress in the workplace.  Rost stated in his deposition that he objected to men dressing as women – which is how he views Stephens in light of his religious belief that gender identity is just a social construct that violates God’s plan and not a reality.

After reviewing the court’s prior transgender discrimination decisions, Judge Moore concluded that the EEOC’s view of the statute to cover gender identity discrimination directly, without reference to sex stereotypes, is correct.  “First,” she wrote, “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”

She referred to the 7th Circuit’s Hively decision, a sexual orientation case, which employed the same reasoning to find that Title VII covers sexual orientation claims.  “Here, we ask whether Stephens would have been fired if Stephens had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code.  The answer quite obviously is no.  This, in and of itself, confirms that Stephens’ sex impermissibly affected Rost’s decision to fire Stephens.”

The court also referred to a landmark ruling by the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, Schroer v. Billington, 577 F. Supp. 2nd 293 (D.D.C. 2008), which allowed a transgender discrimination claim against the Library of Congress, which had withdrawn an employment offer when informed that the applicant was transitioning.

And, of course, the court noted the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins ruling (490 U.S. 228 (1989)), stating that Title VII requires “gender” to be “irrelevant to employment decisions.”  Moore wrote, “Gender (or sex) is not being treated as ‘irrelevant to employment decisions’ if an employee’s attempt or desire to change his or her sex leads to an adverse employment decision.”

Of course, Moore noted, transgender discrimination implicates the sex stereotype theory as well.  Referring to Smith v. City of Salem, she wrote, “We did not expressly hold in Smith that discrimination on the basis of transgender status is unlawful, though the opinion has been read to say as much – both by this circuit and others,” and then proceeded to say as much!  “Such references support what we now directly hold: Title VII protects transgender persons because of their transgender or transitioning status, because transgender or transitioning status constitutes an inherently gender non-conforming trait.”

In light of this holding, the funeral home had to be found in violation of the statute unless it was entitled to some exception or some affirmative defense.  One argument made in an amicus brief in support of the funeral home suggested that a person employed as a funeral director could be covered by the constitutionally-mandated ministerial exception recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  The Supreme Court said that it is a component of free exercise of religion that if somebody is being employed to perform religious functions, the government could not dictate the hiring decision.  The court rejected this defense, noting that the funeral home has conceded that it is not a “religious organization” and was not claiming the “ministerial exception” for any of its employees.  Furthermore, even if the funeral home tried to claim the exception, the court found it would not apply to the position of a funeral director in a for-profit funeral home business.  Stephen was not employed to serve a religious function, and the duties of a funeral directly only incidentally involved any religious function in the way of facilitating participation of religious funeral celebrants.

Turning to the RFRA defense, the court first dispensed with the argument that as Stephens had intervened as a co-plaintiff, RFRA had been rendered irrelevant because this was no longer purely a government enforcement case.  The EEOC remains the principal appellant in the case, and the court would not dismiss the RFRA concern on that basis.

However, the court found, significantly, that requiring the funeral home to employ Stephens after her transition would not impose a “substantial” burden within the meaning of RFRA.  The funeral home argued that the “very operation of the Funeral Home constitutes protected religious exercise because Rost feels compelled by his faith to serve grieving people through the funeral home, and thus requiring the Funeral Home to authorize a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would directly interfere with – and thus impose a substantial burden on – the Funeral Home’s ability to carry out Rost’s religious exercise of caring for the grieving.”

Rost suggested two ways this would impose a substantial burden.  First, he suggested, letting Stephens dress as a woman “would often create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones and thereby hinder their healing process (and the Funeral Home’s ministry),” and second, “forcing the Funeral Home to violate Rost’s faith would significantly pressure Rost to leave the funeral industry and end his ministry to grieving people.”  The court did not accept either of these as “substantial within the meaning of RFRA.”

For one thing, a basic tenet of anti-discrimination law is that businesses may not rely on customer preferences or biases as an excuse to refuse to employ people for a reason forbidden by Title VII.  Courts have ruled that even if it is documented that employing somebody will alienate some customers, that cannot be raised as a defense to a valid discrimination claim.  “We hold as a matter of law,” wrote Moore, “that a religious claimant cannot rely on customers’ presumed biases to establish a substantial burden under RFRA.”

The court rejected Rost’s argument that the EEOC’s position put him to the choice of violating his religious beliefs by, for example, paying for a women’s uniform for Stephens to wear, or otherwise quitting the funeral business.  The court pointed out that there is no legal requirement for Rost to pay for uniforms for his staff.  This is distinguishable from the Hobby Lobby case, where the issue was a regulation requiring employers to bear the cost of contraceptive coverage.  Further, wrote Moore, “simply permitting Stephens to wear attire that reflects a conception of gender that is at odds with Rost’s religious beliefs is not a substantial burden under RFRA,” because “as a matter of law, tolerating Stephens’ understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”

Since the court found no substantial burden, it did not necessarily have to tackle the question of the government’s justification for imposing any burden at all.  But with an eye to a likely appeal of this case, the court went ahead to determine whether, if it is wrong about this and the Supreme Court were to find that this application of Title VII to Rost’s business does impose a substantial burden, it passes the strict scrutiny test established by RFRA.

As to this, the court reached perhaps its most significant new ruling in the case: Having identified gender identity claims as coming within the ambit of sex discrimination claims, the court had to determine whether the government has a compelling interest and that enforcing Title VII is the least intrusive way of achieving that interest.  Even the Funeral Home was willing to concede that on a general level the government has a compelling interest, expressed through Title VII, in eradicating sex discrimination in the workplace, but the Funeral Home argued that interest did not justify this particular case, compelling it to let a man dress as a woman while working as a funeral director.  “The Funeral Home’s construction of the compelling-interest test is off-base,” wrote Moore.  “Rather than focusing on the EEOC’s claim – that the Funeral Home terminated Stephens because of her proposed gender nonconforming behavior – the Funeral Home’s test focuses instead on its defense that the Funeral Home merely wishes to enforce an appropriate workplace uniform.  But the Funeral Home has not identified any cases where the government’s compelling interest was framed as its interest in disturbing a company’s workplace policies.”  The question, according to the court’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedents, is whether “the interests generally served by a given government policy or statute would not be ‘compromised’ by granting an exemption to a particular individual or group.”

“Failing to enforce Title VII against the Funeral Home means the EEOC would be allowing a particular person – Stephens – to suffer discrimination, and such an outcome is directly contrary to the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating discrimination in the workforce.” And, continued Moore, “here, the EEOC’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination applies with as much force to Stephens as to any other employee discriminated against based on sex.”

The court specifically rejected the Funeral Home’s argument that its religious free exercise rights should take priority as being derived from the 1st Amendment, because that would go directly against Supreme Court precedent, which has rejected the idea that individuals and businesses generally enjoy a 1st Amendment right to refuse to comply with laws because of their religious objections.  Congress did not have authority, in the first version of RFRA that it passed and that was invalidated by the Supreme Court, to overrule a Supreme Court decision.  What RFRA does is to create a statutory right, not to channel a constitutional right, and the statutory right is circumscribed to cases where a federal law imposes a substantial burden on free exercise without having a compelling justification for doing so.  This does, not, according to the 6th Circuit, elevate a business’s free exercise rights above an individual’s statutory protection against discrimination.  (Indeed, Justice Samuel Alito said as much in his Hobby Lobby opinion for the Supreme Court, albeit in the context of race discrimination.)

Finally, as required by RFRA, the court found that requiring compliance with Title VII was the least restrictive means available for the government to achieve its compelling interest in eradicating employment discrimination because of sex.  The district court had suggested that the EEOC could pursue a less restrictive alternative by getting the parties to agree to a gender-neutral uniform for the workplace, thus removing Rost’s objection to a “man dressed as a woman.”  “The district court’s suggestion, although appealing in its tidiness, is tenable only if we excise from the case evidence of sex stereotyping in areas other than attire,” wrote Judge Moore.  “Though Rost does repeatedly say that he terminated Stephens because she ‘wanted to dress as a woman’ and ‘would no longer dress as a man,’ the record also contains uncontroverted evidence that Rost’s reasons for terminating Stephens extended to other aspects of Stephens’s intended presentation.”  It was not just about the uniforms.

The court could have reversed the summary judgment and sent the case back to the district court to reconsider its holding and determine whether a trial was needed, but in fact there are no material facts in dispute once one treats the 6th Circuit’s opinion as presenting the law of the case on interpreting Title VII and RFRA.  With no material facts to be resolved at this stage, the 6th Circuit directly granted summary judgment to the EEOC on its claim that the Funeral Home violated Title VII and is not entitled to a defense under RFRA.  Stephens won on the merits, unless the Funeral Home is successful in getting the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 6th Circuit’s decision.

The appeal was argued for the EEOC by Anne Noel Occhialinio, and for Stephens by ACLU attorney John A. Knight.  Douglas G. Wardlow of Alliance Defending Freedom argued on behalf of the Funeral Home.  The case attracted amicus briefs from Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Private Rights/Public Conscience Project (New York) and various law firms offering pro bono assistance to amici on briefs.

Judge Moore was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the unanimous panel were Helene N. White, appointed by President George W. Bush, and Bernice W. Donald, appointed by President Barack Obama.  Showing a recent trend in diversifying the federal bench, the panel was, unusually, made up entirely of female circuit judges.  As a result of several appointments by President Obama, half of the active judges on the 6th Circuit are women, the only federal appellate court yet to achieve gender parity.

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

Posted on: January 10th, 2018 by Art Leonard 2 Comments

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Federal District Court Denies Preliminary Injunction Requiring School District to Segregate Restroom and Locker Facilities by Biological Sex of Students

Posted on: December 31st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Accepting a report and recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey T. Gilbert, U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso ruled on December 29, 2017, that a group of parents and cisgender students are not entitled to a preliminary injunction blocking Illinois’s Township High School District 211 from allowing transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Students and Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213091 (N.D. Ill., E.D.).

The dispute grew out of prior legal action by a transgender girl at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinios, a suburb of Chicago, seeking to use the girls’ facilities. During the Obama Administration, the U.S. Education Department responded to the student’s complaint by negotiating a settlement agreement with the school district under which Student A, as she was identified, would be allowed to use these facilities.  The school district’s willingness to settle turned on a formal Guidance issued by the U.S. Education and Justice Departments construing Title IX to require such a policy.

Reacting to the settlement, an ad hoc group of parents of students at Fremd High School, together with some girls who attend the high school, brought this suit in May 2016, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, asserting that the girls had a constitutional and statutory right not to have “biological boys” present in their restroom and locker room facilities where they could see girls in a state of undress. The lawsuit targeted the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice for issuing the Guidance and negotiating the settlement.  The school district was also named as a defendant.  Student A, together with two other transgender students in the district and their parents, were granted intervenor status as defendants.

Magistrate Judge Gilbert, to whom the motion for preliminary injunction had been referred by Judge Alonso, issued his report on October 18, 2006, concluding that plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on their claims, and recommending that the motion be denied. Plaintiffs filed objections with Judge Alonso.

While the objections were pending there were several developments significantly affecting the case. Donald J. Trump was elected president a few weeks after the Magistrate Report was issued, and he then appointed new leadership to the two Departments after his term began on January 20, 2017.  The two Departments then jointly withdrew the Obama Administration Title IX Guidance, opining that it had not been properly issued and that the matter required more study, but not taking any position on whether transgender students had such protection under Title IX, commenting that these issues should be decided at the local level.  Thus, the Trump Administration was, at least as of then, “neutral” on the question, although since then Attorney General Sessions and the Justice Department have gone on record as opposing an expansive interpretation of Title IX to embrace gender identity (and sexual orientation) discrimination claims.

However, shortly after the withdrawal of the Guidance, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a similar case, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017) (petition for certiorari pending), that Title IX does extend to gender identity discrimination claims, and upheld an injunction ordering a Wisconsin school district to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ restroom facilities at a public high school.

The Trump Administration actions mooted the part of the lawsuit against the federal government defendants, as the policy the plaintiffs are challenging was no longer federal executive branch policy. Thus, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the federal defendants from the case.  Also, because Student A has graduated, the plaintiffs’ specific objection to District 211’s agreement with the Education Department concerning facilities access for that student was mooted as well.  However, Intervenor Students B and C and their parents, and possibly other transgender students in District 211, would present the same access issues, so the plaintiffs’ claims against the District under Title IX and the Constitution continue so long as the District does not disavow the access policy to which it had agreed.

In essence, Plaintiffs’ Title IX complaint relies on a long-standing Title IX regulation that authorizes schools to maintain sex-separate restroom and locker room facilities, provided that the facilities are comparable in scope and quality. Plaintiffs argue that this authorization of sex-segregated facilities recognizes the privacy concerns of the students (and their parents), and that requiring students to have to share such facilities with transgender students of a different “biological” sex contradicts those privacy concerns.  The Magistrate had rejected this argument in October 2016, and the 7th Circuit’s Whitaker decision subsequently confirmed the Magistrate’s understanding of this issue.

Wrote Judge Alonso, “Discrimination against transgender individuals is sex discrimination under Price Waterhouse, the 7th Circuit explained, because ‘by definition, a transgender individual does not conform to the sex-based stereotypes of the sex that he or she was assigned at birth.’  Following Price Waterhouse and its progeny, the Court reasoned that a ‘policy that requires an individual to use a restroom that does not conform with his or her gender identity punishes that individual for his or her gender non-conformance which in turn violates Title IX.  Providing a gender-neutral alternative was insufficient to relieve the school district from liability under Title IX, the Seventh Circuit explained, because it was ‘the policy itself which violates the Act.”

The plaintiffs tried to distinguish the Whitaker case because it addressed only restrooms, not locker rooms, and because, they insisted, the decision was so “astonishingly wrong” that its reasoning undercuts its “worth even as persuasive authority.”  The problem with that, of course, is that Illinois is in the same 7th Circuit as Wisconsin, so Whitaker is not just persuasive authority; it is binding on Judge Alonso.

The judge insisted that nothing in Whitaker “suggests that restrooms and locker rooms should be treated differently under Title IX or that the presence of a transgendered student in either, especially given additional privacy protections like single stalls or privacy screens, implicates the constitutional privacy rights of others with whom such facilities are shared.  Plaintiffs’ critiques notwithstanding,” he continued, “Whitaker reflects a straightforward application of the long-standing line of sex stereotyping decisions, fully in line with the Supreme Court’s guidance on sex discrimination claims.”  Thus, under Whitaker, plaintiffs could not meet the first test for preliminary injunctive relief: showing the probability that they would prevail on the merits of their claim.  Judge Alonso devoted several paragraphs to explaining why the plaintiffs’ attempts to distinguish or disparage Whitaker were unavailing in meeting their burden under the motion.

“Furthermore,” he wrote, “even if Plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of success on the merits, they would still not be entitled to a preliminary injunction because they have not shown they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, or that they lack an adequate remedy at law in the event that they ultimately succeed on their claims.” Indeed, as far as demonstrating harm goes, “the only specific harm to which they point is the risk of running late to class by using alternate restrooms to avoid sharing with a transgender student and the ‘embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, fear, apprehension, stress, degradation , and loss of dignity’ allegedly felt by Student Plaintiffs arising from such sharing.”  The Magistrate [Judge Gilbert] had found that these were insufficient to establish irreparable injury, because courts routinely award monetary damages for emotional distress, and “the risk of being late to class has not been shown to have any meaningful impact on Student Plaintiffs’ education.”

Judge Alonso considered it worth nothing that the District’s practice of letting transgender students use appropriate facilities had been going on for nearly three years when this lawsuit was filed, but “either Student Plaintiffs did not notice that transgender students were using restrooms consistent with their gender identity, or they knew and tolerated it for several years,” as no examples of actual incidents were proffered in support of their motion. “The passage of time therefore further undermines Plaintiffs’ claim of irreparable harm,” wrote Alonso.  “This Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge’s assessment, ‘there is no indication that anything has negatively impacted Girl Plaintiffs’ education.”  Judge Alonso overruled the objections, and accepted the Magistrate’s recommendation to deny the preliminary injunction.

Now that pretrial motions have been disposed of, the court gave the defendants until January 30, 2018, to file an answer to the complaint, and set a status hearing for February 8. In light of the Whitaker case and Judge Alonso’s strongly-worded opinion, one would expect the school district to promptly file a motion for summary judgment, if ADF does not decide within the next few weeks to fold up its tent and steal away.  Of course, what could change the situation dramatically would be a grant of certiorari by the Supreme Court of the school district’s petition in the 7th Circuit Whitaker case.  But the parties in that case were reportedly close to a settlement and had asked the Supreme Court to extend the time for Whitaker’s counsel to file a response to the cert petition, so it appears likely that a cert grant will not be forthcoming during the month of January leading up to School District 211’s court-imposed deadline to respond to the complaint in this case.

The transgender student Intervenors are represented by the ACLU of Illinois and the national ACLU Foundation, with pro bono attorneys from Mayer Brown LLP.

Ten Federal Judges Vote “No” on Trump Transgender Military Ban

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

 

President Donald Trump’s July 26 tweet announcing that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” as amplified by an August 25 Memorandum, has encountered unanimous resistance from ten federal judges who have had an opportunity to vote on it by Christmas. Nine of the ten were appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  One, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis in Baltimore (District of Maryland), was appointed by George H. W. Bush.  As of December 22, the Trump policies had provoked four nationwide preliminary injunctions, and two federal circuit courts of appeals had refuse “emergency” motions by the government to stay the injunctions in connection with a January 1 date for allowing transgender individuals to enlist.

The most recent relevant opinions are Jane Doe 1 v. Trump, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 26477 (D.C. Cir., Dec. 22, 2017); Stockman v. Trump, Case No. EDCV 17-1799 JGB (KKx) (C.D. Cal., Dec. 22, 2017); Stone v. Trump, No. 17-2398 (4th Cir., Dec. 21, 2017); and Karnoski v. Trump, 2017 WL 6311305, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167232 (W.D. Wash., Dec. 11, 2017).  All the major national LGBT groups are involved in at least one of these cases, and several of the nation’s major law firms are participating as cooperating attorneys.

Trump’s August 25 Memorandum set out three policies: a requirement that all transgender personnel be discharged, a ban on allowing transgender individuals to enter the military, and a ban on use of Defense Department or Homeland Security Department funds to pay for sex reassignment procedures for military members. The Memorandum assigned the Defense Department the task of figuring out how to implement these policies, and to report back in writing to the president in February, and meanwhile nobody would be discharged or denied medical treatment.  But the Memorandum specified that the existing ban on enlistments would remain in effect indefinitely, contrary to a Defense Department announcement in June that it would be lifted on January 1, 2018.

The four lawsuits were filed in different federal district courts shortly after the policy was announced, with complaints alleging a violation of Equal Protection and a variety of other claims, but all seeking preliminary injunctions to stop the Trump policies from going into effect while the cases are litigated. They all specifically asked that the Pentagon adhere to the previously announced date of January 1, 2018, to lift the ban on transgender people enlisting.  The Justice Department moved to dismiss all four cases, and vigorously opposed the motions for preliminary injunctions, which if granted would block the policies announced in the President’s August 25 Memorandum from going into effect while the cases are being litigated and would requirement implementation of the January 1 date for allowing transgender people to enlist.

As of December 22, when U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal, sitting in Riverside (Central District of California), issued a nationwide preliminary injunction, all four district judges had issued such injunctions, beginning with D.C. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on October 30, Judge Garbis in Maryland on November 21, and Judge District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in Seattle (Western District of Washington) on December 11.  The subsequent opinions all cited to and quoted from Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion, none stating any disagreement with her analysis.  On December 21, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay Judge Garbis’s injunction, and on December 22, the D.C. Circuit refused to stay Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s injunction.  As of December 22, DOJ had appealed Judge Pechman’s ruling to the 9th Circuit, and a similar appeal was likely to be filed from Judge Bernal’s ruling, but it appeared unlikely that an “emergency” stay of either of these preliminary injunctions would be ordered, or would necessarily have any effect, since the nationwide preliminary injunctions issued by Judges Garbis and Kollar-Kotelly are in effect… unless DOJ can find a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who is willing to issue a stay.

All four district judges rejected the Justice Department’s argument that the cases should be dismissed because no actions had actually yet been taken to implement Trump’s announced policies, which were being “studied” by the Defense Department under an “Interim Guidance” issued by Defense Secretary James Mattis in September. All four judges credited the plaintiffs’ arguments that the announcement of the policies and the instruction to the Defense Department to devise a method of implementation had already thrown into turmoil and uncertainty the lives of presently serving transgender individuals as well as transgender people who were anticipating signing up for military service beginning January 1, including transgender students in the nation’s military academies anticipating joining the active forces upon graduation, and they had also disrupted plans for sex reassignment surgery for several of the plaintiffs.  While Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that none of the plaintiffs in the case before her had individual standing to contest the surgery restriction, so she granted the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss that part of the complaint in the case before her, the three other judges all found that some of the plaintiffs in their cases were directly affected by the surgery ban and denied the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss that part of their cases.  Ultimately, all four cases are proceeding on an Equal Protection theory, with the judges finding that the plaintiffs had standing to bring these constitutional challenges, which were ripe for consideration on the merits.

As to the preliminary injunction motions, all four judges agreed that the high standards for enjoining the implementation of government policies were easily met in these cases. They all agreed that policies treating people adversely because of their gender identity should be reviewed by the same standard as policies that discriminate because of sex, which is called “intermediate scrutiny.”  Under this standard, the government bears the burden of showing that it has a justification for the policy that is “exceedingly persuasive,” “genuine,” “not hypothesized,” and “not invented post hoc in response to litigation,” and “must not rely on overbroad generalizations,” wrote Judge Bernal in his December 22 opinion, picking up quotes from prior cases.

“Defendants’ justifications do not pass muster,” Bernal wrote.  “Their reliance on cost is unavailing, as precedent shows the ease of cost and administration do not survive intermediate scrutiny even if it is significant.  Moreover, all the evidence in the record suggests the ban’s cost savings to the government is miniscule.  Furthermore, Defendants’ unsupported allegation that allowing transgender individuals to be in the military would adversely affect unit cohesion is similarly unsupported by the proffered evidence.  These justifications fall far short of exceedingly persuasive.”  Bernal concluded, as had the other three district judges, that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their Equal Protection claim, so it was unnecessary to analyze the other constitutional theories they offered.

He also rejected DOJ’s argument that the court should follow the normal practice of according “a highly deferential level of review” to executive branch decisions about military policy. Quoting a Supreme Court ruling from 1981, which such that such deferential review is most appropriate when the “military acts with measure, and not ‘unthinkingly or reflexively,’”  he observed, “Here, the only serious study and evaluation concerning the effect of transgender people in the armed forces led the military leaders to resoundingly conclude there was no justification for the ban.”  He agreed with Judge Kollar-Kotelly that “the reasons offered for categorically excluding transgender individuals were not supported and were in fact contradicted by the only military judgment available at the time.”

Bernal also easily concluded that blocking implementation of the policy and ending the enlistment ban on January 1 were necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs.  This was basically a determination that allowing the Trump policies to go into effect would cause injuries to transgender individuals that could not be completely remedied by monetary damages awarded after the fact.  The Justice Department argued that “separation from the military would not constitute irreparable harm because it is within the Court’s equitable powers to remedy the injury,” but Bernal countered, “These arguments fail to address the negative stigma the ban forces upon Plaintiffs,” including the “damaging public message that transgender people are not fit to serve in the military.  There is nothing any court can do to remedy a government-sent message that some citizens are not worthy of the military uniform simply because of their gender.  A few strokes of the legal quill may easily alter the law, but the stigma of being seen as less-than is not so easily erased.”  Furthermore, federal courts have frequently held that “deprivation of constitutional rights unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

As to the “balance of equities” and “public interest” factors that courts are supposed to weigh in deciding whether to enjoin government action, Bernal found that these weighed in favor of granting the injunction. Invoking “national defense” and “unit cohesion” were not persuasive in light of the extended study by the Defense Department that led to its decision in June 2016 to end the ban and to set in motion a change in recruitment polices to take place July 1, 2017 (which was extended by Secretary Mattis to January 1, 2018).

 

Judge Bernal quoted from Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion: “There is absolutely no support for the claim that the ongoing service of transgender people would have any negative effect on the military at all. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it is the discharge and banning of such individuals that would have such effects.”  Judge Bernal saw no reason to depart from the analysis by Judges Garbis and Kollar-Kotelly in their decisions to issue preliminary injunctions.

Judge Bernal issued a two-part order. The first part enjoins the defendants “from categorically excluding individuals … from military service on the basis that they are transgender.” The second part provides that “no current service member … may be separated, denied reenlistment, demoted, denied promotion, denied medically necessary treatment on a timely basis, or otherwise subjected to adverse treatment or differential terms of service on the basis that they are transgender.”

The Justice Department sought to have the preliminary injunctions stayed, but so far the district judges have not been receptive, so DOJ took the next step of filing appeals in the D.C., 4th and 9th Circuits, and, claiming an “emergency” as January 1 drew near, sought particularly to stay the part of the injunctions that would require lifting the enlistment ban as of that date.

On December 21, a 4th Circuit three-judge panel rejected the motion for stay without comment. The next day, however, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit issued an opinion explaining its refusal to grant the requested stay.  Wrote the D.C. panel, “Appellants have not shown a strong likelihood that they will succeed on the merits of their challenge to the district court’s order.  As the district court explained, ‘the sheer breadth of the exclusion ordered by the [Memorandum], the unusual’ and abrupt ‘circumstances surround the President’s announcement of [the exclusion], the fact that the reasons given for [it] do not appear to be supported by any facts, and the recent rejection of those reasons by the military itself,’ taken together, ‘strongly suggest that Plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment claim is meritorious.’”

The court noted in particular the adverse effect that staying the injunction would have on transgender individuals who have been attending the service academies and anticipating graduating and being accepted into the active service as officers. Indeed, the court suggested, federal law actually treats students in the service academies as members of the military, so letting the discharge policy go into effect posed an immediate threat to them.

In seeking “emergency” relief, DOJ contended that the Defense Department was not ready to being enlisting transgender people. In an order that Judge Kollar-Kotelly had issued on December 11, denying an emergency stay motion, she pointed out that DOJ was relying on “sweeping and conclusory statements” without “explaining what precisely needs to be completed by January 1, 2018, in order for Appellants to be prepared to begin transgender accessions.”

Totally undermining this emergency motion was the Defense Department’s own action. “With respect to implementation of transgender accession into the military,” wrote the D.C. panel, “Appellants did not even inform this court of a Defense Department memorandum issued December 8, 2017, that provides detailed directions and guidance governing ‘processing transgender applicants for military service,’ directions that the Secretary of Defense’s Department commanded ‘shall remain in effect until expressly revoked.’  That open-ended directive documenting concrete plans already in place to govern accession was issued before the district court ruled on the motion for a stay pending appeal.”  Thus, the government is tripping over itself in the urgency of DOJ to satisfy the President’s demand that his whims be obeyed.  And the court was totally unconvinced by DOJ’s argument that, in the absence of the preliminary injunction, Mattis had any discretion to alter the terms set out in Trump’s Memorandum.

The court noted that “the enjoined accession ban would directly impair and injure the ongoing educational and professional plans of transgender individuals and would deprive the military of skilled and talented troops,” so “allowing it to take effect would be counter to the public interest.”

“Finally,” wrote the court, “in the balancing of equities, it must be remembered that all Plaintiffs seek during this litigation is to serve their Nation with honor and dignity, volunteering to face extreme hardships, to endure lengthy deployments and separation from family and friends, and to willingly make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives if necessary to protect the Nation, the people of the United States, and the Constitution against all who would attack them.”

In addition to denying the stay, the D.C. panel set out an expedited calendar for addressing DOJ’s appeal of the District Court’s decision to issue the injunction, directing that oral argument be scheduled for January 27, 2018. Furthermore, apparently reacting to the maze of unfamiliar acronyms strewn through the papers filed with the court, making them difficult for the judges to process efficiently, “the parties are urged to limit the use of abbreviations, including acronyms.  While acronyms may be used for entities and statues with widely recognized initials, briefs should not contain acronyms that are not widely known.

Perhaps federal judges are too polite to say so, but the clear import of their opinions in this litigation is that President Trump lied in his original tweet when he said that his decision was made “after consultation with my Generals and military experts.” To date, neither the president nor anybody speaking for him has actually identified any “military experts” or “Generals” who were consulted before the president decided to take this action.  The Defense Department, confronted with the allegations in the complaints about the extended studies that preceded the June 2016 policy announcement by Secretary Carter, has not cited any studies to counter them.  Secretary Mattis, who was on vacation when the president issued his tweet, was informed that it was happening the night before, according to press reports, but is not said to have been consulted about whether this policy change should be made.  Thus, the reference in the court opinions to the lack of “facts” backing up this policy, and the unanimous agreement that the usual judicial deference to military expertise is inappropriate in these cases.