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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.

Oregon Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss Title VII Retaliation Claim by Lesbian Employee

Posted on: August 25th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane ruled on August 21 that a lesbian former employee could sue a hospital under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act for 1964 for retaliatory discharge, even though the complaints she claims to have made before her discharge concerned sexual orientation discrimination.  Bennefield v. Mid-Valley Healthcare, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116554 (D. Or.).  Title VII outlaws discrimination because of sex, but federal courts have generally held that this does not include sexual orientation discrimination. While finding that the plaintiff had not stated valid Title VII claims of discrimination and retaliation because of religion, and noting that the plaintiff had withdrawn her sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, McShane’s ruling on the retaliation claim preserved the court’s federal question jurisdiction, which also extends to supplementary claims under the Oregon Whistleblower statute and the state’s human rights law, which does forbid sexual orientation discrimination.

The plaintiff, Stephanie Bennefield, began working at Mid-Valley on May 2, 2011.  During her probationary period, she came out to many co-workers as a lesbian.  Bennefield alleges that one co-worker created a hostile work environment for Bennefield after learning that she was a lesbian, including referring to her as a “disgusting lesbian” and a “stupid lesbian” and becoming uncooperative in their work, including provoking Bennefield to walk out of the operating room in disgust due to her refusal to cooperate.  Bennefield claims to have made numerous informal complaints to supervisors, but it was after she made a formal complaint to the Human Resources Department that she was notified of her discharge.  One comment by this hostile employee referring to religion was the basis for Bennefield’s claim of religious discrimination, which Judge McShane did not find persuasive.

Bowing to the fact that federal courts generally do not interpret Title VII’s sex discrimination ban to extend to sexual orientation discrimination, Bennefield agreed to dismissal of her Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claim.  Ultimately, the court’s continued jurisdiction over her case turned on whether her Title VII retaliation claim was valid.  The Hospital contended that her supervisor had decided to discharge her before she filed her formal complaint, and the supervisors disavowed having received any informal complaints from Bennefield concerning the conduct of this co-worker, but those are factual disputes to be resolved at trial if Bennefield has stated a cause of action sufficient to survive the hospital’s summary judgment motion.  The sticking point was in deciding whether Title VII’s retaliation provision extends to dismissal for complaining about sexual orientation discrimination.

The statute, by its terms, prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee “because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful practice by this subchapter.”  42 USC sec. 2000e-3(a).  On its face, this would suggest that complaints about discriminatory conduct that is not itself forbidden by Title VII could not provide the foundation for a Title VII retaliation claim.  But Judge McShane noted that courts – and particularly the 9th Circuit, whose rulings are precedential for the district court in Oregon – had been willing to extend the protection of this provision to employees who believed in good faith that they were complaining about conduct that violates Title VII.  The question would be whether the plaintiff held a “reasonable belief” to that effect.

“Defendants… appear to conclude that mistakes of law cannot support a Title VII retaliation claim,” he wrote.  “I think that argument goes too far.  An employee may bring a retaliation claim even if the employee makes a mistake of law in thinking that the employer engaged in prohibited conduct,” citing Moyo v. Gomez, 40 F.3d 982 (9th Cir. 1994).  “Whether the error is one of fact or law is irrelevant, so long as the mistake is made in good faith,” he continued, citing Jurado v. Eleven-Fifty Corp., 813 F.2d 1406 (9th Cir. 1987).  “Title VII is construed broadly, and ‘this directive applies to the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s belief that a violation occurred, as well as to other matters.’  Although the reasonableness prong is an objective standard, courts must take into account ‘the limited knowledge possessed by most Title VII plaintiffs about the factual and legal bases of their claims.’”

Judge McShane does not mention, but could well have done, that public opinion polls show that a majority of the public incorrectly believes that anti-gay employment discrimination is illegal under Title VII, even though most federal courts construe Title VII otherwise and most states have not banned sexual orientation discrimination in employment.  This suggests that many employees – especially those whose job does not require them to keep up with legal issues – assume that anti-gay discrimination is unlawful, and that they may expect protection against retaliation if they complain to a supervisor about such discrimination.  The situation is complicated in a state like Oregon, where the state forbids sexual orientation discrimination and employees may presume that they are protected so long as their complaint concerns conduct that is unlawful, regardless whether the anti-discrimination law in question is state law or federal law.  Thus, Bennefield was complaining about unlawful discrimination, but it was not discrimination made expressly unlawful by Title VII.

“That discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation turned out to not be prohibited under Title VII does not make Bennefield’s belief objectively unreasonable,” wrote McShane.  In making this conclusion, I take into account ‘the limited knowledge possessed by most Title VII plaintiffs about the factual and legal bases of their claims,’” again quoting from a 9th Circuit opinion.  McShane also rejected the defendant’s argument that Bennefield could not demonstrate that her discharge was due to a complaint that she filed after her supervisor had already decided to discharge, because Bennefield had alleged numerous informal complaints predating that decision.  He also noted that Bennefield’s pleadings contradict the employer’s contentions about her deficiencies as an employee, creating a material fact issue that it would be improper to resolve on summary judgment.  “Viewed in the light most favorable to Bennefield,” he concluded on this point, “she has met her burden of demonstrating defendants’ proffered reasons for firing her were pretextual.”

Bennefield is represented by Carl Lee Post, Cynthia J. Gaddis and Daniel J. Snyder of the Law Offices of Daniel Snyder in Portland, Oregon.  Judge McShane is the first openly-gay person to serve as a U.S. District Judge in the District of Oregon, and recently rendered the ruling holding Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  Because the state decided not to appeal his ruling, Oregon recently became a marriage equality jurisdiction.

The Colorado Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: December 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A Colorado Administrative Law Judge ruled on December 6, 2013, that a bakery had violated the state’s public accommodations law when its owner refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay male couple on July 19, 2012.

Colorado does not have same-sex marriage, and only enacted a civil union law open to same-sex couples early in 2013.  Back in 2012, however, Coloradans Charlie Craig and David Mullins planned to get married in Massachusetts and then have a big celebration event for family and friends back home.  Accompanied by Charlie’s mom, they went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, which sells wedding cakes, and sat down with the proprietor, Jack Phillips, at the “cake consulting table.”  According to the factual findings in the opinion by ALJ Robert N. Spencer, “They introduced themselves as ‘David’ and ‘Charlie’ and said that they wanted a wedding cake for ‘our wedding.'”  Phillips immediately said no, he doesn’t make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings.  “I’ll make you birthday cakes,” he said, “shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.”  Without any further discussion, David and Charlie and Charlie’s mom got up and left, went to another bakery, and make their cake arrangements without incident.  The next day, Charlie’s mom called Phillips, who told her that he refused to make a wedding cake for David and Charlie because of his religious beliefs and because Colorado does not recognize same-sex marriages.

Although Charlie and David got their wedding cake, they felt humiliated by their experience with Phillips and decided to file a discrimination complaint to establish that his actions were unlawful.  The Civil Rights Commission sided with Charlie and David, ruling that Phillips violated their statutory rights.  When Phillips rejected that ruling, the case was referred for trial before an administrative judge.   As an administrative judge, Spencer does not have authority to declare statutes unconstitutional, but he does have authority to determine whether the application of a statute in a particular case violates the constitutional rights of the defendant.

Judge Spencer found, based on Phillips’ testimony, that he is a practicing Christian who believes that “the Bible is the inspired word of God, that its accounts are literally true, and that its commands are binding on him.”  He finds in the story of Adam and Eve and in a passage from Mark 10:6-9 (NIV) that only different-sex couples can marry.  “Phillips also believes,” wrote Spencer, “that the Bible commands him to avoid doing anything that would displease God, and not to encourage sin in any way.  Phillips believes that decorating cakes is a form of art and creative expression, and that he can honor God through his artistic talents.  Phillips believes that if he uses his artistic talents to participate in same-sex weddings by creating a wedding cake, he will be displeasing God and acting contrary to the teachings of the Bible.”

Phillips did not contest that his bakery is a public accommodation subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law, but he argued in defense that the law could not be applied in such a way as to violate his 1st Amendment rights of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.  His bakery is incorporated but wholly owned by him, and he claims for his business the same 1st Amendment rights that he enjoys.  Judge Spencer pointed out that at least for now in the states comprising the federal 10th Circuit, which includes Colorado, family-owned closely-held corporations do enjoy 1st Amendment free exercise of religion rights (as a result of a 10th Circuit decision that the Supreme Court recently agreed to review), and the Supreme Court held several years ago in the notorious Citizens United case that corporations have 1st Amendment free speech rights.  Thus, Phillips argued, he should enjoy immunity from this discrimination charge on 1st Amendment grounds.  In effect, Phillips was arguing that the 1st Amendment protects businesses and individuals from having to comply with anti-discrimination laws if their personal beliefs based on religion would be violated by compliance with the law.

In addition, Phillips argued that he did not actually discriminate because of David and Charlie’s sexual orientation, and thus could not be found to have violated the statute.  He said that he would be happy to do business with them, so long as it didn’t involve a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.  He testified he would also refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple to celebrate a civil union, so his ground of objection is not really that Colorado does not recognize same-sex marriages, but rather that he feels that selling a cake for any celebration of a same-sex relationship would be state-compelled speech that violates his freedom of speech, as well as forcing him to act in conflict with his religious beliefs.

Judge Spencer first rejected Phillips’ argument that his refusal to sell the wedding cake was not sexual orientation discrimination.  “The salient feature distinguishing same-sex weddings from heterosexual ones is the seuxla orientation of its participants,” he wrote.  “Only same-sex couples engage in same-sex weddings.  Therefore, it makes little sense to argue that refusal to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for use at their wedding is not ‘because of’ their sexual orientation.”  Drawing a telling analogy, he wrote, “If Respondents’ argument was correct, it would allow a business that served all races to nonetheless refuse to serve an interracial couple because of the business owner’s bias against interracial marriage,” but this kind of theory was refuted by the Supreme Court in 1983 in Bob Jones University v. United States, where the Court upheld the IRS action in revoking the university’s tax exempt status because it denied admission to interracial couples in violation of laws forbidding discrimination because of race.

On the free speech claim, Spencer rejected Phillips’ argument that “preparing a wedding case is necessarily a medium of expression amounting to protected ‘speech,’ or that compelling Respondents to treat same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing Respondents to adhere to ‘an ideological point of view.'”  Spencer distinguished between wedding cakes and “saluting the flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto,” all forms of conduct that have been found to constitute protected speech.  Spencer noted that Phillips refused to do business with David and Charlie without any discussion about how the cake would be decorated or what might be written on it.  “For all Phillips knew,” wrote Spencer, “Complainants might have wanted a nondescript cake that would have been suitable for consumption at any wedding.”  In a footnote, Phillips mentioned that the cake they had eventually obtained from another bakery had a “filling with rainbow colors,” but questioned whether that could be seen as some sort of endorsement of same-sex marriage by the baker.  Spencer characterized Phillips’ attempt to elevate making a wedding cake to the symbolic level of a compelled flag salute as an argument that “trivializes the right to free speech.”

Finally, Spencer rejected Phillips’ free exercise of religion argument.  He said that this case is not about the government trying to regulate what Phillips believes, but rather a regulation of commercial conduct.  “The types of conduct the United States Supreme Court has found to be beyond government control typically involve activities fundamental to the individual’s religious belief, that do not adversely affect the rights of others, and that are not outweighed by the state’s legitimate interests in promoting health, safety and general welfare,” Spencer commented, and cited a list of Supreme Court cases upholding neutral laws that incidentally regulate conduct, where the conduct involves some religious belief.  “Respondent’s refusal to provide a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding is distinctly the type of conduct that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found subject to legitimate regulation,” he asserted, mentioning that the Supreme Court itself had ruled that laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination by public accommodations have specifically been mentioned by the Supreme Court as legitimate.   The Supreme Court has ruled that a valid law that is neutral with respect to religion and generally applicable will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  The Colorado public accommodations law meets that test.

As an administrative judge, Spencer does not have authority to impose fines or penalties.  Upon finding that Masterpiece Cakeshop and Phillips had violated the law, his remedy was to issue a “cease and desist order” and take such other corrective action as is deemed appropriate by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  If Phillips appeals this ruling, it might get to a stage where he would incur financial liability, however.

The ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project and the ACLU Foundation of Colorado and attorneys from King & Greisen, LLC, represented the complainants at the hearing before ALJ Spencer.  Phillips enjoys legal support from Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that specializes in opposing gay rights under the guise of preserving the 1st Amendment rights of those who discriminate against gay people.   Given ADF’s participation, it is likely this ruling will be appealed.

The Colorado bakery case is one of only several contesting the applicability of public accommodation laws to businesses that want to avoid providing goods and services for same-sex ceremonies.  In Washington State, litigation proceeds against a florist shop, and in New Mexico, the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a wedding photographer had violated the state’s public accommodations law by declining to provide photographic services for a same-sex commitment ceremony.  The Supreme Court has received a petition to review the New Mexico case.

Illinois Lesbian Couple Wins Order Directing Clerk to Issue Marriage License

Posted on: November 26th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Yesterday afternoon U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin signed a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction directing Cook County Clerk David Orr to issue a marriage license to Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert.  Gray v. Orr, Case No. 1:13-cv-8449 (Nov. 25, 2013).    The marriage equality bill signed into law last week by Governor Patrick Quinn does not go into effect until June 1, 2014, but that may be too late for Gray and Ewert, who have been a couple for five years and desperately want to marry, because Gray is suffering from advanced breast cancer and may not make it that long.  Judge Durkin published an opinion to accompany his order on December 5; see Gray v. Orr, 2013 Westlaw 6355918 (N.D. Ill.).

The women filed suit on November 22, contending that the existing Illinois law banning same-sex marriages deprives them of due process and equal protection in violation of the 14th Amendment, echoing the existing marriage equality lawsuits on file with the Cook County Circuit Court.  Those cases, in which motions to dismiss were previously denied, are being held in abeyance pending the June 1 effective date of the new marriage equality law.

Plaintiffs filed their motion for immediate relief on Friday, Nov. 22, and the court accommodated them with a nearing on the motion on Monday, November 25.  In their motion papers, the plaintiffs explained why they could not wait until June 1.  “Unfortunately, Vernita may pass away in the near future.  Unless this Court acts, Vernita and Pat will be permanently denied the benefits, both tangible and dignitary, of legal marriage.  For example, unless Plaintiffs are allowed to legally marry, they may face discrimination in hospital settings, an estate tax burden, and other harms, including challenges establishing eligibility for social security benefits as a surviving spouse.  Given Vernita’s extensive medical expenses, the additional cost of being denied access to legal marriage is particularly burdensome.”

The complaint pointed out that no adequate remedy in money damages exists for the deprivation of the status of marriage, and that no harm would be done to the state of Illinois by granting them immediate relief.  Indeed, the Illinois state government has now decided as a matter of public policy that same-sex couples should be entitled to marry.  The effective date of the marriage law was dictated by the timing of the votes in the two houses of the legislature.  Since the Senate bill was passed last May, it could not be enacted by the House during the fall “veto session” without a super-majority unless the effective date was no earlier than June 1.  The bill won a majority, but not a supermajority.  Illinois constitutional requirements would be preempted by federal constitutional requirements, however.  In effect, the plaintiffs argued, they have a federal constitutional right to marry, and any state rule that makes that impossible — even for just seven months — would be inflicting an irreparable injury on them due to Vernita’s medical condition.

Judge Durkin was persuaded by this argument and signed the Order presented by counsel for the plaintiffs, amending it however to be effective until December 9, 2013.   Although Durkin did not issue a written explanation of his Order, merely signing the one-page Order proffered by counsel, his agreement to sign the Order implicitly signaled his finding that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim to a federal constitutional right under the 14th Amendment to marry.

Cook County Clerk David Orr promptly indicated that his office would issue a license as soon as they received a duly executed application.  Orr, who is a named defendant in the pending state court lawsuits, is not defending the marriage ban on the merits; neither is the Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, who agrees that same-sex couples have a right to marry.  Defense of the existing marriage ban in the state court lawsuit was left to county clerks from outside the Chicago area, who intervened as defendants represented by a Catholic litigation group, the Thomas More Society.

A large legal team assembled to represent the plaintiffs, including groups of attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis LLP and  Miller Shakman & Beem LLP, staff attorneys from Lambda Legal’s Chicago office, and attorneys for the Roger Baldwin Foundation of ACLU, Inc., in Chicago.