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Sexual Orientation Discrimination Under Title VII in the 2nd Circuit: A Work in Progress

Posted on: May 11th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

As the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ponders three petitions asking for en banc consideration of the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be interpreted to ban sexual orientation discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, a federal trial judge in Manhattan has ruled that “in light of the evolving state of the law,” it would be “imprudent” for the court to grant a motion to dismiss a gay plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim.

Senior District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1998, issued his ruling in Philpott v. State University of New York on May 3, the day after the third en banc petition was filed.   An en banc hearing in the 2nd Circuit involves participation by all eleven active judges in the circuit, plus any senior judges who participated in a three-judge panel decision that is being reheard en banc.  Appeals are normally heard by three-judge panels, which are bound to follow existing circuit precedents.  Only an en banc panel (or the Supreme Court) can reconsider and reverse such precedents.

The 2nd Circuit ruled in 2000, in the case of Simonton v. Runyon, that Title VII could not be interpreted to forbid sexual orientation discrimination.  This holding was reiterated by a second panel in 2005, in Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, and yet again this year on March 27 in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group.  However, the 2nd Circuit’s Chief Judge, Robert Katzmann, who was sitting as a member of the panel in Christiansen, wrote a concurring opinion, joined by one of the other judges, arguing that the issue should be considered en banc in “an appropriate case.”  Katzmann’s discussion basically embraced the arguments articulated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its 2015 decision holding that David Baldwin, a gay air traffic controller, could bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII against the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The first of the en banc petitions was filed on April 19 in Cargian v. Breitling USA, Inc., in which another Manhattan trial judge, George B. Daniels, dismissed a gay watch salesman’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claim, finding that 2nd Circuit appellate precedents binding on the court rejected sexual orientation claims as a form of sex discrimination.  Judge Daniels ruled on September 29, 2016, and Frederick Cargian filed an appeal to the 2nd Circuit.  When the Christiansen decision was issued on March 27, it became clear that Cargian’s appeal to a three-judge panel would be a waste of time and judicial resources, and the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Cargian along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and solo plaintiffs’ attorney Janice Goodman, decided to petition the Circuit to take the case up directly en banc.

The second petition was filed on April 28 by Matthew Christiansen’s attorney, Susan Chana Lask.   The three-judge panel in Christiansen’s case had refused to allow the case to continue on a sexual orientation discrimination theory, but had concluded that it was possible that Christiansen would be able to proceed under a gender stereotype theory.  The panel clarified the 2nd Circuit’s approach in such cases, rejecting the trial judge’s conclusion that if the factual allegations suggest that sexual orientation played a role in the discrimination suffered by the plaintiff, he would be not be allowed to proceed under Title VII.  The trial court’s approach overlooked an important element of Title VII, an amendment adopted in 1991 providing that a plaintiff is entitled to judgment if sex is a “motivating factor” in his or her case, even if other factors contributed to the employer’s discriminatory conduct.  The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that discriminating against an employee because the employee fails to conform to gender stereotypes is evidence of discrimination because of sex.  In such a case, the sexual orientation of the plaintiff would be irrelevant, so long as the plaintiff could show that gender stereotyping was a motivating factor in their mistreatment.

At first it appeared that Christiansen would not seek en banc review, despite Judge Katzmann’s concurring opinion, as the panel unanimously voted to send the case back to the district court for consideration as a gender stereotyping case. Attorney Lask was quoted in newspaper reports as preparing to proceed to trial on the stereotyping theory.  The ACLU’s en banc petition changed the game plan, evidently, and Christiansen’s en banc petition was filed on April 28.

Meanwhile, on April 18, a different panel of the 2nd Circuit decided Zarda v. Altitude Express, once again holding that a gay plaintiff could not advance a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  Gregory Antollino, an attorney for an executor of the Estate of Donald Zarda, a gay skydiving instructor who had died in a skydiving accident after the being discharged from his employment, filed a petition for en banc rehearing on May 2, with Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich as co-counsel representing a co-executor.

The very next day Judge Hellerstein issued his ruling, allowing Jeffrey Philpott, the gay former Vice President of Student Affairs at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry to pursue his Title VII sexual orientation discrimination, hostile environment and retaliation claims. Judge Hellerstein rejected the defendant’s alternative argument that even if sexual orientation discrimination is covered by Title VII, Philpott’s factual allegations were insufficient to support his claims.  However, Judge Hellerstein joined with several other district judges within the 2nd Circuit in ruling that an employee of an educational institution may not bring an employment discrimination claim under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1992, which bans sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal money.  Although the plain language of Title IX can be interpreted to cover employment discrimination claims, Hellerstein agreed with other courts that have found that Congress did not intend to supplant Title VII, with its specific time deadlines and administrative exhaustion requirements, for employees of educational institutions who have sex discrimination claims.

After briefly describing the 2nd Circuit precedents, Hellerstein noted defendant’s argument that the court must dismiss the sexual orientation claims, and also Philpott’s request for leave to file an amended complaint focused on gender stereotyping.  “Neither relief is appropriate,” wrote the judge.  “The law with respect to this legal question is clearly in a state of flux, and the Second Circuit, or perhaps the Supreme Court, may return to this question soon.  In light of the evolving state of the law, dismissal of plaintiff’s Title VII claim is improper.”

Hellerstein then provided a summary of Judge Katzmann’s Christiansen concurrence, which he referred to more than once as a “majority concurrence” as it was signed by two of the three panel members. Hellerstein pointed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals en banc decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, issued on April 4, in which “the Seventh Circuit became the first Court of Appeals to unequivocally hold that ‘discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination’ and therefore cognizable under Title VII.”

“Among other reasons,” wrote Hellerstein, “the Seventh Circuit made this ruling ‘to bring our law into conformity with the Supreme Court’s teachings.’ The Seventh Circuit was also compelled by ‘the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without also discriminating on the basis of sex.’”

Hellerstein asserted that because Philpott “has stated a claim for sexual orientation discrimination, ‘common sense’ dictates that he has also stated a claim for gender stereotyping discrimination, which is cognizable under Title VII. The fact that plaintiff has framed his complaint in terms of sexual orientation discrimination and not gender stereotyping discrimination is immaterial.  I decline to embrace an ‘illogical’ and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, and in so doing, I join several other courts throughout the country.”

A few days after Hellerstein’s ruling, another panel of the 2nd Circuit avoided dealing with the same question in Magnusson v. County of Suffolk, an appeal from a May 2016 ruling by District Judge Sandra Feuerstein in the Eastern District of New York (Long Island).  Judge Feuerstein had rejected Arline Magnussen’s sexual orientation harassment Title VII claim on alternative grounds: that 2nd Circuit precedent does not allow sexual orientation claims, and that the employer could not be held liable under Title VII because Magnussen had unreasonably failed to invoke the employer’s internal grievance procedure to deal with her harassment complaint.  In a short memorandum signed by the Clerk of the Court, the 2nd Circuit ruled on May 11 that it need not address the Title VII interpretation issue in light of the district court’s finding that the employer could not held liable for whatever harassment the plaintiff might have suffered.

In terms of en banc review, in both Cargian and Zarda the court would face a case where the only stereotyping claim that would be viable would be that as gay men the plaintiffs did not conform to the stereotype that men should be attracted to women, so it would have to deal directly with the question whether sexual orientation is, as the EEOC stated and the 7th Circuit accepted, “necessarily” sex discrimination.  In Christiansen, the appellate panel found that the plaintiff might invoke other gender stereotype issues to make a viable claim under Title VII under the Circuit’s existing precedents, thus providing a less certain vehicle for getting the Circuit to confront the central legal issue.

If the 2nd Circuit grants the Christiansen or Cargian petitions, the en banc panel would consist of the eleven active members of the court.  If it grants the Zarda petition, those judges could be joined by two senior judges, Robert Sack and Gerard Lynch, who sat on the three-judge panel.  Of the eleven active judges, a majority were appointed by Democratic presidents: three by Clinton and four by Obama.  If the senior judges are added, a thirteen-member panel would include four appointed by Clinton and five appointed by Obama.  It is not clear from the Circuit’s published rules whether the senior judges could participate if the Circuit decides to consolidate the cases for rehearing en banc, but it is possible that they could only participate in deciding the Zarda case.

Appeals Courts Issue New LGBT-Related Rulings

Posted on: April 26th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Several appellate courts have issued significant LGBT-related rulings in recent days. Here is a brief summary of the new developments.

Roy Moore Loses Reinstatement Appeal before “Alabama Supreme Court”

The Alabama Supreme Court normally consists of seven justices elected by the people of the state, but when Roy Moore, who was suspended as chief justice by order of the state’s Court of the Judiciary on September 30, 2016, sought to exercise his right to appeal that ruling to the state’s Supreme Court, all of the other justices recused themselves. What to do?

The Supreme Court invoked a special procedure to authorize the Acting Chief Justice (who was appointed to occupy Moore’s seat for the duration of his elective term) to “participate” with then-Governor Bentley (who has since resigned because of a sex scandal) to create a substitute supreme court to consider Moore’s appeal. They assembled a list of all the retired judges in the state who were deemed “capable of service,” then conducted a lottery to compile a list of fifty potential judges, with the first seven names drawn to make up this special substitute version of the court unless one or more recused themselves or were disqualified for some other reason, in which case they would go back to the list of 50 until they had a full bench.

Moore was suspended because of his activities in opposition to marriage equality. After U.S. District Judge Callie Granade ruled on January 23, 2015, that the Alabama Marriage Amendment and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act, both of which prohibited formation or recognition of same-sex marriages, were unconstitutional, Moore sprang into action.  He undertook various efforts to block implementation of Judge Granade’s order by denouncing it as illegitimate, then encouraging and later directing the state’s probate judges to refrain from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  As chief justice, Moore both presided over the Supreme Court and acted as the administrative head of the state court system, in which capacity he could issue directives to lower court judges.

As the marriage equality issue rose through the courts to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, finding a federal constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, Moore remained outspokenly opposed, making every effort both publicly and behind the scenes to stave off the evil day when same-sex marriage might be fully accepted in Alabama. Although he recused himself from some of the Supreme Court’s actions after having issued his initial public denunciations of Granade’s rulings, he ultimately decided to participate in the court’s decision in 2016 to dismiss all pending proceedings and allow the probate judges to do their duty. But Moore wrote separately from the rest of the court, first to justify his decision not to recuse himself despite his prior actions and public statements, and then to inveigh against the federal constitutional ruling, reiterating his view that Alabama was entitled as a sovereign state to reject federal interference with its marriage laws.

This led to allegations that he was violating several provisions of the ethical code for judges, and charges were filed against him before the Court of the Judiciary, which found a string of ethical violations and suspended him from office.

In this appeal, Moore challenged the jurisdiction of the Court of the Judiciary to make its decision and contended that he had not violated any of the judicial ethical rules. He also contended that his suspension, which would run for over two years until the end of his elective term, was not warranted and was unduly long: far longer than any past disciplinary suspension of any sitting judge.

The specially-constituted substitute Supreme Court disagreed with Moore on every point, announcing on April 19 its determination, unanimously, that “the charges were proven by clear and convincing evidence and there is no indication that the sanction imposed was plainly and palpably wrong, manifestly unjust, or without supporting evidence,” so the court “shall not disturb the sanction imposed.”

This might not be the end for Moore as a “public servant,” however. Earlier in his career he had been ejected from the state supreme court for defying a federal court order to remove a 10 Commandments Monument he had installed in the lobby of the Supreme Court building.  He bided his time and eventually came back and won election to a new term as Chief Justice.  On April 26, he announced that he would enter the contest for the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Trump’s Attorney General.  Former Governor Bentley had appointed the state’s attorney general, Luther Strange, to fill the seat pending a special election, and Strange has already announced he will be a candidate for the Republican nomination.  The deadline for candidates to qualify for the primary is May 17 and the party primaries will be held on August 15.  If no candidate wins an outright majority for the Republican nomination, a run-off will be held September 26, and the general election is December 12.

Over $600,000 Awarded to Victorious Lawyers in Texas Marriage Equality Case

In an appeal that has been pending before a panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for more than a year, the court decided to reject an attempt by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Commissioner John Hellerstedt of the Department of State Health Services to win a reduction of the large attorneys’ fees and costs awarded by U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia to the victorious attorneys who represented the plaintiffs in the Texas marriage equality case, DeLeon v. Perry (now titled DeLeon v. Abbott).

Two same-sex couples filed suit in 2013 against then-governor Rick Perry and other state officials seeking the right to marry and to win recognition of same-sex marriages performed out of state. In February 2014 Judge Garcia ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but the decision was stayed as the state appealed to the 5th Circuit.  That court put off oral arguments until shortly before the Supreme Court announced that it would consider appeals in marriage cases from the 6th Circuit.  Then the 5th Circuit delayed ruling until after the Supreme Court announced its Obergefell decision, which made the 5th Circuit appeal purely academic.  That court quickly affirmed Judge Garcia’s decision, making the plaintiffs “prevailing parties” who were entitled to seek an award of attorneys’ fees and costs.

Judge Garcia awarded fees of $585,470.30 and costs of $20,202.90, more than $600,000 in all. In December 2015, the new line-up of official state defendants filed their appeal.  The 5th Circuit panel issued a brief opinion upholding Garcia’s award, emphasizing that the trial judge has “broad discretion” to award fees and costs if the judge “provides a concise but clear explanation for its reasons for the fee award.”    In this case, the court found that this standard had been met, but one member of the court, Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, issued a dissent on three points.

She objected first to awarding fees for time spent opposing a motion by an anti-gay group to intervene as a co-defendant so that they could make arguments that the state was unlikely to make in defending the statute. Although the plaintiff’s lawyers were successful in beating back the intervention effort, Judge Elrod thought the state should not be required to pay them fees for doing so, since the state had not supported the intervention effort and was not the “losing party” on that issue.

She also objected to awarding fees for time that the attorneys spent “interacting with the media.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers in controversial public interest cases frequently spend time cultivating the media to win favorable coverage of the litigation and help build public support for the resulting court decision.  That was a key part of the litigation strategy in the marriage equality cases, and arguably the successful media cultivation helped to move public opinion so that the ultimate Supreme Court decision and its implementation did not arouse widespread opposition.  But Elrod argued that awarding fees for that time was “improper.”  “Plaintiffs have offered no explanation for how the media-related tasks included in the fee award were directly and intimately related to their successful representation, or were aimed at achieving their litigation goals,” she wrote.  As such, the state should not have to pay for them.

Finally, she objected to awarding fees for much of the time spent by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in recruiting and assisting various amicus curiae (so-called “friends of the court’) to file briefs supporting the plaintiffs in the case. She would have denied fees for such time on the theory, articulated by the 11th Circuit in a prior case, that because “amici are not entitled to attorneys’ fees as a ‘prevailing party,’ it would not allow this result to be changed ‘by the simple expedient of having counsel for a party do some or all of the amicus work.’’”  She would, however, agree to order the state to pay for time that plaintiffs’ attorneys spent reviewing the amicus briefs after they were filed, because the issues and arguments raised by amici might come into play during the trial or appeals of the case.  But she rejected the view that soliciting amicus parties and helping the amici to prepare their briefs was part of the work of representing the plaintiffs.  This seems the least plausible of her objections, since lawyers consider the presentation of forceful amicus briefs, carefully coordinated to avoid inconsistent arguments and assure coverage of all potential points of argument, to be an integral part of their strategy to educate the court and provide significant supplementation to the evidentiary record.  The courts of appeals and the Supreme Court have cited amicus briefs in their opinions in favor of marriage equality, showing that they are not merely peripheral window dressing in the effort to achieve the plaintiffs’ litigation goals.

Judge Elrod stated her objections in terms of concepts rather than dollar amounts, not suggesting how much she would have reduced the fee award, and the per curiam opinion does not respond to any of her arguments. The state could seek Supreme Court review, and Elrod’s partial dissent implicitly encouraged this by contending that some of the points she raised involved departures from 5th Circuit precedent or created splits between the 5th Circuit and other Circuit courts on the basis for awarding fees to prevailing parties.  The Supreme Court is rarely interested in cases about attorneys’ fees, but a circuit split in a high profile case might catch its attention.

2nd Circuit Panels Follow Christiansen Precedent in Title VII Sexual Orientation Cases

On March 27, a three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals released a ruling in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, holding that prior 2nd Circuit decisions blocked any reconsideration by the panel of the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims can be litigated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination because of sex.  In an unusual move, two of the judges on the panel concurred in an opinion virtually accepting the argument that the circuit should reconsider and change its position on this question if presented with a petition for rehearing before the full bench of the circuit.

The 2nd Circuit has eleven active judges, of whom seven were appointed by Presidents Clinton or Obama, the rest by Republican presidents, holding out hope that an en banc review could lead to a favorable circuit precedent.  Although the panel ruled against Matthew Christiansen’s appeal on the sexual orientation question, it sent the case back to the district court to consider his claim of gender-stereotyping, which the Circuit may allow under the rubric of sex discrimination.

Since then, two different three-judge panels of the 2nd Circuit have issued decisions in other cases presenting the same question: whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are covered by Title VII.  In both cases, the courts found themselves bound by Christiansen and the prior precedents to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim.

On April 18, a panel ruled in Zarda v. Altitude Express, per curiam, that it was bound by circuit precedent to uphold the trial court’s dismissal of a sexual orientation discrimination claim.   The case involved a gay male skydiver and instructor, since deceased, who was in no way gender-nonconforming – other than his failure to conform with the stereotype that men should be sexually attracted only to women, which the 2nd Circuit does not now recognize as the kind of stereotype that can give rise to a sex discrimination claim.

On April 25, a different panel ruled in Daniel v. T&M Protection Resources, a hostile environment case, that the district court correctly allowed Otis Daniel to maintain his sex discrimination claim, because the court found that the verbal harassment to which Daniel was subjected by his male supervisor could support a gender stereotyping claim. His supervisor “frequently called him ‘homo’ and told him to ‘Man up, be a man.”  The court pointedly observed that the case could not be litigated as a sexual orientation discrimination case because of prior 2nd Circuit rulings, including Zarda and Christiansen.

Attorneys for Christiansen (Susan Lask) and for Zarda’s estate executors (Gregory Antollino) have both indicated that they are filing petitions for en banc rehearing before the full 2nd Circuit.

In addition, Lambda Legal filed a petition on March 31 with the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals seeking an en banc rehearing in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, in which a three-judge panel voted 2-1 on March 10 to reject a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  The panel sent the case back to a trial judge for possible litigation under a gender stereotyping theory.  Eight of the eleven active judges on the 11th Circuit are appointees of Clinton or Obama.

The 2nd and 11th Circuits both had many vacancies filled during President Obama’s first term, tipping the ideological balance of both circuits in a much more liberal direction, leaving hope that they might follow the lead of the Chicago-based 11th Circuit, which on April 4 became the first federal appeals court to ruled that sexual orientation claims are covered by Title VII, in a case brought by lesbian college instructor Kimberly Hively, represented before the appeals court by Lambda Legal.  The issue might be brought to the Supreme Court by a disappointed plaintiff or employer, depending how the courts rule on these continuing appeals.