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Justice Department Tells 2nd Circuit That Gays Are Not Protected from Discrimination Under Federal Civil Rights Law

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

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief on July 26 with the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, weighing in on the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination because of sexual orientation.  Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration’s answer is “No.”

 

Title VII lists forbidden grounds for employment discrimination: race or color, religion, sex and national origin. After it went into effect in July 1965, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcement of the statute, and the federal courts quickly took the position that people who encountered discrimination because they were gay or transgender could not pursue a claim under this law.  Both the administrative agency and the federal courts held fast to that position until relatively recently.

 

That consensus began to break down early in this century, first in response to discrimination claims by transgender people, as courts and then the EEOC (in 2012) accepted the argument that discriminating against somebody because they were transitioning or had transitioned was actually discrimination because of sex. The rationale they adopted derived from a 1989 decision by the Supreme Court, which recognized that discrimination against people for failing to comply with the employer’s stereotyped view about how people of a particular sex should behave, dress, or otherwise act, was actually discrimination because of their sex.  The 1989 case involved a woman who was denied a partnership in an accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not sufficiently feminine to meet their image of a “lady partner,” and her immediate boss told her she should get her hair styled and start wearing makeup and jewelry if she wanted to be a partner.

 

By 2015, the EEOC had taken the analysis one step further to cover sexual orientation claims. It recognized that having a same-sex attraction violates gender stereotypes, similarly to the transgender cases, but also drew analogies to cases where courts found that discriminating against an employee for being in an interracial relationship was a form of race discrimination, called associational discrimination.  Further, the EEOC decided that it was really not plausible to distinguish between sexual orientation discrimination and sex discrimination, since both were concerned with treating people differently because of their sex.

 

Until this year, no federal appellate court had accepted these theories, but on April 4, the full bench of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit became the first federal appeals court to rule that Title VII bans sexual orientation discrimination.  Reversing its prior precedents, the court accepted the EEOC’s analysis in a lawsuit by Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who had been denied a tenure-track position by an Indiana community college.  The college decided not to appeal, taking the position that it had not discriminated at all, so the case was sent back for trial to the district court.

 

Meanwhile, however, the same issue was being litigated in other parts of the country. In the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, a sexual orientation discrimination claim by Jameka Evans against a Georgia hospital that had been dismissed by the district court was revived by the court of appeals, but on a narrower theory.  In common with several other circuits, the 11th Circuit will accept Title VII claims from gay plaintiffs who allege that they suffered discrimination because of their failure to conform to gender stereotypes.  In this case, while a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 to affirm the trial court’s rejection of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim, the panel sent the case back to the trial court to allow the plaintiff to pursue a sex stereotyping claim.  One member partially dissented, Judge William Pryor (who had been on Trump’s potential Supreme Court list), finding no basis for any Title VII claim by the plaintiff.  Another member of the court agreed to send the case back, but argued that Title VII should be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims.  A third member found that the panel was bound by circuit precedent to reject the sexual orientation claim, but agreed that the plaintiff should have a chance to pursue a sex stereotype claim.  The 11th Circuit denied a petition to reconsider the Evans case “en banc” (by the full bench) a few weeks ago, and Lambda Legal announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to review the panel decision.  Lambda has until the first week of October to file its petition.

 

Meanwhile, however, within the 2nd Circuit, at least two federal district court judges have recently refused to dismiss sexual orientation claims under Title VII, finding that the circuit’s acceptance of the “associational theory” in a race discrimination case means that the court should accept sexual orientation discrimination claims.  Several other district judges have dismissed such claims, concluding that until the court of appeals explicitly overrules its earlier precedents, the trial judges are bound to follow them.  A few months ago, confronted by petitions for en banc review in three different cases, the Circuit announced that it would reconsider the panel decision in Estate of Donald Zarda v. Altitude Express.

 

In Zarda, the district court had dismissed a Title VII claim but allowed the case to go to trial under New York State’s Human Rights Law, which expressly outlaws sexual orientation discrimination. The jury ruled in favor of the employer, although it is questionable whether the jury was properly instructed about how to weigh the evidence.  The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of the Title VII claim. A three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s dismissal, while noting that recent developments in the law could justify reconsideration by the full 2nd Circuit bench.  In a case decided by a different three-judge panel at around the same time, Christiansen v. Omnicom, the panel also upheld dismissal of a sexual orientation claim, but sent the case back to the district court for reconsideration as a sex stereotyping claim, and two of the judges joined a concurring opinion suggesting that it was time for the 2nd Circuit to reconsider the sexual orientation issue en banc in an “appropriate case.”  However, after granting en banc review in Zarda, the circuit court denied a petition for en banc review in Christiansen!

 

Briefs were due from the plaintiff’s side in the Zarda appeal during the last week in June. The EEOC, consistent with its interpretation of the statute, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of the Zarda. (Zarda, a sky-diving instructor, died in a diving accident after starting his discrimination case, so the lawsuit is now being pursued by his executors, seeking money damages for the estate.)    Briefs were due by July 26 from the employer and any amicus parties supporting its position.  After some suspense about what the Trump Administration might do, the Justice Department filed its brief right at the deadline.

 

It is somewhat unusual for the government to file an amicus brief in opposition to a position taken by a federal agency, and it is also unusual for the government to file a brief in a case between private parties – a former employee versus a business – but the federal government has a significant interest in this case, and the politics of EEOC v. DOJ are unusual because of the timing. Until this month, the majority of the EEOC Commissioners have been appointees of President Obama.  They decided the key sexual orientation case two years ago by a vote of 3-2, with the Republican commissioners dissenting.  Upon confirmation of Trump’s appointees to fill some vacancies, control of the EEOC will switch over to Republican hands.  But for now, the EEOC continues to pursue sexual orientation discrimination cases under Title VII, and has even filed some new lawsuits this year despite the change of administrations in January.  On the other hand, the Justice Department reflects the views of the new administration, which are consistent with those expressed by 7th Circuit Judge Diane Sykes (also on Trump’s potential Supreme Court list), who wrote a dissenting opinion in the Hively case.

 

Why does the Trump Administration have a strong interest in a case between private parties? Because Title VII has provisions banning sex discrimination in the federal workforce, and because the president’s political base and the Republicans in Congress stand in opposition to outlawing sexual orientation discrimination.  This is clear from the failure of Republican legislators to co-sponsor the Equality Act, a bill that would amend Title VII to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the statutory list of forbidden grounds of employment discrimination.  A few Republicans were co-sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a narrower bill that was pending in Congress from the mid-1990s through Obama’s first term until it was supplanted by the Equality Act, but not enough to call that bipartisan legislation.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act came up for floor votes once in each house of Congress but in different sessions of Congress.  On both of those occasions it received few votes from Republican legislators, and their party’s platform never endorsed it.

 

The Justice Department’s brief, noting the EEOC’s position in the case, states that “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States and its position about the scope of Title VII is entitled to no deference beyond its power to persuade.” And, almost needless to say, the Justice Department under the outspokenly anti-gay Jeff Sessions is not persuaded by any of the EEOC’s arguments.  The brief argues that Congress did not intend to ban sexual orientation discrimination in 1964 when it enacted Title VII and that should be the end of the matter.  The failure of Congress to approve any amendment to add sexual orientation to the law is cited as evidence of continuing legislative intent, and the brief argues that only Congress can change the law.  It argues at length that the theories embraced by the EEOC and the 7th Circuit are mistaken interpretations of the Supreme Court’s rulings on sex stereotyping and associational discrimination, and that there is a distinct difference between sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, despite statements by many federal judges that they have difficulty drawing the line between the two.

 

The 2nd Circuit will not be oblivious to the political nature of the government’s opposition.  The concurring opinion in the Christiansen case, written by 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, virtually endorsed the EEOC’s interpretation of the statute while calling for the circuit to reconsider its earlier precedents.  And a majority of the judges who will sit on the en banc panel were appointed by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama and have generally taken a more liberal approach to interpreting Title VII.  The circuit’s earlier precedents that are being reconsidered were issued by three-judge panels at a time when the arguments for allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims were not nearly as well developed as they have been in recent years, and the circuit has accepted the associational discrimination theory in a race discrimination case after those earlier cases were decided.  It is likely to see that theory’s applicability here, as the district judges have commented.  However, if the Supreme Court decides to grant Lambda Legal’s petition to review the 11th Circuit case, it is possible that the 2nd Circuit will hold up on deciding the Zarda appeal until the Supreme Court has spoken.  Interesting timing issues will arise this fall.  The 2nd Circuit argument is scheduled for late in September, before the Supreme Court will begin its fall term and start announcing whether it will grant petitions for review filed over the summer.

 

The brief filed by Altitude Express in opposition to the appeal has raised significant jurisdictional arguments that would give the 2nd Circuit a way out of deciding this appeal on the merits, if the judges are so inclined.  That brief argues that when he filed his initial discrimination charge with the EEOC, Donald Zarda expressly disclaimed making a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, relying instead on the allegation that he suffered discrimination for failing to comply with sex stereotypes.  That was the theory he initially presented in his federal court complaint under Title VII as well, and it was dismissed by the trial judge, who opined that Zarda’s factual allegations were not sufficient for a sex stereotyping claim.  Zarda only pressed a sexual orientation claim under the New York State Human Rights Law.  Thus, Altitude Express argues, he cannot now argue for a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII, because the statute requires that any claim first be presented to the administrative agency, and further that any ruling by the court of appeals on that question would be, in effect, an advisory opinion, as the jury has already ruled against his sexual orientation discrimination claim.  There’s no telling how the 2nd Circuit will respond to these arguments, but one suspects that if they had serious doubts about jurisdiction, they would not have granted the en banc petition.

 

In the meantime, however, it is clear that if the Supreme Court grants review in the 11th Circuit Evans case, the federal government, represented by the Solicitor General, will come into the case against the plaintiff, and by then the EEOC will be in Republican control and will probably not be filing a separate brief.  Once again, the Trump Administration is actively disavowing the LGBT-supportive stance that the candidate claimed during the election last year.  The brief was filed just as Trump was tweeting his decision to bar transgender people from military service, which seemed no coincidence.

9th Circuit En Banc Panel Revives Gay Mexican’s Asylum Claim

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

An eleven-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit revived an HIV-positive gay Mexican man’s claim for refugee status to remain in the United States on March 8, reversing rulings by a three-judge panel of the court, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and an Immigration Judge.  The opinion for the court in Bringas-Rodriguez v. Sessions, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 4077, 2017 WL 908546, was written by Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, a Clinton appointee.  One member of the court, Judge Richard R. Clifton, filed a concurring opinion, and two members, Judges Carlos T. Bea and Diarmuid O’Scannlain, dissented in an opinion by Judge Bea.  Bea, appointed by George W. Bush, and O’Scannlain, appointed by Ronald Reagan, are among the most conservative judges on the 9th Circuit.  The reversed three-judge panel consisted of two George W. Bush appointees and a dissenting Clinton appointee, William Fletcher.

Carlos Alberto Bringas-Rodriguez, born in Tres Valles, Veracruz State, was, according to Judge Wardlaw’s summary of his testimony, which was deemed credible by the Immigration Judge, “horrifically abused by his father, an uncle, cousins, and a neighbor, all of whom perceived him to be gay or to exhibit effeminate characteristics.”  Bringas testified that his uncle raped him when he was four, and that three of his cousins and a male neighbor “physically and sexually abused him on a regular basis while he lived in Mexico.”  He also suffered regular beatings from his father, who told him, “Act like a boy.  You are not a woman.”  He claims his uncle told him when he was eight that he was being abused because he was gay.  “His uncle, cousins, and neighbor never called him by his name,” wrote Wardlaw, “referring to him only as ‘fag, fucking faggot, queer,’ and they ‘laughed about it.’”

Bringas lived briefly with his mother in the U.S. when he was twelve, but he returned to Mexico because he missed his grandmother, who had been raising him since he was nine.  The abuse intensified when he returned.  “On one occasion, when Bringas refused to comply with his neighbor’s demand for oral copulation, the neighbor beat and raped him, leaving Bringas with black eyes and bruises,” and his abusers “also threatened to hurt his grandmother, with whom he was close, if he ever reported what was happening,” wrote Wardlaw.  “Fearing that they would follow through on their threats, Bringas did not tell his mother, teachers, or anyone else about the sexual abuse.”  He fled back to the U.S. in 2004 when he was fourteen.

Entering the country illegally at El Paso, he made his way to Kansas where he lived with his mother for the next three years.  Then he moved out of his mother’s home, living elsewhere in Kansas and in Colorado, holding several jobs.  In August 2010 he pled guilty to “attempted contributing to the delinquency of a minor” in Colorado.  According to his account, as related by Wardlaw, “he had been at home drinking with some friends when another friend brought over a minor who became drunk.”  Bringas served 90 days in jail, “during which time he attempted suicide and was hospitalized, which precipitated his finally telling a doctor and then his mother about his childhood abused.”  His conviction triggered a notice to the Department of Homeland Security, which immediately issued him a “Notice to Appear.”

The next year, at age 20, he applied for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention against Torture (CAT).  Asylum claims normally have to be filed within a year of arrival in the U.S., but he claimed he had been “unaware” at age 14 that he could apply for asylum, and only learned of this when he “spoke with an ICE officer in Colorado in September 2010” when he responded to the Notice to Appear.  In his application, he described the abuse he had suffered in Mexico and “explained that he feared persecution if he returned because he was gay and that the Mexican police would not protect him.  Bringas also credibly testified about his gay friends’ experiences with police in Veracruz.  Those friends went to the police to report that they had been raped, but the officers ignored their reports and ‘laughed [on] their faces.’”  He also submitted State Department country human rights reports on Mexico from 2009 and 2010, as well as newspaper articles documenting violence against gays in Mexico, which showed that violence was rising even as “Mexican laws were becoming increasingly tolerant of gay rights.”  In a footnote, Judge Wardlaw cited guidelines issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, explaining that “legal improvements and widespread persecution are not mutually exclusive.”

An Immigration Judge found Bringas’ factual testimony to be credible, but denied his application, as did the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) on his appeal.  The IJ found that his asylum claim was untimely under the one-year rule, a point that the BIA ignored, treating his asylum claim on the merits.  Next, the IJ found, and the BIA recognized, that although Bringas had suffered “serious abuse” as a child, he did not show that the “abuse was inflicted by government actors or that the government was unwilling or unable to control his abusers.”  This was a critical finding, because the basis for establishing refugee status is to show persecution at the hands of the government or private actors whom the government is unwilling or unable to control.  Purely private abuse, as such, is not considered to be “persecution” under relevant statutes and treaties.  Having found that Bringas had not established “past persecution,” the BIA approved the IJ’s finding that there was no presumption that he had a reasonable fear of future persecution in Mexico, because he had “failed to show a pattern or practice of persecution of gay men in Mexico.”  The BIA wrote that “the record did not demonstrate widespread brutality against homosexuals or that there was any criminalization of homosexual conduct in Mexico.”  Indeed, the BIA found that the Mexican government “has taken numerous positive steps to address the rights of homosexuals.”  The IJ and BIA found no evidence that Bringas was likely to be tortured by the government if he were removed back to Mexico.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit considering his appeal focused on a prior circuit ruling, Castro-Martinez v. Holder, 674 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2011), concerning cases where the applicant’s abusers were all private citizens, which held that in order to establish that the government was unwilling or unable to control the abusers, the victim had to have reported the abuse to the government.  Wrote Wardlow, “the panel majority reasoned that where a victim fails to report abuse, even as a child, ‘there is a “gap in proof about how the government would have responded,”’ and that petitioner bears the burden to ‘fill in the gaps’ by showing how the government would have responded had he reported the abuse.”  The 3-judge panel emphasized the part of the State Department country reports that discussed how Mexican law had improved for gay people, including the government’s establish of a “specialized hate crimes prosecution unit” and the proclamation of a “national day against homophobia.”  The panel found “insufficient” Bringas’s testimony about the comments by his gay friends in the U.S. about how the police had failed to respond to their reports of abuse.  “Even if the friends’ reports were credited, the panel majority explained, those reports failed to establish that police practices in the city or state of Veracruz could be linked to police practices in Tres Valles, Bringas’s hometown.”

The panel majority, in common with the IJ in this case, also suggested that the issue here was not narrowly sexual abuse because of homosexuality, but rather the more general phenomenon of sexual abuse of children, and suggested that there was no evidence that the Mexican law enforcement authorities would be indifferent to reports of child sexual abuse.  In this connection, they noted that Bringas’s testimony did not specify how old his friends were when they unsuccessfully reported their abuse to the police.

Judge William Fletcher, the dissenting member of the 3-judge panel, expressed growing discomfort about the prior precedent upon which the majority of that panel was relying, pointing to the circuit’s “ample precedent that does not require victims of private persecution, especially child victims, to contemporaneously report their abuse to government authorities in order to become eligible for asylum in the United States.”

The en banc panel majority, reversing the 3-judge panel, embraced Judge Fletcher’s criticism, citing extensive evidence about the psychological and practical problems a child victim of sexual abuse would have in reporting the abuse to authorities, especially if they or their loved ones were threatened with retribution if they made any report, as had happened in Bringas’s case with threats to harm his grandmother.  Going further, the en banc panel overruled the prior precedent to the extent that it had been relied on as requiring reporting to the authorities in a case founded on abuse by non-governmental actors in order to establish “persecution” for purposes of asylum or withholding of removal.

While it was clear in this case that the asylum claim was filed too late, the court determined that Bringas’s claims for withholding of removal and protection under the CAT must be reconsidered by the Board.  The court found Bringas’ testimony, which had been deemed credible by the IJ and the BIA, sufficient to establish that he had been subjected to past persecution, and based on that testimony he was entitled to a presumption of further persecution.  Sending the case back to the BIA, the court said the remaining issue was whether that presumption had been rebutted by the government’s evidence of changed conditions in Mexico.

Furthermore, while this case was in progress, but after the BIA issued its opinion, Bringas learned for the first time that he was HIV-positive.  He had asked to reopen the case in order for the BIA to take this new information into account, but the BIA refused his request, observing that he had failed to show “how his status as an HIV positive homosexual changes the outcome of his case.”  The court ordered that BIA allow Bringas to supplement the record and to take account of new evidence about his HIV diagnosis.

Judge Clifton concurred on narrower grounds.  He felt, along with Judge Bea’s dissent, that the court’s opinion was insufficiently deferential to the BIA, which as a matter of administrative law is entitled to substantial deference by the courts and should not be reversed unless “any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary based on evidence in the record.”  To Clifton, the evidence presented by Bringas about the unwillingness or inability of the government to address sexual abuse of gay children was not overwhelming, relying on “an unspecific hearsay report by Bringas of what he was told by one or two other persons about what had happened when a report was made to police in a different town.  That evidence would have been sufficient to support a conclusion that a report by a child to the police would have been futile, but it was not so powerful that no reasonable adjudicator could have found to the contrary,” he wrote.  He also noted that much of Bringas’ evidence was rather general and did not necessarily compel the conclusions reached by the majority of the court as to his persecution case.

On the other hand, Clifton found that the BIA “appeared to disregard the evidence that Bringas offered on the subject,” so it was appropriate to remand for reconsideration.  The IJ had written that there “was ‘no evidence whatsoever’ to support Bringas’s contention that a police report would have been futile, and it did not reflect any awareness of the evidence to that effect,” and the BIA’s opinion did not correct that misstatement.  While Clifton agreed the case should be sent back, he, unlike the majority, “would not dictate the answer to that past persecution question” but rather allow the BIA to reweigh the evidence.

Judge Bea’s dissent, as mentioned by Judge Clifton, focused on the court’s failure to accord sufficient deference to the BIA’s decision, emphasized the weak points in Bringas’s testimony, and accused the majority of mischaracterizing the precedent that it was overruling.  He also argued that the situation facing Bringas at age 14 was very different from the situation he would face today as an adult if returned to Mexico, pointing out further that the record showed that conditions for gay men in Mexico varied.  If returned to Mexico, Bringas would not have to live in Veracruz, but could instead locate in Mexico City, a jurisdiction that has legislated for same-sex marriage, supports gay pride marches, and is notably gay-friendly.

It will be interesting to see whether the government will seek Supreme Court review of this en banc ruling from the 9th Circuit.  The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was substituted as Respondent for his predecessor, Loretta Lynch, upon taking office.  As this ruling may make it easier for Mexican asylum applicants to win the right to remain in the United States, the Trump Administration may seize upon it as a vehicle to tighten up on the asylum process by winning a reversal.  Certainly the Administration would have an interest in establishing deference for the BIA, given the ability of the President and Attorney General to influence the policies of that agency through appoints to the Board. In light of the timing, any review would take place after Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat on the Court takes the bench, re-establishing a majority of Republican appointees on the Court.

This en banc reconsideration of Bringas’s case was considered a big deal by the immigrants’ rights and civil liberties communities.  Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California (Irving) School of Law argued the appeal, with the Appellate Litigation Clinic at his school representing Bringas together with pro bono attorneys from major California law firms.  The government’s case was argued by relatively high level attorneys from the Justice Department in Washington.  Several amicus briefs were filed in support of Bringas’s appeal, including a wide variety of public interest groups, including Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rigths, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the HIV Law Project, the Transgender Law Center.  An amicus brief was submitted on behalf of Alice Farmer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, by Williams & Connolly LLP, a major national law firm that frequently appears before the Supreme Court.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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