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Supreme Court May Consider Whether Federal Law Already Outlaws Sexual Orientation Discrimination

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

Lambda Legal has announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination because of sex, also bans discrimination because of sexual orientation. Lambda made the announcement on July 6, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, announced that the full circuit court would not reconsider a decision by a three-judge panel that had ruled on March 10 against such a claim in a lawsuit by Jameka K. Evans, a lesbian security guard who was suing Georgia Regional Hospital for sexual orientation discrimination.

The question whether Title VII can be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims got a big boost several months ago when the full Chicago-based 7th Circuit ruled that a lesbian academic, Kimberly Hively, could sue an Indiana community college for sexual orientation discrimination under the federal sex discrimination law, overruling prior panel decisions from that circuit.  The 7th Circuit was the first federal appeals court to rule in favor of such coverage.  Lambda Legal represented Hively in her appeal to the 7th Circuit.

Title VII, adopted in 1964 as part of the federal Civil Rights Act, did not even include sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the bill that came to the floor of the House of Representatives for debate. The primary focus of the debate was race discrimination. But a Virginia representative, Howard Smith, an opponent of the bill, introduced a floor amendment to add sex.  The amendment was approved by an odd coalition of liberals and conservatives, the former out of a desire to advance employment rights for women, many of the later hoping that adding sex to the bill would make it too controversial to pass. However, the amended bill was passed by the House and sent to the Senate, where a lengthy filibuster delayed a floor vote for months before it passed without much discussion about the meaning of the inclusion of sex as a prohibited ground for employment discrimination.  (The sex amendment did not apply to other parts of the bill, and the employment discrimination title is the only part of the 1964 Act that outlaws sex discrimination.)

Within a few years both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal courts had issued decisions rejecting discrimination claims from LGBT plaintiffs, holding that Congress did not intend to address homosexuality or transsexualism (as it was then called) in this law. The judicial consensus against coverage did not start to break down until after the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision on Ann Hopkin’s sex discrimination lawsuit against Price Waterhouse.  The accounting firm had denied her partnership application.  The Court accepted her argument that sex stereotyping had infected the process, based on sexist comments by partners of the firm concerning her failure to conform to their image of a proper “lady partner.”

Within a few years, litigators began to persuade federal judges that discrimination claims by transgender plaintiffs also involved sex stereotyping. By definition a transgender person does not conform to stereotypes about their sex as identified at birth, and by now a near consensus has emerged among the federal courts of appeals that discrimination because of gender identity or expression is a form of sex discrimination under the stereotype theory.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed its position as well, following the lead of some of the court decisions, in 2012.

Advocates for gay plaintiffs also raised the stereotype theory, but with mixed success. Most federal circuit courts were unwilling to accept it unless the plaintiff could show that he or she was gender-nonconforming in some obvious way, such as effeminacy in men or masculinity (akin to the drill sergeant demeanor of Ann Hopkins) in women.  The courts generally rejected the argument that to have a homosexual or bisexual orientation was itself a violation of employer’s stereotypes about how men and women were supposed to act, and some circuit courts, including the New York-based 2nd Circuit, had ruled that if sexual orientation was the “real reason” for discrimination, a Title VII claim must fail, even if the plaintiff was gender nonconforming.  Within the past few years, however, several district court and the EEOC have accepted the stereotype argument and other arguments insisting that discrimination because of sexual orientation is always, as a practical matter, about the sex of the plaintiff.  This year, for the first time, a federal appeals court, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, did so in the Hively case.  A split among the circuits about the interpretation of a federal statute is listed by the Supreme Court in its practice rules as the kind of case it is likely to accept for review.

The Supreme Court has been asked in the past to consider whether Title VII could be interpreted to cover sexual orientation and gender identity claims, but it has always rejected the invitation, leaving in place the lower court rulings.

However, last year the Court signaled its interest in the question whether sex discrimination, as such, includes gender identity discrimination, when it agreed to review a ruling by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the district court should not have dismissed a sex-discrimination claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal money.  The 4th Circuit held in Grimm’s case that the district court should have deferred to an interpretation of the Title IX regulations by the Obama Administration’s Department of Education, which had decided to follow the lead of the EEOC and federal courts in Title VII cases and accept the sex stereotyping theory for gender identity discrimination claims. Shortly before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case, however, the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration interpretation, pulling the rug out from under the 4th Circuit’s decision.  The Supreme Court then canceled the argument and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit, where an argument has been scheduled for this fall on the question whether Title IX applies in the absence of such an executive branch interpretation.

Meanwhile, the Title VII issue has been percolating in many courts around the country. Here in New York, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has had several recent panel decisions in which the judges have refused to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims because they are bound by earlier decisions of the court to reject them, although in some cases they have said that the gay plaintiff could maintain their Title VII case if they could show gender nonconforming behavior sufficient to evoke the stereotype theory. In one of these cases, the chief judge of the circuit wrote a concurring opinion, suggesting that it was time for the Circuit to reconsider the issue by the full court.  In another of these cases, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the court recently granted a petition for reconsideration by the full bench, appellants’ briefs and amicus briefs were filed late in June, and oral argument has been scheduled for September 26.  The EEOC as well as many LGBT rights and civil liberties organizations and the attorneys general of the three states in the circuit have filed amicus briefs, calling on the 2nd Circuit to follow the 7th Circuit’s lead on this issue.

This sets up an interesting dynamic between the 11th Circuit case, Evans, and the 2nd Circuit case, Zarda.  Lambda’s petition for certiorari (the technical term for seeking Supreme Court review) is due to be filed by 90 days after the denial of its rehearing petition by the 11th Circuit, which would put it early in October, shortly after the 2nd Circuit’s scheduled argument in Zarda.  After Lambda files its petition, the Respondent, Georgia Regional Hospital (perhaps, as a public hospital, represented by the state attorney general’s office), will have up to 30 days to file a response, but this is uncertain, since the hospital failed to send an attorney to argue against Evans’ appeal before the 11th Circuit panel.  Other interested parties who want the Supreme Court to take or reject this case may filed amicus briefs as well.  If Lambda uses all or virtually all of its 90 days to prepare and file its petition, the Supreme Court would most likely not announce whether it will take the case until late October or November.  If it takes the case, oral argument would most likely be held early in 2018, with an opinion expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

That leaves the question whether the 2nd Circuit will move expeditiously to decide the Zarda case?  Legal observers generally believe that the 2nd Circuit is poised to change its position and follow the 7th Circuit in holding that sexual orientation claims can be litigated under Title VII, but the circuit judges might deem it prudent to hold up until the Supreme Court rules on the Evans petition and, if that petition is granted, the 2nd Circuit might decide to put off a ruling until after the Supreme Court rules.  In that case, there will be no change in the 2nd Circuit’s position until sometime in the spring of 2018, which would be bad news for litigants in the 2nd Circuit.  Indeed, some district judges in the Circuit are clearly champing at the bit to be able to decide sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, and two veteran judges have bucked the circuit precedent recently, refusing to dismiss sexual orientation cases, arguing that the 2nd Circuit’s precedents are outmoded.  A few years ago the 2nd Circuit accepted the argument in a race discrimination case that an employer violated Title VII by discriminating against a person for engaging in a mixed-race relationship, and some judges see this as supporting the analogous argument that discriminating against somebody because they are attracted to a person of the same-sex is sex discrimination.

The 2nd Circuit has in the past moved to rule quickly on an LGBT issue in a somewhat similar situation.  In 2012, cases were moving up through the federal courts challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had been held unconstitutional by several district courts.  A race to the Supreme Court was emerging between cases from Boston (1st Circuit), New York (2nd Circuit), and San Francisco (9th Circuit).  The Supreme Court received a petition to review the 1st Circuit case, where GLAD represented the plaintiffs.  The ACLU, whose case on behalf of Edith Windsor was pending before the 2nd Circuit, filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to leapfrog the district court and bring the issue directly up to the highest court.  After the ACLU filed its petition, the 2nd Circuit moved quickly to issue a decision, and the Supreme Court granted the petition.  Meanwhile, Lambda Legal, representing the plaintiff whose case was pending in the 9th Circuit, had filed its own petition asking the Supreme Court to grant review before the 9th Circuit decided that appeal.  It was all a bit messy, but ultimately the Court granted the ACLU’s petition and held the other petitions pending its ultimate decision, announced on June 26, 2013, declaring DOMA unconstitutional.  If the 2nd Circuit moves quickly, it might be able to turn out an opinion before the Supreme Court has announced whether it will review the Evans case, as it did in 2012 in the DOMA case (although that was just a panel decision, not a ruling by the full circuit bench.)  The timing might be just right for that.

Another concern, of course, is the composition of the Supreme Court bench when this issue is to be decided. At present, the five justices who made up the majority in the DOMA and marriage equality cases are still on the Court, but three of them, Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote those opinions), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, are the three oldest justices, and there have been rumors about Kennedy considering retirement.  Donald Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Neil Gorsuch, filling the seat previously occupied by arch-homophobe Antonin Scalia, immediately showed his own anti-LGBT colors with a disingenuous dissenting opinion issued on June 26 in a case from Arkansas involving birth certificates for the children of lesbian couples, and it seems likely that when or if Trump gets another appointment, he will appoint a person of similar views.  Kennedy, who turns 81 this month, has not made a retirement announcement and has hired a full roster of court clerks for the October 2017 Term, so it seems likely he intends to serve at least one more year.  There is no indication that Ginsburg, 84, or Breyer, 79 in August, plan to retire, but given the ages of all three justices, nothing is certain.

Mass. SJC Rules Affirmatively on Same-Sex Partner Parentage Claim in Partanen v. Gallagher

Posted on: October 5th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled on October 4 that the former same-sex partner of a woman who gave birth to two children through donor insemination during the women’s relationship can seek to establish full legal parentage of the children under the state’s statute concerning parentage of children born out of wedlock. Partanen v. Gallagher, SJC-12018, 2016 Mass. LEXIS 759, 2016 WL 5721061.

Although the state’s courts have in the past recognized various rights for co-parents in similar cases using a “de facto parent” concept, this unanimous ruling is the SJC’s first to take advantage of a law providing that “words of one gender may be construed to include the other gender and the neuter” to adapt a statute that was originally intended to allow unmarried men to establish their paternity of children born “out of wedlock” to their women companions, and to repurpose the statute as a vehicle to establish parental rights for unmarried same-sex partners.

Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the unanimous seven-member court.

Karen Partanen and Julie Gallagher began their “committed relationship” as a couple in Massachusetts in 2001. The next year they moved to Florida, where they bought a house together in 2003.  In 2005 they decided to use donor insemination to have children.  The plan was for each of the women in turn to be inseminated.  Partanen’s attempt in 2005 was unsuccessful, but Gallagher’s subsequent attempt was successful and she gave birth to their daughter in 2007.  Gallagher was inseminated again in 2011, giving birth to a son.

These procedures were performed with the full cooperation and involvement of Partanen, who was present at the birth of the children. Partanen did not adopt the children, although in 2010 a Florida appeals court struck down the state’s statutory ban on gay people adopting children, but, according to her complaint in this lawsuit, she was fully involved as a parent, including personal contact, financial support, and decision-making.

After their son was born, the family moved back to Massachusetts. Although by then same-sex marriage was legal in Massachusetts, they did not marry. Shortly after the move, they ended their relationship and Partanen moved out.  She filed an action to establish “de facto” parentage in February 2014, requesting visitation and shared custody.  In September 2015, a Family Court judge ruled that she was a “de facto” parent, ordered visitation, and required her to pay child support to Gallagher.  An appeal of that ruling is pending.  Meanwhile, however, in October 2014 Partanen filed a separate action “to establish [full legal] parentage,” which Gallagher moved to dismiss, arguing that “full parentage” could only be achieved under the paternity statute by a biological parent.  Probate and Family Court Judge Jeffrey A. Abber granted Gallagher’s motion to dismiss the parentage case.

If one reads the relevant statute without taking into account the state’s general statutory directive on gender neutrality in interpretation, one could easily see the basis for Judge Abber’s ruling. The provision falls within the chapter of the state’s laws titled “Children Born Out of Wedlock,” Chapter 209C.  The statute extends to “children who are born to parents who are not married to each other.”  The various sections refer to “paternity” and authorize the courts to determine whether somebody is a child’s legal father. The statute recognizes a “presumption of paternity” in various situations.  The one most relevant here is that “a man is presumed to be the father of a child” that is born out of wedlock if “he, jointly with the mother, received the child into their home and openly held out the child as their child.”

Gallagher argued, and the trial judge agreed, that this statutory scheme was not intended to provide a vehicle for somebody to establish legal parental rights over a child to whom the party was not biologically related. The SJC disagreed, pointing out that the statute does not state anywhere that the person seeking to establish parental rights has to be biologically related to the child.  “While the provisions at issue speak in gendered terms,” wrote Justice Lenk, “they may be read in a gender-neutral manner, to apply where a child is ‘born to [two people],’” not just a man and a woman, and the child “is received into their joint home, and is held out by both as their own child.”  Consequently, she wrote, “The plain language of the provision, then, may be construed to apply to children born to same-sex couples, even though at least one member of the couple may well lack biological ties to the children.”

Furthermore, such an interpretation was in accord with the overall purpose of the statute, which, as “laid out in its first sentence, is to provide all ‘children born to parents who are not married to each other’ . . . the same rights and protection of the law as all other children.”

The court strengthened its interpretation with a telling analogy to the use of reproductive technology by different-sex couples. Clearly, a cohabiting but unmarried man and woman who resort to donor insemination to conceive a child because the man is infertile could make use of this statute to establish the man’s paternity without any express requirement in the statute that he prove a biological relationship to the child.  That is, in fact, one of the normal uses of the statute.  If the legislature intended to make sure that all children born to unmarried parents have the same rights, shouldn’t children born to unmarried same-sex couples have the same rights as well?

“Here, had [the children] been born to a married couple using artificial reproductive technology, they would have had two parents to provide them with financial and emotional support,” wrote Justice Lenk. “We decline to read into the statute a provision that leaves children born to unmarried couples, using the same technology, with only one parent.”

Furthermore, she pointed out that the court had in the past recognized an interpretation of another provision that also would “recognize parentage in the absence of a biological relationship,” a provision under which parentage may be established through a “written voluntary acknowledgment of parentage executed jointly by the putative father and the mother of the child.” The court held years ago that such an acknowledgment does not require that the putative father have any genetic relationship to the child.  Under this ruling, same-sex couples can avail themselves of the same provision.  This only works, of course, if both parents are willing to sign such a document.

Gallagher argued that because Partanen lacks a biological connection to the children, they were not “born to” her, and thus do not fall within the scope of the statute. She bolstered this argument by referring to a provision authorizing the family court to order genetic testing of the putative father on a “proper showing” by the moving party.  That provision was clearly intended to allow single mothers seeking child support from the biological fathers of their children to prove genetic paternity in order to subject the men to their parental support duty.  “Where, as here, the parentage claim is not based on a genetic relationship,” wrote Justice Lentz, “Gallagher, as a moving party, cannot show such testing would be relevant to the claim at issue, and therefore, no ‘proper showing’ is possible.”

Ultimately, the court concluded that the facts alleged by Partanen in her complaint should have been sufficient to withstand Gallagher’s motion to dismiss the claim, and if upon remand the trial court finds the factual allegations to be true, Partanen will enjoy the presumption of parentage authorized by the statute and can seek visitation and custody on the same basis as any other person who is presumed to be a parent. If the Family Court judge finds it to be in the best interest of the children, Partanen would be awarded the same custody and visitation rights that any legal parent could seek after parents have ended their relationship with each other.

Although Massachusetts courts had previously recognized the ability of same-sex partners to seek “de facto” parental status, which accorded some rights, the court emphasized that full legal parentage involves the same rights that a biological or legal adoptive parent would enjoy.

The court did not rule on alternative constitutional claims raised by Partanen, resting its decision entirely on construction of the Massachusetts statutes. The court’s opinion does not mention any attempt by Gallagher to argue that treating Partanen as a presumptive parent would violate Gallagher’s constitutional due process rights as a “natural parent,” so it is unlikely that she would be able to seek U.S. Supreme Court review of this decision.

Mary Bonauto, the Civil Rights Project Director at GLAD: Legal Advocates & Defenders, the Boston-based New England GLBT rights public interest law firm, represents Partanen with co-counsel Elizabeth A. Roberts, Teresa Harkins La Vita, Patience Crozier and Joyce Kauffman. Bonauto gave the oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 that led to nationwide marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, and she also argued to the Massachusetts SJC in 2003, resulting in the nation’s first affirmative marriage equality ruling by a state’s highest court.

Jennifer M. Lamanna represents Gallagher. The SJC received amicus briefs, all in support of Partanen’s appeal, from: C. Thomas Brown for Greater Boston Legal Services; Emily R. Shulman, Brook Hopkins, and Adam M. Cambier for the American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys; Abigail Taylor, Gail Garinger, Brittany Williams and Andrea C. Kramer for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office; and Shannon Minter, Marco J. Quina, and Emma S. Winer for a group of law professors specializing in family law issues.  The case seems to have flown below the radar of groups that usually file opposition amicus briefs in such cases.